This Grimoire Isn’t Grim At All
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Two wizards walk into a—
Oh. Right. I guess it’s pretty obvious what happens next. The wizards fight, don’t they? They begin assaulting one another’s limited pools of health points, don’t they? They tussle until one of them is a pool of gunk and the other is secure in their mastery, don’t they?
True enough, Wizards of the Grimoire by Cole and Joel Banning doesn’t provide the most novel springboard. It’s about dueling wizards, as if there were any other kind. Scratch the surface with your fingernail, though, and it turns out there’s one heck of a self-contained dueling game to be found.
Justice, Not Favors
I wish I could say Tory Brown’s Votes for Women didn’t feel so timely, coming over a century after the passage of the 19th Amendment, but here we are. Back around the turn of the new year, an acquaintance mentioned offhandedly his belief that the country might be better off today had the amendment not been ratified in 1920. My surprise had less to do with that he held such an opinion — people’s heads are stuffed full of silly notions — than that he was willing to state it so baldly. What can we agree upon, if not the idea that everyone should be guaranteed that most basic expression of political will, the vote?
Then again, that’s a large part of what makes Votes for Women so valuable. It returns us to a time when the rights we take for granted were anything but secured.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
Coup was great, wasn’t it? Hard to believe it’s been over a decade since Rikki Tahta’s original splashed onto the scene. With only fifteen cards and an absolutely intuitive merging of hidden roles and action selection, it was very nearly the perfect social deduction game. Its follow-up, Coup: Rebellion G54, deepened that card pool but also traded away a significant portion of its ease for an oppressive need to check which actions were available this session. I eventually traded it away. Rebellion G54, that is. I still have my original printing stashed somewhere.
Right in time for the pandemic, four designers expanded on that framework. The question seemingly asked by AC Atienza, Alvin Lee, Ethan Li, and Mitchell Loewen bordered on the heretical: What if Coup, but with an extra layer of hidden roles built atop the hidden roles it already had? Also: What if Coup, but with Shakespeare?
The answer to both questions is Captain’s Gambit: Kings of Infinite Space.
Milk’s Favorite Board Game
There are certain missteps freshman designers struggle to avoid. Take Oros, the first title from Brandt Brinkerhoff. Set on an archipelago bristling with demigods and volcanoes, Oros leans into its first-timer gaminess right away, offering upgrade tracks that don’t always feel fully-baked, complex interactions between its shifting islands and floes of lava, and persnickety rules that are guaranteed to slip through the cracks. It’s as scattershot as its shattered seascape.
For all that, it’s also as refreshing as a sea breeze. Let’s pick into why that is.
I’m an Asclepiad, Jim, Not an Ocularius
Medical history is one of my favorite topics. As an undergrad I was fortunate to work with a second edition of Andreas Vesalius’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem, that revolutionary tome that contested and updated Galen’s anatomical observations from over a millennium earlier.
This shouldn’t be taken as a criticism of Galen. Unlike his far-removed successor, the Roman prohibition on human dissection forced guesswork on his part. If anything, the anatomists led remarkably parallel careers. Both challenged received wisdom, ran afoul of their period’s traditions, and eventually escaped into self-imposed exile. Where Vesalius drew fire by concluding that men didn’t have fewer ribs than women, a detail that clashed with the Catholic Church’s belief that Adam’s rib had formed Eve, Galen threaded an awkward middle ground between the dominant dogmatist and empiric schools of medicine, drawing ire and threats of poisoning when he spurned their guiding philosophies.
Galenus, designed by Harry-Pekka Kuusela, steps into the testy waters of Galen’s poison-laced Rome. It’s a fascinating setting. If only it provided more of a deep dive than a shallow wade.
Gimmick’s Got Game
I didn’t grow up playing many board games. In our household they fell into three camps. There were classic games like Risk and Monopoly, also known as “boring games.” There were the complicated multi-session games my friend Brent played, which required more investment than my periodic visits could provide. And there were demonic games, those that might rupture the fabric of reality like a turgorous pimple and allow the devil’s hordes to pour into our plane. These included ouija boards and face cards.
But then, in between episodes of Duck Tales, a commercial showed me something new. In vivid colors and a thespian’s voiceover, it boasted of something that was as much a mountain of plastic as it was a game. It was mechanized. It made sounds. Its turbulence was part of its gameplay. I had to have it.
That game was Forbidden Bridge. Its commercial was seared in my memory. That Christmas, it became my first encounter with gimmick-as-gameplay.
The Anarchy Comes Home
The thesis for John Company is drawn right onto the lid of the second edition box. Two worlds, starkly divided, seemingly incongruent. The first, drawn with affrontive rotundity, features genteel Englishmen and Englishwomen drinking and flirting, debauched in their plumpness, as without care as people ever were. The second, illustrated as angularly as the first image was curvaceous, reveals a fortified seaside factory, sternly defended and given scale only by the many ships gathering beneath the hem of its skirts. Despite their dissimilarity, it’s like the meme says: they are the same picture.
The first time I wrote about Cole Wehrle’s most ambitious title I called it his magnum opus. Later I discussed how it and its sister volume An Infamous Traffic put two dueling economic systems on trial. The third was a preview for this second edition, but the final product hasn’t changed enough to invalidate any of the praise I heaped on it at the time.
But a few things remains to be stated. What follows is less of a review than a statement on why games like John Company are the most essential ludic texts of our day.
Two Minds About Final Girl
Brock: Can horror exist outside a movie, or a book, or a gaggle of costumed teenagers in a problematic haunted asylum? Does it require one or more draculas?
This time around, Dan and I put on our Two Minds lederhosen to tackle Van Ryder Games’ Final Girl. We wanted to discover just how well a horror movie could be translated to cardboard and dice, and just how small wooden cylinders in a board game could get. Will we make it out alive?
Dan: And I even own real lederhosen!
No County for Old Men
After I declared Mind MGMT my favorite game of 2021, the pressure must have been unbearable for Off the Page Games. All right, all right, I doubt they noticed. Still, Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim’s adaptation of Matt Kindt’s comic series was such a zinger that any follow-up would be swimming upriver.
Case in point, Harrow County: The Game of Gothic Conflict, co-designed by Cormier and Shad Miller as an adaptation of the comic series by Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook, which is on Kickstarter for the next two days — yes, I’m running behind — carries itself with an exerted air. It does so many things in a short span of time. Maybe it should have doubled down on two or three.