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.
Every so often — very rarely — Dan is wrong about a game. I know, it came as a surprise to him too. Which is why today we’re featuring a conversation between Dan and guest contributor Brock Poulsen. The topic: Warfighter by Dan Verssen Games. One for, one against. There can only be one with the correct opinion. Two men enter, one man is wrong.
You get the idea.
In Deep Space D-6, a solo dice game that wears its influences on its sleeve, my first victory came while helming the Halcyon. Time warps, space pirates, even the lure of cosmic existentialism and the dreaded Ouroboros station couldn’t stop me. Everything space had to throw at me, and I chewed it up and spat it right back in space’s pimply face. And it was only my first try.
I was dumbfounded. Was this it? Had I reached the edge of space so easily? Had I made some mistake? Was I even now trapped within the swaddled interior of cosmic existentialism itself, unwilling to see the boundaries of the dream?
The answer to all of these questions was no. I’d played correctly. I’d defeated space. But that was only aboard the Halcyon, the galactic equivalent of a bike with eight sets of training wheels trailing off its sides. The Athena Mk. II would not prove such a tender lover.
A couple hundred years before it would fall for good, the Roman Empire faced a half-century of panic and defeat. Internal competition had split the once-great state into three conflicting portions, barbarian invaders ransacked the countryside, and a series of plagues depopulated much of the continent. Even the emperors weren’t safe, as one after another they succumbed to assassination, disease, and battle, the average span of rule during this period amounting to a mere two years. Even their nickname, the “barracks emperors,” betrays the speed with which they were hauled out, crowned, and used up.
Saving the empire came down to four men. Diocletian, when he realized that the task of administrating the empire was too much for one person to handle, split his authority first with co-emperor Maximian, then Constantius and Galerius as junior emperors. Of course they ended up feuding later on — they were still Roman statesmen, after all — but for the time being, Diocletian’s tetrarchy was enough to save the empire from total collapse.
One of my favorite ways to spend a quiet hour is to look at old maps. The way ancient peoples framed their world is fascinating, familiar landmarks and settlements emphasized, the in-between and unknown stripped out, the important stuff always at the axis. One of my favorite examples is the Tabula Peutingeriana. The entire Roman Empire is represented, from the Atlantic Ocean to India, thousands of miles of highways presented in meticulous detail, her greatest cities — Rome, Constantinople, Antioch — dominating the landscape with titanic presence. This is a functional rather than a mythical map, as was more common in the medieval period. And yet there are gaps. Entire ranges of mountains appear as little more than hedgerows, distant China is listed simply as “Sera Major,” and the ends of the earth are listed as Hic Alexander responsum accepit usqi quo Alexander — the farthest point in Alexander the Great’s travels.
Odin Quest, one of the latest print-and-play solo titles from the ever-prolific Todd Sanders, evokes this sense of the unknown lurking just beyond the gaze of the civilized world. Here, the wild is ever nipping at the heels of all that has been tamed, and every truth bears the caught breath of an untold secret.