|Mechs vs. Minions (2016)
|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Light [2.43]
|Chris Cantrell, Rick Ernst, Stone Librande, Prashant Saraswat and Nathan Tiras
Mechs vs Minions may have the single most refined ratio of price to production that you’ll find in any tabletop game anywhere. For $75, direct from the Riot Games storefront, you get an absolutely massive box big enough to bury a beagle. It’s filled to the brim with painted mechs, unpainted minions in their legions, and a slew of other components. There’s even an ornate wooden egg-timer in there. It’s extravagant in a way that its only possible when the game is a work of indulgent passion subsidized by one of the richest video game companies in the world. It’s a seriously lovely product.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite as lovely as a game. If I were going to end the review here I’d probably sum it up as ‘That’s a lot of plastic wasted on a game that is merely passably entertaining’. So much time, effort and enthusiasm has gone into the presentation of Mechs vs Minions that it’s a shame it doesn’t really live up to the promise implied by the sheer lusciousness of its pieces. I mean, just look at this:
That’s about all I can fit into a photo, but there are another two trays underneath these and a boss minion model that takes up a good proportion of the whole box. There are metal coins and gears in those trays, and underneath those Top Secret mission briefings, player command consoles, and a range of modular terrain tiles. It’s a mini painter’s wet dream. Or possibly the endless nightmare chore that would haunt them in the darkness of some unsettled night. There are after all one hundred of the minion figures, in various different poses, settled into their vacuum formed compartments like the ashen corpses of dead smurfs. There is so much in this box that it actually borders on the frustrating.
The box is heavy and difficult to store. The individual moulded beds for each figure are so much less convenient that a plastic bag of cardboard chits. You spend a lot of your time at the end of the game easing dozens of the figures into the resting pose needed for them to return peacefully into their graves in a way that lets you actually close their coffin. The whole architecture of the inserts is so much more cumbersome than an empty box into which you can throw things carelessly. It all looks so nice when it’s packed away but the insert itself is showing off Mechs vs Minions so heavily over-produced that it’s almost obnoxious. It’s like an aging 80s Yuppie desperately trying to get you to notice and remark about his ostentatious Rolex . I have certainly paid more money for much less in a box. It’s good value. It turns out though that sheer tonnage is a bad metric upon which to base purchasing decisions. Who would have guessed?
Don’t get me wrong. Mechs vs Minions is a decent game. It’s just not a game that deserved this amount of lavish attention. At its core it’s a fairly workaday experience of programming a set of activities into an unreliable console. It’s about linearly executing those instructions in the hope that you manage to achieve mission goals and slaughter a few dozen minions along the way. You play the role of ‘Yordles’ – spirits that tend to manifest in the real world as Furry Erotica. Each of these in the game is mounted on a dubious looking mech of questionable capability. That’s fair, because it’s going to be piloted by someone of equally questionable competence and it would be a waste to give them anything more obviously functional.
Everyone begins the game with a broad understanding of a mission to be accomplished. Players draft instruction cards at the start of each round, slotting them into the most advantageous position they can imagine in the console in front of them. Cards of a compatible category can stack, powering them up so that they can output ever greater amounts of movement, precision and damage. Alternatively players can overwrite the previous contents with new instructions from a different category. The only thing is that when a card is placed it can’t be moved in the normal course of drafting. It can only be overwritten. If a player doesn’t want to slot new programs into their deck they can choose instead to scrap a card to repair damage or swap around otherwise fixed configurations to meet the needs of the current scenario on the board. As you power up a card though you don’t give yourself extra manageability. You give yourself extra power, and you can’t ever dial it down. If you card says ‘Move three spaces’ it means move three spaces. There’s no ‘up to’ implied by the card text. If that means you overshoot your target… well. Maybe you’re just perched atop of too much machine for you to reasonably handle.
The counterpoint here is that lower powered cards often have trade-offs of their own. Many of the damage cards for example have a rotation requirement built in. ‘Turn 90 degrees and then spit fire at everyone in front of you’. That sounds great until you realise that you’re most often not going to want to turn left or right. So you power it up to level two that lets you spit more fire but also lets you turn 90 or 180 degrees. Power it up to level three and you get to face any direction and that’s where you might actually be able to put that power to some targeted use. Whether it does what you expect though depends on all the other cards programmed intro your system.
Every mission will introduce new twists and turns, such as timers that need to be obeyed when drafting or new rules to deal with situations that impact on the school that all your Yordles are apparently attending. Each will have their own rules for spawning minions, moving minions, and conditions upon which victory depends. They’ll also contain an escalation that adds a new wrinkle when a particular mission goal is met. It’s… very frantic.
Consider the starting setup for mission one. There’s a bomb in the base, and you need to get it to the glowing portal by pushing or towing it with any mech that’s in range. Every round, minions will move towards the bomb and any empty rune squares will spawn new minions. There is a constant flow of enemies and any time they get adjacent to the bomb they’ll knock away one of its three health points. If they get adjacent to a mech, they’ll inflict a point of damage and that’s what lends the game its most comedic element.
Damage cards get dealt out to players when they are struck by a minion, and they’ll either be glitches that have a one-time effect or ‘stuck controls’ that get slotted into a random location in your console. Those one time effects might be ‘Turn 90 degrees’. They might be ‘Swap every pair of cards in your console’. The finest Mech killing machine can become a rampaging wreck with one single problematic card in the wrong place. While mechs can’t damage each other they can push each other out of their current position with all the attendant impact that’s going to have on achieving scenario goals.
You can probably tell from this that Mechs vs Minions isn’t exactly a serious game of careful planning and strategizing. The ever-escalating power levels of the mechs mean that while you can often wipe whole armies of minions off the map in a single turn you’re only rarely setup for movement in the way that would let it happen. Instead you’ll turn the wrong way, shoot fire into an empty part of the map. You’ll then turn around, side-step into a patch of oil that sends you careening into another player, and knock them off their square before you fire deadly electricity in all directions except for those that contain a minion. Having knocked your colleague off course they’ll then blast forward directly into the bomb you’re hoping to rescue and shove it aggressively into the largest knot of oncoming minions before merrily rotating around and retreating to the corner of the map. At that point they unleash enough firepower to kill every minion in an eighteen cell neighbourhood if only any were around.
That’s both the greatest strength of Mechs and Minions and its most aggravating weakness. This kind of system works really well as a generator of table comedy… but it absolutely fails miserably in a game that is about accomplishing often complex goals in challenging circumstances. The sheer amount of churn on the board means it plays like a game of golf designed by a psychopath. Imagine standing on a boat in choppy seas while trying to hit a ball into a cup on the back of an agitated Roomba. All of this while an indifferent caddy hands you clubs at random from a club bag that contains useful tools, rubber chickens, and occasional spiders. That’d be hilarious to an onlooker I’m sure. It would be nothing short of infuriating to the poor sod that’s just trying to end the hole so he can go home and drink heavily to erase the experience from his mind.
The problem here for those interested in accomplishment is that your console isn’t remotely agile enough to deal with the anarchy of the board. You can make some minor ‘spot repairs’ to what you’ve got in front of you but you can never simply take the tools you have and use them in their most effective order. I suspect the game would be challenging enough if you could execute commands in whatever way you wanted. You can’t though. You’re stuck trying to update today’s console, designed for yesterday’s catastrophe, for tomorrow’s crises. All the while everything around you is moving and the people supposed to be on your side are making everything worse through their own frustrated activities.
It’s a lot of funny, but unfortunately it’s just not a lot of fun.
On the other hand if you want to approach it less systematically, you’re stuck grinding over the same missions because loosey-goosey programming might kill a lot of minions but it won’t give you the precision you need to actually accomplish the goals. It’s fun to grind through the enemies, for a while, but it doesn’t take you anywhere towards a win.
Let’s look back at mission one. The one just after the tutorial. The easiest of the real missions.
Look at our command console here – this is a beefed up Mech that has a fair degree of speed and manoeuvrability but where it is now means that it’s nowhere near the bomb and might never be. The first three cards laid down here set the guide rails upon which it is going to follow. Three memory cores let it turn to face any direction. It then moves one to two spaces. And then it moves two spaces forward or to either side. That’s a lot of speed, but how does it translate into getting that bomb where it needs to go? The best that can be done really is to turn 180 degrees, move two spaces, then move two spaces forward. That would get it one space behind . But then the two strength skewer forces the mech to move forward two spaces, and the one strength cyclotron forces it to turn 90 degrees again. To push the bomb the mech needs to be behind it and moving it forward. To tow it, it needs to be adjacent and it costs twice as much per square. We end the turn having killed nothing but a bit closer to the bomb. The next turn… well. We could certainly move the bomb but the only place we’d end up sending it is into a nest of minions that would start to pummel on it almost immediately.
On the other hand you can just drive on into the minions and actually thin out their numbers. That’s more fun, especially because minion kills eventually start to unlock the special powers each Yordle builds up over the course of the missions. It’s not getting you any closer to accomplishing the goal though.
Every mission of Mechs vs Minions I have played feels like I’m working my way through one of those steady hands electric buzzer toys and some asshole keeps coming along and nudging my elbow. Screw that guy.
To be fair, this is almost the defining feature of programming games like this. Robo Rally, Colt Express, Jamaica – they’re all built around the comedy generated by the forced and unforced errors of accomplishing goals under uncertain circumstances when you can’t even really control your actions. The thing is – in the games where this works the goals are all simple. They’re not made up of multiple precise deliverables that must be completed in a way that ensures minimal contact with the enemy. It’s all just too hard and not nearly as amusing as it needs to be to make up for it. I already wasn’t succeeding in my attempt push the bomb where I wanted it to go. I didn’t need to not succeed at that the seven times needed to actually land it in the goal. In the several attempts we made at the scenario, we only ever got close once.
I don’t want to overstate this as being a problem with mission one. It’s just that this particular problem with Mechs vs Minions manifests early and it manifests hard. All of the missions have the same feature. The next scenario is a kind of cool ‘protect the base’ mission where you need to defend the school against unending hordes of minions marching to the entrance. It seems like the ideal scenario for a game like this until you find out that to win the mission you need to capture three crystal shards and bring them back to the base. And those crystal shards, as you might imagine, need you to move onto the space, avoiding minions all the while, and then direct your mech back to the entrance. Three times. At its best that’s mission design that drags on.
I didn’t even bother trying for a third mission.
When I first opened up the box and saw only ten dossiers I thought ‘That’s a little bit stingy’ but now I think ‘That’s a bit optimistic’. New missions do open up new powers, damage and so on but they don’t change the core of the game. That core is a game that is about solving puzzles of positioning when there may not even be a solution most of the time. It’s like doing a crossword puzzle where nobody bothered to check if any of the answers resulted in valid intersections.
Part of the problem here too is that we played two players, one mech each – and while each mech does power up quickly you just don’t have the necessary capacity to actually accomplish the goals. You end up half powered across the team with not enough firepower to hold back the tide and too much to do to get anything done. There’s no player-level balancing other than in the draft. It’s possible to play two mechs each but the amount of additional awkwardness in handling the whole thing would also double. It’s already too hard to get things to line up without exponentially increasing that frustration.
In the end my problem with Mechs vs Minion is very simple. You can have anarchic programming or you can have precise, multi-stepped scenario-based goals with campaign progression. You can’t have both at the same time. Individually these elements are good in Mechs vs Minions. I do enjoy the programming aspect of it and I like the sheer minion body-count that you rack up. I could have been pretty satisfied with a game that set scenarios with the goal ‘Survive for X rounds’. I’m a programmer by education and inclination. It’s not a surprise that I’d find that aspect satisfying. Much of my own code is as erratic and unreliable as a Mech console in any case.
On the other hand, I also like the complexity of the mission design and the fact that the game lends itself well to fan developed content. There’s even a scenario tool on the website to support that. I’m told the mission design gets more interesting the farther you get through the game and I’m all onboard with unlockable content that levels up your Yordles. I’d love to make my way through the whole thing if it wasn’t so incredibly frustrating to actually accomplish the goals. The progression system designed into Mechs vs Minions may necessitate a grind given the small number of available missions. The grinding feels like a gating mechanism though. I get enough of those in my video games without relishing them making their way onto my table.
Mechs vs Minions then is a textbook case of broken integration testing. Two parts that are excellent ideas on their own, but when you bring them together the whole thing is much less than the sum of its parts. All wrapped up in a box that is taking up the space that could be occupied by two better games. There’s a waiting list to get hold of new copies of this. I’d say save yourself the trouble and get two other games right now instead.