Sean Sweigart, Aaron Dill, and John Kovaleski are the three men behind some of the best thematic games of the past decade. They brought us Spartacus, Sons of Anarchy, and Star Trek: Ascendancy, among others. These are some of my favorite titles and still see regular play. That was before.
Sean sadly passed away in 2016 and it marked the end of an era. Aaron and John, along with fellow Gale Force Nine employee Peter Przekop, departed their previous digs and formed Monster Fight Club. Tentacle Town is their first board game release and it’s something entirely different.
I was sent a pre-release copy of the game in advance of the upcoming Kickstarter campaign and was eager to explore the appendage infested village. And to be honest, I’m having a hard time with this one.
It’s not that Tentacle Town isn’t good – because it is – but this is a title that may struggle for recognition. The goal here was to make an accessible game that you can play with children as well as adults once the little ones have gone to bed. I think the team at Monster Fight Club have succeeded.
This is sort of a mash-up between worker placement and area majority. There are only three main areas on the map where you must send a worker on your turn, each offering a subset of two actions. You will do things such as trade in bits of chewy tentacle meat for coins, fashion new harpoons to fight back the beasts, and convert multiple resources to victory points.
Everything is pretty straightforward and simple mechanically. There’s a standard economic loop of going here then there to exchange resources and eventually output points, but there’s a couple of wrinkles. First, those workers aren’t owned by anyone. These brazen citizens are neutral. As you place them into areas you have the option to construct one of your buildings, essentially a piece used simply to denote control.
A few of the actions offer escalating rewards determined by the number of structures you own in the area. Of greater importance is the end game victory point reward equal to the number of workers on the space. This is earned by the player with the most buildings in the location, naturally creating a bit of tension and risk during play.
This works pretty well beckoning participants to leverage the action economy in a way that maximizes their end game area dominance. Maybe you really want to place a worker in the mines and scoop up an armful of ore, but by repeatedly placing those cute little meeples in the area you may be rewarding John for dominating the space with his buildings. Tricky.
Speaking of cute, this game is gorgeous. The board is colorful and immediately pulls the young’uns in. The tentacles are swanky and the whole thing has presence. It very much embodies the spirit of family board gaming and is reminiscent of the most recent printing of Survive.
Survive is a great touchstone for this release as the two share a common ethos. Tentacle Town has a similar approach of conflict and underlying aggression that is subtle at first but can definitely escalate later in the game. Besides the race to compete over real-estate, tentacles offer direction aggression. You see, Tentacle Town is the type of place selling timeshares BOGO.
After placing a worker each turn and performing your action, a fresh tentacle is drawn to the commotion in the area and is placed off the shore. Then you roll a die for each of the wiry sods which can result in buildings being destroyed, workers being offed or forced to flea, and even more tentacles appearing. As your noggin begins to turn the strategy space opens up a bit.
Now you may actually want to place a worker in an area currently controlled by John, just so you can roll a bunch of tenta-dice and whack one or two of his buildings. Yeah, it’s mean in a familial sort-of-way.
Tentacle management is the primary source of depth. One of my favorite spaces on the board is the docks which allows you to activate all of the workers in the area to chuck a handful of harpoon. You gather up an oval spear token for each such worker and toss them through the air. They flip end over end like a coin, landing with a face-up image of kinetic violence, or, especially if you’re me, an illustration best described as an audible thunk in the water. For each monster limb you sever you will earn VP which opens up an alternative path to success.
There’s an included spinner offering an alternative way to determine your 50-50 gambit, but don’t even touch it. While spinners are underrated in this hobby, nothing beats physically tossing harpoons in a literal throwing motion, particularly if you’re hurling upwards of eight of these pointy suckers. The most raucous and joyful moments are when players start hurling those kebabs at the actual tentacles on the board.
This is the sticking point with Tentacle Town. The main draw is a side-mechanism not integral to play. The rest of the core loop is certainly entertaining and worth the 45 minute commitment, but it’s not going to blow your mind or grab you by the scalp. This is however a pleasant game that has some thoughtful depth and harnesses legit strategy. It offers ways to mitigate luck – such as brandishing your personal harpoons to save buildings – a bit of atmosphere and a very attractive face. But those expecting a generative design such as Spartacus will be disappointed. It’s never quite as dramatic or impactful as their previous work.
Of course, that is expecting too much. This is clearly billed as a family-weight offering and it does fulfill its promise. There’s enough interaction and just enough scheming to beckon repeated play. There are clever touches fueling a bit of exploration such as a randomized set of task cards that can be activated from any area, thus changing up the economic paths each play.
Those looking for a design in the neighborhood of Survive wielding an interesting worker placement/area control mechanism will find something worth exploring. It also eases the breaks just a tad, coming off as overall less vindictive and cutthroat than its peer (but perhaps only a tad).
This is a solid game. It’s the type of thing I could see doing well in the mass market and would elevate Target’s shelves a tad. I imagine its primary role will serve as an anchoring point for Monster Fight Club in the board game sphere. Tentacle Town, along with their recent terrain campaign, shows they’re here to make some noise and can be counted on to deliver quality.
A pre-release copy was provided by the publisher. This is not a paid preview but an honest critique with no money changing hands.
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