Oath is Cole Wehrle’s most off-putting game yet. I mean that affectionately. I also don’t anticipate everybody will feel the same way. Riding high on the goodwill generated by Root and Pax Pamir — and dressed up in Kyle Ferrin’s affable illustrative style — this sure is a beaut for something Wehrle called a “hate letter” to the civilization genre. Would it be rude to accuse such an attractive package of false advertising? Because Oath is so determined to make its audience reconsider their assumptions that it sometimes feels like it’s asking too much.
Sometimes. The rest of the time, I’m glad it asks so much.
Narrative board games — now there’s a phrase that’ll get me yammering. There’s no quicker way to make my eyelids droop than by forcing me to read a middling Young Adult novel in between rounds of combat. There are exceptions. Ryan Laukat’s Near and Far and Above and Below were both charming enough to stick around for a few plays, even if their marriage of choose-your-own-adventure snippets and Eurogame sensibilities wasn’t entirely harmonious. I enjoyed them in bursts before largely forgetting they existed.
But then there’s Laukat’s latest offering, Sleeping Gods. In sharp contrast with both of his earlier narrative games, this is a landmark title. Not only is this his strongest work by far, and not only is it an entirely smooth merger of narrative and cardboard, but it’s possibly the first time I’ve been persuaded that a narrative game can accomplish something remarkable.
It’s been a while since we took a look at Zain Memon’s Shasn, a political game with both comedic and nasty streaks. At the time I called it “one of the most unhinged, perceptive, outlandish, and timely games you might never play.” One crowdfunding campaign, some development, and two whole years later, Shasn is finally here. Let’s see how it holds up in 2021.
I have a pet theory that board games are great at enabling humorous moments but terrible at comedy. Humorous moments are singular: a joke, a misstep, a callback. Comedy is sustained. That makes it harder because even a single flub can ruin the whole thing. Ever played a party game that was funny for a few minutes but quickly grew dull? Or something like Munchkin, with the occasional cutesy card but agonizing gameplay? It’s one thing to provide prompts and let players riff. Another entirely to keep the humor coming. There’s a reason funny games are usually short. They exist to enable humorous moments, not real comedy.
Hence my personal metric: It isn’t enough to be funny. A great comedy board game has to be funny even when you’re losing. By that metric, Matt Eklund’s Stationfall is the latest addition to my personal pantheon of games that never fail to make me laugh.
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.