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.
If God really loved dinosaurs so much, the big guy wouldn’t have treated them to an asteroid sandwich. In that regard, Kasper Lapp’s Gods Love Dinosaurs is a piece of revisionist theology. The divine course of history thrown into schism, the natural order turned on its head, all to placate the feelings of dinophiles.
As a plaything, though, it’s reasonably charming.
It’s possible to play Thrive faster than it will take you to read this review.
Yes, that might be a statement of how quickly I have lost. What of it?
History is big. So big that it belongs to everybody. Every individual, no matter their background or identity, connects to history in unique and important ways. So why do historical board game designers seem to fit the same mold? You know the type. White, male, straight, usually academic, often a part-time dabbler in spurious facial hair.
We’ve wondered the same thing. Which is why we’re pleased to announce the Zenobia Award, a board game design contest for underrepresented groups.
In a few days, Hollandspiele will be launching their annual holiday sale. True, I could provide recommendations. I could talk about how the games published by Tom and Mary Russell make consistent appearances during Best Week. I could talk about how it’s important to support independent publishers.
But I won’t.
Because instead I’m going to review some of the freebie games that Tom and Mary have included over the past couple of years — and the one they’ll be including this year. Oh yes.
When I call Sandy Petersen’s Planet Apocalypse “trash,” please don’t take it as an insult. I mean it in the same way as when I call Petersen’s previous game Cthulhu Wars “trash,” or the 2001 action-adventure film The Musketeer “trash.” These things, these artifacts of culture, they were never going to escape the dumpster. So instead, they leaned into it. They wrapped their feet in banana peels and armored themselves with spent diapers. They forced Tim Roth to swagger around in leathers and feathers, wearing that eye patch, speaking those lines. That’s their whole appeal. To be so bad that they circle around on themselves, like the fathomless plains of hell, venturing not quite into the territory of good, but perhaps into worth a laugh.
I may have tipped my hand there. Oh well. At least I have some serviceable pictures of the game’s miniatures.
I’m under no illusion that Babylonia is a perfect game. Far from it. The map has too much detail. Don’t mistake this for a nitpick. The only thing more frustrating than thinking you have one more hex with which to surround a city only to realize the hex in question is beyond the edge of the map is when you realize you’ve misapprehended whether you were looking into the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates or a patch of shadow on the riverbank. In a tile-laying game, these things matter. I might even go as far as to say the map would look better had it been barely illustrated at all, except that would make me sound like Don Draper mooning over a Hershey’s bar.
Everything else, though? Perfection. I’d even call it Reiner Knizia’s finest work. Let me tell you why.
Here’s something that will sound like an obvious truism to some and opaque to others: the decision space of a board game is derived from its restrictions, not its permissiveness.
Hold up, Morpheus, what do you mean by that? Well, I mean that nothing is permitted until the rules explicitly announce that something is possible. Anything else would be require a ten-volume rulebook, because unless somebody spelled out instructions to the contrary, you could do anything you wanted at any time — which, incidentally, is pretty much how my friend Geoff plays board games. Since that’s untenable for anybody who hasn’t resigned themselves to repeatedly explaining that, no, you cannot teleport across the map and demolish all my armies with one action, the clearest rules start from scratch. Here are the phases. Here’s what it means to move. Here are the steps you follow every time you undertake an action. Nothing exists beyond that framework.
Europe Divided, designed by David Thompson and Chris Marling, is a fascinating look at what happens when you break the rules until they hardly matter.
Paul Dennen gets deck-building games. More importantly, he gets that deck-building is an under-leveraged mechanism. Wait, you might be saying, aren’t there one billion deck-building games? Yes. More deck-building games than there are grains of sand in the sea. But not all of them are slick hybrid titles like Clank!, which mixed deck-building with just enough beyond-the-deck considerations to make it worthwhile. While the rest of the hobby lags behind Martin Wallace’s multiple experiments in hybrid deck–building, Dennen has been doing one better by taking those lessons and turning them into games you’re actually likely to play.
Dune: Imperium is the best of his offerings yet. Although not necessarily because of the systems Dennen is mixing together.
You’ve heard the refrain before. “Stay objective.” “Keep politics out of it.” “I just want to hear how the game works.”
Fine, you caught me! Nothing gets past you. Those are three refrains, not one. Except… aren’t they the same thing? All three complaints ultimately come down to a single expectation, that game reviews should conform to some sort of master code, a Strunk & White’s Elements of Style to gather all forms of criticism, bring them together, and in the darkness bind them. Objectivity all over again.
I know what you’re thinking. Haven’t we been here before? True, a few installments back I talked about objectivity and subjectivity. But that was principally about defining those two terms and examining how they sometimes bleed into each other thanks to some complicated linguistic history. Today, I want to travel in a different direction by talking about some of the advantages of subjectivity. Namely, why is it better for everyone when our game critiques are as subjective as possible?