There’s nothing like evaluating a game’s quality after having played it. Get your warm and full-bodied impressions of games played by yours truly in the recent past.
Azul – Always on the cutting edge of the new and innovative, I’ve sat down to play Azul and have deemed it …fine. It’s inoffensive, bordering on bland. It’s obvious why so many are willing to put down money that this game will get a Spiel des Jahres nomination, if not the grand prize itself this year. Accessible, nice to look at and doesn’t outstay its welcome. If anything the game’s biggest flaw seems a holdover from old-school designs, when it was never questioned if and how people would compete with one another. In Azul you’re vying for first place in VP, which means you eventually make choices based on how much you can cause harm to other players. All because the rulebook declared that only the player with the most VP gets to call themselves winner. Considering just how little of the game’s challenge and play experience lies in reacting to other players’ strategies, it would have been better to just set a VP goal within a certain turn limit. Azul’s high level play is about jumping through hoops because apparently that’s what games are, as opposed to just basking in the ups and downs of opportunities and fateful choices during play.
The Terrifying Girl Disorder – Now this is a surprise. Despite being mildly annoyed with Japanime Games who sold me an incomplete game in Essen, never replied to my requests for a replacement and then unceremoniously put up a PDF to print the thing myself.. I ended up quite enamoured with this game. It’s by Kuro whose earlier efforts The Ravens of Thri Sahashri and Unicornus Knights (with Seiji Kanai) are above all marked by a stubborn refusal to simplify rules for ease of play. This game delights in taking the difficult path when it could be so much easier. Case in point, instead of simply drawing three cards at the beginning of each turn, you instead draw 3 cards per player, lay them out in a circle and then each player at the start of their turn places a “shard” on one of the cards in the circle. At the end of the turn you get to collect the card under your shard card, as well as any card leading up to another player’s shard card. But that’s not all… after placing your shard, you get to swap any two cards in the circle. Making things unpredictable and favoring the last player in the turn, who basically gets to mess up everybody’s plans or pick 2 cards they want. But that’s still not all, the starting player gets to decide if cards will be picked up clockwise or counter-clockwise. In practice this always leads to players putting their shard down on the wrong spot, because they didn’t take the change in player direction into account. Most other designers would have opted for a simple “draw 3 cards at the end of a round” decision.. but not Kuro, who turns drawing cards into half the game. But this coyness in rules design only hides something far more appealing. Namely a game that doesn’t subscribe to the expectations of European game designs. The more options a game offers, the more the assumption that your influence over the game’s outcome increases, as you learn to manipulate them well. But the Terrifying Girl Disorder simply laughs at your meek pleas for control as every decision’s inherent risk refuses to decrease simply because you know the rules well. The game is unpredictable without being random, which is quite a feat and something I find I appreciate a lot in a game. The game thrives on chaos that can’t be controlled, but with a little guts and chutzpe, it can be used to propel you into first place.
Birdie Fight / Songbirds – Another very impressive design. It’s abstract but clean, simple and straight-forward. Very quick to wrap up, but incredibly smart in how it ratchets up tension until the final card is played. As giddy as playing Terrifying Girl Disorder made me, this game impressed me with its restraint and elegance. It’s a small delight and I’m happy to hear that a German localisation is already being planned. Picking that one up as soon as it hits the stores.
Hunt for the Ring – A game of two halves. The first a somewhat generic hidden movement game. There are a number of mechanisms increasing the flow of information and unlocking abilities, that seem to be running in the background. The core gameplay is the familiar trope of one player moving in secret towards an exit, while the other tries to find (and weaken them) on the way there. But it is the second half, where things take a sharp and exciting new turn. The power balance between the hunter (the Nazgûl) and the hunted (the Ringbearer) gets skewed. Instead of the Ringbearer driving and to a certain extent controlling the game’s flow, they are now tasked with muddying the waters and distracting the Nazgûl from their objective. Since Frodo’s journey is now preset, the Free People player (in the guise of Gandalf the Grey) has to double up on the mind games, the secret weapon of any decent hidden movement game. Sadly the rulebook occasionally provides a challenge far bigger than that of the game itself. The Nazgûl’s main actions (Hunt, Search, Perception) differ subtly but significantly, yet are thematically so close together that more time was spent reading up on rules minutiae than on the afore-mentioned mind games. Hopefully over time this hurdle will fall, and the game will reveal itself in its full glory. As of right now, I am not sure, if it will dethrone either Fury of Dracula or Letters from Whitechapel.
Penny Press – Another very solid, if not flawlessly designed game. Core gameplay is easy to grasp and execute. Every player decision has enormous impact and the threat of somebody triggering a scoring helps to maintain a subtle, but noticable sense of tension throughout. I think, if the setting had been some pre-industrial, Fresian farm, the German game market would have gone completely crazy over this game, and heaped awards on it. As it stands, early 20th century press in the USA seems to be enough of a deterrent, that the game is rarely talked about now. Which is a shame, as I find no fault with the game from a design point of view. Yet, I have to admit that the game fails to get its hooks in me. I’ll be happy to play again, but I’m not at the point where I hope to get it to the table at the next opportunity. And the reason for that may be that it is hard to lose itself in the choices before you. Not in an Analysis Paralysis sense, but the game offers little beyond the immediate tactical choices. The payoff at the end (bonus VP) seems incidental and not carefully orchestrated through clever play. It’s still a great showcase for accessible game design with a strong emphasis on interaction.
Maigo-Neko – A game I’ve had since Spiel 2017 (where I got it in a math trade) but never got around to actually playing. Now that I have, I realise it proudly placed itself in between aggressively adorable and overwhelmingly twee. Four tiny little cats need to find their way back home, but don’t remember what it looks like. So they explore a map with stops at individual houses jogging their memory. But once you strip away the cutesy idea and tokens, you’re left with a workable but unremarkable set of rules. The game’s arc and momentum basically plays itself out, with the group only subtly nudging it one way or another. Maigo-Neko is arguably a racing game but it’s remembered positively for its presentation and setting, less for its gameplay. Which is fine for everyone but us nerdy hobbyists who have this slightly obsessive need to delve in “deeper”.
Traders of Osaka – It’s not much of a secret, that I’m not a big fan of passive-aggressive tactics in board games. If the only way to succeed is by keeping others down, my estimation of a game sinks considerably. Traders of Osaka is such a game. It is a simple and elegant design, with an ebb and flow (I know, it’s an amazing joke that surely nobody has thought of before) that keeps the game moving, even as the back and forth between players stays the same. You invest into card sets as you play, and that investment can reap VP or just get discarded for nothing based on the decisions other players make. The more attention you pay to other players, and the more ambitious you are about winning the more passive-aggressive the game becomes. In its defense, though, the VP-cycles from investment to payoff is so short, and usually so small, that it rarely feels like a huge setback. While I will likely never become a cheerleader for this type of game, Traders of Osaka seems the most palatable of its kind.
Gooseberry – Sometimes a game genre can feel a little over-saturated. I remember a friend of mine a few years back telling me how he felt that cooperative games were played out. I didn’t agree with him back then, because I liked and still like cooperative games, but with Gooseberry I feel for the first time that social deduction games might have filled their niche. There might not be much room left for a game that offers only a variation on its central conceit of faking knowledge about some piece of secret information. Insider still reigns supreme in my mind when it comes to the microgame version of social deduction, with Secret Hitler being a robust advanced version of the same idea. I understand that The Chameleon reimplements this game, although I don’t know if it changes anything substantial about it. If it does not, I’ll be fine with missing out on playing the game again.