Vast: The Crystal Caverns always possessed one glaring fault, which was only compounded by its expansion, The Fearsome Foes. What to do when you want to play this beautiful sprawling asymmetrical thing, but don’t want to teach four, five, six, seven separate roles? Much of the time, the simplest answer was also the easiest: don’t. It was the sort of game that quickly established itself as the bane of groups with rotating players, especially since it only truly came to life once the roles were learnt and the interactions between its characters and haunts became second nature.
Vast: The Mysterious Manor doesn’t solve that problem, not fully. Any game with multiple roles is going to require its players to learn those roles, and the Vast series — I think we can safely call it that now — has always thrived on the broad differences between its sides. But The Mysterious Manor is at least going to make the task of teaching its rules faster, easier, and more rewarding than before. And the result just might strike the balance between the sweet, sweet asymmetry that gave Vast its appeal in the first place and the approachability to make sure its players stick around long enough to learn its rhythms.
Want to know the best thing about all these Reiner Knizia reprints? It’s that somebody else is doing the hard work of curating the good doctor’s 500+ games. Rather than picking through every last trifle, experiment, and flub, they’re all being sorted for the brightest, smartest, and most fulfilling of Knizia’s catalog.
The latest in this spree of curated Knizias — remade with gorgeous art by Osprey Games — is High Society. And much like its namesake, it’s elite, holier-than-thou, and oh so catty.
Today on my monthly-ish feature about the games that still have a spot on my shelf despite the passage of years, we’re talking about Space Alert, the most stressful game that I’ll argue against playing before somehow acquiescing and playing anyway, blood pressure be damned. This is Yesteryear.
To this day, Vlaada Chvátil’s Space Alert remains the only game I’ve ever created an accessory for. I’m not talking a Plano box for keeping pieces sorted or an extra pack of dice so you don’t have to share the same set. Instead, I’m talking about a custom T-shirt, designed to look like a captain’s uniform complete with Space Alert logo and everything.
See, my family growing up was never much into games—
ALERT. ENEMY ACTIVITY DETECTED. PLEASE BEGIN FIRST PHASE.
Zogen, from the oft-hilarious Oink Games, is a reflex game. Not your usual reflex game, which is about slapping hands with your high school crush on the back bench of the band bus, then spending the rest of the trip icing your bruised fingers. But rather, the sort of reflex game that hurts your brain. Like, hurts it. And it’s only about reading four little symbols.
The Mind is the sort of game that cults form around. Little more than a deck of cards numbered one to one hundred, The Mind boasts that you’ll be able to gradually tap into your fellow players’ mental energies. It’s a bold claim, especially since your entire goal is to play your cards in ascending order. In fact, I’d even go so far as to call it fraudulent, since the concept is so simple that a child could—
Dammit! Who played that 65?! Was it you, Geoff? It was! Don’t deny it! Now let’s go again!
Way back before the dawn of time — that’s 1991, four years prior to the release of Settlers of Catan — the design team known as the Ragnar Brothers, composed of Steve and Phil Kendall and Gary Dicken, designed a game meant to chart the rise, fall, rise, fall, rise, fall, and many more rises and falls of the kingdoms, empires, dynasties, and nation-states that shaped our history. Some of its central concepts were eventually riffed upon by Vinci in 1999, which was reshaped to became Small World in 2009. Facts! Huh!
Anyway, if you’ve played any of those games, you already know the central conceit behind History of the World. As an empire, your moment in the sun is fleeting. Then it’s decline, barbarian invasions, and eventual obscurity for you. At least your points carry over.
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.