Pirates are all the rage. Something must be in the water. Brine. Rum. Scurvy.
Dead Reckoning is John D. Clair’s attempt to leach the lemon juice from our water supply. Don’t take that as an insult. It’s a scurvy joke. Because scurvy is caused by vitamin-C deficiency. To keep their gums from becoming bleeding pits, sailors would drink lemon juice. It’s also where we get “limey,” because the British Navy forced its sailors to drink lime juice, except lime juice doesn’t have enough vitamin-C to offset scurvy, so ha ha, the British Navy was drinking lime juice for nothing.
What were we talking about? Oh, right. Dead Reckoning.
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?
Despite containing no pencils, dry-erase pens, pads of paper or laminated cards, Matthew Dunstan and Brett Gilbert’s The Guild of Merchant Explorers is as much a flip-and-write game as any other. It’s the feel that counts. A single card is flipped. Everybody uses that card to fill in spaces on their personal map. Everybody suffers or profits together. At least initially. After a few cards, whether any given flip helps or hinders your expansion is a function of planning and foresight rather than mere chance.
What sets this title apart from its peers, though, is the way it resets between eras.
Every so often a publisher will send me a game out of the blue. I try to take a look at every title I’m sent, but when I’m working through a backlog twenty boxes deep, I’ll confess it isn’t beyond me to judge a game by its lid. Eternal shame, I know. But look at this thing. TEN? That’s the name of your game? TEN? With that epileptic seizure of colors passing for box art? I only knew Shawn Stankewich, Robert Melvin, and Molly Johnson from Point Salad, but, uh, I’m not especially fond of Point Salad. Onto the pile of giveaways it went.
And then something funny happened. TEN got nominated for a Golden Geek. My curiosity was piqued. It was sitting right there, after all. How much opportunity cost could it represent? At worst, it would take fifteen minutes to learn and play. Fifteen lousy minutes. It’s a rare game night if we don’t chat about Geoff’s fashion sense for at least twenty. Might as well give it a try.
Since then, we’ve hardly hosted a game night without playing a round or two of TEN. It’s phenomenal.
Come Halloween season, I’m always on the lookout for games of the scary variety. Something not only frightening, but filled with building tension and jump scares and moments that will have everyone gripping the edge of the table in apprehension. Something unexpected. Something that will stay with you.
This year, that game is absolutely Neil Kimball’s Sheepy Time.
By some measures, Erik Andersson Sundén’s Whirling Witchcraft is broken right down to its witchy heart. The second time we played — roughly eight minutes after the first time we played — Geoff turned to me and asked, “Is that all? We aren’t doing some tutorial mode?”
Indeed. I can’t even imagine what a tutorial mode to Whirling Witchcraft would look like. Passing cubes without any reason, maybe. But here’s the thing: despite its brevity and its chanciness — because of its chanciness — Whirling Witchcraft has given me a minor epiphany.
In this age of remote plays and digital implementations, it’s sometimes easy to forget that board games are pieces as much as they’re rules or settings or half-filled boxes hogging up more than their fair share of shelf space. Take John Clair’s Cubitos, for example. The absolute best part of Cubitos is handling its massive handfuls of dice. That isn’t faint praise. Cubitos knows what it does best. Which is why you’ll throw so many handfuls of dice that you place yourself at elevated risk of repetitive strain injury.
In one sense, Santa Monica isn’t anything new. Apart from its sun-bleached palette and laid-back setting, this hobby is full of perfectly serviceable tableau-builders. Bonus points if those tableaux are tiered; I’m thinking of offerings like 51st State, Imperial Settlers, or even Wingspan. Three rows of cards, each with different but complementary functions. Santa Monica only has two rows of cards. Two is fewer than three. Isn’t that a step in the wrong direction?
Nope. If anything, Santa Monica has produced some of the freshest tableaux I’ve ever laid on my table. And it has everything to do with how it goes about the process of establishing its setting.
Because it is the ken of board game critics to reduce every design to “It’s just this one game plus this other thing,” it would be easy to dismiss John Clair’s Ecos: First Continent as just Paolo Mori’s Rise of Augustus plus a map. That would be doing it a disservice. For one thing, although Augustus and Ecos share a heritage that stretches all the way back to Adam and Bingo, in practice there’s enough consanguinity between them to make their intermarriage technically legal in at least three states. You do you, you crazy lovebirds.
The real issue, however, is that Ecos is so damnably playable. If I were in a bad mood, I might almost call it cynical. Instead, let’s go with insidious.
Every so often, a game comes along that makes you say, “Well, that was charming.” Maybe that sounds like faint praise. Fair enough. Often it is.
Not in Walking in Burano, designed by Wei-Min Ling and illustrated by Maisherly Chan. This thing walks the line between charming and chewy just enough that I’ll forgive its first player marker being a cat standee.