Honest Abe: A Look at Lincoln

This Header: Slender like Abe.

Martin Wallace has never been afraid to tinker with the way we do things. Consider, for instance, the impact of A Few Acres of Snow. By marrying deck-building to a map, Wallace redefined an entire genre. Its legacy includes some of his own games (Mythotopia, A Handful of Stars, A Study in Emerald) and those designed by others (Cry Havoc, Hands in the Sea, even Clank!).

Now Wallace’s tinkering has led him to attempt the opposite of deck-building, focusing instead on something he’s calling “deck destruction.” The game in question is Lincoln, on Kickstarter for the next few days. And in an echo of the “Halifax hammer” that ruined A Few Acres of Snow for some, it’s already being accused of game-breaking imbalance.

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The Red-Tinted Wonderment of Decrypto

... BMO?

“Which word game will finally kill Codenames?” they asked. Then Decrypto descended from the clouds and they hollered, “The king is dead! Long live the king!” while the rest of us stared in wild wonderment, curious where all these rando word game fanatics came from.

To be fair, though, Decrypto is pretty dang cool.

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A Handful of Excellent Sandbox Games

rawr

As I wrote last week, the “sandbox Euro” of Feudum is a handsome but troubled youngster. It’s got some great ideas, a slick sense of style, and knows it’s clever. But maybe that’s the problem. For everything it does right, it comes parcel with two exceptions, fussy rules, or instances where it stubbornly refuses to be streamlined.

Still, it’s hard to deny that this dizzying blend of movement puzzle, player-driven feudal holdings, and market manipulation taps into something desirable. The freedom of a sandbox game can be intoxicating, trusting players to pursue their goals with unusual latitude. Where most games offer an intensely curated experience, it’s a joy to be set loose within a set of systems and trusted to sink or swim, boom or bust.

So, as an alternative for those who might be thirsting after something a little more open-ended than usual, what follows are a bunch of my favorite sandbox-style games, ranked in order of their ascending complexity.

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Taking Exception with Feudum

Now THIS is how you honeytrap me.

In a lot of ways, the list of features for Mark Swanson’s Feudum reads like a parody of an over-enthusiastic, under-developed Kickstarter product. What if I told you there was a sandbox game — not just any sandbox game, but a Euro sandbox game — that features area control, action card selection, multiple avenues of improving your holdings, various forms of feudal warfare, roving monsters, a guild system to manipulate and constantly update, a complex market to bully, movement puzzles, peasant uprisings, noble pilgrimages, and persnickety rules exceptions to all of the above?

If you had even a single ounce of sense in your head, hopefully you’d save yourself eighty dollars by running the other direction.

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Monks in a Funk

That's, uh, not how stained-glass faces look.

To discover how I feel about Andreas Schmidt and Michael Kiesling’s Heaven & Ale, you don’t have to look much further than the rulebook. On the very first page, you’ll find the usual list of components. Here are some barrels. Monks. Sheds. Yeast and hops, barley and wood. Everything a monastery needs to brew enough beer to wash away the sting of losing Lindisfarne.

Turn the page, however, and all that stained-glass prettiness is scrubbed until all that remains is a blank pane. No longer are the resources barley and water and yeast; they’re yellow and blue and white. Gone is the veneer of monastic life, and certainly missing is the whole “brewing beer” thing. Trappists living the Rule of St. Benedict? You might as well be stevedores living the rule of finish loading these shipping containers by five p.m. or bust.

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Fox in Box

"Why hello! I have nothing to do with this game! I provide a catchy name and nothing else! And hey, that's okay!"

Whether it’s a free-for-all like Hearts or Oh Hell, or a team setup like Euchre or Bridge, trick-taking games are family classics for quite a few people, including many who wouldn’t consider themselves “board” or “card” players. Yet it’s a genre I never found myself engaged by. No reason, really. It just wasn’t something my family did, and therefore it wasn’t something that I did.

Joshua Buergel’s The Fox in the Forest has changed that, at least in the short-term. Let me show you why.

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Two Minds about Darkest Night

The most divisive Two Minds About... ever?

Today on Two Minds About…, Dan Thurot and Brock Poulsen are absolutely going to disagree about the sublime cooperative and solo game Darkest Night. Total disagreement. Friendship-shaking disagreement.

Dan: Wow, that sounds rough. Been good knowing you, Brock.

Brock: Our friendship had a good run, but this is the one! This game will sunder our fraternal bond forever.

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Bios: Mega-fun-a

The unceasing demands of their respective biologies calls to them, urging them forward. TRY TO MATE, TRY TO MATE, these unheard voices shout. The centipede is down; the mouse-thing is more wary. Last time it listened to those voices, it made some very bad memories that haunt it to this day.

One of the most-repeated criticisms of Phil Eklund’s designs is that they hew closer to simulations than proper games, complete with persnickety rules exceptions, icon-strewn layouts, and overly dense rulebooks crammed with scientific and historical footnotes. And that’s to say nothing of the gameplay itself. If Eklund feels that the outcome of the Renaissance was due to some nebulous conflagration of commerce, class, religion, and imperialism, then by hook or by crook his game on the topic is going to contain a nebulous conflagration of commerce, class, religion, and imperialism.

At first glance, the second edition of Bios: Megafauna — which Eklund co-designed with Andrew Doull and Jon Manker — appears determined to prove the stereotype, with a rulebook liable to make even a veteran gamer’s mind wander somewhere between defining Cheshire cat mutations and the sprawling glossary where certain rules have been sent to wither in obscurity. And don’t even get me started on the mental gymnastics necessary to forge your way through that first learning game.

Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that this just might be Phil Eklund’s most accessible game since… scratch that. Most accessible, full stop.

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Greece Fire: A Look at Omen

I feel like there's some sort of "evolution of man" comment to be made here, but it's eluding me at the moment.

If you’ve been following Space-Biff! for more than a Thermopylae minute, you’ll know that I’ve mentioned Omen: A Reign of War once or twice. This is one of those rare games that opens with a bang and just keeps going, producing more kicks per minute than a two-story dojo. Now its creator, John Clowdus, has signed with Kolossal to give his small-box classic a bigger-box treatment, including a third entry in the series that steps away from the warring demigods of Greece and toward the warring demigods of Persia. So, you know, it’s super original.

Anyway, what makes Omen such a great game? Let’s take a look.

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Fantastiqa: Pocket Dimension

Ah yes, the much-used Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer by Caspar David Friedrich. In most places he feels trite. Here, he fits.

There’s a certain enchanting quality to Alf Seegert’s latest, Rival Realms. Set in a sort of pocket dimension of Seegert’s wonder-realm of Fantastiqa — and literally sliding into a large pocket, how’s that for appropriate? — and expounding upon the card-laying system he first crafted in Musée, it’s an otherworldly experience, as though its players have left their concerns hanging in the wardrobe and stepped straight into Narnia.

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