Small Box Games, the imprint for the unusual and idiosyncratic card games designed by John Clowdus, is at it again with a set of three limited release titles that fans of Omen and Tooth and Nail may want to take note of. Shadow of the Sun, The Valkyrie Incident, and Stone & Relic make for a nice set, really kind of representing a “greatest hits” package of Mr. Clowdus’ core mechanical concepts and design sensibilities. I don’t think any are as particularly strong as Omen or Tooth and Nail, but all remain high quality, unique card games with mostly great artwork and appreciable depth without rules burden. Subject matter is compelling- one game is about a sci-fi mech-war between factions of female warriors, one is a multiplayer continuation of the twilight power struggle depicted in the earlier Hemloch, and the other is a kingdom-building game set in a vague fantasy kingdom.
Across all three games you’ll see all of the key elements that make up a John Clowdus game. Multifunction cards, contested locations, comparative conflict resolution, drafting, achievement cards, modification effects, streamlined processes, and resource management. Having played just about everything this man has released over the past couple of years, if there’s anything I’m disappointed by in this games is that I’m fairly sure that at this point he could design rock solid, appealing card games with unique concepts in his sleep. I hesitate to say that it feels like there’s not much new here or that Mr. Clowdus is repeating himself because these games do feel different in some ways, but longtime Small Box acolytes may feel a distinct sense of familiarity.
But this is built into Shadow of the Sun by design. It is essentially a multiplayer reworking of the two player area control game Hemloch, and it features most of the same district control mechanics with some special functions to shake things up. I think it’s a stronger multiplayer game than it is as a head-to-head affair because there is naturally a more dynamic sense of shifting control and competition. Hemloch was a great looking game, and despite some unusually crude typefaces, a new artist manages to capture the look and feel of the original. What I like about both Hemloch and Shadow of the Sun is that the games distill the sense of playing an El Grande-style area control board game into a very compact package. There are lots of decision points each turn, but everything is kept tight and most choices (such as selecting whether to Bolster, Preen, or Usurp) on your turn are contained.
Stone & Relic is less confrontational than most of Small Box’s games, particularly their more recent issues like Omen. It a sense, it hearkens back to the earlier Irondale in that it’s a pretty straight kingdom builder and that there are particular bonuses for building certain buildings next to monuments. Each card has a variety of uses, which leads to some interesting quandaries during play. Do build a structure to get its special ability, play it for its spell ability, or tuck it away as Wealth? Or do you place it as Influence to try to sway one of the game’s titular Relics your way?
It’s a fairly easy game- again, with a lot of decision points made manageable by tight design. I like the spatial element distilled from Irondale, and the variety of card effects and uses is interesting. The setting is a little abstract and the general “build a fantasy kingdom” trope is tired, but it’s not particularly offensive. I think it’s definitely the least of the three, but it’s also the one most likely to interest folks that aren’t looking for a conflict-heavy offering.
More compelling in terms of setting is The Valkyrie Incident. The artist from Tooth and Nail makes an encore performance and the result is another great-looking science fiction game with excellent painterly illustrations. Depicting a factional conflict between five clans of female warriors and their glorious mechs (“Cogdrives”), this best-of-the-lot title features some great drafting mechanics and light deckbuilding that make for a fun, bloody brawl that will most likely appeal to those who know Small Box mainly through Omen.
There’s a common deck of Valkyrie, Cogdrive, assault, and action cards. At the beginning of the game, each player picks an Emblem of one of the five factions, which grants bonuses and special abilities to cards from that group. There’s a drafting round, during which players will likely try to snatch up cards of their matching clan to seed their 15 card starter deck. In contest are a set of location cards, each of which provide a special effect for the conflict fought there. The idea is to pile up troops and beat the enemy at each, drafting new cards each round and deciding whether to pay or play with cards.
Valkyrie Incident is definitely my favorite of this bunch and it’s the one I’d most likely recommend. But even still, it’s not as robust and rich as Omen and it’s a little more complicated than Tooth and Nail. And there is that lingering specter of redundancy, as there is in all three of these games. They are all really good on their own, but it’s not hard to glance back through the Small Box oeuvre and find resonances of these games in past successes.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing- after all, Knizia made an entire career out of recycling and recontextualizing great mechanical concepts and I appreciate the strong sense of authorship that these games evidence. But at this stage, what I’d really like to see from Small Box next is something that breaks out of the core Battle Line/Magic/Dominion influenced model. A larger game with more moving parts, perhaps something that leverages the core Small Box ideas toward a bigger board game concept in the same way that designers are now making deckbuilding a component suite of bigger designers. At this stage, this company has nowhere to go but up. I’m all about supporting great playing games that look good, aren’t made in China, and that are designed and marketed by a passionate individual with a vision for providing tremendous play value in inexpensive packages. On that level at least, these games deliver as well as anything else Small Box has done to date.