Board Game Review: KING OF TOKYO

A royal rumble with only one victor.

There is some snobbery in the world of board games, as there is in any subculture. In my limited time playing these things, I’ve definitely seen hints of folks looking down upon licensed games or the kind of mass marketed games you can find at places like Target. I know there are people out there who only want to play games that take hours to play and come with guides the size of magazines, as if complexity equals quality as an axiom.

They’re out there, but I’ve never met someone like this in real life. Every discussion I’ve had about games, not to mention nearly every gaming session itself (I’m looking at you Robinson Crusoe), has been a joyous experience filled with laughter and fun. When you get down to it, a good game is a good game. It doesn’t matter what it’s based on or where you bought it.

King of Tokyo is a great example. You can find the game everywhere. It’s colorful and easy to learn. The system is simple with minor layers of complexity underneath that you can explore as you get more accustomed to the gameplay. But like many games on this level of complexity, its main purpose is creating a situation for you and your friends to have great fun with each other. In other words, King of Tokyo is more a catalyst for a good time rather than solely the good time itself.

You and your friends choose one of six different kaiju, each with a card that tracks its health and victory points. If your health reaches zero, you die and eat snacks until the next game begins. If your victory points get to 20, you automatically win the game. You can also win by being the last monster standing.

There is a small board representing Tokyo itself, but only one player can be on it at a time (two if you have 5-6 players). Tokyo represents a kind of King of the Hill situation and offers the game's fundamental balance. If you are in Tokyo, your attacks hit all players not in Tokyo. Conversely, all their attacks hit you. Plus, it is much harder to heal while in the city. On the other hand, the longer you stay, the more victory points you earn. So it’s a choice. Do you risk health to kill others, or do you yield Tokyo and play it safe? You’ll find your answer to these questions shifting as the number of players dwindles.

Because King of Tokyo offers multiple paths to success, it’s best to decide early on how you want to play. The game utilizes a three-roll dice mechanic similar to Yahtzee, which allows you to favor certain playing styles over others. You can be aggressive, you can focus only on gaining victory points, or you can earn currency to buy cards that give you special powers (some of which are devastating). But again, you may have to shift your strategy as other players die.

That leads to some things about the game that I don’t love. Just speaking generally, I’m not a fan of games where players are knocked out before the end, forcing them to make small talk or whatever until a new game begins. I understand that’s the nature of a battle royale game like this, so this is more a matter of personal preference than an actual demerit. I also don't like going too nuts with dice, and this game has up to eight.

King of Tokyo’s bigger problem, however, is its lack of thematic depth. The entire kaiju premise of the game doesn’t go far enough beneath the surface. The cards are cool, but also quite general. Nothing individualizes the various kaiju you choose, so picking one is merely a matter of whichever you think looks coolest. I played the basic game, so perhaps its various expansions and different versions address this, but I keep longing for the characters to be more than just nice art design.

Then again, perhaps that is what makes King of Tokyo so accessible. The added strategy of character powers might automatically kick it into a higher tier of complexity that turns some casual gamers away. Fair enough, but it is one element that makes me consider looking past King of Tokyo when picking a game to play. I love giant monsters, but the excitement of playing as different battling kaiju is tempered somewhat when they’re all functionally identical.

Putting that aside, the game is still a great time. It says it can play 2-6 players, but I’ve found its balance works best at 4-6. The fact that your Tokyo attacks hit everyone matters less when there’s only one or two other players, and vice versa. Of course, you’ll have to contend with that as players decrease anyway, but it’s more fun to start the game with as many players as possible. On top of that, if you like the game there are a lot of options on the market for going further down the King of Tokyo rabbit hole (one of them might even include a giant rabbit).

If you're looking for something fun and simple that catches the eye but can also be played with folks who may not have much board game experience. King of Tokyo is definitely a solid option. If you want anything more than that, I would consider looking elsewhere. There are just so many games that check these particular boxes, and as fun as it is, this one doesn't rise too far above the middle ground.