Designed by brothers Johnny and Chris O’Neal , Boss Monster is by far the best tabletop homage to NES-era video gaming to date and somehow it also manages to actually hit the target in solidifying that whole “wouldn’t Dungeon Keeper make a great tabletop game” idea everyone has had at some point while reminiscing about Bullfrog’s classic bad guy sim. Trending with the best of recent games, it’s a no-bullshit design that gets right down to what matters the most and doesn’t throw up a bunch of rules and processes to get in the way of its killer theming and fun game play. The 8-bit pixel artwork is absolutely killer, and it is by far the best looking tabletop game I’ve seen this year. The standard edition is designed like the classic NES boxes, the limited Kickstarter edition is done up in homage to the gold Legend of Zelda box that every kid coveted back in the ’80s.
The idea is that each player is a Boss Monster, ranging from a Mother Brain stand-in to an ersatz Dracula- referencing Metroid and Castlevania, respectively. Each Boss Monster is represented by a card and to the left of that card (since they’re at the end of the side-scrolling dungeon) they’ll build a new dungeon room each turn. These rooms all have, of course, special effects as well as a damage number and an icon corresponding to a hero class. Once the contractors clear out and the new dungeon rooms are built, Hero cards appear in an abstracted “town” area. One by one, each hero heads out to the dungeon with the most icons of their character class. There’s a subtle majorities game to play here, wherein players vie to lure certain types of heroes or avoid others.
Once the heroes set out, they travel through their selected dungeon and take damage in each room or are subjected to special effects. The Boss Monsters also have a couple of spell cards to play that do crazy things like cause a hero to repeat a room or to just kill them outright. If the hero makes it through the level, the Boss Monster takes damage. If they die, the Boss Monster collects souls and the goal is to get 10 hero souls before the good guys beat you with five wounds.
There are a couple of other very minor mechanics, like the ability to upgrade silver rooms to stronger gold rooms and some differentiation between trap and monster rooms. There are rooms with multiple icons as well, and “Epic” heroes that come out later in the game. There’s a level-up ability for each Boss Monster that happens when they build their fifth room.
The brilliant thing about all of this is how perfectly it captures- and subverts- the classic side-scrolling video game concept. It visually looks like a side-scrolling NES classic, and you can practically hear this game in your mind. Each hero- including one that hilariously references Aguirre: The Wrath of God- has just a little bit of story text and it’s not hard to put together a silly narrative as these hapless dungeon-delvers wander into your lair. There is meaningful strategy in room layout, spell play, and focusing on hero types but the game remains light, accessible, and easy for anyone to enjoy.
It is not, however, some kind of flawed masterpiece. Rather it feels like it’s an unfinished masterpiece that pulls up short before it brings it gets to the end credits. I’ve commented repeatedly that many Kickstarter titles feel underbaked, underdeveloped, or otherwise undernourished and Boss Monster doesn’t stray far from this trend- not necessarily on a mechanical level, but on a pure content one.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that Boss Monster is almost too light on material for its own good. I’ve played it seven or eight times, and I already kind of feel like I’ve seen and done it all. I think, sadly, that a lot of gamers will play this game half that many times and shrug it off as a “cute” $25 distraction. It’s very clear from the design notes that the designers intended a light and approachable game and I absolutely want that out of Boss Monster, but it’s the kind of game where you keep thinking “wouldn’t it be awesome if…”
In particular, this game toes a strange line between mulitiplayer, tableaux-building solitaire (which it definitely isn’t) and interactive take-that (which it also definitely isn’t). There is clearly interaction, and a perfectly timed Counterspell can ruin plans as can sending a strong hero back through a dungeon weakened by room sacrifices or other “renovations”. But this game needs more teeth, more aggression between players. I want to be able to surprise an opponent by causing a hero to find a Master Sword in one of their rooms. Or a Healing Potion. I want to be able to build a secret passage room that routes a nasty Warrior that I can’t beat to somebody else’s dungeon. I want to play a Konami Code card that makes a hero do double damage or something.
There are apparently expansions on the way- “Tools of Hero-Kind” will in fact give those heroes some weapons- but as far as I’m concerned they can’t come along soon enough. I want more of this game today- provided that any add-ons maintain the slim rules and focus on elaborating its theme further. Kickstarter backers also got some extra content and I can’t help but be a little sour about content for a great game being tucked away behind what is effectively a preorder bonus paywall.