Of all the cool stuff I picked up at NYAF this year, Collateral Damage was by far the coolest. I had no intention of buying a board game at the convention, but once I heard the concept for CD I was intrigued and curiosity won out over frugality. As an added bonus, every single person I tell about it seems to say "Wait, there's an anime board game?", so I feel special for being in the know.
Hit the jump to find out whether the experience of playing this game is anywhere near as cool as the fact that it even exists in the first place, although I have to say: it makes a great conversation piece in your anime collection either way.
This review must begin with a very important disclaimer: If you're looking for a simple, laid-back sort of game to play with your friends, this game is absolutely not for you. The rules are complicated, so much so that I think my group had to play it about three times before we felt confident that we were doing it right. There are about six million and twelve things that you must do for each turn, and if you don't elect one player to serve as master of ceremonies, you will forget critically important steps (notice I didn't say "you might forget"), and your game will become messed up. There are way too many arbitrary things to remember, and while I'm not an expert on board games, I'm pretty sure that's a hallmark of poor design.
That said, the flaws are both understandable and acceptable due to the fact that the men and women of Gozer Games really reached for the stars with this game. Instead of taking a preexisting game and slapping some anime artwork on it, they truly built the game around anime (specifically, romantic-comedy style anime), and while the overall design could use some work, the fact that they did as well as they did is a genuine achievement.
If the game were unplayable, I couldn't give it a good review no matter how good the concept behind it was, but the convoluted rules only really hurt the game during the learning phase. Once you get over the hump of the sheer number of things you need to keep track of, the game becomes really enjoyable. Provided that you have the patience to deal with a high learning curve, the rules do actually make sense and work together well once you become familiar with them. Furthermore, my group was having fun even when we were spending half the game looking in the rule book to figure out what the hell we were supposed to do, because we could sense the potential.
Just a heads-up? If your gameboard ever actually looks like this, please be aware that your game will take approximately 35 hours.
In Collateral Damage, you play a gang boss who is trying to take over the city of Mega Neo Tokyo and it's surrounding cities. Naturally, you recruit anime characters to help enable your megalomania. Most of the characters are obvious homages to existing characters (although the characters from both Project A-ko and New Dominion Tank Police are the real McCoy, so either the creators gave Gozer permission, or there's some copyright wackiness going on.) Since the series is based on romantic comedy anime like Ranma 1/2 and Tenchi Muyo- and, my god are there are lot of Tenchi and Ranma 1/2 doppelgangers in this game- the characters have a bad habit of falling in love and proceeding to act like morons. Characters who fall in love will start disobeying orders and do things like attack their rivals, even if their 'rivals' just happen to be the rest of your team. However, many characters play differently when in love, and those changes to their abilities could actually prove beneficial. Meanwhile, while all of this super-powered fighting is going on, the cities are experiencing some epic-level property damage, hence the title. Over the course of the game, the different cities take more and more damage, which then makes them weaker and easier to dominate. It's managing your mercurial team of anime characters, in the larger context of trying to dominate an increasingly wrecked landscape, that makes up the bulk of the gameplay.
Where the game really shines is character management. Each character has a special ability, and while some are obvious, sometimes you have to play around for a long time before you figure out how to make use of a character's abilities. There is no one way to start gathering territory, so you have to develop a strategy: Do I want to go after my opponent's characters, since I have a very battle-focused party, and then start conquering locations when his people are all down and out? Do I want to avoid wasting libido (yes, the unit of energy in this game is called libido) on battles that will turn into a war of attrition, and go after the city directly? Do I want to let the other two teams fight it out, then try to scoop up cities in the wake of their destruction? Certain strategies become impossible if your characters don't have the stats or the abilities to pull them off, so you either have to build a strategy around the characters you have, or fire your team and get some new characters (there's a whole recruitment system I won't go into here.)
Hmm, anybody look a bit familiar? I keep waiting to get Luna for my team and it never happens, one of these days...
I once got a character who seemed so useless, I actually groaned when I picked him out of the deck. However, after the few turns a little light bulb appeared over my head, and I figured out a way to use the character as a shield for the rest of my team. I eventually won the game largely because of the 'useless' character. Also, abilities that seem insanely powerful (and actually are) will do nothing for you if you aren't using them strategically; in fact, if the really powerful abilities do a ton of damage to a city, you may have just helped your opponents more than yourself. It's impossible to be too far ahead in this game, because even if you have a lot of territory, things can change very fast, and the person who was in first place at the beginning of a turn can easily be in last by the end.
Because of those rare, but incredibly satisfying moments when you figure out devious strategies that no one will see coming, I'm prepared to forgive this game any and all of it's flaws. The fact that the gameplay remains competitive throughout is also a great feature (although maybe I just feel that way because I always end up being that one person in Monopoly who's been losing for like an hour, but there's that vain hope that everyone will keep landing on Ventner Avenue or something.) In fact, most of the unnecessarily complex rules are only that complex because of the obvious effort that went into keeping the game balanced.
Just for the sake of covering all the bases, I should note that the art is a bit amateurish; it could stand to be a little cleaner. That said, I find the kind of "poor-man's anime" style totally appropriate for this game, and it's probably at least somewhat intentional. I find it very charming, actually. From the looks of things, an expansion set, if not a second edition is in the works, so I hope the new stuff from Gozer will be a little sleeker, but with the charm intact.
It's available for $39.99 from their website, although you can pick it up for less if you happen to stop by the Gozer Games booth at a convention. Forty clams may seem like a lot to spend on a board game, but naturally it all comes down to whether or not you think you're actually going to play it, and how often. I can hardly recommend anything better to do on a rainy night with some buddies, except for perhaps watching anime, and you can't watch anime 24 hours a day, can you?
You know what? Don't answer that. Just buy this game and support the people who are actually making the stuff that we talk about in the form of our "Wouldn't it be so cool if someone made...." conversations. We can punish them for spying on us later.
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