|Cost: $36 (now out of print) From: Avalon Hill Players: 2-4 Playing Time: 90-120 minutes Type of game: Family Strategy Skill level: 6 Complexity: 4 Reviewed by: Matthew Baldwin, Issue 19, Summer/Fall/Winter 1998|
Before you read this review, there’s something you ought to know: I’ve always been a fan of monster movies. And my enjoyment of these films increases proportionally with the size of the creature, the senselessness of the destruction and the paucity of plot. So it was with great excitement that I ordered my copy of Monsters Ravage America from the Avalon Hill web site earlier this year. Indeed, the site’s description of the game only heightened my eagerness to play it, as it was clear that the designers had placed their tongues firmly into their cheeks while writing the game, and the site also featured the goofily attractive artwork from a few of the playing cards. Better still, the game cost only $35 -- a pretty penny, to be sure, but at least not the $60 you could shell out for Princess Ryan’s Star Marines and it’s ilk.
My enthusiasm diminished, however, when the game finally arrived. Pulling out the board and the components, I began to suspect that AH had commissioned four or five different artists to work on the game, and had kept each of them sequestered to prevent any sort of consistency in their work. The box cover has a blood red background and features an illustration of a genuinely fierce-looking simian clutching a shrieking woman in one paw -- no trace of the campy atmosphere promised by the web site (although the contents within were of the cartoony variety I had expected).
The monsters are shown on thick pasteboard, which are inserted into plastic bases -- not exactly the majesty you would expect for the “King of Monsters”. The military pieces show a bizarre lack of conformity, as some are small plastic pieces, others are pasteboard counters bearing photos of tanks and missile launchers, and still others are counters with illustrations. The game board has not only a map of the United States, but about a gazillion icons that show the locations of cities, lairs, radioactive sites, historical monuments, military bases, goals- there’s so much printed onto the board that it looks cluttered before you place a single piece upon it. And, like most AH games, it came with a rule book that was about as clear as a Thomas Pynchon novel.
But the play is the thing, and I’m happy to report that “Monsters Ravage America” is an enjoyable, if somewhat disorganized, pastime. Each player takes on two roles: a giant monster crashing about the countryside, and also an arm of the US Armed Forces. Their goals are twofold: to increase the strength of their creature by destroying cities and snacking on civilians, and to weaken the other players’ beasts by engaging them in combat with the military. After a set number of cities have been wiped out, all of the creatures enter a Free-for-all Monster Brawl, and the last Monster alive at the end of the Brawl wins the game.
To start, each player chooses a monster ranging from the familiar (giant ape, dinosaur, swamp creature) to the more obscure (a fifty foot caterpillar and a giant dust storm?). Each player then takes all of the pieces for the Marines, the Army, the Air Force or the Navy. Each Monster has six “lairs”, and each branch of the Armed Forces also owns eight “bases”, all of which are scattered throughout the United States. All of the combatants- Monsters and military- have a number of values including “health”, “movement”, “costs”, “attacks”, “defense” and the like.
The action unfolds on a map of the US, subdivided into hexagons. On a player’s first turn, he simply plunks his monster down on one of his lairs, collects a billion dollars for each of his bases (i.e. $8 billion, on the first round), and then has the option to spend his moolah on some of his military hardware, which is then placed on bases (military cost between $2-$4 million a pop). Afterwards, play passes to the next person. After all players have concluded their first turn, everyone will have his monster on the board and some may have military in play or money in hand.
The game truly begins on the second turn. Now the player starts by moving his Monster and any military units he so desires. Once movement is complete, combat occurs if any Monsters share a space with any military units. The Monster begins combat by rolling two dice: if the number rolled is higher than the military unit’s “defense’ value, the tank or plane gets crushed underfoot or swatted from the sky. Afterwards, any surviving military can fight back, with damage deducted from the Monster’s “health’ score. This continues for two more rounds, after which a victor is declared. If any military pieces remain, the Monster is repulsed, and must retreat to an adjoining hex; otherwise, the Monster is triumphant.
Either way, the Monster destroys any facilities in the hexagon he now occupies. If the hex contains a city, he eats thousands of hapless citizens and gains anywhere from one to twenty-four “health points” (depending on the size of the city). Any military bases in the hex are destroyed as well, lowering the amount of income a player will receive. The Monster then ends his rampage, and the player concludes his turn by again collecting a billion bucks per base and purchasing additional military units to place on the board.
The advanced rules allow both the Monsters and the military to become increasingly powerful as the game progresses. If a Monster ends his turn in a hex containing a “radioactive’ symbol (Three Mile Island, Roswell, etc.) he draws a “Mutation” card which usually confers some benefit onto him (“Whip Tentacles’ give you an extra attack in each combat round, for example, while “Scales” up your defense value). Military units can also conduct “research”, by spending $5 billion dollars and rolling a single die. If the player rolls a 5 or a 6, he takes one of the “Research” cards, which include “Fusion Cells” (increasing all your military’s movement values) and the “Blonde Lure” (which allows you to place an attractive woman in a city and designate a Monster; the chosen Monster must go directly to that city on its next turn). Two of the Research cards even allow you to bring good Monsters into play.
After 20 cities have been destroyed, you enter endgame. Whoever destroyed the final city selects another player, and their two creatures have it out in a big Monster Challenge. These two beasts fight, and the survivor picks his next opponent. After all players have participated in the Monster Challenge, the last beast standing is hailed as King of the Giant Monsters.
All this makes for a game that’s wackily entertaining, if somewhat disorganized. As you can well imagine, Monsters Ravage America is almost impossible to play without injecting heavy doses of roleplaying into the proceedings: shouting “Konk Smash!” and noisily eating your popcorn one kernel at a time- with each bite accompanied by a tiny scream- is all part of the fun. All this is encouraged by the irreverent tone of the game, which seeks to emulate the campy atmosphere of the classic monster movies it’s based on. There’s even a rarely evoked rule that if a Monster is ever reduced to zero “health” points before the Monster Challenge, he is sold to Hollywood and must work in B-movies until he can recover enough strength to break loose and terrorize anew.
Monsters Ravage America is, at its heart, a war game, albeit a greatly simplified one. Still, players will have to make tactical decisions and difficult choices abound. Should you concentrate your forces in one spot, or spread them out in a dragnet? Should you spend your money on military hardware, or on risky (and often unfruitful) “research”? The game even involves a modicum of diplomacy, since players will almost certainly have to band together if they wish to do any serious damage to a Monster.
The game has its shares of flaws, but they’re easy to patch with on-the-spot house rules and game-owner fiat. And the Monster Challenge- while staying true to the theme of most multi-monster movies- is somewhat anticlimactic, and injects a huge amount of chance into what is otherwise a moderately balanced game. Indeed, Monsters Ravage America is not, by any stretch, an outstanding game. But monster movies aren’t outstanding films, either, and we enjoy them all the same. In fact, it behooves the players to get into the “Godzilla” mindset before playing, and emphasize wanton destruction over intellectual stimulation or well thought-out mechanics. Sure you can cross your arms and point out all the holes in the plot, but if you simply disengage the brain and enter the game knowing that it’s going to be mindless entertainment, a good time will be had by all. Konk Smash!