I have a pet theory that board games are great at enabling humorous moments but terrible at comedy. Humorous moments are singular: a joke, a misstep, a callback. Comedy is sustained. That makes it harder because even a single flub can ruin the whole thing. Ever played a party game that was funny for a few minutes but quickly grew dull? Or something like Munchkin, with the occasional cutesy card but agonizing gameplay? It’s one thing to provide prompts and let players riff. Another entirely to keep the humor coming. There’s a reason funny games are usually short. They exist to enable humorous moments, not real comedy.
Hence my personal metric: It isn’t enough to be funny. A great comedy board game has to be funny even when you’re losing. By that metric, Matt Eklund’s Stationfall is the latest addition to my personal pantheon of games that never fail to make me laugh.
Dan Bullock’s No Motherland Without is unflinching. Casting its players as either the Kim dynasty of the inaptly-named Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or the amalgamous West, it directs your gaze into the cankered soul of evil and refuses to look away.
It’s also the reddest game ever. No, really. This thing is so red it scorches the eyes.
Tom Jolly and Luke Laurie’s Cryo opens with a bang. En route to a habitable world, its colony ship is struck off course, possibly by sabotage, and finds itself scattered across the surface of a snowball planet. Divided into distrustful factions, the crew scrambles to hoard supplies and thaw out their companions before they’re lost to the flames. Nightfall swiftly approaches, driving the survivors underground.
If Cryo were your typical systems-heavy nu-Euro, its opening riff would serve as a prelude to resource swapping, puzzle-box optimization, and careful accounting. A veneer meant to decorate some math. To be sure, there are resources to swap, puzzles to optimize, and accounts to settle. But far from being your typical nu-Euro, Cryo approaches its setting with laser focus. Rather than coming across as ponderous or disconnected from its setup, Cryo’s story begins with a thunderclap and keeps drumming until it reaches its fateful conclusion.
This month on the Space-Cast!, we’re investigating a difficult topic — the representation of slavery in board games. To help navigate these waters, we’re joined by Patrick Rael, Professor of History at Bowdoin College, to discuss how board games have depicted slavery in the past, what they’re doing right now, and how we can use them to learn about sensitive historical issues.
More and more, I hear acquaintances saying things like, “Oh, I might have played that game back when I had reflexes.”
As someone whose video game reflexes existed for all of two months during the halcyon days of Unreal Tournament 2004, I’m happier with cardboard. Joshua Van Laningham’s Bullet♥︎ is an adaptation of the shoot-’em-up genre. Frankly, I like it better than any shmup I’ve fumbled through.
Hesitantly pushing a cart, trying to miss the crowd, glaring furiously at every stray cough — sounds like shopping for groceries in 2020. It’s also the topic of Travis Hancock’s Bristol 1350. With its titular city in collapse, up to nine players scramble to escape to the countryside. The hitch? Scrambling to escape might mean catching the bug. In true plague fashion, getting sick means you now want to get everybody else sick, too. Hey, it’s more logical than pooping your pants because somebody asked you to wear a mask.
Right, board games. In a weird shift of tone, Bristol 1350 is an unexpectedly chipper experience.
Hard to believe it’s only been a year since I bid adieu to Summoner Wars. When I wrote that piece, I believed it was my final paean to a game that kindled friendships and shaped my approach to the tabletop hobby. Only a short time later, Colby Dauch mentioned he was working on a second edition. It didn’t seem real. Even after chatting about it on the Space-Cast!, I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe it would ever materialize.
Over the past three weeks, I’ve played the second edition of Summoner Wars nearly every day. Some part of me still doesn’t quite believe it. The other part has to acknowledge that it might not be the same this time around. The same friendships. The same community. That same pull to create new factions and discuss rules on the Plaid Hat forums.
That all comes later. For now, I want to tell you about Summoner Wars, and why the second edition feels like coming home.
There’s something rejuvenating about getting lost in the woods. Of course, I’m not talking about getting really lost. Lost in the sense that I know the trail is somewhere over that hill, or that if I walk a few miles I’ll descend into the rich folks’ suburbs. Lost with cell coverage.
Nate Hayden’s Rocky Mountain Man is a game about getting lost. Wholly, truly, stuck in place, walking around in circles until the sun goes down lost. Good thing you’re a mountain man.
For a group that usually conjures images of blood-rimmed axes, freshly extracted skulls, and ransacked monasteries, Jon Manker’s Pax Viking certainly knows how to make its Vikings seem almost tolerable to spend an afternoon with.
The War of 1812 suffers from an asymmetry of memory. In America it became part of a triumphal national myth. In Britain it became a footnote. In fairness to the former, resolving a war in stalemate despite having your capitol sacked is an achievement. In fairness to the latter, everything becomes a footnote when you’re trying to depose Napoleon. Neither side properly won. No borders were redrawn. No major concessions were granted, and the minor ones went largely ignored. The real losers were the American Indians and the Spanish, both of whom found themselves ceding more territory to the expanding Republic.
In Dawn’s Early Light, David McDonough evinces the pointless fury of this conflict largely by wrenching any gains back toward the status quo. It’s hard to conclude whether this is because he’s an exemplary teller of history or a cruel maker of games.