Ryan Laukat is one. Elizabeth Hargrave is another. Phil Walker-Harding is a third. Kramer & Kiesling? Mais, bien sur. And, Alexander Pfister is definitely in that group.
Of course, I’m talking about designers that cause me to do a double-take anytime a new game comes out with their John Hancock on the box. But even more than the others, Pfister has an ability to avoid being typecast.
Need a big meaty euro? Great Western Trail says hello. Want a one hour wonder with some bite and player interaction? Slide Broom Service off your shelf. Sure, he has an impressive resume. But can Pfister do a meaty filler, a tasty tapas, a family weight game with enough heft to keep everyone engaged and happy? Let’s find out together.
Monster Expedition is a 2020 release from AMIGO Games, with art by Dennis Lohausen, Michael Menzel, and Oliver Schlemmer. The game is based in a universe (Carnival of Monsters) that is probably familiar to board game fans of Richard Garfield, the creator of a tiny little game called Magic: The Gathering.
Monster Expedition looks like a friendly game to teach to family gamers, but the chart on the box suggests that it is a little more meaty than one would want to play with a younger set. The theme is pretty thinly spread, but ostensibly you and up to three of your friends are chasing monsters in the wild and trying to outscore each other by grabbing the most valuable monsters by the end of the game.
In reality, this is all about how fast and how efficient you can build and execute an engine, mixed with just a little pinch of good luck. Players each start with three lowly “camps”, basically double sided rectangular cards in three different colors (yellow, blue and green). Each side gives the player the parameters on how many dice of that color plus the neutral (black) dice they can roll to capture monsters of that particular faction.
During their turns, players will pick one of the camps, and then roll a crop of dice onto the table to hunt the monsters of that color. They will pick out dice that they think can help them defeat / capture the monsters in the available tableau. Whatever pip they take will give them all of the dice of that value.
But there is a gambler’s edge to the dice rolling that creates tension from the get-geaux. If a player cannot set any dice aside, they have busted, but no worries, it is just a temporary setback. Instead of losing their turn, the players will have to give up the best dice they had stored up previously and can continue to push their luck if they choose.
Pushing your luck is crunchy but important. There will be monsters that are just out of your reach if you do not press a little. And some of those monsters give you big hunks of points at the end for collecting sets of colored shields (which also give you more dice), while others are worth more points than others. But sometimes, discretion being the better part of valor, it is a better idea just to grab a caged monster from the main board, which gives you a smaller amount of points but at least you are scoring something, and taking cages also refreshes the monsters in the field.
But any good game has a way to mitigate that luck, and the camps can be upgraded by grabbing dice that allows you to “turn” your camp card. That’s the engine building part. Each of the players have different dice values that are needed, but some of them are also shared among the parties so taking certain dice will not only help you upgrade your camp, it will also boost other players.
Finally, once the monsters from the deck have all been used, the points will be tallied as soon as the last person’s turn completes the full round.
Monster Expedition comes in the size of box that tells you right away that this is going to be a filler+ style game, one that my good buddy Steve “The NameFather” O’Rourke calls a “tapas” game. The box is small and square and flat, and has piles of chunky dice in four different colors, a big pile of cards and tokens, and a small game board that is completely unnecessary except it reminds you of the distribution of the pips on the included dice.
Yep, all four colors of dice are different, some weighted to bigger numbers, others close to the regular six-sided results.
The artwork on the cards beautifully depicts various monsters, including dragons, which are probably my favorite drawings on the cards.
BUT IS IT ANY FUN?
By now, Dear reader, you have asked yourself as very simple question: why would Pfister make a relatively simple engine building game with not much theme based in a universe he didn’t create?
Because he wanted to, I guess.
Steve’s nickname for games like Monster Expedition is so apropos. Let’s say you are having some buddies over for game night, or maybe a few couples are coming over to share some boudin and Swamp Pop and gaming. At a lot of these game nights, you could fit in one, maybe two, “big” games in, the “take a half hour to teach, and two-and-a-half more to play” type of games. I’m looking again at you Great Western Trail and Mombasa. But not everyone wants their entire game night dedicated to only one or two games.
Do you ever have a game night where everybody brings a couple of smaller box games, the ones that take 5-10 minutes to teach at most (including a bit about strategy) and then you rotate through the stack all night, like sampling off tapas plates in Madrid instead of going for the full course meal?
Monster Expedition delivers that experience. It’s never taken more than about five minutes to explain to even casual gamers. The hardest thing to grok is the “keep a die” rule — and even that is easy peasy once you play a round or two. Pick a camp, grab the appropriate dice dictated by how far you’ve improved your camp, and then chuck some dice. Then just grab a die (or all of them that matches that number) that you think could help you capture a dragon or help build up your camp, and make the decision whether to push your luck by rolling again. It’s that simple, as my fellow Punchboard Media friends from Before You Play show you here:
The combination of engine building AND pushing your luck is so delicious. It seemed like everytime I needed just one more die to grab the big monster on the board, I would inevitably crash and burn. To be honest, sometimes I had more fun just pulling dice that helped me upgrade my camps, because there is just something so satisfying by maxing out the amount of dice that you get to roll during your turn.
For such a small game, Monster Expedition has a lot of cool little micro decisions. Do I grab a cage card, knowing that it will refill the board for the next player? Maybe I do because it possibly gives me a chance at some end game scoring if no one takes my tokens? Do I geaux for upgrades on all of my camps so I am ready for any monster? Or hit one really hard and hope the cards come out in my favor allowing me to capture tons of monsters with ease? Lots of stuff to chew on in such a small package, yet it never takes more than a few seconds to decide because the graphic design is easy on the eyes.
There’s one more cool mechanical twist that Pfister added, to encourage players to grab cages and refill the monster tableau. Each player has a set of unique tokens that are placed on the new cards that come out when the tableau is refreshed, and if players do not take those cards during the game, the player whose token is on that monster card, gets the benefit of the caged value of the card, a nice little nickel boost.
Add up the combination of pushing your luck, upgrading your camps, cool special powers on the cards, and a little bit of player interaction between the tokens and the upgrades and the card powers, and this is a solid little game that tickles all my fancies.
Monster Expedition is never going to be a full size game that captures my heart and makes me think about strategy while I am lying in bed staring up at the ceiling after Gumbo Game Night ends, wondering why oh why didn’t I pay for one more assistant in those last few rounds of Trickerion. But each game gave me a very quick yet very satisfying experience.
If you like push-your-luck dice rolling, if you are a fan of engine building games, and if you like just a bit of player interaction in a bite sized package that is easy to teach and takes only thirty minutes, I can definitely recommend checking out Monster Expedition.
Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!
— BJ @boardgamegumbo
Note: a review copy was provided by the publisher
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