Quarantine games is a series I will be doing over the next few weeks focusing on the intersection of board games and the ongoing pandemic. The things I miss, the things I have discovered, games for comfort, solo games, digital games. The hobby is upside down, but if nothing else that can create an interesting perspective on the games that make it great.
It was, ironically, Friday the 13th. I have always had a fondness for Friday the 13th. I remember holding a birthday party on Friday the 13th, and still holding the date in high esteem even if the party was canceled unexpectedly. I own a black cat so if I was the least bit superstitious I would already be in trouble.
My coworker and I had received word earlier that week that we were to begin working from home until further notice the following Monday. Being the sentimental sort, and figuring it was our last hurrah for a while we both went into the office that Friday. It was a strangely quiet day, with any customer facing work at a minimum as customers themselves sorted out their response to the lock-down orders. We went to lunch, Mexican, another last hurrah although we hardly knew it at the time. Towards the end of the day we packed up our things, and it was surreal. Sort of like half packing to leave the office for good. It reminded me of clearing out my dorm at the end of a semester.
Our things packed, and the day at an end we decided to have one last game. A round of cribbage for the road. We migrated over to a nearby conference room, one with a window and some beautiful late afternoon light. We dusted off the cobwebs, talked our way through the first couple of rounds, and we were off to the races. It was an incredibly close game, but there was levity and ease, not tension. Here were two close friends, playing some cards on a Friday afternoon, just beginning to not know what would happen next.
He won by one point. I will remember it for a long time. Not because I saw victory slip out of my grasp, but because it was the last time I saw him in person. Now we are both safe and well, hunkered down in our respective fortresses. We see each other all the time on zoom calls for work. We chat regularly. There are hundreds of ways we could play cribbage virtually every night if we so choose. But that game on Friday the 13th means something different now. It always will. It was one last Cribbage game for the road, and none of us knows just how long that road is, or where it leads.
These days I have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about Sinan Reis. If you have no idea who that is, that is not surprising. Neither did I until a few days ago. He was a Sephardic Jew whose family fled Spain during the Inquisition who then made it his mission to exact revenge by becoming a well known pirate of Spanish trade routes in the Mediterranean. I have spent a lot of time thinking about him because he was a card in the game PAX Renaissance, and was key to my strategy for shutting down my opponents trade routes. And so through some flavor text on a card in a board game and a dive in a deep wikipedia rabbit hole, I have learned more about Renaissance piracy than I ever did before. This is a telltale sign of the PAX series. Named after the latin word for peace, these are deeply historical board games that capture chaotic times and let players pull the strings towards different possible outcomes to achieve victory.
I have written about Phil Eklund games in the past and at the time mostly focused on his science based games. However, Eklund has a passion for history as well and this comes through in the PAX series. The series started with PAX Porfiriana, a game about the Mexican revolution, some of which happened near Phil’s old backyard of Arizona. As usual he brought a near obsessive level of details to the hundreds of cards in the game which represent real historic figures, enterprises and technology of the period. In the game players play different Hacendados, Mexican landowners who manipulate the power structure to push the country towards a future that benefits them. The game itself is a tableau builder, where players draft cards from a central market to build up their revenue but also collect different prestige points for the four victory conditions. The Loyalty condition sees players trying to be loyal to the titular Porfirio Diaz, and become his successor. The Outrage condition causes chaos and tries to create enough U.S. indignation to justify an intervention and annexation of the region. The Revolution condition aims to turn the country towards a communist revolution, and the Command condition looks to create a military dictatorship.
If this all sounds a bit complicated and chaotic, it is! But Like many Eklund games that’s what the PAX series thrives. These are not games for players who want a calculated efficiency exercise where players largely don’t interact with each other. Instead it is much more of a bar fight with cards. In PAX Porfiriana, if you’re not messing with other people’s plans you’re likely not playing to win. You can induce riots on their properties, send the economy into a depression to ruin their income, or assassinate their business partners. None of this is spite purely for spite’s sake either, but a vital part of maneuvering for victory. And sometimes, to achieve the right victory condition, it might even make sense to play these cards against yourself in order to reap the points they add towards Outrage or Revolution victories. PAX games are very interactive, and each game plays with a random subset of a large deck of cards, so there is no predicting just what cards and strategies will be available. Along with this somewhat chaotic system comes a whole lot of variety.
While PAX Porfiriana is the game that made the system popular Phil and other designers have explored all sorts of similarly chaotic periods in history. PAX Pamir explores The Great Game in Afghanistan as empires vied for control over a country that was a pivotal gateway into central Asia. It has since been re implemented in a second edition by Cole Wherle with a cloth map and pieces that are like a work of art. PAX Renaissance covers a bit more well known time period but with a depth that goes beyond what most folks learned in class. As a nice touch all the pieces in the game are represented by their chess equivalents so Knights, Rooks, and Bishops rove about a Renaissance landscape. PAX Emancipation attempts to tackle the question of the end of slavery, and PAX Transhumanity by Phil’s son Matt Eklund goes into a theoretical future based on possible technologies that could change society. Each game has some of the same DNA of a market and tableau and multiple ways to claim victory, but are otherwise their own creatures that reflect the core idea they are trying to grapple with.
Most recently, a kickstarter was announced for a new beginner friendly game called PAX Viking that hopes to be an entry point into this great series that’s not quite so chaotic and multilayered. Alongside this new game they are reprinting PAX Renaissance in a deluxe second edition, giving a whole new audience a chance to stumble down wikipedia research holes that they didn’t even realize existed! All joking aside, I am grateful for these games. So often games are about the mechanics first and the theme second. In PAX games, like in other Eklund titles the mechanics and the themes are married in a way that the game is almost a class on the subject as well as a game. And so it was that I learned about Sinan Reiss, the famous pirate and played him to shut down my opponents Mediterranean trade route. It was a key play during my game, but it also actually historically happened and affected the way the Renaissance played out.
As a note, there are ways to play these games online, even if you’re stuck at home. Until PAX Viking comes along the best place to start might be the PAX Porfiriana online version on yucata.de. And if you’d like to try a game you can find me on that service under the username Jerm. If you are feeling a bit more brave there are mods available for Tabletop Simulator for all the PAX games, but these are just virtual pieces so the rules have to come from you and your opponents.
These games are admittedly very niche. You have to be prepared to grapple with some complex rules, and most folks would rather play a game about dinosaurs or birds rather than a deeply historical simulation. But if any of this intrigues you, I can’t recommend this series enough.
Sequels always make me nervous. On the one hand, there is the excitement of having more of a thing that you love. On the other, there is the very real possibility that the sequel won’t capture what was great about the original. There are examples of sequels gone wrong throughout most other media. Bad follow-up movies or books or video games that just felt like a shadow of the original. But board game sequels are a much more rare animal. There are new editions with fancy new art and components, sure. But this mostly amounts to different models of a car. The engine under the hood is often the same. Sequels have a much greater potential to go… wrong.
This is why I approach the announcement of Winter Kingdom with some trepidation. It is a follow up to one of my favorite games: Kingdom Builder. It promises to be bigger, better, with greater depth. But in every sequel there is a worry that the creators don’t understand what made the original so great. Here, at least, the original creator is at the helm. I do trust Donald X Vaccarino to know what he’s doing. After all, in theory given that it’s been 8 years since the original game came out there’s a lot more play-testing data to know what could create an even better experience. And it does look pretty great…
But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself. First let’s briefly discuss what’s old and what’s new. The key thing is still in place, draw a card and place three houses in the corresponding area. This simple mechanism is what gets Kingdom Builder the most flack for being a thoughtless exercise with no control. But it is actually one of the best parts of the original. The decision is not in selection, but how you use the luck of the card that you are assigned. The different scoring methods also appear to be in place, which was another key part of the original to keep things fresh and different every game. These are two great bedrocks to build off of.
However, there are a lot of differences, and even if it’s only slightly different it may have huge ripple effects for how the game feels. First there are power cards vs location based powers on the board. Instead of rushing to place your houses next to the best powers, it is instead a process of paying for the powers you have in hand. In another twist these powers can then be upgraded. But paying for these powers alone implies a small economy to the game that was never present in the original. These are powered by an economy card that changes from game to game which determines how you earn money for that game. In other words, gaining key abilities that give flexibility to that extremely simple card draw mechanism is now a two step process. Additionally, these powers are asymmetrical. Players start with 5 possible abilities which they can pay for but each player will have a different set of 5. In the original Kingdom Builder, with the exception of luck, all players could make a rush on the board for whatever ability they thought would be most useful. That’s not to say this is worse but I am curious how it will play out.
There are also smaller changes that may have large effects. All players have access to a tunnel ability that lets them move pieces about the board more easily vs the rather restrictive nature of the original. The boards in Winter Kingdom are hexagonal and double-sided. A definite improvement here as the single-sided board of the original never made a ton of sense outside of having to play test two them further. There are now forts which are larger buildings that count as two houses for all purposes but can’t be moved. Finally there are a set of twist cards that add some additional rules to each game. As if the variability in set-up wasn’t enough already, this certainly takes it through the roof.
All of this could be awesome. The game could ultimately become a replacement for Kingdom Builder if everything comes together as awesome as it did in the original. But with so many changes, if even one of them falls flat it could end up being a disappointment. And I must admit, the game is up against my nostalgia and love for Kingdom Builder which is almost not fair. Spin offs and sequels do not have a great track record in the industry. King of New York for example took the hit King of Tokyo and added additional rules and complexity that was supposed to make the game deeper for folks that wanted more out of the classic dice game. But instead most folks went back to the original. I am hoping that Winter Kingdom feels like an evolution, and I am excited for more details. In the meantime, the kickstarter seems to be doing great, and hopefully by this October we are all able to play it in person. In the meantime I feel a bit cabin feverish, even though it is Spring!
While I had plenty of thoughts on the box size of Glen More II the other week, I hadn’t had a chance to actually play it just yet. And since that article the board gaming world is very different! Thankfully the weekend before social distancing went into place I was able to remedy that and get the game to the table. Granted this is just based on a couple of plays, but I wanted to share my impressions as to whether this physically massive sequel fills the shoes of its predecessor.
First, a brief summary of the game for context. In Glen More players are each building their own village constructed from tiles selected from a central market board. Each time players place a tile, they activate it and all other tiles around it. So essentially, placing a tile adds to a sort of engine that players are building, while also simultaneously running that engine. So far so good. There are countless games like this where players essentially build up a play area of cool stuff, often called a tableau. While it is cool to build your own little village, nothing about this is unique. So what makes Glen More so special?
One key aspect is that central market board I mentioned earlier. Essentially it’s a big loop of great looking tiles, and each turn the player at the back of the line gets to pick up their meeple and select any tile they wish. They can grab the very next tile available all the way to the most recent tile placed, way on the other end of the loop. However, players ONLY go when they are at the back of the line. If you select something far afield, other players may be selecting other tiles for a while before it becomes your turn again. This is a game designed for players to have an uneven number of turns, and different sized villages. But for the right tile, jumping far ahead might be the right move to make.
This then ties in with the scoring, which is also unique for the genre. Instead of doing your own thing and tallying up points at the end, you actually score points in Glen More based on how you do in comparison to the other players. Specifically, how much better you do than the worst performer in each of four categories. For example, one of the categories is the number of all important casks of whisky you have produced. If one player had only produced one cask of whisky, everyone who made more would score an increasing number of points based on how many more they had made. In this way, you are driven to always keep up with the other players, because if you are the one trailing the whole group they are essentially gaining free points on you. This comparison scoring creates a sort of constant arms race between the players, which in turn pushes players to make that leap ahead on the market board, in order to even the race just that little bit.
These two elements are key to Glen More plus a whole host of other cool design decisions, but so far I’ve essentially been describing both Glen More and Glen More II. So what elevates the new version past it’s older brother, and what’s new?
For one thing, there’s simply no going back in terms of component quality. The beautiful tiles and lovely meeples with varying designs and kilts are simply too charming. Eye candy does go a long way, but in this case it is helped by having a tested and proven design under the hood to go along with that new coat of paint. There’s no denying that the new version has a better table presence.
In terms of gameplay there are a few major changes. In Glen More II there is a new type of tile called Person tiles. Unlike the usual landscape tiles these are paintings of famous people from Scotland that don’t go into your village. Instead they allow you to claim bonuses on a Scottish Clan board that is also new to the game. These can be be one time resources or scoring opportunities, or ongoing abilities for the rest of the game. Additionally, these person tiles are a new category of comparative scoring, expanding that to four categories vs the original game’s three. These are a cool addition to the formula, and can help make the game feel a bit more flexible than the original.
Speaking of flexibility, the new version of the game is also a bit less picky about tile placement. The original had road tiles running north and south, river tiles going east and west and regular tiles. All roads had to be part of your existing road, rivers part of the river etc. What this meant is sometimes you could not draft a tile that you needed because of these restrictions. In the new edition this is reduced to just the river tiles, which makes it quite a bit easier to build your little village tableau the way you choose.
Finally Glen More II also comes with eight miniature expansions called Chronicles built into the box. While I haven’t gotten to play with these yet they definitely will help the game from getting stale. However, I am pretty happy with the variety of the base game thus far. I am bummed that I won’t be getting Glen More II to the table at a game night any time soon, but if you’re curious the game is free to play at Tabletopia in a virtual implementation. You can play at https://tabletopia.com/games/glen-more-ii-chronicles but remember with these online versions players need to enforce the rules of the game themselves! I highly recommend this board game trip to Scotland.