Now I never jumped in on the Neuroshima Hex bandwagon. By the time I knew of it, it had way too many factions for me to count and I usually struggle to get big box two-player games to the table. But if you want to know about how good some board game apps are, you definitely have to include Neuroshima in the list - the app practically negated the need for the physical product. With the success of the series, it surprises me that Monolith Arena even came into existence.
Appearing as essentially a re-skin of Neuroshima, but with some added tweaks to the system, a quality upgrade and switching from post-apocalyptic to fantasy - a move I welcome as I'm not a fan of those settings in general, why do you think I have Imperial Settlers and not 51st State in my collection? So, is it worth investing in this version or perhaps is this a chance for newcomers to tag in without feeling overwhelmed by expansions?
Monolith Arena - The Game
Monolith Arena is a fantasy skirmish board game designed solely by Michal Oracz, who also has credits on Neuroshima Hex! 3.0 and Cry Havoc, that pits asymmetric factions of elves, dwarves, humans and demons against each other on a hex-based battlefield.
At the heart of the game are order tiles that players draw from their faction’s stack, using them to command units around the board to attack opponents, hoping to eliminate their rivals’ banner.
The full rule set involves secretly stacking the board tiles in a ‘monolith’ made up of plastic trays that then can be ‘unfolded’ and revealed, giving another tactical edge to battles. As well as a one-on-one mode, Monolith Arena has a team variant that support either two teams of two or a three-on-one variation, with a typical match said to take around 30 minutes.
Doesn't Matter What Setting you Use!
Neuroshima Hex wasn't a bad looker originally, but Monolith Arena has definitely upped the game in production quality. Not only is the artwork much more vibrant and colourful to look at, but it's a lot easier to distinguish the four factions on the playing field. I especially love the player mats for each faction, that contain all the reference rules for each tile they use, the distribution and have these cool glossy, reflective areas within the artwork. Add the Monolith pieces (more on them later) that tower over the battlefield and hold tiles within and you've got an overall solid production without a hefty price tag to go with it.
Sadly, as before you obviously need to go into this knowing that there's no theme here. Yes, a stout dwarf has more armour and demons use poison, but there's no theme really to be had, it's an abstract, tile placement, war game at the end of the day. As long as, like me, you enjoy a good abstract game, then you'll do just fine.
Telling it Apart from Neuroshima Hex
One thing I have felt is that the factions feel a lot more distinct from each other than in Neuroshima Hex. Granted I never played the expansion factions, but going from just a base set perspective (as I'm sure you'll get more factions for Monolith down the line) I did feel like my gameplay changed dramatically between each one.
You're playing a much more defensive game as the armoured Guardians of the Realm who suffer on initiative then you are as the much more tricksy (and annoying) Elves who constantly run rings around you and strike first. Yeah, I hate those guys, trying to defend against them is a pain!
But aside from that, much of the feel of the game is as you remember it. Draw some tiles from the stack (wish this game had bags), play/save two and discard one and resolve the battles as and when they arise trying to knock out your opponent's banner (as opposed to a base). Even the way that some tiles attack in melee, ranged or "net" others is basically the same. So, I wouldn't think of Monolith Arena as a brand new game, more as a revamping of a system that wasn't broke to begin with, but couldn't complain about filling in a few cracks.
What is new however are the Monoliths, yes, the title does feature in there somewhere. Now you can play without these and I certainly recommend for your first few games you do so as you'll want to get used to all your unit abilities and orders first. But if you've become a veteran of the system, these provide a really cool way to up the strategy in your game.
You hide some tiles at the start of the game within a three-high stack of plastic "holders" and then during your turn you can deploy them in sort of a snake like fashion to reveal them and make use of their abilities. You really need experience with Monolith Arena before you can make good use of these, but I will say, once you do, you'll likely never do without them. You can really spring some good surprises and countermoves if you're good.
It's just you and me... You Others Play Another Game!
One issue that always came up when people talk about Neuroshima Hex (or at least 99% of the time I found) was the problem of introducing more players. It could go up to four players, but you never really dared venture above two. Now, I didn't own the game, but from what I recall it was basically a free-for-all battle royale which just got chaotic and dragged the game out. So, it was generally regarded as a awesome two-player game and a pretty horrific three or four-player one.
Now I've tried Monolith at all player counts again from two to four. Here it's no longer a battle royale, but a 2v1 or 2v2 affair where you still have different factions, but work together. Now this is an improvement over Neuroshima......if you play with four players. In 2v2 it's usually more balanced and not too chaotic, but Monolith stops being a filler at this point and starts taking quite a long time to finish with the high potential for AP that ensues.
But at three players, I really didn't have a good time. If you thought the luck factor hurt normally, it's insane when you have to consider that two players have to "hope" they draw good tiles that synergise with each other vs the one player who just has his own bag. As such 2v1 games end up ridiculously unbalanced in favour of the lone player especially considering that the life points don't change, yet he has two banners he can aim at, you only have one.
So overall, it's improved from before at four players, but still isn't recommended at three - leaving me to conclude that honestly you should mainly stick to playing Monolith Arena as a two-player game - it's where it shines the most both in a tactical sense and keeps
You Got Lucky This Time!
A further criticism I will have with Monolith Arena is the potential for luck to play a big part. Drawing three tiles from a bag does mean that the game features a fair degree of luck. You will have turns, sometimes many in a row, where you simply don't draw what you need, and it can mean the difference between a win and loss at times. Your opponent has the same issue, but it can be very frustrating when things just go from bad to worse all because you couldn't draw a useful order or champion when you needed it and yet your opponent gets the perfect hand every time.
Now it's not a deal-breaker for me, but it is a persistent issue. That being said, the rule set does allow for a more tactical variant. In this you get to draw twice as many tiles as normal, mitigating the luck factor, but perhaps giving way to a greater degree of analysis paralysis. However, I'm sure the prospect of reducing the luck factor is welcome to many and at least you have the option available, which is good that it was at least considered in the development of the game. For what is meant to only be a 30-60-minute event however, like I said, it's not a deal-breaker.
Final Thoughts on Monolith Arena
You're not getting a wholly new experience here if you're already a fan of Neuroshima Hex. Monolith Arena draws so much from that game that owning both seems arbitrary. However new players may want to consider Monolith over Hex. The production quality has been stepped up a few notches and the added variant of the Monoliths adds some very cool tactical moments for veterans of the system. It is this latter part that is the big separation from Neuroshima Hex.
As before the theme isn't really a factor, you're essentially playing an abstract war game, but each faction feels very distinct both in look and in how they play. And also, as before where Monolith Arena slips up is the multiplayer aspect. Very few gamers enjoyed Neuroshima Hex with more than two players and here, other than a rather lengthy 2 v 2 team option, it's the same. Certainly, you won't catch me ever playing Monolith Arena with three players again.
Monolith Arena is a solid update to a highly popular two-player game. It doesn't re-invent the wheel per say, but it improves on the looks, the factions themselves and adds a neat twist for those veteran players. I can't see why you would need to own both, but if you're starting out, begin with this one.