I’ve long been of the opinion that the highest authorities in the land, the dudes who carry matching sets of nuclear launch keys with grave determination and a too-wide gait that hints at unbroken years of constipation, really ought to hire some regular guy off the street. Just to sit in on their super-secret meetings. To sip coffee in the corner and look bewildered while they talk about foreign policy. That way, when someone gets the bright idea to transfer control of the nation’s nuclear arsenal to a digital mind with genocidal tendencies, that guy can twiddle his thumbs for a bit before clearing his throat, leaning forward, and putting them straight.
“Hey, that idea? About the murder-bot and all our nukes? It’s, ah… I don’t know how to say this nicely, Mr. President, but it’s shit.”
And that’s how we’re going to prevent RESISTOR from happening.
Eighteen cards. Four tokens. One pad for keeping score. A single golf pencil.
That’s everything there is to Tides of Time, the first foray of Portal Games into the wild but diminutive world of microgames. It’s a surprisingly tiny effort from a company that isn’t exactly known for skimping on the cardboard. But does it skimp on the gameplay? That there’s the question.
A fairly long time ago, I spent a lot of time in the back of high school buses en route to various band competitions. This was before smartphones, and laptops were reserved for college students and first class passengers on airplanes, so we passed the time with Egyptian Ratscrew, a game about slapping cards as they were flipped over. I never understood the rules. For me, the only rule was to slap red-headed Hailey’s hand, because I was crushing like diamonds. Because diamonds are formed by intense pressure and infatuation, see.
And while I never ended up dating the object of my oddly manifested affections, I departed with some small fondness for slapping games. Which is why I’m going to tell you about Slap .45 even though it hardly warrants an introduction.
There’s something to be said for brazenly occupying a niche nobody knew needed filling. For example, I was entirely unaware of my subliminal desire to outfit my own pirate ship with cartoon characters and kamikaze monkeys, agonize over lengths of rope and barrels of rum to afford the favor of the Pirate King back in port, and conduct naval warfare by chucking big handfuls of dice into a box — and then having their positions represent the chaos of battle.
I wasn’t aware I wanted this. Ignacy Trzewiczek was; and thus Rattle, Battle, Grab the Loot took its niche by storm.
Just last month, if you were to tell me that Vlaada Chvátil was making a party game, I’d laugh you out of the room. I mean, I’d finish choking on my chocolate milk first, but then I’d laugh you out of the room.
Why? Well, because party games are about simplicity. About getting everyone involved, even when they aren’t particularly into games. They’re about appealing to both your hardcore enthusiast brother-in-law and your grandma who hasn’t played a board game since the winter of ’47 when her little brother froze to death because he wouldn’t stop playing checkers under the porch.
Vlaada Chvátil, on the other hand — and this is what I would have told you a month ago — is about convoluted designs that glow with the uncanny brilliance of an insane person. People don’t play Space Alert, Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends, Mage Knight, or Galaxy Trucker because they’re simple. They play them because they’re bonkers.
But that was the me of a month ago. Today I have been humbled, because I can’t stop playing Vlaada Chvátil’s version of a party game.
Every now and then, there’s a very small game with a heart that pumps very big ideas.
Guns & Steel is tiny. Not quite an appetizer since it usually clocks in at over an hour, but it’s a slender thing, only about fifty cards or so. And while the rules can be a little tricky to learn, that’s largely because it’s doing so much with so little. Each and every card, for instance, works double-duty as both resource and action, purchasing power and purchased opportunity. Once everything clicks, it slides from one beat to another as smoothly as a machine-tooled piston.
But that’s not the main thing that’s got me so impressed.
There’s something jarring about Artifacts, Inc. And yes, I’m talking about how it feels downright peculiar to play a game about archaeology during the interwar period and not be pitted against the Nazi Paranormal Research Division in a hunt over land, air, and sea for the Spear of Destiny, where “Roll a d6 to keep your eyes pressed shut,” is the final challenge.
Instead, Artifacts, Inc. is an entirely pleasant game, one where rival antiquarians might occasionally become kind of snitty with each other, but otherwise behave and don’t go exploding or stealing each other’s stuff. Surprisingly, this works way better than it has any right to.
Not too long ago, I wrote about a superb little ditty by the name of Spyfall, a game about asking questions in a vague yet informative manner so that one of the players — the SPY — would slip up and reveal themselves, while also ensuring that the other players wouldn’t jump to the conclusion you were the spy because your information was too wishy-washy. It was a tightrope social deduction game, simple enough that your curmudgeonly aunt could get along with it, but smart enough that the most jaded gamer would find something to love.
And now thanks to A Fake Artist Goes to New York, it’s back. In art form.
History Time! Around 3,600 years ago on the Aegean isle of Thera, during the height of the pre-Greek Minoan civilization, an enormous volcano went off. In addition to totally burying the settlement of Akrotiri beneath volcanic ash that would later become the principal ingredient in pencil erasers and cosmetic exfoliants, the resultant tsunami and altered weather may have also led to the weakening of the Minoan state, prepping them for invasion by the less-exploded Mycenaeans. Some historians even speculate that the complete disappearance of such an important settlement was the inspiration for Plato’s account of Atlantis.
Set around a thousand years later (landing us in Classical Greek territory), Akrotiri casts two players as a pair of humanity’s first archaeologists, scouring the uncharted Aegean Sea for treasure and ancient temples.