In a world where Switch owners already have access to both a serviceable version of Monopoly and Pokémon Sword and Shield, do we really need a game that combines the two? For most people, the answer is “probably not”. But that’s got nothing to do with Billion Road’s concept, and everything to do with its execution.
Just like the beloved/loathed Hasbro capitalist fantasy game mentioned above, Billion Road has you taking it in turns with up to three friends or AI bots to trot around a board-shaped approximation of a real-world location (here a cartoony take on Japan), buying up properties, racing to goal squares, swearing at the people you love, and cursing the God of Luck. Pretty much in that order.
Most unlike Monopoly, however, is Billion Road’s insistence that you assemble a crack team of cute magical creatures, exploiting their unique abilities and sending them into battle against the odd colossal monster. That’s the Pokémon bit.
It’s a pretty cool concept, and things start brightly (once you get past the agonising load times) with an expressive art style and vibrant 3D graphics that change with the in-game seasons. The first game you play will guide you through the rules without excessive waffle, and the basics are easy enough to grasp. This is a classic dice-rolling family board game, with a bunch of RPG-lite embellishments.
Billion Road gives you more choice over where to move than Monopoly. There are multiple diverging paths that lead your custom-designed character around the towns and cities of Japan, and you’re under no obligation to take any particular course. There is, however, an optimal route that leads you to the next randomly assigned goal, as signified by an arrow. Getting there first will snag you a chunky Yen bonus and one or two follower monsters that will either help you or hinder the player furthest from the goal.
Along the way, you’ll land on a number of special squares. One type will enable you to buy up local businesses, from ramen shops to rice fields to theatres. This is critical to boosting your revenue and securing you the bonuses that are doled out from time to time by an excitable pair of TV hosts. It’s a shame that your ownership of these businesses doesn’t materially affect the game board with fees when opponents land on them, but perhaps that’s the old Monopoly player in us talking.
Other squares might give you a random item that can heal your monsters, get rid of troublesome followers, or warp you to a different location. Most common of all are the plus and minus squares, which will dole out random cash bonuses or fines when you land on them. There are also transportation squares that can whisk you off to distant areas much more quickly.
Ah yes, the monsters. Scattered throughout this condensed map of Japan you’ll find a range of outlandish critters. They’re very much like C-list Pokémon, albeit without the elemental class-based focus. There’s a unicorn that will increase your chance of rolling the right number near Goals, a pair of cute teddy bears that will bolster the effect of plus squares and mitigate the impact of minus squares, an anthropomorphic magnet that will attract the monsters of nearby rivals, and much more.
Each monster also has an attack rating, which is handy when the odd city-crushing titan spawns in. At such moments, you can choose to send one member of your team into battle. The monster that strikes the winning blow gains their master a huge cash bonus, while there are also rewards for participation.
There’s a lot more to consider in each round of Bonus Road. There are seasonal bonuses dished out according to various metrics, and often at random. There are button-mashing mini-game rounds that grant further bonuses. There’s even the odd spawning portal to a mysterious monster-filled island, which might well tempt you off the optimal route. It’s a board game that’s filled with stuff to do, including a lengthy 30-year (in game time) single-player campaign where the lowest-ranked player gets knocked out every 5 years.
It’s a busy game alright, but Billion Road suffers from a kind of inverse duck syndrome. There’s loads happening in plain view, but seemingly precious little going on under the surface. Luck rules supreme here, and there’s not much that even a keenly strategic mind can do in the face of it. Win or lose, you’re very much subject to the whims of the game’s ‘random’ algorithms. Even worse, those random algorithms don’t always come across as particularly random at all. Billion Road has an uncanny knack of tilting the odds in favour of the player who’s in the least advantageous position, as if there’s an invisible dungeon master policing each game with stifling even-handedness.
To name one example of this, our playing partner happened to benefit from a Goal spawning within eight squares of their position, leaving us stranded with little hope of recovery. However, during each of their next three turns, they rolled a 1, enabling us to close the gap significantly. That could be dismissed as pure luck, were it an isolated incident. This is great for keeping things active and competitive on a superficial level. Casual players and families with young kids, in particular, will benefit from such a levelling effect. But a game in which you can’t trust the dealer/house/bank is unlikely to stick around in the collections of more experienced or savvy players.
The sheer amount of random events and glitzy ‘awards’ for doing nothing very much at all soon wears awfully thin, too. After a while, whether we were losing badly or roaring into a multi-billion Yen lead, our temperament was about the same: neither massively thrilled nor particularly anguished. Just a little bored. That said, it is possible to get yourself into a deeply frustrating situation. Allow yourself to get too far removed from your rivals, and it can occasionally prove impossible to shake a troublesome follower who saps your resources. We literally lost a fortune and ended up in a cycle of crippling debt during one particular local versus game.
Which surfaces another quibble – Billion Road really seems to need at least three players to work properly. The way the game regularly swings between success and calamity practically demands the presence of a third player to act as a stabiliser. It’s much better if those extra players are human, of course, but they’ll have to be local. There’s no online facility available here.
For a game that places the emphasis on geography and travel, meanwhile, it feels curiously difficult to track the location of your rivals relative to your own. There’s the default zoomed-in view and an overview map, but it feels like there should be something in between – a slightly zoomed-out overview of the board, perhaps. It would be good if you could quickly check out your assets without delving through sub-menus, too.
Billion Road has all the makings of a sweet little time filler for families with young kids – especially with its colourful presentation, Pokémon-esque vibe, and culturally educational slant. For anyone old and savvy enough to see through the pyrotechnics, however, making your next billion will soon prove be a pretty hollow and unsatisfactory experience.
Billion Road makes an intriguing pitch: to combine Monopoly and Pokémon into a family-friendly digital board game. With its bright presentation, varied mechanics, and endless barrage of distractions and rewards, it could be perfect for young families looking for some wholesome couch time. However, there’s a critical lack of strategic substance underpinning it all, while the presence of a virtual guiding hand tilting the odds robs the game of the emotional extremes that the true classics manage to evoke.