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.
Each Monday, I share a list of the past week’s played titles on social media, along with a few short details and a picture of each. When it came to sharing a snapshot of Wes Erni and Ben Madison’s solo wargame Nubia: Egypt’s Black Heirs, I suffered from a rare moment of hesitation. Like the last of Madison’s games I covered here, The White Tribe: Rhodesia’s War 1966-1980, Nubia is frank about the racial dynamics of its topic. Unlike The White Tribe, Nubia might not be sturdy enough to shoulder that weight, at least not quite as levelly. To examine why, we need to talk about slaves — both the broad history and the in-game tile.
Fred Manzo’s Escape from Hades isn’t what I expected. So much not what I expected, in fact, that I can’t quite remember what I expected in the first place. Certainly something fluffier, something reflective of its radioactive candy-corn cover. Maybe something that didn’t require quite so many gut-checks and mid-play rulings. A handful, sure. After all, this was brought to life by independent publisher Hollandspiele. But this many? This often?
What I expected least, however, was that in between the neon surface of the Hades and too many clarifications resided a story generator as daring and dashing as a WW2 commando film.
I’m a sucker for portable card games and a double-sucker for those that can be played without a surface. Never mind that I’ll never find myself in a situation where I’ll actually want to play one. In the car? Motion sickness. On an airplane? Tray table. Eating a meal on the airplane? Then I’m eating, you goofball, not playing a card game. Standing in the Fantasy Flight line at Gen Con? Never again.
But I made a promise to my grandfather that I would find the perfect surfaceless card game, so I grabbed Palm Island and gave it a few plays, all within approximately two meters of a clean tabletop. Still, it felt good to do right by old gramps. He died never having owned a table. The real tragedy was not knowing where to set all the food everybody sent over.
Oh, right, Palm Island. Let’s talk about that instead.
Know how you can tell I’m a phony wargamer? I don’t play against myself. Sure, I’ll play solo, but that’s a different thing entirely. I’m talking about playing both sides. Working against my own interests. White knight takes black bishop. Simply can’t do it. What if I need that black bishop’s services next turn? As sure as rain makes pavement smell better, I’m picking a favorite and leading them to victory.
That is, until Mark Herman’s Peloponnesian War. First published way back in 1991 and only recently given a fresh printing, it’s possible that this is the finest play-against-yourself solo system ever crafted.
You may have read Teddy Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena.” It’s a paragraph about how critics are quivering simpletons compared to the brave souls who actually produce or perform, which of course means it’s my favorite thing ever written. I have a cousin who posts it to my social media timeline at least twice a year. Not sure why. He’s a professional consultant. That’s a fancy way of saying he’s a critic who gets paid. Not sure why you’re beefing on me, cuz.
Anyway. That’s what I kept thinking about while playing Proving Grounds, a solo game about a literal woman in a literal arena.
Ask me what my favorite thing is about Champions of Hara, and you aren’t going to like the answer. It’s far too twee. Too sickly sweet. Too basic.
Why don’t I tell you my second and third favorite things instead?
The word “wargame,” like most board game genre definitions, is a nebulous thing. Do political sims count? What about games about the weeks and months leading up to war? What about wars by other means? It’s this conundrum that makes me propose an alternative: a wargame is that which contains a rulebook that’s alternately impenetrable, opinionated, and insightful.
Ben Madison’s solo wargame The White Tribe fits at least the last two descriptors. In one sense, it operates in the same headspace as Tom Russell’s This Guilty Land — politically charged, critical of racism and the systems that support it, and deeply conscious of how legislation is passed, employed, and sometimes abused. But if it’s a mirror, it’s an inverted one. Where Russell’s approach was pessimistic, casting the U.S. Civil War as inevitable and compromise as poisonous — a view Russell supports quite well, as I wrote last year — Madison charts a careful course between terrible extremes and concludes that, sometimes, collaboration is the only way to keep from plummeting into the abyss.
Given this hobby’s churn of new releases, it isn’t often that I get to stick with a single game long enough for an expansion to roll around. Wray Ferrell and Brad Johnson’s Time of Crisis is an exception, and has reappeared on my table regularly ever since its release nearly two years back.
Good thing I waited around, because The Age of Iron and Rust may be one of my favorite expansions, adding three modules that transform this into one of my absolute favorite deck-building hybrids — and a considerable solo offering to boot.
He may be terrifying, but that doesn’t mean Mr. Cabbagehead doesn’t have enthusiasms. Farming his cousins, for example, followed by a village-wide exhibition of their corpses and a pale supper of their crisp flesh. Such is life for a ghastly were-vegetable.
In the three years since I reviewed Todd Sanders’ Mr. Cabbagehead’s Garden, everybody’s favorite sentient leafy green has grown up. Now he’s got a publisher, a posh production, and even a two-player mode. Guess he sufficiently impressed Eudora Brassica after all.