Last time we saw Trey Chambers around these parts, he was setting a high bar for himself with Argent: The Consortium. Set in Brad Talton’s World of Indines, a universe so overflowing with magic as to make the perfect excuse for bodybuilders, angels, machines, machine assassins, and inter-dimensional huntresses to slug each other in the nose, Argent made its name by giving the worker placement genre a good shaking. Like Talton’s BattleCON before it, Argent wasn’t merely packed to the gills with stuff. It was packed with inventive stuff. In stark contrast to the genre’s more placid entries, here was a world where a site-occupying worker might be removed to the infirmary by a fireball. Provided they weren’t immune to fireballs. Or their employer didn’t cast a counter-spell. Or the threat of mutually assured fireballs didn’t cow their aggressor into backing down.
Now Chambers is back with Empyreal: Spells & Steam, again set in Indines, and again stuffed with magic. Only this time, Chambers has his sights set on trains. Is Empyreal as disruptive of railway gauges and snowball deliveries as Argent was of higher education? More importantly, are there choo-choo fireballs? Let’s take a look.
When I complain about civgames, my harping comes from a place of deep affection. It’s just that civgames tend to be very good at one model of how civilizations flourish, and very bad at every other model. If it isn’t steady border expansion and technological growth, with very little diversity or ideological synthesis, it doesn’t usually rate. Because really, how many civilizations have spanned from remote BCE to far CE without redefining who they are? Without changing languages, dynasties, ethics, goals? I’ll give you a clue: not many. Even fewer were captained by Sid Meier’s immortal and nuke-happy Gandhi.
Enter Phil Eklund and Jon Manker’s Bios: Origins. As the third in the Bios trilogy, set after the multi-cellular life of Genesis and the prehistoric beasts of Megafauna, Origins is a civgame right down to certain familiar trappings. Tech tracks, cities, and special resources are all present and accounted for. But these trappings are only part of the story. What makes Origins special is the way it answers the questions that other civgames don’t even begin to think about. Questions like who you are — you, the player — what you want, and how very different peoples and civilizations can prosper across the ages.
Two titles isn’t enough to tell, but I’m beginning to think Hassan Lopez’s talent might lie in reduction. That sounds too negative. Rendering? Distillation? Refining? Sublimation? No, reduction must serve.
Like Clockwork Wars before it, Maniacal takes an idea and reduces it to its most essential. In Clockwork Wars, magic, technology, and religion were reduced to special buildings and their bonuses, but in an especially clever way that placed them inside the game world, both concrete and vulnerable. Maniacal does something similar for its Evil Genius simulator. Nearly every detail feels like there could have been more. Except, when placed in parallel, those parts accrete into something so smooth, so sparing, so — yes, I’m going to say it again — reduced, that anything extra would have been as vestigial as a hangnail.
All you need to attract my attention is an utterance of three little words: Boelinger. Archipelago. Sequel. Everything else — the distant setting, the stock market, the expansions you can swap out to generate countless planets to explore — are really just icing.
Want to learn how to stop my attention dead in its tracks? Christophe Boelinger’s Living Planet knows the answer.
Game design is principally iterative. How’s that for an axiom? Although board gaming is no stranger to innovation, these are occasional detonations compared to our hobby’s long, slow, uphill periods of refinement. If that doesn’t sound glamorous, don’t shoot the messenger. Even less glamorous, the best refinements are often so granular that they often escape the untrained eye. How many cards you draw. The difference between drawing blind or from a market of visible offerings. The clarity of a user interface. Whether a defensive ability trumps all comers or merely hampers them. How smoothly points are calculated. What determines when the final tally is counted. The hundred small decisions that sum into a game that’s wildly different from another game, despite any number of outward similarities.
Oceans, designed by Nick Bentley, Dominic Crapuchettes, Ben Goldman, and Brian O’Neill, raises a sound question: how different is it from Evolution or Evolution: Climate? All were released by North Star Games. All are about explosive biological transformations and player-generated ecosystems. All are about eating your friends. Not like that, you dirty dog. With so many similarities, are there enough changes beyond the setting to warrant a second look?
Here’s a hint: everything I mentioned up in the first paragraph is something Oceans gets right, and those improvements still aren’t the best thing about it.
There’s a pleasant familiarity to rondels. Around and around your pawns go, their position determining what you’ll be doing this turn. Why do they complete this circuit, this flat circle of time? Are they fleeing or chasing, running toward or running away? Perhaps there is a deeper reason. Perhaps, if they repeat these rotations to satisfaction before the game is concluded, they will come face to face with themselves at last. Then there will be no more running. Only acceptance.
Or maybe it’s only because rondels are an efficient way to narrow a wide range of options to a digestible handful. That’s the case in Winterborne, anyway.
Longtime readers may recall my appreciation for the solipsistic hellscape that is human language, the inefficient and ambiguous transfer of information generated by whistling air between slabs of meat, often followed by transcribing those whistles via pigment or pixels, and rarely wholly understood by those on the receiving end. Truly, we are the aliens. See also Dixit, Mysterium, and Codenames for a heightened sense of foreignness within your own skin.
This holiday season I’ve discovered a new inducer of existential angst. Co-designed by Alex Hague, Justin Vickers, and Wolfgang Warsch (best known for it’s-a-game The Mind), this one is called Wavelength. And when I’m pondering the Cartesian isolation of my reasoning mind from the remainder of this universe, my time with it has very nearly approached enjoyable.
I’m a sucker for portable card games and a double-sucker for those that can be played without a surface. Never mind that I’ll never find myself in a situation where I’ll actually want to play one. In the car? Motion sickness. On an airplane? Tray table. Eating a meal on the airplane? Then I’m eating, you goofball, not playing a card game. Standing in the Fantasy Flight line at Gen Con? Never again.
But I made a promise to my grandfather that I would find the perfect surfaceless card game, so I grabbed Palm Island and gave it a few plays, all within approximately two meters of a clean tabletop. Still, it felt good to do right by old gramps. He died never having owned a table. The real tragedy was not knowing where to set all the food everybody sent over.
Oh, right, Palm Island. Let’s talk about that instead.
I didn’t actually watch Alien as a kid. Worse: my friends described it to me on the playground. It has been said that nothing is more terrifying than the unknown. That’s preposterous. It’s the half-known that’ll keep you up at night. To grub-form Dan, nothing was more terrifying than the prospect of Alien. Not even, when I finally got up the nerve to view it, the film itself.
Over the past month, I’ve played two separate releases that attempt to adapt the breathless horror that was initially brought to life by Ridley Scott and given an uncomfortable phallic pulse by H.R. Giger. And even though they’re remarkably similar in some ways, one of these games is among the year’s best while the other is merely fine.
It’s both accurate and misleading to say that James Naylor’s Magnate: The First City is a good version of Monopoly. Accurate because it’s a satirical take on unbridled capitalism that would do Lizzie Magie proud. Misleading because the two really don’t have much in common, aside from paper money, city development, plastic houses, and dice. Okay, saying that out loud makes them sound really quite similar. They’re not.
Seriously, they aren’t alike at all. You should keep reading. I promise.