The Mean Streets of Brook City

Street Masters blew me away. Not because my expectations were low, but because the debut release from Blacklist Games was that damn good. So Brook City has it rough as the primary measuring stick is a hall of famer. It’s not completely fair but it’s entirely unavoidable. So let’s measure.

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First, let’s get into what Brook City is. This is a spiritual successor to its predecessor, utilizing the Sadler brothers’ unique Modular Deck System (MDS). This mechanism combines sets of asymmetric decks as a randomized spread of components to form a unique scenario. It’s one of the defining aspects of this game and forms the content discovery portion of play.

This means that before each session of play you will decide several variables. First is the criminal. The base game comes with three options, each a character full of personality with their own behavior and goals. Micky, for instance, is looking to perform shows at various music venues as a cover up for nefarious activity. Gus Ferguson on the other hand (a clear homage to foodie Guy Fieri), is hawking drugs on the mean streets of BC and bouncing around on various stops.

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“This is the drink we never had before.”

After the criminal comes the case. This is the central focus of play providing the bones of a plot for the rest of the narrative to hang upon. These produce clues for players to interact with as you peel back layers of the mystery, ultimately solving the thing or failing spectacularly. The three cases are relatively distinct and each offer their own set of challenges.

The final ingredient is the 5-0. This game offers a wide range of officers, each utilizing a specific skill set found in their asymmetric deck. This is also where the most obvious pop culture references come in with allusions to Will Smith, Mel Gibson, Marishka Hargitay, and others. There’s a lot of smirking spread across the swathe of cards and abilities.

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“Don’t be smart, Johnny.”

Just like Street Masters, this system of combining randomized limbs to form your own Frankenstein’s Monster is extremely compelling. The game avoids a long-winded scenario book and provides more room for players to forge their own story among these loose parts. It’s great stuff as the disparate elements combine relatively flawlessly to provide strong variety.

This is also where the game struggles a bit to keep up with Blacklist’s debut. Street Masters had a strong focus on character, with players working to build combos and really find their legs as they pushed through their deck. This arc of play was very enthralling as you explode in power late game and unleash hell.

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Brook City is more of a slow burn. Part of this is necessitated by the genre, 90s buddy cop flicks, and part of it is design philosophy. Just like the board they live upon, the criminal and case content feels more sprawling and stretched. The complexity of the mechanisms lives at the upper end of its predecessor and the game has a completely different pace.

Similarly, it’s much less about vomiting combos and more about traversing long distances and putting out fires. This is a cooperative design that’s more whack-a-mole, in the vein of Pandemic, and less balls to the wall face breaking. Thus, it’s less dynamic and instead more measured and strategic. The fallout is a flow that’s a little more repetitive.

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“You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home.”

This changing of gears does come with some benefits. There’s a large emphasis on vehicles which is totally rad. I’m talking cop cruisers, convertibles, motorcycles, sports cars, and even boats, each with a slick accompanying miniature to wheel around in. Yeah, you can even fly down the center river canal blaring Zeppelin and kicking thug ass.

The implementation of vehicles is the most interesting mechanism of this sequel. They give you a native boost of movement, but you can also “ditch” them to gain a powerful one-time benefit. This encourages a cavalier attitude towards your assets as you fly about the streets and hop out of one vehicle, only to requisition another one shortly thereafter. It ties in wonderfully to the loop of play and it’s also a downright hoot. When I think about my time with Brook City, this is the primary attribute that puts a smile on my face and defines the cinematic element.

“Everyday it’s Christmas with these cops.”

Like Street MastersBrook City is full of abstraction. While cases possess some narrative cues, they leave much to your imagination. You’re also required to reconcile the different combined parts into a digestible whole, which is slightly harder to accomplish than the more straightforward story of Street Masters. The more elaborate cases and lengthier play time place a more substantial burden on the participants to develop their own mental image of what happened.

I will say that this game straddles the line of story told “by you” versus “to you” remarkably well. This is not an experience where you will be reading long passages of flavor text, rather the surprising events provide support for you to latch on to. This allowance for interpretation is appealing and one of the strongest elements of the MDS system.

Another factor in its favor is player scaling. The difficulty stays relatively steady whether you’re playing with a single investigator or four. It functions as an entertaining solo game as well as a lengthier affair with a small group of friends. I do prefer it at smaller player counts in order to keep the time commitment more reasonable, but it still plays quite well with a full complement if everyone is experienced with the system.

While it may be unfair to hinge evaluation on a comparison, it’s certainly useful. I do not think Brook City is at the same level as Street Masters, and that’s perfectly fine. That’s not to say this is poor execution or a weak title. Brook City is a solid follow-up that seeks to tell its own story. In many ways, it’s remarkable how stylistically varied this release is from its peer. They each have their own place and accomplish their own goals.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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  2 comments for “The Mean Streets of Brook City

  1. Ian Allen
    July 1, 2019 at 8:59 am

    I didn’t like Street Masters like you did. We can’t always agree.
    Street Masters, after 1 play, seemed really tedious to me. I didn’t care about my character. It felt like just an exercise in moving around and drawing cards until you gathered up enough cards to use combos and blast the bad guys.
    I just kept moving stacks of chits around, piling up kicks and punches then spending tokens, then getting more tokens, then spending more tokens. Everything was card based so that meant reading the boss’s card and the scenario card and the sub bosses cards and my cards and the event cards and on and on.
    I may be getting some details wrong, but I was bored and annoyed and couldn’t wait for the game to be over.
    Now maybe we picked a tough scenario or something … maybe it would improve if I played it more … I don’t know. If my first impression of a game is that bad, the odds of me giving it another chance are slim.

    So now I have Brook City sitting there in a pile on the floor, staring at me.
    I wasn’t going to even try it – so far I’m batting pretty low with the Sadler Bros efforts.
    But you made it sound fun with the vehicles and so forth, so I guess I’ll give it one try based on your review
    instead of just selling it unplayed like I was planning to do.

    I wasn’t super excited about turning a video game like Street Fighter into a board game in the first place. I mean some sources just don’t lend themselves to board games. In the video game you move then punch and kick and fight bad guys – that part doesn’t interest me much. Like pac-man the board game – yawn. The story part was the part that attracted me, unfortunately its married to the mechanics of the combos and token stack shuffling. Read a couple of cool cards, then do a tedious fight for … what felt like hours?

    I couldn’t quite tell if Brook City used the same card/deck/token mechanics as street masters from your review, but I hope its different in some ways (I’ll take pretty much any differences).

    I am also now looking at Big Trouble in Little China and hoping it doesn’t play anything like Street Masters.

    Too many meh games these days, not enough great games. I feel like I’m drowning in meh.

    Like

  2. July 1, 2019 at 9:56 am

    I understand why you dislike Street Masters, it can feel like a lot of work s you need to work through a lot of cards and processes. How much you enjoy the kind of tableau combo building has a large affect on whether the work is worth it.

    I think you are probably best served just moving on from Brook City. The cards work similarly, the output of what you’re trying to accomplish is simply different (chasing down clues around the board and performing tests as opposed to killing bosses). The vehicles are gnarly but not likely interesting enough to make up for it if you don’t like the core formula.

    We agree 75% of the time I’d guess, which is pretty good!

    Liked by 1 person

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