Do you long for the halcyon days of staying up through the night on your NES, Atari 7800, or SMS playing cheesy games on cartoonishly blocky prehistoric graphics? Or are you younger than 30 and just weirdly curious about such innocent times? Either way, you could hook up some 8-bit emulator on your home computer, or hit up a dedicated web site to quickly recreating such ancient beauties. Or maybe buy one of those retro Plug-N-Play handhelds for your TV. Then again, this is a board game site, so instead, cut those cables and check out Iello’s new all-in-one send up to the classic third generation of video gaming. I mean, if you didn’t grow up on these graphics, it’s like modern hieroglyphics!
How To Play
8Bit Box isn’t a single design, but rather a gaming system not very unlike the video consoles that inspired it. The three starter boxed mini games included with the initial release function, at least in spirit, like the old game cartridges you’d insert into the old 8 bit home video game consoles. The base game’s system has some universal components like player controllers, cubes, and dice. The mini games, of which more are planned for release, introduce their own unique boards and bits that integrate with all or part of the system’s main pieces. Select your game, add its unique components and it’s just like sliding an old cartridge into the deck! Well, pretty close.
At least it looks like an NES console!
Chomp Chomp! Nom Nom!
Up first, and the most basic of the trio, is Pixoid. One quick look at its maze-like board and you’ll immediately note the similarity to Namco’s classic, Hall of Fame game Pac-Man, originally for Atari (and later others). Pixoid is a furious one-versus-the-rest pixel chase in which one player is
Pac-Man Pixoid trying to avoid the Ghosts Bugs. After a specific set-up, each player uses their controllers to program a direction and number of spaces to move. Then in turn order, beginning with the active player, everyone resolves their programming. Cubes can only move in straight lines – no turning corners – and end when running into a wall. Pixoid tries to evade the bugs, and can also grab bonus cubes. Meanwhile, the bugs are chasing Pixoid for a little 8-bit snack.
After each round that Pixoid survives, they grab a cube set aside at the beginning of the round. The hunt ends when they’re caught, or if they’ve successfully evaded the hunters after twelve moves. Pixoid adds up the number of cubes collected from surviving and hitting bonuses and scores that many points. The bugs each score one point for every round remaining (of twelve) in which Pixoid didn’t survive, if any. The next player becomes the new active player and the game continues, allowing each person to be Pixoid once, aggregating scores of all rounds whether you were Pixoid or a Bug. The individual player with the highest score after all rounds wins.
Use the Force?!
The console’s second cartridge is Outspeed, inspired by kart racing games like Mario Kart, but set in a Star Wars-like pod racing setting, instead, though still replete with vehicular combat and power ups. Never mind that Mario Kart and the genre it inspired really began with the 16-bit fourth generation of video gaming, but this racing design is a fun, little send up to the style.
The unique components to Outspeed primarily include a pile of bonus tokens, three spacing boards and a stack of track section tiles. Oh, and of course the nifty mini-3D cardboard racing pods, themselves. Two of the larger boards are set out together, and the third is placed nearby ready for use. These are not the actual tracks. The lovely bits of illustrative chrome all over them serve no functional purpose. Instead, the segmented boards are merely used for placement to denote first, second, third and so on. Plus if the leader would move enough spaces to necessitate the addition of the third board, the last one is then removed at the end of the current round – anyone still on there and that far behind is eliminated along with the board!
The racing action is dictated by track tiles. You will use twelve of them (they are double-sided depending on player count), progressing through each one individually, of which the last four are “finish line” sections. Each tile has two or three options denoted by a symbol corresponding to one of your controller dials. Players program which option they’d like to navigate in a given section and then reveal simultaneously and resolve. The various choices allow you to do certain things like move forward a number of spaces (which may or may not consume your limited fuel supply), gain fuel, and/or nab a bonus.
Fuel is like life. If you ever run out, you’re eliminated. And bonuses include power boosts to propel you forward or gain fuel. Or maybe lay an obstacle in the path of others or pull them back and drain their fuel. The interesting twist is that many path options on numerous tiles depend on how many other players picked the same option – or maybe selected one of the alternate choices. In other words, the progress you make depends on the number of players with you or running the other side. Additionally, there are tiles in which one or more of the selections are limited to one or two players. If too many racers choose such an option, then everyone selecting it loses their turn!
The race continues until all but one pod been has eliminated…or when the race has progressed through all twelve track sections. In the latter scenario, the racer in the lead wins.
On Your Marks, Get Set…
Finally, the console set offers up an homage to Olympic-style games like Konami’s classic Track & Field or Epyx’s similar Summer Games. And Stadium proves a unique design not just for the 8Bit Box specifically, but for the hobby in general.
In it, players team up in two competing sides consisting of two or three athletes, representing the Blue Starz or the Red Suns. The game board comprises ten event tiles selected randomly (from sixteen) and in a specific configuration of different types. These are placed face down, so that players don’t see which event is up next until ready to compete in it. The backs are illustrated so that the whole affair looks like a track. Scoreboards for each team are placed at opposite ends to round out the track’s oval resemblance.
Each player also takes a personal athlete board which tracks two things. On one, athletes begin with twenty energy, placing a cube on the appropriate space. The second numbered track is used in some specific events, but your energy is constantly expended and represents your sporting life.
Stadium is largely a silent auction game in which your energy is your currency. Event tiles are resolved one at a time and in order around the track. Six are “regular” events, punctuated by two “rest” events, and then ending up with two “finishing” events. The main difference between the regular events and the resting ones is that the latter give you a choice and opportunity to sit out and regain some strength. You know, for quitters! #trolling
Each sport is different, and there is a small booklet describing how to play the sixteen individual trials, though none of them are overly complex. Each also specifically states whether strategizing is allowed, or whether communication is restricted. Some involve everyone at the table, while others only pair up a couple from opposite sides. There are individual events in which players separately win gold, silver and bronze – adding to their team’s total. Others are team events in which you compete together with your side for the gold or silver. Some are very straight forward in which you simply bid energy and the athlete or team that exerts the most wins. Others task you with wagering an amount of energy to earn a number of chances at performing certain actions. The more you spend, the greater your chances. Of course, if you run out of energy, you won’t be able to compete in anything else! And every now and then, a sport tosses in one or more dice for a bit of randomness. Because we all know luck is a big part of sports, too!
Just for reference and example, they can be extremely straight forward, like the team swimming 4×100 Meter Medley Relay where each player bids a number of energy and all amounts are multiplied by team – greatest factor wins gold. There’s also the individual pole vault, a sort of showdown mechanism where the height starts at nine. Anyone wishing to clear that mark jumps, while any who don’t pass. If you jump, you spend that amount of energy, but win the gold. Otherwise, the bar keeps coming down, in which case you can then spend less energy, until all three medals are awarded. Furthermore, some trials toss in a bit of luck. As in individual Archery. Here you actually set aside the controllers and, in turn order, simply toss all four dice (some of which are negative numbers) and aggregate. Then you can spend energy to bump the result up one per energy spent. How much is it worth to you? Medals are then awarded highest to lowest.
As players and/or teams win medals, they are tracked on their respective ends of the scoreboard. Golds are worth four points, silvers two, and bronzes one. After all ten events are resolved the team with the highest aggregate points in medals hoists the big golden one.
Standing High on the Podium? Or Dropping the Baton?
Nostalgia isn’t out of the realm of inspiration for design in the tabletop hobby, whether in straight up reprinting or revising an old classic, or just simply as flattery for a new title. One such source of mining are old computer and video games and, better yet, their ancient graphics that make new generations giggle at such amateurishness. Designs like Pixel Tactics and Boss Monster use the 8-bit schtick for setting and illustration. And IDW has a series based on old Atari arcade and video – even first and second generation – games Asteroids, Centipede and Missile Command. 8Bit Box not only offers designs based on actual video games, but the whole package is an homage to a generation of console gaming.
And that’s the experience here, really. The individual games, especially Pixoid and Outspeed, while intangibly fun to play, are very much geared toward casual and social demographics. They are simple, unintimidating, quick, highly interactive and not at all taxing. Stadium does offer greater depth, at least in the sense of planning for the “long-game,” rewarding players with more bang for their investment (in time). And of course it’s a team vs. team experience, which is extremely rare in the hobby, especially in the three vs. three configuration, which quite frankly is far and away the best way to play Stadium. It’s also a minor downside in that you must have exactly either four or six to play. No other count works. But it’s also the wildest and craziest mini-game in the inaugural collection as you figuratively sweat together through each trial experiencing glory and defeat as brothers and sisters in teamwork. There are plenty of cheers and groans, laughter and screams. Elements that you can’t design into a game, but are tremendous when elicited out of one. Unless you just like quiet, meaty, thinky Euros.
The mini-games’ components mesh well with the system’s core bits. It may not be as simple as sliding a cartridge into a deck, but setup for all three are straight-forward. It’s adaptable enough that there is plenty of promise – and you don’t even need to worry about backwards compatibility! For that reason, the 8Bit Box could potentially receive warmer response than IDW’s Atari series. The former will be regarded primarily as a system with (possibly) numerous options lumped together within the whole. While the latter is simply a related family of individual releases, meaning each will have to stand on its own merit, in the end.
That said, each game here is different. The two most prominent mechanisms in the system are blind bidding and programmed movement. Pixoid employs solely the latter and is actually a great introduction to the category. Alas, it’s also the simplest of the trio and, as a result, likely the one to appeal mostly on the basis of nostalgia alone. Maybe not completely, but mostly. It is accessible and provides some fun tension. And there aren’t a lot of one vs. many designs, so it meets that niché. However, it’s so basic, it almost feels like the entire 8Bit Box was inspired by someone thinking, “Hey, a board game based on Pac-Man would be really cool,” only to discover it didn’t stand alone on its own. But as part of a whole system of similarly video game themed mini designs? Well, now that might be something! And using the cardboard controllers is extremely clever.
They’re more than clever. They are absolutely perfect tie-ins to the consoles that inspire this system. Well, okay, so they don’t look like the controller from my NES in 1987, or any other third generation console. Instead, they resemble handhelds from the next era, the 16-bit consoles and later. But who’s quibbling? Regardless of what period they represent, these components are thematic, functional, and fun to use. Thematic in that they serve the same function as in true video games – programming your pixelated avatar on screen (or cardboard in this case). Functional in that they actually work, are intuitive to use, and keep information hidden while resolving actions. And fun in that they immerse players into the experience, whether they have a background or history in video gaming, or not.
Therefore the control pads are a central element across all three games, and presumably future releases, as one might expect given the system’s concept. Outspeed utilizes primarily the dials to secretly program choices or paths along the track tiles. In Stadium, many of the “buttons” are employed for similar purposes, again all generally in regards to some form of pre-programmed movement or selection.
Interestingly, Stadium employs true blind bidding, so experienced gamers may find some proving ground in its showdown elements. Deciding which trials to commit to and which ones you’re willing to take a lesser medal – or even sit out entirely – involves all the characteristics of auctions games. Your currency is limited, so you must plan accordingly, conserving enough to finish the race. Deducing which events your opponents value more will help you spend wisely – seeking that balance between not overspending, but not giving up things too cheaply. And of course you’ll want to do a little bluffing so as not to tip off your own plans.
Ironically that shrewd calculating and scheming is juxtaposed with the little game’s chaos and randomness. The chaos is primarily player driven, though, which is a lot more palatable and infinitely more enjoyable. While you have a measure of control in regards to your fuel and energy supplies, many times your choices can be deviously undone by the decisions of others. That’s where the deduction and bluffing factor in.
However, while more serious gamers will gravitate towards those auction elements, there are some arbitrary moments, as well, that might be otherwise frustrating. That is, they would be if these mini-games weren’t quick, light, social designs harkening back to lighter times and late night video gaming. Both Outspeed and Stadium utilize dice at various points in their outcomes. Therefore, there are a few occasions where luck can do you in. Usually you can bolster your chances with the right bid or choice. Just not 100%. It’s all appropriate and generates excitement and laughs. Again, if you keep in mind these are not strategic games with much depth or complexity.
Playing lives and elimination are yet another aspect to the system that adroitly ties in with video gaming – or at least used to before the new generation of respawning and endless sandbox play. 8Bit Box uses fuel in Outspeed and the energy in Stadium to replicate the dreaded notion that, yes, if you lose all your lives, you have to start over! Back in the day, the most common number of lives alloted was three, though not always the case, and in most games you could earn more. Yet it was still a constant pall hanging over your pixelated progress. The analog system here employs it well as a thematic tie-in which can end your game, if not careful.
Finally, what are video games with friends not about if not playful, tense, and/or wild interaction? Whether fighting or racing or just simply trying to beat someone’s score, classic video games offered an electronic arena in which to compete with no restraint – and no risk, except in your pride! All three mini-games here offer the same experience as you compete directly against your opponents. There’s nothing passive, or even passive-aggressive. You are trying to eat your opponents, or outrun them, or beat them down. Your progress is directly predicated on the setbacks of your competitors. It’s not just thematic. It drives it, animates it, and infuses it with a vigor that everyone around the table can get wrapped up in.
The individual games within the 8Bit Box are not considerably deep or lengthy or groundbreaking – though Stadium certainly offers the team vs. team scenario rarely seen in designer games. Each one relies heavily on blind bidding, secret programming, bluffing, deduction and interaction. Sold separately they’d nary nudge the hobby’s dial, though, again, Stadium might find a niche. Still, this one’s all about the presentation. The many-games-in-one concept, with a combination of universal and specific components, its thematically nostalgic tie-in, and promise of future “cartridges” is very unique and extremely interesting. And the whole package adroitly captures the competitive vibe experienced in video gaming as you go one-on-one versus friend and family. From any era. Not just the 8-bit third generation. What each individual game might lack in depth and scope, they more than make up for in dynamism, excitement, and laughter. Which means it’s not just an analog trip down a pixelated memory lane, but a fun and boisterous contest for anyone, whether they grew up on primitive graphics, or not.
Iello USA provided a copy of 8Bit Box for this review.