Gangster simulators are pretty well-worn territory. Titles like Gangsters, Mob Rule, Empire of Sin, and Pizza Connection all give you distinct tastes of a life of crime. City of Gangsters — not to be confused with Omerta: City of Gangsters — is perhaps one of the most straightforward attempts at it I’ve seen.
After countless hours of rubbing its seamy underbelly, I’ve learned that there’s a lot more managerial stuff involved in running a crime syndicate.
City of Gangsters (PC)
Publisher: Kasedo Games
Released: August 9, 2021
Set in the 1920s during prohibition, you forge your empire on the back of bootlegging. You start out simply as someone who knows someone who knows someone, gradually expanding your territory, your wealth, and your workforce.
It’s not enough to just turn on the tap to some illicit liquor, you have to find people willing to buy it from you and not everyone is upfront about it. You have to do favors for people to get favors in return. These can allow you to expand your connections and ask more uncomfortable questions like, “Where can I buy a tommy gun?”
Along the way, you can pressure businesses into becoming fronts and expand your territory. You also get backrooms of legitimate businesses that you can turn into stills, speakeasies, and other various illegal industries.
The point is to become a self-sustaining business. You need ingredients to make booze. Then you have to have the setup to create the booze. Finally, you need the connections to sell all the liquor you’re soon to find yourself drowning in. It’s a careful balance of social schmoozing and industrialization.
Notice how I didn’t mention any cement shoes or urban warfare?
There’s some of that, but it takes a back seat. Competing outfits and hoodlums are scattered about, and there are some basic ways you can work with them to gain access to more connections. I only ever really got into it with them if they started it or they were getting in my way. At that point, you just send your gorillas into their territory and roll the dice to fill them with holes. Honestly, doing so hurts business because your goons are more profitable when they’re moving crates.
And they’ll be doing a lot of that. City of Gangsters is stubborn about its management. It’s not enough to have liquid malt in one of your warehouses, it has to be in the same warehouse that you’re producing homemade brew from. If you’re producing or storing it in another warehouse, someone has to go pick it up and run it to the correct warehouse. Got an outlet that’s selling hooch out of its backroom? You’ll need one of your gangsters to scoot over to your production facility, then move those crocks over to your seller.
It’s a bit more than I expected from a gangster simulator, and it’s where the wires start getting tangled.
You can automate deliveries and pick-ups using a sometimes-but-not-always intuitive system. This sends your lackeys on circuits throughout the city, visiting fronts, sometimes picking up liquor and driving it out to all the people who purchase directly. It’s pretty important that, as your territory expands, you do so, because your underperforming fronts will start whining that they haven’t collected enough protection money to cover their expenses, so you need to get money to them before three months or they just shut down.
Beyond that, favors are everything, and you need to earn them from people by doing missions. Some of these missions have specific triggers, and one of the triggers is to have someone delivering a type of booze. Of course, the game doesn’t tell you this, so this is your warning: use the delivery system.
Speaking of favors, it can get hard to find people who owe you favors outside of your territory. People who buy hooch off you are easy, they’ll give you favors as you deliver their intoxicants. If they’re not buying what you’re selling, you can go to someone who owes you a favor to get an introduction which sometimes comes with a favor from the new person. However, that doesn’t always work.
The most consistent way that I’ve found of gaining favors in City of Gangsters is a little unconventional. If you extort someone with whom you don’t have a good relationship, it will push their opinion of you into the negatives. This will trigger a mission where you just need to give them some money to make them happy, and one variation of this results in a favor. So you can threaten someone at the edge of your territory, take their money, then give it back to them and ask them to be a new front for you. This has some side-effects like their relatives liking you less, but it’s nothing you can’t recover from.
There are a lot of systems to City of Gangsters that seem to rely on luck or arcane knowledge. Getting a new business to operate out of is one such mechanic that stuck in my eye. I’d do as many missions as I could out in the city, and eventually, someone would say I could have their old business, but then those dry up. Finally, later in the game, I found out that they seem to happen when you pass a certain cash-on-hand threshold. Wait. Cash-on-hand? I’m supposed to be hoarding money?
Then there’s learning new skills, which seem to unlock as you put old skills to work. Want to learn to make proper gin? Start with bathtub gin and someone will teach you to make the good stuff. But hold up, you still need to find buyers for your wonderful new beverage and not everyone who wanted your bathtub gin wants the real stuff.
Operations become harder and harder to come by, and it makes little sense to me to give up my extremely profitable bathtub gin still to take a chance on better alcohol. But I don’t have room to have a proper gin still and a bathtub gin still, so why should I even upgrade?
I actually have a lot of complaints about the flow of the game and the looseness of the mechanics, but addressing them all would make for an onerous review.
I feel that City of Gangsters probably should have gone through a period of early access to catch these pain points before release, and while there was a demo, it feels like a lot was missed. That’s probably because it’s a very complex game with a lot of variables and checking them all is difficult for a small team. I think they can get ironed out over time, but the whole package is a mess as it stands.
But what I really want to get across — aside from the uneven nature of the game — is that this is really a bootlegging simulator. You’re not going to find any action here. Even the cops don’t bust business owners, they’ll just arrest your goons if they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time and they immediately get out with their pockets empty. There’s smuggling, but nothing feels high-stakes. There are no offers that a given person can’t refuse, it’s strictly business. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being a bootlegging simulator, I just feel I need to set expectations because the name City of Gangsters doesn’t do that.
Even if you’re at peace with managing deliverymen with tommy guns, City of Gangsters is a bit of a difficult sell. At its core, it is a long and unexciting game. A lot of the time I felt like I was trying to decode the game’s logic and keep plates spinning rather than run a successful bootlegging operation. When everything clicks, it can be somewhat satisfying, but that happens so rarely, you’d think the game was sampling its own wares.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]