As I was watching Avengers: Infinity War I couldn’t help thinking to myself as I watched Earth’s mightiest heroes vainly struggle against the mad titan Thanos: “Wow, that looks like fun. I want to do that!” Okay, maybe not, but USAopoly‘s new game Thanos Rising from designer Andrew Wolf will let you do exactly that. You will watch your comrades fall away like dominoes, you will sit helpless as Thanos collects one infinity stone after another, and you will futilely throw everything you have against his seemingly-endless cadre of underlings and generals. If that makes Thanos Rising sound like an exercise in futility, that’s because this 2-4 player co-op game often is. However, if it makes it sound like it’s not fun, well, that’s where you are mistaken.
What’s in the Box?
Thanos Rising arrives in a large, imposing box that features the titular villain baring his most evil grimace on the cover. While the contents themselves could easily have fit into a much smaller container, it seems only fitting that a game that bears Thanos’ visage on the cover come in at least a moderately large box. Inside, you will find the following:
- 42 Asset cards (heroes and villains alike make up this deck)
- 4 Team base cards
- 4 Team deployment tokens
- 15 Power dice
- 1 Thanos die
- 1 Infinity stone die
- 1 Thanos figure
- 50 Damage cubes (red)
- 30 Infinity control cubes (yellow)
- 1 Deployment zone board
- 1 Infinity gauntlet board
- 6 Infinity stone discs
- 6 Infinity stones
USAopoly did something incredibly smart with the production of this game, and that was to make their dice substantial. The two dice you roll for Thanos are at least double the normal size of a die, mirroring the weighty implications that rolling them each turn will have on the game. And even the 15 power dice that will make up the arsenal of the Avengers themselves feel slightly larger than normal, making them substantial and satisfying to roll. In game where dice-chucking is the heart and soul of each turn, it is a stroke of brilliance to make that action as tactile and pleasing as possible. Other publishers could learn a thing or two here: even if you can’t make every component the highest quality possible, you can always allocate your budget heavily on the area the players will spend the most time and focus.
The rest of the contents of Thanos Rising are average–cardboard chits, nondescript cubes as markers, etc.–but the dice alone carry the weight and make you eager to dive into the game itself. Even the enormous Thanos figure pales in comparison to the satisfaction you’ll feel from rolling those chunky, heavy dice onto the table.
How Do You Play ‘Thanos Rising’?
One of my least favorite features of simple games is complex setup. If a game is a simple, 60-90 minute game of light decision-making and dice-chucking, then the setup should mirror that simplicity. I don’t want to spend 30 minutes setting up a game that will be over in only 60. Thanos, happily, is as set up as concisely as it’s played.
First, all players choose their team base and then take their corresponding allocation token and team captain (which will be either Captain America, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, or Gamora). It’s important to note that this selection occurs before the first asset cards are dealt out; I will discuss why later on.
Next, Thanos is placed in the center of the deployment board facing a randomly chosen sector of the three possible. Each of the three sectors can hold three assets, which are now dealt from the asset deck to fill the zone. Hopefully you have a nice balance of heroes and villains, as too many of either can spell doom. Although, now that I think about it, there are a lot of things that can spell doom in this game. That’s kind of the point.
Nearby, the infinity gauntlet board is place with all six infinity stone discs face-down around it: as Thanos gains these stones, the discs will turn face-up, giving the titan extra powerful abilities and, you guessed it, spelling doom for the Avengers. The stones themselves go in the middle of this board until Thanos has secured them, and each disc has five spots on the back to track how close he is to gaining that stone.
All the bonus tokens, damage and infinity influence counters, and the dice are placed nearby and voila! You’re ready to battle for the fate of the universe.
On your turn, you choose which of the three sectors you want to go to, a decision that has a lot of variables like whether you want to recruit an ally, fight a villain, or just stay as far from Thanos as possible (hint: that’s never very far). When you’ve selected your sector, you place your deployment token there and, because of course Thanos gets to attack you before you attack him, you then roll the villain’s two dice.
The first die will determine whether Thanos moves a sector to the left, to the right, or stays in his current sector. Whichever of these happens, he will then deal 1 damage to each hero in the sector he is in, following which each villain in that sector will execute whatever special ability is on their card (usually resulting in more damage being dealt to more heroes and, yup, spelling doom for you all). If he stays put, all the villains in every other sector activate as well. And finally, one side of this die will add a second roll to the other these two dice: the infinity stone die.
This die represents one of the infinity stones on each side, and whichever stone is rolled will receive and influence token, marking the steady, unwavering progression as Thanos marches towards obtaining each world-ending bauble. Only after your heroes are damaged and progress towards the stones is made do you finally get to take your part of the turn.
This involves a Yahtzee-like system in which you roll all dice in your pool (you will start with four, and as you add allies and equipment to your team, that number will grow) in an attempt to either roll a certain combination needed to damage a villain in your chosen sector or roll the magic combo that will let you recruit an ally (or gain equipment) from that sector. Every time you roll, you will need to assign (set aside and keep that roll) or discard one of those dice, but you are then free to re-roll the rest, repeating that process until you’re happy with your results or have whittled down your dice until you aren’t allowed to re-roll any more.
If you deal damage to a villain, you add a red damage marker onto that card and, if that ends up being enough damage to kill them, you remove them from the game, replace them with the top card from the asset deck, and then draw a bonus token as a reward. Bonus tokens can give a variety of effects, including letting you remove influence markers from infinity stones, heal allies, and add much-needed symbols to your dice pool on a given turn. These are one-off effects, with the token being removed from the game after you use it.
If, instead of attacking, you wished to recruit and were successful, then you take that card (replacing it from the asset deck) and add it to your team. Synergy will work on both sides of this equation, as it’s easier to recruit heroes of your chosen faction, and heroes of your faction will often give additional bonuses to that faction. Build that team up enough, and you should have a large enough dice pool to start recruiting from other factions.
Of course, and you probably already guessed this, if you run out of re-rolls and you are unable to either deal damage to a villain or to recruit an ally, then your turn is simply and anticlimactically over. No consolation prize and no appreciable gain, it’s just over.
Winning or (More Likely) Losing
Like most co-op games, there’s one way to win and several ways to die.
The game allows you to adjust the win condition to modify the difficulty of the game. This is simply done by determining how many of Thanos’ underlings you need to defeat to make the world safe again. On easy mode, all you have to do is defeat seven of the villains in the deck, while if you dial that all the way up to hard mode you have to defeat all 10 villains found in the deck. Losing, meanwhile, can happen three different ways.
First, if Thanos collects all six infinity stones then the game ends. Simple.
Second, if ten heroes are ever defeated then you also lose. This will happen as Thanos stomps around the sectors, dealing damage each turn to the heroes in the sector he ends up in. While you’ll usually have opportunities to heal these heroes, that takes away from your ability to recruit or attack, which creates a balancing act as you try to keep the good guys just alive enough while still effectively battling Thanos.
And third, if any player ever has all the heroes on their own team defeated, the game ends. This loss condition is usually a late game one, as the most common ways for Thanos to deal damage directly to your team involves him having access to some of the infinity stones already.
Should You Buy Thanos Rising?
I’m typically not much of a fan of board games based on outside intellectual property. If it’s adapted from a book or a movie that I like, or even am just familiar with, it typically diminishes my interest. These games usually either take the world and characters you know and lets the game unfold in a way that doesn’t remotely resemble the narrative of feeling it should, or it veers too close to the source material and leaves the gameplay constricted and awkward because its primary goal is being faithful instead of being a good game.
It’s an extremely difficult line to walk and Thanos Rising does an extremely admirable job. Admittedly, Avengers: Infinity War is tailor-made for a game like this. A band of plucky heroes must band together to stave off doom at the hands of the most dangerous villain in the universe. But that doesn’t mean executing that premise is easy, and Thanos Rising delivers solid, straightforward gameplay while evoking the feeling of the movie extremely well. As the game goes along you’ll feel a deepening pit in your stomach as Thanos edges closer and closer to controlling the infinity stone, and your team grows smaller and smaller as one-by-one they’re knocked off by the mad titan.
As I mentioned earlier, the loss conditions lead to a tense balancing act. Overreact to one crisis and you realize, too late, you’ve left yourself wide open to another. Late in the game you find yourself debating the merits of allowing an ally to die. “We need to keep Thanos from getting the last infinity stone or we’re toast,” you hear yourself say. “We’ve only lost five allies, so we can let a few more of them go.” And then you realize what you’ve just said, and after a moment’s reflection you hang your head and press on with the plan. Heroes will be lost, but the fate of the universe is at stake and sacrifices must be made.
Perhaps the least satisfying element of Thanos Rising is something that most dice-chuckers have to deal with: luck, or lack thereof. Because synergy is such a crucial element to building your team, a few bad rolls can, say it with me now, spell doom for you. In one game that I played I represented The Avengers. However, no Avengers allies showed up for six turns, meaning that I spent those six turns futilely rolling four dice, unable to gain any allies or attack any villains because my options were too limited, until finally some other Avengers were revealed and I was able to get my team rolling.
In a game that’s this light and brisk, the possibility of such a string of tedious non-turns is unfortunate. That said, it can be easily remedied by simply reversing two steps during setup. Instead of choosing your team before the opening nine asset cards are dealt, just deal those cards and then, based on what’s available, choose your team. This won’t break the game, or even make it appreciably easier; it will simply work to ameliorate running into a situation where an oddly-shuffled deck will ruin your experience.
Because this game is going to be hard no matter what. But it will never feel unattainable. Because you can use your turn to put out some of the fires, typically when you lose, it will be because you had momentarily diverted your attention towards defeating some villains and have no one to blame but yourself. You’ll feel close, like the victory was in your hands and simply snatched away at the last second. And you’ll want to play again, because you’re so sure that this time, this next time, you’ll be able to win.
And at the end of the day, what more do you want from a game than for it to be something that you want to play again, and again, and again? Thanos Rising has the added bonus that it’s easy to learn and easy to teach which, coupled with the Avengers theme, makes it an excellent gateway game for your friends and family who may not be interested in anything that looks complicated and esoteric, but who will be perfectly happy whiling away an afternoon chucking dice, punching aliens, and ultimately trying to keep the aforementioned doom from being spelled out after all.
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.