Boss Monster Review – Ready Players Two to Four
Video games and tabletop games have, for a very long time, consisted of two very unique entities. Until around five years ago, the only crossovers included bad roll-and-resolve games like the Pac-Man Board Game of 1982. Then, suddenly, around five years ago, the unthinkable happened. Not only did video games start getting good adaptations (Bioshock Infinite: Seige of Columbia, This War of Mine, Dark Souls) but also video games started becoming themes in themselves in board games. One such game is the 2013 dungeon-building card game Boss Monster.
Boss Monster is an 8-bit style card game, designed by Johnny and Chris O’Neal, in which players are pitted against each other to create the most deadly dungeon they can for adventurers to die in, for 2-4 players.
It’s a fun and quirky little game that has helped, through its widespread appeal, push video games as a genre within the board gaming world.
The Premise of Boss Monster
Boss Monster has an interesting premise, flipping a dungeon crawler on its head. Rather than playing an adventurer, wanting to gather loot or experience from liberating the realm of a dungeon dwelling monster, you play as the monster, looking to kill off the adventurers.
Each player is randomly dealt a Boss at the start of the game from a selection, granting special abilities to the players at a certain point in the game. This boss they place at the end of their dungeon. It is from that boss that the dungeon blooms.
A set of heroes are then dealt into the middle of the table. The exact number depends on the number of players. These will be important during the adventuring phase.
From a logistical perspective, the players are dealt five rooms and two spells at the start of the game. They must discard two cards and the game begins.
Part 1: Drawing and Building
The first part for the players is to draw a “Room” card and then they can choose to build a room. This can be a standard room, or it can be an advanced room, which is played on top of another card.
Rooms come in two flavours – monster and trap. They also have icons associated with them. These are money bags, swords, books, and Ankhs. A player can build a maximum of five different rooms (and then building a room replaces a room). Once the fifth room has been built, the Boss’s special ability gets triggered, whatever that is.
So, the above Dracolich has an ankh in the bottom corner. The number in the black heart is the amount of damage it will deal an adventurer traveling through. The Dracolich Lair is also an Advanced Monster Room, meaning it can only be played on top of a pre-existing monster Room.
There are also “Spell” cards, which can be played at various times throughout the game to affect both your game and that of your opponents. These have varying effects, some better than others, and can do everything from making your rooms more effective to making your opponent’s dungeon worse.
Part 2: Heroes Come Adventuring
Once everyone has built or passed, then Heroes come adventuring. There are two types of Hero – Heroes and Epic Heroes. The latter are more difficult versions of the former and come into play once the Heroes have all been sent adventuring.
These heroes sit in the middle of the play area, until there is someone with a dominant number of their icon in their dungeon. They then visit that dungeon to work their way through. For instance, if I have two books, and you only have one, then the Mages will visit my dungeon. If I had two books and you had two books the Mage wouldn’t visit anyone.
Thieves visit the dungeon with the most money bags, Warriors the dungeon with the most swords, Mages the most books, and Clerics the most Ankhs.
Looking at the above image, the heart shows the health of that Hero. The little pawn icon at the bottom shows the number of players needed for that Hero to be in the game. Some Heroes are removed for 2 and 3 player games.
The hero will proceed to adventure into the dungeon, with the players counting off health for every room they visit. So, if a Hero has 8 health, and goes into a room that takes 3 health, then it will have 5 health on the other side. The next room may take off another 2 health, and so on.
If a dungeon does damage equal to or more than the Hero’s health value then the Hero dies exploring the dungeon. If it doesn’t the the Hero survives. Epic Heroes are worth two souls.
If a player manages to harvest 10 souls then they win the game. If a player allows 5 heroes to survive then they die and lose the game/are out of the game.
After heroes have been allocated, the game resets and the next round begins. The players keep going until someone wins.
What Is It Like Playing Boss Monster?
Boss Monster is an interesting game because of how it positions itself. The game has obviously been inspired by video games, and yet the gameplay itself is fairly basic. It is a case of building an engine before seeing if you can beat the challenge you are presented with. Since there is a cap at how difficult the Heroes get, this means you could have a dungeon that will do the job for most heroes only three cards/turns in. Then, whittling through the base Heroes, building up further for the Epic Heroes. This means, by the end, it is possible to have a dungeon that cannot be beaten depending on what spells you chose. This makes the game somewhat more luck based, and often means there is a huge difference between the player who won and the player who comes second/third/forth. If you can monopolise the beginning of the game, then the latter half is somewhat inconsequential.
The second largest criticism of Boss Monster is that the only player interaction comes from Spells and the meta-game. Where you draw Rooms each turn, there comes a point where you don’t want to draw Rooms and just want Spells. Spells are difficult to replenish, and this means that the entire of the second half of the game can become a slog to the finish with very little interaction.
It may sound like I am currently hating on Boss Monster and so let me clarify. I like this game, and it has some great things going in its favour. It is a strong contender as both a family game and an entry level game. The theme makes it highly accessible, and the artwork – well, in my opinion, the artwork makes the game. It’s fantastic.
The 8-Bit humour in the game makes it light and fluffy. This is a game where the first time you play it you will take around 45 minutes to learn the rules as well; however, once you have it down you are playing a 25 minute game. It is a huge strength to the game, as the theme is enjoyable but it couldn’t hold a 90-minute game. It isn’t rich enough, however, it is absolutely perfect for an arcade-style experience.
I really adore the humour of this game, and there are so many inside jokes, such as Neo from The Matrix being a Hero Mage. Another one is Xyzax the Progenitor Lich – Xyzax being pronounced similar to Gygax and a Progenitor being something from which something else derives. I believe it is a reference to Gary Gygax, the founder of Dungeons and Dragons, and this makes me love Boss Monster a little bit. References that clever deserve massive credit.
It is because of this that the ease of engine building doesn’t really come through, and instead, it can be a challenge until you notice that it is there. There are ways for beardy gamers (such as myself, says the board game analyst) to game the system, and swiftly optimise dungeons with rooms doing three or four damage in a turn. My last game I managed to get a dungeon that did 15 damage base, without Spells, and from there it was a walk. The mercy though being that it was quick from that moment on.
The lack of player interaction can be counteracted by the game’s meta. You can optimise your dungeon in such a way that it keeps your opponent getting the difficult heroes they can’t deal with. This is thanks to a few really powerful cards that also allow you to cancel Spells they play. It’s not so much interacting with them, but more forcing the game to behave in a certain way to make life difficult for them.
To be honest, because of that, this game brought out my incredibly competitive side. I am not usually an overtly competitive player, but there is something almost primal about Boss Monster that makes it really fun to become primal about. It’s a fun game to get passionate about.
Conclusion/TL;DR for Boss Monster
All in all, Boss Monster is a really fun and funny (if not a little bit flawed) game. It isn’t perfect, but in a way it doesn’t pretend to be. There is no pretense here – this will be an experience akin to the early video games. If you want a light game to play for 20 minutes that is competitive, and that can become almost too competitive, then this is a good game to get those juices flowing. If lots of player interaction isn’t important to you then you will find Boss Monster to be really fun; however, if it is important then you will probably do better with a game like Munchkin instead. It’s longer, but it does promote that player interaction.
To be honest, I think the Board Game Geek have got this spot on. It is a 6.3/10 game. It has its holes, but I don’t come away having regretted playing it. There are quite a few expansions and a Boss Monster 2 now, so maybe the issues pointed out on this review have been tackles. Only time, and playing them, will tell.
So, what do you think? Is Boss Monster the kind of game to interest you? What do you think of the theme and using the video games style themselves as the theme? Let me know in the comments below.