Sentient is a bit of a weird one. By plugging robots into your mainframe — and doing your best to keep things orderly when their growing awareness starts to kick back — you hope to position your company at the forefront of the sentient revolution. It sounds like the first act of a robot uprising story, not a game designed around basic algebraic operations.
It doesn’t help that the game’s setting is about as substantial as chalk dust. As a thought experiment, my gaming group redesigned the whole thing on the spot to be about trying to persuade our pal Geoff to do us a favor, wherein his mental states — things like “playing Angry Birds right now” and “has another question about the rules” — might begin to affect our collective mood. It worked just fine.
But that’s where Sentient sets itself apart, because in spite of its insubstantial fluff and algebra-based gameplay — or perhaps thanks to it — it’s a surprisingly excellent filler.
Martin Wallace birthed a new subgenre with A Few Acres of Snow. Here was deck-building but tied to a map, every single location represented by a card. Seizing territory not only meant extra points and opportunities, but also more regions to administer, and your deck and hand could gradually choke on bureaucratic smoke that distracted from the conflict at hand. It was deviously clever. Also incomplete.
Wallace’s Mythotopia sought to fix up the concept, broadening it from two to four players and sanding down some of the system’s rougher edges while giving others their due. It made for a good time, as far as I’m concerned, though still an experience where a single pulled thread might unravel the whole thing.
Now Wallace is back with A Handful of Stars, the last in his trilogy of deck-building-on-a-map games. And as we’ve come to expect, there are some excellent ideas on display here — and a few that could have used some extra work.
Every so often, along comes a game sporting a sense of style and rocking a ‘tude, making itself known with a crash and a holler. Much like a toddler who’s climbed onto the counter and tossed a dish onto the floor.
Vengeance forces you to sit up and take note, is what I’m saying. Emulating the likes of Payback, Kill Bill, and the snazzy digital Hotline Miami, it’s the sort of game that sends you bum-rushing into a room packed full of no-gooders, swinging and shooting until they’re dead and you’re barely limping, then hitting repeat until some nebulous concept of revenge has been fulfilled.
It also happens to resemble one of those corpses your protagonist will undoubtedly leave sprawled behind them. But we’ll get to that.
Star Trek: Ascendancy was not only among my favorite games of 2016, but also one of its most unique for how defiantly (yeah, that’s a reference) it clung to the vision of Star Trek. It was sprawling and dangerous, complete with a burgeoning playtime and the possibility of player elimination. But it was also as sleek and streamlined as a Starfleet vessel, every single turn — nay, pretty much every move — cast as an episode of the original series, with planets and cultures and deadly space phenomenons popping onto the table. It was rife with political intrigue, border tensions, shaky alliances, and a futurist’s appreciation for technology.
Well, buckle up — or don’t, because real Starfleet ships don’t have seat belts — because now that its first two expansions are out, Ascendancy is better than ever.
Last week I talked about a Vlaada Chvátil game called That’s a Question!, arguing that it was pleasant enough, particularly in family or get-to-know-you settings, but didn’t exactly rock my socks off. In part because it didn’t feel like much of an innovation from one of our hobby’s most renowned innovators.
Well, today I’m going to tell you about Codenames Duet, which right there in its title announces itself as a new take on the living classic Codenames. But here’s the thing — in addition to being a testament to why our hobby thrives on iterative design, it just might be one of my favorite Chvátil games.
Here’s a question for you. Which would you miss more if it ceased to exist: Vlaada Chvátil designing light party-style games or Vlaada Chvátil designing overly complicated games?
If you’re anything like me, there’s no contest between Codenames and Space Alert, though I’d still miss the former if it disappeared from the face of the Earth all the same. If you guessed that would be my answer, you get a point. If not, the guy who asked me the question gets a point.
There you go. I just summed up Chvátil’s latest, That’s a Question!
With its pedigree, you’d think Secrets would stand out as one of the finest creations ever put to cardboard. Bruno Faidutti stands at one end, with hits like Citadels, Mission: Red Planet, and Mascarade in his pocket, while Eric Lang inhabits the other. And if you don’t know who Eric Lang is, might I recommend Blood Rage or Chaos in the Old World? A social deduction by those two seems like a no-brainer.
But as it would turn out, no brains isn’t the right way to go for a social deduction game. At least not unless you’re content making a merely okay one.
There’s something fishy going on with Mountains of Madness, and I’m not talking about the Innsmouth look. Rather, it’s the sort of game that seems determined to pull in multiple directions at once. On the one hand, it proposes a serious take on H.P. Lovecraft’s most recognizable work, complete with eerie illustrations, a map that promises that unknowable mysteries will be unveiled upon summiting its highest peak, and not even one disproportionately attractive librarian toting a tommy gun.
On the other hand, it’s also a real-time puzzle game that makes you speak with a foreign accent, pet a neighbor’s face, and stand on your chair. Which is to say, it’s got a tonal problem the way Lovecraft had a compare-nonwhites-to-animals problem.
James S. A. Corey’s The Expanse occupies a strange place in my heart. The first novel, Leviathan Wakes, I proclaim as brilliant without reservation, capturing a lot of what science fiction does best — plausible speculation and wonderment tempered by existential smallness — without veering too far in the direction of “hard” and becoming a boring high school chemistry lesson crammed with non-characters. On the other hand, main star Captain James Holden is the galaxy’s biggest dummy, pretty much just allying with whichever charismatic leader he’s most recently spoken with. Then again, space Mormons.
At any rate, my enthusiasm for the books — and to a lesser extent the TV show — was enough that the announcement of a board game adaptation aroused my interest. Even better when I learned it would be helmed by Geoff Engelstein, the mind who dreamed up Space Cadets, its hilarious Dice Duel sequel, and the ever-reliable The Dragon & Flagon.