Ava: Sit down, esteemed guests, grab a stool and join us for the launch of the Literary Review of Games News. The place to go for the wittiest, smuggiest, and dare I say the most Lacanian dissection of play this side of Freud’s own daycare centre.
Tom: Brace yourselves for some nuanced analysis, enlightening discourse and an intellectual rigour that hasn’t been seen since my failure to get into art school.
Ava: I mean we’re just going to name drop a bunch of fancy theorists, talk in a haughty voice and smoke French cigarettes, right?
Tom: Don’t tell them that! The important thing is that we’ll feel superior.
Ava: We will. Let’s get to the news, dear friend.
Ava: It’s been a big week for big kickstarters, with the most inevitable of them all kicking our start first.
Return to Dark Tower is Restoration Games’ take on Dark Tower, a 1981 Milton Bradley fantasy adventure game with an ominous electronic tower and a gadget for inputting your moves so the tower can respond. Return to Dark Tower updates the electronics, adds an app, and is designed by Isaac Childres and Rob Daviau, designer and co-designer of the top two games on BoardGameGeek. They’re the very definition of a safe pair of (pairs of) hands (of hands?). The game’s been in development and hype-generation for over two years. So it’s no surprise this has garnered well over two million dollars in support.
Restoration Games’ approach of ‘try to remake something as exciting as you remember it, not how it actually was’ is such a strong approach to quasi-curatorial nostalgia-mining. I’ve got a lot of trust in what the designer of Gloomhaven will do with a fantasy battle, and I think while Rob Daviau’s back catalogue is a little inconsistent, he’s also an incredibly experienced curator, adapter and restorationer.
I don’t remember the original, and I can’t see much to get excited about, or at least not 100 bucks of excited about. But this is partly because my passion for Mage Knight runs so deep that I tend to look harshly on anything that’s ploughing a similar adventure furrow. I do the same thing with area control games and El Grande, if I’ve seen a perfect iteration of a genre, I struggle to get excited by anything close.
Tom: The Kickstarter video is something else. How can you not be excited when we’re getting the collaboration we’ve all been waiting for – between ‘TOWER, APP AND TABLE’? Will a combination of three inanimate objects create one palpably alive experience?
Ava: ‘THE APP IS THE GAME’S SOUL’ bellows the earnest narrator. I would like to see more games promising ephemeral sentience from components. We just don’t see enough cardboard Carthesian duality.
Ava: I feel a bit naughty having snuck this into the games news twice before, on account of the excellent design diaries, but now the Kickstarter is officially online, it would be rude to turn down a chance to talk about Oath.
Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile is an incredibly ambitious pitch from Cole Wehrle and Leder Games, with art by Root’s Kyle Ferrin. Cole promises an ongoing emergent campaign, where each game’s winner becomes the chancellor and founder of the next game and generation. Players either take the side of the chancellor as citizens of the commonwealth, or skirt around the edges as exiles. Exiles have more flexibility, but have to win alone, the commonwealth can win as a collective, with final victory going to citizen with the best reputation. With dramatic combat and political nuance agogo, I’m really quite excited, but then Cole’s wargaming background and taste for the unusual is exactly what gets my thrills blazing.
That said, I think it’s a tough pitch to land. I’ve read about twenty bazillion words about the game now, finding out about its six suits, its closed economies, its landscapes, the way you store a game between sessions, its combat and its victory conditions, and I’ve still very little idea how it actually plays. I’m thrilled by the possibilities though, and I suspect it’s going to do big business purely on the basis of being the same designer and illustrator and publisher as Root.
Tom: I feel like Oath might land in a similar place to Root, in the sense of being a game that’s more fun to think about than it is to play. And that’s… kind of okay? I half remember hearing Cole talk about this approach to design on the ‘Space Cats Peace Turtles’ podcast and it’s altered my perceptions of his games. If Oath can spur Root-esque discussions about design, balance, winning and fairness within my group of relatively ‘casual’ gamers, then it’s a game that’s achieved its intention, and is therefore good? This is all getting a bit Barthesian.
Ava: Please don’t kill the author, Tom.
Tom: They were dead from the start.
Ava: Roland would be rolling in his grave.
Tom: It’s what he wouldn’t have wanted.
Ava: Not every massive crowdfunded box is full of battles, some people just want to build.
Foundations of Rome looks like a cross between Lords of Vegas, Bingo, and Stanley Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, only the empire is rising and inclining, and actually mostly just a load of columns.
Players start with a full buffet of buildings, and a few cards that grant them ownership of vacant lots in the Roman city centre of, erm, Rome. Players will hustle for points while they build a classical metropolis. Absent the barracking and bartering of Chinatown or Lords of Vegas, this looks a little on the thin side, but designer Emerson Matsuuchi (Specter Ops and the Century series) has a strong eye, so this could be one to watch.
Tom: It took me fourteen scrolls of the mouse to crush the dense plastic shell of the Kickstarter page so that I might feast upon the gooey rules within; the sheer number of tiny plastic buildings in this one could fuel an entire Matmos album with room to spare. Rome might not have been built in a day, but it was completely funded in one hour.
Ava: When the Music Plastique hits the Music Concrete, you know you’ve got a winner.
Tom: Wait, is that the victory condition.
Ava: No, Tom. We’re being pretentious remember?
Ava: One final Kickstarter for today, on a slightly different scale, because I like it.
Last Fleet is a new roleplaying game from Josh Fox. It promises to take players on the classic sci fi adventure of being the last remaining humans, in a ragtag fleet of spaceships, running from some ominous awful. Yup, that’s right, It’s a Battlestar Galactica simulator (but also not). In a pleasing nod to that series, Last Fleet offers character archetype playbooks based on the star signs of the sidereal zodiac. It’s ‘powered by the apocalypse’ which means it should share some of the simplicity, ruggedness and ethos of Apocalypse World and its vampiric sibling Monsterhearts.
My most unfashionable opinion (and I’ll be honest, there’s some stiff competition) is that Caprica was better than the show it spun off from, but I still think the last surviving exiles is such a classic sci-fi trope that I’m really excited to see this in action.
Tom: According to the Kickstarter, you’ll ‘fight space battles, search for enemy infiltrators, tackle supply shortages and navigate faction politics’ – so far so sci-fi, I’m hoping for some big stompy robots and slimy aliens and perhaps a Star Wars reskin and and and
Ava: Is this all not a bit, well, obvious?
Tom: Oh, *ahem*, sorry, I meant that I uh, wish that the sci-fi genre returned to its origins of examining sociopolitical struggle through a lens of magical realism, making traditionally obscurant discourse more available to the ‘average’ consumer.
Ava: in what might just be a soft launch for a new edition.
Cosmic Encounter: Duel is a new two player variant of Fantasy Flight’s infamous wild ride of asymmetrical bluster, Cosmic Encounter. The stripped down game sees players battling over a series of planets, trying to be the first to land five ships in a series of space duels. For each battle players decide whether to attack or defend, what tactics to use, and how many ships you’ll put on the line. And of course, it wouldn’t be Cosmic Encounter without each player starting off as some kind of game breaking monster. You also have the opportunity to make friends with non-player aliens to pull off even more bold maneuvers
A lot rides on whether Cosmic’s well known unevenness can be made to feel fair in a two player game without completely removing the ridiculousness that makes the bigger game such fun. Without allies and enemies to tilt the game away from an over-powered alien draw, it’s a much tougher pitch.
On the other hand, the new art is gloriously bright and cheerful, and if a new edition is coming, I can’t say I wouldn’t be tempted. There was always something a little odd about an absurdist piece of ludic theatre having alien illustrations that were often actually terrifying.
Ava: I’ve fallen quite hard for Imhotep in the last few months. It’s a ruthless, spiteful, simple game that elicits groans of grump and precise passive-aggression pretty efficiently. So I’m excited that it too is getting a duel variant.
Imhotep: The Duel, from Phil Walker-Harding will have players sending people into a kind of noughts and crosses shipping district. Once a row or column is filled, the boat at the end will be sent off, with the goods on board distributed to the people sitting in the relevant spots. This means that when you’re placing your initial people, you don’t know whether they’ll end up collecting the row or column bonus. It’s an intriguing take on Imhotep’s core decision: whether you’re willing to cede control of what you get in order to get more of it. It might just work!
Tom: In these last two pieces we’ve seen the inherent duality of dueling duels. The Manichean desire of publishers to restructure every form into a struggle between dialectical forces. Darkness and light, Us and the Other, the phallocentric obelisk against the yonic cosmic void.
Ava: Are you trying to say Cosmic Encounter and Imhotep have done the dirty and had little dueling babies?
Tom: No, Ava, I’m IMPLYING that.
Ava: Ah, good good. This is a family show, after all.
What’s a whatnot? Well. I’ll tell you what a whatnot was not, and that’s a game. Except now it is.
The Whatnot Cabinet is coming soon from Steve Finn, Eduardo Baraaf and Beth Sobel, the card game hit squad that bought us Herbaceous and Sunset over Water (although I still think Biblios is Dr Finn’s finest hour, even with the dourer art) alongside Keith Matejka and Kim Robinson. The Whatnot Cabinet is a game of set collecting and tile laying about building collections of whatnots, doohickeys, thingummies and oddments.
Once again we’re seeing something making the news just because I just love words. Although I think they missed a trick. As I was looking this up, someone leaned over my shoulder and asked if by whatnot they meant the piece of furniture. I had no idea what they meant, and googled it, and it’s true! A whatnot is a tiered shelving unit for storing your whatnots on. They could have called this game the whatnot whatnot and they didn’t.
Tom: Ava, you’ve definitely gone more Dr Seuss than Doctor of Philosophy here.
Ava: It all depends on what whatnot you put on the whatnot, my dear. As you can no doubt see, this is actually Rene Magritte’s very own pipe.
Tom: No it isn’t.
Tom: In slightly news-adjacent news, this article from France24 about ‘Kapital’, a board game that mysteriously sold 10,000 copies in three weeks, has captured my attention. Dare I suggest that a Marxist reading of the board would suggest an implicit commentary on class struggle and social injustice – thus explaining the widespread popularity of the game in a time of immense social upheaval?
Ava: It literally says that in the article.
Tom: My thesis! It’s ruined!
Ava: Kapital!, designed by husband and wife duo Michel and Monique Pinçon-Charlot, has one player start in a far superior position to everyone else around the table, simulating lines in the inherited sand between rich and poor. Every player’s goal is to eventually drag themselves into a central ‘tax haven’, but of course the game is rigged from the start – it’s like Monopoly but without even the suggestion of being entertaining.
Tom: And that’s all for the games news this week – there’s no required reading for next week, but doing some of your own research may be useful for the upcoming assignment.
Ava: Wait, we’ve been in an educational establishment this whole time?
Tom: Let’s face it Ava, no-one outside the lit-critosphere truly cares about any of this. Ultimately the work done in the theoretical space struggles to drive real change of thought outside of its own narrow sphere of interest. We’re trapped in an echo chamber of our own smug intellectualism.
Ava: No, YOU’RE trapped in an echo chamber of your own smug intellectualism. I’m just smoking this pipe I stole from a dead Frenchman.
Tom: Magritte was Belgian actually.
Ava: Then whose damn pipe am I smoking?