10 April 2017
The first tabletop title from the developer of the world’s biggest video game is a triumph of production, narrative and mechanics
Let’s get this out of the way: although Mechs vs Minions is the first tabletop release from Riot Games and is set in the same universe as the video game developer’s massively successful MOBA League of Legends, you don’t need to enjoy or even be familiar with League to appreciate the board game.
In fact, one of Mechs’ greatest strengths is how fully-formed the hefty and sizeable package feels. The contents come packed in multiple layers like a glorious chocolate box of plastic miniatures, cards, dice and tokens, offering the same level of childlike glee as you dig through to discover the many delights within.
Frankly, the production values are astounding considering both the relatively reasonable price tag (around £65) and the sheer number of components crammed in, from the four pre-painted mechs to the dozens of minion models, which aren’t painted but do come washed to accentuate their well-sculpted features and various expressive poses.
This level of finish extends to every component, big or small: the map tiles feature laminated sections to add texture to oil slicks and other environmental effects, while the player boards and cards feel robust. There are even metal gears and coins! The smart packaging (in an especially thoughtful move, any one of the 100 minion models will fit snugly in any space) and universally high quality make setting up and packing away easy and fast, an achievement worth mentioning given the number of pieces involved.
If any concerns of Mechs being a cheap cash-in (which wouldn’t be a shock considering League’s 100 million monthly players) aren’t dispelled by the components, the gameplay will put such cynicism to bed for good.
Taking the card-driven programming framework of Richard Garfield’s Robo Rally, where players draft cards to their individual six-slot boards and then execute movement, attacks and other actions in order, Mechs vs Minions expands the engaging system with an evolving set of objectives and environments, from escorting a volatile bomb across the map to defending a burning building from waves of encroaching baddies.
The missions follow a set structure, beginning with a superbly natural tutorial before quickly moving onto the opening of legacy-style envelopes, which can contain new cards, components and game mechanics.
All of the in-game text is written with a snappy wit – we’ll leave you to guess at the contents of Operation: Magical Banana. One particularly fun touch is that each mission ends with a TV serial-style ‘next time on Mechs vs Minions’ lead-in to the following assignment – a single mission only takes around an hour or two to play, but prepare to wave goodbye to your weekend once you’re hooked.
At first, the gameplay can feel a little chaotic, as you end up spinning in circles, missing enemies with attacks, bumping into walls and bumbling around the map. Within minutes, however, the accessible gameplay reprograms your own brain, allowing you to adjust to your mech’s particular set of repeating actions and learn how best to augment the move set with each new card.
The four elements – fire, electric, metal and computery – each support a particular play style and can be stacked, which opens up more advanced abilities for each card and also supports greater player control over their machine’s movements. There are just three core types of action – attack, move and turn – plus passive effects such as the chance to draw extra cards, but each has multiple variations, providing plenty of room for tactical shifts. As with the rest of the components, the artwork on the cards is just brilliant, with the vivid cartoon depictions and popping colours adding to the bright and joyous presence of the entire game when laid out.
Unlike the frustrating habit of accidentally driving off the map or into traps and thus having to reboot in Robo Rally, mechs cannot be killed (fail states instead come from failing a mission objective), which helps to alleviate some of the pressure and frustration. This isn’t to say the game is a pushover, however – the various challenges require thoughtful play to complete – but there’s enough leeway to allow players of all experiences to feel that they are progressing.
What mechs are trying to avoid is taking damage from minions. The minions are ant-like in their ubiquity and frailty – expect to place dozens in some missions as they relentlessly respawn, then remove just as many as you stomp, burn, slash and explode through them.
If the minions, which all move at the end of the players’ turns, do catch up with one of the robots, they will deal random damage cards. These can be temporary annoyances (ie. swap two of your programming slots) or permanent handicaps that require repairing to overcome (such as forcing you to draw the top card of your deck and execute the move, messing up a carefully-planned routine). Taking damage mainly results in increasingly erratic behaviour from the mechs (the luck of dice often comes into play), which makes it harder to complete objectives but raises plenty of real-life laughs as they spin out of control.
Although the deck of command cards is shared by all four players, the mechs feel distinctive thanks to unique one-time-use abilities activated by dispatching a certain number of enemies – the final level requires 75 kills, to give you an idea of just how many you’ll be sending to meet their minion maker. As the number of available schematics increases, players can choose any two to take with them – adding another layer of variability to each mission. The powers feel genuinely useful and diverse, with some providing the chance to repair damage and others expanding the range of offensive moves.
Mechs vs Minions’ campaign lasts for 10 missions, making a whole playthrough around 10 to 20 hours depending on your group, but – like in a video game – a hard mode unlocks upon completion, encouraging a second playthrough.
Plus, while the envelopes and evolving ruleset are reminiscent of legacy games, there’s not quite the same sense of a one-way progression, meaning you can easily opt to replay scenarios you’ve already finished if you feel so inclined. Actually, the components included in the box are flexible enough to support different objective formats that it’s not hard to imagine fan-made custom missions being simple to implement – or you could just try picking some of your favourite elements and smashing them together.
As someone who had dipped their toe into Riot’s video game work and was left cold, I approached Mechs vs Minions with no shortage of trepidation. What I discovered is a game that stands alone as an elegantly crafted creation in every regard, from the exceptional physical components through to the refined card-programming mechanics and captivating narrative flow and variation from mission to mission.
Mechs vs Minions is a joy to look at, a delight to play and a co-operative experience that will stay with you long after you pack it away – assuming you resist the urge to just keep playing and playing, that is. Who could blame you, when the experience is this good?
Mechs vs Minions is everything a board game should be: a pleasure to look at and handle, mechanically gripping, easy to understand, thematically inviting and never frustrating or boring. Every element has clearly been made with care and results in a standout experience on the tabletop – regardless of your feelings or interest in League of Legends.
Publisher: Riot Games
Genre: Co-op programming
Time: 60-90 minutes
This review originally appeared in the April/May 2017 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.