Category Archives: Board Game
A dying star. A utopian civilization becoming less utopian as it grows more desperate. A cohesive union splintering into factions. A bitter race to escape the coming supernova. The lingering suspicion that all of this was your fault.
It’s rare that I’ll read the fluff for a board game — if there’s one thing designing a board game doesn’t qualify you for, it’s writing compelling fiction — but Sol: Last Days of a Star almost convinced me to go all the way. Almost. The included mythos book, with its short stories about characters the game never reveals and motivations that are distant from what you’ll actually be doing, was a step too far. All it earned was a quick skim. What does Sol think it is? The Canterbury Tales?
Not quite, but it is something rare: an actual honest-to-goodness science fiction game. With something to say. And systems that actually support its message.
Despite the fact that Charles I spent the majority of his reign warring against one foe or another, it’s hard to imagine how Tom Russell’s Charlemagne, Master of Europe could have been anything other than a solo game. After all, who could stand as a worthy opponent to the Pater Europae? The Lombards, Moors, Saxons, or internal Frankish plotters who ultimately found themselves bulldozed as Charles became king, then king of a second kingdom, then eventually Emperor of the Romans?
Actually, the answer is those dang dice and those dang cups. By the conclusion of a session, it’s apparent that they’re the real enemies of the Carolingian Dynasty.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.