Publisher: Riot Games, Designer: Stone Librande, 2-4 players
Attention Ladies and Gentmen, stand by your beds and get ready to drop and cough, because the Doctor is in the house and he is has examined this game and is ready to give his expert evaluation on…
Mech vs Minions
Mechs Vs Minions is the first foray into table top gaming from the Riot Games studios. More famous for it’s exceptionally popular “league of legends” computer game title, Riot Games’ Mechs Vs Minions is a co-operative, programming game. Although the two titles share a setting in the magical world of “Runeterra” mechs vs minions is anything but “league of legends the boardgame.”
Mechs vs Minions began life as a competitive zombie romp “Weapons of Zombie Destruction.” by creator Stone Librande . Librande created the game as an interest project for family and friends, he then joined Riot, introduced the game to the booming boardgame scene at the company, caught the attention of developer Chris Cantrell, who pitched the idea of a boardgame to the Riot “bigwigs” who, themselves keen on boardgames, readily agreed to this divergence from Riot’s current very successful media, and the rest as they say is history… Almost. The game very nearly was published 3 years ago before Chris invited ‘The Dice Tower’s’ Tom Vassel, and ‘Shut up and Sit Down’s’ Quinns to playtest the game. Although liking it they had reservations about replayablitiy. Cue three years of further development, refinement and the morphing into a co-op campaign style game.
So how does all this love and labour translate into a game? Well certainly from a component’s perspective: could we say perfection? The box is HUGE! Not just huge but thanks to some of the most ingenious and gorgeous inserts from Noah Adelman over at GameTrayz, every square centimeter is rammed with luxurious content. I should say it’s not like me to even notice a box insert and have never before understood people’s fascination with them. However, these trays are so good they require comment, they fit beautifully in the box: each one adorned with moulded symbols and iconography from the game, adding to the aesthetic. I apologise if I am banging on but this small point gives just a glimmer into the attention to detail Riot have put into this game.
So what of the actual components? In a word: exceptional.
There are 4 fully painted outstandingly beautiful player pieces depicting your character perched atop an individualised formidable mech: a massive bonus if you are someone like me where the idea of making and painting minis strikes fear in the heart.
There are metal track markers. Engraved dice one custom, one standard -2 of each: because why have 2 when you can have 4?!?- A detailed bomb mini, tons of thick, luxuriously feeling cards, five modular double sided gameboards – the gameboards themselves have a gloss embossing making oil slicks shine and pools of lava catch the light appearing to bubble menacingly on the table before you.
But what of the minions I hear you cry? Well, there are 100! That’s right 100, detailed minis, in four different poses which bring the board to life while playing. The minions are unpainted – I know what you are thinking: how dare they provide all this great detailed content and deliver it to your door for only 80 euro/dollars and not h
ave all 100 minions hand painted by Italian artisans? Don’t worry- but are instead given a dark wash. For those people like me who have no idea why you would want to wash your minis if they weren’t dirty: A wash is essentially like a dark stained varnish which is roughly “washed” over the whole mini and dries pretty much clear. However where is has built up in corners and cracks it appears darker: this makes all the detail on the mini stand out, and gives a more satisfying aesthetic than a plain mo
nochrome plastic mini where some of the detail may be lost without close inspection.
In terms of rules I’ll leave you to peruse the rule book available in PDF on the mechs vs minions website. But it essentially boils down to: your team of 2-4 players must each command their individual playing pieces by picking cards from a limited amount that come out each round. You add these cards to you programing line, which you then execute. Each card represents a command such as move forward, turn of fire a weapon, and using this ever increasingly complex “program” you must complete the objective of the current mission: moving bombs to certain locations, tower defence, running away etc… before the bomb blows up, a minion slips past your defence or you get melted by a wall of lava etc…
Although you can get damaged, the game does not involve player elimination. Instead damage is assigned from a random pile of damage cards, which can literally throw a spanner in your works. Some damage messes with your programing: say rearranging your epic flamespitter to fire before you turn, resulting in your mech belching a massive fireball across an open field before then turning 90 degrees to face the massive hoard of minions baring down on you! Some damage inserts itself as a command into you program, resulting in you continually lurching sideways instead of letting off a deadly bolt of chain lightening through the pack of minions.
The game comes with no less than 10 different missions forming a campaign style game. Once again the attention to detail in this area is impeccable. Each mission has it’s own dossier booklet explaining the set-up and objectives. Brilliantly each one comes sealed in an individual envelope which have codenames printed on the front. On completion of a mission you are given the codename of the next envelope to open. Additionally, each envelope contains “schematic cards” which are character specific special power cards that you can choose to equip for your next mission. However, there are also powerful damage cards to add to the deck, giving an added sense of doom to every damage draw you make when one of those pesky hoards manages to land an axe-blow on your mech’s beautifully shiny paintwork!
Riot have also gone the extra mile with the production of a radio play, instructional video and soundtrack available on the mechs vs minions website. The tutorial makes the game a dream to teach. I show new players the 4 minute instructional video while I set-up the tutorial mission. 10 minutes later everyone is ready to go and I pick a mission for us to play. Granted, there needs to be someone in the group who knows the finer details, but I’m always there!
The radio play adds a depth to the characters, campaign and missions. You just select your mission and follow the instructions triggering new parts to the story when you perform certain actions in the game. It’s humorous, makes people smile and adds an appreciated level to the whole game experience.
The less said about the soundtrack the better. It boils down to little more than headache inducing noise. But I find it hard to use this to form any kind of negative against the game. It’s an optional free extra that just happens not to be to my taste.
So how does all this fluff- gold plated fluff I’ve give you, but still fluff to my mind- translate into a game?
The first thing to say is this is not –for want of a better term- an “ameritrash” game. Although luck plays a significant part, there are countless ways to mitigate or even roll with bad luck. Admittedly initially you find yourself stumbling around at the whim of the command card draw trying in vain to keen your mech walking forward, or even facing the right way. As you progress through the campaign however, you start to spot some of the hidden layers of control the game gives you. By halfway through it takes a serious run of bad luck to prevent you achieving your goal that turn, it just takes a few minutes for you to see and solve the puzzle in front of you, perhaps needing you to push your luck that little bit.
This is where the damage mechanic in the game is so clever. It never kills you, just makes your puzzle much harder. Additionally some damage will have little to no effect on you at the time you draw it, but some can be disastrous sending you smashing into obstacles triggering more and more damage turning your pristine mech into a pile of uncontrollable tin within the space of 2 minutes. Yet far from being frustrating, this experience is sometimes challenging, sometimes beneficial, always humorous and always recoverable. There is no sense of the unfair, the minions move according to set rules, you know where they are going to be when they attack. Damage is almost entirely avoidable, you can chose where to end your turn, and sometimes you gamble on getting that little bit closer to your goal knowing you will take damage, knowing it could be fine or could go horribly wrong. The choice is yours as each turn you play a mini push your luck style game. Yet “fortune favours the brave” and luckily the game is perfectly balanced in this way, far more often than not, you shall get away with a slight scrape rather than a debilitating dent.
The damage is an inconvenience, and synergises perfectly with one of my favourite mechanics in the game: The majority of missions come with a built-in timer. However these timers are beautifully hidden within the themes and components of that mission. They could be a ticking time bomb, an ever-accelerating wall of lava, or the charging of the boss’s super weapon. These genius, hidden timers add a new level of importance and fear to drawing damage. It could be fine, but if you get a damage that spins you 180 so all your great running away commands suddenly turns into running into the pursuing wall of lava thing could get messy. Again this actually happens infrequently yet the knowledge they might impacts your decision making: You chose to move one less space towards the end zone to avoid the potential damage you may take, or you risk it and the sense of impending doom you get as reaching for your damage card is pounding in your ears.
The next is the puzzle. Every turn presents you with a new puzzle with almost infinite outcomes, this is created by yet another small but brilliant addition to the command cards: when you draft a card, instead of placing it on your command line, you can scrap it to either repair a damage or reprogram 2 slots on your command line by swapping them. These tiny, almost unnoticed letters at the bottom of each card adds exponential possibilities and depth to your puzzle. You almost certainly can get that one minion about to blow up your school, you just need to work out how! Prior planning is key. For all my talk of luck this game is pretty much open information, every turn you choose how best to play it, and as you get better and better you can see further and further into the puzzle planning moves further and further ahead, until you upset all you planning by pushing your luck one step too far.
Yet you could never do it alone. You are reliant on your teammates catching the minion you couldn’t quite reach, picking up the bomb when your mech is so damaged you’ll need to take a turn to repair it back to a state of at least semi-control, or open a gate for you to get through. It’s here the game really shines. Close and continual communication is key. Brilliantly the puzzle is so in-depth, for me at least – someone who can tend to be a bit of an alpha- the possibility of an alpha is eliminated. I can just about keep track of what my mech is dong and the possibilities in front of me, and have no chance of doing it for the other players as well. My alpha play is reduced to: “Right, these 3 guys are the guys about to kill us. I can get this one, can anyone else get the others?” or “I can hold this location, can you get the crystal?” The game does include a sand timer to help prevent alpha play, however in my opinion this is unnecessary, yet does add a sense of urgency to the draft, which compliments the theme nicely.
Yet this simplistic on-the-fly communication is not without it’s own problems. Players are happy they can do the things assigned to them this turn, only to find as players execute their moves, someone has stepped in front of where someone needed to be blocking that long range ripsaw that was so perfectly planned to pick off that minion who had slipped through the net. Communication and teamwork are paramount.
Yet, as all games, this one is not without its problems. The most obvious one, which will jump out pretty quickly, is the rules. In supplying 10 different missions each with it’s own rules all on different dossiers it can be tricky to keep track of what applies to what in the current mission. Also some rules you are expected to remember and carry on to subsequent missions. There is an overall glossary booklet, which clears some things up, but this is far from comprehensive. What happens to minions when they step on lava for example. Do they die? Do they always try to walk around it? Treat it
like an oil slick? Or do they treat it like a normal tile? If you look in the glossary under “lava” or “minions” there is no mention of this. If you then spend time reading back through every dossier you have already opened, you find a line that says minions take no damage from lava, but this still only answers half your question! It can be exasperating at times, and sometimes we just house ruled what made the most sense. Having said all that Cantrell and many of they guys from Riot have been very engaging with the community over on Boardgamegeek.com. I don’t think they slept for the first fortnight! As soon as a rules query came up it seemed to be answered within minuets at every hour on the clock. Not just that but patiently answered the same question over and over again, when people had not checked the forum for previous questions. Admirable behaviour, but I bet they are ruing not putting the sentence “Don’t worry you’ll pick up extra cards to fill any empty slots in the box as you go through the missions ” on the welcome letter you get when you open the box!
The second issue is scalability. For a game who’s mechanics are so refined, and clearly well playtested, it’s very disappointing. The issue being that 2 player is significantly easier than 4 player. I can see the thought process behind it. Basically they designed the game for 4 player where everyone gets one card a turn. With that set-up 4 cards are given to the player team per turn. So they decided to keep this ratio when scaling down to 2 player such that each player on the 2 player team gets 2 cards per turn giving a total of 4 cards still to the player team. Initially you think the disadvantage is in not having the extra players to defend certain areas. However you soon realise the game has a certain pace to it. Players start off weaker than the game, then gradually build to be stronger, and hopefully you have put yourself in the position that when the switch happens you can take full advantage and win before the built-in timer goes off to end the game. However, at 2 player you get better than the game too quickly. Many missions at 2 player we had won before the built-in timer was even halfway through! Additionally getting 2 cards a turn allows you to repair damage with one and keep improving your mech with the other, with only 1 card you have to choose which is more beneficial. There are other more subtle advantages to this which only really become clear after quite a few games of playing different player counts. Say for example you must turn at command point 4 on your command line. However you already have a level 2 flamespitter in that slot. With 2 cards you can pick up a turn command card and another that allows you to reorder your command line. First you swap your flamespitter with an empty slot 6. Then you add the turn card to the empty slot 4, problem solved, only 1 card not added to the command line. If you only have one card and 4 must be a turn, you have no choice but to pick up a turn and replace your level 2 flamespitter, discarding the 2 cards! This may seem a small circumstantial point but trust me when I say it is massive!
Granted there are 2 missions where the difference in player count is closer. But there is at least 1 mission where at 2 player it takes more time and thinking to set-up than it does to win!
Which brings me to my next point. This game is easy to win. I’ve played through the entire campaign at 2 player, and a significant number of missions at 3 and 4 player sometimes the same mission multiple times with different groups. While playing the 2 player campaign we lost a total of 1 time, early on, mission 2. With higher player counts it becomes slightly less guaranteed win, but still not overly difficult even with inexperienced players.
While playing through I spent the first half of the campaign waiting for it to get harder, for us to stop winning every game, and became more and more disappointed. However I was still very much enjoying the game and always keen to get the next mission to the table. This was strange, as usually I get bored continually playing the same game over and over. – Yes I admit it, I have still only played half way through pandemic legacy and got so bored I have no desire to continue! Please don’t judge me… It was then that I had a realisation. The game is not easy, even at 2 players. The game
is easy to win. When you are playing the new puzzle presented to you every turn is not easy, and gradually gets more and more complicated. The decisions that you are making to risk it all or hold back are not easy. The need for constant communication and negotiation with your teammates is not easy. This game reminds me very much of the computer game “Portal.” In “Portal” you are never really in danger of dying or failing, but each room you come across presents a new puzzle that must be overcome. I must have played through that game in about a day, over a decade ago, but I still have not forgotten the satisfying experience. Mechs vs Minions presents interesting and difficult puzzle after puzzle that you must solve as a team. The question is not if you will do it, but how you will do it, and how much fun you’ll have along the way.
Mechs vs Minions is a master class in how to produce a game. From the components to the community engagement to the addictive ever changing puzzles. Sure it is not without it’s flaws, and maybe it’s not for everyone, but this game gave my wife and I a fantastic 3 weeks playing every evening we could (we are still excited to play it and share it with our friends when they come over! We are yet to find anyone aged 7 to 64 who doesn’t immediately love it too.) It brought us closer together, pulled us away from the television and united us is a common experience, which I think we will remember for over a decade. Most of the time it was even my wife who suggested we play! That for me is the ultimate test of all.
The question you should ask yourself is not should I buy this game, but how do I buy this game…
This review was written by Lewis Jones, who purchased the game from Riot Games.
Editing and Photograthy by Joel Wright and Sam Freeman.