It’s almost Gen Con time, folks.
That means a new batch of board games to play and write about.
(For those unfamiliar, Gen Con is the largest tabletop game convention in the Americas. In the last normal year, 2019, it draw 70,000 attendees. Yes, it’s THAT big.)
While COVID will certainly put some limits on both the convention and my participation, I’ll still be seeking the outstanding newness for my annual Indianapolis Monthly “Best Games of Gen Con” article as well as watching for new movie-related games for my ongoing “Roll ‘Em” column for Midwest Film Journal. And anything that doesn’t make those cuts may find its way here.
Before the Gen Con onslaught, though, how about we catch up on some of the new and new-ish games I’ve tried out over the past few months?
Here we go.
You may have already tried Elizabeth Hargrave’s breakout hit game Wingspan, which seems to be one of the few things on earth that has thrived during the pandemic. It’s managed to cross over from the board game hobbyist to a wider market and deservedly so.
Hargrave’s latest, Mariposas is a worthy, but very different follow-up.
Again, the natural world provides the inspiration. Here, players guide the paths of migrating butterflies through three seasons, each with its own set of goals. From their starting point in Michoacan, the butterflies and their spawn may initially score points for arriving north of Atlanta or west of Houston by the end of Spring. But by summer’s end, it may be best to be on the east coast or in a variety of colored zones.
You get there by playing a movement card from your hand and collecting flowers — and possibly breeding — depending on where you land. By the end of fall, though, the big points can come from returning fourth-generation butterflies to Michoacan.
Like, for me, the best of games, Mariposas requires shifts in strategy from early to middle to late game. It’s blessed by strong design, and clear instruction book, and a unique and pleasant theme. Far from a sophomore slump, Hargrave has followed her breakout hit with a game that would stand out even if it stood along.
BLOCK NESS (Blue Orange)
On the surface — so to speak — Block Ness is a simple area control game. Each player manages a differently colored Loch Ness Monster, beginning with an arched body segment with a detachable head and tail.
On you turn, you add an additional body segment, moving either the head or tail to the end of the new piece. Continuing this way, you expand your beast. The trick is that space is limited and you’ll soon need to arch your new segments over those of other Nessies or over your own.
There are a handful of placement rules that I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say that, within a few turns, your options become limited. Your goal is to keep playing as many pieces as possible, although big hands and stubby fingers are a detriment since you have to remove and reattached a head or tail with every turn.
When lake real estate runs out, the player with the fewest unplayed segments wins. If there’s a tie, the player who ended the game with their beast’s head the highest wins. The game doesn’t offer much in the way of variability, but it’s still an effective-enough, well-designed light puzzle game.
STRONGHOLD UNDEAD (Stronghold Games)
In the two-player Stronghold Undead, you are either protecting your castle or letting loose armies of creatures to attack that castle. The humans are victorious if they simply survive eight rounds. Victory of the undead comes by breaching the wall.
It’s a simple but clear and dramatic theme. And there are some outstanding mechanics in this revised version of an older game (technically a revised version of an expansion of an older game). I like how the undead player can increase the number of creatures it’s moving toward the castle, but that those additions give the human player more resources to assign more troops, deploy greater defenses, etc. And it’s cool how the defender has two opportunities each round to fortify, one early on and another after there’s some evidence of what the undead are up to.
Unlike simple siege games such as Castle Panic, there are lots of options for each player — that translates into an at-first off-putting amount of unique tokens, cubes and other pieces. And since the attacker has skeletons, vampires and more to use against different levels of defenders, the order of play isn’t intuitive. We had to consult the player guide at every turn to know who was moving when and who could attack when.
I realize there are some players who find that a turn off from the beginning. But a reality of this hobby is that there are gamers who want to be playing within five minutes of opening the box and there are gamers who have the patience and commitment to let themselves have one or two “learning games” — sometimes not even full games — before playing a more complex game. I suspect that, on subsequent plays, I’ll become more comfortable with what seems like an over-fussy system for casting the undead’s spells. But that was my opponent’s problem and different player aid sheets for the attacker and defender helped considerable.
Best of all, the tension in Stronghold Undead is real. As the defender, I could see the paths the invaders were taking and could react to that, making what I hoped were smart choices using my limited resources. Once the ghouls reached the walls, my once-useful archers, for instance, were of less value but swapping them with melee units took time and resources from other necessary building projects. I like a game where you can’t do everything you want to do. I felt under attack and under pressure knowing I couldn’t plug every hole in my defenses.
As for the time it took to play, the box calls it a 90-minute game and we were only three rounds in after nearly twice that time. It looked like a long, but fun, night ahead. But just as we settled in for what we thought would be at least another hour or two, my opponent found a weakness at one of my walls and suddenly the game was over.
Rather than frustrate me, it made me want to play again, perhaps making better use of my priests and veterans next time.
CRACK THE CODE (Indie Boards & Cards)
Fans of the I-see-everyone’s-hand-but-mine code-breaking game Hanabi will probably still be fans of the I-see-everyone’s-hand-but-mine code-breaking game Hanabi after playing the similar-but-lesser Crack the Code.
Here, players cooperatively try to get the plastic balls parked on a covered tray in front of them to match the sequence on a goal card. The trick is that you can’t see your own.
A limited set of command cards (i.e. Pick a marble from anywhere in your terminal tray and place it at either end of another terminal try) allow you to manipulate the marbles on the racks.
Game play is fast but unforgiving. Make a mistake early on and failure can become a foregone conclusion. And while the flavor text in the instructions speak of a network, firewall, and hacking, the rubber balls, cardboard counters, and plastic tried fight against the theme.
VARIOUS ROLL-AND-WRITE GAMES
Let’s talk roll-and-writes.
For those not in the hobby, this refers to games like Yahtzee! where you literally roll dice and write stuff down. Some, such as the neighborhood-building game Welcome To…, lay on a theme. Many others don’t bother.
As such, their boxes tend to look the same, with colored dice with dramatic trails indicating movement. They also tend to have generic names. I’ve played four recently and, honestly, I couldn’t tell you without checking which one was Dice Stars, which was Clever Cubed, which was Bravo! and which was Dizzle — even tough I enjoyed all of them.
Of the two most recent in the stack, I’d suggest Bravo! for rookie players. It’s got a fairly simple dice rolling process and, unlike Yahtzee, there’s some good player interaction involving taking dice that you know another player needs. With Clever Cubed, it’s even more important to watch what other players are up to since they get to play the dice that you don’t use.
ISLANDS IN THE MIST (Stronghold Games)
I really enjoyed the mechanics of the new ballooning game Islands in the Mist and, thematically, I could appreciate the frustration that comes when you want to go east but the wind is blowing west.
I just wish the parts added up to a greater whole.
On each turn, the player to the right of the starting player rolls (and has the chance to reroll) a pair of specialized dice, one identifying a direction for the wind to blow and the other offering a bonus. Each players in turn then moves their balloon marker on their personal map in the direction of the wind — or uses energy to alter the direction — with distance determined by the number on the space on which their balloon has started. Each player then selects tiles and places those and/or ones from their reserve on spaces adjacent to the balloon.
Thus, the map fills in and rounds continues until a player connects the center launch point to each of six coastlines. Points are then scored based on connected terrain types linked to their respective coastlines, with bonuses for city and monument tiles and more.
There is a nice mix of strategy and luck here, with a healthy dose of making the most out of what you’ve got. More opportunities for interaction with other players might have heightened the fun, though. And aren’t games supposed to be fun? Not all turn out to be.
But I guess that’s the way the wind blows…
TERRAFORMING MARS: ARES EXPEDITION (Stronghold Games)
If you haven’t yet played the runaway hit game Terraforming Mars, well, I’m not going to judge. Maybe the size of the box and the cost of the game intimidated you a bit.
If that’s the case, I’ve got a game for you.
Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition plays most of the same notes with the same structure as its big brother, it’s just a bit leaner. You are still, as its name suggests, trying to make the red planet habitable by humans. You do this my increasing the temperature, oceans and oxygen levels. Your opponent, though, is trying to do the same, so it’s a race to acquire and develop resources, manage your mega credits (the game’s version of money), and finish the game with the highest terraform rating.
I suspect that fans of the original game may be a little disappointed by this one, not because it isn’t a great game. It still is. It’s pretty much the same game, with only minor changes that bring down the scale and the price.
That works for me and, I suspect, will work for others who didn’t purchase the original.
That’s it for now. See you (I hope) at Gen Con.