Monday, April 25, 2011

Micro Mutants Evolution/X-Bugs - I Never Realized How Much I Like Picking And Flicking

I went to Atlanta on a business trip last week, and I was fortunate enough to hang with a buddy for some gaming. Among the amazing games we played was a really fun one that I had overlooked several times, thinking it was too cheesy. I'm man enough to admit that I was wrong, because Micro Mutants is an incredibly fun little game that was on sale at the Fantasy Flight webstore for five duckets over Christmas. This was one instance where it wasn't too good to be true, it was just plain great.

It's a flicking game akin to tiddlywinks, but it's actually interesting, unlike tiddlywinks. Players take on the role of theater commander of a faction of cybernetically enhanced or alien insects that have various powers, allowing them to hide in bushes, fire missiles, spit acid balls, and all sorts of other things. It has all the hallmarks of a good Ameritrash game: dice rolling, player elimination, and most importantly, an ant farm full of luck. Wait, I take it back. The real hallmark of a good Ameritrash title is that it's fun!

I need to point out that there are actually two different iterations of this game; one is the original X-Bugs game published in the States by Steve Jackson Games, and the second is Micro Mutants Evolution which is a Fantasy Flight game. There are some major differences in them, the most important being that Micro Mutants Evolution comes with a thin, felt playmat printed with some information and the X-Bugs game only has the bugs and dice themselves.

The rules are also a little different as well, the most important being that in X-Bugs, you may roll up to three bug dice to move three bugs where you only have two dice in Micro Mutants. They are, at their core, the exact same game using the exact same factions and the exact same quality bits, but Micro Mutants Evolution has all four factions inside a much larger box with that mat where X-Bugs has two factions per box in a Munchkin-sized box, and no mat. I'll be going back and forth between the two during this review, but I'm going to say up front that I like X-Bugs better, even though I had to go out and spend three bucks on a three square foot, polyester felt sheet because we don't use tablecloths at home.

The overall concept of the game is that, essentially, an alien spaceship crashes on Earth, and while all the alien pilots are dead, the insects that were stowed away on board were not and they are vying to dominate the planet. In other words, it's totally realistic and plausible, at least if you're a aficionado. Anyhow, several factions of these alien bugs were aboard, and they're all warring for control.

To stop the alien menace, the United States created its own DNA-modified bugs to battle them from the planet for a total of four playable factions in the box, at least in Micro Mutants. Players take turns rolling dice to determine which bugs they may attack with, and there are some resources you can capture that can upgrade your bases to give your squad additional powers, or repair damaged bases. There's a surprising number of strategic options available to players, but at the end of the day, your success may come down to your luck in rolling the die and your skill at launching your bugs where you want them to land.

Regarding the components, let's go to X-Bugs first. Each 2-faction set comes with nothing more than a couple of identification references and a rulebook in each set. Each set comes with a couple of sticker sheets, one for each faction, three colored dice per faction, and some colored tiddlywinks that you'll transform from mere plastic disks to mutant insect killing machines when you apply the stickers. That's all that's in the box, and you can play on any cloth surface. You can't effectively play on a hard table, though, because trying to flick the winks is virtually impossible to do if you hope to get airborne, which is a requirement. As I noted before, I bought one square yard of polyester felt, and it works outstandingly well, but any tablecloth or carpet will do.

Micro Mutants Evolution, however, has a load of stuff in the box. First, the box is the standard FFG bookshelf sized box, and inside is a nice, blow molded holder for all the bits. The box has four factions in it, complete with stickers and colored winks as noted in X-Bugs, but it only has two dice per faction which limits your play by one move per turn compared to X-Bugs. That being said, it comes with a very nice, printed mat that is pretty much perfect for playing the game.

It also comes with some double-sided big cardboard terrain features that add to the gameplay, and the factions' bases are made of cardboard rather than being the same plastic winks as the bugs are. There are also four cardboard rulers for use with the bugs' powers as many of the powers have been changed from X-Bugs to facilitate their use. Finally, instead of the paper references, each bug and base type has its own card to explain what each bug does and the base powers are also more plentiful but come on cards as well.

I'd like to note that the artwork, while not all that exceptional, is pretty good. One nagging pain in both sets is that the bugs that have different pictures on either side of their disc, so sometimes identifying a bug you've rolled to activate can be a pain. Also, with the USA faction, some of the bugs are very similar and are hard to tell apart, further complicating the identification problem. The artwork on X-Bugs is not as good as the treatment that Micro Mutants got, either, so I'd have to give the win, from an art perspective, to Micro Mutants.

In both games, setup is very similar, with each player placing their three bases and all of their bugs on their side of the playing area. Whereas in X-Bugs you can place anything anywhere you wish, provided you are a minimum distance from the edges and the center of the play area, the areas for bases and the boundaries for bug placement are printed right on the mat. In four player games, you simply take ownership of a corner for setup, and for a three player game, two factions take over the corners on one side and the third takes a central position on the opposite side.

Finally, for both games, all the resource tokens are simply dropped by hand into the center of the playfield. In Micro Mutants, one extra step is needed if desired, and that's the placement of the big terrain pieces, which are just flipped randomly onto the board. These terrain pieces have varying purposes, acting as portals or pits that can trap, kill, or move your bugs if they land within.

Gameplay is very similar between the two games in almost every way, but Micro Mutants has a little more chrome involved, which is endemic of Fantasy Flight's apparent penchant for spicing up games it leases. In both games, you roll your dice, and the faces that turn up will indicate which kinds of bugs you're allowed to flick. X-Bugs has a starting amount of three dice to roll, and when one of your bases is killed, you lose a die. In Micro Mutants, you have only two dice, and you don't lose dice if you lose a base.

To kill an enemy bug, you need only land one of your own bugs on top of that bug. Not all bugs can be killed like this, but in almost all cases, this is the way to defeat them. Some bugs have special powers that are only activated if that bug has its special power side showing, and these powers vary greatly in what they do. Some offer defensive abilities such as a shield, some allow special extra shots to be fired such as missiles or entangling webs, and some allow you to control other bugs. The variation in the game is really something to behold, and no two games will ever play exactly the same.

Flicking is done using a flat plastic "squincher" piece that is about the same size as a little stick of Trident gum, but about half as thin. You simply press down with its edge onto the edge of the piece you wish to move and it will pop up and fly to its destination. This takes a little getting used to for nuance shots, but once you get it down you'll be squashing your opponents like...well...bugs.

The real magic in this game is in its simplicity, and while it will take a couple times of playing with one faction to really get your arms around all of the mechanics for that faction, it's really a simple game at its heart and even if you forget a few rules you're not going to break the game or have a conniption fit. It's just a really, really fun little game system and it is just as great for hardcore gamers as it is for an Easter game of bug flicking with your older kids.

Gathering resources is precisely the same as killing enemy bugs in that you just land on them and then you can take the bit for your own later use. In X-Bugs, these are used to upgrade your bases and gain more abilities for your bugs, but in Micro Mutants, there's a lot more to it. You can upgrade bases just as you do in X-Bugs, but now you can repair damaged bases as each base has a "healthy" and a "damaged" side, which makes your bases more durable. On top of that, each base provides two new bug powers, to choose from which are illustrated on their own cards, and you may take one for free when you first upgrade a base. To buy the second, you need simply spend one captured resource token to buy it.

The game ends when in all cases when you've killed the enemy bases or all but two enemy bugs, but there's also other available end game situations you can play, such as ending the game when the last resource token has been taken, at least in Micro Mutants. As in all other aspects of Micro Mutants, there are just a few more options available than in X-Bugs, and they lengthen the duration of the skirmish more than anything else.

In short, with X-Bugs, there's just manoeuvering and maiming, and that's all there is, really. Yeah, you can spend your resources to upgrade bases which entails simply flipping the base over to the upgraded side, but in Micro Mutants, there's a lot more game in the box. The look is better and the bits are better, but there are a couple of things I didn't like that cause me to proclaim that X-Bugs is superior from a gameplay perspective. First, there's the three dice versus two dice situation, and I think that the concept of having a die per base and losing dice when you lose bases fits the game concept very well and adds importance to the idea of defensive play.

Next, the big terrain bits are a pain in the ass. It's more chrome, and most of the time the rule of thumb is to simply avoid them, so why bother even fielding them? The main, overwhelming reason I like X-Bugs better is the ruler mechanism. With X-Bugs, all powers do what they're supposed to and it's really simple whereas in Micro Mutants almost all of the powers that cause other bugs to be affected are measured effects, and the range can be extended through base upgrades. It's not that much of a pain, but it adds a step to every move you make and it's just not as clean as in X-Bugs.

Finally, In Micro Mutants, there's more powers available through the cards, and because of the damage and upgrade structure of bases, the gameplay concept really changes as gathering resources becomes a far more important aspect and skews the strategic process in that direction. That being said, with all four factions in the box, a playmat, and a better overall value for the dollar, Micro Mutants ends up making up for the shortcomings in a big way.

If you can find X-Bugs cheap, make sure to grab it. Micro Mutants Evolution can usually be found pretty inexpensively as well, and this would be a good idea to do as well. I really, really like these games, and I think that virtually anyone would love this. It's fast, and can be played by four in about an hour, and most importantly, every time I've played this game I've wanted to play again afterward. That's got to be worth something.

What Made Me Get The Bug For These Games:
- A four player game can be played in under an hour
- Everyone at the table will be having fun
- The balance of depth and simplicity is very good
- You're not going to get much more entertainment than this for $25.00 or so

Why I Want To Reach For Raid To Kill These Bug Games:
- The Micro Mutants ruler mechanism may have sounded like a good idea, but it wasn't
- X-Bugs doesn't come with a play surface, which would've been nice
- The art is not bad, but not great, either

I highly recommend this game because it's fast, requires both thought and skill, and most importantly, it's a hell of a good time. While I think X-Bugs is a streamlined and better version of the game system, Micro Mutants is no slouch. Were it not for the ruler mechanism, and the fact that there are no backwards-compatible rules that can allow you to omit it, I would tell you that Micro Mutants is an equal to X-Bugs from the gameplay perspective. Luckily, so much extra stuff comes in the box that from a value perspective, Micro Mutants more than makes up for that ruler by providing options that you might find more attractive than I did. All in all though, you can't miss with these, so pick them up!

X-Bugs Rating:
4/5 Stars

Micro Mutants Evolution Rating:
4.25/5 Stars

Check out X-Bugs here at the Steve Jackson site:

Check out Micro Mutants Evolution at FFG's site:

...and there's an expansion out, which you can check out here:

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