Friday, September 30, 2016

GJJG Game Reviews - Monkey - by Birdlight Games

Designer: Rob Gosselin
Publisher: Birdlight Games
(via The Game Crafter)
GJJG Game Reviews - Monkey - by Birdlight Games

I play a lot of games with my family. I have two sons, seven and almost ten, that love playing games.  They play everything from Catan to Caverna, Dominion to Pokémon, Splendor to Takenoko, Ticket to Ride to Terra Mystica.  They especially like fast, funny, casual games though.  So I'm always on the lookout for good family style casual games.  When I was asked to review Monkey I thought it looked like a game my sons would enjoy, so I said sure!

Monkey is a very light card game for one to four players where you are a no key doing what monkeys do best: climb trees!  But watch out while you are climbing because the evil wizard, Kurgill, is going to do his best to make sure you don't climb the the by casting spells to hinder your progress.

Monkey will be available from The Game Crafter for $29 CAD (about $22.75 USD) in November, and there are currently no other plans to produce the game through any other means, nor to Kickstarter a non-print on demand version.  You can preorder a copy of Monkey from

Game Overview:
Monkey is a very simple card game where the object is to be the first monkey to climb all the way to the top of the tree.  Along the way though, you'll encounter spells cast by the evil wizard, Kurgill.  He'll be sending all sorts of things your way, from bananas to anvils, boxing gloves to slides, fairies to gnomes!  Some will help you out, and some will slow your progress.  The first to climb the tree, complete the treetop challenge, and bypass Kurgill's traps will be the winner.

There are three main types of cards in the game (plus a few others used in variants).  Each player will have their own monkey card.  Then there are Spell Cards and Tree Cards.  To set up the game each player is given a monkey and the Spell and Tree cards are shuffled into separate decks.  Four Tree cards are laid out, face down, in a vertical line to form the Tree Trunk and then three more are placed horizontally along the top to form the Tree Top.  Then each player is dealt three Tree Cards and the game is ready to begin.
All set up for a two player game.  Three and four player games are set up exactly
the same way, but with more monkeys trying to climb the tree.
Each player starts with their monkey card at the lowest level of the tree.  On your turn you can do a few things.  The first thing you always do is draw a Tree card and add it to your hand.  Next you'll draw a Spell card and resolve it.  Finally, assuming the Spell didn't end your turn, you'll have an opportunity to take two actions: place a monkey trap, place a tree trap, attempt to climb the tree, or attempt the treetop challenge.
Eight different Spell cards can help you out or wreak havoc.  Usually they'll wreak havoc.
Tree cards are simply colored numbers (red, green, blue, yellow, black, and rainbow), ranging in value from 1-10, 15, and 20.  Only the 20s are rainbow colored and they act as a kind of wild color when matching colors.  There are eight different Spell cards that have different effects, ranging from giving you an extra card, to letting you 'axe' a card from the tree and replace it with another card, to causing a battle between all the monkeys, to knocking monkeys down a level.  There is also the Gnome, which knocks you down a level and causes you to skip the rest of your turn and receive two traps (more on traps in a bit).

The main action you'll be taking is to attempt to climb the tree.  To do that you'll flip over the Tree card at the level your monkey is at.  Then you'll have to reveal cards from your hand that sum up to a value greater than the Tree card you are trying to climb.  But there's a catch.  If the Tree card is colored you have to use cards that are a different color.  But if the Tree card is black you must use black cards.  If you can beat the Tree card you discard the cards you used and advance to the next level.  If you can't beat the Tree card you just fall one level on the tree.  Then the Tree card is flipped face down again and everyone can try to remember what it was so they have a better chance at climbing it.  There is one more catch though.  If the Tree or Monkey have one or more Traps attached to them, they must be able to beat the trap as well in order to advance up the tree (although they don't fall if they can climb the tree, but fail at the traps).
These are the Tree Cards that I'll be able to use to climb the tree.
Traps can be added to either a specific location on the tree, or to a particular Monkey either when they encounter the Gnome, or when another player places Traps as one of their actions.  A Trap is a face-down Tree card that has been added to either the Tree or a Monkey.  To resolve a Trap, after a successful attempt to climb a level of the tree, Trap cards are revealed one at a time.  If the number on the Trap card matches any of the numbers used to climb the tree the trap is sprung and the Monkey does not advance (and no more Traps are revealed).  If all the Traps are avoided the climb is successful.  Regardless, all revealed Traps are discarded.
Watch out for that gnome.  He'll knock you down a level, cause you to miss your turn, and drop two traps on you!
Once a Monkey reaches the Treetop, on that player's turn they can use both of their actions to attempt the Treetop Challenge.  To complete the Treetop Challenge the player must be able to beat all three of the Treetop cards in a single turn.  A failure means the Monkey falls one level, and a success means the player has to avoid two random Wizard Traps (drawn from the top of the Tree Card deck).  If the player is able to complete that, they win!

Components & Packaging:
Monkey is produced by The Game Crafter.  Now, I love The Game Crafter.  They do a really great job of producing a wide variety of decent quality components... for prototypes.  The Game Crafter primarily does Print on Demand games, which means they have standardized sets of components and do digital printing at lower quality than a dedicated print manufacturing facility.  Everything that comes from The Game Crafter is playable and the print quality is much better than most people can do on their own, but everything is definitely a lower quality than a mass manufactured game.  Cards, tokens, the box, even the rules are of lower quality than what you would get from an actual manufacturer.
The Game Crafter components look nice, but they're much lower quality
than you'd expect from a published game.
The other downside to using The Game Crafter is the cost.  Since their services are used primarily for low number print runs of mostly prototypes, the costs are much higher.  Generally the manufacturing cost of a game produced by The Game Crafter is many times the manufacturing cost of a mass produced game.  But the benefit is the ability to create games at very low print runs (as few as one game at a time in some cases).

So there are definitely trade-offs to using The Game Crafter to produce a game - high unit cost and lower quality components for lower print runs and faster turnaround time (you can get a game from The Game Crafter in a couple of weeks, as opposed to several months from a game manufacturer).

That said, while I love The Game Crafter for prototypes, it just doesn't cut it for a retail game.  And unfortunately The Game Crafter is the retail route that Birdlight Games has chosen to release Monkey through.  So, while functional, the quality of the components and packaging feels like a nice prototype rather than a finished game.
The component quality is functional, but it definitely won't 'wow' you.  The artwork is nice though!
The artwork, on the other hand, is quite nice, and functional for the game.  The Tree cards are very simple, just colored numbers, but the characters and objects on the Spell Cards, Monkey, and Wizard cards (which are used in variants) is very family friendly and nice.  The artwork won't be winning any awards, but it looks good and fits well with the style of game.  Only one thing would be nice, and that would be to have a short bit of text on the Spell cards to remind players what each Spell does.

Score: 4/10 x1

Rules & Setup:
The rules are very well laid out and setup is a snap.  The game is pretty simple, so it doesn't take long to explain how to play at all.  The game can be setup in about two minutes and then explained in about five.  Even the included variants are pretty simple.  The only small issue with the rules is that they are the only place the Spell cards are explained.  The section of the rules that explains them is fine, but it would be nice if the effects were on the cards themselves, or on reference cards.

There are also a few variants, including solo play, a version where each player has their own tree, and a version where Kurgill plays as an AI opponent against everyone.  Each of these adds just a little more to the game and is clearly explained and easy to learn.
These cards are used in the Krazy Kurgz variant.
Score: 9/10 x2

Monkey is a very simple game.  And it relies very heavily on luck.  There is a memory aspect to the game, but it's not a big challenge to remember what the previously revealed cards are.  There is a tiny bit of strategy in deciding whether to climb the tree or trap opponents, but I found that trying to plan ahead is mostly a waste of time.  There are too many random effects (spells, traps, wizard traps) that can completely destroy even the best laid plans.  The only real strategy is trying to build up a big enough hand with higher numbers so that you can easily conquer the Treetop Challenge.

That said, my sons absolutely loved the game.  They didn't mind the randomness at all and, in fact, loved the chaos that ensued.  They also liked that the monkey cards weren't critical to the game because it game them the opportunity to use Star Wars trading cards instead of monkeys.
Apparently Stormtroopers can climb trees, too!

So, while the very simple, random gameplay isn't really my cup of tea, this could make for a fun family game.

Score: 5/10 x3

Replayability really depends on the audience.  My sons would gladly play this several times in a row.  I, on the other hand, found it a bit tedious after the third game with them.  There are a few variants included in the rules, including solo play, to those allow for some slightly different feels for the game, which increases replayability somewhat.  Honestly, this isn't a game that I would pull out on my own., but if my sons or someone else wanted to play I also wouldn't say no.
There are enough choices each turn to keep the kids entertained, but the inability
to form any meaningful strategy because of the randomness inherent in the game will
limit the replayability for any serious gamers.
Score: 5/10 x1

General Fun:
The chaotic randomness of the game was fun, if a bit frustrating at times.  I usually like games where there is some strategy and planning involved and there's almost none of that in Monkey.  Monkey is totally about experiencing the game as it happens to you, allowing for very few critical decisions in the game.  But, like I said earlier, my sons loved playing the game, and I think anyone looking for a super casual family game will find something to enjoy here.
It's fun for families!
Score: 5/10 x2

Overall Value:
Monkey will be available through The Game Crafter (or through the Birdlight Games website) for $29.99 CAD (that's about $22.75 USD).  You can also get a cheaper version in a tuck box for just $19.99 CAD (a bit over $15 USD).  Monkey isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea, but if you're looking for a casual, fast, family game, this will fit the bill for a fairly reasonable price.  You're not going to break the bank on this, but you're also not going to get a ton of game out of it either.

Score: 7/10 x1

Final Thoughts:
Monkey is one of those games that you really need the right players for.  It's not going to appeal to hard core gamers, but it will entertain very casual gamers and families.  Personally I prefer meatier games than this, and I really love games that hit the sweet spot between being simple enough for casual and non-gamers (and families) yet deep enough to provide a wealth of strategic choice for the more experienced gamer.  Unfortunately Monkey doesn't walk that line, but it is solidly in the casual game category.  The mechanics are solid, the rules are simple, gameplay was fun (especially for my kids), and the artwork is entertaining.  So the game hits on every key aspect of a good family game.
Two monkeys in the treetop!  Who will complete the Treetop Challenge and avoid Kurgill's traps first?
So, if this sounds like something your family would enjoy, be sure to check out Monkey at the Birdlight Games webpage and pre-order your game today!

Overall Score: 59/100

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GJJG Game Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with my family and friends.  Some of these games I own, some are owned by friends, some are borrowed, and some are print and play versions of games.  Where applicable I will indicate if games have been played with kids or adults or a mix (Family Play).  I won't go into extensive detail about how to play the game (there are plenty of other sources for that information and I'll occasionally link to those other sources), but I will give my impressions of the game and how my friends and family reacted to the game.  A score of 1-10 (low-high) is given to each game in six categories: Components & Packaging, Rules & Setup, Gameplay, Replayability, Overall Value, and General Fun.  Rules & Setup and General Fun are weighted double and Gameplay is weighted triple.  Educational games have an extra category and Gameplay is only weighted double. Then the game is given a total score of x/100.

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