2019 was a bit of a changing of the guard for me. After 30 years living in Berkeley, across the Bay from San Francisco, and after more than 15 years of gaming with friends at Endgame (and later Secret) on Wednesdays and at my house on Thursdays, I’ve moved to the Hawaiian island of Kauai. I’ve been here almost two weeks now, and I haven’t had time yet to search out my next board game opponents, but they’ll certainly be different from the friends I had out in the Bay Area. So here’s my last look at new games played on the west coast of the United States.
As usual, these are games that were new to me (whether they were quite new or quite old) and I’m listing my ratings of the games as a mid-complexity eurogamer. Your mileage may vary.
The Great (“I Would Buy This”)
Wingspan (2019). The hotness lives up to its hype. I’ve already written extensively about this game, but in short it’s a tableau building game where you improve the power of your actions, both by making them stronger and by giving them variety. And then you try and accomplish goals, some short-term, some long-term. This is all done through bird cards: you gather food, you lay eggs, you collect the bird cards and then you play them. The cards in turn can hold eggs, can generate actions, and can earn victory points. It’s a well-themed, variable, and enjoyable game that’s not quite like anything else on the market.
(And I can buy myself a copy now that I’ve landed in Hawaii and won’t have to ship it over in a container. I mean, if I can find one in-print.)
The Very Good (“I Would Keep This”)
Glen More II: Chronicles (2019). Almost a decade on, Glen More returns in a massive new edition funded by a Kickstarter. And, it’s more than just a new edition because it’s been expanded and numerous variants have been added.
The original game had an innovative tile-selection mechanism (where you could select “better” tiles at the cost of actions), an innovative tile-laying mechanism (where meeples control where you can place tiles), and an innovative action system (where powers come from those tiles near your newly placed one). That’s all in the new Glen More, plus there’s a new orthogonal sort of play in a “clan” board and there’s a bit of polish here and there. It’s definitely a worthwhile update.
Then, there’s the “chronicles” system, which is basically eight extensive variants for the game, starting with a boat race and a mountain where “there can be only one”. I haven’t played any of these yet, but they look like they add good variability to the game, which I feel was needed, and they’re packaged very well, in little boxes, so it’s easy to grab just the components for any one variant.
Finally, it’s worth commenting on the production. Newcomer Funtails used a Kickstarter to fund a really sumptuous production. That’s resulted in beautifully painted tiles and great shaped wooden resources, both of which are huge upgrades from the original Alea edition of the game, which was somewhat held back by its very plain production. But the overall box is ridiculously big, which isn’t going to do it any favors getting it to tables. (The original Glen More was a big game in a medium box; this one is a big game in a gargantuan box.) There are also a few production missteps of the sort that you’d expect from a first-time publisher (like clan alliance tokens which look like the little cardboard bits you’d throw out in many games, and a rulebook which leaves out a few crucial things). Despite the complaints, this is a very nice production of a still-innovative and interesting game.
Walking in Burano (2018). A clever little card-drafting game, where players are drafting cards from rows of cards, then using them to build a street of houses, which like the houses in Burano, Italy must each be a single color, and not be the same color as adjacent houses.
The cleverness of this game comes from the fact that the houses are full of well incorporated bits of iconic art for cats, flowers, plants, awnings, chimneys, and lightnings, which can score you bonus points if you have the right inhabitants and/or tourists. Not only are their beautifully detailed, but this is what makes the game, because it allows scoring in a few orthogonal directions, so that even if you’re stymied in one sort of scoring, you can go for another.
This seems to be advertised as a family game, but it’s got some nice depth to it because of its intricacies of scoring and the unforgivingness of its draft.
My only complaint is the way that the drafting, building, and finances together create a timer that’s not entirely intuitive, but nonetheless can result in a player not being able to complete his town.
Draftosaurus (2019). We’re not sure why it took four designers to produce this relatively simple game, but there are definitely four names on the box. This is another drafting game, this one focused on dinosaurs: you grab a hand of six dinosaurs, and you place them one at a time, drafting the rest, and then you do the whole draft again, and then you score points.
Obviously, the gameplay is in the placement. Dinosaurs score based on whether they’re the same or different or whether you have a majority or whether you have no other dinosaurs in that type, depending on where exactly they go. And not only are you limited by the dinosaurs you’re given, but you also can only place in certain places each turn, based on the roll of a die.
There’s a bit too much unbalanced randomness in this game (like the fact that a final dinosaur can be deadly or that a random location restriction can really hurt you), but I suppose that’s OK in a game that’s just 15 minutes long or so.
The Good (“I Would Enjoy Playing Your Copy of This”)
Res Arcana (2019). Another of the hottest games of 2019? Res Arcana is the definition of a cube pusher, except this being 2019, the cubes are now wooden bits sorta in the shape of abstract resources like life, death, fire, water, and gold. Resources go in, resources go out, and eventually resources convert to victory points. Tada! It’s a euro!
The game is held together by a solid, relatively thematic spine of tableau building. Each player gets a micro-deck of eight cards or so, which they’ll build using resources over the course of the game; they’ll then use the cards to generate more resources. These cards tend to have conversion and generation powers as well as a few attacks to make things interesting. Finally, there are some extra-expensive monuments to be built.
You can obviously see this game is built by the same designer as To Court the King (2006) and the Race for the Galaxy (2007) family. It’s simpler than most of the others and it accelerates so fast that it’s over before you even realize that’s a possibility — much as is the case with Jump Drive (2017). And it’s an enjoyable play, but not one that does enough new that I feel like I have to have a copy. I’d currently rather play Roll for the Galaxy (2014) or New Frontiers (2018), two of the later incarnations of Race.
Las Vegas: The Card Game (2016). Take Rüdiger Dorn’s excellent dice-rolling game of majority control and brinkmanship and replace the dice with cards. I didn’t have high hope for this game, because you lose the excitement of dice rolling, which was pretty much what the original game was about, but the result really isn’t that bad. You have some increased tactics in choosing which cards to play from what you draw and some increased strategy from knowing what cards you might draw (the latter being a typical benefit of changing out dice for cards). Still, it’s not as viscerally evocative, and it feels like the gameplay can stagnate based on which cards people have left and what’s already been played.
Is it as good of a game as the original Las Vegas? No. Is it worth having in a collection with Las Vegas? Maybe. If you want to have a game that does play faster or is much smaller.
Carpe Diem (2018). It’s a bit hard to rate the final game in the original Alea series, because it’s perhaps an interesting design, and it was held back in its first printing by terrible, terrible production.
This is a tile-laying game with a slightly interesting tile-selection mechanism (you take them from a sort of roundel) and a definitely interesting goal-selection mechanism (you have to take a pair of adjacently placed goals and can be blocked by other players). Throughout all of that you’re building a little city area, which means the game has the typical joy you find in creative games.
The problem is that Alea totally blew the color production of the game. A bunch of different terrains look too similar to each other, some because the colors ended up too similar, and some because they weren’t color-differentiated in meaningful ways. Then this is made even worse when some of those terrains are iconically represented on tile frames where the icons just aren’t clear representations of the terrains, and even worse by the fact that the hard-to-separate colors look slightly different on cards.
Alea has fixed some or all of this in a second printing, but it’s just humiliating for the company that used to do the best development in the business to have put out a game that was this horribly flawed in its first printing. And it’s cold comfort for those of us stuck with a nearly unplayable first printing to know there are better copies out there.
(And I say this was hard to rate because I don’t know entirely how good the game is or not when you’re not fighting with color and pattern matching the whole time.)
The OK (“I Am Willing to Play This if You Ask”)
Sheriff of Nottingham (2014). A game of bluffing and negotiation. Every round, you bring goods into Nottingham: perhaps following the strict rules of what you can bring in (just one sort of good, with no contraband) and perhaps not. Then you might need to bribe the Sheriff not to inspect your goods: if he chooses to inspect your legal goods, he pays you a fine, but if he manages to inspect your illegal goods, you do instead.
It’s an exhausting hour or more of lies, deceit, and interpersonal negotiation. If you like that sort of thing, Sheriff of Nottingham offers an OK, albeit simple, framework, and if you don’t, it’ll probably be … a lot. (The rating reflects the fact that this isn’t really my sort of game. I’d probably mark it as at least “Good” otherwise. And hey, I won something like 247 to a next highest score of 199, despite this not being my sort of game, mostly by subtly convincing people that I was smuggling goods when I wasn’t. And by drawing sets of cards.)
The Meh (“I Would Prefer Not to Play This”)
Shadows of Malice (2014). A co-op adventure game where players have to wander around hex maps, murdering monsters for their “soulshards” and loot. When they’ve collected enough loot, the players should be powerful enough to kill the guardians of the gate, and if they manage to open all the light gates, they win (but if the bad guys open a light gate first, then instead everyone goes to the Big Bad fight).
Ultimately, the whole adventure game genre is derived from the roleplaying industry: they’re attempts to model roleplaying’s more superficial aspects (e.g., exploration and looting) with board game mechanics. But this game feels closer to the roleplaying field than most. In fact, it feels like an attempt to convert an archetypical ’80s roleplaying game into adventure game form. That isn’t a good thing, because the trends of the ’80s had roleplaying games becoming more and more complex. When you fumble through all the “LRs” and “CRs” in this game, when you add and subtract huge batches of dice and bonuses, you’ll see why.
But the biggest problem with Shadows of Malice is that it’s tedious. You wear monsters down one slow hit at a time, and it’s pretty hard to hit them at all. The combats just drag and drag and there’s not enough interesting tactical choice (like there is in a game such as Descent) to keep that interesting.
Which is a shame, because there’s a lot here that’s quite evocative. The hex maps that the game is played on really feel like they depict a world. The randomly generated monsters can help you to tell stories. Even the various treasures, potions, and specialized power feel pretty neat.
But that’s matched with a slow game system of a sort that went out of style decades ago.