Everyone Needs Deadlines, Even the Beavers – A Disney Animated Review

Disney Animated portends magic. It’s the upcoming title from the design studio of Prospero Hall, a mercurial group of individuals that smuggle hobby board games and their broader philosophies into the mass market. This one has the players cooperating to illustrate, compose, and produce classic Disney films. You’re animators, pressured by a deadline to complete each of your eminent creations while the villains in these features pop to life and terrorize your creative process. As I said, it portends magic.

As with all Prospero Hall work, the concept and graphic design are the beatific marriage. It’s all perfect. The box has a sleek and historic composition. Player boards capture scenes from films like Aladdin, Fantasia, and Snow White. You construct backgrounds by filling in puzzle pieces and then lay clear transparent cells atop with iconic characters in various positions of action. It feels great, as if you’re actually crafting something of significance. The form of this game is exactly what it should be.

Mechanically, this is a surprisingly contemplative Euro-style design. Or at least it can be.

My first few plays of Animated were with my daughter, a blithe nine-year-old who adores everything Disney. Coincidentally, we had just returned from a trip to Disneyland before our first play. We were primed for fireworks.

Instead, we got rain and the equivalent thrill of waiting in a 45-minute-long line.

The core of Disney Animated is something we’ve seen before. It’s the tile river whose family tree is getting a little bushy now. From Conan to Civilization: A New Dawn to Ark Nova, it’s the now familiar system of choosing a tile and then sliding it to the back of a line. Those tiles near the front of the line are more powerful while the ones near the rear are weaker. In this case the tiles are actions that let you collect paint tokens to animate your characters, or scrounge up background tiles to compose a scene, or even more cards to stuff your paws in preparation for the end game.

Ideally, players coordinate what actions they select and work together for maximum efficiency. If you are falling behind in building your background, we should be talking. I should be selecting a tile ahead of the background action so that when your turn comes around it will be stronger. The entirety of this game is in coordinating those selections and working together to beat both the deadline turn limit and the evil machinations of villains like Cruella DeVille and Chernabog.

Why this system fell so flat for my kiddo and I is a persnickety issue that the game struggles with. The implementation of the river mechanism here only works with a high level of difficulty. Let me explain. Challenge here scale with a set of cards called Calamities. A number are dealt out each round, and they present basic requirements for players to fulfill. Things like spend a white paint token, select the action tile in the number “2” space, or discard a card with a lightbulb on it. You can ignore these calamity cards, but doing so causes one of the villain’s disastrous effects to trigger. Each ignored calamity is another activation of the adversary’s penalty, which often eats resources or pushes the deadline token farther along.

The design begs for calamity. Lots of it. With fewer cards, there’s simply less to contemplate and less pressure. If you don’t set the difficulty appropriately, you will have too much time and resources in the game. This is why it also plays better at higher participant counts, as you’re dealt more calamity. A lack of adversity is destructive to the experience as it saps much of the tension from the game. You no longer need to trigger certain actions to discard the calamity cards. Without those tradeoffs, you just hammer the same dull actions over and over.

When lacking tension, the softest spots in the design are highlighted. There’s a general arc to play that all films follow. You need to get background tiles before you get paint before you get the necessary cards to animate your villain and complete your film. You can perform some of those actions in advance, such as picking up cards in preparation for the latter half of play, but this is boring on the surface. Trying to explain to a youngin that they should probably choose the Paint action because it’s more efficient ain’t gonna wow them like the Magic Kingdom’s fireworks display.

That’s where this game resides. You want more calamities and heightened tension, forcing you to puzzle out turns as a group and contribute to the collaborative strategy. Despite being a Disney focused property, it’s not a kid’s game. Most families would be better off playing Villainous or Horrified. There’s not a lot of punch here, not a lot of splashy dynamics or dramatic powers. You don’t really build a powerful engine and rarely get turns I’d call explosive. It’s also a little more complex than most will expect.

While this may not be the most exciting game, it is unusual in that it brings a satisfying resource puzzle to a relatively light framework. It does harness the Conan river system well, forcing you to juggle priorities and engage in meaningful discussion – assuming you’re playing at a properly elevated difficulty setting. It’s also the first game to utilize the river mechanism in a cooperative framework. And this provides a neat structure to work through as a group. It is indeed successful in its objective.

Now, let’s pivot, I can’t really discuss this game any longer without examining the Prospero Hall facet. Yes, I’ve dedicated large chunks of previous reviews to this aspect – see The Warriors or Rear Window. In my review of the latter, I describe Prospero Hall’s approach of cribbing hobby mechanisms for mass market products as the equivalent of a cover. You know, like Jimi Hendrix riffing on Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower. I think, though, my assessment has evolved.

Just earlier, I was browsing numerous Walt Disney quotes and trying to settle on a title for this review. I was surprised at how much of this man’s wisdom is focused on change, creativity, and experimentation. He famously said, “by nature I’m an experimenter. To this day, I don’t believe in sequels. I can’t follow popular cycles. I have to move on to new things.”

It’s maddening to think about what our greater entertainment culture has become, and how his legacy has assumed regurgitation. Not just with sequels, but with the straitjacket of formula. Disney now is just as much Star Wars and Marvel as it is Mickey. Everything is recycled and remixes are remixed until they circle back around to their origin.

Artistically, we’re more stagnant than ever. Prospero Hall’s re-issue of innovative board game mechanisms is cultural gesticulation. From a hobbyist perspective, it’s a little hollow and not terribly exciting. I’d describe it as a reverberation of the larger artistic quiescence.

When the studio has ventured outside their comfort zone, the market partially rebuked them. It’s a shame, as I’m one of the few critics who appreciated Legacy of Isla Nublar. I also remain a professed fan of Jaws and Rear Window, their pinnacle work.

The thorny thing here is that I’m not sure the criticism of recycling mechanisms is really a practical one. In some respects, these are the right games for the right time. Most charitably, they’re not pushing the boundaries of the bleeding edge, but they are nudging the mean in the right direction.

But, maybe what you really want to know is whether Disney Animated is fun, right?


A review copy of the game was provided by the publisher.

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