Frank Branham – Beatdown: Streets of Justice Review

Beatdown: Streets of Justice (Game Review by Frank Branham)

  • Designers: Matt Barr
  • Artists: Jenisa Barr
  • Publisher: Piston City Games
  • Players: 1-4
  • Time: 40-150 Minutes
  • Times Played: 3 (1-3 players)
  • Copy provided by publisher

I never really grew up reading comics, and so Beatdown: Streets of Justice never turned up on my radar. The pitch is that it is a comic book themed game where you fight bad guys and eventually try to take own the corrupt mayor of Piston City by punching, kicking, and grappling everything in your path is totally baffling to me. Except…I cannot match this game to any comic I know. Your characters don’t seem all that super, and are divided into more mundane classes of Boxer, Kung-Fu, and Luchador. The cards are full of lots of kicks, punches, grapples, and throws with a variety of combo moves. So I’ve really got no idea what Piston City Games was going for thematically. 

And yet when I put on my 80’s era giant aviator shades and imagine that the President’s daughter has been kinapped by ninjas, I can totally see this as being a game about classic arcade beat-em-ups like River City Ransom, Final Fight, and Double Dragon. The game is even structured into 3 fights with a wave of enemies appearing and (in my mind at least) a large arrow and the word “GO” appearing at the end of each one. 

Upon Opening the Box

The packaging and presentation is odd and a bit quirky. You get an oversized butter box closed with a magnetic latch. Inside is a functional CCG-ish cardboard insert for cards, dice, and acrylic cubes. There are some nice thick tiles for hero boards, and enemy tiles. You are also immediately greeted by:

“Big Joe is actually holding a log in his Hero card. Everyone says it came out looking more like a cake though. We’re suprisingly okay with that.”

The art itself looks…amateurish. The characters look slightly puffy and are outlined with strange overly thick black outlines, and with a few odd proportions. And yet the poses an character designs are gloriously dynamic with a lot of apparent movement and strong character designs which are instantly recognizable even across the table. The table presence is a riot of contrasting colors that almost looks like a heavily-caffeinated teen artist’s Trapper Keeper. If you look deeper, you may start to have questions: 

Why does the boxer on the rulebook cover (depicted in a rocking chair reading a book) wear pink shoes?

How much damage does a Pinata actually do?

One of the pieces of equipment is a metal water pipe. Seriously, why doesn’t the game’s marketing talk about beat-em-ups?

Kind of a mix of awful, awesome, and quirky. This is the kind of presentation which Kickstarter should REALLY be about, but often fails to produce. 

The Tedious Section With the Rules Overview

The basics of the game are that you do three fights, with the Boss in the final fight. Each turn, players hit guys by laying out strings of fight cards. They sum up the values of the cards and apply them as damage. Any surviving enemies flip up a card from a deck to determine how much damage they do to which particular player. In between fights, you can spend your kills like XP for health or for limited-use items to protect you or add damage. 

That above part is all pretty straightforward. The underlying details are where things get different. The biggest important thing is the Combo value. Each character hs a base combo value as well as all of the cards. You have a hand of three cards, and if you want to play a new card, you have to roll a D10 equal to or higher than the existing combo value of your base Combo plus all played cards. Succeed, and you can play a card from your hand or the top of the deck. Fail, and your opponent immediately takes a free shot at you. Then you can keep trying to hit it you wish, with every fail ending up with a nasty Wham! Once you stop, you do your damage. 

The second big twist is that each card is vertically divided into two halves. When you play a new card, you cover up the values on the right half of the previous card, but damage and combo values on the right half of the current card now count. So those values can fluctuate up and down. This card play ends up being eerily similar to the newer Awaken Realms game Tainted Grail. (Beatdown was first in case you are curious.) 

Then add some complications to the cards. Some cards want to be played in a specific slot in the sequence. Some will apply a bonus or penalty to the next player’s attack. Some have Star Powers on them which are only activated if the previous Combo Roll rolled a Star (10). Typically, your hand will end up with the really good situational cards and your will play the basic cards and just pull from the deck. 

The other big twist is that player’s roll for initiative at the start of the round, an assign their attack target immediately afterwards. Then players take turns stringing together their combos in initiative order. 

And so what really drives the game is the Combo value’s Press Your Luck aspect. The difference here is that you can ALWAYS keep rolling to add cards–but at the cost of more damage. A lot of really high damage value Combo Closer cards will screw the next player in sequence, so there is a fair bit of table talk during turns. And it is mostly engaging in a beer and pretzels kind of way. 

More Details

Each character has a different special ability as well as a mix of base combo value and hit point stats to differentiate the characters. Further, each character add their pool of of 5-6 character-specific cards to the basic Fight deck. Any player can end up with these cards and use them, which is a little thematically odd, but works in play. The Kickstarter stretch goal characters get overtly silly, with one allowing bonuses for being nice to the other players at the table. 

Most villains have some sort of special ability, and each Boss has a global power which affects the entire game. Kardma effects are on some cards which can be played out of turn. There is also a concept or armor and exposure: if a combo roll fails, the fight card shows which area are exposed keyed to attack locations on the resulting enemy attack card. So you don’t always take damage from a fail. Similarly, some items give you armor which just block hits to certain locations. It all works, and meshes together pretty well.

Once you figure out the rules. The rulebook is hard to follow. The rules are all there, but the order of presentation is slightly confusing. The critical flaw here is that there are NO examples of play or of the rules being applied. The game has just enough unusual concepts and quirks that it really isn’t patently obvious from the rules themselves how you are supposed to do things. Particularly tricky are the rules around armor and exposure and criticals and when they apply. While the rest of the game quickly clicked solidly into place, that bit still eludes me. 

The Important Part, The Actual Review

After the initial confusion, the game gets rather enjoyable. Until it run out of steam and starts to painfully drag on.  The key to why that happens is the 40-150 minute play time. That is pretty accurate, and 40 minutes per player is about how long a full game would take. After somewhere between 60-90 minutes, the game starts to feel more of the same. The only upgrades present are the limited-use and fairly rare Items, followed by more rounds of guys to fight. Enemies have a lot of hit points as well 15-35. Typically, each player may end up doing 6-15 hit points. So an entire round of attacks in a 3 player game might not take out a single target. 

And we found the game is fun for 1-2, but getting old around the 90 minute mark with 3. The game handles scaling by adding more enemies for higher player counts. It works, but absolutely guarantees a fairly linear increase in duration for each additional player. Which is really a pity, because I rather enjoy the game and love its inherent quirkiness.  However, 1-2 player games very rarely hit our table, and so it will in all likelihood never be making that trip. 

I have wondered if a bit of hit point scaling could be applied to pep up the game at higher player counts to speed up the game. Just rein in the number of HP for players and enemies to flatten out the game length slope.  

Also interestingly, none of our games produced wins for us. The game is difficult, with one of our games ending in the second fight. This is a design choice I wholeheartedly approve. A sense of “OK, this time we are totally going to beat this thing” is a far more certain motivator for us to play this kind of coop fight game than anything else. 

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:

I love it. 

I like it. 

Neutral. Frank Branham

Not for me…

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1 Response to Frank Branham – Beatdown: Streets of Justice Review

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