A couple of weeks back I saw Boss Monster in a game shop. The packaging immediately appealed to me; It looked like an old Nintendo game cartridge box, a pixelated hero fighting a pixelated monster. The theme and art style looked pretty cool, but there wasn’t really a way to find out if the gameplay was good enough, and since it was just before Spiel, Essen, I decided not to get it. Yet.
At Spiel I saw a demo booth, and even though there where no free tables, I decided to look at it closer and in action, and wait for a seat to open so I could try it. So, here are my impressions of watching a game, playing a game and looking through the contents after I bought it.
The game works as follows: You are one of the Boss Monsters, and you’ll have to build a dungeon of up to five rooms to lure and kill a steady flow of heroes. One hero shows up every turn for each player and it ends up in ‘town.’ From there it will see if there is a dungeon with the most treasure type icons matching that hero. If there are no treasure type icons matching that hero, or the highest number is tied, it will stay in town. However, if one player has the most icons of the mathing type, the hero is baited and will move to that dungeon. When you attract a hero he or she tries to reach you and deal damage to you (bad) but you’ll try to make sure the hero dies so you get souls you need to win (good.) Certain types of heroes are attracted to certain types of treasure, so you’ll try to balance this and hope no overpowered heroes show up.
The heroes are a quirky bunch, and often a riff off famous characters, like Johnny of the Evening Watch, who may or may not be related to Jon Snow of Game of Thrones fame.
Johnny is a Fighter, and thus attracted to dungeons that has a lot of sword icons. The trick of the game is to manage your icons, making sure you attract the heroes when you are ready for it.
Even though the heroes appear in random order, from my (limited) experience playing the game and watching it being played, you stand a good chance of running out of the Ordinary Hero deck, which means the odds even out later, until the Epic Heroes show up.
In the game I played, I had no idea what I was doing in the beginning, so I made a dungeon that lured in lots of clerics, before I was ready to deal with them. Early on, a lot of clerics showed up and they went through my dungeon uncontested, dealing me a lot of damage. Oops!
That did mean that as we went through the deck of heroes, less clerics showed up later, giving me some breathing space to correct the problem. The only downside was that I didn’t have a buffer to deal with unforseen problems, and I wasted a lot of opportunities to kill some heroes. Fortunately I caught on and managed to make a dungeon that used the early setback and turn it into an advantage, by lucking into a Vampire Bordello and managing to kill some heroes in it.
The most random part of the game is the room cards. There are no guarantees you’ll get a certain room. Still, at the beginning of the game you draw 5 room cards, and 2 spell cards, and then discard any 2 cards in hand, so there is a little wiggle room in setting up. Looking through the available cards in the game revealed that each room associated with a type of hero (Fighter, Mage, Cleric and Thief) also had a certain theme. For example, Mage cards tend to help drawing extra spells, while Fighter cards help drawing more room cards, or play more rooms, or even getting more rooms from the shared discard pile. So, with a little luck it’s possible to nudge yourself towards a certain play style.
As with a lot of cardgames, the most fun can be had when you manage some combos. This is where the true depth is revealed. For example, Bottomless Pit is a very strong room, allowing you to kill a hero you can’t manage normally. But that’s just one time. However, if you have a Dracolich Lair you can start fishing it out of the discard pile, and if you have some cards that allow you to draw an extra room card, you can keep rebuilding the pit and taking down heroes with it.
There are also Spell cards. You start the game with two of them, but some rooms help to draw more during the game. Spells have a similar role as rooms, but are powerful one-shot effects, and often can infuence opponents directly. Unlike room cards, you don’t draw more spells automatically, and that’s fine; The focus is on building dungeons, after all.
One of the people I’ve played a demo game with wasn’t really sure if it was the game for him, because it appears very random when you play it for the first time, and don’t really know your options, or what to expect. I do think that once you learn a bit about the game, there are enough opportunities to strategize and control the flow of the game a little better. Figuring out all the tricks and combinations makes it even more tactical, so you can make better use of opportunities. Furthermore, the game has a little bit of rubberbanding here and there, with cards like The Fool, a weak hero that goes to the dungeon of the player who is behind the furthest and who will probably die.
Heroes will just stay in town if you manage to create an equilibrium with the treasure types opponents have. And the longer the game lasts, the less random things become. Embracing the early randomness did help me win a game through luck, so even that is an option. Looking around what’s happening on the table goes a long way in timing when heroes enter your dungeon, or trying to steal them from other players.
Design wise it’s not the most elegant of games. With seperate hero, room and spell decks it has lots of moving parts for what seems a simple game. The expansion adds another deck. the fact that you’ll need to add/remove certain cards depending on the number of players is somewhat cumbersome, but I can see why it’s done; There is some balance in when the Epic heroes show up and speed things up a little.
The hero deck could have been more; Aside from The Fool there isn’t much variation. Ordinary heroes only differ in type and and the number of hitpoints (4-8HP) and do little to distinguish themselves from each other except for flavour. The expansion helps mixing things up by giving the heroes items. I haven’t played with the expansion yet, but they do seem to make the heroes a little more unique and exciting.
Conclusion: I like this game. It’s portable, funny, quick and it has some nice hidden depths. It’s easy enough to explain and random enough for new players to at least stand a chance. It might get a little repetative after a while, but most short games have that. It’s interesting enough for me to keep an eye on expansions and maybe even chase down a promo or two. There still is some room for small improvements here and there, but there are no obvious flaws so far.
If you like dungeon crawling, and can appreciate the pixelized art style, and you’re not worried about a little randomness in your game, I can recommend this.