Every now and then a game manages to push all the right buttons. With Boss Monster, those buttons just happen to be up-down-up-down-left-right-left-right-A-B-B-A, because this tabletop card game is an invincible blend of dungeon-building, attack your neighbor hijinx, and 8-bit nostalgia.
Boss Monster, by Brotherwise Games (which is actually two brothers, Johnny and Chris O'Neil), puts each player into the role of the monster at the end of your typical video game level. Heroes are lining up at the local tavern to come attack you, so your job is to build out your dungeon until it's a hero-gnawing engine of death. If you don't, the heroes will navigate through the dungeon and wound you. The winner is the first player to kill ten heroes, but if you're wounded five times, you're out of the game.
Each turn, heroes file out of the hero deck into the tavern. Then the players add a room card to their dungeons. This is a fairly straightforward process – there are monster rooms and trap rooms, and then there are advanced monster and trap rooms that get played later, on top of an existing room. Your dungeon is a linear place, but you can play new rooms on top of old rooms, and when the newer room gets destroyed, the old room beneath is revealed and becomes part of the dungeon again. There are some clever combos that let you get benefits from destroying your own rooms while setting up new room combos below. Sometimes room placement matters, and you can often gain benefits from manipulating which specific room a hero dies in. There's really an amazing amount of depth in a seemingly simple game mechanic.
As a hero passes through your dungeon, he or she takes damage in each room. Heroes have hit points, and if they make it through the final room of your dungeon without losing all their hit points, they'll wound you. In the late game, Epic Heroes show up. They have many more hit points and deal two wounds (but are worth two "souls" toward victory).
Dungeon rooms also have treasure types in them, each of which attracts a certain type of hero. So for instance, if a bunch of wizards show up in the tavern and your dungeon has the most book treasure icons, all those wizards are coming at you. Early in the game, when your dungeon is a work in progress, this can be terrible. Later the game becomes something of a competition among the players to attract the most heroes (inevitably doomed, the lot of them).
To keep things interesting, there are also spell cards. These are action cards that let you boost your own dungeon at a crucial moment, recover discarded cards or destroyed rooms, or most importantly, screw with your opponents. You can deactivate their dungeon rooms, make the heroes they're fighting get tougher, or make them discard cards. There's no honor among boss monsters.
Speaking of boss monsters, each one has a special level up ability. When you hit five rooms, the max for your dungeon (you can continue to build on top of existing rooms at that point), your boss monster's ability triggers.This might let you play an advanced room, recover two cards from the discard, or some other beneficial effect.
All this makes for a great game, but on top of that, Boss Monster nails the Nintendo video game aesthetic perfectly. As your dungeon grows, it looks in every way like a lost level from Castlevania or Ghosts n Goblins, or a dungeon from Zelda 2. I'm not particularly nostalgic for those old games, despite playing them to death at the time, but even I dug up a collection of classic video game music to listen to while we play. And we've played this game a ton in just a few weeks, with both our serious gamer friends and gaming newbies (everyone in my age group has a little of that Nintendo nostalgia). It works fine with two players, and scales up to four very nicely.
An expansion pack, Tools of the Hero Kind, adds magic items to the heroes' arsenal, giving them special abilities that can wreak havoc on your carefully planned dungeon. But if you kill a hero holding an item, you can then use that item's special ability against your foes. I personally would love to see a new batch of heroes with built-in special abilities, but the items definitely add some fun variation to the game.
Boss Monster 2 is already in the works, with an estimated release in the 1st quarter of 2015. In the meantime, Brotherwise is Kickstarting an Android/iOS version of Boss Monster.