It’s hard to imagine what our geekish DNA would look like if Frank Herbert had never written Dune. It touches so much, and says so much, but never seems to follow any one thread to its conclusion. Maybe because it’s as varied as the thoughts rattling around Herbert’s head in the early ’60s. Poverty grasses and climate patterns. Resource monopolies and shortages. Religion as opiate; opiate as religion. Charismatic heroes unleashing murderous jihads. Carl Jung’s collective unconscious and cellular memory, spurring hosts to destruction and rebirth alike. Great houses entangled in destinies both inevitable and mutable, like plunging headfirst into a sandstorm with just enough will to select the ground where your flesh will be scoured from your bones.
And the beauty of Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge, and Peter Olotka’s 1979 design of the board game version is that it got it right. As right as could be got, anyway.
Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem wasn’t a perfect game. Throwdowns, its fanciful term for when two grunting crews of motorcyclists settled their differences by any means other than words, were a colossal waste of everything but ego — which in hindsight was an entirely suitable, if accidental, commentary on stupid machismo. But like the rest of Gale Force Nine’s licensed catalog, it carried itself with enviable thematic cohesion, capturing the petty squabbles, unchecked greed, and hooting apeness of its source material.
Contrast that against Vault of Dragons, the systematic sequel of Sons of Anarchy that transports the action from Charming, California to Waterdeep, Not California. Set in the world of Dungeons & Dragons, what thematic core does it capture? Tedium? An over-reliance on dice? Overburdened game systems? Because as far as I can tell, those are what Vault of Dragons values most.
Spartacus? Didn’t that game come out six years ago? In board game time, that’s at least forty years! True enough. But this is the first entry in a series about the games I’m still playing even though their cardboard scent has worn off and the cards are starting to look frayed around the edges. Not the classics, exactly, but the good stuff that’s never lost its appeal or lost its place on my shelf. This is Yesteryear.
Before his unfortunate passing in late 2016, I had the pleasure of meeting Sean Sweigart exactly once. I had no idea who he was. He was happy to keep it that way. When I asked whether he was the designer of the game he was demoing, he responded that, no, he wasn’t, he was just a guy who enjoyed sharing good games. And with titles like Spartacus, Firefly, Sons of Anarchy, Homeland, and Star Trek: Ascendancy under his belt, he wasn’t entirely fibbing.
Star Trek: Ascendancy was not only among my favorite games of 2016, but also one of its most unique for how defiantly (yeah, that’s a reference) it clung to the vision of Star Trek. It was sprawling and dangerous, complete with a burgeoning playtime and the possibility of player elimination. But it was also as sleek and streamlined as a Starfleet vessel, every single turn — nay, pretty much every move — cast as an episode of the original series, with planets and cultures and deadly space phenomenons popping onto the table. It was rife with political intrigue, border tensions, shaky alliances, and a futurist’s appreciation for technology.
Well, buckle up — or don’t, because real Starfleet ships don’t have seat belts — because now that its first two expansions are out, Ascendancy is better than ever.
Lords of Waterdeep was pretty great, wasn’t it? Designed from the ground up to hit that sweet spot that would appeal to both newcomers to the worker placement genre and cardboard veterans alike, it saw widespread success for good reason. Anyone who said they didn’t like it was almost assuredly a walking diaper. A used walking diaper.
Tyrants of the Underdark is looking to replicate that success. It’s even set in the same place, at least broadly — Skullport, the shady locale from the Lords of Waterdeep expansion, registers as a tiny blip in Underdark’s sprawling, uh, Underdark. This time, however, the target is deck-building games. And not just any deck-building game, but the chimera sort that splits your time between shuffling your cards and waging war on a map.
Fifty years ago today — that’s either August 8th, 1966 or stardate 1513.1, depending on how much of a nerd you are — marks the first appearance of the USS Enterprise, as Kirk, Bones, Spock and the rest of the crew grappled with a mystery of hidden identity, a long-dead civilization, and a salt vampire. It was the moment that kicked off the series that would flop, get cancelled, become a hit, and spawn a thousand new episodes, movies, books, games, and imitators.
The difficulty with adapting Star Trek to cardboard has always been that there are nearly as many ideas and topics that encompass the notion of “Star Trek” as there are episodes — that’s 726 across six television series, to be precise. Is it about exploration? Ethics? War? The power of communication? Teamwork? The answer to all of these is, at turns, yes. And many more besides. How do you capture the essence of something that has ambitions on nearly everything?
Star Trek: Ascendancy, however, has not been designed by any old two-bit studio. This is coming from Gale Force Nine, the same people who captured the treachery and violence of Spartacus, the paranoia of Homeland, the tough-guy act of Sons of Anarchy, and the meandering twang of Firefly. And now they’ve done it again. By Grabthar’s Hammer, they’ve done it again.
In the inaugural episode of the Space-Biff! Space-Cast!, what do Homeland: The Game and Reiner Knizia’s classic Tigris & Euphrates have in common? Listen as Dan Thurot, Rob Cramer, and special guest Mark Henderson attempt to stretch these games like taffy in order to find out. Special thanks to Michael Barnes for changing the conversation about theme and setting.
Trust no one.
Except me when I tell you to trust no one, obviously.
Gale Force Nine has been batting a thousand lately, which yes is a sports reference I understand because I’ve always loved badminton, thanks very much. So far, they’ve managed to nail the feel of each and every series they’ve acquired the license for, from Spartacus: A Game of Blood & Treachery, which captures all that show’s themes of corruption, backstabbery, and the reduction of people to playthings; to Firefly, which was about ramblin’ through space because Firefly the television show was about ramblin’ through space. Also smuggling cows.
Now Gale Force Nine has acquired the license to Sons of Anarchy, television’s preeminent motorcycle-gang-as-Hamlet program, and this time they’re proving that they understand the series even better than the series knows itself. For one thing, Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem never transplants its motorcycle gangs to Ireland in search of a kidnapped child, because the board game version has the sense to know that’s a stupid and boring thing to do. Instead, the board game knows how to have fun, every second, all the time — so let’s take a look at my top five fun moments.
If I were to place myself on the Firefly/Serenity Bias Scale™, I’d be a firm 7 — a far cry from the “biased against” minority down at the bottom, a bit above the “no bias whatsoever” score of 5, and not quite the eerie devotion of those who rate a 10.
I’m telling you this because the new Firefly board game, from the same designers behind last year’s lauded Spartacus: A Game of Blood & Treachery, has been landing quite a few positive reviews (and a couple negative ones too) on the basis of its nostalgia factor. Does that seem right to you? I mean, I think it seems perfectly fine, since the game is about emulating the feel and spirit of the television show and movie, but if you’re at all like me — as in, you roll your eyes ever so slightly at that twangy intro theme and some of the more out-of-place western affectations, and really could not give a flying hump about someone’s Summer Glau themed DeviantArt account — then maybe this is the review for you.