December 2, 2016

Smorgasbord: Good Things in Small Packages

Recently, my gaming and design interests are gravitating towards “smaller” games. They might be physically smaller games or have more condensed, less sprawling gameplay - or some combination of the two. Part of this is no doubt driven by time. Getting together with a big group of people for an extended gaming session is a challenged endeavor. And so I’ve turned more towards games that I can play on a more casual or spontaneous basis, particularly among my immediate and extended family circles. These tend to be games that are quick to setup, straightforward enough that a 6- or 7-year old could stumble through, and yet which still have some appealing “hook” that gets people wanting to play.

In looking back, I realize these “what I’ve played” posts that were supposed to be monthly or quarterly thing are more like a yearly thing. Ah well - that just means there is more to walk about! So anyway, over the past year, here’s a little run down of what I’ve been playing - along with some other stuff thrown in for good measure!

Stuff played

I mentioned The Grizzled in my last post - which if you haven’t heard is a fantastic little cooperative game for 2-5 players. It’s about surviving in the trenches of WW1. The game does an amazing job transcending the war theme and being a more genuine cooperative tale. Paradoxically for a wargame, this isn’t about shooting at enemy troops, in fact there is no shooting at all. I’m surprised at how well this game has resonated with people, especially among non-gamers.

During the summer my family and extended family went to visit Hocking Hills area in Ohio - which has some fantastic (although short) hikes through some surprisingly rocky terrain. Lots of waterfalls and canyons to explore, and pretty kid friendly (most hikes are less than two miles). While we did the tent camping thing for most of our stay, we did spend one night at Ravenswood Castle, which was right there! Pretty cool spot.

Long story short, they had the new version of Odin’s Ravens in their game library. Interestingly, Odin’s Ravens was one of the first games I remember reading about here on BGG - but it was already hard to find and so I never had a chance to play it. Until now. Needless to say, it’s a great (quick) little race game - and after playing it at Ravenswood I knew I had to grab a copy (which I did). My wife and I have fun playing it. It isn’t too big of a brain burner but there is, nontheless, nuance and strategy involved in managing your special Loki cards. Nice production too.

Also on heavy rotation during our Hocking Hills trip (and since) is Sushi Go. You’ve probably already played this one and formed an opinion - but it’s a perfectly nice little drafting game. Good for the kiddies and passing cards around in-between sips of <insert beverage of choice>. I can’t say it is my favorite - as it is quite a minimal and random game. For my money, I’d rather play something like Keep, which is just a tad more involved but has a considerably more interesting decision space.

One of the games that has seen the most play with my kids (even the 2.5 year old - in a more limited manner) is Sea of Clouds. This is a pool drafting game (e.g. players draft cards out of a common pool in the middle instead of passing around hands of cards). I think this one is just fantastic - and hits all the checkboxes of something like 7 Wonders but in a more accessible and less tedious package. I like how the big pirate battles wipe your stock pirates clean after each one, allowing players to rebuild their offense on equal footing a few times during the game. We play with semi-open cards in the middle (once a player looks at a card, it stays flipped over) so that I can help the kids with the text. But even with adults we’ve taken to playing this way because it makes the turns progress much faster as you can plan your moves better. Anyway, I really enjoy this one.

A game we didn’t enjoy was much is Welcome to the Dungeon. This is a sort of group-based press your luck game. I’ve only tried it with the kids (and my nephews) and they had a hard time rationalizing that we (the players) were all bidding on the chances of ONE hero to survive (or not). It just didn’t click - and so we made up our own version that I like even more.

In our version of Welcome to the Dungeon, each player takes their own hero. On your turn you can draw a monster card and either add to a line/sequence in the middle, discard a piece of your own equipment, or “pass” for the round. When all players pass, all the heroes enter and each have to face each monster in the line. The player that survives (if only one does), or lasts the longest wins. In the case of a tie, the player that put in the most monsters and discard the most of their own equipment wins. It’s pretty slick. Of course, it also isn’t really balanced very well as some heroes seem much stronger than others (ahem, rogue) - so we just rotate the characters around each round.

The next chapter in this tale relates to my desire to find a game that my 5-year old would enjoy (engaging theme, not too complex) but that would still be fun for adults. I kept drifting back to Witch's Brew - which was another game I read about early on in my BGG days. Alas, it was already out of print and hard to find - so I never played it.

But then comes Broom Service, which is a kinda-sorta a reboot. I was really looking to find a game for my daughter with a proper board that shows some geography, so this seemed like a great fit. I considered a few others at the time (Elfenroads, The Witches, Via Nebula) but settled on Broom Service. I haven’t regretted the choice at all. My daughter loves it, and she does a pretty great job selecting role cards for the round. I thought the action programming was going to be way beyond her, but she really does a good job with it.

Over the last couple of months I’ve been rounding up my large man-friends for an evening of face-to-face gaming, and Broom Service made an great showing. There’s something amazing about watching your buddies exclaim “I am the brave Hill Witch!” as they look timidly around the table to see if anyone will yank the rug out from under them. Overall, it’s a fairly chaotic game - and so the skill comes from making lots of contingency plans and having cards that you can make the best of regardless of how they fall. This was a Kennerspiel winner for good reason.

But back to Witch’s Brew. I still wanted to try that game, if only to see how it was different. And so I crafted myself a rather fine copy indeed. Turns out my daughter loves that one too, and we’ve now been rotating between the two games. The dynamics are certainly different - even if on paper the central mechanic looks similar. They’re both great games and I’m happy to have them.

Speaking of dudes night in, there is another game which I thought would be fantastic for the group, and which is another game I’ve been eyeballing for 5+years: Red November. This is a game about drunken Gnomes on a sinking Russian submarine, trying to survive long enough to be rescued while making sure the nuclear warheads aren’t accidentally launched. Perfect.

Red November pretty much solidifies Bruna Faidutti as one of my favorite designers (Citadels, Mascarade are favorites). It is one of those games where, despite some rather fiddly seeming mechanics at first, the gameplay flows smoothly and logically when you start playing. It’s a clever case where you have to use the environment (along with it’s many calamities) to manage your situation. Of course opening a door between high water and no water compartments equalizes the water (and optionally puts out fires). I love that the game can end with any possible combination of players winning and losing. No one can win, one can win, some can win, and all can win. Pretty slick!

Another game featured at a recent mustering of men was Lords of Scotland, which indeed features lots of mustering. More spectacularly, this game was given to me by my 88-year old scottish neighbor who plays the bagpipes and whose interior walls are completely covered in plaid wallpaper. After a few wee drams at his house I spied this game half buried under a stack of Terry Pratchett and scottish history books. I asked about it he said: “you take it - I’ll never play the damn thing.” Well, we played it and it’s a pretty interesting game - if a little long in the tooth with four players. The game doesn’t sugar coat anything, if you aren’t paying attention to what you’re doing you will lose hard. I like these sort of games, and overall the crew enjoyed it.

Last up, is a bit of solo gaming. After having it on my shelf for a long while, I finally learned how to play Friday earlier this year. This game is a blast. Definitely challenging and there is an appreciable skill curve to claw your way up. The theming is great as well. If you’re looking for a nice solo game in a small box, you can hardly go wrong with this.

Stuff still to play

Speaking of Bruno Faidutti, I traded for a 1st edition version of Mission: Red Planet. Guess what? This is ANOTHER game I saw early on in my BGG days that I always wanted to try. I’m one step closer to that goal, as I now own the thing - but I haven’t yet managed to play it. Looks to be a pretty solid and interesting game.

Speaking of trades, I’m also due to receive a copy of King Chocolate. I don’t really know why I want this game (well, a bunch geek buddies said it was good). Rumor has it that it is a sort of shared production-economy game in the same vein as Container, but a little different (maybe better?). I guess we’ll find out!

Speaking of finding things and out, and also speaking of older games I saw but never played, a certain special someone might (or might not) be receiving a copy of Ameritrash tour-de-force Runewars for the holidays. I have no idea why I want this game other than that is has 100’s of plastic figures, big fantasy hexes, and a pile of tokens. Actually - the game looks and sounds pretty slick, and I’m hoping to foist the monster upon man club at the first opportunity. Also - even though it’s totally beyond my 6-year to play properly, I figure we can fun with all the components and even setup some little cooperate scenarios to play through. Heck, there are enough components in the box to make up about a dozen of your own games if you wanted to.

Speaking of games that aren’t Runewars, I also have Arboretum sitting on the shelf. This looks great and I need to play it. Sort of a cross between Lost Cities and Golf (the traditional card game) is the closest I can describe it. Maybe? I like trees - so there is that.


Speaking of something totally different, I also recently re-acquired a copy of Key to the Kingdom. Like a moron, I sold this game in a garage sale a few years back, right around the time some youtuber made a video raving about the game (which admittedly isn’t a very good game), a video that has currently over 1.2 million views. Yeah - so there was some crazy “gotta have it” vibe and the game was ludo-expensive for a while. Like a dolt, I didn’t realize it would be a great kids game - go figure! Anyway, I finally tracked down a used (but complete!) copy for a good price. It’s awaiting its moment to shine again over the holidays.

Stuff I’m watching

There is, as always, plenty of stuff on the radar. First up is Near and Far. I’m a big fan of Red Raven Games - although that mainly is an appreciation for all that Ryan has built on his own, his amazing art, and his interesting design ideas. I’ve only played Eight Minute Empire: Legends of his - so it’s hard to call me a big fan.

But in anycase, I kickstarted Near & Far and can’t wait for it’s arrival sometime… sometime way off in the future. I’ve been tinkering around with a narrative, cooperative sandbox game of my own design, and while Near & Far isn’t anything like it, there are certain similarities and I’m keen to see how the game works. Plus, I gotta love his artwork.

Along similar lines, I’m also watching The 7th Continent and its development progress. I didn’t back this one, and hopefully sometime it will come to retail. It’s a pretty amazing and ambitious design concept with a staggering amount of stuff packed in. I find the design space between this one and Near & Far to be pretty interesting.

Other games I’m watching, as possible kid-friendly candidates, include Via Nebula and Celestia. The former is a Wallace game that kinda-sorta looks like a train game but simplified in lots of ways. Celestia is an interesting sounding remake of Cloud 9, and is a press your luck style game with a pretty cool artistic vibe.

Then there is Tiny Epic Galaxies. I haven’t really hopped on the Tiny Epic <your favorite thing in the world> train yet, but this one sounds like a good one to try. I like small game boxes, and I like space. So this sounds great. Kudos for a solo mode (?).

Laaaaassstly, I’ve been sweating over Handful of Stars. I don’t own any games by Mr. Wallace - and it seems like this would be a great one to dig into. It’s currently in pre-pre-order phase (yes, before pre-orders), whatever that means. The game is a continuation / culmination of the A Few Acres of Snow and Mythotopia lineage, and early reports from Essen sound promising. But gosh it’ll be expensive. I’m watching this one… closely.

Digital stuff

I’ve continued to be heavily involved as a writer over at eXplorminate, which in part explains my less frequent posting here. There is only so much time dang it! Anyway, I’ve had a chance to play some interesting games over the past year, and I wanted to highlight a few of them here.

Stellaris was one of the big 4X game releases this year (along with the new Master of Orion game and Civilization 6, neither of which I’ve played). Stellaris is from Paradox Studios and was to be a grand unification of 4X and Grand Strategy game - although it is far closer to the former IMHO. The official eXporminate review was really glowing - but I wasn’t nearly as enamored with it. Six months and three big patches later, I wrote up a Stellaris reeXamination (hot off the press). The TLDR version is that I still think the game has a ways to go.

Halcyon 6 is another matter. This quirky, pixel-art infused game looks like a mashup of XCOM, FTL, Roguelikes, and Star Trek. It both is and isn’t anything like those games - somehow becoming its own intractable beast in the process. I rather like the game - it’s the sort of thing you can just kind of veg-out on and hang on for the ride.

Another pixel art wonder that I have access to (currently closed beta) is Children of Morta. This could become one of my favorite game. At present it’s only about ¼ way developed content wise, but it’s an amazing ride so far. The best pixel art I’ve ever scene, amazing action RPG controls (think Diablo but more hands on), progressive roguelike gameplay, and a totally engrossing and touching narrative. I can’t wait for this to be finished.

Let’s stay on the pixel are kick for a moment. Another one is Kingdom, and it’s follow-up Kingdom: New Lands. These are a sort of side-scrolling tower defense puzzle game. You are the King or Queen of a new kingdom and just ride around your horse collecting coins and using coins to entice workers to do certain things (make bows, build walls, construct farms, etc.). It’s sorta like a god-game in that regard. It’s a simple game mechanically, and very much a puzzle optimization thing - but it’s gorgeous at the same time.

Next, and maybe a little closer to home for tabletop gamers is Total War: Warhammer. This is the Warhammer Fantasy (Games Workshop) themed version of the long-running Total War series. It’s quite a magnificent game to be be honest. It’s been a long time since I played a TW game and I was rather surprised at how in depth and impactful the turn-based strategic layer is. You really can play this as a grand strategy game and just auto-resolve all the battles if those aren’t your thing. Of course, the battles ARE pretty freaking glorious, so you’d be missing out on a major selling point of the game if ignore them. Pretty solid game.

Last is Blizzard’s team-shooter Overwatch. This has kinda-sorta taken over most of my gaming time. One reason is that it’s the first game in a long while that all my close friends are playing - it’s sorta like the band got back together to jam out on Overwatch. So that is a huge part of the appeal. But it’s all a really excellent game, assuming you like team shooters like Team Fortress 2. Teamplay and coordination is the deciding factor more than anything in the game - although there is a high individual skill ceiling as well. I usually don’t get into the lore and backstories for games like this, but Blizzard really nailed it in my opinion. If you want to learn a little more about the gameworld, check out the animated shorts. Blizzard, as always, are masters of game cinematics. Here's the older trailer:

Stuff rolls on…

Alright folks, that’s it! Let me know if anything above sparked your fancy or if you have some thoughts to share. Cheers!


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