I’m in a Mechs-ican Rodeo

a ones upon a game review

 

Pre-Play Thoughts

Not sure I’d ever heard anything about this one before I played it. There certainly was no hype at all surrounding Mechs vs. Minions.

The box is a beast. It could literally be the foundation of your gaming collection.  Or your house.

Seriously, I normally avoid hype because that usually follows garbage that appeals to the masses and isn’t truly satisfying to play (out of kindness I won’t name games here). I’d never heard of League of Legends (and still know very little about it), however I looked up some solo feedback on MvM. In spite of it’s quasi-fantasy theme, it was about technology instead of magic, so it was in my wheelhouse and I grabbed a (gently and barely used) copy before the second wave.

Review Spoiler Alert: The hype was right in this case!

Components

The box is a beast. It could literally be the foundation of your gaming collection. Or your house.

It measures at 20×13.5×5 inches and weighs about 1,370 pounds. Perhaps my scale needs calibration. But it’s big and heavy no doubt. When you open the box it’s a feast for the eyes. Never has a game been so lovingly and creatively packaged. There are four levels of vacuum formed trays with a space for everything and everything in its space. Not since Spirograph has a game had such a well thought out presentation of its components.

Wait for it.
Wait for it.
Wait for it.

Unfortunately, however, the packaging is pretty but not at all practical (but it’s OK, there is a solution for the brave — details below).

The components are TOP NOTCH

The game includes four painted Mech maxis (they ain’t that miniature) for the player characters. These are known as “Yordles” and I’m sure they have some yada yada colorful backstory, but it’s not important. They drive the Mechs (of Mechs vs. Minions fame) and it’s their job to defend The School from invading hordes of Minions (also of Mechs vs. Minions fame, not of the movie franchise). All the miniatures are very well made and detailed. As I mentioned the Mechs are brightly and colorfully painted and the *100* Minions, while all a neutral gray, appear to be pre-washed as well, so their detail comes through very nicely.

Also included on the miniature front is a massive “Boss” Mech that is sealed in a separate box — with the tip of an axe coming through. I’ve not progressed far enough to open him yet (things are cleverly concealed and later revealed ala a “Legacy” game — of which this is not one of), so I cannot comment on his/her/its appearance, but will discover in due course. A “bomb” rounds out the miniatures and is a key target figure in missions.

The cards in the game come in three flavors: Command, Damage, and Schematics. The command cards are used to program your Mech to actions such as move, turn, shoot, etc. The Damage cards serve to put bugs in the software (flash the message, something’s out there…) either on a one time or recurring basis. Schematics are extra abilities which the Yordle can used after certain conditions are met. These are standard sized playing cards and of a good, thick, coated cardstock.

The missions come in 10 sealed packets that get opened and revealed in order after the successful completion of the prior one (or tutorial in the case of the first). These can add new cards, tiles, and rules to the game. Fortunately the new cards are marked as to the mission so you can reset the game — and as far as I know nothing gets destroyed in the process (unlike Legacy games).

Taking a breath here… there are a lot of components in this game.

Moving right along, the board is made up of combinations of five large tiles. These are double-sided with a grassy side and a lava side. These fit together in various ways to make the board for each mission. Again, these were lovingly made: thick and with a glossy coat to make the lava and oil slicks very shiny. One observation about the tiles is that similar to most games like this, it would have been helpful to put a small number on each one to make setup easier. The mission setup shows you the tiles graphically, but you have to pattern match to figure out the right ones. With only five it’s not that difficult to figure them out, but could have been much quicker. Especially when (hint hint hint) expansions arrive.

An overlay called “The School” sets the start point for missions (as well as sometimes the target for conditions and Minions). There are four Mech boards, a color compass (for determining direction), and a command board for the Boss Mech. To round things out four dice: two “rune” die and two “six-sided” die, four metal rune coins, two metal Gear Tracker tokens, four Crystal shards, Gear/Doom Tracker board, and a 40-second “Minuteglass” sand timer are also included.

Bottom line: The components are TOP NOTCH and apart from a few minor suggestions are perfect.

Rules

The rules of the game are pretty simple to follow. First the Mechs have a phase, then the Minions get theirs. Sometimes there is a danger phase at the end of each round. The rules are so simple, that I found myself questioning whether I’d missed something only to find that I had not. It really is that easy to play.

First you’ll encounter the tutorial mission which is a basic introduction to the programming system and escalating dangers. When you complete that, you’ll open the first mission packet and the real fun begins. The second and most important book is the “Master Mech-anic: A Field Guide and Textbook” which is in essence an alphabetical rule reference. This has become a common inclusion in many games and is an awesome ready reference. If, like me, you have the first wave of the game, the 2.0 edition is available as a PDF for download and incorporates some of the FAQ that have been frequently asked as questions. As opposed to “Frequently Asked Statements” or “Frequently Exclaimed Questions” — isn’t “asked” sort of implied with “questions”???

Oddly for all the care to keep spoilers and mission contents a secret, some things do get revealed in the course of reading this book. You’ll see something like “The Boss” or “The Lava Wall” and sorta figure out what’s coming in an envelope. Unless those are clever misdirects and the envelope contains different rules for those things. Interesting! Must play more to find out!

Overview

The aim of the game is simple. Complete the mission objectives. These can vary from mission to mission, but killing all the Minions is not usually the goal of the game. You do this by programming your Mech with a series of six commands on your Mech board. Each command card increases in power or ability the more you have stacked in the slot (up to three of the same element group). These commands get executed in order from left to right for each Mech in turn and then the Minions take their turn. This usually involves just moving them toward their objective, respawning per the mission rules, and then they attack.

Don’t let “programming” scare you away. It’s not a  complicated process, just sequencing of commands.

The minions (as I was corrected) come in four different poses, but are essentially the same in terms of their in-game function. To die at the hands (or feet or wheels or treads) of your Mechs. They take a single hit of damage to kill and get removed from the board. When you kill five Minions you earn a gear tracker token and every five thereafter increases the Team Gears counter from 1 to 15. When you reach 15 Team Gears each Mech received a special Overdrive ability to aid them in the mission. Likewise earned Schematic card abilities will activate at different thresholds and become available.

Minion attacks are simply resolved as draws from a damage deck. In Mech order (first Mech changes each round), you count the number of orthogonal Minions around your Mech (0-4) and draw that number of damage cards from the deck. You then resolve each of these in order. Some of them are a one time penalty (such as switch slots in your program) and are discarded. Others last longer and may force the Mech to move again in a random or set direction and then the card gets slotted into your program (via d6 roll). This means that alternate command will take over your code in that slot each round until you opt to remove it during the draft phase (below). Sometimes however, you may find you like the damage and can use it to your advantage. After one Mech processes his damage, the next Mech in order tabulates and takes damage. This could have changed if a previous Mech took out some Minions with their damage (by moving onto them, for example).

The damage system is clever and suited to cooperative play in that no Mech will actually “die”. Their Mech gets corrupted and uncontrollable, but the player can remedy that and gets to stay in the game, still helping out. If a damage card gets slotted into a location already with damage, the previous damage is discarded.

To build a program, each round at least five cards are dealt face up by the first Mech (the first draft has 10 and some program cards increase this number as well). Then in order each Mech will draft a card to their command line until four cards have been selected (first draft is until each Mech has two cards). Extra cards are discarded. So if only three Mechs are being used, the first Mech would get two cards each round and the others just one. With two Mechs, each gets two. I don’t think playing with a single Mech would work well as you’d get all four cards in a round, but your program slot can only handle 18 total (6 slots stacked up to 3).

The rules state that you flip the Zhonya’s Minuteglass and after the 40 seconds of sand runs out the undrafted cards are just dealt randomly. I never bothered to use this (playing solo, see below), but here the silent timer as in other games is a liability as you keep diverting your attention every few seconds to check the timer, so of the 40 seconds you may only get 20 to actually focus on the cards. With multiple players other eyes can watch the timer to make it easier to signal time is up. But the timer app on your phone may be a better, albeit less thematic, solution.

Next each Mech has to decide what to do with each drafted card from the following options. Put the card on one of the six slots in their program or discard it for a benefit (or none at all). But cards do not get held over for another round.

Each card has one of four elements/colors that allows them to be grouped together. These are Fire, Electric, Metal, and Computery. During the draft, newly acquired Fire and Metal cards can be discarded to remove a damage cards from your program. Likewise Electric and Computery cards can be discarded to swap two undamaged slots in your program, thus changing the order your code is executed. You can also discard for no benefit if you prefer.

If you don’t discard a card, you must place it in an undamaged slot on your board. If you match the element/color of the cards already in the slot, the new card takes effect and gains the power level of the number of cards in that slot. If you don’t match a symbol, all the cards already in the slot (if any) are discarded. If you place a fourth card in a slot, the first card in the stack is discarded.

The programs create a lot of controlled and uncontrolled chaos on the board. Running over Minions kills them while running into other Mechs pushes them in front of you, creating a dynamic situation throughout the game.

Don’t let “programming” scare you away. It’s not a complicated process, just sequencing of commands. And it’s a lot of fun!

Storage Solution

…it was very difficult to put these gorgeous, solid trays in the trash

As I reference above and previously on my blog, the trays included are beautifully made and make opening the game initially a treat. But they are completely impractical for regular storage of the game. It’s a shame too since they are made of thick plastic, the wells for Minions are designed to hold any of the four poses (so you can just put them in there). Two of them have lids and they all four nest together nice and snug in the box.

So unlike horribly made cardboard inserts, it was very difficult to put these gorgeous, solid trays in the trash. But that’s right where they went as they are custom made and could serve no other purpose.

And boy was that an upgrade! It made it so much more pleasant to setup and put away.

Still using the heavy duty box the game comes in, I had planned to get a small Rubbermaid or Sterlite container to pile all the Minions into. There is no need to keep the 100 Minion minis sorted into their four poses (unless something comes in a later mission). Likewise the cards, dice, counters, etc. don’t need to be stored painstakingly into all their special slots. They can simply go in bags or tuckboxes.

Base game storage upgrade using box from Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck Building Game Expansion

I looked around at leftover expansion boxes and found the box that Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck Building Game Expansion comes in was the perfect solution! It’s already got a section divider inside, so the Minions all pile into that. And the cards and miscellaneous components fit in the other side. It seats inside the main box with all the other bits and pieces without issue. Then when I’m playing the game, that smaller box (instead of four huge trays) just comes out onto the table and all the problems of those trays is solved. The box serves as the holder for the Minions to draw and place on the board as you need them.

Solitaire Playability

As with all cooperative (not semi-cooperative mind you, there is a difference) games, this is perfectly playable solitaire. However, due to the size of the Mech boards, you’ll need a lot of table space to control all the Mechs. The only real difference between one set of eyes and four pairs is the amount of time it takes to draft cards which can lead to some analysis paralysis. With more humans, each has an idea of what type of card they want. With a single player divvying up those cards can be a little challenging. Net result is that I never used the timer. In order to simulate its presence however, I experimented with several variants.

First, using two Mechs, I simply dealt two cards to each and discarded the fifth (to keep the distribution right). This was just a bit too random for me and I sometimes had programs without the ability to correct themselves with a turn for example.

Next I also tried revealing three cards and each Mech got one chosen for it — with the third card discarded. Then I dealt each a random second card. This more emulated the chaos of running out of time and getting a card at random. For general purposes, this will probably be my fallback.

However, for missions where it seemed a little more control was necessary, I revealed five (or more if allowed) cards and each mech was assigned two that would suit them best. This is the regular way of the game obviously and I just ignored the time limit for selection. Hey, you’re playing solo, who are you holding up?

I do worry that the game and all missions may not scale well with only two Mechs. On the one hand, four cards are always added into the mix no matter what the Mech count is, so fewer Mechs can build stronger programs faster. However with only two Mechs, a maximum of 12 commands get processed each turn (six for each). If a mission has more than three or more “fronts” it can be hard for two Mechs to cover them all. The influx of Minions does not scale based on the number of Mechs either (again later missions may differ). So while the cards put into play and incoming Minions stay relatively constant regardless of Mech count, the commands executed are either greater in number and potentially weaker or less in number and potentially stronger. Just an observation, not a criticism. The solution clearly is for the solo player to adapt and run three or four Mechs, which might prove daunting for those who only like SPO (single player only) games.

Other than those minor issues, solo play is just fine with this game and a blast.

Overall Impressions

I don’t think I’ve ever, since I got back into boardgaming (or even as a kid), played a game four straight times. This one I did. I played the tutorial, the first mission twice (won both times, but the first made some errors and wanted to remedy those as well as use the other Mechs), and the second mission once (lost with two random Mechs, it probably needs more than two to be effective). Each round is like playing Civilization with its “just one more turn” addiction. The slow reveal of new cards and abilities is a nice touch as well.

I love how each turn is a mini puzzle to solve. The decisions of how to construct and rearrange your program can create some tense moments. I won one game with the doom tracker down to one point remaining on the mine and managed to pull it out, for example. Games can go from seeming defeat to victory with the right combination of cards. I also believe that in spite of the sealed nature of the missions, the game offers a lot of replayability. So far the secrets have not been major reveals — so far. It’s nice that things are doled out over the course of the campaign, but I can easily see setting up any mission and having a go of it with different combinations of Mechs. Even more so if expansions are released.

Great game. And an excellent value. All of the top quality materials in this game costs only $75, an amazing deal in this day and age. (Make sure you ONLY buy it directly from Riot Games: [blogpost=65538][/blogpost]).

If you like lots of minis and lots of bling in a well designed and well crafted package, then Mechs vs. Minions is a great one to pick up for solo or family play.

You won’t buy this product and never use it.

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