is a light miniature battle game using a cut-down version of the Action! RPG gaming engine.
About the Background
The background of Monster Island is kaiju, which is to say giant monsters. Here you have Godzilla, King Kong, Mothra, the 50 Ft. Woman, Ultraman and all the rest, ready to fight each other in giant monster combat.
It's worth taking a moment extra to say that the giant monster background of this game is superbly researched & integrated. It's obvious that the authors have a real love for giant monster movies; they've done a great job of incorporating that into the game. One of my favorite elements of this short rulebook was the three page filmography, which made me want to run out and see all these terrible, terrible monster movies. I was also impressed by how much the rules felt like giant monster movie battles. Here's my favorite bit:
Any time your monster defeats another kaiju, it must spend its next full Turn celebrating the triumph. It can neither attack nor move.
Your monster might unleash an earth-shattering roar, stomp the fallen foe some more, point at other creatures to indicate they are next or dance a jig! It's up to you.
To reiterate, the background in Monster Island isn't just well done, it's superbly done. If you're a fan of monster movies, that should be enough for you to head straight out and get the game.
Graphics & Layout
Monster Island is a 32-page saddle-stitched book.
The general style of the book is simple but stylistic. The layout is a bit plain, though there are nice quotes from monster movies absolutely saturating the text. Good use is also made of gray-scale boxes to help offset stats from the pages.
Interior art is by Bryce Nakagawa. It's all computer gray-scaled art, which gives the book some nice depth which plain back & white art would not. Most of the pictures are (appropriately) of battling monsters. The less humanoid monsters look quite good, while I sometimes found the proportions of the more humanoid critters to look a bit off.
The single record sheet here is for monsters. It's unhelpfully on a half-a-page, shared with other text, but you can fortunately get a double-monster sheet online. A list of possible combat actions is also included on the sheet, which is very helpful. There are a few things I wish were on the sheet (a reminder on how to roll initiative and a space for damage) but they were pretty minor.
Finally, bound into the book is a set of 15 monsters on cardstock in full-color; you can use them as little stand-up figures. They're colorful and look quite good.
Ease of Use
Overall the book was easy to read and relatively easy to use. As with most rules books, I wish there were more charts. For example, a list of monster powers with costs would have been nice, ditto a list of terrain types for battle areas. These are relatively minor, however, and the most important chart, the list of combat maneuvers, does appear on the character sheet, as I've already mentioned.
Overall I'd say that the presentation of the book is nothing particularly special, other than the little cardboard standups which are a very nice value add. The usability probably eases in at slightly above average. The background, however, is what really makes the game shine. Averaging those all together, I give the Style of the game a very solid "4" out of "5". Terrific!
The Game System
Monster Island uses a very simplified version of the Action! game system. It has three main elements: character modeling, environment modeling, and combat.
Modeling the Character: Monster Islands uses a very simple character model, including attributes, derived attributes, and powers.
There are four attributes, strength, reflexes, health, and mind, each rated from 1-10 (though typically reflexes can only go up to 6, because kaiju really aren't noted for being light on their feet). The rules also helpfully note that to convert your kaiju to a regular Action! game, you multiply its strength by 3, then add 20. Where they came up with that somewhat arcane formula, I dunno.
The derived attributes (life, evade, toughness, daze, and move) are various combat related numbers which are built from the sums or multipliers of various attributes (e.g., life is health x5, while evade is reflex + 10). These calculations are all helpfully listed on the character sheet.
The powers are special abilities you buy like flying, extra heads, regeneration, and armor. I would have liked to see more (there's just 4 pages), but I suppose the small number helps keep the character creation simple. The powers are all available at multiple levels, depending on how many character creation points you put in. The rules also suggest that you give descriptive text for each power. So, for example, my spider monster, Arachnilla, has Springy Legs (Leap 6"), Sharp Teeth (+4D6 Strike), and an Exoskeleton (Armor 3).
Character Creation: Very simple. You choose an "origin" for your critter, then you spend 30 points. These can be used to purchase attributes (at a 1:1 ratio) and powers (at various costs).
Character Advancement: There are no experience rules.
There are a few pages of rules for giving the battlefield environment some character, by adding geysers, lava, ocean, quicksand, and swamps. They're not a big deal, but if you toss some obstacles onto your tabletop they'll introduce a little bit of chaos to the game.
Combat is quite simple. Players roll for initiative (mind + die roll), then each player goes. You can move, then attack, or else move twice.
Movement is all measured in inches. Usually movement means walking about, but there are some special rules for flying, tunneling, leaping, swimming, and even teleporting (all powers).
When you attack you either make a ranged attack (another power), or else engage in a hand-to-hand attack: strike, grab piledriver, ram, shove, throw, and trip. The system is very clean: most modifiers for various attack types or terrain types are either +2 or -2. There's not a lot extra to remember here, but still you have options to allow some variety.
There's a few notable results for damage. If you take more damage than your Daze derived attribute, you're dazed for a round. More than your Life and you're defeated. There's also a few attacks which can knock you to the ground. There's also one option for "recovery"--getting some of your Life back (though it can make the game drag).
The combat section also includes a fun set of rules on Alliances. Through successful Mind rolls, you can ally with other monsters, but if you fail you must attack each other. Very giant monster.
Overall, though the combat system is simple, it does allow some variety.
Relationships to Other Games
As already noted, CyborGladiators is built on the Action! RPG system. it's actually a tremendously simplified version of Action!, but it'll be familiar to an Action RPGer, and it shares some of the elegance of the core system.
Monster Island is also the first of a series of monser combat games. Escape from Monster Island, the second book, moves the kaiju into the cities. Two more books, Invasion of Monster Island and Revenge of Monser Island have been released as PDFs.
Finally, one other related game has been released, CyborGladiators. This isn't a Monster Island game, but rather a slightly more complex arena combat game, set in a science fiction milleu.
The Game Design
Monster Island has a fairly simple combat system, and this can be both good and bad. On the good side, it means that the game goes quickly and is easy to play. On the bad side things can get sort of monotonous unless players really have fun changing things up with the different maneuvers.
One-on-one combat can be unbalanced. If you have just one monster with a ranged weapon, or one who's invulnerable to the other's attack, or a single flier, or even one very strong monster who can grab his opponent and squeeze the life out of him, things can be one-sided.
Both the imbalance and the possibility of monotony are overcome if you play with multiple participants instead of just two. In this type of game there's a lot more change up and a lot more back and forth due to the multiple participants.
Beyond playing with multiple participants, I think that to really get the best out of this game you need to roleplay it, and have a lot of fun with the various cinematic maneuvers and special rules that you're presented with. Without that, the system might be a little flat.
Content: The Rest of the Book
Following all of the rules is a 6-page section on "The World of Monster Island". This gives a reason for all these monsters fighting each other on an island, but more importantly gives 5 pages of stats on monsters who share a fair resemblence with certain famous trademarked entities; it's a fun and evocative listing. Between this section and the pictures scattered throughout the book, I really believe that the designers have in mind a world history featuring all these critters.
The book ends with a 3-page Filmography, which I've already lauded. It was the first thing I read in the book, and I later reread it because it was so colorful.
Overall I think the game design of Monster Island is somewhat average, but again the game is strengthened by the strong theming, and the 9 pages of great background on the world (and the movies that influenced it). Thus I've let the Substance of Monster Island also eke in a "4" out of "5".
Monster Island has a pretty simple, well-designed character creation & combat system. On its own I'd probably admire the clean design, but not be too impressed beyond that. However, where Monster Island truly shines is in its accurate and enjoyable portayal of giant monster movies. The designers of the game are clearly big monster movie fans--from Godzilla to King Kong--and that theming shows in both the background and the game system.
Primarily recommended as a goofy multiplayer combat game.