A young child learning the subtle art of the little white lie. Those convex mirrors in the corners of gas stations. Most demolitions experts.
What do all of these things have in common? That's right, they're all working to broaden horizons. And now you can add this tenuous web-log brand to that list of proud, wide-minded individuals, for today I come to you not by way of grandiloquent screed but through sheer, kinetic hypnotism of the motion picture talky.
Did I have reservations about sharing my work through a different medium? Was I unsure of the quality, quantity, and reception of it all? Naturally! But did I recoil from the self-inflicted stress of it all, the needlessly self-crippling uncertainty and self-doubt and -loathing inherent in every aspect of this demented and overwhelming monomania of mine under which I have laboriously self-obsessed for two and a half weeks straight? You bet!
Then I went and uploaded it anyway. I mean, come on. I simply see no other way to validate my online existence but via the anonymous and antiseptic pseudo-adulation of complete and utter strangers in a virtual environment that is so far removed from actual, human contact that it probably borders on slightly concerning mental disorder.*
So, without further ado, I present a little thing I like to call The Rules Manicule, which is half-tutorial, half-entertainment and not at all intended to be official or be-all/end-all lest I run afoul of copyright infringement.
I suppose this is the part where I am meant to say something along the lines of "Like!" and "Subscribe!" or "Strike sonorous the Bell of Notification!" but I won't, I simply won't, darn-you-all-to-heck.
*You mark my words! In a few short years or decades, we'll look back at this present "YouTubes Era" as an abysmal and backwards leap in humankind's evolution. "Can you believe they actually danced like monkeys for nothing more than virtual applause?" our sons' sons' sons' brains in jars will say (or somehow group-think through a series of interconnected cyber-tubes and electro-synapses). "How desperately antique! How sick and risible they all were back then!" And then they will go on to scoff upon half a hundred other things in quick succession — all within the blink of an eye — as their attention spans will have been withered away to the average length of a gnat's foreleg, not to mention that respect for their elders will have shriveled to more or less nonexistence, along with their ability to pay off student debt, respond to texts in a timely manner, or finally move out of our sons' sons' brains in jars' basements. Tch. Kids these days.
You haven't truly played a board game until you've played it wrong at least once.
17 Oct 2019
- [+] Dice rolls
A crow caws in the distance, its sudden cry carrying far on unfriendly winds. You look around you in search of the source, but there is nothing of significant verticality for miles; the dry-cracked hardpan yielding not one whit for want of a withered perch. All is barren, a wasteland flatness of worthless soil and jaded dirt— here and there a tumbling scrub brush with nothing to impart but a listless swan song of desolation. Pathetic fallacy is only furthered by the rumbling of distant, directionless thunder, as if the very heavens have shrugged their collective shoulders and cleared their throat for lack of anything better to say. It is death and solitude for as far as the eye can squint, a dusty suffocation of life, save for a singular feature in front of you.
There, several paces ahead, lain to waste in the prostrate form of several dozen smithereens, is the tombstone of some long-forgotten notion, its lettering all but worn away to squalor by the ravages of time and rampant disregard. Its inscription, once carefully reconnoitered across multiple fragments, spells out the untimely end of its owner:HERE LIES
Once like clockwork, now left woefully unwound.
A passing rattlesnake gives a dry cough and carries on, although given the tone and context, you are fairly certain it was expectorated purely out of sarcasm.* * *
Hey now, that was my bit on how long it's been; subtle, as ever, and oh-so satirically on-the-nose it might as well have been mistaken for a pair of pince-nez. But enough of this self-deprecating self-reflection, my dear compeers! Let us sally forth and onward towards that most lovely, lambent hunk of subject beloved by all! Board games, big and beefy! Number-filled and meeple-fraught! Just what have I been playing these days? These months? These years? Why, far, far too many to recount, of course. Instead, allow me to cherry-pick a few of the finest, to muster up an inkling here, an opinion there, an irritable rant besides. Come! Gather round! And I shall tell the tales integral to this cause!
Now and then you run across a design that grabs you by the shoulders and shouts "WHERE HAVE I BEEN ALL YOUR LIFE?" That is to say, every so often you play a game and wonder "Why wasn't this designed sooner?" Just One is a fluffy little guessing game that's so wondrously simplistic that it boggles the mind-brain as to why it took until the year 2018 to get put into cardboard form. Are we sure this wasn't one of those big budget Hollyland remakes of some little-known and insufferable mid-60s French New Wave flick? Are we absolutely certain Just One wasn't in some way or another a Reiner Knizia brainchild of the 90s or a Parker Brothers property from 1932? It feels much older than it really is, in large part due to its impressive enjoyment-to-rules-baggage ratio; lean and limber and free of strenuous explanation in favor of good, ol' fashioned party-style fun.
Each person tries to get the Guesser to guess a given word by providing a one-word clue. But everyone who provides the same one-word clue as another player is taken out of the running entirely, along with their identical clues, which means you want to be as on-point as possible without being on the exact same point as anyone else. Naturally, there are some slightly fussy particulars regarding the scoring of points and end-game ratings, but everyone knows the one true playtime is: Until You Get Bored. It's silly, it's simple, it's successful in its intentions, which are, as far as I'm concerned, only the best.
I'm not sure why The Scarlet Pimpernel's managed to fly so far under the radar for as long as it has. It really doesn't deserve its relative anonymity. For my money, I think it's quite the fine game, an enjoyable design that offers a decent amount of Euro-style player interaction without an outright outbreak of Take-Thatist mentality. For starters, it's got that gobsmacking Ian O'Toole look to draw people to the table. I wasn't there for the initial pitch between he and designer Brian Kelley, but the end result reeks of a savvy someone going "O'Toole, you're a well-established artiste these days— how's about strutting your stuff sans bounds, you wild-eyed Irish rascal?" And of course, being the kind of genius he is, he replied with a wily "Aye, ye've got yerself a deal-o!" or whatever it is wild-eyed Irish rascal-geniuses are wont to say whilst staring down the proposition of unimpeded artistic freedom. Anyhoo, there's color and style and pep and verve all over the place, like someone stuck a pig that was in the process of digesting a rainbow. It's bold and brilliant and a mighty fine game besides, which I will endeavor to focus on now, in the hopes that people are fooled into believing that I'm not normally the type of person who chooses to play board games based entirely on how rainbow-blood-spattered they are.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is essentially a route-building, area majority, resource-gathering affair for 2-6 players. Each round asks players to assemble the necessary equipment, contacts, and safe passage for the furtherance of Sir Percy Blakeney's law-scoffing escapades. Although everyone is playing as a furtive supporter of the eponymous anti-decapitation vigilante, it's still very much a competitive pursuit. Whosoever capitalizes best by the end is declared the winner, or, perhaps more thematically, is deemed the most loyal contributor to the Pimpernel's cause. A popularity contest, in other words, only this time it isn't your mother who needs to know you love her WAY more than your dumb siblings.
They say you still experience most of your senses several moments after getting beheaded, which is probably enough time to come up with a real zinger, say it, and then die before anyone can come back with a witty retort.
Every round results in a mad dash to fill up all the various mission categories by way of spending a finite supply of personal cubes: cubes to go out onto a destination that must be reached, cubes to be spent on an ever-changing amount of five different types of resources, cubes to be pledged for the overseeing of each one of these categories. The latter presents an interesting relationship that emerges between these two types of actions. Does one contribute, or does one oversee and delegate others' contributions— or, most efficaciously, how does one manage to dabble in the best of both? Only one player gets to decide whose cubes are used (and thus scored) for each one of these categories, but in order to become an overseer in a particular category, one must give up a chance to put more cubes into said categories themselves. Time is ever of the essence. Pledging cubes as overseers acts as the round timer— as soon as the final category is claimed, the round completes, whether each category of the mission was fully filled or not. Add to this quandary the benefit of roving special player powers for those who have the most cubes in each category at any given moment (especially the moment after most of the cubes are removed and scored), and you begin to see the wonderfully excruciating tightrope one must walk when deciding how best to allocate one's little wooden doo-dads. Plate-spinning comes to mind when playing The Scarlet Pimpernel, and, when coupled with the delightfully violent color palate, it could very well be plate-spinning of the county-fair-spin-art variety.
I very much like The Scarlet Pimpernel, more than I ever thought I might. Where once the art alone enticed me, the gameplay got me to stick around. I liken it to the Hansa Teutonica effect, wherein a basic ruleset belies the actual enjoyment that can only come from real-life, hands-on experience. In short, it plays far more fun than it initially reads.
Every so often a board game speaks to me before it's even released. It's a careful, calculated alchemical reaction formed from an impossible number of factors, all cohering as one into harmonic euphony that then entices, beguiles, and inveigles with bewildering precision. Forged in the consummate crucible of perfection, it takes form and sings, siren-like: "NOW I AM BECOME NE PLUS ULTRA, WOOER OF MINDS." I'm pretty sure it's the same formula they use to program Disney stars.*
Museum spoke to me. It whispered sweet autonomous sensory meridian responses into my ear with its wondrous theme. It did a little song and dance with its copious and exquisite Vincent Dutrait artwork. It traced its sinuous finger along my milky white thigh and then I pushed it away and said "Enough, foul temptress! I have boundaries and you will respect them!" Things got a little awkward after that. For, like, three years. I first remember hearing about it way back in the board game middle ages of 2016 or so; it successfully kept its distance well into 2019 due to an endless parade of false starts, delays, and production-related hang ups. And all that time I was steeling myself against an overactive imagination, trying desperately to temper expectations as they mounted, reminding myself that no board game could possibly deliver so exceedingly well that which I had envisioned from the pictures. My biggest fear was that Museum would turn out to be a soulless affair, gilt with gold and promise but lacking in all else— and disappointing twice as hard because of it. But you know what? When all was said and done and the cards were in my hot little hands, it turned out to be pretty good after all. Nothing ground-breaking or genre-defining, mind you— it has its fair share of little faults and foibles just like any of us. Yet, despite these things, it has prevailed.
What results is a perfectly fine set collection game, not too complicated, not too simplistic, that does its duty with relative ease. Sure, there are a couple of confusing color choices here and there, a smattering of unbalanced-seeming mini-expansions, a rather busy-looking main board, but none of these things are so offensive as to ruin your enjoyment as a whole. Most can even be ignored entirely for the sake of appreciating a thing of beauty.
Multi-use cards are collected and spent to be placed into one's museum collection, the various continents and icons attributed to each item used for scoring en masse at the end. A turn is as simple as a choice of one of several basic actions, drafting new treasures, paying for choice installations, gathering up previously shed cards, using a special power, plus the option of picking through others' (temporary) discard piles brings a welcome element of timing and player interaction to an otherwise multiplayer solitaire design. Make no mistake, there is depth to the deceptively simple rules; I particularly appreciate the subtle difference between end-game points and the spendable points tokens you can receive from and give to others. Managing these two different types throughout the game is a challenge composed of several layers not necessarily apparent at first glance. Much of the game can often feel comfortable and zen-like in between equal bouts of frustrating and exhilarating luck of the draw, and including the subtle but significant content from any number of the four "big box" expansions allows you to custom tailor the overall complexity of the game as you see fit. Half the fun of the game is indeed ooh'ing and ahh'ing over the sheer number and variety of the cards; there's a claim of "over 300" unique illustrations by the master himself, and I'd believe it. Each and every one is a joy to behold. Unparalleled art direction aside, I'm quite pleased to confess that I find Museum a good, sturdy game by most accounts, and one that I'm happy to bask in for the foreseeable future. I draw the line at heavy petting, though.
Look at that sheep. It's got malice in its eyes. We're talking full-flocked, dyed-in-the-wool, cloven-hoofed malevolence in those freaky peepers, seething all sorts of unspoken angst. "Don't you dare let me drown," they seem to be saying, albeit unspokenly. "This is all your fault, insisting on living in a floodplain several feet below sea level. Don't you have any idea how terrible wool smells when it gets wet?!" Just look at that sheep! It's staring daggers! It's silently judging us with its shifty-eyed glare! Or, maybe, it's just an unintended side effect of having those weird, horizontal, Kermit-the-Frog-style pupils. Look, I don't know. I'm no professional shep-herdist.**
Regardless of unnerving cover art, Lowlands definitely needs more love. It's bonkers to see how little buzz it got. Even now, months after its 2018 release, no one's really singing its praises— and well they should, because Lowlands is just as if not more tune-worthy than any of its same-faced sheep-building/tile-farming/resource-transmuting brethren. The truth of the matter is that underneath its ho-hum exterior lies a surprisingly clever and non-infuriating success in the semi-co-operative genre. Yes, that's right, I just used "non-infuriating" and "success" in the same sentence as "semi-co-operative genre," and no, for once that sentence wasn't actually: "For a non-infuriating success in board gaming, look no further than literally any other game that isn't in the semi-co-operative genre."
Long-time readers will know how I feel about semi-co-op. Also, short-time readers with decent reading comprehension and a knack for utilizing context clues will as well. Basically, everyone now knows how I feel about semi-co-op. Of course, that's not going to stop me from repeating my rant anyway. In short — which is something the following will almost certainly not be — semi-co-op bugs the heck out of me. There's no quicker way to transform my otherwise demure, pacifistic Euro-style tendencies into a raging, Hulk-like harangue around the game table. Why do I dislike semi-co-op so much? I'm not entirely sure, to be honest. All I know is that it rustles the whole lot of my jimmies— yes, every single one of them: Stewart, Kimmel, Neutron, Hendrix, Eat World, and the rest. I think it has something to do with the pretense. There's an air of diplomacy, of helpful smiles, and best intentions to begin with, and then when push comes to shove, when the rubber hits the road, true colors are shown and every manner of manner and decorum is thrown under the bus in a bloody mess of guts and aggrieved feelings. Some people enjoy this duality, some players revel in an arena that promotes duplicitous spite and the splitting of scruples. These people are sociopaths and should be confined to playing days-long games of Diplomacy with only themselves for company.
But hark! What if, through the delicious tedium of a Uwe Rosenberg-inspired design, a multiplayer solitaire Euro game came along and dared to ask the question: "Hey, what do you suppose would happen if we were all actually invested in what our neighbors are doing?" Then rather meekly followed it up with: "Oh, but not because they had the power to really destroy your entire game in one fell and fickle swoop! I mean, let's not go crazy here." This is more or less the scenario Lowlands presents. At its core, it's the same old Germanic mentality of racing after hyper-efficient points-awarding strategy through the use of cards and little wooden counters, except this time the twist comes in the form of a global, looming threat. And the threat, if ignored and thus realized, only goes so far as to make your aforementioned hyper-efficient strategy... less hyper-efficient. Also, the threat invites its own hyper-efficient points-awarding strategy for those who wish to pursue it instead.
What exactly does this mean for gameplay? Well, you have all of your players vying to do as much sheep farming as they can, since sheep are worth a lucrative amount of points, while also eyeing the encroaching floodwaters and splitting their efforts, time, and resources in order to prevent an all-out washing away of said sheep, since, as already mentioned, said sheep are worth a lucrative amount of points and watery deaths are bad. Add to this the temptation of completely ignoring the sheep farming altogether in favor of vying to do as much flood prevention as one can, since dike-building is also, in its own right, worth a lucrative amount of points. This means that with enough players and enough strategies worth a lucrative amount of points, you get a very engaging tug-o-war between being the best at whatever it is you've chosen to do. It also provides the added benefit of doing away with another cardinal sin of semi-co-op: the spite bomb. HA! And you thought I was done complaining about semi-co-op designs!
As is the case in so many semi-co-ops, you have your global, looming threat. Don't let CO2 levels get too high, or EVERYONE DIES! Ship back enough pineapples to the old world, OR EVERYONE DIES! And as is so often the case in many of these semi-co-ops, you get the one player who realizes all they have to do is threaten complete inaction and unwillingness to participate and in doing so tanks the entire game for everyone unless everyone does all the work for them. The strategy now devolves into a game of chicken, begrudging and resentful and filled with incredulous questions of "Would Person B really be that petty?" Thus, the spite bomb. In Lowlands, this is no longer the case. Instead of the global, looming threat spelling GAME OVER to all involved, the global, looming threat, if unhindered, merely reduces the amount of lucrative points that can be gained from a giant player tableau filled with sheep and nothing else. The global, looming threat affects everyone, but individually. If the dike breaks, all players' sheep are drastically reduced, drastically reducing the amount of points awarded for that strategy. Meanwhile, those who gave it their all in the effort of dike-building and flood prevention are awarded a lucrative amount of points relative to their superior involvement and those who neglected the cause in favor of chasing after sheep. Basically, if you don't help everyone prevent the flood just so you can score big on sheep, there won't be a whole lot of sheep left for you to score. Contrarily, if you don't focus on breeding a bunch of sheep for yourself and single-handedly prevent everyone's fields from flooding with your amazing dike, well, you've just handed everyone else a flock-ton of points. It's personal dilemma produced in only the most German of methods: through rigorous and systemic peer pressure to conform.*** If one person is so bold as to buck the trend, then all others now have added incentive to follow suit.
This is why I enjoy Lowlands. It's still a lovely little Euro at heart, but it also tries something unique for its kind and in doing so finds a way to effortlessly "fix" that which I resented most about semi-co-ops. In the end, it winds up doing it all rather well. I find myself worrying in the best possible way about the decisions of others when I play it. It's easy enough to band together to prevent the flood, but the beauty of Lowlands' design is that even when it's in the best interest of others not to, it doesn't always mean that you're dead in the water (and when you are, it's almost always your own bleating fault).
I suppose I'll keep in line with the leitmotif that seems to be forming and now profess my love for the criminally under-appreciated Wind the Film!. Wind the Film! is a wonderful little card game. Its art and theme appear to be custom-tailored to fit the very definition of "winsome" in a way that only a firmly entrenched graduate from the Japanese School of Politely Kawaii can provide. It's bright and cheery and beautiful whilst somehow also being strictly ascetic and utilitarian. Like a particularly adorable baby in a mortarboard and robes, giving a lecture on the history of film cameras. You want to pinch its cheeks because it's so darn cute, but another part of you is going "Hrm, yes, quite. I must respect it for the edifying material it is covering. I should take notes." It's not for everyone, sure, but it works for me. A little too well.
I will be the first to admit that I have a problem: I spend far, far too much money tracking down and buying up Japanese board games. There's something very alluring about Japanese board games, and I'm mightily embarrassed to admit that 95% of the time it has nothing to do with whether or not I think it'll be fun to play and everything to do with its graphic design. It speaks to my soul. "But what even is 'Japanese board game graphic design'?" you ask, "And can it even be generalized in such a broadly ignorant and sweeping way via a couple of sentences in a long-since defunct web-log with hopelessly Western prejudices?" The answers to these questions are undoubtedly: "I don't know, but I'm going to pretend like I do," and "No, but that's not going to stop me." In my own limited experience, "Japanese board game graphic design" embraces a penchant for neat little rows, clean art, crisp lines, tight spaces, crowded yet respectful iconography, and an even greater inclination to resemble a spreadsheet than their European cousins. Why do I bring this up? Well, in part so I can super subtly slip in the boast that I went to Japan recently**** and therefore magically know all there is to know about the culture and its aesthetic proclivities, but more importantly to drive home the point that my love for Japanese board game design can often cause me to overpay for some real stinkers. It's a common pitfall and oh-so painful pill to swallow for us shallow lovers of board game art: just because a game looks pretty doesn't mean it plays pretty. Wind the Film!, by contrast, is one of those rare stories of success that ticks all the boxes. It is a beautiful game with beautiful design and beautiful gameplay to boot.
Wind the Film! is simple enough in concept: draft cards from a communal display, create sets of like colors, play them out in long lines (or film strips) in ascending or descending numerical value. But the most impactful rule of Wind the Film! is the one that prevents you from rearranging your hand of cards whenever you please. This one basic Bohnanza-esque law is the cornerstone of the game's challenge. Suddenly, building out your filmstrips becomes a tricky feat of luck, skill, and timing, grabbing up cards at precisely the right moment and reordering them during the brief and restrictive moments allotted to you in order to finally get that Blue 9 next to the Blue 10. There are two big things I love about Wind the Film!. One being the tragic greatness of this overbearing constraint, squeezing you into tough choices and big gambits, the other being the only somewhat partial unknown of the cards themselves. Not all cards in the communal display are shown face-up, but each card has integral information hinting at its identity regardless. The backs of cards show their specific color, but only a general range in numerical values that it could possibly be. 1-6 or 7-12, so that while you may not be 100% certain that the Green 11 is right there waiting for you to take it, a quick survey of what has already been played and what is still hiding in peoples' hands can give you a semi-reckless nudge of hope that you should totally definitely for sure just go for it.
It's the addictive mixture of press-your-luck and probability that I like in Wind the Film!, compounded by the uncertain race to lay claim to specific portions of each color's span. If I see my opponent already has a head start on the low end of green, I really don't want to have to pick up a Green 3 just so I can secure the Gray 9 that's been eluding me all game long. On the other hand, why would I just let them have it? After all I've been through?! Wind the Film! produces a constant supply of groans, cheers, and exclamations of "LOOK, I DIDN'T WANT TO PLAY THE THREE, EITHER!" At the very least, you will never be so invested in tracking down the next frame of a clown you so desperately want to document. He's out there somewhere, dagnabbit!... lurking, laughing... and he's worth at least six points!
And now to talk of a game on the other end of the spectrum, a game so shamelessly in the spotlight that it runs the risk of getting disoriented from the glare and smacking beak-first into a picture window. I'm talking, of course, of Wingspan, the latest and greatest from Stonemaier Games. I couldn't be happier with its success, quite honestly. I'm just excited when a publisher "takes the risk" to try a theme apart from your more standard board game archetypes. I've always maintained that one man's lust for samurai-inspired war games is another man's mild-mannered aptness for birding, and we should count ourselves lucky that we live in a time where both can be represented in cardboard form.
To put it bluntly, Wingspan doesn't set out to reinvent the wheel, and I don't think it needs to. It's got four perfectly sturdy wheels of the same roundness and rubberiness that most of us are accustomed to driving around on, a goodly amount of guts (or whatever it is cars have inside them to make them go), and a sturdy frame and undercarriage. It's also got a fresh coat of paint, and this, to me, is its prime selling point. At its core (or, oh, I don't know, "auto-ventricular atrium-chassis," if we're still going ahead with that car analogy), Wingspan is a card-based engine-building board game where players draft different types of birds in order to play them into their sanctuaries for special powers and points. It plays in about 60 or so minutes, is on the light-medium end of heaviness, and could even be considered a family game for a more motivated kith and/or kin. In short, it's a fine game, with stout legs, a satisfying length and complexity similar to a second-hand Hyundai with low mileage, provides satisfying moments of cruise control with just enough player interaction and I'll admit, I've now completely lost control of this car-game-bird(?) metaphor.
What was my original point? That Wingspan isn't necessarily going to win any awards in innovation, but its biggest appeal is to offer a good game in a new skin. Sure, there are plenty of other card-drafting/engine-building games out there, and quite a lot of them are also good, but very few are presented with a bird theme. That appeals to me, and even if it didn't, I know it'd appeal to a significant number of others. I've seen plenty of opinions regarding Wingspan that seem to want to fault the game entirely on its blandness or inclination to "play it safe," and I wonder just how much of this has to do with its unpretentious subject matter. Of course, I only question these motives because I often find similar ones in myself. How many times have I passed over a game with rave reviews and sterling word of mouth only because it had a picture of a YET ANOTHER SLAVERING GOBLIN-MONSTER on the cover? I suppose what I'm trying to say is: variety is the spice of life. Wingspan offers its wares as a nice new alternative to other Good Games. To summarize, I enjoy Wingspan the same way I enjoy those little Smart Cars zipping around town: they're both filled with gears and cogs and I think tires, and I don't know how any of it relates to the circulatory system of a bald eagle.
I'm going to let you in on a little secret: I don't care for space. Outer space, that is. Physical space? Personal space? Oh, I'm all over that, considering I fancy myself a self-imposed solitudinarian recluse who prefers to live a life well alone and far away from the prying eyes of society, only peeking out of my hermitage once in a blue moon to play the latest board game releases. Alas, the inconceivable expanse of the cosmos holds very little personal appeal, and I care not one fig for all the trappings of alien life forms and rocket ships and planetary masses contained therein. Frankly, it scares me. The Lovecraftian vastness of it all, the impersonal sterility, the overwhelming and awesome beauty of a trillion extraterrestrial things that could kill you in an instant— plus, I have to say the whole lack of breathable air is certainly a downer. People dream of becoming astronauts, of humanity taking the next leap forward and colonizing grand new celestial bodies and star systems, but me? I think I'd rather stay put on Earth, even if that means living out the remainder of my days in some sort of hellish, post-apocalyptic Waterworld starring Kevin Costner and that one guy who was in Super Mario Bros.: the Movie. Actually, come to think of it, the only thing that terrifies me more than outer space is the ocean, so, if possible, can we all try and agree to destroy this planet towards a hellish, post-apocalyptic, Max Max-ian desert wasteland instead? Thanks. I'm sure our children and children's children will appreciate it, too.
Imagine my internal conflict when I came to learn that personal favorite Vital Lacerda's next big game was themed around space colonization! So many conflicting feelings! Vital Lacerda good! Mars bad. Blisteringly intricate heavyweight Euro good! Space bad. Me like dry, uninspired trading-in-the-Mediterranean! Me no like vroom-vroom rocketship. Of course, eventually, I got over myself. I even learned to love the theme. ...I suppose that should've been a spoiler alert. Ah well, there's no sense in covering up the inevitable: I love On Mars. Like, love On Mars. I think it's brilliant and beautiful and biased predilections be damned, I would've loved it even if I hadn't ever played and loved the whole lot of Lacerda's other games first. So there you have it. You can probably skip the rest of this section and move on to the next.
Oh. You're sticking around. Okay. Uh, well, I guess we can talk about some of the things I think On Mars gets right. I mean... are you sure you don't want to just pretend like you're skimming and head down to the bit after this? No? Fine. I think the main thing On Mars really succeeds at is timing. This manifests itself in two big ways. The first is On Mars' shuttle system. As ever, Lacerda expertly weaves in a well-integrated theme to each of his gameplay mechanisms, this time incorporating a community shuttle which transports players from one half of the board to the other. Each half of the board houses a specific set of actions, and each set of actions corresponds with a different side of colonizing Mars. Whilst in Orbit, players can go about pre-planning and preparing for their time on Mars— gathering up resources, investing in new technologies, nabbing blueprints for building, etc. Once shuttled down to the surface of the planet, players can then make good on these plans, physically building up the colony by placing down generators, domiciles, and other such civilization-sustaining facilities, hiring scientists and specialists, roving around the planet, picking up natural deposits and beneficial breakthroughs, and welcoming more and more colonists to populate the ever-growing neighborhood. In hopping from one half of the board to the other doing these actions, the players — and the game itself — progresses along nicely and naturally, expanding and developing into a bigger, better, and more advanced colony with more and more ways to score points.
On Mars excels at pacing. It has a wonderful, self-regulating lifespan. The whole game starts off slow and fledgling until, by degrees, it begins to pick up speed and chug along at an increasingly efficient rate. Then, before you know it, it's pulling into the station and players are scrambling to vacuum up as many remaining victory points as they can before the whole thing comes to a satisfying close and scores are tallied. In too many engine-building games you spend the entire time scraping together a means of production only to slam face-first into the endgame after just one or two measly turns of enjoying the delicious fruits of your labor. On Mars provides a player-driven rate of progress; one which celebrates the progress and revels in it for a pleasing amount of time instead of choking it off prematurely. Players know when the end is drawing nigh, because they're the ones in control of the nigh. There isn't a set number of rounds or a card one person can slap down on the table to finish it all off, there are multiple, communal goals being accomplished throughout the length of the game. At any given point you can refer to these timers and the actions of your opponents to gauge just how much opportunity for expansion that you have left. I don't want to give the impression that On Mars is the only game in existence with a satisfying pace or a non-abrupt end, but it is one of the things I think it nails perfectly.
In addition to the aspects of timing and pace, On Mars also provides a gratifying sense of construction. Make no mistake, this is a city-building game in the same semi-abstract sense of its predecessor, Lisboa. However, unlike Lisboa, whose shop placements were arduous, expensive, and demanding, On Mars is comparatively footloose and fancy free with its building requirements; the only thing needed is a blueprint, the requisite building materials, and an open place to plunk a tile down— and, given the vast, unexplored frontier lands of the Red Planet, rooting out prime real estate will be the least of your worries. I really love the prolific amount of building you can accomplish in On Mars. It's almost indulgent the number of blueprints you can complete, if that happens to be your chief strategy. Of course, players should be aware: a building once built is, being part of the shared colony, not always guaranteed "yours" and yours alone. Whosoever secures the blueprint and builds it is awarded the accompanying end-game points and unique during-game Executive Action, but the tile itself is now open and free to be "upgraded" (a fancy way of saying laid claim to) by just about anyone, not only providing even more end-game points to said upgrader, but also able to produce its corresponding (free!) building resource every time said upgrader shuttles back up to Orbit. This two-step lifespan of a building tile is vaguely reminiscent of CO2's proposing+constructing power plants, albeit far less flummoxing for all involved.***** I say "far less flummoxing" because while it's still a sad reality to get edged out of upgrading the building tile you just built in On Mars, it's also not the end of the world. You've still got your points, and, perhaps even more attractively, your new exclusive Executive Action. Plus, with the surfeit of expansion going on, there's bound to be half a dozen more buildings popping up around your Builder Bot that are just asking to get upgraded instead.
I've had the good fortune of playing On Mars five times so far, thanks to the digital presence of the game on Tabletopia, a handful of out-of-town, non-technophobe friends, and more than a little free time to spare. I've played it two-player, three-player, and four-player, and can attest to its durability, scalability, and enjoyment at each count. I've been telling everyone I can about it, yet each time I bring it up in conversation with other board gamers, I seem to get the same three or so "concerns," which I will quickly address now:
1.) Ew, Tabletopia? Isn't that, like, some sort of un-board game thing with non-real components made out of make-believe pixels?
Yes, that's right, Tabletopia is an online computational application that allows you to play cyber-facsimile versions of board games through the magic of INTERNET and Bill Gates. If that's not your thing and you wish to preserve the sanctity of fondling tactile board games in real, old-fashioned, physical life, good on you! To each their own. This just means you'll have a little longer to wait before you get the chance to play On Mars. As for me, I'm an impatient heathen and don't mind staring at a computer screen from time to time, so I jumped right in.
2.) I heard it was heavy. Really heavy.
It is a Lacerda game, a fact from which you can draw conclusions based on your own personal experience. Personally, I find On Mars not nearly as heavy as some of the other, more notable reviewers seem to be making it out to be. Am I biased because of my preference for heavier games? Is my perspective skewed? Perhaps. But what I do know is that for all my love of a good, chunky, complex design, I found Lisboa to be overly dense. Some might even say "complicated to a fault." I generally gauge the "heaviness" or at the very least "accessibility" of a game by the amount of time it takes me to muddle through the rulebook, and also how many times I catch myself saying to myself or others "Ah, sorry, you can't take that action quite yet because of X, Y, Z, and also the kitchen sink." By that standard, Lisboa was heavy. Really heavy. This is not the case with On Mars. If I were to place them on a scale, I'd throw On Mars quite a ways behind both Lisboa and Kanban. Sure, there's a LOT going on, and the initial teach will be lengthy and involved, but once core elements are understood, the flow and the complexity of each available action is really quite streamlined and natural. Things tend to make sense, and if you're already partial to the theme, the look, or the designer pedigree, there's absolutely no reason to be afraid of it.
3.) What about the Space Crystals?
Yes, there are space crystals in the game. They're a form of currency, usually gathered up on the surface of the planet and then spent in order to take those all-important Executive Actions. They just as easily could've been Space Bucks or Mineral Samples or Mars Rover Poops. Admittedly, they're the weakest thematic element in an otherwise thematically-sound design. If you're one of those highly intellectual scientific types who balks at the slightest inconsistency in reality-based speculative fiction, they'll bother you. But then again, if you're one of those highly intellectual scientific type who balks at the slightest inconsistency in reality-based speculative fiction, your life must already be an absolute and insufferable hell, surrounded by confounded dunderheads and vacuous lamebrains whose cumulative IQ couldn't hold a candle to the massive mind-brain you've been cursed with carrying around. If this is the case, I don't think a board game is going to give you any respite from the unimaginable pain and agony you must suffer on an hourly basis. What I will voice about the matter is my personal disgust with the name of these so-called Space Crystals. The rulebook calls it "Marsinum," which really raises my hackles for some reason. Not Marsinite or Marsinium or Cubic Marsconium, but Marsinum. Yuck. What's the literary equivalent of misophonia? In any event, can we all just agree that they're symbolic rather than literal? They're representative of the various alien mineralogical discoveries and breakthroughs gathered when scouting the surrounding terrain, and you can spend them for cool stuff like giant stuffed animals and cheap, Chinese-made paddle-ball games that will break an hour after you get home from the pizza party place.
4.) Ahem. TERRAFORMING MARRRRRRRSSSS!!!!!!!!! TERRORRFORMERINGGG MAWURRRSSSSZZ BLUAGHIAHGAHGHA-A-GAG-A-GAGGG!
Yes, yes, okay! Calm down! Please, put the giant boulder down, friend. Take a big, deep breath and you'll feel much better. Are we calm now? Good. You are correct, Terraforming Mars is a board game that exists. No, the existence of On Mars, while similar in theme and weight, will not suddenly threaten the existence of Terraforming Mars or its fanbase. The two offer distinctly different enough experiences that both can quite happily survive together. If one is looking for a 2-3 hour card drafting, hand management experience centered around colonizing the surface of Mars, one can play Terraforming Mars. And if one is looking for an actually enjoyable game with good art, one can play On Mars. Haw! Just a little joke there--I, oh criminy NO PUT THE BOULDER BACK DOW--
So there you have it. I just solved all three or four of your biggest concerns with On Mars. You're welcome! Now you have a completely unobstructed, worry-free path towards loving it as much as I seem to. Naturally, given my glowing opinions on the great majority of past Lacerda titles, some of you will begin to bandy about the words "apologist" and "sycophant" and "son-of-an-obsequious-so-and-so." Well, to them I say: "You got me." We all have our soft spots, don't we? The real news here is that I think I may love it more than a lot of the other Lacerda games I already love a lot. With additional experience, repeated plays, and the arrival of the game in its far preferred, more physical form, On Mars has every opportunity to claim the coveted title of Most Bestest. Time will tell, I suppose. It may very well wind up that I'm allergic to the type of wood used in the Johnny 5-esque meeple robots. Or I'll accidentally play the game with some jerk and he/she will somehow ruin the fun of it all.****** Or I might suffer blunt force trauma and suddenly think Terraforming Mars******* is an enjoyable endeavor. Anything is possible. All I'm saying is that you can never be too careful in waiting to declare something as prodigiously important statement as personal board game rank. In the meantime, however, I'm quite content to exclaim my newfound love for On Mars. And also come up with a list of better names to use in place of "Marsinum." Marsipan. Mars-Stars. Martian Woo-Woo Healing Crystals. Bradburian Fun Nuggets.* * *
Finally, I shall end this anomalous web-log gobbet with a brief run-down of the time I attended Geekway to the West 2019 in St. Charles, MO, and the games I played there with the people I met. This was my second board game convention experience, the first being the illustrious, Dallas-based BGG.CON in 2016. Both have centered their philosophy around the playing board games as opposed to the selling or debuting of new titles, and I appreciate that sentiment more than attempting to swim against an ocean of rabid consumers. Here are some of the games I experienced:
A fun new take on your standard party drawing game where a random pair of people out of everyone at the table ends up drawing the same clue. Don't be too obvious in your drawing, or you won't fool anyone and thus, won't score points. A little like Dixit in the way that everyone attempts to suss out a connection from of smattering of odd and multi-varied compositions. First impressions: I like it! Good for a laugh, but why such a high price tag on something that doesn't even bother to include dry erase boards? Oh, it's Stronghold Games. Say no more.
I love, love, love Concordia, so trying the newest expansion which partners you with another player sounded fascinating. While everyone is now essentially playing two games instead of just one, it seems like it'd always run the risk of doubling the playing time and possibly overstaying its welcome, but maybe it'd all even out after repeated plays. I ended up really enjoying the new twist, but I think it'll remain a novelty more than a necessity. I'm not sure I'd ever trot it out with newbies. My biggest complaint? No inclusion of the Forum tiles, which is a such a beloved aspect from previous expansion Concordia Salsa that I now find them absolutely indispensable.
No, nothing's changed. I still mightily dig this game; see above. One humorous anecdote from a convention play: against all odds, the word "Simpson" produced the clues "Bart," "Lisa," "Marge," "Maggie," and "College," with zero overlap and no disqualifications. Take that, Law of Averages!
-Lisboa: I know I gave Lisboa a little grief in the On Mars write-up, but the truth of the matter is that I still adore this game. The same cannot be said for many of my local board game chums, so I've had to resort to traveling six hours out-of-state in order to play it with complete strangers. The fellow who asked me to teach him voiced his first impressions at the end, which rang all too ruefully true: "I liked it! ...Pretty sure I'll never be able to get it to the table again, though."
What a delightful little game of deduction! Players take turns ferreting out a singular spot on a game board. Each player is given just one hard and fast clue on the locational whereabouts and through clever questioning and inferential reasoning, they attempt to figure out everyone else's information as well. Combined, all clues point to the one true hiding spot of wherever the cryptozoological abomination is holed up. I was very much impressed with this one. All the giddiness and mystery of other hidden location games like Letters to Whitechapel without any of the pesky prostitute murdering! I especially respect whatever mathematical voodoo the designers had to practice in order to produce a startling number of scenarios that all point to just one single hex out on the board. With more and more plays, I can see the clue-giving strategies begin to really deepen; after all, when only one player can win, you don't want to give out too much information.
We wanted to try "the whole thing," and that is precisely what we got. The whole thing. For eight hours. It took us eight hours. I mean, I love cake, but I don't go eating it for eight blumming hours at a time. We built our little colonies over four eras and those eight long hours, scooting around an ever-expanding village of actions, building, upgrading, and spreading like a cancerous disease. In the end, and at 2 (or was it 5?) in the morning, we finally tallied the points only to discover that I had won. My strategy? Turning off my brain at around 9pm and doing nothing but baking the living $%&* out of bread, over and over and over. Turns out you can have the most advanced colony in the world, but what REALLY secures the win is converting to Luddism halfway through the game and doubling down on a pastry-based economy. Boy, I'm so glad it took us eight hours of our lives to figure that one out. But then again, maybe we played it wrong. I don't think any of us were willing to double-check after hour five. In all, I enjoyed it, and am happy to have tried "the whole thing," but I think "the whole thing" will also forever remain a "one time thing."
An old favorite. There's something rather endearing about the odd little Roman caricatures, to say nothing of the fact that this still appears to be the only game which employs a dice-to-latrine reroll chit pay-out that makes you loath to handle the pieces for any longer than is absolutely necessary. A simple dice placement game that, with only two players, makes for the perfect filler before your pre-scheduled Lisbo-a-thon.
A little like advanced No Thanks! whereby players take turns either taking a numbered card or passing on it by paying coins instead. However, unlike No Thanks!, the cards aren't just accumulated for unwanted positive points at the end, but are built into a personal pyramid according to their value and colored icons. It brings a very welcome secondary puzzle and lots of excruciating new decisions to consider, although I'd be just as happy playing either game depending on the crowd. A fun twist, nonetheless.
An engine-builder stripped down to its bare essentials, oh, and a barely memorable fantasy theme, I guess? But it's not the theme that really matters here, rather the simplicity and streamlined satisfaction of a concise ruleset. I applaud the cleanliness of the design, and I enjoyed it, but I'm not sure I would garner the same amount of enjoyment after X number of plays. People claim that most of the strategy is found from the outset, in the careful drafting and crafting of one's deck. I'd believe it, but, just like Agricola's diehard initial Occupation card draft, don't personally derive much joy from it like others seem to.
I do so love The Gallerist. It's one of my favorite board games of all time, and I was happy to bring it back out after having it sit on the shelf for far too long. Sure, I didn't win, but I also never had to display the questionable Screaming Stomach Man artwork in my gallery, and that alone is pretty much a personal victory. They say as long as it provokes a reaction, it's art, but guess what else provokes a reaction? My gag reflex getting triggered.
See above. I was happy to introduce this to a whole new crew of people. One of my favorite things about this hobby is trotting out a brand new game and watching others' faces light up as they slowly realize they're enjoying themselves. And in the end, isn't that what board gaming is all about? Well, that and hoarding a bunch of obscure Japanese games you'll never end up playing more than once.******** But mainly the proselytizing.
The ": the Card Game" version of perennial classic Keyflower. Do I enjoy this more than the original? Absolutely not. Do I find it an adequate substitute? No, are you crazy? Just give me Keyflower already, I'll make time for it! Jeez, do I even enjoy playing Key Flow at all? Why yes, yes, I do, once I get past the awkward setup phase of preparing a bunch of different little decks according to player count, then remembering how keyple usage works, then referencing the bewildering rulebook yet again to see how many cards to deal out per season, then finally getting into it (Wait, do all the 'K' cards come out? Somebody look that up). Then I enjoy it. No, really, I do!
Another game that seems to have fallen by the wayside. I really love the "card queue" system in this game. If you want to be all technical and spoil the mystique, it's essentially just a deck builder with your deck strewn out across three piles. I still dig the novelty of it. Choose one of your queues, do the action at the front, place it in the very back. Bring in more people for more actions, and try to collect resources to fulfill enough contracts to get to a set number of points first. A moment of silence, please, for our dear, departed "Cinnamon Prince" as he was fan-translated from the original German; in the official English-language edition he has now been downgraded to the infinitely more boring-sounding "Cinnamon Man." Unless... they forgot to add the hyphen and he has transformed into the superhero CINNAMON-MAN! Yes, wherever there is want of aromatic spice in an apple crumble or French toast, CINNAMON-MAN IS THERE!
Honk! Honk! Is it a car? Or a Canada Goose? Or a board game? No one truly knows. But it is pretty! I don't think I mentioned earlier how pretty the bird illustrations are, and that's an injustice I can't let stand. Let it be known: Wingspan is super pretty.
* * *
Phew, it's hard work talking about so much and saying so little! The amount of relevancy one must sift through and filter out gets downright exhausting. And don't even get me started on combing through the countless lines of empty rhetoric and picking out any possible nits of nascent wisdom! You've got to nip those right in the bud before they have a chance to spread into something more germane.
In any event, I am finished for the time being, and don't intend to pick back up for all the money in the world, mainly because then I'd be in charge of the entire planet's budget, and I can hardly even manage my own when a new game is released. Also, being paid "all the money in the world" to sit in front of the computer device and compose absolute drivel is somewhat of an unrealistic expectation— I would be happy to do it for "somewhat of a large portion of the money in the world." At least, that is what I would accept if I weren't too lazy to set up a Patreon account. Therefore, my dear compeers, you must be satisfied with what you get for free, which, in this case, is a whole lot of nothing.
If you'll excuse me, I am tired, and there seems to be a mob of angrified Terraforming Mars fanatics assembling outside my hermitage. They have pitchforks and torches and I believe a few of them have gotten crafty and lit their pitchforks on fire to create torchforks and they are all rather menacing on the whole.
Happy games! Take care! Now shove off!
*You can't convince me that Zac Efron is not a sex android from the future. He came from a far-flung dystopia with the intention of freeing his ancestral line from the shackles of their Disney Channel contracts, somehow got sucked into starring in High School Musicals I-XII, then got famous and started doing grittier projects about serial killers to help bolster his image of a brooding young Marlon Brando analog. Did he forsake his initial crusade? Some say The Mouse offered him untold riches and power. But I'm a simple man. I'd like to believe that he just wound up falling in love with his co-star Vanessa Hudgens-bot and fathered a beautiful cyber-love-baby/affront-to-nature-and-temporal-fidelity on the sly. Now all three are on the run from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was also sent from the future to find and kill their cyber-love-baby before it has a chance to grow up and lead the revolution against exploitative child labor as used in vaguely-unsettling Schneiderian programming like iCarly.
**Or, as they call them in New Zealand, Sheep-Schlepper. Again, I could be wrong on that.
***Why do elephants all have such big ears? Heard mentality.
****I went to Japan recently.
*****Boy, I'm really razzing CO2 today, aren't I? I feel it prudent to clarify: While I really disliked the original "semi-"co-op version of the game, I have since played and enjoyed the changes in the full co-op revision of CO2: Second Chance. It's certainly not my favorite Lacerda game, but I'll play it in a pinch. That is to say, I'll play it if someone threatens to pinch me.
******Maybe Bill Cosby. I could see his widely agreed-upon ignominious nature and tarnished legacy ruining On Mars for me. I dare say it'd be a double whammy due to his icky conduct and the fact that he was in Ghost Dad.
*******Boy, I'm really razzing Terraforming Mars today, aren't I? I feel it prudent to clarify: While I really disliked my one and only play of Terraforming Mars, I have since come to realize that it wasn't just the egregiously bad stock photo art, hideously out-of-date graphic design, and laughably poor quality in game components that made me miserable, it was also the proactively dull gameplay! This holistic negativity makes me feel better justified in my opinion, as the sustained and histrionic dry heaves of anguish really did a number on my diaphragm.
********Did I mention I went to Japan recently.
- [+] Dice rolls
28 Mar 2018
What can I say? I'm a people-pleaser. I make no bones about it, unless you happen to be dice-poor, or osseously-challenged, and are in need of a couple spare bones, in which case I can certainly make you a few if that would help you like me more. Seriously, do you need a couple bones? Let me make you some. It's no problem. I'll put them in a to-go box with your name on it and place it near the door so you can take it with you if you want. Because if there's a possibility for me to garner admiration from my equals, or respect from my betters, or a chuckle from a passerby, or even a pun-provoked booing from an incensed jury of my peers, I will go for it. Most of my actions are motivated by two key questions: "Will what I am about to do make you like me more?" and "How much foot massage is too much foot massage?" I'm no psychoanalyst, but my psychoanalyst Dr. Garry Allan is, and he says this need to please stems from a deep and abiding hunger for acceptance after I was abandoned by my birth parents and left on the doorstep of an auditing firm. Also, probably the insatiable desire to inject humor into every situation as both a defense mechanism and a means to distance myself emotionally from any scenario that might otherwise require human empathy. And while we're at it, most likely also due to that one childhood fixation on clowns that I had for the longest time.
All of this to say I had a smattering of requests crop up in the last web-log entry, and, despite the constant grappling with the twin, inner demons of perfectionism and laziness*, I have returned to the keyboard and aim to fulfill said behests in as selfish a fashion as reality allows. Otys! they all cried (or rather suggested quite civilly in the comments section, all two of them). Otys! is what they asked, and so Otys! is what they shall receive. A word of fair warning, however! Having only played the game on a total of three separate occasions at the time of writing this post, I am woefully inapplicable when it comes to acting as the preeminent sage and scholar on the matter, and so will doubtless be hard at work in the margins with all manner of mental fritterings and scatter-brained asides. Dr. Garry Allan says this, too, is another one of my "defense mechanisms" and that I should work on applying my intellect to sincere edification, since snideness in didacticism often alienates others. But, as I always say, where's the fun in that? Who needs friends when you can force complete strangers into joining in on your favorite pastime of looking up obscure history on Wikipedia?
Anyhoo, cartographically-speaking, this is the portion of the map upon which the author must make his finely-scripted discretionary mark: HERE BE TANGENTS**. Because avast, me mateys, I'm sure here there probably will be.Otys
First things first, this is a fine-looking game. A real looker and then some. If this game were an attendee at a junior high dance, it would be the attendee with several young women avoiding slightly less eye contact with it than, say, Heads of State, which would probably be off in the corner somewhere, wishing it was at Mock U.N. finals. And while I usually find art an essential part of why and how I enjoy a board game, I bring it up so quickly with Otys because I find Otys is very much a puzzle, a challenge, an activity, and these puzzle-y types of games always fare much better with a healthy dose of eye candy. Make no mistake, under slightly different circumstances this "Puzzle Game" classification could very well come off as an insult, but here I use the term in its classic sense; a game like Otys represents one of three circles present in the Venn diagram of Board Game Types.
In my mind, there are three main types of board game design. The Abstract, The Puzzle, and The Experience***. Nowadays, what with the sheer number of iterative and hybridized games coming out, most titles will nestle comfortably in the shared spaces between two or even all three of these circles, (a trend, I might add, that makes us all the richer and happier for it), but every so often there comes along a design that skews towards one of the purer classifications— and Otys seems to be one of them. Otys is one big player board puzzle, one that changes in subtle, challenging, and often pleasingly excruciating ways by the actions of the other players. More on that later, of course, but let's quick address the elephant in the room: Yes, I acknowledge that right now you're probably shouting in your head "'PERSONAL PUZZLE THAT CHANGES DUE TO THE ACTIONS OF OTHERS'?! BY THAT DEFINITION, EVERY BOARD GAME SHOULD BE CLASSIFIED AS YOUR HOITY-TOITY, PSEUDO-LEARNED, BULL-PLOP 'PUZZLE' DEFINITION!" But to that I simply say "It's a matter of semantics, my good chum," which, as I've learned, is (alongside other such perennial classics as "It Is What It Is" and "Let's Agree To Disagree") the perfect way to get out of arguing with someone when you don't have a very strong case. Look, just once I want to introduce to the world a smart-sounding theorem or law or aphorism that is widely adopted and hailed as nothing short of pith and genius. Is that so much to ask?****
Back to Otys. Otys is a game in which you and up to three others manage and operate a crack team of deep sea divers who, with the financial help of futuristic mega-corporations, scour the postdiluvian, not-exactly-Waterworld-starring-Kevin-Costner water world of sunken not-exactly-Waterworld-starring-Kevin-Costner water world treasures. Or, more succinctly and less soulfully, Otys is a puzzle game in which you and up to three others manage and operate a queue of tiles which will net you colored cubes which will complete CONTRACTS! which will grant you victory points which will win you the game. On your turn, you choose 1 out of 5 levels of depth on your player board, and activate the diver tile currently at that level of depth. Hopefully, this will earn you either money, upgrades, or resources, all of which will help you in some way to procure more cubes to complete more CONTRACT!s to get you to that certain number of victory points that will win you the game. It's a race, see, the first one to make it to 18 will trigger the end, and whoever surfaces with the biggest number beyond that wins.
I generally don't care for race games, and The Puzzle isn't my first preference when it comes to board game types, but I'm happy to admit that despite these things, I like Otys quite a bit. The beauty of Otys lies in its streamlined simplicity. While there are some icons to learn and some special abilities to keep straight, you really aren't doing much more than two main things on a turn. Choose a number, activate that number. The activation will trigger two things: first, a special ability on the main board that is currently associated with your level of choice, and second, your current diver's specific ability. After you benefit from both of these things, your diver tile returns to the surface (goes to the top of your queue of tiles), and all other divers dive one level further down (you slide the whole stack downward, closing the gap you just made). Each diver tile offers a unique ability; a handful of specialists will dig up those all-important colored cubes needed for CONTRACT!s, but the rest allow you to do things like upgrade your actions into more powerful versions, buy or sell cubes directly via the black market, obtain private CONTRACT!s instead of those communal, first-come-first-served on display, and specialize specific levels of depth for even more payoff upon their successful activation. To further complicate the puzzle, each time you successfully dive for cubes, those cubes stay at the level of depth on which the diver was activated, which means that in order to turn in a CONTRACT! that requires one of every color cube, your ever-changing diver queue has to be timed perfectly in order to situate the blue cube diver at the level that already contains your green, black, and white cubes. All of this culminates in a very tricky, very enjoyable spatial and timing puzzle, and only those who manage it most efficiently will end up grabbing the right CONTRACT!s at the right time. Have I mentioned you can't just activate the same level over and over? And that if anyone chooses the fifth level to activate, the tiles which make up the main board of special abilities all shift downward as well?
The game stays fresh and engaging throughout its relatively swift play time, always giving you options and CONTRACT!s to aim for in the overall race to 18 VP. As people find their groove, turns can go surprisingly fast, but each decision is no less agonizing. Because it's easy to get caught up in the personal puzzle of your player board, the impulse is to bury your head in your own affairs and ignore the other players as you time events and schedule levels. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your personal preference of play style), one measly action from the preceding opponent to your right can completely undo a meticulous, multi-step plan in a single instant. This is good, because the game moves quickly enough, there are enough options to mitigate a turn of bad luck, and it keeps one from completely disregarding other human beings for 30-60 minutes. This is also bad, because not only does it feel bad when someone unknowingly squashes your hopes and dreams in a game, but it also feels bad when you squash someone else's hopes and dreams and you can't even say that you were really planning it all along. Don't get me wrong, there's ample opportunity to swoop in and nab a CONTRACT! you know someone else was eyeing, and sure, that can feel just the right amount of cold and calculated and triumphant, but our games were also filled with quite a few instances of ignorant Oh, really?'s after someone exploded in a mournful sobbing of dashed machinations. Somehow, not knowing exactly whether or not you'll be foiling someone's plans makes it feel that much worse when it happens to unfold, foil-wise. As always, I'm hesitant to mark this down as a legitimate gripe against a game, as there is a very good possibility that it's merely the untoward side effects of being a less-than-stellar strategist. I feel like with most things in life, there's always a 70/30 chance that all of my grumblings are, in fact, a byproduct of personal ineptitude, so I'll leave this particular con for the experts to dissect.
Upgrading your divers is handy. Here the blue player has invested in the Private CONTRACT! action, reducing its cost to use.
And now on to the one actual complaint I have with Otys that I know isn't a result of my own doing: the component quality. As ever, the road to poor UX is paved with good intentions, and first I must give the publishers Libellud and Pearl Games credit where credit is due. In theory, the double-layered player boards are a most terrific idea! Perfectly-sized grooves that house your queue of diver tiles, and slots for each level's "key" marker to slide over and through. When it works, it really does work swimmingly, giving the player a highly satisfying feeling of getting business done. Sadly, due to production concerns, humidity, cardboard stock, quality of glue, or probably half a dozen other invidious factors, the player boards have a Lisboa-esque tendency to curl ever so slightly at their edges and corners, causing a bowing convexity that twirls and spins at inopportune times and would throw even the most level-headed phlegmatist***** into fits of rage and fury. All of this could've been water under the bridge (or diving bell), were it not for the fact that this game insists on a constant attention to the movement on the boards. This is, after all, the whole point of the game. Sliding, repositioning, fiddling, finagling, and juggling chits. Even the slightest movement atop the player board and around and around she goes, turning this way and that, swiveling like a lazy susan on steroids. Not only that, but there are certain markers that are meant to lay just beside the player board, indicating extremely important points and graphics, rendered completely useless just as soon as the board pirouettes off into oblivion once, twice, even three or four times on a single turn. It's remedied rather easily by simply keeping one hand on a corner of your board as the other moves things about, but the whole procedure becomes a needlessly awkward operation when it was so close to being an effortless one. It's little, peevish things like these that cause a person to say things he doesn't really mean, like "This would work better as an app."
Otys****** is, in my opinion, a very fun little game. It's clever, it's unique, it's clean, and it's quick-acting. I really enjoy the rush of planning out several moves in advance, and knowing with a grin that I'll achieve that CONTRACT! in T-minus 3 turns... just as long as someone else doesn't screw it up. And, invariably, when someone else comes along and does, I even enjoy that brief jolt of shame before my brain-mind does the brain-mind equivalent of a GPS going silent for a brief, mortifying moment after a missed turn, then bleating out "RECALCULATING..." in that type of emotionless, automated voice that humans love to derive all sorts of highly judgmental and resentful emotions from. I get a kick out of the purity of the puzzle in Otys, not quite an Abstract, with just enough of a flare of player interaction to keep it from being 2-4 people playing their own little game in their own little heads. The queue of divers and repositioning is such a slick addition that, like Gentes' time allocation gimmick, is a wonder I've never seen it before now. If this is what first-time(?) designer Claude Lucchini has come up with on his very first try, I'll happily watch out for him in the future, provided we don't all drown from the rising sea-level. I suspect he'll be making a big splash. You should dive right into this game. It has a lot of depth. Just remember to come up for air. Scuba-dooby-doo. The water temple from Zelda.
* * *
Well, there's me finished, and still with so much to talk about! I've been playing all sorts of good games as of late, it's been very exhilarating to have experienced so much in such a short amount of time. A couple of expansions to improve the already wonderful base games of Fields of Arle, Dokmus, and The Voyages of Marco Polo, plus getting old favorites played again like Caverna (not Agricola?!), and just in time, too, as it finally returned to the table just 12 days shy of two whole years without getting played! Of course, newcomers debuted, too; the likes of Raiders of the North Sea, Rajas of the Ganges, Castell, and that most byzantine bulwark of rules bloat, Feudum, which, against all odds (and after some massive hemorrhaging), turned out to be a fascinating and toothsome time.
Perhaps I'll return one day to tell their tales. Perhaps I won't. Whatever the case, however long it takes for another web-log jaunt, I thank you for following along with this one. Despite the insipid, inveterate attempts to people-please, I must admit, when it comes to penning: the pleasure's all mine.
Until next time, happy games!
*Is there anything so pitiful as a Lazy Perfectionist? No, no there isn't, and I should know, because I've spent many an hour neglecting work to go in search for an alternative. Our plight, as it were, is simple: one envisions only the finest, the most superlative results yet, alas, is unwilling to bring them to fruition due to there being video games to play instead. The Lazy Perfectionist takes the proverb "If you can't do it right, don't do it at all" and twists it into an entire purview. The Lazy Perfectionist's chief export is nothing more than "Why bother?". How many chapters have gone unwritten from this supercilious atrophying of an author's hands? How many slabs of marble have been abandoned because their sculptor would not allow himself to see past the hideous labor of the first few stages? How many direct-to-DVD films have been produced from this diseased refusal to see a would-be blockbuster through? The world is full of the heart-breaking futility of these hypothetical artists, and I am only doing my part in joining their numbers. It is, after all and quite literally, the least I can do.
**Possibly with a cute little sea-serpent-looking thing and several interrobangs coming out of its snout.
***Meant in no way to be thought of as official criterion, I personally like to regard the three main board game categories as such:
-The Abstract: The great-great-great-great-great-great grandpappy of board games. Think purely opponent vs opponent in a match of skill and/or dexterity. Chess, Checkers, Go, Backgammon, any of those oddly-named GIPF Project titles that look like someone either sneezed whilst typing or had a brain aneurism that caused them to hit the CAPS LOCK key. Sure, there can exist a smidgen or skosh of flavor in the "theme" or symbology, but generally speaking we're strictly speaking generally; playing fields reduced down to black and white, primary shapes, and easily-identifiable archetypes. You don't see many of these on the market nowadays, but every once in awhile one will slip through the cracks of marketing and can actually make a long-lasting, positive impression.
-The Puzzle: This one is probably the most subjective of the three definitions. Often synonymous with "An Enjoyable Activity," both communal and private. Think challenging sequences, spatial juxtaposition, player(s) vs game/AI, as well as strong, recognizable ties to Abstract's personality (as I think The Puzzle is probably The Abstract's prodigal son, the one that went to college, took a couple courses in theme, and now lords it over his dad). Due to its flexible definition and mercurial nature, I have a harder time finding board games that belong in this category alone, but things like the Trajan with its mancala, or A Feast for Odin with its polyominoes, or any number of solo variants and co-op games, could be made to fit nicely.
-The Experience: Most modern board games, in a nutshell. You and your fellow players are taken on a journey together through use of clever gameplay mechanisms, art, theme, and shared competitive goal. Contrary to what one might assume, The Experience isn't just a fancy-pants way of calling something "Ameritrash" or "Thematic," because just as many soulless, dry Euros belong in this genre, too. As long as a board game sets out to instill a specific feeling or attempts a certain mythopoeia, it's part of this family. The easiest way to tell if a game is an Experience is to ask the question: "What is this game about?" If the answer sounds something like "We're 15th century bards attempting to pen the most lyrical ballad!" or "We're killin' zed-heads for victory points!" then it's an Experience. If the teacher gruffly responds with a "Doesn't matter, just try to fit this wedge in with the other wedges better than me," then you're looking at a bona fide Abstract or Puzzle.
****If my Venn diagram of Board Game Types doesn't trip your trigger, I submit this humble (yet incredibly intelligent-seeming) adage for your approval. I call it Uwe's Law, and it states: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Agricola and Caverna approaches 1." It's funny because it's true.
*****While it's true that "phlegmatist" is not a real word, I call your attention to the brief period in American theatre history which adopted the term as a type of stage act, and with great fervor. William Hardarcre Gladwell, a disgraced illusionist, first used the title in 1887, after a string of unsuccessful tours in which his initial at being a stage magician went terribly awry. In experiencing crowd after crowd of infuriated and unimpressed spectators, Gladwell discovered his true talent and sought to capitalize on this newfound skill. Almost overnight, he became a runaway success with his new persona and act: Gladwell the Unflappable, wherein he, appearing as a stone-faced man in immaculate top hat and coattails, calmly dared his onlookers to hurl at his person the most vindictive insults and hateful abuse that they could possibly muster, all while remaining completely unaffected. Within months there were countless copycats and knock-off phlegmatists, but history has proven Gladwell as not only the first of his kind, but also the very best. Nowadays, Gladwell memorabilia commands astronomical prices at auction, and collectors prize his surviving mint-condition playbills and posters above all else. Personally, I've always found the grandiose verbiage on them highly entertaining, and here, for your pleasure, is one of his most famous tour posters, transcribed:Come! See! Experience!
GLADWELL THE UNFLAPPABLE - MASTER PHLEGMATIST!
The one, the only PRINCELY PEACE-KEEPER of PERSEVERANCE! SULTAN of SALUBRIOUS SURVIVAL! GRAND POOBAH of TABOO BALLYHOO!
Marvel at the man who DARES to STARE DOWN PURE HATRED & STANDS HIS GROUND!
~Patrons are encouraged to bring their finest fury, their utmost anathema — GLADWELL will WEATHER IT ALL! GUARANTEED!~
Never before has one individual endured the unadulterated defamation of his character with so little concern for Psycho-Liminal Repercussion! An entire evening filled with peer-appointed mayhem; no slander too strong, no epithet too verboten!
Women, Men of Short Stature, & Precocious Children will not be admitted!
LIVE! at the GRAND ENDORPHEUM THEATRE!
St. Louis, Missouri
******Why the name "Otys"? Truth be told, I don't rightly know. Being an amateur etymological fiend, I find myself humbled by not recognizing any root words or picking up on any whiffs of word play. Were they lost in translation? Never present? I'm sorry to say I've come up blank for the most part, save for two possibilities. Firstly, the similarities of Otys and otoscope, which brings to mind otolaryngology, the first bit of which finds its roots in the Greek word for "ear." This naturally leads to the ideas of having water in your ear, or how your ears pop under certain pressure, all of which rather tenuously could be tied back to the sub-marine nature of the board game in question. A stretch, to be sure, but still worth mentioning. Secondly, and a far more probable possibility, is the striking similarities between Otys and Otis, which a quick search on www.NameYourBabySomethingOtherThanBraeydyn.com tells me means "wealthy, or rich," which could, in theory, match up with the board game's theme of diving for sunken treasures, but more than likely matches up with fictional personage Otis Campbell, who, as everyone knows, is the beloved souse character in The Andy Griffith Show. Otis was Mayberry's affable town drunk, whose entire existence hinged on the comedic premise of locking himself into a jail cell whilst heavily intoxicated to save Sheriff Andy Taylor the time and effort, then either experiencing or enabling wacky hi-jinks once in situ. I feel the strength of this apparent connection between the board game Otys and the boozer Otis Campbell is self-explanatory; I need not insult your intelligence further by going into any painstaking detail on why this is the obvious of the two allusions, so instead, I will prod along this tangent of popular culture in a different direction. Namely, that of The Andy Griffith Show's extended cast of recurring characters, and three individuals in particular that vexed me to no end as an impressionable child viewer.
The first offender of my delicate, child-like sensibilities is that of Ernest T. Bass, a reprehensible little hillbilly of a man who delighted in an infuriatingly anarchical sense of public indecency and wanton, fenestral destruction, but whose Wikipedia article has provided me with one of the most joyously clinical statements in the history of humorless description: "Ernest T. Bass' rock-throwing exploits are commemorated in the Natural Science sections of some museums and universities in the U.S. with 'Ernest T. Bass Day,' in which people who have stones they are unable to identify are encouraged to bring them in for inspection. This usually takes place on April 1, when Bass is believed to have celebrated his birthday on the show."
The second and third offenders of my childhood well-being were Daphne and Skippy, who I, through some apocryphal fog of inaccurate recollection, always thought were called "the party girls," but who are, in actuality, referred to as "the fun girls" by the whole of the portion of INTERNET that actually remembers them. Oh, how I loathed these characters! They embodied the most outrageous of my phobias, which was (ironically, I suppose) never being taken seriously. Much like Otis Campbell and Ernest T. Bass, Daphne and Skippy existed solely for the singular purpose of one overarching gag, this being that they would flirt wildly with Andy Taylor and Barney Fife, get them in trouble with their steady girlfriends, and then magically disappear offscreen, leaving their two thoroughly rattled marks to attempt pleas of virginal innocence while Miss Crump and Thelma Lou took offense and chided them disbelievingly.
I could almost put to rest this terrible injustice if this set-up was isolated within the early 1960s, but the sad fact of the matter is that this obnoxious and lazy writing STILL EXISTS AND FLOURISHES TO THIS DAY. I can't tell you the number of times a studio audience crowed with laughter as a hapless dolt stuttered out the typical "Y-You've got it all wrong, honey!". This infuriating line, along with "I can explain everything, I swear!" is usually played opposite a shrewish caricature of a hands-on-hips housewife, legs angrily akimbo, with a self-righteous frown etched into her face. I can't stand entire plots that revolve around the refusal or inability to properly communicate, and while Daphne and Skippy were never the progenitors of this authorial offense, they certainly were the incarnate versions in my young and inexperienced eyes. Their antics in particular filled my mind-brain with wide-eyed outrage, and I was left altogether clueless as to exactly why.
After decades of rumination on the matter, I believe I have finally distilled down the essential reason why these characters aggravated me as a kid, yet not so much anymore. I now believe it was because the helplessness of childhood only affords its denizens one real and palpable victory: justice served. It is learned from a very, very young age that when one disobeys, one is caught, and one is then punished accordingly. This is the Way of Things. Too naive to know a world where gray exists, these black and white walls of Adult-Deemed Judgment are what grant a young boy his first real sense of peace in an otherwise unknowable and complex life. So when these rock-solid tenets are profaned, when one disobeys, and one is neither caught nor punished—or HEAVEN FORBID—when one does not disobey at all and is caught and punished regardless, the reality comes crashing down around a poor boy and he is left confused, shaken, and uncertain what to believe about Right & Wrong. The Fun Girls were dastardly provocateurs of this very hallowed thing, and as such, were unspeakable to my hopelessly jejune and one-dimensional sense of morality. While Otis Campbell's only crime was being too lighthearted about the very real disease of alcoholism, and the only thing Ernest T. ever did wrong was to be too much of an annoying prat, "the Fun Girls" were an affront to Kid Justice and comedy writing. I'm afraid I can never forgive them for making me a jaded man far before my time. Plus, their Wikipedia entry isn't half as hilarious as Bass' is.
- [+] Dice rolls
02 Feb 2018
Life comes and goes in ebbs and flows. You might not think it, but it is entirely possible to live in both plentiful bouts and threadbare scarcities. In addition to sounding like some superfluous lyric in a long-forgotten 70s folk song, it's also pretty true. What do I mean when I say this? Well, for example, you are perfectly welcome to come home from work every evening, fix a frugal repast for yourself and a stray cat or two, then go to bed. You could keep this up for as long as you wished. Alternatively, you have every right to race off to the local pub or sportings bar as soon as the clock strikes 5, gather with numerous friends, families, nemeses, partake in ballyhoos and brouhahas and murder of mundanities most foul, and not stop until your body collapses from exhaustion and excitement and all of your acquaintances are forced to drag you home by your swollen ankles. Sure, you could live this lifestyle until your internal organs gave up and jumped ship in the dead of night. But most likely, most probably, most wisely, the majority of life-livers will elect to find a healthy balance between these two extremes: some days slumping disconsolately into an easy chair with all the grace and equipoise of a sack of flour with bad posture, some days participating in vast, saturnalian exploits of drink and merriment and possible police interrogation.
All this to say one thing in particular: I still like board games! Love, even, if the cold, dead, dracula heart in my chest will allow it. And while the rapacity, the rapidity, the fervent, ever-lusting regularity with which I approach this hobby may have flagged lo, these past few months, my passion and ardor for the act still very much abound. I didn't need so much a break from playing games, but merely a brief respite from broadcasting it from the mountaintops. And while it could very well be said that such a respite gradually devolved into a comfortable sabbatical, which thusly turned to hyperextended paternity leave, which, in and of itself, oozed molasses-like into full-blown and sinful sloth, who among you can cast such pointed aspersions with a clean and clear conscience? I should like to call into question your own glass house, sir or madam, and the copious, overstuffed furniture situated fore and aft existing with no other use but to serve as plush landing pads for your own blatant lolling. Fie, hypocrite! Fie, you self-inflated Pharisee! Fie, I say, on and about your bedouble-standard'd person!
And so, through all this dearth and spate, these highs and lows of the quotidian and extraordinary, during the rise and fall of newsworthy goings-on and unexceptional hibernation, I persisted as an undocumented citizen of this internettal anarchy, plus played some board games to pass the time. Where were the public entries to detail said experiences? What became of the web-log posts which heralded the various thinks and thoughts that went alongside? Alas, these screeds went unchronicled, harangues extant in the vagaries of brain-mind alone; unwritten, unregistered, impermanent.
In other words, I didn't feel like it.
In other news, now I sorta do.
* * *
As a full-blooded, eagle-stroking, monster truck-abiding citizen of the United States of America, it is with a heavy, plaque-encrusted heart that I must admit that it has become less and less of a beneficial thing to buy a Spielworxx title. Now, I'm no board game capitalist, but it used to be that tracking down and securing an out-of-print copy of a Euro game could grant you a certain sense of financial... shall we say... security. Sure, there are wiser investments out there to be had, but there was a time not so very long ago wherein a name like Spielworxx not only got you a great-playing game, but also a little bit of leverage should you ever seek to sell it away to the rabid masses.
This is because Spielworxx is a very niche company in an already very niche hobby filled with niche people who don't always mind spending disposal income to get what they want. For the uninformed, Spielworxx, being Spielworxx, specializes in rooting out hitherto unknown titles and printing about half a dozen copies all told, then swiftly calling it quits on the reprint front, never to be seen or heard from again save for only the most furtive of whispers of only the most conniving of merchants in only the darkest of side-alleys along only the most obscure of marketplaces in, say, Marrakech or Minsk.
"My friend," these peddlers would often rarely say, rarely very often. "You whant copy off Ruhrschifffahrt? Gentes? I ken ghet you copy, very nice copy. Only thirty thousand kopeks and soul of first-born boy-child."*
See, because of their extremely conservative print runs and ethnocentrically problematic European origins, Spielworxx titles often commanded astronomical price tags from those quick of mouseclick and fleet of wallet enough to obtain them during their initial window of availability. I say "window," but perhaps "rusted shut porthole" or "thin sliver in the side of a brick wall" might be more appropriate. If you weren't affluent or savvy enough to grab these games the first time around, you would have no choice but to be subjected to the pecuniary whims of second hand sellers or, God-Have-Mercy-On-Your-Soul, collectors, ever praying for even the faintest whiff of a reprint to save you from such expensive perdition, which sure as heck never came from Spielworxx but usually from some other beneficent board game purveyor after they had secured the distribution rights several aeons later. But o, how the times have changed! Over the past few years this process has been expedited by more and more ventures willing to reintroduce quite good games at quite alright prices with quite enough stock.
All this hyperbole makes it sound like this is a bad thing, but really it isn't. Far from it. I merely regale you with our troubled history as a curmudgeonly veteran in a rocking chair might regale the world of uphill trudges to education or comrades blown apart by mortar shells right before his very eyes. To be perfectly fair, not owning a copy of an obscure board game about coal transportation in 18th century Germany is nothing like witnessing the ravages of brutal, bloody warfare, and I deeply apologize to those of the Greatest Generation: our fearless, stoic World War II movie set extras and filmmakers, who braved incredibly lifelike squibs and controlled explosions to re-enact the atrocities of battle for our viewing entertainment. You all deserve far better than my flippant web-log similes. In any event, and in almost every conceivable way, this board game reprint business is a good thing. A great thing! These days, it's not uncommon for good games to get not only their well-deserved international debut, but a hearty makeover or two besides. Big, bold, brassy board game companies like Capstone and Renegade and Stronghold now labor to revive the indie darlings of the trade**, breathing new life into impossible-to-find titles and making them widely available to have and to hold in sickness and in health. Good on them, I say! Nothing but oodles of kudos to these heroes for making good on spotting dearth and delivering spate!
Thankfully, Gentes is just one of many recent games receiving similar treatment. What was once a sold out medium-weight civ game is now a "Deluxified" Kickstarter campaign by Tasty Minstrel Games, promising more metal coins than the Denver mint and more silkscreened wood than Mrs. Treebeard's lingerie drawer. Again, here I must pause to impress upon my readers that this is a good thing, and that I am in no way even the teensiest bit resentful that I went out of my way to buy a fairly expensive copy of the original version when it first came out. TMG picking this up and running with it means countless more people can discover the joys of the game for their own, taking full advantage of the upgraded bits and bobs and, perhaps most importantly of all, the subtle but much appreciated graphic design changes of the board, cards, and player mats.
If this is starting to sound like a paid advertisement, please let me know where I can collect my check, because as far as I can tell, I'm doing all of this on my own dime. I remain unaffiliated with the fine folks at Tasty Minstrel Games and Spielworxx. And you can trust me on this one, because I'd like to think that were I employed at either one of their offices, you'd better believe that the Deluxified version would come with linen finish cards and boards, and the original version would've had more than twenty-three and two-quarters copies made. Just sayin'.
I suppose you want to know what Gentes is all about. I suppose I can tell you! Gentes is a clever action selection set collection game with a whisper-thin Civilization-building veneer that prompts its players to build, expand, and advance their presence in as efficient a way possible. The cleverness comes in the form of its action tiles, which, as their name implies, must be selected to take various actions, but also dictate the amount of resources--and time--the player must spend in order to do it. All of this may sound familiar so far, but one only need look to the action tile track at the top of one's player mat to spot the uniqueness inherent in the design. Once an action tile is taken, it, along with a certain number of time tiles, must be placed in the finite space for storage along the action tile track. The only thing between you third, fourth, fifth, sixth action is the remaining space you have left to house the action and time tiles you must take in order to execute them. Choose a tile that requires little cost and few tiles, and have more space to continue on in the round. Take an action tile that allows you to get a lot done all at once, and risk filling your action tile track completely, ending your activity for the rest of the round on that very turn. To compound the weighty decision of each action tile, the time tiles are double-sided-- flip one over to squeeze two time into a single spot on your track and have that extra space for future turns, but be aware that double-time tiles take longer to come off your board, effectively granting you more now, but less in the future.
To me, these tiles are the real heart and soul of the game. Sure, the set collection of cards, the spending of resources, the engine building, and income gathering are all very much enjoyable, but the deafening tick-tock presence of the time tiles is really what sets it apart from similar games. It's such a straightforward and concise little twist that I was floored to realize that I'd never seen it before 2017. I'm sure there must be a game or two that's done something similar, but if they exist, they lurk quietly off in the far-flung corners of unsung ingenuity with a Bigfootian blush of cryptozoological modesty.
This is one of the biggest inconveniences of having one foot firmly in the Cult of the New.*** Being a relatively fresh, dumb thing of considerable board game naïveté, I often find myself failing to relate previous milestones in game design. Or, if I do manage to accurately namedrop an appropriate classic, I'm usually at a loss as to how to continue the conversation in a way that won't immediately belie my personal ignorance on the matter. I can tell you that X mechanic was done in Y game at such and such a time, but don't go prying for my opinion on the matter. Odds are I've only ever glanced at the box art for Y, found it unpleasant to the touch, and continued on with whatever new Hotness infused X with a dash of Z. The Z, as I'm sure you've guessed, seems to stand for Zombies more often than not.**** Naturally, this would pose a bit of a problem were I an actual big, bold brassypants reviewist personage attempting to hold dear to whatever public respect and adulation I'd managed to amass in my many, many decades of big, bold brassypants reviewering. The nice thing is that I'm not, nor will I ever be, nor do I hold any amount of conviction to become one of these personages. I like what I like, but more importantly, I like talking about whatever comes to mind, which is the difference between me failing terribly at trying to tell you what and what not to enjoy, and me going off on an aside about how I don't know if Gentes' time tiles have ever used before now. Have they? Is it not as special as I'd first assumed? I'm sure some helpful brassypantses will be more than happy to tell me.
What else can I say about Gentes? Like many dry Euros of its kind, I enjoy it in a more or less holistic way. That is to say, I like what it has to offer and I think it offers what it has in a tidy little package. There are a one or two bumps and lumps here and there, but isn't that what makes life worth living? If it was a political candidate, I would vote for it, despite the fact that sooner or later, some kind of semi-mortifying scandal or awkward turn of phrase would crop up along its campaign trail. If it was a periodical, I would gladly subscribe, even knowing full well that print media is a dying breed on a sinking ship in an antiquated ocean. If it was one of those trendy, newfangled essential oils, I would ask the owner of the diffuser "Hey, what's that smell?" in a loud, socially tact-deaf tone that at first might imply that I didn't like it and thought perhaps there was a skunk corpse nearby but after further clarification it would turn out that I merely thought it was actually kind of nice for an overbearing odor and was wondering for the sake of future rumination should my life ever head in the direction where I might seriously consider owning and operating a newfangled, trendy diffuser. It's got that functional and familiar Harald Lieske art, at once intuitive in iconography and general layout, with just the slightest, comfortable touch of quirk and charm. I'm afraid I might be trying to skirt around the point I am trying to make. Gentes is beautiful in a brown lump of a way.
People Not Of Our Kind often wonder: how comes it that you tend to favor board games with such horrifically dull themes? Instead of fighting dragons or slandering ninjas, you're over in the corner fiddling with flax yields and the long-term sustainability of medieval France. To which I often reply, several days later, in the shower, after being hit with a particularly invigorating dose of l'esprit de l'escalier: dry themes have to be good. They've got so little else to live for. If you design a game about a prehistoric tribe and fail to include some sort of fantastical, fictional element with which to hook your audience right from the get-go, you'd better make sure that upon closer inspection, that prehistoric tribe has some darn fine cubes to push around. I'm sure as heck not sticking around if they don't. By their very definition, dry themes can't rely on juicy premises; they've got to convince you of their greatness by sheer force of will. The dry Euro is a bit like meeting someone who has a lower back tattoo of a sexy cow or something. Odds are that you're not going to spot it right away. You won't even know it exists for awhile. You're forced to get to know them, spend some time with them, and then, when you're least expecting it, they'll bend down to pick up a penny off the sidewalk and you'll catch sight of some cartoon lips sticking out a little from behind their waistband and you'll be all like "HELLO! Why do you have that? How have I never seen this before? I think maybe I need to play this again."
The long and short of it is: I've enjoyed my time with Gentes. Doubly so, which means it'll take twice as long to leave my time track.
* * *
Gee, would you look at that. I was all set to talk about some other games, but I've gone and run out of steam. Now I will go along with this odd one-game-an-entry format like I'd been planning it all along. Heck, maybe I'll even entertain suggestions for the next game in the comments section, just so long as it doesn't sound too much like a tacky YouTube celebrity spiel. On an unrelated note, please favorite my Instagram and like my Twitter page and follow me on the bus ride home from work and peek through my windows at night to watch me fix a frugal repast for myself and a stray cat or two.*****
Quickly, so as to prove to you that I ain't no board game playing slouch, I'll list a handful of the games I've been playing and appreciating in the last several months.
-Clans of Caledonia
-Lorenzo il Magnifico with Houses of Renaissance
-The King's Will
Until next time,
*The point being that you were meant to haggle with them, because if I've learned anything from old, vaguely racist movies, it's that foreign merchants always want to haggle even though us capitalist pig-dog Americans have been bred to balk at the very idea. Also, they often wear turbans. The shady merchants, not the Americans. Us Americans wear smart-looking fedoras.
**Here I interject with yet another allusion to the film industry. I view this trend of bringing over lesser-distributed board games not as a metaphor for those reprehensible big budget Hollylandwood "remakes," but more in line with the production and distribution companies like Focus Features, who snap up smallish independent and foreign films and force-feed them to wider audiences unadulterated. I am glad of both businesses in this world, to be honest, but could you imagine if the board game industry stooped to the level of those aforementioned "remakes?" It's horrifying enough to realize just how easy it is to envision: Parker Brothers presents Eric M. Lang's Starving Farmers of Pseudo-Feudal Japanese-ish Folklore. The Oni-Force Warlords of Baka-Lai have ravaged the lands of NeoNippon; take command of over 9,000 fully-sculpted custom minis to feed, house, and family growth the sh*t out of your tribe-faction to become the new reigning HonorHouse of the Yokaiju-No-Likey Cult Bloodwrath Feud.
***I won't deny it. I wear the hooded robe and wield the torch with little to no remorse. I very usually prefer this month's bright and shiny rehashing to its dowdy, doddering predecessor. I won't go so far as to swear off of our honorable forebears, but by comparison to many other forms of media entertainment, I view the modern board game not too far off from a technological experience. Unlike a good book or movie, which can reach a state of timelessness with very little effort, the modern board game landscape and enjoyment thereof is as iterative an experience as it is a collective one. I will keep a novel on my shelf just as long as I enjoy its plot, its characters, the finesse and literacy of its author. I will ditch a smart phone just as soon as a new one boasts a bigger and better camera, processor, selfiemoji-enhancing advancement in meme-based cybercircuit terraflops. And perhaps not to such an extreme as with the planned obsolescence of Silicon Valley, but I often find myself perfectly alright with favoring a newer game which builds and "improves" upon X, Y, and Z to that of the hoary progenitor. Oh boy, I can feel it now, in my bones, like a niggling legion of Jiminy Crickets--I'm going to get in trouble for saying this stuff. Gamers young and old will be emerging from the woodwork to tell me why I'm wrong and to which level of Dante's Inferno I should direct myself. But before you lambast me with your acid-tongued comments, please know that I am certainly not above the older games of our beloved hobby, nor will I refuse to play them, nor do I think they are inherently better or worse than the stuff being released today. In fact, if it's any consolation, if it assuages your wrath in any capacity to hear it, I am bemused to say that I find myself disagreeing with these very opinions even as I am in the middle of typing them. I guess I don't actually view board games in this way, and all it took for me to realize this was to publicly proclaim it on an internet web-log. The thing is, I still kinda sorta agree with the sentiment. Just a bit, but not at all. Now I'm filled with an uneasy chagrin that I ever allowed myself to utter such ridiculous piffle, but also am proud I had the guts to come out and say it, and I both confirm and deny that I ever announced it in the first place. If you ever attempted to quote me I would feign amnesia and a dead faint in the middle of the drawing room floor the moment you did so. I really should simply highlight the whole of this footnote and hit the delete key so as to salvage what remains of my reputation, but I'm not going to in the hopes that you weren't really completely paying attention anyway or, more probably, I wasn't good enough of a writer to fully encapsulate my thoughts.
****I don't mind the undead, but I also don't go crowing about their great taste in my television series, comic books, big budget blockbusters, and breakfast cereals. In fact, I'm altogether relieved that the zombies fad has seemed to've, erm, died down in the board game design community. There always seems to be some sort of fashionable trend in board game themes, doesn't there? There for awhile we were all about zombies like we were bellbottom trousers, then we came to our senses and started obsessing over colonizing Mars like it was some sort of hot, rubbery piece of Croc sandal action. For a spell we thought pirates totally made us look amazing just like shoulder pads in blazers, and but I think 2018 will be all about pilgrim buckle hats. Both in theme and wearable fad. Mark my words. They're making a big comeback.
*****You didn't think I'd tie it all back around with a call-out, but I did. O, ye of little faith! Your dearth of confidence might afford you a real spate in the face if you aren't careful.
- [+] Dice rolls
By now, most of my readers know me for my exhaustingly comprehensive treatises on Euro-style board games via INTERNET web-log, but what many do not realize is that I live a fulfilling and extravagant life outside of these particular pixels. It is true: I exist even when you are not reading these very words on this very U.R.L of this very specific board game-centric web-site. To wit, I existed just last Thursday within a sun-soaked cabana on the golden shores of the Sandwich Islands, whilst a waitstaff of highly trained toucan birds served my every whim with fawning deference.* To further prove my point, I also distinctly recall existing for several months on the set of a televisual sit-com, entitled Holm, Stockholm, wherein I acted as a fictional character who has grown to love his childhood kidnapper and now resides with her in a two-story brownstone far above either's pay grade in a major metropolitan city. And while the last example may or may not have been the mere hallucinatory imaginings of a fever dream, I certainly had to exist outside of theBoardGameGeekdotcom in order to fever dream it, now didn't I?
I of course bring this up in part to explain my lengthy and egregious absences from the web-log, but so too as a way to ever so modestly call attention to the dizzying mountains of panicked correspondence I receive every time I take brief leave from publishing thoughts here. Letters upon letters come pouring through my electronic mail inbox, all with frightful and fretsome subject lines; "WHERE R U???" they might read foreshortenedly, or "PLS UPDATE BLOG!!!", or "I NEED TO KNOW WHAT I CAN ONLY IMAGINE IS YOUR HIGHLY ERUDITE OPINION ON THE LATEST 1600s EUROPEAN AGRICULTURE SIMULATOR!" Yes, it seems the work of such an esteemed polymath is never truly finished, for as soon as I stop to take a breath from whatever incredibly enlightened espousal I am currently uttering, there are cries and clamors from a ravenous public for more, more, more.
All of this fanfaronade is to say that in my many myriad capacities and functions beyond this humble board game community, I also exist as a highly revered advice columnist for multiple and prominent newspaper periodicals. Perhaps it is my downy white beard, or sharp, intelligent eyes, but people everywhere cannot help but seek my counsel. And who can blame them? I was voted "Most Likely To Be Wise Beyond His Years" in my high school yearbook, and held a three-way tie with me, myself, and I for the title of "Least Comparable In Skill & Merit."**
"But sir!" I hear you cry, "I, being an avid fanatic of your entire oeuvre, have followed the whole of your work with rabid, abject devotion and consumed with relish each and every essay, dissertation, and published composition bearing your name! How have I not heard of this fabled advice column until now?!" This is a simple enough answer, and it involves the ingenious utilization of a cleverly crafted and consummately clandestine pseudoynmical personage (which is a French term meaning 'nom de plume'). I discovered many years ago that too much fame and recognition can spoil a man's mind-brain, and, being a modest soul with a penchant for taking copious sabbaticals to exotic portions of Indo-China without a throng of adoring fans hounding his every footfall, took steps to invent this secondary identity to keep my private life exactly that— not public. Now, I, too, may revel in what the likes of Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard, Samuel Clemens' Mark Twain, and Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas all enjoyed on a daily basis: the sweet relief of anonymity before Hot Topic came shuffling in and merchandized the ever-living snot out their brands. Thus, with only the choicest of subtleties and humblest of intents, I conjured a mythical authority suitable to answer the ignorant pleas of the world, and it is through this veritable eidolon of personal humility that I can now freely transfer my astonishing sagacity to a starving public.
However. For you and only you, my eternally patient web-log fanbase, I shall lift the veil just this once and reveal my advice columnist personality, all in the strictest and most stringent of confidence, mind you, for your express enjoyment and to get you off my back for little while longer. Even for an author as skilled, prolific, and modest as myself, such literary greatness takes time, and there are always the far more alluring siren calls of Netflix televisual series to binge-watch, walls of drying paint to spectate, and the fantods of clinical depression in which to submerse oneself instead.
Now, without further ado, I present a smorgasbord sampling of said advice column, benevolently tailored to the discerning board game brain-mind for your convenience.* * *
Dear Dr. Professor Fauxford P. Wisemann, esq.,
Recently a new member of our local board game group has started requesting the neutral color player pieces when setting up a game. The only problem? It's an established fact around these parts that I am the neutral color player. I am and have been for over 12 years. I originally chose neutral as my go-to because no one ever wanted to use it. This meant I was guaranteed access to my favorite color, while the others had to fight over the other, more popular primary colors. Neutral has served me well and I feel we have a strong bond going. Now this person has waltzed into our lives and taken over the color like he has always owned it. How do I express to him that neutral and I have a history and that he should adopt a different paint job since he is the newbie? The other members don't seem to understand the problem.
Washington City, AZ.
As the immortal poet Eiffel 65 once said: "I'm blue da ba dee da ba daa. Da ba dee da ba daa, da ba dee da ba daa, da ba dee da ba daa. Da ba dee da ba daa, da ba dee da ba daa, da ba dee da ba daa," which only goes to prove just how important a proper sense of color attribution can be. It is clear you have labored long and hard to cultivate an explicit societal construct within your community as it pertains to player color and discrete taste, and in doing so have created a socialistic hierarchy which serves to please the unique individual as well as the greater whole. My hat is doffed to you sir or madam, for this is no small feat. In fact, the only successful instance I have managed to uncover of a similar sort is the case of Anushiruwan the Just and his actions regarding emerald and ruby when utilized as dichromatic components within the ancient game of shatranj.
Fortunately, it is not required to look as far back as the Sasanian Empire circa 540 AD for an adequate solution to your predicament. Rather, the answer is as plain and as true as it has ever been since being printed on page 47 of F. T. P. Rogers' 1934 manners vade mecum A Complete Guide to Pigmentation In Our Modern Society & the Etiquette of Appropriation Thereof wherein the outrageously racist Rogers states:
"Consider the Persian Shahanshah of the Sasasian Empire from 531-579, Khosrow I, better known as Anushiruwan the Just by the hideous Persian peoples. Perhaps their otherwise debauched and heathen ways may be excused this once when their potentate's ingenious solution to player color preference is taken into account: Khosrow, having a strong predilection for the color red, knowing his chief opponent to share a similar affinity, instructed the ruby pieces of his royal shatranj set to be dipped in a lethal poison to which only he had a natural immunity. Under guise of diplomatic magnanimity, Khosrow allowed his opponent first choice of the colored baubles, and so, as his nemesis lay writhing in mortal paroxysms after coming into direct contact with the toxin, gleefully proceeded to beat the poor devil 1 - 0 with the uncontested player color of his foremost proclivity."
Now, I am certainly not advising anyone here to rid their chief opponents with the aid of deadly poison in order to maintain their public penchant for a specifically colored meeple, but I am also not not advising that a simple and relatively harmless household bleach or chili pepper paste solution may very well assert a certain dominance and do wonders sending a clear and portentous message.
Dr. Professor Fauxford P. Wisemann, esq.
Dear Dr. Professor Fauxford P. Wisemann, esq.,
After years of trying to convince my wife to play board games with me, the unspeakable has happened: she has, and what's more, she's winning. All the time. Apparently, she's a natural-born board gamer and takes to winning like a fish to water. Ever since we've started playing in the evenings she's beaten me handily. It's like she has a second sight or a sixth sense for this kind of thing. And before you ask, she's not cheating! I don't consider myself a sore loser, but when she wipes the floor with me I can't help but admit that it's putting a damper on my love for playing. We're talking 20, 30 point differences here! Is there anything I can do to close the gap, or am I stuck forever coming in last?
Last Place Hubby,
New Antwerp, CA
Firstly, you must remember: it is the sworn duty of every spouse to provide the unwavering love and support befitting an eternal union. A good husband will not flinch in the face of defeat, but will press ever onward in good spirits, steadfast devotion, and adoring resolve. Yes, the simple, nuptial declaration "I do" entreats — nay, demands — this age-old duty 'til death do you part, and not so much as a single moment's malfeasance beforehand.
For better or for worse, you are beholden to lose to your wife, just as she would be beholden to lose to you, if you were actually good. Unfortunately, it appears as though you're pretty much pants at playing games, so the adamantine bonds of holy matrimony insist a lifetime's supply of humiliating beatdowns. 20 to 30 points? Come on, man! Were I a more base advice columnist with little reputation and even less to live for, I would now be enthused to advise you in the wholly bastardized pigdin vernacular of today's Youths to "get good." In more civilized terms, however, I must commiserate with you and your position; it would seem Providence has dealt you a rather unbecoming hand of perpetual and fidelitous defeat.
That said, consider this secondary quotation: "in sickness and in health." For found within the same damning words of your marriage vows lies the inspiration for your ultimate salvation. "In sickness and in health." A clause which defines a certain set of parameters within the particulars of commitment in your current state, certainly, but also invites the creative inference as to the hypothetical maladies of head trauma or elbow cancer, as well. Oh yes, it goes both ways! Thus, my advice to you: fake an illness. Something cognitive so you don't have to busy yourself with the theatrics of fake scabs or the simulation of weeping sores. Personally, I would suggest a subtle helping of Quandary's Syndrome, a deleterious little number that wreaks havoc on the brain's sinistral reasoning node and severely impairs arithmetic skills, or perhaps a modest serving of Laszlow's Hypnagogic Inconsistency Disorder, a semi-terrible affair which disorientates the regularity of one's circadian rhythm and causes the sufferer to experience acute bouts of "ludological fatigue."
With this newfound ailment to your name, your loving wife will have no choice but to go easy on you, because it is common knowledge that no spouse should ever beat the other in the midst of a histrionic fainting fit. Confine yourself to a hospital bed if need be, and, through pathetic dry heaves and copious facial contortions of dramaturgical pain, demand all board game play to remain "fair and square," even despite the looming threat of your imminent death and/or total mental annihilation. Note that the more obscure your clinical malady is, the less likely it will be to draw dubious scrutiny from your wife, who will, no doubt, be entirely preoccupied with the pretense of playing to the best of her abilities when, in reality, she will be intent on playing with mere fragments of her strength, tithing away her surplus of expertise in a bid to grant her dearly beloved one de facto victory after another, all ensconced in the suffocating realization that each one could very well be the last.
An arm or leg cast simply will not cut it. True pity will be yielded from true, painstaking affliction. Read up on the symptoms of dissociative fugue states and neurological palsies. Commit to your character. Lash out with sudden spells of multilingual harangues, clutch at your heart and exclaim quick, successive commentaries like "Aiie! My brain, she wails!" Every advance of your significant other's victory point marker should birth brand-new agonies concerning your condition. Melancholic laments of the olden days when compared to the egregious disparities of current-state contusions. Considering your skills in winning board games, the added presence of an atypical brain malfunction should not be too difficult to feign. After all, a win is a win, even if your wife is too busy fretting about the condition of your lower anterior hippocampus.
Dr. Professor Fauxford P. Wisemann, esq.
Dear Dr. Professor Fauxford P. Wisemann, esq.,
Lately my gaming partner and I have been at odds about what makes a game worthy of trying. I love to buy and discover new games all the time because I think the industry is in an exciting golden age of innovation. He, on the other hand, takes pride in being part of the Cult of the Old, claiming new board games these days are derivative and unoriginal. Every time I try to bring the latest new release to the table, he turns up his nose and lists off two or three other games from 1998 that quote unquote "did it better, first." I tried explaining to him that the old classics can happily coexist with the new kids on the block, but he won't listen and flat-out refuses to play anything that isn't at least 10 years old. I'm getting tired of playing the same old stuff week in and week out! Can I convince him that it's worth his time to play some of my hot new games? Or is he a lost cause?
On the Bleeding Edge,
Lake Waushbegondeokidokibenkaenobi, MN
As with any artistic medium, the beauty of board game appreciation is two-fold: reflecting on its rich, storied history, and looking towards a bright and promising future. There is immense pleasure in appreciating the great forebears of our magnificent hobby, paying respects and reverence to the paragons of yore, studying their design, and celebrating each milestone of ingenuity. They are the building blocks of our very culture, and without them no fresh, young visionary could exist. Your friend is right to esteem them. This is all well and good and natural, but we must also be ever mindful of the constancy of time. As the distinguished philosopher National B. Company once quoth: "Like sands through an hourglass, so are the days of all my children." Which is to say in slightly less hoity-toity patois: "Time presses onward."
As you so rightly state, dear Bleeding Edge, we have progressed in our hobby since the days of rolling a die to determine monopolistic rental fees, and that is a Very Good Thing. We have innovated, iterated, invented, improved, increased, outdated, altered, modified, and eliminated upon the shoulders of giants, progressing through the years with prior knowledge and present epiphany, following the ebbs and flows of faculty and skill, creating trends and leaving them behind, but always with the soundness and doctrine of our ancestors situated resolutely in our rear view mirrors. To forget the past would be to repeat it, to repeat the past would be to slap a Star Wars skin on Risk and call it a day.
And now, in the selfsame breath as I take in order to extol your partner's old school virtues, I will condemn them. You seem to have received the memo that an entire meal of chocolate mousse will make you sick to your stomach; your friend has not, and continues to gorge himself wholeheartedly with the saccharine sweets of yesteryear. What this antiquarian mindset does not seem to take into account is that a healthy diet of both old and new is good for the soul and sound for the mind, for how else can one fully appreciate the purity of the past without the enlightening context of current times? Obviously, this hoary old fossil is set in his ways — belligerently so — and all appeals for reason will fall on deaf and disconcertingly hairy ears. Fear not, for I am here with the surefire panacea to your woes! Merely succeed in out-hipstering him.
It is clear to us that in invoking the might of his golden oldies, your friend takes a nigh onanistic pleasure in finely aged allusions. I say to you: beat him at his own game. With every insistent reference he makes to the 1970s game maker, parry back with an even more antediluvian designer. Meet all mentions of Milton Bradley classics with intimations of W. & S.B. Ives and their early Christian morality productions. Repel each thrust of his historical sword with a well-executed épée of your own, conjuring sepia-toned visions of oft-forgot and terribly obscure fancies forever neglected by the annals of time. No reference is too obscure, no citation too persnickety. Bend Wikipedia entries to your will in your indefatigable bid to predate.
But be warned! Such a brazen provocation will doubtless precipitate an even greater appetite in your friend, provoking all manner of obstinance in his continued fogeyism. His once effete vis-à-vis will turn prickly and pointed with desperation, flung towards you as thick and as fast as he can compose them. No matter. As long as you have done your due diligence you will have the means to prevail, for you have at your disposal something he will likely not: the means of absolute malarkey. Phase two of your crusade must employ the endless powers of your imagination. Fictive reference after fictive reference, relentless in their outré ambiguity, abstruse beyond all compare, impossibly pseudo-intellectual, and, for expedited efficacy, spake as nonchalant as water off a duck's back. Rosenberg's Agricola? Nothing without the wizened tenets of its predecessor, Terra Fame et Miseriae (68 AD). Calhamer's Diplomacy? Child's play compared to its superannuated precursor, Proxeny Phoneuó (800 BC). The Royal Game of Ur? A fresh-faced stripling in the ancient shadow of Tic-Tac-Lascaux (caveman times)!
Do this and you are likely to prevail. Through sheer persistence in your spouting of archaic quintessence, your partner will discover titles hitherto unheard of, which, technically speaking, will be new to him. And, by the fusty old logic of his own close-minded design, these "new" titles (being far older than his own biases) must, in his patois, be ranked far superior than his current collection. Following this dissonant twisting of logic, your gaming companion will have no choice but to fall on his hands and knees and beg your forgiveness— for if it follows that something new to him is indeed better than the perennial classics, and it is beyond a shadow of a doubt that you were and always have been in the right all along. Be gracious in your victory; require he kiss only one or two of the rings on your hand, then casually suggest that his continued absolution can be found via a rousing match of some game that requires the use of one of those newfangled cellular telephony apps.
Dr. Professor Fauxford P. Wisemann, esq.
Dear Dr. Professor Fauxford P. Wisemann, esq.,
HELP! None of us can agree on a board game to play!!! No one wants to be the one to speak up and suggest a specific game! Every single game night is the same: everyone wants to play but no one wants to choose and we end up wasting anywhere from 15 minutes to half an hour standing around awkwardly, mumbling, and trying to be polite! I know for a fact that no one enjoys it but none of us wants to be the one to do anything about it! I'm stuck in the middle of game night indecision right now! I'm currently on my phone, texting you so I can look busy and not have to the one to decide! Save us from ourselves!
San Resolvo, FL
What you describe is a phenomenon known to every man, woman, and child who has ever attempted to put a specific board game on a particular table. Centuries old, a waking nightmare that is recognized, experienced, and suffered through by the whole lot of us, and if perchance you do not know the pain and misery of this infernal social custom, then you, I am sorry to say, are the headstrong fool in the room that no one wishes to be. There have been countless names for this unfortunate human condition throughout the years. Renowned psychologist Dr. Ulysses Austen-Stott, pioneer in the field of social intransigence, coined the term Collective Stagnation in 1703. Famed explorer Merriweather Lewis warned in his journals of the corporeal perils inherent within the act of Politesse Off-Gassing; acts of severe waffling in the middle of a river cost his expedition the lives of over 300 Native American guides. Even human rights activist Clara "I'unno" Whimple harnessed the side effects of such a condition in her 1934 Civil Indifference marches.
No matter when and where it occurs in our timeline, it is always the same. Things come to a screeching halt. All momentum withers and dies. Motivation flutters out the window. Eyes are averted, shoes are gazed upon, lips are puckered. Bashful mouth sounds sprout up like so many unknown and poisonous mushrooms after a rainfall. Absolutely nothing is resolved, and symptoms can persist anywhere from ten excruciating days to twelve bladder-compromising months.
To better comprehend the whys and hows surrounding this curious communal self-flagellation, we must first understand the role of That Guy in our contemporary social landscape. That Guy looms supreme as a boorish, brutish culmination of every conceivable societal faux pas, the bumbling Johnny Mustn't of cautionary tales extant in every childhood upbringing, the ominous, infamous specter of possible ostracism which hangs forewarningly above our heads like some terrible party piñata of Damocles. Should we be so insolent as to unsettle the precarious continuum of civilized courtesy in a setting of one or more of our equals, the brittle balance of brotherly love is broken and our fall from grace is made hideous example of, the label of That Guy puritanically emblazoned across our burning forehead like some ignominious and majuscular letter A, whose abbreviation, according to Nathaniel Hawthorne (foremost scholar in public mortification), is left open to the reader for interpretation (but most assuredly stands for "ASS-HAT").
Not a one of us wishes to be That Guy. It is a fate far worse than death, for even when we are expire our living memories are fondly recalled by friends and family alike. Be That Guy at a gathering and people will be talking about how you spilled salsa on the hostess for eons to come. Taking the last bread roll instead of splitting it in half and leaving a portion behind will become your ultimate legacy, the immortal thing by which your entire character can be defined. Blurting out the answer in Charades when the opposing team just can't quite grasp their performer's flailings. Pointing out logical fallacies in the guest of honor's dinner party anecdote, no matter the rate and volume of inconsistencies regarding the population of Burkina Faso. Imbibing one too many virgin appletinis and donning a makeshift turban from various found draperies instead of the customary and far more amusing lampshade. Suggesting the group play your new copy of Void of Abyssal Rift: Maw's Cavity, when all anyone really wants to do is play Terraforming Mars even though no one is willing to speak up to say so. These are all heinous, abominable acts befitting of That Guy, and carry with them the lifetime sentence of downturned scoffs, slight sniffs of judgment, and, should you find yourself living within one of the Caucasoidal tribes of the American Midwest, nauseating waves of unspoken passive aggression masked by repeated usage of the terms "interesting way of putting it" and "oh, that's nice."
I hear your desperate query, understand your yearning for a simple and swift deliverance from such duress. Alas, I cannot grant it. There is no satisfactory answer to this eternal question. This chivalrous asceticism, this elective equanimity, it is the stuff of human nature, ingrained, intrinsic, innate, no sooner eradicated from the collective conscience than the automatic act of breathing, Francophonic guffawing at a Jerry Lewis film, or Kickstarting a board game that boasts "over 2,900 Conan the Barbarian minis!". You, along with the rest of all human civilization, will find no respite from the eternal cross-examination of What Shall We Play? Where Shall We Eat? Does This Make Me A Look Fat?. We are and will forever remain social creatures dependent on the love and acceptance of others, and it is this requisite cost that we must pay in order to remain within the tolerating auspices of our fellow fellows. It is our burden to bear as upstanding citizens of this world; we are sworn to leave the impetuous specificities of board games suggestions to the degenerates among us. It is and has been and always will be a Matter For Someone Else. I beseech you, sirs and madams, do not throw away your good standing for a mere afternoon's worth of ephemeral pleasure! Your favorite game will give you 90-120 minutes of elation, but dishonor is forever. Come, dance with us all our maddening dance of social relevancy! Dance! Dance! Dance!
Or you could bust out Apples to Apples. Everyone loves Apples to Apples.
Dr. Professor Fauxford P. Wisemann, esq.
Dear Dr. Professor Fauxford P. Wisemann, esq.,
I am a recent transplant from out of state and have been making friends at my new local game store over the past two months. I must be doing something right, because this Saturday I was invited to my very first board game gathering! It's at the house of one of the founding members of the gaming group, and I definitely want to make a good first impression. The host has an enormous personal collection, but I'd also like to bring some of my own games, too. How many should I bring, and what kinds? I really don't want to step on any toes or intrude on anyone's anything.
Stranger in Paradise,
Sylvan Brook, NY
As I am running late to attend a rather important soirée of my own, I shall leave you in the very capable hands of the world's most eminent authority on proper board game parceling and transport: myself. Below is an excerpt from a previously published article I wrote in 1989 answering a similar question, which you could've looked up on microfiche had you been truly committed to bettering yourself. "No matter," as they often say in the field of particle physics, but next time do your research, please.
Here is a helpful checklist to aid you through your very first board game party:
1.) Stand in front of your board game collection for a very good, long while. Get a feel for the overall assemblage, really try to get in tune with its universal energy like a shaman on a spiritual quest for enlightenment. You will need to channel this positive transcendental insight in the selection process to come.
2.) Once you have become one with your shelving unit, begin astral-plucking games and placing them into your valise of choice. Allow the infinity of the cosmos to guide your hands; do not fight any sudden spasms of movement or slow, meandering journeys— in the totality of chaos, every gesticulation is intentional.
3.) Begin second-guessing yourself. Once your carrying case is around three-quarters full, terrible, dark, and grisly doubts will begin to fill your mind like a roiling miasma of capricious vacillation. Embrace the uncertainty as you suddenly remember who owns what and what prefers where and why are any of us when?
4.) Return one or two of your previous choices. They were not meant to be on this day.
5.) Return one of the one or two previous returned choices. Actually, they were. Do not doubt the whims of Serendipitus, great Eagle God of Fortune.
6.) Fill your bag entirely in this fashion, until it is bulging with opportunity. If this spirit journey does not take at least 45 minutes of your life, you are doing it wrong. Start over from the beginning. Maybe with burning incense this time.
7.) Attempt to lift your valise. Throw out your back and crumple to the floor in pain. The pain is good, it will fill you with Nature's most potent elixir: regret.
8.) Drag the valise out of your house. Remember: industrial-grade winches are for quitters, and quitters never winch.
9.) Throw your vehicle into park mid-driveway transit and jog back into the house in order to swap out two games. The one you leave behind will be the one everyone asks if you brought, and this will all be because you did not offer enough blood sacrifices to Serendipitus.
10.) Disregard your entire collection for the duration of the party. You will end up playing someone else's copy of Apples to Apples.
Dr. Professor Fauxford P. Wisemann, esq.
Dear Dr. Professor Fauxford P. Wisemann, esq.,
What is your favorite food?
Dr. Professor Fauxford P. Wisemann, esq.* * *
There you have it, a full web-log's worth of content to skim with middling perusement. I should hope it's enough to pardon my 6 month absence; if it is not, well, then, the fault lies with you, dear reader, for assuming an artiste of my caliber can be anything even remotely close to punctual. Also, creative minds are incapable of being held accountable. I read an article about it once, it's science. Don't ask me how, I am not the Hardy Boys!
I suppose you wish to know what I've been playing as of late, too. That, unlike the mystery of the Tower Treasure, I can tell you. Several sessions of Lisboa (reputation management is a whole other world with four players), Glory to Rome with astonishing regularity (for the love of overpowered combos, we pay thee tribute), virtual romps with the Clans of Caledonia (it's an unmitigated hit before I've even received my Kickstarted copy, I dare say), Brass and Terraforming Mars, both for the very first time (although I'm still not entirely convinced that either are my particular cup of polished metallic alloy), Anachrony (which, I believe, is), Yamataï (do I enjoy it better than Five Tribes? I really couldn't say, but probably), Stephenson's Rocket (aka There Will Be Stocks) and The Princes of Florence (a delightful find but egad that scripty font!) to do my part in fighting back the Hotness, Insider (from the More Fun as a Spectator Sport series), plus Word Domination (a form of area control I can get behind) for a brief spell, and many other various and sundry titles, each as lovely and enjoyable and appreciated as the last.
And what of the future? A very merry Essenmas is nearly upon us, and there are expansions to favorites and brand-new desiccated Euros for us to roll around in! See my perfunctory Q4 watchlist if you really must know.
And so, until next time,
*And while it is true that I was later expelled by the establishment and incarcerated for smuggling non-indigenous fauna into the state, you try hiring decent help from a foreign labor market whilst jet-lagged. I dare say you'll go with the trained toucans every time.
**My detractors will surely use this opportunity to bring up the fact that I was homeschooled throughout my entire academic career, but to them I say: the polls were open for a full 24 hours and any one of the other corn husk dolls in the underground bunker could've registered to vote differently.
- [+] Dice rolls
A most astonishing revelation happened to me in the midst of a recent foraging expedition. There I was, in the checkout lane of my local grocer's market, pocketbook in hand and promissory note very nearly completed in its entirety, when all of a sudden deep groan escaped from the throat of the young stripling tasked in authenticating our exchange.
"Sir," quoth she of the pimple-addled complexion, "It's twenty seven-teen?"
I engaged in a gaping tableau vivant of utmost horror, only slightly theatric, and inquired: "... Since when?"
"Since, like, two months now."
The news hit me like a metric tonne of heavily weighted building materials. Two months! At this, my mind and body alike were thrown into silent hysterics, balkéd unbelief pouring forth from every orifice of my flabbergasted being. Two entire months! If this was indeed the truth, it meant I had failed to ladle so much as a single linguistic drop into the metaphorical soup tureen of my board game-centric web-log... for the totality of the new year! Now far too agitated to continue on in my current task of purchasing a head of cabbage, I threw several nearby packets of breath mints and an issue of Celebs Wed! to the floor and fled the premises in a fit of altogether unbecoming angst. Seeking out the closest cafétorium, I wasted no time in apprehending a lap-top typewriter from a gaggle of hipstoid youths and began composing both a letter of apology to my darling readers and the beginnings of a write-up to cover for my egregious absence. The following is, sadly, not said pieces of panicked opus (as later I discovered the purloined contraption was somehow not wireless-fi enabled (and I may or may not have flung it and the ensuing manuscript through a window directly after the tasting of an overpriced and abysmally-baked biscotti)), but it will have to do for now.
As I am still reeling, left feeble and weak-minded from the noisome blows of deep, psychological trauma, I daren't attempt to regale you with the entirety of board games played in the last two months, but rather, to acknowledge the cautionary remonstrances of my medical physician, will attempt to touch on only one such experience (in great and logorrheic detail), so as not to tax my still tremblesome brain-mind.
A joyous 2017 to you all, by the way.
* * *
I'm a simple man, with simple tastes. Which is to say I enjoy spending every copper-plated cent of my disposable income on physical board games and physical board game accessories. What can I say? They might very well be an investment. I could put my children through college with them. I mean, I'm not going to sell them for tuition money, but perhaps my children could major in Applied Dice Physics or get a PhD in Theoretical Traitor Physiognomy Studies and then they could play them with me for their field work. Or, perhaps some day, far off in the uncharted future of post-apocalyptic existence, after the Singularity has come and gone and humanity has begun to dig themselves out from under the massive piles of nuclear warhead shells, polar bear skeletons, and used Keurig K-Cups, one or two of these lucky 8-foot tall lily-white futuro-archaeologists might unearth my long since abandoned board game collection, perfectly preserved in unbiodegradable styrofoam packing peanuts and worth several decades of integral anthropological insight as to how we came to destroy ourselves with frivolous, high-cost hobbies. Then again, I'm guessing an ancient cache of "Yacht Orgy 2023" pamphlets might give greater historical context as to that particular downfall.
In any event, and the point I was trying to make before we brought dead polar bears into all of this, is that I am a staunch supporter of the buying and playing of physical board games. Physical. None of this silly pixel-driven simulacra fiddle-faddle you see these days with personal computational devices and electronic tablet slates. I'm not saying there isn't a place for apps and programs of our favorite games; for me personally, it's just never been the way to go. I'm not about to get into penning some boring old screed about how and why I prefer physical board games to virtual ones. I'm confident you've heard every angle of every argument that's ever been shoved in front of you whether you've wanted it or not. Something-something face-to-face interaction. Blah-de-blah tactility. Yadda yadda analog. Børk børk børk warmer, richer tones and all those lovely pops and flutters and wows. Or maybe that last one's meant for vinyl records. Look, it doesn't matter. You've heard it all before. We've all heard it all before, and quite frankly, we don't care. To each their own and all that malarkey.
So why am I even bringing any of this up? Sure, it's great for padding out this web-log post, but also because I aim to tell you a tale of the unexpected. A story of subverted status quo. I, nat somethingorother, whose last name I'm not certain I've ever actually told any of you and intend to keep it that way, engaged in multiple sessions of on-line INTERNET board game play. I didn't die, my Ornery Old School Contrarian membership card wasn't revoked, and I even learned to like bits and bobs of it in the process.
I should clarify: I was never on the farthest harrumphing end of the spectrum concerning virtual board games. You will always have the eager adopters, the indifferent, the hesitant, the traditionalists, and the zealous protesters. Before my dabbling, I would've identified quite comfortably between blissful ignorance and contented indolence. I rarely push back when confronted with newfangled technology; I merely ignore it until it either becomes unavoidably commonplace (e.g. my cellular telephone which they tell me is "smart" and stuff) or an amusing recollection to trot out at dinner parties (e.g. "Say, do you chaps remember that dreadful Google Glass affair? My, but what an abomination! a'giggledy-haw!") In this respect, I believe my relationship with the New & Shiny is in the majority.
So then imagine, if you will, the required size and scope of a game figuratively grand enough, so colossally promise-inducing and awe-inspiring as to warrant my proactive attention and eventual seeking out of a means to play it in a digital sense. Gee, must be some game, sez you, a real whale of a whopper! Too true, repliez I, do the words Vital and Lacerda mean anything to you? Let's throw in "city-building" while we're at it, and heck, why not "multi-use cards," and hey, how 'bout "a zillion and a half little chits and tiles to prod about"! It's called Lisboa, and it's the latest in the long and illustrious line of Lacerda designs! But here's the real catch, and the very impetus for my first foray into INTERNETy revelry: it's not out yet. And it won't be until late July. Late July, man. That's, like, at least four or so more months of fidgety, anxious waiting! Now discover that it is available to play right this very instant, and you don't have to set up the zillion and a half chits or tiles, and you can do it all for free. A solid offer, you'll undoubtedly agree, and one with enough oomph behind it to wipe whatever residual indolence might've been keeping me from taking action. So action I took, which led me to a computer screen, which led me to building cities, which led me to clearing rubble, which led me to collecting sets, which led me to unlocking slots, which led me to storing more goods, which led me to slowly but surely tanking the price for Lisboan-made silks and fine cloths. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Enter Tabletopia. A computer program what fulfills your wildest desires, and all in the blink of an eye, or, at the very least, after several minutes of downloading. No more waiting around until a hot and muggy summer mail delivery for that physical package. Simply install, select, and play! Tabletopia is, at its core, a virtual simulator of board games. This means there aren't any unwarranted changes to components or placements or procedures or unnecessary animations or frivolous alterations to layout-- simply a make-believe table with a game of your choice on top of it to do with as you please. You still must take the time to move pieces from one place to another as part of your turn, just as you would with a physical set up. There are very few artificial parameters in place to restrict players. No real constraints in place to keep you from cheating, should you be so unconscionable, or flicking a cube in the general direction of your opponents, if resentful belligerence is your bag. If you use your cursor to teeter a meeple on the edge of a card or board, it will still fall over due to INCREDIBLE PHYSICS TECHNOLOGY JUST LIKE REAL LIFE GRAVITY. I suppose what I am saying is that Tabletopia was designed to be as true to the original spirit of board games as is possible-- a direct facsimile as opposed to a needlessly enhanced and modernized experience. I respect this. Even though it means that fiddling with all those pieces in any game you play remains, well, fiddly, it also means that very few of the joys and sorrows of board gaming are lost in translation.
Yes, there are some "Quality of Life" differences. But these differences are generally well-implemented and, for the most part, are subtle yet welcome additions. Take, for example, dragging and dropping cards or resources into the bottom area of your screen. This action creates a personal inventory of fanned items that follow you around regardless of your camera angle. You no longer have to discreetly peek at face down cards every few minutes; they're always at your beck and call, and impossible to see by other players until you drag them out and play them face up. See also: instantaneous shuffling with a couple of mouse-clicks, an option for turn-based play to more easily keep track of the active player, rulebook and player aid PDFs at a glance, and have I mentioned that you rarely ever have to actually set up all zillion and a half pieces when you load a game? You don't have to set up all zillion and a half pieces when you load a game. In a Vital Lacerda game, this alone is worth the price of admission.
And while I'm already engaged in the act of shameless advertising, I should mention that Tabletopia's price of admission is, incredibly enough, as free as you want it to be. The idea of a monthly subscription fee was utter anathema to my frugal ears, but upon closer inspection, this price is merely for the Power Users among us. Yes, paying money will get you access to a greater library of games along with other perks like greater player counts, inviting freebie players to rooms, and having unlimited numbers of games going at once, but a free account still grants you a not unimpressive number of name-brand titles to choose from. If Tabletopia has only one thing going for it, it's the incredible gallery of quality games to play. From big, buxom belles of the ball like Scythe, Terra Mystica, Gloomhaven, and Keyflower, to shorter, snappier affairs like Spyfall, Nations: The Dice Game, and Zooloretto. Tabletopia also boasts the ability to play a decent number of between-print-run titles that are otherwise impossible to track down outside of the Matrix. And an option of particularly exciting note: some publishers are even encouraging potential customers to "try before you buy" on upcoming Kickstarter projects already up and running in the Tabletopia library.
Enter Lisboa. Its physical manifestation still 3-4 months (not accounting for inevitable production and shipment hiccups) off on the horizon, yet perfectly playable in its entirety right this very instant. And for free (so far)! No ridiculous trial periods to contend with or the game ending after 12 sample turns. No need to be a big board game reviewer celebrity with a special home-made prototype mailed to you. Just a virtual room with a make believe board and its zillion and a half components for you and up to 3 others to try out. In all honesty, even with the ease and attraction of this offer, I still probably wouldn't've touched it if it hadn't been for an unforeseen snow day in January to force my hand. With absolutely nothing to do but stay inside and keep the space heater in close proximity, boredom and curiosity led me to a six-hour marathon of rules learning, software installation, trial and error, and blind, desperate groping through a hitherto unknown solo mode.
I'd like the record to state that I had every intention of basking in the imaginary honor of waiting until I had my actual copy in hand and on table. Who would want to ruin the surprise by playing it before then, and especially in such a disgraceful and bastardized form? But I caved. And I caved hard. I mean, it really must be marveled at, just how hard I was willing to betray my morals on this one. Usually when a smoker quits cold turkey and then caves, they don't tend to spend six hours chain smoking to make up for it. And, well, perhaps it was the giddiness of not having to go to work yet still waking up early that addled my brain. Or maybe it was the fact that cheeseparing runs deep in my blood and a part of me wanted to do my pinchpenny ancestors proud. Yes, it could've been the price tag, the ample free time, the deep-seated lust, or the childlike impatience that did me in-- more than likely it was a mortal combination of all of these shortcomings, like some kind of Best Of album by the Seven Deadly Sins.* In any event, I found myself spinning a six hour cocoon of personal discovery and transmogrification, and so finally, after all of that inconsequential prefacing and self-absorbed forewording**,
!THIS IS WHERE YOU SHOULD START READING IF YOU'RE ONLY SKIMMING FOR LISBOA OPINIONS!
So. Lisboa. Is this a review of Lisboa? No, because that would imply that I am both knowledgeable and impartial about the whole thing. You see, I was probably going to love Lisboa regardless of a great many things; the love very much blossoming from mere mention of its theme, its designer, its artist alone. The purpose of this particular web-log entry is not to put forth a well-researched and sensible evaluation of the game, but rather to A.) shut up the much appreciated but still very much jerkwads that constantly ask where I am and when the next web-log entry is coming, and B.) merely blather on about my personal experiences, joys, heartaches, and other hormonal imbalances with Lisboa in a virtual setting. So let's do, shall we?
Firstly, you will enjoy Lisboa if you enjoy any of Vital Lacerda's other games. Let's get that out of the way as quickly as possible. I can't imagine an element or a scenario in which one wouldn't; much like Uwe Rosenberg, Lacerda knows very well and plays up his particular strengths in board game design, namely big, bold, thematically-legitimate, impossibly interwoven, and mind-blisteringly interconnected epics with lots of components and even more moving parts. Once manipulated, these moving parts link inextricably to other moving parts, which move even more moving parts, all of which domino-topple over into richly rewarding and enjoyable patterns. In a word, intricate. Ornate. Rube Goldbergian. Admittedly, that was more than just one word, but I can assure you, the use of a thesaurus is quite in keeping with the spirit of a Lacerda design.
The hack in me is yearning to cry out with half a dozen machine-based metaphors at the moment. Worn out phrases like "well-oiled," "clockwork precision," and "industrial strength" come to mind and just about bash the door in trying to get out. And while all of these descriptors are perfectly capable, they're also a bit played out, don't you think? I've certainly played them on this very web-log until they are threadbare and gasping for breath, so let's try for a fresher take on depth and complexity. We've done food. Tiramisu, I believe it was. We've done woven textiles. Tapestries, to be exact. I suppose we could do the human body. That's pretty miraculous and elaborate and also more than a little disgusting with all the flesh and blood and other icky fluids and sphincters. But no, let's delve deeper. Lisboa is like a rabbit warren. It's like an ant farm, and all the ants are different flavors. No, wait, Lisboa is like an IT network. A Bob Dylan discography. The cast history of Bewitched. Cripes, this is harder than it looks.
Lisboa, like its predecessors, is a well-oiled machine. One that makes tiramisu tapestries or something, I don't know. Just one that has a lot of bits and pieces that work together efficiently. The fact of the matter is that Lisboa, like its predecessors, has a dead simple conceit with numerous layers of complexity built right into it. On your turn, you play one of five cards from your hand, and refill back up to five at the end of your turn. All this on its own would be well and good, but Lisboa takes this idea and turns it up to eleven. Fortunately, there are multiple multiple ways in which to execute the selected card. (Sort of/A bit)Like a (n otherwise) simple (or straightforward/uncomplicated sentence with (lots of) parentheticals (and options/choices/alternatives (within those parentheticals***)). What begins as a single move ends up triggering anywhere from 3-6 additional actions, avenues, decisions, outcomes, and opportunities for future turns.
This furious embarrassment of riches would be outright overwhelming were it not for Lisboa's healthy dose of theme. Vital Lacerda, unlike any other heavy Euro designer out there, weaves or bakes or machines into his work a surprising amount of why and wherefore. Things, for the most part, actually make sense within the heavy, complex world they're set in. Logic is defined and the myriad mechanisms and moving parts follow suit and work together within their confines. What could very easily be abstracted into separate but equal instances of nameless cubes on the board and an off-handed paragraph in the rulebook about antiquarian flood damage are actually married together in a rather handsome manner. Whereas so many games function because that is how you enjoy neat mechanics and score points, Lisboa functions (at least in part) because of natural disasters, and municipal planning, and the relationship between Church and State. It makes for easier teaching and an almost effortless retention of detail. In order to rebuild Lisboa, you must first spend resources to clear the rubble. The more rubble you clear, the more influential and prosperous your firm becomes, granting you more actions, more efficiency, and more opportunities. I'm not saying Lacerda designs are the only heavy designs with theme, but I am saying they're amongst the most memorable.
And what, precisely, is the theme of Lisboa? The city and people of Lisboa we all know and love, naturally, except set in a time of powdered wigs and colonial powers. More specifically, the historic reconstruction of the capital after it was nearly leveled by Mother Nature trying her best to murder it back in 1755. Ah, but in her blind fury Mother Nature forgot about the Resilience of the Human Spirit, or some such expository feel-good message, and it is up to you to play as said resilient human spirits, all vying to plan out, build up, and profit the most from the downtown area. All of this requires an almost dizzying display of savvy forethought, political and financial strategizing, and, true to 18th century Portuguese form, a not inconspicuous amount of hobnobbing with the rich and powerful. Players will be offered a wealth of opportunity in the form of a great many actions, including but not limited to: erecting private shops and public buildings, hiring State officials to maintain relations and building management, contributing to and empowering the shipping industry, manufacturing goods and driving the local economy and treasury, rubbing shoulders with the King and Clergy to gain personal favor and power, securing and following out political decrees for prestige, amassing and utilizing influence over your rivals to benefit your plans. Also, collecting lots and lots of wigs. You know, like you do. Cuz wigs win you the game.
On a turn, one card out of a hand of five is selected and played for either its top and bottom icons (slipped underneath the player board, or "portfolio," in one of its available top or bottom slots), or for its central icon (to be played in the Royal Court to take advantage of special Main Actions). If a card is played into the Royal Court, the player visits one of the three noble figures of Lisboa and chooses two of the three available actions in that noble's column-- one of the two smaller actions, and the mandatory but oh-so-coveted Main Action. Manuel de Maia, famous architect, deals in Hiring State Officials, grants Plans for Public Buildings, and specializes in Building Shops in the downtown area of Lisboa as his Main Action. The Marquis de Pombal, Portuguese Minister, deals in Building Ships, Producing Goods from owned shops, and specializes in Public Decrees as his Main Action (when, if owned, award the bearer end-game points for each achieved goal). Finally, Rei D. José I, the King of Portugal, allows one to Meet the Cardinal for special Clergy Tiles, grants Royal Favors with which to piggyback off of others' Royal Court actions, and specializes in the Opening of Public Buildings as his Main Action. With so much on offer, the Royal Court is undoubtedly a powerful and productive area to visit, yet bothering the higher ups has a significant barrier to entry and each player must earn and spend Influence in order to make it happen.
While each of the nobles' final, Main Action can only be taken when playing a card into the Royal Court, their two smaller actions can be taken in addition to playing a card into one's personal portfolio. To wit, if a card is slid into the portfolio instead of being used for the Royal Court, it acts as either an additional sum of influence (at the top) whenever a Gain Influence action is triggered, or becomes a passive benefit (at the bottom) which grants the player an ongoing discount or bonus for certain costs and/or actions. In addition to playing this card into his or her portfolio, the player must then choose to either sell goods for their current market cost via an available ship, or, alternatively, spend up to two goods to take 1-2 of the smaller actions of the three nobles in the Royal Court. Everyone loves gold, but each noble is also partial to one of the three other goods in the game. A bit of a bribe, as it were, but let's not call it that. Simply another benefit of working in politics.
Spending cards into your portfolio is great way to get around the influence costs of the Royal Court, to earn money for future buildings, and to set yourself up for bigger and better returns on other actions. Or, if you're anything like my cleverpants rival in one game, a surprisingly effective way to starve off any and all other players banking on those extra actions received when spending Royal Favors to follow Royal Court actions. If all of this is causing your eyes to glaze over, I don't blame you. Like many of Lacerda's games, Lisboa defies simple description. The rulebook, while impressively edited and ordered, often has the unfortunate side effect of causing one's eyes to cross out of pure conjectural overload. Even learning in person is a serious time commitment. While I'm what you might call a "thorough rules explainer" (though perhaps "windbag pedant" might work just as well), I've yet to find an adequate teaching script that clocks in at less than a solid 45 minutes for Lisboa, The Gallerist, Kanban, or Vinhos. I can't tell you how many times I attempted to read about or watch a video detailing what goes on in Lisboa before sitting down to try it myself, only to come away from the attempts none the wiser and a touch more bemused.
On paper, Lisboa appears even more daunting than its busy and highly stylized board (Have I mentioned that the Build a Store action consists of no less than seven steps?**** And that's just half of your turn). In execution, however, the game runs much more smoothly. In person, it begins to shine. About 2/3rds of the way through my first solo game, things finally started to click. And while the feeling of thematic intuitiveness was a tad slower to arrive than, say, Vinhos or Kanban: Automotive Revolution, it did indeed show up eventually to kick butt. I won't deny that Lisboa takes some getting used to--in all honesty, this is far and way its greatest weakness--but if one has the patience and desire to stick with it, the game experience turns from opaque intimidation to pure entertainment in less than a single session. Lisboa requires a willing apprenticeship, it seems, to really get invested in the game, but once the investment pays out, you'll rarely regret it. In fact, there are very, very few board games that I have had a burning desire to play again right at the very moment they finished, but Lisboa was certainly one of them. I wanted to cement the iconography deeper into my consciousness, wanted to keep the flow of the game going once it had finally straightened out into smooth sailing. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: heavy board games are best learned at the table. Obtuse and maddening as overviews, a full and undivided presence in an actual play through is and always will be the best remedy.
At the time of this writing, I have played Lisboa a total of four times solo and one time at two players. I only mention this because everything I've said and will say is colored by this rather meager tally. It's all too apparent that I've only scratched the surface of what the game has to offer. And while it's far too early to start lauding the thing with the full force of a mother's adoration, I feel confident enough to say that I'm on the fast track to loving it and loving it well enough. The solo mode is a delight to play, and if my two player game was any indication, the solo AI provides a surprisingly similar feel to multiplayer once the learning curve is mastered. The Gallerist remains my favorite of Vital Lacerda's games, and I don't see that changing just yet, but I will admit that the love and appreciation that has been growing for Lisboa could very easily match the love and appreciation I already have for The Gallerist-- just in different ways. Also of note: my two-player game was played with a friend living over 200 miles away, so mark that up as another benefit of Tabletopia.
Of course, I'd be remiss in not mentioning another job well done by artist Ian O'Toole. His recognizable style and attention to detail blends well with the delicate, ornate azulejos of Portugal. A real beauty to behold; instead of the modernist minimalism of The Gallerist or vintage earth tones of Vinhos Deluxe, O'Toole has gone full bore into the ostentatious embellishments of the 18th century. The blue-white tiling provides a rich, evocative foundation from which the other more vibrant, more easily discernible colors of goods, buildings, and nobles pop out. One only has to regard the flagrant box cover to get an idea of what lies inside: resplendent columns, statuary, greenery, and drapery all framed by the omnipresent chips and cracks of glazed ceramic. It's a satisfying design that simulates the look and feel of 1700s Lisbon while directing the player's eye to integral tracks, sections, and playing fields. And while the stateliness of it all can prove to be a bit much at times as viewed on a flat computer monitor, I remain optimistic that the game board's physical presence (as well as its UV spot highlighting) will help to further accentuate the various areas at a glance.
Traffic is heavy on the North-South freeways, with a modest pile-up near the Row C on ramps. Expect a bit of a delay on your way into work this morning.
Despite its domineering presence and vaulted skill ceiling, Lisboa promises to be a beast worth domesticating. It offers a proud and hearty panoply of some of my all-time favorite board game elements: the slow, methodical unlocking of player board powers, customization in spades, several opportunities for set collection, choose-your-own end-game scoring, high replayability via randomized set-up, Come-And-Use-My-Things-And-We-Both-Benefit symbiosis, Follow-the-Leader piggybacking, multiple currencies, multi-use cards, and multiple avenues to success. It's a Shostakovich waltz of a board game-- a gorgeous, grandiloquent performance of countless instruments all playing as one, whiffs and strains of which you'd swear you've heard before, but most of which feels refreshingly foreign, perhaps even a touch boastful. And yet it's a self-importance that's entirely justified, handsome, almost, in its own right. Just try to keep your foot from tapping along by the end of it. Just try.
So, over all, what have we learned?
• I still buy my greens at a grocery store, instead of via INTERNET CABBAGE DRONE like all the cool kids are doing.
• Tabletopia is a computer program that lets you play board games online.
• I used it to cheat Father Time and play a game that isn't out yet.
• I probably won't pay for it, and that would make my Polish grandparents proud.
• Lisboa is the newest game by Vital Lacerda.
• Lisboa is Brazilian for "New York City."
• Lisboa is complex, but not like a machine, because that's too easy of a comparison.
• Lisboa suffers from being opaque to newcomers, but its steep learning curve is manageable after awhile.
• My future self probably loves Lisboa even more with the physical bits.
• You've totally heard Shoshtakovich's Waltz No. 2 before, like, in a movie or something.
• Lisboa will probably be up there right alongside The Gallerist.
• It's got wigs instead of victory points.
There. That just about sums it up. Any rules questions can be forwarded to email@example.com. For more slapdash thoughts and opinions on Lisboa, please attempt to consult your local library, wonder why it's been razed and turned into a tattoo removal clinic, then go home and try out the game for yourself to form your own opinion, you unimaginative herd animal, you.
Join me for the next web-log installment where I'll be talking about more games, making more references, and will probably end up apologizing for calling you an unimaginative herd animal because you really didn't deserve that.
lots of love and happy games,
*I feel like The Seven Deadly Sins would be a boy band, don't you? They've since broken up, but at one time in the 90s and 80s and pretty much the rest of all human history they were hot stuff. Nowadays no one really cares about them except maybe for Anger, who has a pretty brilliant solo career, and Lust, who enjoyed a year or two in the limelight when it came out of the closet. I'm pretty sure Sloth got sorta fat and is now the announcer for Family Feud.
**If you're looking to further procrastinate before diving into the write-up, here's another footnote to waste some time on. Unless you're the sort that reads everything from top to bottom, in which case, here's a footnote to waste some time on before going out and doing some yard work.
***Plus perhaps an annotated aside or two.
****And that doesn't even account for the fact that you don't actually score points for building a store.† You score points for having built a store when you (or others) build a public building, which means you can score points for a single built store multiple times, but not at the moment you build said store, and only if said public building is built on the same street and has the same color. Got all that?
†Unless you're storing a special Clergy tile that scores you points when you build a store. But that's another story.
- [+] Dice rolls
Two thousand sixteen, yes, it sure was a thing!
A year to be certain, it had a nice ring!
Some events were recorded, and time has elapsed!
A few celebrities died and ci-vi-lization collapsed!
But for now, lads and ladies, put it all out of mind!
For tonight we are gathered
to sample and savor
the GREA-TEST, the GRAN-DEST,
MOST GA-LLANT, MOST GORGEOUS
(timpani beat, timpani beat)
Ha-ha-ha! Welcome, welcome! One and all! Welcome to the stately, tastefully-festooned, gold leaf-gilt banquet hall of the Royal Knizia Non-Opera House! Tonight we pay one-handed tribute to the fearless, fabulous, fantasma-orgasmic men and women of the board game industry (that stalwart bastion of ludological superfluity) in only the most hyperbolic and self-serving manner possible! Ample backs will be patted! Fake tears will be shed! Native Americans will be used in proxy for purposely awkward political statements! And all of it will be broadcast LIVE! to trillions of adoring fans the world over! Not a single occurrence will escape the keen eye of the camera lens! EVERY BIT OF THIS TALE WILL BE TOLD! Every surgically-implanted grin, every orange-tinted cheek and glistening forehead, every withered dewlap of the older, slightly less attractive VIPs! All of this and and more will be presented in stunning, state-of-the-art hologram technology, streamed straight into the living rooms of America and beyond, whether those living rooms want it or not!
Because, ladies and gentlemen, dice-chuckers and card-savants, Euro snob desiccants and Ameri-trash compactors, this... THIS is the 2nd Post-Annal Plauditory Appraisal Awards! The single greatest act of trophy-slinging this side of Hollywood! The biggest, boldest, brashest bouquet of buxom, bulging blandishments since they gave Marlon Brando a 12-minute standing ovation for playing himself in a grocery store! None more nonpareil, it's inimitable! Utterly epitomical! Super superlative!
Yes, all of the biggest and brightest stars of card and board are with us tonight. All evening long they've been given unchecked access to a wildly unbudgeted buffet of lobster, caviar, and Welch's sparkling white grape juice, and now they're ready to mug duck-faced and aggrandizing as cut-away shots of the audience whenever possible! Why, look, there's funnyman "Lucky" Frankie Dicemann, whose catchphrase "Why's it always gotta be ONES?!" is currently taking unoriginal INTERNET forum commenters by storm! And there's Darla Mannix, self-made media mogul behind The Orthogonal Post fanzine! And how about that! It's none other than an inebriated-seeming S. Kelley Prasanth, inventor of the groundbreaking 1600gsm graycore sprue system! Yes, they're all here tonight, from garage-based podcaster to almighty German manufacturer, to celebrate and elevate the highly prestigious field of board game wonderment!
So, sit back and enjoy the unchecked careening of ego! Watch as sparks fly, compliments soar, and waxen wings of mock humility swiftly melt into fawning brouhahas of braggadocio!
Now let's give us some awards to ourselves!Here to announce the winner for
BEST NEW EXPANSION
to a Game I Played in 2016
is Armando Wolfgang, designer of 'Eric Roberts' Entire Filmography: The Customizable Collectible Living Card Game'.
More of something good is often better, but sometimes it isn't. For instance, more pie is always good, but more Eiffel Tower would leave it looking like some sort of unsettling alien probing device. So it is with board game expansions— adding extra bits and bobs to an already perfect design, or a design whose simplicity and elegance cannot support excess baggage brings the whole thing crashing down into an unpleasant and complicated exercise in frustration. But insert a completely new element or mechanism into a structure with room to spare and the experience can be elevated into something truly novel, innovative, even necessary. From the abundantly additive to the downright rectifying, we honor those expansions that bring something unique to the table — fixes, balances, complete surprises — adding a brand-new flavor of enjoyment to an already enjoyable formula. The winner of BEST NEW EXPANSION goes to...
While last year's Orléans expansion, Orléans: Invasion, subverted expectations by introducing a completely separate co-op mode (amongst several other variants on the original mode of play), the most recent expansion returns to its roots by offering a selection of modules to include in any number to the base, competitive game. And this is very, very good. Whether it's including contracts for a pick-up-and-deliver twist to traveling the main board, experiencing new and challenging events with a brand-new event tile stack, or improving the Beneficial Deeds board by swapping out standard bag-culling opportunities with all-new options both dastardly and passive, Orléans: Trade & Intrigue has something for every fan of the original. I must say, as much as I appreciate and enjoy Invasion, with its alternate modes of play and co-designed alternatives, I appreciate and enjoy Trade & Intrigue even more for its attempt to improve and build upon the greatness of the original game. And improve and build it does; I love the presence of the contracts (explored in part within one of Invasion's variants, but more cleanly and efficiently implemented here), I love the new events (shuffled amongst themselves within separate eras to ensure both variability and a gradual, semi-defined progression that boosts the positivity of the positive boons and really doubles down on the negative effects of the negative repercussions (sure to please the Orléans veterans that had misgivings about the "blandness" of the original event deck)), and I love the overall improvement of the new Beneficial Deeds board(s) (which ups the ante of every benefit and provides ample incentive to shed excess followers right out of the gate as well as all throughout the game, instead of doing a quick dump near the final stages). Just about everything in the new modules is a welcome and sometimes even needed improvement on the original design, to be added and enjoyed at will, ensuring Orléans remains fresh and relevant after many, many plays.Honorable Mentions!
Another brand-new faction to include within the ever-expanding Imperial Settlers universe! The Aztecs introduce the familiar mechanism of press-your-luck (a hot topic for 2016, it seems!) to the table. It works, and it works well. While their predecessors, the Atlanteans, offered more experienced players a outside-the-box, backwards style of play, the Aztecs are far more straightforward, their prayer/draw system instantly recognizable and easy to grasp for vets and newbies alike.
Stolidly in the "more of a good thing is better" camp, Mysterium: Hidden Signs adds more of everything, which is more of a good thing. More gorgeously illustrated dream cards, more suspects, more murder weapons, and more locations to breathe even more life into a quixotic, quirky little game. If you are a fan of Mysterium, even more of it is a no-brainer.Here to announce the winner for
BEST NEW ": THE CARD GAME"
Take On An Existing Game I Played in 2016
is that one actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who is basically the ": The Card Game" equivalent of that other actor, Javier Bardem.
Another tricky genre, to be sure, as card game versions can very quickly fall into the trap of not bringing anything significant to the table in their attempt to simplify or expedite an already beloved experience. Yet there are many card game versions out there that get it right, that offer something interesting and needed to an extant franchise. Here we pay tribute to that curious, infrequent breed of card game that does right by its older sibling by being just different enough in just different enough of ways to warrant its own being. The winner of BEST NEW ": THE CARD GAME" GAME is...
This one even goes so far as to shed all mention of its progenitor, the dry but darling Russian Railroads. Keeping several elements intact in its telling of transcontinental travel, First Class embraces its train theme, its track-laying, its gradual, methodical advancement along linear progression, but does it all with cards and drafting instead of boards, tiles, and worker placement. And, astonishingly enough, despite its dizzying piles upon piles of cardstock, First Class excels! While I can enjoy the mathematical pursuits of Russian Railroads from time to very few and far between time, I instantly latched onto the more sparkling and effervescent particulars of First Class. For one, I feel First Class corroborates its train theme in a more enjoyable and whole-hearted way, plus the simplicity of a player turn, the swiftness of each round, the smoothness of the game as a whole all work to sustain my engagement. Given the option, I will always prefer First Class to Russian Railroads. And while First Class' clunky, expansive footprint on the table can be cumbersome at best, a chore at worst, the sum of its parts makes it worthwhile to set up every time.
Camel Up Cards feels like Camel Up, post-epiphany. Something's happened to it, perhaps it's been visited in the night by the Ghosts of Chaos Past, Present, and Future, and come to the sudden realization that maybe, just maybe not everyone cares for a kooky, crazy pyramid filled with dice. I mean, there's nothing wrong with a kooky, crazy pyramid filled with dice, don't for an instant think that's what I'm saying. I am saying that maybe, just maybe, not everyone cares for something so kooky and crazy in their lighthearted party betting games. If you are one of these individuals, I invite you to consider Camel Up Cards. It is more or less the silliness and jollity of betting on unpredictable, stacking camels, but with a distinct lack of a kooky, crazy pyramid filled with dice. Fans of said kooky, crazy pyramid shouldn't be so quick to write off Camel Up Cards as a soulless failure, however. It may very well be an improvement, or, at the very least, a very enjoyable variation.Here to announce the winner for
BEST FAMILY GATHERING GAME
I Played in 2016
is Your Dad, who needs to be gently corrected every time he accidentally breaks a rule by misremembering it.
A good family gathering game should be quick, painless, universally entertaining. It should have a strong hook with easy allusions (e.g. "It's like Uno and Go Fish, but better" or "Remember when I tried to teach you that one game with resource conversion chains? It's nothing like that.") And above all else, it should be relatively straightforward. Y'know, for relatives. There were several fine candidates for BEST FAMILY GATHERING GAME this year. And the winner is...
I've said it before, I'll say it again: Fuji Flush feels like one of those old, classic card games, the kind you played in your childhood back before iPad apps existed. Its premise is so simple, it's a wonder it took this long for it to get invented. And, as with any good, sturdy family gathering or party game, the fun within Fuji Flush isn't exactly its premise, it's the people you play it with. Fuji Flush offers countless opportunities for alliances forged and broken, cajolery, smack talk, king-making, and just as many cries of despair as there will be shouts of triumph. It's a very silly game, often over before you know it, but the interactions it invokes around the table will doubtless be memorable and abundant. Best of all, Fuji Flush is easy on the brain. Grandpas and great aunts can play right alongside uncles, nieces, and cousins of diverse and disparate cogency. A mere stack of cards with an easy-traveling box size, Fuji Flush slips right into your coat pocket and can slip right out amidst food comas or lulls in conversation. It delights, it dazzles, and never overstays its welcome. Besides, there will be a clamor for a second round just as soon as the first finishes up.Honorable Mention!
Santorini is a bit of a dark horse candidate around these parts-- for one, it's predominantly a 2-player affair (although there exist rules for 3- as well as 4-player team play). For another, it's an abstract. But what it lacks in pitch power, it more than makes up for in presentation. One only need bring out the box and show off its components for heads to turn and eyebrows to raise. Make no mistake, Santorini's table presence is second to none, with its gorgeous white and blue building pieces, adorable illustrations, and impressive, three-dimensional player board. And despite its visual complexity, its ruleset is the exact opposite. There are approximately three to four things to note to your opponent before play can begin, and once the vanilla set-up is understood, there are several dozen "variants" included right in the box. These "variants" come in the form of god powers, each of which imbue the player with a unique leg up against his or her opponent and drastically alter the way one goes about the game. The mixing and matching of these player powers is what gives Santorini its almost inexhaustible variation— the possibilities are endless (or probably an actual but startlingly large number)! Fans of chess, checkers, backgammon, or other age-old games will do well to bring this along for fellow enthusiasts. Santorini is the perfect example of an abstract for the 21st century.Here to announce the winner for
BEST USE OF WORKER PLACEMENT
In a Game I Played in 2016
is Gladys Crann, who absolutely despises her job at the temporary staffing and employment agency, yet goes home every night and ironically enjoys placing little wooden discs.
Who doesn't enjoy a good bit of bossing about? Since time immemorial, man has angled for positions of power, prestige, and worker placement. Telling other people where to go has been around for millennia. Archaeologists have recently unearthed cave paintings just southwest of Lascaux, discovering ancient pictograms which translate directly to: "Was the meat good tonight? Sound off in the comments section below!". Yes, whether it be minions of actual flesh and blood or mere cardboard surrogates and painted wood, directing workers to do one's bidding will never get old. It is not surprising, then, that board games with such elements within them have remained a steadfast and fashionable mainstay in the pantheon of Board Games That Fulfill Ageless Fantasies of Middle To Upper Management. Here we honor those titles from 2016 who do just that, so if you'll direct your attentions to the following...
It's a bold move calling your own board game "magnificent," historical reference to actual eponym or not. Doubly so doing it in Italian, as it is well-evidenced that Italians are amongst the most phlegmatic, dispassionate, and unemotional people on this planet. But we must give a pass to the talented Italianate designers of Lorenzo il Magnfico, because that is precisely what Lorenzo il Magnifico is: muy terrifico. These days worker placement games need something extra to make an impressive splash with players. Mere placement of workers just isn't enough to cut it anymore, what with such an enormous backlog of perfectly acceptable classics already in the market which execute the core concept swimmingly. The worker placement games of today need that extra little oomph, that spark of uniqueness that sets them apart and elevates them to a previously unattained twist on convention. Lorenzo il Magnifico takes this advice to heart, transforming its standard worker placement cylinders with the rolling of three communal dice. Now, each and every one of its challengingly short rounds gives a different value to players' workers, ensuring that no one placement is ever quite the same as the last. And with all the different places to go, cards to obtain, prices to pay, and timing for which to account, the choices will be anything but easy. Lorenzo il Magnifico transforms its engine-building and triggering into a steady stream of tight, taxing decisions and doesn't let up until the end, when the torrents of victory points finally begin to flow. With pitch perfect art, clever dice mechanisms, and asymmetric player powers reminiscent of The Voyages of Marco Polo and Grand Austria Hotel, Lorenzo il Magnifico is a fine addition and testament to the worker placement genre.Honorable Mention!
Following in the grand tradition of bucking tradition, Railroad Revolution proudly chugs forth on its tracks, introducing an upgrade/specialization element to its legions of worker meeples. Railroad Revolution is all about bonuses; while the standard gray workers can be placed in any one of the action spaces available to a player, specific colored worker meeples will activate specific bonuses in addition to the action itself, meaning, thematically, that if you task your promoted workers with work that befits their expertise, they'll get much more done. None of the bonuses is better or worse than the others, meaning the decision of who and where to place is entirely up to what needs to get done and in what order. The ensuing race across the country laying rails and building stations, investing in the telegraph system, and slowly forming a network that coincides with personal goals would make for a very enjoyable game by itself, but it's this gradual specialization of your workforce that really makes Railroad Revolution work. On the railroad. All the live-long day.Here to announce the winner for
BEST USE OF DECK-BUILDING
In a Game I Played in 2016
is Gordon X. Convict, who can totally get behind this recent trend of having "X." as a middle name.
Deck-building. On its own a somewhat lonely affair of shuffling, shuffling, forever shuffling. But when cleverly integrated into a greater, grander picture, when enmeshed within multiple moving parts and layers, deck-building truly shines, a solid base from which incredible things can unfurl. Join us in celebrating the achievements of deck-building for 2016, as we announce the winner of BEST USE OF DECK-BUILDING...
Alexander Pfister's complex cowboy infrastructure hums and whizzes along on several important pistons, but the one which stands out clearest and cleanest amidst the rest is surely its basic, deck-building core. Players buy and sell herds of cattle out of their hands, gradually amassing bigger, better, more valuable stock along the way to Kansas City. All the basic tenets and appeals of deck-building are put into play in Great Western Trail: fatten your deck and find a way to cycle through cards at a goodly rate, or cull your pile into a lean and mean efficiency machine for maximum profitability. The beauty of Great Western's deck-building is that it is but a small part of a larger playground, yet is tied inextricably to central gameplay. You can't escape the shuffling, but with so many ways in which to perfect and refine it, you'll find yourself quite happily embracing it. Another beauty is the game's easygoing selection of personal pace. As the titular Great Western Trail gets built up over time, players have the ever-growing option of stopping along as many opportunities for fine-tuning their hand of cattle as they wish. Take multiple, precise stops before reaching Kansas City's major shipment to get exactly what you need, or race over buildings and impediments to rush the endgame for everyone. Great Western Trail is a game that realizes deck-building works best with a plethora of other focal points, buttons, switches, and levers, happily provides them and then some.Honorable Mention!
Mystic Vale tries something new with deck-building, and that's commendable. In addition to upgrading their personal deck of cards, players now have the option of upgrading each individual card via Mystic Vale's clear plastic card and sleeve system, a novel and intriguing twist that is executed handily (and even quite prettily). Also introduced is an enjoyable press-your-luck approach to the act of drawing, culminating in a deck-builder with just enough difference to make it worthwhile seeking out.Here to announce the winner for
BEST USE OF MULTI-USE CARDS
In a Game I Played in 2016
is Richard Banks, wait, no, Dick Banks-- hold it, just Rich BankNO RICKY, RICKY BANKS, that's it! Is 'Chard Banks an option still?
By all accounts I should resent multi-use cards. Anything that can make my indecision and anxiety flare up like acid reflux probably isn’t all that great for my physical or mental well-being, and yet, it’s a good hurt. Multi-use cards are like my version of marathon running. It’s a terribly abusive past-time; it kills my joints, exhausts me, bloodies my nipples, and yet… it’s a good joint-killing, exhaustive, bloody-nippled hurt. Plus, I reference it every chance I can get (the act of running a marathon, not the bloody nipples (although I'll be happy to brag about those to you, too)). Plus, I have several bumper stickers proudly proclaiming my allegiance. When multi-use cards are outlawed, only outlaws will use multi-use cards. My other ride is a multi-use card. Ask Me About This Arbitrary Number On The Back of My Car and How It Must Relate To My Hobby of Multi-Use Card Use.
Guilds of London is slick. It’s sleek. It’s well-oiled and elegant, and it owes much of its accessibility to its multi-use cards. They’re used to do quite literally everything in the game. Each card can be spent to restock meeples, to move them around the board, to pay for other cards, or to use its unique, one-time ability. As with any good multi-use card game, each card feels special, unique, and most importantly, valuable. And while every disbursement is absolutely necessary, weighty even, it also feels just the slightest bit unnerving. Guilds of London puts such a special emphasis on the utility of its cards that you start to treat them with a tender, sensitive respect. Choosing in what way to spend a card is not a painless decision. All the mopey ghosts of What-If and Might-Should’ve and Maybe-Instead-Of remain floating around the exit and arrival of each card, poking and prodding their long, ethereal tendrils of doubt into tactical plans and long-term goals. Oddly enough, it’s good company to be in, the kind that keeps you alert and only slightly forlorn that you should’ve used that last draw in a completely different way.Honorable Mentions!
Kanagawa is a lovely little game with a delightful dichotomy to each and every one of its cards. Its variety of multi-use is a little more black and white than something like Guilds of London, with only two ways to use each card. But make no mistake, the decisions aren’t any easier. Instead of a standardized blind draw off the top of a deck, players must press their luck (hello, again!) and draft columns of cards on offer — some known to the whole table, while others remain face-down — and, as the ultimate clincher, each card accrued at the end of a round must be used immediately. This lends a feeling of urgency to the game, a kind of precision pickiness to each drafting phase. Will you install one of up to three cards into your painting, adding to an ongoing masterpiece of set collection and end-game points? Or will you flip it upside down and use it in your studio, for player powers, turn order, or more efficient, capable painting capacity? For as quick and relaxing as Kanagawa fulfills its filler status, its multi-use cards give it a splendid sense of heft.
It’s a shame Dynasties hasn’t received a wider release, because it really is something special. From the prestigious designing mind of Matthias Cramer, Dynasties: Heirate & Herrsche couples both multi-use card play and “you split, I choose” dynamics together into holy, wedded matrimony. In this case, the multi-use cards take a subtle backseat to the flashier, far more exotic-seeming dice and resource divvying, but it’s still present and still colors the game in significant ways. Dynasties keeps its multi-use cards plain and simple— while each card boasts several different uses, only one can be spent each turn, often making a hand feel even more valuable than Guilds of London cards. With only three short rounds and a measly 3-5 cards in hand, just one misplaced step in a long string of pre-planned actions can bring an entire third of the game crashing down into inefficient mediocrity. Contrarily, a full round of savvy matchmaking and strategic placement of eligible young bachelors and bachelorettes can really feel like a remarkable, highly rewarding feat. With its scarce card count yet bountiful wealth of choice, Dynasties’ multi-use cards keep the game feeling tight, tense, and dramatic.Here to announce the winner for
BEST USE OF A RONDEL
In a Game I Played in 2016
is Reinhold Gerhardt, a man who lives in France, which is French, which therefore means Reinhold Gerhardt is French.
Carousels, pie charts, flushing dead fish down the toilet— there’s a reason we humans seem to take the greatest pleasure in the simplest, most circular of activities. And so it is with the humble board game rondel. There’s just something inherently enjoyable in going round and round and round again, skipping little meeples from here to there in clockwise, predictable fashion, or passing GO, or smacking tetherballs, or turning tigers into butter, or recognizing tautologies, or picking up on certain repetitions, or even watching as the same Hanna-Barbera backdrops repeat over and over behind the Flintstones’ car ad infinitum. It’s in our blood to repeat ourselves, yes, in our very blood to repeat ourselves and enjoy doing it while we do it. To that end, which really isn’t so much an end as it is the beginning again, we proudly present the winner of this year’s BEST USE OF A RONDEL...
2016’s rondeliest rondel is none other than Round House, which couldn’t be bothered to stop at just one really fun rondel. No, Round House’s rondel is an entire really fun rondel within a second, bigger, really fun rondel. Two rondels for the price of one! Concentric and everything! Players speed their pair of worker pawns around the two rings of a historical Fujian tulou building, moving up to three spaces on either ring (or both) in zig-zag routes reminiscent of the World’s Most Straightforward Spirograph. Hop along and between rings to visit a wide selection of action spots, all while buying and trading cubes, converting money and resources, collecting sets, fulfilling contracts, and hiring a bigger and better workforce all the while. Once one of your two pawns makes it back around to the starting/finish line, a mid-game personal scoring phase is triggered, which makes pacing out your turns and racing against other players for prime real estate all the more important. Round House meshes many recognizable mechanisms all rather adroitly, and its rondel-within-a-rondel is the perfect foundation on which to present the results.Honorable Mention!
It might not look it, but Great Western Trail’s Great Western Trail is, indeed, a giant recurring voyage, making it one big branching, diverging rondel of a different color. Players begin in the lower right-hand corner of the board and make their way through wild western hazards and business opportunities until they reach the upper echelons of quite urbane Kansas City, where one big shipment of their cattle ensues and they find themselves right back down at the beginning again. Then it’s off once more along the trail, this time with fresh new choices and directions (or a reliable repetition of familiar stops) over and over until the game end timer inches its way to completion. Great Western Trail is very much one big, ever-expanding, customizable rondel in the guise of a linear, beeline trip, and for the Caylus-inspired yet innovative take on the conventional we must give it an honorable mention.Here to announce the winner for
BEST EURO-EY USE OF DICE
In a Game I Played in 2016
is Father Seamus O'Callahan, staunch proponent of the belief that "Polyhedrals should be seen, not heard."
It absolutely tickles me pink whenever a big, stuffy Euro deigns to accept the existence of dice, then uses them purely as pip counters. There’s something so deliciously passive aggressive about the move, something wildly Puritanical about the stiff upper lippédness of quietly, patiently turning a die from one side to another; the board game equivalent of eschewing the raucous, rollicking ancestral heritage of our cuboid friends in favor of shipping them off to finishing schools and never allowing them to see true, human emotion. There is, after all, a very happy medium between the two extremes of rolled chaos and tranquil predetermination, and here we doff our hats to those astute Euro titles that hit the nail on its polite and perfectly compromised head. The winner for this year’s BEST EURO-EY USE OF DICE goes to...
Solarius Mission does not disappoint with its astronomic take on dice drafting, space exploration, and tech tree manipulation. There are two separate types of dice within Solarius Mission, one group used in the aforementioned manner of nothing more than counters and progress markers, pushed and flipped along four different tracks on the player mat, gradually upgraded and advanced along so as to indicate levels of action-taking efficiency and resource storage capacity. The second, far more kinetic group are routinely drawn from a bag and, yes, actually rolled, subsequently set on a splendidly implemented Ora et Labora-inspired resource wheel, to be hemmed and hawed over, then finally selected in order to take corresponding types of actions. The two different sets of dice inform one another, like colors will indicate what type of action one can take, how powerful that action will be, and how much of a specific resource one can collect (or, alternatively, how many times a like-colored counter die may be upgraded). Spend time upgrading your personal counter dice and benefit greatly from the high and low rolls of the communal dice. Some may balk at the monumental task of stickering each and every one of the blank wooden components upon purchase, but once assembled, Solarius Mission does Euro dice just right, offering the best of both worlds (as well as many others to settle) in a classy, extraterrestrial package.Honorable Mentions!
Why, it’s Lorenzo il Magnifco, again! Already mentioned in passing during its worker placement praise, this time we focus on Lorenzo’s great big ooey gooey Euro-ey use of dice. The two elements are tightly knit— in order to place one’s workers one must consult the initial roll of three colored dice. These three die values represent every player’s similarly colored worker values for the round. If the orange die rolled high, the white die fair-to-middling, and the black die a pitiful, cyclopean snake eye, then it means everyone will be wanting to use their orange worker for the most expensive task while bumping up their white (and fourth neutral, who doesn’t get a die and is always a base value of 0) worker’s numbers with as many assistants as possible. Yes, it’s the standard Euro approach to rolling dice: sure, there’s luck involved, but save those resources wisely and kick luck in the teeth with some crafty, last minute mitigation! Well, perhaps kicking in teeth is too American a metaphor. I’m sure some heavy, sensible tutting will get the point across fair enough. In any event, Lorenzo’s dice are a healthy, balanced blend of unpredictable rolling and highly satisfying number-fudging (once the damage is done). After all, we wouldn’t want to be give too much authority to a handful of fickle, inanimate d6s. You are in control of your own dice-based destiny!
D-D-DICE?! DICE IN MY BIG, BEEFY UWE ROSENBERG DESIGN OF 2016?! Has everyone’s favorite misery farmer gone and lost his mind? Has the king of agrarian hardships finally had his mid-life designer crisis and started hanging out in seedy bars with untoward Ameritrashers? Say it ain’t so, Uwe! Think of the children! Think of the starving chil—
Oh, actually, everyone can put down their pitchforks and torches. The dice, they’re actually not that bad. In fact, they’re actually quite fun and — dare I say it? — a titch thematic. Yes, for the first time(?) ever, Uwe Rosenberg has incorporated dice into one of his big box designs, a d8 and a d12 to be precise, and they’re used to simulate the uncertainties and risks associated with some of the most Viking-est activities available in the game: namely, hunting game, whaling, raiding, and pillaging. Go big or go home (with a fair few consolation prizes) in these particular action spaces by rolling a die and mitigating the hell out the results by paying any number of your amassed wood, stone, or weapons cards in order to either get the sum down to 0 (when hunting) or up to 16 (when looting that sweet, sweet booty). From a rousing success (huzzah more puzzle pieces!) to abject failure (oh darn, more resources and weapons cards for next time), the Rosenbergian use of Euro-ey dice are really only there to spice things up with unpredictability and risk management. Embrace ‘em or ignore ‘em completely, it’s entirely up to you and your little Scandinavian puzzle warriors. I say they work, and they work well.Here to announce the winner for
BEST USE OF CONTRACTS
In a Game I Played in 2016
is actress Kestrel Laszlo, whose rider stipulated that her dressing room contain a gun safe full of endangered coral reef.
Take it from me, someone who's written over 40 wildly popular self-help books with titles like "10 Steps to Simpilize Your Life!" and "101 Ways to Keep from Crying In Public": people respond positively to incremental progress. There's something logical, outright profound about taking it one day at a time, inching baby step by baby step towards a set and all but unobtainable goal. It's why we have common sayings like "He bit off more than he could chew," "Walk, don't run," and "Every time God closes a door, he keeps the cat flap open." The fact of the matter is that human beings are lazy and stupid, yet fiendishly equipped to take the shortest route possible in every situation. That's why long hauls to success are best segmented into multiple yet accessible journeys. Those guys who climbed Mt. Everest? Yeah, they stopped several times along the way, like chumps. Yes, chumps, but smart chumps. The brain has to be tricked into thinking it's done for the day far before it actually is if any sort of complicated achievement is to be achieved, and that's why contracts are such a popular and pleasing thing to add to a board game. Every contract fulfilled is like a miniature victory, urging each player to keep at it until an ultimate victory can be reached. Every completed contract gives a little burst of endorphins to keep the mind-brain focused and motivated, a friendly pat on the mind-brain bum as it straggles by, gasping for air. I mean, I can only assume other people's mind-brains gasp for air as they straggle through board games. That's a thing everyone's mind-brain does, right? Anyhoo, let's crown the winner of this year's BEST USE OF CONTRACTS, shall we?
It's Yokohama! I had to find a way to work it into this year's Plaudies, and what better way than in celebration of one of its finest, most potent aspects? Yokohama is all about its contracts, or order cards, the number one way of earning those all-important victory points throughout the game. As players hop around randomized location tiles, setting up future deals, collecting resources, hiring more assistants, avoiding other players, building shops and stalls, and earning money, they must also stop off at one of two tiles to pick up a steady stream of contract cards, to be fulfilled as a secondary function of a turn. Not only do the contract cards offer points for the scoreboard, but many of them entice with more assistants, money, and import goods for end-game area control. Indeed, Yokohama could very well have been called A Steady Stream of Contracts. Players can't afford not to keep up with contract-hungry opponents, choosing as best they can orders that require a combination of resources that they either already have at their disposal, or resources that can be quickly and closely obtained along the routes of their other goals and destinations. It's all about plotting the shortest course from A to B with as many brief and profitable stops as time allows. All in all it's a terrific, endorphin-filled string of miniature victories, and it's thanks to Yokohama's proliferation of contract fulfillment opportunities.Honorable Mention!
One more thing Round House does, and does well: contracts. Here, however, Round House introduces two unique twists on your common contract card. Instead of visiting locations on one of the rondels with your workers in order to pick up and fulfill them, contract cards are drawn after crossing specific milestones on the score track itself. This means that in order to have that steady stream flowing, players must strive to cross the start/finish line on the rondel with sustained frequency, trigger their personal mid-game scoring phase, rack up enough points to cross a threshold or two, and finally collect their next couple of contract cards to work towards. It's actually a brilliant chokepoint mechanism that keeps players from dallying too much or blocking too many spaces on the rondels for others. The incentive to always be moving is contracts, and Round House's contracts are so worth it. Instead of rewarding the player with a one-time influx of points or resources upon completion, Round House's contracts work as their own little efficiency engines; their effects continue throughout the rest of the game once unlocked. For example, a fulfilled contract card can trigger every time a player receives at least one green resource cube, granting that player a bonus coin or additional green resource cube. Now the owner has extra motivation to start specializing in green, since green gives him or her a leg up over collecting other colors. Collect and complete enough of these wonderful cards and your engine becomes a powerhouse of extra benefits and boons, with bonus cubes, points, and coins raining down on you every time you take specific actions. Round House is a game all about building a bigger and better engine, and its clever procurement and use of contract cards helps realize it in the best possible way.Here to announce the winner for
BEST USE OF THEME
In a Game I Played in 2016
is the Grandfather of Peter, who here is represented by a bassoon.
There's nothing worse than a sterling game with an unconvincing theme. It's like a CGI character in a room full of flesh and blood actors. The animation could be top-notch, the diction of its dialogue pitch-perfect, the lighting award-worthy, and yet still there's that unduly upsetting element of the Uncanny Valley present at all times, worming its way into the back of your mind with every frame of film that flickers past the projector. There's something off, something not quite right, something that stinks to high heaven of an affront to nature, something that spoils the sum of all its parts and ruins an otherwise enjoyable scene. I'm talking about theme in board games here. And while some may consider this a thinly veiled and pointed criticism about the overzealous use of CGI in modern cinema, I'm sure I have no idea what you're Tarkin about. The winner of BEST USE OF THEME is...
The Networks is a simple, straightforward enough card drafting game and I have no complaints about that, but where it really shines is its sly and winking theme. First of all, the world of television production is an absolutely brilliant choice— one filled with so much potential it boggles the mind that it's been left relatively untouched for so long. Luckily, The Networks touches it, and touches it real good (I'll admit that came out wrong). From humble, downright dire public access beginnings, players slowly build up their own TV channel reputations, ordering up bigger, better, more quality broadcasting for prime time slots and beyond, adding commercials, stars, and supporting cast to help boost ratings and viewership. After all, victory conditions aren't based on the amount of money made, but how many people you can get to tune into your line-up throughout the game. Drafted cards are filled with humorous allusions and blatant references to pop culture, imbuing the whole experience with a playful nod to those in the know. It's not just The Networks' enjoyable use of humor that keeps its theme bright and bubbly. Card effects are often a direct correlation to their highly amusing monikers. Sneaker commercials give more bang for their buck if they're scheduled during sports shows. Hiring a self-inflated Director/Writer/Editor/Star personage will net in the best results if he's the only one involved in a series. Shows like Very Charismatic Explosions don't even have the option to include a cast. Cult series get canceled quickly but reap high ratings in syndication. That Actor Who Dies In Everything, well, only gets used for a season or two. Everything about The Networks stays true to the world it creates for itself, the logic of cardplay makes sense and is almost always amusing to boot. The real appeal of the game isn't in the drafting and playing of cards, but rather the creation, improvement, and renown of your fictional television station. Sometimes it's more fun to sign on that one actor or show purely on account of its own novelty, or to maintain a made-up narrative, and to me, that's a definite sign of success.
Where would we be without good ol' Vital Lacerda? For starters, we'd be several endearingly dense Euros dripping with theme fewer than we currently are, and that'd be a real crying shame. And since the subgenre of Endearingly Dense Euros Dripping with Theme is already dangerously unpopulated, it'd probably be more than a crying shame. A full-on sobbing mortification. Weeping ignominy, histrionic contrition, that type of thing. Luckily, the world has a very happy amount of Mr. Lacerda's existence, and he's given us not one, not two, but at least four endearingly dense Euros dripping with theme, with a fifth Kickstarted and well on its way. It's kind of what he does best. 2016 saw a deluxification of Lacerda's previously released winemaking board game, Vinhos, and boy am I glad I picked it up with all its bells and whistles affixed. Incredible component quality, sheer beauty (we'll get to that in time), and significant gameplay aside, Vinhos' use of theme is just as exquisitely implemented as many of its Lacerda-designed brethren. Who knew Portugal was home to so many different varieties of wine? Well, besides Portuguese alcoholics, I suppose. Each different region boasts a unique trait, and choosing which ones to establish your own vineyards in is just one of the many, many decisions Vinhos wafts your way. Each moving part of Vinhos has a solid, thematic grounding that makes learning a relatively painless task. There might be six dozen things to do, but when they all make sense within the context of viniculture, they tend to stay stuck in your memory with a graceful ease. Lacerda is, as proselytized in countless other blog posts of mine, a master at the art of infusing theme with heavy, impossibly interconnected mechanisms, and Vinhos is, despite being one of his earliest designs, no exception. Saúde!
Hear me out on this one. Sure, Mondrian: The Dice Game might not be the most thematic game in existence, but it definitely deserves props for several things. Firstly, the sheer confidence with which it touts its unorthodox theme. Piet Mondrian, while a great many things to art history and popular culture as a whole, is not a person most would think of when most think of a silly, dice-chucking dexterity party game. Kudos to a brave choice to pair the two, and kudos for making it actually work. Because, after all, it actually does. Mondrian's instantly recognizable canvases of perpendicular lines and solid blocks of colors end up serving as the perfect playing space, natural-born targets for silly, dice-chucking dexterity fun. It's an adorable game that has a great table presence thanks to its quirky, unique theme. It also made me shelve my own plans for designing "Jackson Pollock Presents KerPlunk!", so thank you SO much for that, guys.Here to announce the winner for
BEST NEW CITY-BUILDER
I Played in 2016
is the Transit Department advisor, who thinks this town could use several more Launch Arcologies.
Like carnivorous animals, nuclear explosions, and most humans, I love admiring cities from afar. Afar is generally a good position to take with most things, really. But cities, most specifically— they're fascinating concepts: a whole bunch of people and buildings and vehicles and expensive utilities all decide to get together and co-exist in one place, usually around a river or two. And, for some reason, the closer to the river or two the better it is to all co-exist, so those people, buildings, vehicles, and expensive utilities that don't want to be considered a lame suburb start stacking more and more and more of themselves on top of themselves higher and higher until they start scraping the sky. Paying lots of money to scrape the sky is something humans do, and I'm not judging, because I pay lots of money to simulate the act of paying lots of money to make-believe scrape a make-believe sky, and that is arguably the stupider thing to do. This year, the best way to do so is...
Quadropolis is a tile drafting city-builder with an inspired grid mechanism for both picking and placing your various city-themed edifices. Each round a number of building tiles are put out on offer on a central grid where players take turns selecting architect markers and aiming them towards their preferences. The number on the utilized marker not only determines which building tile they can choose, but also where it must go within their own personal grid-based city. A "3" architect marker will take the 3rd tile in a row or column which must then be placed in the city's 3rd quadrant, or on any open 3rd square within any of the quadrants (or, in the case of multi-storied buildings, built as the 3rd level). It's a neat little system that works very well, a mix of spatial puzzling and tailoring a system of scoring based on adjacency bonuses. Like many city-builders, certain types of buildings like to be next to others, such as parks and residences, while others trigger penalties if placed together. All of it makes logical sense, plus there's that all-important sense of growth and progress as you watch your little town expand into a bustling city. And where else can you get the grim self-satisfaction of burying excess waste in playgrounds to avoid negative points? Overall, Quadropolis might not be the most involved use of the city-building theme, but it does manage to play off the motif well enough. With a design that purrs along at a quick pace, Quadropolis is a solid, mid-weight city-builder that deserves a place on the shelf.Honorable Mentions!
Rather than a straight-up city-builder, Capital works more specifically as a Historical Warsaw Simulator, where players choose from a combination of generic tiles depicting residential/commercial/cultural/industrial sectors, and actual landmarks present in the famous Polish city. Based around the traditional "pick and pass" drafting method, Capital sees players building up, expanding, and building over their own private boroughs of Warsaw throughout its long and colorful history. There's the desolation of both world wars to contend with as players constantly struggle with the financial and spatial restrictions of replacing old plots with newly acquired tiles. And restricitve it certainly is, with a playing area that only allows for a 3x4/4x3 tile placement, there's bound to be difficult decisions inherent in every tile choice. Each round, or epoch, also offers communal goals, rewarding the winner with a special landmark tile that often provides passive benefits and exceptions to rules. With its real world locations and tricky tile configurations, Capital works well as a drafting game with a brief history lesson included.
Key to the City - London will always receive an unfair comparison to its older, bigger brother, Keyflower. That's because Key London is very much a rehashing, a streamlined design that takes out several of the trickier, more obtuse elements in favor of a simpler experience. Make no mistake: I am a massive fan of Keyflower, dedicated and diehard. And while I appreciate what Key London does (especially for newcomers and fans of a faster playing time), I cannot in good faith deem it the better of the two. That said, my rabid obsession to its predecessor predisposes me to love a great many things about Key London, and quite willingly at that. Most relevant to the current topic at hand: I love Key to the City's modern, London-based theme and art. With piles of tiles depicting familiar Londonian landmarks, it's loads of fun to point out all of the places I've visited, annoying every other player around the table with my blatant boasts of fashionable travel destinations (why else does one travel if not to tell others about how they've traveled?). And the connector resource element is a very enjoyable development, placing certain locations next to others so as to form an interconnected borough, mixing, matching, and specializing in specific colored ties to score as many points as possible from the six-sided hex pieces. All of this works with a silky smooth pacing, finishing with alarming speed and offering Lots To Do with Never Enough Time. Despite my Keyflower favoritism, I think Key to the City - London is a brilliant modern city-building flavoring of a game many of us already know and love.Here to announce the winner for
BEST MEETING OF HYPED EXPECTATIONS
In a Game I Played in 2016
is Clarence Smits, who just doesn't see what all the fuss surrounding this nonsense is about.
WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!! YEAH!!! BOARD GAMES!! DIDJA HEAR ABOUT THAT ONE BOARD GAME?! WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!
Here it is, folks, at long last, Scythe's moment to shine! Poor thing's gone mostly unnoticed so far, flying under multiple radars, a wafer-thin reputation barely sustained by the furtive whispers of only the most outré board game reviewers and enthusiasts. The Kickstarter campaign only just limped past its finish line near the end, and the four or five people brave enough to back it probably stuffed it in a closet behind several dozen copies of Ruhrschifffahrt 1769-1890, only to forget about it in a matter of hours.
O, but I kid. Scythe earned a gajillion dollars and made it into the sweaty hands of thousands of slavering fanatics, topping the Hotness charts for multiple months ahead of its release, constantly on the minds and tongues of many an INTERNET opiner. It sure was pretty, it sure was bold, but was it any good? In a word, yes. Scythe made it out of the hype machine unmangled, with the same winning grin that it had when it was first announced— no small feat in this age of unrealistic expectations. I'm happy to report that I enjoyed and still enjoy a game of Scythe despite the massive amounts of pre-popularity it weathered, and this is coming from a hardened antiestablishment pooh-pooh'er of the mainstream. To survive such a bloody beating of hyperbole surely is a testament to its design and presentation. Meeting and exceeding such a high bar earns it its well-deserved accolades.Honorable Mentions!
I needed A Feast for Odin to be good. I really did. The pitch was so alluring; its theme, its billions of bits and pieces, its melding of half a hundred other wonderful game designs into one big potpourri of hypothetical perfection. And yet there was so much that could go wrong, what with rampant rumors of delays in design and production, the presence of dice (?!), yet another feeding phase mechanism, and perhaps most worryingly of all, the enormous heaps of hype INTERNET was shoveling all over it. But then, at last, after months upon months of patient waiting, it was finally taking up my entire dining room table, punched and in progress, living up to every heightened expectation I could throw at it. A Feast for Odin isn't just good, it's great, and certainly not because of anything I or its speculating fans did for it.Here to announce the winner for
MOST AMBITIOUS DESIGN
In a Game I Played in 2016
is Viola Snodgrass, whose idea for synthesized micro-polymer robot stomachs was set to revolutionize the obesity epidemic until her dog ate the blueprints.
I've had this idea for a movie for quite some time now. We open on a Busby Berkeley-inspired musical number, only bigger, better, more leggy, in color, with a musical score by someone like John Williams' way more talented cousin. Suddenly, there are Michael Bay-esque explosions EVERYWHERE, except they're even bigger than your typical CGI mushroom clouds, they're, like, at least planet-sized and twice as blinding, and they're in 4D only you don't even have to wear those lame, plasticky glasses to see it all, it's all just coming out of the screen itself and liquefying the audience as they scream in terror and glee. Then, an oiled up body-builder twice as big as Arnold Schwarzenegger (when he was at his peak physical prime) does battle with a super into it method actor who's won more freakin' awards than a Martin Scorcese-directed Jack Nicholson as both of them recite four hundred Shakespeare soliloquies on a set designed by the ghost of D.W. Griffith. Y'know, an experimental piece. Just an indie thing, probably.
Anyway, where was I? I think we were just about to announce the winner of MOST AMBITIOUS DESIGN...
Vast: The Crystal Caverns is a game for people who love ensemble casts. Depending on which role you choose at the outset, you'll be going after a unique, individual victory condition, following your own personal set of rules, and interacting with the other roles through a varying number of prejudices and preferences. Vast offers up to five different characters to play: the Goblin Horde, who wants to off the Knight, who wants to slay the Dragon, who wants to escape the Cave, who wants to... well, cave in. There's even a Thief who wants to abscond with all the treasure, plus at least two more characters in development for an eventual expansion. If this isn't the very definition of ambitious design, I don't know what is. The fact that all of these characters can play against each other at differing player counts and still form a cohesive game is impressive, to say the least. The fact that this cohesion can actually be relatively straightforward and understandable is just as impressive. Asymmetric player powers are always a hard enough thing to balance, but when your asymmetric powers are all playing their own asymmetric games, it's a whole new level of lopsidedness with which to contend. Crafting that lopsidedness into something that still remains fun, fresh, and innovative deserves some kind of Plaudie, so we'll happily throw it one for its efforts.Here to announce the winner for
BEST 'NEW-TO-ME' GAME
I Played in 2016
is Stridence Gherkin, who has been playing that old thing before it was cool to play that old thing.
One can't always dwell on the here and now. For as alluring as all of the latest and greatest releases can be, there's still a whole wide ocean of unplayed games from previous years, just as (and often even more) enjoyable than the latest crop of cardboard. For example, have you heard of this one game, "chess"? Apparently it's what all those old Chinese emperors and Russian guys played before INTERNET was made up and stuff. My friend says it's supposed to be pretty good, even though it doesn't come with a mandatory iPad app that you have to use for moderator purposes. Anyway, in this category we give a golden oldie its proper due, even though it's been out and about for a while now. The winner of BEST NEW-TO-ME GAME is...
Admittedly, Hansa Teutonica isn't all that old, even in the loosest terms of temporal relativism. I mean, 2009? Kids born in 2009 are still probably suffering under the delusion that Frozen has good pacing and story structure. But seven years can be a long time to go without something. Food, water, new seasons of HBO television series, for example. And showing up seven years late to a party is probably a real social faux pas, especially if that party is super, super good. Perhaps I'm merely preaching to the choir here, but Hansa Teutonica is super, super good. I'm mortified that it took me as long as it did to try it out. Because it's super, super good. It feels like a classic, and not just because it was made all the way back in 2009, a year that is so old that its ignorant, Neanderthal denizens didn't even know what an iPhone SE was! Poor saps. But those poor saps did get to experience first-hand the birth of designer Andreas Steding's masterpiece, and that partly makes up for it. Exceptionally dry, exceedingly drab, Hansa Teutonica is not a book cover you should be judging. Instead, I implore you, avert your eyes, open up the box, and take the equally dry and drab game board for a spin. After turn four, you'll be hooked, muddy brown color palette or not. Don't take another seven years to take my word for it! HBO might've finally produced the second season of Vaguely Medieval Incest Family: Sovereign Plots & Serial Sex by then, and if that happens, no one's going to want to do anything but obsess over watching it.Here to announce the winner for
In a Game I Played in 2016
is Vincent Van Gogh's missing ear. I know, real high-concept stuff here.
Let's face it: circumstance only works when paired with pomp. Razzle is nothing without equal parts dazzle. Brains without beauty is just another ugly, sexually frustrated nerd. That's right, like it or not, the importance of aesthetics is here to stay, so why not let's sit and gawk slack-jawed? FACT: A good board game is so much more of a good board game when it's got glitzy, sparkly bits and bobs and bells and whistles and pretty pictures attached. Don't try to deny it, I've seen you eyeing the legs on that Brazilian edition of Coup. Hey, we're all human here. Why not celebrate the beauty of illustrated cardboard? This year's winner of BEST ART is...
I think it comes as no surprise that we're featuring the work of Ian O'Toole in a category called "BEST ART." This is because Mr. O'Toole has a solid grasp on the twin concepts of prettiness and utility. Not only are his designs gorgeous to look at, but they're easy to read, quick to understand, clean, crisp, and intuitive. Board game art isn't just about looking nice, it's about serving the very specific story of the game itself, and if the overall design of a game board or structure of a card or layout of a player mat comes off looking cluttered and confusing, it defeats the whole purpose for its existence. So many times a beautiful board game is also a terrible board game, an obfuscatory mess that isn't fun to play in the least. The greatest crime in board game art is a board game that looks nice and plays awful. The genius team of O'Toole and Lacerda have proven their design chops with at least two beautiful, usable board game designs, and Vinhos: Deluxe Edition is one of them. From its helpful iconography flowcharts, smooth, stylized art, and excellent demarcation of all of its numerous sections, areas, and stages, Vinhos boasts one of the best looks to have for a very heavy Euro: both sleek and streamlined despite its many moving parts.Honorable Mentions!
Kanagawa's lovely watercolors and Japanese mural-inspired art goes beyond just looking nice for the sake of looking nice. It's literally the point of the game, which sees players attending painting school in the hopes of creating the most beautiful (and thus most valuable) work of art by the end of the game. With every new card placed in one's tableau, the landscape is improved and elongated, adding Edo era people, architecture, animals, and plants to its composition. It's a gorgeous, warm look that works perfectly, and I do believe artist Jade Mosch is one to look out for. Here's hoping she's enlisted more often.
I would be remiss not to include Scythe in the BEST ART category, in at least some capacity. After all, it's a board game that came to fruition primarily because of the art. Inspired by the incredible alternate universe of Polish artist Jakub Rozalski, designer Jamey Stegmaier decided to build an entire board game around the series which sought to fuse massive, far-off machinery and mechs with a war-torn, early 20th century peasant motif. The result is a war and resource management game with one of the most seductive box covers of all time. Just try and walk past it on a shelf and not turn your head. At once utterly enthralling and haunting, Scythe's art depicts dozens of similar scenes; a feeling that marries the every day plight of the common man with lumbering, looming symbols of a deadlier, more disturbing ambition. It's this marriage of rustic and industrial that fuels many of the game's mechanisms, from maintaining your faction's popularity and production with the local workers of the land, to waging or merely threatening the possibility of large-scale battles with leader and mech miniatures. Scythe's art does more than just paint a pretty yet troubled picture for the game, it straight-up inspires it. Rozalski is credited not only as the artist of Scythe, but also its "world-builder," which is an accurate enough job description.Here to announce the winner for
MOST BEAUTIFUL BOARD ART FOR LEAST INSPIRED EURO THEME
In a Game I Played in 2016
is the casting director who chose Miss Universe to appear as Lady Dowager von Womann in the PBS' miniseries "Affluence Manor."
We have a staggering number of board games based around historical aristocracy/royalty in a European setting. And I'm certainly not complaining. I happen to love learning about, playing as, and noting the existence of said historical aristocrats and/or royalty. They're usually quite fascinating and the game mechanisms that get bolted onto them are very nearly always just my cup of tea— but the same cannot be said of the components and board game boxes that often come packaged with them. Sometimes, however, once in a blue moon, one of these dull Euros with an uninspired theme will come along and blow the others in its class completely out of the water with something slightly different in the art department. It is often a breath of fresh air, a welcome change, a nigh impossible feat of artistic skill. This year, that dull Euro with an uninspired theme was...
You wouldn't expect much just looking at Dynasties' box cover or deck of cards, but the real surprise is the game board itself. For once, an abstracted map of Europe is — dare I say — beautiful! Brilliant, bold, bright colors! A mix of antiquated maps and modern design! Clean and readable, yet decorated just so with flourishes of life and vibrancy! A crisp, seriffed font! Highlights and borders with clear visual delineation from extraneous ornamentation! An enormous score track with enough real estate to fit the unisex meeples that speckle the landscape! Brown is utilized as an exception to the norm instead of an oppressive, tyrannical palette choice! All of these lovely, cheerful colors realize an optimistic, celebratory depiction of Renaissance era Europe and its various political machinations and matrimonies! Artist Claus Stephan has at long last handed us a gas mask after seeing us slowly suffocate in a fog of dreary, antique oil paintings. Everyone, take a few gulps from the filter and carry on playing!Here to announce the winner for
Game I Played in 2016
is an old, threadbare Furby, one eye missing, sitting on the shelf at Goodwill.
I make it a point to seek out and play new games, as many as I can. The newer and sooner, the better. Sometimes this obsession with the new, this sect or persuasion, if you will, brings joy and wonderment to my life; other times I'm left cold and lonely, with an expensive import title to re-home. But I don't regret my hobby, not one bit! Every game played is a greater knowledge of what I do and don't care for, every experience a better calibrated barometer of my particular tastes. If you try as many new games as I do, eventually you'll come across some that, while perfectly good games in their own right, aren't perfect fits in your collection, and that's perfectly okay. The winner of this year's Not Necessarily For Me Sort of Deal is...
Let me set one thing straight: I think Papà Paolo does everything it sets out to do, and I think it does them all very well. An auction wrapped up in area control bundled with turn order bidding intertwined with pick up and delivery. It does all of those things in an interesting, successful way, but, if you're keeping track of my finicky list of tastes and distastes, it's currently "oh for four" as they say in the world of professional-grade sportsing. I don't particularly like any of these mechanisms. Some might even claim I dread them. Others still might declare in court-ordered depositions that I actively loathe and avoid them. Still, that doesn't mean Papà Paolo fails at incorporating them into a dynamic, interconnected design. In fact, just about the only thing I think Papà Paolo actually fails at is the readability of its central board and neighborhood tiles, which is, lightly put, a horrific mess. But apart from the constant, teary-eyed squinting and questioning of rooftops, Papà Paolo may very well be a game for you. I mean, I won't judge you if you like it. There are plenty of things to like about it, despite the indisputable readability thing. Papà Paolo: I'm glad I tried it, and I'm glad I won't ever need to play it again, and I'm running out of ways to be civil so I will stop talking about it now.
Ladies and gentlemen, we'd like to thank you for your patience in enduring thus far with this, our grand spectacle of recognition. But, before we begin the final leg of this bright and shining journey through sensationalist esteem bestowal, let us take one final, deferential moment to bow our heads and dim the lights, to pay tribute to those board games that left us this year; whether deemed sub-par, nominal at best, or merely an unlucky byproduct of needing more shelf space, these brave and majestic souls are no longer in The Collection, passed along to the United States Postal Service in one last, desperate bid to secure a happier home, a more loving owner, and, naturally, to render a brief boost in remuneration. Please join us in paying tribute to the fallen, the traded, the sold, all to the appropriately somber soundtrack of All Star, by Smashmouth.
RIGHT THEN. That's more than enough attention paid to losers. Let's get serious. Winners. That's what the Plaudies are about, and the only reason you're all still here after the caviar ran out is to find out who is the biggest and most winningest of the ALL. To find out who gets crowned King, which game from 2016 wins TOP PRIZE, The Big One, the Whole Enchilada, that glorious Plaudie statuette to crush all other Plaudie statuettes. The bets are in and the votes have been cast, each and every guest present in the Royal Knizia Non-Opera House now perched upon the very edge of their seats, white-knuckled and with bated breath, gleaming with a fine sheen of highly photogenic perspiration in anticipation for the commendation and admiration of...BEST NEW GAME OF 2016
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's finally time to announce the ultimate WINNER of the evening. No greater accolade is there in all the board game industry, that most coveted and prestigious of all honors, awards, and laurels, the Post-Annal Plauditory Appraisal Award, a solid gold-plated zirconium-infused diamond-encrusted platinum-splattered unobtanium-tinted Plaudie statuette with a second Plaudie statuette soldered onto the top of it (plus, and more importantly, a lifetime's supply of highly prestigious Highly Prestigious Vincent Price Seal of Approval sticker seals, to apply onto any surface they so choose)!
The time is right, the stars have aligned, all previous Plaudies have been rendered obsolete as we hasten to induct the latest winner of the Best New Board Game of 2016...
Remind me to have a talk with whoever it was that greenlit these solid steel announcement envelopes.
IT'S A FEAST FOR ODIN! A FEAST FOR ODIN, FOLKS! BOY, WHATTA SHOCKER! DID YOU EVER IN A HUNDRED YEARS SUSPECT? GOLLY WHAT A SURPRISE! A FEAST FOR ODIN FOR BEST NEW GAME OF 2016!
ahem. Yes, this year sees Uwe Rosenberg's brilliant new Viking longship of a design, A Feast for Odin, as the winner of BEST NEW GAME OF 2016. The competition was fierce, but the epic pillaging 'n puzzling behemoth managed to reign supreme. From its beautiful, expertly rendered artwork from Dennis Lohausen, to its stellar production values, to its buttery smooth gameplay, there are, of course, many, many things to fawn over— far too many for the short time we have remaining. For a more in-depth rumination on its prettier points, please refer to the previous write-up from November, found here. Suffice to say, A Feast for Odin is living proof that the wait was worth it, deserves every ounce of the glory it's received, plus a couple of dregs more. Let's take a moment to raise our horn chalices high and toast it accordingly.
* * *
Well, there you have it, folks. That's one more Post-Annal Plauditory Awards Extravaganza done and dusted. It's been a long and eventful year, punctuated by copious debuts of board games both excellent and otherwise. Once again we'd like to thank all of those hard-working and exceedingly subservient sycophants who made this over-glamorous celebratory flatterfest of unnecessary adulation possible; Sir Gronsfeld Reginald Blithely Huxom-Pratt, Chief Head Commissioner Voting Tzar of the Academy of Congratulative Ludological Acumen, for his untiring efforts in making sure that every single board game was praised in as pretentious a way as is humanly possible; the Post-Annal Plauditory Appraisal International Society of Solemnization & Utmost Entertainment Services (P.A.P.A.I.S.S.U.E.S), for their sole reason for existence being a shaggy dog-esque punchline; the unwitting viewers at home who have had their entire evening ruined by this mandatory hologram broadcast; and, most of all, YOU. Yes, YOU. The rapper who just went platinum for his smash hit board game-related single, I'mma Point You To Victory, who goes by the rapper name "YOU." But also you, the reader, for believing in the dream, standing up for those beliefs, and finally realizing that the power of love and thus easy resolution to the story's plot was inside you the whole entire time. Way to not realize it sooner, dummy. We could've wrapped this up hours ago.
Now, as our guests slowly come down from their various mental and chemical highs, please look under your seats for any belongings before exiting the theater, as contents may have shifted during long peals of applause. It's been a--
Wait. Is that...? Good heavens, no! Ladies and gentlemen, I believe-- yes, oh my no, ladies and gentlemen, please remain calm, but the disgruntled monkey ushers from last year's awards ceremony appear to have broken through the our line of defense barricades and are now tearing through the Non-Opera House, brutally assaulting those closest to the doors! Their primal violence is almost balletic in nature! And what organization, what sheer efficiency with which they are dispensing their barbarous savagery! I-I'm being told that apparently they have since unionized and are now seeking vengeance from past events of unfair labor practices and discrimination in the workplace! The screams of horror are deafening but also kind of comedic in a bleak sort of way! I'm now being told to mention that the aforementioned allegations of wrongful discharge are unfounded and the Academy of Congratulative Ludological Acumen bears no responsibility for those involved! Oh my, OH-- SWEET MOTHER OF MARY! One of them's got the Plaudie engraver in a headlock! There are several dozen slapping the barman! I'm pretty sure my chauffeur is unconscious! OH THE HUMANITY! FLEE FOR YOUR LIVES, PEOPLE! THEY'VE SET FIRE TO THE GIANT FIBERGLASS PLAUDIE DECORATIONS!! START THE CLOSING SONG AND FLEE, FLEE!
This is your day, your future is bright,
The world is yours, you won it all,
This is your night,
* * *
A Special Note for Those Who Scrolled
Once again, I'd like to thank everyone who has stopped by the web-log over the past year and shown support for it. 2016, while having thrown us for a few crazy loops, has, on the whole, been a good time, filled with good board games and good company. I managed to log over 300 plays in the past 12 months, many of them entirely new games, but a respectable amount being old favorites, too. I'm very happy with this number and hope to be matching or beating it in the new year— it's my sincerest hope that you all have the opportunity to play the games you like with the people you love all through the new year, as well. And on that note, I wish you all the best for 2017 and hope to see you soon!
Have a safe and happy new year,
- [+] Dice rolls
24 Nov 2016
Ahoy, dear readers! I have returned with uncharacteristic timeliness to regale with the tale of Texan exploits unfolded over these past post-ides of November! I have labored long and hard to produce a rather slapdash chronicle of that highly accredited congregation of gaming, that southerly-centric event of merrymaking and revelry, BoardGameGeek.CON 2016!
Having now returned to my modest hermitage in the non-threatening and self-effacing flatlands of the American Midwest with a head full of fresh experiences and a stomach still fluttering with a whole host of hyperactive butterflies, having spent several days to recuperate*, I shall now endeavor to put these supremely personal events into weird, wonderful web-log form; plucked, processed, and puréed into a palatable paste of hindsight and retrospection. Canned, bottled, and served on a silver platter of Someone Else's Efforts for your express and vicarious enjoyment.
We have four days of board games to cover! Are you ready?
* * *WEDNESDAY
As my flight was early-ish in the day, I had more than enough time to check into my off-site hotel (only a brief 10 minute jaunt to the north and east, still perfectly within earshot of jet engines at all hours), return to DFW airport, secure a parking spot at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, and enter into the convention by way of awkward, wide-eyed silence. Upon registration I was assigned my badge and wristband by a pleasant BGG.CON volunteer**, cheered for after my first-timer status was confirmed, then instructed to choose several free games from a large stack of doorprizes. Then I was set loose to wander the halls and ballrooms of a bustling, excitable hive of board game hooplah-- a fate that should've been worse than death for an introvert like me.
Ah, but here's the catch. The board game hobby attracts all sorts of introverts. It's as if all the shy, shoe-gazing wallflowers of the world realized they needed a communal activity to engage in and took one look at a pile of cardboard and dice and cards, realized it was perfect for socializing without the need for excruciating icebreakers or ponderous small-talk and said "That. I'll take that." Because let's face it: in a room full of board game enthusiasts, everyone is just a little introverted. It comes with the territory. You've heard the phrase "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king," right? Well, in this case, the proverbial land is a giant convention of 3,000 board gamers, the eponymous one-eyed man is literally anyone who can muster up enough courage to say the words "Need one more player?" and the titular king is everyone at the table having a good time.
Attending a quick "First-Timers and Orphans Meet Up" in the evening, I was provided the ins and outs and various goings-on of the convention and how it operated, as well as a renewed sense of determination. Before arriving I had composed a meticulous list of all the new Essen releases and out-of-print games I wanted to try out. Now, with a sense of purpose and an eye on the Hotness section, I strode out onto the main ballroom floor and uttered a quick "Need one more player?" query, which led me quite effortlessly and pain-free to a seat around my first game of the convention:
I know What's Your Game? gets a lot of love around these parts-- and deservedly so. They've maintained their trend of producing high quality, enjoyable Euro board games that tip towards the heavy end of the spectrum whilst still feeling smooth, engaging, and enjoyable. In fact, it's difficult for me not to compare and contrast WYG? games with one another because their consistency and reputation cause their collection to feel like its own genre. When you hear that there's going to be a new WYG? game, you're safe in assuming that it'll have a very specific look, heft, and smoothness.
Railroad Revolution, I'm happy to say, continues the trend rather nicely. And while I don't count any of its predecessors in my "All Time Favorites" category, I think this one's the one I'd want to play most out of all of their titles. I love the theme, but more importantly, I love the application of the theme. I've bemoaned the opinion before, but I'll never pass up the chance to bemoan it anew: most "train games" slap a historical-looking locomotive on the cover of their box and call it a day. It pains me greatly when an otherwise good (or bad, for that matter) board game chooses the distinguished and honorable theme of choo-choo'age and then doesn't do anything with it. Railroad Revolution, at the very least, paints a distinct picture of American expansion and industry. Players race across the country laying rail lines and setting up stations in major cities, sure, but also up for grabs is a telegraph network, deals with prominent business figures, shares and investments, and building up a fleet of locomotives for bonuses and end game victory points. To be precise, all of this is casually abstracted as only a bone-dry Euro game has the power to do, but at least the theme of competitive tycoonism comes across clearly.
Drunk on power and excitement, I neglected to take a picture of my session, so I sneaked one of the next table over.
The most notable aspect of the game is its system of colored workers. While everyone has the same action spaces and starts the game with the same number of generic white worker meeples, each person can, over time, upgrade their pawns into one of four different colors, each color being placed the same like any other worker, but granting a unique benefit, bonus, or discount depending on where they go. In addition to being used for taking action spaces, these workers must also be spent permanently if one wants to make any amount of victory points on the goal cards. Hire workers, promote them to specific jobs, then task them in overseeing specific projects. Make no mistake, this is no Madeira. Railroad Revolution is relatively straightforward; on the softer side of the medium weight Euro, and I think this is a good thing. Staunchly multiplayer solitaire, there's a bit of wiggle room for interaction in who gets to what city first, but for the majority of the game, the race for points will largely be an individual endeavor.
The game that topped my list of MUST PLAYS. If I could do only one thing with my time at the convention, getting Lorenzo il Magnifico played was going to be it. There was one copy set up permanently on a table in the Hotness section and it was populated with eager participants each and every time I glanced in its general direction. And believe me, I did a lot of glancing. Luckily for me, attendance was infinitesimally less on opening day and the buzz hadn't quite spread yet, so hopping into a session with two other players was a breeze compared to the rest of the con. Boasting several notable Italian designers of respectable pedigree, Lorenzo il Magnifico is a worker placement game with three public dice that dictate the quality and power of work that can be done from round to round.
There are several things I love about Lorenzo il Magnifico. Firstly, the tight, restrictive challenge of building up a powerful point-generating engine. There are four different types of cards that can be procured from the display; not only is it a tense, nail-biting race to be the first to grab them into your tableau, but it's a tense, nail-biting race to pay an affordable price for them, to actually nab the chances to utilize them, and to not incur the wrath of the Church in doing so. While every card is guaranteed to make an appearance in every game (something I'm generally wary of in terms of variability and surprise), each game only sees three Excommunication tiles from an enormous stack of terrible possibilities, and this is where the real difference between games can happen. Similar to the Emperor track in Grand Austria Hotel (also co-designed by personal favorite Simone Luciani), players must strive to earn enough Church points in order to escape the threat of being excommunicated at the end of three of the game's very brief, very pressing six rounds. Should a player fail to reach a certain threshold, one of the three tiles will trigger and an altogether heinous punishment will follow them around for the rest of the game. And heinous is about the word for it. Simply put, you don't want to suffer excommunication. Yet, in a twist of genius, perhaps you do. Everyone has the option to ignore the Church track entirely, or, better yet, refuse to spend their precious Church points and instead climb the track even further without resetting back to zero. Each step on the track awards a player a healthy sum of points once spent, and every step forward promises an exponential increase of said points, so reaching one of the farthest caches of sweet, sweet heathen VPs may just be worth it to some in exchange for an excommunication punishment that really doesn't hinder their specific strategy.
In addition to cards that award one-time bonuses and end-game points for set collection, there are also two types of cards that can trigger whenever a player chooses to begin a Harvest or Production. The more harvest or production cards you have in your tableau, the greater the chances of them activating (based on the number of die pips linked to the color of worker you use to trigger the action). If the round sees a nice, high die roll and you use it for a Harvest, chances are you'll see every one of your cards pay off for you-- an incredibly satisfying domino effect of card after card providing resources and opportunities to exchange stockpiles for points or money. Naturally, jockeying for these powerful spots is an intricate game of Chicken. Race to trigger them early and miss out on several turns of gathering even more cards that could've triggered, too. Spend some time building up your engine even more, and you might find that your chance to put them to good use has been sniped by a rival opportunist.
Loved, too, were the Voyages of Marco Polo-esque character cards, four drafted at the beginning of the game, each requiring a certain number of certain resources and cards in order to activate, then rewarding the player with a powerful, unique benefit for the rest of the game. Are they balanced? Sure doesn't seem like it. Is it going to feel like your opponents' have way better character powers than you? Always. Will you want to play with them regardless of these things? Of course. You can always spend an unused character card for a quick pay out of goods which can make or break you due to that addictive "never have enough of anything" element, but more often than not you'll strive to keep them for their incredible abilities. I mean, who doesn't want a steady income of free resources, or a way to earn an extra point on top of whatever points you manage? They can win or lose your game simply by existing.
This one play would sadly be my only play throughout the duration of BGG.CON. Every time I went looking for one of the three copies in the BGG Library, they were hopelessly checked out, and the Hotness table seemed to have a never-ending stream of hopefuls either playing or circling like vultures. It's for the best, I suppose. I would've felt just a little guilty fattening up on a second or third play whilst others were reduced to looking on like emaciated extras from Oliver!.
Feeling sated with two new games under my belt and the clock ticking towards 1AM, I decided to call it a night and return to my hotel. And while many of you will be balking at the very thought of such an early retirement, I must now level with my readers and admit, without embarrassment, without shame, that I am very much not a night owl. I just can't do it. My brain switches to a Power Saving Mode around the 1 to 2AM timeframe, and I'm absolutely worthless when it comes to figuring victory points or future moves. Plus, as I was soon to learn, getting a good night's sleep and arriving early each day afforded a wonderfully peaceful playing space with lots of unique opportunities alongside some very lovely individuals. But I'm getting ahead of myself.THURSDAY
I returned bright-eyed and only slightly terrified a second time, the first full day of the convention. Thursday morning marked the official opening of the exhibition halls to the public, so I sat in line for a little while and exchanged pleasantries with fellow queuers.*** After navigating the jouncing, jostling arms and elbows surrounding countless vendor booths, I hightailed it back to the BGG Library, where games were in blessed surplus, and, more importantly, absolutely FREE. It was here I happened upon a small but significant stack of Key games, half of which boasted an estimated worth that could've sent a student through college back in 1975. Knowing that I would never be able to afford a copy of the highly elusive, nigh-legendary Key Market, I checked it out for several hours and proceeded to set up camp at a table in the main ballroom, reading the rulebook and hoping perhaps a little too visibly that I wouldn't be stuck in this fretful, elementary school lunchtime loner bubble for long. And then, miracle of miracles, not three or four moments after I had set down the rulebook and erected a PLAYERS WANTED sign****, I heard a voice from above, speaking those four beautiful, disburdening words: "Still need some people?"
Despite its impressive reputation as being a "Grail Game" for many collectors, Key Market is actually quite a fun, solid little game in and of itself. My biggest fear was that it'd end up being so amazing that I would be obliged to go seek it out and spend the $10,000 people seem to love charging for it nowadays-- and while it's certainly a very enjoyable experience, I'm also quite content in simply standing by and hoping for a reprint some day. A Keyprint, as it were.
Key Market is a worker placement game where your little keybeians are sent out to tend the land and produce any number of different resources (keysources): vegetables, livestock, and luxuries (luxurkeys, obvs). Once your agrikeyturists move around the square grids and supply you with your goods, the game goes merkeyntile and switches over to the market phase, where players choose to sell said goods for profit when the price and demand is high, as well as buy up other resources when the market gets flooded and costs nosedive. It's your good ol' Law of Supply and Keymand. On top of this, there are a number of advantageous guilds where you can sponsor young keydets in order to benefit from their various rule-bending advantages (Oh, I dunno. Uhh, 'key assets', I guess). Different seasons--keysons--will affect the production of certain goods, and workers remaining in the fields will cost players money for proper remunkeyration. As always, preparation and forethought is key.
In keyclusion, Key Market keys in on keyrful planning of keypital and human keysources, plus other fun things I couldn't quite fit "key" into.
I was very hopeful for this one for two reasons. One, that I so enjoy a good train theme, as stated above, and two, that I thought Russian Railroads, while a perfectly good game with smooth and solid mechanics, utterly whizzed the thematic opportunity down its impersonal and soulless leg. Why, then, wouldn't I be excited for a card drafting version of the game wherein you actually constructed not one but TWO trains as well as a rail line out of cards? Instead of random wooden bits that you shoved mindlessly along a train track because you were told to, there were little conductor meeples that you moved along each train car because that's what conductors do! Instead of an exponential landslide of joyless number crunching, the scoring was quick and simple! How could I lose? The game sounded like it contained multiple improvements on every small gripe I had about its predecessor.
And I must say it is a very good game. It feels fast, yet offers significant challenges and decisions, has familiar aspects, yet includes enough variation and departures from the original to exist on its own. I love the race to secure a locomotive on each of your trains, as well as the domino effect of scoring stops on an established railroad. I like the conductor unlocking more and more train cars to be worth victory points. I like the thrill of drafting cards amongst players. I like just about everything about First Class except for its set up. When I hear ": The Card Game," I assume it should be easier to set up than its predecessor. First Class requires stacks upon stacks of different cards, shuffling of some, specific ordering of others, grids and piles and lines depending on any number of factors and card backs, all of which detract from an otherwise seamless game. This is the sort of game that screams out for a good organizer insert. And until I can be guaranteed that set up and breakdown won't take longer than an entire round of the game or hog 3/4ths of my entire dining room table, I probably won't be adding it to my collection. Which is a shame, because I'd happily play this over many train games on offer.
I don't know why you'd want cats in your flower beds. All the cats that visit my garden use it as their own personal litterbox. Cat poops everywhere. Why would cat poops facilitate victory points? Cat poops facilitate nothing but rage from me. The kind of rage that comes with putting yourself out there and having your hard work promptly and nightly beshat upon. If anything, I want to cover up cats with flower tiles. I want to imagine that I'm burying the neighbors' little plant-destroying, poop-filled monsters alive. Mr. Rosenberg, please update the game to reflect this sentiment in your next expansion. Also, please do something about my squirrel problem, too. They're even worse than the poopy cats.
Anyway, Cottage Garden is a tile-laying game set in a futuristic utopia where apparently the presence of poopless, genetically-modified cat androids is seen as a good thing to have lazing about in flower beds. In addition to taking polyomino style tile shapes and fitting them diligently into one of two square garden grids, players must find a way to fit their flowers around various terra cotta pots and plant covers that are pre-printed on the boards-- each one of these left uncovered during scoring will grant you the points you need to win the game. Every turn sees the gardener (a die whose pips also double as the round counter) move one step forward, Maori-style, dictating which column or row of flower shapes is available to the current player. Once one of the player's garden grids is filled, it's immediately scored and flipped to the opposite side for other players to take in the future. With separate scoring tracks for pots and plant covers plus 3 counters for each, a player must decide how to distribute his or her score to most efficiently earn points. Timing is everything, as the final round requires players to dock themselves -2 for every additional turn they must take before completing their final bed.
I really enjoyed Cottage Garden. It plays surprisingly fast and doesn't overstay its welcome for the relatively light weight that it is. To call it "multiplayer Patchwork" (as I was wont to do when it was first announced) would be to discount both games; each one has its unique challenges and perks to playing. Had I not just recently fallen head over heels for the similar puzzling aspects in A Feast for Odin, I'd be more than happy to add this to my collection, but as it stands, I think I'm perfectly content to get my Tetris-y fix via hungry, hoarding Vikings. At least for now.
It's Great Western Trail! A game I knew very little about, but didn't need to to know I definitely wanted to play it. These days say the name "Alexander Pfister" and you will have my attention-- add "wild west theme" to those words and you will have me sitting straight in my chair with hands folded expectantly. While our game started out somewhat lopsided and lumpy with a rough rules explanation, things slowly evened out after a few turns and we were all up to speed in no time. I was surprised to find an intriguing deck-building element buried at its core, with cattle cards added, drawn, and discarded for money and end-game points. Players follow a many-forked path leading towards Kansas City with public and private buildings all along the way. Once someone reaches Kansas City, he or she must sell the cattle currently in their hand and start once more at the beginning of the trail. It's a rinse and repeat process as the game progresses, with more and more of its in-between locations emerging and offering more and more ways to refine, cull, sell, and bolster a player's deck of cattle.
With very little or outright wrong expectations going into this one, Great Western Trail proved to be a hit for me. Perhaps I need to misinform myself more often! I had no idea that cattle cards would be kept forever once purchased, which drives (ha ha cattle drives) a very important emphasis on being able to alter your card draws and time your arrival in Kansas City just right. While I focused mainly on pushing my train (TRAINS!) along the upper track in order to lower my shipping costs and grab up bonus chits first, I found that getting beat to the higher quality cattle cards kept my hand lean (but marbled) with nothing but quality 3 cows. Other players went heavy into the finer stock, plumping up their decks with 4s and 5s and having no problem when it came time to send their cattle farther along to higher scoring cities like San Francisco.
I'm not going to comment on the weird ape-people on the box cover I'm not going to comment on the weird ape-people on the box cover I'm not going to comment on the HAVE I MENTIONED I LOVE THE BOARD ART?? I think it's really lovely and quite functional at the same time. And while I think Stronghold Games should be publicly flogged for stooping to such low standards as flimsy cardstock player mats (one of the 7 Major Board Game Sins, for sure!), the rest of the components are a treat. Great Western Trail is a not going to comment on the weird ape-people on the box cover I'm not going comment on the weird ape-people on great game, and I'm already looking forward to playing it again in the near future. Long live Pfister!
With Thursday already an hour or two behind me and a handful of pleasant experiences drowsily securing spots in my long-term memory banks, I waved the white flag of exhaustion and drove back to homebase, where starchy sheets and an inexhaustible supply of ice machine sounds and plane take-offs awaited my tired brain. There would be yet more bits and bobs to move about, more dice rolls to resent, rulebooks to reference, bananas from the continental breakfast to smuggle in for afternoon blood sugar spikes. Thursday's battle had been won, but the war still raged on.FRIDAY
I arose bright and early once again, with the incessant awareness of Past Guests' Presences (and the psychological horrors they instilled) working as a wake-up call whether I liked it or not. With some effort I put towel use frequency and shower head shortcomings out of mind and quitted the premises with all amounts of haste and heady anticipation, returning to the fray and finding a ballroom half-full and sprinkled with fellow early-risers as well as... wait, is that? Surely, it couldn't be...
Why, yes, there, sitting by his lonesome with a PLAYERS WANTED sign was none other than Mr. Ted Alspach, of Bezier Games fame, designer of Suburbia, Castles of Mad King Ludwig, et al! Curiously, there was no discernible board game near him, but instead several see-through Ziploc baggies of things that were both foreign-looking and familiar, aesthetically recognizable yet geometrically opposed to what I was used to seeing from Bezier. After politely sitting through my thoroughly awkward introduction, Mr. Alspach asked if I would like to try a prototype he was working on.
Why, yes. Yes, I would.
And so I did. Not knowing the proper etiquette for discussing matters such as these on INTERNET, I will sadly choose not to do so for fear of revealing sensitive or propagating outright incorrect information. What I can say (I think) is that I enjoyed it very much and hope it sees the light of day. And that it was great fun to be included in the top-secret process of prototyping. And that I'm sorry if I kept shouting "DRIER!! LESS FUN! MAKE IT ABOUT PEASANTS AND STARVATION!" at you when you asked for feedback, Ted. We are on a first-name basis now, right? Have you given any more thought about that invitation to my cousin's wedding?
Up next is Honshu, a trick-taking card game that uses a similar patching mechanic to that of Patchistory, but with the express benefit of not having to play the other parts of Patchistory. I checked out a copy from the BGG Library and walked the aisles of the main ballroom to secure a table, only to overhear a couple behind me ask a young woman if she had half an hour free to help them play Honshu. Our forces combined, we cracked out a session in the allotted time frame; a living testament to the fact that one should always eavesdrop and then creepily insert oneself into the conversation should it pertain to one's personal interests. It works! Especially if the conversation happens to be about board games and one is at a board game playing event.
Honshu is a terrific filler which distills down several elements I enjoy. First and foremost, the brilliant card "patching" mechanic, which forces a player to tuck or cover one card over the top or underneath existing cards in his or her tableau. Next, the cube resource generation and allotment for end-game points ala King of Frontier or Walnut Grove. And finally, never having played a trick-taking game before (gasp!), I ended up enjoying its implementation quite handily. In player order, each person plays down a card from their hand, but depending on each number printed on the cards, a new player order takes place before these cards are actually drafted and used. This means you can play out a card from your hand that you think will suit your purposes nicely, but decide instead (or get left with) someone else's card that works better for you in the long run. In addition to playing a high-numbered card and hoping to be able to pick first, players may instead play any numbered card they wish with a resource cube from their supply; this adds 60 to the card's original value. The first player to do this dictates the color all others must use that round, which means player order--both pre- or post-card play--will always be important.
All of these elements work very nicely together, and the key to it all is Honshu's blazingly fast play time. If everyone knows the rules, turns and rounds can go by in the blink of an eye, yet the challenges of slipping the right cards on, over, or under is still very much there. Honshu doesn't try to juggle any more than it should and delivers exactly what it sets out to provide-- the hallmark of an exceptional filler game.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Round House, sleeper hit of BGG.CON '16. This was near the top of my MUST PLAY list, to be sure, but little did I know just how enjoyable I'd find it to be. Last year's Burano, who shares one of its designers with Round House, was also a hit for me, but it remains a game that necessitates constant rulebook glances. As much as I loved the cube-building aspects, its mid-round scoring never quite stuck in my brain. I wouldn't go so far as to call it clunky, but it wasn't nearly as intuitive or memorable as I wish it could be. Round House, by contrast, takes a couple of aspects from Burano (such as the Laceworks grid and positioning of workers for points) and elevates them to greatness, whilst adding in more greatness in the form of GIANT DOUBLE ROUNDELS, CONTRACTS!, and TRIGGER-YOUR-OWN-SCORING.
Round House is, true to its name, a big, round house with two concentric rings of actions to choose from. Players control two pawns and can, during their turn, move any one of them up to three spaces in a clockwise order. Neither pawn is beholden to just one rondel-- either one can hop up and down between both rings in a zig-zag path, or focus on just one for a quicker revolution. Once one of the leader pawns reaches the "finish line," a personal scoring opportunity triggers for the player. And this is just one of the aspects of Round House that really shines. Players always have the option to take their time and multiple turns with both pawns, utilizing lots of actions and readying themselves for a huge influx of points when they finally reach the finish line, or, alternatively, they can race around the ring(s) as quickly as they want with just one pawn, triggering multiple scoring opportunities for fewer but more frequent points (which can also rush the round marker and thus shorten the game considerably). During these turns, assistant discs will be placed out into villages that line the perimeter of the board. Getting these assistants in one village is key, as the scoring opportunity requires a player to collect all of the discs from one village and place them in one contiguous line onto the scoring grid. The more assistant discs you have to work with, the farther down and inward you can create your line, giving bigger and better bonuses as well as sums of victory points.
This brings us to the second brilliant aspect of Round House: the order cards. Order cards are, in effect, contracts that can be fulfilled for end game points. After spending the requisite resources/money to flip them over, each order card also provides its user with an ongoing bonus for the rest of the game, giving an extra point whenever points are earned, extra coin when money is made, resource cubes when resource cubes are collected, etc. Having more and more of these completed contracts builds a beautiful and more efficient engine as time goes on, but the real twist is that new order cards can only be taken once a player passes certain marks on the score track. If you want lots and lots of order cards, lots and lots of points must be scored first, which makes reaching that finish line and triggering the scoring procedure throughout the game that much more important.
Also present are expert cards, which are often one-time bonuses that can be spent at the beginning of a turn, but sometimes can be used every turn if specific, matching amulet tokens are matched and collected. Previously mentioned assistant discs must first be hired before they can be used, but after a scoring phase can also be retired to the center of the board, permanently placed into chairs around the inner rondel. Once here, a retired assistant will remain for the rest of the game and grant its player an extra action on the action space it's closest to. Everything in Round House equates to building bigger and better efficiencies, getting more for less, and timing the production of victory points to best suit your goals. Despite its slightly confusing iconography and rulebook (plus the game board that is the exact size of the game box and refuses to fall out unless shaken upside down vigorously), the game itself runs buttery smooth once things can be properly digested. And hey, there's no better trust exercise than three new acquaintances poring over rules and set up together. Making sense of semantics and Mandarin(?) symbols makes for a great ice breaker, forges alliances, strengthens bonds. What does it all mean?! Could it be any less specific?! I swear I've seen that symbol before! I've said it before, and I'll say it again. There is nothing so unifying as the shared outrage of strangers.
Not technically new, but new to me! Auctions in board games are a funny thing. Generally speaking, I hate them. Despise them. And yet, when a game comes along and does something interesting with an auction, I tend to end up loving it. Keyflower is a perfect example, and now, most recently, Medici enters the ranks. The thing about Medici is its startling simplicity and deceptive depth— it's a modern classic for a reason. It teaches fast and plays so, too. Its auctions use points for currency and are only once around the table, so no tiresome back and forth bidding wars can arise. It's straight up one single chance to affix worth to a lot and then the results are tallied, the winner taking one, two, or three cards into their boat hold. From the rules alone, one might be tempted to write off Medici as dull, or overly straightforward with not enough to back it up, but in play the subtleties and intricacies of the other players, card count, and past rounds all come flooding into practice, creating a rich, tense, and complex tapestry of decision and choice. If that sounds infuriatingly vague to you, then welcome to the club. It took forever for me to come around to the idea of trying Medici, because when explained, it just doesn't sound all that amazing. On it's surface, it's nothing more than a series of auctions for a series of cards for a series of chances to score points. If you're predisposed to hating auctions, then of course it's not going to appeal to you on paper. But play the game, trust me. Medici is a cheeky classic; it defies description. Just try it once. You'll get what I mean.
Every once in awhile I'll play a game that's so streamlined, so elegant in its simplicity that I find myself wondering "Why was this not already designed 20 years ago?" Fuji Flush feels like an old card game. A favorite from childhood, the kind you used to play with your siblings or that one uncle who had a gambling problem. It feels like it could've been right up there with Uno or War or Slapjack. The difference is that Fuji Flush is comes off as classier than those games— cleaner, cleverer. It's unfortunate that the name does nothing to instill confidence or intrigue; I'll be the first to admit that I saw the little box and its title and mentally pshaw'd its very existence. I kept on pshaw'ing right up through the rules explanation, which was deftly performed by the inimitable Rodney Smith from the Watch It Played! webseries (except he wasn't on my laptop screen but right in front of me in person with a whole entourage of board game buddies). I was pushing pshaw after pshaw around in my head all the way up to the third or fourth go around, when all at once it finally clicked and it started being fun. Really fun. And silly. And by the time it was over I was ready to try it again. And again. And then purchase a copy and bring it home to the family for Thanksgiving. Fuji Flush has fewer rules than its filler brethren and yet somehow manages to produce twice as much fun in half the time. Once again, this is the sort of game that belongs in the Depends On Who Ya Play It With camp, as boisterous couples prone to smack talk and charismatic card hustlers tipsy on tequila will often elect to add their own brand of entertainment into the mix (none of which is strictly unwelcome, all things considered).
When it rains, it pours, so they say. Or, more appropriately: you either never play trick-taking games ever, or you play two in one day. Trick of the Rails joins the trundling procession of train-themed games played at BGG.CON, apparently quite the popular theme this year (but when is it ever not?). This time it's veteran designer Hisashi Hayashi shoveling coal into a boiler, whose track (ha ha train track) record is as solid and respectable as ever, at least in my books. Unfortunately, my complete and utter inexperience with trick-taking games caught up with me, and I had a terrible go of it trying to keep things straight and orderly. Luckily, a friendly fellow also uncertain in the world of taking tricks agreed to team up with me, and between the two of us we managed to keep afloat. We even tied for last place! How's that for a solid victory?***** There just seems to be something with the genre that doesn't quite coagulate into sensible understanding in my brain-mind, so the experience never really succeeds in entertaining. All I remember is that the the tricks alternate between buying shares and laying track on one of X number of rail lines, and there might've been something to do with choosing locomotive cards to go on specific lines that you have a lot of shares in, so as to make money and thus do better than our two-man team of befuddlement managed to do. It did not help to hear our rules teacher continually claim that Trick of the Rails was "about the purest form of an 18xx game as you can get," which, I can only assume is what the kids these days are slanging instead of "Groovy," and "Far out!" and "Down with that pesky Nixon administration!" Don't get me wrong. Trick of the Rails wasn't bad, it just isn't my cup of tea, apparently. Or rather, I went to take a sip of it and spat it out because it turned out to be several fingers of whiskey? Gosh, there's got to be a better, more thematically appropriate analogy in there somewhere, but I've completely lost my train of thought.
After the intoxicating funk of confusion lifted, we pressed ever onward into the great mists of Card Game Versions of Board Games. Next on the docket was Camel Up Cards, which is, as the name might suggest, a card game version of Die Macher. I've played the original Camel Up precisely once and was so swept up in a great cloud of bewilderment (Trick of the Rails style) that I couldn't possibly tell you all the differences, similarities, pros, and cons between the two games. Suffice to say, I heartily enjoyed my time with Camel Up Cards. At first blush, it feels less... how shall I say?... chaotic?, due to their being a pile of camel movement cards communally created by all of the players instead of a strange, shaky pyramid full of mercurial dice. This, to me, is neither better nor worse. Just different, and equally enjoyable. There's still quite a lot of chaos and uncertainty in the camels' movement simply by the nature of other players and their whims. You can still bet on certain colors of camels for first, last, or second place; the sooner you bet with less information revealed, the better the pay out. There are two movement impediment/boosts in the form of a fennec fox and a palm tree, as every schoolgirl and schoolboy knows it to be scientific fact that not only do camels prefer to stack on top of each other whilst racing, but sandstorms make you go farther, faster, and the Hyphaene coriacea can be utilized as a makeshift catapult, capable of launching a full-grown ungulate several dozen feet through the air.
Another new fricative-filled Freidemann Friese game for 2016. Friese is well-known for introducing novel new gimmicks into his games and I am well-known for not really giving much of a fig for them. There, I said it. When 504 came out, it sounded more like a snarky graduate thesis on the current state of board games than an actual board game I'd ever want to try myself. I have nothing against the man or his designs— indeed, I welcome any attempts at groundbreaking mechanisms and/or new and unusual experiments that shake up the status quo. And while I was slightly more interested in the idea of a "Fable" game than I was with a "Generic Dollar Store Brand Euro Pick 'n' Mix" simulator, I still went in with serious reservations. Yes, my prejudices very much colored my experience with Fabled Fruit, and yes, I only played 1.25 games of a system that is said to really come alive after many multiple sessions. This is why you really shouldn't be listening to my opinion on this one. Heck, why any of you read my opinions on anything is beyond my comprehension. What is wrong with you? Don't you have a game of Power Grid to go play with loved ones? Scat! Shoo! Go math out some scores someplace else!
Alright. Now that we've rid the room of all the diehard Friese fans, I'll go ahead and continue dispensing my worthless opinions, free of charge. The truth of the matter is I found Fabled Fruit to be "OK." I could see how later plays could get more and more involved, increasingly complex, and subsequently much, much more enjoyable than the first few "rounds" or "eras" or fables" or whatever it is they're calling sessions in this system. The general idea being that players start with the same four or five piles of cards/actions, and, as the games and goals progress, more and more unique piles emerge, slowly opening up the playing field to a growing and varied number of options. As some piles deplete (get flipped over for victory points after resources are spent), more piles appear, and the whole action landscape evolves over time, cutting off previous actions and opening up whole new avenues in the process. I spied a lot of cards still left in the box, waiting to come out—and I mean a lot—so the premise certainly has the time and potential to pay off. In the end, that's where I'd leave my opinion on Fabled Fruit: it has potential. It's the kind of starry-eyed waif on the mean streets of Hollywood that you (as a cigar-sucking entertainment mogul, naturally) might want to pull your limo up alongside and declare "Kid, I like yer look. Ya got moxie. Come wit me an'I'll make ya a star!"
I'll let you in on a little secret: I'm terrible at drafting games. Just miserable. 7 Wonders, Sushi Go!, Between Two Cities. You pick and pass it, and I'm terrible at it. That doesn't always mean I dislike drafting games. In fact, I've gotten used to bombing at them over the years and will just as happily play them as any other genre I genuinely enjoy. Richard Garfield's Treasure Hunter is straight up drafting. And it came as no surprise that I am straight up awful at it. There's a neat little element of attempting to end up with the most of a certain suit of cards as well as attempting to have the least of another, which makes for all sorts of second-guessing and looks of suspicion amongst players. I appreciated that mechanism after I got over the fact that I was going to lose no matter what. I ended up playing with some very friendly Cool Mini Or Not employees, and it was harder for me to not beg them for an advance copy of Lorenzo il Magnifico than it was to come to terms with my inevitable last place loss. Heck, I didn't mind playing it, but I also didn't mind when someone accidentally spilled coffee all over the table and we packed it up early. You win some, you lose some. You get mocha latte on some.
And so, with senses reeling in fatigue and fingers smelling faintly of Starbucks, I looked at my watch and bid adieu to the current company I found myself in, with every intent to head for quieter climes and snoozier, more horizontal positions. I think I even did a "Wehlp, I s'pose" whilst heaving myself upwards out of my chair, which, as I had to explain to the Canadians, is the ageless Midwestern ritual of initiating polite disembarkation from the fraternization of others. Of course, the Canadians weren't listening or even present to hear it, as it turns out they had already gone off to play more games and I was actually just talking to a half-empty water cooler that I had mistaken for human beings. I told you my brain is good for nothing after 1AM.SATURDAY
Then it was Saturday morning. I'm still not entirely sure how it happened. Probably something to do with the Earth's rotation or science or something, but it seemed much too soon. The crowds of board game enthusiasts in and around the DFW Hyatt Regency had gradually been growing in numbers ever since the convention kicked off on Wednesday, and Saturday's head count reflected this upward trend in spades. Upon arriving the fourth and final time, I was greeted with an early morning buzz that equaled a Thursday or Friday afternoon's worth of activity, especially so just outside of the Innovation Ballroom,****** where lines were already forming for the long-awaited Board Game Bazaar. The Bazaar was an hour-long celebration of the second-, third-, and fourth-hand market, dozens of board game businessmen and women setting up tables and stalls piled high with excess stock, all of which were affixed with stickers, Post-It notes, and other such adhesive tags boasting prices from Great Deal! to You Must Be Joking. What ensued was a sardine tin cacophony of rabid perusal, frantic shuffling, accidental contact both gentle and immodest, carnival barker shouting, and mad haggling over trivial amounts. Personal bubbles were shattered into oblivion as what seemed like hundreds of deal hunters swam upstream and sidestream and every which direction but the right way, defying physics and ignoring at least half a dozen fire codes. At around minute 30 of partaking in this physical pandemonium, the warm, frantic, fleshy bumps and mumbled pardons got to be a little too much for me (plus the whole act of craning this way and that to peer over shoulders and scalps for a chance to find a holy grail or two proved fruitless (yet ever so thrilling)), and so I squeezed my way free and rid myself of the criss-crossed conga lines of wheeling and dealing. Was it overwhelming? In every sense of the word. Would I do it again? You bet.
After confirming that I had made it out of the Bazaar with all of my limbs (and budget) intact, I set up a table with a copy of Capital, Essen's latest city-building themed board game, and one of the few remaining titles left unplayed on my laundry list. Within minutes a quiet couple from Utah introduced themselves and made their interests known, and off we went, into the annals of Polish history, as we each created and recreated a 3x4/4x3 district of Warsaw throughout 6 epochs. The game itself is a straightforward one, tile drafting and laying over multiple rounds, with your standard city sectors in place: arranging parks, residential, commercial, landmarks, public transport, and cultural areas so they are best adjacent to score in relation to one another. The unique element in Capital is the overbuilding option, which allows a player to build on top of existing tiles, not only saving space but cost as well. In the middle of the game, the ravages of World Wars I and II are represented by removing several tiles from play, and at the end of each epoch, a special landmark tile is awarded to the player who has best fulfilled its special scoring conditions. Capital plays out easy and breezy, but is still crammed full of weighty decisions. Placing tiles best suited in your own district is just as important as deciding whether or not to give away that one tile to your neighbor who stands to profit from it more than anyone else.
Starting out strong, my brain then quickly remembered it was supposed to be complete pants at drafting games and redirected course, coming in dead last once all was said and done. Even after such an ignominious defeat, I enjoyed my time with Capital. A perfect candidate to introduce new players to the drafting and tile-laying genres. I really like and appreciate the unique contemporary Polish theme, and think I'll return to this one before I return to other city-building games of the same weight.
By this point I'd weathered approximately 3 days of semi-solid gaming, and the outside world was calling me. I'd made a point to rent a car, on the off-chance I wanted to skip a day or two and go exploring around the Dallas area, and now was my one remaining opportunity to make good on the idea. The ballroom was filling to its brim with weekend gamers, so I had no regrets in slipping away for several hours to drive around the downtown area and do the tourist thang.
When in a new city, I always make it a point to visit its art museum, if applicable, and Dallas was no different. Art museums put me at ease. I love meandering the halls and feeling cultured and uncramped, taking poorly lit cell phone snaps of those specific works which spark some sort of inspiriting first impression in me. I love to feel electrified at a glance, struck dumb, or amused, or awed by the efforts of artists still alive and long-since dead. To me, art museums are wonderfully calm, soporific drifts through history with brief little bursts of emotion; you never know what flavor of opinion your brain will display around the next corner. Teary-eyed reverence, awkward shock, a revivified crusade against obvious bullshittery. It's art, which means every outburst, be it positive or negative, is valid.
The DMA (or Dallas Museum of Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco, as I can only assume the acronym stands for) has an impressive collection of all of these things-- American, European, African, and Asian works of inscrutable sculpture, contemporary photography, and masterful painting, displayed with painstaking pride to induce whatever mood or sentiment you choose.
And the best part of all, it's completely free! Well, apart from the 12 dollar parking ramp. But can you really put a price tag on culture?*******
ONE LAST HURRAH
A quick stop for sustenance (this time food-based) and then back, back into the swirling depths of people and gameplay, the ballroom now bursting at its seams with Saturday activity. Having long since given up hope on getting another go at Lorenzo il Magnifico, I instead set my sights on maintaining the day's Polish roots, sitting down to a session of
Oh my goodness, it's cute. Go ahead, look up some pictures of Dream Home and see how cute it is, I'll wait. Cute, cute, cute. Isn't it darling? Dream Home has about three adorable little rules to it and then you're well on your way to placing rooms and winning the game. It doesn't matter if you lose, because everyone wins with cuteness. Gosh, it's cute. What's the game about? Houses or rooms or something. Doesn't matter. Look how precious it is! Pinch its cheeks! Engage in some baby talk! Then play again! So cute!
The closing ceremonies and raffle began in the early evening, piles of free games administered in excess and very much by chance, eliciting cries of delight and groans of misfortune every time a ticket number was called. With this over and done with, I made the executive decision to end my time at BGG.CON, feeling comfortably nourished with my experience and eager to return to a life less jam-packed with people in every cardinal direction. I can say in all honesty and with sincere conscience that I thoroughly enjoyed my first BGG.CON. The people, while plentiful, were kind and genuine, not a single sour apple in the lot I happened across. The board game hobby tends to attract a very specific subsection of the human race, and it warms my heart to know that that very specific subsection contains some of the loveliest, warmest personalities I have ever had the distinct pleasure of meeting. Board gamers are often frighteningly intelligent yet down-to-earth, cordial yet rarely condescending, loyal yet all-inclusive. What other hobby has such a proliferation of kind-hearted, considerate people that solid impasses of politesse frequently break out? I doubt big game hunters spend several hours dancing around the decision of which animal to go shoot.********
To recap my brief but dense few days at the con:
• I didn't not enjoy a single game I got played, which perhaps says something about the stock of games that came out this year.
• PLAYERS WANTED signs are the best invention since sliced bread.
• Smuggled bananas from past continental breakfasts taste pretty good around 2-3PM.
• Obscure jokes and references aren't so obscure when your entire audience has the whole of BGG (and most of INTERNET) memorized. Some of your audience may even laugh.
• The diversity of attendees is delightfully vast. I played with men and women young and old, jolly Ernest Borgnine lookalikes and winsome Ellen Page dead ringers. Couples, singles, groups, sects, clubs, spouses, divorcees, empty nesters, young parents, coworkers, and complete strangers.
• Despite board gaming being the perfect poster child for the old adage "Never judge a book by its cover" (yes, even more so than books themselves), I was still pleasantly surprised by several titles in particular. Highlights of the con go to Lorenzo il Magnifico, Round House, and Fuji Flush.
• A careful balancing of board games and time away from board games is the key to a safe, healthy convention experience. I bought a copy of Mondrian: The Dice Game, then went out and saw several Mondrians at the DMA. Now that's a satisfying balance!
• If you are considering attending a convention but are unsure of how your perceived social shortcomings may impact possible enjoyment, don't be. Try it out, go for it. If I can do it, so can you. Unless your social anxieties cause you to weep blood and punch strangers at the first mention of Stefan Feld. Or if you hate fun. Then you'll probably want to stay home.
* * *
Well, that just about does it. I am very much looking forward to returning to my local gaming groups to play this year's latest offerings as they slowly make their way to the US market.********* Dallas was a blast, but there's no place like home. And a quiet night in. In fact, I think I'll go have one right now.
Until next time, happy games!
*Said recuperation includes but is not limited to: spending large amounts of time standing alone in a safe, dark corner, ruminating dolefully on Every Imaginable Hypothetical, cursing numerous occasions of l'esprit de l'escalier, marveling at the curious scents and odors of home before becoming noseblind to it once more, and being glad of the welcome ability to vacate one's bowels in the comfort and recognition of one's own toilet bowl.
**BGG.CON volunteers are a hardworking and dedicated breed of board gamer. They shed their blood, sweat, and tears to providing people like me with a wondrous experience filled with awe and hours of enjoyment. Considering just how many bodily fluids they expel in this effort, it's a wonder the place isn't awash with cast off perspiration, puddles of salt water, and streaks of dried blood, but hey, that just shows you how much they care and how hard they work!
***Lo and behold, it was one of these fine folks who was the only one to audibly recognize the bearded avatar on my badge†, proffering a tentative "...That Hayes?" which, I must admit, caught me entirely off-guard. Once his intentions were clarified, I congratulated the fellow for not only bringing dear Rutherford B Hayes (our beloved and most nineteenthiest U.S. president) into casual conversation, but regaling me with several more facts about his presidency and election‡ as effortlessly as if he were talking about his pet cat or a line of dialogue from that one movie about wars taking place amidst stars. It was at this moment that I knew I was, much like when at a franchised Olive Garden establishment, with family; I had found "my people."
****And now to explain the most ingenious contribution to mankind that BoardGameGeek has ever presented, apart, of course, for that whole being the be-all end-all of board game information for thousands of users, obviously. Sitting at stations around the perimeter of the playing areas were prominent wooden dowels with laminated signs attached to them, free to use by anyone and everyone. Setting one of these flags at the end of a table alerted everyone within the vicinity that the person or persons seated were looking for more players to play with or a teacher to come explain their game of choice. Again, in the land of the blind, these signs were like Braille-imprinted instructions on how to win a million dollars. Or, y'know, get a game played without feeling like a total social dunce. So beautiful in their simplicity, so passive-aggressively courteous they were in their charm and assertiveness that, frankly, it still boggles my mind. Instead of wandering aimlessly through a vast and foreboding sea of tables, game boxes, and players avoiding eye contact, one could march proudly through throngs with head held high, eyeing each of these occasional beacons and the games sitting next to them, scanning for familiar titles or exciting new discoveries with the imagined redness and accuracy of a T-800 Terminator unit, until one such flag pricked your particular fancy, swooping in and offering your valued presence/warm body for any number of possible games to partake in. It was inspired. It was painless. And it saved my fragile ego from shattering quite a few number of times.
*****Bad. The answer is "bad."
******I never did get a final tally on the number of "ballrooms" within the Hyatt Regency. It seemed like just about every event took place in a different one. There was the main ballroom, a playing area of humbling immensity, filled with table after table of gamers running the gamut of lost in thought to utterly blissed out. Then there was the Innovation ballroom, which held Saturday's aforementioned orgy of mercantilism known as the Board Game Bazaar. I also stumbled upon twelve other ballrooms all tucked away in the labyrinthine bowels of the con, ranging from the Judge Fallow-Corinthian ballroom, which was hosting some sort of meeple eating contest, to a heretofore unnamed ballroom that was filled with candles, incense, and hooded individuals all crowded around what appeared to be a cardboard effigy of Martin Wallace. I think it might've been the 18xx area.
*******Yep! It's $194.95 in the gift shoppe.
********"Well, I mean... I wouldn't mind going after a rhino this time... butofcourseonlyifeveryoneelsewantsto! It's totally up to you guys.
*********Okay, now it just looks like I'm using really big words to cuss.
† My name badge was just one of many instances where attempted cleverness blew up in my face. Instead of the long A symbol with which I adorn my online moniker (for purposes of addressing both parties who know me either as Nat or Nate), the A in this case was erroneously rendered with a severely Scandinavian umlaut. On top of this, all letters were printed in uncial brusqueness, declaring me to be, without regard to personal feelings or fears, NÄT; doubtless causing numerous passersby to wonder why there was a sentient IKEA installation skulking about the halls.
‡ None of which I didn't already know, mind you.
- [+] Dice rolls
On a Tenuous Resuming of Tradition, the Long and the Short Of It & Pretending That Nothing's Happened
07 Nov 2016
Now. Where were we? We were talking about board games, that much I know. The last thing I remember was an engrossing discussion on Rosenbergian debt strategies and then a short, sharp pain on the back of my skull. Now it's three months later, Essen has come and gone, and some number listed as 'JOEY PANTS (DON'T BELIEVE HIS LIES)' won't stop calling my cell.
The strangest part of it all is that I have memories. Memories of playing games all throughout my alleged absence. Memories of lots of games. So many games it makes me sick with apathy just thinking of talking about them all in one blog post. Really, there's only one thing for it. I shall swallow my bile, put a bag of ice on my throbbing head, and make a list. Something tells me I should probably tattoo said list onto various parts of my body for easy reference, but what if I have a job interview tomorrow? Somebody told me tattoos are job interview suicide, especially if they consist of MYSTIC VALE - 1 PLAY stippled across my forehead.
Are you ready? We're going to go fast.
Another chapter in the Quest for the Perfect City-Builder. This time it's an older title with a bit of gray in its beard; a proud contender that hails from the School of Ostentatious Bits & Pieces. What it lacks in availability it more than makes up for with its table presence-- players grab up prime real estate in a shared city that grows and expands, adding fabulous little plasticky structures like residential neighborhoods, banks, shopping centers, and street cars. The visual appeal and sense of progress is certainly there, and the rules are quite simple, though the actual scoring of each different type of building in relation to all other buildings around it can take some getting used to. Some placements may be a little too nasty for my liking (who knew the Parks and Rec Department was the very definition of "take that!"), but everything else totals to a very pleasant experience.
The quirky theme, humor, and artwork of The Networks is really what sets this simple card drafting game apart from others. From the squalor of public access TV to flashy prime time dramas and cult sci-fi series, each player aspires to reach every home in America; in an amusing twist on thematic victory point convention, it's actually number of viewers that wins the game, not wads of cash. There are clever references and, I suppose, a dash of acerbic commentary on the current state of entertainment contained within each and every television program, advertisement, and actor card in the game, and really it's this rather cheeky element that binds it all together and makes for an amusing competition. Running a network which specializes in trashy reality shows and cheap talent, or a sports station that relies on omnipresent commercial interstitials is perfect fodder for amusing narratives to surface. A good game should foster an engaging story, and The Networks sets up each of its aspiring media moguls for brilliant success.
I really enjoy deck building when it's the basis of a bigger picture. That is, I like my deck building to be inundated with other elements, mechanisms, and components. I can't deny the importance of pure deck building, nor do I really have anything against it in its most natural form, but I yearn for its incorporation into greater and grander things, or streamlined into simplicity, or iterated into something more than lonely, forlorn shuffling... shuffling... shuffling. Basically, I'd rather have hand management. With Mystic Vale, I was hopeful. A truly clever invention of individual card tailoring with its plastic, transparent sections and sleeves and layers. Couple this with a perennial favorite "press-your-luck" flavor and the game sounded very promising indeed. Sadly, it came through better in theory than in practice, as I found myself once again face-to-face with that age-old conundrum of "I suppose I could pay attention to the other people around the table and what they're doing, but what's the point?" Don't get me wrong, I generally prefer the ol' multiplayer solitaire pursuit, but for whatever reason Mystic Vale just wasn't enough. I acknowledge its novelty, respect it enough to use the term as a compliment, but probably won't be playing it again any time soon.
A fun theme with a lot of heart. I'm fully aware of how that sounds. Generally speaking, people use that phrase in a condescending manner. "That clay sculpture my child made in art class has a lot of heart." "That indie flick we just saw had a lot of heart." "Gee, that cardiac arrest sure had a lot of heart." The A Lot of Heart statement always seems to be coupled with some sort of unspoken reservation. An implicit biting of one's proverbial lip. The line you go to when you want to acknowledge something or someone has worked a commendable amount of time on a more or less impressive endeavor, relatively speaking, all things considered. The Pursuit of Happiness, well, it has a lot of heart. It may not be the most groundbreaking board game in existence, it might tend to linger a round or two longer than expected, its endgame spiral towards inevitable death may very well be one of the most depressing commentaries on the futility of human life this side of, say, Agricola, but goldurnit if it ain't got a heaping helping of heart. And I like it. More or less. Relatively speaking. All things considered. And all that jazz.
I was lucky enough to stumble into a mutually beneficial trade before the TMG Kickstarter for Yokohama delivered, so I only did what was natural and kicked the tires a little early. Advance commentary on unreleased games? Look, Ma! I'm a real-life BGG Blog-geoisie! First I played a mock three player game to get a handle on it. Then I played another mock three player game the very next day because I enjoyed it that much. Then I played a real three player game and enjoyed it even more. Then I played another with four players, just to rub it in a bit more. I intend to continue this trend. The thing is, I like Yokohama. Like, a lot. It reminds me a fair deal of Istanbul with its location tiles and breadcrumb trail-esque movement of pawns and assistants, but it's certainly its own thing, as well. For starters, it's got CONTRACT!s, and set collection, and extra turns, and resource accrual, and public goals, and lots of points and lots of cubes. I like Yokohama. It's difficult for me to nail down exactly what it is about the game that I like so much, but it's there in its own nebulous way, and I do. I like that the worker placement is transformed by a spatial element. I like that you can get stuck in certain corners of the board if you don't plan accordingly. I like that other players won't necessarily block you out of an action, but they kind of will, but they also don't always. I like the cyclical nature of chasing after goods to fulfill contracts to get money and points to build buildings to get more goods to fulfill more contracts to chase after more money and more points. I like the import goods and end-game scoring opportunities, and I like the contracts and the mid-game scoring abilities. I like the gradual unlocking of more assistant cubes balanced with the gradual planting of said assistant cubes for greater and greater payoffs when they're finally collected. I like the race for 5-power actions. I like the wide variability in tile placements and goal cards and technologies. Yokohama is a bit of a slumgullion of many different borrowed elements, a sort of "Best Of" album that perhaps doesn't introduce anything new or unorthodox, but does the things it does do very well, and quite enjoyably. It's a busy beast with an intimidating table presence, but actually plays all very smoothly once it chugs up to speed. I like Yokohama, like it enough to bestow some sort of fictional award upon it.
Well, hey now, what's this?! Could it be an official and highly prestigious Highly Prestigious Vincent Price Seal of Approval? By Jove, so it is!
Well done, Yokohama, well done. Now go forth, and reach the masses with your well-deserved TMG makeover.
Curse you, 2-player games! You are like that delicious pastry I see in the front of the bakery I pass every day on my way to work, yet cannot obtain due to the strange, invisible force field which blocks my outstretched fingers! I reach out to you, grasping, hungry, lustful, yet you block my every advance with cold, transparent, seemingly voodoo-fueled atomic wizardry! Be it Patchwork or chess, strawberry tarts or sugar-dusted beignets, the glass panes of crippling mental and social impairment keep me from true enjoyment. On those few and far between chances I actually do get to play a 2-player game, I'm forever thrust into the awkward longing for a third or fourth wheel, a foil for conversation, a secondary or tertiary insurance against having to interact with only one other human being. It is too much focus on not enough things! Leave me alone! Let me earn my victory points in relative anonymity! Too intimate, too much a reverse cynosure for competition and conflict. Anything you do in a game with only one other player is a direct response to that player, a very specific kicking at another's shin for the express advancement of one's own limbs. I like having the benefit of multiple opponents, multiple possibilities, myriad, multi-faceted chances for both rivalry and collaboration.
That said, I liked Patchwork. Now give me a third and fourth player!
Films and books and TV series have these things called "loglines" (thank you, failed attempt at a minor in Cinema & Media Studies) which work to summarize a plot into a nice, neat, engaging little sentence or two. It's a hook, a quick pitch, something to entice a studio executive to greenlight your project, or a clinically depressed college student to check you out from the Cinema & Media Studies DVD library instead of socializing with other college students. For example, a logline for the movie Star Wars (1977) might read "After his legal guardians are killed, a young man befriends a retired space knight, a space cowboy, a space princess, and a space dog in a quest to destroy the galaxy's deadliest plot contrivance." Or, if you read the logline "Wry muttering, white people being petty, and this is not really that good," you'd know you were about to watch something written and directed by Noah Baumbach.
Anyway, the reason I bring any of this up is that I feel like Vast: The Crystal Caverns is sort of like Logline: The Board Game. Well, that, and I wanted to take a potshot at Noah Baumbach. Vast: The Crystal Caverns has a heckuva logline. It's something to the tune of "A dungeon crawler RPG setting where each player plays as a different trope-- even the dungeon." I think this is a terrific logline. It's a twist on the conventional, it's got potential, it appeals to a wide audience, myself included. Like most asymmetric player power games, I'm always a little skeptical about the balance, but this one offered such drastically different player powers that they felt like completely different games in and of themselves. And that's probably because they are. As such, Vast: The Crystal Caverns feels like a game teetering on the precipice of Perceptual Imbalance. Depending on which mini-games you choose for the different player counts, the ending can feel like a dogpile, a free-for-all, a beat-up-the-leader, an inevitable defeat, or a decisive victory, each with their own custom-tailored roller coasters of emotion and/or anti-climax. This can be fun. This can be depressing. But don't for an instant think it's anything short of novel. Vast: The Crystal Caverns bites off a lot with its audacious logline, but I think it ends up chewing a fair amount of it. Unfortunately, it's also one of those rare games that falls into the rather lethargic category of "I'd Totally Play This Game If I Didn't Have to Learn It Again." If you've got a group that's willing to do a bit of self-teaching (each role has its own sheet of unique instructions, yet a basic knowledge of how all the other roles work is key to playing well), then seek this one out.
I love Hansa Teutonica. Despite what anyone says, I even love the game board, too; I think it's beautiful and dry and crispy, like an autumn leaf. It's the color of brilliant death, drained of spirit to a stately, standoffish pallor of orange and brown and yellow and quiet contemplation. And, despite my own established preferences, I love the gameplay even more. It's an odd feeling to enjoy a game with so little variation. I don't mean that the game is lacking in options--quite the contrary--I mean that every time you sit down to play, the starting conditions are exactly the same. Generally speaking, I like my set-ups to be filled with tile shuffling, card drafting, select-one-and-put-the-rest-back-in-the-box-ing. Hansa Teutonica presents the same playground to all of its players the same way every game (unless, of course, you use a different game board). Usually this feels stale and stagnant, its familiarity begins to breed resentment by the third or fourth session, that looming specter of "samey-ness" slowly descending both expectations and opinions overall. One of the most ingenious things about Hansa Teutonica, however, is how the game plays drastically different with different people. It's one of the most interesting games to teach to newcomers for the plain and simple fact that I know I won't know what to expect until we start playing. Some players latch onto the blocking mechanism, some gravitate towards chaining routes together, some go bump-crazy, some evade all player interaction whatsoever in favor of exploring whatever avenue is left open and uncontested. And the best part of it all is that not only are these player choices very easily changed from game to game, but they're just as easily swapped within a single game. The key to enjoying Hansa Teutonica isn't finding that one strategy that works best for you and mastering it, it's always keeping the rest of your competition guessing, hopping from one tactic to another, forcing them to re-think and re-evaluate their own plans due to your actions. Well, at least that's what I think the key is. I'm not very good at the game, so you probably shouldn't be taking advice from me.* I dislike invoking the term "meta-gaming," because I think it's off-putting to newcomers and more than a little pretentious sounding to most everyone, but Hansa Teutonica is, if ever there was one, a textbook example.
Cubes, glorious cubes! Yes, and CONTRACT!s! It's Merkator, Uwe's black sheep uncle who isn't much talked about! It's divisive amongst the Rosenberg crowd, it seems, and sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the rest of his oeuvre, but still exists as a good, solid, enjoyable board game that does some really neat stuff in unique ways. Sure, it's dry and looks like a 7th grade history book. Sure it got slammed in the face with what I call "the Shipyard Makeover."** Sure one of its in-game goals for "Peace in Westphalia Post-Thirty Years War" is about as inspiring and compelling as vying for a card that boasts "Slightly Less Despondency in East Belarus, Pre-Nipplegate." But you should still try the game! Think of it like the Crabby Old Widower Down the Street. He's gruff and austere and makes every attempt to present himself as unapproachable, but deep down inside he's got a heart of gold, just like that gaunt, old, creepy guy from Home Alone.*** Merkator: You'll Probably Like It Despite Itself!
It's my guess that after they discover my desiccated corpse in front of a space heater, surrounded by piles of rulebooks and several of the neighbors' cats eating my face off, they'll probably look into my home life to see "where it all went wrong." And after they conclude that my friends and family were nothing but saints and never had a clue and respond to my demise with quotes like "He was always so quiet, except when he was yelling at his video games and the traffic" and "... Who?", they'll come to find out about the unsettling double life I led when no one else was around, the odd, disturbing habits I formed when I didn't think anyone was watching. Things like enjoying strange, complex European board games with Latin names that translate to "Prayer and Work." Things like playing a mock 2-player game of these strange, complex European board games by myself for three evenings straight just for the fun of it. Things like gluing meeples to my trembling body and licking linen finish cardstock because "the rules said so." Just to be clear, I don't actually do any of those things from that last sentence, but I fully intend for the hobby to head in that direction. Baby steps, people. Baby steps.
Trying Suburbia's solo mode confirmed a pet peeve of mine: I have a very low threshold for board game set-ups. I think Suburbia is a fine game, one of the very best city-building/management themes currently on the market, but boy oh boy is it a real pain to get ready. And this is coming from the guy who loves The Gallerist with all his heart. There's just something that exacerbates my impatience with Suburbia, and the problem only gets worse when adding both of its excellent expansions. Creating stacks with certain tiles, shuffling those tiles in specific configurations, inserting special tiles between a certain number of tiles, forming and sorting the stacks... it all eats directly into the excitement and potential of the forthcoming game and often kills the possibility for a quick, easy pick for game night. This is especially so when the quick, easy pick was meant to be a session with only one person. Were I to compile a list of the 7 Deadly Board Game Sins, "Fiddly Set-Ups" would certainly be one of them, and it's probably the number one thing that can kill an expansion for me. If I had five pennies instead of a nickel for every time I had to seek out all of X and replace it with Y before beginning a game, I'd... well, I'd still have the same amount of money, but a bigger headache. Gameplay itself can be as cluttered and complicated as it wants, just so long as it's still engaging and enjoyable. Nothing, however, slows a game night to a crawl quite like having to set 2-4 people to work for 10 minutes just to sort a stockpile of pieces and starting conditions.
When you are in love with a certain board game artist (Roche, mon amour... that's French! kisskisskisskisskisskiss), you often find yourself tracking down and purchasing board games that would've never entered your radar to begin with. Some might call this an unhealthy obsession, but thanks to a willful ignorance and obstinate denial of truth, I know better. It's not an obsession. It's a refined palate. Now, I'm no board game collector, but if I was, and I wanted to choose a certain type of board game to amass, I'd probably choose to amass by artist. In my mind, board game artists are a bit like cinematographers. They may not be the director, or the actors, or the executive producers of the film, but they're most often a defining feature of a film's lasting legacy. They're absolutely essential, and yet the majority of them go unnoticed. You only ever look to see who the cinematographer is when the shots are either terrible or ground-breaking. Plus, the only people who obsess over cinematographers (or even worse, go to see specific films because of cinematographers) are insufferable snoots you wouldn't want to hold a conversation with, much less read a web-log about.
Are we still talking about board game artists and movies? Here's another half-baked cake of an analogy: you can still very much enjoy the beautiful set design of a movie you don't like.
You've got to hand it to the Dutch. Few others would take one look at a swampy marshland and think "Ja! Thjiis iist zuper laandenplotz! Wee'll totalljee stay heer!" Heck, they take pride in their regional mushiness. Their flag actually depicts a lion in the process of drowning. Zeeland: "Even Our Coat of Arms Is Soggy."**** But I kid. I love the Netherlands and their many languages that sound like a German Francophone speaking backwards in English. It's just that they're an easy target, plus I didn't want to have to bring up rapeseed.
I am not too proud to admit that I was avoiding this one until the Deluxe version was released. I'll suffer the hit to my board gaming credibility to say that the What's Your Game? original had that trademark blend of super generic art coupled with overly complicated gameplay. Nothing about it urged me to dive in, apart from the designer's name. If it had Vital Lacerda's name plastered over it, I knew it'd be a good game, possibly a great game, but I just couldn't get over the initial concerns of my own shallowness. Then plans for a makeover were announced, and the news that Australian(?) virtuoso Ian O'Toole would be behind the re-(o')tooling filled me with hope and heady anticipation. Not only would the graphical elements be changing for the better, but there'd be an entirely new version of gameplay for 2016, designed with six or so extra years of hindsight and experience in mind.
I am happy to say that I'm glad I waited. While I still have yet to try the original version (both are included, blessedly), the 2016 Special Vintage lives up to the impossible reputation I've affixed to Mr Lacerda these past few years. A lovely marriage of complexity and theme--as with most Lacerda designs--the brain burning decisions are coupled wonderfully with brilliant thematic sense, causing the whole process to feel smooth and intuitive instead of fist-draggingly abstruse. Dare I say it actually does feel like players are investing and specializing in different types of wine to produce and profit from, with subtle variations on taste and look and smell and oakiness and undertones of flatulence or whatever it is those crazy wine enthusiasts drone on about when they swish and gargle it around their mouths. This brings me to my next point: while I'm not what one might call a wine connoisseur or expert by any stretch of the imagination, I do really enjoy the wine-making theme in Vinhos. It's great fun to rely on both strategic planning (like which region you set up camp in and how much reputation you amass) and external factors of dumb luck (like relying on the random chaos that is good and bad weather for the year) in order to build your winery empire. Choosing which batch of wine to show at the prestigious wine fairs can be a grueling task, but all of it feels very much like the hoity-toity business world of oenophilia. Wooing the judges for more wine barrels after the crowning of first place is not only a great way to create importance and need for the low quality wine tiles in a mechanical sense, but a perfect way to tipple the experts into your good graces, thematically speaking.
It goes without saying that the newly updated artwork and iconography is both stunning and highly functional (yet I'll happily say it anyway); I am especially fond of the many friendly reminders placed around integral parts of the board which walk one through every step of each process, from the purchasing of vineyards, to entering product in a wine fair, to the end game scoring commencement. It is very much a change for the better and one that I hope brings a revivified interest to the game. For the gorgeous, genius design duo of Vital Lacerda and Ian O'Toole, I bestow this highly prestigious Highly Prestigious Vincent Price Seal of a Approval, aged to perfection in a cellar on the Portuguese coast, vintage '73 (a very good year, trust me).
Super cute. Reverse Jenga with a wobbly apple tree. Very cute. Super cute. Look, buddy, it's got little apples, what more do you want?!
And so we come to A Feast for Odin, my most anticipated release of 2016. I suppose we should probably cut to the chase right away, clear any and all doubts you might still be harboring. I love it. But then I knew I'd love it. And, like every other flippant, blobby ball of opinion featured on this web-log, this was never going to be a serious review, never had a snowball's chance in being anything close to resembling an unbiased or objective take on anything, anyhow. If you want a true review or critique of how A Feast for Odin (or any other board game, for that matter) plays, a serious and educated take on its various working parts and how they coalesce or rub against each other, I'd recommend you look elsewhere. I hear the ghost of Roger Ebert has been getting into Viking-themed Euros in his free time. He'd probably have some wry-sounding insight or something.
Now, to brass tacks. A Feast for Odin represents a great deal of what I like about Uwe Rosenberg design throughout his entire career. It feels like a very calculated amalgam, both an ode and a retrospective with a dozen lessons learned from and applied therein. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: it's very, very difficult to discuss an Uwe Rosenberg game without referring to another Uwe Rosenberg game. Herr Rosenberg is very much an iterative fellow, and while this fact seems to divide a great deal of board game enthusiasts, I find it to be comfortably familiar. You usually know what you're going to get with Uwe. There will always be echoes of older designs in his latest releases, elements plucked here and there and sprinkled throughout, sometimes fully realized and/or borrowed, other times tweaked, flip-flopped, or enhanced. For example, if one is acquainted well enough with Rosenberg's past titles and the world of board games in general, one can very easily produce a snappy-sounding logline for A Feast for Odin that goes something like: "It's as if Fields of Arle and Patchwork had a Norse-themed lovechild." It's an accurate enough claim for those in the know to get a good sense of what they're in for when Odin hits the table. A wealth of choices with the width and breadth of the Baltic Sea and some kind of utterly themeless yet wonderfully satisfying Tetris-esque tailoring of puzzle-piece-polyonimoes. For the completely uninitiated, a brief description of a Feast for Odin might sound more like: "Well, you're Vikings and you place out your Vikings on a big giant board of actions that allow you to do things like hunting and sailing and farming and trading and pillaging and raiding and hoarding these pieces of loot and food that you stick onto player boards in certain ways so they fit perfectly and give you money and more loot so you can afford even more loot and food because you have to feed all of your Vikings regularly throughout the game and you're doing all of this so you can have the least negative points and the most positive points by the end of the game in order to win. Oh, and there's also cards. And sheep. And ships. And the crown of England. And did I mention you get more Vikings as time goes on? No, it's not like Monopoly."
Yes, A Feast for Odin is squarely in the later era Rosenbergian design, smack dab in the middle of Rosenbergian Indulgence of Option, Wealth of Choice, Embarrassment of Superfluity. Everything and the kitchen sink is included, Arle style, hot and spicy. But, unlike the fairly static nature of Caverna and Fields of Arle's playgrounds, A Feast for Odin revisits some of the beautiful variability of Agricola with its occupation cards. This alone makes me a very happy fan. After 12 or so plays of Caverna, I know which room tiles I want to go after in order to pursue specific strategies. And while that's perfectly acceptable in my book, being dealt a continual stream of randomized cards/abilities/powers/directions in which to follow helps breathe a different and unique breath of life into every game of Odin, and that's wonderfully wonderful. There's also a bit of Agricola's hardnosédness in Odin, too, which could've been cause for alarm for the free-spirited Rosenberg fans of his more forgiving games (myself very much included), yet the stringency of challenge has been refined, perfected, gamified all the more into something that requires things of you, but doesn't bite down in order to never let go. The infamous and omnipresent Feed Your People element that is so often the mainstay of nearly every Rosenberg game is gloriously, magnanimously, mercifully fun this time. It's not just an irritating tax that trips up an otherwise unhindered road towards victory points, it's its own spatial puzzle within the larger spatial puzzle, using the central theme of fitting your hard-earned loot into as efficient a grouping as possible. Now instead of simply needing X number of food tokens in which to pay to the bank every time a feeding phase comes around, it's an open challenge, a tactile riddle in which you must muster a certain number of food tokens to pay, but in a brilliant twist of engineering, must also line up with regard to width and length, color and type, in order to not only Feed Your People, but Feed Your People with as little or as much attention to detail and proficiency as you wish to pay. Placement matters just as much as the selection, because not only are those food tokens necessary for this phase, but they can always be upgraded into bigger and better and more valuable loot to be placed or paid or utilized elsewhere, as well. Suddenly, the Feed Your People phase isn't so much a frustrating speed bump in the back of your mind, solely existent for nothing more than slowing down more important progress, but it's also a little game-within-a-game in which to obsess or breeze over in whatever method you see fit. It's the first time Rosenberg has forced me to enjoy Feeding My People, and I love it just as much as I resent it.
What else can I say about A Feast for Odin? I appreciate how the nature of negative points mitigation is handled. It was my one presiding concern with the game on paper-- all those terribly scary -1s staring up at me on my home board, let alone choosing to voluntarily take even more boards with even more negatives to haunt my every thought!? When I play a board game, I want to enjoy every moment of it; I play to relieve stress, not welcome it. Thankfully, while the presence of such rampant and widespread negativity works to instill a very real and apparent end game goal, it isn't so overbearing as to ruin the experience, even for a softie like me. Rosenberg has embraced the pleasure of amassing things in Odin, just like he did with Arle and Caverna, that addictive, consuming obsession to get more and more of the things, to get all of the things, to flip them, to place them, to hoard them and survey the blanketed fields of your booty at the end of the game. But there is also a significant sense of cost, of challenge in A Feast for Odin that keeps the game from feeling not only like a directionless free-for-all but also saves it from the fate of an overly unfriendly vise grip. I think Odin straddles that line of allowing one to do whatever one pleases, yet requiring a certain something in addition, to keep one task-oriented and engaged in an overall objective. Odin has that precarious but oh-so gratifying equilibrium of acquisition and payment, amassment and penalty. It's that well-balanced blend of wide open opportunity and intricate stipulation which makes the game so enjoyable to me.
For excellence in the field of oddly-shaped but immaculately interlocking spoils, we award A Feast for Odin with its very own highly prestigious Highly Prestigious Vincent Price Seal of Approval. Try fitting it in between a couple chests, a rune stone, and some plundered scepters.
I love Keyflower. I will not stop loving Keyflower. And now there is this sudden upstart, this young whelp, this bold as brass stripling with an eager aim to impress-- yet I am not so sure of its need to exist. I narrow my eyes at it, harrumph a bit, kick at the dust below my feet with an air of uncertainty. I am stuck in the Old Ways, kid. The Old Ways of green keyples and random skill tile drawing and winsome hand-painted art.
But you're pretty much Keyflower. And if I love Keyflower, More-Or-Less-Keyflower should also be More-Or-Less lovable. Alright then, I'll play you, lad. I'll love my way through your uncanny wooden connectors and your real-world locales, your streamlined player order procedure and your public knowledge "Winter" tiles. There's something to be said of your earnest attempts at a simpler conceit, something easier to teach, quicker to play. I can respect that just as much as I can appreciate it.
This Key to the City, it won't depose the King, not by any means, but at least the two can live in More-Or-Less unison.
Don't get me wrong, I love pizza and I love the art of David Cochard, but all throughout Papà Paolo, I kept waiting for the hidden Magic Eye image to surface in the colossal, colorful, great, big, garbled mess that is the main game board.
It didn't. And all that happened was that I kinda sorta enjoyed the game except for the bidding parts, plus my corneas started bleeding.
The second faction to hit Imperial Settlers after release. Whereas the Atlanteans were all about atypical backwards-style play, the Aztecs are centered around a well-known board game concept that's been around for longer: push-your-luck. Sacrifice (spend) your little pink peoples in order to pray to the gods (draw cards off the common deck) and match colors (card types) for blessings and windfalls (resources). Quite a lot of luck wrapped up in a playstyle that's very much seat-of-your-pants, caution-to-the-winds risk-taking. As hyphenated as that sounds, it's a welcome addition to the Imperial Settlers spread. Hoo-rah!
So pretty! Seems push-your-luck is quite popular these days, and that's a fact I'm not so sad about. Kanagawa is a lovely little filler/opener game that's all about painting or installing double-sided cards into your masterpiece or studio. Set collection and a race towards common goals keeps this game swift, exciting, and fun. Oh so pretty and light-hearted entertainment-- I'd expect no less from the duo who brought us Abyss.
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A Special Note of Time-Sensitive Noteworthiness:
I'll be making the trip down to Dallas, Texas in a couple weeks to try out this strange and frightening concept of "board game conventioning." Apparently, it's what all the hip, young folks are doing these days. That's right, I'll be attending BGG.CON '16 this year for my first taste of playing complicated Euro games with people I neither know nor live near. It could be smashing fun, or a crushing mistake, but either way my delicate social limitations will take a pummeling.
If any of you would like to meet up and play a game or two or eight, send me a geekmail and we'll try to plan something. I can even guarantee that you'll beat me, and not for my lack of trying! I promise I won't affix asterisks to the ends of my sentences.*****
Here's a list of what I'm most excited to play and/or obtain:
-Lorenzo il Magnifico
-Great Western Trail
-First Class: All Aboard the Orient Express!
-Mondrian: The Dice Game
-Motion Pictures: Movies Out of Cardboard
I intend to sum up my experiences in web-log form after the fact, so those who won't be going can still have a skewed taste of what the event was like.
Until then, happy games!
*Or SHOULD YOU?!
**Some say this blunt force object is a close cousin to "the Ugly Stick."
*****Well, I mean, I'll try, at least.
- [+] Dice rolls
This is the part of the web-blog entry in which I make uninspired comments about the current month that it is. But what if I told you this web-log entry was different? What if I told you that I was going to turn expectations on their unsuspecting heads and throw convention down a deep, dark pit of crazy, kooky uncertainty? That I'd buck tradition and subvert the established status quo and not mention the word July even once? Override the norm in order to ignore the pleading masses and their dependence on the habitual comforts of vapid discussion regarding how it can't already be this late in this particular year but would you look at the calendar it is, it really is?
You'd probably call me a liar, and that'd be a fair enough cop. Wow, it's July already! Unbelievable!
Also, I played some games.
When I was growing up, my mother would leave out jewelry catalogs with certain sparkling gemstones circled in permanent marker, the words "ME WANT" printed directly below. The messages were for my father, but everyone in the family knew it was her way of saying "Ha ha, It Is a Joke, But Also Not." This intentionally crude style of passive-aggressive communication allowed my mother not only to maintain an air of humorous irreverence in regards to materialism, but also acted as a gentle prod in the right direction, were my father so inclined to spend exorbitant sums on anniversary gifts or birthday presents. The crazy thing is, the system worked. My father appreciated the fact that he wasn't wasting money on the wrong thing, and my mother would receive a new pair of earrings or a pretty necklace from time to time. It got to the point where "ME WANT" was a perfectly acceptable reaction to non-essential items, just as long as the user was aware that there was a 89.3% chance it wasn't in the budget and never would be.
I mention this anecdote because the "ME WANT" response is still alive and strong within me, even in the privacy of my own adult home with no other family members around, half-spurred by the abhorrent need to fill various voids in life with inconsequential materialism, the other half by rote. It was in this way, in front of a computer screen, that I quite instinctively mouthed the words directly after stumbling upon the tiny Japanese card game Rocca Rails. I admit, my immediate need to obtain a copy was fueled mainly by the overwhelming amounts of twee emanating out from it, but also because I am a grown man gainfully employed and can spend my money in as foolish a method as I see fit.Photo credit: Flowbee*
It's a dead simple little game; a single, solitary hot wing in terms of of meat being present on bones. UNO on rails, as it were, but the real charm comes from, well, it not being UNO for starters, but really mainly the fact that its cards are illustrated in an oh-so adorable isometric fashion. They're placed and stacked slightly on top of each other to create a supremely satisfying three-dimensional effect, little cuboid sections of landscape congealing together to lengthen train tracks down and to the right or left of a central starting point. There are colors to match and a die to roll and more cards to draw, but all of that pales in comparison to its charming table presence. It's a novelty item, no two ways about it, an unconscionably cute crowning piece in a board game collection to bring out and show off from time to time. Did I spend more than I should have in securing a copy? Most likely. Will I play it on a regular basis? Probably not. But am I glad to have it, regardless, and has it very temporarily assuaged my burning desire to obtain physical things in a desperate bid to calm the raging uncertainties in my soul? You betcha. It's not often you can turn such a fervid ME WANT into an I GOT.
Gosh, this one had been on the Hotly Anticipated List ever since it was announced, despite knowing very little about it, despite the lack of English language information, despite the fact that the artist appears to have mistaken Philip II's beard as the biggest jawline this side of Bruce Campbell.** Why, you ask? Why, I reply, because of designer Matthias Cramer! Cramer's responsible for a whole handful of enjoyable games: Glen More, Rococo, and Kraftwagen being amongst them.
Thankfully, as one might come to discover from this particular web-log entry, things living up to high expectations seems to be a common thing for July, because it turns out Dynasties is a very good game. What's more, it might very well be my favorite Cramer title to date. This is due to a large number of things, some of which will be worked into a list, because we all love lists.
1.) I Split You Choose: Dynasties incorporates this element into several different parts of the board, and it really, really works. I love the grueling task of having to divide a group of five resources into piles of three and two, knowing that I won't be the one who gets first dibs. I could ensure that at least one of the piles has the two or three that I desperately need, but there's always the chance that my opponent will take it, leaving me with nothing useful at all. It's a painful yet amusing game of compromise that brings a lot of uncertainty and challenge to fulfilling your goals.
2.) Mawwaige!: It's really fun marrying off your little family meeples with other family meeples, securing whole entire swaths of the board via consensual or shotgun weddings, maintaining area majorities by having children at just the right moment, forcing your way into dynasties at the last second through pure political clout. It captures what I loved about the theme in Signorie and distills it down into an even more enjoyable experience. Plus, it makes me actually OK with the back and forth tussle of area majority, which is really saying something.
3.) Lovely Board, That: Dynasties wins Most Beautiful Depiction of Super Dull Europe-y Map. I mean, take a look at the board. It's gorgeous!
4.) Luck: There's a fair amount of luck to be stomached with Dynasties, but ultimately, I think it works. Some games you simply won't draw what you absolutely need, and that will be that. Other games, you'll coast along on a comfortable cushion of good karma, grabbing up all the right resources and scoring cards you need for a considerable victory. As much as I prefer my dry Euro games filled to bursting with pure, uncut stratagem, I do appreciate a bit of luck now and then. The monkeywrenches can be infuriating, debilitating, exhilarating, polarizing, but you also can't argue that luck is a perfect scapegoat for a crummy performance. Yeah. That's why I lost. Both times.
The more I play Imperial Settlers, the more I fall in love with its engine-building. It might be my favorite example of it, in fact. The feeling of starting with a paltry sum of two or three goods and a few cards, working slowly but surely to play out more and more buildings, amassing greater and greater piles of resources until by the last round you've managed to string along action after action after action, every one of which provides even more opportunities to prolong the game and expand your empire. It's a fantastic snowball effect, and just about the only complaint I have with the game is waiting on others who are trying to do the same. Knowing exactly what you want to do next but having to wait until your other opponents take their turns can be downright excruciating, especially in a game that rewards you for lining up long strings of multi-step, self-perpetuating plans. Oh man, other people, am I right? Heck, I'd win games if it weren't for other people! The obvious answer to this drawback is to simply not invite other people to play your game, instead staying inside with the curtains drawn, trying out the solo variant.
While the solo variant insists on razing to stay alive, I don't find it as reprehensible as it is in a multiplayer game. For one, it's only attacking an AI, instead of another human being with feelings and hopes and dreams, and it's also guaranteed that you'll be crushed by this faceless automaton if you don't reciprocate. The solo version of Imperial Settlers is great for a quick-fix of engine-building, but the officially sanctioned Print-n-Play Campaign mode is really where the solitaire experience starts to shine. Imperial Settlers campaign mode allows you to add a "Legacy" element to multiple games, introducing costly but lucrative provinces to manage, special events and challenges to weather, upkeep to maintain, and Civilization-style technological advancements to add to your faction. All of the additions do a bang-up job of making you feel like an ever-expanding empire. With each victory, new benefits are granted, but with each new benefit, costs are increased. Since the playtime is drastically reduced with only one person playing, the campaign mode makes for the perfect nightly 45-minute challenge that's both easy to track and fun to revisit.
There seem to be two very distinct styles of Rosenberg design in the wild. The first, and earliest, appears to be based on Success Despite Restriction. The second, and most recent, centers itself around Success Despite Profundity. There's a reason people either lovingly or scornfully refer to Agricola as "Misery Farming." It's the same reason that the Agricola vs. Caverna debate rages on. There's a specific type of board gamer that delights in overcoming obstacles, while the other type prefers a more open-ended "sandbox" environment in which to experiment. I can understand the benefits and drawbacks to both. I'm not here to argue the superiority of one one versus the other, but it's no secret that I personally enjoy Profundity far more than its Restrictive predecessor. To me, Le Havre falls into the Restrictive category, though I'm sure there will be fans crawling out of the woodwork to tell me why I'm wrong.
It'd appear that Le Havre is one of those games that demands a second play before I can fully ground myself in its world. Figure out its ins and outs. Grasp the subtleties, pinpoint and define its various paths to success. Problem is--as is the case with most games with similar demands of multiple revisits--I don't wanna. Generally speaking, I love Uwe Rosenberg games. I love that he implements and reimplements, iterates and reiterates familiar mechanisms and elements from his past ventures into new and exciting titles. The upcoming A Feast for Odin is my most highly anticipated game for 2016. But for as big of a fan of Rosenberg as I am, I can still recognize when one of his games is not for me. I suppose the problem with having multiple games with so many similar elements is that they can never truly exist on their own. You'll always have people comparing and contrasting them with each other.
It's difficult for me to solidify what it is in a game that causes me to dislike it. My negative experiences (which are thankfully few and far between) come from gut feelings, are often times born of some weird, disconnected intuition, or simply exist as vague frustrations with sums rather than parts. That said, I'm rather embarrassed to admit that my core complaints with Le Havre stem mainly from the fact that it isn't Ora et Labora. I really love resource conversion. It's very much a form of that beloved engine-building I so enjoy waxing rhapsodic about. I find the resource conversion in Ora et Labora to be handled in a really satisfying way, with a bit of worker placement, a bit of spatial puzzle, and a bit of careful planning for specific windows of opportunity. There are very few fees or harvests to keep in mind and thus what you get is a less hindered form of resource conversion than what exists in Le Havre. Le Havre is business management with resource conversion thrown in. It has feeding of employees, private ownership of buildings, and *shudder* loans and usury to contend with. Amidst the hopes of turning cows into leather into furniture into cold, hard victory points there are a myriad little roadblocks in the way. Maybe it's the fact that you can focus on converting just about anything you'd like in OeL, whereas Le Havre has several very specific, very mandatory conversion milestones everyone must focus on in order to proceed along to a higher phase of efficiency. If you don't get the building that allows you to go after reliquaries in OeL, no big deal. There are half a dozen other little chits to chase after. If you miss the figurative (and literal) boat for steel-making in Le Havre, it's several excruciating turns of watching your opponents prosper while you have no choice but to wait your turn. It's the same position I find myself taking when considering "acquired tastes." Why bother acquiring a taste when there are so many other tastes that taste good from the outset?
I don't pretend to be a licensed practitioner of aesthetic critique, but lots of Japanese games have a distinct look. You can see it with Minerva, or Yokohama, and now with The King of Frontier, as well. It's not particularly user-friendly. It's downright claustrophobic at times, with text bunched together and icons shoved in wherever there's room left over. There's a vague sensation of mid-1990s chutzpah floating about, all boxy and chunky and busy with textures and gradients and not particularly self-conscious the way 2010s design is all blatantly solid colors and LOOK-AT-ME-BEING-SIMPLE minimalism. It can be difficult to navigate and it can be more or less fugly, but it's still somehow alluring in spite of itself. Maybe it's just the charm and intrigue of foreign exoticism. Maybe I'd hate the same look if it came from my own home country. Be that as it may, I foster a soft spot for these kinds of Japanese import games, and The King of Frontier is no exception.
The King of Frontier is a fusion of Carcassonne, Walnut Grove, San Juan, and xkcd. It takes the core essence of each of these things and folds them all into one rather simple tile-laying game, and I appreciate that. Players attempt to fill their 4x5 grids with landscape tiles, completing resource cube-producing areas of wheat, stone, wood, and cities, all while using these resources to buy and build special building tiles and score points. Each turn, the leader declares one of four actions, does a slightly better version of that action, then allows the remaining players to follow by doing a slightly lesser version of that action if they can or wish. It works-- if you have the appropriate fan-translations of all the various special buildings. There isn't anything ground-breaking or novel about the game except the fact that it managed to incorporate a number of fun mechanisms from other games into its own fun self.
An airy light filler that captures nearly everything I like about Broom Service and does away with all the frustrating tidbits that I don't. I like: the brave/cowardly push-your-luck element. It's there in the card game. In fact, I'd say that's all that's there. Players collect sets of colored potions by playing potion cards bravely (the side with multiple potions) or cowardly (the side with only one potion). Playing cowardly will always net you your one potion, but taking a chance on brave only provides you with the multiple potion count if you're the only or last one to do so. The roles from the board game are replaced with different colors of potions to collect, and gone is the oft-infuriating pick-up-and-deliver movement and blocking of the board. It's not that I don't enjoy Broom Service, it's just that the Card Game manages to deliver (har-har) only the best parts in one-eighth the time, so I call it a success.
I now understand the love for Stonemaier Games. What's that? you ask, You mean to say you didn't beforehand?! Oh, you know me. I buy games based mainly on the fact that they're Japanese and hard-to-find. I can't be seen going along with too popular an opinion. In fact, I'd always found the rampant praise and fanboyism of Stonemaier Games to be somewhat grating on the nerves. I'd played Euphoria and Between Two Cities and found them both modestly entertaining, and had no real interest in ever trying Viticulture despite its pretty package. It's not that I didn't believe people when they went on and on about Stonemaier Kickstarter campaigns, it's just that I had no real personal connection with the glowing experiences, and no real reason to join the bandwagon. That is, until Jakub Rozalski came into the picture.
At the risk of sounding the full-blown hipster, I am compelled to mention that I'd seen Rozalski's art before the whole Scythe ordeal. Someone at some point had "linked" me to some "pics" of it via the "I.N.T.E.R.N.E.T."*** (as youth today are wont to do), and I'd very much loved it. It reminded me of James Gurney's Dinotopia books with the classical depictions of hulking fantastical leviathans amidst humans in antiquated garb, or even Chris Van Allsburg's picturebooks, presenting somewhat ominous, always mysterious illustrations that prompted the viewer into fabricating his or her own stories of what was going on. Naturally, when news of a board game utilizing Rozalski's work surfaced, I got a little excited. Y'know, along with the 7 million other board gamers doing the same. So mainstream.
For nigh on nine whole months I weathered the excitable titters and internettal ramblings of fellow board gamers who couldn't wait to get the game onto their tables. Nine months of hype I endured. I tell you expecting couples on Facebook posted less about their unborn babies than the amount of flowery prose I heard about Scythe. It was impossible to ignore. I was buffeted from all sides. It was realistic resin components this and cool metal coins that and LOOK AT THE SIZE OF THAT BOARD, WOULDJA?! I promised myself I wouldn't succumb, wouldn't give in. That I wouldn't allow myself to get excited at the mere prospect of a game I had never played and wouldn't be able to try for another XX weeks. I'd been burned before by the irresistible hype factory of other Kickstarter projects. Games that would've otherwise been perfectly enjoyable experiences had perished to the colossal myths they'd had to live up to, withered away right before my eyes as they failed to match the impossible standards I'd administered in advance. I wouldn't let it happen with Scythe. It meant nothing to me, and thus had nothing to lose.
And then, after countless informative and regular email updates, constant communication and clarification and tracking numbers and photos from manufacturers, it arrived (not that I cared). It was a heavy box (even though weight has nothing to do with anything). It was a beautiful box, with a little personalized number on it (except ten thousand other people had received pretty much the same thing). The little pieces inside were gorgeous, and the miniatures glistened, and the cards sparkled, and the endless Rozalski art emitted an ethereal glow like that briefcase scene from that one movie about pulp fiction literature****. Okay. So I was impressed. But that didn't mean diddly-squat in terms of actual gameplay.
So, naturally, I played it. And wouldn't you know, I liked it. More than I thought I would. Like, really liked it. The combat I was concerned about wasn't too miserable. The replayability seemed solid. The rules were intuitive. The decisions were meaningful. The asymmetric powers were neat. The little player mats were great fun. The race to place stars had been improved since Euphoria. The coinage was plinky. The pieces were chunky. The board extension was, in fact, enormous. All of it cohered together into one highly enjoyable board game with unparalleled production values and drop-dead gorgeous design. Who woulda thunk it? I mean, apart from the 7 million board gamers who spent nine months thunking it very much aloud (and over and across my head). Fine then, you got me. I suppose I should issue an apology to anyone I ever plugged my ears at, to those I consciously avoided, or whose heady claims I breezily scoffed upon. I'm sorry. You were right. Stonemaier Games is the be-all and end-all. Scythe is probably the harbinger of a new board game renaissance. Metal coins can be cool. Popularly held opinions of popularly anticipated board games are just as worthwhile as that obscure out-of-print Belarusian game about publishing anti-Stalinist newspapers in 1936. I admit defeat.
But I'm still not going to play Blood Rage with you.
We all have guilty pleasures. For some, it's eating a carton of ice cream whilst sat in front of multiple episodes of incest-ridden, anti-hero-centric cable TV programs. For others, it's being able to get close enough to give little warning kicks to passing ground-pigeons. For some, it's peeling off that plastic coating sheet that covers the screens of recently purchased electronic devices. For others still it's being able to successfully pass off a naturalistic-sounding "heyyyyyy" when you temporarily forget the name of the person walking past you in the hallway. All give little rushes of adrenaline, cheap thrills that hold one over until one can learn to skydive or drag race or shout "I DON'T REALLY CARE" when a group of people start talking about lacrosse. My guilty pleasure is playing multiplayer board games by myself. It's not something I'm proud of. I wouldn't want to admit to doing it to just anybody, which is why I'm only telling you, in this extremely private area of the world wide public internet space. There's just something fun about playing the part of two or three people. Maybe it's the fact that no matter what, I'm guaranteed to experience a victory. Or maybe it's the fact that this might be the beginning stages of undiagnosed schizophrenia. Whatever the case may be, Taluva is a darn fine example of the perfect board game to play by yourself. Y'know. If you're into that kind of thing.
Taluva's ruleset is deceptively simple. That is to say, for so few things to keep track of, there's a heck of a lot of opportunity out on the board at any given time. On your turn, you lay a new tile either up or out, then build one of three types of buildings. The first person to build all of two types instantly wins, otherwise, once the tiles run out, whoever has managed to place the most temples, then towers, then villages wins. It's one of those classic-feeling games. Clean design with room for lots of interaction. You can really only ever do two things, but the way in which you do them, or rather, the things you do in order to do these two things most efficiently makes all the difference. Playing offensively is just as important as defending your territories, and as such, there's a healthy amount of tension that's maintained throughout the entire game. Volcanos can erupt to wipe out villages and set back progress. New terrain can be placed in clever ways to prevent or block unwanted presences. Expansion of villages can secure a greater hold while spreading out can divert attention.
It's such a beautiful game, too. There's something very attractive about seeing the island expand over the course of a game, little clusters of brightly painted huts and towers breaking out across lush, tropical landscapes. And the theme is pleasantly apparent for what is essentially an abstract racing game. The stacking and connecting of tiles really feels like you're creating a bigger and taller island out of the sea, watching the indigenous life thrive and relocate over centuries of volcanic activity. It speaks to the beauty of a game's design when I want to play it even when there are no others around to play it with me. Just don't tell Adlai, Beauregard, or Constance. They think they're real people.
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Now's the part of the web-log entry where I attempt to wrap things up whilst giving credence to whatever upcoming month that it will be is going to be. Something about the weather, no doubt, as that really brings in the readers. ...But what if I refused to bend to the will of quotidian rigmarole and simply didn't? What if I closed our time together without ever mentioning that August is in the offing and that the weather is hot or something and humidity really is the worst? Take that, suffocating mundanity! I refuse to kowtow to your oppressive praxis! Down with tedium! Death to platitudinous guarantees! I reject the triteness and strive for almighty change!
Boy, how about that sport team, eh? They sure sported it up in regards to competing against the opposing force, huh? I should say they even sportsed it in a superior fashion, and will continue to do so for the duration of their sport term. Welp, 'til August! Stay cool and dry!
Until next time, happy games!
* Using usernames in real life depresses me. Really good ones depress me because I wasn't the one to come up with them, and really bad ones, well, are really bad. One of my favorite things about avoiding the news nowadays is the fact that I don't have to hear depressing things like "The online shooting was witnessed by Twitchcast commentator 2BOOBZ4U_69, who said 'dat carnage was gay lel'." I suspect it will be a sad fact that our children's children's history books will include depressing phrases like "General jellybeanpawz led the ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°) Army in the 100 Years YouTube War." It's only a matter of depressing, depressing time.
*** On I.N.T.E.R.N.E.T., everything is an acronym, including I.N.T.E.R.N.E.T., which I can only assume stands for Internet Network Trans-Electronic Routing Number Ethernet Throng.
**** Ken Burns' A Complete History of Papyrus, Part XVI
- [+] Dice rolls