Joel Toppen’s Navajo Wars: A History of the American Southwest, 1598-1864 is the story of the slow-motion apocalypse of a people. The game is, as you might guess from the title, about the Navajo (Dine) people of the American Southwest and their struggle to maintain their families, culture and ways of life in the face of Spanish, Mexican and American encroachment. Long before Kit Carson comes onto the scene during the Civil War to rope the Navajo onto a reservation, it’s clear that this is not a battle the Dine are going to win. This is, quite wilfully, a game about the twilight of these people and your success in guiding their fate is measured by a degree of inevitable failure. The game has much in common with other card-driven wargames in that specific historical beats, personalities and turns of events are unavoidable and your ability to anticipate and mitigate the script of history is critical. But it doesn’t really play like anything descended from We The People.
The world of board games is a largely cerebral one, even at the thinnest end. For most games, physical appreciation begins and ends with the tactile nature of the pieces. But just occasionally, you’ll find a game that breaks out of your head and into your body. The first one I discovered was Labyrinth, which made me feel queasy as I planned massive terrorist outrages across the globe. Space Alert is the second. Space Alert gave me indigestion.
After playing nonstop for several hours – a large number of games since most last only 20-20 minutes, I lay in my bed and failed miserably to sleep as stress and adrenaline coursed through my nerves and acid ate away at my intestine. I wasn’t sure if what I’d just experienced was fun or not, but it was certainly powerful, and utterly unique.
When I first played Michal Oracz’s Theseus: The Dark Project I scrambled for references to try to quantify the experience. I attempted to draw some kind of tenuous connection to Mr. Oracz’s previous success, a little game known as Neuroshima Hex. But that failed, apart from the fact that both are highly abstract, tactical games. I tried to parse how a game that I thought was going to be some kind of Space Hulk thing turned out to be so strange, with unusually restrictive rules and often inflexible gameplay yet with an ample sense of theme and setting. The mechanics were from out of nowhere- I couldn’t draw a sensible lineage to anything other than Manacala, of all things. My initial reaction is best summed up as “what in the hell was that?”
And that, readers, is an awesome feeling.
In case you haven’t noticed, Polish publishers Portal have been doing some pretty interesting board games over the past several years, reaching back to the widely beloved Neuroshima Hex on through last year’s smash Robinson Crusoe. For the next two weeks, I’ll be taking a look at two of their most recent issues. First up is Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy, a worker placement game with a surprisingly compelling thematic conceit. Continue Reading…
What if Star Fleet Battles, one of the most notoriously inaccessible and complicated games in all of the hobby, were a real-time party game best played at full volume by a large group of rowdy, not-shy-at-all tabletop hooligans? The answer is that it would probably be something like Geoff and Sydney Englestein’s Space Cadets: Dice Duels. In this new title from Stronghold Games, two teams of two to four players each are tasked with commandeering spaceships that looks an awful, awful lot like the U.S.S. Defiant from Deep Space Nine. The high level concept is that each team member manages one or more command stations on their ship, using power generated and distributed by the Engineering officer to accomplish the particular tasks assigned to their post. The goal is to maneuver your way into (or out of) firing solutions and torpedo the crap out of the other team’s ship. The ship that deals out four points of damage to the other wins the game.
I received another one of AEG’s care packages late last year (delivered to the wrong address, as usual) and I’ve finally gotten around to playing through their most recent review copy bounty. For some reason, I was shorted Cheaty Mages which sucks because I was really looking forward to it, but beggar-critics can’t be choosers. So here are three capsule reviews of some recent AEG releases.
One of the things that I’ve come to value the most about modern board game design is minimalism. Mind you, I still hold a great deal of respect for the sometimes tremendously complex games upon which hobby gaming was built and I still enjoy more detailed, rules-heavy games. But when a game distills the practical essence of a process or even an entire genre down to its barest essentials, I believe what we’re looking at is a highly evolved example of progress in game design. As things get smaller, a lot of dead weight and relatively unimportant content tends to be sloughed off. When minimalist design is at its finest, we get a game like Intrige or Love Letter. Games with zero fat, focused on gameplay rather than elaboration. Continue Reading…
When I emailed Robert Burke, designer of Battle for Souls to shamelessly ask for a review copy, he responded that he had sold through what the Kickstarter campaign had allowed him to print but he was more than happy to comply. It seems that he had several game reviewers actually decline the opportunity to review the game because of its subject matter. Naturally, I wanted to review it because of the subject matter. And because any game that uses William Blake paintings has got to have something to recommend it. Continue Reading…
Mostly, I’m not a big fan of co-operative games. Games suffer terribly without the unpredictability and skill of human opposition, and the whole genre sometimes looks like a collection of semi-functional attempts to solve this big, blaring problem.
But there are a very few that make my grade. And I’ve noticed they tend to have certain things in common: they allow plenty of scope of individual player decision making in the face of the group, offer some sort of simple AI-like mechanics that make it look like the game is reacting to your decisions and have a deep well of variety to add to the narrative and keep things unpredictable.
But the most important quality of all is balancing the need for transparent mechanics that allow for strategic decisions with a strong wind of chance to make sure the game doesn’t become a mere logic puzzle. Lean too far in the former direction and you might as well be solving co-operative Su-doku with your friends. Too far in the latter and you might as well co-operatively shoot craps. It’s a hard, hard proportion to get right and none of the co-ops I’ve played so far, even my favourites, have quite got it right. Until I played Robinson Crusoe.