Despite its staid outward appearance, Hardback is the byproduct of word game inbreeding. Its daddy is Tim Fowers, the same fella who brought us Paperback a couple years back, while its father is Jeff Beck, creator of last year’s Word Domination. Even a description of its particular playstyle feels like dendrochronology performed on a family tree: what Paperback was to Dominion, Hardback is to Star Realms.
Fortunately, that word-jumble statement is actually pretty easy to explain.
Spartacus? Didn’t that game come out six years ago? In board game time, that’s at least forty years! True enough. But this is the first entry in a series about the games I’m still playing even though their cardboard scent has worn off and the cards are starting to look frayed around the edges. Not the classics, exactly, but the good stuff that’s never lost its appeal or lost its place on my shelf. This is Yesteryear.
Before his unfortunate passing in late 2016, I had the pleasure of meeting Sean Sweigart exactly once. I had no idea who he was. He was happy to keep it that way. When I asked whether he was the designer of the game he was demoing, he responded that, no, he wasn’t, he was just a guy who enjoyed sharing good games. And with titles like Spartacus, Firefly, Sons of Anarchy, Homeland, and Star Trek: Ascendancy under his belt, he wasn’t entirely fibbing.
If I were the Grand Emperor of Defining Things, in order to qualify as a digital board game — as opposed to qualifying as a digital adaptation of a cardboard board game — it would be a requirement that your digital board game do something that a regular board game couldn’t do sitting on my table. Yes, I just used the phrase “board game” four times in one sentence. That’s probably a world record.
To its credit, Tim Conkling’s Antihero is a digital board game that understands both the limitations of board games and how to stretch them when you place a screen between its players. Let me show you what I mean.
I have a great fondness for Summoner Wars. Six years ago it became my most-played game of all time, prompting me to assemble custom tuckboxes for each of its factions, pen over twenty articles both here and elsewhere, and at one point I even designed a custom faction based on Central European serfdom and manor-dwelling therianthropes. No, you can’t see it.
That said, Summoner Wars had a few problems, many of which only became apparent over time. Its units grew more complicated and text-heavy with each new set, pro-level strategies became increasingly counter-intuitive to ordinary play, and it never sat right with me that one of its premier opening strategies was to cannibalize your own units.
Crystal Clans, from Summoner Wars designer Colby Dauch, plus J. Arthur Ellis and Andrea Mezzotero, in many ways plays like an antidote to some of that game’s biggest errors. But is it enough? Let’s figure that out together.
Allow me to indulge in my inaugural Old Man Moment by saying, hey, fairy tales used to be better. No, not back in my day. I’m talking way back, when the forests were thick and uncut, the sun only peeked through the pestilential clouds once a fortnight, and taking a wrong turn while returning home from the well might get you eaten by either wolves or Visigoths.
Strangely, Tim Eisner’s The Grimm Forest comes within an inch of evoking these older, more ominous stories, and all because this fairy tale’s got bite.
It’s appropriate that Benjamin Franklin’s chopped-up snake should emblazon the box front of Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777. Historically, Franklin’s 1754 political cartoon JOIN, or DIE represented the fragmentary nature of the colonies chafing under British rule. In designer Tom Russell’s hands, the image takes on a second, more immediate meaning. It’s one of transmitting biscuits and bullets from one place to another, of connecting or severing the head from the tail, of your own winding snake and its integrity.
Here, the image communicates the need to string together your logistics. Everything in Supply Lines of the American Revolution is about the all-important distance between your supplies and the soldiers who need them. Join them together, or die. After all, as Jesus of Nazareth once uttered, “Amateurs study tactics. Professionals study logistics.”
I’ve always been suspicious of that oxymoron called “big minis games.” You know, specimens like Cthulhu Wars and Assault of the Giants, wherein the little people’s gentlemanly war is interrupted by beasts twice their size and quadruple their strength, slammed onto the table with a diminutive rumble that could ripple water or quiver jello. With all that mass lumbering around, who’s going to work up the nerve to say that your game is too small in the areas that count?
It was Eric Lang’s Blood Rage that persuaded me that such a game could exist, and be worthwhile as a game, without leaning all its weight on its toy factor. Big monsters and cool sculpts, yes, but also a solid sense of what made for a good time. Brawny and brainy in equal measure. Big monsters who land heavily and earn their place.
And now Lang has crafted a spiritual sequel in Rising Sun. Brace yourself, because this one’s got some sharp edges.
But here’s the thing. Imperius — which is Solstice but with some significant polish, expanded artwork, and a way more generic name — is coming to Kickstarter tomorrow, and I want to tell you why it should be the target of your latest machinations.
Half a decade ago, I pronounced A Game of Thrones: The Board Game to be the good version of Diplomacy. All the intrigue, shorter playtime. The ability to outwit your friends without losing your friends. Dragons in place of Prussians.
Battle for Rokugan is proof that history repeats itself, because after some hefty miniaturization, this is the good version of A Game of Thrones. Plenty of intrigue, takes a third as long. You’ll still piss off your friends, but at least that knife you’ve lodged between their thoracic vertebrae doesn’t take five hours to still their wiggling. And in place of dragons, this one has, I don’t know, shadowy barbarian lands or something.
Look, I’m not sure what a Rokugan is. All I know is that this scorpion has got some sting to it.
One of the best things about this hobby is the possibility of stumbling across something entirely unfamiliar. Illimat, which was designed by the creator of Gloom and has something to do with a band I’ve never listened to, never fully crosses the line into alien territory. Instead, it steps up to the barrier and then moves sideways, somehow feeling familiar and forgotten both at once. Otherworldly, you could call it, as though it fits within some alternate dimension or half-recalled dream, only penetrating into our world at oblique angles.
That or it’s a card game that knows how to put on a good show. It’s tough to tell.