Narrative board games — now there’s a phrase that’ll get me yammering. There’s no quicker way to make my eyelids droop than by forcing me to read a middling Young Adult novel in between rounds of combat. There are exceptions. Ryan Laukat’s Near and Far and Above and Below were both charming enough to stick around for a few plays, even if their marriage of choose-your-own-adventure snippets and Eurogame sensibilities wasn’t entirely harmonious. I enjoyed them in bursts before largely forgetting they existed.
But then there’s Laukat’s latest offering, Sleeping Gods. In sharp contrast with both of his earlier narrative games, this is a landmark title. Not only is this his strongest work by far, and not only is it an entirely smooth merger of narrative and cardboard, but it’s possibly the first time I’ve been persuaded that a narrative game can accomplish something remarkable.
Deep Vents is certainly the bluest game of the year. Or is it the purplest game?
Coming as a surprise from Ryan Laukat and T. Alex Davis, Deep Vents plunges into territory I haven’t yet seen explored in cardboard. Can you guess the setting? Nope, not bay fishing. Nor is it about oil rigging. Rather, Deep Vents is about creating a flourishing ecosystem around a deep vent. Bet you didn’t see that one coming.
It’s been a long time since I played the first edition of Ryan Laukat’s The Ancient World. Long enough that the second edition was totally new, like something I’d played in a dream, a game against the gods dissipated into fog upon awakening.
Or maybe it’s just that this second edition is such a vast improvement over the original that it feels entirely new, despite importing wholesale the bones and framework of its former self.
One of my favorite genres of cardboard is the location-grabber, wherein you and an opponent feud over a line of locations, parceling out cards and strength, engaging in some brinkmanship, and ultimately hoping to nab the best spots when the timing’s right. Picture Omen: A Reign of War, the prematurely strangled Warhammer 40,000: Conquest, the freshly minted Guardians, or granddaddy Battle Line. No, I won’t be strong-armed into naming them Schotten-Tots. I have my dignity.
Speaking of favorites, Alf Seegert has always done yeoman’s work with idiosyncratic designs, especially those that evoke strange worlds and feature smart twists on familiar mechanisms. Heir to the Pharaoh in particular was one of 2016’s most interesting games. A pity nobody’s heard of it.
Well, I’ll be damned if nobody is going to hear about Haven. Illustrated by the preposterously talented Ryan Laukat, this beauty is wickedly smart — and possibly Seegert’s best design yet.
Ryan and Malorie Laukat’s Megaland — the Megaland inside the game Megaland, I mean — is your typical video game kingdom. But unlike the typical visitor to a typical video game kingdom, your adventurers aren’t interested in beating levels or maximizing their abilities or completing sick raids. All they want is to amass those sweet, sweet coins.
Kind of like a digital gold farmer. As far as settings go, that’s a first.
Ryan Laukat’s original Empires of the Void was one of Kickstarter’s early success stories. It was 2011, long before everybody got jaded with underwhelming indie projects and enamored with the latest empty-headed box with miniatures in it. It pulled in somewhere upward of $35,000.
Now it’s 2018, Ryan Laukat has been a staple of the crowdfunding scene for years — long enough to have witnessed “phases” in his career — and now we’ve got a sequel. It made seven times more than the original game during its Kickstarter run. Does that mean it’s seven times more enjoyable?
Yes, that is how I think math works, thanks very much.
When Ryan Laukat announced that his latest crowdfunded project would be a sequel to the much-loved Above and Below, it was always going to kick right past its funding goal. Above and Below might have been flawed in some ways — the seams between its euroish town-builder and storybook adventures occasionally resembling potholes, the writing often halting, the mechanisms perhaps unbalanced (invest in beds, kids). Yet it wasn’t ever about balance or euro mechanisms or even its storybook. Or, well, not entirely about its storybook. If anything, it was about place. It was pleasant and whimsical and provided just-hefty-enough stakes to make its fans care. Also, you could recruit a cat who would occasionally fall asleep in a sunbeam.
For those who were enamored with Above and Below, I can absolutely assure you that Near and Far is creeping in through the window, tossing the watchdog a slice of bacon, and smothering Above and Below in its sleep. It’s more coherent, more thoughtful, and that beloved sense of place has never been more carefully formed, illustrated, or realized.
And for everybody else? Well, those heartstrings aren’t about to become more pluckable anytime soon.
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.
Back in the winter of 2005, I spent one morning of every week volunteering in a retirement home. It was a rewarding time in its own way, but also rather ho-hum, especially because my job was to play bingo or bunco with the residents. For four hours straight. Not kidding, I’m occasionally bored awake by dreams of that ceaselessly shaking bunco cup. Night terrors would at least be interesting.
So when I cracked open the rulebook for Dingo’s Dreams only to discover a riff on bingo, the fact that it had been designed by Alf Seegert and illustrated by the prime target of my affection, Ryan Laukat, didn’t do as much for me as it might have otherwise. A pair of fantastic designers and artists making a ritzy version of bingo?
If there’s any one thing that sets the designs of Ryan Laukat apart, it’s the fact that nothing ever really “goes to hell.” Even when you’re fighting world-crushing titans in The Ancient World, they never quite get around to crushing the world. There are no Nazis to pilfer your 1930s loot or kidnap your significant other in Artifacts, Inc. Even warfare in Eight-Minute Empire represents minor setbacks rather than crushing routs. By and large, Laukat’s games are set in a bizzaro universe where optimism and progress rule the day.
Now, that might sound dull. I couldn’t blame you if it did. Because, sure, it’s conflict that drives our games, and a game without conflict hardly feels like a game at all. Which is why it’s such a relief that Laukat’s designs are brimming with conflict — it’s just that it’s the sort where nobody ever gets seriously hurt, where you’re racing to be the most optimistic and most industrious, where the goal is to have the most good things happen to you rather than avoiding the bad. It’s childlike, almost, if that didn’t feel like an underhanded insult. Innocent. Pure.
Above and Below might be the greatest exemplar of Laukat’s spirit of optimism thus far.