When we talk about theme in games, we’re usually talking about the wallpaper. I’ve deadened plenty a pixel ranting on that point, which is perhaps why Daniel Newman’s Watch struck me with such force. Watch is a game about stealing office supplies. It’s almost irrelevant that these office supplies happen to be pocket watch parts and surplus WWII munitions. That it takes place on a literal clock face plunges it into the realm of fever dream. One doesn’t need to work in a Soviet factory to feel like a cog waiting to snap.
Now this is theme, adumbrated through a dozen minute details.
Not every game is about the same thing. Take deck-builders. In many cases, maybe even most cases, deck-builders are about merciless optimization and combo-building. You start with a deck of cards. One by one, you add better cards and prune away the dead weight. Sometimes your final deck will be even leaner than what you began with. At the very least, it will perform to greater heights.
Ta-Te Wu’s Art Decko is a deck-builder, but that doesn’t mean it’s about either optimization or combos. Rather, it’s about process. Flow. The act of shuffling and moving cards, watching those cards grow in value and power, and then shuffling and moving them again. It’s a peculiar sort of deck-builder. It might be too clever for its own good.
Given how many of the things are about growing up, it’s a marvel nobody’s bothered to design a board game bildungsroman.
Space Station Phoenix, Gabriel J. Cohn’s latest foray into Rio Grande’s catalog of games about outer space and dice with custom faces, pitches itself in the opposite direction. What if rather than getting big, you’re asked to first tear yourself down? It isn’t exactly a coming-of-age story. But as someone intimately acquainted with the art of self-flagellation, it sounds like the sort of thing I’d be an instant ringer at.
I’ve been playing a handful of train games lately. Try not to faint. I’ve suffered through by reminding myself that the trains aren’t the actual focus.
Honestly, I’m glad I did. Amabel Holland’s 2015 Trans-Siberian Railroad recently earned a reprint from Rio Grande Games, which means its winsome self has been trotted out for the enjoyment of a new generation. It’s bursting with ideas. Sometimes in a good way.
For decades games have noodled over how to represent technological progress. Tracks? Random cards? Kitsch that doesn’t bear any connection to its stated purpose? Sorry, that last one was a dig at Tapestry. I’ll never pick on it again. Promise.
For Beyond the Sun, Dennis Chan goes with the technology tree. A sturdy favorite. Reliable. Dull, even. Except in this case, Chan has done the unexpected by introducing something new to the idea: a pulse.
Race for the Galaxy: Puerto Rico Edition. That’s my dismissive, elitist, reference-choked review of Thomas Lehmann’s New Frontiers, sequel to Roll for the Galaxy, which itself was a sequel to Race. If I were more of a snob, I might leave it at that.
Instead, I’m precisely enough of a snob to feel like there’s something more I could add to the conversation. And in particular, that I might answer the question, Why does such an obviously solid game leave me so cold?
Way back in 2008, the one thing that prevented me from getting along with good old Dominion — and disclaimer, I haven’t played it in a very, very long time — was the fact that my actions felt almost entirely divorced from the kingdom-building I was supposedly undertaking. Armed with gold and some estates, my fair land was soon filled with nothing but cellars and laboratories, while my only policy was the daily festival. Dominion deserved every ounce of heaped praise, but while it may have been the grandfather of an entire genre, it was also a classic example of the gulf all too often situated between theme and mechanics in deck-builders.
I might seem erroneous in besmirching my elders. After all, this was before, well, every other deck-building game. And certainly, they’ve come a long way over the last
century seven years. Valley of the Kings and Core Worlds and Star Realms were mere twinkles in their designers’ eyes. Hybrid designs like A Study in Emerald, Baseball Highlights: 2045, and City of Remnants were radical heresies not yet uttered. There was one deck-building game, however, released the year after Dominion. To everyone’s surprise, it was every bit as smart and mechanically sound as its daddy, except it also had a dash of real personality. For all its pizzazz, it got locked up by Rio Grande Games to prevent it from competing with its father — possibly the most accurately medieval thing Dominion had ever done.
Race for the Galaxy is a classic. Or so I hear. I only played it once, maybe six years ago, at my brother-in-law’s apartment. We ate popcorn. Both were enjoyable, and the game possessed a clever and clean design that felt a little bit less clean thanks to its wealth of hieroglyphics, leaving little for a newcomer to do other than etch a mental Rosetta Stone of hexagons, multicolored and soft-cornered rectangles, and eyeballs.
If nothing else, it’s a relief that Roll for the Galaxy, the dice game remix of Race’s original recipe, is kind enough to set plain old English script alongside the pictographs. I really do appreciate that.