Guards of Atlantis: Tabletop MOBA is a board game, from publisher Wolff Designa, inspired by the likes of Valve’s Dota 2, Riot’s League of Legends and Blizzards Heroes of the Storm. At its core Guards of Atlantis is a fantasy themed tower defence game, where players control heroes vying to capture an opponent’s base. It attempts to capture the team-based competitive gameplay that multiplayer online battle arena games (MOBAs) thrive at, pitting two teams against each other and playing with 2 – 9 players. It does this via card driven combat, grid based movement and variable player powers. Mechs vs Minions may have been from MOBA developer Riot but this is focused on the gameplay of the MOBA genre, not just using the lore and world as a base. However, does such a fast paced, action packed genre translate well into a board game? Let’s find out!
Depending on the player count either the single lane or dual lane side of the board will be used. Players will then select a hero each, take the associated deck of action cards and then grab the heroes and minion miniatures from the box. Players will take the tier I cards from the deck, making their starting hand, alongside the Hold card. After setting up the minions in the central zone(s) players choose their spawn point next to their base.
On a turn, players will all choose a card from their hand. Simultaneously, all will reveal what they have played and based upon the cards initiation values players will play out an action. Cards come with 4 potential actions, alongside some stats that go with the specific actions. Some cards will come with a boot symbol that means it can be played for movement. If you’re in a zone that is free from enemies you can fast travel to any hex in that zone, or even an adjacent zone if it is also empty. The same card can also be spent to move the number of hexagons as denoted on the card.
The majority of cards will also come with a skill, which is some text at the bottom of the card. These range from Brogan The Barbarian’s tier I attack of Mad Dash, which enables him to charge forward two hexagons before attacking, to Min The Alchemist’s tier II Blend With The Mob, which allows you to remove a friendly minion within a range of 3 to ignore an incoming attack.
Unlike a lot of hero based games, where everyone has a basic attack or a selection of basic attacks, each and every attack is unique for that hero. In effect every attack is a special move, as it’ll be different to what your opponent can do. To some extent ranged abilities can be similar, as can the melee combat attacks, though there is no simple attack. It is one thing that the game is potentially missing in terms of a basic couple of cards that each character has, other than hold, to give some similarities between heroes.
While minions will always die as a result of an attack, heroes aren’t as easy to slay. When attacked a player may choose to discard a card with a defence stat equal or higher to the attack value to dodge the attack. If this isn’t possible, as a result of those cards already being played for their actions or to defend a previous attack, the hero dies. Fear not, this isn’t player elimination from the rest of the game. Heroes will respawn after Turn 1 of the next round.
Once the four turns have been played out players retrieve their cards and it is time for minion combat. From the setup of the lanes it isn’t entirely intuitive but the total minion counts from each team are compared in a zone. The team with the least minions must then remove a single minion, for being outnumbered. At any time, during the round or after in this minion combat phase, if all of a team’s minions have been slain then the lane is pushed. This sees the minion units removed from the board and the next zone, closer to the minion-less team’s base, is setup with minions. Note that on the 6+ players side the two lanes are pushed separately.
Whenever a minion is killed by a player they earn coins. For ranged and melee minions this reward is 2 coins, for the heavy minions you’ll earn 4 coins and for killing a hero you get coins equal to twice its level. At the end of each round players can pay to level up, so coins are effectively used as experience points. Each level costs its own number, e.g. level III costs 3 coins. When a hero levels up they get to upgrade one of their cards to the next tier, with all of a tier needing to be brought before moving to the next. As expected powers get stronger as you increase, however you’ll also get a choice of two cards. One card will go into your hand to be used while the other, instead of being discarded, becomes an item that offers your hero a permanent buff, such as +1 Range, Initiation, Defence, etc.
Over time the lane or lanes will have pushed back and forth and players will finally have unlocked their only tier 4 “ultimate” skill that often gives a permanent buff that is extremely strong. At this point the game is less about downing minions for coins and more about hero combat, trying to get an advantage by knocking a hero or two out for the round. Use this time wisely and a team will be able to push their minions onto the opponents’ base and win the game! To shorten the game there is a Tower variant included in the rules, where a team earns a token each time they push a lane. When a team reaches a set number of tokens they win, instead of waiting until one team reaches a base.
Coming from playing a lot of Dota 2 the item system is somewhat non-existent. The rules describe the items players get when levelling up as the card they don’t choose. Unfortunately, this means that once you have reached level 8 you have nothing to spend your coins on. A few items would have been great, such as a one-time use defence shield or something that could affect the outcome of an attack. This could have added to the choices players have when earning coins, even into the late game.
While the heavy minions do effectively count as two melee minions when it comes to their coin value, this is where this differences end. Not only is the heavy minion counted as only a single unit when it comes to the minion combat, they also have the same de-buff to enemy heroes as a standard melee minion. They look visually bigger and badder stood next to other minions but with little stats difference they end up feeling like simply a slightly bigger bag of coins.
Like when sports are transformed into board games I was worried that the fast-paced, team based, gameplay may simply not work in a slower turn based board game. While in video game MOBAs a team fight can be defined by a split-second decision there isn’t that urgency in Guards of Atlantis. The exact feeling of time pressure isn’t present but this opens the door for slower and more thought-out strategies. By capturing the longer term, whole game objectives the MOBA feel is still prevalent in the game, regardless of the shift from reactions to planning.
Guards of Atlantis is the sort of game that requires specific player counts to work well. Thankfully, this seems to be at almost any even numbered player count. At 2-players the experience can be a bit like a reverse tug of war, as you push each other back and forth, butting heads in a stalemate waiting for one player to slip up. This is compounded by the fact a lot of the abilities are clearly tailored and therefore balanced for there being multiple heroes per team. Take the Sniper’s Tier III ability Buckshot which targets a minion and all enemy heroes in range as an example. It isn’t at all powerful, or much of an upgrade from Tier II, until there are multiple heroes on the other team.
However, if you can gather enough players together you can truly get the feel of a MOBA, even in a 2 vs 2 game. Surprisingly the game does not play up to the common player count of 5 vs 5, with the game capped at 9 players. Whether you’ll want to play with 8 players, let alone if 10 was even an option, would be incredibly group dependant and for most the 4 or 6 player counts will be the optimal number.
There are a few tell-tale signs that Guards of Atlantis isn’t from one of the industry leading companies. Thankfully, these issues are far from game breaking but do sour the overall experience. The cutting of some of the tokens on the punch out cardboard sheets were slightly off centre, resulting in a couple of odd looking tokens. They were never cutting off important symbols though. Next up, it is slightly annoying that plastic bags are not provided for the tokens or cards, which is odd as the unit bases are pre-bagged in the box. Even board game heavyweights, common offenders being Fantasy Flight Games, fail at this – so this is perhaps nit-picking.
The final production offense is that the main board is thinner than most standard game boards. Comparing to the most commonly known, which some are also double sided, it is approximately half of the thickness of a Ticket to Ride board. Despite this, the board has a good finish on it so it should stay pretty robust and it isn’t like players will be chucking dice across the board.
Included in Guards of Atlantis are blue and orange bases that clip onto the miniatures. This really helps new players to distinguish the two sides at a glance, while learning the rest of the game. Each hero miniature is unique, the two team’s minions have a unique look, yet this inclusion just makes things that bit easier. It’s nice to see the designer has gone above and beyond to make them distinguishable as the game could have easily become a plastic jumble otherwise.
As with titles such as Dota 2 or League of Legends, players will inevitably find a couple of heroes that really sing out to them. Unfortunately, this can result in players spending an hour plus playing a hero that doesn’t click with them. For MOBA players this experience will be reminiscent of when you started playing, figuring out what roles you liked best. Simply use the time to learn the heroes’ weaknesses so you can stomp them in a future game!
The asymmetry is a huge draw for Guards of Atlantis, with a nice mixture of aggressive/defensive, melee/ranged heroes. Not only is each hero different but players can also customise them, via levelling, to suit their play style or what will be most effective against their current opponents. The level up system is a smooth way of doing things, allowing for these tailor-made hero decisions. To make it more important different heroes are more effective in the different stages of the lanes. This is due to the narrowing of the zones making things more closer quarters. Therefore, as with all MOBAs team composition can also become a factor as player experience increases. When at this stage it’s best to move away from just choosing heroes to the recommended drafting options, to keep things fair.
The MOBA experience is flowing in full force for both good and bad ways in Guards of Atlantis. For all the glorious mechanics, the steep learning curve has also transitioned through mediums. New players will have tough decisions thrust upon them, and analysis paralysis can easily seep in as they mull over their choices. It has a slightly long rulebook, a huge list of characters each with their own nuances and the visual appearance of the components are enough to make some bow out. This all adds together to make Guards of Atlantis sound like a terrible gateway game. On the contrary, whip this game out with MOBA players and this could be their ideal entry point into the hobby. They’ll be used to concept of minions, the common objective of pushing onto the enemy base, levelling and skills, so the majority of the learning curve will have already been surpassed. For brand new players it might take a game or two to compute all of the information and be able to pose competition.
Overall, when you get 4 of more players involved, Guards of Atlantis manages to feel like a MOBA. Players will control unique heroes, fight it out with minions, inevitably die, respawn, level up, unlock new abilities and one team will come out victorious. The speed of the game is far flung from what’s seen in video games but the strategies are still there. It is well worth noting that Guards of Atlantis doesn’t pull any punches so new players will face a steep learning curve. The asymmetry of the heroes could lead to some powerful combinations, though after trying out a range of heroes there is balance between them. I’ve tried to stop love of Dota 2 providing Guards of Atlantis a rose tint yet the game is built for MOBA players like myself. If you fall into that category you might also enjoy having Guards of Atlantis on your gaming shelf, you may just have to be careful whom you invite to play it with you.
[Editor’s Note: Guards of Atlantis was provided to us by the publisher for the review.]