We may never know who burned Rome in 64 CE. Christians hoping to usher in the end of the world? Nero looking to make room for his infamous Golden House? Traders who forgot to douse their torches on a windy night, or time travelers rescuing the continuum from a tyrant worse than Hitler?
Then again, Dávid Turczi and Nick Shaw’s Rome & Roll is more concerned about the aftermath. More precisely, the rebuilding of Rome at Nero’s behest. And who’s responsible for that? Like a kid avoiding prayer duty at Thanksgiving dinner, I’m hollering “Not it!”
Of all the many virtues a board game may hold, brevity seems to be the most dazzling. “It’s Game X but shorter!” we say, breathless at the prospect of compressing each hour of play into forty-five minutes, half an hour, the heartbeat of a hummingbird. It’s like shortening recess for adults.
And hey, I get it. Really. After all, a number of positive improvements are directly connected to time-saving measures. Decreased waits between turns, fewer needless components to fiddle with, decisions spaces that are honed rather than sprawling. It’s easy to confuse the distinction between sharp and slender.
Speaking of which, The Menace Among Us is Battlestar Galactica in forty minutes. Kinda-sorta.
It’s the Age of the Hybrid. Fair enough. Got a spare mechanism? Cram it in there. Shove something else to the side if you need to make room. When you’re finished, your deck-building set-collection roll-and-move dexterity game won’t only be named everybody’s game of the year, but game of the millennium, going down in history alongside Senet and Chess as the most likely to be extracted from a garbage dump by alien archaeologists.
Except here’s the thing: you’ve got to make it stick. Like stitching together body parts from a dozen “donors” to create a companion for Frankenstein’s Monster, your creation needs to walk and talk and probably shag. And none of that is happening without functioning ligaments and tendons and everything else that puts a body into motion and keeps it from sloughing apart after a handshake.
Want a negative example? There are few finer than Abomination: The Heir of Frankenstein.
Being in high school during the Prequel Trilogy didn’t remedy my absent appreciation for Star Wars. Nor did it improve my chances of playing that Epic Duels game the other nerds set up in the journalism room. Don’t get me wrong, the problem wasn’t the game. It was my total lack of interest in seeing who would win between Hayden Christensen and that jetpack-wearing space praetorian who defeated himself by flying into a pit. So hip. I can totally see it. No, please don’t explain it to me.
The motto for Restoration Games is “Every Game Deserves Another Turn.” A lovely sentiment! Especially in an age where far too many releases are forgotten within a month. But what I appreciate most about their work is how they’ve given me a first turn at a handful of games I otherwise missed. Unmatched: Battle of Legends is their latest. And although I never got around to playing Epic Duels, it’s already obvious that this is the superior version. No space wizards, for one.
You might recall a game from last year by the name of War Chest. Designed by Trevor Benjamin and David Thompson, War Chest was lavishly produced but fell prey to the same problem that plagues many modern abstract games. Namely, it lost sight of the joys of outmaneuvering an opponent by focusing too heavily on attritional tit for tat.
Undaunted: Normandy, by the same design duo, also tends to dwell on matters of attrition. In some ways it feels like an exploration of the same design space, despite differences of setting and even the lion’s share of its underlying systems. Here is another game by Benjamin and Thompson that features a flexible but finite pool of units, which might eventually become so depleted that they’re left sitting on the board with nothing to do but absorb another hit.
But here’s the thing — Undaunted: Normandy works. In fact, it’s a masterclass in how to put attrition front and center without strangling a game’s momentum.
Matt Leacock may have gained public acclaim thanks to Lunatix Loop and Knit Wit, but I must confess a heterodox belief that Pandemic, Roll Through the Ages, and Forbidden Desert will eventually be recognized as his more influential designs. Consider Era: Medieval Age as a prime example. As a successor to Roll Through the Ages it sheds the system’s slimness for a small hill of plastic, but it also happens to be a near-perfect dice game.
Looking back over Tim Fowers’ ludography, one encounters titles like Burgle Bros, Paperback, Hardback, and Fugitive. Small games that defy their size by yielding plenty of play. Bite-sized experiences that mingle with your saliva to swell into a wadded sock that leaves your jaw unhinged and your throat blocked. Except in a good way.
And then there’s… this. If not for the distinctive artwork from Ryan Goldsberry, the large unfolding box, plentiful miniatures, and over-the-top production of Sabotage would feel like a symptom of a minimalist recently disabused of his convictions. This is what happens when the Church of Portable collapses into schism, with Fowers playing Luther and Jeff Krause as that little Oecolampadius fellow.
How strange, then, that Sabotage might also be the best game we’ve seen from this little studio thus far.
Brock: Do you hear that? On the wind? It’s a whisper, drifting from the remotest corners of tabletop gamedom…
“It’s not a gaaaaame.”
This time on Two Minds About, Dan and I take a look at Untold: Adventures Await, from designers John Fiore and Rory O’Connor. Did this box transport us to new worlds? Were we ensorcelled by its rapturous cardboard mendacity? Read on to find out!
Genre is a funny thing. What counts as a western, for example? Or noir? Is there a tipping point between horror and action-horror? Do genres inform our artistic decisions, or are they labels we slap onto things to arrange them into tidy boxes?
Even though it hasn’t officially hit retail yet, Jamey Stegmaier’s Tapestry has already proven divisive. Right there beneath its title, it announces its intentions. A Civilization Game, it says, front-loading expectations with a whole lot of history. But if it’s a civilization game, it’s certainly an unorthodox one. Some have called it an evolution. Others seem to consider it a misfire. As someone who’s deeply interested in “alternate” civgames, those that seek to portray the sweep of human experience in ways that haven’t been endlessly rehashed, I’ve picked my side. I’ll put it this way: if civgames were westerns, Tapestry would be Cowboys & Aliens.