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GAMES NEWS! 29/04/19

Ava (they/them): Oh dear. The bosses took a break to get rotten in the state of Denmark. Specifically, they’re attending the Fastaval gaming convention, and only dropping the occasional cryptic photo (see above) into the company Slack.

That means I’m on my own for this week’s games news. They shouldn’t have left me alone. I don’t know enough of the news-ropes to not pick a random sentence, append the word news to random bits of it and pretend it’s an intro.

I guess it must be time to news-sail the news-seas and news-harpoon some news-whales.

War Dad, or as some call it ‘God of War’ is a video game about having very large shoulders. I grew up with nothing but my eldest brother’s Games Workshop manuals for company, so I’ve seen an over-sized arm-helmet or two in my time. Shoulders aside, CMON is making a card game based on the War Dad saga. Judging from the cover, it’s about standing on a boat and ignoring your family in the hopes that they’ll eventually take the oars and do something useful.

What grabs me here is their mythological excuse for throwing combinations of heroes at a card mosaic representing monstrous enemies and mysterious scrapes. You play the Norns, weaving the fabric of fate to try and prevent the end of the world. This means choosing cards, picking quests, and building decks. My sooth-says we’ll need more details before we can figure out the warp and weft of it.

Also taking inspiration from video games is Sanctum. Czech Games Edition is following up on it’s first-person shooter Adrenaline with an interpretation of the rapidly clicking, number increasing action RPG genre of games exemplified by Diablo. It’s pretty bold to take some of the fastest, most overwhelming ideas from computer games and translate them to the slower medium of cardboard and plastic. I guess el diablo (it’s Spanish for ‘the diablo’) is in the details.

After spending the last news highlighting the problems of colonial games, I feel a bit awkward wanting to talk about forthcoming war game Our Place in the Sun, but I’ve not stopped thinking about it since it cropped up in the BoardGameGeek news.

This card-driven political simulation is unlikely to be welcoming enough to warrant a recommendation from this site, but it’s a fascinating idea. Taking the 1871 treaty of Versailles (no, not that one) as a starting point, the game features European empires vying for prestige while engaging in the brinkmanship and precarious alliances that led to the wars that shaped the twentieth century. The kicker for me is that the political situation might not develop into the First World War. Whether your statecraft is good enough to prevent it or not will affect how you should be trying to win. Splendid isolation is all well and good if the continent doesn’t set itself on fire around you, but if the Archduke hits the fan, you’ll be wanting friends.

The subject matter is grim, reducing colonial endeavours around the world to opportunities for point-scoring, but this is a pretty honest view of how the powers of the era saw the world. The lives and livelihoods they devastated were as good as irrelevant to the games they played with the world. It is bleak, but this looks like a unique window on a period of history that doesn’t have enough light shone on it. I go back and forth on whether board games are a great place to look at systemic historical problems, or too blunt a tool to help learn. Hopefully this will be nuanced enough to make it worth it. If nothing else, every wargame I’ve ever played has left me with a nagging need to find out more about the period.

Kickstarter appears to be pretty over-excited about Mars right now, with Vital Lacerda’s vision of martian colonisation taking to the skies at the same time as Terraforming Mars’ latest expansion (discussed below).

On Mars looks pretty, complex, and drowning in moving parts. This is exactly what I expect from Lacerda, who seems to have a thing for great clunking machines. I was disappointed in Lisboa, after finding the different cogs didn’t click together as pleasingly as I’d hoped. That said, I’m appalled to find myself criticising any game that has you collecting wigs while you rebuild a flood/fire/earthquake battered city. Hopefully On Mars won’t have me quite so conflicted, but there’s no way I’m going to be as excited about ‘Opportunity Points’ as I am about wigs.

Meanwhile, Terraforming Mars: Turmoil takes Terraforming Mars and adds politics, intrigue and ‘global events’ This might be exactly the right kind of spanners to throw into your scientifically believable machines. Turmoil describes itself as ‘the most gamer-focussed expansion yet’ which, frankly, makes me feel a bit sick. Probably not the sort of turmoil they were looking for.

I liked Terraforming Mars’ engine building space adventure quite a lot, for its mundane but astronomically authentic storytelling, so I’m quite keen on more space toys. I’m not confident this will be as smart as the Prelude expansion, which added a few choices to the start and shaved enough turns off the end to make everything play a bit tighter. Turmoil could easily add that bagginess back in in the form of what looks like an area control political minigame, but it’s always hard to tell when more is less. The kickstarter comes with some recessed player mats and even just that is quite tempting, as the games billion resource tracking cubes are incompatible with wonky tables and dramatic sleeves.

If you missed SU&SD’s review of Terraforming Mars, you’ll find it here. Don’t miss it if you want to see Quinns and Matt drinking algae.

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I know that SU&SD’s Blood on the Clocktower review caused a bit of upset, and people seemed particularly curious to find out how it was different to Werewolf. You might find some answers in this podcast from Tuesday Knight games, where Clocktower designer Stephen Medway, talks to Alan Gerding, the designer of another unique kickstarted social deduction game: Two Rooms and a boom. There’s a lot of enthusiasm and a little swearing in the podcast, so your mileage may vary. My highlight was finding out that Quinns’ initial reaction to the prototype was ‘this looks shit’, but within an hour and a half he was singing praises from the rooftops. There’s also full playthrough if you’re still hungry for detail.

I’ve not have a chance to play it yet, but I do hope Quinns will let me have a bash at his copy at some point. I’ve always loved a good grimoire.

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Ooh, ooh, something caught my eye at the last moment.

The Belonging Outside Belonging game jam finished up over the weekend . I think the ‘no dice, no masters’ structure of Avery Alder’s Dream Askew is the most exciting simplification of role playing game mechanics I’ve seen in years. Avery’s talk at NYC Practice about the design process (embedded above) had me overwhelmed with inspiration. I can’t wait to see if this mode of making stories can have a similar impact to Apocalypse World or Blades in the Dark. I will definitely be taking a look at some of these jam entrants to see if any of them are quite as magic as Dream Askew’s apocalyptic queer communities. Sorry, this is the second week in a row I’ve been fan-perling* about Avery, I just think she’s doing amazing stuff.

*Okay, I might be making this word up, but there’s no decent diminutive of person, and there’s something cute and useful about having an non-gendered alternative to girl/boy. My preferred neologism is ‘perl’, as a cute slightly femme form of person. I’ve seen people use ‘per’ and ‘boi’ as well. There’s a whole load of different ways to be non-binary, and playing with language is fun.

The original article can be found on the fantastic Shut Up & Sit Down

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Review: Tiny Towns

Quinns: Tiny Towns is a cute little 30 minute city-building game that arrives in U.S. stores tomorrow. The box is full of winsome wooden buildings, players erect farms and homes, and on the cards you can see animals living peaceful lives.

All of which is a little misleading. The best bit of Tiny Towns is hearing one of your neighbours – having carefully examined their own tiny town – mutter “Oh, sh**.”

Intentionally or not, designer Peter McPherson has captured the reality of living in a tiny town. Friendly interactions, with a pungent undercurrent of jealousy.

Here’s how it works!

Each turn, every player is told to collect a single cube of the same type, whether that’s stone, or brick, or whatever, and place it somewhere on their own, private player board. On one turn you might have to deposit a glass cube, then on the next turn you’re told to place a wheat cube, and so on. A run of bad luck might make it look like you’re running a free-range glass farm, but don’t lose your cool! You’re a town planner, dammit! You trained for this!

What you’re trying to do is create patterns printed on public cards, at which point that anxious sprawl of cubes is replaced by a building. If you’ve played hit mobile game Triple Town, this will feel as familiar and comfortable as a pair of slippers. Imagine a satisfying “Whooshp!” sound as all of the cubes are suctioned into one square, being replaced with a teeny wooden building.

But what do you building? It could be a happy little house that produces 3 victory points so long as it’s fed by a happy little farm. It could be a happy little well that scores 1 point for each adjacent house. Or it could be a happy little abbey that scores 3 points so long as it’s kept away from the scum-caked workers of nearby factories, a type of building which isn’t worth victory points, but instead lets you store and swap resource cubes as they arrive.

And at the risk of damning Tiny Towns with faint praise, this puzzle is a very sweet thing to fiddle with. As you play, wooden cubes and buildings tumble through your fingers, all of them bearing a lovely lick of paint. This isn’t my area of expertise, though, so let me hand over to SU&SD’s resident colour expert, Matt Lees.

Matt: Fantastic to be here, Quinns!

Most games that aim to appear fun and inviting know they want to be colourful, but according to rainbows there are only six colours. Six! Far be it from me to argue with a rainbow, but this causes a ton of grief for games that have more than six different things. At this stage we enter “THE INTERESTING TONE ZONE”, where all bets are off and if you aren’t ruddy careful you can easily end up with a muddy/neon nightmare, as seen with CMON’s otherwise-excellent Ethnos. Tiny Towns juggles the full spectrum beautifully, picking tones that are not only clear and distinct, but also feel like they cohere neatly within the same palette. It’s a game that immediately radiates warmth: warm reds, warm yellows, warm greens, warm blues! WARM BLUES. Anything is possible! I guess I’m arguing with rainbows after all.

Quinns: Thanks Matt!

And so long as we’re talking about pleasantries, Tiny Towns also has a teasing bite point where your player board goes from having more than enough space, to suddenly being absolutely chock-a-block, and placing every cube feels like a torturous compromise between what you hoped to do, and what you should probably do if you’re being sensible. It’s unreasonable to expect an arc from a 20 minute game, but it’s well-placed pivot.

But if Tiny Towns is little more than a fun fiddle, I’ll give it this- I couldn’t stop fiddling with it.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve shown Tiny Towns to literally dozens of people, partially because I want to see their faces light up (and then darken) as they encounter the game’s simplicity (and abrupt crunch), but also because there’s superb variety here. Of the 8 kinds of buildings that are present in each game, what they actually do can be swapped out from game to game, so you never play the same puzzle twice.

And here’s the twist! During all of those plays, I found out that I don’t think the normal way that Tiny Towns wants you to play is as good as a variant sequestered in the back of the manual.

SO! Ordinarily, players take turns choosing the cubes that everyone has to place. So, on your turn you might say “Wheat!”, and you and all of your friends have to place wheat, like crazed wheat-placing enthusiasts. Then the next person clockwise might say “Stone!” like some some stony despot in the pocket of stone lobbyists, and everyone has to place a stone.

However, in addition to this mechanic making the game slower, it creates an… unacknowledged collaboration where players call cubes that would help them personally, but this results in a perfectly varied sequence of resources. And this is Tiny Towns at its forgettable worst, where you receive a cube you wanted and it’s not a choice. You know exactly where it goes.

BUT! There’s a variant in the back of the manual that instead has you determining the incoming cubes with a deck of 15 cards, containing 3 cards of each colour. You deal randomly off of this deck until there are just 5 cards left, then everyone picks whatever resource they want as the 11th cube, and then you shuffle the deck and start drawing randomly again.

In other words, it removes all player interaction. No wonder it’s a variant, eh? And yet it also turns Tiny Towns from a game that I think is sweet but I’d quickly give away, into a game that might well be good enough to make it into the venerable 140 games that make up my collection.

I’m not sure! I’d have to think about it.

…I’m still thinking about it…

…Ooh, I could be here all day! I’ll get on with the review.

Basically, going from the default game of Tiny Towns to the random card-flipping variant is like… going from riding a docile mule to riding a Shetland pony that is on paper more childish, but this animal actually wants to kick you to death. Suddenly, you’ve got things happening like receiving three shipments of wheat in a row, as if your town was host an impromptu pagan festival. But vitally, you’re sharing this injustice with all of your friends! “COME ON!” you all shout, as brick fails to materialise for the *tenth* card flip.

Using the card variant, Tiny Towns is host to the same magic that we felt during our reviews of Welcome To and Railroad Ink last year, wherein it turned out that players directly interacting is only one way to design a game, and another way is for players to simply share highs and lows as they fret over the same puzzle. Or put another way, playing the card variant simply packs a game of Tiny Towns with more cheering and swearing, more warmth and silliness, and perhaps even a more thought-provoking puzzle. From as early as turn 3 your tiny town might resemble something you never planned, perhaps that you don’t even want, and it’s a question of how you’re going to adapt.

(Your mileage may vary, of course. One thing that’s become apparent to me after roll’n’writes blew up in 2018 is that for some people, games where players don’t interact is a total dealbreaker. And if you’re one of those people, Tiny Towns is not for you! If you want to build a tiny town but interact your friends, I’d recommend Suburbia or the simpler, arguably-underrated Quadropolis.)

But if you’re looking for your next amiable, 20 minute roll’n’write-style experience, I think it’s hard to do better than Tiny Towns. Not just because it’s strong and simple, but because it’s cheap! This is a big box with a lot of tasty, tiny wooden buildings, and yet it’s just £30/$30.

A lot of people have been wishing for the return of our old series The Opener (which is accessible via a button on our videos page), where we show off light games that are perfect to get people into the hobby, plus a recipe you might make. Well, hey! Why not get extravagant and pair the warm, square game of Tiny Towns with some hot, square sandwiches?

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I made them last night! Can confirm, they’re absolutely ace.

The original article can be found on the fantastic Shut Up & Sit Down

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Podcast #94: Seven Players, Exchanging Bananas

Recently, Quinns was tasked with hosting a 7 player game night, and rose to the challenge with Herculean vigour.

In this episode, Matt, Quinns and intern Kylie discuss his breathtaking efforts. That means talking about Watson & Holmes (03:00), Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space (12:14), and a little card game called Bourré (19:55). Incidentally, Bourré is probably the only time that SU&SD will ever crossover with the NBA. Afterwards, the group slims down for a chat about some 3 player games, namely Gùgōng (27:34) and Chinatown (38:30).

Finally, the team answers a quick reader mail asking what table is best for board gaming. Big or small? Square or circle? That’s right! We are beyond parody.

The original article can be found on the fantastic Shut Up & Sit Down