Publishers Cryptozoic seem to have developed a speciality of producing games based on movies and popular TV series. They have produced strongly themed games based on franchises as diverse as The Walking Dead and Rick & Morty; in both cases, they have published multiple games that tie in with the shows. Attack on Titan: The Last Stand is likewise based on a Japanese anime series, currently showing on Netflix. It is apparently very popular, although, in terms of recognition, it is hardly up there with Batman or Lord of the Rings.
I confess, I’d not previously heard of the anime series before I came across the Attack on Titan game. The good news there is that it means I came to the game unencumbered with any preconceptions. I have since sampled the TV series, but I came to this game fresh and judged it not as a merchandising tie in but as a game to stand or fall on its own two feet – which is as it should be.
So if I hadn’t heard of the anime series, what first attracted me to this game? Just one look at the components and the answer to that question is obvious. You only have to glance at the imposing 15-inch cardboard Titan figure to see what immediately stands out about this game. Is that a naked Iggy Pop singing into a microphone? A closer look dispels this initial assessment. The figure is actually a monster clutching a hapless human in his hand and about to swallow him as prey…
That encapsulates the theme of this game (and, it seems, the TV series). The Titans are powerful giants that rampage and feed on innocent people. The heroes (in the game, represented by ‘normal’ sized cardboard standees) are combatants facing off against the Titan and working co-operatively to kill it.
Attack on Titan is a game of kill or be killed
Attack on Titan: The Last Stand is an asymmetric game where one player controls the Titan and the others each control a hero. It notionally plays 2 to 5, although it is balanced best as a four-player game. The Titan has a deck of action cards from which he plays two each turn: one face up, one face down. He retrieves cards previously played but cannot play the same cards in consecutive rounds. The Titan wins the game if he destroys all six of the cannons which are mounted on the heroes’ platform, if he eats all 12 citizen tokens (these are the innocent bystanders) or if he kills any hero (ie: a hero loses all of their heart/health tokens). He wins if he achieves any one of these objectives.
The heroes’ sole objective is to kill the Titan. Heroes each roll a set of six-sided dice to determine the actions they can take (movement, attack or counter a Titan action). They can reroll as many times as they like but one in six of the die faces is a Titan: these cannot be rerolled but are instead handed to the Titan for his use. This means that, for the heroes, Attack on Titan is a push-your-luck game. In play, you have to balance your attempt to roll the dice you need for the actions you want to take against the increasing risk of losing more dice to the Titan. The actions that the Titan will be able to take using the dice he gets from hero rolls vary according to the starting choice made by the Titan but will typically enable the Titan to devour citizens, take a heart token from a hero of their choice, crush cannons or regenerate their own health.
It wouldn’t be much of a game if the Titans were easy to kill. They’re not. Heroes have to wear the Titan down till its health puts it in the kill zone and only then can they kill it by attacking it from specified levels. This means that heroes are having to move up and down platforms, including those on the Titan’s body so that they are in the correct positions to deliver the fatal blow. They also need to be on appropriate levels to take other actions specified on the heroes’ active tactics card in order to weaken the Titan or to regenerate the heroes’ own health.
Cat and mouse tactics
I almost always enjoy games involving asymmetric play, and Attack on Titan: The Last Stand is no exception. The rules could be clearer in places (you will find that some of the hero abilities, in particular, will give rise to queries that demand a ‘house rule’) but the game is otherwise quick to learn. Initially when playing the Titan it feels like you don’t have quite so much to do, but you get to select your two action cards from your deck and there is certainly scope for focusing your threat (for example, on chomping citizens). Several actions only apply when heroes are on certain levels, so the Titan player needs to plan accordingly. You will find that the choice of cards to play face down adds greatly to the tension of the game because the heroes are forced to make some of their push-your-luck decisions blind; again, this offers great scope for the Titan player to bluff and trick the heroes. If the heroes’ current tactics card only threatens the Titan when heroes are at a specified level, the Titan is likely particularly to want to focus his concealed action card on those levels…
Playing the heroes offers more dynamic choices, both over the extent to which you push your luck and risk giving away more dice to the Titan and over how best to deploy the dice you finally settle upon. To win, you need to make productive use of the tactics cards to weaken the Titan but you risk making your heroes an easy target if you don’t try to keep the Titan on his metaphorical toes by using your dice periodically to recycle the tactics cards. In play, we found it exciting to work together as the heroes to defeat the Titan before it succeeded in any its three alternative objectives, although I should warn that there is nothing in Attack on Titan to protect players from alpha player syndrome. In this game, the heroes all share open information so if you’ve someone in your group who tends to take control and boss others about in co-operative games, the game offers little to deter them. If you don’t want this to descend into a two-player game with observers merely moving the pieces as instructed, you’ll perhaps need to ensure that you allocate your bossy alpha player to the Titan role.
That concern aside, Attack on Titan is a tense game that plays surprisingly quickly. It says half an hour on the box, and that’s about right: within 30 minutes you’ll either have toppled the Titan or you’ll have been stomped and chomped to death. For much of the game, you’ll feel on a knife edge, and there’ll be some cat and mouse elements as heroes duck into and out of levels that put them at risk. I’m not suggesting you’ll be at the edge of your seat for the whole time, but you should feel the pressure and tension during the course of the game.
Is Attack on Titan a game we’ll be playing again and again?
So how does the game compare to the anime series? Well, after I’d played the game I thought I’d take a peek at the source material. It’s quite a dark series, apparently based on a manga comic. Though the main protagonists are children rebelling against humanity being treated by the Titans as cattle, this is really not a cartoon aimed at children. Key point tho’ is that the game would seem to capture the anime series rather well – both in terms of theme and gameplay. I got an extra kick out of revisiting the game having watched the anime; not least because the characters were now people I could identify rather than just random figures.
When you play Attack on Titan, there are eight different heroes to choose from, each with a different special ability; and there are four distinct Titans to choose between, each with their own characteristics and card deck. This means that there is much more variation and replayability in this game than might initially seem to be the case. My only concern over replayability is with the robustness of the fiddly-to-erect cardboard tower and platforms: I could see these easily getting worn over several sessions of construction and deconstruction. The game comes with 20 customised dice in four colours but these are just to distinguish which player rolled which dice: the dice are all the same; this is not a game where the different colour dice represent a different distribution of icons. Nevertheless, the look of the components is a strong feature of the game. Set up the Titan on a table and you’re certain to draw a crowd. This is one of the few games I’ve set up in a pub where passers by have not felt compelled to ask me “Is it like Monopoly?” You can see at a glance that it isn’t.
If you are a fan of the anime, this is probably anyway a must buy for you. If you are just viewing this as a standalone game, the rating out of 10 is probably 6+. There is certainly enough here to make this a worthwhile purchase. Attack on Titan is the length of a light filler game but with enough strategy from both asymmetric sides to keep players interested, engaged and eager to come back to play again, though you’ll probably find you’ve had to work though one or two rule clarifications on the way.
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Selwyn has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board's Eye View page on Facebook includes short reviews and commentary on both old and new games.