Boardgame Reviews

Vengeance Board Game Review – John Wick: The Board Game

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Designed by: Gordon Calleja
Art by: Axel Torvenius
Published By: Mighty Boards
Players: 1-4
Playtime: 30-120 Minutes

Review copy supplied free of charge by Asmodee UK.

As a movie fan, I can’t count how many times I’ve seen a man or woman wronged by the villain before setting out to gain vengeance against the perpetrator, their friends, their family, their dog and anyone within a several mile radius. It’s a simple plot device that has been the driving motivation behind some of the best action movies ever, with a prime recent example being the mighty John Wick who had a pure, direct reason to go on a rampage; some jerks killed the dog his dead wife gave to him, and also stole his beloved car. As reasons to go on a rampage go, it’s a pretty good one.

Vengeance is a board game that seeks to take this classic action movie plot device and bring it to the world of cardboard, dice and miniatures.  To this end, every game of Vengeance starts with the Wronging, a phase where you play boss cards that deal physical and mental damage to your character. Perhaps you took a beating from Kaiser that resulted in a broken arm, or maybe you were subjected to sensory deprivation by Nico Radic which left you mentally unstable. These are the people you want to hunt down and slaughter, and doing so will get you the Vengeance Points needed to win.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. When you open up the sizable box Vengeance greets you with a lot of stuff, including bags and bags of miniatures that represent the five heroes and four different gangs, a bunch of dice, loads of cards, tokens and boards. The production value here is impressive, and while the amount of miniatures means that they individually aren’t all that detail there’s no denying that once the game is in full swing it looks very, very cool, and if you’re willing to paint all the figures you’ll end up with something spectacular. The artwork catches the eye, too.

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I talked about every game of Vengeance kicking off with our heroes being Wronged, so that’s where we’ll start. Once  you’ve got the initial six Den tiles laid out and all the tokens placed on the table, every player gets handed nine Vengeance cards that represent the individual bosses, their gang and exactly what they did to you, and you’ll pick one of these cards to keep before handing off the other eight to the next player and so on and so on until everyone has a beginning hand of seven Vengeance cards, and of those seven they’ll need to play three of them face-up. These starting cards indicate the bosses who have wronged you and must now be hunted down, but like I mentioned before each card played also lists damage you’ll willingly take by placing cubes on your health, mind and skill tracks. The key is that if you play more than one of the same card you’ll score more if you manage to actually kill that boss, but finding them amongst the six Den tiles can be a problem and thus it might be more prudent to take several different cards in order to broaden your options. But we’ll come back to this later.

Once you’ve got the initial Wronging out of the way you all enter the first of the game’s three Montage phases where our heroes will heal themselves, prepare to recon the six different Dens in order to find the people who tortured them and learn new skills in order to become more badass than Chuck Norris after he just won an Ass-Kicking Contest by simply turning up. I love this idea the designer had for translating the wonderful montage trope into a game mechanic.

So here’s how a Montage plays out; firstly all players grab white dice equal to the value shown on their Mind track, and then they all get rolled into a common pool. Each player in turn then gets to take a die from the pool, grabbing as many as they originally rolled. These dice have hearts for healing, symbols for upgrades, recon and speed icons that will help determine who gets to launch an assault first and stars that can be used for anything, or even to draw new Vengeance cards. Once the dice have all been drafted players then put down three of their character’s Montage cards which will have a speed rating printed on the right, plus one of the same symbols found on the dice. These cards get laid left to right atop your playerboard, and this order matters because from left to right you’ll get 3, 2, and 1 bonus points respectively to bolster the card’s symbol.

Okay, so in written form it sounds a tad convoluted, but in practice it’s all quite easy to understand. At this point, everyone can get on with spending their dice, cards and any bonus tokens they’ve acquired through attacking dens. When it comes to healing simple physical damage one heart equals one cube removed, but the black cubes take a bit more spending. Mind damage is classed as become stressed due to the trauma you’ve suffered and will not only affect how many montage dice you roll but can also take away Vengeance Points at the end of the game, while the skill track determines how many combat dice you have. Damage sustained to your mind and skill track can be healed, too, but is more expensive to do so, and like your health track black cubes can also be placed on them which are harder to get rid of. There are some nice choices to be made here since taking too much damage to health ends your combat phase early, but at the same time leaving damage on your skill track could leave you less capable in a fight while stress means being less effective during Montages.

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Recon symbols will earn you recon tokens which can be used during the combat phase to flip over boss cards, thereby allowing you to see who you’re attacking and whether it’s worth your time since you score nothing for assaulting a den that doesn’t contain a boss or gang you want revenge against. It’s easy to forget about recon in favor of healing up or getting upgrade points, but recon is incredibly important since attacking a Den that doesn’t contain a boss or gang you’re after means scoring absolutely nothing.

But the real fun comes from purchasing abilities and single-use items to fill up your three empty character slots. These abilities allow you to modify your dice during combat, but the real brilliance here is that even a modified result can then be altered again using a different ability, thus what you really want to do is create a combo machine designed to turn even a crappy roll into something useful. You can buy slow-mo dives, gut-busting attacks and so much more. Again, all the abilities tie in thematically with the revenge movie concept.

Speaking of which let’s start getting into how combat works. Given the dice and the piles of miniatures I expected the bulk of the game’s combat to be the generic move, roll and repeat design style we’ve seen from loads and loads of other games, especially on Kickstarter, but Vengeance’s fights have more in common with a puzzle, granting you just three rolls of the dice to murder your way through a Den. Fights aren’t even all that challenging in the sense of taking a lot of damage, and if you do happen to get knocked out it simply means your combat round is over, but you can still score points if you killed the boss before that happens. No, you can slice through enemies like a proper action-movie hero.

Let’s get into how it works, though; firstly the den you choose to attack will be split into a series of zones, most of which will contain some enemies. At the start of each of the three dice rolls you have the option to run into the next zone for free, but doing so means taking damage from any enemies in your current area. Once you’ve decided whether to dash to the next area or not you can roll your combat dice; any gun symbols can only be used to deal damage to enemies in adjacent zones, while knife symbols are for those in the same area as your character. A move icon lets you saunter freely from one area to another, skillfully dodging and weaving through the enemies Finally, the bad guy symbol means that you might get a pummeling, although no matter how many symbols you roll they only activate once. Unless otherwise stated enemies deal one point of damage, with the ranged enemies only able to attack you if they’re in an adjacent zone. Likewise, the bad guys themselves can usually only take one point of damage.

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There are a few other complications in the form of the bad guys themselves. The black-bottomed grunts, for example, must always be targeted by gunfire before anyone else, because that’s how action movies work; you have to slaughter the cannon fodder first. The yellow-bottomed blockers stop you from moving until they’ve been dealt with, and the green tough guys need two hit points of damage to take down. Finally, red-bottomed miniatures are gang specific bad guys and thus boast that gang’s specific ability, like being able to activate before you take your actions or forcing you to roll one less die next time.

So let’s think about how this can play out; you might move out of a room in order to turn back around and open fire with a few pistol rounds to level the grunts there before knifing the minion next to you. Or perhaps you’ll use a combination of abilities to work through a den, aiming to get to the boss and kill him/her before you do anything else. Each den is like its own little puzzle with a few complications thrown into the mix thanks to the layout of bad guys. It’s less like you’re fighting and more like you’re planning the choreography of an action scene, figuring out how to slide, leap, punch, stab and shoot through the den in just three rolls of the dice. You might use your Spin Axe Throw ability to change a double melee hit into two ranged attacks, or execute a Slow-Mo Leap to dive through a door before unleashing a hail of gunfire.

It’s such an intriguing system and I found myself loving it for its more puzzle-based nature rather than it just being a dice-rolling slog through rooms of bad guys. It’s only real issue is that while one player is busy punching, stabbing, shooting, leaping and slo-moing (is that even a word) all the other players are just sitting around, waiting to see what happens. The box actually includes a 3-minute sand-time to help keep things floating and within my own group nobody took overly long to get through their combat there was still a relatively high amount of downtime, especially with four or five players.

The other potential problem with Vengeance, depending on your point of view, is that luck does play a very large part in who wins. Between the Vengeance cards you draw, the Boss cards that get placed on the table, whether you find the right targets while reconning and the dice themselves there are going to be times when you luck simply isn’t on your side.

Personally, though, I never found myself worrying about how badly Lady Luck had decided to screw me over today because I was so wrapped up in the satisfying decisions of what to focus on during a Montage, how to upgrade my character and then how to murder my way through a den of bad guys before nailing a boss for maximum points. My mind was taken up by, “Okay, so if I stab this guy, right, and then leap through this door and shoot him and her…no, wait, if I do this and then this I could kill the boss now and then there’s a chance of mopping up the last few guys.” On top of that you have to consider whether it’s perhaps worth playing another Vengeance card or two before leaping into a fight because those lovely, lovely points are always trying to tempt you into taking just a little more damage for the reward.

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If you successfully decimate a boss you’ll score points like we discussed earlier, and the Den tile will be removed and replaced with a new, more challenging one. However, you can also score points for wiping out all of the minions in a Den provided you’ve got a Vengeance card matching the gang you’re attacking. If you do then you’ll net 2-4 points, and if you can clear the den entirely of both minions and the boss then you can score for everything. However, if you don’t have the correct Vengeance card then attacking a den is basically a waste of time, and yet you might end up doing just that on occasion, so never forget how important recon tokens are. After all, with chances to attack just five Dens every single assault counts for a lot.

And that’s how the game plays, bar a few extra rules here and there such as star tokens that you can pick up when clearing dens or how there are a small selection of mission and achievement cards which can help you score a few more points. Oh, and the game even comes with a plastic rack in which you can place defeated bosses as a sort of display of badassery. Nice touch.

As a bonus each of the five characters’s come with their own solo mode where you battle through a deck of specific bosses in order to complete the listed objectives and hopefully wind up with a great score. It’s a surprisingly strong mode given that it was added later as part of the Kickstarter’s stretch goals, the game’s great mechanics translating nicely into a solo experience.

Going into Vengeance I really wasn’t sure what to expect, even while part of me suspected I was in for another standard miniature-based combat game. I’ve come out the other end of multiple play sessions feeling happily surprised and extremely satisfied with Vengeance’s intriguing mechanics and how it has taken a classic movie theme and worked it so well into a board game. The fact that you get to replicate the hero being beaten down before training hard in a montage, scouting the area and then proceeding to rip through the people responsible is massively fun, and I was impressed by how combat wasn’t just some mindless dice rolling but rather left you feeling more like a choreographer deciding how to put an action scene together. It made the fights so much enjoyable. You slice through the bad guys with ease, and that’s how it should be; after all, you’re an action hero.

So, in case you hadn’t guessed this one isn’t just getting a positive review, it’s getting the full-on recommendation sticker treatment, an award so coveted that the one guy I asked on the street said he’d maybe consider accepting it if I gave him £5 as well. Given the amount of stuff in the box it’s not a cheap purchase, but even if you need to sell your grandmother/dad/child then go ahead and get that Ebay listing up. It’s worth it.

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