Blog Archives

Strangling on Bootstraps

"Is it about the musical?" my wife asked, then laughed, because she already knew it was not.

There’s this adage our mission mom used to tell us. This was prior to 2019, when a mission president’s wife finally became an official calling rather than one inequality among countless others. She didn’t have an official role despite fulfilling numberless functions, among them an ambiguous blend of cheerleader, guilt tripper, and motivational speaker. Every couple of months, dozens of nineteen-year-old Mormon missionaries would crowd into a tiny room to be scolded and encouraged, sometimes in the same breath.

“According to scientists,” she would say, in a voice that made one suspicious she hadn’t conferred with a scientist on the matter, “the bumblebee is so heavy and un-aerodynamic that it’s incapable of flight. But nobody ever told the bumblebee that. Whether you’re a bumblebee, a person out of a job, or a missionary hoping to bring others to Christ, all you need to do is pull yourself up by the bootstraps.”

Steve Dee’s The Rent is an autobiographical microgame about pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. It has a somewhat dimmer outlook on letting the ignorance of bumblebees stand in for economic theory.

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Scry Guys

Squint hard enough and even Wingspan could count as augury.

I know an uncanny amount about divination. Not because I believe in the stuff, mind you. It comes up a lot in my work, both as a practice in ancient religion and as a prominent branch in the history of board games.

So when Chris Chan’s Portents first hit my table, I was fascinated to learn which type of cleromancy it would use. Drawing Roman sortes? The knucklebones and dice oracles of astragalomancy? The fateful archery competitions of belomancy? We haven’t even touched upon the really cool ones. Maybe Portents would let us manipulate shards of coconut, or pour molten metal into water and examine the resultant shape’s shadow, or undertake bean magic. Yes, bean magic. Favomancy. It’s shocking how many forms of geomancy used beans. The possibilities for gamification are endless.

Turns out, Portents is about haruspicy via bird parts. And while any self-respecting haruspex would immediately note that it uses the wrong organs, never fear: this one is about fraudsters trying to out-divine one another.

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All Is Bomb Is Bomb

header is bomb

Here’s a scenario for you. The Princess slumbers in her bed. Soon she will awake. What will she want for breakfast? Since she’s a bit of a, well, princess, she will neither wait to be served nor accept anything other than what her rumbly tummy desires most. You summon the breakfast prophets to foretell the proper meal. Except they’ve gone missing. A dozen other matters also consume your attention.

Also, everything is a bomb.

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Triggered Effects

A totally accurate depiction of me attempting to use my laser eyes for the first time. /results forthcoming

I suffer from panic attacks and poor health.

How’s that for an opener? I’m normally reserved about sharing personal details like that. But there it is: I’ve suffered from health complications my entire life, a handful of which have necessitated serious corrective surgeries and lengthy periods of recovery. Heading Forward, the solitaire game designed by John du Bois, makes sharing those details easier, or at least less frightening. Maybe those are the same thing. Empathy isn’t the first emotion I would expect to feel when playing a board game, but this demonstrates exactly how to express something deeply personal via a handful of cards and some punchboard spoons.

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“Republic, Socialism, Humanism”

My goodness. May Albert Monteys illustrate everything.

The story of the Spanish Maquis is a long one, laden with setbacks, betrayals, and defeats. First formed as a guerrilla force in the waning years of the Spanish Second Republic’s fight against the junta that propelled Francisco Franco to power, the resistance was soon displaced to France. There they spent time in Vichy concentration camps, fought alongside the French Resistance, and eventually returned to their homeland only to be abandoned yet again when the Allies declined to finish the job of rooting out fascism. The Maquis continued to wage a losing war for years to come, buoyed only, as cartoonist and onetime soldier Josep Bartolí i Guiu put it, the possibility of “Republic, socialism, humanism.”

Resist!, co-designed by David Thompson, Trevor Benjamin, and Roger Tankersley, is a solitaire game about the brave men and women who strove to retake Spain. I’m tempted to declare it the best portrayal of a resistance movement ever put to cardboard. Here’s why.

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States of Ziege

The third edition's aesthetic wrapper — which is that cards are scenes in a movie — is frankly irritating, but it's easy to ignore.

For a while there, Darin Leviloff’s States of Siege system was a big deal for solitaire gaming. The concept was brilliantly simple: what if, rather than sprawling hex maps and proviso-laden movement priorities, conflicts were portrayed as tug-of-wars along lanes? The inaugural title in the series, Israeli Independence, was more a proof of concept than a full-fledged game, but it quickly drew imitators and iterators. Before long, the series stepped into many of history’s overlooked corners. Zulus on the Ramparts. Ottoman Sunset. Hapsburg Eclipse. Mound Builders.

The best entry in the series, however, gamified the under-publicized zombie invasion of Farmingdale. I’m speaking, of course, about Hermann Luttmann’s Dawn of the Zeds.

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Alone Among Nobles

oh, it's a crown on a pillow

Nobles is a snack. Like John Clowdus’s Pocket Galapagos, it’s a bite-sized solo game preoccupied with the movement of cards from one place to another. Unlike that game, Nobles also taps into the joy of putting things into their proper arrangement, even when — perhaps especially when — it doesn’t feel much like a game at all.

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Cartocide

I too would be wary of Bone King's promises to cease consuming the peasantry and drinking the blood of the merchant class.

Like everyone else, I’ve been playing a buttload of Regicide, designers Paul Abrahams, Luke Badger, and Andy Richdale’s game of royal assassination that can be played with any old deck of 52 playing cards.

Also like everybody else, I’m slightly smitten.

Slightly.

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The Dignity and Indignities of Comanchería

Across the span of 1700 to 1875, the Comanche carved an empire into the American southwest roughly the size of modern-day Texas. Their instruments were both legendary and notorious: open-handed trade, remorseless warfare, unparalleled horsemanship. “Comanche” means “the people.” To outsiders, it came to signify “the lords of the plains.”

Comanchería, as their empire was called, would not survive. Between outbreaks of smallpox and cholera, the extermination of the great herds of buffalo, and continued incursions, the Comanche gave ground, then dwindled, then accepted the treaty that consigned them to a reservation. Far from the cataclysmic fall of a great empire, it was a succession of small cuts, gnawing infections, and inflicted indignities.

Joel Toppen’s Comanchería: The Rise and Fall of the Comanche Empire captures every excruciating detail. It is one of the finest historical games I have ever played. It also represents one of the hardest gaming experiences of my adult life.

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Is That a Galapagos in Your Pocket?

This game has no iguanas.

John Clowdus is best known for his sharp two-player designs, including gems such as The North, Bronze Age, and the big one, Omen: A Reign of War. Instead of sticking to the script, his latest effort is a solitaire game that fits into your pocket. Even a small pocket will serve. How does it stack up? Let’s take a look.

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