It’s unquestionably difficult to consider Eric Lang’s latest, The Godfather: Corleone’s Empire, without referring back to its source material. Nearly impossible, in fact. Here’s a game, lavishly produced, provided access to one of the most widely-discussed artifacts of culture, a film that boasts nearly one hundred percent cultural penetration. It’s a serviceable game, riffing on the worker placement and area control that have become standards of the hobby. Yet when it comes to its source material, it’s almost afraid to engage. It skirts the edges, providing Don Corleone and severed horse-head miniatures and naming rounds after the “acts” of The Godfather. Here’s Connie’s wedding. Now poor Sonny has been gunned down at that iconic tollbooth. Watch out, Michael is out for revenge. What do these have to do with the pawns placed across New York, the bad booze and dirty dollars exchanged to complete jobs, or the Altoids-tin suitcases of banked cash?
Not a thing.
It’s rare enough that a game gets a second chance, let alone when it’s a niche solo title. Based on Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Nemo’s War held a formidable reputation for its brutal difficulty, constant barrage of dice rolls, and tangible sense of setting. It’s Nemo and his Nautilus against an entire world of colonial powers. And, tipping my hand right now, its polished second edition is easily one of the slickest solo games ever crafted.
At first blush, Spirit Island looks achingly familiar. A tropical island lush with multiple colorful regions, ranging across jungles and mountains and wetlands and deserts. Why, that’s nearly as many as in The Settlers of Catan! What’s more, here are some lily-white explorers, a few towns, even the occasional city. Every so often a crude grass hut interrupts the landscape. The only things missing are some roads and sheep cards. Throw in an economic engine and some bleating about chivalry and, baby, you’ve got a Euro going.
That’s where Spirit Island turns a hard left. Turns out you aren’t the settlers at all. Rather, you’re the indigenous spirits trying to shake off their white-man burden before you can say “smallpox.” Whether that means scaring them silly or burning all those cities to the ground, whatever gets the job done.
But that’s the window dressing. Spirit Island is more than some mildly socially-aware theming. It’s also el banana grande.
Wow. Can we just take a moment to marvel at the fact that Tiny Epic Quest is the fifth entry in this series of small-yet-usually-pretty-good games? From warring kingdoms to defending kingdoms, from outer space to the Wild West. All in a little more than three years. Scott Almes is nothing if not prolific.
Anyway, this is probably the best the Tiny Epic series has ever been. Though that might be because it’s just so dang photogenic.
Now that Stranger Things and Ready Player One are all the rage, it seems the ’80s are finally having their heyday. Take Lazer Ryderz, for example. Here’s a game that’s basically the light cycles from Tron.
That’s it. Were you expecting me to say more about it?
I was born and bred for word games. Which has led me to regard them fondly, but also sometimes with a simmering resentment you could whip up a stir fry in. What if I don’t want to spell QANATS for the thousandth time?
But Jeff Beck’s Word Domination is a clever one. And it largely has to do with the fact that it doesn’t focus too much on prioritizing the tougher letters.
After the iterative cleverness of Cry Havoc, which entrusted its players with the command of four highly distinctive factions, I’d gladly play almost anything designed by Grant Rodiek. Hence the initial allure of Solstice. Unlike Cry Havoc, however, Solstice would be a small production. No significant asymmetry, no mini sculpts, no fist-pumping Trogs. Just a fast-playing, hard-hitting, no-prisoners card game.
And hoo boy, is it devious.
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.