Welcome to Table Top Terrors! In this monthly series, we’ll help you recreate some of the terror, tension, and fun of scary stories by examining what the world of tabletop gaming has to offer horror fans. We’ll look at board games, card games, pen and paper RPGs, and miniature war games. We’ll offer reviews, insights, and tips on how to create an immersive and awesome game night.
It’s Leap Fear month at Nightmare on Film Street! So all this month we’re looking at stories of time travel, time loops, and tales where monsters of the past and possible futures menace the present day. In his now-legendary 1986 action-horror-comedy, Big Trouble In Little China, director John Carpenter presented a fun take on the third scenario, one which featured a unique and now very iconic protagonist. His name was Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) and he was a loudmouth but well-meaning trucker turned inept action hero with some very competent sidekicks and friends.
In the film, Jack, and his companions Wang Chi (Dennis Dunn), Gracie Law (Kim Catrall), Egg Shen (Victor Wong), Eddie Lee (Donald Li), and Margo Litzenburger (Kate Burton) must protect San Francisco’s Chinatown from the ghostly, ancient Chinese sorcerer Lo-Pan (James Hong) and his army of supernatural and criminal servants. The film is a classic because of its blend of action, comedy, Chinese mythology, and the way it subverts the trope of the ’80s action hero.
If you’re a fan of the film chances are the simple mention of it means you probably want to go watch it again. You should, but the game designers at Everything Epic have given fans a new way to revisit the adventures of Jack Burton; one that allows you to step into the tall boots of the reasonable guy who’s experiencing some very unreasonable things. That way is the deeply immersive and very fun co-op board game Big Trouble In Little China: The Game for 1-4 players. The game also has a new expansion that adds two extra characters, allowing you to play up to six, and makes it an even better fit for this month’s theme. That expansion, The Legacy of Lo-Pan, finds Jack and company traveling time to thwart the titular sorcerer’s mystical machinations.
We’re going to take a look at the base game, the expansion, and give you a few suggestions to create an awesome and engaging game night for you and your friends.
The Big Trouble In Little China base game is played over the course of two acts. In the first one, you and your friends are traversing the streets of Chinatown. You’ll visit classic locations from the film like the Dragon of the Black Pearl restaurant, Egg Foo Yong Tours, and the Wing Kong exchange. You’ll also travel to new locales not featured in the movie like the National Orient Bank and a Buddhist Shrine. While you’re at these places, you’ll accomplish tasks that further the main quest of the game, your character’s side quest, or a situational side quest. If you accomplish them the “Audacity” track at the top of the game board moves forward allowing you and your characters to advance.
Beware though! There’s also a “Big Trouble” track that moves time forward to the looming showdown with Lo-Pan. Each round, a card is drawn from the “Big Trouble” deck. That card moves the Big Trouble track forward and spawns enemies onto the streets of Chinatown. These cards can unleash both low levels threats like the Lords of Death gangsters and boss enemies like the Wildman or the supernatural warriors known as the Three Storms.
At the beginning of the game, you’ll choose your character from Jack Burton, Wang Chi, Egg Shen, or Gracie Law. If you have The Legacy of Lo-Pan expansion you’ll also be able to choose Eddie Lee or Margo Litzenberger. Each character has different traits and can be customized with a number of different cards. So they all have a unique feel. And over the course of the game, you’ll earn experience and level up your character. Each time you level up you can acquire a new card or make an existing one even more powerful. And every few levels you’ll get a chance to acquire a new action die.
Action dice are how characters accomplish things in Big Trouble In Little China. You start off with three, and at the beginning of each round, you roll them. Their faces all match a character’s corresponding trait, and you can spend them to do actions like move and fight. If it’s a trait you’re good at you can choose the “epic” version of the action which allows you to move further and fight harder.
Combat actions involve building a dice pool based on action dice and items like Jack’s trademark knife. You roll the dice and try to get the number of successes need to take down an enemy. Often times you’ll be up close, but if you have the right gear, like Jack’s sub-machine gun or Eddie’s revolver, you can attack from afar.
If you don’t finish an enemy off they’ll get a chance to damage you with a strike back. Enemies can also hurt you on their turn. You’ll roll defense dice to try and prevent that. Inevitably though your character will lose some health. They might even die! But if that happens, don’t worry you’re not out of the game! You just draw a “Hell” card. They offer a number of major and minor detrimental effects, some of which are pretty funny. And if you die another time you replace your existing card with a new one.
As you scramble around Chinatown accomplishing tasks you’ll consult the game’s “Quest Book.” You’ll read a numbered passage that offers you a choice, task, or roll. Your decision there will direct you to another part of Chinatown or a different numbered passage. So the game is very replayable. There’s no way you’ll see or accomplish everything in your first game, or even the first few games.
That’s because eventually the Big Trouble track will fill up, and when it does — it’s time for Act Two! When that happens, you’ll flip the board over to the side that represents Lo-Pan’s lair. You’ll consult the Quest Book for the setup, and based on how you did in Act One, you’ll begin the final battle against Lo-Pan on the back foot or well equipped to shake the pillars of heaven! Either way, it’s going to take crackerjack timing and sharp reflexes!
Inevitably, there will be a game or two where Lo-Pan triumphs and everybody loses. When that happens, it’s time to break out The Legacy of Lo-Pan expansion. That game comes with its own quest book where the premise is that Lo-Pan was victorious and Jack and friends are forced to regroup at Egg Foo Young Tours. Once there, they’re given a second chance to undo Lo-Pan’s foul deeds via the mystical artifact known as the Tardissian Hourglass (Yes Doctor Who fans you read that right).
To do that, the players will make like the old television show Quantum Leap and use the Hourglass to traverse time and set right the things that Lo-Pan made wrong. The eras they’ll visit offer vital clues about the sorcerer’s activities and a variety of period-specific Chinatown adventures. Over the course of the game, players will become embroiled in a pulp horror style adventure in the late 1930s, battle Old West gunslingers in the ‘1800s, and even the dystopian future of 2018 where Lo-Pan was victorious.
Legacy of Lo-Pan replaces the “Big Trouble Track” with a layover meter that represents the progress of time and shows where the characters are in their temporal travels. The players have a certain number of turns to accomplish the tasks in each era before time runs out. Players have a stack of hourglass tokens that they can use to halt the progress of time or keep their characters from dying. The latter can be extremely useful because Legacy of Lo-Pan comes with new and some especially nasty Hell Cards. More hourglass tokens are earned as players successfully leap from one time period to another.
Eventually, the board will be flipped and players will have to face off with Lo-Pan. The time of the confrontation and the forces arrayed against them are based on how successful Jack and his friends have been at leaping through time.
The number of quests and choices in Legacy of Lo-Pan are smaller than in the base game. So, for some players it might have a feeling like you’re “on rails,” but the time periods are so fun and well done it’s not much of an issue. In fact, if your gaming group includes people who might be overwhelmed by too many choices it might be worth playing Legacy of Lo-Pan first. That way they can get their feet wet.
Like the base game, Legacy of Lo-Pan has a lot of replayability. Its quest book is shorter and more linear, but there’s no way you’ll see everything the various time periods have to offer in your first few games.
So, if the idea of spending an evening fighting tong hatchet men, sneaking into secret hideouts, and barreling through time like a bull in a china shop sounds awesome to you, you’ll want to pick up both Big Trouble In Little China: The Game and The Legacy of Lo-Pan expansion.
Both the base game and Legacy of Lo-Pan are long games that will require an afternoon or evening to finish. That means refreshments are required! You can go a number of thematically appropriate routes. Perhaps the most fitting is takeout from your favorite Chinese restaurant. And if you’re looking for an easy dessert to bake try this recipe courtesy of Anncoo Journal for Pumpkin Pancakes, which I’ve read are an especially popular Chinese dessert during the winter months.
Chances are you’ll battle Lo-Pan’s enforcers, the Three Storms (Rain, Thunder, and Lightning) multiple times during a game of Big Trouble in Little China or Legacy of Lo-Pan. To help refresh and fuel everyone for those conflicts I suggest making a storm of your own, the classic and easy to mix Dark ‘n’ Stormy cocktail. Those unfamiliar with it should check out this recipe via Serious Eats.
If you’re going on a John Carpenter-inspired adventure, you need a synthwave soundtrack to keep you going through back alley brawls and climatic underground clashes. Sadly, Carpenter’s original score for Big Trouble in Little China is currently out of print and not readily available on most streaming services. However, the album is available in playlist form on YouTube. It even includes the Coup De Villes very ’80s and the very fun title track.
If you don’t want to go the YouTube route you can try some of Carpenter’s other music. I recommend his original music albums Lost Themes and Lost Themes II both have tracks that can make your games feel more dramatic, thematic, and fun.