The fifth Hall of Spiel Essen 2018 offered lots of wonders and it's also the place where I met Itchy Monkey's creators, Blackbox Adventures. They are a board game company based in The Netherlands. Bart, Alina, and Baas welcomed Meeple Eksyen not only with a warn hospitality, but also with a chance to review their newest release. This game is one of our favourite games from our Spiel Essen 2018's loot. Prepare for the board game with the unique twist! (Sorry, guys, I stole your catchphrase!)
Background and RulesIn Itchy Monkey, we're going to manage lice to wreak havoc in the monkey's haven. You will spawn, move around, and infest other monkeys to make your colony the biggest of them all. It's not the most elegant theme out there, but I can assure you it has a really unique twist. There are five species of monkeys represented in circular tiles and two types of colorful lice blocks; the queen (the tall block) and the workers (the short block). In the Spawning phase, the queen and worker spawn other workers. Three options are available in the Moving phase: Jump, Bump, and Nitpicking. One louse, either the queen or worker, can jump to one adjacent monkey tile. You can control the louse to make the monkey you infest feel itchy; this monkey then moves horizontally or vertically bumping into other monkeys. When this happens, you can move either none, some, or all lice to the other monkeys you bumped. If you see that the opponent has equal or more than five lice blocks in one monkey tile, you can nitpick and he/she needs to take the blocks away back to reserve. There are 6 monkey species but we only need to use 5 on the board. The player wins the game when he/she is the first to infest a colony on three Gorillas; a colony on four of the same monkey species; and a colony on five different monkey species. One colony consists of at least three workers, not including the queen.
Game Play and ExperienceThis is my very first time seeing an abstract game wrapped in a very cute artwork (by Maarten de Schrijver) and twisted theme. Itchy Monkey is a combination of grid movement mechanism and tile placement mechanic. Allan Kirkeby, the designer, added token capturing in the core mechanism. It feels like playing Hive with a touch of chess. It would be best to first spawn all the three queens on the board; this will help to spawn more workers to infest other monkeys faster. Putting them in one monkey tile together is a good idea, more queens in one tile means more workers to spawn. Be careful not to put too many lice blocks in a tile so as to not become a sitting duck for the opponent to do the nitpicking action. The variation where the monkeys have special skill really enriches the game play; players need to devise better strategy while spawning and moving. On the other hand, playing the alternative "Last Louse Standing" feels like playing chess, especially if we use the monkeys' special skills on the board. It would be best to observe the surrounding and the color! Out of the three winning conditions, the one to infest five different monkey species was the most prevalent in our game play. This is because observing all the colors and the moving tile is harder than to observe the same monkey species. 2-4 players can play Itchy Monkey together. Based on my gaming session, this game requires around 20 minutes for 2-3 players and 30 minutes for 4 players.
Alternative Game Play and ExpansionAfter playing several rounds, we tried another variation of the game where each species now has a special effect. Some help the spawning and some gives extra boost in movement. There is also one alternative to play; a battle royal between lice. Whoever is the last louse standing wins the game. Blackbox Adventures even released an expansion for Itchy Monkey titled License to Kill, a complementary that adds extra spy lice. These lice are able to infiltrate other monkey infested with opponent's lice. Sounds fun and challenging, don't you think?
OpinionI've said it before and I'll say it again, the art work is really cute, but don't let it deceive you! I did not expect Itchy Monkey to be an abstract board game full with devising strategy and tactical planning. Blackbox Adventures succeeded in inserting a unique theme into the mechanism that became a plus point into why this game became my favorite. After several game sessions, I would say that four players are the right number to enjoy this game to the fullest — and a game with two players feels a bit bland. It would be a good idea to start the game with the normal mode; this really helps new player to learn the flow and rules. After playing it once, then it's time to use the monkeys' special effect on the board. This game mode includes something else that enriches the experience and game play, even we always play with this mode afterwards. In fact, I think this variation should be Itchy Monkey's main element; the game without the monkeys' effect will not be as challenging and fun. However, I did not find the "Last Louse Standing" as amazing as the other game plays. We really feel the intensive player interaction in this game; especially the Nitpicking option. It was a marvelous idea to add this action in order to limit the infestation and to make your opponents salty. Sacrificing a turn to hit the opponent with a net loss of five lice might get your opponent flipping the table.
I would recommend this game for those who like abstract board games with intense strategy and tactic. You will not expect something with depth like this covered beautifully in a theme so gross yet adorable. It's a good gateway game to abstract games. If you enjoy something like Azul, you might enjoy Itchy Monkey, too. Thank you Blackbox Adventures for the chance to infest monkeys with lice. Can't wait to try the License to Kill expansion! Don't forget to check it out on Kickstarter.