In the land of the video game, trolls, cynics, misanthropes, and angry nerds are king. I experienced the biggest culture shock of my life when I transitioned from this world into board gaming. As never ceases to amaze me, board gamers are just good people. Sure, you still have your share of hypercompetitive jerks, but something about the still-niche nature of the hobby encourages a tightknit community predicated on mutual generosity. Tales of Midas-like philanthropy have made BoardGameGeek’s annual, international Secret Santa program a thing of legend, with certain generous donors well exceeding the $50 gift minimum and even picking up the slack for the inevitable Scrooge McDucks. There’s also the life-saving Spare Parts list and countless other acts of generosity, including the occasional “Hey, I accidentally bought two of this game, who wants one?”
One of the most stunning displays of generosity, though, are those gamers who devote their time to one of the several annual Print-and-Play Design Contests, a sort of elongated Ludum Dare that results in dozens of high-quality free-to-play games every year. I don’t mean just the designers, either, but also the artists and graphic designers who donate their talents to enhance their favorite entries, the programmers who create digital translations of the games, and the many players who take the time to print, cut and assemble works-in-progress to help the designers make their games the best that they can be.
I begged the assistance of a board gaming friend, Ben Tieman, to help me cover this year’s Solitaire Print-and-Play Contest more widely than I otherwise could have. This series of short reviews has been a long time coming; we started working on them before the final votes were cast, but just because the contest is over doesn’t mean these games are any less worth playing.
A Note About VASSAL
Although it’s likely to be overshadowed by Tabletopia, the subscription-based popular tabletop simulator that went through Kickstarter in September, VASSAL is an essential tool for the budding board game enthusiast. It’s a free, open-source engine for simulating tabletop games of all levels of complexity, supporting real-time online multiplayer, hotseat, play-by-email, and of course solitaire. There’s a massive catalog of “modules” available including professionally published, print-and-play and out-of-print games (including Eminent Domain, Machi Koro, Star Trek: Fleet Captains, and Star Wars: Imperial Assault), all of which you can try absolutely free, with the publisher’s blessing, for the onetime hassle of learning VASSAL’s somewhat arcane interaction interface. This is a tabletop simulation, though, not an app, so the modules will do very little, if anything, to help you run the game or enforce the rules.
Many of the games from this year’s contest had a VASSAL module created for them through the generosity of BGG user Chad Mestdagh, and I’ll try to link to them when possible. When it comes to trying out a print-and-play game, I find it’s a lot easier to figure out VASSAL’s hotkeys than it is to craft a decent-looking physical copy, although I’m not exactly the most crafty guy.
Austerity by Jake Staines
Honors: Best Overall Game, Best Small Game, Best Hotel Game, Best Written Rules, Most Thematic Game (3rd) and Most Innovative Mechanic (3rd)
This is one of those rare games that is fun to play, simple to learn, but also culturally relevant. I’m not surprised that it swept the awards, and I’ll be even less surprised to hear a major publisher picks up the design in a year or two. In this game, YOU are the finance minister of a country undergoing forced austerity measures. Using a simple but clever cube-pulling system (each turn, you draw a random pair of colored cubes out of an opaque cup, with each pairing resulting in a different random event), you must attempt to balance to budget and repay your nation’s debts without incurring the wrath of the common people.
Cubes come in 5 varieties, many of which are diametrically opposed: black cubes represent Debt, which can be paid off with yellow Income cubes; red represents Crime and Unrest, which can be kept in check by blue Policing and Security cubes; and white Welfare cubes increase public health and safety but divert funds from your primary mission. Cubes can have both positive and negative effects, depending on what you drew along with them, and your primary goal will be to manage the contents of the cup to maintain order while gradually eliminating debt.
There are a few other wrinkles: whenever you draw a Debt cube, you’ll be forced to make budget cuts to Private Enterprise, Social Welfare or National Security, all of which can have bad consequences at year end. Keeping Employment and Public Safety high helps keep Wealth and Health stable, which keeps your Popularity from plummeting and keeps you in office. Once you’ve gotten used to the basic game, there are many options to add, such as Policies, Institutions, Countries and Scenarios to keep things interesting.
This was the first game I tried from the contest, and frankly, I’m certain it would have taken higher honors if it had been more printer-friendly. Luckily, the VASSAL module exists for those of us who can’t afford to print out a full-color 4-fold board and 8-ish pages of miscellaneous cards and tokens. The theming here is fantastic: in a scenario akin to Pixar’s Inside Out, you play as the overstressed brain center of an exhausted “super parent” who promised his or her munchkin the time of their lives at Iwanna’s Theme Park, the happiest, most cynically manipulative place on Earth. By shuffling colored cubes around a conveyor belt of mental activities, you’ll move around the labyrinthine park, trying to get your kiddo their promised rides, souvenirs and snacks before the hourly, parkwide marketing blitz puts more expensive ideas into their little head. You’ll have to manage your own budget and your child’s unpredictable food, drink and potty needs before the park closes, your kid suffers a public meltdown, or you both get crushed by the growing crowds.
The game is funny, accurate and smart. The game mechanics take a few rounds to wrap your head around, and it takes even longer to work out the strategies, but swapping cubes in and out of your “Current Thought” box from your brain’s various Lobes becomes second nature soon enough. Getting cubes where you need them without triggering too many negative events is one puzzle, and navigating the park itself is another. Iwanna’s (dubbed by parents “I Wanna Scream Park”) consists of 6 themed Worlds (like Worldly World, Future World and Movie World), each with its own mascot, snack and restaurant options, and choice of attractions. You’ll want to plot an efficient circuit that hits all your various goals, but you should never stray too far from a snackbar or restroom. Adding to the general confusion, the souvenir stalls rotate their inventory daily, so you never know where your kid’s promised souvenir can be found until you actually lay eyes on it. Wait times for the rides increases as the crowds swell, while the 5-minute marketing blitz that begins each round tosses even more curveballs your way.
It doesn’t have Austerity’s elegance, but this slightly baroque design is well worth the time it takes to learn.
Deep Space D-6 begins from the same premise as one of my favorite games, the incomparable Space Alert: you’ve just dropped out of warp in an unknown sector of space and find your underprotected ship surrounded by an armada of nasty aliens, meteor storms, space plagues and other unpleasantness. But where Space Alert prioritizes lightning-quick logistical planning over random luck, Deep Space D-6 is, as its name suggests, a pure dice roller.
Every round, a new threat appears, and you roll your available Crew dice to try to combat it. Each die face has a different roll: Tactical are your bread and butter, firing on external threats; Science raises shields to full or puts a threat in stasis; Engineering repairs your damaged hull; and Commanders let you change the result on other dice. If you have the misfortune of rolling a Threat Detected, you might pick up a new threat in your scanners. Internal threats require specific crewmembers to resolve, while external threats merely all answer to a few photon torpedos. To win, you must survive until the end of the Threat Deck.
The game’s popularity in the contest is completely understandable. A lot of gamers just want to roll them bones, and that’s this game’s raison d’être. The designer, Tony Go, has an established corpus of games, including the reverse dungeon crawler Dragon’s Ransom (a tower defense-style game in which you set up minions to prevent those pesky heroes from reaching the master’s treasure), and he had announced D-6‘s Kickstarter-funded publication before the contest was over. The KS is tempting, with those custom dice and alternate ship layouts, but I’m afraid it might have needed more time in the shipyard. The big problem, at least with the contest version I played, had to do with momentum, the baddest sonuvabitch in space. If you eliminate all your threats early on, you’ll have plentiful resources to deal with whatever else trickles in, and playing it out to the foregone conclusion seems like a chore; whereas if you let the threats pile on, you start getting dice locked by internal threats or sent to sick bay, leaving you short-handed and even less able to deal with the new threats coming in.
Survival Tin by Todd Sanders
Honors: Best Overall Game (5th), Best Small Game (3rd)
Todd Sanders is a fixture of the print-and-play scene. (In fact, his Shadows Upon Lassadar, co-winner of the 2011 contest, was the first print-and-play game I had professionally printed–the artwork demands it.) He’s won some acclaim for his steampunk Aether Captains series, which has been picked up by 12 Realms publisher MAGE Company, and his keen, Gothic-inspired design sense has earned him a permanent seat in the “Best Artwork” category. (Survival Tin didn’t place this year, but The Court of Xiang Chi, another Sanders design, was voted 2nd.) Survival Tin is a bleedover from another recent PnP contest focused on ultra-portable “in a tin” games capable of being transported in an empty Altoids tin.
According to the work-in-progress thread, this game was inspired by the author’s real-life compilation of a “survival tin” containing the bare necessities to survive in the wilderness for up to a few weeks. This is photographically represented in game by a tiny deck of 18 cards showing things like needles, cotton balls, safety matches, and duct tape. Every round, you’ll be using these cards to fend off danger, disease and starvation. The supplies are all limited in one way or another: some can be damaged and break, while others have multiple copies but are discarded immediately upon use. You roll the custom dice (you’ll have to stick labels onto some you own or, like me, just make a reference chart) to determine what type of problem(s) you’re facing this round, then solve it using the items at your disposal, either by pairing a disposable item with a permanent one or by using a permanent item by itself, thus adding to its wear.
The most interesting part of the game is the way that the dice are used to determine your misfortune. It’s a kind of anti-Slots: the fewer matches, the better. And I’ll be honest: the entire experience feels a bit like sitting at a slot machine, more of a diversion than a game. While it’s fun to see how far you can stretch your supplies, the decision-making is only as deep as the mint box the game’s stored in. However, for the length of time it takes to learn and play, this is exactly as deep as it ought to be , and I’d love to see Sanders or another designer revisit the clever dice mechanic in a game with more meat on its bones.
Card Quest: Kingdoms by Jackie Macapanpan
Honors: Best New Designer (4th)
Card Quest: Kingdoms lives up to its title: it feels like an entire fantasy realm in a single deck of cards. Playing it revived memories of the hundreds of hours I sank into Final Fantasy XII hunting down rare beasts or wiping out entire species in search of that ultra-rare drop. CQ:K is, in fact, a rather good simulation of loot-farming, except that it adds in a roguelike twist and an economical use of card real estate–hero cards show your remaining health, stats, and special abilities, while cards in the main deck represent enemies, the items or equipment they drop, and random damage modifiers, depending on their orientation. You’ll begin by choosing one of four genre-typical heroes (fighter, mage, rogue, cleric) and a quest to undertake; each quest takes place in a different region of the land, which adds a few rule tweaks, and gives you a different target or set of targets to hunt down in the thick monster deck.
Once your quest is underway, the gameplay is as simple as flipping up the first card to see which monster you’ll be fighting. Each monster has an attack target that you must meet by adding together your hero’s innate attack, along with any bonuses from weapons, armor, and items, along with a random boost determined by flipping up the next card in the deck. If you win the battle, you rotate the monster card around and claim the depicted loot, equipping it or adding it to your item bag as necessary. You can only have one weapon, one armor and one item at a time, but with the first two categories, it’s a simple choice of taking the higher numbers and discarding the lower (items require a bit more finesse). As you take wounds, your attack value fluctuates, and you have 3 special abilities unique to your hero that you can use once each per game.
I had a lot of fun with Card Quest: Kingdoms, and I hope the designer continues working on the game to help it meet its full potential. As of now, there are a few glaring but excusable flaws, the biggest being the importance of the first few rounds. Since your hero can take only 4 wounds before going kaput, every battle counts–but until you’ve equipped a weapon and armor, even the most basic kind, over half the deck of monsters is well beyond your grasp. With some lucky early turns, you will go through the deck several times hunting down your mark, whereas an unlucky start can end the game in literally seconds. Leaving the harder monsters out of the deck until the end of the first “Day” (reshuffle) would help, but I’d rather see an official rules update. I’d also like to see more special effects granted to both monsters and equipment in the next iteration.
Agent Decker by Manuel Correia
Honors: Best Overall Game (2nd), Best New Designer, Best Medium Game, Best Hotel Game (3rd), Best Game With No Board, Best Written Rules (2nd), Best Grayscale Game (2nd)
Unless you have your finger on the pulse of board gaming, you may think I’m exaggerating when I say that deck-building games are this century’s version of “roll a die to move.” That’s mainly because the deck-building’s core conceit, that you start with your own personal deck of cards that provide the in-game currency needed to “buy” new, better cards, which are then placed into your discard pile, to permanently integrate into your deck the next time you shuffle–this is just atavistically rewarding. I’m partial to games that let you build some sort of engine–it gives a sense of pacing and arc, of personal accomplishment, and of frequent small rewards–and nothing makes that engine more palpable than an expanding deck of cards. Just like in a post-Symphony of the Night Castlevania game or a traditional role-playing game, there’s a near-constant stream of positive reinforcement in the form of new abilities…or merely bigger numbers.
It works so well that there are dozens of deck-builders out there that are essentially the exact same game. Innovation comes in fits and starts. That’s why it was so surprising when a print-and-play contest entry came up with a deck-building game that was not quite like anything I’ve seen before. Sure, you can see where Correia took Friday‘s split-down-the-middle card design, with hazards to beat on one side and playable abilities on the other, and Marvel Legendary‘s dual-resource system (stealth and fighting, in support of tis espionage theme) and treadmill-like card offer. But then there’s the campaign-style series of missions, where you keep your deck between plays but are constantly adding new cards, challenges and even rules tweaks. It’s mad.
In other words, Agent Decker deserves every one of its award recognitions. Over the course of 5 missions, you’ll be knocking out guards with chloroform, stealing uniforms, rescuing hostages, and avoiding alarms. Cards you can interact with, called Obstacles, form a treadmill-like row called the Line. These represent the things you can see, but they can also see you! At the end of each turn, the rightmost card in the Line gets discarded, and its Alarm value gets added to the Alarm–if it reaches 50, you are captured and fail the mission. Usually, if you can defeat an Obstacle, you disarm it, adding a card to your deck, but sometimes, the better choice is to knock it out–knocked-out cards stay in the Line but don’t raise the Alarm when they’re discarded. The cards, both their playable and Obstacle side, have a lot of clever special abilities that bring the theme to life.
Crazy Cat Lady by Sean Dallas McDonald
Honors: Best Medium Game (4th)
Crazy Cat Lady is an adorable solo card game with a silly and fun theme (I do have a cat and three dogs, so I am biased) that works nicely with mechanics and art, even though the art is just WIP, AFAIK. You play as a lonely human looking to achieve the zen status of Crazy Cat Lady, i.e. the owner of at least nine cats before the end of the game. This leads to a balancing act between collecting cats, housing those cats, dealing with events every turn, and keeping a job in order to pay for everything.
Each turn, you have a number of points to spend on either renovations, cats, or jobs; these points come from your current job and any cards you choose to discard for points instead of their intended purpose. Every turn you must draw an event, either losing your latest reno or job, losing all unhoused cats, or gaining cards that clog your hand and drain your action points.
The cards in hand at the end of each round determine which events are pulled; two events are visible, one is not, so controlling which events enter play is crucial in minimizing your losses.
New jobs and renos are stacked on the previous one; strategically playing these is also key to victory, as there are times you will have to pull a “lose your latest job” or “lose your lastest reno” card. Planning your plays and losing a low-value cashier job to reveal the premium executive job is quite satisfying.
In the end, Crazy Cat Lady is a fun, light tableau-builder, but it definitely provokes thought and strategy in your tableau/hand management. It forces you to decide which cards to discard and which to save for their actual use, which has always been one of my favorite mechanics (my gateway game was Race for the Galaxy, one of the games that popularized this mechanic). CCL plays quickly, with smooth, easy gameplay, but if you forget your strategy or get really unlucky, things will quickly come crashing down around your head, sending all your cats running for the hills.
(Editor’s Note: Yes, this is me. Honestly, the only award this should have gotten was “most hastily assembled last-minute entry”; although I had half a year to prepare, playtest and polish my game, I ended up declaring this print-ready only hours before the deadline. And this wasn’t even my primary entry!)
This is a game about saving refugees from an all-devouring Great Worm in a mythical sand-buried city. I really enjoy how nicely the theme ties in with the mechanics. You play as a team of rescuers in Sand Crawlers, which are somewhere in between boats and giant beetles, trying to gather up refugees as they are swept along by the sandflow toward the Great Worm’s maw. After loading them on your boat, you can unload the refugees onto minarets, the only features in Qinesh that stick out above the sand, and call on the Rocs to fly them to safety.
One of my favorite parts of the game is that each choice is a tough one, especially because of how the dice work. In addition to rescuing refugees, you need to build up a wind barrier to protect against the Great Worm’s attack, and you need to decide how to spend the two dice that you roll each turn. Do I take the 6 for moving Sandcrawlers, which also makes the refugees move toward the Great Worm faster, or do I use it for defense, which also makes more refugees appear on the board? You have to take the good with the bad for every choice, and it’s never an easy decision.
Because the refugee cubes never run out, it gives it more of a survival/defense feel as opposed to a solve the puzzle game. I like that there are visible “checkpoints” on the round tracker to plan for, like rounds where your wind barrier gets tested and rounds where certain parts of the board get infested. I also like the spatial puzzle of moving Sandcrawlers effectively and setting up rescues. There are simple rules to modify the difficulty, and Roc Feathers give you flexibility in strategy at a slight space cost (they take up a space in your boat). Overall, I enjoyed the choices the game had me making, and I played it several times with different strategies.
Fists of Rage by Vicente Sivera Catala
I was interested in playing this game mainly because of the theme, which is an homage to 16-bit beat-em-ups. However, I didn’t end up playing it as much as the other two games because it was more of a WIP than I thought when I downloaded it. The rules need a lot of clarification and completion, and the current lack of a scoring or rating system really hurts the game’s replayability.
However, I did have some nice things to say about what I played. The nostalgic artwork fits perfectly, and it’s a clever implementation of an old school side scrolling arcade fighting game into cards. It’s short and to the point, so it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and it has a small footprint (table space). The most interesting thing was that you have to balance how many actions you take on your turn with the fact that the enemies then get extra actions as well.
In the WIP thread, the creator of the game says he does not recommend downloading and printing the game in its present state, but maybe if you do, it will encourage him to finish the rulebook and address the problems that are hurting replayability. I was expecting a more polished game, but the idea is still as good as when it drew me in.