The concept of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is absurd. It's even more absurd that these four green reptiles could become so deeply lodged into popular culture that they're still bashing skulls at the age of 40. Sit a kid in front of the TV and turn on that radical cartoon from the '80s - they're instantly hooked like a fish jonesing for a worm.
So of course we're going to latch onto a swanky board game crammed full of miniature ninja turtles. This is a chest of toys for a generation that grew up on it, which is why I was so shocked and full of joy when the TMNT: Shadows of the Past board game arrived from IDW Games in 2016.
Shadows was killer. It was designer Kevin Wilson's return to form. (He's known for little ditties like horror board game Arkham Horror and fantasy dungeon-crawler Descent.) But this is 2020 and Shadows of the Past is, well, the past. Instead of issuing expansions to this massively successful title its creators started over from the ground up.
I was skeptical. Instead of one box we now have two expensive core sets, each portraying specific arcs in the IDW comic series. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures: Change is Constant is the kick-off, featuring the four fearsome fighting machines alongside Casey Jones. The enemy here is totally foreign if you're not familiar with the comics, as Old Hob is a mutated cat linked to the turtles’ mutation. After Splinter ripped out his eye he vowed revenge and formed the initial antagonist for our heroes. He runs a street gang of sorts so the chaff consists of street thugs and ruffians for the turtles to beat down.
While Change is Constant is the better starting point to get your feet wet in this system, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures: City Fall may be the more interesting core set. In order to avoid duplicate minis the protagonists here are April, Splinter, Angel and two former villains turned allies in the aforementioned Old Hob and a huge mutated snapping turtle named Slash.
The enemy is the more iconic Foot Clan and includes the first appearance of Bebop and Rocksteady. It also helps that this storyline is the strongest run of the IDW comics featuring absolutely electric battles. The scenarios are full of great twists such as Leonardo being turned and brainwashed into joining the Foot - yes, he's a boss in this game and wielded by the overlord player.
This fracturing of content into two sets is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures' biggest stumbling block. It's clearly necessary to be viable as a retail item, but someone jumping in and unfamiliar with the newer comic series will find great disappointment. Most of us who grew up on TMNT view the core narrative as the heroes in a half shell taking on Shredder and the Foot, not to mention Krang (who isn't even available yet). You can't really get that here unless you pony up for two huge purchases and devote a block of your shelf to this system.
Let's say you can get past that and make it work. What you will find is that there is a lot going on here. We have a large number of total miniatures and tons of lovingly illustrated bits. However, the core dice system is the star of this show.
The turtle players take on the asymmetric roles of their favourite protagonists. Each is unique in their special abilities and powerful moves, but they also have their own set of dice which are rolled and dictate your actions for the round. This is all spot on as Leo has more swords for better melee attacking, Mikey has more movement so he can jump around and so on. It's just as you'd expect and unsurprisingly joyous sinking into their shells and shoving a fist into a masked goon.
You roll your dice each round, which offers your action choices. The trick is you must align them carefully in a horizontal line as you face a crucial decision. Dice are shared - your selection placed farthest to the left will also be used by your friend sitting there, while the die on the far right of your line will be utilised by your other friend sitting over there.
Naturally, there's conversation. Donatello speaks up asking if Raphael needs a boost to his defense. Raph shoots back that his roll came up weak for skateboards so he needs a bit of a movement boost instead of protection. "No problem" responds Leonardo, who's sitting on the other side of Raph, “I have a movement I can share.”
The cooperation is the focus of strategic planning and it pays off exceptionally. You must collaborate to stretch the mechanisms to their utmost and achieve victory. This captures the deeper themes of TMNT exceedingly well. Splinter constantly drives home that his sons must work together and leverage each other's strengths in order to overcome their foes. As in Shadows of the Past, Kevin Wilson understands this and has crafted a game system that absolutely captures the spirit of the series.
The turtles can activate in any order they choose to further their tactical options. The catch is that another player takes on the role of Shredder or Old Hob or Alopex. They play cards to perform actions in-between each turtle's turn, harassing you with gang members and Foot ninja.
This role is surprisingly engaging and not at all a chore. The hand management is a very clever way to achieve an asymmetric edge to the game. The deck of enemy cards includes special abilities and activation symbols mimicking the turtles' dice, effectively retaining a consistent feel of dramatic action with low overhead.
While this system is very compelling, it does come at a steep cost; in this instance it's not money but downtime. If you're playing with a full group of five you will find yourself acting for a few moments and then waiting many more to act again. You're invested in what's going on so it still can instil excitement, but the swift tempo is undercut quite a bit. This affliction doesn't affect the villain player as their action is threaded between each of the players.
But say you don't want to play that bad guy. You don't want to kick your friend in the crotch or knock some of their teeth out; you're friends, after all. Well, new in Change is Constant and City Fall is a very simple AI system to run the evil-doers. You can play the exact same scenarios with only minor tweaks to the framework of the co-op board game.
There's some clever inclusions here, such as enemy figures not rolling dice - instead the game provides static numbers and highlights the players' rolls as the focus. It works relatively well, although those desiring a very rich and nuanced artificial intelligence may be disappointed. Enemies are given simple attack priorities and their behaviour never shifts. Additionally, there's a general feeling of looseness as the participants are required to make judgement calls and occasionally adjudicate edge cases.
Due to this flimsiness and a necessary reduction in dramatic surprise, I've found the core one-versus-many system much more effective. That mode simply feels more dynamic, more radical and more interesting.
Compared to TMNT: Shadows of the Past this is a much cleaner product. The rulebook is stronger, the gameplay systems are refined and the components are a doozy. It's a shame owners of the previous game may find themselves having to start over - and for those wanting the whole shebang the price of two big boxes is bitter to swallow - but Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures does feel more significant and noteworthy.
This is an absolutely wonderful board game. It's very malleable as you can combine all of the content and then have a wealth of scenarios that you can play as simple one-off 90-minute encounters or string together to form a lengthier campaign. This is more a miniatures skirmish game on a board than what we'd call a proper dungeon-crawler, and in that vein it’s among the best in class.
If you're still passionate about those four green dudes, Change is Constant and City Fall will give you a kick in the teeth that leaves you grinning.