Do you want to go on an undersea adventure, but you’re stuck at home during quarantine? Fret not! The adventure of a lifetime is just 32 double sided black and white pages away. Bargain Basement Bathysphere (of Beachside Bay) is a free print and play roll and write game. When you print it out it looks like a graduate thesis, but it is actually a series of puzzles trying to do death defying dives into the ocean and make it back to the surface before you run out of air. All you need to do is print it out and start on page one.
Each page details the story so far, sets out any new rules or, in most cases, is the roll and write sheet where the game takes place. Players roll five dice and then use these numbers to skip forward or backwards that many spaces. The goal is to get to the ocean floor and make discoveries along the way by landing on certain spaces, while avoiding hazards the cause stress to your vessel or soak up your limited oxygen. If you land on a space you cross it off taking whatever points are associated with it, or more critically diffusing the penalty associated with it. However, if you pass by a space with a hazard without landing on it you must cross off the hazard and take the corresponding damage to your rather fragile bathysphere. In this way the game creates a lot of tension even though all you are doing is moving backwards and forwards crossing out boxes on a sheet of paper. Each time you roll the dice you must spend an oxygen, and there is always a temptation to roll again before you’ve used up your current five dice, to perhaps get better rolls and scoop up discoveries or disarm more hazards. There is very much a feeling of panic as you race back up to the surface, low on oxygen, and with each previously crossed off space acting as a new hazard. If you get exactly the right roll and chart it out, you feel like a genius. But if you plan poorly or misjudge when to turn around and get back to the surface, disaster is always around the corner.
While each sheet is an adventure of its own, the real pleasure here is the progression that waits on the next page. Early on the game introduces a sort of global game that you play based on your score with each dive. Every few dives new rules are introduced and new twists are added to the puzzle. The writing is charming and silly and it makes for a wonderful morning coffee activity. I have written about solo games before, how they are a kind of puzzle. Usually they are not for me, I have other things I want to do with my alone time, and usually find games to be a social activity. But during quarantine when my life is filled with screen constantly, it is incredibly refreshing to sit down with some dice and a pen and just noodle through a tricky puzzle. This game in particular is a great entry point to print and play because it is just that. You print it, and then you are ready to play it. No assembly required. I am looking forward to continuing to dive and what twists and turns are to come, but if you have a printer and want a nice leisurely activity I cannot recommend this game enough.
In what was inevitable, but still very sad news both of the major board game conventions for the Summer and Fall were canceled this week. Spiel at Essen, which I have written about visiting in 2015 was cancelled on Monday. This is the largest worldwide convention with companies from all over the globe coming to release and sell new games. Given the global nature of this event, and the pandemic it was not safe to have this convention. Part of the reason this news is difficult is because the convention was due to happen in October which still seems a way off. This is another indication that the world and the board game industry will not be back to normal any time soon. The very next day Gen Con which is the U.S.’s largest board game convention which happens in August was also cancelled for similar reasons. I have never personally been to Gen Con, but it is like board game Christmas, where many games have their debut. I wanted to take some time today to write about what these cancellations mean for the hobby both as an industry and as a community.
Industry impact: Board games are one of the last media industries that is still very much a physical product. While movies, shows, and video games are very much in the streaming and digital age, board games often require folks to sit down and try the game. These conventions are huge for companies because they can drum up excitement and buzz for a release. At Essen and Gen Con there are demo stations where people try out the games, and while there are often surefire hits that already have the buzz and excitement coming into the convention itself, we will almost certainly lose the hidden gems that rely on word of mouth at the show. These shows are as much a release party as they are a chance for fans to discover games they might never have heard of. Because of this, a lot of publishers are debating when and how to release their games at all. From large publishers to small, there is a question of how to build up excitement or be discovered without the catalyst of a convention. There is the possibility of delaying games till times are different but this has huge budget implications as well as the possibility of being caught in a deluge of releases from other publishers when they feel the time is right. Regardless, it will be a somewhat quiet and strange weird in terms of board games biggest release months, and that is disappointing.
Community impact: There are two aspects that are affected here. For one, I love conventions first and foremost because of the community the develops among the attendees. This is more pronounced at fan conventions vs trade shows like Gen Con and Essen Spiel, but it is still very much there in these larger conventions. To be among a whole city-sized population of fans who like the same things as you is an incredible experience. Every stranger that you turn to probably has something in common with you, at least in the board game world. So to lose this for these two conventions is a huge loss of community building and excitement. The second aspect is the shadow convention that happens behind the scenes among designers and publishers. There are likely many publishing deals and board game pitches that happen at these events that will simply have to be virtual or not happen at all in the “hey I just ran into you” sort of way that organically develops at conventions. Both things are a huge loss and will be sorely missed by fans and publishers alike.
So what is the way forward? Well, there are various virtual conventions cropping up. These are very different and rather new, but as in all other spaces during such strange times the board game industry is trying out new things to fill in the gaps left by enormous change. The Dice Tower and Board Game Geek are putting on a virtual convention in late June. Gen Con will have Gen Con Online during the same dates as the original in person convention. There are still likely to be exciting announcements from these events, but there is no doubt that they will not provide the community and commerce that the original events would have. So join me in pouring one out for these great events that will simply not happen this year. In the meantime, it is time to explore other aspects of the hobby, and I will continue to do so in posts in the coming week.
It is admittedly a strange time for the board game industry, but one event that is exciting every year is the announcement of Spiel Des Jahres or German Game of the Year nominees. My shelf is full of winners and nominees from this award and I stand by it as a surefire way to find a hit family game. Last year’s winners Just One and Wingspan are fantastic games so I am curious to see what this year’s slate of nominees is like.
This year is a bit odd as I am very familiar with the three Kennerspiel or expert game awards, while completely unfamiliar with the regular Spiel nominees. Another interesting aspect of the nominees this year is that both categories include some kind of legacy or campaign game. This trend of having an ongoing narrative and a series of games to play though is clearly a popular one and I have enjoyed many of the legacy games I have played. However, the pressure to have a consistent group to play through them vs an ad-hoc group of whoever is around to play a game makes them feel like a commitment, and consequently they can be difficult to get to the table. There’s also a creeping feeling with some legacy games that players need to play multiple times before they see the “full” game which can make it tricky to form a full opinion in just a couple of plays.
Below are the nominees and some initial thoughts.
Spiel Des Jahres Nominees (the simpler award for more family style games with broad appeal).
My City:Designer Reiner Knizia is on the list of nominees again with what I believe is his first legacy style game. Players build a city through different eras of history. The game has 24 episodes but if players want to just play it as a pick up and play game they can play through the first 4 episodes to unlock the key components of the game. I have to admit I enjoy a lot of Knizia games, but this one does not win in the looks department, appearing to be a rather bland theme with graphics that look like the games from a decade ago or more. However, it may be worth keeping an eye one.
Nova Luna: Another famous designer Uwe Rosenburg is on the list for a game that appears to be much lighter than the heavy agricultural economic sims he’s typically known for. Nova Luna is an abstract tile laying game that is more about the puzzle than about theme. The tiles you draft each have a requirement to fulfill, but also help you solve previous tiles based on how you place them in a sort of spatial puzzle. Uwe Rosenburg has been creating several lighter spatial games in recent years so it is exciting to see one of these efforts recognized by a prestigious nomination.
Pictures: In what is the most generic title and one with the least public information Pictures appears to be a party style game where players try to copy pictures from a center display using a set of abstract components like cubes and string. Players then try to guess which picture the creator was trying to copy. Certainly something for the abstract artists out there, but this one is definitely a wildcard for me.
Kennerspiel Des Jahres Nominees (More complex “expert” games that are more involved/thinky than the Spiel Des Jahres).
Here I have a bit more familiarity as I have played each game.
Cartographers: A Roll Player Tale: Another game in the category of Roll & Write games that I just wrote about last week, Cartographers has players draw a map in order to fulfill goals that are different each game. Each turn an explore card is dealt showing a type of terrain (villages, forests, farms or water) in a polyomino or tetris like shape. Players then choose where to draw this shape on their map in order to best accomplish the goal. There is a small dose of player interaction here as once in a while ambush cards come out that have players draw monsters on each other’s sheet to mess with other players’ plans. Having played a couple of rounds of this recently, it is a nice addition to the genre and has that classic satisfying puzzle feel that I described in the article about these games. Definitely some good fun.
The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine: This one is very intriguing. If you’ve ever played Hearts or Spades you’re halfway there, as this game is what’s called a trick taking game, where whoever plays the highest card or trump card takes the set of cards played that round, called a trick. Easy enough so far. However, in this game, players cooperate to try to accomplish a certain goal together, but without communicating except in certain restricted ways. For example, imagine playing a game of Hearts and trying to make sure that a specific player takes the Jack of Diamonds. This can be a tall order when you can only communicate what your highest or lowest card is, or whether you only have one card of a certain suit. The Crew contains fifty “missions” just like this and turns the traditional card game on its head in a fascinating way.
The King’s Dilemma: The second legacy style game on the list, this one is by far the most fascinating title. The game puts story above all else, and players are only going to see a portion of the content in a single playthrough. In the game players are part of a council to the King, advising him on certain key decisions during his reign. In terms of gameplay this amounts to voting yes or no in a sort of poker betting system. Players can raise each other by spending more and more influence on either side of the decision. Whoever spends the most influence then has their name associated with the vote, for better or worse. Based on these votes certain envelopes are opened in a branching narrative that has permanent repercussions on the Kingdom. In addition, players are trying to score both secret and public goals by manipulating five different aspects of the Kingdom: wealth, morale, knowledge, military, and food. The results of the votes determine how these aspects go up and down giving players a tug of war based on how they want the vote to go. This is a game of story above anything else but is definitely one of the most innovative games of the year.
Finally there are three Kinderspeil des Jahres or kids games that are nominated. I don’t have any insight here but want to point them out in case folks with kids want to research them. The nominees are
Unfortunately German kids games are much less likely to make it stateside so not all of these are available in English.
Overall I am much more excited about the Kennerspiel nominees this year. However I have some homework to do on the regular Spiel Des Jahres nominees and maybe one of them will turn out to be a gem. Who do you think will win the award?
A recent trend in the board game industry has been a huge influx of so called roll & write games. The most common example of this sort of game that everyone knows is Yahtzee. Essentially there is a set of dice and a score sheet, and players are tasked with rolling the dice and filling out the score sheet as best they can. More modern roll and write games have a lot more going on, but the concept is similar. The game consists of a set of dice (or cards in the case of a flip and write) and a score pad, which makes it easy to set up and play and low on the fiddliness (there aren’t a bunch of cardboard or wood tokens to set up/clean up). It also makes it a perfect candidate for remote quarantine gaming. All people need is a view of the dice/cards and a score pad of their own and they are good to go.
One criticism of these types of games is that they are essentially multiplayer solitaire. In other words there is minimal or no interaction between players, as everyone is filling out their own score sheet and not able to affect what another player does. However this again in times like these can be a benefit. A lack of player interaction makes setting these up for distance gaming much simpler. And since the games can usually be played solitaire, if you are bored but want a non-screen based activity to keep yourself occupied during lock down these can be a perfect distraction. I’d like to highlight a couple of my favorite roll & write games and then give some suggestions for others that can be freely printed for play at home.
One recent hit is Railroad Ink. Here players roll a set of four dice that show different configurations of roads and rails on each of their sides. All players then draw these four results somewhere on their board, which is a 9×9 grid of squares. Players must start from the edges of the grid and endeavor to connect as many different exits to each other as possible. The more connections for each network of rails and roads the more points they score. However, this is easier said than done. Three of the dice show curves, straightaways and a three way connection of roads and rails respectively. The fourth die shows places where there are rail stations that convert a road into rail as a curve or straight connection, or an overpass where a road goes over a railway piece. Each turn players are dealt the same puzzle pieces, but how they solve the puzzle can be radically different. Players also get points for their longest road and rail, and negative points for connections to nowhere. This is a very spatial puzzle to solve. It is a delight to see your network come together, but if you don’t plan well or if you don’t get the dice you need based on what you’ve drawn so far you can get stuck in quite a pickle. I personally find the game relaxing, but I have been informed by a lot of friends who have played it that they find it incredibly stressful. There are currently two versions of the game, red and blue, and each has different expansion dice for adding volcanoes and meteors, or rivers and lakes respectively. Additionally there is a kickstarter for green and yellow versions that address forest and desert dice as well as some new rules and objectives for players to chase after.
Another favorite of mine is the flip and write game Welcome To. Here players are building neighborhoods by filling in house numbers on one of three streets. Each turn there are three numbers to choose from three different stacks of cards and each stack also has a corresponding power, cleverly printed on the back of each card. In this way the face up card is the number you can play and the remaining deck’s top card indicates the power.The goal of the game is to build neighborhoods, groups of houses that all have a house number filled in and a fence on the left and right side of the group. This is easier said than done however, as numbers have to be sequential like a real street however the distribution of the numbers 1-15 are not even in the deck. You can’t always rely on getting the next number you need on a street so there is a push and pull on when to skip a number.. The various powers let you spruce up the neighborhoods by adding parks and pools for extra points, increase the real estate value for neighborhoods of a certain size, or bend the rules to repeat house numbers or manipulate a house number up or down.
You wouldn’t think there’d be a lot to a game that just amounts to filling in house numbers on a score sheet, but there is something immensely satisfying about building your neighborhood. As is often the case with roll & write games the tactile nature of filling out the sheet feels like a sort of fun kind of work. Almost like the feeling of paint by numbers. At the end of the game you have your solution to the puzzle drawn in front of you, and each player’s solution is wildly different despite having the same options. The game encourages some interaction between players by having goals that players race to achieve, but otherwise continues the common trend of players doing their own thing.
A lot of companies are offering free print and play versions of these games to keep folks entertained during quarantine. So if you have a printer and some dice you are good to go. Days of Wonder has shared Corinth which is a Roll & Write version of a favorite of mine, Ysphan. In the game players roll a set of dice and then organize them on a selection board based on the values rolled. Each player takes a set of dice to do the corresponding action working on trade routes or selling goods of different types. While the theme is pretty dry the dice selection mechanic is a lot of fun. Check it out here. Stonemaier games has put out a free roll and write game that celebrates all of their different titles called Rolling Realms. The game has simple rules and a free app so you just need a set of dice and you’re good to go.
Roll & write games are incredibly popular and it seems like every publisher is printing one or two. They are easy to produce since they are usually just some dice or cards and a score pad. While they are not all great, and some players don’t enjoy the solitaire nature of these games. However, during a time when a lot of people are isolated they can be a great way to keep your mind busy and solve a puzzle. If you’ve got a set of dice lying around they are well worth a try!
During these strange weeks I’d like to highlight a couple of games that seem relevant for board gaming while we’re all stuck at home. These are all games that can be played remotely through one method or another so in one sense they are suggestions. But I will also try to focus on games that just fit a certain mood that also seem appropriate. Granted, everyone is at a different place with what is going on and how it affects their life situation. But hopefully these games are useful and you might discover a new favorite. The game that I’d like to highlight today is an old favorite of mine that I rediscovered through the great sites I wrote about the other week to play games online if you’re stuck at home alone. That game is Castles of Burgundy.
Castles of Burgundy is pure comfort food gaming for me. In the game, players are trying to build up a castle estate with various different types of landscapes: buildings, farmland, mines, shipping lanes etc… On a turn players roll two dice and generally do one of two things with them. They either take a landscape tile from the central market corresponding to the die they rolled or they place out a landscape onto their player board, also corresponding to that die. There are of course more rules, and I’ll get to those in a minute, but these central two are where I’d like to focus first. Option one is essentially like shopping for your kingdom. What sort of tile are you looking for, and what’s available that matches your die. Immediately you are given options but they are not wide open or overwhelming. The dice dictate what you can do, but there are still interesting choices within that limitation. Option two then gives you a sense of accomplishment. You place any tile that you shopped for previously into the right place in your player board which represents your kingdom. Here too there are limitations, but there is immense satisfaction to placing a tile just where it belongs. It all has a very puzzle-like nature of finding the right piece and placing it in just the right spot.
This is still a dice game, so the luck can be challenging at times. There are always more things that you want to do, but whether you roll the right dice is another matter. To that end, the game introduces a third way to use each die, which is to turn it in for worker tiles. You get two of these tiles for any die that you turn in, and they each allow you to change your roll by plus or minus one. So if you really want to place that tile you got last turn but you rolled a five and need a three, you can just turn in two of these tiles and you’re golden. Helpfully the dice “loop” around so going up from a 6 gets you back to one. There is a push and pull in the game for how many of these workers tiles you want to get because every die you use to get them could have potentially been used from something else. But that little bit of flexibility goes a long way.
Each landscape type has a different function or way of scoring, but they are all helpful. Farm tiles score for every animal of the same type, and this includes previously placed tiles which encourages players to specialize. Mines get you money which can be used to buy special tiles not available in the normal market. Ship tiles let you go first in a turn and take goods that you can sell later. Building and knowledge tiles let you do extra actions or bend the rules. It all comes together in a quintessential point salad. Everything you do helps in some way and pops off a little endorphin rush as you progress towards a better and better kingdom. And at the end of the game you may not have won, but you have a pretty satisfying kingdom built on your player board that feels like your own.
Recently the publisher put out a new version of Castle of Burgundy commemorating their 20th anniversary publishing games. This new edition has all of the expansions packed into one box and a new set of artwork to celebrate the occasion. If you are tracking down a physical version of the game, this is the one I recommend, as there is a whole lot more in the box for just 10 dollars more on the price. However, not everyone has the luxury or a partner for physical board games these days. In that case, there is an excellent iOS and Android version of the game that is really great and affordable. And the game is also available on Yucata.de if you want to play against opponents asynchronously. The website is free and you can take turns whenever you have a free moment.
I have talked to friends who have taken up jigsaw puzzles during these strange times to have a project, and to see progress on something when everything feels very up in the air. If you want a game that feels like that jigsaw puzzle with a bit more going on, Castle of Burgundy is excellent for that. It has been my quarantine game of choice. And if you want to find me for a game look up username Jerm on Yucata.de