Board Game Review: Titans Tactics – Full Minis Game in Thirty Minutes | Giant Fire Breathing Robot

Board Game Review: Titans Tactics – Full Minis Game in Thirty Minutes

Tactical minis games tend to fall into one of two camps. Either they are overly complex and intended for enthusiasts only, or they are so light that random chance is just as big a factor as any “tactics” it includes. But Titans Tactics treads a middle ground as the players each direct three immortal champions in a vicious combat.

The Basics. Titans Tactics comes with five “teams” of champions. Each team has six total champions. Each player chooses a team and then selects three of the six available champions to enter the arena. The arena is a square grid with eight squares to a side. Each player may also place one wall on the board. Walls cover three squares and cannot be traveled over (but can be attacked through). Then each player places his three champions.

Players each have a deck of fifteen cards representing three cards each of five different colors. Those cards will be used to power the special abilities and attacks of the champions. But rather than drawing from the deck, the players simply select the five cards they want to start with.

The game occurs over a series of rounds. In each round, one player begins by activating a champion. Then the other player does so and play alternates until all six champions have been activated. When a champion activates, it gets two actions. On each action it can either move two spaces (including diagonals) or use one of its abilities. Using an ability generally requires the discard of one or more cards and most abilities either attack opponents, change the position of champions, or provide bonuses to allies or detriments to enemies.

Champions!

After taking their two actions, the champion then can take one final action. They can either use this third action the same way as the other two (to move or attack) or they can instead use it to draw three new cards from the action deck. When drawing, the player does not select cards randomly, but instead simply selects the card colors he wants in hand.

All of the champions are immortal. So when damage is done, it isn’t assigned to the damaged unit. Instead, there is a tug-of-war track that marks the damage. As one player damages another’s units, the damage track moves toward him. If the other player attacks back, the damage marker goes the other way. If the track ever moves ten spaces in one direction (a net ten damage over what the opponent has caused) the game ends immediately and that player wins. At the end of each round, the marker is checked. Whatever side has it gains “momentum” – essentially they win the round. The first player to win three rounds wins the game. So Titans Tactics will last until someone has ten net damage or for a maximum of five rounds (30 champion turns).

The arena is set. It’s time for combat.

The Feel. Titans Tactics provides a streamlined minis experience in a small package that does not outstay its welcome. First off, I love the way damage is handled in this game. There is no worry about keeping track of damage on particular units. No units get “killed’ or “wounded” so you also do not have to keep track of reduced stats or remove any fighters from play. The damage track does a good job of making, taking, and avoiding damage important while also simplifying the ruleset.

But, like any good tactical game, position becomes important. While there are no Line of Sight rules for Titans Tactics, getting into melee range has important consequences. Once two enemy champions are within melee range (one space away), they become “engaged.” It’s not as romantic as you might think. Instead, engaged champions can only target themselves and enemies in melee range. Champions can freely move away from melee (called a “break away”), but doing so forces them to take two damage from any opposing champion they break away from. As a result, getting into melee or avoiding melee can be crucial to tactical play.

And, like any good, tactical game, there are a host of status effects that can be called forth by the various champions. Some are offensive, like Lash or Execute, and create an ongoing effect that will do unpreventable damage to a champion when they activate. Others are more defensive. Hamstring will prevent a champion from moving and Covering Fire will do damage to anyone in melee range of the target.

A few of the status effects sure to afflict your team

Status effects are achieved through the special abilities and actions of champions. However, they typically only last one round. To keep them going into subsequent rounds, a player must discard a card of the appropriate color. This creates not only a cost to keeping them going but also a benefit since the effect stays on without having to re-apply it from the champion.

Perhaps the most interesting status effect is the Shroud. A shroud creates a nine square space on the board where the champions are in a fog. Champions in the shroud can only attack other champions in the shroud, and champions outside the shroud cannot attack in. This can be used defensively to trap an annoying enemy champion in a shroud with no one to attack or offensively to stick a hamstrung champion out of melee range and wail on him from a safe distance. Plus it can effectively break engagement without penalty.

The shroud breaks the engagement. The Dracolich must now sell the ring on craigslist

However, there are also two big concerns that come up during play. The first is the apparent imbalance in champions and their abilities. Titans Tactics is not the kind of game where you can choose any three champions against any three of your opponents’ champions and have a competitive fight. While most matchups are close enough, some are beyond help, and that can’t always be determined in advance. Even the suggested teams for players new to the game are susceptible to this. One member of the Black Brigade can do four damage on his turn at an unlimited range. This means, he can simply hit the most susceptible champion for four damage every turn from the corner of the map. Four is huge for one champion. And this means the tug of war will edge in his favor.

Surely there are ways to mitigate it? Well, you can get a defensive champion in melee range so that he has to shoot that one, but that only means he is doing three damage instead of four. Or maybe you can use a shroud to hamper him. But, the suggested opposing team doesn’t have access to the shroud ability.

Deals four damage for a net cost of one card

In addition, champions who specialize in status effects are generally weaker than champions who do direct damage. And the reason is that status effects like Lash or Execute tend to do damage over time. While that might mean more damage overall in a five round game, the game becomes less likely to get to five rounds. An early DPS race might push the tug of war to one side. That player gets momentum. And even though the later rounds might see increased damage, if it isn’t enough to pull the slider all the way back, then momentum stays with the player who gained it first. Three rounds and game over.

But my bigger concern is that there seems to be a fairly substantial first player disadvantage. This is especially true if one player’s champions tend to have melee attacks while the opponent’s champions can fire from range. A melee champion might spend his entire turn just getting close to an opponent. That opponent, meanwhile, can shoot and do damage. The tug of war moves. In later rounds, they might trade damage more evenly, but because the tug of war never resets, that initial damage puts the momentum (and thus the game) strongly in favor of the second player.

If the tug of war reset each round, or if it even was reduced by some amount, then this wouldn’t be such a big problem. But it doesn’t; it stays. Which means that the initial first turn advantage doesn’t lessen as the game goes on but continues to impact each round thereafter.

Every card is a potential action. Managing your hand is key.

Components: 3 of 5. Titans Tactics is the first game from publisher Imbalanced Games. The components are solid for a startup, but are lacking a lot of the touches you’d expect from an established entity. The cards are stiff and sturdy, but without any gloss. Because they aren’t shuffled during the game, though, this is unlikely to be a concern. Status effect markers are double sided and may not have all the tokens needed in a given game. But there are enough that most games will have them. The artwork, though, is stylized and enjoyable. In short, Titans Tactics gives you everything you need with a quality that will last. It just doesn’t have as much chrome.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 3.5 of 5. Discounting the first player disadvantage, Titans Tactics is awash in tactical decisions. Every champion has three abilities that can be brought to the arena and their judicious use governs how the battle turns out. I’m also a fan of the third action where a champion can either continue the assault or replenish cards. It is a great decision point to try to get more points in the tug of war or prepare for future actions.

Mechanics: 3.5 of 5. Titans Tactics does a fantastic job of taking the world of tactical minis and distilling it down into a game that is playable in thirty minutes. A lot of the bookkeeping and health tracking is replaced by a single track that is easy to comprehend. The game is teachable in just a few minutes but provides opportunities for tactical play. However, the big concern is the first player disadvantage. Not only does it exist in nearly all games, but there is no effective mechanic for minimizing or mitigating it. This is a critical failing in an otherwise solid game.

Replayability: 4 of 5. This game provides tons of variety. Not only are there five separate teams, each with their own style of play, but there are six options within each team – and you only need three. This provides fantastic variety and will allow you to test out different styles against one another. At times, you may come across teams that are unevenly matched, but games are so short (especially those games) that it shouldn’t ruin the experience.

These champions combine well together

Overall: 3 of 5. Titans Tactics provides a solid game play experience in all areas but one: The first player disadvantage is not only disappointing, but also sucks some of the enjoyment out of the game. After all, as a tactical game the winner should be decided by the best movement and decision – not based on who went second. However, this will be less of an issue in some match ups and I’m sure a handicap system can be developed. And this flaw, while prominent, does not completely mar what is an otherwise enjoyable game.

(A special thanks to Imbalanced Games for providing a review copy of Titans Tactics)

There are 2 comments.

  1. MC117 said on February 25, 2014 at 9:02 am

    Regarding Reaper Aerial Drone’s ‘snipe’ ability… From a hand of 5 cards, let’s say 3 black and 2 yellow. Play a black to activate ‘prime’, play 2 blacks to power ‘prime’ +2, play a yellow to activate ‘snipe’ – 3 damage, unlimited range. You have now used 2 abilities and must Plan or Push. Either play a 2nd yellow to snipe again for one more, 4 total damage, or Plan and draw 3. So either 3 total damage for 1 net card or 4 total damage for 5 net cards (if I’m understanding the mechanics correctly). That’s definitely powerful, especially for new players, and one of the more abusable abilities. I guess it’s sort of like Ryu’s fireball… I mean, how do you beat it?? There’s a hard learning curve in this game, but part of the fun I think is breaking through stuff like this. When all else fails, you can house-rule it (i.e. [hero x] always moves last, etc.)

  2. GeekInsight said on February 25, 2014 at 11:30 am

    I completely agree. I wanted to call out “Snipe” because it does seem overpowered on first glance. But I think it is very likely that experienced players can find ways around it to bring it in line with other powers. So it’s more of a “new players watch out” than a “this game is totally broken.”

    However, the firs turn disadvantage does remain a concern.

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