Villainous: An Asymmetric Experiment for Beginners
For those who hate the mundane, the normal, or the simplistic, and easily tire of equal and even player rules, powers, and/or win conditions, a new game mechanic has begun to make its way to many tabletops. Many players are looking for change, excitement, extra strategy, and for some reason, a absurdly difficult time teaching a game to a new player. Asymmetric games promise this with a vastly different gaming experience for each player seated at the table. The mechanics, rules, and even win and lose conditions will have no connections to any other player, outside of a cohesive story, theme, and setting. The appeal of these games, on paper, is the ability to provide a completely different strategy from one player to another, allowing incredible re-playability for the game. As you tire of the mechanics of one player character, you can move to another, effectively playing a different game.
But the promise of many different roles, rules, and strategies, comes with it a guaranteed headache for the person unfortunate enough to be teaching the game. No longer are you able to teach one set of rules to four players, but instead you need to teach four rule sets to four players. It’s not enough that each player knows how to play their respective player character, but they also need to know how every other character works so they can build an effective strategy to win. Because of all this, at it’s best, the first game resembles organized chaos, a throw away game with the subtitle, “No One Wins, It’s a Learning Game.” But at its worse, the game ends before it’s begun, everyone is left frustrated, having spent hours trying to understand the rule book, the teacher, and the game concepts, and the game is angrily thrown back onto the shelf, never to make it to the table again.
This has been my fear whenever I have seen a asymmetric board game at my local game shop, and have been tempted to buy it. I feel confident I that I can learn the rules and the strategies for each role, but I lack the confidence in teaching these same concepts to my gaming group. Games like Root remain on my shelf un-played, while other games like Vast and Spirit Island remain in my online shopping cart in a sort of limbo, because I feel immediate anxiety whenever I begin to imagine the pre-game tutorial, and try to determine how best to teach four different games in an effective and efficient manner. Can I possibly teach three other players well enough so they are confident in their ability to play the game, but still have enough time after the “How to Play” to play a full game? I didn’t think so, so Root has remained on the shelf, a light coating of dust clinging to its lid, and a semi regular email is sent to me, reminding me that Spirit Island is still stuck in my shopping cart, ready for a new and loving home.
I thought this would be my life. I thought I would remain content with the bog standard board game. I never thought I would dabble in the kinky and strange. Root would live under a metaphorical bed, hiding from prying and judgemental eyes. Someday it may be found by a curious child and I would have to explain a period of experimentation, with cheeks flushed, and voice high and broken as if I were going through puberty, earnestly trying to convince them that it was only once, and never got used again.
But, my wife had another idea, and wanted to try new things; she was always more adventurous than I. She has always been a fan of Disney films, and can often be found curled up on the couch, with a bowl of popcorn,wrapped in a blanket, singing along to The Little Mermaid. So, it wasn’t much of a surprise that when she found out about the game Villainous, she immediately wanted it without so much as having read one review, or finding out what kind of game it was (we also have Star Trek 5 Year Mission because of her obsession with nostalgia).
I, on the other hand, knew about Villainous. At the start I heard about the reviews, and the throngs of gamers touting the game, its mechanics, its art, and its ability to tug at the heart strings of every person who remembers watching Alice in Wonderland, Snow White, Hercules, or Robin Hood on VHS as a child. Disney sure knows how to make a person want to spend money on anything associated with those damn mouse ears. But nostalgia was never a real issue with me, and the game sold out almost instantly upon release, so I had little reason to look at it any closer than I already had. But with it’s good reviews, and my wife constantly reminding me that she wanted it, I decided to buy it as soon as I could, and after a couple of months of waiting, it seemed another printing of the game was on the horizon. I ordered the game, and decided I would learn how to play the game before it arrived. I was pretty quick to discovered I had made a mistake. Why would a family oriented, child focused company like Disney permit a game to be made that used asymmetry in its rules. They did realize that thousand of parents would have to teach this game to their children, right?
Let’s get the easy and straight forward stuff out of the way. On the surface Villainous is a fairly standard “hand management game,” with a heavy dose of “take-that” mechanics. This results in a pretty even game of personal, goal oriented gameplay and take-that player interaction. You focus quite a bit on what you need to do to win, but unlike the average Euro-game, you never forget about the other players at the table. On your turn, you move your character to one of four spaces on your board, giving you an assortment of several actions. You might discard cards you don’t need, play cards from your hand to your board or your discard pile that advance the game towards your final goal, gain power pieces necessary to play most cards, move cards already placed on your board, and vanquish hero cards placed by other players because they hate you. You see, the “take-that” aspect of the game lets you play cards from another players fate deck to their player board. These cards are frequently heroes from the players specific Villain character’s movie. If you’re Ursula, a fate card may be played to your board with Ariel, Sebastian, or Flounder pictured, and at it’s best it will slightly delay what you wanted to do next turn, or at it’s worse, cause you to play a catch up game that you will never recover from.
So far, so good.
But the problems arose when I found out that the players win conditions change dramatically from one Villain to the next, as do the methods they use to get to that win condition. Some characters have a third deck they draw from, like Dr. Facilier. The Queen of Hearts will need you to setup card guards and take take a golf shot, hoping to score low enough. Three titans need to make it to Mount Olympus if you’re playing as Hades. Prince John is a simple and greedy bloke, and just wants 20 power at the start of a turn. I was immediately regretting my decision, and I wondered if I could cancel the order and somehow convince my wife she wouldn’t like the game? I wouldn’t get the chance. The package arrived faster than I had anticipated, and before I knew what was happening, my wife was squealing with anticipation as she opened the box, ready to play the first game right away. I held my head high, sat at the table with confidence, and checked my voice for strain or weakness, before I began to explain the game to my wife, who was clearly too excited about the card art showing pictures of Ariel and the Prince to notice that my steely exterior was showing its flaws.
I’m not going to pretend that I explained the game flawlessly. I don’t expect you to believe that our first, or second, or even third game went completely smooth. We made mistakes. The corners of the rule book were heavily curled by the frequent rule checking. Most often the other players fate cards were played with no semblance of strategy as neither of us could remember what the other player had to do to win the game. In fact, we constantly found ourselves forgetting our own win conditions. More than once had I realized I could have won the game a few turns prior if I hadn’t forgotten one part of my victory condition. But we persisted, mainly because of my wife’s giddiness every time one of her favorite characters got drawn from the deck, and we eventually made it to the point where we felt comfortable with the game, having learned what our favorite characters were, and some good strategies to win with one character, and good strategies to use to ruin another players victory.
Villainous was a game that would never have interested me, had it not been for my wife’s strong desire to play the game. If you’re like me, you probably love board games far more than your partner does, so you’re always excited when you don’t have to convince or pressure your partner into playing a game, even if it’s Star Trek 5 Year Mission or Monopoly Deal. But my desire to play games that my wife enjoyed faltered when I discovered the one game she actively sought to play was asymmetrical in nature, and I would need to teach it to her. Was I wasting money on another game that would find a similar fate as Root on my gaming shelf? Well, I am very happy to say that I was wrong. I was able to learn the game, I was able to effectively teach it, albeit with a bit of yelling and swearing from both my wife and myself, and more importantly, I was able to enjoy the game.
The game would not sit so prominently on my shelf if it weren’t for my wife’s love of the game. I can guarantee, if asked what game she would like to play, she will always reply Villainous. She clearly loves the game far more than I do, and sees the game through rose tinted glasses. I'm far more critical though, and I definitely see the ragged edges peeking through the veneer of mouse ears and an elegantly written family name. I’m happy that there is player interaction, but downtime can be quite long if you’re playing with heavy thinkers wanting to play the perfect game. I have only played Villainous as a 2 player games, and only see it as such, as the down time between turns in a game with more than 2 players sounds tedious, boring, and ridiculously drawn out. I believe with the large amount of characters playable out of the box, and even more with the optional two expansions, the game will continue to feel fresh for quite a while. But once you’ve played a character enough times, I do think the game will become more automatic as the strategy to win with any given character becomes clear to you. And also, many of the characters feel quite unbalanced, either leaning from the stupidly easy to the “I can’t possibly win with her,” extremes. Prince John is frankly not allowed in my house as he has never lost. Adversely, my wife is adamant that she wants to figure out how to play Ursula well, but she has yet to win with her.
But for all these faults, the game excels at many good things that will keep it coming back to my table for the foreseeable future. No one can say Disney doesn’t know how to market their products, and Villainous is no exception, with its fantastic art present on each and every card that’s pulled directly from each movie, the excellently chosen Villains that range from classics to modern favorites, and the wonderful and colorful minimalist pieces representing each character. At the 2 player count, the roughly 45 minutes play time is perfect for a short evening, or as a game to start or end a full night of games. And after learning the game, and becoming comfortable with it, the asymmetric characters are a wonderful relief from the norm of playing the same game over and over, with the same strategy being used. Do you want a straight forward game and shorter game? Play with Prince John and Hades. Do you fancy a little more difficulty? You’ll love Jafar and Hook. Do you know the game so well that you never refer to the rule book? Ursula and Dr. Facilier are right up your alley. And you know that Disney loves your money, so there will surely be a ridiculous amount of future expansions released, so many that I will likely need a separate Kallax shelf to hold it all.
I like this game. I like it a lot. I might not always want to play it. I may recoil a bit after the 10th straight time my wife asks to play it. And it’s definitely not in my top 10 games. But I would definitely recommend the game if someone asks. You’re enjoyment of the game will greatly depend on whether you have a strong emotional response to images of door mice, an alligator with a clock, or a colorful caterpillar, but I really think that even if the Disney channel wasn’t burned into the screen of your family TV as a child, you’ll find something enjoyable in this game and its mechanics.
But for me, having praised this game for the things and ideas included in its box, what I enjoyed most about it was the experiment or the litmus test it provided. It provided results that I wasn’t expecting, but was very happy to see. Without realizing it, Villainous was a test from the beginning, and by the end of the first two months of owning and playing the game, the results were clear. Asymmetric games may have a tough learning curve, they may require more dedication, and they may lead to petty fights and anger, but, for me at least, I now know I can teach a game like Root or Spirit Island, and eventually enjoy it, albeit with some initial growing pains.