I'm more than a bit old school, and when I say that I mean from a 44-year-old-man's point of view. I have great respect for games that have lasted for decades, generations or even eras, because the mere fact that their rule set has survived is witness to their intrinsic value and playability. It's not uncommon to find me playing Pick-Up-Sticks with the kids, because its life lessons are so clearly encapsulated and understandable on the small scale -- risk vs reward, proper prior planning, careful execution. Games don't survive from the stone age without something going for them.
And that may be part of the reason I have found Bakugan Battle Brawlers such a rewarding play over the last few weeks. The game is quite new, but is just chock full of gaming tradition goodness that almost commands you to give it respect regardless of your age. Designed for the boys 4-12 market, it checks all the boxes, even for an old guy like me. Let's do a quick review of what Bakugan is.
Core Marketing Concepts
Bakugan isn't so much of a game as it is a lifestyle. A carefully managed marketing package, Bakugan has cards, playing pieces, body accessories (including a sporty launcher glove and a carrier with snap-in components), simple and advanced rule sets, a collectibility concept without rares, supporting products, and even a Saturday morning cartoon to promote gameplay.
And promote gameplay it does -- watching one or two episodes of the cartoon is a sufficient enough primer on the rules to permit non-reading four-year-olds to step up to the arena and participate with no help from the parents. Characters in the cartoon have their own Bakugan warriors (little plastic toys the shape and size of a large marble). When battle time invariably comes in the last seven minutes the characters play the game complete with announcing their steps and describing what each does. The phrases they call out match the rulebook for the game exactly -- In this way the inventors of Bakugan Battle Brawlers have provided a low-entry-barrier avenue to preliterate players and kids whose parents don't have sufficient time to engage -- a growing market that they simply couldn't ignore.
But I think what I find most amazing about Bakugan Battle Brawlers is the complete lack of originality in every single bit of its concept. It's become a point of entertainment to me to dismantle Bakugan's mechanics and themes in an attempt to identify their originators. This list of "Not Invented Here" attributes would be a badge of shame had the game simply replicated the bits and pieces largely intact, but that is simply not the case. In so many ways, Bakugan has refined these well-used concepts into a remarkably unified package of entertainment that is currently flying off the shelves at your local game store. Never heard of it? You will, and likely in the very near future. The next time you stumble across an eight-year-old simply say the word if you want to see an evil smile -- "Bakugan" is the shibbileth of todays sub-teen boy culture.
So a primer -- each player brings three things to the table when he plays -- Bakugan Warriors, Bakugan cards of three different flavors, and Special Ability cards. So far this is sounding a lot like Pokemon with little plastic figures attached, which is surely not coincidental. Bakugan cards and the plastic warriors have a special relationship with each other -- the cards have a steel core to them and the plastic warriors, the little creatures that fold into the size and shape of a marble, have a magnetic trigger in them that goes off when it rolls across a card. Spring loaded, these little plastic balls pop open into the shape of some really wicked warrior creature -- anyone thinking Transformers yet? The engineering in these little plastic balls is by far the most innovative part of the package. At about $5 per warrior/card set, more than a few dollars are to be made selling these very impressive, very patentable toys. The shapes they transform into are simply amazing, and it appears there's more than a few around to choose from already.
What I think is truly an improvement is that Bakugan's creator (Spin Master Ltd) has avoided the mamby-pamby characters that permeate the Pokemon world. Pokemon's fish that damages a steel dragon with a burst of air bubbles just doesn't wash in my book. To date all the Bakugan warriors are big, brutal, nasty creatures with horns and fangs and hooves and all are designed to put a hurt on an opponent, and that's just how it should be. Your dragon is going to pop open to face a fifty-foot cobra, not a silk worm. Animation in the cartoon is bold and impressive as well given the genre, and isn't constrained by the look and feel that is anime. This isn't about battling for fun; this is war. The story arc to date has left a lot of open questions, but makes it quite clear that the universe hangs in the balance, and that the Bakugan that you have in YOUR HAND MAY BE THE ONE that holds the key to man's survival.
So Spin Master's complete lack of orginality has created a sweet melange of Transformers and Pokemon, carefully plucking the best bits from their entire entertainment packages and leaving the rest for table scraps. Special Abiltiy cards add to the game mix in ways similar to Yu-Gi-Oh or Magic and keep the game a bit more interesting without being too complicated for the kiddies. Nicely played again -- another concepts slipped gracefully into the mix.
But here's the part where this old man in me just gets fired up about this whole thing. Game play consists of placing cards (remember those magnetic cards?) face down in the arena and then taking turns rolling your Bakugan warriors onto the playing surface in hopes of getting them to transform on the card of your choice. The cards give bonuses or penalties to each particular kind of warrior, so if you're coming into the game with three red warriors and your opponents are rolling blues, you select a card that benefits red to add to the arena. Since you place the card on the far side of the arena from where you're sitting, a practiced hand at rolling your Bakugan marbles is needed to match your set. You need that magnetic switch on the "bottom" of your marble to roll solidly down onto the card of your choice and hopefully no other, as the card where the battle takes place can turn an above-average warrior into a monster, and vice-versa. Win the battle? YOU get to place another card to maintain your advantage. My marble skills were never stunning as a boy, but I have used what remains of them to good advantage chewing up my five-year-olds. Both are quickly learning, so my streak will be short-lived. And they're digesting the concept of selecting a good set of cards for the battle, and keeping track of what is where, since a win places a new card in play and gives them the opportunity to move on to a new color. Deck Building with a twist.
So old school marbles as well. At first it seems the marble aspect is minimal, but the rules have a more primitive way to win a round. Naturally with magnets in their base the warriors want to stick to the cards. But that doesn't mean they're completely locked in place, and if you can hit a "standing" warrior hard enough to blow him off the card and stay there with your own, you win the battle. THAT is where marbles truly comes into the mix. Horsepower has value. If you start falling behind a bit of ultra-violence may be just what it takes to get back into the game.
Hey, It's For The Kids (The Ones at the Office)
The game isn't the deepest thing you'll ever play (it's designed for four-year-olds after all) but when you see the way they have combined what are likely some of the coolest kid-concepts in the history of mercantilism you just have to take your hat off and offer some respect. This game is all boy, and has some of the coolest goober I've ever seen.
I have a warrior sitting on my desk at work, closed up into a ball and carefully placed upside-down on my steel-cored desk surface. Every guy that walks in can't help but take interest in it, and when they roll it a bit and see it pop open into a 400g sea serpent, they just freak. They want to know what it is, and where they can get it. I tell them that if they're lucky, they'll find some in stock at Target or Toys-R-Us, and that they had better be prepared to use their height and weight advantage to get some as the attendant is putting it on the shelf. It likely won't be there 30 minutes later.