I have to admit, I’m not the biggest fan of programming games. Not that I don’t enjoy an occasional silly chaotic game of Robo Rally or Colt Express but, most of the time I want more strategy in my games. When I first heard about Mechs vs Minions I didn’t pay it much mind beyond the beautiful production values (For the price point? It is amazing!). The game was getting some buzz but I thought this was mainly based on those production values and the fact that it was a major video game publisher taking a crack at the board game market. But as I delved deeper into the hype around this game I began to see a thread that interested me. Yes, it is a programming game, but it is a different kind – maybe a kind I would like to see hit the table more often.
To be clear, this is not a review. I am in the same boat as the rest of you – I did not receive a review copy. But I wanted to cover a few things about this game that make it stand apart from the rest of the programming crowd.
In most programming games, players put together an entire program for each turn and then see how that program runs only to reset the following round no matter how much they liked (or didn’t like) their program.
In MvM, you create your program one card and one turn at a time. Each turn you will be drafting one card and putting it somewhere in your program. Next turn, one more card and so on. This slow programming allows you time to strategize how you want your program to look like by the end of the game. It carries over turn after turn allowing refinement and enhancement. This is much closer to developing a strategy than most programming games.
Normally in a programming game, what you program is what you are stuck with (which some people say is where the silly fun comes into these games – I agree if I’m in that mood). Since you are building your program slowly in MvM the game gives you the ability to reprogram if things get out of whack. Instead of putting a card in your program during the drafting phase you can discard the card to get rid of damage or swap some of your cards around in your program. Or you can even replace an already filled slot with a different type of card. These decisions help to mitigate the chaos inherent in programming and allow for strategy to emerge.
This is a rather interesting difference compared to other programming games which allow just one card per slot. In MvM you can stack cards of the same type on top of each other. This has three big effects on the game. 1) You can level up your program. Stacking cards will make that slot better allowing more power in your program. 2) Being able to stack cards means you aren’t forced to put a card in a slot you don’t want to as often. Can’t get the exact card you want for an empty slot? That is fine, grab one of a type you already have and level up that slot. 3) The cards you stack must be of the same type but they don’t have to do the same thing. This means that you can continue to level up your program while changing what it does. All of this creates flexibility, interesting decisions and allows you to create your program more slowly which means more control.
“If you have a bad turn you can still feel like you accomplished something – as a team.”
This is perhaps the biggest game changer for me and the rest of this list will stem from this one. Most programming games pit all players against each other. This means you are one person trying to get the exact program you need to make progress – or hope that it randomly goes in your favor. In MvM, all players are playing against the game. This means that even if you can’t get the exact card you need or if the chaos of programming gets you, someone on your team will have success and move the team forward. So if you have a bad turn you can still feel like you accomplished something – as a team. This is a big deal to me. Since you are spreading out the randomness over more people it feels more controllable.
Does this completely erase the chaotic nature that is a programming game? No, but it goes a long way to making sure you don’t constantly feel like you can’t accomplish anything. If the group advances toward their goal so do you, no matter how you alone did that turn.
GROUP CARD DRAFTING
As I mentioned above, this is an offshoot from the cooperative nature of the game. You are actively trying to help the group get the best possible card combinations as possible, not just you. This creates lots of options for group discussion and strategy. Sure, you might want a card but Jane can utilize it to get the group closer to winning so you give it up to her.
Again, the cooperative nature of the game comes to the rescue of the player whose program keeps getting hosed by chaos. Even if you can’t make a lot of progress on your own, the group’s collective progress will still push you forward in leveling up your mech, making it easier to get the most out of your program. Seeing the group progress this way diminishes the impact of you having a bad turn. Those bad turns don’t feel as bad when you are still progressing.
In the end, MvM is still a programming game with the silliness and chaos that comes with the mechanism, but the things mentioned above make it rise above these tendencies to help it become more strategic than silly. Sure, chaos will ensue (hello damage cards!) – and you can still have a good laugh about it but someone on your team will have a good turn. This, in my mind, makes for a much more satisfying experience.