Category Archives: Board Game
Replaying the Mass Effect remaster brought it all back: the weightlessness as the shuttle dropped through the cloud layer, the sight of the alien landscape for the first time, verdant with unknown plants and creatures. That prickle along the spine. Growing up, Star Trek and frontier adventure books and some hazy pioneer heritage were formative where Star Wars was grating and juvenile. The final frontier, minus the colonialist overtones. Okay, some colonialist overtones. But overtones that are trying to do better.
Marc Neidlinger and Tom Mattson’s Unsettled is a cooperative (and technically solitaire-capable) board game about confronting the unknown, very nearly dying, and then — here’s the important part — rather than taming these wild shores you’ve washed up on, entering into symbiosis with them. There’s not a sentry turret or auto-rifle in sight.
If I’m speaking the parlance of the youngfolk correctly, Brian Boru was a “chad.” Wait, is that supposed to be capitalized? Like an actual name? Chad? Never mind. Point is, the guy unified medieval Ireland through marriages of alliance, splitting Viking skulls, and something to do with the Church.
But that was literally a thousand years ago. Old news. Much more recently, Peer Sylvester has done something even more impossible — he’s made me care about trick-taking.
Dan Bullock caught my attention with No Motherland Without, an examination of national security bogeyman North Korea that was simultaneously thoughtful, gut-wrenching, and possibly the reddest board game ever inked. What impressed me was Bullock’s insistence on making you stare the victims of your geopoliticking in the face. Rather than seeing its people as geography, crowds, or spy-plane images, here was a game that put its humans front and center as elites, escapees, refugees, and prisoners.
Bullock’s 1979: Revolution in Iran is similarly thoughtful. This time, his target is the barbed nature of political allegiance, temporary allies, and changing leadership.
There was no bias against edutainment in my childhood home. PBS for social development and science, Math Blaster for numbers, Calvin & Hobbes for vocabulary and penmanship. Everything had the potential for learning.
John Coveyou and Steve Schlepphorst’s Cellulose: A Plant Cell Biology Game is, as you’ve already deduced from the title, meant to educate. As a game it’s barely there, a circa-Lords of Waterdeep worker placement gig without the variability or escalation. That almost goes without saying. More immediately, though, it has me wondering what we mean when we say a game can be educational — and whether there’s a better way to go about it.
Here in moose country, sometimes you’ll see a moose. Not very often. But sometimes. Once, on a hike, a moose wandered near to where we were eating lunch. Another time, when my Mom was painting a landscape while listening to music on some headphones, she looked up to see a moose standing next to her. Those are my two moose stories.
In Alex Wynnter’s Panorama, there are moose all over the damn place. Foxes too. That’s probably the best thing about it.
Right when he thought he was out, Michel Foucault wandered straight back into the woodland. Silly Foucault. Something tells me it won’t be the last time.
Speaking of last times, in the first part of our series on the Foucauldian assumptions behind Cole Wehrle’s Root, we introduced the concept of biopower. The very short version is that the suits on the game’s cards and clearings might feel like mere components, but they really represent the majority population that’s the font of all power in the woodland. In order to win, every faction must use different methods to control and expend them.
But that’s going to have to wait. Today we’re talking about the big picture. What is the central conflict in Root, and what can we learn from it?
Michal Vitkovsky’s Shiver Me Timbers is a sandbox pirate game. To answer your question, yes, it’s similar to Christian Marcussen’s sandbox pirate game Merchants & Marauders. In more ways than one. Both see you helming your very own pirate ship, unashamedly trace their genealogy back to Sid Meier’s Pirates!, and, since Board Game Geek is basically a dating app for board games, they both catfish you into expecting a two-hour playtime when really you’ll be stuck at the table for four. Tsk tsk.
But even though the parallels are difficult to avoid, this isn’t a comparative review. Shiver Me Timbers is more interesting for the ways it stands apart.
Last year’s Super-Skill Pinball: 4-Cade by math nerd Geoff Engelstein was a probabilities superstructure. What first seemed simple — picking which of two random numbers your pinball would hit next — was in fact a long con of ever-deepening regrets. But in a good way. It was a take-backer’s nightmare, a niggling reminder that the human brain has proved inferior to a rodent’s at assessing basic likelihoods. It also felt weirdly like real pinball.
Engelstein’s second stab at the system, Ramp It Up!, is better than the original in every regard. So instead of describing Super-Skill Pinball at its most elemental, let’s take a look at those four new tables.
James Naylor’s Magnate: The First City is an ambitious opening act, a fact only made more appropriate by its wicked irony. In my preview, I compared it to Monopoly. Plastic buildings, paper money, rents, dice. They even share a setting, focused as they are on unregulated property development. It’s almost as though the entire real estate industry is so shot through with corruption and profiteering that its only natural gamification is get-rich-quick fantasies.
Unlike Monopoly, though, Magnate’s satirical perspective hasn’t been neutered by corporate plagiarism. Instead, it rushes toward a single inexorable conclusion. This will undoubtedly be the game’s most controversial aspect, but to strip it away would be to remove the whole reason Magnate works, both as a plaything and as a statement.
I’m speaking, of course, about that game-ending housing crash.
Being honest upfront, there are very few topics I know so disproportionately much about as lunar colonization. So when I bellyache that Jose Ramón Palacios’s LUNA Capital doesn’t even mention regolith printing, lava tubes, basalt radiation shielding, or the deposits of thorium, titanium, and lunar ice that would be the few resources of value to corporations settling the moon, don’t take it the wrong way. Did I really expect LUNA Capital to take a serious stab at what a real moon colony might look like? No. I’d say I hoped. Hoped forlornly.
But it’s bad practice to write about the game I hoped for rather than the game I got. So instead, I’ll say that LUNA Capital is defined by some excellent set drafting and some very tired tile placement.