Review: Make a Name for Yourself in 1920s Chicago with City of Gangsters

Screenshot: City of Gangsters In case you missed it, check out our interview with City of Gangsters developers SomaSim. Chicago in the 1920s has a sort of mythical quality to it, and has been the inspiration for books and film for decades—but  most attempts to bring this era into video games have had mixed results. The most recent attempt, Empire of Sin (you can read our review here) made a stylized attempt at 1920s prohibition era Chicago, but while Empire of Sin leaned towards role-playing and combat, City of Gangsters takes a more simulation-based approach to managing a criminal empire. City of Gangsters is a management game from developer SomaSim, known for their skyscraper management game Project Highrise. In City of Gangsters you take the role of a up and coming mob boss with the goal of expanding your business—or just merely surviving—on the mean streets of 1920s prohibition era Chicago, Detroit or Pittsburgh. You start small by selling homemade hooch with the goal of creating a network of business partners willing to buy your products. Eventually you’ll be building your own back room distilleries and speakeasies. Of course, you’ll need to conceal your illegal activities from the prying eyes of law enforcement by running them behind established fronts. For the especially clever (or lucky) you can set up your backroom operations in fronts that are complimentary to those operations—so you can legitimately produce the raw materials that go into making your illegal goods. But in City of Gangsters it’s not just what your businesses produce—it’s also about who you know. Screenshot: City of Gangsters Since it’s the 1920s, and especially as an up-and-comer, you’ll have to travel to neighborhoods to make your operation known, and even do a few favors here and there to gain the trust and favor of the locals—of course, you can always threaten and extort, but that can lead to more trouble down the line. See, every person you interact with has relationships with other people.  These relationships can be friendly or familial. If you wrong a member of a family, the rest might not be so keen on helping you out. It’s best to have people owe you favors, which are reflected as a sort of currency that can be spent for information, to establish a partnership, etc. There will also be the inevitable rivalries—you might find yourself inadvertently encroaching on a rival operation’s turf, or they might covet what's yours and try to take it. While exploration is essential to creating a network in City of Gangsters, it’s heavily RNG based. Each time you start a new game, your chosen city will be generated anew. The neighborhoods and topographical landmarks remain, but the locations of businesses change, as do the people. You can use favors to gain information about the city without physically travelling there, but to trade or establish contacts you’ll have to send a henchman, or go take care of it yourself. Screenshot: City of Gangsters Exploration and territory control are based on street corners, a system that is both clever and maddening. It’s a great way to immerse the player in the city by having them moving through it and physically be at these locations, but which street corner caters to what business isn’t always clear unless you zoom the map out to the perfect amount. If you zoom in too far, it’s not clear which corner you need to travel to, and if you zoom out too far, the icons indicating what’s at each corner goes away completely. It’s a small complaint, but one that’s followed me my entire playthrough. Gameplay in City of Gangsters is turn based. Each turn you and your henchmen get a certain number of movement and action points. I learned quickly that every decision has ramifications, because while I’m having no luck establishing my homemade beer connections a rival gang might already have taken over a huge territory right under my nose. If there are rival gangs between you and your businesses, one wrong move and you or your henchmen can die—and if they die with money or product, you can consider it stolen. If your starting character dies, that’s the end of your run. Screenshot: City of Gangsters City of Gangsters has a tutorial that does a good job of showing you the ropes and introducing each of its mechanics while giving you advice on how to succeed. Unfortunately, it doesn’t’ really give you all the knowledge you need to survive—that’s something I had to earn through a few failed starts. City of Gangsters  can be pretty unforgiving, and without any difficulty levels, you really have to watch your moves and choices—lest you end up dead on enemy turf, or worse: run out of your own block. Turf wars can come fast and sometimes unexpectedly, and can end a run in an instant without proper precaution and preparation. Starting out is hard on the ruthless streets of Chicago (or the other two starting cities, Detroit and Pittsburgh) Eventually, if you survive long enough to get fresh faces, you can really start going places Having information about your business and crew is essential. As I say quite often, management games live and die by their user interface. City of Gangsters does well enough in this regard. There is a wealth of in-game information to make informed decisions, and plenty of overlays to let you know what is sold where, where your rivals are, and whether the cops are starting to get suspicious of your activities—stuff like that. Screenshot: City of Gangsters As a publication with a particular interest in the city we’re based in, I spent most of my time in-game with the Chicago map. I absolutely love City of Gangsters’ art style, and the attention to detail to 1920’s architecture and geography. While City of Gangsters has an art style that can be considered minimal, the scale and small detail is noteworthy. But City of Gangsters definitely focuses on the macro. While a game like Empire of Sin tries to be flashy with high production values, City of Gangsters manages the feeling of running a large scale operation with far less flash. This could be seen as a warning to those looking for full voice overs and elaborate cutscenes, but City of Gangsters manages an almost old school sim feeling, almost as if it were one of the old Maxis Sim games. If you told me it was a spiritual successor to (the non-existent) SimGangster I would believe you. City of Gangsters is a refreshingly management-centric take on 1920’s era prohibition. You’re essentially dumped into a gangster sandbox and given the tools to make a name for yourself, hire a crew, bribe cops, shake down businesses, and take out your rivals until you’re the biggest and baddest in the city. While there is plenty of content to keep you occupied for dozens of hours, I would like to see the addition of challenge modes or scenarios, as well as more cities—something you can try out if you get the Deluxe Edition of City of Gangsters which includes the Bourbon Bootlegging DLC—something I didn’t have access to for this review, and am looking forward to trying out.   City of Gangsters is available August 9th on Steam.         If you like the video game, tabletop, or other technology content that Third Coast Review has to offer, consider donating to our Patreon. 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Antal Bokor

Antal is video game advocate, retro game collector, and video game historian. He is also a small streamer, occasional podcast guest, and writer.