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.
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!
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.
I know an uncanny amount about divination. Not because I believe in the stuff, mind you. It comes up a lot in my work, both as a practice in ancient religion and as a prominent branch in the history of board games.
So when Chris Chan’s Portents first hit my table, I was fascinated to learn which type of cleromancy it would use. Drawing Roman sortes? The knucklebones and dice oracles of astragalomancy? The fateful archery competitions of belomancy? We haven’t even touched upon the really cool ones. Maybe Portents would let us manipulate shards of coconut, or pour molten metal into water and examine the resultant shape’s shadow, or undertake bean magic. Yes, bean magic. Favomancy. It’s shocking how many forms of geomancy used beans. The possibilities for gamification are endless.
Turns out, Portents is about haruspicy via bird parts. And while any self-respecting haruspex would immediately note that it uses the wrong organs, never fear: this one is about fraudsters trying to out-divine one another.
T.C. Petty III’s My Father’s Work is the sort of game that gets called “thematic.” Shiny with chrome, bursting with colorful verbs and adjectives, and narrated via an app, it’s the latest title to blur the distinction between storybook and plaything.
But it’s also thematic in the more universal sense: that it contains themes. Actual honest-to-goodness themes of obsession, selfishness, generational trauma, and the bewildering hilarity that tends to accompany the macabre. It’s a rare game that strives for commentary; this one could constitute an entire shelf’s worth of literary references.
Pirates are all the rage. Something must be in the water. Brine. Rum. Scurvy.
Dead Reckoning is John D. Clair’s attempt to leach the lemon juice from our water supply. Don’t take that as an insult. It’s a scurvy joke. Because scurvy is caused by vitamin-C deficiency. To keep their gums from becoming bleeding pits, sailors would drink lemon juice. It’s also where we get “limey,” because the British Navy forced its sailors to drink lime juice, except lime juice doesn’t have enough vitamin-C to offset scurvy, so ha ha, the British Navy was drinking lime juice for nothing.
What were we talking about? Oh, right. Dead Reckoning.
I’ll confess I have no idea what’s going on in Circadians: Chaos Order, the handsome but oh-so-drab title by Sam Macdonald and Zach Smith. Six factions, their skin tones and general aesthetic helpfully color-coded, have gone to war. What are they warring over? What are these strange artifacts? Is this what it would be like to dip into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Avengers: Endgame? Am I ignorant because I didn’t play the previous title, Circadians: First Light? Must board games have cinematic universes too?
Never mind all that. Klaxons are sounding. Missiles are incoming. We dive into battle — by setting some prices. Booyah.
Look, you already know that John Clowdus’s Omen: A Reign of War is one of my favorite games ever designed. I’d still be lying if I called it a perfect game. It’s very phasey, full of insistent procedures and favored approaches, not to mention being reliant on learning that pool of cards and winning in the pregame draft. If Clowdus announced he was going to redesign Omen from scratch, I’d be over the moon.
To some extent, that’s exactly what An Empty Throne purports to be. Like Omen, this is a Battle Line-alike game about fielding units, comboing powers, and trickling more points into your pool than your opponent. That’s where the similarities end. Foremost because, at fifty-five cards, this thing is lean.
Oh, and there are no phases. An Empty Throne is nothing but action.
Gary Dworetsky’s Imperium: The Contention just might be one of the most unfortunate titles ever to appear on my table. By which I mean its title is atrocious. First of all, there is now a moratorium on using “imperium” in any more game titles. Sorry. I declared it. No more imperia. Second, there has never in the history of contentions been a contention that deserved the definite article. And don’t tell me I need to read the fluff at the beginning of the rulebook to understand the meaning behind The Contention. It’s a space game. Space empires, space bugs, space mafia, space humans. Can we fast-forward through the exposition already?
Color me surprised, because Imperium: The Contention is entirely happy to fast-forward through not only the exposition, but also through the extra hours that distend most games about space empires. Pare away the fat, leave nothing but muscle and spiked appendages and laser cannons. If that were the only thing going for it, it might be enough. Instead, Imperium has become one of my favorite rapid-fire space games in a very short amount of time.
You may have heard the story about the fertility doctor who donated his own, ah, material to his patients, thereby fathering a host of children. A surprising amount of ancient mythology falls back on pretty much the same concept. So does Veiled Fate, the game of questionable divine parentage by Austin Harrison, Max Anderson, and Zac Dixon. Everybody at the table is a god. The nine heroes roaming the board are their demigod offspring. Nobody’s sure who belongs to whom. When will we get the daytime talk show version?