Battle of the Bands
A game review by S. John Ross

[Card Image]Price: $20.00
Components: 105 cards, rule sheet. Boxed.
Designer: Dan Smith/Smif Ink.
Publisher: Third World Games

I should begin by describing my relationship with the creator of Battle of the Bands, Dan Smith. He and I are colleagues with a working relationship that goes back many years. Professionally, I think our first shared work was GURPS Warehouse 23, which I wrote and he illustrated. Prior to that, we were correspondents, and since, we've worked together on many other projects, including the Sparks paper-miniatures line from my own outfit, Cumberland Games. I'm credited as a playtester and/or provider of input in Battle of the Bands itself. So, in no uncertain terms: I like Dan Smith and I like his artwork and I want to see him succeed at anything he tries, though not so spectacularly that he never has time to draw another Sparks set.

But I don't write shills; I'm reviewing Battle of the Bands for two reasons. First, I enjoy playing it and think others might, too. Second, I have a number of minor complaints with it, and writing them in review form is more fun than just emailing them to Dan.

[Card Image]Battle of the Bands is a satirical card game for 2-4 players; each player represents himself as a would-be rock star, the leader of an up-and-coming band. The object of Battle of the Bands is to collect Superstar points. The first player to reach the goal of X points (X varies with the number of players) wins.

Mechanically, the game is pretty simple: You've got cards for potential band members, cards for the instruments they play, cards for reputations they can earn, cards for recording contracts, cards representing "hit singles," and cards that temporarily do something nice for you or something rude to somebody else. Each member of your band has a score (hipness) that determines how impressive and/or popular he is, and the power of your band is the sum of its parts.

That power is tested in the Gigs: unlike in the real world, where gigs for new bands are mostly a matter of a lonely night of work on a miniature bar stage, every single Gig in Battle of the Bands is an everyone's-invited, hyper-competitive showdown. Whenever anyone plays a Gig, everyone is welcome to show up, and we find out why the game has the name it does. Each Gig is a battle, and the winner (determined by hipness, a random die roll, and cards played to mess with the outcome) takes home a Superstar point, edging closer to victory. That's the primary way to win: Build up your collective hipness, and when you have a clear lead in Hip, force as many Gigs as possible to take advantage of it. Cards and the die-roll insure that the outcome is never certain, but overall, the hippest band still has a noticeable edge worth exploiting.

[Card Image]There are other ways to win Superstar points, too (recording Hit Singles, and assigning your "Me" card the right kind of instrument), but mostly, Battle of the Bands is about bands battling. When a Gig happens, the cards can fly fast and furious, piling up on the table and rendering well-laid plans to waste. If somebody has a clear lead in Superstar points, he'll likely find himself the victim of numerous disasters ranging from busted guitar strings to the scandal of lip-synched performances.

Battle is strongest as a 3- and 4-player game, but my favorite feature of the game is that it really does work well with just two players. While the social system of checks and balances vanishes and the luck of the draw becomes more important, the game still packs a punch and stays interesting. Since my wife and I get tired of Scrabble now and then, we're always on the lookout for new games to add to the library of two-player options, and Battle of the Bands has earned a permanent place at our table.

[Card Image]Battle of the Bands is satirical, but unlike games like Chez Geek, where the humor lives almost entirely in the funny card artwork and text, Battle's humor survives into the bones of the game itself. The cards interact in unexpected ways at time, but always with a perverse kind of logic, resulting in gameplay with good legs, even after you've snickered at all the cards and giggled at all the pictures. The high level of card interaction gives the game a lot of synergy, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that Dan was as surprised by a lot of it as I was. Certain games take on a life of their own once you give them their first breath, and this game feels like one of those. I was reminded of my favorite aspects of games like Adel Verpflichtet, where just the combination of cards played can lead to pauses for laughter mixed with dread at sudden turns in the game's fortunes.

Battle of the Bands is fast - fast to learn, fast to teach, and fast to play. I taught my wife the game while (ironically) hunched over a chair at our town's big music festival while the band was doing instrument and microphone checks. The rules fit on two sides of a small sheet of paper, and most games clock in at well under an hour. Since victory is determined by an arbitrary number of points, it'd be easy to deliberately extend or shorten game time by adjusting the goal.

Most of my complaints with Dan's game fall into the category of missed opportunities, and since I'm supposedly a contributor of "valuable input," I suppose I have only myself to blame for not paying as much attention to the playtest versions as I have to the finished game. The game has some wickedly clever mechanics that see only occasional play, bullied out of the way, at times, by the game's solid, but more traditional, core. Some Monkey Wrench cards, for example, are highly variable and situation-dependent, which makes them fascinating and unpredictable, while others [Card Image]just provide flat numerical modifiers. Another example is the Reputations, which have both a good side and a bad side (being a "Soloist" is cool . . . but take it too far and you're a "Stage Hog" which is very unhip). The idea is that you play the good side of the card on your guys and the bad side on an opponent, but there are two cards in the game that can flip a reputation card, turning good to bad or vice-versa. It's a beautiful thing when it happens, but, since cards come and go quickly, often unplayed depending on which stage of the game you're in, it doesn't happen very often at all, despite making a terrific amount of sense in the game's own odd universe, and making for a dramatic course-change in gameplay. Comparably, the "two-sided" approach to Reputation cards, which makes them much more versatile, is used only for Reputations, when it could have been used to good effect on several other kinds of card, too. There are several other examples of flashes of brilliance in the design that are allowed to stay mostly hidden, when just a tweak and a nudge could bring them all out to play more often, resulting in even greater energy and (because cards interact in so many ways) more variety in play. Unlike games where cards are singular events (in which case interesting stuff should be kept rare so it doesn't become old hat), Battle of the Bands provides an environment where the more something appears, the less it feels "old hat," because it'll always be interacting in different ways.

[Card Image]Most of my other quibbles are little better than nitpicks - one or two mechanical questions that will almost certainly be cleared up in the FAQ within a few months of the game's presence on the market, and nothing that has mattered much at all in actual play. Battle of the Bands is an elegant design, with few rules but many permutations, and most questions have very clear answers (the questions are where the surprises lie, which is as it should be).

As for the art . . . Well, it's Dan Smith! If you loved his work before (as I do) you'll love the look of the cards. If you're one of those anti-Smif oddballs (like Smif himself, on some days), then you won't.

Battle of the Bands is elegant, easy, fast, funny-beyond-skin-deep, and packs a real punch in entertainment value. Every game feels a little different, and the game's own twisted logic provides a unique experience that belies the simple numerical mechanics that drive it. There are things I'd do to crank it up "to eleven" if I could get my fingers on the amp, but it still rattles the windows at ten.

- S. John Ross, March 20th, 2002

Card images Copyright ©2002 by Dan Smith/Smif Ink. All other contents
of this page Copyright ©2002 by S. John Ross. All rights reserved.
Now stop reading the boring fine print and go play a game, fer chrissakes.

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