Right up front, Cloudspire wasn’t made for me. Even with gobs of ways to play, ranging from a solo mode to cooperative scenarios, plus the regular competitive slugfest that goes all the way up to four factions, I can’t see the appeal. Maybe it’s because I have no history with the MOBA genre. Maybe it’s because I have a thing (a buried, unconscious thing) against poker chips.
Or maybe it’s because I like games that aren’t the board game equivalent of a chocolate syrup truck tipping over in slow motion. You know, a plodding mess.
It’s been two years since we saw a proper Small Box Games release from John Clowdus. Unless we’re counting Kolossal’s printing of Omen: A Reign of War. Which I’m not, in case you were wondering. A professional printing may be glossy, but there’s nothing quite like the home-packaged feel of Clowdus’s limited runs, right down to its too-tight box and ribbon for prying the cards loose.
Thankfully, Clowdus hasn’t lost a step. The North is, at the absolute least, one stylish set of cards, with Aaron Nakahara’s chilly artwork raising the occasional goosebump. It also happens to be a deck-builder. Of course, Clowdus being Clowdus, that doesn’t make it like any deck-builder you’ve ever played before.
When Conspiracy: The Solomon Gambit showed up in the same box as Unmatched: Battle of Legends, I set it aside under the assumption it would be a “lesser” offering from Restoration Games. You know, this wave’s Dinosaur Tea Party or something.
Nope. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Solomon Gambit is a firecracker.
We may never know who burned Rome in 64 CE. Christians hoping to usher in the end of the world? Nero looking to make room for his infamous Golden House? Traders who forgot to douse their torches on a windy night, or time travelers rescuing the continuum from a tyrant worse than Hitler?
Then again, Dávid Turczi and Nick Shaw’s Rome & Roll is more concerned about the aftermath. More precisely, the rebuilding of Rome at Nero’s behest. And who’s responsible for that? Like a kid avoiding prayer duty at Thanksgiving dinner, I’m hollering “Not it!”
Of all the many virtues a board game may hold, brevity seems to be the most dazzling. “It’s Game X but shorter!” we say, breathless at the prospect of compressing each hour of play into forty-five minutes, half an hour, the heartbeat of a hummingbird. It’s like shortening recess for adults.
And hey, I get it. Really. After all, a number of positive improvements are directly connected to time-saving measures. Decreased waits between turns, fewer needless components to fiddle with, decisions spaces that are honed rather than sprawling. It’s easy to confuse the distinction between sharp and slender.
Speaking of which, The Menace Among Us is Battlestar Galactica in forty minutes. Kinda-sorta.
It’s the Age of the Hybrid. Fair enough. Got a spare mechanism? Cram it in there. Shove something else to the side if you need to make room. When you’re finished, your deck-building set-collection roll-and-move dexterity game won’t only be named everybody’s game of the year, but game of the millennium, going down in history alongside Senet and Chess as the most likely to be extracted from a garbage dump by alien archaeologists.
Except here’s the thing: you’ve got to make it stick. Like stitching together body parts from a dozen “donors” to create a companion for Frankenstein’s Monster, your creation needs to walk and talk and probably shag. And none of that is happening without functioning ligaments and tendons and everything else that puts a body into motion and keeps it from sloughing apart after a handshake.
Want a negative example? There are few finer than Abomination: The Heir of Frankenstein.
Being in high school during the Prequel Trilogy didn’t remedy my absent appreciation for Star Wars. Nor did it improve my chances of playing that Epic Duels game the other nerds set up in the journalism room. Don’t get me wrong, the problem wasn’t the game. It was my total lack of interest in seeing who would win between Hayden Christensen and that jetpack-wearing space praetorian who defeated himself by flying into a pit. So hip. I can totally see it. No, please don’t explain it to me.
The motto for Restoration Games is “Every Game Deserves Another Turn.” A lovely sentiment! Especially in an age where far too many releases are forgotten within a month. But what I appreciate most about their work is how they’ve given me a first turn at a handful of games I otherwise missed. Unmatched: Battle of Legends is their latest. And although I never got around to playing Epic Duels, it’s already obvious that this is the superior version. No space wizards, for one.
You might recall a game from last year by the name of War Chest. Designed by Trevor Benjamin and David Thompson, War Chest was lavishly produced but fell prey to the same problem that plagues many modern abstract games. Namely, it lost sight of the joys of outmaneuvering an opponent by focusing too heavily on attritional tit for tat.
Undaunted: Normandy, by the same design duo, also tends to dwell on matters of attrition. In some ways it feels like an exploration of the same design space, despite differences of setting and even the lion’s share of its underlying systems. Here is another game by Benjamin and Thompson that features a flexible but finite pool of units, which might eventually become so depleted that they’re left sitting on the board with nothing to do but absorb another hit.
But here’s the thing — Undaunted: Normandy works. In fact, it’s a masterclass in how to put attrition front and center without strangling a game’s momentum.
Matt Leacock may have gained public acclaim thanks to Lunatix Loop and Knit Wit, but I must confess a heterodox belief that Pandemic, Roll Through the Ages, and Forbidden Desert will eventually be recognized as his more influential designs. Consider Era: Medieval Age as a prime example. As a successor to Roll Through the Ages it sheds the system’s slimness for a small hill of plastic, but it also happens to be a near-perfect dice game.