For better and worse, Borderlands board game Arena of Badassery wears its setting like an ill-fitting shirt
Tense miniature gameplay feels at odds with half-baked thematic trappings.
Mention Borderlands to anyone roughly my age, and the responses will range from sighs of nostalgia to slightly embarrassed grimaces. The Gearbox video game series, and the goofy sci-fi universe in which it takes place, was popular throughout the 2010s thanks to quick-paced, shoot-and-loot combat and an uncanny ability to cram popular meme culture into every possible nook - a selling point at the time.
Unfortunately, the hyper-topicality of memes necessarily slapped an expiration date on Borderlands’ tone and writing. I can’t recall much of the four main titles’ plot, but I do remember the constantly squealing mechanical mascot Claptrap, a glut of references to other video games and, er… Butt Stallion. Time has not been kind to Borderlands, which is why it was surprising to hear that Monster Fight Club was creating a miniatures-based board game using the license and featuring perhaps its most fatiguing antagonist: Mr. Torgue.
I had a chance to play Borderlands: Mister Torgue’s Arena of Badassery at PAX Unplugged 2021. A fellow convention goer and I each took control of two Vault Hunters - Amara and Salvador on my side, Mordecai and Moze on theirs - and discovered that while the name might be a mouthful, actual sessions are pleasantly bite-sized.
We each took turns activating one of our two characters and moving them through the hex grid arena that composed the demo scenario. A horde of Psycho and marauder miniatures flooded the opposite side, and we spent our full first turn whittling down as many as possible. A second wave flooded through the spawn points moments later, immediately transforming our ostensibly safe positions into risky holdouts and chokepoints.
Arena of Badassery uses the publisher’s [RE]action System - also seen in its Cyberpunk Red: Combat Zone minis game - ties movement, shooting and most other big verbs to a pool of three action tokens tied via colour to different sized dice. We had one green token (a d12) and two yellow (a d8), and deciding how to allocate them is one of the biggest decisions the game will pose to its players. Sniper Mordecai might want to use the larger green token to keep his distance, while Salvador specializes in mowing down thick groups - using his d12 for anything other than shooting seemed a waste. Damage reduces the dice's efficacy to a measly six-sides, and losing all three means a fast trip to the auto-respawn machine back at the start of the map.
My partner and I quickly found a tactical rhythm as we discussed how best to position our front liners, who needed healing most and where to shove Moze’s huge Iron Bear mech. The spotlight system, which swings the enemy AI’s focus among the Vault Hunters based on randomly assigned criteria such as moving three spaces or getting a critical hit, meant nobody could be too heroic or else end their turn in the mouth of the meat grinder, so to speak. It was frenetic and rewarded both our planning and our daring. It was simply massive fun.
Though our demo ended after taking out the boss marauder in an admittedly incredible display of tactics and dice rolls, Arena of Badassery sends players into a purchase and recuperation phase between matches. There, guns can be swapped, health restored and skill points allotted to each Vault Hunter’s unique tree. This mirrors the structure of the video game, where players would head out into the wastelands to complete a bevy of quests before coming back to unload their spoils into various vending machines.
But that’s where the meaningful comparisons end. For all intents and purposes, one could palette swap all of the Borderlands proper nouns and lose none of the functionally important bits of Arena of Badassery’s design. The guns don’t feel nearly as unique as the wacky firearms players find littered around the planet of Pandora, and you certainly can’t swap them out as soon as one pops out of a corpse like some macabre piñata.
Gone, too, are the video games’ fantastical zones. Once the series escaped the brown morass of mid-Naughts’ environmental design, Borderlands habitually featured climate and architectural extremes that went a long way to break up the enjoyable but often same-y feeling of shooting and, of course, then looting. Arena of Badassery sported a few billboards and terrain flourishes, but the reality of a miniatures game that doesn’t cost Games Workshop money amounts to desert-flavoured hex tiles (the publisher said the tiles will eventually sport more varied and interesting art but not anything as complicated as a viking ship stuck in a mountain).
Mister Torgue’s yelling, bulging face is emblematic of Arena of Badassery’s image problem. The character overstayed his welcome by the second DLC appearance, and loud explitives as a personality trait stopped being funny by 2015. Oddly, Monster Fight Club has kept the worst tendencies of Borderlands humour from touching the game itself, which remains a highlight of my time on the show floor.
What, then, does the Borderlands license bring to the table beyond name recognition and established character models for miniatures? That answer feels pessimistic and reductive, but at the same time I’m glad there isn’t a playable Handsome Jack that can summon a Butt Stallion miniature that poops rainbow nukes onto enemy positions. Wishing the Borderlands aesthetic could penetrate more of how the game plays at the table feels like a finger on the monkey’s paw ready to curl.
Situating the Borderlands spin-off games on a spectrum, Arena of Badassery sits opposite Tales from the Borderlands, Telltale’s 2014 narrative adventure that adopted the main series’ humour wholesale even as it interrogated why fans kept asking for more of a shrill robot that curses like a fresh teenager. In comparison, the upcoming board game feels hesitant, or else uninterested, in doing something interesting with the source material. I worry the result will be popular for all the wrong reasons.