As you probably know, Mondo and Birth.Movies.Death. are both under the general Alamo Drafthouse umbrella. Because of that, I’m going to try to make this review far more focused on simple description than opinion. I personally find the game pretty fun, but think of this more as a guide for what Video Vortex has to offer.
So let’s say you’re at your local board game cafe, trying to figure out what to try. Video Vortex’s cover art is very likely to catch your eye. When you inevitably pick it up to check out the back, you’ll notice the surprising heft its medium-sized box has, an early indicator of how packed this game is. Video Vortex isn’t overly loaded like some kind of crazy Kickstarter game, but it takes a snug fit to get all its elements into the box.
This is a game primarily driven by aesthetic and theme. Your first clue comes when flipping through the manual and realizing a third of it is narrative backstory. I’ll do my best to sum it all up. Human society has been wiped away by an apocalypse. The remaining humans piece together their understanding of human culture with the discovery of a video store, which offers a glimpse of what life was like before the apocalypse. This causes groups to divide into different sects defined by different movie genres, which evolve over generations and get increasingly bizarre. And then, I dunno, the various groups come together and everyone fights.
Wait, I can sum it all up even simpler than that - Video Vortex is aesthetically Mad Max at a video store. Every corner of it reflects this theme, from the art to the components to the hilarious video card titles you will use to destroy your opponents.
Put aesthetics aside, and you have a highly creative deck builder. If you don’t know what that means, let me pretend to have that information. With deck building games, you have your own pile of cards from which you continuously draw new hands. You want your stack to have a high concentration of ass-kicking cards, while your opponents, and sometimes the game itself, will conspire to throw a bunch of near-useless crap in there to dilute your ability to do fun stuff. These games are about discarding garbage and using what you do have to create crazy combinations during your turn. I also find the words “draw” and “discard” confusing during these games because they mean slightly different things than normal, due to your two different card sources - the center deck that feeds everyone and your private deck you build through the entire game.
Deck building games can be fun if you are good at them. I am not good at them. Or, I’m not good at them yet. Take Video Vortex as an example. I’ve never even come close to winning the game, and that’s even with almost exclusively playing first-timers. One of these days I’ll learn how to concentrate on the right things when building my deck, but it is not this day.
Part of my problem when playing Video Vortex specifically has stemmed from picking the wrong character. There are twelve in total, which feels like a lot. Each have their own superpowers - a low level one and a more expensive one that you often have to save up for. While checking out their stat cards, you’ll notice they each have a complexity ranking from low to medium to high. Some even get their own special cards in addition to the four-character specific cards everyone starts out with. My problem is I keep trying to get cute by picking high-complexity ones I don’t quite understand until the game is almost over. I honestly haven’t played enough to claim total balance across the twelve characters. I can say, however, that each are very different and once I find the one that truly fits my playing style, all you assholes better watch out because I might finally get good at this game. On your first couple plays, I highly recommend sticking with a low-complexity character to get a feel for this game’s complicated offensive and defensive mechanics.
As for those, each player has a VHS reel that tracks health. Everyone also starts the game with three trophies - blue, red and green. If you die, your killer can claim one of your trophies. Whoever gets all three different-colored trophies first wins the game. So dying doesn’t mean you have to stop playing, which is always nice.
When it is your turn, you can only attack one person. If you kill them and still have pain to inflict, you can at that point switch to hurting another player, but then you will be committed to hurting that person throughout the remainder of your turn. You can’t just spread your offensive all over the place willy-nilly. If you could, this game would take forever.
This question of who you want to attack is where Video Vortex truly shines, particularly when playing with three or four players. If you chip away at someone’s health, you better kill them because otherwise you just set up the next player to take them out with one card. If you pick on one person, you may create a rivalry you’ll regret. Maybe someone is all primed to be taken out but doesn’t possess the one trophy you need to win the game. The Video Vortex gaming table becomes a cool web of intrigue as the game continues. The whole thing is quite a bit different with just two players, much more direct, to the extent that it almost feels like a different game. This is one where the more players you have, the better.
And once everyone is comfortable with how to play it, you can easily play multiple games in a night. This is especially good news given the high number of extremely different characters to try out.
Rounds are a lot of fun simply because of all the hurt you can inflict (if you play your cards right, or have the right cards to play). The game works with three currencies - energy, which lets you play cards you have; charge, which pays for your character’s super powers; and regular old money, which you use to obtain new cards. As long as you have some of this to spend, your turn keeps going. Sometimes, that can be quite a while, which feels pretty good. To you. Not to anyone else at the table, unless someone you really have it in for is getting their ass handed to them.
By now, you should know a Mondo game is going to look great and sport high quality physical components. With Video Vortex, they now have an entry in the deck building genre that takes full advantage of everyone’s VHS nostalgia, which helps it feel unique. If you see it out in the wild, definitely give it a whirl.