Friday, January 25, 2013

Game Review: City Alarm 3865

A deceptively complex game of Cops versus Robbers.


Price $20
Age 6+ (4+)
Players 2-4
Length 10-20
Style Head-to-Head Strategy, Differentiated Goals
Randomness Medium

The Build

The layout of this game is a rather quaint metropolis.  With the game board element from Lego it looks a bit reminiscent of how one might assume a "Heroica City" game.  The set could serve as a decent, if simple introduction into micro building techniques as it has no less than 10 unique structures, not including the prison.  Most buildings are easily identifiable by minifig scale elements that, in effect, act as signage, such a  money tile, pizza, or coffee cup.  Then you have a light house and post modern architecture for another two leaving a couple that you can identify however you wish.  The helicopter is probably my favorite build though.  

The Rules

The great thing about this game is that it starts very simple but it actually has complex strategy that evolves as the game progresses.  I have included a video at the bottom of this section that describes the rules with visuals if you want to skip the reading. 

The goals differ based on what side you are playing.  The thieves are attempting to a collect 10 cash tokens.  The police are trying to catch all the thieves.

Each turn a player flips over one of seven movement tokens. These tokens have the numbers 1 through 6 as well as a "train."  If you get a number, you select one of your microfigs and move them exactly that number of squares without doubling back.  If you get the train you can move your figures to any one of  seven "train stops" which are indicated by white squares.

If a thief ends their move adjacent, but not diagonal, to a building, they may attempt to rob the building.  To do this they roll a Lego die.  Two double cash sides will grant the player two cash tokens.  The three helicopter/cash side will grant the thieves one cash token and allow the police to move the helicopter.  The one helicopter side will result in no cash for the thieves but allow the police to move the helicopter.

The significance of the helicopter is that a building with a helicopter on it cannot be stolen from.  This is relatively weak early in the game and very powerful late in the game.

The police also flip over a movement token on their turn.  They want to end their movement exactly on a square occupied by a thief.  If they do so, they remove the thief from the board and place them in the prison.

When all seven movement tokens have been used, they are all flipped over and "shuffled" again for a new round. 

The Strategy

The core strategic element of the game is counting the cards.  When a  new round starts there are seven face down movement tokens.  But each turn reveals a movement token and reduces the uncertainly of possible moves available for the rest of the round.

The player who can utilize this information to best effect has a very strong advantage in the game. 


The Thieves side

Five of the six sides of the die results in cash with two of those sides resulting in double, this means, on average it will take 9 robberies to win the game.   Early in the game you have many thieves but you can only move one at a time.  In the first few turns it is very difficult NOT to loose microfigs because the police have many options open to them.  In my experience, while you have four or three thieves it  works best to spend most of your moves in high risk situations trying to get cash.

Try to get all your thief units off of the white squares early, as a police using the train can snap up thieves on train squares.  Do not however, prioritize this over robbing.

When you get down to two thieves, it appears to be set to swap to a cautious strategy.  Unless you are way behind, don't take a risk on robbing a location if chances are high you could get caught.  Remember that by reading the movement tokens you can see where the Police might be able to get to.  So choose moves that land you in squares that will not be reachable by the police.  Also, do not fall into the habit of viewing proximity to the police as an inherently bad thing.  A thief can be directly adjacent to a police officer, but if the 1 token has already been used for the round, then you are perfectly safe.

The Police side     

Early in the game there are many slow moving targets to choose from and it is generally easy to acquire the first two thieves.   It is hard to use the helicopter to good effect early on though because, with all the thief units, they have many options.

The thieves tend to be attracted to the Bank and Lighthouse because they offer four sides to rob, so one of these buildings is a solid target for the helicopter early in the game.

As the game continues and you whittle down the thieves the helicopter becomes critical to success.  When you can move the helicopter, determine what moves the thieves have remaining to them for the round and try to place the helicopter on a building that would be possible for them to steal from.

That is to say.  If the 1,2, 5, and 6 have been revealed then that leaves that means the thieves could rob a building that is 3 or 4 moves from a thief piece.  Look for such buildings and put the helicopter on them.

When moving your police units do not get caught up in getting as close as possible to the thief units.  If you can put your officer two squares away from a thief, but the 2 movement token has already been used for the round, then they will very likely get away.   If you can't land directly on a thief, check to see if one of the upcoming movement tokens could allow the thief to reach a business.  If your move can put you in front of that business, preventing it from being robbed, then that is likely the smarter move. 


There are technically two elements of randomness in the game, the die roll and the drawing of the movement tokens.   The randomness of these elements do not, however, dominate the game, which allows strategy to win out most of the time.

The die has five of six sides that result in the thieves at least some cash, so it should always be assumed they will walk away with something.  Also four of six sides result in the option for the police to move the helicopter, so it is relatively safe to assume the option will be available to them.

As for the movement tokens, yes, when they are all upside down, it is totally random what will be drawn, but with each flip, the uncertainly is reduced until it is zero.  Savvy players will be able to reduce the impact of this uncertainty and utilize it to their advantage.

Solitaire and Underage Play

While there is turn to turn strategy in the game, the randomness does make it difficult for complex stratagems that last several turns and the revelation of a movement token provides a very finite set of possible actions.  Thus it is possible to play a solitaire version of this game where you play each side based on statistically ideal moves...if you are into that.

Similarly and for the same reason, I have found that, although the minimum age is reported to be six, a four year old can get a lot of enjoyment out of this game.  Yes, they don't understand predicting the movement tokens, but if you point out what squares their characters can land on each turn and leave it to them to decide the specifics, that, and the games narrative of Cops and Robbers,  is usually enough to keep them quite happy.   


Elements of Note

Part IdQuantity
Dark Orange Croissant 331251
Cash Tiles 3069bpx713
Die Tiles for 1-6misc1 set of 6
Pizza Tile4150p021
Thief Microfig 85863pb0734
Police Officer Microfig85863pb0742
Orange Lego separator968741

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