by Sean Franco
This has been a solid month of gaming for me. Coming off of the high of Geekway Mini
, I've been playing with my weekly meetup, on BGA, and at a big weekend game. I'm at peak board game saturation since before the pandemic. The weather has been turning here prematurely, with a sledding weekend with my daughter one weekend and short sleeves in warm weather just a few weeks later. This is definitely not a normal February, which I guess is appropriate for a leap year. Speaking of which, yesterday was the sixtieth anniversary of the broadcast of "The Singing Sands," episode 4 of the Doctor Who
story Marco Polo
. The was the first and likely only episode of the show to ever be broadcast on 29 February. But enough about broadcast media that has since been destroyed; let's do the numbers.
I was able to play through the entire My City campaign, all twenty-four games, over the past month with my friend Dave on BGA. So spoiler-free stuff and then spoiler stuff.
If you're hoping for a good tile-laying/polyomino game, Reiner Knizia
knows how to make a damn good one. The decision space is rich, with plenty of risks for preparing for what might come out and in what order. Good plays aren't always intuitive, but scoring was fairly simple (even in later chapters), so assessing choices was not too challenging. The game utilizes its legacy nature well from the narrative standpoint, as you do feel the way that the city can develop over time makes sense and builds on what comes before. Finally for the spoiler-free bit, the BGA implementation is excellent. The UI is simple and intuitive, and there's not an overwhelming glut of information or actions. So if you want to play this game, BGA is a great way to do it, although this is a premium game currently.
[o]One note here is that we did go fully spoiler-free throughout the game; we never even read the rules for future episodes in the current chapter. So literally every game was a new surprise. The game does a great job on building on previous themes. Having a simple tile-laying game immediately jump into blobbing colors in the second episode really helps with onboarding, and from there, nothing ever gets too complex. There were real agonizing rules introduced, like when the flood cut off a whole half of the board, but these were actually really fun to try to deal with. I was constantly tripped up with the gold rush, since it took me a while to pivot from blobbing to selective blobbing while stretch across the board. The mines I actually like quite a bit, as well as the investor; both made it much trickier to set up future turns, but again in a rewarding way. The only real miss for me was the train system, which seemed to reward disproportionately whoever gets there first without allowing for catch-up on the train tracks. The gold rush dealt featured this minimally, but the trains really leaned into it more than I would have liked. But this is a minor quibble, and one that I think I could better prepare for if I played the campaign again. Speaking of which, I think this probably is a very replayable campaign. Where it would lose surprise, it would gain strategic depth, assuming both or all players had already played it. So maybe I'll look into doing this again sometime down the road.[/o] In conclusion, and again spoiler-free, I thought this was great. I won several episodes of the campaign but lost the overall game, and I still think this was well worth it. It's not persuaded me to try more legacy games, but I can still recommend this one without reservation.
I wasn't a huge fan of my first play of Wingspan
. It was a perfectly fine and inoffensive game that eased you into engine building, but it was ultimately a spectacular production more than a spectacular experience. With this bias firmly in hand, I opted to join a five-player game of Wyrmspan. Off the bat, I was manipulated by the cheap shot: I like dragons more than I like birds, especially in ludological contexts. So despite lacking the constant scientific marginalia of its ornithological predecessor, the card art and the process of exploring caves immediately spoke to me more on a thematic level. From there, I think my praise kinda tapers off. I don't see Wyrmspan successfully recruiting Wingspan-haters into its fandom. I'm not wholly opposed to playing again, although I definitely won't play at five again; increased player counts seem to only increase downtown with no visible benefit, especially since the game has only the lightest graze of interaction. It was fine.
Onward on my trek for more trick-takers, we played my new copy of Inflation! There are some novel things going on here. First, ranks and suits are the same, so that say all 7s are the same suit and no other number is the same suit as any 7s. There's also a triangular spread in the deck construction, with one 1, two 2s, three 3s, and so forth up to ten 10s. But most amazingly is that cards stay in front of players after each trick, building on all previous cards. So if I play an 8 in the first trick and a 6 in the second trick, the cards are splayed to create 68. Led suits must be followed but are not required when determining who wins the trick; this is purely who has the highest gestalt number in front of them. Over the course of twelve tricks, the numbers become increasingly and hilariously large through the titular inflation. This is possibly the first trick-taking game that I have done well with bidding. I really like this game and can't wait to play more.
I was recruited to play my fifth
18xx game. It was pitched to me as 1830
in almost every way except faster and with a tighter board. This was basically an accurate brief. We played with four players: two veterans, my novice self, and someone who had never played 18xx before. I had my usual folly, namely that despite being keenly aware of the Big Rusting Event™ approaching, I was not able to weather it well. This is a huge part of 18xx (and Dual Gauge
, but I'm for some reason more able to easily absorb the impact of it in Dual Gauge due to how trains are purchased through share value instead of cash), but I have problems with it every time. This is just something that will keep happening until I have the experience to deal with it, which will probably require me to play these games more than once or twice a year. I still had a good experience (hell, I drove ninety minutes there and ninety minutes home to play, so it better have been good), and it was by far the fanciest priority deal token I've ever seen.
Another new to us trick-taker is Charms. Charms, like Inflation!, leaves played cards in front of you after each trick. This is because ranks and suits are on different cards. You have a pile of each in front of you at all times, and you can only play a card into one of those pile during most tricks. This makes following the led suit very weird. The bidding in this game care more about precision than volume, much like Sluff Off!
, especially since all points are bad and the best score for hands and the game overall is 0. I'm really enjoying this one too.
That's Not a Hat
I've heard a lot about this on So Very Wrong About Games
but hadn't quite grasped the way that cards get passed. Fortunately, the game took but a minute to be taught to us. There were people sweating this game hard when we played. I was more chill about it. I specifically ignored most of the information in the game, focusing main on only my immediate neighbors. I liked this, and I certainly liked it more than other memory-based party games, like Déjà Vu
This was pulled out at the end of a meetup. It's an auction game themed around taking control of different world nations, with the bidding done with randomly drawn hands of cards. Card draw isn't frequent, so often it's best to not participate in that round's auction just to bank a better hand, much like in Taj Mahal
. That comparison is the nicest thing I can say about the game. The auctions were both boring and arbitrary. The graphic design was abrasive and unwieldy. The game drug on way too long. I'm all for independent and small print run publishers, but this was excessively not for me.
As noted earlier, I've been getting back into BGA. On a whim, I opened an asynch game of Cribbage. Or at least, I assumed that I opened a game. It turns out that I opened a best-of-seven game, so the games went on longer than I expected. Still, we didn't play all seven as I won 4-1, with the final game being a skunk victory. I wish I played Cribbage more.
Deep Sea Adventure
I taught this to three new players, one of whom had just gotten the game and wanted to know how to play so she could teach her family. I try to play someone conservatively in this game, and I still died in the first two rounds. I had a huge haul on the third round though, which was enough to secure a win against the only other player who had ever survived a single round. Always a good time.
+ Rising Sun
A friend at our weekly meetups is a huge Dominion
fan, probably the most ardent fan of the game that I met in real life. I pitched him on this game, saying that it was Dominion with a board. He was immediately interested. The teach was trivial, since it really is like 90% of the same DNA, down to the Normal Train, Express Train, and Limited Express Train having the exact same costs and values as Copper, Silver, and Gold in Dominion. I pulled out a strong win here. Trains has been popular in this shop, so I see myself bring it back regularly.
There's someone at the shop who likes social deduction, so I brought this game to specifically play with them. It's a fast playing social deduction game that plays well at low player counts, so it's ideal for the setting we were in. We played three times, with four for two games and six for the final game. I won twice, one in the gang and once as the scapegoat. I then lost the six-player game as the scapegoat, being completely oblivious and fairly convinced that the target I saw was the actual patsy. This game works incredibly well.
We played this with four, all but me being new to the game. About a third of the way through the game, it suddenly and visibly clicked for everyone. The rhythm of the game, building and rebuilding your discard pile, can take a minute, but everyone had it figured out by the middle of the game. The shared infrastructure also took time to get used to, especially with several of the big scoring cards lingering at the top of the future market for most of the game and then suddenly having emerging relevance. One of the new players said that he wanted to play it again immediately when we were done (and we were only halfway through at that point), but the game ran longer than it usually does, so we didn't have time to just run it back. But that's always a good sign.
Played this at the end of a game night. I put OOZE for the words JOKE and SYRUP, which was basically my only terribly clever clue.
I got a play of this in on BGA with my friend Nate. Never got above two handshakes in any given expedition, but I was able to pull off a victory, 181-53.
Welcome to Centerville
I taught this to three new players. When two of them started checking prices online to get their own copies of the game after just a few turns, I feel like this was categorically a success. I neglected vocations for the whole game, pulling only a single retail tile. I also fell behind in city buildings by the end of the game, leaning too much into having three park benches. I went strong into greenbelt and river spaces, as well as political offices. My legacy tile was actually for offices, so I finished the game getting a ton of points there. Another legacy was for greenbelt, which I was also leading, despite the only disaster drawn in the game hitting the greenbelt. But I got hit in the two city quadrants that were the other two legacy tiles, and I wound up losing the game by a single point. This was a hit. I've been meaning to play this for the past six months; it's been living in my meetup bag and not on my shelf ever since I started going to this meetup last year. I don't think I can squeeze Urban Sprawl
into a meetup night, but I want to play that again soon.
I got a play of this in on BGA with my friend Nate. Like most of my recent games of Innovation, I lost on the turn before I was going to win with Collaboration when Nate drew from deck 11 with a higher score pile. Which at least means hurrah for being so evenly matched with people, but also means boo for not being able to secure the bag.
I'm treating these as a bulk lot, since that's how they arrived from New Mill
. The story of their delivery is something. They were shipped from Brooklyn, then traveled to Queens, then to St. Louis, which is here is my state. They were supposed to arrive the next day. But then they went to North Platte, Nebraska. I've not even been to Nebraska, largely out of resentment from when Mizzou and Nebraska were both in the Big 8/Big XII. From there, my games went back to St. Louis, then finally out here to Columbia. But they're here now and they're great.
Gearworld: The Borderlands
I was browsing games on sale at Miniature Market and found Gearworld for $12. I tend to like this era of Fantasy Flight
's output, and I also like Cosmic Encounter
, the other two titles from EON
that I've played. So with no experience with Borderlands
(and despite the fact that it's just now been re-released as Arrakis: Dawn of the Fremen
), I'm happy to pick this up.
Top 5: Two-Player Games Not Designed for Just Two Players
This month, I'm looking at games to play with two. But all of these games can be played with more than two player if you want. Maybe even up to eight players! But despite this flexibility, they play well (or even best) with just two players.
5. Arkham Horror
I have once played this game with the full eight players. Never again, I said. But I was able to play this several times at two players, which really is ideal. There are enough tasks in different places that you can split the board efficiently, often with one player going through gates and one player going monster hunting, swapping when necessary. There's a nice rhythm to the game with two players that minimizes downtime and keeps you engaged by virtue of its coöperative nature.
4. Theseus: The Dark Orbit
First, I feel like this Mancala
/squad combat game is underappreciated. There are some really neat mechanics going on with the way that movement, card play, and fighting goes on. And a lot of those neat and fun innovations lose their luster with more than two players. One of the weirder twists on the multiplayer game is that instead of a damaged player losing life during combat, the attacking player gains damage dealt. It functions, but it's not as fun as with just two-players, and it's certainly not as thematic.
I'm not opposed to playing Innovation with three or four players, but I will agree that the game is significantly better as a duel. It makes comparing symbols much simpler both strategically and from a gameplay use perspective. The demands are far less swingy and the decks don't empty as quickly, which leads to a better tempo.
2. Can't Stop
Much like Innovation, I'm happy to play this with three or four but I like how it plays as a duel. However, I will restrict this to a competitive setting. Two-player Can't Stop thrives with low-down time and simple dichotomy of column results. With three or four, this is fun as asynch or a drinking activity, but that's not always how I want to experience it.
1. Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization
The reoccurring chorus of this list has basically been, "this game is staggeringly fun as long as the downtime is low." There is no better model for such a statement as Through the Ages. There is an epic swell to the games arc when played with three or four, but it takes forever. The game is also plenty vicious with two, with hate drafting, aggressions, and wars working better without the "A and B fight so that C can win" dynamics. It also just makes it easier to get this civ gem to the table when I don't have to arrange it with more than one player.
I read Obama and the Empire
by Fidel Castro. This is a fixup of a series of “Reflections” by Castro, articles that he published after leaving the presidency in 2008. Castro’s exit from power coincided with the rise of Barack Obama as a candidate, nominee, and president. This book gathers Castro’s contemporaneous public thoughts on Obama, his policies, and his impact on the world. Initially, Castro expresses strong admiration for Obama, noting that he was quite intelligent and well-spoken compared to his immediate predecessor George W. Bush, someone who Castro has no shortage of poor opinions on. Castro also emphasizes throughout the book that one of Obama’s greatest accomplishments is managing to get elected in a country as extremely racist as America. (America being racist is seriously mentioned frequently, and without ambiguity.) However, Castro quickly begins to focus on the contradictions of Obama, starting his progressive campaign promises clashing with his conservative policies. The books runs from the early Obama campaign in 2008 through the assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011, responding mostly to speeches domestic and abroad, as well as numerous diplomatic meetings.
Castro is a compelling writer (although I will note that this is in translation). Sometimes he simply presents with journalist objectivity, but often he delivers fierce criticism based on his own experience as a world leader for over five decades. Interestingly, one of the issues that he is most passionate about (and that he admonishes Obama about frequently) is climate change and ecology. This makes sense as someone on an island nation, but he does provide a broader global perspective that shows that his interest isn’t merely a personal one. It’s almost demoralizing to read his warnings about climate change from almost fifteen years ago while noting that virtually nothing has changed on that front. (Similarly, he also writes about the hostile living conditions for Palestinians in Gaza. History rhymes, etc.) It’s almost astonishing to see his case for why Obama was working against fixing climate change during the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.
Here's a fun quote from one of his reflections: "The American people are not the culprits but rather the victims of a system that is not only unsustainable but worse still: it is incompatible with the life of humanity."
I don't usually mark board game pods here, but I do want to highlight the most recent episode
of Hidden Gems
. They reviewed Jet Set
, a game I recommended to them; they even name check me and quote my elevator pitch for the game in the episode. It happened to come across my pod queue while I was driving to St. Louis to play Shikoku 1889, and I was grinning the whole time. I was quite happy with both the substance of their review and how much they seemed to like it, especially Jason. So go listen to this episode, and go find yourself a copy of Jet Set.
Two bangers from TrueAnon
this month. First is a revisit
of their previous investigations into CEDU, a spin-off of Synanon and a predecessor of Monarch, the school that host Brace Belden was sent to. Second is a look into genetic ancestry companies
like 23andMe, whose product I was never going to use even before this episode, largely because I don't know how it isn't suspicious to send your genetic materials to a private corporate database.
Last month, 5-4
started their series on the Federalist Society, which concluded this month (1 2 3
). They also released a great episode on Nixon v. Fitzgerald
, a ruling that apparently never actually deals with constitutional issues the way the Court is designed to rule on things.
had a wonderful interview
with an anti-fascist who went to prison throwing a Molotov cocktail at an empty federal building during the Ferguson uprising in 2014. He talks about his time in prison and the politics within it.
was a fairly goofy episode of Chapo Trap House
, covering a variety of silly topics, including the societal crisis of how members of newer generations have few cousins that past generations.
continues to deliver. The standout was Sword Guys
. My conclusion after listening to this is that swords are cool, but guys with swords are only as cool as they are without the swords.
See you space cowboy...