Monsters Ravage America

Designed by Connors & Knight
Published by Avalon Hill
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

£30 ($34)
1-4 players
75 mins

The historic final container from Avalon Hill arrived at the British docks towards the end of August 1998. No more new games, no news as yet on the future of the older ones. A troubling thought. But tucked away inside was Monsters Ravage America, one of the last games to be designed and published before the doors closed for good. It is a game that will draw inevitable comparisons with SPI's The Creature That Ate Sheboygan, but it is also a far better example of game design and flavour generation than that overrated piece of Seventies stodge. Monsters is not the greatest game you will ever play, but it has a set task and theme in mind, it is accessible, it executes well and we have had an awful lot of fun with it recently.

Each player takes a dual role: rampaging super monster out to destroy all it can and commander of Army, Navy, Marines or Air Force fighting back to preserve the American way of life and McDonalds outlets. Already we are in the required mind set. The monsters are broadly similar in power and movement, but each has its own personality, random lair and unique strengths. A short list will convey the general tone: The Glow Wyrm, The Dust Devil, Dread Swamp Lasher and, naturally, Konk the Great Ape. The armed forces get a suitable selection of weapons to defeat these vile creations. These are purchased with a simple budget (renewed each turn) which can also be saved for a rainy day. Their job is to hinder the monsters, preferably hindering them to the point of death. But this is a family game and there are many ways back to health, making elimination impossible. If all else fails, the weakened monster goes to Hollywood and stars in movies until he escapes, fully refreshed but a little jaded with life.

The fit monsters, meanwhile, stomp around the map trying to gain strength (simple hit points) to steel themselves against the inevitable upcoming combat. Points are gained by eating cities of various sizes, with New York and Los Angeles offering by far the best nutritional value. As each city is crushed and its vitamins absorbed (highly witty jokes about balanced diets abound), the game counter ticks down one notch - twenty cities later it is all over for Mom and Apple Pie. Should there be a military base in the same hex, preferably one of your opponents, their future budget will reduce accordingly. And as long as you can withstand the onslaught of the armed forces, events and scraps with other monsters, you continue in this vein all game.

In your turn you can move your monster, build and move your forces, and resolve any combats. The latter is resolved by simple die rolls, with the incoming troops seeing if they get past the monster's defences and then causing damage. Apart from the pretty useful cruise missiles, this damage rarely does more than singe the eyebrows of Frothomir the Ice Monster and his foul cousins. You will need a lot of tanks, F18s or TOW missile batteries to make him even notice your presence. And if he keeps rolling sixes, he swats away anything and everything to huge cheers. Daft, great fun, and just right for the 'simulation' on offer. The game closes with the surviving monsters heading for a massive arena (a meteor crater (topical, film wise!) or perhaps the New Orleans Superdome) to fight to the finish. The combat is again straightforward, and favours those that have eaten the most cities, but there can be some David & Goliath style upsets. But all it really does is provide closure, a winner and a sense that the game has not just petered out due to lack of metropolitan snack food.

There are frequent touches of humour (the Hollywood and Green Blob rules are neat, many of the cards are excellent), there are special target sites for each monster, and you can even gain infamy by doing the 'National Parks' tour and eating Mount Rushmore. Monsters can chill out near nuclear installations and gain mutations (most good, some bad - one opponent is now called 'Walnut Brain' and probably will be for life), while the military can use its millions for research cards - tough to get, but extremely powerful. They vary from blonde female lures (this lead to a wonderful vignette where the Snake God was en route, unchallenged, to California, but was lured away by a bimbo in Phoenix) to nuclear tipped cannons for your jets. Even better is the appearance, much anticipated in our games, of government developed anti-monsters - Mecha, and Super Colossal Guy. They sound better than they are (both are pretty weak) but, again, a nice touch and there is plenty of scope for variants here.

All of this creates an excellent level of flavour and interaction. Players lapse into growls and grunts (or even slimey slithers) as they move across the map. Jets whoosh in to attack Tomanagi the Carnosaur. As your monster heads towards high value New York, or Boston, there are always subtle requests for the Air Force to intervene with a couple of Tomahawks up his jacksey. Feeling cosy out in the desert, resting miles from anywhere? If your hit points are high, expect attention of F22s or cruise missiles at any time - the resulting whines are mighty and frequent. Players need to co-operate and hit hard to have any effect (throwing units in piecemeal is usually ineffective), it always pays to whack the leader, and (vital, this) large cities need to be defended carefully to avoid monsters gaining loads of hit points and doing Michelin Man impressions - my Konk had over fifty hit points in our latest game. Whatever you choose to call it - banter, table talk, legally actionable threats - Monsters generates lots of light hearted nastiness. The best weapon of all though is the rogue nuke - this has the ability to land on any monster anywhere, and take out the surrounding units and town. One tends to be very polite to the owner. And so it goes on.

In a game such as this, there can be few defects worth talking about. You either subscribe to the idea and its essentially frivolous nature, and go along with it, or you don't and will probably be playing something rather more serious as we speak. In truth, for the type of game it is a little fiddly - Avalon Hill, even at the last, never quite managed to get away from those marker counters and overly wargamey combat resolution (one wonders if Mr Greenwood was once spooked by Axis & Allies!) - and it would be nice if it could handle more than four players. There is no shortage of monster candidates, though even these could be a little more varied and interesting, but there are of course only four branches of the armed forces to go round. To my mind the National Guard, who pop up as a body anyone can deploy, could easily be pressed into service for a fifth player, and I am sure with ten minutes thought you could come up with a sixth. The populace, with loads of cheap but weak counters? Canadian, Mexican or NATO allies? Orbiting satellites? Aliens? The CIA? (!) I make the point because as a multi-player game that works, it is a shame to restrict it to just four participants. Oh, and you need at least three players to make it worthwhile, and the solitaire rules, while okay, seem a little superfluous to say the least.

The other big drawback is that there is some pretty weak artwork on display here. The stand-up monster counters are unbelievably poor - comparable to those oh-so-proudly-displayed fridge drawings by five year olds. The map is just about okay, but nothing to get excited about and like the rest of the package it shows signs of rushing, or perhaps reduced resources during the last days of the Hill. And if I see another Bryce graphic turned out after ten minutes at the screen, I shall get uncharacteristically violent. Powerful as it is, Bryce is like anything else chaps - a tool to produce good graphics. Because it lets you quickly knock out something passable does not mean passable is good enough. (This comment is tempered somewhat by the mental image of someone scribbling away trying to finish the artwork as the Hasbro commandos arrive). Thankfully, the box is big bold and red - quite impressive and likely to catch the eye of, well, those at which the game is aimed.

Where Monsters scores is in the subject matter, the quick play, and the fun it delivers in a reasonable span of time - games take little more than an hour. Those of us who endured the awful recent Godzilla film, or who have watched sundry Japanese B-Movies over the years, can instantly relate to the plot. Younger gamers warm to it immediately. If you can switch off from the world for an hour, and might enjoy chomping your way along the Eastern Seaboard or mutating into a flying blob at Three Mile Island, this will hit the mark. There is precious little decision making (apart from deciding who to pick on next), there are no new design techniques to see, and no-one could be expected to play it avidly every game session for a year. Tigris this ain't. But it's pleasingly silly, and great fun if you submit to the concept, leaving your disbelief at the hat check. In conclusion, it has had a very good reaction from all who have played (those used to German Game fare, rather than my, umm, harder core opponents). And isn't that the acid test?

There is a distinct sense of pointlessness in reviewing this game. Rather like an obituary, apart from common courtesy to an old friend it matters not what one says because the object of the piece is no more. This also has the effect of making criticism, of the appalling artwork for instance, rather moot, churlish and possibly even crass. But as we speak, the game is still on sale, I expect it to be available for a while, and who knows, Hasbro might decide to keep them alive for a while longer. It would be a completely pointless exercise if the game were anything but a workable, good one. And it is good, in an 'as far as it goes', light hearted, daft, fun multi-player way. It also leaves earlier, related products in the dust, namely: Sheboygan, Princess Ryan and Starship Troopers.

For these reasons, and these alone, some of you may wish to buy Monsters while you can. It plays smoothly, the table talk is entertaining (especially Konk impressions when getting more peanuts), and there is more than enough to entertain for family play. Hard boiled gamers I am not quite so sure about. But even you can happily play it a couple of times, perhaps after liquid refreshment and pretzels have been taken, and you will play it on many more occasions with the kids. And unlike so many American games (and a few European), it has precisely the correct content for the time demanded. Monsters Ravage America is not brilliant, and it is not within the beast to tax your mind. But it is, ironically, a lot closer in applicablility, topic and weight to the family game market that Avalon Hill were chasing fruitlessly for years. If that package appeals, and you don't mind letting your hair down, then give it a try.

The Game Cabinet - - Ken Tidwell