Hal Duncan and Ruth Veevers’ Cryptid had a lovely idea at its core. What if the world’s undusted corners are the habitat of the Loch Nessies and Bigfeet and every other unseen (but much reported) creature? While the game itself didn’t do much to sell the idea that you were documenting actual cryptids, it had cleverness in spades.
Cryptid: Urban Legends doubles down on the idea that you’re chasing a yet-to-be-catalogued creature. Unfortunately, that’s about all it does.
There’s an undeniable beauty to script that has yet to be deciphered. I recall watching a street artist pen words in soaring Arabic calligraphy. As a child whose English cursive looked orcish, the artist’s handiwork seemed indistinguishable from magic. The words themselves could have been anything. Whatever they were, they were elevated by the form itself, transferred from paper to some glimpse of a divine image.
Every so often, a board game prompts a similar feeling. Colored inks on shaped cardboard, painted wood in various sizes and arrangements, cards laden with unfamiliar symbols, their combinations speaking to some deeper understanding into which we have yet to be initiated. Crescent Moon, the recent design by Steven Mathers, draws on lush illustrations by Navid Rahman to evoke a world apart. I think I’ve finally decoded its meaning.
If I’m speaking the parlance of the youngfolk correctly, Brian Boru was a “chad.” Wait, is that supposed to be capitalized? Like an actual name? Chad? Never mind. Point is, the guy unified medieval Ireland through marriages of alliance, splitting Viking skulls, and something to do with the Church.
But that was literally a thousand years ago. Old news. Much more recently, Peer Sylvester has done something even more impossible — he’s made me care about trick-taking.
A few years back, I took part in an impromptu discussion on how a civilization game might model the will of the people. The issue arose thanks to a question that’s always nagged at me: while civilization games usually cast the player as a near-absolute sovereign, what happens when their subjects diverge from the sovereign’s directives? It isn’t uncommon for soldiers to grow sick of war, farmers weary of farming, pioneers with the treaties that mark where they’re permitted to settle. Revolution and reform are as inherent to civilization as technology or warfare. So why is it that they’re so often rounded down to negative modifiers?
Imperium: Classics and Imperium: Legends, twin titles designed by Nigel Buckle and Dávid Turczi and published by Osprey Games, have an answer.
Sometimes a single idea elevates an entire design. Take Fabio Lopiano’s Merv: The Heart of the Silk Road, for instance. Viewed from a distance, it might look like a boilerplate modern euro design, crammed full of bells, whistles, and intersecting means of accumulating points. It isn’t until you dig into its heart that the truth becomes apparent. It’s still a boilerplate modern euro crammed with bells and whistles. But it’s a boilerplate modern euro with one heck of an action selection system.
Peer Sylvester’s The King Is Dead has some history to it. First appearing as König von Siam, then as an Arthurian version in The King Is Dead, and now as a second edition with a more historical flair, it’s been reprinted often enough to be considered a modern classic. Perhaps more importantly, traces of its DNA can be found in other games’ genealogy.
And it’s easy to see why.
In my review of Trevor Benjamin and David Thompson’s Undaunted: Normandy, I noted that it could be the beginning of something truly special. To some degree, that original box already contained plenty of special in its own right. Where I had expected deck-building and squad tactics to make an uncomfortable pairing, Undaunted nudged them together like old friends. The rules were streamlined, the decisions meaningful, the odds of landing a shot were long but not too long, and if it occasionally became a little too tit for tat in its exchange of fire, well, I’m sure there were plenty of infantrymen outside Caen who felt the same way.
Undaunted: North Africa is Benjamin and Thompson’s second take on the Undaunted franchise, and I couldn’t be more pleased that they’ve opened a second front. From the very first mission, it’s apparent that this is an improvement in nearly every regard.
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.
Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a wonderful and (appropriately) strange novel, its meandering plot belying an uncommon thematic density. It never goes quite where you’d expect — an effect supported by footnotes that lend the air of a recovered manuscript — and you can hardly turn the page without encountering one idea subtly folding into another. Englishness versus otherness. The tension between madness and reason. The thin line between friendship and rivalry.
Now it’s a board game. And it’s a terrible shame that apparently nobody involved with this adaptation seems to have read the novel very closely.