I own four games from John Clowdus’s Small Box Games series. I told him I’d share my thoughts on them on this website. I’m posting the same review under all four games, since I discuss each game briefly and talk a little about the company and John’s professionalism.
My reviews are quick, don’t outline all the rules or include pictures, but do attempt to give newcomers a sense of the game and what I love and dislike about the product.
First, Small Box Games itself!
I’m really impressed to see a designer with enough faith in his designs to found a company and do his own publishing. I have no idea how profitable that exercise is, but I expect it is (as game design is for so many of us) a labor of love. When he makes a run of his games, you order them in advance, and you get the chance to follow the developments (and the headaches) along the way. John is great about communicating, so if there is a delay or problem with one of the vendors providing part of the products along the way, he keeps you informed. I really liked this aspect of following his game publication adventures, as I truly felt like I was a part of the process, and could see some of the details and time that go into a great game that we sometimes don’t even think about.
I rate Small Box Games a 10/10 for getting people informed and doing their best to deal with the frustrations of vendors who don’t always deliver what they promise. For example, in the run that provided my four games, the vendor that was supposed to provide the eponymous “Small Box” to store the games in couldn’t made good on their agreements, forcing the company to switch to game bags instead of boxes. I think John and his team was probably as frustrated as anyone! And he was generous enough to offer everyone discounts on the games for the inconvenience.
Now, the games in my collection:
As I said, I own four from this company. One of my degrees is in Philosophy, so I was very interested in the game Elemental Rift. One of my wife’s degrees is in Chemistry, so I thought she might like Chronalyst. My father has a degree in Electrical Engineering and is a professor of robotics, so I thought he might enjoy playing Robotico at our place. And I have a brother who is into fantasy themes are war games, and so Dirge: Carnage in Crimson caught my eye.
This game is brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. And absolutely chaotic. Basically, you cast simple spells outlined on cards from tiles in the center of the table called the Elemental Rift representing the four Aristotelian elements (Fire, Water, Earth, and Air), and those spells then change what is showing in the Rift, and what spells subsequent players can then cast. There are also rules about increasing or “decaying” the available elements in the Rift at the start of a player’s turn. The result is a very magical constant flux of the Rift, and a challenging, fun game of trying to set yourself up for the spells you might want to cast.
Unfortunately, the more players you have, the harder it is to anticipate and plan for long term results, because the chaos causes such dramatic changes in the Rift before your next turn. Consequently, Elemental Rift is better with fewer players.
The real brilliance in the game, though, is the victory conditions. There are five “Accolades” that can be earned by doing difficult things in the game (such as using all the spells in your hand or leaving the Rift with only a single element type in it because of a spell you cast, or so forth). There have been slightly different rules for how these accolades work in different iterations of the game, but in my favorite version they can change hands, so if you do something miraculous with a well-timed spell and win an accolade, someone else can just do the same thing and steal it from you! The winner is the first person to simultaneous claim a certain number (such as two) of the accolades. It is one of the best victory condition ideas in any game I have ever played, and I have played a lot.
I give Elemental Rift a 9 out of 10 in a two player game, but that rating quickly declines with larger groups, as it gets more chaotic, and more based on luck than actual strategy. The game is easy to recommend, though, because it really makes you think and is still just a lot of fun.
Chronalyst is my only disappointment from the Small Box Games. It’s basically a trick-taking card game with a chemistry theme and some dice that govern the relative value of the suits in the game. It didn’t go over well with my group, there was far too much luck, from what card values you were initially dealt to the numbers rolled on the dice, and the effort to deepen the chemistry theme with an end game activity of “building compounds” with taken cards seemed artificial, unnecessary, and a little odd. I like to see designers thinking outside of the box, but this game didn’t do it for us. Too much chance, too little strategy. I’d give the game a 4 out of 10 if pressed, though I think it could be a good one for the right group. I just think the company has much better games to represent their design talents.
Robotico is a newer version of an earlier Small Box Game entitled Politico. I’m not familiar with the original, but I understand they are very similar in mechanics. Robotico is a fantastic idea that is always fun when we play it, but it does have some issues, which I describe below.
The components are great, and every player gets a “factory instruction manual,” some cards showing robot colors, and they spend ten rounds trying to produce or change the robots coming out of their factory to collect every available robot color and lots of the most valuable (and rare) colors. The factory manual provides a lot of options for using color cards to change robots’ colors, steal robots from other players, gain more cards, “recall” robots causing everyone to lose some, or similar things. It’s clever and great theme. The basic mechanic of the game is a simultaneous action selection of whether players want to “fabricate” new robots or “manipulate” existing robots, though the actual options beyond that initial choice are deeper.
This simultaneous action feels somewhat like “Race for the Galaxy” or other games, and you get benefits for your action if most players chose the other option. Unfortunately, with only two options, and the benefits for picking differently than anyone else more significant than the benefits from the actual choice, the game also feels a little like “Rock, Paper, Scissors” with only two choices instead of three . . .
The ultimate victor in the game is always the person who chose differently from other people, and so you are not concerned about what ought to be the primary purpose of your selection (i.e. the basic benefit) but rather guessing what everyone else might be choosing. But then, they are only concerned about the same thing, so there is no primary factor that is forcing them to act rationally, as it were, but rather just act randomly, and thus it is impossible to ever guess what someone else might select, so your best bet is to just act randomly as well, so the game, as you might imagine, is actually one of pure chance. And that’s a tragedy because it is fun and it could be extremely deep and interesting if there were more significant “primary benefits” from one’s selection.
There are lots of cool action selections along the way, but ultimately, it does seem a little broken if you want a game of strategy or tactics. And I am not positive how thoroughly play-tested the differing options are in the game. There are some manipulations in the factory manual, such as those on the “red” models, that seem wildly powerful for so common a robot type, and have been key to victory in every game I’ve played: someone steals a huge number of opponent robots because they got a good red manipulation in, whereas the purple and yellow options seem far less useful for their difficulty (given how infrequently the yellow and purple robots are the primary production for the day).
Overall, Robotico seems like a game with tremendous potential and enjoyable ideas and actions, but a let down if you are expecting a really strategic game.
I’d rate Robotico as 6 out of 10.
Dirge: The Carnage in Crimson
This game is fun and chaotic, and feels like a combination of chess and a dice fest war game. It might be popular among all the Space Hulk fanatics. You and one opponent have armies of mythological creatures with special powers, movement points, and damage meters tracked on accompanying cards. There are various effects of combat and rules related to whether a creature is flanked, attacked from behind, and so forth. The game has all the elements of a great battle simulation with lots of cool options, and so it gets high marks for that.
Some of the earlier editions of the game even came with miniatures (now the standard version is tiles with pictures and names of the creatures), so if you enjoy that kind of game, this one might be right up your alley.
I’d give it a 7 out of 10, but I’m not a huge fan of miniature combat games.
My One Regret
I wish I had looked into another game by this company. Reading through the rules and other information on many of their games, I think Seii Taishogun may be one of John’s very best, and it isn’t one that I own or have played. It is the one I most want to try out in the future. As it stands, though, Elemental Rift is the best of the Small Box Games in my current personal collection, and I’m glad to have it.
I have Dirge: Carnage in Crimson and A Society of Strings and imo both are great games. Love Dirge but it can be difficult to have a balanced game with a new player as they will not be used to the various creature powers and how best to implement them.
Going to order Elemental Rift and S.Taishogun soon as I'm generally very impressed with Small Box Games.