In Cytress, designer Sean Lee and publisher Tress Games have created a captivating cyberpunk world for a deeply thematic game that depicts an exciting dystopian world.
The modular boardscape consists of a hexagonal mini-map which represents Cytress itself. Around these tiles are four mission boards representing the factions of Cytress struggling for power, an 'Underbelly' board at the bottom, and the striking 'Stratos Floating City' – a multi-tiered tower rising above the tabletop. All the board pieces are smartly interconnecting, allowing the game area to shrink and expand according to player count.
Each of the 2-5 players begins as a 'Rover', seeking to escape the grind of Cytress into the floating apex city of Stratos, however the journeys are varied and your 'Lifepath' will develop quite differently from competing players. A Lifepath is tracked by individual 'Leader boards' which the player adds to throughout the game. The additions to this resource engine compel each player’s tactics and decisions to deviate distinctly from each other. These additions come in the form of mission cards which are collected in the third of four round phases…
Rounds are very straightforward: phases one and two ('Gain Supplies' and 'Spread Influence', respectively) are quick processes for gaining income resources. The first gives the player an immediate, predictable amount of income, the second allows players to pick an income boost of a specific type of their choice. The fourth phase is a mop-up ahead of the next round but it's the third round is where all the real action takes place...
Each player has three Ships with which to choose to send their 15 crew (1 at a time) on errands or missions – not an easy decision! Cytress is split into four factions, each operating with a different kind of income. Players are free to send as many Ships as they have to any faction, so long as they are able to pay the relevant resource charge. Missions take place in Cytress, so when the cost is paid, players place a crew member on a corresponding hex of their choice and take on a faction mission: thus gaining a mission card for one’s Lifepath.
Missions consist of various grim tasks such as 'Terminate a Hooligang' or 'Abduct a Rover' etc. Mission success is considered automatic, and if players are able to complete three mission types of one kind then they 'ascend' in specialism and all future missions of that kind cost less. Likewise completing three missions of any kind against a single faction grants you the opportunity to 'Meet an Enforcer' in the Underbelly – in so doing a player automatically gains prestige points and makes future missions more expensive for the corresponding faction. Additionally in the Underbelly, players may meet a Loan Shark to gain resources at the risk of losing prestige points in the end game. You can also meet a Merchant to convert resources, at ratios that increase according to a player's Lifepath.
At the other end of the board players might decide they’ve enough of a reputation to meet a 'Stratollite'. At any one time five Stratolites are accessible (a one-in, one-out mechanic is utilised each round), enabling players to build tunnels out of Cytress. Tubes may be 1–3 sections in size (with respective resource costs) and each Stratolite will dictate which faction hex the tunnel can be built and which resource must be used to fund it. Meeting the stipulated demand will allow the player an additional move at the end of the round but, even more importantly, they can move one crew member from Cytress into Stratos. There are three levels of Stratos, which correspond with the three tube lengths – as each increases, so do the amount of prestige points and resource rewards for the first crew members to get there. If a player cannot meet the stipulation of the Stratolites, they may instead meet a 'Netprowler' which will enable the building of tubes on any faction hex and with any resource; the penalty is the loss of the bonus action at the round end.
When the last tube from the supply is built in Cytress, the game-end is triggered and all players have only the remains of that round to achieve their ambitions. Scoring is not only affected strongly by the number of crew you have managed to get into Stratos but also by the number of crew you have left in Cytress to protect your tubes – thus this engine building, worker placement game carries with it a surprise area control aspect which players ignore at the peril!
Cytress is a good game captured inside an ambitious fantasy world. Sean Lee’s story and vision come through strongly in every element of gameplay, from character design and names, to localised economies and tussles; even the board layout is strongly reminiscent of a graphic novel, with a Stratolites-eye view of Cytress below and the activities of the factions envisaged on the edges.
The gameplay is straightforward, and I love the scoring system that creates a deeply thematic balancing act: should I send all my crew to Stratos and lose influence in Cytress or should I defend my access tunnels but then not get to send my crew to a better life? It's a real conundrum for an up-and-coming faction leader!
There is no doubt that Sean Lee has a big vision for the world of Cytress and the game keeps up with this – but only just... In the prototype we've been playing at Board's Eye View, the artwork from Tom Hutchings and Quillsilver is a great example of this: it's distinctive, immersive and believable, and the graphics and illustrations add a lot to the world presence, but they do make the board very busy. Icons can be difficult to spot, text difficult to read and some colours can lead to confusion about their purpose. Additionally, some Underbelly activities seemed unbalanced: there is no prestige reward for ascending a specialism but there is for meeting an Enforcer (which requires the same level of work). Once your ratios are increased, meeting a Merchant is vastly more worthwhile than meeting a Loan Shark.
The Lifepaths as an engine builder is a great implementation: the cards line up really nicely, although the resource tracker was fiddly and far too small. Indeed, the Cytress hexes too could do with some enlargement. Our preview copy was pre-Kickstarter, so if any stretch goal includes the word 'bigger' – recruit more backers to reach it!
Cytress is clearly a great step forward in realising Sean Lee’s vision, and I hope that its own Lifepath leads it to become a fully-fledged cyberpunk series of games and stories roving the Stratosphere. The game is due to come to Kickstarter on 26 April. We'll post a link to the campaign when it goes live.
(Review by Michael Harrowing)