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Review: Noxford

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Steampunk has resolutely advanced from the beachhead it established in this hobby several years ago.  Even though it’s informed designs unevenly in that time, the style can be many things.  A recurring element has always been an air of acrimoniousness and an avant-garde critique of history.  Any novel, movie or game adopting the genre – and worth its pith helmet – should pit antagonists and protagonists alike against witty and inventive struggles with real-world stakes to explore human themes and allegories.  Or, at the least, involve copious tossing of churlish insults!  It fosters a good-natured, eccentric competitiveness.  While Noxford won’t viscerally steep you in a world of high Victoriana, it certainly nails its acerbic nature, even moreso if you supply your own verbal barbs.

How To Play

So there are no thematic stakes at play in Noxford.  Rather, in this simple design you head a seedy crime syndicate looking to muscle in on turf throughout the ever evolving city of Noxford.  And muscle others out.  All with steampunk card art.  If you can outmaneuver your opposing bosses by deploying henchmen around key districts, the town will soon be eating from your hand!

This pure area control design is astoundingly simple and compact, belying a delicious mischievousness.  Each player has an identical deck of ten syndicate cards in four varying strengths – a master, two lieutenants, three toughs and four punks.  Fifteen neutral cards comprise the rest of this economical title, consisting of a few police barracks and twelve city districts.  The goal is to control districts with your gang members while avoiding the Bobbies.

The city begins as two neutral cards laid out in an L shape.  The rest form a draw deck, with three set out in a drafting display.  Each player places their master in front them, so that it’s available at any time.  The other nine gang members are shuffled and each boss draws three to form their starting hand.

From this innocent looking beginning all the frustration and spite festers…

On a turn, you play one card to the growing city.  This can come from your hand, including your boss.  You may choose one of the neutral districts or barracks from the drafting row.  Or you could simply draw the top card from the deck and place it, instead.  One turn, one card, that’s it.

Now, true to Steampunk’s peregrine nature, there is a curious manner to placing cards.  A new placement must touch at least two other cards and two of the new card’s edges must align with two other edges.  Most of the time it’s obvious, thanks to a few rule book examples.  Other times it leads to questions.  I’m pretty sure we mostly got it right.

In any event, districts and barracks must always be placed adjacent to other cards.  Syndicate cards, however, may also be placed on top of other syndicate cards of lower value (and not already surrounded by other cards).  You may cover up your own gang member to boost your strength when running out of normal space.  Or you could simply stomp another player’s henchmen, muscling them out of the neighborhood.

Additionally, some syndicate and neutral cards have gears which, after placing, allow you to move another card already in the city to a different location, so that the city is always changing it’s dynamics.  The rearranged card cannot be currently surrounded, you cannot leave anything disconnected from the city and when switching a syndicate card you can cover up another gang member following normal placement rules.

The moment a player places his/her last syndicate card, the game ends.  Any thug adjacent to a barracks is flipped over and negated in final scoring.  Remaining mob members count towards control of districts, which are scored individually.  The boss with the most syndicate cards adjacent to a district, with the master counting as two, controls that neighborhood.  These districts have a varying type and number of icons.  Players earn one point for each symbol on a neutral card they control and two points for each if that district’s icon is their gang’s uniquely favored field.  After every district is scored, the player with the most points wins.  Then the patronizing and gloating insults can really fly.

Excuse me lad, but this is my turf!

Beware the Bobbies

Noxford has many hallmarks of a filler.  It’s compact, portable, uses little table space, plays briskly and in less than twenty minutes.  And really, that’s what it is.  Yet most fillers are also light, casual affairs not meant to overburden its players with angst, frustration or mental exertion.  Noxford, however, is a particularly tense, tactical and nasty entry in the category.

This little design is all about timing.  The city of cogs constantly turns as players move cards about via gears or cover up henchmen with more powerful thugs.  This aspect heightens the gameplay’s tactical tug-of-war and produces all of its angst.  As Noxford spreads out to the burbs, so to speak, there are still usually multiple opportunities to influence districts in the city’s heart by managing to cover up current occupants with stronger thugs.  The swing in influence can often be devastating.

The gang’s all here!

So, too, can using gear cards to rearrange the board.  The permutations between engineering brilliant moves to boost your own affairs and/or meddling with your opponents’ are legion.  You can send the Bobbies over to a pack of rival henchmen, or just get them off your tail.  You can snatch districts away from their current location to maneuver them in your favor and nix a gold mine of influence from elsewhere.  Taking one foe’s thug and covering up another is a particularly amusing and nasty scheme that feels like having your cake and eating it, too.

Deciding when to change the board’s state or react to another’s shenanigans is critical – especially as there are limited gear cards with which to do so.  Dabble too soon and your influence will likely be undone.  Wait too long and evolving affairs might prove your original plan moot.  It’s so dramatically taught that you’ll be shaking in your spats between the jockeying for position and tit-for-tat card swapping.

No one will be immune to the suspense and frustration, which are compounded by the design’s sleekness.  You know what syndicate members exist and even count them as they emerge.  But you’re never sure exactly when cards will be available, waiting anxiously for them to appear at any moment, then subsequently fretting over whether or not now is the right time to strike with them.  Deciding when to supersede opponents’ henchmen with your stronger ones generates the same feeling.  Do you wait out the power move to prevent them stomping you down again?  Or up the brinkmanship to force their hand?

The Bobbies are here!

Another consideration keeping all tacticians on the edge of their seat is the endgame.  Is one boss rushing to flood the streets with his/her minions, hoping to leave the others with a handful of useless cards?  Or do you essentially put yourself in the same boat while dabbling in the neutral cards, trying to build out the city with favorable districts?  The game’s economy, tension and tactical quality are tightly wound like a coiled spring.

Which brings me back to Steampunk’s wryly acerbic nature.  This one feels decidedly like a duel.  Thankfully, though, no weapons are present.  Well, I can only speak for my gaming situations.  This is a fast-moving, hard-hitting game of maneuver and counter-maneuver, where a well-timed placement can unhinge things given the title’s short play length.  It looks small and unassuming, but packs a wallop.

So while it’s very much about positioning your own resources around the most advantageous districts, it’s also about sabotaging your foes in the name of fair-natured competition and old-fashioned skulduggery – twirling mustaches excluded…sort of.  And, thanks to the endgame condition, the last player can have a massive advantage, especially if he/she has conserved a gear card for that final move.  Each increasing player count dials back the suspense ever so slightly, as the game becomes a little more chaotic and unpredictable.  With two, however, the angst increases a hundredfold.  All this you might not expect from something that otherwise fits the description of a filler.

The City of Noxford. This is is it. This is what you have to work with.

By design, fillers are generally casual, laid-back experiences.  They’re meant to kill some time while shooting the breeze, thus are rarely mentally taxing.  Noxford laughs at that notion.  Just as its inspired Steampunk setting both embraces and irreverently upends Victorianism, this biting title adopts the trademarks of the filler category and then wrings it with an ever-changing white-knuckle Chess match of a card game that will leave you scheming and, likely, steaming.

I say, old chap!

  • Rating 8.0
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Summary

PROS
Simple and compact
Anxious and tense filler
Great, sometimes spiteful, interaction

CONS
Interaction may be too sharp for some
Card placement rules initially unintuitive
Last player can have distinct advantage

8.0 Very Good

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity…relatively speaking.

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