You may have read Teddy Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena.” It’s a paragraph about how critics are quivering simpletons compared to the brave souls who actually produce or perform, which of course means it’s my favorite thing ever written. I have a cousin who posts it to my social media timeline at least twice a year. Not sure why. He’s a professional consultant. That’s a fancy way of saying he’s a critic who gets paid. Not sure why you’re beefing on me, cuz.
Anyway. That’s what I kept thinking about while playing Proving Grounds, a solo game about a literal woman in a literal arena.
Whether it’s a free-for-all like Hearts or Oh Hell, or a team setup like Euchre or Bridge, trick-taking games are family classics for quite a few people, including many who wouldn’t consider themselves “board” or “card” players. Yet it’s a genre I never found myself engaged by. No reason, really. It just wasn’t something my family did, and therefore it wasn’t something that I did.
Joshua Buergel’s The Fox in the Forest has changed that, at least in the short-term. Let me show you why.
Kane Klenko showed that he knew what he was doing with last year’s FUSE, a game that saw its players disarming bombs in real-time by matching dice and occasionally balancing them in precarious towers. It wasn’t necessarily deep, but it produced a thick cloud of tension and banged some pot lids in your ears. By the end of its countdown, even failure was a relief. More so if you had that annoying app braying in your ears.
Even though they couldn’t be more different, Flip Ships reveals Klenko doing what he does best. Like FUSE before it, Flip Ships takes a single idea and blitzes merrily past the point where any other designer might have been content to wrap the thing into a minigame box and be done with it. Here, the idea is that just maybe the best way to defend against a Space Invaders scenario would be to launch your starfighters so that they spin like one of those barfy amusement park rides, right before rolling off the table and beneath the couch. As in, it’s the plan you resort to after everything else has failed.
Sentient is a bit of a weird one. By plugging robots into your mainframe — and doing your best to keep things orderly when their growing awareness starts to kick back — you hope to position your company at the forefront of the sentient revolution. It sounds like the first act of a robot uprising story, not a game designed around basic algebraic operations.
It doesn’t help that the game’s setting is about as substantial as chalk dust. As a thought experiment, my gaming group redesigned the whole thing on the spot to be about trying to persuade our pal Geoff to do us a favor, wherein his mental states — things like “playing Angry Birds right now” and “has another question about the rules” — might begin to affect our collective mood. It worked just fine.
But that’s where Sentient sets itself apart, because in spite of its insubstantial fluff and algebra-based gameplay — or perhaps thanks to it — it’s a surprisingly excellent filler.
The best thing about Clank! is that it’s a deck-building game, which is one of those phrases I didn’t see myself using, right alongside “I wish I could take the bus more often” and “Cabbage tastes better when burnt.” And yet it’s the gospel truth. Clank! is a good game, maybe even a great game, and largely because it’s a deck-builder.
Then again, the worst thing about Clank! is also that it’s a deck-building game, so there’s that.
Only a few weeks ago, I offered a review of five-minute game Meteor, arguing that it was one of the easiest games to put on the table for its brevity, simplicity, and real-time goodness.
Well, that review was apparently a thrown gauntlet, because I’ve been challenged to take a look at FUSE, another real-time game — ten minutes long this time — which I will never again type in all caps.