A Preface: I received a review copy of 8-Bit Attack from Petersen Games. I hope it’s clear I’ve done my best to write a thorough, fair review, with that in mind.
At the time of me writing these words, 8-Bit Attack is a brand-spanking-new game from Petersen Games (of Cthulhu Wars fame, a quite-good dudes on a map game) on Kickstarter RIGHT NOW (or not RIGHT NOW if you’re reading this after the Kickstarter is over, but I’m not a mindreader and my therapist says I should really assert myself more so BACK OFF).
(My therapist also says I shouldn’t start off reviews berating people so much.)
(Or use parentheses as often.)
(But what does she know? SHE’S NOT EVEN REAL)
In the game, you are controlling heroes who are fighting against mythical monsters, demons, cultists, and aliens, seeking to power yourself up enough to fight the Final Boss (e.g., Cthulhu in the base game, but it sounds like there are more in upcoming expansions to fight, too).
(Side note: I’m technically reviewing this as a solo game, but the rules explicitly state that all you have to do to play the game solo is just control two (or more) characters yourself. It’s slightly more cognitive management because playing two(+)-handed is generally a bit more work, but it’s quite easy to implement.)
Here are the basic steps of the game:
To start things off, you pick a few heroes you’ll be controlling during your game. Going into round one (and in each subsequent non-boss round), you pick how hard of a fight you want to have. (You win the game by beating the final boss by the end of round five.) Here is what a horde of baddies might look like going into a battle:
In this picture, I’m going on a Level 6 assault, which means I'm fighting the big strong baddy up top and four of his fellow, weaker baddies. (Apologies in advance for the fact that I'm the one taking these pictures -- less than ideal, I know.)
You’ll do up to four fights before you get to the final boss, ideally/probably ramping up the difficulty of the fights as you go along (because the rewards you get from winning a fight are directly tied to how hard of a fight you’ve just won). You always start off the battle with full health and energy.
To start the battle, you distribute the enemies so that all your heroes are fighting as-equal-a-number-as-possible of enemies. So, if there are five baddies to fight and you are controlling three heroes, each hero will face one enemy, and two of your three heroes will also face a second enemy.
Most of the game takes place in the “Battle Sequence” part of the rules: at the start of each round of combat, you roll a Tactics die that will trigger some actions later on for some enemies (if they have an ability that matches the rolled face of the Tactics die). Here it is in my hand, and you can see a bit of a painting in a tube and an aloe vera plant on my table, too:
After you’ve rolled the Tactics die, you gather up the Battle dice for your heroes and roll their dice, generating Fast Hits, Slow Hits, Critical Hits, and/or energy for the special powers that your heroes have. The dice look like this (and, again, the plant and tube look like this):
Oh! The heroes you’re controlling all have different HP values and special powers that can be triggered with energy points, and they can be upgraded with the spoils of your successful battles (more on this later). Here are some closeups of some of our beloved heroes, along with our even-more beloved plant and tube and other junk; I need to clean my house:
So. You’re in a battle. You’ve rolled your Battle dice and are ready to punch up some scary baddies. To do that, you apply the damage you’ve rolled to the enemies around the table (there is a system that lets the enemies block certain kinds of damage you might be doing, so you’ll keep that in mind as you’re distributing damage). You might trigger some special abilities by spending your energy, too. Any enemies that survive will now do damage to (and/or apply status effects to) you, depending on the combat programming of their cards.
This sequence (Tactics die, your dice and abilities, enemies fight back, rinse and repeat) will continue until all the heroes or all the enemies are dead. If you win a battle, you get one or more medals that you can spend to buff up your character (by getting more potions (oh, uh, there are potions that revive you or give health or energy back) or upgrading your characters with runes (oh, uh, there are runes that give you new buffs depending on what character you have) or ascending your hero (oh, uh, the backside of your character card is a stronger version called the “ascended” version that you can upgrade to)). If you lose, you’ve lost the chance to earn buffs for your characters from that fight, but you do get to move onto the next fight. If you can beat the final boss by the end of the fifth round, you win!
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this game is somewhere in between Not My Cup of Tea and Fine. But that doesn’t mean the game doesn’t have its interesting, worthwhile elements that should be praised. So... let’s, uh, do that... now.
My favorite thing about the game is the way medals are used to upgrade your characters. If you complete a Level 1 assault, you get one medal; if you complete a Level 7 assault, you get seven medals. Those medals, as noted above, can be spent to get sets of potions (very good), runes (very good), or a newly-upgraded character (very good). The risk-reward element of the game (i.e., try to go on harder assaults so you can get better stuff to level up your heroes more quickly) is nicely interwoven with an interesting and fun upgrade mechanic: I enjoyed the game the most when agonizing over how to properly spend my hard-earned medals. Do I get my ascended character? Do I get some potions just to help make it through the next battle? And how hard should I make the next battle, based on how little time I have and how much more I want to accomplish?
There is a nice variety between hero powers, too, although some of the powers are more powerful/obviously useful than others. The game also shines as you control more players (there’s better interactivity between character powers and just more stuff to do), which is both a pro and a con for solo gamers (from a cognitive management standpoint).
The main issue, then, is that this I found these relatively small decision spaces (how to upgrade my peeps? how risky should I be for the next fight?) to be more engaging than the combat gameplay and mechanisms that drive most of the game. Allow me to try and unpack why I felt that way.
But Here’s the Thing
8-Bit Attack falls into some class of games that, for me, is simultaneously Not At All Heavy and also Not Very Easy to play (or Lacks Good Flow or, uh, something). I think the game ultimately has a pretty simple, straightforward system with LOTS of different, small, simple effects to track, and this bookkeeping generally functions as an attempt to add depth and some sense of complexity into an otherwise-simple dice chucker.
The enemies' and heroes’ powers and the ongoing statuses they can inflict on the other side are the primary things that move the game away from being almost entirely about JUST chucking dice. The rulebook comes with 4.5 pages of statuses and symbols that might be used against/for the heroes/enemies, and you track those effects with time tokens that you remove at certain points of each round.
My main critique of the game, then, is that a lot of the stuff you’re actually, like, DOING while playing the game is just moving around health and time tokens and making sure you’re doing things in the right order with the dice you’re plopping around the board. The game feels like it’s happening largely in between the stuff you’re choosing to do, as opposed to being driven by a robust, interesting series of decisions that are constantly fun to play around within.
Maybe I’m coming down hard on the game because small-box, quick-playing, soloable dice games are particularly well-represented in my heart already: Aerion, Bottom of the 9th, Deep Space D-6, La Granja: No Siesta, Herbaceous Sprouts, Nautilion, OctoDice, One Deck Dungeon, Railroad Ink, and Tiny Epic Galaxies all come to mind as reasonable alternatives to this game.
But! For people really into the 8-bit aesthetic of this game, or for people looking for a light cooperative dice game that could be a good fit for a family game night (where procedural, small, tactical decisions are the feature of the evening and not a glitch of the game), or for people wanting the “feel” of fighting in an arcade game or roguelike and enjoy dice chucking, there could be an enjoyable little game here. It's not an offensively bad game; it's just not for me.
Whether you dig this game or not, at least we can all agree that all board games should be played while listening to the VVVVVV soundtrack. Or really, all activities in general.
Okay now I'm just gonna go play VVVVVV.
If you like this review, please check out my other reviews of solo games and variants in the Meeple, Myself, and I series!