Kaiju, as the monsters vs humans smackdown movie Pacific Rim helpfully explains in its opening moments, means ‘giant beast’ in Japanese. King of Tokyo pits players against each other, each as an outlandishly designed kaiju (many of whom are loving homages of famous cinematic or literary monsters) – all vying for control of Tokyo. Unlike with the aforementioned Pacific Rim, poor Tokyo has no human-controlled giant mechs to defend itself – leaving the beasts in control as they fight to see who gets to be crowned King.
Designed by Richard Garfield – the creator behind the genuinely groundbreaking phenomenon Magic: The Gathering, which birthed a gaming sub-industry in the form of Collectible Card Games – King of Tokyo is a dice game with some interesting mechanics and a number of viable paths to victory.
The first thing that strikes you about King of Tokyo is how great it looks. It’s hard not to be drawn to the hugely colourful visuals of the bombastic logo and the cartoony creatures duking it out on the box; though the packaging has undergone a redesign since the game initially launched (and a few characters changed after the redesign too – both of these issues related to a copyright claim, with one of the previously mentioned ‘loving homages’ hewing a little too close to its inspiration), it still retains a bright, colourful and appealingly B-Movie-esque aesthetic. The monsters here are definitely fashioned in a campy man-in-suit (think 70s OTT Godzilla or Power Rangers) style than the pseudo-realism employed by, say, Pacific Rim or the various American remakes of Godzilla. There’s a clear love for the source material that seeps into every facet of the visual design.
The game itself is a relatively simple affair, made a little more complex by rules that are somewhat confusingly laid out. There’s an attempt to make everything as simple as possible with a lot of pictures of the components and numbered sections to refer to, but this seems to make the rules a little harder to follow than they needed to be.
Regardless of this, there’s not a huge amount of rules here to grasp; to win, players must either be the first monster to reach a Fame level of 20 victory points or be the last monster standing by reducing every other player’s health to zero. To achieve this, players throw the appropriately hefty black (and sometimes neon green) dice up to three times, setting aside the results they want to keep and rerolling any they don’t want. The custom dice have faces for 1, 2 or 3 victory points, stomps, hearts and energy. Rolling three of any one number (three twos, for example) will net you that number of victory points (so rolling three twos is worth 2 victory points), with every additional die showing that number being an extra victory point to add to your total for the turn (so rolling four twos is worth three points). Each stomp rolled is worth a point of damage to one or more players – if you’re currently in Tokyo and defending your position, you do damage to all monsters outside Tokyo; if you’re outside Tokyo, your stomps damage the monster defending their position in the city. Hearts heal you for a point per heart, but you can’t heal while in Tokyo. Energy faces bag you an energy cube (these take the form of green, transparent plastic cubes) per result; these are used to purchase Evolution cards, which give your monster either immediate, one-use powers (sometime victory points, for example) or ongoing abilities.
There are other wrinkles to this: the first monster in the game to roll (and keep) a stomp die gets to enter Tokyo. Whenever your monster enters Tokyo, you gain a victory point. Start your turn in Tokyo and you get two points. If you want to leave Tokyo, you can only do so after being attacked by another monster, which means you have to take the damage prior to leaving. As you start the game with just ten health points (and can’t heal in Tokyo), there’s a pleasing element of push-your-luck; you want to maximise your victory points by being in the city each turn, but being the target of all attacks from the other monsters means you don’t want to outstay your welcome.
Likewise outside Tokyo – though only the monster inside the city can damage you, which limits the health you’ll be losing on your turn, you’ll want to balance healing to a comfortable level with powering yourself up using Evolution cards and chipping away at the defending monster’s health.
The main way of earning yourself victory points is to be in the city – of course, you can get them with dice too, but it’s never a sure thing and can be a very slow way of building yourself up to the magic 20 needed to win – but you’ll need to be prepared to take a hammering when you’re in there. Alternatively, you can go for full on stomping and just do what you can to destroy the other players until you’re the last monster standing.
It’s these differing routes to victory that elevates King of Tokyo from being just a Yahtzee clone, which is what the basic mechanic of rolling your dice recalls most familiarly. Sometimes the dice just don’t go your way – which is to be expected, with every result having a 1-in-6 chance of being rolled every time you throw them – and you need to adjust your current strategy. Sometimes, someone will unexpectedly yield to a stomp and throw you in at the deep end (‘deep end’ here meaning: Tokyo!). Other times you’ll roll a ton of stomps and it can be all over before you know it.
As you can probably gather from this, when playing out of the box as-is – without any expansions – King of Tokyo isn’t really a gamer’s game, in the sense that it can be quite chaotic and the choices to be made are relatively simple, but down to the whims of dice rolls for the most part. A few unfortunate rolls can mean the demise of your monster, as can another player having a few very lucky rolls on their turn (this does feel thematic though – shouldn’t the rumbles-in-the-urban-jungle between building-sized monsters feel chaotic, after all?).
However, due to its relative simplicity, the appealing graphic design, the subject matter and – crucially – the short game length (it’s rare for games to last longer than 20-30 minutes, even with four players), King of Tokyo remains a game that still appeals, almost eight years after it was first released. The simplicity means that gamers of all ages and abilities can grasp it after a few turns and the short game length means that you can fit games in anywhere you have a spare thirty minutes or so. Setup is fast and the physical footprint relatively small; you won’t be needing huge amounts of space as the board, which is – admittedly – not hugely useful (though for more than four players, two monsters can occupy Tokyo – which does make the board more useful than in games with less players), is pretty compact. Each player has their cardboard kaiju token (on a plastic stand), as well as their victory point/health tracker – plus space will be needed for the tiny energy cubes and any Evolution cards collected over the course of the game. The most space is perhaps needed to roll the oversized dice without causing additional, physical chaos (as opposed to the chaos created in-game!).
There’s a number of expansions available which add to the game in interesting ways, with extra characters, character-specific powers and even extra dice. There’s even a standalone sequel – King of New York – which adds extra districts to the city and added flavour (and a very slight layer of complexity, though it’s not exactly a huge step up in this regard, should you be concerned about the potential difficulty of introducing players to New York first) in the form of building destruction and military units.
I’ve been able to introduce King of Tokyo to players of all ages – and it’s been welcomed by all as a fast, fun and engaging experience with just the right amount of luck and strategy. Serious gamers who prefer more control over their game, may find that the game errs too much on the side of luck and may begrudge the chaos that’s baked into the game. The rest of us, however, can simply enjoy rolling massive dice and pitting our ridiculous kaiju against one another in the fight to become King.