Michael Eckenfels, 16 July 2020
This is BC in the Armchair Dragoon Express, and I’m talkin’ to whoever’s listenin’ out there. On my table is Big Trouble In Little China: The Board Game, a production with tons of components, art, gameplay, dice, quests, combat, and most importantly, themed from the John Carpenter movie from 1986 of the same name. A dark martial-arts comedy film starting Kurt Russell and Kim Cattrall, among many other terrific actors, was for me one of those films from the 80s that left a lasting impression. It was chaotic, wild, clever, and full of action, and I’m happy to say this board game equivalent is much the same.
click images to enlarge
Even if you know nothing of the movie, it’s still a good experience. If you hated the movie, well…you’ll probably want to avoid this, just because it is soaked in the celluloid experience that was Big Trouble in Little China (obviously).
The game is played over two Acts, the first of which is in the streets of Chinatown, and the second in the lair of David Lo Pan, the main bad guy. Act I is intended to be a build-up to allow the player’s characters to gain skills and equipment needed to crack the hard shell of Lo Pan’s lair, and deal with some major big bosses (such as Rain, Thunder, and/or Lightning, from the movie). You can play as any of the six major characters from the game, and have a number of companions (some of which can be those main characters, but in a different role) to assist you in completing Main and Secondary Quests, and in scoring loot and fighting bad guys.
In a word…fantastic. The game’s characters and bad guys are all represented by very well-sculpted miniatures that have great detail and invoke the movie’s vision very well.
The board evokes the settings from the film well, though I like the Act I side more than the Act II side. Act I shows the streets and buildings of Chinatown, with dark spaces portraying a seedy, run-down world through which your heroes must move and interact with various Quests and Side Quests to move the story along.
The Act II side is Lo Pan’s lair, and it looks much the same as the movie. The only thing about it that bugs me is the perspective; the perspective on the Act I side is somewhat isometric but not too much, whereas it is much more pronounced on the Act II side. But, that’s not too big a deal, as long as there are not a lot of minis in the spaces. For example, below is the top level of Lo Pan’s lair in Act II. With all the minis (which are there from game play, not just for show) makes it a bit jarring in perspective. Not terribly so for me, but it might look odd to others.
Other components, including character cards, game cards, dice, and many other pieces are all top quality, making this an excellent purchase. I spent about $80 on it if I remember right, and think it was worth every penny. Your mileage, of course, may vary.
You get to play as one of the six major characters in the game – Jack, Wang, Gracie, Margo, Eddie, and/or Egg Shen. Some of these major characters can have ‘Companion’ cards that feature these same characters. For example, if you choose to play Jack, you can possibly get Gracie as a Companion card. Companions generally add a minor yet very welcome function to your character, such as an extra Action Die or Combat Die.
Each main character gives you spaces for tracking Health, Chi (which is experience), your Level (your characters can level up to gain additional benefits throughout the game), and your placement of Action Dice, which is the heart of the game.
Each turn, you roll your Action Dice. This is a base of three, but can increase if you have a Companion that adds one to your pool. Action Dice can result in a Body (hand symbol), Mind (scroll symbol), or Spirit (Ying-Yang symbol). You place these dice into the appropriate spaces (Mind results, for example, go in the Mind row). You choose an Action, such as move or combat, and then allocate dice to give you a certain amount of performance. Looking at the picture above, you can see there are some normal spaces, and then spaces with a glow around them. If you place a die in a normal space, you can take an action as normal, but placing one in a glowing space means an Epic version of the action you wish to take.
For example, if you’re like poor Jack there, alone in a space with three Hatchetmen, you’ll probably want to take a Combat action. For each of your Action dice that you place, you get either a regular die or an Epic die to make your attack. Regular dice are gray have results of 1, 2, or a demon symbol (which is a miss), while Epic dice are gold and have 3, 2, 1, and a demon symbol. You build your dice pool this way, and also by adding any dice your companions and equipment give you, then roll the bunch. If you score higher than a target’s Defense score, you get a hit.
Minions in Act I can only take one hit before they are eliminated, though the Bosses, like Rain, Thunder, or Lightning, are much tougher and require multiple hits.
There’s also Actions to further Quests and Side Quests, each of which have certain objectives that must be achieved. Regular Quests are multi-step, requiring you to complete several objectives before you can ‘finish’ the Quest and gain its rewards, while Side Quests usually only require one obstacle to overcome.
Each finished Quest or Side Quest adds Audacity to the player’s side of the long track at the top of the Act I board. If players can get their Audacity marker to the middle space first, it will help their cause as things immediately move into Act II.
On the other side is the Big Trouble Track, which advances every turn. If it reaches the center space first, Act II likewise begins immediately but not well for the heroes.
The idea is to move Quests and Side Quests along at a decent pace, while leveling up and building your inventory, because the bad guys in Act II are challenging – especially Lo Pan, whom has two sides. You first fight his Ghost side, then when that’s defeated, his card is flipped and you face his human form.
Players gain Chi like experience points, for defeating bad guys. Whenever a player gets 10 Chi, their track resets and they gain a level. This usually means an extra combat/skill die or a card of their choice (each character has their own cards; you cannot choose a card for another character). These help tremendously, but reduction in Health is fairly common, especially as bad guys spawn each turn – as well as due to Quest/Side Quest events. It can be very easy to forget to heal your character and then get in a fight where you’ll likely be killed. Thing is though, when a character is killed, they’re not eliminated – instead, you must draw a Hell card, which either sticks with that character until removed or perhaps only after it inflicts its curse upon the character. These are quite bad and not recommended, so a Rest action is highly advised to heal when someone gets low on Health.
With all the dice in the game, there’s still more to talk about dice-wise! There’s a Fate Track, which adds another dimension to the game. Let’s say you’re rolling but don’t quite get what you want; maybe you’re doing a skill check and need a 4, but only roll a total of 3. If there’s a Fate Die with a ‘1’ on it, you can yoink it from that Pool and apply it to your skill check. However, at the end of your turn, you have to re-roll any Fate dice taken. There’s a 50/50 chance something bad will happen, all of which is detailed on the chart on that track.
The Quest Book is a thick tome that relates the Big Trouble in Little China story via the Quests within, though this can of course change from play to play. Several Quests (not Side Quests, to be clear, but the main Quests) have branching points asking if you want to do one thing or another. Often, these choices are not given to you in the form of what needs to be done to address them. For example, you might face some bad guys and be given the choice of sneaking past them, or throwing caution to the wind and fighting. You won’t be told what the difficulty is in sneaking past, nor whom exactly you would be fighting. It’s often all about the simple choice you’d make in a cinematic moment that is this board game.
The rule book is an entertaining read, as it takes the form in places of Jack narrating what needs to be done in each section. It’s clear and relatively easy to find what you’re looking for rule-wise, as it is split into the baseline rules that put you through Act I, then builds on that for Act II, so if you’re looking for Act-specific stuff, you can more or less easily locate it. There are also handy two-sided player aids to assist you in determining what you can do Action-wise, as well as how a turn progresses.
Your goal, of course, is to build up your skills and dice pools as best you can in Act I, then move to Act II ready for the big bad guys…especially Lo Pan, who is no pushover, as well as his lieutenants, Rain, Thunder, and Lightning. Plus there always seems to be a load of bad guys to fight other than these main ones. The interesting thing here is that your Act II set-up is based on how well you did in Act I. If you were able to complete Main Quests in Act I, your life will be easier in Act II. For example, you might have a chance to off one of the lieutenants in Act I, making them not appear in Act II. This kind of thing can have effects unforeseen and really helps build a unique narrative with each playthrough. I really enjoy how what I do in Act I impacts Act II, almost as if I’m filming my own Big Trouble movie.
If you’re a fan of this movie, playing it is just going to make you want to watch the movie again. At the very least you’ll probably want to play the soundtrack during your game as it helps evoke the energy of the movie.
Regardless of your approach, Big Trouble in Little China: The Board Game is a tremendously fun big-box, cool-bits game that should occupy your shelf, especially if you love the movie.
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