Poor Unfortunate Souls
Villainous sports a killer hook. And that’s only half-intended as a pun. Yes, because Captain Hook is one of the game’s six villains. But also because each villain gets to do their own thing. Just because Maleficent wants to choke King Stefan’s fantasy kingdom with curses doesn’t diminish Hook’s vendetta against Peter Pan. Just because Ursula wants to crown herself queen of the sea doesn’t mean the Queen of Hearts wants to do anything but play croquet. There’s no universal metric of evil here.
Oh, except that only one villain can win. But that goes without saying.
The charm of Villainous is twofold. Foremost, because it’s Disney. And even as the all-masticating maw continues to gobble up every last artistic endeavor our species has ever undertaken, our obsessive neediness for cartoon nostalgia must be appeased. Why? Because of Uncle Walt’s avuncular nature? Because we believe our childhood will disappear more fully unless a particular company adds major comic book and space opera properties to its portfolio? Because we’ve forgotten the words to “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”?
(Disney, I haven’t forgotten those words. Hire me.)
On a more relevant note, Villainous is also charming because it’s a surprisingly risky game. Each of its six villains arrives with their own unique board, pair of decks, and plans for dominance. Everyone is working to assemble the pieces of their own card-driven puzzle as quickly as possible, while occasionally plopping roadblocks into the path of rival villains. It’s so risky, in fact, that it defies easy categorization. It’s a cartoon game that isn’t necessarily simple enough for young kids, a heads-down tableau management thing where you can severely disrupt somebody’s plans, and both a blatant love letter and surprisingly fresh. It’s The Great Mouse Detective of licensed Disney games.
Regardless of which villain you command, there are a few details in common. Your turn revolves around moving your villain, then using the icons at your new location to gain resources, play cards, or dip into a foe’s fate deck. Allies and items gradually bestow new abilities, while heroes (deployed by your opponents) block icons and deploy pesky abilities. There’s more to it than that, like repositioning your allies or defeating heroes, but that’s the gist. The point is, the framework shared between sides is reasonably straightforward.
But that’s where the similarities end and things get zany. Part of the joy of Villainous is found in seeing how each character behaves, so I’ll only spoil the simplest of the bunch: Prince John.
Unlike some of his more magically inclined fellows, Prince John just wants to amass a bunch of cash. At first glance this isn’t a difficult task. His board includes spots that pull in two or three coins at once, so it would be easy to mistake him for a game timer, someone who’s always ticking cheerily toward his goal. Some of his cards even aid the endeavor, letting him tax his realm, task the Sheriff of Nottingham with squeezing the locals, or even just gaining additional cash when another villain amasses a tidy sum of their own. Easy peasy.
Except that’s where the fate deck comes in. Heroes will block some of his most reliable income, sure, but they also tend to hamper Prince John’s finances. Certain powers swipe straight from his treasury, hoarding bags of cash atop heroes until they’re vanquished and the treasure is reclaimed. When those heroes are protected by clever disguises or bolstered by their friends, it isn’t long before Prince John is spending money to earn money, slowing his aspirations to a crawl. And beware Robin Hood, who diminishes his income from pretty much every source.
Every villain’s agenda is similarly multilayered. Maleficent and the Queen of Hearts want to sow particular cards across their realms, but these are vulnerable to counterattack. Captain Hook wants to defeat Peter Pan, but he’ll need to spend time plumbing his deck in order to arrange the proper sequence of cards and locations to make the killing blow stick. Jafar wants to control the magic lamp and Genie, but doing so requires a whole array of steps, rearrangements, and the occasional glazed stare into his mind-control staff. And Ursula needs to juggle access to her locations in order to bang Prince Eric.
Not every puzzle is equally difficult, however. Some lean heavily on the luck of the draw, while others have the fragility of an off-brand princess and are easily disrupted by fate cards. This could be construed as a problem, and largely depends on your willingness to constantly evaluate each villain’s proximity to victory and obstruct anyone who’s broken into the lead.
Though really, this is the best thing about Villainous. Success is earned both within your tableau and on the basis of how effectively you annoy anyone who’s doing better than you. Each realm has one or two preferred spaces with better icons for income or card plays, but it’s the need to detour to those locations that let you harass your rivals that generates interesting decisions. Annoyingly, it’s possible to draw fate cards that don’t do anything at all, such as items when there aren’t any heroes to attach them to, but this doesn’t slow the game’s pace.
Then again, the only reason slowing the pace isn’t an issue is because Villainous is already pokey. The issue isn’t mere slowness, but the aforementioned imbalance in villain difficulty levels. Especially when playing with a large group, commanding a straightforward villain means you’ll be waiting around while everyone else parses their options every turn. It’s technically possible to play with all six villains at once, but it’s about as thrilling as marathoning all six of their movies at quarter speed, with foreign language dubs and the good songs snipped out. Far better to stick with two, three, maybe four players at once.
My main reservation, though, is that Villainous simply isn’t crunchy enough to keep me coming back for more. I appreciate the risks it takes, and enjoy watching each villain’s personal quest unfold. But as interesting as it was to hypnotize my enemies as Jafar or trick Ariel into signing away her voice to Ursula, each individual puzzle’s solution follows the same steps with each attempt. Seen ’em once, seen ’em a hundred times. Without a Disney superfan or game-playing youngster in my life, there’s little reason to come back.
But hey, Villainous seems custom-built to appeal to those sorts, so by all means. It’s a cut above most licensed properties, and even manages to provide a few unorthodox challenges. It didn’t capture my fancy, but for those who hum “Prince Ali” whenever they head into a meeting, you could do a whole lot worse.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. Full disclosure: I consider myself neither a Disney apologist nor a Disney hater. It’s only fair that you know.)