I don’t usually assign scores, but The Estates deserves zero stars. That’s right. Zero. As in nothing. Even harsher, I’ll award its predecessor, the decade-old Neue Heimat, negative eight points. Just for being German. Yeah, I went there.
But here’s the thing: when it comes to The Estates, that’s a stupendously flattering score. Come on down and I’ll explain why.
Phil Eklund’s Pax Series has always sparked controversy, although never to the extremes of Pax Emancipation. Its mere announcement prompted concerns ranging from the assumption that it would defend the practice of slavery (it doesn’t) to wondering if Phil’s libertarian worldview would color the game’s approach to history (duh). The game itself was almost secondary.
In person, there’s nothing secondary about it. Pax Emancipation stomps into the room with all the bashfulness of a rhinoceros, demands everybody’s attention, and proudly proclaims its views on a whole range of topics. And then, like an actual rhinoceros, it makes a big steaming mess on your carpet.
Black Mirror‘s “Nosedive” is the sort of thing certain people might call “relevant.” A kinda-sorta utopian state with an ugly undercurrent, check. Suspicion of how much trust we invest in social media, check. The assumption that score aggregators will ruin everything about our society, oh yes I am so with you. Never mind that Community‘s “App Development and Condiments” did the same thing (and far more joyously) over two years earlier. No really, don’t worry about it. The more we’re complaining about social media, the happier this duck gets.
And now there’s a board game, published by Asmodee but currently without a listed designer or artist — which is oddly appropriate, given the game’s roots in dystopian fiction. Also appropriate is that, in direct parallel with the social media hellscape “Nosedive” was caterwauling about, the game is total and absolute poo.
From Beau Beckett and Jeph Stahl, the creative duo behind 1812: The Invasion of Canada, 1775: Rebellion, 1754: Conquest, and 878: Vikings, comes their most important and serious cultural contribution yet—
A game in which you say “dude.”
And although it would be easy to repurpose the game’s tagline for my review — “it’s a game where you say dude” says everything about how amusing you’ll find it — I have opinions. Though most of them deal more with the sequel. Yes, you read that right: this game already has a sequel.
Race for the Galaxy: Puerto Rico Edition. That’s my dismissive, elitist, reference-choked review of Thomas Lehmann’s New Frontiers, sequel to Roll for the Galaxy, which itself was a sequel to Race. If I were more of a snob, I might leave it at that.
Instead, I’m precisely enough of a snob to feel like there’s something more I could add to the conversation. And in particular, that I might answer the question, Why does such an obviously solid game leave me so cold?
It’s hard to deny that Bill Lasek’s Koi is a handsome game. That soft color palette, Christy Freeman’s stunning illustrations, the wooden dragonflies and carp and frogs — throw them together and you have something approaching serene, the surface of the pond glasslike other than the occasional ripple of a predator flickering from the deep. At any rate, it’s far prettier than the muck-choked “pond” we had out back as a kid. The one time we stocked it with goldfish, they lasted all of one afternoon before being sucked down the storm drain.
You begin as a toddler stacking alphabet blocks. Thirty-something years later, you snap awake with a gray popsicle stick in hand, a sprawling mess of pillars and roads and cars standing before you, as attractive as it is fragile. Are you an urban planner? Some asphalt deity of the highway? Doesn’t matter. The only important thing is that your hands don’t shake.
Welcome to Tokyo Highway. Buckle up.
Despite containing enough minor problems to fuel an entire convoy of nitpickers, Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game did the impossible by making me care about the zombie apocalypse. Scratch that — it made me care about my family of ragtag survivors. I cared enough to support their pill addiction, or reconstitute an entire library of books, or sometimes burn the very colony that had accepted us with open arms. All that zombie stuff was just the backdrop to its all-too-human tale of greed and selflessness. The real focus was always squarely on the people. It’s surprising how many zombie games don’t get that right.
Now there’s a new Crossroads game by the name of Gen7. At least it claims to be the heir to Dead of Winter’s throne. Other than a few patchy scraps of heraldry, I’m not convinced.
It never stops. That seems to be the central theme of SpaceCorp, and not only because a single play can easily consume three or four hours. We span an ocean, only to seek a river passage across the continent on the far side. We meet our neighbors, then decide that we should probably also meet theirs. We pen Here be dragons on the fringes of our maps, but never for long. If SpaceCorp didn’t have an ending in mind — a self-aware arbitrary ending that could be considered little more than an intermission — it might go on forever.
I’ll say this right up front: there aren’t many games as pleasant as Wingspan.
It isn’t just the setting, though the idea that you’re establishing a bird sanctuary is certainly pleasant. Nor is it only the gently expressive artwork of Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, Natalia Rojas, and Beth Sobel. Nor the components, though that birdfeeder has elicited a chuckle of delight from nearly everyone I’ve introduced it to.
Rather, that pleasantness rests on the tenor of Elizabeth Hargrave’s design, from the birds themselves to the way the rounds are structured. This is good stuff. I can’t wait to show you.