This is cyberpunk right here. The analogue future of analogue yesterday, but with a bit of grit in it. A handicam with a busted viewing screen. A space-taxi dropping off stale pizza.
City Wars: Tokyo Reign gets cyberpunk. Gets it right in its chunky, villainous, brutal heart. This is a collectible card game and a roguelike, but deep down, in its heart? It’s cyberpunk – eternal night, eternal scrabbling to get by. Never enough to go around. Never enough to get a real break.
It’s complicated to learn – that said I am quite dim – but when it clicks it’s already a dream. You select a faction, a load-out of cards, a weapon and a charm, and then you pick your way through the city, moving from district to district, one node at a time. Opening presents, hopefully. But more often facing a dilemma. And much more often getting into a battle.
There are so many moving parts to City Wars I’m just going to focus on the battling today. It’s the centre of the game and, a few hours in, it’s blossomed into something really thrilling.
Battling in City Wars involves cards, but it also involves space. You play each battle facing an opponent with a battle track in between you. The battle track is divided into segments and is also split into two horizontal rows – one row for you, one for your foe.
Most simply stated, you place cards on the battle track to damage your enemy. But nothing here is that simple. Cards have a damage number – the higher the better – in blue. But they also have a duration, which is the number of segments on the battle track they will take up. So placement matters. And placement matters because cards also have an accuracy number in yellow, which can be seen as the card’s strength when facing other cards.
So let’s pretend. I place a card: fifteen damage and twenty accuracy. That means that when this card-placing phase is done, after a few turns, you will take fifteen points of damage from this card.
But you place a card opposite with fourteen damage and twenty-one accuracy. The damage is lower, but the accuracy is higher, and it’s the accuracy that counts when it’s card against card. So my card is shattered and its damage is forgotten. Now when the card-placing phase is done, I will take fourteen points of damage from your card. Gah.
Back and forth we lay our cards from a small hand. And then the combat phase kicks off. The damage trigger, which is basically a timeline, moves across the battle track, triggering the firing of any cards as it goes, and racking up the damage. The reason you need this phase is because some cards have Timestrikes applied, which means that before they fire you play a timing mini-game which calculates how much faction power you gain.The reason you care about faction power is that, when it’s topped up, you can activate a shield in real time as the damage trigger moves. It can change everything.
This is really the basics of it – card against card in the card phase, and then the winning cards deal their damage in the combat phase, before the whole thing repeats until somebody’s dead. But gosh, there is so much more to it. And the so-much-more is where the real beauty lies.
And it is beautiful I think. The cards are beautiful. City Wars cards come in a handful of different types. Silver cards are contextual – they might give you a damage boost depending on where in the battle track they are, say, or which cards they’re next to. Green cards are utility cards – they don’t take a turn to play, but they’re also used once and gone for good. They might let you steal a card from an enemy deck or shuffle new cards into their hand. Gold cards have powerful effects and pink support cards offer shields and health. There’s also a bank slot, by which you can choose to skip a turn and instead bank a card to improve its stats and even carry it from one card phase to the next.
This is a lot to take in, but the greatness of it comes as you start to learn how things work together. So in my third game, I suddenly realised that shattered cards of mine might be brought back to life if I placed a card nearby that modified them and boosted their accuracy – suddenly, I was back in the game. Equally, an irritating missing segment in the battle track could be fixed with a card, or I could even use a magnet to pull cards from my enemy’s side of the battle track onto mine.
It’s this back-and-forth in the card phase, this stealing and losing, which gives City Wars a wonderful sense of spite, of truly luminous dickishness, and of last-second defeats and clever, seemingly implausible victories. And I’ll be honest here. I didn’t wake up last week feeling that I needed another CCG that was also a roguelike, yet it’s this back-and-forth character which made me realise that I probably did, actually. And the chunky cyberpunk stuff helps, of course. City Wars is looking brilliant.