Any person who wishes to sit down and start reviewing games should pause for a second. That pause should transform into a meditation on how many and what kinds of games they have played. And this extends even further to game mechanisms. Want to review worker placement games? Start by playing at least a few, ideally a lot.
With some mechanisms, the scrutiny level needs to be even higher as certain mechanisms become ubiquitous and formulaic. The most popular designs are so for a reason and certainly, most players want to focus on the games that showcase the best challenge of decision making.
Goat Games is happy to test reviewers with their newest gangster-themed opus, Borgata. It’s a pure deck-building game with some direct interaction through combat. That’s not unusual, but as the formula is now over a decade old, it’s surprising that there aren’t more of them. However, if 2-5 players have 90 minutes to take a quick trip through the 1970s New York City underworld, Borgata is the deck builder to consider. To get the most out of it, go with 4 or 5 players.
Borgata’s playstyle features many familiar elements, but also some which break the deck building mold. Players start with a standard deck and will play successive turns playing some or all of their cards. Instead of cards representing different actions the players activate, the game features a standard set of actions with the cards acting more as a resource set.
Also part of the game is a race mechanism. Each player has a hexagonal tracking tile. The sides of the tile indicate what rank in organized crime the player has from Cugine (cousin in Italian) to Associate, Soldier, Capo, Under Boss, and Boss. When a player reaches the Boss rank or manages to control all the Boroughs, they win the game.
Boroughs introduce a small bit of area control into the mix. They’re represented by tiles showing New York regions or businesses. Controlling one ostensibly means the player has control of criminal elements throughout that aspect of the city and gains certain benefits every turn because of it.
Within a player’s deck, there will only ever be 3 types of cards to fuel different actions: money, mafiosos (people), and weapons. Money is a purchasing resource while mafiosos help attack and control boroughs. Weapons are used in attacks, but provide no control benefits.
On a turn, the possible actions a player may take are:
- Racketeering – Play a number of Mafioso cards to generate money.
- Money Laundering – Discard a certain amount of money to acquire a money card of a higher denomination.
- Purchasing Cards – Discard money cards to acquire a new Mafioso or Weapon card.
- Paying Off Surveillance – Pay to remove Surveillance cards. These slow down a player’s deck.
- Combat – To take control of a Borough, the attacker indicates a certain number of cards (face down) they wish to play. The cards are revealed and the weaker player may use weapons cards. The higher amount takes or retains control of a Borough.
- Move Up in the Books – By paying “Respect” cards and controlling certain numbers of Boroughs, a player may advance in rank.
- Recruiting – If a player has no other action to take, they may recruit a Goon card.
At the end of a turn, a player draws three cards up to a max hand size of 10.
What players should be able to realize as soon as the first turn is that Borgata is unlike other deck builders crafted in the Dominion/Ascension style. In fact, it has more in common with traditional single-deck card games. The actions players take makes for something similar to a good beer-and-pretzels game, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good, just that it’s trying a new path.
What’s more apparent after a game or two is that there’s very little help to players who need to catch up to players who control multiple Boroughs. The benefits the player gains from controlling their Borough changes the balance of power dramatically. This makes controlling Boroughs not just a requirement for doing well in the game, but also an aspect that forcibly pushes the game towards fewer choices, not more, like many deck builders.
The other problem that Borgata builds upon is that acquiring Respect cards to Move Up in the Books feels very, very easy. Respect can be acquired for money, but 3 out of the 5 Boroughs automatically give a respect card each turn. With the game only requiring 8 Respect cards over the course of play to win, this makes the challenge feel very shallow and narrow. What many players appreciate the most from deck builders is the intellectual task of making combos between cards to do well. There’s none of that here.
The one action that’s really interesting in Borgata is the deck management between having a thin deck versus building up a lot of cards that more and more become not as useful. For example, trading in cards via money laundering is a very interesting mechanism until you realize it’s not making the deck as efficient as it could be through card removal. The overall effect is more of a slow incremental slog of competing card draws.
Borgata feels like a deck-building game that promises a lot but gets caught up in traditional card game design. It’s sad to see this because it makes for a playstyle that just isn’t engaging the way even basic deck building usually is. There’s no difference from one play to the next besides what players happen to draw. This isn’t the real meat of a deck-building game. For all the style and work done for the theme, which is very well done, Borgata fails to deliver in mechanisms.
Final Score: 2.5 stars – An inability to escape from traditional card gameplay makes this deck builder sleep with the fishes.
Credit: Borgata Review