City of Gangsters is Cornering The Racket on Criminal Grand Strategy, Capiche?
With the 2020’s being a period increasingly defined by the ravages of a pandemic and climate change, one can’t help but reminisce about the roaring 1920’s. During the Prohibition, gangsters were on the make, cops were on the take, and America’s streets were awash with bootleg booze while fortunes were made in backroom breweries and speakeasies. There have been plenty of gangster games made about this turbulent period, but few have been so ambitious as City of Gangsters, a grand strategy game that not only shows goombahs knocking heads to make their bread, but also the intricate web of social connections needed to hold a criminal empire together.
City of Gangsters starts off with the player in extremely humble circumstances. Coming to the big city (either Detroit, Chicago or Philadelphia) from the sticks in 1920, the player has control over a young wannabe gangster staying with their criminal uncle (or aunt). You start with a humble, above-board “front” business, perfect to start an illegal operation in the back rooms. From there you can set up a distillery for illicit booze to sell to discerning customers throughout the neighborhood, whether it’s brick wine, homebrewed beer or good old fashioned moonshine.
It’s not too difficult to get your hands on the ingredients to start producing liquor. Your character starts off with a jalopy to drive around town – with a classic “Ahh-woo-ga!” horn to warn off pedestrians – and driving around lets you banish the sepia-toned fog of war and explore new sectors in the city. Clicking on businesses you find will have you talking to the owner, who might have some of the ingredients you need to start distilling. Buying some legal goods will put you on the good side of a business owner, especially if you agree to buy at above market price, and they’ll eventually start owing you favours for your generosity.
Favours are of crucial importance as you can use them to have an NPC to put in a good word with a friend or family member who’d otherwise give you a cold shoulder. This is particularly important as businesses won’t be willing to buy illegal alcohol from you if they don’t trust you first. They’re also used to persuade a business owner to set up a front and expand your outfit’s territory or to convince them to introduce you to budding new gangsters to hire. There’s a visual diagram of social connections with people throughout the city that you can see and it’s handy to frequently check it to figure out who you need to speak to.
The system of century old social networking is a really great idea that gives a lot of freedom and granularity to the typical 4X grand strategy formula. I often felt very clever and Machiavellian befriending the neighbourhood to secure crucial supplies and then negotiating a 20% markup when I ultimately started selling them illegal booze.
Meeting characters will often have them drawing you aside for a chat to initiate sidequests. Usually these involve delivering cash and items to a destination to expand business opportunities. Sometimes these jobs can net you new vehicles for your crooks such as delivery vans, which have much greater capacity for carrying goods. Often fulfilling these tasks will net you a choice of rewards, including not only money and merchandise but also new skills.
Learning skills is exciting as it gives you the capacity to upgrade your existing businesses to more efficiently produce booze for delivery. They also allow you to produce entirely new types of alcohol, trading up from home brewed moonshine to bathtub gin or even high-end wine and spiced rum with a far bigger profit margin. With experience, individual characters also level up, letting you choose to give them more movement points to traverse the map faster or visit more locations each turn.
Inevitably, you’ll come across rival gangs and the ways you can deal with them are just as diverse as your options in commerce.
Violence is one option to deal with your rivals, but for a game set in the era of Al Capone, it’s surprising how rarely it’s necessary. You can recruit rival gangsters to your own operation, pay them off to take a hike, or even hire one gang to take out one of your rivals without getting your hands dirty. If you insist on roughing up the competition then a very simple combat screen will appear featuring all the belligerents on that block. You’re given a choice of which weapon to use and get to see roughly how much damage it will deal. After this, one or both of those involved will end up injured or dead. There’s no real strategy to it other than assuring your attackers have the best weapons and combat perks before simply throwing bodies at what enemy gangsters you want rid of.
If you’re expecting some sort of in-depth gangland warfare simulator, then City of Gangsters won’t be your bag. Even if you play very aggressively, about 90% of the game is about glad handing, networking and setting up intricate delivery routes.
Setting up delivery routes is the most satisfying part of City of Gangsters because it is where all your plans come together. With some forethought, you can have one of your goons drive a route where they can pick up and sell your booze and use a portion of the profits to buy more ingredients to continue production, even picking up the monthly collections from your fronts and dropping off the cash at a safehouse along the way. There’s plenty of options to tweak each step on the route to make sure each run is completely optimal. As long as the law is given some charitable donations for their stalwart policing they’ll leave your delivery trucks alone, and you can reap vast profits.
The main problem City of Gangsters has is that though the number of NPCs you can bribe, bully or befriend is vast, they all become a bit interchangeable after a while. Rimworld, for example, does a very good job of incorporating your colonist’s quirks into the gameplay as their quirks affect every aspect of how they live and work. Though characters in City of Gangsters have families and ethnicities, these details quickly get lost in the shuffle as enough cash, connections and trades quickly smooths over any issues you have with incorporating new business owners and making them pliant to pay protection money.
I had little problem bribing every cop who came snooping around. Sometimes I wanted the excitement of a curveball – maybe some incorruptible Elliot Ness cop who’d spit in my face when I offered him a bribe before vowing to clean the streets of scum like me. Instead, interactions with new people increasingly become mechanical and samey, and the excitement of meeting and manipulating folk becomes dulled as they increasingly just become featureless cogs in your criminal empire. Similarly, rival gangs aren’t particularly cunning or aggressive in taking you on, often just eliminating each other while leaving you to pick up the spoils from their abandoned safehouses.
I really hope the game will be supported with more patches and expansion DLCs because there’s so many great ideas here that just need refinement to provide a bit more of a balanced and varied challenge.
City of Gangsters provides a brilliantly free-form gangsta’s paradise, where countless options are available to weave intricate criminal schemes. It can get repetitive during certain stages of expansion as you have the same interactions over and over, but if you can get over that then it’s pretty compelling. There’s an irresistible one-more-turn appeal that’ll keep you greasing palms and bootlegging hooch long into the night.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed) ; Publisher: Kasedo Games; Developer: SomaSim; Players: 1; Released: August 9th, 2021 ;
Full Disclosure: This review is based on a copy of City of Gangsters given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher