One of my favorite things about boardgaming is the innate tactility of the hobby. It’s much the same reason I prefer bound books to digital copies — I love the weight of pushing a threatening piece across a board, the rattle of dice at a critical moment, the delightful textures of cardboard and plastic. I even love those crappy cards every successful Kickstarter project seems to be using these days, the cheap ones that feel like they’re flaking at a molecular level and make your hands feel weird until you wash them. And I love the way designers come up with clever ways of making this hobby even more touchable, from hiding bonus cards beneath your battle cards in Kemet to the information-concealing shields of BSG Express and Archipelago to real-space games like Master Plan.
And if I’m nerding out about those mechanics, you know I’m having a straight-up aneurism over the sheer sensory overload of dexterity games. Because, hey, if there’s one genre that gets the importance of “feel” in boardgames, it’s games like Catacombs, Ascending Empires, and Cube Quest.
Reach Out and Flick Someone
Much like Catacombs and Ascending Empires, both of which you should definitely check out, Cube Quest is all about flicking pieces across a board. Or a playmat, in Cube Quest’s case. Unlike those two, Cube Quest takes all of five minutes to learn and about as long to wrap up a game, not counting the time you’ll spending fishing little cubes out from beneath the couch because your impromptu forearm backstop wasn’t quick enough to keep your husband’s shot from hurling two hapless soldiers off the table. “Loser cleans up,” he says, grinning. Why you married him, you sometimes don’t remember.
The idea is that both players take the role of a tiny cube-king in command of a loyal army of cube-men with a burning hatred for the opposing color’s monarch. Before battle, you set up your little army so that they simultaneously have a few good angles of attack on the enemy lines while also shielding your own king, who is sequestered somewhere on the “castle” portion at the rear-middle of your mat. Any cube-man knocked off the mat is dead, and whoever pushes the enemy king off the mat first wins the game.
Other than a few awesome details, it’s really that simple! We have a policy here at Space-Biff! that we play a game at least three times before we write a review, but when I sat down with Somerset to play Cube Quest, we banged out five games in under an hour, and only referred to the manual for the early part of each match in which both players assemble a custom army.
One Does Not Merely Walk Into Enemy Territory
One cool detail is that your cube-guys can’t just waltz over to the enemy king with a series of short, safe flicks, then blast him off the board with the same powerhouse flick you’d use to expel a wasp snacking on your chili dog. Enemy territory is dangerous, and as soon as your guys cross the line from your mat to your enemy’s, they run the risk of being captured and removed from the game as surely as being hurled off the edge of the board.
It all depends on how they settle once they land in enemy territory. If they land regular side face-up, they’ve evaded the enemy and you can flick them again later — provided the enemy doesn’t take the opportunity to use their proximity to get rid of them once and for all. On the other hand, if they’ve landed “shadow” side up, you pick them up and roll them off to the side of the board. Regular facing then puts them back into your castle to fight another day, while a second shadow roll means they’re gone for good.
The Many Faces of a Cube-Man
Of course, some units are better than others at evading capture, and this brings us to my single favorite aspect of Cube Quest. Before battle, you get to assemble a 40-point army, and it’s a hoot watching the way your choices have an actual impact on the ensuing battle. The cheapest units are Grunts, disposable thugs who are highly likely to get captured the instant they set foot on enemy soil, though you’ve also got expensive Strikers, who only have one shadow face (out of six, if you weren’t smart enough to figure that out), making them perfect for setting up shots on your opponent’s side of the board.
Those are the most basic troops, and they’re the only ones you’ll see if you play the game’s blah basic game. Since reading the rules for the “advanced” game takes a time-consuming fifteen seconds, I see no reason to subject yourself to a match — even a five-minute match — without using all the other amazing options.
And the other options are amazing. You’ve got trick-shot Helms you can flick twice so long as your first shot lands in friendly territory, sneaky Skulks that can be removed from the board and then replaced later at opportune moments, Freeze cubes that block enemy cubes from moving by stacking on top of them, and Healers that you’ll want to protect because they let you re-roll your captured dice to potentially redeploy halfway into the fight. The challenge of crafting your perfect army is deceptively simple, and allows for a surprising amount of depth for a game that shouldn’t last more than ten minutes unless all your friends have arthritis or something.
Between the fast play, tactile perfection, and all the joys of flicking your friends’ pieces off the table, Cube Quest is nearly perfect.
I don’t often talk about component quality in my reviews. I used to, and I understand the impulse that prompts most reviewers to write about how great or how disappointing a game’s pieces are. But after a while, a switch went off in my brain and I decided that enjoying games was more about the game and less about a few components being a bit less nice than I’d prefer. In an industry where profits are slim and the quality of a board can make a lot of difference financially, I’ve reached the point where I’m inclined to cut designers and publishers a little slack.
However. In Cube Quest, the components aren’t just abstracts standing in for things in the game world. The cubes are your soldiers. The mat is the battlefield. So the quality of the pieces matters a whole lot more than in most other games, and a problem like, say, a sticker not being properly affixed to one of the dice, is much more of a problem when it causes a cube-man to roll lopsided.
Still, that’s a tiny issue, easily fixable with an untrimmed fingernail. The real problem is the playmats. Think of these as big green stinky mousepads. They’re actually pretty nice — except for the fact that they don’t fit comfortably inside the box. And instead of figuring out a way to soft-fold them or roll them up, whoever packaged Cube Quest just folded them tightly against themselves, imprinting the landscape with permanent hills and wrinkles. These creases can have a measurable negative impact on gameplay when your perfect regicidal snipe fails because your Striker hits a bulge and flips over the head of enemy king instead of making solid contact and winning the game. Suddenly, this perfect balance of whimsy and planning and skill isn’t quite so balanced. It’s still a good game, and I’m glad I own it, but you’ll have to press out the grooves on your own, and in my experience they never come out completely.
And for that one reason alone, it saddens me to say that my final score is that this Cube only has five sides, when it was this close to rolling with all six.