The (Board) Gamer’s Guide to Supply Management Part XXI: Dark Minions

In Part V and Part IX, we introduced you to Small World, a delightful game from Days of Wonder (also on iOS) that, in the words of Wil Wheaton, combines the military strategy of Risk with the delightful art and fantasy races of Cosmic Encounters. Except it’s more dynamic than Risk, more variable than Cosmic Encounters, and a good introduction to how your suppliers’ sales and marketing forces are going to try and counter, and undermine, your every effort to procure and manage supply at a fair and sustainable price (as profit is the name of their game, not cost control).

Small World, with its 14 races and 20 powers, leading to 280 different possible pairings of race and special ability, did a great job of capturing the many different types of sales professionals that will ascend upon you in the course of your day job, but it lacks a mechanism that accurately captures the hoard mentality of larger vendors with seemingly endless and disposable sales forces. Larger vendors, when they lack the ability to win on saleability alone, resort to trying to overwhelm a potential customer with a large sales team that will descend upon the potential customer on every front in an effort to overwhelm the potential customer and wear them down until they just give in and sign on the dotted line.

On the other hand, Dark Minions not only captures that hoard mentality to a tee, but effectively lets you take on the role of a Sales Director of a large vendor with undifferentiated commodity products who’s only sure method of success is to strategically send his hoard of disposable snake-oil salesmen against the most susceptible targets. In the mindset of Dark Minions, differentiated capability doesn’t matter, as the organization doesn’t have anything unique to sell, only strength in numbers. More on this later. For now, let’s introduce the game.

In Dark Minions, hordes of dark minions have descended upon the countryside, eager to secure their reputation as a scourge on mankind. The despicable evil marauders attack everywhere in search of conquest. The citizens are helpless and will soon be overwhelmed. Death and destruction awaits all those in the path of the evil ones …

In Dark Minions, you are a great evil one and your goal is to vanquish the medieval towns in your domain. Every time you vanquish a town you gain vanquish points, and the first great evil one to a fixed number of vanquish points (which varies according to the number of great evil ones playing) wins the game.

In Dark Minions, you control an evil hoard, equal to 50 minions to start, and on each turn you can either use part of that hoard to attack a town or capture a defense tower, or you can choose to re-spawn some of your evil minions from the graveyard. When you send part of your hoard against a town or a tower, you knowingly send them to their doom. (But you are a great evil one, and minions exist to be sacrificed! Plus, since you have the power to re-animate them at a later time, their deaths have no impact on your overall power.)

Unlike most of the games we have covered in our series, Dark Minions is a dice-based game, which adds a considerable element of randomness to your strategy (which mimics nicely the apparent strategy of some sales forces), as each roll dictates what you can, and cannot, do on your turn. (This is a good analogy to the real-world where a sales organization is often limited by the number of sales resources currently available for deployment, the financial resources free to deploy them, and the organizational resources to acquire more sales resources.) At the start of the game, each player rolls three six-sided black dice (as you are evil, remember) on their turn, numbered +1, 2, … 6. If a 4, 5, or 6 (or higher) is rolled on a die, and one is available, the player may choose to commit that many minions to attack, and capture, a white, grey, or black tower (on a 4+, 5+, or 6+ respectively). When you have captured one of each tower, you can trade them in to gain a level. If a 2 or higher is rolled on a die, the player may choose to attack a town with the number of minions allowed by the die (and if the total number of minions attacking the town exceeds the strength of the town, the town falls), and if a 1+ is rolled, that is added to another die. Alternatively, you can choose on a roll of 2 to 6 to re-spawn that many minions from the graveyard. (Minions go to the graveyard when a tower or town falls.) [Each die in the 2 … 6 range is a separate hoard and cannot be combined in the conquest of an individual town or tower. Only +1, or +2 rolls can be added to another die to increase the size of a hoard.]

Gaining levels is important because, at each successive level, you get to replace 1 black dice with 1 (blood) red dice, which allows you to roll 2 to 7 instead of +1, 2 … 6. Then, once all of your black dice have been replaced with (blood) red dice, at the fifth and final level, you get to roll a bonus white die (which has +1, +2, and re-spawn 10 minion squares) every roll. So if you were to roll a 4, 5, and 6 on your first turn, and if they were available, you would likely want to attack and capture a set of (white, grey, and black) towers, and turn them in for a level. But if you rolled a 3, 5, and +1, you would likely add the +1 to the 5 to attack and capture a black tower (which is the hardest to capture) and attack a town with 3 minions. Towns will take, on average, between 15 and 25 minions to vanquish (as the game progresses), and will typically take multiple turns to collectively vanquish.

The strategy is figuring out when to attack towns versus towers and which town to attack when. The evil one who sent the most minions against the town gets the vanquish points associated with the town (which will generally be between 3 and 9 points, as the game progresses) when the town is finally overrun, the evil one with the second most minions gets 2 Vanquish Points, and the evil one who triggered the vanquish of the town (by committing the minions necessary to bring it to its tipping point) gets 1 Vanquish Point.

Additional variability is added by the fact that on any turn, you can choose to roll the white die in place of any other die. Generally speaking, you will take this gamble when you need to re-spawn minions since using this die (at levels 1 through 4) means that you will only be able to attack 2 towns and/or towers. The advantage is that a successful roll allows you to respawn 10 minions (instead of 2-7) but the disadvantage is that an unsuccessful roll simply gives you a +1 or +2 on another die (which will increase your chance of capturing a tower, assuming you have enough minions left to commit to the tower). A good roll will allow for a more effective re-spawn, a bad roll (which is twice as likely as a good roll) will dictate a weaker round. But, if you still have your two starting tokens (worth 1 and 2 VP, respectively), you can use these as re-spawn tokens (which are equivalent to a white die re-spawn roll) and if you use both of these in conjunction with a successful white die re-spawn roll, you can re-spawn all of your minions. Properly timed, you can get all 50 minions back in one turn, which can be a great boon early game (especially if you just went up a couple of levels, getting a red die edge on your competition). (The sales analogy is that instead of sending a hoard of average, run of the mill, salesman, you can send specialists, represented by the +1 and +2, who often have the ability to tip a worn down customer into a sale a little bit faster, or, in the case of the re-spawn roll, better apply your financial resources to hire even more salesmen to send towards the next unsuspecting target.)

While it won’t teach you the strategic planning skills you need to design supply strategies that will deliver value in the long term as well as the short term, as Rosenberg’s games tend to do (and, so far, we’ve covered Agricola [Parts I, II-A, and II-B], All Creatures Big and Small [I], Le Havre [Parts I and II], and The Inland Port [I]), it’s a fun distraction that will help you relax at the end of a tough day because, just once, you get to play the evil black knight salesmen instead of the white knight of procurement — and possibly learn to identify hoard mentality sales organizations fast enough to put defenses in place before your organization gets overrun.