New Angeles is the largest, most wealthy city in Fantasy Flight Games’ Android: Netrunner universe. It’s a vast sprawl of diverse individuals and even boasts an elevator that reaches upward and connects to the moon. Impossible from a physics perspective? Maybe. Awesome? Totally. It’s also the namesake of a brand new board game full of conniving negotiation and brinkmanship, drawing parallels to previous FFG releases like Battlestar Galactica and Cosmic Encounter.
New Angeles has a unique atmosphere built upon engagement. It doesn’t put you down in the neon streets or connect you to its digital environments perpetrated by Netrunners. No, here you’re thrown into a leather chair to comfortably grip your overpriced suit. Your hand clings to a tumbler of gin and your lips purse around a fine cigar rolled by an actual human. Life is sweet and dignified, at least in the brief moments between backstabbing and ruthless gerrymandering.
4-6 players function as CEOs of the swelling corporations that run the megacity, it’s all about meeting the people’s demands and manipulating events to achieve maximum payout on investments. The game is divided into demand rounds where a random card pull dictates what material goods the populous craves, and affords you three turns to meet them. Events interspersed create issues that accumulate threat. Locations on the board can fall into illness, gain unrest, or even garner the attention of criminal entities that run amok.
The goal here isn’t merely wealth; it’s besting your nemesis. It’s all about surpassing a private rival–another player at the table–and holding more capital than them at game end. In this way, multiple players can achieve victory, all accomplished through veiled layers of subterfuge and selfish power-plays.
Thematically, there’s an interesting literary message woven throughout play. The rival system is the first touchstone as the world of New Angeles is all about exceeding the Joneses, not merely keeping up. Status quo is not acceptable, as standard production from human labor does not create enough supply to satisfy demand. Rather, the group must manipulate android workers, throwing the citizens into revolt as their jobs fade away. The market wants increased profits and higher margins, and it damn well will get it.
Meeting demand and removing obstacles such as riots and infrastructure outages requires a conversation. Each turn the active player will produce an action card from their hand and propose a deal. Players can make a counter offer from their own hand and the arrangement heads to a vote. Nothing happens in New Angeles without interaction and a conversation.
The process of voting for the two proposed offers is astute. Power shifts from those setting forth the legislature to those that remain, as the proposers receive no say. The rest must take turns in player order placing face-down action cards adjacent to the offer they support, with majority taking the day. That power dynamic and sense of reliance on others heavily fuels the interwoven social web of New Angeles.
Providing an impetus to action is the continual threat that peppers the environment. By not producing enough to meet demand, threat as well as the atmosphere of paranoia rises. If threat reaches 25, the federal government seizes control of the city and everyone loses, save one–the Federalist. They want this to happen as it’s their sole win condition. This lends a traitor mechanic to the game, one that’s substantiated by the incentive of selfish behavior in the rival structure.
Manipulating the board to reduce those threat-causing obstacles creates a discussion with the game state itself. Most actions come at a cost, leading to a dialogue of concessions. If your action card is passed and you can move those android labor units to a different district, it will likely create an outage elsewhere. The game constantly undermines your devotion to keeping everything in tune by breaking down. It’s like a decrepit machine that coughs up a few coins but bleeds oil in the soft, dark places.
New Angeles wants you to cooperate and work in unison to keep the greater good of profits in mind; but reminds you that some are more equal than others with the rival system. By undercutting the whole, you’ll enact selfish policies and utilize key assets as you dig into the somber stretches of capitalism and competition. Those self-centered moments of greed arise when you push heavily for an action card that generates yourself capital, but doesn’t alleviate the most pressing issues. Everything can be burning down and the city’s hit with riots, but you’re pushing to remove illness tokens simply because you’re Jinteki and it will fire off your unique capital trigger. In order to push such an offer through you will need to bribe others, sharing the wealth. Maybe you’ll make promises you intend to keep, or not. I’ll vote for you if you vote for me and all that jazz.
This political environment of give-and-take while playing with the fate of a lower caste is poignant in contemporary context. The appeal to debate and backstabbing as key elements of New Angeles, taps into a primal element of our DNA. The game feeds off that connection and provides excitement through teasing out those base instincts. Everyone at the table is involved in each emotionally heightened deal and capital can fly around like candy.
The multi-layered approach and complicated social environment does mean this is an experience that is sometimes fragile. Incentives are not always transparent as meeting demand and working together is a more natural inclination. Embracing the rival structure and deciding when to stand your ground and engage in selfish behavior is not altogether easy. Since the game only lasts nine rounds, you hit a point where you realize it’s necessary to look out for your own skin and claw your way to the top.
At its core, this is a take on the human condition. Players embody virtual gods, able to achieve great success, as long as they stay out of each other’s way. The petty subterfuge ultimately restrains even the slimmest sense of altruism, choking out the vestigial tendrils of hope at the edge of humanity.
No matter the angle it’s viewed, New Angeles succeeds at providing a nuanced experience that’s memorable. It conveys deeply unsettling themes while managing to avoid feeling too intimate. This is a long arduous affair that can leave you feeling emotionally drained, but it’s the type of design that will be crawling around your brain and invading your thoughts for several weeks post-mortem.
Have you played New Angeles? Are you a fan of the Netrunner setting? Let us know in the comments below!
In addition to Geek & Sundry, Charlie Theel writes for Miniature Market’s The Review Corner and co-hosts the gaming podcast Ding & Dent. You can find him on twitter @CharlieTheel
Images courtesy of Fantasy Flight Games