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And Then I Rolled a Six

November 29, 2012

When I started this blog my first post wiffled pretentiously on about how my focus was to get writing done, and whether anyone read it or not was unimportant.  Two weeks in and I’m feeling compelled to check the WordPress stats every half an hour to check how many hits I’m getting and I’m having to resist the urge the urge to write about the X Factor or Britney Spears’ cellulite in order to increase my traffic. The PPC Elections rant and the Love Letter to Godzilla got about 30 or so views each over the course of the couple of days after they were posted, which I’m really chuffed with.  As far as I’m concerned those numbers ain’t bad for a blog considering I’m not a high-class hooker or a ten-year old schoolgirl being served inedible school dinners (I already used that line in the entry Picking Holes the other week but I don’t think any bugger read that one and I felt it deserved another run out).  Moving on then… last week I promised to skip merrily from discussing Japanese Movie Monsters to yakking about board games. How could a man possibly achieve this? How could any mere mortal manage to marry together two such disparate subjects? By way of the excellent Kaiju-themed board game King of Tokyo of course.

To be clear when I talk about board games I’m  referring to the grown-up, fancy packaged kind of stuff you’d find in Travelling Man instead of Toys R Us – Settlers of Catan or Arkham Horror, rather than Monopoly or the Game of Life for example.  Some of these games might not have a traditional board per se, some being heavily card based for instance, but I’ll be using the generic name ‘board game’ because I’m lazy like that. Now when it comes to these kind of games I should make my feelings clear – I don’t really like them. I’m a wargamer or RPGer at heart, and for me board games are a poor substitute for both. When compared to wargames they lack the visual impact, the joy of ranking up my armies of tiny little men and the fun of being able to unleash my inner Napoleon. When matched up with a good RPG the board game seems lacking in scope and imagination. I do appreciate the fact that the board game is in theory much easier to get into – it doesn’t require an investment of time and money in collection or an army of miniatures, nor do you need to burn the midnight oil creating a wonderfully detailed fantasy world in order to get a game going. I say ‘in theory’, however, as they do (for me at least) come with their own obstacles that prevent them from being accessible and that’s a crippling obsession with being as ‘deep’ and ‘involving’ as possible. They say call ’em deep and involving… I call ’em too bloody complicated.  Now this may be down to the games designers taking things too far, or it may be because I’m a bit of a chump when it comes to this sort of thing – I’ll let you make up your own minds on that front (I reckon it’s a bit of both myself). But I’ll explain what I’m getting at in  a bit more detail.

A couple of years back I spent an evening playing a game called something like ‘Seven Wonders’ with three old friends. I had a good time, because it’s hard not to with good company, but the game itself didn’t do anything for me. I attempted to manage my resources of paper, steel, wood and whatever else while trying to build the Colossus of Rhodes or some such nonsense for a couple of hours, until at the end we added up some numbers and found out that someone (not me, natch) had won. The whole thing felt so bloody impenetrable. I had no idea if any action I was taking at any given point was good or bad, as I had very little clue about what outcomes I could expect. Now you may dismiss me as being too impatient, arguing that a game of this nature needs several play throughs to grasp correctly – and you’d probably be right. The problem is if I play the game through say five times, each go taking a couple of hours, then I’ve used up all my gaming time for the best part of three months as I only normally manage one evening of games every couple of weeks.  At least if I’m learning a new wargame things tend to make some kind of basic sense from day one – if I hit that unit in the flank, for example, I can be confident it will go poorly for them as these things tend to follow a similar logic. Following basic tactics with wargames tends to work for the most part – I know that it makes sense for me to engage my opponents missile troops in close combat, or to shoot his hand-to hand fighters. But with a board game the relative merits and drawbacks of the myriad of options are usually less obvious, particularly the long-term implications of any given action. Furthermore, with some wargames I have the option of playing smaller games (say 500 points in Warhammer 40,000 or 15 points in WarmaHordes) to get a grip of the system – and I can play three or four of these games in one night to speed my learning along. I’m not saying there aren’t board games that allow for a similar scaled-down approach, but I’d wager that they’re rare.  So what makes King of Tokyo different? Well it’s subject matter – giant monsters battling to control a certain Japanese city – was always going to appeal. But the main thing is it’s simple to learn without dumbing down to the level where tactics become irrelevant. It’s designed by Richard Garfield of Magic: The Gathering fame, and the it shares the kind of approach that the popular CCG had in the old days – simple basic rules with certain things causing the rules to work differently in certain situations.

I’m not going to dissect the rules or go into any deep details or anything as there are out there written by people who are much better at that kind of thing than I am, but I’ll go through a quick overview. Things start with each player picking a monster to represent them and taking the appropriate card to record their health, score etc. (done by nice turny wheel things) and the stand-up card used to show where they are on the game board. The basic mechanic revolves around rolling the six specially marked dice up to three times, keeping the ones you want and re-rolling the ones you don’t depending on what you are trying to achieve that turn. Yup, at the core of the game it’s basically Yahtzee with giant monsters. Once you’ve done your dice rolling you resolve whatever results you ended up with. This can lead to scoring points (getting to twenty points is one way to win), beating up other monsters (being last man standing being the other, more satisfying, way to win), acquiring energy tokens that can be used to purchase extra abilities for your monster or storming onto the board (which represents Tokyo) on a destructive rampage. All good clean fun. The abilities I mentioned come in the form of cards dealt from a deck – if during your turn you’ve got enough of the teeny-tiny little energy cube tokens to buy one of the cards available you can do so. Some resolve instantly like simply giving you victory points or damaging opponents, but a good chunk of them are things you keep hold of to give your monster a couple of extra tricks or abilities. For me these cards added some nice little tactical options, but more importantly they really enrich the Kaiju movie feel of the game. Card names like ‘It Has a Son!’ and ‘We’re Only Making It Stronger!’ capture the spirit of the source material brilliantly, and show a certain amount of love for the genre and attention to the games little details that I certainly appreciated. The art on the cards and other game components is lovely, by the way, full of crazy-ass Kaiju character.  As far as I can tell the components are all nice quality too – good thick cardboard, nice dice – which may go some way to explaining the price tag, which I’ll go into later.

The game was so straightforward and fun that both my wife (not a gamer at all) and my seven-year old daughter were able to happily join in. Once my little girl had been helped through the first few turns she was away rolling and choosing dice on her own, and perusing the cards available for purchase with a keen eye. For some reason she became particularity enamoured by the powers card ‘Friend of Children’ (I think it was the happy turtle monster on the card artwork that did it) to the point where I wouldn’t dare buy it for myself if it was there on my turn.  Also, the game is quick – I’d guess that it was mathematically impossible for it last more than an hour with all six players involved, and most games will take less than half that.  This helps keep kids interest and prevents the kind of mind-numbing slogs that some games can devolve into.  As simple as the game is there is still strategy available, but – and this is the important thing – you can see workable plans from the get go, and I’ll wager there are still more to find as you go along and experiment with different card combos. Does this relative simplicity mean the game might not have a very long play life? That remains to be seen, I suppose, but any game that means we can spend family time making monster noises and pretending to knock down skyscrapers will take a long time to get boring as far as I’m concerned.  It’s also worth mentioning that the game recently won three ‘Golden Geek’ awards (which are apparently a good thing in the board game community) for best children’s game, best party game and best family game, so my views can’t be too far off the mark.

So, any flaws? Two things spring to mind. Firstly the price tag of around £30 seems a bit steep to me. I don’t buy a lot of board games so this might be a normal kind of price range, I don’t know. The fact that that money gets you some good quality game materials softens the blow somewhat, as does the the fact that I think the game will have a lot of re-playability and can be enjoyed by by a wide audience. My second complaint is that one’s choice of monster makes no difference to how the game plays. Apart from the artwork on your playing pieces Gigasaur is the same as Kraken who is the same as Mekkadragon and so on. This does help keep things simple, but I’d like an option to be able to add a bit of variety to each creature aside from the purchasing of the cards in play. As it happens the games producers may well have agreed with me on that point as the first supplement (Called Power Up!) which was released this month adds the option of giving each monster their own hand of unique ‘evolution cards’ which can give them each tricks and abilities that the others don’t have access to. I’ll certainly be having a closer look at that set when I get a chance, though it will mean shelling out another £15.
So overall I’d recommend King of Tokyo without any hesitation, particularly if you’re looking for a game to play with kids and maybe even long-suffering non-gaming spouses. There’ll be people who’d much rather enjoy a solid six-hour game of intense sheep management like Agricola, but as far as I’m concerned King of Tokyo is perfect for me – good stuff, double thumbs up and all that. 

Next week I’m going to bite the bullet and post my first bit of fiction on this blog – a short story I’ve been working on for a little while. While It’s the reason I started the blog – to get back into the writing groove a bit so I could get back into the fiction – it’s going to be a nerve-jangling thing sticking it out there for all to see (oo-er missus). But as nerve-jangling as it is there’s a chance to get helpful feedback which is, of course, what’s important. Acting on feedback and getting as much practice as I can – it’s the way forward.
It’ll be fiiiine.


From → Gaming

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