Thursday, July 28, 2011

Monsters Menace America - All Your Base Are Belong To Us

I don't care who you are, unless you've been under a rock or living in sub-saharan Africa for the last 50 years, chances are that you know who Godzilla is. And if you know what he is, you know what he does: break shit and kill people on an epic scale. While the 1954 release of Gojira in Japan spawned countless other "big monster terrorizing a city" flicks, the most recent notable one being Cloverfield, it did not spawn all that many board games of the genre.

The best, arguably is Monsterpocalypse, from Privateer Press, but while great, it is limited in scale to only one city. If you are itching to destroy not only one city, but to plague the entire United States with odd, mutating monsters that devastate everything in their path, Monsters Menace America (MMA) from Wizards of the Coast and Avalon Hill may be just what the cryptozoologist ordered.

MMA is a two to four player game that has each player controlling a unique, campy, oversized creature that has its own advantages and disadvantages, vying to be the King of Monsters. The game is essentially broken down into two parts, with the first being to devastate cities, bases, and national treasures such as Elvis' shrine, Graceland, in order to gain health, send your preferred branch of the military in to mess with opponents' monsters, and most effectively, head to toxic waste sites or research agencies in order to mutate your creature and provide it more powerful attributes.

The last part of the game, after all possible stompings have occurred, the last person to crush something becomes the ringleader of a battle royale where he chooses which creature to battle to the death. The winner of that battle will gain whatever health the opponent began that battle with, and then continue onto other monsters until only one creature remains, who is declared the winner. It's a fun, campy romp through 50's era monster movies, but the game isn't without minor problems, at least in my mind.

First, there is no direct monster versus monster action until the end game, as its forbidden during the first part of the game until the final battles. While this makes some sense to me because most big monster movies has the military softening up the big baddies before the final showdown, this isn't a movie, and I'd have liked to use my death rays or spiked tail to flay the white meat from my one-eyed, tentacled opponent more than just for 5 minutes at the end of the game.

Second, the final battle seems to be a tacked-on mechanic, because the infrastructure is built into the game to have a player be declared winner based solely on the carnage factor, but since they've tacked it on, the real impetus to break things in the game is solely to get more hit points to be more durable during the final battle. It's a shitty thing to be well in the lead when it comes to crushing and maiming, yet lose because one of your opponents got a lucky mutation card that makes them harder to hit or more damaging, or worse, both.

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of gameplay, let's talk a bit about what comes inside the box. I'm going to start off by saying that I love all of the campy, cartoonish art that is on the box, in the manual, and all over the cards. It's brilliant, fun, funny, and completely embodies what the theme is trying to do.

The box comes with a variety of neat plastic tanks, missile launchers, fighters, and cruise missiles in five colors, and it comes with six unique monster characters, all painted and looking really cool. There's also two additional figures that represent a superhero and a big war-bot, both of which become controllable by players if the proper card is pulled to allow it. In addition to this stuff, there's two medium-sized cardboard sheets that are used to track statistics on the two aforementioned card-pulled units, and there's five large cardboard sheets that tell you how to implement your military forces, each broken down by branch; Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and National Guard. There's also a bunch of Infamy tokens and Stomp tokens, both of which are made of durable cardstock and punch very cleanly from the sheets.

Now I need to mention that there's six large, cardboard character sheets, each representing a monster, and each has two plastic sliders you affix to the edge of the monster cards in order to track health. These, in addition to the two large unit cards, use these sliders to track health, and these sliders will invariably muck up the cards, as nice as they are, from the friction of continually sliding them up and down the card edge, so I view this as a negative. You could put a couple of D10s in the box to perform the same function, albeit slightly less easily, but it will certainly save the cards from wear.

The final bits in the box are the standard D6 dice, a great, well written manual, and the game board, which is well illustrated and rather funny, but has a single deficiency. The spaces are too small to place a monster on and have any military units on as well, so you end up having to prop the military units on top of the base halfway inside the hex.

It's a bit wonky, that's all, and sometimes you can confuse which units are engaged in battle and which are on an adjacent hex. All in all, the game is very well-produced and the bits are very, very good. Were it not for the minor bitch about the hex sizes and the major bitch about the life tracking cards, this would be a total A+ game from the standpoint of the quality and design of the game.

Now moving onto how to set the game up, it's really a breeze to accomplish. Each player can pick a monster, and starting with the last player to choose a monster, each player will then choose a branch of the military to control. Once that's done, you shuffle the two decks of cards, place your monsters on one of their three pre-set starting points which are printed on the board, and then deploy the military units to their respective locations. While all branches are initially placed, the only branches that are directly controlled are the branches chosen by the players, and to a small degree, the National Guard. Each branch has its own selection of bases to choose from except the National Guard, whose units can be placed in any city, base, or "infamy site", which represent national places of interest as I noted before.

The final bits to set up are the Stomp tokens. During the game, these are placed onto locations that were destroyed by monsters, but the reality is that they act as a game timer. Depending on the amount of players, you'll stack a certain amount ranging from 14 to 20 for use when a monster attacks. Nearly all location actions require the stomp action, and it's one of the few ways to gain hit points or stifle other players so it's an important part of the game.

Once you've got everything set up, everyone rolls off to determine who goes first. Each turn is broken into four distinct sections: Move, Fight, Encounter, and Deploy. Starting with the movement action, you may move your creature as many spaces as it is allowed, and there are some restrictions as to where some may move, such as not being able to move over water if that creature lacks that ability, or to move onto a tile with another monster which is always illegal. If you move into a space with a military unit, even one of your own, you must immediately stop.

An alternative to making a normal movement with your monster is to disappear. I'm guessing that this represents your creature burrowing underground, sinking into the depths of the ocean, or whatever, and so you pull your monster off of the board completely. On your next movement phase, you can not only put them back on one of your starting spots, but if you're hurt, you can heal yourself back to your starting health. It amounts to both a catch-up mechanic as well as a way to get around the board more quickly or to evade a large swath of incoming enemy military units.

Once you've moved your beastie, you can then move all of your own military units. Each unit has a movement value, with cruise missiles zipping along at a huge rate of speed and the lowly tanks plodding along at about the same speed as most monsters. These units also have a limited amount of restrictions that mirror the monsters' restrictions. If you move them onto a space that contains a monster, or as I mentioned before, on top of the monster's base, they can attack during your fight phase.

The fight phase is really simple to resolve. The player chooses the order of attacks if more than one battle ensues, and the mechanics for battle are quite simple. With few exceptions, monsters always get to attack first, even if one of your military units initiated the fight. Monsters have three attacks per round, and they declare who they're attacking and roll a die. Each monster and military unit has a defense value, and if the roll equals or exceeds the defense value, they are damaged.

All small military units have one life, so if you hit them, they burst into flame, with little wee soldiers screaming and attempting to escape the boiling wreckage. If any survive, they get to counterattack, and they follow the same roll-and-check system. Monsters who are damaged simply move their life markers to indicate their new life level. Monsters, however, may use any earned Infamy tokens to make another attack, if they desire to, and there's no limit on how many they can use, provided you have them.

Each battle lasts exactly two rounds, and in the unlikely event that any military units survive the onslaught of the gargantuan creatures for the two rounds, the monster must retreat to an unoccupied, adjacent space, thereby stopping them from encountering the space they were hoping to crush under their un-sandalled feet.

Now, not all military units are as easy to kill. The big robot and superhero figures that can be called into play by Military cards have more than one life point, and therefore are quite valuable in forcing monsters to retreat. Retreating monsters do not get to encounter a space when they retreat, effectively denying them a stomp opportunity, and if they can't retreat, they are forced to move using the disappear mechanic, which causes them to come off of the board.

If a monster is killed, they don't simply go off into the sunset, they become a star. I shit you not, they get put on the Hollywood space, where they're exploited more viciously than the Olsen twins. A monster sent to Hollywood loses all of their Infamy tokens, and on each turn they may roll a 1D6 and recover that much health. If they reach five health points, they may re-enter the game immediately by placing their unit on Los Angeles or one of its starting lairs, thereby ending it's movement. Another drawback of going to Hollywood is that if the game ends and a monster is in Hollywood, that moster effectively loses the game and cannot participate in the Monster Challenge, which is the final battle royale that I mentioned above.

Once all battles are resolved, the encounter phase begins, provided your monster didn't retreat. Depending on which space you encounter, different things happen. If you stomp a city, you are awarded the amount of hit points printed on the board. While most indicate one measly hit point, many allow 1D6, 2D6 and in two cases, 3D6 of health to be earned. If you stomp an Infamy site, you get two infamy tokens.

If you destroy a military base, which is arguably the most satisfying, you not only destroy the base and earn an Infamy token, but you may snatch, from the board or from a reserve, a single military unit from the branch whose base you crushed, and it is permanently removed from the game. The final space you can encounter, but not destroy, is a mutation site, which allows you to draw a mutation card and permanetly use the mutation you've gained in future activities.

Mutations are one of the coolest things in the game, and they vary wildly in what they allow you to do. Some, like the Armored Scales card provide you a higher defense value, and others give you regeneration ability like the Son of a Monster card. The cards all have wonderful artwork, and the variations between the cards is surprisingly large. As an aside, some military units, such as certain missiles, can cause a spontaneous mutation if the person rolling against the monster rolls a value of one. While there are some Military Research cards that can sap a monster of these powers, generally they are persistent and your monster will remain a mutated colossus for the duration of the game.

The last phase of the game is the deployment phase, where you'll choose to either place some military units onto the board, move them from one spot on the board to a distant base, or instead of placing units, you may draw a Military Research card. It is during this phase that the National Guard comes into play, as all branches of the military allow players to place one National Guard unit onto the board in addition to some of their own. While National Guard units may be placed on any city, base, or infamy site, players may only place their units on bases of their own type.

Military Research cards, when drawn, can provide a persistent power, such as the Fuel Cells that allow you to move all of your units one extra space during the movement phase, while others provide a one-time effect such as the Defense Satellites that damage all creatures on the board, including your own, up to six hit points.

In addition to these powers, there are the three cards that allow you to place special units onto the board, two of which are the giant superhero and war-bot figures, with the last being a pair of X-Fighters which are slightly beefier versions of normal fighters. These cards are absolute game-changers in many cases, and can sometimes be far more effective at staunching the appetite for destruction of one of your opponents than simply pounding them with military units on the map.

Once the last stomp token has been placed, one final round passes before the final battle begins. There are several Challenge spaces marked on the board, and if a player can move their monster to one on their last turn, they become the Challenger instead of the last person to stomp something. Being the Challenger is important because you choose which monsters to fight, so you can knock off a weaker one to absorb their starting hit points before going after the really nasty opponents. Once the final battle begins, the player who is the Challenger chooses a monster to fight and a special battle phase begins, this time to the death.

Monsters may use their Infamy tokens, mutations, or any other benefit they've accrued during the game to battle their opponent, and starting with the Challenger, each of the two battling monsters take turns using their three attacks to whittle away the opponent's monster. Once a monster has been butchered, the winner then adjusts their life meter upwards by adding to their current life level the amount of life the opponent had when the battle started. After doing so, they pick another remaining creature to rinse and repeat the process with, and the last monster standing is the winner of the game and is crowned King of Monsters.

As I noted before, the end-game is a bit disappointing because irrespective of how much carnage you wreaked upon the planet, if your life level starts low, you have a very small chance of winning. The Infamy tokens are a bit of a counterpoint to that, because if you weren't racking up hit points by decimating major cities, you were likely mutating like a flu virus and scoring some serious infamy tokens to get extra attacks during the final battle.

Still, it feels a bit underwhelming to have destroyed the Eastern seaboard and lose because Mothra or whomever got a lucky mutation card to raise it's defense value even though it did little damage to cities and bases during the game. It's a minor beef, at best, because I really like the game, but it still feels a hair tacked-on.

I've owned this game for a good long time, and I've played it many, many times. I've always enjoyed it, win or lose, because it's a fun and challenging game of death and destruction in the good ol' U.S. of A, and the art and theme really shine to make it a fun and engaging experience. Down time between turns is quite minimal, and you can play out a four-monster war on America in about 90 to 120 minutes.

The monsters aren't all that different, to be honest, but they're different enough that you'll want to try out several and see how you fare using their unique abilities over the course of several games. Pair that with the fact that each branch of the military has its own advantages and disadvantages, and there's a lot of replay value there. On top of that, there's ample Military Research and Mutation cards to play through the game a multitude of times without ending up playing the same cards over and over again. I play this often, and every time it comes to the table, it's always a group favorite.

Why I Want To Be Godzilla When I Grow Up:
- Great bits, fun gameplay and a great theme make this a hell of a time
- Ample strategic and tactical decisions abound
- Minmal downtime reduces the snore-factor to almost nil
- The artwork is absolutely outstanding, and perfectly fits this game's theme
- Huge replay value makes this a game that will be played often

Why This Big Monkey Belongs In Hollywood:
- The hex size is too small to place critters and tanks on the same spot
- The end game makes the destruction portion of the game seem less important
- An expansion with new monsters and cards would've been an auto-buy, but it doesn't exist

The short version is that it's a really neat little game, but just as the internet meme from Zero Wing was a not-so-great translation from Japanese, Monsters Menace America is a mediocre translation from the Japanese "Godzilla" genre that spawned in the 1950's, primarily due to the end-game. The gameplay is brisk, and fun, but as I noted, the end game takes a little shine away from an otherwise brilliant game. Regardless of this one shortcoming, I recommend this game to anyone who likes a medium-length "dudes on a map" style game with an emphasis on screw-your-neighbor backstabbery.

3.75/5 Stars

You can get this game on Ebay or Amazon for the original retail price, generally, and you can check it out at Wizards' site here, complete with an online demo:

As usual, Universal Head, the coolest cat in gaming, has produced a wonderful rules summary sheet, which is downloadable here:

And, as always, if you want to try this before you drop 40 bones on it, especially since it's an older game, give Board Game Exchange a shot:

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