One of my favorite childhood movies was the Disney reimagining of the story of Robin Hood. This was of course my first exposure to Robin Hood, but it was a great way to first learn the story of the champion of the poor. The literally foxy Robin Hood and his bear of a sidekick Little John took on the cruel Sheriff of Nottingham and the spoiled Prince John, all to the sound of some of the catchiest songs I ever heard as a kid. I still get these songs stuck in my head even now, walking around doing chores or filtering spreadsheets at work while whistling “Oo De Lally” all the day. I think for a lot of folks in my generation who were kids in the 90’s there’s at least one Disney movie like that, one that we still remember fondly today even if we haven’t seen it in ages.
Disney’s animated movies have an iconic lineup of bad guys. There’s the wicked Jafar with his foul magic and manipulative schemes. The cruel Captain Hook and bumbling crew of pirates. The terrifying witch Ursula, who steals Ariel’s voice to claim the powers of Triton for her own. And who could forget Maleficient, the shapeshifter whose villainy was so vile that she featured prominently in the Kingdom Hearts games throughout the series. It’s easy to love a good villain and these characters have captured the hearts and minds of many fans throughout the years. A little over a week ago I got the opportunity to play a board game that features these great characters by the name of Villainous.
Villainous is a board game with a simple premise: choose one of the infamous villains from Disney’s animated library and help them to achieve their personal goals. Of course, you’re racing everyone else at the table to achieve your aims first, and the cruel hand of fate may very well try to interfere with your plans. Villainous is conceptually simple but mechanically rich and frankly I was surprised at how impressed I was by a board game that could have just as easily been a thrown-together effort at more merchandising by a massive entertainment giant. So let’s talk about Villainous and what it is about the game that makes it worth your time.
When you open the box for Villainous what will probably jump out at you first is the unique approach to the game board. Unlike most board games where you have one big central board that everyone plays on, each villain has their own small board with unique designs. The board fold out horizontally and within them are contained a card with instructions about what each of the symbols on the board mean as well as a pamphlet describing the villain you’ve chosen. The pamphlet is a neat touch – it gives you a solid idea of what to expect from the character mechanically by outlining your goals and the tools that you have to reach them. Beneath the boards each villain has two decks of cards, one colored based on the villain and one white deck that represents fickle fate. Each deck has intricate designs that represent the villain who controls it, and they are quite well done. There are three different types of tokens – a large number of small ones called power, three different lock tokens, and then one single large fate token; there’s also a container that holds all the power tokens during play. Finally, each of the game’s villains has a miniature that you’ll move around on your board. The minis symbolically represent your villain rather than being a recreation of their appearance, and they have a sturdy structure that should stand up over multiple plays.
So what villains can you choose? There are six in the base game of Villainous, and the expansion packs for the game add more. I only got the opportunity to play the base game so my options were the following six: Maleficent, Ursula, Captain Hook, Jafar, the Queen of Hearts, and Prince John (the phony king of Eeeeeeengland!). I waffled between choosing Prince John and Jafar but decided on the prince as an ode to my childhood love for Robin Hood. As I mentioned before each villain has different goals, and this manifests too in having different abilities to achieve those goals. In my case, playing as Prince John meant that I needed to have 20 power tokens at the beginning of a turn in order to claim victory. And trust me, that “beginning of the turn” rule becomes quite important once the endgame has arrived!
Set up is pretty easy. Once everyone has chosen a villain, each of you will lay out your villain’s board in front of you. You’ll need to shuffle your villain deck and your fate deck separately, and then draw five cards from the villain deck. Make sure the power tokens are all in a place that people can reach and you’re good to go! A note about this game – during play, each character’s personal board will slowly fill up with cards lined up on both the top and bottom edge of your board. This combined with having two decks each with their own discard pile and a huge pile of tokens in the middle of the table means that Villainous takes up a pretty big amount of space. During a five player game we just barely had room to fit everything onto the game owner’s kitchen table, so note that you’re going to want a good-sized play space for everyone to have the room they need to function.
To understand how the game is played it’s important to get a better idea of what the board looks like. Each board has four locations from the villain’s movie, and each location has icons that indicate actions that can be taken at that location. Action icons include things like gaining power, playing or discarding cards, moving cards to different positions on the board, vanquishing your enemies, and causing fate to interfere in the plans of another villain. For most villains, the two icons at the top of each location fall within the space where a hero card would be placed, which means that when a hero is at that location some of your actions are missing. In my case because I was playing as Prince John, I had one location where that wasn’t true – the jail. This allowed me the strategic option of getting heroes into my jail to stop them from causing trouble at other locations, a key piece of Prince John’s strategy from a mechanical perspective.
Turn order is decided by the player who has spit the most recently (you can’t make this stuff up) and then proceeds clockwise. The player who gets the honor of going first is also given the fewest resources to help them, presumably because going first gives you some kind of significant advantage – the remaining players get 1, 2, or 3 power gifted to them based on how far back they fall in the turn order. Once play begins, on your turn you move your villain to a location and then can take the actions enabled by that location. Note that for some villains, there are locked locations which you’ll have to contend with – until you break the lock, the actions at that spot will be forbidden to you. Also note that you can’t stay at the same location for consecutive turns, so this prevents you from, say, farming power from the highest “Gain Power” action every single turn. You have to move around, and in most cases you will want to because you’ll need access to a different set of actions depending on the circumstances.
Let’s talk now about the cards, because these are the meat and potatoes of Villainous. The villain cards represent the tools at your disposal and the abilities that you bring to bear in order to accomplish your goals, and they can also represent those goals in some situations. As Prince John I didn’t have a particular card in my deck that I was fishing for – I just needed to accumulate power. Destiny (my wife) was playing Captain Hook and she needed to get a map card in order to unlock one of the locations on her board, so in her case her goal relied on her being able to get to a specific card in her deck. There are four card types in your villain deck: allies, items, effects, and condition cards. To play allies, items, and effects, you need to be in a location which allows you to play cards and have enough power to activate the card (some cards have a power cost of zero). Condition cards activate on the turns of other players based on specific conditions, hence the name.
Allies are characters loyal to your villain who help you deal with trouble. Your villain cannot deal damage directly to heroes who are trying to interfere with you – that’s what the allies are for. In my deck my favorite allies were the wolf archers – they could attack not only their location but also adjacent locations, so putting some in the two middle squares allowed me to fire at any location on the board. Items can be equipped to allies in order to improve their performance, or they can be attached to a location to give it special properties. One of Prince John’s key items is the warrant, which gives you power when a hero makes an appearance at the location which has the warrant. Items like the magic lamp from Aladdin or the crown from Little Mermaid are key parts of the goals for those villains.
Effects are generally one-off abilities that give you a temporary advantage, and my impression was that the effects were the cards that perhaps varied the most widely based on your villain choice. As Captain Hook, Destiny needed the hero Peter Pan to be in play in order to secure victory. Normally you can’t control the heroes you deal with because fate is in the hands of your opponents, but she had cards which allowed her to farm for heroes from her fate deck in order to get Peter Pan into play. As Prince John, one of my key effects was the ability to put heroes into my jail so that they weren’t blocking my other actions. I also could gain power for all the heroes I had in play, incentivizing me not to eliminate heroes the moment they appeared. Finally, condition cards can only be played during someone else’s turn if that player meets the conditions to activate the card. My most common condition cards allowed me to play allies for free if opponents had three allies, or to gain three power if my opponent had six power. The condition cards add some motivation for you to stay focused during other player’s turns, which is a nice touch – I’ve played plenty of board games where you can totally zone out while someone else is playing. Villainous gives you a reason to stay engaged throughout.
Now villain cards are cards you play and control, but there’s a whole ‘nother deck to watch out for: the fate deck. Fate cards are activated by other players – when they occupy a location with a fate action, they can choose someone else at the table to have fate interfere with them. The player activating fate looks at the top two cards of the victim’s fate deck and chooses one to put into play and another to discard. This is a hindrance in two ways: the player can play the card that has the most immediately frustrating or powerful effect, and the player can discard a card that you need in order to win the game. For example, Jafar needs the Genie to be in play in order to obtain his goals. Early in the game, another player got the opportunity to discard the Genie, meaning that our Jafar player needed to find a resource that allowed him to get cards out of the discard pile (or otherwise work through the entire fate deck to get it reshuffled).
Fate cards have similar types to villain cards. Heroes are effectively the opposite of allies – they are characters that stay on the board and interfere with you by blocking some of your actions. Allies can defeat heroes if they have enough attack power but you’ll lose the allies in battle unless you have a card that prevents that. Some fate cards equip heroes with items that buff them and make them harder to deal with. In my deck, the Clever Disguise card made it so that I had to spend power in order to make a hero vulnerable to attack again. Other fate cards have one time powers similar to effect cards – another example from my deck was Steal From the Rich, which took four power from me and placed it on a hero in play on my board. There are lots of ways for fate to interfere but there’s a balancing mechanism, too – once someone has been affected by fate, they receive a fate token which protects them from further harm until fate targets someone else. This is a great mechanism in my opinion – I’ve played multiple games where players are incentivized to hoard resources until the very end of the game and then when someone is about the win, everyone unloads all of their traps and focus-fires on the player close to victory. I’ve often joked that in Munchkin, you want to be the third-best player because the first two people who get close to winning will just get murdered by the mob. Villainous prevents that sort of ganging-up, at least where the fate cards are concerned.
A typical round in Villainous goes like this. You’ll choose a location on your board, gain some power, and use that power to play a beneficial card. During other players’ turns you watch out for an opportunity to play a condition and stay wary of fate being used against you. When heroes are on the board you’re doing damage control – do I have the allies I need to take out this hero? Do I have an ability to preserve those allies? Can I move resources around or move the hero where I need them to go? If you’re looking for a specific card you’ll do your best to play cards as often as possible so you can keep drawing. And when the time comes that someone else can win, you divert all your attention to trying to get fate to take them out – unless of course they have the protection of a fate token, in which case your responsibility may be to fate someone else so that the looming victor will be vulnerable again. Because most characters don’t win until the beginning of their next turn, the last round of play becomes high stakes. In our game, Jafar met his victory condition and then I did immediately after, so the rest of the players at the table had to try to stop two different people from claiming victory. For me, I had to hope that fate interfered with Jafar just in time for me to begin my turn with more than 20 power, but Jafar ultimately claimed victory.
Villainous is a compelling game with some interesting unique features. I loved the personal boards and having character pamphlets to help you understand how to use your villain to the best effect. The condition cards created an incentive for you to be focused throughout the game and not just on your turn. The fate token protected the winning player from having to deal with mob violence right at the end of the game. And each turn, I loved the strategy of planning my next move. Which location will I go to? Should I go here so I can play two cards or go here to gain more power? Is spending power on this item or ally worthwhile when I need power to win the game? My mind was always racing with ideas, and the moment when I realized that I could play my cards a certain way in order to get the amount of power that I needed to win was deeply exciting.
Of course, as with all games there is a luck element to be had. Destiny had an absolutely terrible starting hand and the distribution of beneficial cards in her deck was not optimal for a positive gameplay experience. She needed Peter Pan in play to even be on the board to try to win the game, and after everything was over we checked her fate deck and found him at the very bottom. It’s also worth noting that because each villain has different abilities, some seem to have better tools than others for getting what they need in order to achieve victory. Jafar was easily able to work around the “Genie at the bottom of the fate pile” problem while our Queen of Hearts player never really seemed to have any tools to help give him a competitive edge. The players who had a less positive experience acknowledged that there are still fun aspects to the game, but when you play something that lasts such a long time (we played for somewhere between 90 mins and 2 hours) it can be demoralizing when you continuously feel that you aren’t able to compete.
Overall, I’d definitely recommend Villainous to those who are interested in playing. Its Disney identity is part of the charm but it stands on its own thanks to some compelling game mechanics. With support for 2-6 players it can be a pick-up game for a couple or pair of friends, or a party game for a big group. You’ll have the most fun if you enjoy games where you strategically plan out your moves and work towards your own unique goals while also keeping an eye open for opportunities to interfere with your opponents. The game has solid replayability thanks to the variety of villains to choose from – since each villain plays differently you can play the game at least six times with something new to experience. I had a great time playing and am excited to jump in again the next time I get a chance to.