Bionicle: The Quest For Makuta Board Game Review
During the second week of December, an unassuming little box started popping up on store shelves around the country with a Bionicle logo emblazoned on its lid. The catch is, it didn't have any LEGO blocks inside at all. In fact, it wasn't even on the building block aisle -- but in the board game aisle.
Enter, Bionicle: Quest for Makuta Adventure Game.
I picked this up at my local Wal*Mart last week for $14.95, and finally got a chance to sit down an play it, and since nobody seems to have done so yet, I thought it warranted a full review.
Even more so than the CCG from Upper Deck Entertainment, B:QfM follows the storyline of the Bionicle legend. Whereas in the CCG your goal is to collect the Great Masks, B:QfM sends you on the path of first finding, and then defeating Makuta himself. Along the way you gather Kanohi, ally with Turaga and battle with Rahi. Additionally, you collect keys that are required to unlock Makuta's lair -- once you uncover its location.
My initial impression of the design and construction of the game was positive. I've always been wary of board games based on established franchises. Generally the design goes something like this: "Take a square piece of cardboard, glue a shiny sticker full of logos on it, fold it in half, and poof, it's a game." Thankfully, that is absolutely not the case here.
RoseArt started from the ground up here, and built the Mata Nui map out of twenty interconnecting hexagonal cardboard puzzle pieces, punched from very sturdy, glossy cardboard. Each Toa is also represented by a playcard punched from the same material, and a custom plastic gamepiece with an image of the Toa sealed inside (not just a sticker on a token).
The only other items in the game are the round quarter-sized gamepieces which represent Kanohi, Turaga, Rahi, keys & Makuta locks. The manual calls them "tokens," and if they were punched from something more than thin, flimsy cardboard I might agree, but for lack of a better word, I'll call these "chips." While I wish they were more like firm plastic poker chips, in reality they're thin cardboard which you punch out yourself from perforated sheets. The looks are fine, and memorable of the Bionicle images you've seen to date, but they have very little heft, and left me wishing that they'd been printed on something more substantial (like the material used for the Mata Nui Map & Toa playcards). The chips are two-sided, with one side indicating the type of chip (Kanohi, Nui-Rama, etc.) and the other side indicating the type or strength of the chip.
Additionally, you have three dice: a standard white 6-sided, a red 8-sided and a green 12-sided.
The game begins on a single map piece, on which your Toa has washed upon the shore of Mata Nui. You roll your single die to move, and as you encounter portals on the edge of the pieces, you draw another piece from the stack of remaining map elements, and placing one of its portals adjacent to the one you landed on, build upon the map. You then stock that new piece with appropriate game chips (corresponding with the images on the map), and continue play.
Along the way you are blocked by three classes of Rahi. The Nui-Rama class have a strength ranging from 1-7, the Nui-Jaga class ranging from 7-13, and the Muaka/Kane-Ra class ranging from 13-20 (which is correct, despite the contradiction on the glossy reference sheets that claim the Rahi have 1-7, 1-14 & 14-20, respectively). As you encounter a Rahi, you flip the chip to expose its strength, and then roll your die and add any modifers granted by Kanohi/Turaga that you may have, and if you total is above the Rahi's strength, you win, defeat the Rahi & play again. Losing costs you one of your earned chips from your Toa's playcard (chosen by an opponent) and placed under the Rahi chip that you failed to defeat (as a spoil to whomever does defeat that Rahi), and sets you back.
Kanohi, Turaga & key chips are picked up as you clear the path of Rahi, and they are kept facedown on your Toa playcard. You're limited to holding 4 Kanohi, 2 Turaga & 3 keys at any one time, but as you come across others on the map, you have the choice of taking the new one (discarding one of your existing ones) or not.
I'm not going to try to describe the entire point system here, but suffice it to say that each Kanohi grants you an appropriate power (except the Kaukau, that grants you an arbitrary, game power urelated to the Bionicle role). Some give you the right to use the larger dice for speed & strength in battles, some give you a plus-modifier for Rahi battles, and others give you teleport and vision (see your opponent's chips) abilities. Additionally, allying with Turaga grants you a plus-modifer, and allying with your Turaga (i.e. Matau for Lewa, Whenua for Onua, etc.) gives double the plus-modifier.
Play progresses until the map section of Makuta's lair is revealed, at which time the lock chips are put down around the perimeter on the portals and Makuta's Temple (a gray lid from a Toa can with a color-coded decal around the base, appropriately enough) is placed in the center. As you approach a lock, it's flipped and a three-digit code (in Bionicle font, of course) is revealed. You must have those three keys on your Toa's playcard in order to even attempt a challenge on Makuta. If you don't, it's back out to the map to find and swap out keys, or work your way around the map and try to reach Makuta's Temple through a different portal.
When you finally match your keys to a lock, you've earned the right to challenge Makuta. A die is rolled to rotate Makuta's Temple, and then his strength is determined by which color on his base is facing your particular portal. Then, in somewhat anti-climatic fashion, the battle is determined on a single die roll. If your roll, plus your Kanohi/Turaga modifers is higher than Makuta's strength, then you win. Game over.
Should you lose, you lose a chip just as with a Rahi challenge, but this time, one of your opponents gets to teleport your Toa to any space on the map, just to give you some trouble making your way to a second attempt on Makuta's Temple.
I'll preface this by saying that I played the game with only one opponent (my good sport of a wife), so your mileage may vary.
Early on, the game is about amassing Kanohi & Turaga chips. And once you ally with two Turaga, the Nui-Rama class Rahi cannot defeat you, since your established modifier is higher than their potential strength. Pick up a Hau or Pakari in addition, and now you're immune to all Rahi except the Muaka/Kane-Ra class. What I'm getting at is, you seem to amass great strength very early in the game, and it becomes more of a race to find your keys, and less of a battle with the Rahi. Perhaps if the Rahi were a bit stronger, or if the Kanohi/Turaga chips gave a bit less of an advantage in challenges it would be different -- or maybe I just need to play with more people.
Essentially, if you can build a plus-modifier to your strength of 20 with a combination of Kanohi & Turaga chips early on, you become invincible to any Rahi, and it eliminates the need to even roll your die. By the same token (no pun intended), you are then invulnerable to losing any of the chips you've amassed. It seems to be a bit overpowering, and places the emphasis on chance rather than skill.
This is offset slightly by the positioning of new Mata Nui map pieces, which is comprised of about 1/3 luck (which piece you draw) and 2/3 strategy. How you orient a new piece dictates if and how other pieces may be joined to it to create the path for the gameplay board. It's realy quite refreshing, and keeps the game from seeming too predictable.
Then, in the later portion of the game, the focus turns to a race for finding and swapping out key chips in order to attempt a challenge on Makuta's Temple. By that time, you've probably built enough strength that the Rahi are no match for you, and additionally, most of them have been defeated by then, since they are not respawned on the map after defeated.
(This section updated 12/16/2001) I originally wrote here about a confusion about the start space, which has since been cleared up for me, by, what else, re-reading the instructions! Instead, I'm going to complain about the organization of the instruction manual. This is, I think was the source of my initial confusion. For example, the "Moving Around" section goes rapidly from how you move to how to connect board pieces. But if you're looking for how to connect board pieces, there's no section dedicated to it (it's under the "Moving" section). Further, discarding chips to the start space is described throughout the manual, but not until the end in the catch-all "A Few Notes" category does it mention what to do with them. Admittedly, this is something of a superficial complaint that could be circumvented by carefully reading every letter of the instruction manual from cover to cover, twice.
So after being brutally honest about some of the balance and rule issues, it all really boils down to this: Is it fun? I'd have to give an unqualified, "Yes." Even my wife, who doesn't know a Muaka from a Kopaka, found it fun, and is looking forward to playing again.
There's enough chance to keep a superior strategist from dominating every game, and enough strategy that you don't just feel thrown by the wind of your dice roll. In fact, you can choose to move fewer spaces than your dice roll, and odds are that you will on many occasions.
Is it Monopoly or Risk, of course not. But then again, it's no Candyland either. I seem to keep coming back to the map-building aspect (can you tell I liked that element?) of the game, but that's what's going to bring you back to this game time and again.
There's no chance of memorizing a "best" route to get to Makuta's Temple, because you have no way of knowing where it'll be. It might be the second piece of the map, or the twentieth. It may be right next to where you start, or clear across the map -- you just never know. And since each piece is strategically positioned by the players, paths and shorcuts can be created or destroyed based on the rotation of the hexagon.
I dare say that this game is going to get a lot more playing time than the CCG, because it's so much more accessible, easier to learn, and truly original each time you open the box.
Overall, a great game for gameplayers, whether they be Bionicle fans or not. Once you and your opponents agree upon how to work around the vague areas of the rules and settle on how things will be run, you'll probably never play just one game at a time, but several.