In real life, sometimes the bad guys win. However in Disney animation that’s a truth that fails to come true. Aladdin is going to become sultan, Peter Pan will continue to humiliate Captain Hook and Ariel is going to get to keep those legs… That is until now. Wonderforge, Prospero Hall, and Disney have teamed up to release a game that has a particularly nefarious premise. What if, at least one of, the bad guys won? What if it was a given that a Disney Villain would triumph over the hero, but the collective pantheon of evil were all competing with each other to be the first to accomplish their dastardly mission. And so the rich and nostalgically cherished world of Disney is plunged into a purple and green darkness with the strategic tabletop board game: Villainous.
Captain Hook, The Queen of Hearts, Ursula, Prince John, Jafar, and Maleficent make up the eclectic rogues gallery available to play. Each of these have their own Fate Deck, Player Deck, Player Board, and Player Token that embraces a minimalist beauty and abstracted shape representing the character. The player boards have four potential spaces that a piece can be moved to. After drawing a starting hand, a player will select a space on their board that they are not currently on and take as many or as few of the actions there as they’d like. Potential actions could allow them to take power, which is used for playing cards (or in Prince John’s case, to win the game), play a card, discard cards, move cards within your realm, gum up your opponents plans, activate cards, or vanquish heroes. It’s a lot, but far less overwhelming than I’m making it sound. Essentially, you move your piece to a new spot and take the actions there. Each space is specifically tailored to the particular villain’s plot. Likewise the “fate deck” which is used against the players also features specific heroes and events that will only play into a particular character’s “realm”. There’s going to be no ambitious Disney crossovers in this game. Once a player successfully completes their stated objective, they win!
The win conditions are completely different for each person, thus necessitating different strategies. While Maleficent is trying to curse her entire kingdom, Prince John simply wants to collect a lot of power. Unique villain decks help facilitate this as well, but learning how to use that deck is vital. This may mean aggressively discarding cards to search your deck for a particular item, or it may mean playing heroes from your own Fate deck to try to make Peter Pan show himself. If you’re looking for Asymmetry in your games, then you’re in luck because Villainous has it in hearts.
Now, that difference in player win conditions brings up some potential issues. Arguably some of the baddies are going to be easier to win with than others. The fate actions certainly can assist with a potential runaway leader, but due to the card drawing nature of the game, there’s also the possibility that someone just gets extremely lucky. But, with those fate actions there’s the potential for the games to drag a bit. I say potential because, while I haven’t experienced this first hand, I’ve now heard multiple accounts of games taking over three hours to finish. That’s way overstaying its welcome and I can understand how frustrating that would be. All of my plays have been within the 45-50 minute range and been intriguing from start to finish. While the Fate Decks do a good job of curtailing some of the balance issues inherent in this kind of gameplay, running into a session or two that’s a bit of a slogfest is likely if you play this enough times.
I also feel somewhat compelled to mention the component quality. The art and general aesthetic design of Villainous, as a whole package, is stunning. These movies span multiple decades and various art directions, but they’re brought together cohesively with a new design that is rarely jarring but still manages to blend six very different worlds together in a way that makes me smile in both wonder and familiarity. This game is directed towards those of us that grew up on the Disney classics. Every inch of the production is saturated with the same Disney magic that we crave. However beneath that magical veneer are some potential issues. The cards themselves are a bit thin and fragile. It’s a shame that just mild shuffling and usage can result in minor noticeable wear even after only a few plays. There’s also the regrettable stickers used directly on the box instead of shrink wrap.
Now, I’ve gotten my obligated “negatives” out of the way. I am smitten with this gorgeous game. I’m reluctant to call myself a diehard Disney fan, but I currently sing “Be Prepared”, “Poor Unfortunate Souls”, and “Part of your World” to my three year old almost on a nightly basis. I’m constantly leery of Disney IP games because, despite my love, I know they’re in it for the money. But this looked different. And the more I saw the more I wanted to try it. Rather than cash in on their more well known characters, we get some big bads along with the lesser seen villains. I never would have guessed that Prince John would show up in a game with only six Disney Villains, but I’m so glad he did. Having a variety as wide as this does offers a playground to explore the different decks and strategies required to become proficient at each. Thematically it’s something I’m crazy about. And the fact that that thematic element translates itself into a multifaceted form of play is more than I could have hoped for.
I love the way that picking a new character means having to adapt a different strategy to manage your deck. It’s a little like playing a preconstructed Magic deck, with less frustration. Everyone has their own individual puzzle to figure out. Sure, the other players can throw a wrench into your plans, but that just means that part of your puzzle is figuring out the best ways to mitigate things. You’re a Disney Villain! Of course the heroes are going to try to stop you.
Look, if Disney doesn’t appeal to you as a theme, then maybe this isn’t for you. But even so, it’s at least well worth looking in to. This is a far more compelling game than I could have hoped for, and it’s thanks in large part to the slick game mechanics. As pretty as the game is, it still could have bombed had it not been an enjoyable experience. If you’re into this specific flavor of asymmetry and puzzle solving (with a side of take-that) then it might just be time to give in to your inner villain.