Nostalgia is a dangerous drug, a double edged sword that can inspire or shred. In a world full of remakes, sequels and retellings, nostalgia is the drug of choice. It’s for this reason we have Disney’s Villainous, a game that hides its mediocrity behind a veil of Disney villains. But Villainous is an important game for our hobby, and we should be glad it exists.
Villainous is an asymmetric game where each villain has a separate and unique goal to win. Prince John wants power, Ursula wants to acquire the crown of Triton, Captain Hook wants to murder, etc.
This is a family style game designed for mass market shelves. It plays 2 to 4 players in about an hour. Player count is probably best with four due to the Take That elements seeing more use, but two played just fine as well.
Oh yeah, this game is riddled with single target Take That mechanics. Thematically they work, each player has a deck of cards that is played against them and only them. As much as we want this game to be Kingdom Hearts, Maleficent won’t be battling Alice or Peter Pan.
Villainous uses the Scythe model of action selection where you choose from a column and do the actions within. It’s a great way to introduce some of gaming’s more advanced mechanics to rookie players. Hero cards played against you will block some actions in a column and you’ll need to play ally cards to help you murder the hero.
For a mass market target audience this game is surprisingly complicated. There are a lot of variables to consider on your turn and the iconography doesn’t help as much as you’d hope. Luckily, the actions are simple to understand, but constantly referring to the player aid is frustrating. Aesthetics over usability is an ongoing issue with Villainous.
But it works as a family weight mass market game because of how much it railroads. There is an illusion of choice to the game, your actions are rather obvious and the personal goal pushes you down a particular path.
Prince John is the best example of this. His goal is to simply have 20 power, the main currency of the game. So every turn you should take the actions that grant the most power. And if an opponent blocks those with a hero, take the actions needed to remove the block.
And that’s it. Your decisions are fairly limited. The most important decision you’ll make on any turn is which opponent to attack. Every other decision is, well, uninteresting.
Jafar needs a combo of cards executed as quick as possible. His best course of action is to refresh his hand until he finds the combo, then do the dance that wins him the game. My decisions aren’t my own, I’m just the conductor until someone’s train reaches their destination.
As a mass market game, Villainous creates enough illusion of choice to appeal to non-gamers and families, but there isn’t enough agency to make it a great game. Villainous sells itself on its theme without having enough game to follow.
It’s the poor use of theme that truly annoys me. What a great theme to waste on such a mediocre experience. Sure, all the iconic characters are there, but I never felt like the villain I played. For some, like Jafar and Ursula, my personal goal required a lot of steps matching the flow of the story. But for others, the connection is tenuous.
Seriously Prince John, greed is the most common sin of Disney Villains. Be unique.
Where is my Kingdom Hearts board game already?!
Villainous fits exactly where it wants to fit, a mass market game aimed at families with an easy-to-sell IP. And should I judge the game based only on its desire to fit that niche, I’d rate it highly. But as someone in the hobby that expects more from games, even those trying to fit in big box stores, I can’t recommend Villainous.
From the horrible cardstock to the to-stylized iconography, Villainous is a cake made of icing. The branching options all lead to the same path later and the interaction is little more than other players Donkey Konging some barrels in your way.
But despite all this, the railroading nature is exactly what our hobby needs to increase our numbers. It’s easy enough to understand and teaches newer players about action selection and hand management without making the planning too difficult. But those in the hobby will likely feel the lack of player agency after one or two plays and throw the whole thing out.
Don’t throw it out, give it away. Use this as the springboard that brings in more people.
Then pull out Scythe. Shouldn’t be a problem.