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Passing Judgment on Mary Surratt

CLINT EASTWOO— oh. never mind.

Legal trials seem like the perfect setting for board games. Distinct victory conditions, formal rules, the uncertainty that arises from the human element. Crud, defending and prosecuting attorneys take turns, for crying out loud. That’s nine-tenths of a game right there.

Despite all that, I only know of two games about trials. The first, Alex Berry’s High Treason: The Trial of Louis Riel, was largely about juror selection. Individual jurors acted as victory conditions that were picked at the start of each play. Everything after that was about swaying them to your side, one icon and tracker at a time.

Tom Butler’s Unforgiven: The Lincoln Assassination Trial also features icons and trackers. But because this is a military tribunal, every game revolves around the same nine judge-jurors. In place of selecting victory conditions, Unforgiven is about constructing an argument — and although it’s not quite as plugged-in with its subject matter as High Treason, the result makes for one heck of a standoff.

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Clue Too: Paradise Lost

Not Milton's Paradise Lost. Although I'd play that in a heartbeat, designers.

Paradise Lost tricked me into playing Clue. Not that that’s a bad thing. If anything, I admire Tom Butler’s deftness in pulling out the rug. One moment I was expecting a bland fantasy excursion, so generic as to be staffed with public domain heroes like Hercules and Alice — not the first time I’ve been surprised to see her show up — and a few minutes later, we were asking questions about the Water Witch’s henchmen. “Was it the Big Bad Wolf with the Vorpal Blade?” There’s no third part: “…in the Eternal Cedar Forest?” There’s a reason for that.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

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