Hans Gruber. Hannibal Lecter. A good villain can elevate a movie from middling to great, and the best are as memorable as the hero. Villainous gives us the opportunity to step into the shoes—or tentacles—of six of Disney’s most iconic animated villains. It’s a game of moving to familiar film locations, playing through two decks full of characters and scenes from the movies. Nostalgia hits hard as soon as you open the box: Every game I’ve played has been accompanied by an impromptu sing-along of Disney’s greatest hits. I’ve also discovered just how many times I can yell “Mr. Smee!” before being threatened with expulsion from my own home (it’s seven).
Disney movies occupy special places in all of our hearts, and Villainous leverages these connections to draw us into its world. Villains are asymmetric, with each ne'er-do-well employing unique strategies, decks of cards, and victory conditions. The combination of elements ensures that playing as the desperately impulsive Jafar feels different than the careful Maleficent. Jafar wins by bringing the Genie under his control and getting the lamp to the palace, while Maleficent must choke the realm with a number of dark curses. Things seem simpler for King John, whose goal is simply the accumulation of wealth, but the Merry Men aren’t going to sit back quietly while that happens.
A great example of this tension—and how Villainous manages to evoke the films—is with Hook. Hook is obsessed with Peter Pan; he spends his days in Neverland searching for the airborne hellion. In Villainous, Hook’s Villain deck is filled with cards that let him dig into his own Fate deck. The player controlling Hook must throw caution to the wind, desperately searching for Pan no matter how many Lost Boys or hungry crocodiles he has to get through. Opponents must carefully weigh interfering with the Captain, as playing into Hook’s Fate Deck may do his work for him.
Across the table, Jafar is desperately trying to get the lamp to the palace. When facing the realm of Agrabah your strategy is very different than when facing Hook. Aladdin, Abu, and other heroes are your only hope to stop the evil vizier. When these characters enter play they can steal an item from the villain’s side of the board, making the final few turns of Jafar’s game mimic the desperate final moments of the movie. Hero after hero throws themself at Jafar, not in battle, but in an attempt to grab the lamp and pull it away from him.
It’s remarkable how fully realized each Villain is, given that each player plays a game of Villainous the same way. On their turn, players move their marker to one of the four zones on their player board. Each zone provides different actions used by the Villains to advance their victory condition or mess with opponents. The actions and turn structure are simple so you might be forgiven for seeing the Disney logo and looking for something deeper, but you shouldn’t. Each villain’s strategy is unique and nuanced to the extent that the designers included small fold out strategy guides for each character that are must-reads prior to your first play.
Equally remarkable is how repeat plays don’t feel stale. Yes, every time you play as Ursula you’re going to have to perform the same sequence of events, but the combination of your opponents and your decks ensure that games don’t feel rote. Victory with Maleficent requires careful management of your curses. Each curse restricts your own options, and knowing which heroes remain in the deck and how they can foil your plans will force you to alter your play.
Like the films these villains are drawn from, Villainous is a game you’ll return to over and over. The first time you play as The Queen of Hearts you’ll marvel at the way the designers managed to incorporate an Alice, who can grow or shrink with the sip of a potion. In subsequent plays you can dig into the strategy and effectively manage cards that can be turned into wickets. I’m amazed that the best Disney board game yet is one of playing as the villains, and excited to see future expansions. My vote went to The Black Cauldron’s Horned King. Release dates haven’t been announced, but I’m happy to continue hosting sing-a-longs at game night while we wait.