In VGHS, It’s All About the Game
I’m entirely unashamed to confess being a fan of Rocket Jump’s comedy webseries Video Game High School, even if the final whispered words to escape namby-pamby Brian D’s charred lips ought to have been, “I fought The Law and The Law won.”
The board game adaptation, coming from the talented folks at Plaid Hat Games, is filled to the brim with references to the show. Good gameplay, on the other hand? Well…
I’m not sure what sort of board game I was expecting Video Game High School to be. Real-time shooter emulator? Avoid the faculty so Brian D and Ted Wong can find a good make-out spot for a secluded rendezvous with Jenny Matrix and Ki Swan? Cooperative, since the show often highlights the ups and downs of teamwork? Heaven forbid, a deck-builder? In any case, worker placement was definitely low on the list, if only because worker placement feels so… uninspired most of the time.
And VGHS doesn’t do much to upset the tried-and-fried worker placement formula. Similar to every other worker placement game out there, you have a handful of workers — represented by whichever character you’re trying to transform from grade-A chump to the school’s hallowed #1 — and you place them in various rooms to gain skills, refresh your character’s power-up cards, steal the first player token, or… well, those are the main things. It’s a slim game with slim options.
Put another way, when the game advertises a 20-minute playtime, it’s only slightly exaggerating.
Which isn’t to say it isn’t fun, or that it’s entirely derivative.
The main goal is to become the top-ranked player at VGHS, and while there are a few different ways to gain ranks, the most common is to make a showing at the school arcade. This generates some nice tension between setting scores and honing your skills. Early on, you’re entirely at the whims of your skill dice and your three starting power-ups, so while it’s possible to gain a few ranks here and there — a good idea, if only to put some pressure on your opponents — the real rocket-jumps in rank only come once you’ve picked up a bunch of skill tokens, leaping forward a dozen spaces at a time. There are a number of ways to get these skills, which come in both temporary and reusable varieties, and it’s possible to block other players from going to the right classes by occupying them yourself. Much like when The Law awesomely tried to stop Brian D from signing up for FPS Tryouts.
Each round is also supplied with a challenge, requiring an array of skills to pass. These aren’t mandatory, but failing to make a showing on VGHS’s behalf brings a penalty, like lost ranks, skills, and power-ups.
It can be tempting to just gain the skills listed on your power-up cards, and at times it feels too easy to play to your character’s strengths, especially if you can manage to deploy your three workers to the triumvirate of challenge/classroom/arcade every turn. Still, there’s enough elbow room to toy around with the systems a bit, whether occupying your opponents’ classes or diversifying your skills. Just don’t go in expecting anything innovative and you’ll be fine.
For fans of the webseries, it’s chock-full of references, familiar faces, and a vague but pleasant VGHS vibe, a sort of endless optimism and love of friendly competition. Its niceness is occasionally undercut; for instance, the Daily Dean room lets you steal a permanent skill from another player, which is surprisingly brusque (not to mention a little powerful) for a game that’s otherwise so genial.
In the end, while VGHS left me generally unimpressed, I couldn’t help but enjoy it, and we’ve played it more times than I initially expected. Maybe it’s because everyone in my gaming group unexpectedly shouts “LAW READY FOR THIS!” or emulates the mannerisms of a disguised ShotBot, or maybe it’s because the game opens and closes in around a half hour, or because it, like the show, is just so deliciously sappy about its source material.
Whatever the reason, I can see this holding similar appeal for fans of the show — and perplexing pretty much everyone else.