Game Night Verdicts – Spiel 18 in Essen (yes, still!) pt. 3

Surprisingly, I still haven’t run out of games to talk about from four days in Essen. So without further ado… some more highlights from the world’s biggest board game thing.

The path to enlightenment is filled with people in need of a smackdown

Crossroads of Heroes – This was one of my two highlights of the fair (the other being Mini WWII). This time, though, I feel I have a pretty good grasp why this game won me over so quickly. It didn’t have to do with the fact that this is a KS-funded game by a one-man publisher/designer/artist powerhouse running introductory games at the fair. While very impressive, and a testament to what good Kickstarter can bring to the gaming community, that in and of itself doesn’t really make a game stand out to me. I did like the art, with its family-friendly broad lines and clean spaces. But that also wasn’t enough to win me over. What made the game work for me was the way that rules and background interlocked to create a strongly narrative game. Make no mistake, Crossroads of Heroes is not a story-telling game. In fact, I’m not entirely sure how I would categorize it mechanically. There’s a card-playing element to it, there are player-vs-player mechanics. But they don’t constitute the core of the game, so much as frame the underlying concept: you are a martial artist pursuing the path of virtue to become a grand master. It sounds a little vague, but it manages to create enough of a narrative vortex to let players fill in the blanks. Drawing on either first-hand martial arts experience, or just memories of countless Hong Kong action movies you’ve watched when you were young, you find yourself turning the game into a coherent canvas upon which you will play out the game. That’s what makes the game so unique. Unlike many other board games it doesn’t tell its story through texts, but through player actions. Your every action resonates strongly with the game’s concept. As you begin your journey to become the greatest, you meet strangers on the road who may be able to help you, or not. Or you may seek out the wisdom of other Wuxia masters. As you grow and learn, you may return and mentor them instead. Your duels with other players will leave the defeated character with a grudge that will fuel their next encounter. And so on and so forth. All I’ve described are actions and events that can take place in the game. I embellished very little, which is ultimately the ingenious part of this game. The actions you take, even the small and repetitive ones, resonate with the game’s backdrop. Playing the game isn’t telling you a story, it’s literally playing out a short little Wuxia-infused story. Now that may not be the kind of story that grabs you, but from a design perspective Crossroads of Heroes is worth a look. It so confidently establishes a way to fuse story-telling and gameplay that I get excited just writing about it. This game is a narrative triumph!

It was a dark and stormy night… and the end was nigh

Arkham Horror 3rd Edition – And then there is the other end of narrative-heavy games. Arguably one of the classics in “thematic” gaming, Arkham Horror has once again been given something of a face-lift. Some of the changes are superficial, some run quite deep. The various Arkham games since the release of Arkham Horror 2nd edition have obviously served as testbeds for the newest iteration of the Ur-Arkham Game.

AH3 is therefore both new and old, both fresh and familiar. There are a lot of clever ways in which the game’s design creates unpredictable, yet expectable events that come crashing down on you. Some of the common bottlenecks have been elegantly removed, and replaced with rules that keep the game just as chaotic as before, yet not a tiresome slog that repeats itself endlessly.

But where Crossroads of Heroes lets your actions resonate with the setting to tell a story, in Arkham Horror it is the game that tells the story at you. As players you are more like a participating audience in a late-night improv theatre, than the movers and shakers of the narrative that unfolds. Your decisions reveal small micro-chapters of the overarching story buried within the scenario. But it often feels less like you’re the ones who discover the story, let alone tell it. In play Arkham Horror feels more like story collage. The game will tell its story, in its chaotic and rambling manner. Most of the time it will likely be cut short until you manage to stay on to its “successful” conclusion. This isn’t necessary a criticism so much as an observation. A great number of games are given the label story-driven or story-telling, but Arkham Horror differs greatly from something like Pandemic Legacy. Both of which are miles away from something like Twilight Imperium or other interaction-driven narrative games. I’m not entirely sure if Arkham Horror’s facelift is enough to appeal to gamers of 2018. There is definitely a sense of nostalgia and reverence for an “established classic” carrying the game forward. I wouldn’t mind playing again, but I’m not sure I’d be quite as intrigued by it, as I was back in 2007 when I first played second edition. The opulence and sheer scale of Arkham Horror isn’t quite there in third edition. It’s an unavoidable casualty of streamlining gameplay. But there are many small details and tweaks that I appreciated all the same. But then, nothing that really stood out to make it memorable. Other than its name.

It’s much funnier in context allegedly

Soviet Kitchen – Boldly subverting the trend of the last few years, Soviet Kitchen isn’t a card game that you play with an app, it’s an app with card-game support. Its theme is “whacky” to the point of feeling a little forced: a kitchen in soviet Russia, where you have to mix random, generally inappropriate ingredients to create a dish. By color. You do so by playing colored cards, i.e. scan them with the app, which in turn mixes the colors on those cards. If you approximate whatever color schemes the app asked you to create, you pass and earn points, or money, or some such. If you fail, your kitchen gets reprimanded. Fail three times, and you lose the game but earn a score. Really, this is just an app. There is no game there, so much as a task that you are supposed to find humorous because you mix “nails” with “radioactive rats” to create a sausage of a certain orange hue.

Sample cards (photo by W Eric Martin)

Narabi – This was a surprise for me. The game did pop up on my preparation list, but for some reason or another, I pushed it off it. Luckily, I was dragged into a game and ended up buying my own copy. It’s small, inexpensive and cooperative. There’s a deductive element to it, but in the game we played we were mostly going by trial and error. You attempt to sort the cards before you in order, clockwise or counter-clockwise, by swapping cards following the rules printed on the other side. Unfortunately, you only know the rules of the cards in front of yourself. So you have to ask other players, if you may swap one of your cards with one of the other players. If the conditions on both cards can be satisfied you swap and your turn is over. It’s the cooperative activity that keeps you engaged, more so than the game itself, which asks you to sort the cards within 26 turns or so. But there is something about working together, each privy to specific information and trying to puzzle out how to win, that’s engaging and interesting. Even if i may be possible for a game to be unwinnable from the start, it’s still fun to work together like that. It’s really not that much different from your run of the mill cooperative game: a shared objective, distinct perspectives of the game’s state and a communication-driven core activity that drives the game. Narabi is a very clean, precise design with little to no fat. It is unlikely to revolutionize the genre, but it is a great example of a cooperative game that captures the spirit of a game like Pandemic without being a clone of it.

Still more games to come… although I may switch things up by talking about my experience playing the original Civilization game next time.


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