Friday, December 4, 2009

Review: Monsterpocalypse

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. Also, when I was younger, I went through a phase where I was really into Godzilla movies and played with my Shogun Warriors. And now, I am a huge fan of the Cthulhu Mythos, and the Lords of Cthul Faction was one of my deciding factors in finally purchasing this game. However, I'm also not the type who collects toys or figures and there are no little models standing next to my computer monitor.


The Overview:


It starts with a starter set which contains a few units, a monster, dice, a health tracker, a map and the childhood fantasies of a twelve year old boy watching Godzilla movies. 



This is the break-down of a battle map.




An idea of how beautiful these figures are, as well as the relative sizes of the Monsters and Units. 



Monsterpocalypse is a collectible miniatures battle game based on the giant monster "Godzilla-style" genre. Factions are based off of popular genres of giant-monster city-being-attacked stories from film, cartoon, comic and books. They range from prehistoric creatures running rampant, giant robot defenders and their teams, Martian invaders akin to those from "War of the Worlds", to demonic armies with ancient gods leading them. Each new set of figures introduces new factions as well and at this writing, there are 12 different factions available.

The game is for 2 players, but there are rules out to try to play a clunky game with 3 or 4, but the game is meant for, and played best with two. Each player creates an army that they will battle with consisting of one giant monster and up to 15 smaller units to support their monster. The units do not have to be from the same faction, but there is usually a synergy among same-faction forces that makes them more powerful. Once the armies are chosen, players create the battle area by choosing a map and taking turns placing buildings on the available spaces. Buildings can be taken over by units, usually offering advantages and powers to that player's team. They can also be destroyed and used as damaging areas to throw enemies into. Usually, the more buildings in a battlefield, the more options and more interesting the battle will be. This adds a collectible factor to the buildings as well as the actual monsters and army units.

Once the teams are assembled, each player takes turns activating and moving either their units or their monster on any one turn. Actions and activating costs "dice" and there are a finite number of dice in the game that transfer between unit and monster "dice pools". For example, if at the start of my turn, I have 8 dice in my monster's dice pool, I can use them for movements, actions and attacks. If I used 6 of the dice, then they move to my unit dice pool. On my next turn, I will only have 2 dice left in my monster dice pool, so I would probably want to move and activate my units since there are more dice there and to "use them up" to move them back into my monster pool.

Each unit and monster is unique in the abilities that they have. Monsters have two forms. Their starting "Alpha" form, and their "Ultra" form. When one of its forms is reduced to 0 health, the monster changes to its other form. This gives the monsters more "staying power" and also creates a bit more strategy, since the Alpha and Ultra forms of most monsters differ in some of their abilities. If both forms are still available, a monster may switch between forms on its turn (though it costs dice to move from a monster's Alpha form to its Ultra form).

Units do not begin on the map, but may be brought in on your unit turn by paying their cost in dice and placing them on the spawn point spaces on the map. While you can only have 15 units in your army, if one is destroyed, it comes back to your reserves and can be placed out on the map again by paying its cost once more. And while monsters have two forms with multiple health levels for each, units all only take one hit to destroy them.

Buildings are secured when three or more of your units are adjacent to it with no enemy units or monsters next to it. They give your monster extra Power Dice to roll in attacks and offer special abilities to the team controlling it, depending on the building. If attacked by a monster directly, the monster gains power dice for the rampant destruction according to the amount listed on the building. If it is destroyed, it is removed from the map and a hazard tile is placed in its location. Most building hazards are simply rubble which slows movement, but depending on the building, some may be flaming rubble, radiation hazards or chemical spills, which can cause extra damage depending on what it is.

Each unit or monster only gets one attack per turn and can only roll a maximum number of dice depending on the figure and attack type. Monsters are much more powerful than units and can roll large numbers of dice for their attacks. Units are weaker, but can group their attacks to try to hit something tough, or each unit can make a single attack as long as you have the dice to allot to their attacks. While unit attacks tend to be more straight-forward, monsters have a variety of attacks available to them, including throwing opponents, body slamming them, rampaging through any obstacles to ram the enemy and a multitude of others. Each monster remains in the battle until both its Alpha and its Ultra forms have been reduced to 0 health. The game ends when only player has defeated both the Alpha and Ultra form of its opponent's monsters.


The Theme:

Monsterpocalypse is all theme. Even though I was nowhere near as into Godzilla and the like as some of my friends when I was 12, I still recognize most of the factions and what they are meant to represent. Depending on what faction draws in a player at first, you can tell what they used to watch as a kid. My friend's first play was using my SunShadow Syndicate figures and I could tell that he watched "Ultraman" as a kid. Looking through the factions, they appeal to me because of the fond memories of some of the stories that they came from.

Though, honestly, the theme is also what kept me away from the game for this long. I kept looking at it and thinking that it's just playing with little toy monsters. It seemed childish to me. Sure, I looked at all of the pictures people posted and secretly wanted to play with them, but at the same time, something in me kept telling me that I was too old for it and shouldn't be playing with little toy monsters anymore.

Finally, I made a trade for enough figures to play a couple factions against one another just to see what it was like and to finally give in to that draw that I had whenever I saw the pictures posted on BGG. I opened up the figures and saw how beautifully sculpted and designed they were and I fell in love with them. But I was right. I felt like a 12 year old boy again playing with his toys. But you know what? I forgot what a great feeling that was. Playing the game made me realize that there was a lot more strategy and depth than playing with my Shogun Warriors in my friend's basement, but I still had that feeling and excitement that I had when I used to play with them.

Part of my excuse for getting into the game, was my daughter. Although there was no rational reason for it, I did initially have some embarrassment about getting into the game. My three year old daughter loves monsters, so I thought it would be something that she would enjoy the figures as well and would like "helping Daddy" play and win, like she does with so many other games. This way, I could justify my getting into an embarrassing game by saying that I did it because I thought my daughter would also like it. Well, my daughter likes the figures. But she likes to set them all up in a row and pretend that they are watching a movie. She's also had a tea-party with Ulgoth, Armodax and Krakenoctus and their Ultra forms, then laid them down to nap. So I lost my opportunity to say that I got the game for my daughter, but have come to accept that it isn't embarrassing. Yeah, they look like the little toys I had when I was 12, but who cares? Am I really more "grown-up" when I am pretending to by a Cylon in BSG? The game is fun. Who cares any more than that?


Learning the Game:

The basics of the game are very easy to pick up on and learn. Turns are set up very well with an easy to follow structure and order to them. Using the dice and transferring them between pools is very intuitive and an interesting mechanic. As long as you have a cheat sheet for the types of power attacks a monster can make (the maneuvers available to all monsters, such as head-butting, throwing, body slamming, stomping, etc), you should have no problems with the basics of combat.

However, each unit and monster has a number of special abilities, powers or traits. Every building you secure during your turn offers additional powers or abilities. Some units or monsters transfer their powers onto others on their team. And all of this is determined by non-intuitive icons on the base of each figure. Expect that you will forget abilities and miss things that would help your team out immensely until you've played enough that you are very familiar with your armies or the abilities as a whole. There is a lot and it can be overwhelming. It does not make the game less fun in the beginning, but if you are inexperienced and playing against someone who is very familiar with their army and its abilities, then expect to get smashed royally. So many of the abilities act well with one another and with available buildings, that building your initial army to interact well together and support each other is a huge part of the game's strategy. Just don't expect to get this all down in your first few plays. Once you have it down, you realize the depth of the strategy in this game that comes from not just what you do on the battle map, but in the preparation of your monsters, unit and even setting up the map with the buildings you want where you want them.


The Components:

Beautiful. The figures are really well produced and have a great feel of what they are supposed to represent. The Ultra form of each monster is just a translucent colored form of the monster and look less than exciting, but have the same sculpting. You can tell that this was done for production and painting purposes and it makes sense on that level, but when my giant King Kondo ape gets mad and switches to his ultra form, it is a little disappointing to see the beautiful sculpture replaced with a plain white ape of the same sculpt and missing out on all of that glorious detail of the Alpha's painting. This is also saying nothing to see the great Lords of Cthul, demonic representations of the unspeakable Elder Gods of the Cthulhu Mythos, turn into to translucent pink sculptures of their demonic forms. Then again, I suppose that is an unspeakable horror, just a different one than I think most of Cthulhu Mythos were referring to. Still, the painting and sculpt formats makes certain factions, like the Martian Menace and UberCorps look great when they are partially painted and let the translucent base show through in some areas for effect.



The Lords of Cthul really do not wear pink well. The Ultra forms are the translucent unpainted forms of the monster figures. 



King Kondo is much more glorious when he is not in his translucent white Ultra form. 



Even the units of the factions are well rendered, with the elite units having a different paint scheme than the regular units. The maps are functional, but are folded poster-like, so I would recommend laying down Plexiglas over them. The buildings, while functional and not bad, seem to lack a lot of the detail of the monsters and units. But really, the buildings are just there to be smashed anyhow, so it's not that huge of a deal.

There is also the collectible nature of the game. Figures have different rarity and there are promotional units and figures that you can obtain. Many of the monsters have promotional "Mega forms" that you can use instead of the Ultra forms. If you miss the give-away for them, you can find them on eBay and other places for high amounts. However, they are collectible and rare, but not necessarily better than the Ultra forms; they just have different abilities. So you do not necessarily have to worry about someone with tons of cash creating the best uber-army. Where the money and rarity comes into play is with the units. A good group of units gives an army a HUGE advantage. Some of the units are rare and can be costly in trade or purchase as individual figure sales. The distribution of the units and figures in the booster packs is rather costly to get a full army. If you are interested in getting into the game and building a good faction army, I would suggest trading or purchasing. Some sites sell starter faction sets, which is a great introduction into the game. This makes the game as collectible as you want it to be, but if you dive in head-first, it is costly.

I would suggest going to www.teamcovenant.com for their starter faction packs for a new player. From there, look around and expand out your armies. And don't forget buildings. Even rather generic buildings are important in the game, so I would consider buying a few extra buildings as well. I believe that they have building packs too to get you started. More buildings make for better battles.


Playing the Game:

While the game flow is elementary and intuitive, many players will either forget a lot of their abilities or slow down the pacing of the game a lot by constantly checking icons and looking them up. I highly suggest downloading the player aids and especially making sure that you have the small cards that list each unit and then their abilities, writing them out. Since I printed them out for each unit and keep them with the units, the players lay out their cards for their units and always have them in front of them during play. This speeds up game play considerable. Unless you do this or are very familiar with your army's abilities and know them all offhand, game play will slow down a lot while icons are constantly looked up.

So there is a lot to take in, but once you get around that, the game play is fast, fun and entertaining. Most games are over quickly, but sometimes you can end up with a combination like UberCorps and Lords of Cthul monsters and units that can heal or repair and it can extend the battles considerably. But this is the minority and most games seems to be in the one hour range.


Scalability:

The game is made for two and plays best with two. There are rules for three or four players, but they are clunky and don't really work that well. I would love a three player free-for-all, but it would require a whole new set of maps. As it is, the game is meant for two and plays best for two.


Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. Unfortunately, she does not like it. She is one of the people I was embarrassed to profess my interest in this game to. I knew should would not like it. She's not a fan of the genre and doesn't have that experience with it from her childhood. She'll play it, but the icons and variety of power are overwhelming for her disinterest in the genre and it does not work.

She played a couple games with me, but just tolerated it for my benefit. However, when I introduced the game to a male friend of mine who was my age, I still harbored that embarrassment until I mentioned a few of the monsters and abilities to him and mentioned the "morphers" that come in one of the expansions, describing how they are small units who form together to create a large monster figure for its Ultra form, like Voltron. He had a natural reaction of blurting out, "Wow. That's so cool!" It was at that point I realized that my embarrassment was silly and I shouldn't feel weird about it anymore. My wife still may play on occasion with me, but it would only be for me and not for her getting anything from the game. It really is something that draws on those who know and enjoyed the genre. If you are not a fan of the old monsters attacking a city genre, avoid this game.


The Pros:

*Beautiful miniatures.
*Surprising depth of strategy.
*Diverse play of each of the factions.
*Good, fun battle game that is complex, but not overwhelming and does not take too much time.
*Simple, but deep army building in finding what figures work best with one another.
*It is fun to look over the ruined city at the end of a battle and bask in the destruction you've wrought.
*It strikes that part of you that reminds you why being a 12 year old boy watching Godzilla was so great, while at the same time, simulating the 30-something mind of yours into creating a great strategic battle.
*Made me realize that if something is fun, why does it matter if it looks like little toy monsters?
*Made me remember exactly how much fun little monsters really are.


The Cons:

*Only two players.
*Collectible. And it is a costly collectible, especially if you do not have others to play with and need multiple faction armies to get games going.
*You may have to face the embarrassment of your father-in-law seeing you looking at one of the figures and asking you, "What is that? One of your daughter's toys?"
*Ability symbols are not intuitive and need a strong familiarity or a lot of pauses to look them up.


Overall:

Monsterpocalypse is a fun, furious miniatures battle game. The minis are absolutely beautiful and I've spent more time than I'd like to admit just looking at them and admiring them. While I thought it seemed embarrassing at first, it took that first jump in for me to realize that it didn't matter. The game is fun. It appeals to the child in me, but it is not childish. The rules are innovative and creative and balance out game play so that you cannot focus wholly on one aspect of your army. It is a costly endeavor, but there are options to get in with a leg up instead of purchasing blindly (which I do NOT suggest). The 12 year old boy in you really wants you to play this game. If your budget can afford it, I say you indulge him wholly.


8/10

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