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.
For a dice game, Space Base doesn’t arrive with very many dice. You’ll find no chunky handfuls here. Two dinky dice is all you get. And those two are cursed, I’m certain of it, prompting my group to pull out the dice bowl so that we can roll something other than 4s and 5s for once. Guess we’re rolling chunky handfuls after all.
But curses aside, Space Base knows how to put its dice to good use. How to get crazy with them. How to make rolling 2d6 more exciting than they have any right to be.
I’m not sure there’s a title that makes my eyelids droop more than Tiny Towns. The back of the box only deepens my fatigue. Colorful cubes, check. Little woodcut buildings, cute. A blank 4×4 grid for each player, groan. Pastoral scenes of golden farms and thatched granaries and unkempt almshouses — credit where it’s due, there’s a cure for insomnia here.
But as Socrates said, “Don’t judge a scroll by the gross animal veins in its parchment.” So too it is with Tiny Towns. Although this isn’t the sort of game that gets my heart pounding, it’s no soporific.
What’s a rondel? Good question, Geoff. A rondel is usually circular, but not always. It can also be ovaloid. Perhaps an ellipse, if you want to evoke a space theme. Certainly Scorpius Freighter wants to dazzle you with its space theme. You’re a smuggler, it shouts, so go smuggle! Avoid patrols! Buy upgrades! Make sales! Don’t pay attention to how badly we’re abusing these rondels!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Down below, I’ll explain what a rondel is and talk about Scorpius Freighter. Bonus!
There aren’t many games that wouldn’t be improved by the presence of clickety-clackety, oh-so-tactile, heavy-as-depleted-uranium poker chips.
Then there are games that already have poker chips and pretty much feel like they’re bribing you into liking them more.
Try to guess which type of game War Chest is.
In recent news, scientists have determined that the worst thing in the world of video games is the escort mission. You know what I’m talking about. For whatever reason, mission command has given you the task of guiding a brain-dead moron from one spot to another, without the necessary equipment or manpower, along a route known to be infested with enemies who have a fanatical hatred of the person or vehicle in your charge.
Unicornus Knights is a two-hour-long escort mission. With her kingdom recently annexed by the neighboring empire, Princess Cornelia has decided to inspire an uprising, march straight across the countryside, and win back her tenuous ancestral claim to other people’s labor. Unlike some of her lesser peers, she’s unperturbed by questions of practicality. How will she keep the troops fed? Trounce the petty tyrants standing between her and the capital? Marshal her troops in battle? It’s safe to say that she really has no idea. Birthright, maybe.
That’s where you come in. As one of the Princess’s trusty knights, it’s your job to — well, to do everything the Princess is too important to do. Like prevent her from suicide-marching straight into an unwinnable fight.
The land is rotten: the grass brown and brittle, the trees bare and splintered, the fields less fertile than ever before. Unseemly dog-swirls mar the once-spotless walking paths. As one of the druid clans of the Valley of Life, it is your duty to cleanse the land by—
—building decks and playing blackjack, mostly. Sort of. Mostly.