10th Sep2018

‘Big Trouble in Little China: The Board Game’ Review

by Matthew Smail


I was three years old when Big Trouble in Little China was first released (1986, for those guessing) but more so than almost any other eighties action movie, its irreverent quips and gung-ho attitude cemented it as an enduring classic in my mind. Clearly, the team at Everything Epic feel the same way, since the board game adaptation that I’m reviewing today is much more than the kind of cynical cash in that a less passionate studio might have churned out. The product of a recent Kickstarter, Big Trouble in Little China: The Board Game is a big box, glossy production with a ton of miniatures and other components; let’s find out what it’s all about.

At first glance, I felt I knew the drill. To a certain extent I did – Big Trouble in Little China: The Board Game took an age to punch and setup the first time, thanks to a literal ton of cards, plastic, boards and other bits and bobs. The manual explains the process of setting up Act I (which plays out on one side of the board) and describes what each player will receive. There are numerous decks of cards to sort and split depending on which characters are in the game, as well as a number of both main and side deck quests to handle. The enemy deck is arranged based on the level of difficulty you want to play with and there are tokens to put out on the board accordingly.

With all that done for the first time, sensible bagging of parts by character or stage of setup meant for a much quicker time. Miniatures games often end up with convoluted rules and far more components then I like to deal with, but Big Trouble in Little China: The Board Game actually handles all of its mechanical elements well, partly because it links them to its theme in ways that feel logical and interesting. Take the main quests, for example, of which one per character plus a boss encounter will be used in each game. Only two will be active at any time and progress is split between a card and a quest book, which between them tell the tale of a particular plot line, in all cases linked to the movie.

Quests will sometimes result in enemies appearing and can even result in encounters with particularly nasty enemies, but players are incentivized to undertake them. The game advances each turn thanks to the Big Trouble deck – if the Big Trouble track reaches its end, then Act II begins on unfavorable terms for the players. On the other hand, players want to complete quests because it advances the Audacity track, which, if filled, will end Act I with the players on better footing. There are also other benefits to handling quests that come (not least) in the form of Chi, which is used in Big Trouble in Little China: The Board Game to advance the level of each character, opening up new and upgraded skills.

All this is achieved based on a fairly straightforward dice based system. At the beginning of each turn, the players roll their allocated action dice (three at the beginning of the game) and place them into the cutout spaces on their character card. Slots include Mind, Body and Spirit slots, some of which are highlighted as Epic, which indicates that they provide a bonus when used. Interestingly, it’s possible to use dice of any kind for any action, so at least as far as I can tell, then actual die faces only affect where they slot onto the player boards and that determines which ones are Epic.

The actions available are straightforward enough to come to terms with after just a few turns. Spend a dice to love two spaces (or three if it’s an epic dice) attack an enemy using one normal combat dice for each action die used, or one Epic combat dice for an Epic action die. You catch my drift, I hope. The other main use for dice is testing your skill, which again trades action dice for either regular or Epic skill dice – successes add up to determine if you achieve the action, whilst rolling three demons will hurt you. It’s simple, sensible stuff and I quite like the fact that no player is inherently slower, stronger or smarter than the others – it’s a level playing field that is subtly influenced by the Epic slots.

I mentioned already that one of Big Trouble in Little China: The Board Game features is the ability for characters to level up via collecting Chi, which is the equivalent of experience. Every character board has a Chi track and when it reaches ten, the character levels up and chooses a new ability card. Abilities offer powerful (usually passive) benefits, such as adding a ranged attack or an extra dice to the character’s arsenal. Some of these abilities are a bit more innovative – for example Gracie can add an ability that allows other characters within her line of sight to add an extra dice to skill rolls. As a result, there are some combat focused character (Jack and Wang) and some that are suited to support duties, like Gracie and Egg. What I’m getting at is that the characters are actually very different in terms of how they play, which is quite an achievement given that Big Trouble in Little China: The Board Game doesn’t force different attributes onto each character by default.

The gameplay is also very smooth given how convoluted miniatures games can become. You’re unlikely to be bogged down in movement restrictions, line of sight disputes and similar nonsense here – all of that is obvious thanks to how the spaces are laid out on the board and because moving around it is fairly fast. On their turn, a player can take as many actions as they have dice for, so you might find your hero runs out of a room for one dice, runs into a building for their next dice, shoots a bad guy for two dice and then uses a free action to pick up a crate. On the next turn, the character might use a dice to move, then begin her quest (which might automatically move her somewhere) and then perhaps do a skill check with her remaining dice. This will usually leave at least three or four steps of the quest incomplete, so a little clip will be added to the quest card to show how much progress has been made.

Every time a round of turns is complete, the first player will draw a new card from the Big Trouble deck. This will always spawn one or more baddies in a specific location on the board, then advance the Big Trouble track, but will also usually cause some other negative effect – such as preventing the use of ranged weapons for that turn. Some events in the game (cards, enemy attacks or whatever) might cause a character to draw from the Hell Deck, which is a stack of cards that almost always confer a negative effect – either immediate or permanently, until an item or power allows it to be discarded.

Once either the Big Trouble or Audacity Track is filled, the round ends immediately and everything is cleared from the board. Act II then begins with the board being flipped over for the final showdown with David Lo Pan. Each quest has an Act II setup card that has both “complete” and “incomplete” sides. For each quest undertaken in Act I, the players place one of those cards with the relevant side face up. Each card has different starting locations for the characters, as well as Lo Pan’s goons, but broadly speaking if the players do well in Act I, then the setup for Act II will be more favorable. I really, really like this aspect of Big Trouble in Little China: The Board Game, because over the course of a game, there is so much potential for variation that no two games end up the same, even though all of the combinations that I experienced still felt relevant to the theme of the movie that inspired the game.

The showdown with Lo Pan (or any of his bosses) is much more challenging than the simple combat that takes place with the normal, one-hit-to-kill henchmen. Lo Pan himself has two forms (so he has to be defeated twice) and a number of powerful attacks, whilst each of the four sub-bosses (the Three Storms and The Wildman) can enter the game during certain quests and will bring a stiff challenge during Act I (and based on what I’ve read, but not seen, can appear in Act II depending on quest outcomes.) All combat is dice based and non-boss baddies take a single successful hit to kill. Bosses (including Lo Pan) take several hits to defeat, so the whole team will need to coordinate their efforts. On that note, Big Trouble in Little China: The Board Game does scale very well from one to four players – at anything less than four, players will introduce additional starting Chi, companion cards (that offers passive abilities) and scale baddies down a bit. Overall, real thought has been given to playing at less than the maximum number of players and it shows in how the game plays.

Big Trouble in Little China: The Board Game is perhaps my new favorite board game interpretation of a movie ever and it’s also an excellent miniatures based board game by any measure. After the initial setup (which is only as lengthy as any other similar game) it’s a doddle to setup, despite introducing a lot of replay value thanks to its variable nature. It has a smart mechanism for driving the story elements forwards that doesn’t waste players time by dragging them back and forwards around the map in a fruitless wild-goose chase. Combat is fast and fun, as is the way that actions and movements are determined. I like the Chi system and how each character develops as the game extends outwards from where it begins. The fact that the game is split into two acts might seem cumbersome, but the second act setup is fast and linked thematically in a really nice way to the activities in the first act. As a side note, I should also mention that the miniatures and components are of superb quality, making this a lovely collectors item for fans of the movie and an awesome game for anyone.

****½  4.5/5


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