Here at Entropy, we’re all hip to the hotness of tabletop gaming. This month, Entropy editors and contributors are organizing net-based roleplaying sessions and play-by-cloud board games. That’s why I shouldn’t have to tell you that Thursday, October 16 marks the opening of the Internationale Spieltage in Essen, Germany, known to hobbyists as SPIEL or simply Essen. The Essen trade show is one of the biggest annual events in the tabletop gaming industry, a massive hall packed with publishers, designers (both successful and hopeful), and gamers looking to bring home the hot new thing. With a turnstile attendance averaging 150k, Essen is the highlight of many gamers’ years (especially those in the EU). But why am I telling you this? I’m sure you’ve got it marked on your calendar already.
I won’t be attending SPIEL ’14 (international travel ain’t cheap), but that hasn’t stopped me from drooling over the new games at the show and noting them in my “some day” buy list. You see, I’m a ludovore; I can’t get enough of these clever systems of interlocking mechanics that communicate a story through ritual and insinuation–something that games are doing better now than at any period in our history. I’ve tried to communicate this in my monthly Session Reports, but I couldn’t possibly buy, play and analyze these fantastic artifacts at the rate publishers are churning them out. The following list of games–some releasing at Essen, some out for years already–all push the envelope of interactive narrative in exciting, sometimes conflicting, directions. The only common thread is that, even though I haven’t experienced them personally yet, I couldn’t wait to share their details with Entropy’s discerning audience.
New at SPIEL 2014
Here are some of the hottest new titles that will be available or demoed at SPIEL ’14:
Publishers Czech Games Edition, who include among their ranks the incomparable Vlaada Chvátil (whose Space Alert featured in my first Entropy Session Report), enjoy pushing the technological boundaries of analog game design almost as much as they like trolling their audience. Alchemists, from first-time designer Matúš Kotry, combines both these impulses in a mad, cyborg game design that is almost impossible to imagine. Using an integrated smartphone (or Windows OS) app, players combine ingredients to brew potions…but while they can test the effects of the resulting brew on themselves or their intrepid interns, sell them to adventurers, and even publish theories on the art (academic recognition being the ultimate goal of the game), they’ll need to experiment to discover precisely what mystical properties each specific ingredient contributed to the brew. The rules feature CGE’s signature humor and world-building–for instance, they feature a sidebar with the header “Other Fun Things That Can Happen To You When You Are Paralyzed” and the following wisdom about using students in clinical trials: “a student will drink anything for science. Until he gets sick. Then he’ll drink anything for science and 1 gold piece. … Every round you get a new student–one whose heart burns with the fire of science, one who doesn’t know about what happened to the previous student.” However, it’s the digital integration that places this game at the top of SPIEL ’14’s Most Wanted list.
Assault on Doomrock
A full-blown, RPG-style fantasy adventure with every ounce of fat trimmed from its design, this cooperative title from Polish designer Tom Stasiak was successfully funded on Indiegogo earlier this year. Its minimalist but story-driven design uses time as its most precious resource: as a party, players must decide how to manage their time as they quest in towns, swamps, and dungeons, trying to prepare for one of the game’s three massive assaults and make progress toward Doomrock Mountain. Each hero is a random combination of class and (usually negative) trait, creating surprising combinations like Stinky Rogue or Epileptic Mage! This game’s fascinating blend of minimalist abstraction and evocative storytelling have pushed it to the top of my list.
A semi-cooperative, RPG-inspired game that pits a mastermind against several time-travelling protagonists attempted to avert a disaster within three time loops. Only the mastermind has the script for the current scenario–which NPCs are a danger to one another and, ultimately, which tragedies that protagonists need to avert. In a 12 Monkeys-esque narrative, the other players can only deduce this information by witnessing their own failure, rewinding, and trying again–but they’re only allowed a certain amount of redos before the mastermind closes the loop, sealing the tragedy permanently in the annals of history.
The Battle at Kemble’s Cascade
You probably didn’t think it was possible to capture the experience of a classic scrolling coin-op shmup in a turn-based board game. Co-designers Anders and Olle Tyrland want to prove you wrong.
Castles of Mad King Ludwig
From Ted Alspach, designer of the city-building game Suburbia, players are architects trying to meet the ever-changing demands of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who commissioned some of Europe’s most famous “fairy tale” castles (spending the entire royal budget and descending deeply into debt to get them completed). As you try to meet eccentric demands like “Build more corridors! Never enough corridors,” while working toward your secret goals and taking advantage of bonuses for completing rooms, a fascinating floor plan forms before you….
The Ravens of Thri Sahashri
When most people describe a game as “Zen,” they mean that it’s light and breezy enough to guide the player into the faux-meditative state of flow during play. The Ravens of Thri Sahashri means something different entirely. It’s the story of Ren, a young girl who lost her family to plague and was sold as a courtesan apprentice, and Feth, a foreigner with the ability to read the hearts of others. As the young lovers attempted to free Ren from her concubinage, the elder courtesan who aided in her escape was shot and Ren fell into a deep coma. The two players, each representing one of the protagonists of the story and each with their own knowledge, goals and abilities, must work together to restore Ren’s wholeness to Ren’s heart. The Feth player attempts to restore Ren’s Atman, or unchanging self, while the Ren player tries to compose a “poem” of the Japanese meter dodoitsu and they both avoid the disastrous effects of the world-devouring ravens who are trying to steal Ren’s memories. Thri Sahashri Loka Datu is a term in Buddhist cosmology corresponding to 1 trillion solar systems, or precisely enough space to contain one Buddha.
The Ancient World
A worker placement/resource management game from designer and artist Ryan Laukat (City of Iron) set in a world reminiscent of the PlayStation 2 classic Shadow of the Colossus.
Demonstrating the “political correctness” gap between American and European cultures, this Greek-published title about “seeing to the needs” of valued customers at a prestigious strip club has sparked a wildfire debate among gamers concerned about its tacit approval (by omission) of human trafficking and the other more serious elements of the sex industry. While I have no desire to play the game, its (accidental?) role in raising awareness about the darker side of its subject matter ensured it a place on this list.
World of Yo-Ho
Like Alchemists in its integration of smartphone technology, but supporting a much breezier, more family-friendly design.
Onirim (second edition)
My most recent Session Report covered this gorgeous solitaire or two-player game about escaping from a dream labyrinth. The second edition includes four additional modular expansions (for a total of seven in the box), updated artwork, and an eye-catching box design.
Designer Carl Chudyk (Glory to Rome, Innovation, Impulse) has shown he can do wonderful things with simple rules and managed chaos, and Red7 is no exception. This is one for fans of traditional card games–there are no complex simulations or fantastic world-building at play. Instead, you simply have to manage the cards in your hand to stay in the game as long as possible. If you aren’t winning at the end of your turn, you get eliminated. The trick is that the definition of “winning” change with each card played, as the color of the most recently discard card decides which of seven possible games you’re playing.
One of the best things about tabletop games is that they explore interactive scenarios seldom touched in electronic gaming, such as this game about navigating a crowded airport from designer David Short.
Because there’s no part of this description that isn’t awesome: “The game takes place in a 3D train in which the bandits can move from one car to another, run on the roof, punch the other bandits, shoot them, rob the passengers, or draw the Marshal out of position.”
Another theme you’d never see in an electronic game. Players must manage different colored dice representing malt and hops in order to complete recipes and become the “beer master.”
Valentina: Tutto Crepax Vol. 1
A memory game that would be forgettable were it not for its inclusion of artwork from groundbreaking comics artist Guido Crepax.
A deduction game for 4 players “set in the world of Blake and Mortimer, a Belgian comic series started in the 1940s by writer/artist Edgar P. Jacobs.” Each player has sole access to a small file of information pertaining to the case, which they whisper randomly to one another using “the most inefficient crime-solving system ever created.”
A “journey to the land of Slavic beliefs” with some eye-catching artwork from Roman Kucharski and real amber inside the box, inspired by the digital game of the same name.
Designer Phil Eklund (American Megafauna, High Frontier) is known for developing mind-bogglingly complex and scientifically accurate simulation games that work equally well as a game and as an educational tool. In Greenland, he sets his sights on relatively recent human history. “The three players in Greenland represent the Norse (red), Tunit (green), and Thule (yellow) tribes inhabiting Greenland from the 11th to the 15th centuries. … You must work around the weather and the extinction of natural resources as well as negotiate deals to protect your wives while you decide between monotheism or polytheism.” How awesome that sounds to you is a litmus test of what kind of gamer you might be.
I know nothing about the game, but this Quixote-esque promo card caught my eye.
Pinocchio: True or False
“Since Pinocchio has come to the Carpenter’s house, the Carpenter is no longer lonely. However, because naughty Pinocchio lies too often, he gradually fails to distinguish between true and false.” A variation on the classic ice-breaking game “Two Truths and a Lie.”
I knew it was a mistake to look at the comprehensive list of new SPIEL games on BoardGameGeek…
Cat Hiding DX