Hotline Jacksonville

Guess who isn't in the game? That's right, every single one of these people.

Every so often, along comes a game sporting a sense of style and rocking a ‘tude, making itself known with a crash and a holler. Much like a toddler who’s climbed onto the counter and tossed a dish onto the floor.

Vengeance forces you to sit up and take note, is what I’m saying. Emulating the likes of Payback, Kill Bill, and the snazzy digital Hotline Miami, it’s the sort of game that sends you bum-rushing into a room packed full of no-gooders, swinging and shooting until they’re dead and you’re barely limping, then hitting repeat until some nebulous concept of revenge has been fulfilled.

It also happens to resemble one of those corpses your protagonist will undoubtedly leave sprawled behind them. But we’ll get to that.

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Ascendancy: The Next Generation

Ah yes, the forehead phase.

Star Trek: Ascendancy was not only among my favorite games of 2016, but also one of its most unique for how defiantly (yeah, that’s a reference) it clung to the vision of Star Trek. It was sprawling and dangerous, complete with a burgeoning playtime and the possibility of player elimination. But it was also as sleek and streamlined as a Starfleet vessel, every single turn — nay, pretty much every move — cast as an episode of the original series, with planets and cultures and deadly space phenomenons popping onto the table. It was rife with political intrigue, border tensions, shaky alliances, and a futurist’s appreciation for technology.

Well, buckle up — or don’t, because real Starfleet ships don’t have seat belts — because now that its first two expansions are out, Ascendancy is better than ever.

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Codenames Iterated

Yeah yeah, I chopped off the cute air bubble. And this time they were thinking it together because it's a co-op game. So what. Some people just want to watch the world burn, and that is me.

Last week I talked about a Vlaada Chvátil game called That’s a Question!, arguing that it was pleasant enough, particularly in family or get-to-know-you settings, but didn’t exactly rock my socks off. In part because it didn’t feel like much of an innovation from one of our hobby’s most renowned innovators.

Well, today I’m going to tell you about Codenames Duet, which right there in its title announces itself as a new take on the living classic Codenames. But here’s the thing — in addition to being a testament to why our hobby thrives on iterative design, it just might be one of my favorite Chvátil games.

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The Interrogation Game

It's not a Matrix game, folks.

Here’s a question for you. Which would you miss more if it ceased to exist: Vlaada Chvátil designing light party-style games or Vlaada Chvátil designing overly complicated games?

If you’re anything like me, there’s no contest between Codenames and Space Alert, though I’d still miss the former if it disappeared from the face of the Earth all the same. If you guessed that would be my answer, you get a point. If not, the guy who asked me the question gets a point.

There you go. I just summed up Chvátil’s latest, That’s a Question!

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Secrets Secrets Are No Fun

Welp. Russia's won.

With its pedigree, you’d think Secrets would stand out as one of the finest creations ever put to cardboard. Bruno Faidutti stands at one end, with hits like Citadels, Mission: Red Planet, and Mascarade in his pocket, while Eric Lang inhabits the other. And if you don’t know who Eric Lang is, might I recommend Blood Rage or Chaos in the Old World? A social deduction by those two seems like a no-brainer.

But as it would turn out, no brains isn’t the right way to go for a social deduction game. At least not unless you’re content making a merely okay one.

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Rumble in the Literal Jungle

If only sports were this interesting.

Zoo Ball isn’t my favorite dexterity game — that honor remains with Catacombs — but when it comes to my favorite fast, easy, and super silly dexterity game with only like three rules? Then, sure, Zoo Ball is the clear frontrunner.

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The Colour Out of Space Alert

The first question I ask myself whenever things get dangerous: "IS THIS A GOOD IDEA?" If the answer is no, I don't do the thing. Like when I too witnessed a giant doorway into an alien's living room. I went home and watched Netflix.

There’s something fishy going on with Mountains of Madness, and I’m not talking about the Innsmouth look. Rather, it’s the sort of game that seems determined to pull in multiple directions at once. On the one hand, it proposes a serious take on H.P. Lovecraft’s most recognizable work, complete with eerie illustrations, a map that promises that unknowable mysteries will be unveiled upon summiting its highest peak, and not even one disproportionately attractive librarian toting a tommy gun.

On the other hand, it’s also a real-time puzzle game that makes you speak with a foreign accent, pet a neighbor’s face, and stand on your chair. Which is to say, it’s got a tonal problem the way Lovecraft had a compare-nonwhites-to-animals problem.

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Twilight Expanse

Not another pick-up-and-deliver game, thank the great god Darwin.

James S. A. Corey’s The Expanse occupies a strange place in my heart. The first novel, Leviathan Wakes, I proclaim as brilliant without reservation, capturing a lot of what science fiction does best — plausible speculation and wonderment tempered by existential smallness — without veering too far in the direction of “hard” and becoming a boring high school chemistry lesson crammed with non-characters. On the other hand, main star Captain James Holden is the galaxy’s biggest dummy, pretty much just allying with whichever charismatic leader he’s most recently spoken with. Then again, space Mormons.

Space Mormons.

At any rate, my enthusiasm for the books — and to a lesser extent the TV show — was enough that the announcement of a board game adaptation aroused my interest. Even better when I learned it would be helmed by Geoff Engelstein, the mind who dreamed up Space Cadets, its hilarious Dice Duel sequel, and the ever-reliable The Dragon & Flagon.

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The Unbearable Smartness of Pericles

"Countrymen! Athenians! Friends! Pants are overrated!"

Not to be too hysterical about it, but the Peloponnesian Wars were sort of a big deal. By the time the clash between Athens and Sparta grew to encompass Sicily and much of the middle and eastern Mediterranean, and certainly once they drew in the Persian Empire, they practically qualified as an antique World War. The outcome would cut short the golden age of Greece and pave the way for those perky Macedonians to solidify into the force that would Hellenize much of the known world.

It was Very Serious Business, is what I’m saying, brimming with intrigue, oration, and big stonkin’ battles on both land and sea. And in order to capture the freewheeling nature of the conflict, Mark Herman’s sandbox wargame Pericles just might be one of the maddest — and most maddening — things I’ve ever Greek-wrestled with.

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Rhino Hero: Civil War

Here he comes to save the day!

You may have heard of Rhino Hero. One part Jenga, one part… well, it largely resembled Jenga, albeit featuring a chunky rhinoceros who had a tendency to make his tower of cards crumple to the table. It was an utter delight, the sort of game that packed a minimum of everything — size, rules, setup — except fun. It had as much of that as its titular hero’s daily caloric intake.

After its well-deserved success, HABA have seen fit to give tubby little Rhino Hero a second outing. It’s bigger, it’s brasher, and yes, it’s better. Though it makes some sacrifices along the way.

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