A year and a half ago a small team at Riot Games, the makers of League of Legends, were set to release a board game. But one fateful meeting with an outside consultant took the project in a new direction. In the end, it would require more than double the amount of work to complete the project, a tabletop game called Mechs vs. Minions.
But producer Chris Cantrell says that the final product, which goes on sale Oct. 13, is better for the effort.
"It sounds ridiculous to say that it’s a gift for players of League of Legends," Cantrell said sheepishly by video conference last week. "Especially when it’s $75. That’s a lot of money. But board gaming is a hobby that we love, and I think it’s a space that we’re excited about.
"This is a project we were inspired by."
A critical eye
To say that Cantrell is an avid board gamer is an understatement. With more than 1,200 tabletop games in his personal library, it might be better to call him a collector. He has a great deal of respect for the industry, one which he says has been exploding with new and creative ideas over the past decade. The last thing he and his team wanted to do was embarrass Riot Games with an inferior product.
"For me, at least personally, I get really wary around board games that have a strong IP attached to them," Cantrell said. "It kind of feels like the company is cashing in on their intellectual property, trying to make a quick buck. I even had people internally telling me at points that we should just do League of Legends Monopoly, and I was like well … We won’t be doing that."
So in early 2015, just before the original version of Mechs vs. Minions was about to head off to production, Cantrell and his team called in some outside help to give it one final pass.
Riot paid to fly out The Dice Tower’s Tom Vasal and Shut Up & Sit Down’s Quintin Smith out to their headquarters. Each of the game critics were compensated for a private, intensive playtest and consultation.
"We had Tom come out first," Cantrell said. "At the end he said, ‘I don’t know why you’re worried. I think you’ve got a great game!’ We were doing high-fives. And I remember somebody even asking, ‘Well, do we still even want Quintin to come out?’ But he already had his flight, so we might as well.
"Quintin came and he played it, and he said, ‘I’ll be honest. I loved it. ... But frankly I don’t think I’d ever play it again.’" Smith declined to be interviewed for this article.
Cantrell says that during the second day of his visit, Smith's input helped to change the creative direction for the entire game. He was the one who recommended modular game boards so that each session could be different, and brought up the idea of an ongoing campaign that would build a story arc over time.
"And as he’s talking about it, I’m thinking, ‘Man. He’s right. That does sound like a much better game than the game we made.’ Then the producer in me knew that now we basically had to design 10 different board games. And that’s a lot more work."
In the fiction of Mechs vs. Minions, Runeterra’s diminutive, gnome-like Yordles — Corki, Tristana, Heimerdinger and Ziggs — are all learning to ride and fight on mechs. But, during their first training exercise, something goes wrong and LoL’s minions begin to attack.
In order to fight them off, players will need to draft cards from a common deck to create a string of orders along their sideboard. Those orders will tell each hero’s mech how to move and fight. Cantrell says the game is reminiscent of the classic Robo Rally, which uses a similar card-based action system. In Mechs vs. Minions, those cards form what’s called a command line and any damage a mech takes can suppress or alter certain lines of that code.
The tension of the game, Cantrell said, comes in trying to make the best of what will nearly always be a chaotic situation.
"We have other robotic characters in League who are actually robots, like Blitzcrank or Orianna. But due to how you take damage in Mechs vs. Minions, you would run into walls and do these really ridiculous and silly things. If you’re playing a sentient computer and that’s happening it just doesn’t feel right. The fantasy isn’t there, but it also feels frustrating.
"If you have all these silly little Yordles, riding on mechs that they just discovered, the idea that they’re running into walls and pushing their friends out of the way on accident all kind of starts making sense."
Polygon was able to get a look at a production copy of Mechs vs. Minions during our video conference with Cantrell, and from what we can see the game excels at presentation.
Out of the box there are four pre-painted hero miniatures, one for each Yordle. In fit and finish, they resemble the same quality miniatures you might expect from the Skylanders series of toys-to-life games. There are also 100 plastic minion enemies, a large bomb-like power source and a custom sand timer. Each of the campaign’s 10 missions comes sealed inside its own envelope, and before each game players break the seal to introduce new objectives, new rules and new command line cards.
Cantrell says his team took their cues from Rob Daviau’s Legacy series of games in the way it presents information to players.
"I think that the Legacy mechanic is probably the best innovation in board games in the last five to ten years," Cantrell said. And that’s saying a lot, because it’s been a great five or ten years. I remember when we were first starting working on the project and I was watching a presentation Daviau did on YouTube. There was this moment when he talked about skin conductivity tests being done over at MIT on people who were playing board games. They wanted to find out where the excitement was.
"Turns out, the excitement was at its absolute highest as people were unboxing the game. And then people go to learn the rules and that’s kind of where fun goes to die. At the time Pandemic: Legacy hadn’t even come out yet, but that really resonated with me as a player."
Cantrell said that Riot doesn’t ask players to destroy cards or write on the game board like Daviau’s Legacy series does, it does have mysteries packed away inside the box. The biggest one is inside a large, sealed container — much larger than the pre-painted hero figures already in the game box — that seems to have something inside that’s trying to cut and slash its way out.
Cantrell said he’s sure that spoilers will leak out soon enough, but he hopes players will keep what’s inside that box a secret until the game tells them it’s okay to open it up at the table.
"It’s easily the most expensive piece in the game," Cantrell said. "And there was a very compelling argument that we should use that as part of our marketing push, but frankly it was less about selling units and more about preserving this magical experience for players."
Feast or famine
A physical game product breaks new ground for Riot Games, and Cantrell assures us that at least for now it’s a one-off project. But that didn’t make planning for the production and sale of Mechs vs. Minions any less of a critical task for his team.
First, they partnered with Panda Games, the same manufacturers who manufactured the Plaid Hat Games adaptation of BioShock Infinite. Cantrell says Panda has a hand in many successful Kickstarters, and their website boasts a slate of critical darlings such as the Mice and Mystics series, Xia: Legends of a Drift System and Robinson Crusoe.
"The smarter way to do it, if I’m being really honest, is we probably would have reached out to someone like Fantasy Flight Games," Cantrell said. "I’m sure they would have done an amazing job. But as we dug into it, we wanted to do it all in house."
In order to dramatically improve the value for fans, with features like wax seals, in-fiction envelopes and painted miniatures, they also had to forgo the tabletop industry’s traditional distribution model. Rather than Amazon or local game stores, Mechs vs. Minions will only be available through Riot’s dedicated website.
"If we just did all of the distribution ourselves — which, trust me wasn’t the easy route to go — we could pass all that savings on to players and just provide a higher quality experience. And, ideally, move some of our players over into the tabletop hobby.
"We are really fortunate here at Riot to have a moderately-sized player base with our video game. My thinking was if we could introduce this new hobby to some of them, they would fall in love with it the way that we did."
The first printing is of 30,000 English language copies which, for a board game, is a rather large initial run, especially for a game with a premium price point. But for a video game franchise with 100 million players monthly, it’s possible that these board games will sell out very quickly. If there’s enough demand, there’s always a chance Riot will make more English copies available, or even pay to have it translated into other languages.
"I guess we’ll kind of find out soon when the embargo lifts and the reviews start coming out," Cantrell said. "What we aspire to do is make kind of a love letter to players in the board game industry of something that we really believe in."
Polygon will have our own thoughts on the final version of Mechs vs. Minions soon.