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Cracked LCD- Monster Derby in Review

monster derby 2014

A few years back when the Japanese roll-and-move rumble Magical Athlete was making the rounds, my friend Frank Branham pulled this esoteric and extremely ugly game from the deepest recesses of his voluminous game collection. He said it was a lot like Magical Athlete, and he wasn’t kidding. This 1994 title had a similar “racing monsters with special powers ” concept but it was slightly more complex with die-rolling combat, terrain effects and a mutual control scheme whereby players secretly try to maneuver their win, place and show picks to earn points when- or if- they finish. I was surprised to see that the game was designed by Jeff Siadek, who has become known in recent years for a couple of really good small press titles such as Battlestations, Lifeboat and World Conquerors.

The game is Monster Derby, and it cleared a modest $10k Kickstarter late last year and is now in circulation. I wish I could tell you that the game was a massive visual and physical upgrade over the 1994 edition (one of the ugliest games I have seen in my entire life) but it isn’t. It’s still really ugly, and if you’re going to throw an internet hissy fit over using colored paperclips to track hitpoints or the loose stands used to hold the monster cards upright then this may not be the game for you. And that’s a shame, because beneath the throwback production values there is an awesome, ridiculous and tremendously underappreciated game here.

There’s not much to it. You get a stack of double-sided terrain boards marked with an off-set grid, 25 monster cards, some colored bases to put those in, a deck of race cards that show the points payout for each color that finishes and a couple of D6s including a custom “wacky” die. Also, the paperclips. There’s also not much to it in terms of rules, which are literally on a single sheet. You pick eight of the monsters at random and assign them a colored base. Depending on which race card each player draws, the blue Dragon might be your big winner providing eight points but the red Cyclops might be only worth one point. And the guy next to you? He might get one point for the Dragon and eight for the Cyclops. And you both might get to control them over the course of the race, along with everyone else interested in those monsters’ victory or defeat.

On your turn, you roll a D6 and either grab the first player marker if it hasn’t been taken yet or pick a monster that hasn’t moved that round and move them forward that many spaces. You can sandbag your low point picks by moving them on a one or two. Or you can get nasty and force them into non-native terrain, which costs them extra to move in and incurs a combat penalty. Monsters can’t move through other monsters, so there’s a blocking element. Roll high and you can pick one of your top-ranked monsters and run them forward as fast as possible to break away from the pack, maybe punching somebody on the way to the lead. There is an element of bluffing and surprise involved since everyone has a different stake in each monster’s finish. You really don’t want to help someone outscore you when the totals are tallied, so it pays to watch how other players are playing and reacting.

As part of moving, monsters also get to attack anything in a three-space frontage. You roll binary, ones-and-zeros dice based on their combat skill with a bonus if they’re in native terrain and then apply however many ones you get to the monster attacked. But then there’s also that wacky die that gets rolled as part of every attack- if it comes up a sword, the attacking monster gets to do their wacky attack which can have any number of effects such as stuns, webbing, poison, double damage and so on. A shield result means that the target’s wacky defense happens, which is generally bad for the attacker. So there’s always a risk that an attack will backfire.

The point of attacking, obviously, is to either slow down or knock out contestants. They can also be incapacitated if they fall below five health, unable to attack or use special abilities until they use recover actions to heal. There’s actually a considerable strategic element in having your top three monsters being behind the leaders so they can attempt to “blue shell” the leader. This is very definitely a “beat on the leader” game, incidentally. You just might not be aware of who the leader actually is. The guy that bluffed his way through by using his low-value monsters, never actually moving his top picks, might wind up winning.

This all takes about 45 minutes, and you can really play it with any number of players that you want although the box tops out at eight, presumably so that each player gets to move at least one monster every round. But in a large group more focused on socializing and shared fun, it may not be so important for everyone to get a turn every round and there are always ways to house rule it so that everyone gets to move something. There is a layer of complexity in that each monster has a special ability as well as the wacky effects and then the terrain buffs or debuffs but with the help of an included cheat sheet listing all of the keywords, it doesn’t take long for even the noobest of the noob to get up to speed.

I love this game. It’s totally old school, and you can safely tag it with the “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore” line. It’s rambunctious, unbalanced, unfair and the mechanics are minimal because yelling, groaning and laughing are its design goals- it isn’t trying to impress anyone with anything “elegant” or “thoughtful”. It’s classic Ameritrash, through and through, and if the above description of Monster Derby made you think that it sounds something like a cross between Titan, Cosmic Encounter and a horse racing game then you’d be right on the money.

World Conquerors in Review (the NEW Cracked LCD!)

Oh, hi there. Welcome to the NEW Cracked LCD in its NEW home, here at Nohighscores.com!

That’s right, my weekly board games column is moving here so don’t go looking for it in its old spot. Details are limited right now, but watch the skies. But yeah, Barnes Best, editorials, reviews, trolling, everything is going to be right here from now on and I’ll keep to my Thursday schedule- because I haven’t missed a non-holiday, non-E3 Thursday since 2007.

Without further adieu, read on for my take on Gorilla Games’ World Conquerors.

Jeff Siadek is probably best known for Battlestations, a complicated science fiction RPG-board game hybrid that I never could get to work with any of many groups. He’s done a couple of other smaller designs, like the rather nasty card game Lifeboat but his newest issue is World Conquerors, a highly abstracted dudes on a map game that was recently Kickstartered into being via Gorilla Games. The elevator pitch is that players drive a territorial control board game with multi-function cards depicting the big names in world conquering ranging from AAA-class superstars like Adolf Hitler, Napoleon, and Alexander to lesser known megalomaniacs like Harald Fairhair, Pachacuti, and Cao Cao. Factual context and chronology be damned- this is a battle royale, not a history lesson.

The high level concept isn’t particularly novel. There’s obviously a generous dollop of Risk involved in the proceedings. Take over a map of the world with wooden cubes. There’s plenty of dice-rolling combat and take-that action cards. You’ve done all of these things before. Even the conceit of shifting goals, here embodied by selecting a different leader card each turn and attempting to meet their objective, is specifically descended from Britannia and History of the World.

But Risk, Britannia, and History of the World are not games that play in an hour and change. The pace is relentless, and there the impetus in each of the four turns for players to outperform their last turn gives it a very aggressive, competitive tone. It’s short enough, casual enough, and compact enough that along with a couple of systematic checks and balances, no player is ever actually eliminated or rendered non-competitive- functionally or materially.

On a turn, players receive a number of army cubes based on an automatically escalating scale to add to any left over from the previous turn. The player picks a leader card out of their hand, and that historical personage sets up camp in their home territory. The owner of the home territory gets some bonus armies-here’s one of those checks and balances- and from this region the player begins an epic campaign to take over as much of the word as possible.

A defending region gets a default die and then one for each allied region adjacent to it. Likewise, the attacker rolls one and then one for each adjacent region as well. Whoever has the highest single die wins, ties go to the defender, and if you roll straight fours your leader dies. Any player- not just involved parties- can play leader cards as “agents”, meaning they impart a one-time special effect, or as reroll-providing “generals” in battles occurring in their home region.

Win and you put an army cube in the territory. Lose, and you have to pay the current supply cost for your turn meaning that you have to discard an army from your supply. Worse, your supply cost goes up so the next fight you lose you pay two and so on, making momentum (and a little luck) extremely important. Naval attacks have a default supply cost attached to them, so fighting larger campaigns over the course of turn can get expensive. If you can’t afford the supply cost, you’re done. Once your run is over, you tally up the territories you took over and adjust your Empire Mark and if you met your leader’s goal you get bonus armies. Next turn, do the same thing but with a new leader.

With only four turns, every one counts. It is actually feasible to take over every territory on the map for the win, but games seem to end more often with the player with the highest Empire Mark- meaning the largest empire at any point in the game- taking the victory. The game is definitely at its best with three or four, the two player option lends itself to landslide victories and the single player game lacks friction. With three or four, the gameplay and board state are much more dynamic and wild swings of die-rolling luck are much less catastrophic. There’s also a rules peculiarity wherein all players draw leader cards on every player’s turn, so there are less cards in circulation and in hand with less players.

Other than not really hitting its mark with less than three, this is a very smartly designed, compressed game. The subject matter is terrific although the actual narrative and setting is vellum-thin. It’s less abstract than Risk, but nowhere near as specific as Nexus Ops. It’s not necessarily an innovative or ground-breaking design, but its implementation of supply costs and multi-use cards makes it feel fresher and more compelling than you might expect. And it’s so tightly wound and aggressive that it makes other dudes on a map games seem pudgy and sluggish.

I would have liked to have seen a little more careful copyediting in some of the cards because there is some confusing, sometimes conflicting wording of some effects. The rulebook is one of those that you read through and think you know how to play the game, but in practice you’re eyeballs deep in it every turn during the game. But the text issues are minor nuisances in what is otherwise a surprisingly excellent- and very modern- example of its genre.