Mechs vs. Minions
US: Oct 2016
I can almost imagine the brainstorming session when Riot Games, creator of League of Legends, were talking about possibilities for a League of Legends branded board game:
“Hey, you remember that game Robo Rally?”
“Yeah, sure, the game where you program robots movements.”
“Yeah, well, what if Robo Rally were actually, you know, fun?”
That is the best description that I can think of to describe Mechs vs. Minions, the new League of Legends board game. It’s like Rono Rally, except it’s actually fun to play. In a sense, what Mech vs. Minions feels like is Robo Rally Legacy, an experiment in reonsidering an older board game’s basic mechanics and updating and streamlining them, alongside adding a campaign mode full of secret surprises to unlock as you advance through a series of missions.
Unlike Rob Daviau’s first experiments with such rejiggering of the classic Risk into the streamlined and fascinating experiment Risk Legacy, Mechs & Minions doesn’t enforce the idea of making permanent changes to the board or destroying cards to make one’s playthrough its full campaign a one-time-only kind of deal.
Instead, it borrows from its video game lineage the idea of a campaign of scaling difficulty, beginning with a few simple missions at first that teach you some of the fundamentals of play before layering on new and interesting twists and challenges to its gameplay systems.
The gameplay itself is not borrowed directly from that of League of Legends. Riot Games made a smart move here by not trying to port the experience of playing their already successful MOBA to the tabletop. Instead of delivering a slow paced version of an action game, they used their liscense and their familiar characters to sell the product, but they decided to simply brand a unique and solidly designed game of its own with things that fans of the MOBA would be familiar with.
Mechs & Minions is a co-operative game about programming giant mechs, occupied by League champions Tristana, Ziggs, Heimerdinger, and Corki, to stomp around a board destoying waves of minions and protecting objectives from those hordes. As noted, this is a campaign-based board game, shipping with a ten mission plotline that varies the goals of each play session.
Each player is given a computer board of sorts that can be filled with simple commands for their mechs to follow each turn, commands like moving forward one or two spaces, turning 90 degrees, or spitting fire in a cone in front of them. These boards each have six slots that must be executed in order following a draw of one new command card that each player draws at the beginning of each new turn, adding incremental complexity to their programmed moves. Like I said, this programming concept should be fairly familiar to anyone that has played the classic Robo Rally. Though, this everchanging programming moves away from the 1994’s more rigid set of rules.
Also, unlike Robo Rally, whose chaos ensues because that game is competitive and players secretly program their mechs each turn and have to see what occurs when each players’ program interferes with the others, this game sows both chaos and order through its programming mechanics. While players can push and bump into one another, they also have choices that they can still make while actually executing their programs. A player might have to move forward three to four spaces, but the option (three or four) makes managing potential problems possible.
More chaos is created when mechs are damaged, forcing glitched command cards to overwrite portions of deliberately programmed lines. These are problems that create funny and challenging problems for the player, but most of the fun in Mechs & Minions (because it allows for minor choices in programming on the fly) comes from managing that chaos as best you can. Even if you end up just spinning around and around from a turn it doesn’t mean that you are likely to lose (as it probably would in Robo Rally), it just means you’ll giggle and try to figure out a better approach next time.
What results is a game that is less fair and balanced than the average Eurogame, but fair enough to simply remain joyously fun as players bump, waddle, and struggle to get their mechs to mostly accomplish what they intended each turn. Additionally, since the game is co-operative, mistakes don’t harm your personal chance to win, they just add a giddy edge to the experience of all the players who are each doing their best to fulfill their role in the team while sharing the same pratfalls as everyone else.
The other thing that makes the game fun is the manner and speed with which the game acquaints the player with its rules. After opening the box, the rule book doesn’t present every single system in the game at the outset. Instead, a couple of pages of instructions just explain how to set up a first, fairly simple tutorial mission in which you and your friends will learn how to program your mechs movements by being charged with destroying four stationary targets on a very small board.
Like a video game that introduces the basics of movement and traversal before complicating things, the rules actually tell you to not read onwards until you have done so. Once you accomplish your first objective, you then turn the page to discover the consequences of your actions, the spawning of enemies on that same map, and you then learn a layer of new basic rules concerning combat and taking damage.
Each mission does this, slowly easing the player into more complicated rules systems and more challenging scenrios, introduing new rules, new enemies, and new concepts incrementally, allowing you to actively learn as you go along, rather than wading through an hour long explanation of how everything in the game works all at once.
I played this game with a mixed group of players, myself (a fan of League of Legends and a hardcore board gamer, a couple of League players who only occassionally play board games, and players unfamiliar with League of Legends (and in one case with video games in general) but who, like myself, play a whole lot of board games. Not a single player had a negative response to the game. Instead, video gamer, board gamer, and hardcore League players all alike mostly just wanted to play “one more mission”, then “just one more”, and so on.
In a nutshell, Riot has managed to make a League themed game that stands on its own as an infectiously fun little tabletop diversion. The game is admittedly pricey, although by comparison to other board games with an equivalent quality of materials, it’s price tag of $75 seems relatively cheap. Many other games that contains this amount of pretty and well crafted mini-figures and the like tend to run easily in excess of 100 bucks.
Regardless, if you are a board gamer with no knowledge of League or a League player who lost me at references like “Robo Rally” and “Eurogames”, I really think that you are going to find something to like in this box. Once it hits the table, you’ll find that it is pretty hard to get it put back away again anytime soon.