Quinns: Good news, everybody! This month I was flown to America to talk at NYU’s unparallelled Practice conference, which meant it was only a cheap flight to Texas’s BoardGameGeek convention. I’d never been to a real-life American board game con, and it was full of surprises!
I picked up my badge and gun at the registration desk on the Thursday. As a first timer, I was only entitled to a Colt Single Action Army, but I wasn’t looking for trouble. I was looking for the best board games that were available to play here in the USA for the very first time. Stepping through the revolving doors, I tipped my hat at a table of strangers, and sat down for a game of Rampage.
RAMPAGE by Ludovic Maublanc and Antoine Bauza
I had to stop breathing for a while when I first heard about this one. Rampage is new a dexterity game from the sickeningly multi-talented Antoine Bauza (of Seven Wonders and Ghost Stories fame) where players each control a giant monster working to gobble up whole city blocks.
My game of it has revealed that it’s at once simpler and richer than I expected. On your turn, you can do two actions from a list of four. Move, by picking up your monster and flicking the disk representing its feet. Blow on the board, by placing your chin ON YOUR MONSTER’S HEAD. Drop your heavy monster token on a building you’re stood next to, representing you tearing it apart. Or pick up a wooden car and “throw it” by flicking it off your monster’s head. Again.
There are just a couple of very simple rules that I was missing. The first is that if your monster token ever leaves the board, or too many little wooden people get knocked off the board on your turn, you lose the “teeth” from your monster’s mouth that measure your people-eating skills. This immediately changes Rampage from a dumb game into an agonising one, as players work to disassemble buildings with the wincing meticulousness of a professional demolition crew.
Throw in a ton of cards that’ll change your monster utterly each time (I was a “softy” monster who didn’t want to lose his teeth, with tiny wings), and plenty of room from skill shots, and you have something fairly joyous. Specifically, in the final turn I managed to score a couple of extra points by beaning a monster on the other side of the city with an ambulance, causing the whole table to erupt in cheers. Except the owner of the monster in question, course. He tried to draw on me. Doesn’t make me proud to say it, but I was the quicker man, and he never walked away from that table.
Anyway, Rampage: Very silly. Very clever. Very interesting.
TASH-KALAR: ARENA OF LEGENDS by Vlaada Chvátil
My shot still ringing in the hall, people made way for me as I mosied over to the Czech Games booth to demo Tash-Kalar. I’d never mosied before, to tell the truth, and might have done something closer to skipping, but I was a killer and folks knew it. They let me walk right to the front.
Now just like Rampage, Tash-Kalar has been of interest to us since I first covered it in the Games News. Here’s a game from our favourite designer, Vlaada Chvátil, but without the variety and/or comedy we usually associate with his designs. Would it still work?
Yes. Oh my god yes. Vlaada’s made yet another stunning game. THE LORD CHVÁTIL HAS NOT FORSAKEN US.
Tash-Kalar’s almost simpler than Rampage. Players are abstracted factions, warring in some grand arena. You’re given a hand of cards and a big handful of tokens, and then on your turn, you can (again) take two actions. Either place one of your pieces on the grid, in the manner of Go, or play a card.
Here’s where we get fruity, because the cards in your hand all depict complex shapes you’re going to have to make with your tokens. Suddenly, that L-shape of tokens produces a Unicorn at its tip that leaps forward and attacks. And if you’re smart, you’ll try and leap that Unicorn into the middle of the formation that your opponent was close to finishing, listening for the whispered swear-word that’ll let you know you were correct.
Tash-Kalar is so quick, and so simple, yet it’s a game of incredible tension because each player is simply trying to gather momentum. If one of you gets enough tokens on the board then they that player can basically summon anything, drawing their W or X or strange squiggle from out of a dense grid of tokens.
…Though a dense grid also offers a terrible target for an opponent, should they finally manage to summon a bomb or dragon that eradicates everything in a 3×3 space. You’re not playing to exterminate your opponent, is the thing. You’re playing for the points earned from killing.
So, spooky and satisfying in equal measure, because everything’s always so unexpected. The other thing I wasn’t expecting is that while it shares so much DNA with an abstract game, Vlaada’s managed to accompany it with such theme. Each of the three factions in the box (four factions, technically, though two are identical) is utterly different, and each of the creatures you summon is beautifully illustrated, well thought-out, and sometimes even thoughtfully named. I had dryads that could convert enemy tokens, spear-throwers whose combat move continued ethereally after the token moved, representing an thrown weapon, and even a “Bough Runner” who could perform a devastatingly long series of combat moves, but only by running around the periphery of my “forest” (my tokens on the board).
I was wrong to ever doubt you, Vlaada. We should have had faith.
I shot my Tash-Kalar opponent, too. Can’t remember why. Haircut? Smell?
QUANTUM by Eric Zimmerman
So we’ve had our nonsense game and our abstract game. Let’s have something that represents modern board gaming, eh? A delicious cocktail of European elegance and American storytelling. Let’s end with the beautiful Quantum.
A particular favourite of SU&SD is Twilight Imperium. This is a six hour game simulating space opera, with a manual you could kill a rat with. Last year Eclipse came along, condensing’s TI’s space-faring assholery into a simpler, more elegant two hours.
Quantum? It more than halves the game again, condensing tech, politics, grudges and explosions into a svelte 45 minutes, where player turns spin around the table with the momentum of a washing machine. Though really, Quantum writes in so much shorthand as to be its own language, it’s own game. And what a game!
So, each player gets just a handful of ships, represented by dice. The face-up side of your dice shows what ship it is, with the number showing both its skill in combat (where 1 is battlestation), and the number of spaces it can move (so 6 is a scout). The aim is to get a number of these in a configuration around a planet so that they equal the number on the planet (so a battlestation and a scout to claim a 7 planet, for example), allowing you, just a heartbeat later, to place one of the quantum cubes you’re trying to get rid of. Assuming another player doesn’t swoop in and blow up one of said ships.
I have too many favourite parts of Quantum. How when one of your ships gets crushed, you immediately re-roll it, and the number you get is what it can be re-deployed as. This means that losing never quite stings, because you’re always immediately thinking of how this new 2 – a transporter – will figure into your plans. I love the pack of technology cards that are simply adjectives, so as the game continues you’re revealed as a Stealthy, Nomadic people, while your opponent is Cunning and Brilliant, and the third player simply Warlike.
But most of all, in a game where players are inevitably lunging across the galaxy to foil one another’s plans, I love that if you blow up enough ships, you can place a quantum cube for free. So paying attention to other players’ plans more than your own might ultimately win you the game.
…Did I say top three games?
GOING, GOING, GONE! by Scott Nicholson
This is an auction game played by dropping cubes into cups, with a time limit arbitrarily decided by one player. It’s definitely the most I laughed at the convention, so much so that I almost didn’t shoot the guy demoing it.
Expect a whole raft of reviews, people. It’s going to be a great Christmas. And thanks so much to BGG con for having me!