Sunday, March 04, 2007


Unplugged Dilintia: The Animorphs Board Game

A new thrift store had opened up in my city a couple months ago, and I decided to check it out just in case they had some cool board games or vintage video game hardware.

Instead, I took a trip through the bookshelves and found... Animorphs.

I'd heard of the book series when it was first going into print. I was even vaguely aware of a television show and a line of toys associated with it. At the time, it seemed like stupid kids' stuff and I ignored it in favor of whatever stupid teenager stuff I was into at the time.

But being there at the thrift store, and seeing a healthy chunk of the series all in one place... Well, something fired off in my brain. I picked up the first book, then I thought I might want the second one to go with it, then the third, then the fourth... And soon I had the first twenty books in the series in my arms, as well as a few more random entries from later in the series -- basically everything I could find.

I'm not sure what possessed me to do it. Maybe because I've always thought shapeshifters were kind of cool. Maybe because I've been jonesing for a really good read for a long, long time. Maybe because they were only 50 cents apiece, and acquiring things is a pretty addictive activity.

In any case, I took home a big stack of Animorphs books and spent a little time reading them. In the first book, I found pretty much what I was expecting -- a fast-paced story that seemed like it belonged in an afternoon children's television program, complete with some predictable plot twists (You mean Jake's brother -- who has been acting strangely since the book began -- is really an alien?!) and some embarassing plot devices (the school principal is a high-ranking alien, the aliens have a front organization inconspicuously named "The Sharing", nobody questions for a moment the intentions of an alien who crash-lands and starts accusing our government of being run by mind-controlling slugs, etc).

But I kept reading. And if you can turn off the MST3K center of your brain long enough to get into it, the series is a fascinating read. I'm only ten books into my collection (and searching everywhere I can to track down what I'm missing!) and many of the stories have had me completely captivated. There has been laughter and horror and quite a few genuinely spine-tingling moments. Yeah, the books are written for kids, but Applegate doesn't write down to them. She's not afraid to put her heroes through some truly gruesome battles and some truly thought-provoking situations.

This is some good fiction.

And the more books I read, the more I think how perfect this would be as a setting for a roleplaying game. The pacing of the stories, the rules that the heroes must follow -- it has everything that a great game should have.

Which is why I was surprised and delighted when my latest expedition to the thrift stores won me a copy of the Animorphs board game. For only two dollars.

It's Morphing Time

It was a complete set. Not a single piece or card was missing. It even had the instruction sheet! What a find!

I wasn't expecting much from it. Licensed board games are always kind of lame, heavy on the cute gimmicks and light on the gameplay. Indeed, the box was filled with all manner of unnecessary fold-together cardboard props, and the game box advertised the super-cool holographic "morphing cards" that were inside. It was a cool idea and everything but... when you can only tell what's on a card when it's viewed from a very specific angle, something's wrong. The game comes with morphing card "stands" that are supposed to help players see what form your character has taken, but they aren't especially dependable.

The good news is, the game delivers everything that it should. As a board game in its own right, it offers players a lot of chance for strategy and interpersonal interaction. And as an Animorphs game, it gives players a lot of opportunity (and reason!) to go through a lot of animal transformations.

The board depicts various important locations from the books, connected by a series of sometimes redundant paths that looks like one of those "optimized travel route" puzzles. The path that you're allowed to take depends on the animal that you're morphed into at the time. Humans (and other land mammals) take the standard routes. Dolphins are restricted to the game's few waterways, but no other animal form can travel them. Ants are pitifully slow movers -- their paths have more spaces than other species' -- and eagles can soar about almost at will with paths that can cross the entire gameboard on a single turn.

There are twelve mission cards, one for each major location, but only three are considered "active" at any one time. When you reach a location with an active mission, you can try to accomplish it with a throw of the dice. Depending on what species you arrived as, you may have a harder or easier time of it, which helps to balance the game out. (Dolphins have practically no mobility, but they have the highest rate of success at the missions that they're able to reach.) The missions are based on events from the books, which earned them a few familiarity points with me.

Of course, just as in the books, the players have to be careful about where they morph. Only a few of the spaces are safe havens for morphing. As I played, I found that I was thinking like the kids in the books. I would take on a mobile morph -- especially the eagle -- for travel, slip into a safe morphing square, and then take on the form that I would use for the battle. There's no one form that's favored by the majority of the missions, so there's plenty of reason for the players to switch between them.

Playing cards help to throw a little variety into the proceedings. You need to play a card every time you morph, and luckily, just over half the deck is morphing cards. And while there are nine "wild" cards, most of them will only allow you to take on a particular form. And this adds another level to the gameplay -- will you go to a mission that favors bears if you don't have a bear form available? Or will you travel to something further away? And, of course, there are a number of other cards that will deal out delightful effects -- steal a card from an opponent, double your movement, that sort of thing.

When a player accomplishes three missions, he races to the final space to take on the endgame mission and recreate the end of The Stranger. All in all, not a bad way to end the game.

I guess it's just put me in a good mood to see that a favorite book series has gotten a board game that's more than just a quick cardboard cash-in. I understand there were also video games made, but... until they make a proper roleplaying system out of it, I'll be content with my tabletop game.


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