Today on my monthly-ish feature about the games that still have a spot on my shelf despite the passage of years, we’re talking about Space Alert, the most stressful game that I’ll argue against playing before somehow acquiescing and playing anyway, blood pressure be damned. This is Yesteryear.
To this day, Vlaada Chvátil’s Space Alert remains the only game I’ve ever created an accessory for. I’m not talking a Plano box for keeping pieces sorted or an extra pack of dice so you don’t have to share the same set. Instead, I’m talking about a custom T-shirt, designed to look like a captain’s uniform complete with Space Alert logo and everything.
See, my family growing up was never much into games—
ALERT. ENEMY ACTIVITY DETECTED. PLEASE BEGIN FIRST PHASE.
Last week I talked about a Vlaada Chvátil game called That’s a Question!, arguing that it was pleasant enough, particularly in family or get-to-know-you settings, but didn’t exactly rock my socks off. In part because it didn’t feel like much of an innovation from one of our hobby’s most renowned innovators.
Well, today I’m going to tell you about Codenames Duet, which right there in its title announces itself as a new take on the living classic Codenames. But here’s the thing — in addition to being a testament to why our hobby thrives on iterative design, it just might be one of my favorite Chvátil games.
Here’s a question for you. Which would you miss more if it ceased to exist: Vlaada Chvátil designing light party-style games or Vlaada Chvátil designing overly complicated games?
If you’re anything like me, there’s no contest between Codenames and Space Alert, though I’d still miss the former if it disappeared from the face of the Earth all the same. If you guessed that would be my answer, you get a point. If not, the guy who asked me the question gets a point.
There you go. I just summed up Chvátil’s latest, That’s a Question!
Just last month, if you were to tell me that Vlaada Chvátil was making a party game, I’d laugh you out of the room. I mean, I’d finish choking on my chocolate milk first, but then I’d laugh you out of the room.
Why? Well, because party games are about simplicity. About getting everyone involved, even when they aren’t particularly into games. They’re about appealing to both your hardcore enthusiast brother-in-law and your grandma who hasn’t played a board game since the winter of ’47 when her little brother froze to death because he wouldn’t stop playing checkers under the porch.
Vlaada Chvátil, on the other hand — and this is what I would have told you a month ago — is about convoluted designs that glow with the uncanny brilliance of an insane person. People don’t play Space Alert, Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends, Mage Knight, or Galaxy Trucker because they’re simple. They play them because they’re bonkers.
But that was the me of a month ago. Today I have been humbled, because I can’t stop playing Vlaada Chvátil’s version of a party game.
Not that I’m speaking from personal experience or anything, but I’m convinced abstract games are among the toughest to design. Your mechanics and rules have to be razor sharp, you’ll imbue it with whatever scrap of theme you can manage, wrap it up to look pretty even though some will complain about how it’s “just a board and some pieces,” and then sit back to endure the inevitable goofballs wailing about how they don’t get it.
Now and then though, you’ll get something amazing. In this case, that something is Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends, the latest from famed designer Vlaada Chvátil, and it’s a monumental achievement of abstract gaming.
There’s this card game from Steve Jackson Games called Ninja Burger. It’s supposed to be hilarious. I really don’t see it.
This is more a problem with humor in board games than just with this game itself — it’s hard to make a funny board game, especially one that will be funny even after you’ve become familiar with its mechanics and pieces. More on that below.
Okay, so we’ve talked about how on the first day, the Mage Knights popped out of that portal of theirs and started putting on all sorts of magic shows, and on the second they figured out where the Red City was hiding, and began laying plans to take it by force. You know this story ends with the corrupt City falling, but I’ll reckon you couldn’t guess how. Even if you could, you couldn’t stop me from telling it.
Alright, now where were we? Ah, right, so last time Goldyx and Tovak, Mage Knights both, spent a day and a night conquering a path across the countryside, bringing down warbands of orcs and fortified strongholds with equal ease. I’ve told you that they’re the ones that brought our Red City’s corrupt penny-squeezers to heel, and in only three days too. Well, I reckon I’ll tell you about their second day. It’s the one that some folks like to jaw about when they say the Mage Knights aren’t so heroic as we’ve been told, but don’t let anyone hear you talk like that. And anyway, it’s true that they did some pillaging and burning, but there’s a reason for all that.
Ever heard of a Mage Knight? No? For shame. It was a pair of Mage Knights that fought against the dragons and orcs and corrupt burro-crats that were running this country into the mud. Only took them three days to do it, too.
Ah yes, looks like you’re remembering now. Only three days and three nights, and they went from Mage Knight rookies to veterans with the powers of the gods themselves—I’m talking about the power to melt walls sixty feet high, to bring an elder dragon crashing out of the sky without dripping a single bead of sweat, to command loyalty that kings could only fantasize about. Settle in and I’ll refresh that fogged-up memory of yours. It’s the least I can do—after all, that pair did me a good turn by bringing the Red City to its knees.