Monster Mayhem: When board games go bad
Once a film is successful it will be remade, rebooted, reimagined, prequelled, sequelled, and trequelled with reckless abandon, often with less than stellar results. The end products tend to be weak imitations of the original; the Star Wars prequels, the fourth Indiana Jones film, the remake of Total Recall… the list goes on and inevitably on. Filmmakers are looking for a safe bet, so they take an already popular movie, ideally tinged with nostalgia, turn it into a franchise and then milk it for every penny. People will see it because of the original, rather than take a chance on some random arthouse film when disposable income is tight. If and when the franchise dies, then there are plenty of other previous imaginings that can be mined. Very rarely, if ever, has anyone tried the opposite – taking a poor film and fixing it. Imagine someone taking ‘Batman and Robin’, keeping all the key elements like Mr Freeze and Poison Ivy, but actually trying to make it, you know, good.
You could do the same thing with board games, and our game of the week, Monster Madness, is crying out for the fix-up treatment. The premise is simple; each player is a classic movie monster; vampire, mummy, zombie, werewolf, and… poltergeist? Ok maybe not that last one. These ghouls have to prey on puny humans to feed their various cravings, for blood, organs, brains, bones, or spirit. The creature that manages to munch their monster mandibles the most wins. Sounds like a bit of silly, over the top light-hearted fun, right? What could go wrong?
The devil, unfortunately, is in the detail, and the detail is where this game falls on its face. High on theme, poor on mechanics, it’s not clear exactly who this is aimed at. The zany box art hints at family-friendly graveyard-smash hijinks, but some of the characters, like the ‘back-handing pimp’ and ‘strung out crack whore’ indicate that this was intended for adults.
The basic idea is simple – roll to move, roll to chow down on a juicy human, roll to fight another monster. You get to roll a certain number of dice and pick the highest number, and either move that number of squares or compare the number to what your opponent got. If you get higher, you win. That’s more or less it. The unlikeable humans, like the snooty yuppie or hard-nosed businessman, are presumably that way so you don’t feel too bad about gobbling them up, but they are clichéd stereotypes often bordering on the offensive. It’s all a bit early 2000s edgy, a little cringe, a little crass, like watching a Limp Bizkit music video in 2018. The game is made to look dated, like it’s from the 1980s, but it’s actually a relic from the more recent past.
Components are hit and miss. The dice are fun – green and purple luminous affairs – and the monster miniatures are well made. Some of the cardboard tokens are too small, although the monster tiles themselves feature good artwork. The cards are a reasonable standard, but the board is just a big hex-grid. The rule book is a dense, poorly laid-out wall of text; far too hard to digest, given that the basic game mechanics are reasonably simple. It manages to make a straightforward game complicated. The monster cards are similar – they need to be easy to understand at a glance, instead of something you must peer at and read through, especially if you have a fistful of them.
The game is modular, with each location on a cardboard tile needing to be set out before you can begin. The locations are hard to distinguish from each other, and the system isn’t that intuitive, with no helpful reminders on the board as to what each location is or does (some give you bonuses, some you can’t enter). You also have to waste time moving all the victims each round before your ghoul can go gobble them up.
Monster Mayhem features one of my pet hates, by using its own words for terms that already have them. Moving is ‘stalking’ for example. If you mean move, say move. It’s like in a bad sci-fi flick where someone casually intones ‘We’re about 12 hableems away from that planet. If we maintain current speed, we’ll be there in 7 fleems.’ ‘Craving’ points (sigh) function as energy, health, and victory points all in one. While this is interesting in a sense, as you have to decide whether to use up victory points to boost your powers, the actual mechanics of it are so dull that you never feel like doing it. And that’s the cardinal sin this game commits – it’s boring. A great theme, mostly descent artwork, quality miniatures and each monster having special powers and weaknesses just can’t make up for the humdrum plodding tedium of playing it.
There’s a fantastic game here begging to come out. There are lots of ways this could be made more enjoyable. Get rid of having to move the victims, and having to beat them to snack on them. Dispose of having intended victims (worth more victory points to your monster), and replace it with a chaotic early game with victims aplenty, and a more monster versus monster late game, as easy targets dry up.
Sub in a more interesting mechanic for moving and fighting, tighten up the rules and make the cards and locations clearer. Maybe put in a train that moves around the board which your monster can jump on top of, or flattens anyone who gets in its way. Maybe the vampire, zombie and werewolf can turn victims into more of their kind if they choose, creating problems for the other monsters in the late game, while the mummy has curse powers, and the poltergeist could teleport, move objects or people, or pass through solid objects. There’s loads of things you could do to make this game better. There is definitely a market for a short game where a few supernatural baddies hunt humans and duke it out amongst each other, but a great theme and concept can’t compensate for the many failings here.
Like a bad film, multiple different elements can contribute to a bad game – lack of meaningful decisions to make, no different strategies, lack of tension or mystery with no hidden elements, boring mechanics, poor execution (like badly written rules, cards, or layout) long set-up time, player elimination, no fixed end point, games that are hard to learn, and easy to master. Monster Mayhem features most of them. Budding game designers, and film makers – any chance you could fix something broken, and make it better, rather than copying old successes until they get worn out like an old photocopy? It would make me very happy.