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2021 Summer Board Game Smorgasbord Spectacular

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
Michigan
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It has been entirely too long since talking about board games! While the pandemic has affected us all in ways great and small, I’m fortunate that I have a family that enjoys games and that the small circle of households that we have been “podded up with” likewise delight in pushing cardboard around. So, the past many months have provided ample opportunities for playing games both old and new.

Here we go!

NEW and/or NOTABLE PLAYS

Let's do this!

Board Game: The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine

9 - The Crew (100+ plays/hands) (2019)
So our family is "podded" with another family, with whom all of our kids collectively have been in the same educational arrangement for the past year. This has therefore meant that they’ve been one of our main social outlets for in-person gaming, and we all have taken to the Crew. A couple of weeks back we finally finished all 50 missions!

The Crew is an awesome game. I’ve had a life-long appreciation for Euchre (also a trick-taking game), and the combination of trick-taking, non-coordinating cooperation (i.e. no alpha player syndrome), and escalating challenges has been thrilling. We felt a tinge of guilt in that we stretched the rules of communication on occasion - but we’re resolved to atone for our wayward ways by going all the way through again. At least until the next crew game arrives!

From gallery of Mezmorki

9 - Wingspan (400+ plays) (2019)
Any game that I’ve played at least 300, or maybe even 400 times, has got to have some amount of staying power. Over the past two years, I’ve probably averaged a game a day with my wife.

2-player Wingspan is BY FAR my preferred way to play the game, to the point that playing with more than 2 doesn't really hold much appeal. With 2-players everything is far more cutthroat. If I don’t take a high value bird from the open row, my opponent likely will, prompting all sorts of risk/reward conundrums. Ditto for grabbing needed resources in the bird feeder. The goals are all zero-sum area-control battles and we’re watching each other’s moves like a hawk (pun obviously intended). With more players, all of this nuance dissolves into mush.

We play with both expansions (Oceania + European) with the following adjustments:

Use three “old” dice and three “new” dice - which creates less turn over in the bird feeder (since there are 6 dice instead of 5) and caps the flow of nectar to three per roll, which keeps the resource management aspect of the game tighter.
Nectar can never be taken as a “wild” resource for abilities that give any resource type.
Changed the Crow’s and similar birds abilities (convert eggs into food) to require taking dice from the bird feeder (instead of the supply) and further limiting it to taking no nectar.

Hundreds of plays later, I feel like Wingspan has settled into being a “lifestyle” game for me and my wife - something we can flap onto the table without even having to ask as a way to unwind at the end of the day. We’ve got playing this down to a science and can knock out a game in less than 25 minutes!

Board Game: Agricola

6 - Agricola (~10 plays) (2007)
I’ve had Agricola on my shelf for ages (it is on permanent loan to us by someone not really realizing the heft of what they bought and telling us to “figure it out.”), but only managed a couple of plays many, many years ago.I remember not liking it that much, and it has probably jaded my view of worker placement games. In anycase, our family found ourselves in a cabin in the woods last fall, and on a whim I brought it along.

We played it about a dozen times as a 2-player affair, which I realize probably isn’t the ideal arrangement for the game. But my wife and I both came to the realization that the game just isn’t that dramatic or interesting to us. It does feel like, at least for the 2-player game, that it could run another turn or two in length, as you often never quite get to see your farm reach its zenith of operation (hence disappointment). We played around with some 2-player variant boards and other house-rules, but something about the arc of the game just feels “off.” The gameplay is too anticlimactic and clinical for our tastes.

Why oh why did I buy $30 dollars of fancier tokens? It looks nice - but if I’m going to play a tableau-building engine game, I’d rather play wingspan by a wide margin.

Board Game: Irish Gauge

8.5 - Irish Gauge (~5 plays) (2014)
I don’t think I spoke to this game previously, other than a mention of it during my descent into weird game land. I had always wanted to try more of a stock/investment/railroad type of game, and so I picked this one up (a cube rail game specifically). I’ve had a chance to play it a number of times now and I’m quite pleased with the purchase.

As far as train games go, I suspect this one is on the simpler end of things - after all the rules occupy only a single double-sided sheet of paper (how cool is that?). But there is quite a bit of depth and interaction laced throughout each element of the game. Players will buy shares of the different railroad companies, which pay out dividends (with a bit of unpredictability) when that action is triggered. So there’s a healthy dose of bidding for shares in the game. Then there is the spatial puzzle of laying track and figuring out how/where to make your own connections or limit an opponent’s connections.

It’s a lovely game I like the whole package quite a bit. Seems to have the core bones of what constitutes an economic train game, keeping the action focused on the interactive elements. Now of course I’m eyeing other games in the line, like the soon be released Iberian Gauge which will add individual budgets / money accounts for each of the train companies to be used in expanding their network. Next thing you know, I’ll be a full fledged 18xx gamer!

Board Game: Condottiere

6 - Condottiere (~3 plays) (1995)
Finally managed to play this a few times with more than 2-players (it isn’t really meant to be a 2-player game), and it certainly works better. I’m not sure how much I really like the game though. There are some odd edges in the gameplay and lines of play that feel counter intuitive. I’m sure it’s a case where seemingly obvious moves have a viable counter-player that becomes apparent with more experience, but I don’t know if there is the enthusiasm to get it back to the table enough to make those realizations.

Board Game: Joraku

8 - Joraku (~5 plays) (2015)
As an alternative to Condottiere, I present to you Jokau. This a similar combination of area control and card play (specifically trick-taking), that I’ve enjoyed considerably more. The trick-taking takes a little bit of a backseat in terms of its depth, but the interplay between the cards played for trick purposes versus area-control purposes is where the real action is. It’s a fairly streamlined and clean game, but the decision space feels suitably crunchy and nuanced, such that players regularly pull out some unexpected lines of play, shifting the tempo in an enjoyable way.

Board Game: Claim 2

8 - Claim 2 (~15 plays) (2018)
I bought Claim 2 on a whim, as I enjoy the artists work and, well, more trick-taking! Claim is in the elusive category of “interesting 2-player trick-taking games,” and it lives up to that claim (pun intended) rather well.

The basic gist is that there are two phases of play, with each phase playing through half the deck. Each trick there is a face-up card in the middle and the winner of the trick will claim that card, to be used in their hand in the second phase, and the loser of the tricks gets a random card. There is some juicy risk/reward decisions to make about whether you want the the card in the middle (hence trying to win the trick) or hedging your bets that the random card might be better (hence trying to lose the trick).

In the second phase, you’re trying to win a majority of the cards in each faction (there are five), and so the decisions and strategies of what cards you claim in phase 1 directly feed into how well you can score in phase 2. It’s pretty clever! Add in some special abilities tied to each of the suits, and it’s a delightful design.

Board Game: Morels

7 - Morels (~10 plays) (2012)
This one has been floating on the radar for a long time. I figure this has a good chance of being a hit with my wife, as well, she likes hunting for morels? Plus it’s a two player card game. Reading through the rules it sounds interesting and promising so I picked it up.

Had a chance to play a bunch over the past week with both my wife and daughters. It’s a clever game and there is some genuine subtlety to the timing of how/when to play cards and managing your hand. That said, the game also feels a bit mechanistic and rote in its play - and I’m not sure (yet) how much depth there really is. I suspect it’s one of those games, like say Lost Cities, where it appears quite simple but the more you play it against the same partner, the more a localized “meta” for play emerges and slowly evolves/changes over time. Which is a good thing! Hoping to keep playing this more.

Board Game: Homeworlds

8? - Homeworlds (3 plays) (2001)
I’ve been extremely late to the Loony Pyramids / Icehouse Pyramids party. Mostly because I’ve never seen them for sale locally and never bothered to order them. But a series of small box pyramid games were released and I grabbed a copy of Homeworlds after hearing about it.

I’ve played a few solo games and one proper 2-player game (with my Chess-loving daughter). This is a really, really, really, interesting abstract, being highly player driven with some very clever layers of depth (which I’m only just beginning to get a handle on).

Essentially, you play on a board-less space, where upright pyramids are “star systems” with the curious rule that they are only connected to other star systems that are a different size. Pyramids laying flat and pointing away from you are your space ships. Allowable moves (actions) are tied to the color of the star and/or your controlled space ships. The goal is to eventually chart your way to the opposing player's homeworld and destroy it (in one of three subtle manners).

It’s a great example of an emergent and highly-player driven game. The typology of the star field is built dynamically by the players over the course of the game, and the latitude in what actions you can perform creates a ton of room for clever play, counter-maneuvers, and more. Really hoping to dig into this more!

Board Game: Calico

7 - Calico (~30 plays) (2020)
So private pattern building games, or “fiefdom” games (as fellow blogger Martin calls ‘em) or tableau-tile-drafting games are all the rage it seems these days. I bought Calico for my wife (birthday!) who has quite a liking for the feline species and also puzzle building. I knew it would be a hit for her (surprise, it was!).

For my part, I’ll grant that it’s a gorgeou game (as these increasingly tend to be). The spatial puzzle dimension of the game is fun. The principal gameplay hook really seems to be a game of risk management, essentially how long are you willing to wait for optimum pieces to appear to make a more perfect arrangement, versus cutting your losess. There is some interesting balance between trying to complete more frequent “easy” patterns versus making fewer but “harder” patterns that are worth more. How long you can hold, how you can set yourself up for “delay” placements that keep options open is interesting.

The biggest downside is that it isn’t terribly interactive - and when interactions do happen they can be absolutely brutal. If you’re waiting most of the game for certain pieces, and it just so happens to be drawn and then the player going before you snatches it up on a whim (maybe they don’t even need it!) then it makes for bad feels. If the same had some more interesting tile management / tile drafting system bolted onto it, I think it could’ve been a stronger game. I enjoy it for what it is nonetheless.

Board Game: Azul: Summer Pavilion

7 - Azul: Summer Pavilion (~15 plays) (2019)
I played this once after it came out, and my wife took liking to it. Lo and behold, some other family members got her this game for her birthday (another birthday “fiefdom” game!), and we’ve had a chance to play a dozen or so times at this point.

Having only played the original Azul once (the inverse of Martin G’s experience) but this a number of times, I’ve come to a slightly different conclusion. I find the readability of each other’s board states to be really easy - as even at a glance I can tell if someone is trying to complete a star or not (awarding some of the bigger bonuses). Going for the all 1’s, 2’s, 3’s, 4’s, bonus aren’t too hard to tell either.

I also like that there are two levels of drafting going on in the two modes - the core drafting from the pile pools in the middle of course, but then the timing of drafting tiles from the scoreboard when earning bonus tiles. There are some interesting timing moments relative to opponent’s plays in the second phase (where you actually place tiles), and whether you need to pounce early on getting a much needed bonus tiles or you try to defer in the hopes that the tiles in the middle cycle to something you need more.

As with Calico, it’s not really the type of game that excites me - but it’s well done and is a rather pleasing game to just play and relax as a way to come down off the work day.

Board Game: Game of Thrones: The Iron Throne

8 - Game of Thrones: The Iron Throne (5 plays) (2016)
So I missed the boat for Cosmic Encounter by a good 30-years I reckon. I’ve had countless people say “Oliver - thou shalt play the game Cosmic Encounter” - but alas it never quite happened.

Fast forward. One night, between hands of The Crew with our pod-family, we were discuss a mutual appreciation for Game of Thrones, and they asked about GoT themed games. It was all the excuse I needed to make a purchase of the Iron Throne (along with its expansion). I’ve played it 4 or 5 times now - and I gather there are some differences between it and Cosmic Encounter, but the basic structure is similar.

Long story short, as a game of negotiation and bluffing and backstabbing - it’s pretty great. We’ve been playing with 4-players and it’s worked well enough, although I suspect it gets considerably more interesting with 5 or 6 players, which we haven’t managed yet. But soon!

This game does, incidentally and unfortunately, highlight my anguish over product design. Setting aside the bulky (but cool) crown power tokens, I can fit the entire base game plus the expansion into the expansion box, which is about a quarter of the volume of the main game box. It’s frustrating. The expansion box is the size thing you could toss into a small bag or purse and lug to the bar or wherever. The box doesn’t need to be this big. Thinking of sourcing some other small tokens to use in place of the big crowns when I’m on the go.

Board Game: CATAN

8 - Catan (4 recent plays) (1995)
It has been forever since playing Catan - I admit. Our pod-family is a Catan fan (not a ravenous one, but they quite like the game), and so I’ve had chance to play it a number of times in the past couple of months. Playing it again is a nice reminder of what an excellent this is. I know it’s hip to rip on Catan - but I don’t think it’s justified. It remains an old school euro (ahem German Family game) through and through - which means lots of meaningful interaction and decision making delivered on a relatively simply structure. Catan manages to create a lot of great interactions, twists of fate, surprise moves, consternation and damnating, with relatively little mechanical overhead to gum up the gears. It’s a solid game and continues to stand out for reason.

Board Game: Circle the Wagons

7 - Circle the Wagons (5 plays) (2017)
Button shy Games have a pretty cool gig, selling their tiny wallet games. Some friends were putting in order for a few more, and having heard good things about Circle the Wagons I piggybacked on their order. Managed to play this half a dozen times too. I really like it! The game manages to create a ton of tough risk-reward decisions and some tricky decision spaces with a only a handful of components. There is a surprising amount of interaction too, as you’re constantly needing to consider what cards you might stick your opponent with (and vice versa). Snappy, cutthroat little game.

Board Game: Disney Villainous

7 - Villainous (1 play) (2018)
Part of the Holiday Game Haul was Disney’s Villainous game. By younger daughter had been asking for it for years - but I suspect the interest was mostly driven by the theme rather than the gameplay (damn you Disney!). I’ve only managed to get to the table and perk their interest one time - and we had a good four player game. I think this is a solid and interesting game, with some decent lines of interaction. I really need more players to form much of an opinion of it though. Hopefully we’ll get it back to the table soon.

Board Game: 5-Minute Mystery

6 - 5-Minute Mystery (5 plays) (2020)
I’m a big fan of 5-Minute Dungeon, the real-time cooperative dungeon crawler. 5-Minute dungeon is fast, frantic, gets everyone involved in both playing cards and managing the ergonomics of the play in a way that keeps it fun.

5-Minute Mystery looked to provide a similar experience, albeit as a more deduction-oriented experience. Unfortunately, I feel like the setup here silo’s players into different roles instead of keeping everyone focused on the same thing. Fiddling with the clue tumbler is a full-time job for one player, leaving the others to search the scene cards for clues. Unfortunately, the need to look closely at the clue cards means you’ll be hard pressed to get more than 2 people hovering over the card and able to see it. Functionally, I feel like this cap the game about 3 players, otherwise you have players sort of floating around the margins of the experience. You can rotate the roles around after each clue board, but I feel like you shouldn’t have to. It’s okay - but I’d rather still just play 5-minute dungeon.

8 - Warhammer 40,000 (~15 recent plays)
The 40K saga continues. I’ve managed to clock in about 15 games over Tabletop Simulator during the past 6 months - which is more 40K than I’ve played in the past 15 years! We continue to use and refine the ProHammer rule set I developed, and it’s really been going super well. I continue to read general horror stories about the current state of live 40K (9th edition), and I continue to thank my stars that I’m able to play a classic version of the game.

I’ll spare you all from further details unless you ask

ACQUIRED - BUT NOT PLAYED

Here we get to the part where I talk about all the purchase that I’ve made of games that have yet to hit the table. These are all part of the magical shelf of opportunity! Here we go!

Board Game: Pax Pamir: Second Edition

Pax Pamir (2nd Edition) (2019)
I’ve had a small stack of gift cards for my FLGS piling up and decided to jump on Pax Pamir after a recent re-stocking. I’ve enjoyed Pax Renaissance quite a bit in my few plays, but that game is an absolute bear rules wise - there is just a lot of subtly to wrap your head around. So I’m hoping (and all indications suggest accordingly) that Pax Pamir will be a bit more accessible and open up the interactive elements without having to wade through too much complexity first. Looking forward to getting my first play in soon.

Board Game: Control

Control (2016)
I know nothing about this game. I saw it flash by on Amazon and I said… why not. Why indeed. I don’t know why I have this game.

Board Game: The Fox in the Forest Duet

Fox in Forest Duet (2020)
I really enjoyed the original Fox in Forest game, which is a rare 2-player trick-taking game. The newer version (Duet) is a cooperative version. Hoping to get it to the table soon.

Board Game: Tussie Mussie

Tussie Mussie (2019)
My wife played this and liked it - and so I tossed this into the Button Shy Game order. I haven’t had a chance to play yet. Looks cool upon reading the rules.

Board Game: The Quest for El Dorado

Quest for El Dorado (2017)
Last, bu certainly not least, is this Knizia design. I picked this up on whim before the holidays last year, and tucked it away for safe keeping until I wrapped it. Of course, I then forgot that I even had it come Christmas and so it didn’t make the present rounds. I still have it tucked away there, waiting for it’s moment in the spotlight. Not sure when that will be. Maybe I should just wrap it and gift it to myself and a surprise… for myself.

SPECIAL TOPIC: SMALL-BOX, BIG IMPACT GAMES

Before closing out today, I wanted to share another thought, which I’ve touch on before. But I want to reiterate my deep appreciation for smaller box games in general, and in particular those that pack a big meaty experience into a small package. I caught an On Board Games episode about “Big Gameplay, Little Space,” which of course set me off to thinking more about this topic. So a few aspects to share:

First - I wish all games, even bigger ones, took the approach of trying to minimize box size. I strongly dislike buying “air” in a box. And I dislike picking up a box and thinking “this just doesn’t weight enough.” Games need to be in a box sized such that the game has the right “density” if you will. This has nothing to do with the gameplay weight/depth/complexity mind you. This aspect is really just about making the product as a package as efficient as possible. This helps for storage, lugging stuff to game nights, and not scaring people off with the box size.

A few games, of various sizes, that seem to do this well are worth mentioning. Tiny Epic Games? So much packed into each of these. I like the games purely from a product design standpoint. Pax Renaissance - This game will give any big huge full blown game a run for its money (heck it IS a full blown game), and it fits in a box about the size of 6 decks of cards. Innovation? Why do you need a giant sprawling coffin-sized box for your civilization game when this tiny game will make your brain buuuurn? Raiders of the North Sea - I’ll cheat a bit here, but I can fit the base game and both expansions into the base game box with some creative packing. It’s smaller than the unusual 12”x12” square box (like 9x9?) - and it’s DENSE. Ironically, you can buy a special edition box, which is enormous, to fit all the stuff that fits in the normal box anyway. Bigger isn’t always better folks.

Second - I like having smaller box games purely from a portability and efficiency standpoint. I’ve limited my game collection, more or less, to a handful of shelves on our bookcase and other cabinets, and I’m not looking to expand. Smaller games take up less space on the shelf and when I’m contemplating a game purchase I find myself asking, is this “big box game” really worth the space of 2-4 smaller games? Often I don’t think it is. Also, I’m regularly lugging a small bag of games with me on family trips, outings, jaunts to an outdoor restaurant, etc., and small games mean I can easily carry half a dozen with me in a small unobtrusive bag and have some options of games to play with the kids while we wait for food and the like.

Last - I’m impressed with games that achieve efficiency in product design because it often indicates some level of efficiency in the design itself. As a designer, I know all too well how easy (and tempting) it is to “add more” to a game design, or “fixing” a game by throwing additional layers of mechanisms and componentry at it. But more often than not, I think that’s the wrong approach. This does bias my view of larger box games, as I’m almost immediately asking myself, “what’s in this box that doesn’t need to be in here”. This is probably a flawed way of approaching things, but it’s a filter I’ve come to rely on.


UNTIL NEXT TIME

Well, that does it for this round. Some upcoming topics articles I’ve been stewing over for future posts include the following:

(1) Underplayed Games / Wall of Shame
(2) Aspects and Approaches to Board Game Criticism
(3) Design Journal - Works in Progress

Hopefully I can manage a more regular pace to writing over the coming weeks and months. Looking forward to the conversation!
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