Ryan Courtney tends to design games that I want to like more than I actually do. Pipeline was good for a few sessions before it began to feel solved. Curious Cargo was curiously burdened by confounding scoring. In both cases, these were games about arranging curlicue routes from a pile of mismatched tiles, except the routes themselves played second fiddle to underwhelming bookends.
But then there’s Trailblazers, Courtney’s upcoming title that should hit Kickstarter next month. I have a bit of a thing for Trailblazers. Probably because the routes are finally front and center where they belong.
Ark Nova, designed by Matthias Wigge and so widely acclaimed that it’s been distributed by literally one dozen publishers, is easiest to describe via amalgamation. There’s the sprawling market of Vlaada Chvátil’s Through the Ages, the escalator of five action cards from James Kniffen’s Civilization: A New Dawn, and the vaguely aggravating card draws of Jacob Fryxelius’s Terraforming Mars.
It’s wildly popular. I think I know why.
There aren’t nearly enough shared control games. Matilda Simonsson, sole proprietor of Milda Matilda Games, apparently agrees, because she’s gone ahead and designed what could be described as the Platonic ideal of shared control. Inspired by the work of Cole Wehrle — glad I’m not the only one — every copy is crafted by hand. More importantly, it cuts to the heart of what makes shared control so dynamic and exciting.
Spoiler: Turncoats is absolute fire.
I’ll confess to having a morbid fascination with survival tales that turn to cannibalism. Flight 571. The Donner Party. Yellowjackets.
When a group of attractive twentysomethings are shipwrecked on a desert island only days before a tropical storm strips the place bare, what will they do to survive? Fish around in a burlap bag for wooden balls, mostly. See also: cannibalism.
Every year, the clans come together to celebrate. They ride the waves, share great feasts, and show off their towering banners. I don’t know the first thing about the Tidal Blades universe, but there’s something lovely about being invited to partake in a fictional culture’s holiday.
Except I’m not entirely sure where this one fits. Rather than being designed by Tim and Ben Eisner, co-creators of the original game (along with recent favorite Wonderland’s War), Banner Festival is helmed by J.B. Howell and Michael Mihealsick. When last we saw them, they were offering another waterlogged effort in the form of Flotilla. Good to know they already have their sea legs, because there’s a storm on the horizon.
Peter McPherson’s Wormholes seems like the sort of game I ought to enjoy. Beginning from a central station, players venture into the great beyond to make contact with far-flung planets, deploy wormholes to transit from one end of the galaxy to the other in the blink of an eye, and deliver passengers to their intended destination. You’re a space taxi! I can get behind all of that.
So why does it leave me as chilly as a punctured spacesuit?
Given how many of the things are about growing up, it’s a marvel nobody’s bothered to design a board game bildungsroman.
Space Station Phoenix, Gabriel J. Cohn’s latest foray into Rio Grande’s catalog of games about outer space and dice with custom faces, pitches itself in the opposite direction. What if rather than getting big, you’re asked to first tear yourself down? It isn’t exactly a coming-of-age story. But as someone intimately acquainted with the art of self-flagellation, it sounds like the sort of thing I’d be an instant ringer at.
This past August, an apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spoke to the assembled faculty of Brigham Young University to call for both the building and the defense of that institution. His twin metaphors were a trowel and a musket; the topic, same-sex marriage. There’s been much hubbub over what he “really meant.” Such a discussion will always be academic, inherently disconnected from how his words were actually received by their countless recipients. Within hours of that talk, I sat by the bedside of a fourteen-year-old girl. She hid her freshly scarred forearms from view. She asked me why God hated her. Why God had made her this way if only to hate her. Why that kindly apostle hated her. Why she hated herself.
Hate is not an easy topic for a board game. Nor, really, is love. With Stonewall Uprising, designer Taylor Shuss takes a chance by asking his players to embody both of them. One player becomes Pride, determined to carve out equal rights in a land that has always promised big and fallen short. The second player becomes The Man. The Man is there to hate. To hate and to take and to demoralize. It’s exhausting to play as The Man. Exhausting but essential.
Nothing to see here — I’m only four months late to our February tradition. But you know what’s almost as good as February? March.
For those who might not know what’s going on, this is our chance to reexamine my top picks with the benefit of hindsight. How did my Best Week 2020 selections hold up? Let’s take a look.
Board games are fantastic at modeling complex situations. I suspect that just as music is the art of sound, film is the art of directing, and literature is the art of fantasy authors using italics to tell me when their characters are delivering moody internal monologues, board games are the art of reducing models to their most digestible format.
Volko Ruhnke is no stranger to setting cardboard and counters to this purpose. Best known for the COIN Series, which depicts asymmetrical insurgencies, revolutions, and ideological contests throughout history, Ruhnke has now delivered a second system. This one is called Levy & Campaign, its first volume is Nevsky, and it’s an exemplar of how to deploy incentives and constraints to teach us something about history.