Game at a Glance
- Designer: Sean Lee
- Players: 1-5
- Time: 40-100 minutes
- Age: 14+
- Mechanics: Area Majority, Worker Placement, Action Selection, Set Collection, Engine Building
- Availability: Coming to Kickstarter, Spring 2022; visit https://cytress.com for details
The game shown in this preview is a prototype; components and gameplay in the final version are subject to change
Cytress is set in the future where life is wonderful – that is if you’re fortunate enough to live in a sky colony above the Earth’s surface. Life in the Underbelly is harsh and unforgiving. But you are a scrappy sort and want a piece of that bougie pie in the sky. If you’re able to use your skills and leverage your influence amongst the leading factions of the Underbelly you just might have a chance to live the high life.
In this cyberpunk-themed game, players take on the role of a rebel leader working to make it to the floating city, Stratos. These rebels will gain supplies, spread influence, travel through the Underbelly to meet shady characters, and broker deals – all in an attempt to gain access to the upper echelons of society.
Players will work to place their crewmates on one of three levels of the floating city by building a network of tubes. Each tube constructed allows one crewmate to access a level of the city, depending on the height of its construction. The highest levels earn the most Prestige. Players will also earn Prestige by carefully positioning their crewmates in the Underbelly to maintain control of the tubes, completing Bounties, and honing their skills.
Cytress is played over multiple rounds which are divided into four phases. During the first phase players simultaneously collect resources that are available on their character’s personal engine, or Lifepath. In the second phase, players send their Rebels standees to different districts to spread influence and to earn more supplies. The third phase consists of sending Ship standees around the board to meet with the shady characters in the game which allows for powerful actions, and in the final phase players simultaneously reset their workers and pay debts. The game end is triggered when a certain number of tubes have been constructed. The player with the most Prestige at the end is the winner.
The gameplay is enjoyable to me. The length felt about right for a mid-weight strategy game. There is not a lot of luck, and what randomness does arise is pretty easily mitigated. Every turn allowed me the ability to accomplish something – I never felt stuck even when I could not afford the move I hoped for. There were certainly moments where an influence spot I really wanted was occupied, or a mission I wanted was taken. But even when that happened I was able to take different moves and still gain enough resources to accomplish meaningful actions.
The engine-building was done in a unique way in that a character’s personal journey, or Lifepath, is the engine. Players start with a randomized board and can choose which side to play with (each has a slightly different income potential). As a character travels to different districts in their ships, they may take on missions for the various criminal factions. These actions allow influence cubes to be placed on the board and also extend the character’s Lifepath allowing for better income potential, discounts, and trade ratios.
Ships are used to take different actions, as well. Players may choose to meet up with contacts from Stratos which allows for the building of tubes on the mini-map. This is how crewmates are sent to Stratos – one of the primary ways to earn victory points in the game. In addition to building tubes and completing missions, players can send their ships to the Bountyhunter to cash in on Prestige for completing certain deeds. There is another worker placement spot that allows for resource trading and with the right lifepath upgrades, that action is extremely lucrative. Only one spot on the board never got any visits in my plays, and that was the Loanshark. This spot allowed players to take on debt; however, there always seemed to be better actions to take and more lucrative ways to get those resources.
There is a bit of interactivity during the worker placement phase as prime locations may be blocked and income bonuses might come into play, but the majority of the interaction takes place on the Underbelly map. The primary objective in the game is to rise to Stratos; however, there is a very important area majority game that happens on the Underbelly map that should not be ignored. Players who have the most influence around the tubes can manage to score an incredibly large number of Prestige at the end. Cytress can get very intense mid- to end-game when map locations become highly coveted due to an ever-changing tube network. There are a lot of interesting decisions about where to build your tubes because in order to do this you must convert a crewmate cube on the map to the tube – thus giving up some control on the mini-map. Building a tube in the wrong spot could cost you quite a few Prestige points if the conversion loses you the influence majority around another tube(s). This part of the game was exciting, especially at high player counts.
Cytress was extremely easy to learn. There is a bit of in-game language that ties into the game’s lore, but it’s not terribly difficult to pick up or teach. We were able to introduce Cytress to new players and get playing very quickly. I enjoyed how quickly the turns flowed. Sometimes a tube or cube placement on the map led to some longer turns as the player considered the best placement spot, but not significantly so.
I did prefer this game with more players than two, and that’s likely due to the Area Majority piece of the game. In general, that style of game is more fun for me when there are more people involved so it’s not surprising that for me, some of the enjoyment is lost with fewer players. It certainly was not bad at two, but I would probably choose to play this one exclusively with three players, minimum.
The cyberpunk aesthetic leaves a strong impression. The first thing I noticed when I opened the box was the “Everdell tree” structure that represents the floating city of Stratos. These types of structures can be a little finicky and affect setup time, but in a game themed around ascension, this vertical structure actually makes sense. It is also used as a worker placement spot as well as a resting place for crewmates so it’s not simply a statement piece, but a functional part of the game. In addition, the Underbelly map begins to sprout 3D structures in the form of the ascension tubes, further solidifying the theme of rising to the upper echelons of society. Aside from working thematically, it provides a very dramatic table presence.
Vertical structures aside, the artwork in this prototype version was appreciated. The bright translucent cubes and colorful Underbelly map pieces add beautiful pops of color to an otherwise dark and gritty setting. It has a strong Bladerunner aesthetic which fits in nicely with the cyberpunk theme. The characters are illustrated in a futuristic style and include a diverse cast of humans and cyborgs. A bit of lore is hinted at on the character boards in the form of very brief back-stories, but much is left to the imagination.
On the subject of theme, it is worth noting that this is a game about surviving and thriving in a corrupt underworld. Unsavory actions are necessary to climb to the top. These actions are very abstracted so I never felt like a villain while playing, but many of the Skills and Supplies you work with throughout the game involve criminal elements. Players will trade weapons and drugs and do plenty of looting, abducting, and terminating on behalf of these in-game gang leaders. This was not a problem for me, but it’s worth noting for those considering this who may have moral objections to this type of theme. This one is best left to mature audiences.
Cytress feels original. I can tell that the designer has put a lot of thought and energy into this project. He has managed to mix design elements and concepts from established games with some original ideas and merge them into a game that feels unlike any I’ve played before. Although the mechanics feel familiar and are easy to grasp, they have combined in a way that this experience feels fresh and unique. This is quite an accomplishment for a first-time game designer!
The cyberpunk theme comes through strongly with the aesthetic and in-game lore, despite the actions in the game being pretty abstract. Even though this game was a prototype copy it had a strong table presence and I’m excited to see what the final version looks like.
It was fun constructing tubes on the map and building my personal engine, but for me, the area majority game on the mini-map is what stood out the most. There was so much tension wondering where my opponents will build and how it will affect my plans. Figuring out exactly when and where to build a tube versus when to keep a cube in place was a lot of fun because each decision felt important. This game really shines in that regard, although it did lose some appeal for me when I played it with two players.
If you’re interested in the cyberpunk theme or are looking for a new take on Engine Building and Area Majority, check out Cytress, coming to Kickstarter in Spring 2022.