Review – Neon Gods

Neon Gods. Plaid Hat Games, 2018. Issac Vega, designer. Kendall Wilkerson & Igor Wolski, artists.

A month or so ago, Em and I made the trek through the pandemic-ravaged wasteland to our not-quite-local game store because sometimes, you have to risk catching a deadly virus to get out of the house. This store has a clearance rack, and we always check it out to see if there’s anything we’ve missed when it was popular.

While sorting through the games that have lingered on clearance, we found a recently-added copy of Neon Gods. I vaguely remembered seeing this game being previewed before its release, but then it seemed to vanish from the public consciousness. However, the box art was great, the cyberpunk theme was intriguing, and the designer (Isaac Vega) co-designed the critically-acclaimed Forgotten Waters, so we grabbed it up.

What’s going on here?

You run one of 4 street gangs in the day-glo near-future of *checks notes* 2009. Recruiting new gang members, you build your force of goons who give you the ability to fight better/move more goons/make more money. You make that blurping money by building factories and then making and selling “product,’ which I’m sure is something benign like souvenirs.

You recruit gang members by buying them from a public supply and adding them to your hand (deckbuilding!). Then, you move your gang member minis on the board, taking new blurping territory and challenging opponents’ turf like a blurp (area control!). After that. you take actions based on the cards you play, using these actions to build factories, monuments, and lookout towers, produce and sell product, and move more blurping gang members (variable actions via command cards!). Finally, you and your opponent add up strength points in contested territories and play cards to determine what dice to roll for combat (dice-rolling combat!)and prove who has the biggest blurp.

The winner of the game is the one who has the most blurp (victory points).

What’s good here?

The thing that drew Em and I to Neon Gods was the aesthetic. It’s got that 2020s’ idea of the 1980s’ vision of the future. Lots of blue and purple, neon lights everywhere, gang members dressed as pop-culture references. Even though the game is about street violence and implied drug-dealing, it keeps things light and fun.

The gang members themselves are as rad as they are diverse. In the deck of potential employees, we found a at least one non-binary person, a man in a wheelchair, a woman with a prosthetic leg, and people of all ethnicities. The gang-member-candidates also feature all sorts of nods to the 70s and 80s, from a guy who looks like Kenada from Akira, to a woman dressed as Alex from A Clockwork Orange, to a guy with a robotic “My Pet Monster” toy.

As much as I want to rave about the look of the game, I have to say that it plays well, too. It’s a deckbuilder that gives you plenty of opportunity to get the cards you want into your hand, an area-control game that gives you incentive to move away form your home territory, and it’s a hand-management game that really makes you think about whether to play your cards for actions or save them for combat–yet never leaves you completely defenseless if you do play the cards for actions. It’s a game full of decisions that never quite feels like a brain-burner.

Also, I love that the game scales with the number of players you have, with the playable area of the board growing with higher player counts. The rulebook also includes several scenarios that change the initial board setup, so if the game starts to feel stale, you can always try a new scenario!

The two-player game only allows a small part of the board to be controlled, but it’s more than enough.

What’s wrong here?

There’s not much that’s “wrong” with Neon Gods. It may not be heavy enough for some players, but that’s also a positive if you’re looking for a lighter game with these mechanisms. It plays in 9 rounds, which may not be enough for some people, but it also makes sure the game never outstays its welcome. You only move 2 minis on a turn (unless you use 1 of your 3 actions from cards to move more), which makes fights smaller, but the game also gives you plenty of ways to bolster your forces by picking fights strategically close to your other forces. I’m not sure any of these things are actually problems.

My biggest complaint about the game is honestly the made up slang. Lots of futuristic fiction has weird slang words like “droog” and “frell,” and Neon Gods is no exception. “Blurp” is a word that seems to mean reputation, but it’s also used as a catch-all slang word. It’s a silly word, and I know that the game is tongue-in-cheek, but I wish they had picked a better word than “blurp.” I don’t know why blurp takes me right out of the blurping game, but that’s the way the blurpie crumbles.

What do I think?

Em and I were pleasantly surprised that this game that we had heard so little about holds its own against games that were much more hyped. If you love cyberpunk, retro-futurism, or vaporwave, Neon Gods is an instant buy, and even if you’re not into the aesthetic, there’s enough game here to satisfy any gamer.

I give Neon Gods 7/10 blurp…um…I mean Victory Points.

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