Earlier this week, I compiled a list of what I consider to be the most notable games at this year’s Internationale Spieltage in Essen, Germany. However, there are plenty of great games that won’t be debuting at SPIEL 2014. Here are just a few, broken down into 3 categories.
Not at SPIEL ’14
Some publishers, particularly those situated in North America, don’t attend Europe’s biggest toys & games trade show. Here are some forthcoming releases from American publishers that you won’t find at Essen, but should be no less excited about. See if you can spot the common denominator (hint: it’s grey, malleable and derived from fossil fuels).
XCOM: The Board Game
Like Alchemists and World of Yo-Ho, XCOM (based on the popular series of computer games) seamlessly integrates a digital app into an analog tabletop experience. In this cooperative game, some of which takes place in real time, each player takes on a specific role, such as Squad Leader, Chief Scientist, or Central Officer, all of whom answer to the Commander–the only player who is allowed to read the ever-changing intelligence reports coming in on the companion app and relay their information to the rest of the team. The app isn’t just a gimmick–it allows the alien invaders to act with real intelligence, coordinate hidden assaults, and some other neat tricks–for example, if aliens have infiltrated your base, it’s always possible that the intelligence displayed on the app’s screen isn’t even correct.
The Witcher Adventure Game
Polish designer Ignacy Trzewiczek handled this tabletop adaptation that borrows equally from the CD Projekt RED’s award-winning series of video games and the novels that inspired them. I was able to participate in the online beta for CD Projekt RED’s digital implementation of the game, and although it was missing a few features compared to the final release, I’ve seen enough to recommend it to any fan of the series. TWAG merges a simple, accessible ruleset with rich storytelling and some novel approaches to question, leveling up and other RPG staples–I like to think of it as Talisman for the 21st century.
Star Wars: Imperial Assault
I’m not a Star Wars junkie, but I know a lot of people who are giddy about this miniatures-heavy sci-fi “dungeon crawler” adapted from the mechanics of Descent: Journeys in the Dark (Second Edition), famous for its robust character development options and branching, story-driven campaign.
Shadows of Brimstone
The only item on this list not from Fantasy Flight Games, this crowdfunded project from Flying Frog Productions seems at first glance like an attempt to alchemize plastic miniatures into dollar signs, but there are a few things that make it worth keeping on your radar. First is the unusual theme–old west meets Lovecraftian horror. More importantly is the roleplaying-style ongoing narrative that integrates the core dungeon-crawling (or mine-delving) experience with a return to the relative safety of town that concludes each mission.
Overlooked Games of Yesteryear
Believe it or not, there are games that have been out for years that I still haven’t gotten around to trying, despite their innovations in the arena of theme or interactive narrative. Even though I haven’t experienced these games personally, I can recommend them without reservation–they are simply that cool.
Victory Point games is an odd duck among board game publishers. Unlike the vast majority of American publishers, they source none of their manufacturing work overseas and rely on a print-on-demand model that ensures that none of their designs ever goes out of stock. The resulting artifacts eschew the flashy, plasticky “chrome” typically associated with “Ameritrash” games in favor of simple, functional art that asks the game to stand on its own merits. Their stable of designers includes some big names from computer game history, such as founder Alan Emrich (Master of Orion) and Chris Taylor (Fallout, Dungeon Siege), alongside games designed and developed by Emrich’s own students. Their risk-loving game designs embrace themes ranging from European history (Levée en Masse, Cruel Necessity, Zulus on the Ramparts) to literature (Nemo’s War; I Say, Holmes).
Darkest Night, from designer Jeremy Lennert, is a dark fantasy game with a heavy emphasis on the dark. It pits a band of heroes against an all-powerful Necromancer. But the heroes are powerless to stop the Necromancer; by the time the game begins, the entire land has already fallen under his long shadow, except for the small, fragile bastion of the monastery. A lot of fantasy games tackle the good versus evil theme, but few make evil’s supremacy so strongly felt.
Tales of the Arabian Nights
Tales of the Arabian Nights has been around for more than a few years–the original edition was published in 1985. It’s the 2009 revised edition from ZMan Games, however, that you should be interested in. TotAN places the emphasis firmly on the “Tales” in its title. Essentially goal-less, any token efforts at game mechanics are secondary to the Book of Tales, a weighty tome filled with over 2002 possible encounters inspired by the classic compendium of Arabian mythology. Appropriately for a game inspired by Scheherazade’s marathon recitation, Tales is a celebration of storytelling in which it’s not unusual for a single character to start out on a quest for riches, become married, enslaved, crippled, and magically gender-swapped, only to achieve everlasting fame by discovering the fabled Palace of 100 Closets. In fact, the game includes a recommended variant in which players win or lose based not on the (arbitrary) events that happen to their characters, but on how entertainingly they deliver the tale.
Like Victory Point Games, GMT Games are a small American company that built their reputation on historical war simulations but have also published some of the most acclaimed designer games out there (their Twilight Struggle is the overall highest-ranked game on international hobbyist website BoardGameGeek). Despite its name, Navajo Wars is not a wargame; it is a solitaire-only magnum opus that attempts to tell the story of the Diné from 1598-1864, placing equal emphasis on captivating gameplay mechanisms and historical fidelity. Spanning three distinct periods defined by their oppressors–the Spanish, Mexicans and Americans–the player attempts to guide the Diné through the longest war of independence ever fought on the North American continent. In a medium often criticized for telling stories that are unimportant or frivolous, Navajo Wars is anything but. Its first-time designer, Joel Toppen, already has the game’s spiritual successor, Comanchería, in development.
Freedom: The Underground Railroad
Joining the ranks of games that tackle unfrivolous themes is this take on the abolitionist movement in 19th century America. Publishers Academy Games took great care with this potentially volatile theme–for example, they spent a great deal of time deciding which colors of wooden cubes would be used to depict the escaped slaves. Would black or white be more likely to offend? Would a bright color like blue or yellow seem to make light of the very real plight the game depicts? (They eventually settled with nude, unpainted wood.) In this cooperative game, players must divide their attention between transporting slaves to the north and campaigning for the abolitionist cause at home.
The tragedy, and the thing that makes this game so worthy of attention, is that you cannot win by rescuing every single slave. You need to make some sacrifices (remembering all the time that you are sacrificing people, not mere objects) if you want to garner support for the movement and make a difference in the lives of a few families. The rules even state that “players may choose to move a slave in any direction, including backwards, to either gain financial aid or to draw the attention of the slave catchers on the board.” But how often can you, ethically, knowing the history the game depicts, do this? How many lives will you abandon in support of the greater good? These are the hard questions that Freedom asks.
Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective
Like Tales of the Arabian Nights, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective is far from a new game. Originally published in 1981, it inspired a series of early ’90s FMV games on the PC and Sega CD before being revised and republished in 2011 by the French publisher Ystari Games. Utterly unique even after all these years, Consulting Detective casts players in the role of the famous detective’s (unnamed) apprentices. Each of the ten cases begins with Holmes briefly summarizing the facts of the case, and…that’s it. You’re given the day’s newspaper, chock full of subtle clues, red herrings and period advertisements (old editions from previous cases might also hold vital clues). You’re also provided with a directory of London, which includes the “addresses” of all individuals or businesses relevant to the case (or not). Using these resources alongside a map of London, players have complete freedom in how they will investigate the case. Will you pop by Scotland Yard to hear what Inspector Lestrade has to say? Will you question the eyewitnesses, or follow a hunch based on something you read in the day’s paper? Will you check out the nearby addresses just to see if they heard anything out of the ordinary? Whatever you choose, the case’s investigation book has a short passage detailing what you encounter at the address–maybe a dead end, maybe another chain of clues to follow. When you think you’ve solved the case, you get to answer a questionnaire and compare your speed and accuracy against the great detective himself (spoilers: you will lose).
Entropy Community Weighs In
I put the question to the rest of the Entropy community–which games, past or present, are you most looking forward to playing?
Tragedy Looper sounds amazing. I’ve been wanting to try out some RPGs with less conventional premises/mechanics: Dread, Feng Shui, Fiasco, Baron Munchausen, etc.
This one looks cool and really want to try: The End of the World.
Steve Jackson’s Illuminati was a favorite back in the days when you could “play by mail.”
I’m curious about anything in the Mansions of Madness line of board games, since I’ve tried that game and enjoyed it.
I’ve been playing a lot of Everyone is John, which is an easy, present-day D&D-style game where you play a voice in John’s head and try to take control of him and make him do dirty things, so that you can accrue points. All you need is a d6 and paper.