Giant mechs beating the hell out of each other in verdant fields. Asymmetrical loadouts and special technology. Weapons expressed through custom decks. Action programming tickled with a dramatic damage system. Vibrant illustrations and inspired mecha designs.
What’s not to like?
This is not a terrible game. Rather, it’s disappointing.
Embryo Machine is a Japanese import, brought to the West by LionWing Publishing. Its premise is pretty enticing: a 30-minute mecha battle with somewhat unique mechanisms. Up to six players choose one of nine pre-built anime walkers which they then field in either free-for-all or team-based matches.
Someone sold this to me as Gorechosen but with mechs. Sign me the hell up.
It’s a modest production. The map boards are small and odd. They jigsaw together rather unattractively and present terrain that is of minimal impact. The mecha themselves are wonderful acrylic standees, perhaps the best part of the whole game.
The player mats are adequate. They clearly exhibit what weapons each unit has equipped as well as the noteworthy statistics. The artwork is lovely and provides a much-needed jolt of oomph. It’s sort of all there and just waiting to come together.
Play is exceedingly fast, too. Each player draws from their pre-built deck and then programs two actions. Resolution then occurs for the first action slot, with movement happening before shooting which triggers before melee. There are some special cards and additional considerations and that’s all fine and explicit. This repeats then for the second action.
If I’m making this sound dull, that’s because it is. Not the concepts themselves, but the execution. As cards are flipped, attacks spring from the darkness like a hammered sloth. Weapons hit certain range bands and are completely deterministic. The uncertainty arises on the receiving end, as each point of damage is a card removed from the deck. Typically, this is discarded from the owner’s hand, but some attacks force removing cards from the top of the deck.
This is the moment Embryo Machines ignites some enthusiasm. It’s a clean yet impactful system that has players grumbling as they toss their best attack cards or crucial movement abilities. It hurts because decks are small – roughly 20 cards – and attacks deal between three and five damage. A series of blows and you’re scraping along the ground like a three-wheeled shopping cart.
That’s exactly how Embryo Machine hits its 30-minute mark and delivers carnage. It’s over swiftly, incentivizing ganging up on the wounded. You can’t help but smirk as a numbskull stumbles into a kill-zone and you light them up.
But those moments of wonder and laughter are wrapped in the cold hard shell of a bipedal robot built by the lowest bidder. So much of this machine is rickety.
Firstly, the pre-built characters contain several options which are awful. How about playing a mech with only a couple of move cards in their 21-card deck and you only get to draw three cards a turn. Oh, the game ended before you could move? Awesome-sauce (that’s mech-jockey jargon for ‘awesome’). I guess just sit your ass down and hope you draw long range weapons.
This stuff is all over.
The movement system is a doozy. It has the highest value card going first. Say you want to pursue a nearby target and try and close for melee. Intuitively, you’d play a high value card so your swift hunter can corner the prick firing off rockets from the tree line. Well, if they played a two-movement card they would perform their action after yours. You move up next to them and then they scoot away. The only way to successfully close is to hope they didn’t see your aggression coming and didn’t program a movement at the same time you did. It’s nonsensical and leads to a host of subtle issues with positioning where the strategic scope of leveraging weapon ranges is narrowed to the slimmest of margins.
The map boards are equally mystifying. The line of site rules are modest at best, and lead to situations where most terrain is of no consequence. One map board has multi-storied buildings, but you can shoot and be shot from the higher ground, even if you’re several squares back from the edge. There’s no bonus to high ground, so what’s the point? This tile also has large concrete barriers illustrated along the edges of some of the rooftops, presumably blocking line of site. But this feature is never mentioned in the rulebook. It’s difficult to tell whether they’re intended to obscure the elevated spaces, although it does appear that a shadow is cast on the rooftops from them so we decide they should.
Free-for-all mode is sluggish. Last mech standing wins, so you’re best-off hiding in a corner and powering down. If you’re a melee focused combatant, you are being pitied by Mr. T. It’s almost as if decades of war-game design vanished with the burst of a laser.
There are some neat aspects beyond the damage system. You can draft cards and build your own mechs. This at least allows you to avoid the busted configurations, but it’s a slow process that gimps an otherwise rapid play. I’m also amused by electric weapons inflicting more damage on targets standing in water – although this rule is explained with the opposite outcome in the rulebook. There’s also a clever damage rule where explosive weapons can cause chain reactions which take out other systems. This is always wonderful to witness and one of the bright moments.
Each of those moments of mirth is dwarfed by several of grief. In addition to the electric weapon errata, whole mech abbreviations are incorrect, so it’s impossible to marry up cards to their respective boards without the corrected online information. If you have a Kickstarter copy you also need to realize there are single powerful system cards mixed in, but these are only present in some decks which can lead to further unevenness in balance. Not only are stronger cards more deadly, but each additional card is one more health due to how the combat system works.
I’m also still in shock that it doesn’t have more sophisticated scenarios or objectives. It seems such an obvious fit as it would fix some of the issues of ineffectual builds and degenerative play. This is simply emblematic of how lacking Embryo Machine is as an experience. I can’t imagine ever gravitating towards this over the magnificent pantheon of skirmish competitors.
Gorechosen but with mechs? Not even close.