There have been tabletop versions of videogames since the coin-op days. In the ‘80s there were boardgames branded with Pac-Man and Donkey Kong; today we have Risk: Halo and Angry Birds Jenga. Look behind the mass-market crap and you’ll find a slew of great adaptations from hobby publishers, stuff like the XCOM boardgame from Fantasy Flight, or the recent Kickstarter for a Dark Souls game. While varying wildly in quality, all these titles share a trait: they were not designed or published by people in the videogame industry.
Mechs vs Minions, a tabletop game based on League of Legends, is different. It’s very much a labor of love from a group of Riot Games staffers, so much so that they’re selling the game at wafer-thin margins, relying on sheer volume to make a profit. As a result Mechs vs Minions has stratospheric production values, with thick card stock, real metal coins and tons of painted plastic. Yet it retails at a mere $75, a bargain considering what’s in the box.
It’s also very good. Players co-operate to beat a series of eight missions of increasing difficulty. To do so they must program their mechs from a limited selection of moves, then follow the instructions on the board. Without a human imagination as an antagonist, co-operative games sometimes stagnate into repetitive puzzle solving. But under pressure from the timer and a horde of multiplying minions, Mechs vs Minions is tough, tense and often hilarious. What it isn’t, at least at first glance, is anything much like League of Legends.
“We tried to throw a lot of League references into the game,” Mechs vs Minions producer, Chris Cantrell, explained. “The boards are littered with Teemo shrooms, you can find Annie’s Tibbers doll or Mordekaiser’s mace or even Helmet Bro’s helmet. We converted one of our items in League, the Zhonya’s Hourglass, into a version of our timer. The goal was always that we didn’t want players to have to know League to appreciate the game. But for players who were familiar with it, there would be Easter Eggs.”
This gets to the heart of the balancing act needed to bring videogame franchises into the physical world. On one hand, you need to keep the audience as broad as possible. On the other, you’re struggling to keep the feel of the original in a totally different medium. You have to draw a new audience while pleasing existing fans. So, for example, Mechs vs Minions has a Chain Lightning command which spreads damage along adjacent targets. That’s a little like the Ionic Spark item that once graced the videogame. Cantrell had a guiding principle to see him through this challenge.
“First and foremost, you want to make sure the game is fun,” he told me. “We had to cut some of our favorite designs in Mechs vs Minions because they were too clunky and created too much overhead. With a videogame, you have a computer calculating the numbers in the background so you can stay focused on the fun aspects of the experience. But since there is no way to enforce rules in the tabletop space, you need a streamlined design to reduce the amount of cognitive strain it takes to track upkeep.”
What came as a surprise, however, is that Mechs vs Minions was never planned specifically as a League of Legends boardgame. “I get wary when I see boardgames with prominent intellectual properties attached,” Cantrell said. “If MOBAs are your thing, we already have a game for that online. So we hoped to create a great boardgame, something we hoped could stand on its own even for players who had never even heard of League. This is also one of the main reasons we kept the entire development in house. We weren’t going to ship something that we weren’t proud to play.”
This explains why Mechs vs Minions feels more like a game set in the League of Legends world than an actual League game. It’s an understandable trade-off. The enforced turn-based structure of a boardgame is a poor mimic for the real-time action of the video screen. But the game even takes a few liberties with established League of Legends lore. Its protagonists are all Yordles, cat-like characters from the videogame. But Mechs vs Minions, as its title suggests, sees them sitting on giant robots. In the original only one Yordle, called Rumble, is a mech pilot.
Given that there are other robotic characters in League such as Blitzcrank and Nunu Bot, going for Yordles seemed an odd choice. “We explored using these characters early on in the process,” Cantrell revealed. “But we eventually walked away from it. One of our core mechanics is that when you get damaged, your program goes a little haywire on you. You start spinning around in circles or running into walls. We found that when some of our more familiar robotic champions were running into walls, it felt frustrating.”
Rumble’s character, however, offers a degree of comic relief in the original game, and Chris found this came through on the board. “When we shifted it to Rumble it felt silly and whimsical,” Cantrell said. “We saw people laughing at the absurdity of it rather than pulling their hair out in frustration. Never underestimate how critical tone is to the overall experience of your game. I think many of Vlaada Chvatil’s games do this well, specifically Space Alert and Dungeon Lords.”
Other departures, such as the wholly antagonistic nature of the minions, get explained during play. Each mission comes in a sealed envelope, only to be opened once you beat the preceding scenario. It’s a fun touch that engages players in the story, an echo of Rob Daviau’s successful Legacy games like Risk: Legacy and Pandemic: Legacy. There are other neat synergies, like cartoons on the Mechs vs Minions site voiced by the same actors from the videogame. “I thought that fans of our IP might get a kick out of hearing the Yordles interact with each other through a modern-day radio play,” Cantrell chuckled.
With Cantrell and his team allowed to take liberties with the source material, I wondered if it might be a two way street—if anything from Mechs vs Minions might work its way back into League. “That’d be a blast,” he enthused, before becoming more businesslike. “I guess never say never,” he continued, “but that’s not something we’re currently exploring.”
A more important question, however, is whether they’ve made a successful game. Cantrell cheerfully admits to his inexperience, even citing it as a boon. “I’d joke with the team that our plan was to leverage our ignorance,” he told me. “We’d spend time exploring and often discover there were good reasons why certain things had never been attempted. But every now and then we found that we liked the way we landed a bit better.” And as to whether they used those levers to build something great? “That’s a question for the players. They can let us know on whether or not we’ve been successful.”
Matt Thrower is a UK based freelance writer on video and tabletop games. His work has appeared in PC Gamer, The Guardian, GamesRadar and many other outlets. He’s on Twitter at @mattthr.