It’s madness that Wonderland’s War works as well as it does. Codesigned by Tim Eisner, Ben Eisner, and Ian Moss, the description is a mishmash of play verbs and unnecessary plastic minis. An area-control bag-building press-your-luck rondel-drafting wagering game? Leave the sequence adjectives to the professionals, honey.
The avalanche works in part because of the game’s setting. Lewis Carroll’s madhouse world is as zany and starkly drawn as ever, and only made slightly more madcap by the world war currently scouring its environs. The other part is more to the credit of its design team: it’s rare to be treated to a game quite this funny.
Talking About Games: Excavating Memory
There’s a phrase we use in English, one meant to strike upon its hearer the importance of a topic or the need to keep an atrocity close at heart for fear of its repetition. You’ve heard it before, cast in somber and memorializing tones: “Lest we forget.” The irony, of course, is that we’re a fastidiously forgetful species. We forget things all the time. As a defense mechanism, forgetfulness is unrivaled. In the rare occasion that we don’t forget, we do our damnedest to afflict ourselves with collective amnesia. Lest we recall.
John Clowdus’s history trilogy plays like variations on a theme. Its three titles, Neolithic, Bronze Age, and The Middle Ages, are mechanically similar. They’re all about excavating cards from a deck and then using those cards to build toward a brighter future.
They also express something deeper: cultural memory, in all its complexity and simplicity.
When I contemplate Haakon Gaarder’s Villagers, its defining characteristic is its “light touch,” a careful avoidance of going too far with its complexity or authorial intrusion. Instead, it employs sparing strokes: a few abilities, sparse rules, a shared social space that made immediate sense to everyone involved.
Streets is a follow-up to Villagers in more ways than one. And it could have used a heavier touch.
It Takes a Village(rs)
One of the joys of board games is watching how the same system can be used in radically different ways, and in the process produce entirely different moods. Take Haakon Gaarder’s Villagers as a prime example. I’ve played more drafting and tableau-building games than I’d dare guess at, but none of them felt quite like this.
Multiplayer solitaire gets a bad rap. Some folks use the phrase as an insult. But the truth is that sometimes I want to interact with my friends directly and other times I want to sit alongside them, maybe chatting, maybe sharing snacks, while playing in parallel without the pressures of competition.
Cascadia, designed by Randy Flynn and beautifully illustrated by Beth Sobel, is multiplayer solitaire to its core. So much so that its best descriptor is “sleepy.” And not necessarily in a bad way.
I never wanted to be an astronaut. Jeff Beck and Jeff Krause’s Intrepid provides a detailed explanation why. Trapped in an aluminum can that’s only staying up because it’s falling one direction faster than it’s falling the other, rubbing shoulders with people who smell like old socks, flicking away nuggets that weren’t properly vacuumed up during your last poop — yeah, living the dream. Have at it, Bezos.
While Intrepid doesn’t cover the mundane events of an astronaut’s daily existence, it does emphasize the biggest problem with living aboard the International Space Station. At any given moment, outer space might decide to murder you.
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.
And Iran, Iran So Far Away
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.
All Shiver, No Timber
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.