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The City of Gangsters Review
With the 2020s being a period increasingly defined by the ravages of a pandemic and climate change, one can’t help but reminisce about the roaring 1920s. During Prohibition, gangsters were in the making, cops were on the go and America’s streets were flooded with illegal booze, while fortunes were made in breweries and speakeasies in backrooms. Many gangster games have been made about this turbulent period, but few have been as ambitious as City of Gangsters, a grand strategy game that not only sees goombahs banging their heads to make a living, but also the intricate web of social connections it takes to keep criminal empire together.
City of Gangsters starts with the player in extremely humble circumstances. Coming to the big city (either Detroit, Chicago or Philadelphia) in 1920, the player takes control of a young wannabe gangster who stays with their criminal uncle (or aunt). You start with a humble ‘front’ company from above, perfect for launching an illegal operation in the back rooms. From there you can set up an illegal liquor distillery to sell to discerning customers around the neighborhood, be it stone wine, home-brewed beer or good old-fashioned moonshine.
I’ve always been a big fan of resource management and strategy games. The Civilization and Crusader Kings series in particular has always fascinated me and I love the challenge they offer. However, with several hundred hours logged into Civilization VI, I need another complicated strategy title to sink my teeth into. City of Gangsters from developer Somasim fills that role for me more than because the fascinating setting and engaging mechanics make for a great experience. City of Gangsters may not be as polished as its better-known counterparts, but it makes up for it up for that with some unique and fun ideas.
The game puts you in the shoes of a young man who has just reached Chicago in the year 1920. Prohibition has just begun and now one of America’s favorite and oldest times has been made illegal: getting drunk. Rather than accept that ridiculous decision, most of Chicago has decided to revolt and produce illegal alcohol behind the government’s back. As a relatively unknown in the city with no experience whatsoever, you must work to make connections with the community around you to buy liquor supplies, learn important information about your neighbors and expand your criminal empire.
At the start of the game, you start with a few hundred dollars and have influence over a very small street corner. The goal is for you to start chatting with the shop owners in the area to get an idea of what they are buying and selling, and then establish business relationships, both legal and illegal. For example, the neighbor may sell pottery pots and the person two blocks away may want to buy homemade beer. You as a player can buy the pots from the first person and then use them to make beer for the second. This is really the core idea of the game. Players want to buy ingredients from a trusted source as cheaply as possible and then use those ingredients to sell a product to someone else at the highest possible price. If done correctly, you can use the extra profit to improve your business.
However, where it gets really interesting with City of Gangsters is the interactions you get with the people around you. By doing business or performing tasks for store owners, you improve your relationship with them and unlock new things you can do with those people. If someone likes you more, they may be open to buying/selling illegal goods or may have a job for you. However, one of my favorite aspects of dealing with people is that you earn favors by increasing relationships. The favors can then be used to do things like ask to put in a good word for you with someone they know or find out if someone nearby is selling something you need. Favors are a great way to move forward and open up lots of opportunities as City of Gangsters progresses.
As with any game in this genre, the most important aspect of your job in City of Gangsters is expanding territory. After building up relationships with friendly store owners nearby, you can set up a front in your area that impacts nearby street corners to consider joining you. This will further expand your controlled territory to give you access to more people contributing to your organization. This is an interesting system, though, because converting a corner can only be done when they’re close to your front, meaning you can keep more territory by getting a lot of people into the fold. While having a front allows the player to hold more territory, it will also increase the amount of attention you get from the police.
With the police breathing on your back and costs rising because of a wider area to check, you need to make some moral decisions to see if your organization will survive. When dealing with the police, the player can use their connections to gain favor with specific officers and then offer them bribes. An officer can accept this and then illegal actions are much less likely to attract the attention of the police. The people who live in your area can also be exploited for protection money to help fund your expansion. Fronts collects this money to cover their costs and gives the rest to you. You have to be very careful though, because protection rackets will upset shop owners considerably, and there is a chance that an owner will resist.
The only real problem I had with City of Gangsters was that the system for automating your employees is rather complicated and poorly explained. Anyone who works directly for you and owns a vehicle can be used to buy resources, sell booze, or raise protection money by automating their actions. This allows you to assign certain stops to be made for that character each turn they will then perform without any additional input from the player. It’s a really smart system, but it takes a lot of trial and error to determine exactly how it works. It’s also a bit frustrating because the game is tutorial takes you to the point of acquiring your first employee and talks about automating it, but then doesn’t explain the process. The tutorial is then over after this moment and leaves you alone to find out.
I had no problem bribing any cop that snooped around. Sometimes I wanted the thrill of a curveball—perhaps an incorruptible Elliot Ness cop who spat in my face when I bribed him before vowing to cleanse the streets of scum like me. Instead, interactions with new people become more and more mechanical and the same, and the excitement of meeting and manipulating people is dulled as they become more and more characterless cogs in your criminal empire. Likewise, rival gangs aren’t particularly cunning or aggressive about taking you in, often eliminating each other when you have the choice up the loot from their abandoned safehouses.
I really hope the game is supported with more patches and expansion DLCs as there are so many great ideas here that just need to be refined to provide a more balanced and varied challenge.
But what I really want to convey – aside from the uneven nature of the game – is that this is really a bootlegging simulator. You won’t find any action here. Even the police don’t arrest business owners, they just arrest your gangsters if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time and they immediately come out with empty pockets. There is smuggling, but nothing is at stake. There are no offers that a particular person cannot refuse, it is strictly business. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being a bootlegging simulator, I just feel like I have to set expectations because the City of Gangsters name doesn’t.
Even if you’re okay with managing delivery guys with tommy guns, City of Gangsters is a bit of a tough sell. At its core it is a long and unexciting game. Many times I felt like I was trying to decipher the logic of the game and kept spinning the boards instead of doing a successful bootleg operation. When everything clicks, it can be somewhat satisfying, but it happens so rarely that you’d think the game was sampling its own wares.
Wrap up City of Gangsters Review
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