Richard Garfield's boardgame King of Tokyo had sold 750,000 copies even before its second edition was released in 2016. This episode looks at what made this classic dice-rolling game a hit, and and what brings players coming back.
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For many boardgamers, King of Tokyo needs no introduction. Richard Garfield’s monster-themed dice rolling game first appeared in 2011, hopped up on gamma radiation and spoiling for a fight. Since then, everything done to try to stop its rampage has only made it stronger. Now, King of Tokyo towers over lesser gateway games, roaring in triumph as it continues to secure new fans. Like the special effects in a Godzilla movie, it’s not particularly sophisticated but it never fails to get the job done.
As the boardgame boom continues, many thousands of new games have been released even since the second edition of King of Tokyo hit the shelves in 2016. However, the game continues to hold a special appeal. Refreshed by a number of expansions and the continual influx of new converts to the gaming hobby - for whom the game serves as an ideal introduction - its reign goes on. But what are the special ingredients that help this humble dice game mutate into such a resilient beast?
For those unfamiliar with the game, a brief overview. King of Tokyo is a dice-based game for two to six players. Each player controls a giant monster rampaging through Tokyo, and vying to become the undisputed master of the city. There are two ways to do this: a monster can either be the first to reach 20 victory points, or they can reduce all of their opponents’ health to zero, and be the last monster standing in the city’s smoking ruins. A small board for each player tracks victory points and health for their monster, which start at zero and ten respectively.
The custom dice have six unique faces. Three of these are simply marked one, two and three - combining three matching faces earns the player the corresponding number of points. Claws or “smashes” deal damage to one or more opponents. Hearts restore health, and energy can be spent on special power cards as the last step in a player’s turn. These provide one-off or permanent bonuses in the form of mutations to a monster, such as a spiked tail (enabling greater damage to be dealt), a psychic probe (which can be used to force others to re-roll a die), or even an extra head (enabling the use of an extra die). As in the perennial dice game Yahtzee, following their initial roll a player can re-roll any of their dice up to two further times in pursuit of the best-possible combination.
Depending on the number of surviving monsters, one or two players are present in Tokyo at any one time. Entering Tokyo is worth one point; remaining there for a whole round a further two points. Damage is dealt to monsters which are not in the same location as the damage-dealing player. While this means that a player controlling Tokyo can damage every other player simultaneously, they can also be hit by every other player. Worse, monsters in Tokyo can’t heal using any hearts they roll. This makes the decision about whether to enter or remain in the city is crucial. As they say, it’s not easy bein’ green, a hundred stories tall, and under attack.
The simplicity of the gameplay of King of Tokyo - easy to teach, easy to learn - is one of the most obvious reasons for its success. Another one is the game’s fun theme. The chance to take on the role of a 200-ft rampaging monster, alien or mythological figure is hard to turn down. The game takes its cues from a number of American and Japanese monster movies, most obviously King Kong (1933) and Godzilla (1954). These iconic characters each have direct equivalents in the base game.
While the board isn’t much to look at - it’s a minor component compared with most boardgames - the art on the cards and monsters is excellent, particularly in the 2016 edition. The bright, breezy artwork fits the outsized theme perfectly and the cards in particular fit strongly with the game’s theme - it makes sense that defeating a group of jet fighters would cost a monster health, but also bring them some points in their quest for glory.
One weakness of the base game is that as nicely illustrated as the monsters are, their personalities aren’t reflected in the gameplay. Deciding between Gigazaur and Mecha-Dragon, for example, is a purely aesthetic choice with no impact on a player’s strategy. Richard Garfield and his publisher, Iello, radically changed this with the release of the first King of Tokyo expansion: Power Up!
While the expansion does have the potential to extend a game that should ideally be quick to play, it is a jolt of energy and personality into King of Tokyo. Like one of Godzilla’s eggs, Power Up! comes in a small package but has massive implications. It contains a set of “mutation” cards for each of the monsters in the base game, as well as for a new monster provided alongside them, Pandakai. These mutations come in one-shot and permanent varieties, and can be earned by players throughout the game by rolling three hearts on their turn.
Crucially, the mutations are unique to each monster - suddenly, monster choice is a big deal. Each creature takes on a specific personality, strengths, and weaknesses. The King (the game’s unsubtle nod to King Kong) revolves around a fanatical obsession with being in Tokyo and can acquire multiple ways to earn extra points there. Alienoid, the space-suited extraterrestrial character, can earn energy and buy power cards more easily than its rivals. Mecha-Dragon always looked like a machine built purely for battle, but now plays like one too - with new methods to deal massive damage to its enemies
The Power Up! expansion augments the way that King of Tokyo plays so effectively that further expansions were an inevitability - good sales can’t have hurt, either. The second expansion, Halloween, was a relatively minor seasonal affair which added two spooky monsters and a number of new power cards. However, 2019 saw the release of no less than four small “monster packs”, which would shake things up more than ever.
Each monster pack contains a new monster - naturally - with matching power cards, so that it has a distinctive play style right out of the box. More significantly, each pack also offers a special new gameplay mechanic which affects all players when in use. For example, the avenging ancient Egyptian god Anubis is supplied with a “curse deck”. The top card at any one time acts as a special, supplementary rule which warps the gameplay in some way, and encourages players to switch up their tactics. It interacts with a pyramid-shaped die, the “die of fate” and with a special golden scarab card which affords a bonus to whichever player possesses it.
Meanwhile, the brilliantly-named Cybertooth comes with a different gameplay addition altogether. When playing with this expansion, rolling four claws gives a player the chance to roll a special “berserk die”. This can result in gaining energy or dealing damage extremely quickly, but can backfire and damage the player. Also appearing in the packs are Cthulhu and King Kong himself - for real this time.
What makes the King of Tokyo expansions special is that they are modular. Every expansion so far released is inter-operable. This means that theoretically, every expansion so far released could be played at the same time. This dizzying combination of rules would be very difficult to keep up with and probably quite time-consuming, but the thought that it’s possible is a pleasure in itself.
With expansions or without, King of Tokyo is an experience that has kept players coming back time and again over the years. There are many games that are deeper, more complex, with more challenging decisions - but the simplicity of King of Tokyo makes it a great counterpart to these games. It makes for an ideal way to start or end a night of games, even with more experienced players. It has a charm and immediacy that can be appreciated by people who are new to the hobby. When it comes down to it, maybe there’s just a part of everyone that wants to be a giant monster terrorising a city - and for that, King of Tokyo is always on hand.