If there is one thing to be grateful for regarding the maelstrom of revival and rehash that is modern pop culture, it is its fond acknowledgment of retro video games. The console kids of the 80s and 90s may be officially grown up (and depressingly middle-aged) now but their pastimes have endured - and perhaps most surprisingly, so too have the titles they once played. There are homages to the gaming of old everywhere - pixel art has become an ubiquitous presence in design and digital media, while the sudden emergence of barcades worldwide has added a welcome geek-lite distraction to city nightlife. The actual market for collecting vintage video games has also become considerably expansive - not to mention frighteningly expensive too. With all this deference being paid, it is only fitting that there should also be actual card games inspired by this cultural fixation. That’s where Boss Monster 2 comes in, pitting you and several other players against each other in a throwdown to decide who is the baddest game boss of ‘em all - even if it has a penchant for being every bit as fiendish and unforgiving as the Nintendo games it parodies.
Boss Monster 2 is a mildly intricate card game in which you fulfil the role of one of twelve different characters loosely inspired by video game villains. Through card placement, strategizing and not-so-subtle manipulation, your goal is to construct a dungeon so utterly nefarious and deadly that budding heroes - determined by a separate card deck and revealed each game turn - will inevitably perish for setting foot in it. Players are given a random set of dedicated ‘Room’ cards which detail individual sets of traps, enemies and treasure that they can lay in their dungeon once per turn. Along with these, players can also make use of Spell cards which provide the benefit of various enhancements: use them to make your own individual rooms deadlier, or weakening rooms in your opponents’ dungeons. The choice is yours, with plenty more options in-between.
Once these cards are played, the heroes - should they find the lure of a particular player’s dungeon treasure attractive enough - will visit and attempt to survive it. In true video game fashion, each of these heroes carries an HP value on their card, indicating how much damage they can take before dying. Each dungeon room meanwhile has a ‘damage points’ indicator, a value that is subtracted from a hero’s HP as they go from room to room. Should the hero’s HP drop to zero and die, the player gains that fallen adventurer as a Soul - of which 10 must be gained in order to win the game. If the opposite happens and the hero survives all of a player’s rooms, he will be left able to wound that player’s boss character. It takes only five Wounds for a player to be put out of the game, making Boss Monster 2 a game of balance and caution to ensure your own citadel of suffering is packed with just the right perils in order to obtain victory over death.
The game recommends around 45 minutes to take in its full array of rules and this is an ideal suggestion. An inaugural play can definitely feel a little daunting due to a small number of in-game complexities. For example, most Spell cards can only be played during either dungeon-building or hero-vanquishing phases, and first-time players will find it easy to get confused over when they can use them. The process of building a dungeon also brings its own ramifications as well, as a dungeon can only consist of up to five card ‘slots’ with players having no option but to replace rooms should they fill up this quota. Couple this micro-management with an upgrade system that allows more powerful ‘Advanced Rooms’ to be built under certain conditions, and the fact that every Room card comes with its own in-game stipulation which could come into effect at varying points of play, and you have a game that can cause a little head-scratching, particularly for players used to more casual, lighter board games.
Once the game is fully understood though, it is intelligible and accessible enough to be remembered on future plays and reveals itself to be a compulsively entertaining duel between players based around careful planning and obstructing opponents. As mentioned, the aim of Boss Monster 2 is to lure Heroes to your dungeon so you can defeat them to claim game-winning Souls. Players must pay attention to not only a Hero’s HP, but also the particular kind of treasure they like the most, indicated by a pixelated icon in the top-right of the Hero’s card. These icons are also found on each of the players’ Room cards, and if one player has more occurrences of that icon on their in-dungeon cards than anyone else, the Hero will be drawn to that player’s dungeon.
What’s far more important though is that if the icon count is tied among players, the Hero will not go to any dungeon and will remain in waiting until the icon deadlock is broken on future turns via new cards being played. This may sound like an anti-climax but it actually makes up a critical part of Boss Monster 2’s strategic play: with each player’s dungeon in full view of others, opponents can seek to deadlock each other and prevent their rivals from receiving Heroes that turn. This can force a huge backlog of Heroes to build up if a tie isn’t broken, but leads to suspenseful passages of play as players shift the treasure makeup of their dungeon around in an attempt to outfox one another. When somebody eventually succeeds in doing so, the rush of Heroes that are suddenly freed up to swarm dungeons can lead to very exciting momentum shifts as players get it right and receive hordes of Heroes to harvest into Souls. It’s a tantalizing build-up with a deeply satisfying payoff, and it’s a testament to Boss Monster 2’s main game mechanic that it is able to achieve such an absorbing flow of play.
However, if not for random chance, it’s a mechanic that wouldn’t work at all. Every single type of card - Hero, Room, Spell and even chooseable Boss character - is shuffled in their respective decks before play begins. Because the drawing of cards can lead to unknown revelations, Boss Monster 2 can be very captivating, but it can also be very keen to tell you that most of your dungeon-planning decisions are one bad hand away from being completely scuppered. Games can drastically turn against a player if they can’t get the Rooms they need to build, or the set of Heroes drawn is too powerful for what their dungeon currently has. Boss Monster 2 is therefore occasionally brutal to play and remarkably easy to lose at, even early into a session. It’s a flaw that does even itself out in games with larger groups (up to 4 players) and cards can be more evenly spread, but the potential for such indiscriminate punishment not only leads to unbalanced gameplay and frustration, but also diminishes its strategic leanings a fair bit - sometimes it feels genuinely futile to plan your victory when the forces of chaos are so happily moving against you.
But I suppose the game couldn’t give proper tribute to 80s video games if it didn’t feel undeservedly cruel to play at times. Visually, its components certainly fit the bill - the game box bears a very close resemblance to a standard NES game package (complete with fake ‘tarnish’) and the cards themselves, gloriously decorated with scenes and characters in pixel style, offer excellent references to as many gaming and pop-culture references as you can count. Hero and Boss cards in particular are likely to raise a wry smile for some of their inspirations. With its parodies prevalent and subtly amusing, it’s a pack that not only retro game enthusiasts will adore, but also fans who walk any path of geekdom.
Overall, Boss Monster 2 is most certainly an excellent nostalgia trip for anyone who misses the golden age of 8-bit video games (or still actively plays them). As a card game, it suffers from initially confusing rules and moments of complete injustice, but if you can overcome these obstacles you’ll find yourself a tremendous way to whittle away an hour or two with your friends - especially if you don’t have an actual video game to hand.