Did you know there’s a board game based on the most played video game in the world?
Riot Games is a household name in the video game community, despite only having one title to its name: League of Legends. The free-to-play multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) earned $1.6 billion in 2015, which is why the studio raised eyebrows when it announced a tabletop game.
Mechs vs. Minions doesnt look or feel like a first effort from a studio that has solely existed in the digital realm. The $75 package a steal for the quality on offer includes more than 100 miniatures, fully painted hero figures, hefty cardboard tiles and even a few metal tracking tokens.
Its all tied together with unbelievable care in packaging that includes sturdy trays with snap-on lids, ensuring everything fits back in the enormous box properly. In short, its an organization nerds dream.
Thankfully, the gameplay matches the components in quality. Mechs vs. Minions uses movement programming, which fits the theme of four tiny Yordles in oversized war machines. Instead of making moment-to-moment decisions, you build, grow and tweak a set of orders that dictates movement and attacks.
Each of the four characters has their own programming board on which you map out up to six phases of your turn. This is handled through cards drawn at the start of each round. Each player then follows the orders from left to right on their board, but unable to make alterations during execution.
This is a genre that requires thoughtful planning, joyful experimentation, and a willingness to get it all wrong before you get it right. Its challenging to play, but even more difficult to design.
That’s why Riot enlisted someone with experience. Developer Stone Librande, who previously worked on The Sims and SimCity, was a driving force behind Mechs vs. Minions.
“The thing I love about Stone is that hes the designers designer, Riots Chris Cantrell, project lead on Mechs vs. Minions told Mashable.
“He just loves creating these experiences. Hes not very precious with his work. He wants it to be good and keep evolving.”
Mechs v Minions is Librande’s first formal board game credit, but he’s been creating them for his family for 15 years. Around Christmas every year, he’d make something his family could play. And because of his game development work, there was always a readymade crew for playtesting and refining ideas.
“When we hired him at Riot, we got to play one called Weapons of Zombie Destruction,” Cantrell continued.
“There were a lot of systems and innovations, like stacking the programs on top of each other that we hadnt seen before. We got really excited about that and thats where [Mechs vs. Minions] stemmed from.”
In Librandes original concept, the game was competitive. However, Cantrell and his team decided to focus on a cooperative experience.
“I shifted away from [competition], he explained. I think that co-op games have to be hard, but one of the things about co-op board games is that if were playing at different skill levels, you can mitigate that. It doesnt feel frustrating if one person is the better player.
Mechs vs. Minions comes with a gentle tutorial and 10 full missions. These are each sealed in envelopes, with new cards added to the mix along the way.
Unlike the popular Risk Legacy and Pandemic Legacy board games, Mechs vs. Minions is not a guided by a story-driven campaign.
Rather, each encounter is detailed by mini-manuals packed into military order-style envelopes. It’s immersive presentation that hits the mark, and all part of Riots endeavor to give players a game that is heirloom quality at an exceedingly affordable price.
Each mission features different objectives and obstacles, along with a never ending tide of fragile minions to mow down.
In the first quest, we were tasked with escorting a bomb across the map. Things looked bleak early on, but as we came to understand the mechanics and how to work together to clear a path and tow the bomb, our strategy won the day. Later missions add scorching lava, spike walls and more terrain obstacles to confound your planning.
Cantrell attributes some of Mechs vs. Minions inspiration to renowned tabletop designer Vlaada Chvatil (Galaxy Trucker, Codenames). It was Chavatils Space Alert that served as Cantrells gateway to contemporary board gaming.
I think the world of [Chvatils] designs, he said. What I liked about Space Alert specifically is that its cooperative and that its programming movement. Theres more of Space Alert in [Mechs vs. Minions] than I realized.
“I like how it had a soundtrack and it was immersive in a way that I hadnt really experienced before with board games. It opened my eyes to the possibilities. It just blew my mind.
With the ingredients in place including a strong community of tabletop gamers at Riot the studio opted to give the genre a try. The team got a green light to tap the companys vast resources and make something of which they could be proud.
There are a lot of good ideas tossed around Riot frequently, Cantrell said. I think we all realized how rare the opportunity was to be gifted with the opportunity of Riots resources and pour that into a venture that wasnt intended to be a big needle-mover for us as a company.
“We wanted to find ways to creatively cut costs that would benefit players, like selling direct, so we could pour as much value and quality in as we can.
While Riot had much to learn about manufacturing and producing a tabletop game, it did have years of game design experience on which to lean. League of Legends served as a strong foundation, but there were still lessons to be learned along the way.
I think the parts of the game Im most confident in are the parts that tap into our understanding of fun and where that comes from and how you design interesting choices. Thats true not just of League of Legends, but game design in general, Cantrell explained.
I think areas where we are less confident are the rule books. We dont have a rule book for League of Legends or [a] tutorial. Its one of the black eyes on League as a product. Its something you have to invest in.”
Much like League, Mechs vs. Minion is viewed as a work in progress. Cantrell has already seen feedback in the Riot forums where players are raising questions about how the game works. That helps the development team find the most pressing pain points.
“Thats something were going to get better at,” Cantrell promised. “Were already revising the rulebook. We tend to be hypercritical.”
Mechs vs. Minions quickly sold out its initial print run of 30,000. Another is in production right now, with shipment anticipated in mid-December. Despite the success, its premature to assume that this is going to become a regular piece of Riots business.
This was made as a one-off, and it took us three years, Cantrell said. Im pretty certain I would know if we were working on another tabletop game, and were not right now.”
Cantrell and his team still had fun with Mechs vs. Minions. More than that, they feel empowered by its success. Cantrell readily admitted that he’d go after another board game if the opportunity presented itself.
“Not just an expansion for Mechs vs. Minions, though given how the game is built that does make sense,” he said.
“[O]ther types of games in that space. I cant commit,” he said. “If the lifecycle is anything like Mechs vs. Minions, it would take a long time even if we started tomorrow. There might be an audience for it. Well see.”