Saturday, August 20, 2016

Board Game Review: King of Tokyo

King of Tokyo is a dice-chucking game designed by Richard Garfield (creator of Magic: The Gathering), originally published by IELLO Games in 2011, in which players take the role of epic Godzilla-sized monsters battling for supremacy over Tokyo. Players roll a handful of dice each turn, picking which results to keep and re-rolling any unwanted dice two more times, Yahtzee-style, for a total of three rolls. The dice results determine your actions for that turn: each claw rolled deals a point of damage to other monsters, each heart heals you by one point, each lightning bolt gives you energy to spend on upgrade cards (which can grant you permanent bonuses or one-time benefits), and rolling three or more of the same number grants you that many star points.

At the heart of the game is Tokyo city, where monsters vie for control via a king of the hill type of mechanism -- only one monster can be in Tokyo at a time (two if playing with five or six players), and you get star points for going into and staying in Tokyo. While in Tokyo, your attacks hit every monster outside of Tokyo, but you can't heal unless you cede the city and flee to the outskirts, allowing someone else to swoop in and lay claim to Tokyo. Meanwhile, every monster outside of Tokyo attacks inwards, hitting whomever's in Tokyo. You win the game by being the first to reach 20 star points, or by being the last monster standing.

The relatively light rules, short playtime (30 minutes, according to the box), and whimsical nature of the game, what with its cartoon monsters punching each other and evolving over the course of the game to gain jet packs and fire breathing abilities, among countless other possibilities, all combine to make King of Tokyo a consensus "gateway" or "family" game. This is the type of game you buy when you're first getting into the hobby, or when you want a game to play with people who aren't interested in heavy strategy games with lots of rules and complexities. Its esteemed reputation among board game enthusiasts on BoardGameGeek and r/boardgames gave me enough confidence to buy King of Tokyo two years ago, when I was first starting my board game collection, and indeed, it was a lot of fun early on. But now, two years later, I just don't enjoy it very much.

The six monsters of the base game. From left to right: Meka Dragon, 
Alienoid, The King, Cyber Bunny, The Kraken, and Gigazaur.

At first glance, the game makes it seem like you have a lot of options open to you at any given moment, with several different strategies to pursue: are you going to be aggressive and try to win by just knocking everyone else's health down to zero, or are you going to be more passive and try to roll combinations of numbers to score star points, or do you want to build up a lot of energy so you can buy upgrade cards, or do you want to try to get in and hold Tokyo as long (and as often) as possible? When it comes down to it, however, this is a game of pure chance, and more often than not you're stuck simply doing what the dice tell you to do. In effect, King of Tokyo often feels like a game of "roll the dice three times and see what happens," with any strategy frequently offset or determined by random luck.

A lot of times, your decision of how to play the game is almost made for you by your initial roll on each turn -- if you roll a bunch of threes, you're not going to pass on those unless you're on the verge of death and in dire need of healing. Other times, when you have a specific goal in mind at the start of your turn, like "I just need two energy to buy this card I've been trying to get for three turns," you find yourself bitterly disappointed when you come up short and don't get what you need. Other times, you can find yourself frustrated beyond belief when the dice force you to do the exact opposite of what you wanted, like when you're low on health and just want to heal, and on your final roll you get stuck with a bunch of claws which force the current occupant of Tokyo out of the city, thereby forcing you to go in and likely take a beating while you're already low on health.

I'm generally fine with random elements in games, but I find the randomness in King of Tokyo just a little too much to bear. For starters, there are virtually no ways to manipulate the dice to mitigate luck, unless you're lucky enough to get one of four cards from the 66-card deck (only three of which are displayed for purchase at a time) that let you change dice, but even these are lackluster. They form such a small percentage of cards that you could play multiple games in a row and never see any of them, just by random luck of the shuffling. Even if you do get one of these cards, they're so limiting ("change any one of your dice to a 1," "change one die to any result, then lose this ability," etc) that they're almost useless. Meanwhile, I don't like that some dice can do absolutely nothing for you, allowing for the possibility of definitively "bad" rolls if you end up with something like two 2s and two 3s, wherein two-thirds of your dice are completely wasted with no effect.

A sample of upgrade cards, with their energy cost in the top left and 
effect description on the bottom.

Obviously, the randomness is supposed to work well in a party or family setting where you might want an even playing field so that everyone, regardless of skill level or familiarity with the game, has a nearly even chance of winning the game. But even in these types of settings I find the gameplay lacking. Player elimination is never a good thing in modern game design (how can anyone be having fun if they're forced not to participate) and King of Tokyo actively encourages it. Sure, you don't have to be aggressive, and the rules for who you attack take a lot of the personal sting out of it, but I've seen a lot of people get eliminated in the first 10-15 minutes of the game, sometimes because of one bad decision, and then they have to sit and watch for 30 minutes, meaning they immediately lose interest and tune out.

King of Tokyo is sometimes described as a "filler" game, the type of fast, simple game you play to kill time waiting for others to show up, or when people want to play another game at the end of the night but don't have enough time for a longer game. The box claims a 30 minute playing time, but my playtimes average much closer to 45 minutes, which I feel is a little too long to play a game about rolling dice and seeing what happens. The game always seems to drag on longer than it should because of how it forces people to shy away from game-winning strategies like aggressive offensive or scoring points when they get under half health, re-rolling claws and numbers so that they can heal their wounds just to stay in the game longer, thereby extending the game several rounds just to maintain a status quo.

The first expansion, Power Up, is considered by many gamers to be an essential addition to the base game because it adds a little extra weight and complexity to the game. In the base game, the only difference between monsters is cosmetic; they all function exactly alike, until you start purchasing upgrade cards with energy. With the Power Up expansion, each monster gets its own unique "evolution" deck that roughly matches that monster's theme and appearance. Meka Dragon, for instance, has a lot of ways to deal extra damage, whereas The King gets extra bonuses for being in Tokyo. Per the official rules, you can choose to start the game with everyone drawing a random evolution from the top of their deck, or else begin symmetrically with no evolutions. You can gain additional evolutions over the course of the game any time you roll three hearts. This, however, has the effect of prolonging the game even longer as people spend more turns rolling for hearts, even when they don't need them, just to get an evolution card.

The Power Up expansion, with one sample evolution card from 
each monster's deck of eight. 

Power Up is indeed a nice addition to King of Tokyo, because it makes it just a little bit more of a gamer's game. And since it's a modular addition, you can choose to incorporate it with more advanced gamers or leave it out when playing with less experienced players. I like how it gives monsters a bit of personality, though I've had a few players (myself included) end up not liking their favorite monster's decks. Part of it is, simply, that there's a lot of variance within each monster's deck, with some cards just being more useful than others. "Twas Beauty Killed the Beast" in The King's deck, for instance, gives him a bonus point after each player's turn (including his own) as long as he's still in Tokyo, but he loses all of his stars if he ever leaves. One player drew that as his very first evolution and was never able to play it during the entire game, because he knew he'd get killed or knocked out of Tokyo before winning the game, which would set him further back from winning. Meanwhile, everyone else had some kind of useful evolution that was helping them from the very beginning, and he felt bitter and frustrated by his "useless" card.

I've played King of Tokyo with five different groups of people, including my usual gaming group of personal friends, my extended family, and three different groups of coworkers. My family said it was fun, but no one was visibly excited by anything and enjoyed other games we played that night (Tales of the Arabian Nights and Survive: Escape From Atlantis) better. My usual gaming group played it twice when I first bought it, and we've never played it since. The first group of coworkers liked it at first, but then I introduced them to Pandemic and no one wanted to go back. The second group of coworkers loved it. The third group of coworkers did not care for it at all and stated they would rather play any other game I'd brought previously (One Night Ultimate Werewolf, Dixit, Spyfall, The Metagame, FUSE, etc). In essence, King of Tokyo has only been a hit with one out of five groups, in my experience, while everyone else was indifferent about it or actively disliked it.

A closer look at the dice, energy cubes, and tokens used to track 
abilities from upgrade cards. 

I originally rated King of Tokyo an 8/10 on BGG's scale ("Very good. Like to play, will probably suggest it, will never turn it down") when I started playing it two years ago, but I've since lowered that score to a 6/10 ("Fair. Some fun or challenge at least, will play occasionally if in the right mood"), though I'm tempted to lower that score even further because there are plenty of other games I've rated the same (or lower) that I'd rather play over King of Tokyo. Maybe I'm just not a big fan of dice-rolling Yahtzee-style games, but even within this specific sub-genre, I own other similar types of games that I'd much rather play: Cosmic Run for its greater ways to use and manipulate the dice, and the fact that no die is ever completely wasted; Run Fight or Die for its heavier thematic involvement and the almost puzzle-like player boards; and Bang! The Dice Game for its shorter playtime and hidden roles.

There's some excitement to be had while playing King of Tokyo, like those moments when someone rolls five or six claws and manages to knock two or more monsters out of the game, or when someone rolls a bunch of 3s and skyrockets up the star points dial, but these moments of glory are usually offset by the much more frequent occasions when you just want one more heart, or one more energy, or one more claw, or one more number, and can't for the life of you get the dice to roll in your favor. The components are all well-produced, with the over-sized, custom-engraved dice and the sturdy character stands and dials, and the theme offers the game a fun, whimsical tone that just about anyone can enjoy. Sadly, the gameplay doesn't always do it for me, or the people I've played with, as it often feels like the game is playing itself, and you're just rolling the dice to see what happens. 

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