As a kid, I was never any good at those Choose Your Own Adventure books. For one thing, I wanted to see every twist and ending the book had to offer, even the ones where my character died a grisly death or suddenly woke up and realized the whole thing had been an elaborate dream. Unless I read every single page, I didn’t feel like it had been worth it. The problem was that I wanted to accomplish this without having to reread anything. And so I dog-eared those books until there were more pages bent-down than in their original shape, and kept my fingers wedged at crucial junctures, and eventually resorted to drawing crazy-person diagrams with arrows pointing between important decisions. Anything to keep from reading even a single page over again.
Years later, T.I.M.E Stories has earned the distinction of being the first board game to prompt the resurgence of my childhood neurosis.
By this point in their evolution, most dice games have become kindly creatures. Gentle, even. They want you to have a good time, to roll some bones and chuckle at your fortunes, to relax and have a straightforward and undemanding evening. They may have descended from wilder ancestors, but they’ve become tame, domesticated beasts along the way.
Neanderthal, the prequel to Greenland, is anything but that sort of dice game. It doesn’t care about staying late. Nor does it plan on playing fair. It embraces player elimination — or, perhaps worse, making the unlucky player sit around for rounds at a time with nothing to do. It’s complicated, rough, talks loudly about sex at inappropriate moments, changes the rules halfway through, and sometimes slaps you on the back so hard that you end up with Dr. Pepper charring your sinuses. In short, it has no interest in seeking mainstream appeal. And that’s precisely why I find it so fascinating.
It’s that time of year again! The weather is getting nippy, radio stations are playing jollier music, and you’re honor-bound to spend multiple evenings with people you don’t necessarily know very well but who hold some sort of genetic or matrimonial connection to you. Sure, Uncle Deever is sort of a racist and your mother-in-law asks a lot of questions that feel like indictments of how badly you’re caring for her precious baby, but it could be worse. You might, for example, have nobody around who loves you.
But for those of us who do, what follows is an incredibly subjective and probably wrong-headed list of the ten games I’ll be hauling around in a big yellow duffel bag this holiday season.
Way back in 2008, the one thing that prevented me from getting along with good old Dominion — and disclaimer, I haven’t played it in a very, very long time — was the fact that my actions felt almost entirely divorced from the kingdom-building I was supposedly undertaking. Armed with gold and some estates, my fair land was soon filled with nothing but cellars and laboratories, while my only policy was the daily festival. Dominion deserved every ounce of heaped praise, but while it may have been the grandfather of an entire genre, it was also a classic example of the gulf all too often situated between theme and mechanics in deck-builders.
I might seem erroneous in besmirching my elders. After all, this was before, well, every other deck-building game. And certainly, they’ve come a long way over the last
century seven years. Valley of the Kings and Core Worlds and Star Realms were mere twinkles in their designers’ eyes. Hybrid designs like A Study in Emerald, Baseball Highlights: 2045, and City of Remnants were radical heresies not yet uttered. There was one deck-building game, however, released the year after Dominion. To everyone’s surprise, it was every bit as smart and mechanically sound as its daddy, except it also had a dash of real personality. For all its pizzazz, it got locked up by Rio Grande Games to prevent it from competing with its father — possibly the most accurately medieval thing Dominion had ever done.
If there’s any one thing that sets the designs of Ryan Laukat apart, it’s the fact that nothing ever really “goes to hell.” Even when you’re fighting world-crushing titans in The Ancient World, they never quite get around to crushing the world. There are no Nazis to pilfer your 1930s loot or kidnap your significant other in Artifacts, Inc. Even warfare in Eight-Minute Empire represents minor setbacks rather than crushing routs. By and large, Laukat’s games are set in a bizzaro universe where optimism and progress rule the day.
Now, that might sound dull. I couldn’t blame you if it did. Because, sure, it’s conflict that drives our games, and a game without conflict hardly feels like a game at all. Which is why it’s such a relief that Laukat’s designs are brimming with conflict — it’s just that it’s the sort where nobody ever gets seriously hurt, where you’re racing to be the most optimistic and most industrious, where the goal is to have the most good things happen to you rather than avoiding the bad. It’s childlike, almost, if that didn’t feel like an underhanded insult. Innocent. Pure.
Above and Below might be the greatest exemplar of Laukat’s spirit of optimism thus far.
Mission: Red Planet feels like the sort of game that would have been an absolute classic ten years ago — which is fitting, considering it first released in 2005 and only recently got a fresh splash of red paint from Fantasy Flight Games. The question, then, is how well does it hold up today?
Bad little boys are laid on the tracks,
— lashed in place with rusted old chains —
locomotives splitting clean as an axe,
when sent by grandma to the isle of trains.
That’s what old gran used to sing to me as a young child. Ever since, I’ve had a peculiar paranoia of islands packed with trains. Who put these evil trains on an island? Why are they so mean to lost children? Were these the little engines that couldn’t? I used to stay up nights pondering the answers to these questions. So when the card game version of Isle of Trains fell into my hands, it was a good four months before I got up the courage to play it. Turns out, it’s a perfectly pleasant hand-management game. Huh!
If you’re into board games, you’ve probably heard about Pandemic Legacy, the persistent game of disease control from Rob Daviau and Matt Leacock, which alters in unexpected ways every time you play it. There’s no shortage of people who will gladly fill your ears with honey about the greatness of this game; problem is, they want to tell you about it without spoiling anything. Which is altogether too antiseptic for my tastes.
Which is why I’m spoiling, for your benefit, the runthrough of Pandemic Legacy that I’ve undertaken with my wife, my sister, and my sister’s husband. I will spoil everything I can remember to spoil.
IN THE EVENT YOU DO NOT YET COMPREHEND, I AM THE MAD BOMBER OF SPOILERS, AND I PLAN TO SPOIL EVERYTHING, EVERY SINGLE THING, SO DO NOT SEND ME HATE MAIL WHEN EVERYTHING GETS SPOILED AND YOU WERE TOO OBTUSE TO REALIZE IT WAS GOING TO HAPPEN. WARNING DELIVERED.
If I’m being entirely honest, my suspicion of Portal: The Uncooperative Cake Acquisition Game had very little to do with Cryptozoic Entertainment’s mostly-bad reputation. Nor did it revolve around my discovery, upon opening the box, that the pieces aren’t all that great, especially the hexagonal room tiles that don’t fit together nearly as well as they ought. Or the lopsided turret. Or the way the bendy-man test subjects are jet-black but for a narrow band of color, making them frustratingly slow to sort unless they’re already standing up.
No, it wasn’t any of those things. It was the license. As in, Valve’s ultra-popular duo of games of the digital persuasion, Portal itself.
Way back last year, I highlighted a title that was pretty much my ideal filler game: Coup. Confrontation, deception, and bullying, all crammed into one fifteen-minute package. Glorious.
Well, now I’ve been given the opportunity to review it all over again, because Coup just got a mouthful of a sequel. Coup: Rebellion G54 they’re calling it, for some reason. And it’s totally blowing me away.