(This review originally appeared on iSlaytheDragon.com)
Imagine a future where microscopic NanoBots have been trained to fight it out in a battle arena. Tiny creatures, duking it out for supremacy of the petri dish.
Scientists around the world have something to do on their breaks. Bookies have added NanoBots to their betting rosters. Professional NanoBot teams are traveling the world in their petri dishes and people are making millions crafting the perfect NanoBot Fantasy League teams and gambling on the Internet.
This might sound far-fetched, but NanoBot Battle Arena suggests that the future might not be as far off as it seems. In this game, the bots are here, they can fight, and your team can win… If you’re good enough at training your bots and honing their unique abilities.
How It Plays
In NanoBot Battle Arena, you are a scientist training unique strains of NanoBots to compete for glory in the Battle Arena (also known as a petri dish). Each strain has its own ability and it’s up to you to use that ability, plus smart play, to defeat the other bots in the arena.
Turns are simple and consist of only two steps.
First, you place one NanoBot tile in the play area. Tiles cannot be placed diagonally, only adjacent to one another, and there are rules governing what constitutes a legal placement. Each tile has a “base edge” and a “standard edge.” Tiles must be placed so that the base edge is touching the standard edge and only the tiles’ owner can play off the base edge. As you build your chain of bots, you can create straight, looping, or zigzagging chains. Since the longest chain wins the game, you want to put as many bots together (legally) as you can.
A 2-player game in progress
Second, you play one of the six Reaction cards from your hand. Reaction cards give your bots various abilities. There are eight different abilities, corresponding to the eight different bot strains. Abilities include removing a bot from the beginning or end of a chain, moving a bot to a new location, placing an additional bot tile, removing cards from your opponents’ hands, removing your opponents’ tiles, rotating a bot to a new orientation, etc. The abilities have a strength factor ranging from 1 to 3, meaning that the ability will apply to one, two, or three NanoBot tiles.
You may play any color card on your turn, but cards that match the color of your bot strain have an “affinity” with your strain and will increase your power. Similarly, if a player uses your own affinity against you, their power is reduced. For example, if you are playing the orange bots and you play an orange strength 2 card against your opponent, you can remove one additional bot from the beginning or end of a chain, for a total of three. If someone plays an orange strength 2 card against you, they will lose one strength and only be able to remove one bot from the beginning or end of a chain. If no one is playing orange, the card is neutral and the strength stands at 2. Once a card is played, it is discarded and you draw your hand of cards back up to six. The next player now takes their turn.
Some of the Reaction cards
The game immediately ends when one player places their last NanoBot tile.
The player with the longest chain of legally placed tiles is the winner.
An Epic Battle of Microscopic Proportions, or a Microscopic Battle of Epic Boringness?
Although the theme sounds engaging, this is really an abstract game at heart. NanoBots are cool, but the tiles could be bugs, animals, or just colored tiles for all the difference it makes. The reaction cards could be re-themed into anything as well, since all they really do is allow you to change the position of tiles or steal cards from your opponents. The theme is different and fun, but it’s not immersive like other “science-based” games such as Pandemic or Dominant Species. NanoBot is more like Qwirkle or Ingenious, but with bots instead of colored shapes. It’s also not that different from Through the Desert in that you’re attempting to build the longest chain of something.
The Reaction cards add the most to this game and add a level of decision making that’s not present in the similar games mentioned above. Without them, you’re just placing tiles and trying to solve the puzzle of how to outbuild your opponents. With the cards, however, you can mess with your opponents’ chains or use your abilities to further your own goals. You have to consider whether the affinity of the card you want to use will help or hurt you. Sometimes the draw isn’t kind and you end up with no cards that will really help you. In that case, you have to choose the best of some bad options.
Three of the Strains
What we found really interesting was that, at lower player counts, you have far more “neutral” cards than cards that will trigger an affinity. All of the cards are in play every game, regardless of the number of players, so with two players there are only two types of cards that will have an affinity for the bots in play. Six types of cards will be neutral. As a result, you will have less of an opportunity to use your affinity (or have it used against you) in a two player game, making it much more important to choose wisely when using a card.
One drawback to the Reaction cards is that they add some randomness to the game. It’s possible that the perfect card never turns up for you, meaning that you can’t make the play that you need to. It’s also possible that your opponent will get lucky and draw great cards every turn, hammering you relentlessly with that perfection. If you experience either extreme, your game will not be much fun. Fortunately, we found that the randomness tends to even out over the course of the game and it’s rare that the randomness totally ruins the whole thing.
The cards can also make for a swingy game, which is wild but overall a positive addition. Things can be going along great for you and you think you’ve got it sewn up when, boom, out comes the card that totally wrecks your plans. This can be bad for you, but good for someone else. The person who looked to be in last place can suddenly find herself in a position to create a great chain and destroy someone else’s efforts. No one is ever totally out of this game and it can be difficult to predict a winner until the game is over. This adds to the fun, I think, because I like games where everyone has a chance to win until the last minute.
Three more of the Strains
This game didn’t play as I expected it to. Whenever I see a game that says it accommodates two to six+ players I think, “It’s probably going to be better at the higher count and the two player option will just be the afterthought variant to try to sell more copies.” Well, NanoBot went against the conventional wisdom. It was much better at the lower player count. We only got as high as four players, but that four player game was not very good. More players would only make the problems worse.
With four players, there was so much going on in the play area that it became difficult to keep up with where the best placements were. Chains got broken and reformed, tiles got orphaned, and illegal placements became more common. There was no way to strategize for future turns since everything you built on one turn was likely completely destroyed by your next turn. AP crept in and the game dragged on well beyond what the theme and mechanics could sustain, frustrating everyone. If you want to play with a large group, I suggest approaching it like a party game: Just play and laugh at the absurdity of it all and don’t get invested in the outcome.
With fewer players, you have a better chance of seeing your strategies play out. There’s less chance that what you’re trying to build will be completely destroyed by the time your turn comes around again. It may be dinged up a bit, but you can likely salvage something and build on it going forward. Games move quickly and AP is kept at bay since the play area stays “cleaner” with fewer tiles in play.
The final two Strains
Aside from the poor scaling, my only other complaint about the game is that it takes longer to learn than it should. There are quick start rules in the front of the rule book and these are really all you need to know. Instead, there are six more pages of rules that only muddy the waters. (And the whole rule book is in a tiny, odd font that is painful to read, which only makes matters worse.) As we waded through the book we were thinking this was a complex, difficult game to learn and we weren’t really jazzed to play it. Once we got up and playing, we looked at each other and said, “That’s it? We could have stopped with the quick start rules.” And that’s my advice. Read the quick start rules and start playing. If you need clarification as you play by all means consult the book, but don’t read it all at the beginning. It will only make the game seem much harder than it is.
NanoBot is a fun game if played with the right group and with the right expectations. It makes a good filler, and it’s good for a “two out of three” type of match. If you keep the player count low, it offers a decent amount of strategy in a quick-playing, portable, easy game. Lovers of games like Qwirkle, Through the Desert, and Ingenious, and those who like those games but always wished for more of a sci-fi theme, should find this one interesting. The addition of the cards adds a bit of complexity and makes this game a nice “step up” for people who’ve played the heck out of some of these other games. Those looking for a deep science-themed game should look elsewhere, however.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Derpy Games for providing a copy of NanoBot Battle Arena for review.