I’ve been a fan of director John Carpenter since I first saw Dark Star, a comedy science fiction film which he made with Dan O’Bannon in 1974. John Carpenter has returned several times to science fiction and he is at his best with horror. Although the existential threat in Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) is drugged up gang members rather than zombies, the film is for all practical purposes a zombie film and, as such, it is among the best of the genre. Dark Star aside, I never felt John Carpenter was quite as comfortable making comedies. For that reason, Big Trouble in Little China was not, in my view, one of Carpenter’s best. I am evidently in a minority, however. With Kurt Russell taking the lead as bluff, insanely confident truck driver Jack Burton, Big Trouble in Little China flopped on its original cinema release but soon won status as a cult classic. Think of it as a low budget pantomime martial arts answer to the Indiana Jones franchise.
It’s more than 30 years since Big Trouble in Little China first hit the screens, so a big box board game version of the story has taken its time to come to fruition. Because of the film’s cult status, this isn’t, however, the first attempt to mirror the movie in game form. Warp Spawn Games produced Big Trouble in Little China Skirmish in 2004 but this was a rather abstract card-driven combat game. The movie was perhaps better reflected in Legendary: Big Trouble in Little China, published by Upper Deck in 2016. This has a closer affinity to the source material but it remains much closer in feel to the other Legendary deck building games than to the movie.
By contrast, this game from Everything Epic is a lovingly produced transfer of pretty much every aspect of the original film into a very playable board game where fans of the movie always feel at home. Big Trouble in Little China: The Game is designed by Christopher Batarlis, Boris Polonsky and Jim Samartino. Like the Legendary game, Big Trouble in Little China: The Game uses painted art (in this case by Henning Ludvigsen and Boris Polonsky) rather than images from the movie, but the representations are so good that you are barely aware that you aren’t looking at movie stills.
Big Trouble in Little China: The Game comes in a big box. It needs to. There are big boards and a lot of components. And of course there are plastic minis… These represent the main characters and the various human and non-human enemies encountered in the film and in the game, and they’re good quality. There’s a ton of custom dice. For me, the one negative on the components is the use of pegboards to record characters’ health and progress towards a level up. I’m not a fan of peg boards because they have a tendency to show wear. Big Trouble in Little China: The Game is pricey but, my caveat about peg boards aside, you can see that you get a lot for your money.
This is a fully co-operative game where characters are moving around the board and battling enemies, all leading up, as in the film, to a final confrontation with David Lo Pan – the big boss. The characters all play very differently because each character board is unique with its own particular mixes of abilities and different defence capabilities. Characters’ various special abilities are very different indeed. It’s a big plus for this game that all of the enemies you come up against also play slightly differently to one another; so you need to vary your strategy and collectively deploy your team of heroes with care to stand the best chance of success.
The large playing board is double sided. The layout on one side represents ‘Act 1’ and the board is flipped at the end of Act 1 for the Act 2 second half. In Act 1, players’ characters are chasing round Chinatown fulfilling quests and battling street gang members with the aim of earning the ‘chi’ points needed to level up. You need to do this because in Act 2 you’ll be going head to head with the Big Boss, David Lo Pan and his most powerful minions. Levelling up increases characters’ special abilities.
In Act 1, random event cards affect the set up for each round. These will force players to alter their strategy and game play. Just to keep players on their toes, the event cards also specify enemy spawn locations. Act 1 runs until the end is reached on either the Big Trouble (Lo Pan’s) track or the heroes’ Audacity track; so you can expect to get in about 10 turns each during the course of this phase of the game. That won’t give you time to explore the entire board: you’ll need to play this game several times before you get to sample all that it offers: so plenty of incentive for multiple replays. The precise set up for Act 2 is predicated on how each character did during the course of Act 1: it differs depending on whether each character succeeded or failed on their primary quest.
Big Trouble in Little China is scalable, in that effects and the number of enemies that spawn are varied to reflect the number of players and the difficulty level at which you want to play the game. If you find the game too easy playing solitaire or with two players, the co-operative nature of the game makes it a doddle to just give each player two characters to control and ramp the difficulty up to that for a four-player game.
Game play in Big Trouble in Little China involves dice allocation but completing quests will send players into a Quest Book which tells you what skill checks you need to pass and what else you need to accomplish. This is rather like a coded story chapter book such as you might typically find in a story game like Z-Man Games’ Tales of the Arabian Nights. Part of the joy of play is the Quest Book’s surprise revelations so I’ll say nothing more about it so as to avoid any Spoilers...
There are dozens of custom six-sided dice in this game and you’ll be doing a lot of dice rolling. That inevitably means that Big Trouble in Little China is a game where luck plays its part, but that somehow feels only right and proper given the game’s mystical magical theme.
If you are one of the movie’s many lovers, the title itself was probably enough to get you ordering the game. You won’t be disappointed. You’ll get an extra kick out of playing Jack Burton, Wang Chi, Gracie Law, Egg Shen et al, and you’ll appreciate the labour of love that this game obviously represents. And, faithful as this game is to its source material, there’s a lot of replayability. Each play of the game is likely to take you down different paths as you explore locations in Chinatown that you passed by on your previous journey through Act 1. And there is already a sequel in The Legacy of Lo Pan. Far too long has passed for there to be any prospect of reassembling the cast for a movie sequel but Everything Epic hasn't allowed that to stand in the way of a game expansion.
The big question is, is this a game that you can enjoy if you’ve never seen the movie or if the movie leaves you cold? As I said at the outset, despite its cult status, Big Trouble in Little China is probably my least favourite John Carpenter film. That means I’m pretty well placed to give a view of the game from the perspective of someone who isn’t in love with the movie… In my view, it’s a very good game – indeed, for me, the game is better than the film. I’d certainly rather spend two hours playing this game than watching the movie. Though you need to have seen the movie to appreciate some of the references on the cards (for example, the jokey names of some of the quests), you really don’t need to have seen the movie to play the game. Players who come fresh to the Big Trouble in Little China game without having seen the film are at no great disadvantage, even when playing alongside dedicated fans who know the film so well that they can recite every line. When you think of it, that’s quite an epic achievement for Everything Epic. If you like co-operative games like FFG's Arkham Horror, then Big Trouble in Little China: The Game is definitely one to check out.
(Review by Selwyn Ward)