Everyone loves a good board game – the perfect way to take our petty gripes and frustrations out on those we love. It’s no secret or surprise that they’ve gone through a renaissance in the last ten years.
Modern examples are often fun, snappy, and varied thanks to interesting themes. El Dorado sees you trek across the jungle, building hands of cards. Chinatown is pure, stripped-back negotiation. Istanbul is surprisingly tense for a game about trading spices. Istanbul, amongst others, have already been adapted to the Switch, but Billion Road is something different. It’s an attempt to create a board game from scratch, designed for PCs and consoles, and with the obvious advantage of not having to move pieces by hand.
Billion Road favours dice rolling, and offers a tour through Japan, buying properties and collecting monsters along the way. I’ve got to be honest, that concept drew me in. I’m a sucker for all things Japanese and I love board games – something likely evident by now.
The basic concept goes as follows: you and your friends (or AI) are competing in a televised race around Japan. The host throws a dart into a map, and where it lands is the goal. You then roll the dice and move around the map; reaching the goal is actually a secondary task. Your main task is to accumulate money, see. You can do this by landing on ‘+’ spaces which make you spin a wheel and gain an amount of money, or you can buy businesses on property spaces. These businesses payout at the end of every tax year, so it’s a good idea to go out of your way to land on these squares.
Reaching the goal gives you a load of cash. If you’re the person furthest away when the goal is reached, you’ll receive a ‘follower’ who will do something bad after a turn. They might take money off you or steal property. This occurs every turn until reaching the goal, we should note.
Then there are the monsters. If you pass a monster you can recruit them, which add skills to your party. One lets you reroll your dice; another gives you a second dice roll. You can also use them to fight off enemies that appear on the board and threaten to destroy property, in a faux RPG that’s basically the best bit of the entire game.
The winner is the person who ends up with the most money. Simple, really – you’re mostly rolling dice and deciding if you want to go straight to the goal, or if you want to deviate to a better square.
First impressions of Billion Road are good. The presentation is bright, fluffy, and colourful. When starting up you get to create your own character and the options on offer are bizarre and weird enough to make character creation fun. The monsters are similarly well designed.
A few different modes are presented including Free Play, Skirmish and Tournament. The first gives a bevvy of options, including the number of turns. Skirmish is a shorter 3-year game, while Tournament is a lengthy 30-year affair. Sadly, there’s no clarification of a typical runtime. I jumped straight into the tournament mode as it seemed like the simplest option, little knowing that a year lasts 15-20 minutes. I love long elaborate board games. But I draw the line at ten hours.
It doesn’t help that the random nature works against the experience as a whole. Everything hangs on a dice roll. Occasionally you might get a mini-game, but these also amount to dice rolls. You get the choice of three puddings (!) and at the end of the year you’ll get money depending on how popular your choice was. Again, a dice roll. Money seems to come and go in random amounts. I can see how the developers have tried to make something simple, but in the process, they’ve accidentally made something banal.
Behind Billion Road’s flashy graphics and WarioWare-esqe weirdness, it’s basically Monopoly with all the tedium that comes with it.
Worse, Billion Road is full of the types of things that traditional board games have come to reject. A huge number of squares are of the undesirable kind – spin a wheel and lose that amount of money. Monsters can take properties from you with no way to mitigate it, and you have to roll the exact number to hit your goal. You can be hanging around for ages, overshooting in each direction. These things just aren’t fun.
I guess board games often come down to decisions, and the decisions in Billion Road just aren’t interesting. There’s no reason not to spend all your money buying all the businesses that come your way. In fact, you can choose to automatically buy anything affordable. There’s often very little reason to deviate from the route to the goal, given the rewards, and the way to that goal is clearly labelled with a big arrow.
I play a lot of board games and appreciate that Billion Road is maybe designed for less experienced players. Putting it to the test, I went head-to-head with my wife, who’s not too keen on board games aside the occasional game of El Dorado. She hated it. For her, it felt too random and unfair. People want to win because of their good decisions, not just blind luck. Other player’s turns also take far too long in multiplayer. The reward for getting to the goal first is also too beneficial, while the punishment for being last too severe, meaning that runaway winners and losers are common.
I have a few other complaints regards to presentation. While the Japanese theme is fun, the board doesn’t do enough to differentiate its areas. Tokyo and Kyoto should not look similar.
It all amounts to a package that’s very disappointing. Some good ideas exist here but they’re fighting against some boring ones, and all the fun and wacky presentation in the world can’t compensate.