We'd finished a turn of the Ni No Kuni 2 board game before realising that we were in trouble. It'd been going so well: our team had ganged up on the monster blocking our path, gleefully beaten the crap out of it, and looted its treasure for building materials. "This is easy," we thought while counting up our spoils. Oh, my sweet summer child. How wrong we were. The truth soon dawned on us - we'd underestimated things. Badly.
This is the Ni No Kuni 2 board game all over. It's deceptive. In spite of cheerful artwork inspired by Studio Ghibli, it's an unforgiving experience. Strategic and brutal, the game's hidden depth is captivating.
Time to play: 30 mins
Set-up time: 5 mins
Difficulty (to win): Hard
Avg. price: $30 / £25
As an adaptation of Ni No Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom, this version for one to four players follows the same story: boy-king Evan's home is in ruins, so now he's on a mission to create a new one. That means adventuring across the land as one of four heroes: Evan himself; the broodingly handsome Roland; engineer Bracken; or Sky Pirate Tani. No matter who you choose, they're all portrayed in a gorgeously detailed miniature. Combine these models with cards that perfectly capture the video game's style and you've got a handsome piece of kit on your hands (even if it does take up a lot of room laid out).
Not that we can stop to take in those sights. Standing in Evan's way are hordes of monsters, and they're guarding the resources he'll need to recreate his kingdom. That's the game in a nutshell: choose a quest, defeat the enemy lurking there, and build locations to get points (known here as 'Influence'). Earn a set total and victory is yours. Like so many of the best board games, it's an easy system to get your head around.
Which is just as well as you'll need that excess brain-power to strategize. First off, time is short. More specifically, the game is only five turns and roughly half-an-hour long. Fail to gather enough Influence by the end and it's curtains for you. Such bite-sized strategy is refreshing compared to the multi-hour epics usually weighing down shelves, and it ratchets up the tension as well.
Ni No Kuni 2's enemies also have strengths some characters will struggle to overcome. Despite being proficient in either melee, ranged combat, or magic, they're weaker against the rest. That means you'll need to be in tune with your character's unique skills to get the most out of a turn. Throw in missions with varied resources and you're left with a tricky balancing act to pull off. Picking your targets wisely is crucial as a result. Choose the wrong one and you may not have enough Inspiration to reach your goal. It makes for a tense, tough challenge.
Divide and conquer
The game's bosses add another layer to get your teeth into. You'll be going up against one of two evil overlords per match, and their score cards dictate how many Influence points you'll need to beat them (this varies depending on how many players there are). However, that isn't what makes them memorable. Instead, they stand out because of game-changing powers. For example, they could place new quests face down so you don't know whether they're worth the effort. It's a wrinkle that makes up for the game's somewhat simplistic combat, particularly because monsters left standing by the final turn add points to that boss' Influence score. The challenge therefore comes not from battle, but prioritization. Sound tactics are essential.
The game doesn't feel unfair, though. Namely because victory always feels within reach. To start with, character powers allow you to stack the odds in your favor. Evan can swap a couple of unwanted resources for two of another kind, for instance, while Roland is able to defeat monsters straight away without fighting them.
Next, you've got backup. Each player receives a 'Higgledy' to help them out in the wilderness, and they're an adorable blend of mascots and Pokemon. These cuties add an extra dice to combat, but they can also be sent out on their own if you'd prefer to divide and conquer. It's a cool way of exercising your tactical muscles, even when playing alone.
I just wish there were more resource tokens on offer. Even though the game comes with its fair share, you'll inevitably run out during a match. Considering how heavily Ni No Kuni 2 relies on these cardboard icons, that seems like an oversight. I can forgive a lack of flavor text on quest cards (who are we fighting for, and why? No idea), but this is harder to overlook.
Luckily, it's not an issue that'll ruin your experience and the game is gripping enough to keep you coming back. It's also good fun regardless of whether you play it solo, as a board game for two players, in a trio, or in a group of four. It's one of the best cooperative board games out there right now, yet you don't need anyone else to have a great time. I enjoyed my four-player match the most because it was ever so slightly easier, but that's not to say pairs or those playing alone won't have a blast all the same.
This is the best compliment I can give the Ni No Kuni 2 board game. Even when it was just me, I still wanted to dive back in. Its core loop of managing, collecting, and building is an intoxicating one - lose and you'll simply want to try again.