To this day, Catacombs remains my preferred way to flick wooden discs around a piece of cardboard. Where most dexterity games are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them affairs, Catacombs was smart enough to take its time, chewing its band of heroes down to the gristle over hours rather than minutes.
As you might expect, this was also the great weakness of Catacombs. For a flicking game, it tended to ramble. By the time it reached its final showdown, it had begun to resemble one of those twenty-part fantasy novel epics that are probably the linchpin strategy of a shadowy organization’s plot to discourage literacy.
Enter Catacombs & Castles. This time around, designer Aron West’s goal was to harness the mighty long-winded power of Catacombs, while compressing the experience into a single battle rather than an entire campaign.
My first memory of Fallout was the guy cashiering the tech section of my local supermarket refusing to let me purchase Fallout 2 on the grounds that it was “for adults.” My moral fortitude lasted all of two weeks before I nabbed a copied disc from a buddy. The rest of my affection for the series — right down to my snobbish adherence to the Fallout 1, 2, and New Vegas canon — is history.
Some games need room to breathe. There, I’ve said it, and you can probably infer many of my feelings on Civilization: A New Dawn from that one statement alone. Not every game requires streamlining, especially when that game’s goal — or at least that game’s genre’s traditional goal — is to capture the sweep of something epic. Cutting Twilight Imperium from eight hours to five is one thing; pruning it down to sixty minutes would kill everything that makes it special.
Broadly speaking, the same goes for Civilization games. As one of the principal granddads of the 4X genre (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate), Sid Meier’s Civilization carries certain expectations. Foremost among them is the notion that it will capture a hearty slice of the breadth of human history, perhaps all the way from mud huts to rocket ships. Rome wasn’t built in a day and all that.
Civilization: A New Dawn certainly accomplishes this, more or less. Emphasis on the less, since A New Dawn is more interested in wrapping up as quickly as possible than providing a satisfying play arc. The result is two-thirds of an utterly excellent game.
When it comes to Twilight Imperium — which has now been around in one form or another for twenty years — I’m an absolute newcomer. Whether it was the game’s intimidating play length, my soft fingers’ inability to punch out the third edition’s bazillion plastic sprues, or my nagging ailurophobia setting my hair on end whenever I glance at the cover, it wasn’t until the last couple weeks that the brand new fourth edition caught my fancy.
But hoo boy, has it. Caught my fancy, I mean. And while I’m certainly not qualified to deliver a review on this sprawling monstrosity, what follows are a few of the things I’m delighted to have learned after only a short time in Twilight Imperium’s presence.
If a dungeon crawl is somehow the direct descendant of a mall crawl, then Magic Maze is getting back to its roots. Bereft of their usual equipment, your party of adventurers — which boasts the Plain Jane combo of dwarf, barbarian, elf, and wizard — must enter a magic mall, engage in some decidedly unheroic petty larceny, and then run while the running’s good.
Okay, so it may be a B-side adventure, the sort of quest kept on standby for when the more interesting members of your RPG group are on vacation, but at least it has a couple clever tricks up its sleeve.
There are about a hundred reasons why Ortus Regni is such a fascinating artifact of board gaming. There’s the historical appeal, for one. Rather than merely establishing itself as a medieval card game, complete with all the modern idiosyncrasies and anachronisms anyone with a knowledge of the Middle Ages has come to expect, it’s a layered thing, descending through multiple eras like peeling back the layers of a dream. It’s today’s imagining of a Late Middle Ages game romanticizing the Anglo-Saxon Period. Twenty-first-century design sensibilities, fourteenth-century culture, ninth-century romance and nostalgia.
“Woah,” says Smart Neo.
Ever since its release two years ago, Dark Moon has ranked as one of my preferred traitor games. Between its in-your-face brand of manipulation and the grungy utility of its visuals, it offered an oppressively claustrophobic take on the classic tale of a crew torn apart by an invisible insider.
Shadow Corporation is one of those expansions that might not seem necessary at first glance, especially because Dark Moon was as perfect as a curly-haired baby. But now that it’s here, I can’t fathom playing without it.
Board games don’t stir up every emotion with equal ease, but they do succeed admirably at evoking paranoia. For that reason alone, John Carpenter’s 1982 flop — and subsequent retroactive hit — The Thing seems like the perfect fit for cardboardification. A bunch of dudes trapped in a remote location? A shape-shifting alien that imitates its prey? Betrayal, mistrust, and torching each other with flamethrowers? Yes indeed. The only remaining question is whether The Thing: Infection at Outpost 31 is the real deal or a twisted imitation masquerading in the flesh of its predecessors.
Well. Let’s talk about that.
Portal Games has a thing for tableau building games that occupy three rows. See 51st State, Imperial Settlers, and the other 51st State, all of which were largely defined by how much your economic engine snowballed. If the last round wasn’t ten times longer and slower than the first one, you probably hadn’t adequately snowballed.
At this point, Portal delivering another three-row tableau-builder might feel a smidgen like those games that reappear after a Cthulhu retheme. Slap tentacles on the cards, change some keywords — the draw pile is now Miskatonic University or whatever — and there you have it. No need to come up with new ideas when people will gratefully snap up the latest mind-numbing coat of paint, fumes and all. 51st State in space.
But in spite of appearances, Alien Artifacts isn’t just another three-row tableau-builder. Sure, cards are aligned across three rows, and sure, it’s about assembling a tableau. While it wasn’t designed by Ignacy Trzewiczek, co-designers Marcin Ropka and Viola Kijowska could have fooled me, right down to the factions with ever-so-slightly different advantages. But that’s where the similarities stop and Alien Artifacts steps out from under the shadow of its predecessors. And the most radical aspect of its reinvention? It melts snowballs.