Replaying the Mass Effect remaster brought it all back: the weightlessness as the shuttle dropped through the cloud layer, the sight of the alien landscape for the first time, verdant with unknown plants and creatures. That prickle along the spine. Growing up, Star Trek and frontier adventure books and some hazy pioneer heritage were formative where Star Wars was grating and juvenile. The final frontier, minus the colonialist overtones. Okay, some colonialist overtones. But overtones that are trying to do better.
Marc Neidlinger and Tom Mattson’s Unsettled is a cooperative (and technically solitaire-capable) board game about confronting the unknown, very nearly dying, and then — here’s the important part — rather than taming these wild shores you’ve washed up on, entering into symbiosis with them. There’s not a sentry turret or auto-rifle in sight.
Dan Bullock caught my attention with No Motherland Without, an examination of national security bogeyman North Korea that was simultaneously thoughtful, gut-wrenching, and possibly the reddest board game ever inked. What impressed me was Bullock’s insistence on making you stare the victims of your geopoliticking in the face. Rather than seeing its people as geography, crowds, or spy-plane images, here was a game that put its humans front and center as elites, escapees, refugees, and prisoners.
Bullock’s 1979: Revolution in Iran is similarly thoughtful. This time, his target is the barbed nature of political allegiance, temporary allies, and changing leadership.
There was no bias against edutainment in my childhood home. PBS for social development and science, Math Blaster for numbers, Calvin & Hobbes for vocabulary and penmanship. Everything had the potential for learning.
John Coveyou and Steve Schlepphorst’s Cellulose: A Plant Cell Biology Game is, as you’ve already deduced from the title, meant to educate. As a game it’s barely there, a circa-Lords of Waterdeep worker placement gig without the variability or escalation. That almost goes without saying. More immediately, though, it has me wondering what we mean when we say a game can be educational — and whether there’s a better way to go about it.
Michal Vitkovsky’s Shiver Me Timbers is a sandbox pirate game. To answer your question, yes, it’s similar to Christian Marcussen’s sandbox pirate game Merchants & Marauders. In more ways than one. Both see you helming your very own pirate ship, unashamedly trace their genealogy back to Sid Meier’s Pirates!, and, since Board Game Geek is basically a dating app for board games, they both catfish you into expecting a two-hour playtime when really you’ll be stuck at the table for four. Tsk tsk.
But even though the parallels are difficult to avoid, this isn’t a comparative review. Shiver Me Timbers is more interesting for the ways it stands apart.
James Naylor’s Magnate: The First City is an ambitious opening act, a fact only made more appropriate by its wicked irony. In my preview, I compared it to Monopoly. Plastic buildings, paper money, rents, dice. They even share a setting, focused as they are on unregulated property development. It’s almost as though the entire real estate industry is so shot through with corruption and profiteering that its only natural gamification is get-rich-quick fantasies.
Unlike Monopoly, though, Magnate’s satirical perspective hasn’t been neutered by corporate plagiarism. Instead, it rushes toward a single inexorable conclusion. This will undoubtedly be the game’s most controversial aspect, but to strip it away would be to remove the whole reason Magnate works, both as a plaything and as a statement.
I’m speaking, of course, about that game-ending housing crash.
What’s a dungeon without a rack of swords? The odd pile of bones? A tasteful corridor-obstructing sheet of cobwebs? In Jeff LaFlam’s Dungeon Decorators, probably not very many points. Depending on which scoring card you’ve drawn, that is.
The latest trend in puzzle games is to tinker with communication. More properly, limitations on communication. The Mind, The Shipwreck Arcana, Codenames — the last few years have offered plenty of supernal examples. Have the player identify an island in a sea of noise, give them a way to provide limited glimpses of that island to their fellows, and then tell them to shut up. There you go. Puzzle game.
Ben Goldman’s Paint the Roses works in that same space, but according to a rhythm that feels more naturalistic and less constrained than its peers. Behind its pleasing Alice in Wonderland veneer, it just might be one of the finest limited communication games I’ve played.
Everything about Ruination, the post-apocalyptic game of feuding post-apocalyptic maniacs by Travis R. Chance, screams in neon color squiggles that it would be the perfect eccoprotic for a trashy mood. Vibrant colors, thick miniatures, dice. Dice for days. Dice for miles of dusty motorbike trails. This is what the warboys play when Max Rockatansky isn’t helping Imperator Furiosa steal their rigs and breeders.
So why has Ruination left me colder than the wasteland after dark? Witness me as I try to explain.
One of the oft-unacknowledged talents of designer John Clowdus is his ability to evoke a complete world in the most compact format possible. I’m not only talking about Omen: A Reign of War, although my affection for that card game has been documented and documented again. Clowdus is also responsible for the messy prehistory of Neolithic, the undying carnival that is Hemloch, the collapsing Bronze Age, and, more recently, the chilly The North. His games are transportations in miniature, showing a cross-section of a world that stretches far beyond the limitations of the small boxes he crams them into.
The same is true of Dirge: The Rust Wars. Returning to Aaron Nakahara’s dilapidated style from The North — with additional contributions by Liz Lahner of Bronze Age — Dirge evokes biomechanical vultures picking over the last scraps of bone in a world that’s fallen apart and won’t be put back together again.