Size matters. In board games too. The appeal of Small Box Games isn’t just that John Clowdus makes small things, it’s that he makes things you can carry around without much trouble, that can fit ten to a shelf where a single regular-sized game might sit, that provide some of the best ounce-for-ounce gameplay out there.
Take Neolithic, for example. Crammed into a box the size of a deck of playing cards, this is the sort of thing that would be easy to overlook on a game store shelf. But to discount it for its size would be doing it a disservice, because this is one of the cleverest little games I’ve played in a long while.
Dots & Boxes is one of those games that doesn’t seem like it bears any improvement. Largely because it’s hardly a game. It’s a time-waster. It’s a way to pass the seconds when you’re in a long church meeting, or sitting through someone else’s graduation ceremony, or… well, those are my examples. No matter where it appears, Dots & Boxes was always more of a testament to that place’s boringness level than a pinnacle of design.
Sounds like it’s time for an update? Somebody thought so.
Occasionally, being adorable is exactly what a game needs.
By way of example, consider Kodama: The Tree Spirits from Action Phase Games. Here’s a game that, if it weren’t so darn precious, might have everyone slamming their heads against the table. Not in the sense that the rules are complicated or the game is especially frustrating. Rather, because the goals lend themselves so fully to a tightly-controlled competition of wits where a single misstep can see you plummeting in the rankings. Transforming it into a zen-like game about growing a tree so you can house some cute-as-buttons forest spirits? Magnificent.
For those of us who haven’t lived it, it’s almost impossible to imagine what life was like under Soviet rule. In Poland, once the last political opposition was eliminated in 1947, once the last resistance fighters were killed in 1963, once private entrepreneurs were ousted from the economy in favor of state administrators who emphasized military preparedness and national industries over individual comfort, times got lean. And when I say “lean,” I’m not talking about a shortage here or there. I’m talking about the long hunger of the 1970s and ’80s, when the demand for everything from meat to soap wasn’t even close to being met. These were the years of the endless queues lining Polish streets, when families would buy up whatever was available when they finally reached the front of the line. Even if it wasn’t something they could use themselves, at least they could barter it at one of many semi-legal outdoor markets.
Kolejka — or Queue, in English — is about those years when even the ration cards had ration cards. And that isn’t a joke. To prevent people from using too many ration cards, the communist authorities issued new IDs that tracked how many ration cards you used. That’s how bad things had gotten.
One of my favorite ways to spend a quiet hour is to look at old maps. The way ancient peoples framed their world is fascinating, familiar landmarks and settlements emphasized, the in-between and unknown stripped out, the important stuff always at the axis. One of my favorite examples is the Tabula Peutingeriana. The entire Roman Empire is represented, from the Atlantic Ocean to India, thousands of miles of highways presented in meticulous detail, her greatest cities — Rome, Constantinople, Antioch — dominating the landscape with titanic presence. This is a functional rather than a mythical map, as was more common in the medieval period. And yet there are gaps. Entire ranges of mountains appear as little more than hedgerows, distant China is listed simply as “Sera Major,” and the ends of the earth are listed as Hic Alexander responsum accepit usqi quo Alexander — the farthest point in Alexander the Great’s travels.
Odin Quest, one of the latest print-and-play solo titles from the ever-prolific Todd Sanders, evokes this sense of the unknown lurking just beyond the gaze of the civilized world. Here, the wild is ever nipping at the heels of all that has been tamed, and every truth bears the caught breath of an untold secret.
Settle in, because I’ve got one whopper of a tale to tell. I recently played the latest game from hit-or-miss-or-miss-or-miss designer Richard Launius, a doozy that goes by the name of Legends of the American Frontier. How was it? That’s not the important part. We’ll get to that when the time’s right. For now, I’d rather tell you about cheerful Jedediah, the whistlin’ preacher-man who wasn’t ever much good at anything other than stumblin’ right along, no matter how rocky the trail.
I can think of any number of reasons why someone might not get along with Hostage Negotiator. Principally, it may strike some as odd that a game where the word “negotiator” consists of fifty percent of its title should be solo game. Even odder still, that it should be a pretty darn good solo game.
Blood & Fortune claims to be about a monarchical succession, something about picking a suitable king with the wisdom of ten thousand dragons amid the burgeoning threat of civil war. I dunno, considering the thing is an import from Japan and talks about duplicity in conflict, it’s all warring daimyos and moonlit recitations of epigrammatic war poetry to me. Autumn leaves fall all around; on desperate ground, fight. Or, in the case of Blood & Fortune, when the river flows from behind, give ’em your twos. That will make sense in a minute.
You’d think Tesla vs. Edison: War of Currents would be right in my wheelhouse. History? Bitter feuds? Stolen patents? I am intimately acquainted with all of these things in my genuine everyday life, so why not in a game? Tragically, Tesla vs. Edison was an excellent game marred by a single major issue, which is almost worse than simply being a bad game. As I wrote in last week’s review, because everybody loves it when a man quotes himself:
Rather than being a game about the War of Currents that happens to have a hand in the stock market, Tesla vs. Edison is a game about the stock market that happens to have a hand in the War of Currents. Its priorities are all mixed up.
To my credit, I didn’t place that quote over an image of a snow-drifted prairie. And to Tesla vs. Edison’s credit, the expansion Powering Up! entirely erases my complaints about its tedious stock jockeying.
Look, you’ve probably heard plenty about Star Wars: Rebellion, so I’m not going to do my usual thing here. For some people, the fact that it’s a high-production Star Wars game will be enough to rave about it, regardless of whether or not it’s particularly good. Which is why I’m here to tell you, as a Star Wars skeptic, that this is an incredible, fantastic, tense, wonderful game. Sure, it’s only for two players (or two teams) and it runs anywhere from two to four hours, but it absolutely captures the adventure, desperation, and drama of Star Wars. Better yet, it’s adventurous, desperate, and dramatic no matter the setting. Seriously, this is a very good game.
So come along and let me tell you about two very different plays, and why this just might be one of the best games I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing.