More and more, I hear acquaintances saying things like, “Oh, I might have played that game back when I had reflexes.”
As someone whose video game reflexes existed for all of two months during the halcyon days of Unreal Tournament 2004, I’m happier with cardboard. Joshua Van Laningham’s Bullet♥︎ is an adaptation of the shoot-’em-up genre. Frankly, I like it better than any shmup I’ve fumbled through.
Hesitantly pushing a cart, trying to miss the crowd, glaring furiously at every stray cough — sounds like shopping for groceries in 2020. It’s also the topic of Travis Hancock’s Bristol 1350. With its titular city in collapse, up to nine players scramble to escape to the countryside. The hitch? Scrambling to escape might mean catching the bug. In true plague fashion, getting sick means you now want to get everybody else sick, too. Hey, it’s more logical than pooping your pants because somebody asked you to wear a mask.
Right, board games. In a weird shift of tone, Bristol 1350 is an unexpectedly chipper experience.
For a group that usually conjures images of blood-rimmed axes, freshly extracted skulls, and ransacked monasteries, Jon Manker’s Pax Viking certainly knows how to make its Vikings seem almost tolerable to spend an afternoon with.
I’m going to detail Trekking the World, the sequel to Trekking the National Parks that’s apparently selling like gangbusters, and I want to buffer your expectations by pointing out that I mean these things descriptively rather than pejoratively. Moreover, I think it’s fantastic when a game exceeds expectations and attracts a raft of enthusiastic fans. And really, the hobby is about enjoying these things in company, as friends and family, and nothing can take away the precious memories we make when we share quality time.
Whew. Okay. Here goes: Trekking the World is utterly and defiantly mainstream. It’s as smooth as a white granite countertop and about as interesting. It has been engineered for appeal, relies on familiarity to draw attention to itself, and says nothing of note. I do not like it. I expect it does not care. Which makes it all the more puzzling that it appeared on my doorstep without warning, like a baby in a bassinet, except the baby turned out to be a very dull child who grew up to become an actuary.
It’s easy to imagine the East India Company as a cabal: an instrument of villains, territory marked by the plunging of daggers into nautical maps, shareholder meetings held by candlelight, masks mandatory. How else to explain the company that became leviathan — that touched half the world’s trade, employed twice the fighting men fielded by the British army, and ruled India for a century? Surely it was sinister. Perhaps even occult.
Except that’s far too tidy. As is always the case with sweeping evils, it’s easier to tuck a mastermind behind the curtain than to acknowledge that reality is so much more banal. That the Company’s ascent was the work of clerks and captains, common soldiers and administrative functionaries, merchants selling on commission and thousands struggling to earn their daily bread. Absent a villain, there’s more blame to go around. An uncomfortable degree of blame. Maybe even the sort of blame that might implicate us.
More than any game I’ve played, John Company is about culpability. And Cole Wehrle’s second edition accomplishes the improbable by making that message more articulate and more playable at the same time.
I had a love/hate thing with Burgle Bros. It was so frustrating that I eventually gave it to my pal Brock. Later, I missed it enough to ask if he was done with it, whereupon “Brock brought back Burgle Bros” became our game night tongue-twister of choice. Naturally, I never played it again.
So it’s a thrill that Burgle Bros 2: The Casino Capers is more than a sequel. It’s everything the original game wasn’t.
Everything about Stop the Train! screams “velocity.” The speed of the train, of course. But other details also pitch in: the countdown to the train’s arrival in Paris, the bomb that will go off if it doesn’t halt before reaching its destination, the rapid turnover between turns. It helps that trains are the perfect setting for mystery stories. By extension, a train should be the perfect setting for a social deduction game.
So why does this particular engine trundle along at the pace of a kiddie trolley? Let’s break it down.
The score isn’t looking so good for Andrew Looney’s Pyramids System. Nomids barely rated. Only half of Ice Duo met the mark. We’re already on the third of four boxes, and I’ve yet to see what the fuss is all about.
Until Martian Chess. This one still doesn’t bother to use the pyramids as more than pretty counters. But the game itself — wow.
I get nervous every time Root gets bigger. It’s the knock-on effect of so many boxes, so many factions, so many little details to keep straight. In contrast with some folks, my experiences with Root have grown more interesting as everybody at the table masters the intricacies of its many sides. Every addition jeopardizes that smoothness. Even if the effect is only temporary, that’s one more chance that I’ll step away and never muster the will to return.
So it’s good news that the Marauder Expansion is less about expansion than about streamlining.
Adapting a video game to cardboard isn’t easy. As I’ve written in the past, the difficulty isn’t limited to replicating the game’s visuals, its characters and events, or even its systems. The hard part is capturing its feel. Its flow. How it operates when you’re at the controls and everything is running smoothly. That’s why making a game about pushing buttons misses the point. That’s like adapting a board game into the digital sphere and carefully modeling the jitter of your fingers and your posture at the table. Those things matter, but only as inputs, not the essence of the game being played.
So it goes with cardboard versions of the MOBA. As a genre, Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas seem like the perfect fit for adaptation. You have a bounded space, clear goals, characters doing cool combo-driven things, and things like cooldown timers that practically beg to be codified as turns. The top-down perspective even mimics the way we view a board and its many counters. So why is Battle for Biternia the first one I’ve played that’s gotten it right?