Board Game Review: Eat the Villagers – Seems a Bit Familiar…. | Giant Fire Breathing Robot

Board Game Review: Eat the Villagers – Seems a Bit Familiar….

Copyright and other intellectual property rights are a gray area in game design. I’ve addressed some cases in the past. My personal feeling is that game mechanics should not be copyrightable because doing so necessarily stifles innovation. But there’s a difference between borrowing and simply copying. Eat the Villagers, an upcoming title, provides a few twists and a new theme, but is largely a direct reimplementation of Zombie Dice.

The Basics. Eat the Villagers is a dice game for any number of players. There are twenty dice in a dice bag. On a player’s turn, they reach into the bag and pull out five dice to roll. Dice have a variety of faces, but the most common are the white dice (sixteen of them) which have barricades, knights, and villagers. After the roll, villagers and knights are set aside.

A player can then stop or keep going. If they stop, they eat all of the villagers and bank those as points. If they keep rolling, they pick up any dice showing barricades and draw more dice from the bag until they have five dice total. Then they roll again. If the dice ever show five knights total, then the player is defeated and doesn’t get to eat any villagers. They pass the dice to the next player.

Two special symbols do occur, but only on a few dice. There are two dice which replace villagers with Wizards, and two that replace Knights with Dragons. The Wizard is extremely powerful. If the Wizard is ever rolled, and he has two knights to protect him, then he will kill the player and the player’s turn is over. If there aren’t two knights, though, then he will be treated as a regular villager and can be eaten by the player.

The Dragon releases an awesome fireblast. It immediately turns any barricades into villagers (the fire burned away their protection) and even get to discard one knight, removing it from the game.

The first player to score 16 points wins.

The basic dice. Sixteen of these suckers in the bag

The Feel. I strive to review every game on its own merits. I don’t like to compare it to other titles and usually (with a few exceptions) avoid describing game x as “Game Y but with Z twist.” But here, it’s unavoidable. Eat the Villagers is an unmistakable reimplementation of Zombie Dice. At the very least, it is heavily influenced by the Zombie Dice format.

There are only three mechanical changes. First, you roll five dice instead of three. Second, the Wizard is basically worth three shotgun blasts knights. Third, the Dragon allows you to rid yourself of a knight and potentially convert some barricades to villagers. Other than that, the games are identical.

But, is that bad? Do these changes improve on the original? Not really. Rolling five dice makes the game feel a little more random. On your first roll, maybe you get two knights and two villagers. Not an unreasonable occurrence. But now if you roll five more dice, all you need are three knights to end everything. Also, very doable. So the potential to be very swingy is there and it often results in cautious players accepting villagers of just two or three at a time.

Similarly, the wizard die can make the game feel extremely random. Any dice game is random, of course, but drawing a wizard (or potentially drawing a wizard) really ups the ante. He’s basically worth three knights if you already have two. And, if you happen to grab that die when there’s already a few knights rolled, you know you are in trouble. But, this foreshadows one of my other complaints about the game – the rules are a unclear. The rules talk about the wizard needing to be protected by two knights. Does that count knights from prior rolls? I assume yes. But that leads to a much swingier game than seems warranted. Played that way, the grabbing a wizard die – or even potentially grabbing one (and you have to grab five) is often enough to shut a turn down early.

Pick one of these out of the bag, and you’re going to be in trouble

By contrast, though, I think the dragon is a great ability to include with Eat the Villagers. Not only does it thematically divide the game from Zombie Dice, but it feels really good to pull a dragon die. Maybe you roll a villager or barricade. O.K.. Or maybe you get the dragon and not only does it kill off a knight for you, but it also converts barricades to yummy villagers. The advantage of having a dragon die does not outweigh the disadvantage from a wizard, but it’s nice to have those helpful dice there as well.

One of Eat the Villager’s failings is that the rules aren’t clear about some of the edge cases. I noted the wizard die above. Another is, what if you roll a barricade on the wizard die, but also a dragon on the dragon die? Well, the rules say to change the barricade to a villager. But there are no villager faces on the wizard die. So… what do? Even though it has some new abilities, the rules as I received them don’t talk about all the ways in which they interact with each other or clarify precisely what happens in a given situation.

Now, if there were no Zombie Dice, I think I’d still enjoy Eat the Villagers. The game is quick to play, passes time well, and is an enjoyable little press-your-luck affair. In fact, the publisher describes Eat the Villagers as a game you take to a restaurant and play while you wait for them to bring the food out, and it succeeds in that niche area. But, the fact that it impersonates Zombie Dice really harms it. Eat the Villagers is the exact same kind of game (if not the same game) as Zombie Dice. So, to stand out, it can’t just do the same thing; it needs to do it better.

And Eat the Villagers just isn’t a significant improvement. It’s more random – especially with that wizard die. It has about the same level of downtime, and lacks the streamlined play of Zombie Dice. In fact, given the choice between the two of them, it’s hard to say why I would choose Eat the Villagers over Zombie Dice. Fitting in that same niche of light, casual, before-the-meal game, I’d probably go with the easier to teach title. As a result, it’s hard to recommend a game when a very similar version is already on the market.

Dragon dice are a welcome draw

Components: NA of 5. I received a pre-production copy of Eat the Villagers. Therefore, I can’t comment on the final components.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 1.5 of 5. Eat the Villagers is random. Then again, it’s supposed to be. Part of the fun from Eat the Villagers (and there is fun to be had) is that you get to chuck a bunch of cubes and see what happens. But, that does leave precious little room for strategy. Having to roll five dice every time means that there’s a lot of swingy-ness on individual turns. To combat that, players also tend to play more conservatively – which sort of defeats the point of a press-your-luck game.

Mechanics: 3.5 of 5. While I’m sure you can math out the optimal decisions, this score assumes that most players won’t be doing that. The wizard and dragon, while they do avoid monotony, also require extra explanation and keep the game from being the fast, light title it should be. And, the rules don’t always clarify exactly how these special powers work in situations that can and do come up during the game.

Replayability: 0.5 of 5. Lets not sugar coat it. That’s not a great score. Part of the problem is that Eat the Villagers isn’t meant to be a deep game that is explored. It’s a light game intended to be played while waiting, but the other reason is that, I already own Zombie Dice. The saying goes, if you strike the king you better kill him. Now, it might be inflating Zombie Dice a bit to call it the “king,” but Eat the Villagers strikes at Zombie Dice and thrusts itself into exactly the same niche. If it succeeded, Eat the Villagers might have replaced it. But it doesn’t and there’s little reason to play this over Zombie Dice unless you strongly prefer the theme – and theme doesn’t matter too much in a dice game.

Spite: 0 of 5. There is no interaction between players and thus no opportunity for spiteful play.

Dice!

Overall: 1 of 5. Eat the Villagers isn’t un-fun. In fact, I think this score underestimates the fun quotient. It’s not boring, it’s not tedious, and it’s not tiresome. It is fun to play. But, like Zombie Dice, the fun is perhaps compacted into a game that is really only playable while waiting in line or for others to arrive. The niche target for the game means that you’ll only have fun with it when just the right circumstances appear.

(A special thanks to Butter Knife Concepts for providing a review copy of Eat the Villagers)

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