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I'm a reasonable game: Big Trouble in Little China Board Game Review

J Updated January 24, 2019
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Big Trouble in Little China Boardgame review
There Will Be Games
High on storytelling, but with some interesting tactical choices to make, Big Trouble in Little China is a solid co-op.

"Everybody relax! I'm here."

This is what crossed my mind when my lone Kickstarter purchase finally arrived. Long delayed on the boat from big China (Seriously.), this production from Everything Epic was something I'd been looking forward to for some time. Why? I can't really say. I'm a John Carpenter fan, but mostly for his films that are... you know... actually good. But I'd become a fan of Big Trouble in Little China after seeing it a couple times; mostly because of how bad it really was, but also because at some point, you realize that both Carpenter and the cast had decided to throw reason (and a decent plot) out the window and said: "We're just gonna get crazy with this." And they did.

"Ol' Jack always says... what the hell?!"

And that's the first thing that strikes you about this game. With all of the craziness that the designers had to try to incorporate, they did a really good job of capturing the spirit (warriors) of the film. You can feel overwhelmed at first from the neverending torrent of minions, but all it takes is one good dose of Egg's Remedy or some Huge Buzz to bring you back for more. Between main quests, side quests, actions, Fate dice, Big Trouble cards, and various upgrades and special abilities, there's a lot going on in any given turn. Combine all of that with up to four players and it will take some time to absorb all of the possibilities presented. For a storytelling game, that's almost always a good thing, since it will provide replay value even if you're doing Wang's quest for the Dragon Sword for the fifth time. For a combat-heavy storytelling game, it means that it's going to take people a little longer to get the hang of it, since a lot of your progress through the story may depend on figuring out how to help each other out against Lords of Death and Wing Kong Six Shooters.


"Wind! Fire! All that kind of thing!"

That's an important point, since BTiLC is very much a cooperative game. If the players don't work together in Act 1, they'll likely end up severely impaired when Act 2 (The Final Showdown) arrives. Each of the six heroes (Jack, Wang, Gracie, Margo, Egg, Eddie) has a special ability that can be used once per Act, but each of them can choose between two versions: a more powerful one that works solely for themselves and a less powerful one that provides a benefit to most or all of the party. You'll have to make the decision at the beginning as to which one suits your playstyle and/or your previous plays, if any. A typically cited drawback of co-ops is that there is an optimal way to approach most situations and any kind of group activity devolves into an alpha person dictating what the "best" route should be and everyone else just following orders. However, there are enough choices offered by both abilities, items, and circumstances in the game (plus decisions over when to risk things like the Fate dice) that the best path won't always be apparent and players should be able to find a level of individualism and teamwork that functions best for them without disrupting tactical play overmuch. There is much less of a puzzle to be solved here than a story to be told. Also, there are dice. LOTS of dice. You use one set to determine how good your action selection is for a turn and another set to perform combat and skill checks. So, there's a distinct possibility that the optimal path won't be available when you'd like it to to be and you just have to follow the story where the dice take you.

"Shut up, Mr. Burton! You are not brought upon this world to 'get it'!"

But, like most stories, this is one with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Reaching the appropriate climax means squaring off with not only the three Storms (Rain, Thunder, Lightning), but Lo Pan himself. In order to do that, the players are trying to finish as many quests and gain as much Chi (experience) as possible to be at their strongest when they shift to Act 2 and face the big baddies. Despite the welcome scaling throughout the game for the number of players involved (from 1 to 4, with companion cards based on the unused characters when below 4, and enemy stats and spawn rates also adjusted), the scaling in the course of gameplay goes a bit awry at some point. This game has the Descent problem, in that once the characters reach a certain level of power, what should be enormous threats in the forms of the Storms and Lo Pan become enemies that can be killed off in a single combat sequence, making the end a bit anti-climactic. Now, that can be tweaked to suit the player group involved and one can always play The Director's Cut options, which ramp up the difficulty pretty significantly.


"Tall guy. Weird clothes. First you see him, then you don't."

For any game based on a well-known(?) IP, visuals are going to be important. I'm happy to declare that Everything Epic did well with this one. The artwork of both sides of the board basically resonates with the atmosphere of the film, with appropriate low lighting on the streets of Chinatown and green mist emerging from the right places around the Underground and the elevators in Lo Pan's lair. They didn't skimp on the mid-80s neon throughout the lair, either. The miniatures are also really well done; with real highlights being Lightning and the Guardians. The various cards are somewhat less elaborate, but still interesting, and the boss and player boards are excellent depictions of the characters in question. The only real graphic disappointment are the Hell cards, which use generic margin artwork and a text box to depict the Hell of the Upside Down Sinners, the Hell of the Bronze Toaster, and the Hell of the Frozen Dinner, among many others.

"We take what we want and leave the rest. Just like your salad bar."

Overall, the main questions to be asked are: Do you feel like you're in the movie? And is it fun while you're feeling it? In my case, both questions would have to be answered with a resounding "Indeed!" There's a lot to absorb, at first, but once you get a handle on the action dice system and how to spread yourself across the map in Act 1, you'll realize that a lot of the game play is fairly intuitive, even with the heavy dose of luck presented by the masses of dice. The best comment I heard was from a friend of mine who did a 2-player run with me and who normally detests co-ops. She said the game made her feel immersed in the story and gave her a lot of choices to make, which kept her interest throughout, rather than just biding time until the endgame or only searching for the trick to solving a puzzle. She also took the advisable step of watching the film for the first time before playing, as it has to be said that it's far more enjoyable if you know why you're doing all this crazy stuff. So, with that one caveat, I'd recommend BTiLC to any group that enjoys storytellers or co-ops or just wants to spend a couple hours chasing (or running from) Wing Kong Axe Men.

"Nothin' or double, Jack."

Editor reviews

1 reviews

(Updated: November 07, 2018)
Big Trouble in Little China
Big Trouble in Little China Boardgame review
Marc Reichardt  (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Marc started gaming at the age of 5 by beating everyone at Monopoly, but soon decided that Marxism, science fiction, and wargames were more interesting than money, so he opted for writing (and more games) while building political parties, running a comic studio, and following Liverpool. You can find him on Twitter @Jackwraith and lurking in other corners of the Interwebs.


Articles by Marc

Big Trouble in Little China Boardgame review
Marc Reichardt
Staff Board Game Reviewer

Articles by Marc

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Vysetron's Avatar
Vysetron replied the topic: #285481 07 Nov 2018 09:04
This review is much appreciated. I'm frankly amazed that this game delivers on the premise. I love the movie but I had absolutely no faith that a tabletop implementation could capture what makes it so much fun to watch.

Ideally I would try this before buying it, but I'm the only person I know who'd sink $70-ish on a BTiLC game. Damn.
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #285482 07 Nov 2018 09:15
Great review, totally agree. Quality game with some neat twists.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #285493 07 Nov 2018 11:03
Thanks, both of you.

@Vysetron: I was really kind of surprised, too. I mean, if you watch the film, you can tell that the screenplay kind of sets up as an RPG approach, so it was a wise decision by EE to take that route. But the depth of the immersion into the story is impressive, even when you're still learning the mechanics. We actually screwed up in the first couple plays and forgot a key rule on the fistfuls of dice, which is that if you roll 3 demon heads, even if you succeed at what you're doing, you lose 3 health. It's a nice way to keep people from simply maxing out their dice pool on everything and rolling with abandon, 40K-style. If you're low on health, there's a risk. That's a more interesting restraint than just limiting how many dice can be rolled, for example, because it keeps you in the "this is what happens when you truck with the powers of Chaos" mindset that GW always tried to assign to their Chaos factions and usually failed, spectacularly. No one would use the units or weapons that carried those rules, because it usually meant you faceplanted AND something awful would happen. In BTiLC, you can still succeed, but you might get bit, too.
quozl's Avatar
quozl replied the topic: #285496 07 Nov 2018 11:19
I stopped reading when you said this was a bad movie.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #285501 07 Nov 2018 12:41
It's an awful movie. But it's also among the so-bad-it's-good (maybe even great) movies. That brings up an interesting Carpenter classification argument. Big Trouble is clearly a B movie; in contrast to, say, The Thing, which is clearly an A-list horror film. Escape from New York is just this side of B-movie, but it's so good as a post-apoc SF piece that you're tempted to call it an A-list film. Plus, it has a line that inspired a scene in Neuromancer.
Msample's Avatar
Msample replied the topic: #285516 07 Nov 2018 14:51
I've only played the game twice, both solo, and I largely agree with the review.

Component wise, I think they did an excellent job. The Hell cards are a bit below the rest, but they don't get used that much. The game presentation really conveys the theme well and the minis are pretty well sculpted.

Game play wise, both times I had a really hard time leveling up. It reminded me a lot of IMPERIAL ASSAULT in that you really need to focus on Questing and moving, not so much killing bad guys. Given average draws for the turn track, you only have 6-7 turns IIRC before the first stage ends. Less if any characters die . Not a lot of time. The reason being that you need to level up before getting to the showdown stage inside Lo Pan's lair. If you go in there and your characters aren't buffed up, you'll have a very hard time and probably flail badly.

Others on BGG have reported a much easier time. Either I am missing something, or it could be one of those games with a snowball effect where once you level up enough, you can really start killing stuff much easier. Its a big difference between rolling only 3 dice and 5.

Given that there are six characters and each character has multiple versions via the once per game ability they choose and the quests that come out, I think it has a lot of replayability. That said, I don't see this as having the kind of staying power than some other license games like BSG or WAR OF THE RING have had. Its above average for an IP based game, but I don't think its top tier. If you're a fan of the movie, check it out.
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #311768 07 Jul 2020 23:30
This has been my pleasant surprise of the year so far and by far the most joy i've ever had whilst unboxing a game purchase. It both captures the feel of the film perfectly and is a solid evening of fun with some great mechanics. A hit with my whole group, I just shelled out for expansion and am looking forward to chasing Lo-Pan through time.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #311771 08 Jul 2020 02:25
Cool. Glad you're getting something out of it. I ended up trading my copy because it was good (and the minis are amazing) but I'm largely averse to co-ops and it struck me that there's just too much setup/bookkeeping to get it off the shelf on a regular basis.