Paul: Dear Readers, did you know that Games News is the exact opposite of the Battle of Hastings? It’s true. Rather than fearing the invading Norman (news) hordes, we beckon them onto our beaches, wave them toward us and are delighted when they fire new games right into our eyes.
How else can we find out about such fine titles as A Handful of Stars?
Somehow, we’ve missed this two years running now, as there were whispers of it at both last year’s Spiel and another preview at this year’s show. Though I wouldn’t say that many of designer Martin Wallace’s games have made a huge impact on us yet, it’s impossible to ignore the work of this hugely prolific man, who’s worked on everything from A Study in Emerald to Via Nebula to Ankh-Morpork. A Handful of Stars may be his most interesting project yet, too.
It’s a deckbuilder inspired by his excellent A Few Acres of Snow and which surely also takes some cues from Race for the Galaxy. Your hand of cards are spaceships that let you colonise planets and explore the board in front of you, or they can instead be played in battle, meaning you’re always weighing up whether to use them for in one role or another. Anything inspired by A Few Acres of snow is going to get my nose wiggling and, now that this is on the way to the shops, this is something I’m very keen to try. (A quick edit! As per the comments below, it seems this had a small release in Europe earlier this year. Treefrog’s website only has pre-order options available, as do the retailers I’ve been looking at, but it sounds like there are already a few copies in wild. Thanks for letting me know!)
We also almost missed news of Riverboat, already sailing straight for release later this month, courtesy of Mayfair Games. This game of riverside farming along the Mississippi has a strong scent of tile-and-worker placement, the familiar odour of card drafting and something of a whiff of Castles of Burgundy in there. What’s nuzzled my nostrils most about this one is the designer, Michael Kiesling, whose other work includes the pleasing Porta Nigra and shiny Azul, the latter an abstract game that, against all odds, is /seriously/ growing on me (a review is on its way).
The early pictures of Riverboat look a little drab in comparison to those two, but Kiesling’s portfolio is a pretty diverse one and I’d be interested to see what this is like. I have only one reservation: “Riverside farming” in the 1800s immediately makes me think of slavery and I can’t tell if Riverboat is set in a context where that wouldn’t be relevant, or if it’s trying to brush over the issue.
Over on BoardGameGeek, Eric Martin has been sharing his post-Spiel experiences at a lesser-known con in Lucca, Italy, where a large part of the town has been invaded by games and comics fans. He writes about seeing lot of familiar games repackaged and marketed in new ways, but peer a little closer and you’ll spot a host of Italian titles, as the con hosts a design contest every year.
I’m always interested to see the communities and titles that develop outside of the English-speaking world and Lucca seems to have a significant cardboard contingent. Look at those titles! Zoo Police! “In Zoo Police every player is an animal-policeman.” I would play that! Can I be a bear detective? I would definitely sniff out some clues (and would love to sniff out a copy, since it seems to have had a limited English language release). He’s also posted a follow-up with some favourite cosplay. If you could cosplay a board game, what would that be?
On a more serious but equally Italian note, recently reprinted The Voyages of Marco Polo finally has a substantial expansion on the way. The Agents of Venice will add a new board, room for a fifth player and a bunch of special, one-use companions. The Voyages of Marco Polo didn’t impress us quite enough when we reviewed it last month, but could an expansion change our minds? Well, we’re never fans of having to pay even more money to make a game better.
You know what is a better reprint? Modern Art. And now there’s an even better reprint of that reprint! (It’s reprints all the way down, an abyss that, if you stare into it long enough, will stare back with… weird abstract paintings that look like a badger’s bum.) Oink Games have created their own edition of the Knizia Classic, which includes work by artists like Piet Mondrian and Tarō Okamoto, as well as contributions from the Able Art Company, a Japanese collective that advocates for artists with disabilities.
It also comes with a tiny easel that you can mount them on while you auction them, as if you were selling to a room of discerning mice. It’s all very pretty indeed, but there is the slight drawback that, even though Oink Games are a Japanese publisher, this is only being printed in German and distributed in central Europe. Right now, this is one for German speakers or dedicated collectors.
Over in the wild woods of Kickstarter, the silliest competitor clawing for crowdfunding cash this week must surely be Stumped, a game of both deck-building and /tree-building/. I love how the pitch video is so overly-dramatic, with its insistence that the “FIRST TO TEN LEAVES WINS” in this game of “VARIETY” but also “BETRAYAL”, but I also very much appreciate that building a real wooden tree is more than just a gimmick.
Beyond the extra slapstick you get from, say, playing a card that lets you try to flick someone else’s leaves off, Stumped is also trying to address a common deficiency in deck-building games by featuring much more player interaction. It’s still something so many games of this kind fall short on.
Speaking of trees, I wasn’t immediately interested in Root, the game of asymmetric woodland warfare, but after discovering that it comes from Leder game (publisher of the inventive Vast: The Crystal Caverns) and is the work of designer Cole Wehrle (also behind the complex economic game John Company), I thought I should take a closer look. “Animals that band together to fight” has always been a bit of an odd game concept, but I suppose there are enough people out there who want to make fluffy things murder each other. With Roots, they can do that and so much more.
The invasive cats are trying to settle in the forest, while the bird collective have a roster of different leaders that affect their strategies, while the Woodland Alliance gradually grow in strength as they cook up conspiracies. Then there’s the Vagabond faction, who can just strut about wherever they want, earning victory points by helping other players, meaning they’re constantly working all sides of the conflict.
If wars without paws are your preferred flavour of fighting, it’s impossible to ignore the growing success of WAR ROOM, by Larry Harris, the designer of the venerable Axis & Allies series (and, let’s never forget, G.I. JOE Commando Attack). Larry wants you to fight through World War II once again. He also wants to sit on a tank for you.
Just like Axis & Allies, this is a game of globe-spanning grand strategy that, at up to six hours play time, is actually longer than the war it represents. There are THOUSANDS of components in the box, more than there were bullets fired during the conflict, and the map is bigger than the earth itself. It’s so intimidatingly huge, but I do like how it’s about issuing simultaneous orders and then perhaps finding your armies have completely failed to connect, rushing past each other to capture industrial resources, but forgetting to actually fight.
Is it exciting, though? It’s gigantic and complex, for sure, but it also looks dry and Risk-like: if you have momentum and you’re winning, is there enough here to keep things competitive and exciting, or do you have to spend an hour watching yourself get steamrollered like Wile E. Coyote?
Before I leap back into the news fray, fighting for more tips and leads, let me leave you with this story of how the cast of Murder on the Orient Express have become big fans of Werewolf. Apparently, Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem introduced people like Daisy Ridley and Willem Dafoe to this game of callous colleage consumption.
I’m not surprised, mind. More than one little bird has told me that board games are increasingly popular among actors (our special cameo star, the lovely Bruce Harwood, has told me he’s been enjoying some this year, I’ve seen Westworld cast members tweet about them and I know Orphan Black is full of games fans, as was Mad Men). Are you an actor who plays games between takes, or to break the ice, or even as a warm-up exercise? Let us know. We’re curious.