Under Falling Skies first impressions

I was first drawn to Under Falling Skies during the beginning of lockdown. Board games with friends looked increasingly unlikely given the circumstances, so I looked into a few solo games to try to pass the time, and maybe get away from the screen a bit. One that caught my eye was the original version of Under Falling Skies. Designed from a sort of minimalist solo design competition where entrants were challenged to create a game that only required nine printed cards, Under Falling skies was designed to do a lot with very little. It was created to be printed on one double-sided sheet of paper, with a few dice and some tokens to round out the experience. The game was nominated for the best print and play award at Boardgamegeek.com in 2019, and won a lot of accolades, but then by chance the designer Tomáš Uhlíř was hired by CGE (Czech Games Edition) and the company took a chance on making this little design into a full blown commercial game. The end production is stunning and tries to make an argument for why you might want to drop $30.00 for a purely solo game. I wanted to share my first impressions as I started to dig into the game.

I narrowly escape defeat getting twelve research points (bottom) to complete the weapon just before the mothership (top) reaches the red skull for game over.
Managing you dice actions is a tricky puzzle

I must admit there is something very Zen about solo gaming. On a lovely Spring day with the birds chirping and the work day over it’s nice to set up a game and not worry about when other players are arriving, how to teach the game, or whether everyone at the table will have a good time. Solo board games are very much like solving a puzzle mano a mano vs the logic of the game itself, as I’ve written about when I first looked into the trend a few years ago. Under Falling Skies is essentially Space Invaders in board game form. There is a mothership sending attack ships towards your city in five columns and you must roll and place dice to defeat the incoming forces, excavate and create new defensive measures, and ultimately research a weapon to take out the mothership before it blows you up ala Independence Day. 

In more detail, you roll five dice on a turn and place them on a room in one of the five columns. The rooms do one of three things: Research the weapon to destroy the mothership, send air strikes to destroy incoming attackers,  or generate power to do either of these things. The brilliant push and pull here is that while higher dice rolls are always better for any of these actions, any alien ship in the corresponding column moves that many spaces towards your city. So if you want to place that six you rolled you have to also accept that the attackers that much closer to landing a hit on your city. Too many of these hits and it’s game over. To counteract this you can place dice in a column as anti-air defense, which subtracts one from how many spaces the enemy ships move. This can be a bit of a war of attrition but plays into another puzzle-y aspect of the game. Incoming ships can only be destroyed by your airstrikes if they land on attack spaces in the sky. So often die placement is a calculation not only of how it benefits you on the ground, but where the enemies end up in the skies. A perfectly timed anti-air die can position that pesky invader just in the right spot to kill multiple ships at once which is incredibly satisfying. Finally you can place a die further underground to move an excavator and unlock new and better rooms for your defense. It is all a giant balancing act and one heck of a brain burner.

The invaders are moving ever closer

To add another wrinkle to this, of your five dice three are grey and two are white. Whenever you place a white die you reroll all remaining dice. This gives flexibility but also adds a timing puzzle on top of the rest. This makes it an excellent solo game, plenty of tension from the impending doom of  attackers and the mothership, the push and pull of powerful dice hurtling enemies ever closer toward your city, and knowing when to use your re-rolls. Additionally the “turn” of the mothership is simple to follow making it not feel like you are playing two different games at once. The advanced game even offers robot dice which will continue activating a room but degrading by one each turn. A four or five die robot is great for a few turns but once it degrades to a one or two it almost becomes a liability as it occupies the space. It is yet another wrinkle to puzzle through in each play of the game.

There’s a whole campaign taking up two third of the box, including comics to set up each story twist.

For additional variability there are four levels of difficulty, and various different cities to play as, each with a unique power. That alone would be plenty but CGE has gone out of their way to pack the box full of replayability. There is a whole campaign with new boards, new gameplay and comics to tell a branching story. As a game launched during the peak of COVID lockdown Winter, Under Falling Skies was primed to be a puzzle that could take months to explore. Ok, so they definitely give you enough game in the box to justify the price, but what do I think?

Well… that’s tricky. I have recently been playing a lot of thematic games like Stationfall which I wrote about last week. I also played my copy of Pax Renaissance solo the other week to test it out, literally playing two hands at once to test out the rules. Under Falling Skies is a more elegant design than either of these games. But with all the puzzling, it did feel a bit like a game of pure calculation. Don’t get me wrong, when you pull of a turn where you blow up three enemy ships in the sky it is an incredible feeling, but it is still not a game that generates stories quite like the games I’ve been playing recently. There is sure to me more story in the box as I dig into the campaign, but a campaign framing the core game can sometimes feel like narrative scaffolding versus the emergent stories that come from some of my favorite games. With that said, I am happy to explore Under Falling Skies more, and I do want to dig into all of the content they’ve put in the box. Part of that is to get my thirty dollar investment back, but otherwise if I am feeling like playing something particularly puzzle-y and Zen I might pull this game out. It’s certainly a beautiful production with gorgeous art, neat plastic ships and tons of variability. But as the world opens up and there are hints of lockdown ending, I am honestly more eager to get to gaming in person again. Perhaps solo gaming is just not for me, but I admire what Under Falling Skies is trying to do.

Stationfall Preview

Our ticket off this doomed space station had just walked out the airlock. For some reason the escape pods on this ship require an NDA to activate, most likely because of the sensitive experiments that happen aboard. Some of those sensitive experiments can be heard in the metal containment cell near the bio lab. Meanwhile the head engineer just triggered self destruct meaning that in another 5 minutes everyone on board will be an antimatter explosion firework for his environmental cause. But the joke is on him because one of the maintenance clones just enacted sweet revenge, knocking the engineer out and dragging his body to the only escape pod that doesn’t require an NDA; the one for medical emergencies.

These are the stories generated by just one game of Stationfall  Ion Game Designs latest Kickstarter project. I had the privilege to playtest the game twice in one evening and couldn’t wait to write about my experience. This is by far Ion’s most approachable game yet. For one, it doesn’t have the deep historical or scientific themes that are the Hallmark of their other games. While these games are also great for generating stories as I’ve written about before, the themes can certainly feel dry to some.  But here Ion has a brilliant pitch calling this the party game for serious gamers. What could that possibly mean? After playing it, I have seen the light. Just like a party game, you might not really care who ultimately wins, just that everyone has a good time. But the tools to build stories like the ones above seem nearly limitless. So while it is a game about having a laugh, there is some amazing depth to the mechanics here.

An early turn of the game with the twelve characters on the left and map on the right. The circle sections of the map rotate, important for gravity and how fire spreads…
Legal has left the station

The designer Matt Eklund describes the game as Tactical Intrigue, which… is not a genre that exists, but I can understand the challenge, and why he might have made this label up. Stationfall is a difficult game to categorize. Unlike most Kickstarter projects where it fits into a clean category based on games that came before, this game is a strange animal. The basic setup is this: Players are a character aboard a space station that is going to crash into the atmosphere in 15 minutes. Every minute is one turn in the game, and players are trying to accomplish their characters unique goals before the crash. Some of these are noble, like the Station Chief who wants to go down with the ship and make sure their crewmates escape. Some of these are not so noble, like the engineer who wants to explode the antimatter engine aboard the ship to make an environmental example. Anywhere from one to nine players can join in the chaos and many of the goals are directly counter to each other. There are more than just the player’s characters aboard, however. After all, it takes a whole crew to run a space station. Players also have a secondary objective rescue or doom on of these other characters.

But here’s the rub, no one knows who is what character, and everybody can control ANY given character on their turn. Next to the board all of the characters in a particular game are laid face up and players can place influence cubes on any one of them. Once they have influence over a character they can activate them as long as they have as many or more cubes as everyone else. What ends up happening is that players manipulate many of the different characters in the game to accomplish their goals. After all there’s only fifteen minutes and so much to do!

The space monkey wants all of the shiny things

That secret identity aspect gave me pause, and was one of the reasons I did not initially give the game a closer look. I don’t like the genre of social deduction games where players are either good guys or traitors and a lot of the gameplay involves players arguing and lying to figure out who is on what side. Maybe it’s because people think I am lying no matter what but I often find those kinds of games stressful. But another reason Eklund made up his own genre was seemingly to avoid these comparisons. Stationfall definitely has deduction and you are trying to read the other players actions to determine their real motive. But all of the deduction is in observing their play. There is no detecting lies or community votes or any of the other hallmarks of social deduction. But it DOES have some elements of the genre, like the advantages of obfuscating your real goal, and the joy and power of a well timed reveal. You still have to pay attention to the other players to succeed.

Speaking of a well timed reveal the game rewards players for declaring what character they represent by giving them an additional very powerful ability. This creates a marvelous tug of war. It is often best to be sneaky and not let players realize who you are, but there is always a moment in the game where revealing who you are might give you just enough of an edge to pull off your grand scheme. It also stops other players from using your character and so can protect yourself from someone activating them and putting them in harm’s way. However, once your scheme is out there in the open, you better believe everyone in the game will be actively making sure it doesn’t happen, if they can.

Beware the telepathic rat. It wants to watch the world burn.

There are many other systems to interact with as well, making a rich sandbox to experiment in. In my other game I was playing the astrochimp, an experimental monkey who was born on the space station who just wants to gather all the shiny things and get the heck out of dodge. I had gotten the secret briefcase and the mysterious artifact, but needed to round out my collection of shiny things with a gun. It was possible to print one of these but you needed officer credentials, which an experimental monkey definitely doesn’t have. However if I hacked the main computer and gave myself those credentials I would be all set. The problem was the room with access to the computer was on fire and outside it there was a cryogenically frozen man who had woken up in a bad mood and with a wrench. This is a party game for serious gamers because you are problem solving  your way through complex systems, but laughing all the way there. My monkey never got the gun or got off the ship and I ended the game with zero points. And I had a blast. The computer or digital assistant, by the way, is another character in the game, with possibly devious goals of its own.

Later in the game abandon ship has been triggered the cameras and jammers are off, and the cyborg is knocked out while holding the telepathic rat in the chem lab… which is on fire.

And this is just a snapshot from two games. There are twenty seven different characters of which only a subset are in any given game. Depending on what characters are in the game and what characters players control there are countless ways this story could play out, although all of them end poorly for the space station itself. The best way I can describe it is like a chaotic improvisational episode of Deep Space Nine, minus the license and with quite a bit of added goofiness. The genre of tactical intrigue, although it doesn’t exist, makes perfect sense. Given how chaotic it is, most of your moves are tactical, and it’s difficult to plan with the chaos of the other player’s turns, especially considering that unless you have revealed your identity any other player can control the character you are most invested in. But the intrigue part makes sense as well. You are often trying to be clever or oblique with your actions so that other players don’t figure out your true intentions. The game’s inherent complexity is what gives it enough layers to have these actions remain unclear. But this game is still much more approachable than just about any other game this company has put out. It is much easier to pitch someone on a game where they might be a space chimp than one where they are a Renaissance banker. I am excitedly all in on this new design, and now the challenge will be waiting the six plus months to get a physical copy to play in person. If the stories above intrigue you I highly recommend taking a look.

Why is every board game designed to be the last you’ll ever need?

Four games and eleven expansions worth of Railroad Ink dice.

It seems like every modern game is designed to be the last game you will ever need. A desert island game, an endless buffet, a bottomless ocean of content. Each game is sold to buyers with this promise that if you buy it you and your friends will never be bored and never really have to move on to another game. This occurred to me as the big box of Railroad Ink Challenge I had backed on Kickstarter at the beginning of lockdown arrived in the mail this week. This is a giant box designed to hold four individual games, each of which includes its own thematic expansions, plus a box of 7 more expansions and 2 larger maps to play on. Suddenly I am drowning in dice and have more ways to play Railroad Ink than I’d ever imagined. And if I am being honest, I am not sure I will even play every aspect in this box one time. Of course, I am hopeful. I have grand visions of me and my friends laughing around a table and playing game after game of it, discovering each expansion like a box of chocolates. But here’s the catch. Everyone else has an endless buffet of their own to get to the table. It is very rare, and certainly unpredictable to guess what game will get ten or even five plays in a year. Will Railroad Ink be the one that my group keeps turning back to week in and week out? I kind of doubt it.

It’s possible that this is all exacerbated by COVID. There is a long queue of new games, acquired when there weren’t any game nights to play them, waiting to get their chance in the sun. Shiny things from Kickstarter campaigns keep showing up in the mail, new games keep hitting the shelves, there is an onslaught of great games as I wrote about before. What is the point of an endless buffet if the furthest most people get is the appetizers, and then they ask for the check? I wrote early on that my shelves were full of memories, each game reminding me of a time it was played and the fun I’d had with friends. But now the shelf is mostly a wall of potential experiences versus real ones. As a result, the urge is to skip along the surface of each game like a stone on a lake, touch each game, maybe getting a learning game or two in, but never actually dive in with any depth. It seems counter to what the games were designed for, and I pine for the classics that I wrote about last week. Games that show the entire realm of possibilities on the first play, but which hold up to countless plays.

I admit, it’s a weird rainy day and I might be getting overly philosophical about the whole thing. There are more games than ever, and they are designed to be more replayble than ever, so what is the problem? A shelf full of potential should be exciting, especially as game nights become a thing again and all those games start hitting the table. Isn’t it strange to ask a game to be less? Well, yes and no. I think it’s best to illustrate what I’m grumping about with a bit of an example. A game that I have managed to get to the table, and finish is My City which I wrote about recently. This is a legacy style game where you play through 8 chapters, 24 games in total and you are done with the experience. The game is thirty five dollars, but can often be found cheaper and adds one or two new things a chapter over time. By the time I was done, I had had enough My City for a lifetime and I don’t really need to play it again. 

Modern games are full of bling and have become luxury items

By comparison a game recently went up on Kickstarter called My Father’s Work. For ninety nine dollars this game offers three scenarios, an app driven story with each scenario having a small novel’s worth of writing, a  spiralbound village board that changes based on your decisions, and bespoke components, right down to little glass bottles with real removable corks. The Kickstarter page writes about how you can play through the same scenario multiple times and still not see all that’s in the box. On the one hand, that sounds amazing. On the other, will I even get this to the table 24 times? It’s not exactly a fair comparison, and I know that. The games are completely different in terms of play style and length. But the price is getting steeper. Ninety nine dollars is more than a lot of people would spend on a board game and keeps this particular game out of reach for some. And honestly this price is not a lot compared to other bottomless games where you can spend 150, 200 or even 300 dollars to get all of the content, like the recent Monster Hunter Kickstarter that tops out at $295 before shipping. That includes two base games and four expansions, which you can buy without having even played the game one time

I am not naïve, and I understand the sales pitch. Kickstarter campaigns are all about wish fulfillment. To keep up with the joneses a board game campaign has to convince you that it will wax your car and toast your bread, or at the very least it needs to promise that it will have enough game to last you forever. I have watched the model evolve from its infancy in 2012 to the slick marketing blitz that it is today and I see how the gears turn. My question is why does a game need to be bottomless versus just being good and affordable? If My Father’s Work came out with one scenario, some good old fashioned wooden cubes and meeples and still had the cool spiral bound map, would it be an inferior experience? That sounds like a wonderful 60 dollar game and maybe if I did feel it was played out I would buy an expansion in a few years to mix things up. But this is the old model. The new board game market is made of ruthless and weaponized desire. Renegade will sell you the game and two expansions up front, but only if you catch the hype now. For those of us who are on the hype train, and have the disposable income to spare, maybe this is all gravy. But I do feel like we are rapidly becoming a luxury hobby for the rich, and we are leaving a whole audience behind with this format.

On a different note it is a telling twist that the number one requested feature for My Father’s Work is a solo mode; a way to play it alone. These games are so big and so bottomless that its audience is demanding a way to play it without having to worry about getting a group of friends together. This trend was accelerated by COVID of course, as recent conditions have made it literally impossible to get a group together. But it started before then and puts a ceiling on any game that doesn’t have it as there is a whole audience who will not buy a game unless they know they can play it solo. I am not personally into solo gaming, but I also don’t mean to shame it. If that is how you prefer to play games, more power to you. But if there is an audience who is craving solo modes just to remove another barrier to getting the game played, perhaps there is a different underlying problem altogether. 

Who knows, perhaps I will someday be stuck on a desert island with one of these games and I will be thankful that they are endless. Railroad Ink Challenge does have a solo mode and it might be a nice thing to play over a cup of coffee in the morning. Maybe I’ll explore the depths of all those dice yet.

The board game classics are dying

In the news this week Grail Games, a company started with the mission to bring back old games of renown and give new players a chance to play them, announced a pivot away from doing pure reprints. Earlier this month ZMan games announced a similar move away from reprinting their Euro Classics line. Two companies in short order admitted that while reprinting old classics is very popular from a hearts and minds perspective, it doesn’t make a whole lot of good business sense. The news had me feeling melancholy, while simultaneously trying to track down some of these games now that they wouldn’t be reprinted, and coming up empty.

I’ve been in the hobby long enough to see that in general, if a game is good enough and popular enough, and there aren’t any strange IP rights issues, it will generally come back in print eventually. I have watched the dry spells where a game is very rare and selling for double its market value, to the inevitable announcement of the reprint or new edition several times over now. This makes a lot of sense in some ways, as reprinting a classic can be a more surefire bet for a small publisher. The name recognition and reputation part of marketing is already done for you. Even some supposedly impossible games that are tied up with intellectual properties have made their way back into print, like Dune, a long lost classic that the Herbert estate was fighting a decade ago, but all too eager to make happen with the upcoming movie. But something about the market seems to be changing, and some very solid games that have sterling reputations may linger out of print for a quite a while longer, unable to keep up with the new hotness and Kickstarter bling.

Tigris and Euphrates is mostly an abstract game. The components don’t inspire a lot of excitement.
Who doesn’t want to hang out with this guy?

First a little background on the games that got the axe. A lot of them were classics by Reiner Knizia from the late 90s and early 2000s. Tigris and Euphrates used to be a top ten game… 20 years ago. Samurai, Through the Desert, Ra. All of them were games with one mechanism and very few rules but extremely deep gameplay. None of them were ever lookers, even with the reprint treatment. A tile laying game about conquest in Mesopotamia, an Egyptian auction game, even the candy colored camels of Through the desert. These all looked nice and more modern than their 90s counterparts, but nothing that would turn heads. Ironically Grail Games was also deep in the old Knizia back catalog with games like Medici a Mediterranean auction game from 1995 and Stephenson’s Rocket an early train and stocks game. These were even more lavish productions but still were some pretty old and unexciting themes. Every one of these won great renown back in its day but those that were in the hobby back then likely already have them or have played them a lot, and it’s just hard to convince someone lured into the hobby by beautifully produced games to try out something that looks… old.

How can older games compete with the new hotness? Pictured here is Brew which as of this writing is number 1 on BGG’s hotness list.

I have always defended these more dry themes, like I did in my diatribe about every game needing a bored looking dude on the cover, but for my part I didn’t track down any of the games I’ve listed above. They certainly flowed into my circle of friends, so they’re around and I am relieved that they’re in the collective library. But they didn’t set the world on fire. The gaming market is increasingly crowded, and reprints of older games just don’t seem to make a splash anymore. People look at me like I’m crazy when I describe the theme of some of the games that are in my library. They would rather play the beautiful game about birds, or the adorable wargame about woodland animals. The hobby has grown tremendously since the mid to late 90s and sometimes these classic themes just don’t cut it anymore.

Through the Desert is a more colorful older game, but still not terribly exciting.

But this makes me sad. Even though I am part of the problem. Even though I didn’t spend a cent on these games. I held that copy of Samurai at least ten times at Zombie Planet, but something kept me from making the purchase. I still mourn the simplicity to depth ratio of these old games. As I mentioned above, all of these games did one thing, and did it well. They were not circuses of different mechanisms like so many modern games. They had more in common with a classic game like chess. Easy to learn the basics, and hard to master. Hopefully other companies will pick up the publishing rights to these games, or at least push forward new simple games, maybe with newer themes and more appealing art.

Reiner Knizia for his part is doing as well as ever. He is still publishing new games that get nominated for awards each year, and some of his more recent designs sit on my shelves like The Quest for El Dorado or My City which I wrote about the other month. And he is still designing games like it’s the 90s to a large degree. The recent title Babylonia seems to have some similarities to the now out of print Tigris and Euphrates. Maybe I am the crazy old man shouting at the clouds at this point, insisting that the kids play the boring looking tile games. But mostly I am just hopeful that the legacy of these games lives on. If any of these games do peak your interest I encourage you to seek them out before they become even harder to find. That or we can all wait till the cycle begins anew and maybe a reprint happens after all. With good games, life finds a way.

Winter Kingdom first impressions

To say I am a fan of Kingdom Builder is an understatement. It is one of two games in my library that I have over 100 plays in, the other being another Donald X. Vaccarino design, Dominion. In my game group we used to joke about having “league night” like a bowling league because of how often on a game night we would play two or three games of Kingdom Builder. It is in essence my favorite game, because of the variety it offers, (I am not sick of it at all even after 100+ games) and the simplicity of play. So it is with some trepidation that I approached its sequel, Winter Kingdom. A sequel to a favorite of any kind of media faces very tough odds and huge shoes to fill. Not only due to the strengths of the original but a build up of insurmountable nostalgia. Due to covid I haven’t gotten as many plays of this in as I’d like, despite receiving it in October. I remember foolishly thinking things might be back to normal by then and I’d have plenty of chances to play it that Fall. Hopefully the hope is more justified now, but I have gotten enough plays for an initial impression.

First however, an overview of the game is in order, with some inline comparisons with its predecessor. Winter Kingdom at its core uses the same engine of Kingdom Builder. You draw a terrain card each turn and place three houses on that terrain, attempting to match one or more of the three varying scoring goals for that game. Winter Kingdom has slightly upped the complexity at a base level here by having six terrain types instead of the original’s five, and by including four immovable fort pieces that players can play instead of a house, which count for all purposes as two houses. Additionally while the original game had a lot of natural boundaries created by water terrain which could not be bypassed in movement or played on without special powers, in Winter Kingdom there is ice, which, while not represented in the terrain deck, acts like any other terrain instead of being a barrier. In summary, which will become a repeating theme, Winter Kingdom is much more open than Kingdom Builder. This openness is only then increased by tunnels on each board that allow players to move a piece from one board to another once a turn. A main criticism of Kingdom Builder was that if you had some particularly bad luck with the card draw you could end up stuck in one area of the board and have your whole game sabotaged. There were ways to mitigate this, but Winter Kingdom eliminates this complaint. If you get stuck in this game it is because you played poorly, not because of luck.

Winter Kingdom in play
six terrains instead of the original five

The other drastic changes are the boards, which are seven hexes now, double sided and always in play vs the square single sided boards of the original. This provides tons of variability. Each board might be in a different position, orientation or flipped to a different side each game. But most importantly the variable powers of the original are no longer tied to which board is in play. Instead players each have a hand of five powers that they can pay to put in play. More on that economy aspect in a moment, but this is probably the biggest change compared to the original. For one thing it makes the players asymmetrical as each will have five entirely different powers. But it also removes another luck driven aspect as a good card draw in the original might put you next to one of the more useful powers printed on the board. Here you have a sort of puzzle with your five powers, but no player can deny you access or beat you to the punch like in the original game. Additionally these powers can be upgraded. Here again the game is much more open.

Economy cards drive different ways to earn money each game

In addition to these tweaks on the original formula the game includes an economy system and twist cards that are entirely new. The economy system has one of eight cards that dictates how money is made in a given game. This money is critical for playing the aforementioned powers, and gives players another thing to think about when placing pieces vs just how to score the most points. Two games with the same set-up but different economy cards would play out very differently. There is a powerful super move that players can do with five gold that allows them to use any ability 3 times in a row, which means that money is always useful, even if you have the powers and upgrades that you would like for a particular game. The twist cards are varying conditions that tweak how a given game will play. They are essentially the cherry on top of a variability sundae.

Kingdom Card dictate the scoring goals for the game. Winter Kingdom has many more than its predecessor right out of the box.

Finally it’s worth noting a few numbers vs Kingdom Builder. The base game contains 18 scoring conditions vs the original 10, and 25 upgradeable abilities vs the original board-printed 14. There is a LOT of game in this box, and even if it never gets any expansions, it contains the variability of Kingdom Builder plus two expansions right on day one. But what the heck do I actually think of the game itself? Even if there is mathematically “more” game than Kingdom Builder, is that better? Well, yes and no. For someone who has played Kingdom Builder over 100 times, this is like candy. It is an evolved and more in depth game with more moving parts to keep track of.  In the few plays of it I have had, I have often been stuck in a sort of first gear, still thinking strategically like it is another game of Kingdom Builder and being out-maneuvered by friends who are taking advantage of the whole system. I am excited to explore it more and try to hit top gear in this new and broader system.

Twists multiply the variability of the game to eleven.

With all that said, I do still believe there is a place in the collection for its predecessor. For one thing, it is a simpler and more family friendly game. The original won a Spiel des Jahres and had a lot of hidden depth despite reviewers deriding it as “too simple” at the time. I will still happily play it any time, and it still holds up even through 100 plays. It is certainly the better introductory game. There is also a different feeling to the game by comparison. It is more narrow and possibly a tighter experience. Players are fighting over the powers, there is less flexibility in terms of terrains and with a lack of the caves I mentioned above. There is also inherently less space and more boundaries with the water vs the ice, in addition to there being nearly 100 more spaces to play on. Don’t get me wrong, Winter Kingdom still seems to have some of the confrontation of the original, but it has a different feeling.

It is too early to tell which will ultimately be my favorite, but I am very happy to have a favorite classic of mine iterated upon with Winter Kingdom. It feels different, but I have barely scratched the surface. I am very wary of more complex versions of games I already love, because they often lose the immediacy and simplicity that made the original great. Thankfully I can report that that is not the case here. I look forward to really kicking the tires when there are more frequent game nights, but for now it really does seem like a different evolution with tremendous variability and depth.

John Company 2nd Edition: The human factor behind empire and colonialism

Designer Cole Wehrle lives a dual life. By day he designs and develops games for Leder Games with candy sweet fantasy themes that have serious depth and teeth hiding just below the surface. Root for example is an adorable woodland war game that has cats that represent the German war machine, birds that capture old monarchies and the Woodland Alliance that captures  revolt and guerilla warfare. But sure enough most people see the adorable wooden cats and are eager to sign up for a complex war game with considerable rules overhead.

By night however Wehrle runs Wherlegig Games with his brother Drew. In these games the themes are deeply rooted in real world events in history. In particular Wehrle’s historical focus is the various messes created by colonialism, and more importantly the “why” behind how those historical situations evolved. There are no cute meeples here, and none of the peanuts-esque art of Kyle Ferrin to lure folks in. I can tell you that it is much harder to sell someone on playing Pax Pamir 2nd edition about The Great Game in Afghanistan than pulling them into Root. My partner keeps asking to learn the latter and has expressed negative interest in ever trying the former.

Root is much more approachable for the casual observer, but hides a rather complex game beneath the cute exterior

But these games are worth playing, even if the theme sounds like a college history class you didn’t sign up for. For one thing, they expose parts of world history that are barely a footnote in most folks’ education. The most exposure I ever had to The Great Game, where Great Britain and Russia used Afghanistan as a site for a proxy war between enormous imperial powers, was in reading the novel Kim by Rudyard Kipling. You might know him as the guy who wrote The Jungle Book. But here in Pax Pamir 2nd edition is a literal simulation of what happened, and more importantly, why. Unlike reading a dry textbook in that aforementioned college class, you play a game and see the strategic reasons why historical events occurred.

While the theme is not exciting the production of these games is no slouch. For what it lacks in enticing woodland meeples Pax Pamir makes up in spades with a cloth map and beautiful resin coalition markers. Wherlegig has found an audience for these niche games on kickstarter that has enabled them to produce top of the line games for a relatively small market.

While it doesn’t have cute animals, Pax Pamir is still a beautiful table presence.

The next on the docket for Wehrle’s night operation is John Company 2nd Edition which is on Kickstarter now. It is a game about collectively running the British East India Company together with up to 6 players. Here again is a dive into a topic I know almost nothing about. I mostly remember the British East India company as a footnote to the Boston Tea Party  that everyone in the U.S. learns about during class on The Revolutionary War. But it was a major force and is responsible for a lot of the terrible toll of colonialism in India in the service of prestige in London and turning a profit. It’s an uncomfortable role ultimately to put players into. In Pax Pamir you were somewhat empowered as tribes who are manipulating the imperial powers, but here, while you do have power, you are definitely not the good guy. However, in order to win the game you have to wheel and deal and exploit the various nations in India. In order to win you will need to understand the actual why of what happened during history.

Families with individual portraits give John Company 2nd Edition a more personal feel

John Company is first and foremost a negotiation game. Players are working together to run one company, but only one player wins. In this way it is a sort of semi-cooperative game. The lens that the game sees this through is family. Each player takes on the role of a prominent family and your individual playing pieces are little unique wooden portrait tokens. The game plays with all the other suspects of empire and trade games: power, money, stocks, ships and armies. But it’s approach to focus on the families that drove all of those other aspects is fascinating. And in fact, you use those family members as the main way to win the game. Each turn a family has children which are then invested into various aspects of the company. Yes it’s weird to talk about investing children, but as a game built around family, your children are literally a resource to use to gain the upper hand in the company. You may have them become investors holding shares in the company or send them of to India as trade clerks hoping for a promotion, or have them join the military as an officer hoping to become a general. Everything is about using your family members effectively to make sure you run certain aspects of the company or are at least in a position to benefit the most from its success. And everything on the table is up for negotiation, including your family’s children who you can trade as wards to other players.

In recent history there have been some monumental blunders by publishers in the board game industry that have kind of swept away the negative impacts of colonialism. GMT’s debacle with The Scramble for Africa highlighted the focus on power fantasy first without consideration of the consequences of those actions. Shifting the focus from empire to the human element that drove the East India Company gives the game a more insightful view of the machinations of colonialism. This human element also gives the game an almost satirical slant as well, if not a cynical view of the affair. All of the hell caused in India boils down to prestige and retiring well in London, true to the actual historical actors. You may give your son Nathaniel as a ward to another family for a vote that will keep you in control of the prime minister in order to set your other family member up to retire to a castle from his director of trade position. There is no purity at winning this game as it invites you to roleplay the corruption in its very mechanics. All of Cole’s historical moonlighting shares this commonality of placing the player in the morass of very messy history. And I personally cannot wait to sink in and learn more about the East India Company than I ever knew before. The game is pricey at $80 on the Kickstarter campaign, but it costs less than a college course or text book on the same subject and could possibly teach you more if you  are someone who learns by doing. If such a dry theme is not for you, then Wehrle’s day fair may be much more up your alley, although each game hides depth for days; cute woodland animal or not.

How to manufacture FOMO: Robinson Crusoe Collector’s Edition

What could be better than detailed miniatures?

This week I bring you a rant, courtesy of a recent crowdfunding campaign for a co-op favorite of mine: Robinson Crusoe Adventures on the Cursed Island. Portal Games is crowdfunding a collector’s edition of the title promising to make it better than ever before, and initially I fell for this hook line and sinker. And then I dug into the campaign a bit, and the more I thought about it the more ticked off I got. I have gone from being all in to questioning whether I would spend a dime on the campaign and wanted to share a bit about why that is.

But first, a little bit of background on the game. Robinson Crusoe is a brutally hard co-operative game where players try to survive on a desert island. The game has overarching scenarios that can tweak this goal, from the basic goal to signal a ship to be rescued all the way to fending off cannibals or dealing with King Kong. But the story of the game plays out differently each game thanks in part to decks of cards that contain events and adventures that happen on that particular play. It produces a ton of great gameplay variety and really captures the theme. I have enjoyed it since when I picked up the original back in 2012, but that version suffered from some rules clarity issues that could make the game very frustrating and unintentionally more difficult than it should have been. More on the rules piece later, as it’s another reason why this campaign ticks me off.

The game in play, beautiful even without all the bling.

However, the first issue I want to discuss is a general gripe I have with crowdfunding these days. This campaign is literally designed to make you feel like you are missing out if you don’t back it. This is a sort of perverse art form that has developed more each year since the earliest days of Kickstarter. Every day of the campaign promises a new stretch goal reveal that will be EXCLUSIVE to this edition of the game. These range from more miniatures, a volcano shaped dice tower, or even mini expansions like the cave module. The idea is to give you little endorphin rushes to either keep your funds if you have already pledged, or lure you in with the worry that one of these bonuses you’ve simply got to have, and you’ll miss out if you don’t back now. Quite literally a more polished and pernicious evolution of the late night “act now and we’ll throw in more!” infomercial. To me this feels kind of sinister and predatory. It reminds me of an experiment I heard about once where a grocery store sold more of an item simply by putting “limit 10” signs on it. Human psychology can be easily manipulated and these sorts of exclusives can encourage some pretty reckless purchases. 

Don’t miss out on the exclusive volcano!

I understand why companies do it, they want you money and they want it directly, not watered down through distribution and retail channels. The economics of it also allow you to simply offer more for the same dollar amount without these additional cuts being involved. But personally I much prefer a campaign where there are purchasable add-ons or just the core game itself improves for all buyers if the campaign is super successful. These have less of a frenzy about them but it is also less manipulative. The recent campaign for the second edition of John Company which I’ll talk about more next week is an example of a straight-forward but successful campaign.

The second issue is what is contained in the collector’s edition. Namely, 18 or more finely detailed miniatures. Minis are the hottest item in crowdfunding. Since games that include them often cost more, these games often raise eye watering sums of money. I must admit, I don’t like miniatures in general. So I am definitely a bit biased against them here. I think my main issue is that they require MORE work from the player to really take advantage of them. You need to pick up a whole other hobby of miniatures painting to properly finish the board game you just shelled out a lot of money for. Frankly I’d rather spend that painting time actually playing the game. But besides this inherent bias of mine there’s also the fact that the game before now has never suffered from a lack of miniatures. It was never designed with them in mind, and so in essence you are paying for very expensive pieces that worked fine as wooden pawns. Honestly, the pawns might even work better, since the game has you stacking them at times, something that is not possible with miniatures without some circus balancing. Yet here they are, driving the cost of the collector’s edition through the roof, and taking up a whole lot of space in the box besides. You might say, well then the collector’s edition is not for you. Which I would agree with except for that brings me to my third issue.

Teaching tools should not be crowdfunding exclusives

Which is that they are solving the rules once and for all with an open and play kit. This spiral bound book is designed to teach the game to new players with playable scenarios and examples walking through each step. It brilliantly solves the rules headache of the first edition and makes it easier than ever to get into the game. Great! Except… it only comes with the collector’s edition. If you want this open and play option, you have to buy the whole pie, minis and all. There is an upgrade kit for people like me which contains just the collectors edition add-ons without the game, so they are trying to do right by their old customers… except not. The most important part of this package and the one that should be universal is tethered to 18+ minis and all the other random stuff they throw in the box. The minimum to get in on that collector’s edition is $100.00, a pretty steep price if you are not excited to pain the miniatures.

And so I backed away from the collector’s edition… slowly and with some grumbling, but I will not fall for the FOMO(fear of missing out), and I will not pay for plastic when I really just want to improve what I already have. There is a silver lining however. The campaign is for two different items, and while the collector’s edition  is dead in the water for me the Book of Adventures might be a winner. This is a collection of over 50 scenarios, giving players new ways to play with the game they already have. It is similarly over-produced and full of FOMO with exclusive paper and limited edition hardcover shenanigans. But it does feel like it adds a lot of longevity to the game as now players can further vary set-up and the goals in addition to finding a unique play with the cards that come up. I stand by the game as an excellent title and they did address a lot of the rules issues I had with some of the more recent editions if you want to check it out. But honestly, unless you love painting miniatures just get the original game at half the price and you’ll have a blast.

Who’s who of board games: Phil Walker-Harding

Today I want to highlight an underrated game designer who designs some of the most approachable fun games in the industry, but doesn’t get the buzz that others receive. That designer is Phil Walker-Harding. I most appreciate how his designs use their theme to teach the game in an intuitive way. I first stumbled into his work with Archaeology: The Card game, a 10 dollar impulse purchase at my local game store way back when I first got into the hobby. Honestly the name alone seemed ridiculous so I figured I’d give it a shot. While the theme is not about to set the world on fire, Archaeology: The Card Game proved to be a clever family style set collection game with a nice dose of push your luck involved for good measure. Players “dig” up treasure from a deck in the middle of the table. The more of one type of treasure a player has, the more points it’s worth, but only if you sell it to the museum and lock in that score. While you are collecting there’s always the risk of a sand storm causing you to lose part of your collection, or another player using a thief card to steal something valuable. The game rewards balancing between pushing for one more card to improve your set, or cashing out for points early, and the theme helps the rules of the game make sense.

The new edition shows how games have changed in ten years.

It’s no longer in my collection but this was a great approachable card game to stumble across. It has since been re-implemented in the improved Archaeology: The New Expedition. It is interesting to view the two versions as a case study for how art and design changed between the initial 2007 release and the 2016 rerelease. Price also changed however as the new version costs $20 and is a bit less of an impulse purchase!

The five characters of Dungeon Raiders.

Another game of his that is quite underrated is Dungeon Raiders. This one is a personal favorite, partly because I have the first edition that has some real silly art. Here too is an aspect of push your luck. Players each play as a different dungeon crawl character, Wizard, Thief, Barbarian etc. Players are trying to escape the dungeon together and so need to cooperate, but only one player, who has the most loot, is the winner. A dungeon deck is built out of cards where some rooms are face up and explored while others are face down and unexplored. Players have a set of cards numbered one through five and must strategically play these cards to overcome obstacles, defeat monsters and grab loot. Turn order plays a huge deal and the game functions a bit like a closed bidding system with some dungeon crawl flair. A nice twist is that the player with the most wounds at the end of the game cannot win, so players are encouraged to pay attention to each other player’s health in addition to their loot. This reminds me of a mechanic in High Society, an auction game by Reiner Knizia where the poorest player  at the end of the game automatically loses. It creates a kind of double win condition where just chasing the highest score is not enough, you have to not overcommit in achieving that score. It prevents scenarios seen in other games where players succeed by over-optimizing one aspect of their game.

Sushi go spells out its rules on every card.

Building on these earlier small successes Phil Walker-Harding put out the extremely popular Sushi Go on his own in 2013. This family-friendly take on a card drafting game was an independent release initially but grabbed the attention of GameWright to be re-published and hit more mainstream success. The game has players strategically picking which cards to keep out a dwindling hand each round. It removes the confusing iconography of it’s peer 7 Wonders and spells out what each card is worth. It also has very approachable cute art that invites players in rather than intimidating them with complex symbology. It is his biggest hit and was so successful that it was expanded in the 2016 Sushi Go Party with even more ingredients for making a delicious and adorable sushi dinner.

Imhotep has some serious table presence.

He nearly landed a Spiel Des Jahres, but lost to the tough competitor Codenames in 2015 with Imhotep. Unlike his previous card games this is a board game with chunky wooden pieces that players literally build Pyramids, Obelisks and other monuments with. It has his signature push and pull nature as players load boats to travel across the river to construct these various Egyptian monuments. The order of pieces on the boat matters when it ultimately unloads on the other side of the river and players can also choose when they want the ship to cross, working to time it when it is most beneficial for their own piece and most confounding to the other players. Like all of his games the title rewards knowing what risks you can take and has some spiteful interaction. The different monuments act like different mini-games with each scoring differently. It was later expanded with Imhotep: A New Dynasty adding even more different monument types for tons of replayabilty

He hit it out of the park again with Barenpark, the tertris-y game about building… bear parks? Players draft tiles from a central board to attempt to fill up squares of their rapidly expanding park. Covering up certain icons on your board rewards you with more tiles and also more terrain to place them on. Players are rewarded for completing goals first and these vary from game to game. This is one of the simplest so called Polyomino games and has that very satisfying spatial aspect down to a tee.

Gizmos uses the marble dispenser to drive a simple yet satisfying game.

Doubling down on the 3d toylike nature of Imhotep Phil Walker-Harding later put out Gizmos. This game has a cardboard constructed central dispenser of marbles which are the resources that drive the game. Players build gizmos, essentially a card tableau, that allows them to more effectively collect and convert these marble resources as well as score points. The game rewards putting together little engine like combos so it has a lot more meat on its bones than the initial toylike appearance would let on.

Cloud City is his most 3d game yet.

Most recently Phil Walker-Harding put out Cloud City, his most three dimensional game yet. In the game players place tiles that allow them to place buildings of three different heights. The goal is to place these buildings in such a way that you can build skyways stretching between them. The longer the skyway, the more points that it’s worth. Here similar to Barenpark this simple premise is jazzed up a bit with some placement goals that change each game.

I think PWH is a bit overlooked in the industry circles because he very much designs gateway style family friendly games. These games are simple. Approachable, and a great entry to the hobby. But as a result, they don’t often wow jaded industry veterans. This is a shame because while the hobby seems to focus more and more on deluxe miniatures, kickstarter stretch goals, complex and often convoluted systematic rules and legacy style campaigns, there is something to be said for a game that you can bring out with non-gamer friends, parents or family. While people in the hobby are often willing to struggle through a more complex teach, most folks just want to hit the ground running and be enjoying and understanding the game as quickly as possible. This is where PWH excels and has built a pretty sterling reputation of always having clean, clever but simple designs. If you see his name on the box, you know what you’re getting, a simple but very solid and well made game.

Iwari

Online board gaming sucks

Table presence is part of the board game experience.

Sorry in advance for the clickbait title. But now that I’ve got your attention let’s talk about the state of online board gaming, one year into the pandemic. A year ago I wrote about the different ways to play online. The lockdown was new, and no one was likely to see anyone outside of their immediate household any time soon. One year on, we are in a similar place, with some hope on the horizon as vaccines roll out to a broad population. But for the most part, we are stuck with the solutions that we had then, and after more time with each method I have come away with a preferred method of gaming online, but all of them have major downsides which I want to highlight here.

But first, before I beat up on the services too much, there have been some upsides. For one, as the only way to play games for the most part things like Board Game Arena, Tabletop Simulator and online implementations of games elsewhere have been essential to keeping the hobby alive. We are fortunate to have entered lockdown when so many services already existed to make this happen compared to a decade prior when such things were in their infancy. Second, this has forced folks to revisit a lot of old games or the same games repeatedly. With fewer options and largely older titles implemented online the cult of the new or flavor of the week factor in board games was much reduced. I have had friends come to me blown away by games that came out 5-10 years ago because they finally had the chance to play them repeatedly on BoardGameArena. This is a nice side effect of a limited menu, it forces more in depth exploration of each game that is available.

Other than these two factors, I will be very happy to have online board gaming in the rearview mirror. I want to start by analyzing what I think is the worst way to play these games: Tabletop Simulator. Early on in the lockdown this option looked promising. Just about every board game was represented, although the legality of creating a tabletop simulator mod was up in the air, it was open season in terms of selection. You could virtually shuffle cards, roll dice, and even flick pieces, just like in real life. I have had the “pleasure” over the last week or two of playing both Greenland and Hansa Teutonica, two favorites of mine that aren’t available anywhere else. What’s not to love? Well, just about everything about the experience frankly. Tabletop simulator games on average take about twice as long as the same game would in real life. Both of the aforementioned games should clock in at around 90 minutes, but took something more like 3 hours to complete. But secondly, and more important than the time commitment, the simulation of tabletop play lacks a lot of the joy of actual board gaming in person.

Tabletop simulator lets you play games virtually, but the simulation is ultimately kind of hollow

Gone are the cross table death stares when someone makes an aggressive move, or eye contact of any type really. Even with a zoom or something combined with the game, the face to face of zoom and the on screen play don’t really mesh in even remotely the same way. Instead you are a disembodied camera with a hand in this virtual space. You can pan over to the other players pieces and play area, pick them up to look at them closely without them even knowing it. You can see everything, but ultimately you actually pay attention to less as a result of not being there in person. Other than occasionally watching players to make sure they are following the rules given there is no programmatic logic I would vaguely ignore my opponents turns in Tabletop Simulator because if my camera was not looking at the right place I might miss them entirely. In Hansa Teutonica my friend nabbed up a few critical bonus points on the board before I even noticed. I cannot imagine this happening in real life as I would have been sitting at my chair at the table watching him  take those moves versus panning around the board like a discovery nature documentary. 

Additionally any action you take in a virtual space is not as fun as in real life. Virtual dice rolls are anti-climactic, especially if no one is really watching or anticipating the results. Placing cubes on a board, while admittedly not the most scintillating activity even in meatspace, has no gravity on a screen. The illusion of a game, which creates something out of cardboard, wood and cards just boils down to a virtual collection of art assets that you move about on a screen. Board games have a toy factor because they are physical. It drives the minis craze on kickstarter and all the blinged out components like the berries in Everdell or the beautiful Totems in Iwari. But if they are just art this toy factor evaporates. I will play games that are not available elsewhere on Tabletop Simulator but I always withhold judgement if I play a new game there as I know it is only a shadow of the true experience.

Tobago is full of beautiful toy-like pieces

So then let’s visit more automated app-like board games. Board Game Arena has done tremendous work over the last year to improve the platform. It has the most official games of any similar website and the interface is top of the line and very intuitive. BGA takes advantage of being digital and makes many games shorter to play because the setup, score calculation and options on a turn are all taken care of by the program itself. So already this is much less of a headache than moving virtual pieces around. What’s not to love? While I will admit I prefer this method if given a choice, it is still not the same thing for much the same reason. Interaction is different through a digital interface and the physical nature of the games is gone. We had a day of online games last week, and while I had a good time and it was wonderful to catch up with those friends, I left the experience feeling a bit hollow and sad at the end of it. A perfect example of the toy factor being missing was Tobago. This is a favorite of mine, it captures a spirit of adventure as players play cards to slowly whittle down where a treasure is buried on the island while driving their jeeps around to be the first to dig it up. The physical game has beautifully modeled palm trees, huts, jeeps and Moai statues that feel and weigh like they are made out of stone. The BGA implementation might have been a bit old, but the

The digital implementation, while streamlined, loses all of the table presence

graphics were drab and everything was just a flat 2d image. The gameplay held up, but it just wasn’t the same. A frustrating but different experience was with Beyond the Sun, a new 2020 game that just hit the service. I need to give this one another try in person because at some point you are clicking so many times that each turn felt more like a flow chart than a game. Everything also felt small and reduced to fit on a single screen, and even on a larger monitor it was hard to make out. The real game has these neat custom dice that are not rolled but used to represent the different pieces in the game. In an online implementation this aspect is completely lost. One of the reasons I dedicate a whole shelf to these space hogging games is because they give back equally to the space of the table when they are set up and here that is not the case.

So what’s the verdict? Well, unless your covid bubble happens to contain a whole board gaming group we are still stuck with these tools for a while longer. I will keep gaming online because it is the best way to play these things with friends at the moment. But you better believe that I will swap it out for the real thing as soon as it makes sense to get out there in person again. Give me all the messy setup and clean up, all the rules mistakes, dirty looks and table banter, all the dice rolls and chunky pieces I can handle. To me there is nothing better than the real thing; accept no substitutes.

Yearning for the golden days of RPGs

Beautiful sprites and simple 3d in BOFIV

Let me talk today, a bit off topic from board games, about the heyday of JRPGs and how limited technology drove innovative game design choices. In 1997 Final Fantasy VII launched. It had a sexy razzle dazzle commercial that made the video game look like a movie. And people took the bait, hook, line and sinker. Millions of people bought a game in a genre that was previously only reserved for the most niche weebs like myself. So many people bought FFVII that other publishers thought it might be good to jump in the pool and bring over games that were previously left to languish untranslated in the Japanese market. Similar to how everyone had to copy Super Mario Bros on the Nintendo, everyone who was anyone had to have at least one RPG series, if not two, for good measure. It was truly the golden age of the genre.

I wax poetic about all of this, because despite loving games to this day and admiring how far we’ve come in terms of graphics and gameplay and even virtual reality, I am still living in the golden age through my nostalgia glasses. Firing up a PS1 game, and hearing that iconic Sony logo noise brings me right back to being in high school, in my basement, buried in the latest RPG release.

While cutting edge at the time FFVII has aged poorly.

Some of these have aged… poorly. The PS1 was not a powerful system, and Final Fantasy VII looks downright archaic by modern standards. But other examples in the genre stand the test of time and still hold up today if played in the right format. I recently fired up Breath of Fire IV and was amazed at how charming the game was 20+ years after the fact. Ironically games like these that weren’t necessarily pushing the limits of the processing power of the system are the ones that hold up the best. 

Broadly speaking developers took 3 to trying to make an RPG on the system. The first is 3d models with pre-rendered backgrounds. This is your classic PS1 final fantasy title where the art of the backgrounds is the best that current technology could render and the camera angle is fixed while you wander these paintings of a sort with a crude 3d model. Other examples are Chrono Cross and Legend of Dragoon. These often age the most poorly because the pre-rendered backgrounds were created for a certain resolution and the 3d at the time couldn’t really push enough polygons to make the characters terribly readable or realistic. Another approach was to just double down on 2d and create beautiful painterly games like Legend of Mana or Valkyrie Profile. At the time folks were not always excited about this because 2d games were not the latest and greatest technology. But these games hold up relatively ok because they were not relying on the underpowered polygonal graphics of the early 3d system. The third type of approach is by far my favorite, and is the system Breath of Fire IV and others use. 

Sticking to 2d worked well for Legend of Mana

Here the world itself is 3d, oftentimes with sprites mapped unto the 3d to give it more dimension, and the characters are traditional 2d sprites. To my mind this is the best of both worlds. You have these incredibly expressive animated characters paired with a somewhat rudimentary but immersive 3d world. Unlike the previous two examples, the three dimensions actually matter in that you need a camera system in order to rotate around your characters and navigate the world. Other games that use this style are Breath of Fire III, Xenogears, and the amazing Grandia. The design was created out of the limitation of the technology. Consequently when the ps2 and future systems came along and more mature 3d graphics were possible developers got away from this type of design. They literally don’t make games like this anymore, in part because those limitations are gone. 

In recent times there is some energy being put towards trying to recapture the spirit of this generation of games, with mixed success. Square Enix, one of the most prolific creators during the heyday put together a studio that was unironically called RPG Factory. And  just like a factory it rapidly produced three games in relatively short order that aped classic games like Chrono Trigger. But something of the soul was lost here, and it’s hard to define exactly what.

RPG Factory produces games aping this style

I have some guesses as to what might have happened however. For one thing, the Playstation 1 RPGs commanded the top talent of that era to work on these games that were then cutting edge. Some of those same names are still working in games, but are more likely working on current cutting edge vs throwback like titles. For another, imitation while the highest form of flattery is not necessarily enough to stand on its own. Trying to ape old titles feels more like a sort of pantomime than something truly inspired. Kind of like how a cover band is a good imitation but is always missing a certain something. Other modern games that aim for a classic feel or look are Octopath Traveler, that looks something like if you’re super Nintendo copy of Final Fantasy got put through some amazing Instagram filters, and Bravely Default II that has an almost twee aesthetic harkening back to earlier titles. And both of these are good and capture some of that classic feel in their own way, but they are not the A-team bringing all that they’ve got.

Octopath Traveler is certainly beautiful

I am fully aware that a lot of this is nostalgia on my part. A time and a place where I had a lot of free time to explore and fall in love with the genre. A player revisiting these games now without any context might wonder what the big deal is. But I would hope that some of the charm and ingenuity of these games would still come through 20 years later. It is striking to me how much technology defines video games and movies where it is hardly a factor at all in the board game world. Granted the manufacturing techniques of games have gotten remarkably advanced and you see more and more grandiose productions on kickstarter every week. But on the whole the hobby is much more timeless; there is not a certain style of board game produced in a 5 year span of the 90s like the games I am talking about. There are trends and fads like the hundreds of roll & write games produced in the last two years, and the me-too deckbuilders of the early 2010s, but these are also not driven by limitation, but imitation.

There is also the tragedy of how on earth to play these games in modern times even if you wanted to fight through their somewhat archaic nature. Sony has not proven to be the best curators of their old systems, so no modern system can play these right out of the box. Instead they can be played on PSP or PS Vita or a PS3 if you still have one kicking around. Original disc copies of Breath of Fire go for roughly $100 on ebay so that avenue is pretty price prohibitive, not to mention that PS1 games look terrible on modern TVs without a lot of tweaks. More obscure board games go out of print but if you do manage to track down a copy there’s never a question of how to play it. There are more illicit ways to play PS1 games out there of course, and people often seek out these methods because it is often the easiest in addition to being the cheapest. 

During these strange covid times it is nice to escape into nostalgia once in a while. With that said, I think there is a weekend of Breath of Fire IV ahead of me, and maybe my non-high school self will not get stuck on a tough boss battle halfway through. What is your favorite nostalgia escape and in what media?