Back in the mid-80s, there were a glut of board games based on video games, with some absolutely incredible designs that, whilst quite dated by today’s standards, were nonetheless visually impressive and often featured quite elaborate components (a plastic, barrel-flinging Donkey Kong in the game of the same name, for example).
One of these was Milton Bradley’s Pac-Man, in which players competed to collect the most marbles by moving their plastic, actual-marble-gobbling character around the familiar maze. Though the Pac-Man characters had weird design choices, like pointy teeth in their ‘mouths’ and different colours (the game came with a red, blue and green Pac-Man along with a yellow one), it was a pretty cleverly designed game.
Yet the 2019 Pac-Man: The Board Game by Buffalo Games is an incredibly faithful translation of the video game to board game form.
Players take turns to be Pac-Man and the ghosts. The round ends once the ghosts have eaten the game’s hungry yellow protagonist and the role of Pac-Man passes to the next player, with the object of the game to score more points than anyone else when it’s your turn to be Pac-Man. It’s a very fast-paced game and it does an incredible job of feeling exactly how you’d expect if you’re familiar with the video game.
It truly looks the part too, with a raised plastic maze and ‘peg’-like dots for Pac-Man to ‘eat’ as he moves around the board. The plastic playing pieces are beautiful and moving Pac-Man onto each new space, physically pushing the pegs back down, is a joy. He makes the familiar ‘waka waka’ sound at each forceful contact with a peg too. The ghosts don’t make sounds, but they look superb – and if Pac-Man eats one of the four Power Pellets dotted around the maze, he’ll get the chance to eat a ghost, which leads to the plastic bad guy being swapped out for a 2D pair of eyes that have to make their way back to the ghost cage to regenerate.
Thematically, it’s beyond perfect; the attention to detail and general production values are brilliant.
Where it falls down a little is with the gameplay. Pac-Man moves according to the roll of three dice, which usually gives him a good chance to move around the board – but a few unlucky rolls can see him easily and quickly caught by one of the four ghosts. Ghost movement is handled by a deck of cards that, when drawn, determine the number of spaces each ghost will move that turn and the order they move in; it leaves little for the ghost players to actually do in terms of decision-making. Though careful co-ordination with the other ghost players is often needed to ensure that they don’t block each other, it’s still a bit of a thin experience for the non-Pac-Man players at the higher player counts (in a two player game, one player takes control of all four ghosts, with two ghost players they take two each and so on).
The game does move at a really fast pace, however – but with each player taking their turn as Pac-Man (which admittedly does mitigate the slightly dull, card-driven play of the ghosts) and each round usually taking around 10 minutes, in anything more than a 3 player game it does start to outstay its welcome and feel a bit repetitive.
There’s no denying that it’s a beautiful game from a design point of view though. Even the fact that the Pac-Man piece makes the familiar in-game sounds as he moves is a really great touch, though this can start to grate after a while. Resetting the board can get a bit irritating and fiddly too, especially as the maze pieces in my copy – it comes as four large jigsaw-esque pieces that slot together – can be a bit awkwardly stiff during reassembly.
There’s even a variation or two that give players the opportunity to play with three lives (as in the video game) or to score each dot eaten, rather than just scoring when completing one quadrant of the maze (or when eating ghosts and fruit, the appearance of which is also determined by the draw of cards).
For two or three players, it’ll be a great diversion for half an hour or so – but it does drag, particularly on the ghost side of things, the more people are involved. There’s a little too much randomness too, with only the Pac-Man player given much in the way of interesting decisions to make about which dots to prioritise – even then, it’s at the whim of the dice. So it’s a cautious recommend from me, but for die-hard Pac-Man fans, it’s an aesthetically pleasing collectable as much as a game.
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