Blast from the Past: The “Mothra vs. Godzilla” Wargame
A Look Back at the Bandai “if” Series of SF/F Board Games
Author: Robert Saint John
On the eve of the release of Atari’s Godzilla Unleashed videogame, it’s interesting to take a rare look back at the grandfather of daikaiju simulations. No, not 1989′s Godzilla – Monster of Monsters! for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Not even the first Godzilla videogame for the Commodore 64 from 1983. Before videogames, there were boardgames, and the King of the Monsters had his place among them as well.
Many are familiar with the vintage children’s Godzilla boardgames release in the U.S. in the 60s and 70s by Ideal and Mattel, respectively. During this period, though, another type of game was becoming increasingly popular — both here and in Japan — known as the conflict simulation or, simply, the wargame. In comparison to the more traditional family boardgame, wargames are generally much more complex as they try to accurately simulate aspects of command and control, weaponry, terrain effects, the fog of war and so on, and the most popular are historical in nature. Wargame scale can range from tactical man-to-man combat to global (or even interplanetary!) strategic conflict. The games are generally long — hours or even weeks — and the rulebooks often longer, all depending on the depth of complexity and simulation.
The wargaming hobby reached its peak during the late 70s and early 80s, and publishers such as Avalon Hill and SPI were releasing “bookshelf” games covering almost every conceivable type of conflict from the past, present and future. Some more popular and memorable were “hex-and-counter” games such as Squad Leader, PanzerBlitz and the sci-fi “microgame” in a bag, Ogre. Common characteristics were hex maps for gameboards, cardboard counters representing units or other game features, and dice and combat results tables (CRT) for resolving conflicts between units.
Due to developments such as the advent of computer games, the growing dominance of RPGs such as Dungeons & Dragons and, most of all, a series of foolish missteps on the part of the major publishers, wargaming itself all but passed into history by the mid-80s. Fortunately, it has made somewhat of a recovery through the leadership of new companies with new games and features, the self-publishing revolution and, ironically, the internet itself with its ability to bring enthusiasts together to play games and form communities, regardless of location.
In the late 70s, following the groundbreaking success of Metagaming’s titles such as Steve Jackson’s Ogre, game publishers in the U.S. were anxious to cash in on the growing popularity of science fiction and fantasy themed wargames. It was inevitable that someone would eventually tackle the giant monster genre. In 1979, SPI released Greg Costikyan’s still-memorable The Creature that Ate Sheboygan, in which a player could unleash a single monster to wreak havoc against another player’s city and its civilians, police, firefighters, and the army — or even other monsters! For many, Sheboygan became Tokyo and the giant lizard counter was always Godzilla. Although there have been a few giant monster games since then, most fail to convey the feel of kaijū eiga, let alone work as balanced, fun games. Two recent exceptions that stand out are Firefly Games’ Monster Island: The Game of Giant Monster Combat and Mystic Eye Games’ Giant Monster Rampage series. Both capture the spirit of the genre and do as much as possible without actually licensing the actual Toho properties. But to find the equivalent of that Avalon Hill-type game featuring the true King of the Monsters, one has to look across the sea and back 25 years…
Bandai’s SF/F Wargames
Back at the beginning of the “almost-end”, wargames were also a popular pastime in Japan. Publishers such as Hobby Japan and Tsukuda Hobby were translating and publishing U.S. titles, and designing new ones based not only on historical conflicts, but Japanese science fiction, fantasy and anime properties as well. One of the more well-known and popular titles remains Tsukuda’s SF3D, based on the Maschinen Krieger universe created by Kow Yokoyama for Hobby Japan magazine. It is also one of the very few Japanese titles to ever be translated and republished in the U.S.
In 1980 Bandai, a company primarily known for models and toys, joined the ranks of Tsukuda and Hobby Japan, and began releasing their “if — Game for Adult” series of wargames. One of the first appears to have been 1980′s Zero Fighter, an air combat simulation set during World War II. Other titles in the “if” (as in, “What if…?”) series included Iga vs. Koga, a tactical ninja game; Baseball; Oda Nobunaga, a simulation of battles in the 16th century Sengoku period of Japan; and Third Great War, a game simulating WWIII between NATO and the Warsaw pact.
Of greatest interest to fans of Japanese science fiction and fantasy, though, might be the number of officially licensed titles such as 1982′s Mothra vs. Godzilla, published a year before Bandai began manufacturing its Godzilla line of vinyl figures and other toys. Other titles in the “if” game series included Ultraman, Space Battleship Yamato: Final Yamato, a number of Mobile Suit Gundam games, Arcadia of My Youth (Space Pirate Captain Harlock) and even The Sinking of Japan.
Bandai published twenty games in the “if” series into the mid-80s before a gradual transition from wargames to lighter fare with greater appeal — perhaps a reflection of changes similar to those in the U.S. market at the time, as well as their increasing focus on vinyl toys. One of their final wargame efforts were a few of the “CG” series of electronic wargame titles, hex-and-counter games that included a battery powered device with LED lights called the “MyCom” that replaced the dice and CRTs usually used to resolve combat. One of these included a second Godzilla title, Godzilla Electronic Wargame, published around the release of THE RETURN OF GODZILLA (Gojira, 1984). Bandai slowed publishing wargames, however, and turned to more traditional boardgames such as Macross and Kamen Rider titles and, by the 90s, collectible card games for anime properties such as Evangelion, Dragonball, Naruto and more.
Bandai’s Mothra vs. Godzilla Wargame – A Closer Look
A large-scale typhoon strikes the isolated Infant Island in the South Sea, and the giant egg of Mothra has fallen into the sea. The egg flows along a current to Japan, only to be found by a corrupt businessman who brings it to a large city and conceals its location.
At the same time, the monster Godzilla has perceived the existence of the egg, and by animal instinct has emerged from the bottom of the sea on the other side of the city, intent on destroying the egg. As Godzilla’s appearance is reported, martial law is declared across the entire metropolitan area. Civilians seek shelter and the Defense Corps line up along the coastline.
Now, chasing the egg, two small priestesses from Infant Island have no choice but to appear, and desperately pray for the egg to hatch and Mothra to emerge to protect the citizens from the attack of Godzilla.
Can Mothra’s egg and the city be saved from the invasion of Godzilla?
-from the Introduction of the Mothra vs. Godzilla rulebook
Mothra vs. Godzilla is a easy-to-moderate complexity game for two players, though rules for solitaire play are detailed and scenarios with multiple monsters are included that allow more than two players. The game is divided into three sections:
- Part I: Mothra vs. Godzilla – One player plays “The Mothra Side” (the defense forces, the civilians, the Shobijin (the little twin fairies) and the Mothra larvae). The other player is “The Godzilla Side”, just Godzilla. Godzilla approaches the city from the sea in search of Mothra’s hidden egg, with many opportunities for chaos and destruction along the way. The Mothra player uses the defense forces and hidden tactics to slow Godzilla long enough to allow the egg to hatch so that the Mothra larva(e) can face Godzilla.
- Part II: Solo Game – Provides rules for solitaire play of the Mothra vs. Godzilla scenario. The player plays “The Mothra Side”, with cards and die rolls governing the movement and behavior of Godzilla.
- Part III: Rules for additional scenarios – Provides rules for 4 scenarios on an island in which additional monsters face off against one another. Statistics for Mothra (adult), Rodan, King Ghidorah, Anguirus, Gigan and Mechagodzilla – as well as aliens controlling the monsters – are included.
Upon opening the bookcase-style box for Mothra vs. Godzilla, the players will find the quality and number of the components to be very high, like any Avalon Hill game at the time. The mounted color gameboard map is two-sided, featuring a seaside metropolis on one side, and a small island on the other. Counters for the military, skyscrapers, Mothra’s egg and even the Shobijin promise a game that closely matches the movie itself. Particularly fascinating are the 9 molded rubber game pieces representing the monsters: Godzilla, two Mothra larva, Mothra (adult), King Ghidorah, Gigan, Mechagodzilla, Rodan and Anguirus. Based on the year the game was published, these familiar precursors to SD style Godzilla toys would be re-released and repackaged by Bandai many times during the 80s and 90s, and their use in this game may have been the first time they appeared. Each monster has a coated “check board” that details their abilities (movement, attack rating, special powers) and a table to track their health status using the markers provided. The 23 page rulebook and numerous event cards (all in Japanese, of course; see “Author’s Note” below), a six-sided die and a pair of combat results tables wrap up the contents.
Each scenario in the rules spells out where the pieces are initially placed, and details special rules that apply to that particular scenario. For instance, in the Part I game, the Mothra player will choose a secret location for Mothra’s egg. It will be the primary goal of the Godzilla player to find the hidden location, hopefully before the egg hatches one or possibly two of the Mothra larvae (determined by a die roll later in the game). In addition to setting up civilians to be evacuated and defense forces to confront Godzilla, the Mothra player will set up a hidden line of electrical towers along the coast. The Godzilla player may unknowingly stumble into the towers when leaving the sea early in the game, doing damage to his health rating. Little touches like these serve to make the game unique and truly reminiscent of the film upon which it is based.
In the game’s Designer Notes section, the author (uncredited, unfortunately) talks about the goals they were trying to achieve with the game. “My original, somewhat ambitious intention,” he writes, “was to include scenarios for and capture the essence of all the films in the Godzilla series, from GODZILLA to COUNTERATTACK OF MECHAGODZILLA [TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA]. In the end we had to settle for two games, with a total of five scenarios, within this single release.”
He goes on to say, “I find Part I unsatisfying because there is no confrontation between Godzilla and the adult Mothra. But the main theme of Part I is Godzilla’s destruction of the city, and if I’d included adult Mothra, I’m afraid the balance of the game would suffer so, regrettably, I had to abbreviate it.”
At the same time, it’s obvious from reading the notes that the designers were intent on conveying the sense of fun that is a part of the Godzilla series… even if all of the suggestions didn’t make it into the game. “One aspect of the game that became necessary: the inclusion of the Shobijin,” he writes. “This was done at the request of fellow designer “Mr. O”, who is a big fan of them, even though “Mr. K” is not. (“Mr. K” proposed an optional rule that “at the time the player is trying to hatch the egg, he must sing Mothra’s Song accurately”).” Needless to say, neither the optional rule nor the lyrics are in the rulebook, but playing the soundtrack (not included) in the background does add to the experience, and happens to match the typical Part I game time of about 45 – 60 minutes.
Other than tracking the passage of turns and the health of the monsters, there is very little record keeping in the game. The turn sequence, however, is a little more complex due to the number of unit types, and is as follows:
1. Check the spread of fire from Godzilla’s destruction
2. Civilian panic movement
3. Civilian regular movement
4. Shobijin movement
5. Defense Corps movement
6. Defense Corps attack
7. Godzilla movement and attack (guided by drawing a Godzilla card and carrying out the actions described)
8. Mothra hatching attempt (beginning on the 8th turn)
9. Mothra movement and attack (once the egg has hatched)
Combat itself is divided into the use of the monsters’ special attack abilities (Godzilla’s atomic breath ray, Mothra’s thread, Ghidorah’s lightning ray and so on) against each other, civilians or the defense forces; and the “hand-to-hand” grapple combat between adjacent monsters. In grapple combat, the defender selects a defense card to try to mitigate the attack, but should that fail their attack powers (with applicable modifiers) are compared, a die is rolled, and the resulting values are cross-referenced on the combat results table to determine the victor and any damage.
After a few turns, the process becomes familiar and moves along quite quickly. To help new players, a number of examples of play are provided in the rulebook which detail a few turns and include illustrations showing pieces and their movement through hexes. Finally, each of the scenarios includes the victory conditions that must be met by the players, usually within a certain number of turns, to determine the winner.
In conclusion, Mothra vs. Godzilla is an effort that, based on the source material, strikes the right balance between simulation and a simpler “beer-and-pretzel” game. It’s a bit more complex than The Creature that Ate Sheboygan, but it’s certainly not The Amazing Colossal Advanced Squad Leader. Part I is the best of the scenarios and really captures the feeling of its namesake. The later scenarios and additional rules add a number of iconic monsters and the “Monster Island” setting, but lack the more creative elements of Part I and as a result come off more as dice-fests without much opportunity for strategy. They do, however, provide enough of a platform so that ambitious players could easily create their own scenarios and fulfill the designer’s original goal, to “capture the essence of all the films in the Godzilla series, from GODZILLA to COUNTERATTACK OF MECHAGODZILLA.”
Author’s Note: Two lifelong passions of mine are Godzilla movies and wargames, especially the science fiction and fantasy counter-and-hex games I detailed earlier in the article. I’ve always wanted a good, officially licensed Godzilla wargame, but had no idea that this game or the Bandai “if” Series even existed until recently. Fortunately, I ran across listings for these games on the BoardGameGeek website, many of them added to the database by Matt Boehland, the Minnesota proprietor of Wolfgames where he maintains The Japanese Wargame Database. Based on the description and the images Matt posted, I knew I had to track down Bandai’s Mothra vs. Godzilla and find out if it was the game which I’d been seeking for decades. So I added it as a daily search on eBay, and forgot about it until 3 weeks later when I got a notice that it had just been listed (and by Matt, no less!). He was selling a number of boxed Japanese wargames from his collection, including Mothra vs. Godzilla, Ultraman, and Godzilla Electronic Wargame. I bid on and won each of them, and wasn’t at all disappointed when they arrived.
In fact, I was so fascinated with Mothra vs. Godzilla that I spent two weeks of evening and weekends translating the entire game. The result — a faithful PDF recreation of the entire rulebook in English — can now be found on the BoardGameGeek site where the game is listed . If you have the game, I hope this is your chance to finally enjoy and play it as it was designed. If you don’t, but find the game as intriguing as I do, I hope you’ll be able to track it down and own it yourself. 25 years after its release, it’s not an easy collectible to find. It does appear to show up occasionally on Yahoo! Japan Auctions, and you may find that occasionally Googling the terms “モスラ対ゴジラ バンダイ if シリーズ” (Mothra vs. Godzilla Bandai if Series) may help lead you to a copy. And, of course, keep an eye on eBay. If I could find it within 3 weeks of having discovered it, anything is possible. If nothing else, the English rules are now available, and I may attempt to put together some non-infringing components in a future accessory pack.
I’d like to credit the members of BGG and Matt Boehland for helping in this quest, and for much of the historical information found in this article. As mentioned, I plan on continuing this effort by creating more components and scenarios compatible with these rules, and translating Godzilla Electronic Wargame as well. As for Ultraman, that will definitely be my next project. Its rules and extensive components remain untranslated, but its scenarios and monster figurines for 18 out of the original 39 episodes of the 1966 series are irresistible to a gamer like me. Keep an eye out for that game as well, and its BoardGameGeek listing for my translation. I may also create VASSAL and/or CyberBoard modules for the games that would allow users to play electronic recreations of these games in real-time over the Internet. Look to SciFi Japan for future updates on these efforts, and feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.