Polyominoes are all the rage. Or at least polyominoes up to a certain size are all the rage, which usually only includes monominoes, dominoes, trominoes, tetrominoes, and sometimes pentominoes and hexominoes.
But where most polyomino games boil down to “polyominoes plus something,” where the “plus something” is the substance of the game, Project L by Michal Mikeš, Adam Španěl, and Jan Soukal is all about the polyominoes, full stop. And the instant I’m done writing about it, I’m never typing the suffix -omino ever again.
Morality has become a strange notion. Part of the problem is the mental imaging it tends to conjure: at odds with science and ethics, possibly relative, very likely handed down from Mount Sinai on stone tablets, definitely something to do with a scarlet letter. The term seems anachronistic, a throwback to a simpler age. And by “simpler,” I mean either “more enlightened” or “more backward,” depending on one’s assumptions about history.
Let’s set those images aside. Instead, I want to talk about morality as a function of art, and the role of both artists and critics in crafting and evaluating moral statements. In this regard, morality deserves a hopelessly hand-wavy definition of its own — that it’s preoccupied with the well-being of individuals and societies. Vague! Don’t worry, we’ll return to this.
At a more specific level, today we’re talking about one of the crucial delineations in evaluating board games on moral terms; namely, the difference between portraying and endorsing. And it all begins with a brief pamphlet entitled Histriomastix.
Jason Matthews and Ananda Gupta’s Imperial Struggle is a challenging game. In two senses, really. As a successor to the famous Twilight Struggle, it has significant boots to fill. As a meditation on the colonization of the wide world for the sake of empire — well, that’s a taller order in 2020 than in 2005, for better and for worse. It’s the sort of game that might easily spark a hundred think-pieces.
For my part, those dual challenges, heritage and setting, are the clearest lenses for framing what Matthews and Gupta have accomplished.
Chaos. The whispered curse. When a game is labeled as capricious, we hardly expect further explanation. “Too random,” we say, like that’s answer enough, like there’s no difference between types of chance, like nobody could appreciate a game for the chaos it flings in our faces. It’s the leprosy of the modern board game scene.
I’ve already written about Jim Felli’s Cosmic Frog. Now that it’s finally here, my thoughts on the matter haven’t transformed. Like the rest of Felli’s work, Cosmic Frog is distinctive: an offbeat setting, messy rulebook, reasonably straightforward play, and a social space that relies on the investment of its players to mark the line between an unremarkable slog and one of the weirdest competitions in recent memory. Its finished incarnation isn’t all that different from the preview version, either. The main change is a variant that adds even more chaos.
That’s its defining element, what will float or scupper it with audiences, what marks it as worthy of investigation: chaos. So let’s take a look at the many ways it handles chance, and why this particular pile-on gives it such flair.
Poor Rome. No matter how many centuries fly by, her problems remain the same. When last we spied the immortal city — or at least the version found in Robert DeLeskie’s solo wargame Wars of Marcus Aurelius — the Marcomanni, Quadi, and Iazyges were harassing the frontiers. Now it’s the Goths, Vandals, and an upstart general named Constantine III who’s decided he’d rather call the shots for a change. Thank goodness for loyal half-barbarian Stilicho, ready to defend the young Emperor Honorius from all comers.
Today on the Space-Biff! Space-Cast!, Dan is joined by Tom Russell, who answers questions about his controversial title This Guilty Land, discusses research and responsibility in crafting board games, and answers the two most difficult questions of them all: what is your favorite dinosaur, and what is art?
I don’t have much free time for TV these days. Except for Tiger King. I’m sitting on a dozen solid Netflix recommendations from trusted sources who’ve never led me astray, and I blitzed through that garbage in under a week.
Victor Melo’s Streaming gets it. More importantly, this is one of the finest auction games I’ve played in a good long while. I’d even go as far as to call it Knizian.
Real-time games are tricky, both to design and play. It’s an inherent conundrum. Most of our hobby lets us take things slow, examine the playing field from a sky-high vantage, and make decisions based on data rather than reflex. For a real-time game to work, it’s necessary to shift the player’s headspace into overdrive without cooking it altogether. Along the way, there are hurdles aplenty to consider.
Pendulum almost clears them. But the thing about hurdles is that almost clearing them still leaves you chewing rubber. Let’s talk about how it misses that final crucial inch.
John Clowdus has always trafficked in games with a homemade feel, and not only when he’s stretching shrunken boxes to make the cards fit. In some ways it’s Small Box’s foundational ethos. Here’s a guy making the type of games he likes, in print runs so small it’s possible to step over them, and he’s having the time of his life doing it.
Sandstone takes this ethos to a new level. Apart from the cards, Clowdus took as direct a hand in the production as possible. The drawstring bags and box are hand-stamped. The pieces are hand-poured. There’s a signed card detailing the care that went into each copy and explaining why there might be some imperfections. The interior of the box declares which of this “small batch” you hold in your hands. Mine is first printing, number 100 of 100. A nice round number.
And then there’s Sandstone itself. It feels like a home-brew as well, in ways that are both endearing and somewhat rough.
The problem with time loops is the time. Also the loops. Join Brock, Summer, and Dan as we discuss Groundhog Days, philosophy of mind, and how many male voices can fit into a single synopsis. It’s The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton! Listen here or download here.
Next time, we’ll be reading Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer.