I love when board game designers draw inspiration from other mediums. Among my favorite games are ones that feel a lot like reading a mystery novel (Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective), wandering through an art museum (Mysterium), or watching a serial TV thriller (Pandemic Legacy). So I was very excited when I got a chance to try Mechs vs. Minions, a game whose design is inspired heavily by video games. In fact, MvM is the product of video game designers at Riot Games drawing inspiration from board games. Let’s see how Riot Games’ first foray into board game design went.
Welcome to ‘Pimp My Game’
Normally I start off by giving a brief explanation of how a game works. In this case though, there’s an immediate ‘wow’ factor before you even open the rule book. Scratch that – MvM is impressive even before you open the box itself, a shelf-shattering monstrosity with an embossed logo confidently declaring its presence.
Inside, you find tray after tray holding high quality miniatures, including four beautifully painted character mechs, one hundred detailed minions, a large bomb miniature, and the coolest looking hourglass I’ve ever encountered in a board game. Add to that metal rune markers, nice thick player boards, ten sealed mission envelopes… the list goes on. The cherry topping it all off is a sealed box which appears to have a large battle ax tearing through the front of it.
Every detail, from the minis down to the custom trays holding them, is as ‘premium’ as it gets. It’s like every copy of MvM is the Collector’s Edition. At a retail price of $75, I don’t see how Riot Games is making anything close to a normal profit margin on this. Either this game is simply a labor of love from a company swimming in cash, or they’re hoping MvM will generate additional interest in their League of Legends IP. Whatever the reason, it’s a remarkable bargain for everything you get in this box.
If you want a really good sense of the box and all of its contents, I recommend checking out Rahdo’s unboxing video. Just be sure to listen for his spoiler warnings– he opens everything!
Taking it for a Test Run
With so many parts and pieces, you’d expect that MvM would be a real pain to set up and learn, right? Surprisingly, it’s not. Every scenario has very clear and detailed guidance that makes setup a breeze. That includes the tutorial scenario, which teaches you the rules as you play. This game actually works great with casual gamers — you won’t need those usual promises and reassurances that “It will be fun” and “It’s not actually that hard”.
As you’ll learn in the tutorial, MvM is a cooperative game where each player controls one mech. Each round, you’ll draft cards and place them in your ‘command line’, thereby programming actions for your bot to take in a specific order. There are twelve different action card types — four each of turning, moving, and attacking. Stacking multiple cards of the same ‘suit’ allows you to make the action more powerful.
After drafting cards and updating your command line, each mech executes their actions. Sometimes it will be wildly successful and satisfying, as you expertly position yourself to take out multiple minions in one fell swoop. Other times everyone will laugh as you careen directly into a wall and shoot bolts of electricity at absolutely no one. Either way, with all players on the same team, you have friends to celebrate or commiserate with.
The other half of the game is when the minions (or other dangers) fight back. While each minion only takes one hit to kill, they have strength in numbers. Each round after the mechs take their actions, minions move, spawn, and then attack any adjacent mechs. While your mech can’t be killed by these little pipsqueaks, they can add damage cards to your command line. These damage cards sometimes force you to switch the position of two cards, or cover up a card with another action (e.g. turn 180 degrees), thereby throwing a wrench into your best laid plans. Occasionally, these damage cards will actually end up helping (more on this in a bit).
Each scenario provides a unique challenge. We’ve only played the tutorial and first two scenarios so far, but each feels wildly different. The tutorial simply involves killing all the baddies, the first scenario is an escort mission, and the second scenario feels like a ‘tower defense’ / ‘capture the flag’ hybrid. This variability is a really clever complement to the programming mechanic, since you’ll need to tailor your mech to the challenge at hand. I’m really excited to try the rest of the missions and see what else they have in store.
Even within an individual mission, each mech can often take on its own personality. This was especially evident for us in our second mission. Sigma was our runner, with a fast mech that could quickly dart beyond enemy lines to pick up crystals and return them to our base. Meanwhile, Darris moved into position and then made his mech into a stationary turret, turning back and forth and incinerating any minions who dared approach him. My mech was more of a sniper, selectively eliminating any high-risk targets that threatened our base.
Last but not least, Bryon’s mech was by far the most interesting and hilarious. Early on, he received a damage card that caused his mech to shoot forward three spaces and turn 180 degrees. Rather than trying to repair this damage, he decided to roll with it and turn himself into a wrecking ball, spinning wildly across the board and leaving piles of minions in his wake. Four such mechs would have been a disaster, but when combined with our three specialists, Bryon’s kamikaze was both comical and shockingly effective.
Flaws in the Armor
While this game is very very good in my opinion, it does have its flaws. One occasional downside is that strategy can sometimes lead players to make a mech that is quite boring to control. A perfect example of this would be Darris’ turret mech in our second mission. While he successfully created an impenetrable defense for our eastern flank, all he got to do was turn back and forth and shoot flames, for pretty much the entire game. The ways to mitigate this would be to share in the ‘dirty work’ when it is necessary, or just ignore the smart-and-safe strategy in favor of the fun-but-risky strategy.
Secondly, the initial difficulty level, at least for the early missions, may seem a bit too easy for experienced gamers. The missions were not a walk in the park, but at the same time we never felt like the outcome was hanging in the balance. There was not that ‘stand-up moment’ where the tension has escalated so much that everyone is hovering over the board waiting to see what happens next. However, I did feel consistently engaged throughout the game, and our victories were always met with high fives and fist bumps all around.
All things considered, I’m incredibly impressed by Mechs vs. Minions, and I can’t wait to play it again. It can go toe to toe with any game on visual appeal, and I love how the tutorial makes the learning process fun and easy. Furthermore, MvM features the best implementation of programming mechanics I’ve ever seen in a board game. Programming and cooperative gaming appear to be a match made in heaven, at least based on how successfully MvM has merged these two ideas.
One additional important point; I think that the campaign mode will please people on both sides of the Legacy gaming argument. The missions provide tasty unlocks and an emerging story line as players work their way through, but at the same time you never have to mark up or destroy any materials, allowing players to go back and replay any mission as many times as they want. And the story line is non-essential, which means that you could totally just play arcade-style if you prefer. I think that this is a model we could see a lot of games follow in the coming years.
In conclusion, I definitely recommend Mechs vs. Minions, especially to anyone who likes video games, campaign-style games, or programming mechanics. I also think this would be a great game for families, as it would be easy enough for elementary school aged kids to learn, but also strategic enough to be enjoyable for adults. If you crave something ultra-challenging, or don’t have a whole lot of storage space for games, this may not be the one for you. I think that for the vast majority of people though, this game will be a surefire hit.
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