Negaland

LETTERS!

Ryan and Malorie Laukat’s Megaland — the Megaland inside the game Megaland, I mean — is your typical video game kingdom. But unlike the typical visitor to a typical video game kingdom, your adventurers aren’t interested in beating levels or maximizing their abilities or completing sick raids. All they want is to amass those sweet, sweet coins.

Kind of like a digital gold farmer. As far as settings go, that’s a first.

And ogling your... gem? crystallized blood? ... thing.

Pressing luck and diving dungeons.

Ryan Laukat is well known for putting his own spin on familiar genres, resulting in experiences with one foot planted in our world and the other stretching into some parallel dimension where game mechanics work nearly the same as in our universe but not quite. It’s the trick he pulled with the deck-building of City of Iron, area control in Eight-Minute Empire, narrative books in both Above and Below and Near and Far, and the recent sandbox adventure game Empires of the Void II.

Megaland, meanwhile, is a spin on the press-your-luck game. You know the type. Every round, the adventurers journey into a level, accumulate both resources and damage, and hopefully call it quits before dying and dropping all their loot. The longer you stick around, the more you’ll carry out. Unless you’re dead. Then your corpse rolls home all lonely-like.

The twist lies in what comes next. Rather than simply running levels until heat death, everyone then returns to town to spend their treasure. Laukat has always appreciated the shorthand of set collection, a recognizable go-to that functions where any number of trickier systems might bog down an experience, so it’s either sets or runs of resources that’ll do the trick here. Additional hearts bestow some additional longevity in the next level, while buildings offer coins, the occasional ability, and usually more coins. Not always as exciting as it could be. But at least the game is on point with its victory conditions.

Unless you died. Then the end result is sitting around while everybody else buys things that mostly seem cool when you aren't allowed to buy them.

The end result of all that diving: buying stuff.

Both of these halves are dead simple — possibly even too simple.

The better-developed half is the light business management of town living. The real decisions lie in whether to spend your resources on immediate cash payouts or investments, with the latter option taking a few different forms. There are new ways to gain or spend resources, transforming common items into wildcards or letting you manage your winnings more carefully, and survival skills like the ability to ignore the dungeon blob or earn some scratch from the appearance of the deadly red serpent. Or, yeah, some automatic coins trickling in during the nighttime between rounds.

It’s light, but there is some yield there, letting you waffle between an early lead, hardiness in the upcoming levels, or abilities that you’ll hopefully be able to capitalize on. By contrast, the levels themselves are downright elementary, even mind-dulling in how little control they give you. A monster appears and causes damage; you choose whether to stick around or keep going. Sticking around earns another card, while retreating packs up your previous winnings. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

As a gameplay cycle, it’s functional. There’s some minor numbers-crunching to be done, evaluating which cards you’ve seen and which are yet to appear, and therefore figuring that you have this-and-such percentage chance of surviving the coming danger. There’s even the ability to preempt damage by “jumping,” a limited resource purchased with certain buildings.

You will see so many carrots.

Eggs & such.

Unfortunately, none of these details do much to round out the experience. The levels soon becomes familiar, cycling through the same ten cards. Jumping over monsters is interesting, and provides a minor rush whenever you evade significant damage, but mostly serves as a reminder that Megaland’s push-your-luck phase could have been twice as zany without necessarily adding much overhead. Why not toss in new monsters? Escalating levels? Special abilities? Maybe let us push a buddy into harm’s way? There are so many missed possibilities that even something as throwaway as Welcome to the Dungeon (a.k.a. Dungeon of Mandom VIII) seems radical by comparison.

Of course, Megaland’s appeal lies in its bifurcated design. But there’s nothing quite as rotten as getting unlucky in a level and returning to town empty-handed. Cue a few minutes of watching everybody else soak up the buildings and hearts while you pout. In the end, success is less about being clever and more about getting lucky, both with the dangers in a level and with the treasures you happen to draw. Appropriate for a game about pressing your luck; less so for a game about making smart investments in town. And while it doesn’t stick around long enough to prompt boredom, that razor cuts both ways, offering hardly any possibility of succeeding after a failed expedition.

There are secret Above and Below cards underneath the insert. Just so you know.

The box sure is nice.

I’m grousing, in part, because Megaland boasts so much of Ryan Laukat’s trademark charm that it could have been something truly special. Hoarding carrots or hopping over a blob feels like the first step into one of his offbeat worlds. Instead, that first step is also the second, and the third, and the fourth, all the way until somebody collects their twentieth coin and brings the whole thing trundling to a halt.

The result is workmanlike rather than revelatory, a blend of pushed luck, set collection, and minor upgrades that congeals into something not at all unpleasant, but without quite stepping into Laukat’s peculiar parallel dimension. Where many of Laukat’s worlds beg to be dwelt in, this one rates only a visit.

 

(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. It’s also a parallel dimension. I mean, I don’t know what a parallel dimension is, but it could be.)

A complementary copy was provided.

Posted on September 11, 2018, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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