As a board game reviewer, I have a tendency – and in some ways, an obligation – to always be looking forward. Recently, however, I’ve found my eyes have turned toward the shelf of games that I’ve elected to keep over the years. Looking Back is a series dedicated to personal reflection on those games; why I keep them, why I love them, and in some cases why I’ve decided to move on. These are not reviews – for that, check out our Shelf Wear series of game reviews after around 50+ plays.
At a recent small-time board game convention called the Gaming Hoopla – the sort where people come just to sit down and play games – I had a chance to bring many of my favorites to the table that I haven’t played in a while for various reasons – player count, the tastes of my gaming group, or just other games taking priority. One such game was New Angeles.
I loved New Angeles when it first came out. My review was glowing; a game of negotiation and secrecy, set in the unique and flavorful world of Android, and a spin-off of Battlestar Galactica mechanically speaking? What’s not to like?
In the game, you’ve got to work with the other Corporations (Players) to keep up the production and goods and services to meet the city’s demand while also preventing a descent into riots and chaos. Too much exploitation will lose the game for everyone. But even if you’re trying to help the city, you’ve got to convince others to go along, because when you take your turn and play an action card, there will always be another player putting down a competing offer while the remainder of the group votes on which one will actually be resolved.
Unlike many semi-cooperative games, New Angeles provides greater impetus to act selfishly, and I think that’s primarily what made it stand out to me. I enjoy cooperative games, but semi-coop has always felt a little bland. They mostly encourage teamwork, with small arbitrary ways that players can win. Tone and theme usually pushes people to work together, and occasionally try and scrounge up something for your personal victory. In New Angeles, your personal goal is simply to beat one other player. That opens up your opportunities to score a win, allowing you to negotiate and offer your hard-earned capital and assets while keeping an eye on the other player’s score. The more capital you have, the more freedom you have to pay people to do what you want while staying ahead.
So what happens is, when the vote goes around people aren’t just agreeing to go along with the best action for the table. They’re threatening to go the other way if you don’t pay up. Deals are required, since you can’t vote on your own action. Capital (the game’s currency) changes hands frequently, and at the right moment the player who is furthest behind can strike a hard line to get everyone else to pay to catch up. Deals happen every round, all the time, instead of at rare moments.
But there are several side effects to this. For one, the game feels mean – even though it isn’t personal. You’re always going to be antagonistic toward at least one player, not just trying to root out the betrayer(s) like in Battlestar Galactica. It creates a harsh and demanding player dynamic that isn’t the most positive feeling, and if you have a hard time separating personal feelings from mechanical gameplay motivations, the game will likely end with mixed emotions – even if you win. In a weird way, the fact that at least one person has to lose but only one person has to lose means you’re the focus is on pushing away a negative thing than aiming for a positive or building up anything.
The other thing is, since you’re dealing over every action, the game can stretch out quite long, probably longer than it needs to. It should be a 2-3 hour game, and in the right circumstances it is – but those deals can also push the game into overtime, lasting 4 hours or more. That’s a long time for the sort of game that runs on hardline deals and tough feelings.
I still think it’s a great game, but it’s best played with a full group of people that’s fully okay with the tone. If even one person isn’t on board, it’s just too much to take. And as it turns out, I have at least one player in my gaming group who isn’t on board.
I held on to the game for a while because of its quality. I wanted to play it more. But after playing it recently at the Hoopla – a play which I thoroughly enjoyed, despite crashing and burning in the final demand phase – I realized it’s time to let go, to move on.
Sorry, New Angeles. You will be missed. I hope you find a good home.