Mechs vs. Minions should be too good to be true. It burst on to the scene out of "nowhere" with production values that are in no way, shape, or form in line with its retail cost. To top it off, every early review (all of which hit within a narrow time window) were glowing pronouncements that this game would be the next big thing. Sometimes hype is warranted though, especially when the "nowhere" that Mechs Vs. Minions came out of was the mind and pocketbooks of Riot Games, the developer of the most popular online game in the world, League of Legends.
I usually talk about the components and productions values of games in a blurb near the end of my reviews, but in Mechs Vs. Minions there is simply no denying that the production values are extreme, and the value of the "stuff" in the box is absolutely unmatched at the game's $75 price-point. Not only are some of the miniatures pre-painted but the cardboard, printing, insert, and box are all of the highest quality. The game boards are double sided and the printing is nicer than just about every other game I've played, even going so far as to have different terrain elements printed, or painted, with different textures. Even the Minion miniatures (of which there are 100) that aren't fully pre-painted are primed and washed, which is more than nearly every other game on the market offers. I almost never mention price, except in extreme cases, and in this case, the price for Mechs Vs. Minions is extremely pro-consumer. It's really hard to overstate just how nice the components of this game are.
It's incredibly pretty, but all the chrome in the world doesn't mean much if the game isn't any fun. Riot obviously spent a ton of money on the production values of the game, but they also must have spent an equal amount of resources on the game's development. Mechs Vs. Minions is fun. It's really fun. It's apparent that the gameplay was well thought out and tested extremely thoroughly, and it's equally apparent that Riot has been paying attention to the pulse of the boardgaming world, as they've borrowed some of the more en-vogue mechanics from other recent games and used them to full effect in Mechs Vs. Minions.
At its core, Mechs Vs. Minions is a relatively simple, fully cooperative action-programming game. Each player has a Command Line that matches their chosen Mech, and the players draft Command cards from a small pool each round and slot them into their Command Line. There are only 12 different Command cards for players to choose from, and the way that the players' Mechs behave is entirely determined by the cards that are placed in the Command Line. On the players' turn, they activate their Mechs by following their Command Line, left to right, executing exactly the action listed on the Command Cards slotted therein.
On first blush, the gameplay is almost too simplistic, and looks like it could be extremely limiting. Once you dig in and start to play, especially when you really look at the alternate uses for each card, and how you can power the cards up, it becomes apparent that the facade of simplicity only exists because the game is so easy to learn and play. Even though you have to pre-plan your moves, there is so much you can do, and the programmed actions usually offer some choice with their activation. Additionally, the cards gain power as they are stacked on top of other cards of the same element, which adds a nice strategic element to the game. Each card ends up having four different functions, and it is really satisfying to build up an effective Command Line. Arranging your cards properly, including choosing when to stack the cards, can mean the difference between watching your Mech do something semi-random and planning for and executing a series of intricate and effective commands.
It's actually quite surprising how much control you have over your Mech, especially if you work together with your teammates when you are drafting cards. To top it off, most of the drafting phases are timed, which allows players to plan, albeit quickly, without giving any one player enough time to dictate exactly what everyone else should take.
Despite the control the players have, the damage system in the game can throw a wrench in the players' works quickly. When Mechs take damage, they draw cards from the damage deck, which either effect the order of their Command Line or straight-up overlay Command Cards that the players have programmed. You certainly want to avoid taking damage, but the system works so seamlessly and often yields hilarious results that are often as unintentionally genius as they are disastrous.
Another great feature of the game are the semi-Legacy style elements. If you aren't familiar with the term, Legacy games refer to games such as Risk Legacy, Pandemic Legacy, and Seafall, which permanently evolve and change over time as you play. Mechs Vs. Minions has many sealed envelopes and one large sealed box that add mechanics, cards, and other things to the game, and help the game evolve and get more complex as you successfully complete missions. Without getting too spoiler-y, most of the sealed missions introduce new rules and mechanics, although they don't permanently physically alter the game in the way that most other Legacy games do, and so players can easily sort things back out and re-seal things for future playthroughs, although, once you've played with more advanced rules, it's kind of anticlimactic to unlock things you already know about. That does hurt the replayability of the game, but there is plenty of content to play through before you'd need to replay anything.
Mechs Vs. Minions does a great job of allowing players to learn on the fly, and a new group of players can essentially set it up and play without having to read any rules ahead of time. Unfortunately, the new rules and mechanics that are introduced in new missions aren't always introduced completely enough, even with the help of the expanded rules in the rulebook. These rules ambiguities shouldn't bring anyone's game to a screeching halt, but some of them are egregious enough to cause confusion. My group generally comes to a consensus, and we continue to play without too much of an issue, but for people who really like to play games by rules-as-written, this could cause some problems. It really is an unfortunate stumble for a game that hits so many other high-points. All-told, if you are really interested in this game, I wouldn't let those few hiccups stop you from grabbing a copy.
The bottom line:
Mechs Vs. Minions is awesome, although there are enough rules ambiguities holding it back that it doesn't quite make it to classic status. The value of the components, and the quality of those components, are best-in-class, and the deceptively simple, yet remarkably accessible and strategic gameplay make this a serious game of the year contender. At the retail price-point for this game, it's impossible not to recommend unless you absolutely hate cooperative games. Everyone else should own a copy, because there is just so much here to like and so much fun to be had with the game.
Get this game if:
You enjoy cooperative games.
You like Legacy-style games.
You like action-programming games.
Avoid this game if:
You prefer Euro-style games.
You hate cooperative games.
The copy of Mechs Vs. Minions used for this review was provided by Riot Games.