Review: Attack of the Jelly Monster

Attack of the Jelly Monster is a hybrid physical/tactical game where you compete to control sectors and harvest the most jelly. It plays like a cross between a worker placement area control game (like Smash Up) and a reflex game (like Snap). On one hand, you try to calculate where best to deploy your limited forces to best effect, taking into consideration the moves other players might make. On the other, you slap down dice in a chaotic melee, hoping that something good will come of it. This mix of cerebral and reflex elements is rare and usually lends itself nicely to a comedy theme. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t quite meet the challenge of the innovative idea and ends up being neither a great strategy game nor a great reflex game.

• Designer: Antonin Boccara
• Publisher: Libellud
• Number of Players: 3 to 5
• Playing Time: 20 mins

The AotJM board is divided into a city centre and a series of surrounding districts. The terrain is modular and scales with player count. Each district has three possible scoring values, determined by the location of the scoring marker. Whoever has the highest total value of dice on wins that sector for the round. But be careful, as duplicate dice from the same player will cancel each other out; a two and a three is worth five, but two threes are worth zero.

Each round begins with players rolling their dice, which they can place on any sector they want, one at a time. Dice have strength based on their numerical values, so higher numbers help control sectors, but lower value dice also have additional powers. Ones and twos let you move an already played die from that sector to the city centre. Threes and fours let you change the scoring marker by one space, changing the value of the district. Fives and sixes have no powers but are useful as high numbers. Dice that get booted from their sectors are placed in the middle sector, and whichever player controls that sector wins a randomized jelly tile. Once any player has placed all their dice, they can place a sector on lockdown, preventing any further play in that sector. In addition, a short-timer starts after the first player runs out of dice, leading to a mad scramble to finish placement.

The key to AotJM is the turn-less anarchy: anyone can place a die on the board at any time. While it is important to think hard to find opportunities, players must also be ready to react quickly. The tempo of the game adjusts unexpectedly in response to player behavior, creating another tactical dimension. Players can end around by quickly placing their dice, locking down a crucial sector and giving their opponents little time to find counter-play. Alternatively, players can hang back and wait for players to commit, then pounce after they’ve revealed their strategy. The no-turns mechanic has enormous design potential. Galaxy Trucker took some small steps into this space to great effect, but Attack of the Jelly Monster embraces it fully. Since there is also no restriction on multiple players placing dice at the same time, there will be many players scrambling to place dice around the board at any time. This adds a chaotic physicality to the game, which can be fun.

Sadly, the game doesn’t live up to the potential of its innovations, and I blame this on mismatched design decisions. The components are not well designed to cope with the chaos, and neither are the mechanics. Placing a die has consequences that (according to the rules) need to go sequentially. If one player puts a three or a four down, and needs to move the scoring track, but another player is trying to place a one or a two and needs to remove a die, while a third player is trying to place their last die and lock down a sector, it is potentially game-deciding what order this happens in, but in practice, it is frequently unclear. This can be entertaining once or twice, but if the rules break down often enough, it ceases to be a game at all.  Worse, the jostling created by multiple people trying to adjust the board at the same time creates its own chaos. Things get forgotten – Did I forget to move that track, or did someone else move it back? Was that die here, or there, or did it get moved, or…? Pieces also get jostled out of place. Taking the time to fix errors is both a tactical disadvantage and one more cause of chaos.

Thematically, AotJM drips with sticky promise. Whenever I suggested this game to testing groups, they immediately wanted to play just because the name is so compelling. But the game doesn’t follow through – wherefore Attack of the Jelly Monster? There is no attack, and more importantly, THERE IS NO JELLY MONSTER. This seems like a rather serious omission, to say the least. There is jelly, but only to keep track of the score. My hunch is that someone came up with a cool sounding name, slapped it on the game, and tried to figure out the details later. Whatever happened, it doesn’t work.

Fun, colourful visual design based around a neat title
Innovative combination of strategy and scramble
Doesn’t take itself too seriously
Board setup not robust to physical gameplay
Strategy gets a bit lost in the craziness
There is NO JELLY MONSTER!

I can’t take Attack of the Jelly Monster seriously as a strategy game, because the result is determined at least in part by the non-ludic randomness of dice and sliders flying every which way, but also found it hard to enjoy as a silly snap-like physical game because it’s just too fiddly. Perhaps with the right group, it could settle into a friendly play meta where everyone obeys some Marquis of Queensbury rules to calm the mad scramble. But I would only recommend this for players who like their games light-hearted, don’t mind a bit of physical mayhem, and aren’t particularly bothered about the fairness of who wins or loses. Plenty of gamers fit that bill, and maybe this is for them. For my tastes, though, this is mostly an interesting set of ideas about no-turns gaming, rather than a successful and replayable board game.

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