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Big Trouble in Little China is old. It was originally released in 1986 when Kurt Russell had a mullet and before Kim Cattrall was known for urban promiscuity. But Big Trouble has endured. It’s a cult classic for a reason as it still holds up with its esoteric blend of humor and mysticism. Now it can endure on our tabletops as well, courtesy of pulp publisher Everything Epic Games.
Nailing a beloved IP is a difficult proposition. A board game requires severe abstraction, balancing the-all-important setting details with a lithe yet formidable system. Big Trouble in Little China: The Game does just that.
The key component in this release is visible passion. I’m not talking about the art direction, heaps of plastic, or the rulebook’s proclivity of leaning on Jack Burton quotes. This cooperative design builds a certain type of experience, one that’s incredibly faithful to its source material.
The format is the first expression. This is a tactical miniatures game split into two distinct phases. In the first half you’re stomping around Chinatown running into Wing Kong ruffians or even the Three Storms. The board is large and the feel is exploratory. Main quests forming the diabolical plot of Lo Pan will be spread across the map, intermingling with side narratives and events that will spark your imagination.
The central storyline is randomized from character specific arcs. They reference entries in a small booklet and include just enough heat to ignite your imagination. Most fascinating is that all of these story moments are wholly unique. They’re not directly lifted from the film but they’re sort-of in the neighborhood, if you will.
Take for instance a recent play: Wang is flying around when he runs into a spontaneous street fight. He’s forced to take to the rooftops and avoid the Kung Fu scrum. This leads to an unfortunate encounter with Lightning, adept sorcerer and member of the Three Storms. Wang is assaulted and thrown to the streets with fury before scurrying to escape. Any fan of the film will immediately form an image in their mind and a smile on their face.
The game is littered with those moments. There’s a whole damn book of them waiting to be explored. The pacing is rapid, perhaps overly so for some, as you will not be given enough time to clear the board. Experiencing a single side-quest or two is normal as you’re swept up in the search for Lo Pan and proceed to the second phase.
This deliberate choice to present just enough time to fulfill your main objective works splendidly. Since you’ll only be exploring a subsection of the winding streets the urban landscape feels expansive. In subsequent plays you may head to an opposite nook and run into a wholesale change of events. Dashing about with just enough aim to maintain focus provides an exciting juxtaposition with the second phase and visceral showdown.
So, about that confrontation.
Here, we flip the board. Instead of Chinatown you’re hastily sneaking around Lo Pan’s hideout. This arc of the story is more abbreviated as you want to race headlong towards the confrontation. The battle itself mirrors the film as it can be over extremely quickly. It still offers an interesting challenge as you must batter through the evil sorcerer’s defenses and then strike the killing blow as he’s made flesh.
As a tabletop approximation of the cult film – this design is fantastic. It does suffer from a few issues, most notably a slew of irksome typos and a chaotic sprawl of components, but it offers an experience that is quirkily on point.
The early going is very chaotic and loose. It’s a wild adventure more than a tactical confrontation. You dash about alleyways and run into a veritable collision of Kung Fu, comedy, and action. Yes it’s messy with much dice rolling and token management, but it’s also thrilling and unique.
The second phase contrasts well with that of the first, centering the conflict and wrapping the game up appropriately. It does suffer from the fact that it’s often much too easy to defeat Lo Pan, but several difficulty adjustments are offered to tailor the experience.
It’s clear that Big Trouble is a hell of a time. It ticks a number of boxes, allowing you to field notable characters and even improve them over the course of a session. It presents a dynamic enough environment that each play offers a unique mixture of quests and narratives to bend. Ultimately, it does much more than simply offer a vehicle to expel your favorite quotes.
Beyond offering simple joy, this game fits in a unique space. It’s part adventure game, part tactical miniatures skirmish. The narrative elements and dual format position this away from genre-comparisons such as Descent or Imperial Assault. It’s not just a fantastic experience for fans of the source material, but a solid ride of ups and downs for anyone interested in this style of design.
The passion here is evident. The team behind this release are obviously fans of the film and they’ve come out of nowhere to capture that adventure faithfully. Despite the fact that quality licensed games are on the upswing, it’s still quite the surprise when something like this comes along.
Just remember what old Jack Burton does when the earth quakes, and the poison arrows fall from the sky, and the pillars of Heaven shake. Yeah, Jack Burton just looks that big old storm right square in the eye and he says, ‘Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it.’
Have you played Big Trouble in Little China? Let us know in the comments! And be sure to join host Becca Scott on Game the Game every Thursday here on Geek & Sundry to watch the best boardgames played with fantastic guests!
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Cover Image: Jessica Fisher
Image Credits: Charlie Theel
Editor’s note: A sample of the game was provided by the publisher. This article isn’t sponsored, but previous coverage was done in partnership with Everything Epic.
In addition to Geek & Sundry, Charlie Theel writes for Ars Technica, Tabletop Gaming, Player Elimination, and co-hosts the gaming podcast Ding & Dent. You can find him on Twitter @CharlieTheel.