|Review||Meeple Like Us|
|Complexity||Medium Light [2.31]|
|BGG Rank||1007 [7.15]|
|Player Count (recommended)||2-6 (2-4)|
|Buy it!||Amazon Link|
Villainous is clearly a game that’s been designed to suck money from the wallets of aging Disney fans like myself. Unfortunately, its initial roster of villains is only intermittently successful and there’s reason to be sceptical that future releases will ever truly inspire. That’s why we gave it only two and a half stars in our review. We want to love it, but don’t really believe that’s going to happen. Instead, we’ll keep it around in the hope that the desire for affection eventually morphs into the presence of it.
And then we’ll live happily ever after.
Still, you don’t care about our review – you would be reading that if you did. You’re here for darker fare. You’re here for the parts of the fairy tale that they hide from the movies.
Colour blindness is well catered for, mostly. Villainous is a game marked by its aesthetics, and those are going to suffer somewhat for all of the standard categories we consider. The game remains though fully playable. Still, it’s hard to not see the Genie as the bad guy when he’s emblazoned on a red background.
The two decks for each villain are presented in highly abstracted forms, and they have a black backing for the ability deck and a white back for the fate deck. These exhibit no colour palette issues.
The player boards do have overlapping palettes, but that doesn’t actually matter because the colour is an aesthetic choice only, primarily based on the colour schemes of the originating movies. Lots of additional differentiating information is provided. You do need to know who is playing each villain, but every board will come with a very distinct token that serves to identify at a distance.
We strongly recommend Villainous in this category.
There’s a lot of visual information here that needs to be parsed. Given the tactility of the villain tokens it’s relatively straightforward to work out where everyone is on their individual boards, and locked locations can be determined by touch. Similarly, power tokens exist in one denomination and the quantity possessed by a player is physically indicated. That unfortunately is where the good news ends.
Each villain in Villainous has a unique board, and the combination of icons on each square determines what can be done. Due to the aesthetics of the boards, these occasionally exhibit poor contrast against the background and also occasionally poor contrast against the letterboxing used to make them stand out. Each icon is picked out in a kind of gold font and they are sometimes hard to see under a combination of poor lighting and poor contrast.
Coupled to this, some of the icons are very similar in their silhouettes. Move and item or ally is easily mistaken for move a hero, and activate can be confused for both when visual acuity is low. Close inspection will usually be sufficient to disambiguate these, but some heroes layer new action symbols into their location with played cards. In those cases it becomes necessary to check not just the location but also allies and items that have been played there. Occasionally too these must be cross-referenced against heroes in that location as well as across the full realm, especially since heroes will block the topmost row of icons. The Red Queen player will also have to deal with shrunken heroes that will block only a single action in the top row until they are set back to full size. This, paradoxically, actually increases the difficulty of visual parsing because it adds another thing that must be considered.
This part of the game though is amenable to play with support. Similarly with playing heroes from a fate deck – it’s certainly possible, although cumbersome, to close inspect an opponent’s board to see what can be done. If playing under circumstances of total blindness there’s little harm that comes from exposing options to the table and having people verbalise their impact.
However, players also have to manage a hidden hand of cards – only four (or occasionally five), but they tend to be text heavy. They are rarely truly complicated, but occasionally they require a player to consider the interrelation of considerable amounts of game state spread across multiple locations.
Given how disconnected each of the different villains are, it’s feasible to play the game with an open state. However, this disproportionately impacts some villains over others since the tempo of the game depends on the availability of particular cards. If everyone knows Jafar has the Magic Lamp and the Scarab Pendant he’s going to be a much greater threat than an Ursula who has neither of her key items. Fate targets are selected at the time of taking an action, so the veil of secrecy implied by a hidden hand is a protection against focused aggression. The game comes with a special fate token for five or six player games, meaning that the target of one fate action can’t also be the target of the next. That could be employed but it hugely benefits certain villains (Maleficent for example) where being a constant target of fate is pretty much the only way you can interfere with her otherwise straightforward plans.
There’s a chronology too in how cards should be kept and played – certain cards need to be played after others, and whether or not you need to keep them in hand depends on other cards you have available. As such, the churn of your hand is going to be situational, and it’ll change depending on which villain you’re controlling. The ease with which players can assess at a distance how close an opponent is to their goal is also different for each villain.
For those with minor to moderate visual impairments, we can (just) recommend Villainous because close inspection of cards will solve a lot of these problems. While it’s not a perfect solution the game is simple enough that it needn’t be unreasonably burdensome. For those with total blindness, it’s certainly possible to play the game with open state so as to alleviate the issue of hidden hands, but it would disproportionately impact those villains where the imminence of their success is supposed to be hidden. We’d likely recommend such players find another game to try. We’ll average that out to a tentative recommendation.
Required literacy levels are quite high given how each card is full of explanatory text and effects. Numeracy requirements are occasionally substantive too, with allies and heroes working with strength modifiers and general abilities that take effect across the entirety of the realm. Straightforward comparisons and the like are occasional stymied by other elements of game state. For example, the Jafar hero deck contains a sultan who cannot be defeated by guards, and a Genie wish that increases the strength of a hero by two. The Carpet must be defeated before any other heroes can be defeated, and the Genie has a default strength of six, but that strength is at +2 if the Magic Lamp is at his currently location. If Jafar wishes to vanquish his foes, there may be particular order in which it will need to be done. Some of his actions are going to focus on reducing the strength arrayed against him as well, which complicates the issue. That is going to be an explicitly numerate calculation because abilities cost power and power is a finite currency. Does it make more sense, for example, to sacrifice an ally to gain three power, then spend eight power to hypnotise the genie (given you need to do that anyway) and then move him to defeat the Sultan? Or does it make more sense to move the Genie away from the location of the lamp, defeat the Sultan with an effect, and save the power so you can summon Iago and let him move the lamp more freely?
Part of that calculation there is also a comparison to the speed with which you believe your opponents are reaching their own goals. The thing about Villainous is that it’s not really a strategy game or a tactics game. It’s a race where everyone has a different distance to travel. If Jafar begins by drawing the lamp and the pendant it’s almost impossible to slow him down to the point he’ll lose. Prince John’s win is inevitable, your job is to complete your own objective before he does. As such, the calculations you make here in Villainous are all about optimisation – shaving a few actions off of your path to victory. That probably sounds pretty deep and involving, but the game basically cuts away at the mastery curve here by essentially giving you the solution in a villain guide.
Villainous then doesn’t require you to work out the optimal path to victory, it just needs you to work out how to optimise your stride along that path. In some circumstances the best tactic is to simply ignore heroes but you need to make that decision on the basis of the cost and inconvenience of their presence. For a game that is so strategically shallow, it asks a lot of players in simply navigating its various systems. That’s before we even take into account the fate deck which requires you to consider which of your drawn options puts the most significant dent in your opponent’s plans. That in turn needs you to understand how their deck works and how their goal is met. Their goal is open information but their capabilities aren’t – knowing the rough composition of each deck in play is a powerful predictor of efficacy.
The game flow is reliable, and there’s nothing there that opponents can do to pull off surprises. While there’s a lot of ‘take that’ in the game, none of it impacts on game flow. What synergy is present in the game is relatively simple – you don’t find any exploding possibility space as a result of clever card play. Mostly it’s on the level of ‘Give an ally a scimitar and they hit harder’, or ‘activate a card to move a hero’ which might then permit for a vanquish action to be carried out.
The game doesn’t need any general knowledge, but I honestly think it pretty much requires an appreciation of the classic Disney canon. I mentioned in the review that I’d be discarding this game pretty sharpish if it weren’t bound up in a context of some of my favourite movies – I can’t imagine it would convince anyone that wasn’t already predisposed to enjoy it. Mrs Meeple for example had no interest in giving the Ursula villain a try because she’s never seen the Little Mermaid. You don’t need general knowledge to play, but you do I think to enjoy.
There’s no explicit scoring in Villainous – merely a certain condition that triggers and wins the game for the successful player. However, each of those conditions can be complex and multi-stage, and as discussed above its cognitively expensive to arrange the circumstances by which you can accomplish them in the speediest possible way.
We don’t recommend Villainous in either of our categories of cognitive accessibility, although it is probably playable to an extent with support – such as by playing with open cards and choosing the simpler villains.
So, Mrs Meeple told me to <expletive> off during the course of Villainous. She instantly realised it would come up in the teardown and made me promise to say that she said it nicely in the nicest way, but does that really change things? Many times she’d whine or emit a long, plaintive ‘noooooo’ whenever I played a fate action. I was less bothered about that because often my plots were best served by certain heroes making a prompt, punctual appearance on the board. Fate though is basically a take-that system that is pinpoint in its accuracy – every single card is designed to undo the specific player against which you play it. It’s not always successful, because the decks are extremely dependent on serendipity to do what you want, but if a card is valid it never simply bounces off your armour.
Some of those fate cards are mere inconveniences, some of them unravel huge amounts of the work that may have gone into play. Some, such as the witches Maleficent will face, are explicitly designed to act like a kind of ‘whack a mole’ game – Maleficent plays a curse and a witch comes along and undoes it. Since that villain’s goal is four active curses at one time it can be frustrating. There is a similar issue with the Red Queen, where she is trying to arrange four wickets in four locations of her realm and the hero cards are perpetually preventing it. The only way villains interact is with passive aggressive fate cards, and that’s likely to be aggravating even in the most convivial of circumstances.
Considering that some of these objectives are quite intricate, this is likely to be a trigger issue in this category, as is the inherent unfairness of the game. A good shuffle can put someone much farther ahead of everyone else, and a complicated Villain can put someone much farther behind. The Jafar that lucks into finding the scarab pendant in their first draw is going to find the game much easier than the one who finds it as the last card in the deck. Some villains don’t suffer from this, such as Prince John, and as such it’s not so much that the villains are asymmetrical but rather that the difficulty is. It’s not even consistently so – you can’t just pick the ‘easy villain’ because ease is an emergent property of the decks. Lots of games suffer from imbalances that come from the shuffled decks but few make those decks the entirety of the game in the way that Villainous does.
It’s entirely possible, and indeed common, for the table to gang up on a runaway leader. In five and six player games there’s a token that gets passed around based on who was just screwed over – if you have the token nobody can target you. However, while I like the idea behind this it just doesn’t mesh with the design. Maleficent benefits too much from this shield, and other villains (like Captain Hook) hardly benefit at all. This is only used in large games, although you could certainly adopt it for lower player counts. I suspect though the impact becomes even more disproportionate. It’s a one-size-fits-all band-aid over the game systems and fate inflicts some wounds that are deeper than others.
Score disparities don’t exist in their traditional form, but there’s a certain psychological distance that people are from winning and that can be large. When I played Ursula for example, I had made effectively zero progress towards my goal before I got my tentacles handed to me. When I played Jafar I was a single action away from victory and just got pipped to the post. The problem with the Ursula game is that there wasn’t anything I could do to change it. I kept drawing binding contracts that would let me deal with heroes that simple weren’t being played to my realm. I couldn’t find the crown for about half of the deck, and I never saw the trident. If I were a competitive player, I would have found that far more upsetting than I did. Luckily I’m pretty much used to constantly losing. Your effectiveness in Villainous is fragile and always up to the whims of fate.
We’ll very tentatively recommend Villainous in this category, largely because these aren’t hidden aspects of the game. You roll with the randomness because in the end this isn’t really a board game like we normally regard them on Meeple Like Us. It’s explicitly designed to be mass market. You’re supposed to just sit down and roll with the punches. That’s not going to be appropriate for everyone and there are a lot of problems that need to be considered before you pick it up.
The physical interactions required of the game are:
- Drawing cards from your deck or from an opponent’s fate deck
- Positioning cards at locations on your board or an opponent’s board
- Collecting and spending power tokens
- Moving cards from one location to another, sometimes in combination with other cards
- Moving your villain marker from location to location
- Holding a hand of four, or five, cards
Depending on the villain, some of these may be expressed more than others. For example, Captain Hook has pirates and scimitars and cannons that will fill his side of the board in a mess of crew and attachments. However, he also has ‘boarding crew’ allies that can attack adjacent locations so he’s less dependent on position than other heroes. Jafar on the other hand will have comparatively few allies but he will have to navigate an item from one side of the board to the other, ideally without disturbing any of the game state over which the lamp will travel. Heroes may steal items, or move them around. The Red Queen will not only have heroes in her locations she’ll have to keep some of them at an angle to indicate if they’ve been shrunk. She’ll also have ‘activated’ wickets and ‘deactivated’ card guards and have to swap between them. Occasionally these will need to move from place to place.
There’s quite a lot of card management that goes into managing a board, in other words. It can lead to a game state that sprawls as it becomes spatially interconnected – allies with items as an obvious example. There’s not a lot of room to work with either, especially if you have to rotate or angle cards in a stack.
For those players for whom verbalisation is required, that at least is fully supported. Every board location has a unique and thematic name, as does every action they can perform. Indicating an action is as simple as saying where you want to go, and the order in which actions should be carried out. Each player has a hand of four cards, rising to five with Jafar if the magic lamp is in play. A standard card holder will be fully appropriate for this. It will though be awkward for a player board to be maintained in a place where there’s enough room for all the finnicky manipulation while being in easy reach for a supporting player while also being in clear sight of its owner.
We’ll tentatively recommend Villainous in this category. Given the way the game requires cards to be rotated and attached to allies it’s really quite odd that it gives so little room in which it can be done.
Disney is, at best, a divisive company. People have strong opinions about Uncle Walt and his Imagineers, and I wouldn’t expect Villainous to be immune from that. Suffice to say that whatever emotional connection you have to the corporation is going to spill over here. It does nothing either way to mitigate or exacerbate viewpoints. That’s outside the scope of this teardown though – just, if you hate Disney this isn’t a strong enough game for me to try to talk you into giving it a go regardless.
However, they’ve done a good job here of picking villains that are men and women, and an ethnic selection that is… well, as problematic and ethically complex as anything Disney ever does. It’s not that they don’t have a wider roster from which to draw, but the wider they draw for a villain deck the worse they’re going to make it for some people. There’s no Pocahontas themed villain for example, and that’s almost certainly for the best given that movie’s troubling problems. Disney were skewered for their cultural appropriation within Moana and adjacent merchandise, so is her absence a problem or a benefit? I can’t speak for anyone else, although since Moana instantly became my favourite Disney movie her absence is a shame. That’s not going to be a universal opinion. Let’s just be glad they didn’t try to make a villain deck themed around Dumbo.
Still, you also have a range of body types represented and… you know, this is a futile exercise. Disney’s approach to gender and representation is too big a topic for a teardown like this. You’ll have your own opinions already, but leaving aside the complicated relationship Disney has to its cultural properties I think they have an interesting albeit sub-optimal blend.
Villainous has an RRP of £35 and that seems reasonable for a game that supports six players and has six different villains in its box. It’s sufficiently accommodating in its design that you don’t need to develop mastery to have a good time, and if you bring it out in the company of Disney lovers I’m sure it would get a reasonable amount of table time to warrant the price tag. On the other hand, it’s almost twice as much as DIsney Codenames and that’s a game that has a much louder and diverse group of fans.
We’ll tentatively recommend Villainous in this category.
There is an extensive need for literacy, and that literacy is often relatively sophisticated. Learning the cards works only for a single villain – each new villain played will require learning afresh, and in our opinion the game isn’t strong enough to support repeated plays with a particular character. As such, cycling through the character roster is in important part in retaining the value of the game.
Otherwise, there’s no formal need for communication. I did tell Mrs Meeple that she had to sing a song from the appropriate Disney movie every time she played a card, but then she asked to see where that was in the rules and I had to reluctantly admit I’d made it up. We’ll tentatively recommend Villainous in this category.
If visual impairments intersected with physical impairments we’d be inclined to harden our guidance in both categories. Knowing how to wield a fate card properly is dependent on being able to get up close an examine an opponent’s board and that likely would not be possible or convenient in this circumstance. The boards are too fragile in terms of state representation to handle being moved closer to the viewer, either. Our emotional accessibility grade is as tentative as it possibly can be, and I’d be inclined to think of it as a multiplier on all other categories. Any frustration is going to be felt more intensely if it’s compounding with another criticism or problem of the game. For example, if someone doesn’t approve of Disney as a company they’re going to find even more reasons to feel aggrieved at the design than someone who does. If someone is not a native speaker of the language, the often obtuse phrasing will be an additional source of frustration, and so on.
Games of Villainous take about twenty minutes per villain I’d estimate, and there is an awful lot of downtime. It feels very much like a game from the eighties in that respect – no effort has been made to mitigate the often-burdensome pacing problems. This is an intersectional issue that has effect across the board. With a full player count, the game thus tends to drag on – luckily, the lack of real player interaction means it’s virtually cost free for a player to drop out and take no further part in the game.
Talking about any Disney game is complex in some of these categories. It’s a company that inspires strong opinions in lots of people. Given how we often talk about diversity and representation in these teardowns it’s an intersection of source and manifestation that is too big for a post of this nature. Perhaps it’s worthy of an editorial of its own in the future.
However, that’s irrelevant in the larger scheme of things because there’s very little here about which we can be genuinely positive. Aside from the strong performance Villainous gives in the colour blindness category, we are tentative in our recommendations, at best, from one end of the teardown to the other. The game itself is markedly mediocre, and at least arithmetically its teardown is very reflective of that.
We gave Villainous two and a half stars in our review, and a good chunk of even that is simply because of the momentum of affection it harnesses as a result of the various Disney movies it incorporates. It seems like a game system crying out for interesting designers to make it sing, but I have my doubts that anyone can really tease the necessary melodies out of the somewhat turgid instruments it makes available. There are better games, more accessible games, but this is the only one we’ve covered where you get to have the Genie beat Aladdin into a pulp while Abu watches. It’s up to you to decide how much you want that to happen and whether the shortcomings of the game are forgivable in that context.
A word about teardowns
Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.
Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then this will not be the blog for you. We will not debate with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.
Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.