Games are good, not a luxury

I don’t like to call games luxury items. During COVID lockdown here in Germany, game industry sales have steadily gone up. We didn’t discard games like some triviality as soon as circumstances became a bit more taxing. On the contrary, during this period we became more and more involved with what the cultural industry has to offer. We watched more movies, read more books, and played more games. That’s not a sign of luxury, but a sign that culture in general and games in particular are an important part of modern life.

Of course, we could do without games if we had to. But that also applies to very large parts of our food pyramid, and no one would think of calling cheese, peperoni and milk “luxury goods”. To call games a luxury reveals a reflexive hostility towards pleasure. The idea that nothing that‘s supposed to be pleasing and make us more social actually matters. The way “real work” matters. It’s merely a reward for making it through another work week.

Yet the last few months in particular have shown how important it is for our emotional and spiritual well-being to seek out these small moments of joy, we can share with others. Our need to play together is so strong that we are even willing to make use of unwieldy and error-prone digital platforms, if they allow us to participate in this aspect of our cultural life.

While convenient and tempting, I think it’s quite lazy to deny games any cultural potential and value. Particularly when we only look at how it benefits us individually. But the fun we have with a game is only indirectly linked to its cultural merits. Culture is what happens when we engage other people. It‘s the way we discover what we have in common, and it’s woven from the habits we develop together.

Those who are part of a culture do not consider the elements that make it up a luxury, but a necessary condition for keeping that culture alive.

I’m sooo faaan-caayy…..

This is also the second reason why I am uncomfortable calling games luxury items. To take part in cultural life, you need access to it. To take part in gaming culture, you need (in most cases) players, certainly time to devote to gaming, and of course games that provide the basis for playing at all. By definition, luxury goods are those that represent a significant monetary value. To afford luxury is above all a financial question. Those who buy luxury goods do so not least to show them off and present them as a sign of their own status. If games are primarily understood as luxury goods, then this not only allows them to be moved into a higher price segment; it is almost mandatory to do so. Cheap luxury is basically an oxymoron.

So if we were to accept games (and gaming) as luxury, we would also have to accept the corollary and raise the financial barrier to entry. Luxury that everyone can afford is no longer luxury, but simply the new standard. Access to gaming culture is then made more difficult for all those who do not have the means to start a game collection and a regular gaming group. Gaming culture, at the end of the day, exists around those who own games and invite others to play. It’s about passion, not about excess and showing off.

Play, as Johan Huizinga already observed, is an end in and of itself. We play games in order to play them and enjoy the activity for its own sake. It is, simply put, fun. But by sharing and experiencing these very things with others we create a sense of belonging and social cohesion. We feel connected to others who play, not just because we’ve sat at a table with them, but because we can relate to many of their experiences and adventures. We recognise a bit of ourselves in the other person.

Our need to belong is deeply human, and not tied to a desire for luxury and opulence. Games are one way in which we can meet this need. Even beyond the hurdles and difficulties of the last year. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that more and more people devote themselves to games. Just as this feeling of community feels so precious right now.

An interview with Uwe Rosenberg

This interview was originally posted on the website of the Perfect Information podcast. It has been reposted here for archival purposes.

This interview was originally recorded at Spiel 2016 and assumed lost. Luckily thanks to some ingenuity and the magic of data recovery software, the recorded audio could be salvaged and was transcribed and translated for your reading convenience.

GEORGIOS: You are at Spiel this year with A Feast for Odin. Can you tell me a little bit about how the game came about? What was the moment when you realised, this here is the core of a game that I want to work on?

Uwe Rosenberg

Uwe Rosenberg (by Henk Rolleman)

UWE: I’ve been fascinated by the Viking theme for some time, because it has so many layers. You can focus on life on the mainland or what’s happening at sea. Which makes it quite compatible with a lot of different ideas. But that’s not where I started from. The original seed was somewhat unusual, and maybe one people don’t expect. I was once again thinking about Agricola, which is how a lot of games got started. I was thinking about a small detail of it. What could be changed about it.

In Agricola you have a harvest, which is where you pay for things. But there’s no money in Agricola. Instead there’s goods that have a nutritional value. Sheep are worth two, boars are worth three. What got me thinking was how to make this more tangible. Because there it’s just a payment transaction. “Right, I have sheep. I need to reach a total of six nutrition.” But if you turn a sheep into a 1×2 tile, a boar into a 1×3 tile, you just line them up on a track that goes up to ten and you can easily read when you’ve reached what you need. You put the sheep on the track, then the boar and you can see how many you can feed. Great, I thought. Mission accomplished. It’s more tangible, more immersive. You draw a large table, and you can see how the food gets eaten. That was the original idea. But that is far from being a game. That’s not a mechanism. It’s nothing. But then I expanded that thought. If you want to use a second tile of the same type, you need to place it upright. So the second time your valuable 5×1 tile only covers 1 spot. So you really only want to use your 5×1 tile once per turn to contribute to your feast.  That’s when I realised what a 3×5 tile could be. When you grow it or breed it – whatever it ends up being – it’s really useful. That’s when I had finished the puzzle idea. I had a bunch of puzzle tiles and now it was just about filling them with content. And that’s how I came back around to the Viking theme and their different goods. That gave me a general idea what the game would look like. But that is still only about feeding. That still wasn’t a game. So what else can you do with a tile? The answer is obvious. If you have that many tiles, you put them on a grid. So it went from one dimension to two dimensions. And that’s how I ended up with a puzzle game. So Patchwork, Cottage Garden, Odin (and 2 more prototypes in my backpack) all started with that moment, when I realised I should put them on a board. That’s when it slowly became a game, because I was working on ways to make it a puzzle, to make it appealing. If I cover something up, I get something in return. I can place it this way or that to fill up the grid. There were numerous approaches. Two of which I liked. One was that the cost would be printed on the tile itself, and the other was the income diagonal that ended up in Odin. Those didn’t go together at all, so the printed cost tiles went into Patchwork. But both grew out of this idea. The income diagonal for Odin is where you start to piece together a puzzle, and that’s when I knew.. this is going to be a game.

The usual approach is a little more abstract, in that I spend more time thinking about mechanisms that encourage play. Once I have a mechanism that gets players going, I quickly start looking for a theme. So that all the complementary mechanisms, that have to do with handling, make sense in connection to the theme. So that you feel this isn’t just any old eurogame, with its theme slapped onto it. That tangible theme matters to me, which is why I look for a theme early on. I did the same with Feast for Odin, only that the mechanisms that encourage play were developed afterwards. That’s unusual for me.

GEORGIOS: You mentioned, that you returned to Agricola. Is that something that is part of your design style? You return to an older idea and play it out differently?

UWE: Ideas don’t simply fall into my lap. I’m always thinking about something, picking up some detail and try to do it differently. Change it around a little, and see what the benefit of this change might be. The other approach would be playing a new game and there’s something about it I don’t like. Something I would have done differently. So then I change it and that becomes a new game. But that approach is in the past, when I played a lot more, discovered more games. I have four children now, and hardly learn from other designers’ games. So I end up thinking more about my own games, tweak them here and there. To really explore those mechanisms, know them inside out and how every detail in them works.

GEORGIOS: I’ve found that most gamers split into two camps. I have a pretty good handle on lighter, smaller games. others are more taken with the bigger games like Arler Erde. Are those by the same Rosenberg who just happens to express himself differently or are you addressing two different approaches to gaming?

UWE: People have been saying that about Reiner Knizia’s games. That there are Knizia games and there are Reiner games. It hasn’t quite come to that with me, even though I think there’s some justification for it. I’d generally say that I am not that skilled at making smaller games. My strength lies in big box games. What it is, though, is that I work a lot on my mechanisms and know them pretty well. So when I take a variation of the mechanism, I have a pretty good handle on it; and when I add something to that I

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A typical Uwe game

have a good idea of how much fun the game will be. If I were to try a family game, that wouldn’t work so well, because I don’t have that sensibility to find the fun in those. But when simpler games are build from the core mechanisms of more complex games – those have few core mechanisms anyway, few tangible core ideas – I can draw a comparison. Maybe that is the special appeal of the simpler game. I can’t really compare those smaller games to other smaller games, because I never play those. But then again, I don’t get to play any complex games now, either. That was years ago.

GEORGIOS: You spoke of mechanisms that encourage play. I’m curious what’s the moment when you see or experience: This is fun, I’m captivated and so are the other players?

UWE: I remember feeling that way the first time I played Saint Petersburg. After 10 minutes of play I thought, I’m going to buy this game. I know that “whoa” moment. But I never have that when I design. I think about mechanisms that encourage play, I stumble over that “whoa” for a fleeting moment, because there’s no game there yet. Once I add a theme, I’ve grown accustomed to those mechanisms. There’s no explosion there. No intense experience. It’s just a process. Odin might be a little different, since those mechanisms came in later. You’ve caught me off-guard, actually. I’m not entirely sure, but I might have had such an experience then.

GEORGIOS: Is game design something like alchemy, then? You’re throwing things together and hope they’ll turn into gold?

UWE: I think it’s a craft. The more experience you have, the better your instincts become. One of my strengths as a game designer is that I can quickly recognise a bad idea. I’m extraordinarily talented in coming up with bad ideas, but I can also throw them away quickly. I just power through them until I hit a good one. So I wouldn’t call myself a great idea maker. That would be weird. I don’t know how you could be one. If you can run these ideas through your head, sort them and maybe make the deciding tweak.. that’s a good combination. That’s the necessary set of skills you need.

GEORGIOS: You mentioned that you share the fate of many gamers with a family, in that your gaming time is constantly shrinking. But still you came to Spiel. Have you seen any games that have impressed or excited you?

UWE: Yes. I’ve experienced that. A game played in Essen that excited me. That was 15 years ago. Since then I haven’t played a game at a fair again. That’s all in the past. Back when I was a gamer. A lot of people in the industry at Spiel will tell you that. If you play at all, you do it at a hotel in the evening. But I need that time to recharge. In fact, I’m more likely to meet friends and spend time with them, instead of playing a game, since I’m in the area. But nowadays I am more informed about new games than I used to be. There are so many podcasts, video on youtube of people talking about their expectations of games coming out and what they know about them. Those help me figure out if I’d be interested in those game or not. I could actually give you a list of 10 games I’m interested in off the top of my head, but if they will excite me or frustrate me I will only know after the fair.

GEORGIOS: One last question. You’re here as a publisher with Feuerland. So you know the gamer side, the designer side and the publisher side. Do you think that Spiel has changed over the years? Has it become more professional or has the influx of new visitors led to an emphasis on gamers?

UWE: As a publisher I’ve noticed some changes. But those are the logical consequence of more and more designers being around for years. They learn and evolve over time, and create better games. Each slightly improved game helped somebody else make an improvement with their game. If there is any clear direction is that we as a community of game designers are making better and better games each year. I am only interested in the really great games. I don’t care about the awful or just okay games. In two years time people will lump them together anyway. It’s all about the really big games. What makes them stand out? That’s what I try to understand and how can we improve on them. I like to philosophise about game. Quite a few designers do that. I predict that we will continue to improve each year. That games will be more finely designed and constructed. That’s also due to playtestery becoming better and better. Brilliant analysts who know these types of games inside and out, so that those games are already improving during the development phase.

GEORGIOS: Would you say that the art of game design is entering a golden age? As games will continually get better?

UWE: The start of a golden age tends to be hard to recognise while you’re in it. I can’t see it, but I have a hunch. But five years from now, if it does happen, I will be first to say “I told you so”.

GEORGIOS: Thank you so much for the interview and I hope you do find some time to play a few games. I noticed earlier, some people recognised you and asked for an autograph. I think a lot of people will be happy to have you around the next few days.

UWE: To be honest. Wednesday and Thursday were the busiest days for me this year. The fair is basically over for me, and I’m just wandering around the halls now and try not to smile too broadly, so that people don’t notice how excited I am. It’s great to be recognised. To be greeted with a smile, to receive compliments. A fair like this is overwhelming. You soak up those moments. And then, when you’re home, and stuck working on a game, thinking “crap, I should throw all of this out” because something is off and you’re convinced you’ll never get it to work. When you feel stupid, because you can’t get something to work right, you can draw a lot of strength from remembering those interactions at the fair. It’s interesting how overwhelming a fair is for me. I need to ignore my feelings for a bit, because otherwise it’d be too much for me.

Shooting from the hand – A Motion Pictures review

This review was originally posted on the website of the Perfect Information podcast. It has been reposted here for archival purposes.

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Picture by Evangelos Foskolos

Motion Pictures is a deckbuilder that hides its genre, by very carefully and precisely paring down everything that’s become accepted about deckbuilders: hand size, shuffling, discards, scoring. It is in a way a haiku of deckbuilders. If it was delivered by a bored teenager only half-paying attention, because they are too busy playing with their phone. Yes, I’m talking about you, Shannon! Will it kill you to put that thing down?

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An almost finished project (photo by Alexandros Kapidakis)

The first thing to strike you about Motion Pictures is that the cards do not look great. While that kind of superficial complaint is easy to dismiss, it does manage to temper both the appeal of the game as a whole, as well as the appreciation of its design. For a game that drapes itself in the most visual of modern art forms, it’s both surprising and disappointing that the visuals might be the game’s Achilles’ heel. (Because they’re Greeks, see? The designer, the publisher, the myth… I’ll link to a youtube video later, that will explain it all.)

Picture by Evangelos Foskolos

As film producers you try to put together the right crew (i.e. play cards) to complete projects (i.e. collect other cards), that will give you victory points (i.e. VP) at the end of the game. So far, so elevator pitch. In what is an amusing, little “spot-the-reference” game, the projects you complete have illustrations that bear an eerie resemblance to posters, scenes or promotional material of well-known film and TV entries. From Doctor Who to Jurassic Park to The Godfather to Τροχονόμος Βαρβάρα* – Admittedly the references are not so much references, as casually traced artwork, but that’s beside the point.

Unfortunately, the choice in art direction does not lead to a sense of charming recognition that makes you feel like a big name in Tinseltown. Instead it makes the game look cheap and lazy. Which is a shame. Because the game’s design is solid (if flawed). Every time I sat down to play it, I was surprised at how quickly it was over. The importance of the decisions I’ve taken in the first few turns only became apparent to me in hindsight. If only I had only bought this card, it would have paid off in later turns. If I had discarded that card, my hand would have been even leaner in the end game. Since your deck rarely reaches twice your hand limit, every single card in it counts.

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This is your starting crew. (Photo by Alexandros Kapidakis)

Yet Motion Pictures can be played so casually, with long-term consequences of your actions barely noticeable, that you might come away thinking that there is no meat to this game. Its presentation adding to this impression of it being a barely average deckbuilder.

Buying new cards or pledging cards to a project are simple decisions. But they subtly change the flow of the game, its dynamic and most importantly the breadth of options available to you. Just like any good deckbuilder does. Why then is this delicate gem so overlooked? Why aren’t ther more people talking about it?

Because while the subtleties and intricacies of timing and deck composition are apparent to anyone who pays attention to the rules, they are also easily overshadowed by what I can only describe as a blatant oversight during the game’s development: the player with the laziest strategy is no worse off than the smartest play you can come up with. Sheer luck of the draw puts you on an equal footing to a player strategically putting together their deck. You can rush the game by simply completing the cheapest projects available to you, possibly even scoring additional points at the end due to having the most projects, or projects of a genre, etc.

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These destinations devalue the trip

Although you can choose to play subtly and cleverly, just going for the lowest hanging fruit each turn is just as competitive. This simple fact ultimately hollows out whatever tactical or strategic appeal the game has. It is too easy to complete projects with your starting cards, even towards the end of the game, to make deck construction all that necessary. If the right projects show up on your turn, there is little incentive to think ahead. No reason to consider cards in the market. No need to jettison dead weight cards.

To be fair, it is always possible that an unexpected strategy completely upends a game’s design. Approaching the game from an unusual angle might mean that the design’s careful arrangement of incentives and limitations simply misses its target. In Motion Pictures, though, you can do what you’re supposed to be doing in the dullest and most obvious way, and still have a shot at winning. None of the intricate decision spaces ever open up for you, and the game just patters along and then ends. Generally painless, but without much to remember it by.

-Georgios

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* – That is a lie. There is no reference to this milestone of cinema. And I am outraged by this omission. OUTRAGED!

 

Life is like a box of cookies – A review

This review was originally posted on the website of the Perfect Information podcast. It has been reposted here for archival purposes.

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Ahh, cookies. Everybody loves cookies. It’s an immutable law of physics: people love cookies. Soft or crumbly. Chocolate or nut. More or less. But have you ever really thought about the care and skill that goes into creating such a cubic delight of pastries? The artisanal craft that lays the groundwork for you to ravish that seductively arranged box of cookies. A cookie box so to speak.

What trade secrets go into its selection? What obscure recipe has brought forth the many delights that this pack of well cooked dough evokes? Who…

Ah, sod it. It’s just a game. Arrange your tokens as dictated by a card, before the other players do. Bam! You’re sorted.

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Chips aren’t weighted, but they are tasty.

It also looks cute. The tiles you arrange have icons on both sides, although the two sides never match. So finding the right “waffle”-icon hiding behind the “blueberry”-icon that you already need elsewhere, leads you down the rabbit hole of hectically flipping over tiles, arranging them, cursing, re-arranging them, cursing some more and letting some panicked expletives fly across the room as somebody else rings the bell, before you get to it. Yes, the game comes with a bell. It’s bright, and shiny. And loud.

If you are now wondering whether you and your friends might enjoy such a game… you have to ask yourself a different question first: how seriously can you take this game? How eager are you to beat your friends in a competitive tile-arranging game? Without spaceships? Without scary art of a post-apocalyptic wasteland? Without some rennaissance-type man blandly staring at you from the game’s cover?

In other words how seriously can you take a game that is bright, happy and cute? A game that drapes itself in a foppishly droll and trivial theme, and delivers a challenge that is seemingly without much bite or depth?

A lot of games try to channel the competitive energy that gamers harbour within them through take-that mechanisms, conflict rules in which player forces clash into one another with heavy losses on either side, or even through the refined passive-aggressiveness that is blocking. So much so, that occasionally I end up feeling worn out and tired of fighting against my friends over and over again, when we sit down to play. The rules take the place of stick-and-carrot, pushing us into a headspace that allows us to indulge our inner caveman. There’s nothing wrong with that. A little escapism goes a long way towards clearing your head. Still, some designs are a little more obnoxious and in-your-face about it than others. Like a hopped-up, neglected 8-year-old smashing his action figures together over and over again in the hopes of one of them breaking.

But…. cookies.

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This is what a successful day at the cookie factory looks like

Or rather, Cookie Box. There’s none of that here. No rules explicitly made to mess with your opponents. No component scarcity for the sole purpose of creating conflict. This game’s competition works the same way that multiplayer solitaire games allegedly work: by tapping your skill at completing a task before anybody else does. No interruptions. No blatant randomizers. No kingmaking. If that is what you want: Cookie Box delivers.

Admittedly, you won’t have to calculate the exchange rate of wheat to stone or plot the actions you will have to take three turns from now, or even when to place that special tile to give you extra actions. Instead you flip tokens. And move them around.

If you and your group enjoys small and silly competition for its own sake, you might get a kick out of this game. Much like how we enjoyed grown men panicking and despairing at arranging brightly coloured tokens before somebody rung the bell. Its simplicity only gives players’ room to let their gamer id run wild.

Cookie Box might conceivably claim its place on the gamer party pantheon. Among such highlights as Looping Louie or Happy Salmon: a bane to the po-faced, a talisman to the joyful!

-Georgios

 

Georgios Draws First Blood – Gloomhaven

This review was originally posted on the website of the Perfect Information podcast. It has been reposted here for archival purposes. Slight re-edits were made for readability.

This is a rather long review of Gloomhaven, so to keep you from having to scroll all the way down, let me put my conclusion right at the top:

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Aerial shot of the Gloomhaven box

If you are a board gamer, Gloomhaven is not for you. It is too big, too much of a long-term time investment, too unwieldy to handle easily and designed to evoke a very specific game experience, that board games do not dabble in a lot. Gloomhaven presents a promise that players of Dungeons & Dragons (if not in name, then at least in spirit) will recognise, and most likely long to return to since their regular roleplaying group has either drifted apart or been taken over by the pressures of adult life. This isn’t a judgement on the game’s quality, but its purpose. What Gloomhaven offers and demands from its players is decidedly different from what board games generally go for.

Don’t let the trappings fool you: this isn’t a board game. Gloomhaven is at its core the next evolutionary step to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. As Chainmail became Dungeons & Dragons; Gloomhaven looks at AD&D and distills it into a doll house-sized box of gameplay. As much as it takes inspiration from the focused rules designs of modern board games, its heart lies in roaming the fantasy lands and adventurescapes of Dungeons & Dragons.

The design of roleplaying games (the so-called traditional ones at least) has always had a blaring omission at its core. Borne out of an almost fetishistic belief that roleplaying games must adhere to freedom above all else, no roleplaying game really spent much time defining just what its goal was. What was the endpoint that would resolve play? What were players supposed to drive towards, what objective were their actions supposed to achieve? What was the whole point of play even? This vacancy has led to groups, individuals and sometimes entire movements pursuing different paths. Some turned the act of play into its own goal elevating immersion and experience into the golden calf of roleplaying games; others pursued a more holistic approach seeing the sum of play as a gestalt called narrative; yet others sensed that there was something missing and sought out objectives to pursue and fulfil as they knew them from other forms of play. In the years that followed the roleplaying genre developed in all kinds of directions, yet never fully tackling its own hollow design with its flagship title. Some indie designes forged a path of their own, bringing forth many delightful, unique and fascinating oddities. Feel like swallowing an ancient sumerian bug for tenure? How about dying as a Polish teen in World War II? Better yet be a religious lawmen keeping the peace in parish after parish, infested with moral corruption! These games got you covered. And as unique and quirky as they were, none of them managed to actually succeed AD&D as the dominant roleplaying design template.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was re-vamped, modernized and cleaned up… about four times now. As much as third edition revitalized the hobby with its open game licence (and at least partly responsible for somebody like Kevin Wilson eventually entering the field of board game design, for which I at least am very thankful), at its core it was still only a reduction of AD&D. It didn’t fill the conceptional gap with anything. It was still up to game masters themselves to turn their D&D campaign into being about something. Killing orcs and levelling up? Sure, fine. The long and inspiring tale of Trogdor the Burninator? Have at it! Truly inhabiting the role of the pick-pocketing Black Leaf? Sure, but it’s your funeral, pal.

The following editions didn’t really dare to stray away too much from the path AD&D had laid out: more than enough scaffolding to build whatever you could imagine, but refraining from telling you what it took to actually make it work. (Cue the millions upon millions of hours wasted with arguments and social dysfunction that has plagued roleplaying groups, as they fought over the shape and core of the game they played without really knowing why, yet alone how to solve this.)

I say all this in the knowledge that this failure in game design was also its greatest allure. AD&D (and the roleplaying games that followed) was a game design kit that came in form of a game itself. It was up to the game master to put the rules in place, to apply them as needed and to codify what was necessary to make the roleplaying game you were playing into an actual game: with objectives, robust structures and layers to expand as the group progressed.

This is what Gloomhaven does. This is the box you are buying. You get a game of D&D, a campaign box set – even though I prefer the term doll house for boxes this size – where all this design work has been done for you. The purpose of play is defined; the characters objectives are tangible and resolvable; the world of Gloomhaven exists for you to explore through play. It can be as intricate and involved in character interplay as you want it to be – nobody is keeping you from play acting your character except your own complacency about roleplaying. (Obligatory shout out to Dave Arneson!)

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We’re off to see the wizard.. the wonderful wizard of- WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU EVEN WEARING?!

Fun awaits you whenever your adventures reward you with enough experience points or new character perks to improve, evolve and expand your character. This is ultimately the turning point where Gloomhaven self-assuredly, but decisively leaves the genre of board games and posits itself as a roleplaying game. Or as I am trying to put it: the next evolution of roleplaying games.

Please note, that the use of the word evolution is deliberate. Evolution is not about improvement, but adaptation. Gloomhaven does not improve on roleplaying games, but has adapted to the demands and abilities of adult roleplayers. It gives you a product that takes the heavy lifting off of you and your gaming group, and puts it into rules and components.

And, by Clapton, there’s a lot of components. In fact, while I argued, that Gloomhaven isn’t for board gamers because of the type of experience it delivers; it is also an uneasy fit for board gamers because of the sheer amount of book keeping, component handling and organisation that is required to play a scenario, let alone a campaign. And to be clear: it is not possible to only play scenarios. Where board games have individual rounds, Gloomhaven has scenarios. A full game of Gloomhaven is not a single scenario, but at least half a dozen. It is only when characters advance, improve, grow and eventually retire that the game delivers what it sets out to do. Playing only scenarios is like only playing a few select turns of Carcassone or Pandemic. It just makes no sense.

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Spoiler alert: some of those standees will not survive the encounter

That said, the rules are pretty decent in general. The basics of the now familiar dungeoncrawler are all here: characters move and attack on a map of hexes, deal with terrain effects, and face an enemy AI that keeps you on your toes, etc. Instead of a die, an individual deck of cards allows for some randomness when attacking. This opens up nice ways of improving and customizing your character’s abilities later on. The card play and hand management when on a mission, takes some getting used to, but in turn adds a level of tactical play, that goes beyond mere positioning. Elements such as wind, air, fire, darkness, etc. are triggered by some actions and provide temporary resources for characters to draw upon, further expanding on ways of tactical group play. There are a lot of fine points spread throughout the rules that are clever or at least sensible design choices. But all this of course comes at a price: accessibility. If the size of the box didn’t make you stumble, the number of components didn’t make you swallow hard, and the length of play didn’t raise your eyebrows… rest assured this game makes Vast: The Crystal Caverns look like Lost Cities in comparison. By which I mean there is a lot to wrap your head around, and it takes a few scenarios to avoid making stupid mistakes.

But Georgios, you’re saying and probably pronouncing my name wrong, I can only make up my mind about Gloomhaven, if I know whether you will buy it! The short answer is: no, I won’t. The long answer is: this is simply not a game that fits into my gaming habits, schedule or group. For quite literally the same reasons, that I don’t play roleplaying games any more. I have neither the time, nor the inclination to regularly make my way through a game of this magnitude and bulkiness. The experience it provides lacks both the flexibility and the effortlessness that I get from a regular board game night. To reiterate this doesn’t make it a bad game, but a play experience distinctly different from board games, be they Ticket to Ride, Pandemic, The Others or Inis. Gloomhaven isn’t a game you play, but a roleplaying campaign you embark on.

Gloomhaven is a fascinating achievement of game design. It is the idealistic promise of Kickstarter made manifest. An unproven and radical vision lifted into existence by the faith of its target audience and somehow it all actually works. Wizards of the Coast / Hasbro should be paying very close attention to what Isaac Childres has done here and out of sheer courtesy offer him the development lead on the next edition of D&D.

The time of roleplaying games coming in three seperate core rulebooks, five supplements and oodles of accessory packs is over. You want to play a modern roleplaying game: it has to be Gloomhaven.

-Georgios

Insert Obscure Pop Reference Here – A Hein? review

This review was originally posted on the website of the Perfect Information podcast. It has been reposted here for archival purposes.

It’s not always easy to review a game. Sometimes it’s because you’re too dense to figure it out, even after reading the rulebook twenty times. Sometimes it’s because putting the undeniable strengths and the blatantly apparent weaknesses of a game into words seems to cause more confusion than clarity. Or sometimes it’s even because your opinion runs so hilariously counter to everybody else’s, that the task of carefully and clearly laying out the reasons why a game fails, and gearing up to defend and argue your position just isn’t really worth the bother.

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Hein? (or Huh?) fits none of these categories. This is a game that is hard to review, because its design seems so minimalistic that it is barely perceptible. Hein? is basically spoken Charades using a Dixit-like scoring method.

There. That’s it. Review over. If you know Charades and Dixit, you should know whether this game is for you. Or not.

No seriously, there’s little to say here. It’s like reviewing a re-themed version of Monopoly. Although, admittedly that comparison is a little off, since Monopoly is actually awful. (And I don’t care if people have fun with it or not. Arguing that Monopoly is in fact a good game, is like arguing that McDonald’s food is in fact healthy for you. It just isn’t. Stop deluding yourself. It really doesn’t matter how much you love any of their burgers.)

Admittedly, if there is one thing that can be said about Hein?… it is that it may not be ambitious enough in putting a new twist on an established idea. Yes, the scoring mechanism works very well. It gives players a challenge – vaguely reminiscent of Codenames – to tackle: reduce your hint to the absolute minimum and do it as subtly and cleverly as you can to make sure that as few people as possible actually catch on.

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This is – as they say – it.

By doing so, your attention is drawn to the game portion of Charades as opposed to the activity of prancing about urging your team to say “fish” instead of regurgitating the same three ways of calling Prince by name. You are trying to get into people’s heads, your mining your shared knowledge of pop culture (as this edition of Hein? deals exclusively with movies, celebrities and TV) and choose your words very, very carefully.

Of course, it goes without saying, that this only works if you care about scoring points at all. Something that a great many games of Charades quickly dispense with as the evening drags on, because yelling at each other is just so much gosh-darn fun.

But fun is something that Hein? actually does fairly competently. It’s not a game to revolutionise the outer fringes of board gaming, where aunts, uncles and grand-parents converge to indulge their “playful” side. Yet it is a decidedly non-painful way of playing a game with people who feel intimidated or uneasy in the presence of more than one die, actual artwork on a board or cards with more than one game-function to them.

Still, Hein? lacks the one special ingredient to make people sit up and take notice. The je-ne-sais-quoi of game design. Like suggesting to play Twister in mixed company. (Or if I were still in puberty: non-mixed company.)

hein-prismaAs it is, Hein? is a perfectly servicable, arguably superiour alternative to a basic parlor or trivia game. It’s not a ground-breaking, must-have addition to people’s collection. It’s a great gift to bring to your in-laws, even if it won’t get them excited or interested in some of the more unique pleasures of board gaming. And maybe that’s ok. Not every game that is good, needs to be ground-breaking and redefine its genre. Sometimes good is good enough.

-Georgios

By Which We Measure Our Pain – An Inspire: Works of Mercy review

This review was originally posted on the website of the Perfect Information podcast. It has been reposted here for archival purposes.

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When I stumbled over Inspire: Works of Mercy in my preparation for Spiel 2016 I was intrigued by the hook of the game: you go out to help people in need. Not in a somewhat abstracted, top-level manner where you eradicate dangerous diseases before they spread out and cause harm. Nor in that almost superheroic manner where you drag a young woman (and later her dog) out of a burning building before it collapses on top of you. Instead you reach out to people who are homeless, who suffer from addiction or depression. You reach out and try to help them. The problems in this game are normal life-type issues. This grounds the game, makes it relatable and to be honest… kind of awesome.

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Photo by Sławek Wiechowski

Unfortunately the rest of the game’s ideas are hopelessly outdated and barely functional. You lay out cards in a 5×5 grid, representing people that need help and people that may support you in helping others. In order to move your cube towards one of the people in need, you roll a die. In order to help them, you need to spend resources depicted on the card you landed on, which you get by first moving to one of the corner spaces of the play area and rolling a die. In the tradition of such game design luminaries as Snakes & Ladders or Monopoly, dice make all relevant decisions for you.

To be fair, the game does have a kernel of two good ideas buried within it. The card piles of “people in need” and “helpers”, that make up the play area, are both are face down, so you don’t know what awaits you when you end your turn there. Some cards have arrows on them, that add costs to moving off of them in a specific direction. This could have been used to make movement a clever and engaging little puzzle. But since the cards are set up in an alternating pattern, it only matters if you’ve rolled an odd or even number. Odd numbers will move you onto a different card type, even numbers will move you onto the same card type you started on.

The other kernel of a good idea is the introduction of an “everybody loses” ending to the game to encourage cooperation among players. When you reveal a person in need that you can’t help, other players may spend their resources to keep the card from being discarded. If they don’t, the card is removed from the game, and once you’ve discarded 7 cards this way, everybody loses. But since players are actually capable of counting, this threat is both toothless and easily ignored.

Basically, the game is not very good. It replaces decision-making with randomness, and the short bursts of enjoyment when you can claim to have helped a lonely old man by showing an interest in him, and giving him a gift… are simply not enough to keep you engaged for the 20 minutes it takes to play this game.

Which means now is about the right time to talk about the game’s central idea: Christianity.

Inspire is clearly not supposed to be played as a game, to foster social interaction, to create a space for play or even appeal to the puzzle-solving or challenge-seeking player. Inspire exists to promote Christianity. Most likely Roman Catholicism, since that is the most wide-spread strand of Christianity in Poland.

In fairness, it’s not particularly shy or coy about it. The box comes with a small booklet named “Message of the Game” and has short descriptions of the historical and fictional characters featured on the cards. As well as an “inspiring” (Get it? Get it? Did you get it?) opening chapter that talks about the power of mercy, and God’s love… and possibly accepting Jesus as your lord and saviour. (I am not sure about the last part actually, my booklet was badly miscut.)

Honestly, all of this isn’t much of an issue – assuming that you don’t have any particularly complicated feelings towards organised religion. You could insist that a depression isn’t cured with a nice chat, a gift and a job offer. Which is all true. But then, neither do you plant and harvest a wheat field by putting one worker in it. Nor does the crop double in size, because you send their brother after them. Call it abstraction or simplification, but it would seem strange to criticize Inspire for doing what all games do.

Sure, you could also get offended that being a non-conformist (“rebellious”), an atheist or an orphan is treated as a personal crisis akin to unemployment, homelessness or addiction. Yet a game like Chaos in the Old World rewards you for murdering innocent peasants and we treat it as a non-event and trivial fiction.

Because it is.

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Only a man who is spiritually empty would be proud of that haircut.

Actual murder is awful and harrowing. Rolling a 4-6 and removing a piece of cardboard from the table… is not. Whether a card says Atheist or Conservative doesn’t really matter. Sure, in reality one means that you’ve given your soul over to eternal damnation and abandoned what moral compass you had, and the other that you don’t believe in the existence of god(s)… but in the end it’s only words. We don’t celebrate murder, because we slaughter peasants for points; nor do we assume atheists are deeply unhappy people, because we get to “help” them in this game.

Ultimately the idea of helping people in need is great and fun. Inspire is at least respectful enough of non-Christians (the atheist card notwithstanding), that the tokens used to aid people have a religion-themed name and a secular name. Prayer is also conversation. Word of God is also “kind word”. You can easily fill in the thematic negative space with a narrative about how you had a heartfelt conversation, gave somebody a gift or spend some time together to help them turn their life around.

Whatever good intention of promoting kindness, solidarity and compassion might have found an outlet in people turning to the bible, which in turn led to the creation of this game… Inspire’s design simply falls short of capturing anything but the most superficial details of it all. The act of helping people becomes rote and mechanical as you play. There is no uncertainty, no risk of failure, no sacrifice. The ennobling act of helping the helpless is instead replaced with players reading out a card’s flavour text, i.e. quote from the Bible, as if it were a game of Arkham Horror.

Inspire is simply not very good. The rules fail to coalesce into an interesting game. It is not even a good piece of Christian marketing, but possibly on par with a typical issue of The Watchtower.

Minus the long-form articles.

And centrefold.

Inspire’s game is pasted on and that is how it undoes whatever missionary purpose it was supposed to have. It doesn’t fail, because it’s religious, but because the game fails to promote the values with which Christianity promotes itself.

Georgios Draws First Blood – Star Trek: Ascendancy

This review was originally posted on the website of the Perfect Information podcast. It has been reposted here for archival purposes.

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It’s a big box promising big ideas

There are many ways for a game to achieve greatness. It can have rules so refined and precise that they seem impossibly simple and effective (Flamme Rouge). Its design can boldly break new ground to excite and mesmerize (Vast: The Crystal Caverns). The game’s presentation might be so vivid and inviting, that you can’t help but want to dive in and play it (Seasons). Or it may reliably produce a memorable and fun experience every time you get it to the table (Hoax). Actually, there is no limit to the way in which a game can be great and each year you’re bound to come upon a game that is great in a whole new way.

Star Trek: Ascendancy, sadly, only makes it halfway to greatness. The potential for a milestone in licensed board gaming is there. But in what might be the most heart-breaking failure to capitalize on what a game’s design can do, Ascendancy squanders it all when you enter the mid-game.

I cannot overstate just how effortlessly and elegantly the opening act of Ascendancy manages to encapsulate that unique Star Trek feel. The sense of wonder and exploration as your intrepid spaceships go forth to find new planets, interstellar phenomena and new civilizations isn’t achieved by some mind-blowing feat of new ideas. It uses familiar mechanics and it just plain works. More than that, it sings. In the most basic terms, it’s really not all that different from the way you explore the haunted mansion in Betrayal at House on the Hill. Random dice rolls determine distances between star systems and blind card draws determine what you encounter on planets. As an aside, the way that the concept of Warp speed is dealt with in this game – namely allowing you to skip systems if your ship or fleet sits out a few turns – is ingeniously thematic, yet easy to grasp. But all this isn’t something you haven’t seen before. Yet the visual presentation, the references to Trek lore and the suddenness with which exploring ships can simply be lost to the vastness of space make the whole thing crackle with excitement. This is exploration: pure and simple.

It’s also quite interesting, that when Star Wars Rebellion felt more like a remixed version of the movies, Star Trek Ascendancy feels far more like your own take on the Trek universe. The planets, nebulas and events have far less narrative baggage, so when Risa or Deneb V are placed on your table, it doesn’t come across like a re-edit of the series and is instead simply an Alpha Quadrant that is uniquely yours.

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Earth’s backyard is wondrous and full of dangers. And parties on Risa!

Soon enough exploration turns into expansion. You start colonizing distant planets. You begin to expand your cultural influence to make other civilizations join your side. Your presence in space becomes more and more pronounced. The rush and excitement of the opening act gives way to a very traditional area control game. Resources generated at the end of the turn are invested into new buildings, increasing your resource output which allow you to invest said resources in further expanding your presence in the galaxy.

Expansion then quickly evolves into exploitation as your colonized planets start to produce resources for you. Your options widen and allow you to dive into research to get extra abilities, or improve the combat capabilities of your fleet. You can build bigger and bigger fleets. You start collecting victory points.

And this is where the game begins to falter. Because victory points (i.e. culture tokens) are automatically generated in every culture building you control at the end of every round. Which means, much like the highly criticized Imperial I strategy card in Twilight Imperium, that gives you 2 VP each turn for free, the game doesn’t really need much in the way of decision-making to advance you. You simply build as many VP-generating buildings as you can, and then sit and wait.

But the game doesn’t really go completely off the rails, until – ironically – you enter First Contact. That is to say, the first time one of your explored systems connects to one of another player, the game opens up a new layer: direct player interaction. What should be the crowning jewel of any reasonably complex or just any 4X game: the last surge of energy to propel the game into an epic finale… instead turns Ascendancy into a petty squabble over real estate. If the first half of the game is a sandbox that is yours to shape, the endgame is all about trampling other people’s sand castles out of spite with invasions, massive destruction of fleets and razed planetary surfaces.

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In this new episode the Federation goes to war with the Romulan empire over a community theatre and two dairy farms

In what is the most jarring tonal mismatch between theme and license, Star Trek Ascendancy ends as a simplistic, generic wargame where fleets of ships clash into one another, players chuck handful of dice across the table to obliterate the enemy and invade colonies. Because if Star Trek is known, remembered and loved for one thing it is the carnage of its epic space battles and the fighting over territory. When I think Star Trek, I think space war.

It is heart-breaking to see such a pitch perfect opening give way to what is basically Risk. And in 2017 that’s just not good enough. It’s not even one of the recent iterations of Risk. It’s basically a dusty old copy from your uncle’s attic, with all the mission cards missing, a tattered rulebook and most of the pieces replaced by some distant cousin’s Napoleonic wargame tokens from the late 1960s.

But it’s rage-inducingly frustrating because the solution, and the return to a game that is in line with what people love about Star Trek, is so apparent. VP could have been based on completed objectives, like in Twilight Imperium. They could have been based on playing to type, in the way that advancement tokens are awarded in Chaos in the Old World. Imagine a Star Trek game, where you explore planets and then try to deal with planetary crises, espionage plots, outside threats and diplomatic missions to stabilise the quadrant as you all compete for hegemony. THAT is the Trek game I want. That is the Trek game that would bring all the boys (and girls) to the yard.

Star Trek Ascendancy has fantastic production values. It starts off promising and is then content to just let you turtle as you accrue VP, or play a game of Risk. Whoever at Gale Force Nine was responsible for the creative decision to have every game culminate in large-scale fleet battles has badly misjudged the appeal and draw of the Trek license. And while an argument could be made that this is a case of a license being stretched to fit the demands of the 4X-genre, you have to ask yourself why that would be necessary in the first place. The hobby has more than enough great 4X games already, but there is a definite dearth of great Trek games. Even now, with Star Trek Ascendancy on the market.

-Georgios

Eenie Meanie Miney Moe – A Covenant/El Pacto review

This review was originally posted on the website of the Perfect Information podcast. It has been reposted here for archival purposes.

Now that we are about to firmly plant our feet in this post-truth society, we’re reminded of the many tasks that will provide entirely new challenges to us. Like deducing the culprit of a crime. Luckily Gen-X Games have provided us with a clever little card game to help us in framing some poor sap and taking down an entire district in our play to become the power behind the throne. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

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Who’s a good little killer/patsy?

That game is called Covenant – El pacto. And if you want to be glib and reductive about it, it’s essentially memory cross-bred with a take-that game. But that’s selling a good game short. While El pacto does not have the fancy components or artstyle with which other publishers attempt to spruce up a merely decent game into a serious investment, Gen-X have managed to condense a reliable little fun generator into two deck of cards.

But if it’s just a slightly reworked game of memory why is it worth talking about? Does it still provide anything of interest to the sophisticated ludicate (ludicure? ludoist? Ludmilla?) Surprisingly – or less so if you’re familiar with cheap rhetorical tricks – it does. There is fun to be had screwing people out of their carefully assembled row of cards, while chasing after that one card that will score you an additional couple of VP.

So how does it all fit together? The two decks of cards portray the various unique inhabitants of the gothic dieselpunk city of Whatever-It-Is-Ville. One of whom will end up framed for murder, and take out the player who houses them – i.e. disqualify that player for the endgame. One deck is spread out face down on the table, the other is evenly distributed into the hands of the players. On their turn each player will play a card in front of them, executing its effect if there is one. They will look at one of the face-down cards, then reveal one of the face-down cards. Not necessarily the same one, mind you. If a revealed card matches one of the already played cards, this character has proven their innocence. They will not be framed and drag their player into ruin or the shameful darkness of “NO VP FOR YOU!”. This keeps going until all cards are played and/or three cards or less remain face-down on the table. Of those cards left, one is determined to be the murderer and whoever has that character in play in front of them is disqualified. Then it’s just adding up the VP that each played character provides, possibly increased by additionally fulfilling your secret objective. Said objective card deals out extra VP for either having specific characters or a certain set of character types in front of you.

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Somebody’s gonna go home angry. Or dead.

Really, the VP mechanics are neither unique or mind-blowingly different. What they are is solid and reliable. What makes the game interesting – or a random waste of time depending on your ratio of stick-to-posterior – is the way that cards get routinely swapped, switched or flipped over, thus making it more or less likely for one player to end up with the murderer in their midst. But since nothing is final until the last card has been turned, there is always a chance of escaping the unforgiving sting of defeat.

Covenant is not a deeply strategic game. The important bits of information about the game state aren’t fixed until close to the end of the game. You may know the position of two of your “unsafe” cards in front of you, but any player may reveal one of them to save you, or reveal one of the others to unintentionally help somebody else. Over-the-table talk helps, but then there is fairly little to gain from helping another player, so there really isn’t much you can offer to get what you want.

The upside of this being that the game remains in a constant state of flux, with each turn narrowing down the number of ways it could end. It’s almost impossible to predict who will get disqualified until it actually happens. You are just continually removing and reducing the window of possible resolutions to the game.

While the game starts off as a memory variant, it morphs into hot potato by the end of it as players push and pull unsafe characters back and forth between one another. And that is fun and funny. There is back and forth, take that and laugh-out-loud moments when a card is turned over only to be something completely unexpected. The one criticism I would level at the game, is that its presentation is a tonal mismatch between what you experience and what you see. The art is moody, slightly creepy and dark. (The 5-player variant that includes a cow as a possible murderer notwithstanding). But gameplay is silly, surprising and dynamic. The iconography of the card effects even suggests a far more involved and tactical game than what you get. And if you pick up the box expecting a brain-burner or a game of advanced strategies you will be disappointed.

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The fun just never stops with these guys…

Covenant isn’t a dumb game, but it is sillier than its presentation suggests. A slightly better than decent filler, that is just obscure enough to garner curious looks from your gaming friends.

-Georgios

Entirely fake edit: the game’s backstory is actually quite a bit more po-faced and mystical, but playing a game of lying liars and the lies they tell seemed entirely appropriate. And kind of what the game morphed into when I sat down to play it 🙂

Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves – A Come to Fishing Village review

This review was originally posted on the website of the Perfect Information podcast. It has been reposted here for archival purposes.

Hello and welcome to our little village by the sea. Thank you for visiting. We have much that is promising here. Like a thriving fishing industry spearheaded by some of our most talented and motivated young fisherwomen. But we also have plenty of hard-working women in our factories, making sure that we can produce the machines that make our living so luxurious. And who could forget our plentiful job opportunities in our retail and service industry, or our agricultural industry. This village of ours is surely going places. Don’t mind the young men in suits and aviators, they are merely land developers that are speculating on our property. Yes, they have in the past lured young families from settling here, but we are determined to turn our village into a community to be proud of. So please… Come to Fishing Village.

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トーホクウィステリア

Some people seem to argue that there are more than enough cooperative games out there, and while they are not entirely wrong: Come to Fishing Village presents something interestingly unique. An accessible cooperative card-game with few rules and friendly artwork. It is unlikely to uproot any of the giants of this genre, but if you enjoy the art style and the idea of opposing suit-wearing land developers draining the life out of your community… this game might be worth your while.

When I talk about Fishing Village being accessible, I must add that I don’t necessarily refer to the rulebook. Once again, terminology does a lot to both challenge your understanding of the rules and the appreciation of the game play. One of the core mechanics of the game is called “book closing” and refers to fulfilling specific conditions with the cards in your tableau. Had it been simply called “demand” or “contract”, things would probably flow much easier.

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The many happy faces of Fishing Village!

But once you’ve wrapped your mind around fulfilling these challenges or risk people leaving your village for good, the game is pretty straightforward. Play cards into your tableau, play them to get rid of land developers, reduce your population to draw new cards or complete a challenge. If you succeed at the latter new people move into your village! YAY! New cards move into your hand! SUPER-YAY! New land developers come to beset your attempts to make life better for everyone. DAMN! They will even chase off people from your tableau if you’re not careful. SUPER-DAMN!

In play, the game is most reminiscent of a board-less Pandemic lite variant. You need to manage your hand cleverly, and choose whether to discard cards to benefit you later or discard them to remove an obstacle (the afore-mentioned land developers). It is just as easily grokked once you’ve played a turn or two, and you spent most of your time coordinating your efforts in an efficient way to complete challenges. Even strategic losses are part of the tactics you will use to win the game.

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Kick enough people out of their homes, and you too could become a menace to civilization!

So… ringing endorsement, then? Not quite. For all its accessibility in its rules, Manga-style cuteness and strong theme, the game ultimately ends up a little dry and mathematical. There are no sudden upsets or surprises waiting for you. The challenges you face are all fairly similar and none of them too unexpected.

Whereas in Pandemic the wheel of fate would occasionally come crashing down on cities you’ve prematurely deemed safe, Fishing Village only puts more obstacles in your way but doesn’t set you back.

In some ways, this might be the game’s strength. People who feel intimidated by the rules of cooperative games in the vein of Pandemic (or Hanabi; let alone Space Cadets!), this might be a good way to ease them into the fun that cooperative games can provide. For people who are used to rougher and less forgiving waters… Come to Fishing Village might feel a little too safe and family-friendly.

-Georgios