I’ve played plenty of board games that are better than GKR, but I don’t think I’ve ever played one that’s cooler than GKR.
Giant Killer Robots: Heavy Hitters is the first board game designed by the guys at WETA, the art and effects house you probably know from stuff like Lord of the Rings, Mad Max and Neil Blomkamp’s movies.
Set in a post-apocalyptic universe where Earth’s great cities are mostly abandoned, it focuses on the most popular spectator sport of the future: duels between enormous combat mechs, which use the ruined skyscrapers and roads as arenas.
GKR supports 1-4 players (there’s a decently functional solo mode), and while it looks like a tabletop miniatures battle game, it’s actually a little less combative (and more varied, and thus more interesting) than just inviting everyone around for a 30-foot deathmatch.
I mean, yes, there is a lot of combat in the game, but it’s not the only thing to do, nor is it the only way to win. Because it’s based on a futuristic game show, GKR has two victory conditions that can be met in the name of entertainment, and while one is the destruction of a mech, the other involves “tagging” skyscrapers (think Splatoon) for destruction.
The game quickly becomes a merry dance around the board, as you divide your attention between blasting missiles into the face of your opponents while also manoeuvring your way around the buildings tagging them. This prevents GKR from ever bogging down into a slugfest, especially when you consider the way smaller support units can be summoned onto the map to spice things up and keep everyone on their toes, and that by destroying buildings you’re being incentivised to destroy your own cover.
One of the big things that differentiates GKR from more serious tabletop miniatures games is the way combat is handled. Players begin each game by selecting from one of six pilots (each with their own perk), then choosing weapons cards to form a deck. You then draw a small number of cards from that deck each turn, and those are the weapons you can use. It’s a blend of strategic selection and blind luck that keeps your tactics interesting, rather than just relying on the same attack over and over.
The other big difference is that GKR doesn’t have hit points, or a damage counter. Instead, it treats your offensive capability and your health as the same thing; taking damage from attacks (or from over-exerting yourself) simply breaks the weapons your mech is bristling with, removing those cards from your hand, so with each hit you take your offensive options become more limited.
This stuff is all good! I went into GKR expecting a standard tabletop miniatures experience with nice packaging, but I instead found something fast, fluid and stripped back. Me and my experienced crew had a blast with it, but at the same time it’s very accessible, which is cool because thanks to its looks it’s already something I’ve had non-gamers I know ask about playing.
Anyway, enough about the game. Let’s talk about the real stars of GKR: the miniatures and art design.
Perhaps it’s slightly unfair to other designers and publishers, considering WETA have designed robots professionally for Hollywood, but these are easily the most impressive pre-painted miniatures I have ever seen included with a board game (Fantasy Flight’s best Armada ships, for example, are sold separately, and cost a fortune).
From the design to the build quality to the paint, each of GKR’s four “Heavy Hitters” looks like something fans would pay $40 for individually, and yet here they are included in a board game that impresses with almost every other aspect of its visual presentation as well.
There’s a spunky Akira vs Metal Gear aesthetic that runs throughout GKR, from the future corporation logos splashed across the side of abandoned skyscrapers to the manga-style art that adorns all the cards in the game. Combined with the bright and bold miniatures it makes GKR easily one of the best-looking board games I’ve ever seen, let alone played, in my life.
Normally that’s a trivial thing, a bit of icing on the cake, but this is such a physical game that it really makes a difference to your overall enjoyment! The huge skyscrapers of the future aren’t represented here by tokens or hexes, they’re standing right there on the map, and you’re moving around them with these comically enormous miniatures that add an enormous sense of weight and immersion to the experience. More than once I found myself making “thump...thump” noises as I stomped my Heavy Hitter around a corner and into a firing position.
Of course, all this quality comes at a cost, quite literally: this is an expensive game. Asking $150 for a board game is a steep request from WETA, but it’s especially important here because of the type of game GKR is. This isn’t an expansive role-playing adventure that you’ll play through for months, it’s a catchy, fun battle game—often over in an hour or so—using the same mechs and cards over and over again. You’re paying for the production cost here, not the length and breadth of experience.
Which I think here is OK, because those high production values are what makes GKR. Had this been a smaller, cheaper experience I think I’d have had my fun, noted some of its smart ideas then moved on. But the lure of these giant plastic beasts is so irresistible that I’m sure I’ll be playing this again and again, as much for the fun of playing with the miniatures as the game itself.