Full disclosure: A review copy of Desktop HEBOCON Battle Kit was provided by Big Cat Games.
So, in an incredible stroke of good fortune, I’ve started reviewing games on behalf of Big Cat Games, an indie game store out here in the Bay Area. They’ve imported a lot of games from Japan, so for the next … while, I’m going to try to check out an indie Japanese game for y’all. So far, they’re all very unique! It’s interesting how different cultures produce wildly different products and it’s been a joy to experience them. The first one I should review is Desktop HEBOCON Battle Kit, or “Crappy Robot Battle”, as it’s also lovingly known.
HEBOCON is a yearly competition devoted to robot construction. Unfortunately, it comes from the Japanese “heboi”, which basically means “crappy”, so, these robots are uh, they’re doing their best. The participants only really have one requirement, and that’s that you must lack technical expertise sufficient to build anything other than a mildly crappy robot. IEEE wrote up a great article about it, if you’d like to learn more, but in Desktop HEBOCON Battle Kit, you play as heboi robot builders (you can interpret that heboi via the distributive property, if you want) vying to win it all in a very underwhelming sumo match. Will your robot stand above all the others? Or will it just … fail to stand at all?
Setup is, humorously, a lot like Patchwork. First, give each player a player board in their preferred color:
Take the tiles:
Set them up in a circle around the board, which has 2P / 3P + 4P sides:
Wherever the 1×2 piece (with two googly eyes) ended up, put the players robots ahead of it, clockwise:
Set the Scoring tokens on the 0:
Set the +2 tokens on the board spaces matching their colors:
And set the hex nuts somewhere within reach of players:
Also, set aside the helpfully-included digital timer:
You should be all ready to start!
The game’s played over three phases; I’ll go through each one quickly and note some variants / house rules where applicable.
In the beginning, players draft tiles on their turn. When you take a tile, place it in the center of your board, on top of any other tiles that are already there. Don’t look through your tiles once you’ve taken them. Once every player has drafted a tile, place one of the hex nuts on the central board so that it covers one of the spaces. This is how you keep track of rounds; after 9 rounds the drafting phase ends. In a four-player game, all tiles will be taken, so that’s helpful.
Now you must build your robot by placing your tiles on your player board. Like most tile-placement games, you may not stack tiles and your tiles may not run off the edge of the board. The rules state that every player can do this in real-time, but once one player finishes, they hit the one-minute timer and every player has one minute left to finish. That wasn’t the way I was taught, and I prefer our way: you just have one minute to finish, no additional buffer time. It’s gonna be a crappy robot. Once the timer is up, all players must stop placing tiles.
Scoring occurs next. Each player gains one point for every spot that’s covered on their board by a tile. If you manage to fill them all, well, you haven’t made a crappy robot; you’ve made an excellent robot! So, you lose 8 points for disrespecting the spirit of the HEBOCON competition. Crappy robots only.
Once you’ve finished scoring, the battle begins! The start player is whoever hit the Timer Start button first, if you’re playing by the exact rules. If you’re playing with our modified ruleset, we usually have the player with the most points go first.
Players may, on their turn, take a hex nut and place it on one of the spaces on their board to perform that action. You’ll note that your robot’s orientation doesn’t matter; your board’s orientation relative to the central board determines what direction your robot goes in. If you choose a Rotate action, rotate your board in the given direction. To that end, it’s not so much “move forward one space” as it is “move right one space”. If you use a Blue action, you may immediately take another Blue action, once.
If you would move into a space occupied by another player, push them in the direction you’re moving. If that would cause them to fall off the board, they do! They’re eliminated from the battle. They lose 2 points and you gain 2 points. If you move off by yourself, you just lose 2 points.
Certain locations on the board can cause you to lose 2 points every time you move onto them or gain 2 points, once, when you move on them (provided you match that space’s color).
Once everyone has used all of their actions or there is only one robot left on the board, the battle is over! Each surviving robot gains points:
- One robot left: 8 points
- Two robots left: 3 points
- Three robots left: 2 points
- Four robots left: 0 points
The player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
This is another game that I think is best at its full complement. At higher player counts, there’s more contention for tiles (so you’ll get stuck with some bad ones), more people on the field fighting, and just more general chaos. This is a game that you gotta steer into the chaos, so naturally more of that is just kinda better. At lower player counts, you don’t use all of the tiles, so it’s pretty easy to ignore the confusing ones (generally the multi-move ones; you never remember which one you grabbed) and just grab ones that don’t eject you into the cold, unfeeling night. I think this game runs best when it takes 15 minutes or less, and the high degree of chaos helps make that happen. To that end, my best recommendation is 4 players.
- Embrace the chaos. Seriously, this is a 20-minute-tops game; just go in, grab weird pieces, build a terrible robot, and throw anyone who challenges your Cruel Reign into the Endless Abyss. It’s basically all you could ever want in a short gaming experience. Don’t ruin it by overthinking about pieces and their interactions or trying to visualize how you’ll optimally build your board; that’s just taking away from the spectacle of it all. Plus it’s more fun to be a crappy robot. That’s advice for the game and for life.
- That said, doing nothing is a virtue. Spinning around and collecting points can ultimately be the way to go, if you know what you’re doing. Just make sure your opponents aren’t setting up to cast you into the Great Unknown while you’re messing around.
- Be mindful of your board. Don’t just try to minimize your holes; try to make sure that you have an option for moving in most directions. You don’t want your only movement actions to send you straight into the Unfathomable Depths; that’s just poor planning. And yet, in their haste to try and maximize their own scores, plenty of players will do just that.
- Try to avoid the move-twice pieces that aren’t “move twice in the same direction”. They tend to be where most players get themselves killed. They’re difficult to visualize with, difficult to plan around, and you usually forget what their exact configuration is until it’s too late and you’ve rotated the board enough that you know you’re going Over The Edge.
- If you can set up a combo, go for it. Some of the most fun combos are spinning into a move or moving into a spin or something. Just have fun with your actions on your turn.
- If there’s one thing I can teach you, it’s always take the shot. Does it make you a bad person to eliminate another player? Absolutely. That said, it’s not Honorable Robot Battle, so, don’t be afraid to go after another player and push them off the board. At some point, someone’s gonna do the same to you, so, you know, pay it forward? Just make sure you have an excellent one-liner planned before you knock them off the board.
- If you’re going to be cast off the board, do it on your terms. For one thing, it’s cooler, which we can all respect; more importantly, however, your opponents don’t get points if you cast yourself off the grand stage, and that’s just a very important thing.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I mean, it’s super endearing. The whole game is a fast-paced tile-laying game where you set yourself up for a not-always-but-usually-pointless battle where most of the players will throw themselves off the edge of the board. It’s just a very big mood. I love the game, thematically, and the light futility of the game mechanically seems to really deliver on the vision of making a crappy robot and then trying to make it fight.
- Apparently it’s an official HEBOCON product? That’s super endearing; both the designer and the artist are HEBOCON participants, which just elevates the game further, for me.
- Very cute art. Most players get distracted trying to get additional googly eyes for their robots. Or the toothbrush! There are a bunch of cute tiles you can get for your robot.
- The real-time challenge is super fun. It’s a bit like Eco-Links or Cosmic Factory, but with much lower stakes; that’s part of why we ended up shortening the timer, honestly.
- I like all the different pieces of the game, and I think they come together super well. I mean, I love real-time games, I love tile-laying games; those are both up my alley. The action-programmy parts of the game aren’t really that action-programmy, so it doesn’t activate the part of my brain that doesn’t like action programming, which is good, too.
- Plays very quickly. You can probably get through a game in 25 – 30 minutes; less if everyone knows what they’re doing.
- Putting those tiles away can be a pain. I’ve sorta kept to the faith of trying to put them in an orderly fashion so that I can get the box closed (the hex nuts are also Fairly Large and Decently Heavy. If it were to get localized in the US, a bigger box with an insert would definitely be a Huge Boon.
- You definitely need to be in the right mindset for this. If you’re looking for a serious game, this is not that. That might cause some mismatches with some folks at game night if you’re not careful. Just make sure people don’t mistake this for a Very Serious Board Game.
- This game is absolutely gonna mess with you if you’re not the best at Spatial Awareness Things. So much of the game is about relative movement based on where you sit relative to the board and where your board’s arrow is pointing at any given time; if that’s not your best area in games, you’re going to run into some trouble. Just be prepped for it.
Overall: 9.25 / 10
Overall, I think I … love Desktop HEBOCON Battle Kit? Like, for me, the game is elevated pretty high because the theme and the mechanics blend together so well. The time limits, the futility of the battle, the idea that you’re just doing your best but you may still wander into an Endless Abyss. It’s all very relatable. Beyond that, the game looks very cute and that kind-of-disguises the take-that parts of the game and the tile placement blocking and all the ways you can mess with your competitors. It’s the kind-of-perfect filler, once everyone understands how to play. That said, my major worry is that it can be derailed by a player who’s just not into the heboi spirit, you know? If someone’s playing aggressively and strategically and trying their best to place tiles and memorize combinations so that they can execute a plan, they’re not going to really enjoy this game because that’s just … not how it wants you to play. It wants you to immerse yourself in the experience of building a crappy robot, ultimately to fall into a hole like Ryan North. I think going along with the game, there, is the right move, and that’s why I enjoy it so much; it’s a great game for kicking back, laughing with friends, and ultimately building something terrible. Anyways, if that sounds like it’s up your alley, I’d highly recommend checking out Desktop HEBOCON Battle Kit! I’ve been overjoyed with it while I’ve had a chance to play it.