A Review of Mob Town

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Look for Mob Town on Kickstarter!

In the 1920’s mafia families began waging war against one another for control of lucrative bootlegging operations, but when that ended, it was time to diversify. All manner of businesses would quickly become fronts for illegal activities.

Not unlike this period in history, the card game Mob Town has players waging turf wars over the most lucrative businesses and control of three towns over the course of the game. Despite the theme, don’t expect violent hit men, illicit drug rings and prostitution. This is a game you can play with your kids or grandparents, and that has everything to do with game designer Danny Devine’s deft hand at crafting a game that is remarkably balanced and accessible.

“We ditched direct reference to gambling, alcohol and sex, and made the adult subject matter really subdued,” said Devine. “I purposefully made the characters… appealing for younger players.” Take for instance the foxy fox character. She’s holding a gun, yes, but it has a cork in it.

The game’s cards — the ones you’ll be using to exert your influence and take over properties — have values between 1 and 3 and depict the following suits: rats, sharks, snakes, foxes and weasels. The artwork on these cards is humorous and awesome, but Devine made sure they still looked “dirty, scummy, despicable and gross.” The weasel obviously loves baseball. That’s for hitting, er… baseballs. Right.

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Building Your Mob Town

Each of the three game rounds begins with a simple, yet exceptionally clever town-building mechanic. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if after playing Mob Town, other designers adopt the idea for future games.

To begin building Mob Town, which will become the game board itself, you draw a card from the property deck and place it face up on the table. This card will have an arrow pointing, up, down, right or left. Simply, follow the direction of the arrow to place the next card. You continue drawing and placing properties in this manner until a town worthy of your illegal activities is formed (and based on the number of players). The handful of remaining property cards are used to form a draw pile and a face-up row of three Open Lots, each of which can be acquired during the game with an action.

Devine said he excavated the town-building mechanic from an earlier game called, “Space Thingz From Space.” Despite the cool name, he admitted that the game was “horrible,” but was happy to have salvaged the mechanic for Mob Town.

Once the town is formed, players survey the layout of hotels, restaurants, gaming halls, and factories. Each sports a clever, unique name (Vandelay Industries, for one), property value (between 1 and 4) and two of the game’s five suits. For example, the Quadruple Tree Hotel  has a property value of “4” and depicts “Snakes” and “Foxes.” That “4” represents the cost to take over the property, as well as the value of the property at the end of the round.

How that all translates into an action on your turn is simple:  Discard from your hand any combination of “Snake” and/or “Fox” cards valued at four or more and you can place your “family token” on that property. Boom! The Quadruple Tree Hotel becomes your home base for an illicit money-laundering scheme! (That car wash perhaps just wasn’t working out.) Once that property belongs to you (it has your token on it after all), the cost for someone to take it from you is +1. A “4” value property now costs “5” to take it from an opponent. Furthermore, if the property changes hands multiple times, the cost to retake, say, Sushi Steve’s restaurant, continues to increase!

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But just hold your cabbage, Grifter, don’t start glomming properties just yet!

What’s Your Agenda?

Prior to each round, each player selects two secret agendas among eight. (All players have the same allotment of agenda cards from which to formulate their nefarious plans.) Are you going to make a run for control of the most restaurants in the town? Are you so bold as to believe you can control the most properties at the end of the round? And don’t even get me started on your plans to command the most connected properties, you goon!

Whichever two you choose, each completed agenda will grant you an additional 3 points at the end of the round. Now that may not sound like much, but in all the games I’ve played, there’s never been a point spread between the winner and losers where agendas didn’t play an important role in the outcome. I often found myself saying, “If only I had prevented my squinty-eyed opponent from getting that last property, he would have failed his agenda, and I would have made my own!” That’s a six point spread, for those playing along at home.

To drive this point home like a severed horse head in your bed, consistently hitting agendas after each of three rounds will often make the difference. Get them all and you’re looking at 18 more points! Get few or none of them, and, well, horse head.

What Else You Got?

I absolutely love the hidden agendas in Mob Town. More often than not, they’ll drive your decision-making on the type of action you’ll take on your turn. Besides snapping up fresh properties or snatching them from your enemies, you can also draw two cards into your hand, trade a card from your hand to take any number of cards of the same type from the Lineup (a group of five face-up cards drawn off the draw pile, similar to Ticket To Ride), use Cash (yep, that’s another card type) to take any three cards from the Lineup, turn in one of your three suitcases to select and place (and maybe even takeover, if you can afford it), an Open Lot property, or admit that you are a big failure and swap one of your agendas for a different one. Believe me when I say that spending a turn to swap your agenda can be a bold move. Your actions are obviously finite, and giving your opponents essentially two free turns while you dink around with trading agendas can amount to a big deal in the end, for better or worse.

mobtownthelawThe round ends abruptly when the The Law card shows up from the draw deck, which is shuffled into the bottom 10 cards at the start of the round. Each player adds up the values of the properties he controls, gets three points per completed agenda, and a new round begins. If it’s the third round, any remaining suitcases still in your possession (used for acquiring Open Lots), will net you a bonus two points each. I find it really difficult to hold onto any of my three suitcase tokens. It’s all too tempting to, for instance, grab that Regal Eagle Theater when you’re gunning for the most Theaters in order to achieve an agenda or to mess with your friend. Just take my suitcases already!

Every now and then a game comes along that has a way of hitting all the right notes. Mob Town is that game. It’s impeccably balanced with just the right amount of player interaction, strategy and interesting game play to please new and seasoned gamers alike. That makes Mob Town a rare animal, as rare as a shark that can’t stop buying properties to satisfy a secret agenda.

Mob Town’s designer, Danny Devine, answers a few questions via email:

What inspired you to design a game with this theme?
Early on it was a generic medieval theme, Knights and Archers take over Castles, Vikings and Wizards take over the Sea. Very dry and pasted on. I played an early prototype with my friend Bill West, after we played he picked up one of the poker chips we were using for tokens and said, “This was fun, but it feels like it needs a new theme…I want to be a mobster taking over bars, casinos and strip clubs.” That was it. It fit so perfectly we had to do it. So the version that was submitted to the Game Crafter was just that, Goons, Thugs, Cronies, Bookies & Low Lives competing over Bars, Casinos, Clubs, Restaurants and Factories.

Did you have other themes in mind during the design process, and if so, what were they?
When Phil from 5th Street Games approached me he said, “I like this game, but we have to have a new theme if were going to publish it.” We discussed lots of stuff, pirates taking over islands, rival space explores conquering planets, the game was really really close to being Wild West themed. Nothing was fitting as well as the Mob, though. That’s when it hit me. Rodger Rabbit! I loved that movie as a kid, and they pulled off a “friendly” Mob theme. It all started falling in place once I came up with the core animals whose names had a second degrading meaning when applied to humans. I sketched a drawing of the Weasel and Snake and sent them over, and it was an instant,”yes!”

The game feels incredibly balanced. From a design standpoint, why and/or how do you think it balances so well?
When I design games, I’m pretty obsessive over making things symmetrical. So straight away I knew there would be five suits for the cards and five suits for the properties, each card being useful at two different locations. That has not changed one bit from day one. It is the core of the game. Everything else around that has changed a ton from that first test, keeping fairness to all players in mind. When players were getting stuck, we allowed them to move through spaces and added in the Open Lot option. When players were frustrated with getting a random agenda, we allowed them to pick from identical decks. I think a lot of the balance comes from the players as well. It’s very visual who is in the lead with the score board and the ever-expanding tokens. When you see more yellow tokens than any other color, you almost feel compelled to try and even them out, but then again, I’m obsessed with symmetry. 🙂

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