Chaos. The whispered curse. When a game is labeled as capricious, we hardly expect further explanation. “Too random,” we say, like that’s answer enough, like there’s no difference between types of chance, like nobody could appreciate a game for the chaos it flings in our faces. It’s the leprosy of the modern board game scene.
I’ve already written about Jim Felli’s Cosmic Frog. Now that it’s finally here, my thoughts on the matter haven’t transformed. Like the rest of Felli’s work, Cosmic Frog is distinctive: an offbeat setting, messy rulebook, reasonably straightforward play, and a social space that relies on the investment of its players to mark the line between an unremarkable slog and one of the weirdest competitions in recent memory. Its finished incarnation isn’t all that different from the preview version, either. The main change is a variant that adds even more chaos.
That’s its defining element, what will float or scupper it with audiences, what marks it as worthy of investigation: chaos. So let’s take a look at the many ways it handles chance, and why this particular pile-on gives it such flair.
The other day my buddy punched my sister-in-law into the fifth dimension. Upon returning to our reality she got revenge by shoving her tongue down his throat, extracting the forest he’d been storing in his gullet, and using it to create a pocket universe.
That’s really all you need to know about Jim Felli’s upcoming game, Cosmic Frog. But if you absolutely must hear more, I’ll add that Felli is known for Shadows of Malice, Bemused, Dûhr: The Lesser Houses, and Zimby Mojo — deeply weird stuff, in other words — and somehow Cosmic Frog, with its kilometers-tall amphibians, planet-shattering hailstones, and dimensional buffoonery, is by far his most accessible title yet.
Longtime followers of Space-Biff! will know that I have a thing for Jim Felli. His designs are weird, wild, and so unlike everything else that “unique” is an understatement. Shadows of Malice was Jim’s first design to see publication. Now it’s getting a second printing. And if I assigned scores, it would land squarely on either a nine or a five.
Let’s talk about that gap.
Bemused was not only a fantastic game, it was also one of my favorites of 2017. Where most social deduction games revolve around a single secret of falsified identity, Bemused hosted an entire madhouse of enigmas. Obsession, passion, lust, petty hatred, unknown goals and broken promises — all crisscrossing over and under one another, and all as impenetrable and changeable as the players commanding their fates. It was both less and more than social deduction; just a social game full stop, ambiguous and uncertain.
Now Jim Felli has further refined the concept with Dûhr: The Lesser Houses. And although its name is guaranteed to elicit at least one sarcastic howl of “Dur dur dur!” per play, it’s an improvement on Bemused in every sense but one.
Jim Felli always brings me the very weirdest stuff. Remember Zimby Mojo, the game about cannibal tribes warring over a magical crown? You would remember. It was crazy.
Bemused is slightly more muted, if only because it doesn’t see you transforming your tribesmen into hulking zombies. Instead, you’re a jealous muse who can drive your rivals’ artists insane, return your virtuoso from the dead to haunt those who killed her, and generally sow dread and doubt rather than actually, y’know, making art.
Okay, so it’s also bonkers.
Remember when Dominion first splashed onto the scene, and its rulebook completely belabored how to pull off the whole deck-shuffling thing? There were diagrams and everything. You might have been a deck-building genius from day one, but I remember not entirely wrapping my head around it. My brother-in-law had to stop me from shuffling my discard pile prematurely. It wasn’t that the concept was complicated; there just wasn’t anything like it.
Well hold onto your socks, because when it comes to Jim Felli’s Zimby Mojo, there isn’t anything like it in the whole damn universe. Nothing. Zip. Not even close. It’s one of the weirdest, most bewildering, out-there games I’ve ever played. And if you know anything about my taste in games, that makes it an absolute winner in my book.