Designers: Antoine Bauza, Ludovic Maublanc
Publisher: Repos Production
Ages: 10 and up
Time: 45 min
Review by Nathan Beeler
Games are meant to be fun. It’s a pretty axiomatic statement, as long as you allow the definition of fun to be so open as to be meaningless. For one person, fun might be found in squeezing one more city into his network, or it might be the realization that it’s better to keep that money for later. Fun for others might be a perfectly tuned deck building engine hoovering up victory point cards on a final push to victory. Or it could simply be the fun of grabbing up great gobs of dice and giving them a heave at an opponent’s position, anticipating the moment when they settle out and finally prove who really is the better player. To different people at different times fun can be a lot of different things. There are likely a lot of gamers out there who get no pleasure from any of these activities, as well.
Sometimes, a game comes along that just sounds universally fun, an experience nearly everyone would enjoy regardless of how they normally prefer to be tickled. Rampage, a game by French designers Antoine Bauza and Ludovic Maublanc, sounded exactly like one of those gaming experiences that couldn’t miss with any audience. In the game players are Godzilla-esque kaiju (monsters) bent on destroying Meeple City and its meeple inhabitants. Who wouldn’t enjoy flicking their monster around the board and dropping it from a great height to wreak havoc on the structures of the city? Whose definition of fun doesn’t encompass resting their chin on their giant wooden lizard’s head and blowing over a nearby high-rise building, only to hungrily gobble up the newly exposed meeple inhabitants in the wake of their destruction? Who wouldn’t get giddy by grabbing a large vehicle figure and flicking it angrily at the supports of a nearby building? Who wouldn’t love that? Curiously, it turns out a lot of people don’t, and it’s not difficult to see why.
To understand where the game goes wrong for so many, I think you first have to imagine an idealized version of the game. In this perfect version of Rampage, you would take control of your large wooden monster figure, moving it easily about the city. There would be a whole lot of wanton destruction of fragile buildings; havoc and mayhem galore. You might also be a fan of variable player powers, like me, and imagine each monster has some special traits that allow it to break rules in unique ways: this monster has a long tongue and can eat meeples far away; this one is really fast and can flick twice to move; this one can mutate once in the middle of the game and take on a new power. All of these things are in the real version of the game, and if this was the entirety of the venture, I believe it would be an instant filler-weight classic. Most people I have talked to have said they thought it was a great idea for a game, but that it didn’t live up to that idea when actually played. So where exactly does it fall short of the ideal?
First off, the focus of the play is not strictly on a bunch of destruction, but it is ultimately about eating the meeple figures that fall to the street when the structures are knocked or blown down. Specifically, players get points for eating complete sets of one of each of the six colors of meeples. Set collecting is a fine and noble mechanism in gaming, but here it feels a little odd. You have very little control over which meeples land where, especially which color of meeple lands in your neighborhood on the board, so even caring about that a little takes away from the sheer joy of the idealized version of the game. A small setback, as most experience games and activities have some kind of unnecessary scoring tacked on to gamify them. An ignorable setback, but a real one nonetheless.
Each kaiju starts out the game with six teeth in its head, which corresponds to the maximum number of meeples it can devour from the Meeple City neighborhood it finds itself at the end of its turn. As bad things happen throughout the game, monsters can lose teeth, down to a minimum of two. Obviously, if you care about getting meeples you need to care about keeping your teeth in your head. This is another distraction from destruction, and another element largely out of a player’s control. One way to lose teeth is to get knocked over by another player. If an attack succeeds, the newly prone victim gives a tooth to his assailant’s score pile. The loss of the tooth and the conferred points to the enemy are a double whammy of pain. This kind of monster on monster action is thematically in keeping and can even lend a bit of fun by itself, especially in the right crowd. But the mechanism is yet another thing to take away from the loose and light feel of the perfect version of this game. Now players need to worry about where the other monsters are and if they’re likely to be attacked by them.
Worse than all that is what happens if you accidentally send meeples flying off the board during your rampage. These scattered victims are collected on a separate double-sided board that tells you how much and what kind of penalty you might be subject to, which could include losing meeples from your score pile or even teeth. Both are very bad, and mean if you care about doing well you need to contain the force of your attacks. What?! That doesn’t make any damned sense. Smash! Shriek! Blow it down, throw a vehicle at it, and jump through it! This is what we creatures know. We should not need to care where our victims’ bodies land. We do not know delicate or touch or control. Bah! For me, this is where the game strays furthest from what I want it to be. Ok, it makes some sense from a game design standpoint to have rules like this in place. But it really is a bummer to make a successful blast on a building, only to see that joy instantly quashed by some meeples sliding off the edge of the board and causing random pain.
There’s also a bit of fiddliness to the rules themselves. Bodies on the sidewalk surrounding a building are considered to be still a part of the building and can’t be eaten. Monsters must be touching this sidewalk in order to do the drop action, and if it’s close, a judgement call needs to be made. What happens when a monster’s disc gets entangled in the rubble? Some of the rule-changing cards that players have can be a little confusing or unclear by their iconography and may require periodic rulebook jaunts. There are border cases between neighborhoods, as well, both with the creatures and the meeples. None of these things are big problems, and a few seconds with the rules or online forums will usually clear them up. But it all adds up to take away from the ideal game. The end result is there is a lot to consider and do on each player’s turn. Two simple actions with only four choices (move, blow, drop a monster, or throw a vehicle) can take quite a while to actually resolve for a game like this. Downtime can be a killer if players are plotting and scheming and using special powers. If nothing else I highly recommend never doing what I heard some foolish gamer friends did in combining two sets to play with more than the four players allowed. In fact, the wait with even four ends up straining my patience a little too much.
With all these factors in mind, perhaps it should be obvious now why so many people who would otherwise be into Rampage reject it. A game like this shouldn’t require a teaching session, but should allow you to jump right in. You could even imagine the rules on the inside of the lid or on the back of the box. The play feels kind of fiddly where it should be simple and freewheeling. There can be a lot of downtime to absorb, with only moments of interest on another player’s turn. The game should be silly and loose, but there’s plenty of opportunity to feel crushed and deflated by bad turns of fortune. Like this review, it’s just too long and doesn’t have enough of what its audience probably wants. I absolutely understand why people don’t love it.
So then, why do I love Rampage? I’ve written this entire review to get to this point, and I still don’t have an answer. Perhaps I’m deluding myself, and I don’t really love it. Perhaps I’m still clinging to the great idea as I first heard it, and I’m not letting the reality interfere with that feeling of excitement. Time will answer that, as it either continues to hit my table or it doesn’t. Or possibly, I’m just more forgiving of the game’s warts and more drawn to its very real beauty. The downsides are there, but if you squint just right you can kind of ignore them, as you do still get to do the fun activities involved. Or maybe, and this is what I hope is true, the game can still be played in the spirit of the way I think it should be played. Maybe you can, to some degree, ignore the points and the set collecting, and simply laugh and cheer when you get knocked down. Maybe this game can be treated as the light filler I think it should have been, but one that’s a whole lot more interesting and thematic than just toppling a Jenga tower. No matter the truth, no matter the depths of my willful ignorance, I do still love it. I think.
Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers:
Ben McJunkin (1 play): My opinion of Rampage is highly likely to change with more plays. As Nate has pointed out, this is not the easy-to-learn fast-playing filler that I had hoped it would be. My first session involved a lot of uncertainty about what I was allowed to do, and how and when I was allowed to do it (I was being taught the game by someone, so this is not necessarily an indictment of the rulebook). I did quite poorly as a consequence, making largely arbitrary decisions, often simply because I wanted to experience this or that element of the gameplay. At this stage, I really don’t even know whether Rampage can hold up as a game among experienced players – the fall of meeples and the clearing of building floors all seemed so utterly random at first. On the other hand, the production quality is fantastic, and the theme is particularly charming to me (I was a child of the 80s and a huge fan of Rampage the arcade game. So if the gameplay starts to click once we all know what we are doing, this could actually end up as a cornerstone of my collection (I have relatively few games that might be described as “fun”).
Rick Thornquist (3 plays): Nate pretty clearly sums up my view of the game: it should be great fun, but it isn’t. I wish I liked it more, but the fiddlyness, the almost random scoring, and the downtime make it a game with potential, but not much else.
Mark Jackson (1 play): Nate does a great job describing the joys & problems in Rampage… and yet, I had so much fun playing it that I have a copy on order for me & my boys. That should tell you something.
Dan Blum (2 plays): I agree with Nate, except I don’t end up loving the game. It’s not bad, and I’ll be willing to play it, but the annoying aspects of the design cause me to treat it as more of an activity than a game.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:
I love it! Nathan Beeler
I like it Eric Martin, Mark Jackson
Neutral Tom Rosen, Dale Yu, Rick Thornquist, Patrick Korner, John Palagyi, Ben McJunkin, Dan Blum, Brian Leet
Not for me Jennifer Geske