Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Crown Jewels Caper

'Orco' poses with the crown jewels

The Masters of the Universe Role Playing Game manages to avoid being a true RPG and winds up as an unrewarding, overly complicated board game.  According to the back of the box:
...In this exciting and fast-paced game, players become the forces of good.  As they explore the depths of Skeletor's hideout, searching for treasure, they will encounter monsters and evil characters, which will try to stop them.  Only their cunning will help unless they can find the magic gemstones that will defeat Skeletor's evil.
Many people would call this statement a flat-out lie.  Being in a generous mood, I say this statement is true, but only in narrow, relative circumstances.  The first warning sign is the phrase “exciting and fast-paced.”  Anything that tells you it's 'exciting and fast-paced' probably isn't.  In this case, the statement is true if – and only if – the game is being compared to watching paint dry.

The premise of the game is that Skeletor has taken the 'Crown Jewels of Eternia.'  (An argument could be made that the jewels rightfully belong to him, but let us not digress.)  The players assume the roles of He-Man and his allies and, in effect, conduct a commando raid upon Snake Mountain.  As indicated previously, ten face-down markers are randomly distributed among specific spaces indicated on the board.  One of these markers represents the crown jewels.  Some markers represent material wealth such as gold, silver, and crystal.  Yet other markers represent magic items including illusion dust – which does nothing.  (Perhaps it's just an illusion of doing nothing?)  So, technically, the characters are 'searching for treasure' but the crown jewels and useful magic items are the only treasure that matters.  Of course, characters in the cartoon series wouldn't have much use for traditional treasure either.

Locating the crown jewels does not end the game; a character must “ESCAPE WITH THEM THROUGH [Snake Mountain's] FRONT DOOR.”  The rules use the term “ANY PLAYER,” so it's not like all of the characters have to escape.  Seemingly, the game is meant to be co-operative; the rules state that when a character finds a piece of equipment or a magic item, he can turn it over to another character.  So, amassing treasure is not a means to be the winning character; the forces of good win together or they lose together.  'Escaping' with the crown jewels is not especially difficult for a variety of reasons – one being that a spell-user can just teleport with the jewels to the “FRONT DOOR.”  By the way, Teela can cast spells in this game.  This is because the “evil characters” have two spell users (Skeletor and Evil-Lyn) while “the forces of good” have only Orko if Teela doesn't cast spells.  Magic ability is important because there are magic doors that can only be opened by spending magic points.  (In the top photograph, magic doors can be seen as yellow flashes on the board.)

The last sentence of the 'back of the box' quote implies that victory is possible only through “cunning” or by finding “the magic gemstones that will defeat Skeletor's evil.”  I suppose the crown jewels could count as magic gemstones; however, they defeat Skeletor's evil only if you consider his illegal possession of the jewels to be 'the' evil and that the act of taking the jewels back undoes that evil.  An actual confrontation with Skeletor is not necessary to win the game and it is theoretically possible for Skeletor not to appear at all.  If an example of “cunning” is to avoid playing the game, then the phrase “only their cunning can help” would seem to be an accurate statement.

To comment knowingly on the game, I played it twice.  For a while during our first game, it seemed as if we might lose.  Although we lost three characters (half of the party), we completed the objective.  The second time, we knew what we were doing; Snake Mountain posed no challenge and no characters were lost.  Interestingly, both games ended the same way.

When characters enter most rooms, there is the possibility of an encounter.  If there is an encounter, it is with either (1) Snake Mountain fodder, (2) monsters, or (3) evil characters.  There are two types of fodder:  robots and giant spiders.  You know...spiders...those bug-like things with six legs?
Snake Mountain “Spider”
There are four monsters.  Each is unique; if one dies, that monster doesn't show up again.  The four monsters are:
  • Gorman – When encountered, monsters usually don't pursue characters.  If characters leave a room that contains a (live) monster, it essentially disappears until the encounter chart says it shows up again.  The Gorman, however, follows you and attacks until it's dead or you are spirited away by “THE GODS OF ETERNIA.”
  • Plamydon – This monster teleports away one turn after it appears.  Yawn.
  • Swamp Monster – This monster is situated in one particular room and remains there until dead.  The monster has two attacks, but since it can't leave the room, it's easy enough to stand just outside of the room and blast it three times with a rifle.
  • Zuva-Rex – Like the Plamydon, this monster teleports away after one turn...unless He-Man is around.  Apparently, it has some kind of fixation about He-Man; if it sees him before teleporting, it will follow him around until it dies or He-Man “HAS BEEN FORCED OUT OF THE GAME.”  The Zuva-Rex is scary because it has three attacks, bite/claw/claw.

The evil characters include Skeletor, Evil-Lyn, Beastman, Trap-Jaw, Whiplash, and Mer-Man.  Whiplash gets short shrift; all of the other evil characters have living quarters shown on the board.  I felt sorry for the dude, so when I came up with new room names, I gave him a room of his own.  Like the monsters, if an evil character dies, it doesn't come back.  However, when an evil character's Life Force drops below a certain level, he (or she) is teleported away “BY THE MAGIC OF SNAKE MOUNTAIN.”  If encountered again, the character will not have recovered any Life Force and he (or she) gets only one teleport save.  Skeletor says, “ALL OF THE EVIL CHARACTERS ARE INTELLIGENT.  THEY WILL NOT DO STUPID THINGS.”  However, each has a reaction table that indicates what he (or she) will do when faced off with a given 'good' character.

Here's the thing.  The point of the game is to gather markers until you find the one that represents the crown jewels.  There's no point in entering any room unless it has a marker or is the only way to get to a room with a marker.   The encounters for these marker rooms tend to be from the character table – meaning Skeletor or one of his minions.  Assuming the good characters don't split up, they can gang up on the evil characters because they usually show up alone.  It gets repetitive.  Wear down an evil character until he (or she) is teleported away; when the character shows up again, finish him (or her) off.   When there are no more evil characters, any room with a 'character encounter' will be empty.  This means many of the remaining markers will be unguarded.

In both of the games I played, Orko remained relatively unscathed.  There are two reasons for this.  First, according to their reaction tables, the three most powerful evil characters “ignore” Orko.  Second, since Orko is not very effective in combat, he stays out of combat and avoids injury.  By the time “the forces of good” reached the chasm, the evil characters had been eliminated.  This left Orko free to float over the chasm, open magic doors, and gather markers.  So, in both games I played, Orko found the crown jewels in an anti-climactic finale.  A game where you win because Orko does something?  No thanks.

Part of the problem is the programmatic way in which the game engages the players; replayability is limited.  This could have been offset with such things as a modular board, multiple scenarios, secondary goals, and time constraints.  Ideally, the game could have been adversarial with players taking sides; good characters versus evil characters.  The game could have adhered more closely to the concept of role playing by having a 'Snake Mountain' player in opposition to the other players.  I'm thinking something along the lines of GDW's Asteroid game.

Since my second-hand copy of the game did not contain the original stand-up figures, I was forced to create my own figures based on images at BoardGameGeek.  While I did so, I thought about broadening the game's appeal and created some stand-ups for characters outside of the MOTU setting.  I present my humble efforts...

L to R: Mike Mearls, Columbo, Half-Elf, Gene Weigel, Gord the Rogue


  1. Well, "exciting and fast-paced" if you are a game company that produced Star Trek the RPG and Star Fleet Battles. XP

    Yeah, the game would have been better if it was like Hero Quest, with its simplified combat mechanics, changing scenarios, interchangeable layout, and most of all: an Evil Wizard Player (the Game Master).

    If I was to create MotU has a boardgame, I would just lift the rules from TSR's Dragon Strike boardgame wholesale, add some extra rules to it, and then add the licensed characters and elements to the set - while keeping the game more true to the mini-comics, then that foppish cartoon!

    Anyone who knows about Dragon Strike would think that is a terrible game - especially next to HQ - but I can see past all its shortcomings (uneven board layout, ugly miniatures, no gold or shops, one-off scenarios, etc.) and see the potential for a great rules-light RPG in a boardgame form. Hell, I did a lot with that simple system!

    I like your substitute miniatures, by the way. Keep out the great review! _\\\

    1. Dragon Strike would be viable, assuming you left out the video. Since neither gold nor shops are in the source material, they shouldn't be in the game. Alas, I fear the 'foppish cartoon' is an indelibly fixed part of pop culture; people expect any licensed material to cleave closely to the filmation series.

  2. Is that Gene with his flail? Awesome. He should have a subtitle, though, something like "Creator of the OSR" or "Coiner of BECMI."

    Did you grant him any special powers for his assault on Skull Mt?


    1. That is, indeed, Gene with his flail. I get what you're saying about the subtitle, but there are so many accolades and so little space. As for special powers, I was thinking he could use his flail to tear down walls. Gene don't need no stinkin' doors.