Friday, September 17, 2010

Review: Murder City

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. Also, I was a big fan of the White Wolf RPG systems when they first came out, despite the unneeded hubris that the developers were keen on tossing around. And while I do not mind the cyber-punk dystopian future setting, I really am not that big of a fan of Blade Runner.


The Overview:


The box is compact with artwork that apparently shows the artist's one female friend's face photoshopped onto two women's bodies. 



The back of the box which shows the weirdest bit of the game: the fact that they think people should pay $34.95 for it. Yep. It's going to be a negative review. 



Murder City is a detective game set in a dark, dystopian future where the players take on the role of freelance detectives known as Jovans. However, a Jovan's role is more than just detective, they are also prosecutor for the cases they bring up and you only get paid for conviction, so Jovans diligently gather incriminating evidence, but also may falsify some to try to get paid. Other players take on the role of Auditor, determining whether or not the gathered evidence and story that you give for the prosecution of the crime is enough to warrant going to full trial.

Murder City is a story-telling detective game for 2-5 players. Play time is listed at 120 minutes, but less than 5 players will shorten the length. Deciding that this game is awful and deciding to put it away before finishing it to play something else will also shorten the play time significantly.

Each player takes one of the player boards which gives information on the characters. Most of it is backstory, but it does also list each character's strengths and weaknesses. This doesn't differentiate or make the characters play differently, however, since all that really changes is that this character has to pay one credit for card type A, while that character has to play one credit for card type B.

Each player is then dealt 3 cards from the Murder Deck and they are placed face up in each of the three slots on your board. Each player then gets their character's starting evidence card.



Two sample Murder Cards. As you can see, everyone murdered apparently looks exactly the same. 


The Murder Cards are how you get paid. Provided that your case makes it past the Auditor, you'll be rolling dice to see if it is successfully prosecuted. In the above cards, getting a Murder One conviction will take a dice total of 21 and pay 7 credits (21/7), while a mere Aggravated Assault conviction only takes a 13 and pays 3 credits (13/3). The list of possible suspects merely lists ideas for when you create a story for the case and the Means, Motive & Opportunity list the type of Evidence Cards that can be attached to this case, while the color of the card indicates that only Evidence Cards of the same color (green to green) are legitimate evidence towards a prosecution. You may attach a red card to a green case, but if the Auditor calls you out on it, your case will not be prosecuted.

The game is played over six turns, fewer if you realize that this is terrible and quit early. At the start of each turn, each player rolls initiative for the turn and draws a Legwork Card. Legwork Cards are events or situations which may benefit or hinder a Jovan. They can be played at any time on any of the players. Each turn consists of two Phases: the Investigation Phase and the Court Phase.

The Investigation Phase: During the Investigation Phase, players draw two cards from the Evidence Decks. There are a total of five Evidence Decks: Murder Weapon, Eye Witness, Forensics, Interrogation and Professional Aopinion. Yes, Professional Aopinion. I'm assuming that the deck is misprinted and it should be Professional Opinion, but it may be intentionally written as "Aopinion" to represent how in our bleak future we've changed the language to become even more dark and gritty by adding extra vowels to stuff, kind of like how White Wolf also changed hyphens to much grittier dots in their original RPG line.

Players then may assign Evidence Cards from their hand to the Murder Cases on their Jovan board by placing them face down next to the Murder Case. Players gain one credit per Evidence Card played onto their board. Players may also trade or sell Evidence Cards among one another. If a player has more than five Evidence Cards in his hand at the end of the Investigation Phase, he cannot take a case to court in the next phase of that turn.

The Court Phase: Whoever had the highest initiative goes first in the Court Phase. Play will continue clockwise from that player. On your turn, you can choose to take one (and no more than one) of your Murder Cases to court. If any of your Murder Cases already has three Evidence Cards assigned to it has to go to court.

The player to your left is your Auditor in the case. At this point, you build a story and narrative about the case you are bringing forward and describe it to the Auditor, weaving in the Evidence you have in the story. This is what first attracted me to the game when I heard about it, but it is also completely superfluous. I'll get into that a little later.

Anyhow, the Auditor can either Challenge, Rubber-Stamp, or Endorse your case. If he Challenges it, he chooses one of your pieces of Evidence that he believes it false (this is a blind guess; the storytelling does not matter at all). If, for example, he suspects that your case's Professional Aopinion is incorrect, you reveal it. If the color does not match the case's color, then the case is thrown out and the Auditor receives 3 credits and the Jovan gains a Hardship Card (bad things card). If, however, the Professional Aopinion does match the Murder Case color, then the case goes to trial and the Auditor loses 1 credit for each other Evidence Card that did not really match the murder case. If the Auditor Rubber-Stamps the case, then it goes to trail and he gets 1 credit. If the Auditor Endorses the case, then the Jovan gets an extra die to roll when it goes to trial and if a Murder One conviction is received, he gets a bonus 2 credits, but if it fails to get even an Aggravated Assault, then the Auditor gets a Hardship Card.

If a case passes the Auditor and goes to trial, then each Evidence Card attached to the case if flipped over. Each Evidence Card as a Strength of 1-3, letting you know how many six-sided dice to roll. Add up the total of the dice and compare the sum to the numbers listed on the Murder Case Card. If you equal or exceed any of the numbers on the card, you receive either an Aggravated Assault, Manslaughter or Murder One conviction and receive the appropriate number of credits for successfully prosecuting the case. Regardless of the outcome, the Murder Case and any attached Evidence Cards are discarded.

That's it. This continues for six turns or until players realize that they have something better to do.

Whoever has acquired the most credits at the end of the game won. But since you actually played through an entire game and made it to the end, you may wonder if anyone at the table really won at all.


The Theme:

Murder City is painful, pointless and drags on as players try to real dark text on dark cards. It is in this way only that the game succeeds in transmitting the feel of a dark, painful, dystopian future. Actually, I suppose that's not entirely true. The dice look metallic. I guess that's futurey. Maybe not dystopian, but futurey, I suppose.

Really the weaving of the story that you build about your case that you are presenting to your Auditor is the central theme and offers a great opportunity to build in a great narrative to the game. However, the mechanics involved in the game really make the story pointless, and it becomes obvious all too quickly that the words coming out of your mouth are just fluff. With the realization of how pointless your narrative and storytelling is, it deflates any hope of saving this game by playing with great storytellers or roleplayers.


Learning the Game:

Murder City is not really a complex game and my overview really touches on most of the rules much more clearly and in depth than the game itself does. The rulebook is a cluttered mess. It is a black and white printed 24 5.5" x 8.5" page example of style over presentation.

The rules are not clearly written out at all, but rather are hidden in a flavor-filled narrative of text. For example, let's say that in the middle of the game you have a question about the Murder Cards. So you flip to the Murder Card section of the rulebook and find this:
Murder Cards
The corpses of murder victims turn up all the time in the arcology, whether skeletalized in the plasma stream of a generator, rotting in a trash hauler or abandoned in a sub-street tenement. The authorities can hardly maintain order in the city, let alone solve crimes that have already been committed. That's where jovans come in -- and thrive. All Murder Cards describe a kind of crime committed, and are color-coded: red, green, blue, yellow or brown. Along with the type of murder is the target number required...

Great thematic narrative, I suppose, but all I friggin' wanted to do was figure out why my one card was Brown and the other one Green. And that is probably one of the more generous examples. Reading through the overview of the game it is completely indistinguishable from a glance where the narrative and flavor ends and the rules begin. In fact, sometimes one does not end as the other begins. This makes it incredibly difficult to look up something on the fly.


Normally I do not mind illustrations popping up in a rule book, since they are often used as examples of what is being talked about and break up the flow of paragraph after paragraph. However, the artwork in this rulebook is overused and repetitive and blocks what is an already difficult flow of rules. The same picture of the Murder Card example pops up twice, because the game's rules describes them in two different places. And the exact same picture of the "Altered Human Data Processor" jovan character pops up in the rulebook five times. The same exact picture. And never less than half-page size. In fact, it shows up nearly full page twice.


The Components:


The five different Jovan boards.



Close up of one of the five different Jovan character boards, er, Data Slates. 




Showing three different Eyewitness Cards. As you can see the Pervert with Binocular Implants looks exactly like the Registered Prostitute. That really is dystopian. 




The back of the Professional Aopinion Cards. Really, mistakes like this are completely inexcusable. But that's just my aopinion. 




The dice that come with the game. Sure, they look all futurey, but is it really so bleak of a future when I know that blue collar space miners are doing enough work that they have left over ore to produce dice? 



During its heyday of RPGdom, White Wolf had access to some really excellent artists whose work really set a great flavor and tone to their books which were very evocative in both artwork and words. I was an avid fan of Mage: The Ascension and so I recognize the artist Christopher Shy's artwork in this game. The only problem that I have with that is that they apparently only commissioned him for 5 different pieces. They are nice pieces, but the game really tries to milk their use throughout the rulebook.

When it isn't appropriate (such as on the Evidence Cards), we get generic pictures that are repeated throughout no matter what the evidence is. Each of the Evidence cards has a picture of what I assume is one of the layout designer's friends. For example, drawing Murder Weapon cards for a Discarded Syringe and a Dented Auto Fender do not show illustrations of the appropriate items, but rather a picture of the same woman's smiling face. This potential is most wasted on the Eyewitness Cards where I would really like to see a Pervert with Binocular Implants or Webcam Junkie or Registered Prostitute. However, I am instead treated to the same image of a guy in sunglasses with a most minimalist hint of a smirk.

The stock is fine for the cards, I suppose. Some of them are a little small, so you would probably have to order special card sleeves for them, but fortunately the game is boring enough that it will unlikely receive enough play to scuff the cards.

The game also comes with 5 metallic looking six-sided dice. First of all, the game often requires you to be rolling up to nine or ten dice at a time and add the results, so you don't have enough dice. And secondly, the dice aren't really metal. They are plastic. And they are hollow. So they are incredibly light and cheap, so I don't know why they couldn't have included a few more in the box. Hell, my friend got a real solid metal six-sided die sent to them free from Marlboro for somehow ending up on their mailing list.


Playing the Game:

I love storytelling and roleplaying games and even though this isn't my preferred genre, I very excitedly tracked down a copy of this game because of the storytelling element that was incorporated in it. I loved the thought of having to come up with a story and narrative to prosecute the cases before me and that my story is an attempt to bluff the Auditor reviewing my case into thinking that my evidence is legitimate. However, once we played, we came to the disheartening realization that it is completely pointless.

For example, let's say that my Murder Case is for a "Dead Musician" (a yellow case) and I have the following Evidence Cards attached to it: Murder Weapon: Discarded Syringe (yellow), Eyewitness: Registered Prostitute (yellow) and Professional Aopinion: Psychiatrist (brown). Now the Murder Weapon and the Eyewitness are legitimate evidence, but the Professional Aopinion is false. So I weave the following narrative:

"Samuel Caste was a down on his luck musician, that is true, but he was not suicidal nor a drug-user as some people might suggest. Sure, the discarded syringe found in his room might suggest intentional overdose, but Samuel's fingerprints were not found on it. Since Samuel's fingerprints are on file and since he was not found wearing gloves, it seems rather odd for a dying man to wipe the syringe clean. I contend that he was intentionally injected with a tainted and potent dose of the drug by his son, Joshua Caste, for the inheritance money. Two evenings before his death, Samuel, a known sexual-addict, was with Clarissa Holt, a prostitute registered with our courts. She has given testimony to the effect that she offered to share her stash with Samuel as they 'partied'. However, he adamantly refused and nearly ended their registered time together as he took insult from it. This establishes that he did not use drugs at least two days before his death. Samuel was also seeing a Psychiatrist, Dr. Fulton Harris, who has come forward with the testimony that Samuel had confided in him that he just created a laser symphony and believed that he was at his creative height. He was positive about himself and his future, thus reinforcing the assertion that he was neither suicidal or chemically dependent. I ask you, dear Auditor, let this case go to trial so that we may see his guilty son be punished from his crime of greed."

Now, as an Auditor, I can Challenge, Rubber-Stamp or Endorse this case. If I want to challenge it, I choose a piece of Evidence and check to see if it matches the color of the case. But nothing at all in what I have said in my story indicates anything as far as color of my cards. My story is pointless as it offers nothing to the Auditor's decision or my bluffing him. In fact, what is most depressing is that the following story does exactly the same thing in game terms:

"The musician was killed because someone stuck him with a syringe full of poison. A prostitute saw it happen and her psychiatrist said that she wasn't lying about it."

There is no reward or penalty for story or creativity, so ultimately the one thing that may have saved this game is pointless.

Furthermore, each evidence type is in each deck twice in two different colors; the Discarded Syringe, for example is in yellow and brown. This means that if you know the cards really well and see that it is a green Murder Case, and the story mentions a discarded syringe, then it is obviously false evidence. Ultimately, however, this isn't too much of a problem, since I doubt people will play this often enough to become familiar with the cards.


Scalability:

The game plays from 2-5 players. More players means you get more stories and can potentially hear more creative stories. However, it plays faster with fewer players, so I would suggest playing with as few players as possible to end the game quickly.


Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. The more she likes a game, the more likely (and often) we will play it. That being said, this game annoyed her too. The fact that it can make you feel uncreative or less creative than other players if you don't think that your stories are as good, it is further annoying because those stories just don't matter whatsoever.

She will not play this game again and for that I am pleased and we will remain married.


The Pros:

*If you really liked the picture of the "Altered Human Data Processor" Jovan, it is reprinted five times in the rulebook.
*The dice look kind of cool if you take a picture of them and the flash reflects off of the metallic coating.
*"Aopinion" is kind of funny to add to your vocabulary while playing the game.


The Cons:

*Repetitive artwork.
*Storytelling is pointless to the game.
*The game is just random as you take the Auditor role.
*Not enough dice included in the game.
*The dice that are included are hollow plastic and ridiculously light.
*Playing it makes me want to play Android again, and then I'll be bummed out and ultimately disappointed for a slew of different reasons.
*Rulebook is an atrocious mess and impossible to find rules hidden in descriptive flavor narrative.
*Professional Aopinion Cards is really just inexcusable.
*Shitting on the game this badly lessens my chances of being able to trade it away.


Overall:

Murder City is a game that had the potential to have an interesting niche storytelling mechanic involved in a gritty cyberpunk world, but ultimately it fails to make the storytelling important to the experience and that broken mechanic sits on a terribly constructed base game. The game's rules go out of their way to build a world and feel, but never go out of their way to properly explain the rules. It is almost as if the game world was designed as a board game, which, if it became a hit, would have been White Wolf's next RPG game world. However, the game falls flat on every level and fails to create anything more than a poorly constructed random experience with superficial and unnecessary storytelling incorporated. But your mileage may vary. All of this is just my aopinion.


2/10

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