Now that Netrunner is dead, I’ve been thinking more about those first few months of its existence, before the pro scene and a steady march of upgrades left me standing on the highway watching the dust kicked up by its tires as it left me behind. It was one of those games that briefly captured me, gave me a rough shaking, and then departed forever. Years later I would happen across its obituary and stare, unsure whether I was feeling regret at not playing more or relief that I didn’t stick around until the end.
It’s Renegade that brings back those memories. Not because both games feature body-modded individualists peeling away an oppressive system’s layers of defense, though there is that. But rather because they’re both far cleverer than they first appear.
Oh, and because they both positively drown you in terminology. As in, hands around the throat, bathtub of ice water, drowning you.
It’s a tale as old as time. Boy meets girl. Girl isn’t interested. The town of Stjørdal gets invaded by flesh-hungry undead. Flesh-hungry undead are the only ones who can pronounce “Stjørdal,” so by ancient tradition they now own the town. Boy, with nothing better to do with his misdirected masculinity, loads up on iron stakes and vials of holy water. It’s on.
We haven’t covered anything by prolific print-and-play designer Todd Sanders for a while, but the recent envelope printing of Todd’s solo microgame The Draugr by BoardGameGeek seems like as good a time as any to jumpstart our moldering heart. So listen up, because this one’s lean, gorgeously ugly, and arrives printed on paper you might bring groceries home in.
As the last of the Five Good Emperors, Marcus Aurelius was inclined to philosophy over military matters. So much so that he was given the totally unique nickname, “the philosopher.” But sadly for Marcus, his reign was quickly marked by trouble. When Roman soldiers brought home a nasty bout of plague from Parthia, it wasn’t long before Germanic and Sarmatian tribes took advantage of the weakened empire and begin their advance across the Danube and into Gaul. And no quantity of stoicism was going to solve that one.
Robert DeLeskie’s Wars of Marcus Aurelius covers a decade of brutal frontier fighting from 170 to 180 CE. And much like its source material, it’s full of hard decisions, infuriating reversals, and some slogging through the muck to get to the good stuff.
Despite the fact that Charles I spent the majority of his reign warring against one foe or another, it’s hard to imagine how Tom Russell’s Charlemagne, Master of Europe could have been anything other than a solo game. After all, who could stand as a worthy opponent to the Pater Europae? The Lombards, Moors, Saxons, or internal Frankish plotters who ultimately found themselves bulldozed as Charles became king, then king of a second kingdom, then eventually Emperor of the Romans?
Actually, the answer is those dang dice and those dang cups. By the conclusion of a session, it’s apparent that they’re the real enemies of the Carolingian Dynasty.
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.
Darkest Night was one of the first games I ever played solo. It arrived with a tiny board with jigsaw-puzzle connectors, smoky laser-charred wooden standees, and a napkin for wiping the soot off your fingers when you were done punching everything out. For months it retained that campfire reek, like summers up the canyon, like burning villages, like a necromancer’s grip tightening around a fantasy kingdom’s throat.
It got its grip around my throat as well. With its thickly despairing gameplay, religion-gone-literal subtext, and smoke filling my nostrils, I defeated the necromancer time after time. More often, it was him who did the defeating.
Sadly, Darkest Night was a flawed game, and it fizzled from my table as abruptly as it had flickered to life in the first place. Its central notion — that your heroes were waging a guerrilla resistance and would spend more time hiding than fighting — was undercut by the fact that it was relatively easy to defend a single hero chilling in the corner. This hero could spend every turn searching for keys, which would unlock relics, which in turn would slay evil once and for all. A to B to C to Dead Necromancer, all without leaving the comfort of a single space. So much for guerrilla warriors. More like renegade metal detectorists.
It’s rare enough that a game gets a second chance, let alone when it’s a niche solo title. Based on Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Nemo’s War held a formidable reputation for its brutal difficulty, constant barrage of dice rolls, and tangible sense of setting. It’s Nemo and his Nautilus against an entire world of colonial powers. And, tipping my hand right now, its polished second edition is easily one of the slickest solo games ever crafted.
There’s an undeniable romance to the notion of finding a long-lost city in the middle of an inhospitable landscape. It’s the sort of thing that caused men like Percy Fawcett to wager — and ultimately lose — his life in pursuit of Z in the deepest reaches of the Brazilian Amazon. To brave dangers, starvation, the uncertain meetings with the indigenous, and to arrive battered and thinned yet alive at the foot of a monumental geographic discovery; it almost sounds worth the risk. And I’m the sort who avoids taking my daughter to the park.
The Lost Expedition is only loosely based on Fawcett’s doomed expedition, instead opting to capture the broad strokes of perilous exploration. And unlike its source material, it’s a success.
Unknown is perhaps the most appropriately-titled board game of the past few years. Not only is it about uncovering the darkness of an underground bunker complex after a world-ending disaster, but it’s also relatively, well, unknown. And I aim to put an end to that. The last part, I mean.