We’re in it for the stories. Wherever the stories exist. We gulp down stories. We devour the stories of others and invent our own so there’s no pause in the gorging. In every facet of our lives we cajole, we mould and wrangle random events into the shape of narrative. We apportion meaning where there is none. We cram things into story shaped boxes and slice off the bits that don’t fit. From the moment we haul open our crusted eyelids in the morning until the second we slam them shut again at night, we’re inhaling stories, embodying stories, accepting and rejecting stories…Like I said, we’re in it for the stories.
Board games offer a different form of narrative than the ones we are used to from films, books and TV (at least the ones that succeed do). Games offer narrative scaffolding; the story, a potentiality. It is incumbent on the player to concoct large parts of the story for themselves. To fashion events using the tools that come in the box.
There are those that prescribe narrative. Those games with blocks of text on cards. Those games that bog down play with the constant interruption of tasteless flavour. They try to thrust their stories onto the players. They offer no wiggle room, no invention. They are neither games nor books. They waddle between the two forms of delivery but fail at both.
The best game narratives are not prescribed but hinted at. These games gently prod the player into building their own story onto the scaffolding provided but never forget their primary purpose. To be a game.
There are few games that do this as well as City of Horror. A wonderfully rendered Repos Production from 2012. A negotiation games that recognises the golden rule about any zombie narrative, it’s about the people.
The dead have risen and engulfed the earth but the living have fought back. One city remains under the sway of the dead. In this City of Horror a few survivors cling onto life and the meagre supplies that still remain. Every second is filled with danger. Danger from the zombies that threaten to consume them and danger from the other survivors who want to take what they have. But there is hope. If they can survive until four o’clock and if they can find the small supplies of antidote that have been airdropped onto the city then they can be flown to safety, when the army arrive… If they can survive.
City of Horror is rules light but these rules effortlessly support the telling of a story. The job of the rules in this game is to encourage table-talk and negotiation. Simple, rapid phases flow into each other, drawing out tension and hilarity. This is not a game for those that deplore direct player interaction. This game is as sharp and brutal as a bloodied axe.
The board is set up around locations. The hospital, the bank, the church. Each location has a limited number of spaces and if a player character tries to enter a location when it’s full? Well, then they will have to try to survive in the crossroads, out in to open, where they could be feasted on at any moment.
Players control numerous characters and must move one in each round. Movement is decided on simultaneously but resolved in turn order so it could be that that comfortable nook in the corner of the bank has already been occupied someone else, leaving your character abandoned and at the mercy of the dead that surround them.
Then the dead pour into the city. Each location has a limit of zombies that can be congregated there before it is attacked. If this limit is exceeded they will eat someone. Action cards can be used to thin their numbers but sooner or later they will overrun the location and one of the characters will be on the menu.
The one to be eaten is determined by vote, with one vote each going to the characters in the location. If you have more characters in a location than anyone else then you have more votes than anyone else. These votes can be bargained for. You can swap votes for cards, for the promise of later favours or for a vial of the precious antidote that periodically pops up on the board.
It is from these negotiations that the story comes. As any promises that are made are not binding so there is an unpredictability and tension that is baked into the game. There is a real and present danger of being betrayed and betrayal can, and often does, result on being eaten.
Negotiation shoulders the burden of the game and, as a result, the onus is put directly on the players and any kind of back stabbing cannot be blamed on the vagaries of chance.
City of Horror simulates a world in which survival is the only consideration. There are no cumbersome combat mechanics or line of sight rules. There is only the moral fibre of those around you and that makes for some wonderful stories.
We’re in it for the stories and with City of Horror the stories leap out from every decision. Yours could be a story of survival against the odds or a fatal betrayal. The dynamics above the table directly affect the events on it. If you are looking for a game that tells a story and still remains a game, then City of Horror might just be for you.