I like Back to the Future. You like Back to the Future. Everybody likes Back to the Future.
So let’s set that aside for a moment and ask the bigger question: does Prospero Hall’s take on Back to the Future hold together as a functional game about Elliot Alderson’s most beloved film or a mere slideshow of its best scenes and catchphrases?
Whenever I see a giant monster slap one of its peers with its tail or snap a skyscraper in half like a baby carrot, the question on my mind is anabolic. In the process of undertaking that action, how much energy was metabolized? The average elephant consumes 70,000 calories per day. Even cells altered by radiation must require fuel. Godzilla is at least twenty elephants in height. My back-of-the-napkin algebra reveals something horrific:
These monsters fight because they are the only source of food bounteous enough to sustain each other.
In a rare disappointment from Prospero Hall, Godzilla: Tokyo Clash gets one thing right — the caloric requirements of its creatures would leave them shuffling around with all the haste of chilled molasses. Scientific accuracy for the win! Compelling gameplay, not so much.
Look, it isn’t that I don’t have the utmost faith in Seattle design collective Prospero Hall. I do. It’s just that their best games, titles like Horrified and Jaws, have been pitch-perfect distillations of licensed topics. Even How to Rob a Bank had its cartoony heist vibe going for it. Pan Am, on other hand? Since the airline’s bankruptcy in 1991, who’s passing out that license? I suppose there’s a solid probability that the answer is Disney. But why now? Is 2020 the year the Pan Am image needed a boost? Or has someone at the collective been holding onto their sweet Pan Am idea for decades?
Never mind. There are two main takeaways from this one. First, Pan Am is a graceful blend of worker placement, bidding, and stock hoarding. And second, it’s very nearly a commentary on the zombie-like nature of twentieth-century capitalism.
Working my way through the recent catalog of design collective Prospero Hall — including the rather good Jaws and How to Rob a Bank — I’ve been struck by just how different each title is from its peers. Until Horrified. In this one, the spin is that each play features two or three of the game’s six unique monsters, resulting in dozens of possible combinations and interactions. You know, much like last year’s Villainous.
Except when you get right down to it, Horrified is its own beast. For one thing, it’s a cooperative game. For another… well, let’s talk.
I don’t often talk about how much a game costs. There’s a reason for that. Essentially, a game’s cost is so subjective — and variable — that nearly anything I could say wouldn’t actually be about the game, it would be about my economic circumstances. Which, sure, might tip you off to the fact that Kingdom Death: Monster is a scooch beyond my price range.
I picked up How to Rob a Bank at Target for ten dollars. It’s silly, quick, and colorful. For ten dollars. And you can bet your butt that’s going to impact how I think about it.
I tend to be exacting when it comes to licensing properties for board games. If you’re going to be granted a license, use it. Don’t just slap a deck-builder over the top and call it good.
In that regard, Jaws doesn’t smell of fresh spackle and cheap paint. That’s brine with undertones of chum. Jaws takes the essence of the film’s two halves — the grumbling tension of the beaches, the snarling tension of the open ocean — and writes them in ink and cardboard. It’s suspense incarnate, lurking under the surface with three tons of muscle and a razor-filled mouth as wide as a sharking boat.
In other words, the board game adaptation of Jaws does right by its source material. There isn’t much more to say than that.
Black Mirror‘s “Nosedive” is the sort of thing certain people might call “relevant.” A kinda-sorta utopian state with an ugly undercurrent, check. Suspicion of how much trust we invest in social media, check. The assumption that score aggregators will ruin everything about our society, oh yes I am so with you. Never mind that Community‘s “App Development and Condiments” did the same thing (and far more joyously) over two years earlier. No really, don’t worry about it. The more we’re complaining about social media, the happier this duck gets.
And now there’s a board game, published by Asmodee but currently without a listed designer or artist — which is oddly appropriate, given the game’s roots in dystopian fiction. Also appropriate is that, in direct parallel with the social media hellscape “Nosedive” was caterwauling about, the game is total and absolute poo.
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.