Full disclosure: A review copy of Atari’s Missile Command was provided by IDW Games.
Another IDW game for review! This time I’m checking out Atari’s Missile Command, part of the recent line of Atari-themed board games that have been coming out, along with Centipede and the upcoming Joust.
In Missile Command, well, you’ve got some missiles, your enemies have missiles, and you’re not familiar with the term “mutually-assured destruction”. That said, you’ve got a lot of money and a few cities that you’re not like, you know, super attached to, all things being equal. Will you be able to out-missile your opponents from your safe bunker while maybe sacrificing 1 – 6 major metropolitan areas? Will you learn anything from the experience? Or will the other cities get the better of you?
So, to set up, first, give every player a city board in their color:
Also, give them a Player Screen:
If you’d like, you can pause for a hot second while players try to put the Player Screen around their city board. It’s not for that, but everyone does it. If you’d like to end their confusion / suffering a bit earlier, you can give them the planning boards:
Have them put those behind the player screen.
Now, set out missiles of all participating players’ colors:
I recommend dividing them by color and putting each color close to the player of that color (even though they won’t be using those). Also, set out two Nukes per player:
Place the Interceptors near those, as well:
Add the GDP tokens to the center, and have each player take 15 GDP:
You can set the Victory Point tokens somewhere, for now; you won’t explicitly need them to be super accessible:
This part is a bit important. Give each player 6 City cards:
Do not look at the other side of your City cards. Just place them on the board, blue-side up.
If you’re playing with Shields, give each player 6 of those, too, and have them place them by their City Cards:
Once you’ve done all that, you’re ready to start!
A game of Missile Command is simple — you would like to send missiles to other cities while taking none yourself. It’s like Christmas; far better to give than to receive. A game is played over several rounds until one player is annihilated, at which point the game ends. Let’s go through each of the phases, in turn.
During the Negotiate phase, you may buy and trade nukes, missiles, and interceptors, and you may make deals to help or hurt your co-players.
Generally speaking, you should start a 3-minute timer immediately at the beginning of the phase. Once that’s started, it’s open season.
- Missiles: These cost 2 GDP. They will let you attack your opponents. You cannot buy missiles of your own color.
- Interceptors: These cost 5 GDP. They will let you defend against missiles.
- Nukes: These cost 10 GDP. They will put the hurt on your opponents.
As you buy things, put them in front of your player screen so that other players know what you’re stockpiling. This may cause them to re-evaluate their priorities, especially as you buy missiles with their name on them. Just note that once you buy something, you’re stuck with it; you cannot sell back to the Supply.
Instead of just buying things, you may also trade with other players. Generally speaking, here are the rules:
- Trading is open and unbounded. If you want to trade 3 Nukes for 1 GDP, that’s … fine? Live your truth.
- Trades of physical materials are binding. If you offer me 10GDP for 3 missiles and I accept, you cannot back out of that trade. Just a thing to keep in mind in case you decide to make some bad deals.
- Any other trades are non-binding. If I tell you that I will not attack you if you do not buy any of my missiles, that’s nice, but I’m not actually held to that in any way that matters (other than, I assume, your frustration at my sudden but inevitable betrayal).
Once three minutes are up, pull all your stuff behind your player screen and move on to the Plan phase.
During the Plan Phase, you allocate missiles on your Planning Board to fire upon your foes. Only a few rules, here:
- You can only allocate one missile per vector. A vector, in this case, is one of the 01 – 06 spaces on your planning board.
- The combination of the missile’s color and the vector chosen determines which of your opponents’ cities you’re planning to strike. A green missile on 05 means that Green Player’s 05 is the target of my missile. Relatively straightforward, but worth mentioning explicitly.
- If you’d like to fire a nuke, you must attach it to a missile. Something something delivery system.
- You may not aim a missile at a city that’s already been destroyed. That’s just hateful.
- You do not have to fire all of your nukes or missiles. Might as well save them for a rainy day.
Once you’re ready, put your thumb up to symbolize your willing participation in thermonuclear war. Once everyone has their thumbs up, move on to the third phase: Fire Missiles.
3. Fire Missiles
Now, players will remove their Player Screen and reveal their targets. For gameplay purposes, all missiles are considered fired simultaneously, but that’s a nightmare to resolve, so resolve it by starting at 01 and moving to 06.
We find the easiest thing to do with Interceptors is ask the player if they’d like to use an Interceptor. If they say yes and have Interceptors, they will discard one per missile they’d like to block and that missile is blocked. Otherwise, they get hit. If you use an Interceptor on a Nuke, you block the Nuke, not the missile. You still would need another Interceptor to block the missile.
There are outcomes beyond Interceptors, unfortunately:
- If you and your opponent are aiming at the same District in each others’ City Boards: The missiles collide in mid-air and explode harmlessly. If one missile has a Nuke, the Nuke is destroyed but the missile is not. If both missiles have Nukes, they’re both destroyed in mid-air. Fun!
- A missile hits your city. If / when this happens, remove the missile from the Player Board and flip over your City Card. You will now use that effect for the remainder of the game. Some take place immediately, others do not. If you cannot perform the immediate effect, nothing happens. The player(s) who hit your city collect a VP token for their trouble. If you are playing with Shields, the first missile(s) to hit destroys the Shield of a city, rather than the city itself. Since all players hit simultaneously, the Shield is destroyed but the city is protected. At least, unless another player has the Telemetry Data upgrade and hits the city twice in one round…
- A nuke hits your city. If a Nuke hits your city, well, oof. Not only does it destroy the city it hits (earning the player who fired it a VP token), it also destroys the city in the District either 1 more or 1 less than the District it hit (meaning if you Nuke 3 you also destroy 2 or 4), which also earns the player who fired it a VP token. If you Nuke a city with no adjacent undestroyed Districts, well, why would you do that? You only get the one VP token, I suppose.
Once all of these are resolved, check: does every player have at least one city remaining that’s not destroyed? If any player has zero cities left, the game ends. Otherwise, go to the Collect GDP Phase.
4. Collect GDP
During this Phase, you’ll collect GDP from each of your Cities, both (destroyed and undestroyed). Undestroyed cities are worth 2 GDP, and destroyed cities are variable between 0 and 5 GDP, inclusive. Collect the money, and then immediately start back at the Plan Phase.
Again, if any player has zero cities undestroyed at the end of Phase 3, the game immediately ends. When that happens, score points:
- 4 points: Every VP token is worth 4 points. Confusing!
- 2 points: Every undestroyed city is worth 2 points.
- 1 point: Every 4 GDP is worth 1 point.
- 1 point: Every 4 missiles and / or Interceptors is worth 1 point. This is a distinct set from the GDP. Having 2 missiles and 2 GDP is not 1 point.
The player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
Honestly, not many. The game recommends playing with Shields at 3 players, since otherwise it’ll be a pretty short game. I’ve played a few with 4 and 5, and that seems to be a pretty great amount. At 6, well, it’s just gonna be nonstop missiles and the game will probably be pretty short if everyone decides to gang up on one player — they can only stop so many missiles, after all. My one worry is that resources are limited, so at 6 players you might run out if another player is aggressively hoarding supplies or something, especially missiles.
Anyways, I don’t have a huge preference on player count, but I’d probably say it’s best at 4 or 5.
- Offense. Hitting a city is worth 2 – 4 times the points of doing literally anything else (16x the value of buying a missile). You should be shooting missiles like there’s no tomorrow. Sure, you might draw the aggro of a few players, but that’s not the worst thing in the world, provided you don’t let them gang up on you and kill you. The more cities you hit, the better your endgame score, generally. Even preserving your own cities isn’t as good as laying waste to your opponents’ cities. It’s worth thinking about.
- Have a few Interceptors so that you don’t … die. You may need these if you’re down to one city and you’re fending off attackers from all sides. It’s not necessarily good to be the player that goes out, though I’ve seen someone win that way, before. They had a ton of money, to be fair.
- Know when to use your Interceptors. If two people are shooting at the same city of yours, it might not be worth wasting two Interceptors to save it when you can just as easily save two cities that are each getting attacked once. Up to you. Or you can just spend one Interceptor and spite whichever one of the players that attacked you that you want. That’s also fun.
- Knowing who is gunning for you is an advantage. Don’t waste it. If you’ve only got 04 and 05 left and you know that Orange is really trying to knock you out, you don’t need to buy Interceptors! Just fire two orange missiles from your 04 and 05 to knock out theirs in mid-air. Hopefully their cities of those colors aren’t destroyed, otherwise that’s kind of moot.
- Maybe take a couple hits early on so that you can get a sense of what your skills are. You do not want to be the player with the most cities still standing at the start of Round 2 or 3. Players will see that and take you down a peg, and there’s not much you can do about that since you’ve got no specializations. Even if the game ended on the first round, unless you hit somebody, you’re in bad shape because it only takes 3 hits to overcome the 12 points a perfect city board can get you. It’s a bit unintuitive, but yeah, getting hit early is good.
- Watch for natural synergies and combos. There are all sorts of cards that go well together, like cards that let you buy things more cheaply and then give you extra points for having money or stuff at the end of the game. It’s kind of random which ones come up, but being able to work with what you draw is definitely a helpful way to make sure you come out ahead in Missile Command.
- Nukes aren’t the worst thing you can buy. For 10 money, you can usually get in two hits on a city (and they’re hard to block), which might be a decent way to turn the game around if you’re struggling a bit.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Nice components. The nukes in particular are pretty striking. They have a good heft to them.
- Fun color scheme and art. They do a good job connecting the art from the old video games but in a fun style that’s a bit modernized. Sort of like a nostalgic look back at old computer systems.
- The timer on the Negotiation Phase is a good idea. Keeps the game pretty quick, which, given that it has no other real rules around trading, it could definitely spiral out of control.
- All the City cards are unique. I think so, at least. That’s kind of neat; means you’ll be unlikely to have the same collection of powers … ever, really. There are 3,838,380 different combinations, so, uh, yeah.
- Seems to have a lot of opportunities for variants. We’ve discussed this a bit to prevent some of the problems we have with the rules. Maybe you draft your City cards so you know what they are, but then you shuffle them to cover your board? Maybe you have alliances / country identities / player powers to start, so that you’re incentivized to go after players outside of your alliance (rather than gang up on a random player of your choice)? It’s hard to say, but there are places where I could see an expansion being a really neat thing to include to smooth out some of the parts of the game I thought were a bit rougher. Another fun one could be modifying the points given for certain things, to play a game where you’re incentivized to not let your cities get burned, even if you do get a hit in on your opponents. One we’ve often talked about is Disarmament, which would let you buy your own missiles from other players to try and encourage them not to blow you up. It seems … pleasant.
- Could use its own timer app. The timer on my phone doesn’t do 1-minute warnings, which has gotten us in hot water from time to time. I’d recommend the One Night Ultimate Werewolf app’s timer, honestly. Plus, it has disco music, which means you can make your own personal Disco Inferno, but in a macabre way. Delightful.
- I’m pretty much never going to use the Shields. It’s very rare (not unheard of) for me to wish that a game were longer than it currently is, so playtime-extending variants aren’t really for me. They might be for you, though! They’re just specifically not for me.
- Watch out for people who play this like BANG!. There’s not a lot of incentive to hunker down and try to defend your way through it (unlike BANG!), but newer players may try to avoid conflict so that they don’t irritate anyone (I know that’s how I played my first game). Not only does that slow the game down immensely, it’s also … not a winning strategy. I reference BANG! because many players tend to play conservatively as the Outlaws, which gives the Sheriff a lot of time to buff up and get ready to stomp them. That’s not a good outcome, and I wish the game did more to make that clear.
- Lots of things are unclear in the rules. I’m starting to worry that this is a bit of a larger problem, but I think that this is also due to the uniqueness of the City cards; every card is unique, so a lot of the tableau-level interactions are impossible to enumerate over without having a 2000+-page tome as the rulebook. That said, it doesn’t have any sort of language for what happens if a player mistakenly allocates a missile to the wrong vector, which is kind of frustrating. Also, how Interceptors are used or when you can use them to react is a bit unclear, as are most “reaction” things in the game.
- Totally random city cards can lead to unpredictable / swingy / disappointing outcomes. Often, you can draw city cards with excellent abilities, but they require you to pay missiles or GDP and you just … don’t have any. That’s frustrating for players, especially because then you don’t draw any GDP from the city because its Immediate ability is so good. It’s hard to predict when they’ll come up and hard to plan for every outcome.
- The game actively encourages players to gang up on each other, which, early on in the game, can lead to not-great interactions. Early in the game, there’s really no motivating factor for you to attack anyone that isn’t you, so in the wrong crowd this might be a real issue. Again, I think variants (or Alliances) or something could make this a bit less daunting if such a thing were to be included in a future game or expansion.
Overall: 7.5 / 10
Overall, I like Missile Command! I was extremely pleasantly surprised when I played it, as I didn’t know what to expect just from reading the rules. It’s a bit fast (some games take 2 – 3 rounds), a bit frenetic, and the theme is kind of heavy, but it’s a lot of fun! The negotiations are a bit cloak-and-dagger, which I appreciate, but when you’re not negotiating you’re trying to read whether or not you should be worried about someone coming in and blowing up your cities, which is also fun. It’s also just interesting to me from a design perspective because it seems like a fairly firm foundation to try to test expansions and variants, and I’d be interested to see if there are developments in that area moving forward. Either way, I had a lot of fun playing Missile Command, and if you like negotiation, secret attacks, random tableaus, and occasionally explosions, you may enjoy it, too!