If you’ve never played League of Legends then you are truly blessed. I followed the false prophet for 4 years, all throughout the alpha and beta, and now return yearly for a World Championship pilgrimage. This is not only my way of bragging about owning the King Rammus skin, but it’s also letting you know that, like this review, I am tainted with the stink that comes from spending too much time in Runeterra.
Mechs vs Minions is a 4-player cooperative game that comes from the minds that brought us such classics as League of Legends, and League of Legends, and…That’s it. Riot Games has only developed one game over their 11 years – until now. Mechs vs Minions is their first “completely new” game, which raises the burning question: was it worth the wait? Oh, I love a good cliff-hanger.
How to Play
Mechs vs Minions is a campaign game of 10 levels and a prologue. It’s an Easter egg hunt of mechanics, where you begin with an empty basket and by the end it’s still empty, but there is a lot chocolate smeared all over your mouth. I’ve done my best to not spoil anything but if you want to experience all the surprises first hand it might be best if you stop reading right now and subscribe to my blog.
Each round begins with a flip of the sand timer. Then the command cards are drawn thick and fast. What the players do next is best described through the medium of the Oreo commercials. First you draft it, then you play it, then you execute it, mmmm-mmmm, Mum says that Speed isn’t good for dogs; but you can have the rest of my milk. Please note: Speed is the name of a card in the game, not what you’re thinking.
In long form, players have one minute to draw, and pick out their command cards and add them to their command line – a fancy name for a row of cards. These command cards represent actions that their character must perform during the next phase. They range from moving forward, doing damage, and turning. Rumour has it that the expansion will include how to count and first grade spelling cards as well.
If a card is placed on top of another card of the same type – of which there are four – the card on top gets an upgrade in power at the cost of the bottom card being no longer usable.
After the command lines are compiled, they’re now executed from left to right whilst making a few decisions in the process. For instance, a “Turn 90 Degrees” card allows for the player the freedom to turn left or right. Alternatively, there are negative cards that still must be performed. If you or your friend has a “Make out with Urgot” card, then every round that player would have to perform that action. Delicious.
All the players (except for maybe the Urgot kisser) are probably feeling pretty good about themselves right about now, but then it’s the minions turn to ruin your day. The minions get a chance to move and spawn, and do so differently each mission. You can bet your bottom Riot Point that after settling they’ll be where you least expect. If a minion ends up snuggling you or the objective, it’ll deal tonnes of damage.
Damage comes in the form of cards with a few different varieties: from nasty one and done events, to evil cards placed on top of your command line. Meaning that instead of doing what you planned each round you’ll now be moving backwards, or rotating like a dysfunctional sprinkler. Players repair these damage cards by discarding the cards that they get at the beginning of the round, or moving on top of repair pads.
On top of this framework, the game presents many challenges in the form of missions. The details of which are private and confidential.
It isn’t that surprising that a video game company produces a board game. The surprise comes from them doing it this well, with this production value. A production that can’t be contained by the enormous box it comes in. The Mechs vs Minions website allows you access the campaign story acted out by the official voice actors, and a recently released level editor.
But hold on. If the Fantastic Four movies have taught us anything, it’s that no matter how much money you throw at a project, that alone will not make it good, or decent. While I could prattle on about the 100 minion miniatures, or the thick glossy double-sided map tiles let’s talk about the other good things this game provides.
The tutorial and rule introduction are great. Having to learn only a basic set of rules before you get going is a great way of allowing your players to get in there and have some fun. Doubly so if you imagine the demographic of this game. Surely there’s us cultured folk who are avid board gamers, but there are also those uncouth League of Legend players. Given that half of them can’t make 20 minutes without surrendering, there’s no way they’d have the patience to make it through a rule book like Robinson Crusoe’s.
The greatest moment this game provides is when there are about 70 minions on the board, and all hope is lost. Until you draw that one card. That perfect card. That card you’ll name your first-born after because in that moment it’s so beautiful. Then with the power of that card you put Jason Voorhees to shame, slaughtering handfuls of minions with no regard for their families. The tactile nature of picking up these hopeless souls and removing them from the game board cannot be understated.
Strategically, the game is sound. Not just in card collection and programming, but in working as a team. Like football, our team broke up into attackers and defenders. Those helping to complete the objective and those who ran point staving off minion attacks. The tactics varied from mission to mission, and communication always flowed fluidly between teammates. In that way it functioned perfectly as a cooperative game. Be warned, however, there is nothing here preventing one person from controlling everyone’s moves.
Otherwise, Mechs vs Minions is a good time machine. You’ll have fun regardless of if you’re doing well or horribly. If you’re doing well, it feels satisfying because it’s like finding an old car and doing it up every time you play. On the other hand, if you’re doing poorly it’s like trying to use chopsticks with a marionette with only one string. You can’t help but to laugh. To help with this there is a level of abstraction, because the cards are ‘randomly’ given to you, and the effect you have on any given turn is slight, it feels like the character comes alive by itself. Therefore, it’s less of “I’m bad”, and more, “Oh no, my character is bad.”
I haven’t touched on the theme yet, but they’ve done a wonderful job with it. If you’re a League of Legends fan, it’s worth getting just for the feel. There are so many nods to the game, and references to items and moves sets, that you’ll have good time finding them all.
Speaking out of turn, but one of my negatives for this game is that because you can plan out your move, and you only have a small effect on your character each turn. This leads you to knowing how the game will progress. There isn’t enough spontaneity to keep it consistently exciting. This is supplanted somewhat by damage cards, especially the critical failures. Watching someone get hit completely changes how their next turn flows and brings a level of excitement to the game that otherwise isn’t there. Watching someone embrace and overcome this damage is not only an important life lesson, but also very entertaining.
I’ve mentioned a few times about how little your able to affect your current turn, and I think this is one of the games strengths. Each turn is an accumulation of all the turns you’ve before. Therefore, when drafting cards you have the decision, what’s best for the long run vs what’s best for right now. It’s a neat little choice that if made wrong too often, will either lose you the objective, or leave you in a state where even Cronenberg Jessica wouldn’t take you to prom.
Finally, the end of each successful mission brings with it a small bit of Christmas. A new mission envelope to tear open bearing new cards that spill into your hands. There we have it, like a bad turn in Mechs vs Minions we’ve gone full circle coming back to the tactility of it all.
The worst offence this game commits is not including Teemo. I mean what the hell Riot? Teemo might just be the most frustratingly likeable character in the game, or any game, and he isn’t included. Sad.
Almost as egregious is not having a proper distribution method. As an Australian, this game cost me way more than it should have. At the store price, it’s a down right steal, but once you include shipping it becomes a lot more questionable. For the price of shipping (at least to Australia) you could buy several other games that would bring you as much enjoyment or more.
In terms of gameplay, the missions were bit of a mixed bag, some were tight and engaging, but with others the pacing was off and the game dragged on and on and on. There comes a point after the main rush of the minions is dealt with where the game falls into a lull. There aren’t enough minions spawning to be a threat, so taking care of them is no big deal. And the team is progressing so slowly and clumsily with the objective, that it’s like being stuck behind two learners trying to park in the same car space. All you can do is watch with a mild fascination and pray that it’s over soon.
Another issue they could have dealt with better is recovering from damage. To do so, you sacrifice the card drawn at the start of the round, effectively skipping your turn. After doing this a few times the frustration becomes palpable. Watching your friends get more and more powerful and having fun while you’re stuck learning how to turn the engine on. Exacerbating this is the random minion movement and spawn making it hard to calculate safe spots where you’ll take no damage.
While I enjoyed the cards doled out after every mission, I don’t think there was enough. Given that they were the catalysts for most of the spontaneity in the game it felt like they could have done more with them. On top of that, the damage cards given out at the end of the game seem like they would have been a lot of fun. I have yet to play with these cards because by the time we finished the game, everyone was a bit exhausted. Now, without the allure of continuing the story, it’s hard to get the game back to the table again.
Furthermore, I wish there was a larger limit on schematic cards, or rules or opportunities that meant you had to change your schematic cards from time to time. As it stands, we found that a lot of the time we’d just use the same cards. Which, to continue the Christmas metaphor earlier, made using and receiving them akin to finding out your mum accidentally got you Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge.
Lastly, we had some issues with a few rulings that weren’t easy to track down. The field guide does a good job, and there is a decent FAQ on BGG. Though sometimes we had to delve through the mission logs to find where a mechanic was introduced to get the answer.
It’s an interesting game. Riot Games could easily have done a MOBA board game and no one would have batted an eye. Instead they created something new that both new and old gamers can enjoy.
The theme is on point, the production is out of the park, the game play is fun, but it never reaches the high points of some of the other games in my collection. For all its polish, it feels like it falls just short of being something beyond amazing.
At the end of the day, my friends and I collectively spent 60 hours plus on this bad boy. Therefore, I’m happy to recommend this game. If you’re happy with the price (and shipping), you’ll get a good game, if you’re happy with the price and like League of Legends you’ll get a great game. However, if you want the best game of them all, download Heroes of the Storm. It’s free.
So many minis. It feels good every time I open the box. But do mini’s make a game? Are we that shallow? This seems like something we should look into.