25 September 2018
This retro trip to the ‘80s is style over substance
The gaming industry is obsessed with the 1980s. From Ghostbusters to The Terminator and Back to the Future, publishers are lining up to tap into Gen X and millennial nostalgia. Now another of the decade’s cult film favourites has made the leap to the tabletop with Big Trouble in Little China, a co-operative adventure based on the 1986 movie by director John Carpenter.
The original film is very much a product of its time, which is a diplomatic way of saying that it’s tinged with unthinking racism. It drew criticism on its release for its stereotypical portrayal of Chinese gangsters and its Fu Manchu-style villain, who leered from promotional posters like something from a 1930s pulp novel. Thankfully, while the game remains true to the ‘80s aesthetic of its source material, it dials back on some of the more troubling elements.
Big Trouble throws players into a battle between good and evil in San Francisco’s Chinatown. As you play you’ll visit a variety of locations, battling hatchet-wielding thugs and monstrous creatures before eventually confronting their boss, the malevolent sorcerer Lo Pan.
The game revolves around a dice-rolling system, with players assigning body, mind and spirit symbols to different types of actions. Each character excels at particular tasks, and the main challenge is finding the most efficient way to spend your dice on every turn. Most often, that means roving around the board kicking bad guys in the face.
There’s also a storytelling element, and each character comes with their own set of quests to fulfil, broken into a series of chapters with a branching succession of decisions to make. Do you confront the demons yourself, or send your martial arts students to take care of them? Do you pursue the robbers who’ve ransacked the local shrine, or stop to tend to the wounded monk they’ve left in their wake?
It feels a lot like the 2014 horror game Dead of Winter. But it lacks the elements of mistrust, manipulation and paranoia which made that game such an effective take on the zombie survival genre. Big Trouble has a tendency to hand one player responsibility for driving the narrative, while the rest of the group performs the repetitive, mechanical work of fighting off baddies.
It’s not the game’s only rough edge. Die in combat and you’ll be reanimated with a hell card, imposing restrictions on your character’s actions. To get rid of it, you’ll need to visit a temple at the edge of the board, taking you off on a dull administrative errand.
Above all, though, this is just a painfully overblown design. It’s full of custom dice, stat trackers, cards, chips, tokens and minis. It piles rules and subsystems one on top of another, but they never quite converge in a way that feels compelling or coherent. And once you’ve defeated Lo Pan’s army of grunts, you’ll have to flip the board over to reveal his lair – a whole new environment to battle through, which makes the first half of the game feel like a preamble to grind past in order to level-up your characters for the final boss fight.
Ultimately it’s inelegant and overambitious and, even if you’re a die-hard fan of the film, there’s not much here to recommend.
Big Trouble in Little China aims to capture the original movie’s action in a big-box board game. But it’s a long, disjointed, undisciplined design that doesn’t distribute the interesting bits equally among players.
Designer: Christopher Batarlis, Boris Polonski
Artist: Hennig Ludvigson, Boris Polonski
Time: 120 minutes
This review originally appeared in the July 2018 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.
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