NanoBot Battle Arena—which we’ve just been calling NanoBots around the house the last few days as my wife, my daughter, and I all trash-talk each other between games—is another Kickstarter success story, funded in 2013 and released early last year. It’s a tile-laying game with an elegant twist: There are eight tile types, each associated with a specific Reaction card, and players use those cards to grow their tile chains more quickly or to break up or annihilate opponents’ tiles.
Players in NanoBot Battle Arena are scientists who have created and trained various strains of nanotech “bots” to fight in Petri dish-sized arenas, forming chains of bots while trying to break up or destroy opponents’ chains; the player with the longest unbroken chain at game-end, which occurs once one player has run out of tiles, is the winner. There are eight such strains, fifteen tiles apiece, and players can play one strain each in the basic game or two to four strains in an advanced game. The basic game, which has each player place one tile and play one Reaction card per turn, is too simple and functioned like a tutorial for us, after which we switched to games where each player played two strains rather than one. In these advanced games, where each player starts with 30, 45 or 60 tiles depending on how many strains s/he plays, turns are longer and allow for a little more strategy. On a single turn, a player plays one Reaction card from his/her hand of six, places two tiles, plays two more Reaction cards, and then draws new cards to return his/her hand to the full limit.
Tile placement is simple: The tiles, which might be cute except for the part about the nanobots looking like they’d cause some horrible parasitic diseases, have one “base edge” with arrows on it, which determines their direction for the construction of a chain. A player may place a tile anywhere on the table, in any orientation, except along the base edge of another player’s tile. Chains may turn, but are broken by empty spaces or by tiles with base edges turned in the wrong direction—that is, tiles that are adjacent are not automatically part of a chain.
The key mechanic that makes this more than just a tile-laying game is the Affinity that links tiles to Reaction cards. Every card has a number on it from 1 to 3, with 1 cards the most common and 3 the least so. Each of the eight tile colors connects to a specific color of Reaction card, and that card’s power is increased by one whenever that player uses that card type. A player may apply the effects of a card to his/her own tiles or to any opponents’ tiles, as long as those tiles aren’t “petrified”—flipped over via a Petrify card to protect them against all attacks. There are cards that destroy tiles, some that move tiles, and some that reorient them.
Here’s how affinity works. A player with the Echidna (green) strain can play a Grow (also green) card, which allows him to play one to three additional tiles beyond those allowed on every turn, and add one tile to the number shown on the card. If that player was lucky enough to gather and save the better Grow cards, s/he could potentially place twelve tiles (the two allowed on every turn, plus three, three, and four more by playing two Grow 2 cards and a Grow 3 card) in a single turn in an advanced game—a coup de grâce if you’re already winning, or a badass come-from-behind victory move if you’re not.
The flip side of affinity is that opposing players suffer a penalty of one when attempting to use a Reaction card against a player whose tiles match the colors of those card. For example, playing a Burn 1 card against a player with the orange Burn tiles has no effect (making the card useless). Because there are more 1 cards than 2s and 3s combined, this particular type of defense is a huge variable when choosing which tile type(s) to use in a particular game—and a good argument for making those selections random.
With eight powers, however, there are inevitable disagreements on their relative strengths and weaknesses, some of which are quite stark. The Freeze power, where a player takes one to three (four with affinity) cards from an opponent’s hand and lays them face-down on the table for a single round, after which the victim can pick them back up, is by far the weakest Reaction card, although Pivot, where the player can rotate one to three (or four) tiles on the table, isn’t much better. Burn and Infect are extremely powerful, as both involve scrapping (permanently destroying) opponent tiles, and the player with the gray tiles can make Petrify into a powerhouse because opposing players can’t use the Petrify 1 cards to flip his tiles back over to their vulnerable side. The Surge power was the most frustrating to play because its ability—removing a line of opposing tiles from the board, but returning them to their owner rather than destroying them—isn’t that potent unless you get a couple of Surge cards at once and can stack their powers to take out, say, five or six tiles in one shot.
There’s also a high luck or randomness factor inherent in NanoBot Battle Arena because of the importance of the cards. A player who has the Relic (gray) strain and draws many Petrify cards is almost impossible to defeat because her tiles can’t be attacked unless someone else draws Petrify cards to flip them back. As I mentioned above, the Storm (pink) is a tough strain to play because you need to get several Surge cards at the same time to mitigate the fact that you’re only returning tiles to their owners rather than destroying them. My daughter (age 8) and I felt that the Freeze power was too weak and we tend to avoid it or remove it from the deck entirely before playing. It’s already a strong family-strategy game, moving quickly with games taking us about 20 minutes for two to three people; with rebalancing of some of the powers, perhaps through updates or expansions, NanoBot Battle Arena would be even stronger.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.