Spiel Des Jahres: Game of the Year part 1

It’s that time of year again as nominees for the Spiel des Jahres or German Board Game of the Year were announced on Monday May 17th. A good portion of my collection is made up of winners or nominees for this prestigious award, so I always like to research the current slate of nominees. In a more normal year where I have been out gaming with friends it is also fun to guess at what will be nominated as the award often reflects a game that is hitting the table a lot on board game night. But every once in a while the nominees reveal a game that I hadn’t even heard of, either because it passed under my radar or because it hasn’t hit the U.S. market yet, this being a German award. This year is a little bit different of course as game groups haven’t been meeting with the pandemic, so I am certainly not tuned into what is popular on public game nights. Not only that, but I haven’t played most of these games so I don’t have a super concrete opinion on them, but instead have more of a reaction to what I’ve heard about them. Today I will cover the Spiel des Jahres award which is for lighter family focused games and I will cover the Kennerspiel or expert game award next week. Since I have only played one out of the three nominees I will cover that one in the most depth, and touch on the other two in brief in case they peak your interest.

Micromacro: Crime City is a game that was immediately appealing when I heard the premise. There have been several detective games over the last few years and before. Games like Sherlock Holmes, Detective: a Modern Crime Board Game, and Chronicles of Crime all lean heavily on a narrative structure combined with clues and puzzles to recreate the experience of solving a case like your favorite episode of CSI. Micromacro does away with all of that and just gives you an ENORMOUS map of a city full of devious acts and asks you to solve the crime by reviewing the map. There are some cards for each of the fifteen cases included in the game which will point you to a starting place and help confirm if you found the right thing or what the next step might be. But even using these is optional if you used the advanced rules. The game is just you and your friends, looking over a map and feeling really really clever.

There is some debate as to whether it is even a game. There aren’t really turns or actions or player pieces. It is in some ways a very dark Where’s Waldo. Except unlike Where’s Waldo, which is a static picture in time, Micromacro is a map that is in motion. If a card points you to the beginning of a bank heist you can find the criminal act on the map, but you also find the getaway, and anything that happened after the crime. In this way each crime is a story arc told in the language static image that contains multiple points in time. It is difficult to talk about the game without spoiling it, and like the best mysteries it’s the most fun to discover things on your own. It does have some wonderful moments when played as a group where one person spots something, calls it out and everyone else rushes to see the clue they have found. I personally play it with some clear plastic bingo tokens to track the different steps in the crime and the map looks a little bit like those conspiracy theory peg board by the time we’re done with a case. In a brilliant move the company put a test version of the game right on the box’s cover. If you click on the image alongside this blog you can follow along and solve a case. The full game’s map is positively massive and takes up the whole table, but this mini version of the game is an excellent example of what it feels like to play. The game’s success has already spawned plans for three sequels which will eventually have you solving cases across all the different maps, along with an app, and a more kid friendly version. It’s worth noting, this is not a game for kids, despite the cartoony drawings this city is full of adult themes and would spawn lots of tricky real world conversations.

The cardboard cutaway reveals a building on fire. Robinhood’s board can evolve and change without any stickers.

Micromacro is definitely my pick to win the award, but there are some other innovative games that have been nominated. The Adventures of Robinhood is one of those titles like I mentioned above that hasn’t made it out in English. It will be available in June, but all of the preview information I could find was based on the German version. The game is from a well known designer of another family friendly co-op game The Legend of Andor, Michael Menzel. Players are Robinhood and his band of merry men, and they use unique movement pawns to track their path around and through the town, avoiding guards and other hazards while trying to pass skill checks by drawing tokens from a bag. The odds of success are always changing as players add or remove tokens from the bag depending on their actions. The most unique aspect of the game however is the board. All over the board there are cardboard cutouts where players can flip that portion of the board to its other side. So by the castle for example there may be a circle cut out which, when flipped, reveals a guard. In this way the board itself is reactive depending on the scenario and what the players do. It is kind of like some legacy games where stickers would permanently change the board but with this cut-out method the board can evolve or change back, giving it the exciting changes of a legacy game without the permanence. The game also includes a story book that contains the narrative for each scenario and it provides alternate narrative paths if players fail a mission the first time. I’m curious to check it out when it hits the U.S. market.

Zombie Teenz is colorful fun but I can’t forgive the Z in the name…

The last title is a kid friendly legacy game called Zombie Teenz Evolution. I have to admit to being put off by this title, both because it uses the word “Teenz” with a Z and because of the Disney Channel art style. However if you have kids or teens this seems like an excellent way to try out legacy games. The story of the game plays out via a comic book included in the box and each new chapter has additional panels to add to the comic book as well as new rules and gameplay to keep the game fresh. While I am not a fan of the art style I must admit the game looks like a toy set and is well produced so it will definitely keep a kids attention better than some of the more dry looking games in the hobby. Still, it seems to be the least innovative of the three, despite how well made it is. This is one I will observe from a distance but likely won’t make it into my collection unless I am playing it with my niece and nephew.

That covers the Spiel Des Jahres nominees, I am doing some more digging on the Kennerspiel nominees and will report back with opinions on those in the coming days. The winner or the awards will be announced in just under two months on July 19th. 

Board Game Arena Saves the Holidays

I wrote back in the Spring about Board Game Arena being one of the best places to play games online during the pandemic. As the year has gone on the website has added some tremendous games to their library, and for less than the cost of a single board game you can sign up for a premium membership to play them all. Given the coming winter and the fact that more people will be stuck inside as case counts go up, BGA has seen fit to send us all a care package of fun by releasing a new game on the service every day of December.

As one of those people are stcuk at home, I plan to learn and play each new game and report back here. While the blog posts may not be daily, I will cover all 31 games on this site. If one peaks your interest feel free to jump in and even challenge me to a round!

The first game of this board game bonanza is Thurn and Taxis. A game about… the founding of the German postal service. Sometimes, you don’t play a game for it’s theme, but simply because it’s fun, and that’s certainly the case here. The gameplay here sings, so much so that the game won the Spiel des Jahres or German Game of the Year award back in 2006. Each turn you must draw a city card, and play a city card to your postal route. You may then optionally finish a route and place houses. Three core rules, seems pretty simple, right? That’s where it gets devious. Each card you play in your route must be adjacent to a previous city you have played. And there’s a spatial element here as well as route cards can be played to the left or the right of the current route you are working on. Think of it like building a sequential set of cards in a game like solitaire. You are often looking for very specific cards to continue your route, and there’s often only one or two cards that would work. AS a result there is a push your luck aspect because if you can’t continue your existing route, you have to start a new one and lose all your current progress. So you may want to complete a route if you are not sure you can continue it in the next round. However, the longer the route, the more points, so maybe you take a chance and just hope the right card comes up in the next draw…

Board Game Arena has a fantastic tutorial that will teach you all of the basics, and the interface makes it very clear what your options are on your turn. Better yet since it is a digital version of the game playtimes are way down and there’s no set up or clean-up. Check back in later this week for more micro-reviews and if you’re bored at home give BGA a try.

Free games: Under the sea with Bargain Basement Bathysphere

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. 

Charting my course one die at a time.

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.

Success, with four divers rescued!

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. 

GenCon and Essen Spiel 2020 Cancelled

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.

Spiel Des Jahres nominees for 2020 announced

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

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

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 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

Hedgehog Roll

Foto Fish

And Wir sin die Roboter

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?

Quarantine Games: Roll and write games

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. 

Railroad Ink has players drawing rail and road networks to connect to the edges of the board.

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.

Game board, scoring sheet and work of art all in one.

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. 

The face up cards show house numbers and the back of each card that makes up the deck shows a corresponding power.

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.

Corinth is available as a free print and play file.

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!

Quarentine games: The Castles of Burgundy – comfort food gaming.

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. 

My completed kigndom. I lost pretty badly, but am still proud of this board.

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.

Dice, workers and silver

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

Quarentine games: One last round of cribbage for the road

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.

The PAX series: Games named after peace that are anything but peaceful

Chess on steroids

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.

The loud graphic design in PAX Porfiriana can be a turn off for some folks

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.

Pax Pamir second edition is a thematic work of art

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.

A historical game about vikings? Sign me up!

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.

Sequelitis: Worrying about the sequel to a favorite game


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…

The upgrade-able ability cards

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.

Variable Kingdom cards just like the original.

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.

Economy and twist cards. No two games will be the same.

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!