As I pack my bag with games for the InConjunction science fiction/fantasy/gaming convention this weekend, I’m reminded that I haven’t offered a tabletop update here lately.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t been playing…and writing about games. Midwest Film Journal has published my latest Roll ‘Em column on movie tie-in games and Northeast Ohio Parent once again let me share so gift tips. And I’m already checking out potentials for my annual Best Games of Gen Con column for Indianapolis Monthly.

But, still, there are lots of new games as well as older ones I’ve finally gotten to the table but haven’t yet shared.

So here goes.

Nidavellir (Hachette Boardgames)

Let’s start with the negative: I hate the name of this game.

I hate it because I struggle to remember it. After playing a dozen times, I went to tell a friend about it and had to double check it. Heck, when I went to start writing this column, I had to double check it.

I’m sure it means something to the designer or the publisher, but all it means to me is frustration.

But that’s only the name. The game itself is outstanding, one of the best I’ve played in a long time.

The theming is easy to grasp. You’ve got money and you are recruiting an army of dwarfs. There’s no fighting. The game is about assembling your team.

In each round, three taverns are populated with three random dwarf cards each. All players start with the same set of differently valued coins and you secretly place a bid for each tavern. The highest big in each tavern gets first pick, etc.

The mechanic that adds enormously to the fun and the challenge is that each player has a coin worth zero money but with the ability to turn the higher of the two coins you don’t use into a coin worth the value of both of the unused coins. In other words, if you play the zero coin on a tavern and you don’t play the five and the three, you get to exchange the five for an eight, which gives you more buying power in the next round.

Don’t worry. Play it once and you’ll get the concept.

In addition to bidding, the games is also about set collection. Each faction of dwarves combines in a different way. One simply earns a point value from each card, another multiple the points on its cards by the number of cards, and so on. At the end of four rounds, the players with the highest number of dwarves of each set also earn bonuses. Further, every time you collect one of each dwarf, you get to recruit a hero to your teams, with those cards possibly making it easier to recruit more.

So there are choices throughout. Do you risk lower choices to upgrade your coins? Is it better to acquire more of a faction and earn more points that way or recruit more evenly to attract more heroes.

All of which adds up to big fun. I’ve played dozens of times already and I haven’t missed the fighting at all.

Spirit Island (Greater Than Games)

Here’s a case where, for me, the theme improved a game.

Think about all of the games out there that have colonizing as a winning condition. I’ve got a bunch on my shelf including some personal favorites (Kingdom Builder), classics (Puerto Rico), and the bluntly named The Colonists.

Spirit Island is the opposite.

In it, players represent island spirits whose mission is to get colonists to leave the island. That isn’t so easy, since, true to form, these colonists tend to build, breed, and expand into new territories.

I first encountered Spirit Island at a past Gen Con and was turned off by an overzealous booth rep who insisted on telling me seemingly every detail about the game. I felt trapped by this zealot and didn’t retain much of anything. More recently, though, I finally got to play the game with a patient teacher and a group of other newbies and found much to like — although nothing besides the theme that I particularly loved.

Special powers differ from player character to player character, a small deck of cards can be expanded allowing for some minor deckbuilding, and while the game is cooperative, each player spends much of the time in their own zone, which helps reduce the alpha gamer problem. But it’s surprisingly heavy for a co-op. I wasn’t expecting Forbidden Island but I also wasn’t expecting to have to turn to the veteran player for guidance as often as I did.

I can see why the game has passionate fans. If you are a player who likes to dive into the same game many, many times, this one offers lots of variety. And there’s that theme, creatively underlined by the fact that the good side pieces are wooden and the bad side plastic. Nice touch.

Shifting Stones (Gamewright)

In this terrific tile-laying game, the setup is simple: A grid of nine two-sided squares of various colors is laid out and each player is given a quartet of cards with patterns on them. The goal is to match the patterns to those on the board by flipping and/or swapping tiles. The catch is that a flip or a swap will cost you one of your cards. And more challenging patterns yield more points. 

It’s a smart, puzzle-y filler, easy to set up and clean up.

Lunar Outpost (Ravensburger)

This co-op seems stifling at first. You have very limited actions to use in order to start building your moon base. Players take turns mining available materials and then building sections of the base when the right combos are acquired. Some sections allow for additional abilities while playing a crew card can help — and can really help if your astronaut has a matching skill that upgrades the card. If you don’t want to play with the event cards, you can use Alexa to guide you through.

There’s limited variety to the game, however. Once it’s solved, it’s unlikely to inspire another trip.

Mass Transit (Calliope Games)

The goal here is to get a batch of commuters home. You do that, cooperatively, by playing cards that can either extend the routes – whether by bus, boat, or train – or allow you to walk to stations along those routes. Strategic choices need to be made to make sure that you get everyone to their destinations.

Warning: You’ll likely not get everyone home on your first game or two. But with a fifteen-minute-or-so playing time, it’s easy to say, “Let’s try again.”

Further warning: Sometimes, it becomes clear after just a few turns that the game is unwinnable. While that feels like a design flaw, at that point, it’s easy to just bail and start again.