If I were forced to identify the unifying “aesthetic” of a Ryan Laukat game — and avoided using actual, you know, aesthetics, the bold colors and whimsical fantasy creations that populate his worlds — it would be that the creator of Red Raven Games has carved a niche out for himself by making games that seem a lot like other games, but look and play almost nothing like anything else. City of Iron announces itself as a cube-pusher and deck-builder, then merges those systems in a way that’s reminiscent of precisely nothing. Eight-Minute Empire is a study in minimalism that avoids feeling restrictive. Even Laukat’s forays into worker placement, The Ancient World and Above and Below — which itself echoes older storytelling games like Tales of the Arabian Nights — step to the beat of their own drummer. It’s almost as though Laukat knows these systems exist, but has only read about them in old newspaper articles or printed-out scraps of blog posts that happened to wash up on his desert island.
And to be clear, that’s a good thing. It’s what makes something like Islebound work so well.