Not just one of my favorite miniature games, but one of my favorite games of all time. Imagine Backgammon and Chess had an awesome kid who ran away from home to hang out with Batman.
The premise of Monsterpocalypse is simple. I have a giant monster, you have a giant monster, the last giant monster standing wins.
First, all pieces in the game stood on square bases containing the figure’s stats and abilities, meaning you didn’t have to lug a book around with details on everything, just a 2-sided reference sheet. A glance at the base told you how fast the figure was, its defenses, its attacks, and health (if a monster).
Now let’s start with the monster. You had 2 forms to each one: the “basic” form and the “hyper” form. You always started in basic mode but if you paid a cost – or that mode’s health ran out, you would change into the hyper form (which may or may not have better stats and abilities). Because if you’ve ever watched a Kaiju flick, you know things aren’t over just because the monster falls.
After your monster, you would then select an army of units to help out. Units are the tanks, planes, smaller sidekick monsters, etc that all will help your big guy win the day. The most you can bring is 15 and they all start out in your reserves, meaning you have to pay to get them on the board and moving around. This means units maintain a balanced cost system as the more powerful ones typically cost 2 or more, and when your maximum resources for a turn is 10, that adds up quickly.
Finally, you have the city itself. The game also came with beautifully sculpted and painted buildings. You have to bring 2, and at most, 12. When the game starts, you and your opponent will take turns placing buildings into the designated squares until the city is filled or the buildings run out. By the time the dice roll, the board itself has become a 3-D terrain you’ll have to contend with. With 6 exceptions, buildings are neutral. A Statute of Liberty (yes, that is a real, actual game piece) can be a big help to your forces, but the enemy could try to take control of it themselves. Some buildings are very dangerous and you might place them hoping to toss the enemy into them. Yet you have to be on guard that the enemy isn’t the one that tosses you. Heck you have choices with the buildings themselves as you can use your units to try and “secure” one for small, usually broad bonuses, or have your monster just brawl it into rubble for a quicker, larger bonus.
Of course the maps themselves were tactical choices too. The starter set came with 2 maps, printed on either side of a single fold out sheet (Block War & Smashville they were called). Later on “map packs” were released with additional 2-sided maps in them until we had 18 possible maps total. As you can see if you click on the link, some could be very spacious with few buildings, and some could be very crowded. Most were symmetrical but a few were not, which matters since the first player got to pick the map, but the second player got to pick their side.
The gameplay itself is pretty smooth and intuitive although the rulebook can look intimidating and thick at first. Everything in the game has a cost. Action dice (AD or “the white dice”) are the most commonly used. If you want to move a figure, you spend 1 AD and move it up to its speed. If you want to attack, you have to roll at least 1 AD for that. So if you have 4 units you want to shoot, but only 3 AD left, well one of those won’t be shooting. The monster and your units have their own dice pools respectively and the dice constantly move from one to the other. So spending dice on your monster place it in your units pool. Spending dice on your units, places them in your monster pool. Each turn you have to choose whether you’re going to do things with your monster, or your units. Obviously when a pool is empty, you must take a turn with the figures that have dice. With 10 maximum AD, you quickly learn to master budgeting. Do you keeping spending everything you have turn after turn to get maximum value? Or do you sometimes split the dice leaving you the ability to take a monster or a unit turn?
Of course the game has the usual melee (brawling) and ranged (blasting) attacks. What really makes it distinct is that monsters also have a 3rd attack option: POWER attacks. If you have the dice to spend, and can put your monster into the right position, you can do a:
- Body Slam
They all are exactly what you think. A throw that hits means you can place the enemy monster some distance away from you, landing it on top of buildings and units alike (not monsters though). Yes, ALL monsters can do this, even the giant flying martian saucer (I don’t know how it head-butts but half the fun of the game is explaining that). This ability to just relocate figures and change the field of battle makes this a game like no other I’ve played. Just imagine if in chess the king could toss a bishop into a rook and you might have a sense of how fun it is to play. Oh and yes, you can play 2 tag-team matches if you want (both players bring 2 monsters) and get the added power attacks of:
- Cradle Throw
- Double Head-butt
Games almost always come down to who can pull off their power attacks, meaning that since they require specific alignment, players will often use their units and buildings to construct “screens” to protect their monster. Then when a player manages to break through (or the opponent slipped up and didn’t screen properly), things become a mess in a hurry and screens are often forgotten as players just start body slamming and smashing each other around.
This sense of fun really draws in newbies, who can just enjoy the game but there is a ton of depth that kept me coming back to my local game shop every week for over a YEAR. Units at first seem of little consequence, but the veteran knows that a strong unit force can swing a game. Building placement may not seem important but placing one of yours deep on the opponent’s side can give you a surprise aid later on. And while all knowledge is generally known, like in chess, the dice add just enough randomness to make decisions agonizing. After all, roll enough of them, and you can all but turn an attack into a guaranteed hit (99% of the time, one guy in our playgroup was infamous for tossing a handful of dice, and missing). But then you would have to earn all that dice back. So many turns was it an agonizing choice over whether to go for quantity (back-to-back turns & attacks) or quality (one attack with all the dice you can).
Originally the game was distributed randomly in blind packs of 2 types. One pack was “monsters” and would come with the normal and hyper form of a monster. The other pack was “units” and would come with about 3-4 units and a building. (Set 2 mixed it up by putting buildings in the monster packs.) However distribution wasn’t that bad as purchasing a case of the boosters would provide you with a full playset of everything you needed (sets 3 and 5 were a kind of exception). So for example, there were 6 factions in a set. Each faction came with 2 monsters. So a case of monster boosters had 12 boosters – 1 of each monster. Thankfully, towards the end of its life the game shifted to a kind of LCG style where you knew the contents of what you were buying.
5 sets ultimately released, with the first 3 forming and last 2 forming their own “blocks.” See, the game had 6 “agendas” listed representing monsters’ alignments and goals. (think Magic’s color wheel).
The first 3 sets released figures for a faction in each agenda. i.e. The Protectors had a UN like group called G.U.A.R.D. The last 2 sets released figures for 6 new factions in each agenda. i.e. The Protectors this time were warrior monks called the Elemental Champions. With 12 factions, the chances are you could find SOMEBODY in the game you wanted to play as, whether giant ninjas or moles. Dinosaurs or C’thulhu knock-offs.
Yes like a lot of expandable games, it was a bit rough at first with some figures being way more powerful than others, but as things went on the makers of the game quickly balanced things out. For example, the faction for the Collaborators in the first block (giant ninjas) was by far the most powerful, so the next Collaborator faction in block 2 (corporate mechs) was way underpowered and some of the weakest figures in the game. But even then each faction still tends to have at least 1 or 2 figures that are oustandingly good and maybe 1 or 2 that you play for the challenge.
Promos were fairly distributed, usually being a special hyper form of a monster, giving you a bit more choice in which monster combination you might want to bring to the table. Participation prizes were special units. Originally they were “shadow” editions – versions that had cloak, making them pretty much immune to ranged attacks. Later they released “glass” editions – more powerful version of a units that were super cheap, with the trick that if they died, they were out of the game for good (normally in a game when a unit dies, it just goes to your reserve meaning you can respawn it). Compared to a lot of games out there nowadays, Privateer Press really did a lot right.
Oh right, why did such a great and awesome game end? Well it was hitting stores right as Kaiju were coming to theaters with Godzilla (2014) returning to American shores and Pacific Rim soon to release. As the game had a rough story (and 3 issues of a comic book) to explain why all these monsters were fighting, Hollywood snapped up the movie rights to the game. And apparently the contract ended up screwing over the company with some unspecified restriction on them producing the game. Hopefully if Hollywood ever gets the film out of development hell or just lets the contract make sense, the makers will bring this beautiful, wonderful game back. It’s pretty great and could rebuild a player base from scratch – especially if they keep the non-randomized format of distribution. Heck I would settle for them to release a map that allows for 4 players. Until then, I have a nearly complete set, and if you’re ever in town, I’ll be happy to bring a couple of armies and we can destroy a city.
Because great games are made to be shared.
HONORABLE MENTION: Yes, King of Tokyo and King of New York are fun games too, especially in multiplayer.