Author Archives: Dan Thurot
The door swings open to reveal a board game critic. Slovenly, pretentious, angry at the world for none of the right reasons. He turns his wild eyes on you. “Hey. Wanna hear my theory about how the important but muted role of Catan’s robber pawn represents the erasure of Narragansett Algonquins from New Englander awareness after King Philip’s War?”
You must choose one option…
Agree: You acquiesce and sit across from the critic. Roll seven Vigor in three attempts to stay awake or lose 2HP.
Evade: Ask if the critic has heard of Monopoly. Begin Close Combat…
Then turn the next chapter card to read on.
Peer Sylvester’s The King Is Dead has some history to it. First appearing as König von Siam, then as an Arthurian version in The King Is Dead, and now as a second edition with a more historical flair, it’s been reprinted often enough to be considered a modern classic. Perhaps more importantly, traces of its DNA can be found in other games’ genealogy.
And it’s easy to see why.
Not to go all historian on anybody, but I’m going to say something that may prove contentious: matters of history are only settled when they stop mattering, whether through consensus or lack of interest. The corollary, of course, is that very little about history is ever settled. This is magnified when the topic occurred recently enough that people can trace a line from former circumstances to ongoing considerations. It isn’t hard to find examples. How often have you heard it said that slavery was sure terrible, but also a necessary evil? Or that Christopher Columbus shouldn’t be judged by present-day standards? Never mind that both statements can be torn to shreds. They aren’t said because they’re factual. They’re said because they point toward a moral framework that’s mutable. If yesterday’s suffering can be dismissed as necessary or chalked up to changing values, then today’s suffering can be similarly dismissed. It’s history as comfort food, carefully mashed so that no teeth are chipped and no stomachs are unsettled in the process of digestion.
The 1919 Treaty of Versailles no longer lingers in the historical vernacular, but experts in the field continue to debate its implications. We occupy a world shaped by its outcome, from modern political boundaries to the concept of a global governing body. Later conflicts, including the Second World War, may have been directly spurred by its approach to war reparations, and while the independence movements of the 20th century came of age after WWII, Versailles is where they were brought kicking and hollering into the world.
Which means that Mark Herman has now designed two games about shaping the past century through treaty-drafting. The first, Churchill, represents more recent agreements. But in its own way, Versailles 1919, which Herman co-designed with Geoff Engelstein, seems like the more relevant of the pair.
Legal trials seem like the perfect setting for board games. Distinct victory conditions, formal rules, the uncertainty that arises from the human element. Crud, defending and prosecuting attorneys take turns, for crying out loud. That’s nine-tenths of a game right there.
Despite all that, I only know of two games about trials. The first, Alex Berry’s High Treason: The Trial of Louis Riel, was largely about juror selection. Individual jurors acted as victory conditions that were picked at the start of each play. Everything after that was about swaying them to your side, one icon and tracker at a time.
Tom Butler’s Unforgiven: The Lincoln Assassination Trial also features icons and trackers. But because this is a military tribunal, every game revolves around the same nine judge-jurors. In place of selecting victory conditions, Unforgiven is about constructing an argument — and although it’s not quite as plugged-in with its subject matter as High Treason, the result makes for one heck of a standoff.
Today on the Space-Biff! Space-Cast!, Dan is joined by physicist, inventor, and game designer Janice Turner to discuss Assembly and Sensor Ghosts, the constraints and possibilities of smaller formats, and designing with a mind toward disability and accessibility.
When it comes to modern roll-and-write games, one of the system’s most effective tools is the possibility of a shared roll between players. It’s the sharing that matters. Chance still dictates your opportunities. The roll may even be “unfair.” But because it’s shared alike, everybody is on equal footing. At least, until players apply the roll in different ways and begin reaping the effects.
Super-Skill Pinball uses the same trick. Two dice are rolled and everybody makes do with the same results. But two things set it apart. One, it was designed by Geoff Engelstein, the guy who formalized the idea of input and output luck in board games. No surprise that it’s brimming with clever applications of chance. And two, because, again, it was designed by Engelstein, it feels way more like pinball than it has any right to.
There’s nothing wrong with puns. That said, if your game prominently features one on the front cover its box, I’m less likely to pick it up. Scape Goat has two. “Goat milk?” and “Someone’s goat to take the fall.” I couldn’t bring myself to look at the back.
So how did it wind up here? Two words: Jon. Perry. Co-designer of Time Barons and designer of Air, Land, & Sea, a short stack of eighteen cards that still managed to be one of last year’s absolute best. That’s a pedigree that deserves a second look, puns aside. And I couldn’t be happier, because Scape Goat continues Perry’s tradition of breeding rattlesnakes — tightly coiled, easy to overlook, and packing one heck of a bite.
I’ve played the game all of once. Sorry, The Game. Steffen Benndorf’s The Game. No, not Wolfgang Warsch’s The Mind. The Game.
Except now we’re talking about Ohanami, Benndorf’s attempt to make The Game into a competitive game rather than a cooperative game. Is it an improvement? Well, its title is more searchable, I’ll tell you that much.
In my very first course after changing my major to history, my midterm paper came back with a scrawled note in purple ink: “Good writing, good argumentation, but too polemical.”
Too polemical. I’ve been waiting to drop that one on some unsuspecting victim ever since. You could even say it’s one of the reasons I was so eager to write about Ben Madison’s solo game The Mission, which charts the history of Christianity over its first thousand years. “From the Crucifixion to the Crusades,” as its subtitle goes. Sounds polemical to me! Brace yourself, Ben Madison, for thou art—
Medium polemical? Somewhat polemical? Acceptably polemical? Certainly not polemical enough for “too” polemical. If any “too” should be deployed, The Mission is too preoccupied with being playable. A difficult charge to make stick in court. If it please your honor, The Mission is guilty of being too good to be polemical. First-degree playable, second-degree polemical. And here I’d expected those to be the other way around.
Impartiality, to me, means not making up my mind about something before I’ve given it a fair shake. Usually it’s a reminder. Not every game’s description or box art or choice of setting catches my eye right away. Yet some of my favorite titles are ones I initially overlooked. So it’s worthwhile to sit back, get past the parts that don’t immediately appeal to me, and try to evaluate this thing on its merits or problems rather than first glances.
The Grand Carnival is a premium example. If you’ve been around for a while, you’re probably aware that it isn’t my sort of thing. But I adore it. Whenever I open that box, I glow with happiness. There are tangible reasons, certainly, and I’d like to discuss them. But those reasons are impossible to untangle from my affection for its designer, Rob Cramer. Rob is a personal friend, you see. This is his first big publication. And I couldn’t be prouder of him for how beautifully and sharply it turned out.
So I’m going to talk about The Grand Carnival. But everything I say, I want you to take with a Salzburg-sized shaft of salt.