Having owned an Atari 2600 as a kid – and playing it well into the late 80s, given that games could easily and regularly found for pennies at car boot sales for years – I have a real soft spot for the console’s game library, which had a lot of surprisingly decent arcade conversions.
Though in the vast majority of cases they were technically not a patch on their coin-op counterparts, they played well and were a decent enough approximation of the arcade experience at home.
Consoles and computers were often a luxury for many families though (mine included – we didn’t get an Atari 2600 until well into the console’s lifespan). So it didn’t take long before board game versions of video games appeared – there were some really interesting takes on popular arcade games back in the early 80s, with board game versions of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Berserk and Centipede among them.
So IDW’s Centipede, published in 2017, isn’t the first adaptation of the classic Atari game (nor is it the second – a card game version that bore little resemblance to the mechanics of the video game was also released in 1999).
It is, however, perhaps the closest in feel. It’s an interesting, asymmetrical design, with one player as the Gnome – defending their garden – and the other as the Centipede (along with various other bugs), attempting to defeat the Gnome. It hews very closely to the mechanics of the video game, with the design of the wooden tokens also being very satisfyingly 8-bit in appearance. The Gnome player’s cards echo the design of the arcade cabinet too; another excellent touch.
Where it falls down massively is with the rulebook, which is honestly one of the worst I’ve encountered for a very long time. It’s a very straightforward game – albeit with two very different roles to learn for each player – made an awful lot more complicated by the rules, which are badly worded, don’t contain enough visual examples of play (for concepts as important as getting your Centipede set up at the start of the game, for example) and are poorly laid out. Just setting up the game is laborious and more confusing than it needs to be (the ‘three mushrooms per player’ opening lends itself to so many interpretations and has no example for guidance – it’s just the start of the problems with the rules), and you’re left either guessing or hunting down clarification online. It’s far from ideal, to say the least.
There’s a handy card for the Centipede player that gives a quick overview of the movement speeds of the various bugs and different Centipede sizes, but this could easily have included a brief reminder of the movement rules of spiders and fleas. The fact that it doesn’t means that, for your first few games at least, you’ll be awkwardly referring to the rules – it’s not intuitive at all.
The Gnome player does fare better in this regard, thankfully. The Gnome’s role is much simpler, with dice-based play replacing the Centipede’s card-driven actions. However, there’s still a quirk in the explanation of concepts for the Gnome – with the control cards given names at one point that are never referred to again throughout the rules. It’s not explained which card is which, though this is less of an issue given the iconography used and the explanation of what the cards do, which is – thankfully – reasonably intuitive.
The Centipede player, with their hand of three cards – drawn from a deck that allows them to spawn bugs, manipulate mushrooms and accelerate their own movement – feels pretty overpowered. It’s quite a feat to win as the Gnome, given that they can only move left and right. The Gnome’s fate being decided by the dice can be a sticking point too, though the control cards can mitigate a poor roll somewhat.
Ultimately, it’s just not that interesting a game either. It feels like it hasn’t been playtested properly, with the rules in particular lending it a very unfinished feel. It’s difficult to believe that the game sprung from three designers and went through playtesting with a relatively large list of people; the problems are glaring to me, even after a few playthroughs.
It’s a real shame; the overall visual design is stunning – with a real mix of classic Atari-style artwork and colour schemes, along with tokens and fonts that feel appropriately like they’ve sprung from the classic video game.
It’s difficult to overlook the problems with the rulebook and the unsatisfying nature of the game in general, however, which is why I can’t recommend Centipede. As an objet d’art, it’s a great item for collectors of memorabilia related to old video games (and IDW know it; included with the version I bought was an embroidered patch, similar in feel and design to the ones Atari themselves used to make in the early 80s) – but as a board game, it’s sorely lacking.
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