By this point, Tomas Uhlir’s Under Falling Skies has some minor history to it. Originally the winner of the 9-Card Nanogame Print & Play Design Contest, it was later developed and released by Czech Games Edition during the early weeks of social distancing. At the time I was taking advantage of my newfound loneliness to wrap up a few other solo titles. Put simply, I missed out. Now that CGE has given it a full release, I’m rectifying my omission by shouting the truth from the rooftops:
This is one of the finest solitaire games I have ever played.
Maxime Rambourg and Théo Rivière’s The Loop has a great sense of humor. It just isn’t my type of humor. Take the name of its time-traveling villain, Dr. Foo, and spitball the easiest jokes that come to mind. Lots of puns? Naturally. Foo Fighters? Certainly. Mr. T references? So many. Super underpants? That has nothing to do with “foo,” but sure.
Don’t take this as a slam. If anything, The Loop is so committed to its Saturday morning cartoon wackiness that it wins me over. A little bit. Not all the way. But enough to get past the candy colors and invest in the game’s quickly deteriorating timelines. Poo on you, Dr. Foo.
There’s a familiar formula to cooperative board games. Call it the Pandemic Formula. Every turn, four problems are added to the board. Your character can easily remove one or two of these problems, perhaps three with great effort. Because you’re always adding more problems than you can subtract, the game has a built-in tipping point, a cascade from which recovery is impossible. Fortunately, there’s a solution somewhere. A cure. When acquired, this will nullify the cascade before it ever happens. So the game becomes a balancing act. Chase the solution while delaying the inevitable.
What Benjamin Farahmand’s Faza asks is, what if instead of adding only four problems, each turn adds ten, chases you with a murder-ship, and irreversibly terraforms a patch of the planet?
The door swings open to reveal a board game critic. Slovenly, pretentious, angry at the world for none of the right reasons. He turns his wild eyes on you. “Hey. Wanna hear my theory about how the important but muted role of Catan’s robber pawn represents the erasure of Narragansett Algonquins from New Englander awareness after King Philip’s War?”
You must choose one option…
Agree: You acquiesce and sit across from the critic. Roll seven Vigor in three attempts to stay awake or lose 2HP.
Evade: Ask if the critic has heard of Monopoly. Begin Close Combat…
Then turn the next chapter card to read on.
In my very first course after changing my major to history, my midterm paper came back with a scrawled note in purple ink: “Good writing, good argumentation, but too polemical.”
Too polemical. I’ve been waiting to drop that one on some unsuspecting victim ever since. You could even say it’s one of the reasons I was so eager to write about Ben Madison’s solo game The Mission, which charts the history of Christianity over its first thousand years. “From the Crucifixion to the Crusades,” as its subtitle goes. Sounds polemical to me! Brace yourself, Ben Madison, for thou art—
Medium polemical? Somewhat polemical? Acceptably polemical? Certainly not polemical enough for “too” polemical. If any “too” should be deployed, The Mission is too preoccupied with being playable. A difficult charge to make stick in court. If it please your honor, The Mission is guilty of being too good to be polemical. First-degree playable, second-degree polemical. And here I’d expected those to be the other way around.
Poor Rome. No matter how many centuries fly by, her problems remain the same. When last we spied the immortal city — or at least the version found in Robert DeLeskie’s solo wargame Wars of Marcus Aurelius — the Marcomanni, Quadi, and Iazyges were harassing the frontiers. Now it’s the Goths, Vandals, and an upstart general named Constantine III who’s decided he’d rather call the shots for a change. Thank goodness for loyal half-barbarian Stilicho, ready to defend the young Emperor Honorius from all comers.
When I heard that Tim Hutchings’ Thousand Year Old Vampire was a solo RPG, my response was pretty much, “Buddy, if I wanted to pretend to be somebody else when I’m all alone, that isn’t a game. That’s my life. Now cease disturbing my slumber.”
The first chink in my armor was the book itself. If it weren’t so pristine, this thing could have passed for a tome stacked under a hundred years’ worth of library sediment. The title and byline appear as though they’ve been shoddily glued into place, the description on the back secured with masking tape that’s peeling at the edges. The cover’s golden debossing calls to mind pottery mended by kintsugi, but more veined, more branching, like rivulets of blood straining for shared warmth. With great restraint, in only a few spots, the spine exhibits dents and tears. And within, an academic’s trove of article clippings and telltale stains and artwork of a dozen styles, none of it detracting from the actual utility of explaining how you, the reader, will spend the next few hours sharing the story of a vampire in bloom and decay, love and ruin, tragedy and beauty.
As for partaking of a solo role-playing game, pay no attention to my earlier reaction. Thousand Year Old Vampire is devastatingly therapeutic.
The First Jihad is a shout of defiance — in more ways than one. Designed by Ben Madison and Wes Erni, it’s a long-in-the-making riff on the States of Siege formula, that old hallmark from Victory Point Games that saw lone players fending off encroachments along multiple lanes. Here, however, the concept is turned inside out. Rather than defending a central entity, you’re cast as up to fourteen different empires, city-states, tribes, and kingdoms as they weather the long century of Islam’s expansion under the direction of the Umayyad Dynasty. Less siege, more doomed containment.
Breezy stuff. Fortunately, Madison and Erni have a keen eye for how to capture the sweep of an era with a paper map and some chits.
My grandfather was a bomber squadron commander in the Army Air Corps in WWII. I went most of my childhood without knowing that. He didn’t speak of his time in the Pacific until late in his life, and then only sporadically, quietly, with great effort. He saw friends die and planes fall. His own plane fell. He spent months in recovery before resuming combat missions. The first I heard of his service was at a family gathering. My cousin loaded up a flight sim, undoubtedly rudimentary but photorealistic in my memory. Grandpa watched, hands on hips, frowning in disapproval. One of my uncles told us to turn it off. That it was bothering grandpa.
Grandpa jabbed a finger at the screen. “No, that isn’t it. It’s all wrong. You don’t hit a bridge there. They’d rebuild it in a week. And you need to approach from a wider angle. Out of the sun.” And then he told some stories. Just the silly ones. Running alcohol, almost crashing into a mountain, the fellow squadron commander who died to “friendly fire” for always assigning his own plane in the lead position. The ones that haunted him would wait until we were older.
And then there’s solo wargame Skies Above the Reich by Mark Aasted and Jeremy White. Guess I should probably talk about that.
I’m terrified of and fascinated by blindness. On more than one occasion, driving along a stretch of Montanan highway with no cars in sight, I would close my eyes and see how long I could last before my nerves peeled apart and my sight restored itself through sheer reflex. Another time, walking to class, the same experiment caused me to turn my ankle so violently that a moment later I awoke on some very uncomfortable pebble landscaping, pain alight from foot to pelvis, shoe braced tight from the swelling. I’ve since learned better than to flirt with the abyss.
Blindness seems like the perfect target sensation for a genre that so often resorts to flipping cards at random. Yet apart from performative pieces like Nyctophobia, not many games have toyed with the concept of not being able to see what’s right in front of you. At least until Sensor Ghosts, Janice and Stu Turner’s sequel to their first published game, Assembly. Having escaped a contaminated orbital platform, you’re blasting your way back to Earth through a micrometeorite storm. Except the sensors on your ship are throwing up all sorts of noise. The result is profoundly evocative — and more than a little shaky.
Then again, perhaps those are two ways of saying the same thing.