Once, some 7,000 years ago or so, someone came up with the ingenious notion that moving items across land from Point A to Point B could be done more efficiently than carrying them by hand, dragging them by sledge, or precariously loading them atop an animal. This led to the invention of the wheel, which revolutionized transportation.
The thing is, the first wheels weren’t amazing. Sure, they were better than the not-wheel options, but the first wheels weren’t the most practical or efficient. In time, others came along and made improvements. People figured out how to make wooden wheels more uniformly round. They created new ways of attaching axles and making wheels spin independently. They determined how to go from 2-wheeled carts to 4-wheeled. They developed spoked wheels, allowing the creation of lighter and faster carts and carriages. As technology evolved, wheels were fitted with more flexible axles, ball bearings, and other suspension systems while simultaneously developing them with more advanced materials from metal alloys, to vulcanized rubber, to the pneumatic tires of today.
Yet throughout this entire millennia-long process the underlying purpose of the wheel has not changed: getting items and people from Point A to Point B.
This is known as iterative design, and it is as every bit at the heart of progress as wholly new ideas. While breakthrough innovations and inventions routinely come along to make lives easier, processes simpler, and systems more efficient, we have iterative design to thank for taking existing ideas and improving on them with each successive generation. This leads not only to direct upgrades of known concepts but creating entirely new offshoots and specialized versions. So long as the creative and intrepid spirit is involved, the endless tinkering of iterative design can make completely new advancements in even the most benign-seeming products.
Say, for instance, with board games.
Board game design is continually in flux, with designers routinely borrowing from or being inspired by past works. And few mechanics have been more fiddled with than that of worker placement. While one game (Keydom) served as its genesis, over the last 20+ years worker placement has gone on to prodigious success, spawning an entire subgenre sporting an expansive array of varying styles, processes, and combinations with other game mechanisms.
And while some like to pontificate its abundant use now as rather trite, there is a missed appreciation for the familiar. For sometimes having a known quantity can be advantageous to an audience, as it not only allows players to more quickly process the gist of the game, but it can actually free you up to focus on what a mechanic is doing differently rather than the mechanic in its entirety.
So let’s start off by saying this: Meeples and Monsters is a bag-building worker placement game.
If you understood that sentence, congrats! – you now know 70% of the rules. But that is not a negative.
In Meeples & Monsters, the latest crowdfunded title for AEG and designed by the same mind behind Champions of Midgard, 2-4 players are transported into a fantasy realm in dire need of better saving throws. Over the span of 60-90 minutes, players amass their own assortment of heroes, build up the capital city, complete quests, and above all, fight off an army of monsters invading the land. All of which is driven by a pleasingly approachable blend of “bag building” and worker placement elements, both of which drive (and dictate) nearly all your efforts.
Monsters & Meeples begins with a notable assortment of bright meeple units, a corresponding slate of unit cards, and a three-tiered Monster deck assembled during setup which serves as both the main obstacle to overcome and the game’s timer. At the center of this colorful wooden mélange sits the main board of the capital city, already under siege. This capital in fact:
Everyone starts off with the same inn & tavern flavored player board, the bottom half of which depicts the 5 basic meeple units in the game: Peasants, Mages, Clerics, Warriors, and Knights.
However, all of this is rather moot because you don’t start with any of those cooler, more useful units.
Instead, every player has the same ragtag allotment of starter citizen-defenders in their drawstring bag: 7 Peasants and 3 Corruption. While Peasants at least have basic level usefulness, Corruption meeples represent the creeping doom slowly encompassing the kingdom and undercut your ability to thwart the evil causing it. These units serve (almost) no purpose and, for the most part, merely clutter up your bag with undesirable draws.
To the newly initiated, bag builder games nominally function the same way as a deckbuilder (e.g. Dominion), except instead of using cards your choices are based on which items you draw out of a bag. In Monsters & Meeples, that’s your worker meeples. Everyone begins by drawing 4 meeples and letting them congregate in the top left part of your player board, fittingly referred to as The Tavern.
As one of its several amiable qualities, turns in the game are concise and straightforward, consisting of just three phases. The first is Development, which is mostly deciding whether to use either (or both) of two unique worker spaces: Location construction or upgrading units.
Constructing Locations creates new activation spaces for players to activate throughout the game and is accomplished by assigning either one or two Peasants to the respective space – construction being the one unique trait Peasants provide. (Be sure to ask about their low, low barn-raising rates.) Committing a single Peasant is the cheaper option, but in doing so you also obtain another Peasant in the process.
Keeping an eye on your meeple acquisition is an important facet in M&M. While you’ll have ample opportunity to effectively swap or upgrade units throughout the game, and the game takes notable care to avoid completely “dead draw” turns, reducing your overall number of units is incredibly difficult. Ensuring you don’t flood yourself with too many less desirable units is paramount to success.
To construct a new Location, simply choose one of the four available tiles on display and add it an open space on the board. Adding a Location also rewards you with either free worthwhile meeples or additional Quest cards, depending on which quadrant of the capital you select.
The tension of adding Locations is less dramatic at lower player counts than higher ones, but it still serves as an early and worthwhile weighted decision point. On the one hand, there are only 8 possible Location spaces, and every free reward, especially early on, is valuable. On the other hand, Locations are available for everyone’s use, so you’ll want to be mindful not to provide your opponents an activation space they’ll benefit more from in the long term simply for your own short-term gains.
The other development option is leveling up a unit class. All four non-Peasant classes are cable of being upgraded up to twice, providing them with higher combat ratings and / or special abilities. Upgrading requires assigning a unit of that class to the activation space and spending 0-3 VP, depending on the class and level being upgraded. Upgrading units opens up new strategies and fighting capabilities, but doing so also usually requires spending precious VP. As with many other minor push-and-pull choices in the game, you’ll therefore want to be judicious about when and where to do so.
Development is followed by the Main phase, which is where the bulk of the game occurs. Here, you are free to assign unused meeples to any Locations matching the required types. Locations spaces provide several effects, though most boil down to either boosting combat values that turn or allow you to obtain new meeples. This could possibly include one from the game’s three rarer and more powerful prestige classes of Shaman, Paladin, or Ranger, each of which possess unique and powerful abilities.
Here you may also assign meeples to fight any monster cards currently threatening the city, so long as your cardboard hacking and slashing will be able to meet or exceed their combat value that turn. In many ways combat is the core of Meeples & Monsters, and the process of combat resolution is clear, simple, and unencumbered by random elements such as dice. It can take some strategy and combo-making to generate it, but if your units can match the monster’s strength, you win. It’s that simple.
Wonderfully, elegantly simple.
The Kickstarter version of Meeples & Monsters also includes a mini-expansion called The Four Towers, which provide yet more spaces to assign units on your turn. Consisting of four tile stacks with the topmost one revealed, tower Locations largely behave the same as normal ones, except that each Tower space can only be used once before being removed from the board. Each Tower imparts either immediate rewards or endgame VP. Though Meeples & Monsters is completely playable without this add-on, its inclusion seamlessly offers up even more strategic gameplay variety without adding undue complexity.
Once all meeples are placed, spaces may be resolved in any order. In both the Main and Development phases any used or newly acquired units go to the top right part of your board, called your Lodgings; lost units are returned to their supply. Slain monsters provide a variety of rewards, from more units and Quests, to permanently boosting the combat strength of certain classes. Most importantly, though, is that nearly all defeated monsters reward you with some of that ever-glorious VP.
However, slaying monsters directly is not solely the bastion of worthwhile VP. In Meeples & Monsters that can also be obtained via Quests. Each player starts off with a pair of Quests, and there are numerous methods to gain additional ones throughout the course of the game. Some Quests are immediately completed by defeating a monster using specified combinations of units, while others provide endgame points if you can accomplish them. Having numerous Quests provide various tasks to work towards and serve well as guideposts for players, but they aren’t completely without risk: failing to finish one by the end of the game will lose you VP instead.
The final quick phase is Cleanup, where you draw new meeples from your bag in preparation for the following turn. Only when the bag is empty are the contents of your Lodgings returned to the bag.
It is also here when new monsters are drawn to replace any defeated ones. Every monster stipulates which quadrant to add them to. Having more monsters in a particular area of the capital doesn’t make them harder to defeat, but using a Location in a section with multiple monsters without also fighting them “rewards” you with extra Peasants fleeing the danger into your open arms. You suave hero type you.
Twice during monster replenishment a Dark Council card will be revealed, signaling the approaching dangers of the game’s Big Baddies – the Dark Council members. Not only does the strength of the monsters tick up around this point, but each player gains another wonderfully useless Corruption meeple as well. To offset these developments, however, the total number of meeples you draw each turn also increases, keeping both the pacing and scaling of the game from devolving as you progress.
Aside from the obvious use of bag building as one of its iterations, this brings up the most notable part of Meeples & Monsters’s worker placement approach: how much it deviates from the default worker placement behavioral model in favor of a more genial one. That is, with just two Location exceptions, all of a player’s meeples are cleared from the board at the end of their turn. There is no jockeying for spaces, intentionally blocking another player’s plans, or having to spend precious turns recovering your own units. Everyone works with an open slate, allowing you to focus on what’s truly important: dispatching evil with extreme prejudice. From the outside such an approach may not seem like it would work and retain a sense of engagement and fun as a worker placement game. But it does.
Turns continue in this manner until the third and final Dark Council card makes its appearance, signaling the arrival of the Dark Council to the gates of your city and that just two rounds remain. During these final two turns you can attack one of the Council members directly. Each member provides a healthy amount of VP for facing them, as well as potential bonus VP from an assortment of randomly assigned ability tokens if you can meet its combat requirements.
After a pair of bouts with this rather rigid quartet of evil ne’er-do-wells and factoring in any remaining Quests, the player with the most VP wins.
Though such inviting gameplay mechanics alone would be enough to entice many gamers, Meeples & Monsters further bolsters its appeal with its appreciably diverse artwork and not-so-subtle-if-you-pay-attention meta flavor. In this game, you aren’t just working with meeples: the units are meeples.
They are the anthropomorphized standees from your tabletop campaign. The heroes. The monsters. Everything. It’s why the Cleric carries around wood glue, why the minions, summoned from the realm of Peepul, include the likes of termites, plywood golems, and giant beavers, and why one of the three top villains is named Saw Ron – carrying a pair of wood saws. Even its namesake is a sly D&D nod. It’s a clever and irreverent thematic concept which adds a layer of buoyancy and charm that permeates every facet of the game. Once you notice it, it’s all but impossible to ignore. Which you shouldn’t.
Meeples & Monsters is an affable, playful worker placement game with widescale appeal and whose tongue is permanently planted in its cheek. By utilizing a balanced mix of bag building and worker placement mechanics alongside a suitable but not overpowering variety of unit types and scoring options, M&M carefully distills down two mechanics more commonly found in heavier games and weaves an experience whose strategic depth is direct but not oversimplified and whose style is brisk yet inviting. The result of these efforts makes Meeples & Monsters an approachable family weight title with intuitive gameplay and a casual, vibrant atmosphere befitting its adventurous and mildly ridiculous spirit.
If this lightweight exercise in monster slaying and meeple-based bag building sounds like your kind of woodland realm, then a-pine no further and head over to its Kickstarter! Just watch out for splinters.
This project has earned the Seal of the Republic
Photo Credits: Meeples & Monsters cover and artwork by Alderac Entertainment Group.