It has often been said that you can learn a lot about an era by how they portray Rome in its heyday. To the historians of the British Empire, the eternal city was both pomp and melancholy manifest, a promise of what could be accomplished with well-drilled lines of soldiery, but also a lingering reminder that the lights of empire would inevitably wink out. To the fascists of Italy and Germany, it was a city of racial hierarchies, Nordic masters overseeing Mediterranean laborers. For a time Americans regarded it as both an exemplar of civic duty and a suitable antagonist, that great subsumer of individuality and Jesus Christ alike. Later it became the dingy city of corruption and gang rule, populated by kleptocrats stuffing their pockets while sending children to die on foreign soil. I’ll leave it to you to guess which era thought of it in those terms.
The Ragnar Brothers (Gary Dicken, Steve Kendall, and Phil Kendall) aren’t quite striving for that degree of granularity with their latest game, The Romans. Nor do they seem to be evaluating Rome as anything other than a sequence of shifting boundaries. Even so, at some level, The Romans beholds all those contrasting interpretations and seems to query, Why not all of them?
But to make sense of that statement, first we need to talk about parallel universes.
I’m terrified of and fascinated by blindness. On more than one occasion, driving along a stretch of Montanan highway with no cars in sight, I would close my eyes and see how long I could last before my nerves peeled apart and my sight restored itself through sheer reflex. Another time, walking to class, the same experiment caused me to turn my ankle so violently that a moment later I awoke on some very uncomfortable pebble landscaping, pain alight from foot to pelvis, shoe braced tight from the swelling. I’ve since learned better than to flirt with the abyss.
Blindness seems like the perfect target sensation for a genre that so often resorts to flipping cards at random. Yet apart from performative pieces like Nyctophobia, not many games have toyed with the concept of not being able to see what’s right in front of you. At least until Sensor Ghosts, Janice and Stu Turner’s sequel to their first published game, Assembly. Having escaped a contaminated orbital platform, you’re blasting your way back to Earth through a micrometeorite storm. Except the sensors on your ship are throwing up all sorts of noise. The result is profoundly evocative — and more than a little shaky.
Then again, perhaps those are two ways of saying the same thing.
My second-favorite thing about Janice and Stu Turner’s Assembly is that the killer AI is probably right. After a micrometeorite storm introduces a deadly virus to the game’s ship assembly platform, the AI does exactly what every responsible citizen should do when they suspect they’ve been contaminated — it washes its hands. Sure, that involves flushing the station’s oxygen and quarantining the two survivors so they can’t reach Earth, but… when we lose the game, isn’t humanity winning?
Food for thought. At least it made me feel better when I lost over and over again. As for my favorite thing about Assembly, let’s take a closer look.
Somewhere underneath the dudes-on-a-map genre lurks an even more specific subgenre, the dudes-on-a-map-beseech-the-gods-for-aid genre. For short, the “god-botherer.” You know the type. Cyclades, Kemet, Blood Rage, Rising Sun. They’re an excuse for ordinary plastic molds to genuflect and summon something far greater. Those little dudes are going about their business when — blammo — here comes a table-trembling hulk of sculpted muscle and claw. The elder plastic.
At first glance, John Clowdus’s Mezo is another god-botherer. It has dudes. It has gods. It has the appropriate gap of scale between said dudes and said gods. But because Mezo was designed by John Clowdus, his first-ever title that isn’t a Small Box Game, it’s anything but a ripoff or an homage or just another god-botherer. If anything, it’s probably best described as “three or four bidding games at the same time.”
There’s something infinitely enticing about the prospect of a short civilization game. Centuries, even millennia of technologies, policies, wars and wonders, played out in a couple of hours rather than an entire afternoon. You might even call it one of the holy grails of game design.
For a moment, Matthew Dunstan’s Monumental looks like it might reach out and choose wisely. The turns clip along nicely. It has decisions with room enough to stumble, but not so badly that you’ll slip onto your face. And of course there’s all that plastic. What could possibly go wrong?
After the jump, let’s talk about what went wrong.
Paradise Lost tricked me into playing Clue. Not that that’s a bad thing. If anything, I admire Tom Butler’s deftness in pulling out the rug. One moment I was expecting a bland fantasy excursion, so generic as to be staffed with public domain heroes like Hercules and Alice — not the first time I’ve been surprised to see her show up — and a few minutes later, we were asking questions about the Water Witch’s henchmen. “Was it the Big Bad Wolf with the Vorpal Blade?” There’s no third part: “…in the Eternal Cedar Forest?” There’s a reason for that.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.
Perspective is a funny thing. When Sami Laakso reached out to inquire whether I’d like to take a look at Dale of Merchants — more specifically, Dale of Merchants 1, 2, and Collection — I hesitated. Not because of Laakso’s talents as a designer, but because the game in question was a deck-builder. And not a hybrid deck-builder; a straight-up, pure, honest-to-goodness cards-and-tokens deck-builder.
Why such hesitation? Because for a moment that felt like a decade, you couldn’t enter a game shop without tripping over that month’s shipment of DBGs, barely-themed stacks of wallpaper with a license slapped over the top. How many decks have I built? How many settings have gone underutilized? The answer is not flattering, either for me or the industry.
But it had been a while since I last built a deck. Doubly so a “pure” deck, sans larger strategic considerations like a map or a lootable dungeon. So I said, sure, why not. And, after a half-dozen plays, I couldn’t be happier.
Don’t make the mistake of calling Dual Powers: Revolution 1917 a wargame. I learned that lesson the hard way. Like 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis and Fort Sumter, Dual Powers is about what happens before the war — in effect, a pre-wargame. This is the jockeying, the shakeout, the period when everybody decides who they’ll sidle up to when the shooting starts. Even better that Brett Myers has selected a topic I’ve yet to see explored. With the February Revolution out of the way and Tsar Nicholas II off the throne, Petrograd has settled into an uneasy truce between the Provisional Government and the Bolshevik Party. Surely such an arrangement will last more than a few months.
Whenever you call something a “dexterity game,” there’s one last ambiguity to resolve: are we talking about flicking dexterity or stacking dexterity? For a number of years, Aron West, Ryan Amos, and Marc Kelsey’s Catacombs was the finest examples of the former, equal parts competitive and slapstick. Now West has teamed up with Ken Valles for Catacombs Cubes, which is all stacking and no flicking. But with plenty of excellent stacking games out there, how does it stack up?
I will never apologize for the crime of a good pun.
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.