State of the Library! Collection Maintenance and Culling

Today I’m going to discuss the unpopular topic of collection maintenance. How, when, and why does my library remove board games from our collection.

Space is always limited in a library. While I hope nontraditional collections in the library have an opportunity to grow and expand, I understand that eventually it’ll butt up against available space and other collections. When that happens we have to start culling. Your standard collection development policy may help with this. My original collection development policy (you can see a bit of it in my post on CAH) didn’t originally include information on how I would weed and deaccession items from the board game collection because I never expected it to grow to the size it is. However, here we are.

Nontraditional collections tend to fade over time due to lack of interest and reduced investment. At first, when grant money is plentiful and everything is shiny and new the collection is maintained. But three years later you end up with 50+ dinged up cake pans choking up the 600s because no-one wants them or knows what to do with them. No-one is willing to develop the collection to the current need. To avoid this and keep the circulating board game collection new and relevant, I allocate around $100 a month from my general materials budget on purchasing new board games. This is just enough to keep new material floating in, allowing me to experiment on new and emerging game styles, add duplicates of popular games, and stay open to patron requests. All without blowing out what little space I have.

My dedicated space is limited to about 25 games on a gridwork mobile display originally used for VHS tapes. With half of my collection of 50 games circulating at any one time, it means that I’m coming close to my first culling of non-performing items. In order to do this, I determine a “rating score” for each game and check the circulation statistics quarterly. Any game that is new (defined by less than six months in circulation) is exempt from culling. They are still finding their audience. They are safe.

Others, however, have the arbitrary metric of averaging one circulation a month to remain relevant in the eyes of the law. Each game has a lending period of one week with one renewal, so this reflects the pace of how our board game collection moves. A longer circulation period of three weeks would not use the same metric. With my collection, one circ a month ensures that majority of the games are performing fine, a small percentage is performing amazingly well (we’ll look at those later) and some are just not making it. If they are averaging less than one circulation a for two straight quarters, they are removed from the collection. I need to move material off the of the shelf to make room for more material and I never want an empty shelf where the board game collection is housed. It ends up being a strange titration. Having only popular games which are constantly circulating ends up with an empty display.

So, an average performing game will have a score of somewhere between 1 and 2. Less than 1 is under-performing (and maybe up for culling) while over 2 is doing great and is barely on the shelf (which helps me determine where the community’s gaming interest lies).

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Sorry Barbara, Chinese Checkers is out.  https://www.flickr.com/photos/simpleinsomnia/25822056086

This quarter I have a few games up for culling.

  1. Small World (.88) – area control, fantasy themed game from Days of Wonder
  2. Happy Pigs (.8) – Farming game from Iello
  3. Kokoro: Avenue of the Kodama (.75) – Retheme of the Roll and Write game Avenue from Indie Boards and Cards
  4. Smash Up (.5) – crappy card game from AEG (I have opinions)
  5. Codenames: Disney Edition (.4) – Disney version of the popular word game Codenames

Now that I see which games aren’t circulating well. I also take into consideration individual plays at our board game nights so a game that doesn’t circulate but gets good in-house play will likely remain. For each of these titles, I ask a few questions. First, does the game do something unique within the scope of our current collection development policies. A good example is Kokoro which is a “roll and write” game and the only roll and write game we have in our collection. Since removing this game would remove an entire (arguably, popular) mechanism from the collection, I kept it. However, if I purchase other roll and writes in the future, and Kokoro continues to under-perform, I will likely remove it.

Does the game duplicate mechanisms or themes already held within the collection? Is it a an exact duplicate of another game or within the same family of games (i.e. Ticket to Ride family of games) information already held here or elsewhere in another format? A good example of this is Codenames: Disney Edition. Codenames is, not surprisingly, very popular and circulates well. I included Codenames: Disney Edition thinking that families with younger children would be interested. However, that has not materialized. Since the Codenames: Disney Edition is within the same family of games (Codenames and Codenames: Marvel are already in the collection) and we have other word games (Wordsy, Scrabble, and Bananagrams) which circulate well, Codenames: Disney Edition is out.

Was the item donated? How was it donated? If the game was from a publisher donation or donation from the general public, I’ll remove. If it was donated by members of our gaming group or through our “Adopt A Game” program, then it will be retained. Happy Pigs was an anonymously donated game and is under-performing. It doesn’t really do anything new or add anything to the collection so it will be removed.

Would the item be useful at a different location? I’m part of a four library township system. If a game would potentially be beneficial for another library, I’ll ask if they would be interested in it.

What is the physical condition of the game? If a popular game is getting well loved, I may deaccession it and then retain it for public gaming nights or for spare parts and order a replacement copy. If the game is getting worn and isn’t performing then I am likely to remove it entirely. I am very superficial and appearance of the collection is important. Small World is not circulating well at .88 and I would retain it except for the fact that the box is getting torn, split at the sides, and the area control mechanism is duplicated in other games.

So there we go…I’ll hold on to Kokoro but the rest are going away and making room for new games.

But what were the high performers? Oh, I’m glad you asked. By the way, Ticket to Ride and Codenames were both moved to another branch which is why you don’t see them.

  1. Monza (1.9) – a racing game for kids from Haba.
  2. Clank! (2) – deck-building dungeon crawling press your luck from Renegade Games.
  3. Pandemic (2.25) – classic Cooperative game from Z-man Games (currently missing pieces).
  4. Biblios (2.7) – SUPER popular small card game from Iello.
  5. Bob Ross: The Art of Chill (2.75) – I SWEAR this circulates because of Bob Ross’s face.
  6. Sushi Go Party (2.875) – Its a pass and play party from Gamewright!
  7. Splendor (3.333) – No. Surprise. Here.

 

Board in the Stacks: Raiders of the North Sea

Introduction

In Raiders of the North Sea from designer Shem Phillips and published by Garphill Games (Renegade Games in North America), players are independent warriors of a Viking Clan striving to garner prestige and influence with their Chieftain. To do that they need to bring in plunder. And where is the best plunder? Held snugly within the unsuspecting Christian settlements to the north of your village. First you will need to assemble a crew, gather provisions, armor up, and head north to raid. Things will not be without blood. Once you pick off the easier harbor settlements, you will go up against better fortified opponents. Grab your oar, don your armor because death and glory will surely follow in your wake!

Setup and Gameplay

Raiders of the North Sea is part of a the North Sea Saga. It starts with Shipwrights of the North Sea (800 AD) where players compete to gather resources and build their fleet. This is followed by Raiders of the North Sea (900 AD) where players are gathering provisions and crews to raid settlements nearby settlements. And lastly, Explorers of the North Sea (1000 AD) where players are seeking out new lands to settle and control. The basic progression follows the Viking Age (800-1066) starting with the development of a massive fleet, raiding local settlements and then exploring the vast world and developing new outposts. Plus, if you use the North Sea Runesaga expansion each game can be played in progression with an overall victor at the end.

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During set up, three of the village buildings (gatehouse, town hall, and treasury) will get a black worker placed on it. Three Offering Tiles are placed in the appropriate spots next to the long house with the remaining tokens stacked and placed next to the board. Each of the raiding spots north of the village will have 2-4 randomly placed plunder (livestock, ore, gold, or Valkyrie) plus one grey or white worker each. Each raiding place will have a number for the amount of plunder and an icon for which type of worker placed there. Each player receives 2 Silver, 1 Black Worker, 1 Ship Card, 3 tokens in their color, and five crew cards. Players will choose 3 of the cards and discard the rest to make up their starting hand.

In Raiders of the North Sea players will be balancing between working in the village and raiding settlements. Players work in the village by placing a worker onto one of 8 different buildings to take the associated action. Then they remove a worker from one of buildings and take that associated action. Workers are three colors (white, grey, and black) which can effect which buildings can be utilized and the resulting action. This is a worker placement mechanism unique to Raiders. Every player starts with one worker which they place for an action and then pull a worker off the board for a second action. Players will always start and end a turn with one worker in their possession.

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After a player has built up a large enough crew and provisions, they can take a raiding action. The board is set up with several “tiers” of raiding spots. The harbor is the easiest area but scores only one point, followed by outposts, monasteries and fortresses. At the beginning of the game plunder is randomly placed in each raiding spot. This will be a mix of livestock, ore, gold, and black skulls (Valkyries). Valkyries represent death and glory in battle and when gathered after a raid will result in the death of a crew-person (booo) and also an increase on the Valkyrie track for points at the end of the game (yay).

While you can choose to raid any settlement on the board you need to be sure you have a large enough crew, ample provisions and/or gold, plus a worker of the proper color. In order to raid fortresses, white colored workers need to be first released. When players raid a harbor, for example, they place a worker (grey or black) on an available raiding spot. Then after the raid is resolved and plunder acquired, they pick up a new worker from their raiding spot. In this case, a grey worker.

Review

Raiders of the North Sea is a delight! It has shifted Lords of Waterdeep out of my collection and if my partner didn’t love beating me at Stone Age so much, that one would be right out too! As it stands, Viticulture and Raiders are my worker-placement games of choice.

The artwork in Raiders is bright, vibrant, and consistent across the entire trilogy. Terrforming Mars can’t even keep it consistent within one hand of cards. From my perspective, there is a loss of narrative cohesion when a variety of artists, sources, and styles are used instead of one overarching aesthetic. There is also a recent tendency for games to go deeply grim-dark and bloody, and I appreciate the change of pace with Raider’s colorful, stylized, and distinctive art style. Granted, the content is dark (raiding, plundering, etc.) but the cartoony art-style softens the impact. This makes the game much more accessible. On top of that, when you include the Fields of Fame expansion, the representation of women is surprisingly adequate … but apparently not realistic so let’s get to that 50/50 mark with the next expansion! However, it is leaps and bounds better than any other Viking themed game out on the market. Good job, well done, and I appreciate the realistic armor and body diversity.

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The mechanisms are balanced, pleasantly coherent, and smooth. Although the end game can feel a bit clunky as you track three different end game conditions (no Valkyries left, one Fortress left, or the Offering Tiles stack depleted). While worker placement is the primary mechanism to procure resources and crew for raiding forays, hand management in hiring crew (with a dash of luck in the dice roll) determines the profitability of the raids. Raids are guaranteed to succeed as long as the requirements are met. This will provide you a reward of plunder but the sheer magnitude of your victory will garner you points (and Fame if using the Fields of Fame expansion). Players are challenged to be selective in their crew and align them with their overall strategy. Do you go for large points by building up a mighty crew with attacking prowess (this will take longer but have a higher payout from more fortified settlements), or do you get the basic requirements quickly and raid fast and often (less payout but more plunder and options to make more offerings to the village chieftain)? And how are you going to keep this up while meanwhile keeping an eye on the Armor and Valkyries track for end game bonuses?

Initially, I was concerned about this being too convoluted for players. However, they got the idea quickly. However, I still would not put this in the “gateway” category. For me, a gateway game will allow a new player a decent chance of victory or placing well against a seasoned player. Experience pays off in Raiders and a new player will do poorly against experienced one. Tracking the crew card benefits and the complexity of the different workers can also be fiddly for new players. Most worker placement games provide players with their own cadre of workers to use but in Raiders you are basically sharing three different types of workers. Everyone starts with a black worker, and with certain areas only accessible by white or grey workers, players have to be cognizant of what type of worker they are placing, picking up, or locking down in a raid. Once those white and grey workers start being introduced into the mix, there is more competition for the type of worker players pick up. For these reasons, I think it is best for new players to stick to Stone Age to learn and then introduce Raiders.

Player interaction is present but not overwhelming. You need to be aware of what plunder players are collecting, the strength of their crew, and where their potential raiding/working spots will be. For the most part, you are on your own and adapting to the changing board state. Each raiding spot has three bundles of plunder so even if someone gets there quicker, your turn isn’t going to be completely wasted. The only real elements of interaction are some townsfolk cards that can hamper play by stealing provisions or silver. Nothing particularly catastrophic but you can slow down opponents with a well played card.

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Speaking of player interaction and inducing my rage, another fantastic element in the design of Raiders is a lack of blocking. Once more for the people in the back: Along with hate-drafting, blocking is the worst! The ability to block, unless it is central to the theme, feels very meta and petty to me. In Stone Age, a player can squat on a tile or card because they know someone wants it and not because it helps them. Then they move off of it at the end of the round. Blocking removes me from the flow of the game and I am pleased with how Raiders handles blocking — you can’t do it. Raiding is only accessible when players have the required crew, provisions, and type of worker. And with the place one/pick up one mechanism in the village, it is impossible to block since placing your worker *actually* provides the opportunity for another player to take that action! Thank you, Shem! Vikings know blocking is a strategy for the weak.

Raiders of the North Sea is an original take on worker-placement games. The snappy turns, variable pacing, solid eurogame roots, and delightful artwork, provides a very satisfying experience for a wide array of players. While not the best gateway game, new and seasoned players alike will love it.

Board in the Stacks: Photosynthesis

In Photosynthesis, you are a species of tree engaged in an ages-long struggle for precious sunlight. Sap has not been shed in generations and you hope to see your wind-blown progeny emerge innocent from seed and grow to haggard adulthood. Until, that is, they are harvested for points on the whim of an uncaring and vengeful Smiling God. It’s a dendrological battle for supremacy over this forested realm…prepare yourselves!

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Setup

To start, each player takes their personal board and all the associated seeds/trees. They fill in the empty spots on their board where they are stored and then set the light point tracker to zero. Some seeds and small trees will be left over. These will constitute items immediately available for the player to use. The main board in Photosynthesis consists of circles radiating out from a central circle where seeds and trees will be placed. This is contained within a large hex which contours serve as the path the sun takes as each round progresses. Moving from the outer rim to the inner, the soil gets progressively richer, the colors darker, the points potential higher, and the competition more menacing.

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The sun is placed on the sun icon to start. Each concentric row’s circles has 1-4 leaves: A single leaf on the outer row, two leaves on the next inner row, three in the next, and the center circle has four. Each player places two of their small trees on the outermost row denoted by a single leaf. Scoring tokens corresponding to the number of leaves and color of the circles are stacked next to the board with the highest value on top.

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The game rounds tokens are also stacked: Either three or four rounds depending on the difficulty preferred. Each round includes six stops for the sun as it revolves around the board.

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Gameplay

There are two phases at each stop of the sun – 1) Photosynthesis, where light points are earned and 2) Life Cycle, where players use their accumulated light points to place seeds, grow and/or harvest trees, and purchase new trees/seeds from their player board.

During the Photosynthesis phase, the sun is moved clockwise and light points are collected from it’s new position and tracked on player’s boards. Small trees gain one light point, medium trees gain two, and large trees gain three. However, where you have light, you also have shadows. If a tree is in the shadow of another tree of equal or larger size, then it can’t gain light points. Small trees cast a shadow of one circle, medium trees cast a shadow of two circles, and the large trees cast a shadow of three circles.

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During the Life Cycle phase, players, in turn order, use light points to perform actions. Players can buy trees/seeds from their player board starting with the bottom most (least expensive) and working up. Purchased trees/seeds get moved to the side of the player’s board until willing to pay the cost for placement on the main board.

Players can also spend light points to plant seeds and grow trees. After initial setup, all trees on the board have to start from seeds. Seeds cost one light point to plant and must be distributed from an established tree. Similar to the collecting light and casting a shadow formula of 1/2/3; small trees can distribute a seed one space away, medium trees distribute seeds two spaces away, and large trees distribute seeds three spaces away. Each tree can only plant one seed a round.

Growing trees also stays true to the 1/2/3 formula; costing 1 light point to grow from seed to small tree, 2 light points to go from a small to medium tree, and 3 to go from a medium to large tree. When you replace a tree, the smaller size goes back onto the upper-most (most expensive) area on the player’s board. If no room exists, that item gets lost and goes back into the box. With the exception of trees placed at set-up, all items placed on the board are purchased first from the player board.

A central concept of Photosynthesis is that each space (and the seed/tree on it) can only be used once per round. If you grew a tree from small to medium, that same tree could not spread a seed. Just remember that if somethings happens on a space, that space is now inactive until the next round. Chill out friend, you’ll get there.

You can harvest large trees for 4 light points. The tree is removed from the main board, placed back on the player board, and the top scoring token matching the number of leaves (1-4) is taken.

Once everyone has spent the light points they wish, the start player token is passed to the left, the sun is moved clockwise to the next position on the hex and the next round’s Photosynthesis phase begins. For every complete revolution of the sun, one round token is removed. Once all the round tokens are removed, the game ends and points are tallied. Tears are shed. The circle of life continues.

Review

Blue Orange is a goddamned modern miracle. First New York: 1901, then Kingdomino, and now this. Photosynthesis is a gorgeous abstract game of spatial reasoning, impotent rage, and careful planning with a surprisingly entrenched theme. Especially for an abstract game! This leads me into a philosophical quandary — Can this be an abstract game when the theme feels so entwined with the mechanisms? Trees grow, spread their seeds, working towards the richer soils of the middle board. All the while nudging other trees out of the way to gain the most sunlight.

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Everything is so calm. So peaceful. So serene.

On top of that, the visual elements of the game are beautiful. The colors and shapes of the trees are distinctive creating a game that a joy to play and look at. Hell, I don’t even care about winning when the board ends up looking so amazing. The rules and mechanisms are surprisingly simple. They achieve this by sticking to a strict 1/2/3 formula. Small trees will cost 1 light point to grow, gain 1 light point during the photosynthesis stage, and casts 1 space of shadow. The medium trees do the same but with a cost of 2, and the large trees with a cost of 3.

Despite the seemingly innocuous and calming theme (see above picture of me chill af), the feel of the game is extremely tense. Just mindbogglingly tense. Like Wasabi tense. Placement of your trees and working towards that lucrative center spot while maintaining access to the sun as it moves requires a tight combination of tactical, strategic planning, and pure ruthlessness. Additionally, with 3-4 players, the board gets crowded and becomes the proverbial knife fight in a phone-booth. Seemingly minor placement errors early on can lead to large potential losses later in the game as your strategy adapts, leaving you to ponder what to do with these worthless saplings. The initial setup is important and being blocked early in the game when sunlight is precious can lead to major difficulty later on. It feels like optimum opening moves will potential reveal themselves after repeated play.

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Stop blocking me, Brenda!

The movement of the sun and varied ability to gain access as it moves is pivotal. It means that 1) players need to place in a manner that will provide the most sunlight as the sun moves and 2) stay psychically aware of the potential movements of other players. This is simple enough in a two player game (where it is a smooth, evenly paced experience) but with 3-4 players the potential movements adds a healthy amount of variety and randomness. Do you grow a few trees as tall as possible? Or do you spread your seed far and wide, basically blocking players from expanding. All while ensuring you have a decent light gathering engine to keep your plan moving.

It may be my lack of experience in abstract and spatial reasoning games, but I usually have a couple of rounds where I am unable to gain any light. Just a complete dry spell followed by a complete windfall. So it seems profitable to have at least a couple of trees out of the fray and growing on the periphery to gain sunlight from multiple positions while sneaking a tendril into the center of the board. Others tear into the center as quickly as possible.

Another interesting element of the game is that players have more seeds and trees than they have room for on their player board. If you ever have to remove one of those items from the main board and have no place for them on your board, they get removed completely from the game. With careful planning and allocation of resources you can keep more trees in play than your opponents allowing for a less expensive items, more placement opportunities, and more sun. Since that sunlight can turn on you in some rounds this allows for a better chance at controlling the richer areas of the board. But growing an adult tree and then harvesting for points basically frees up that rich spot for another tree. So there is an interesting ebb and flow as you struggle to grab onto the rich center spot but you are never able to hold onto it for long.

The most difficult decision for me comes with the largest trees. These things can be a veritable goldmine of light points so it behooves you to keep them around but, at the same time, harvesting them is the only way to earn points. So you need to be sure your engine is firing fast enough that you can harvest for points and then be able to grab up that spot again in a future round.

While the trees are beautiful and increases the table presence of Photosynthesis. They are too clunky, in my opinion, to circulate without being damaged or lost. However, it is the perfect bait game — the rules are simple and the gameplay can be picked up quickly by watching it being played. My suggestions is to purchase other abstract games to circulate but keep Photosynthesis for any in-house gaming events your library hosts.

 

Board in the Stacks: Mountains of Madness

IELLO is diving into the realm of Cthulhu with Mountains of Madness; a quirky, cooperative party game from designer Rob Daviau. The game draws inspiration from the H.P. Lovecraft novel, At the Mountains of Madness, focusing on the events of an ill-fated Miskatonic University expedition to Antarctica as adventurers are driven slowly mad by exposure and their encounters with the unknown. If you are unfamiliar with Rob Daviau, he has a unique design pedigree. He is designer of Pandemic Legacy, Risk Legacy, Seafall, and the primary innovator of the “Legacy” mechanism where the game changes permanently over time based on the outcome of previous games; providing a unique gaming experience. IELLO Games has a consistent art aesthetic with cartoony and bright colors with games such as King of Tokyo and Kanagawa which appeal more to families and emerging gamers. A Lovecraft-inspired “party” game, certainly feels outside the usual realm of both designer and publisher and I was instantly curious. So how did they do?

A central theme to the work of H.P. Lovecraft, and every game based upon his mythos, is madness. The challenge is that the essence of crippling insanity doesn’t really port well into analog games. Madness tokens can be collected. Players can track how “mad” they’ve become in order to optimize their play. In these situations, madness becomes another resource to monitor and maintain. There is no practical way to design for players to represent their internal experiences in the game and give them an active voice. That is until Mountains of Madness where players, as they continue through the expedition, are driven “mad” by their experiences.  To do this they have to role-play specific quirks described on acquired madness cards. These quirks will hamper their ability to communicate and plan as the game gets progressively more difficult and the their madness intensifies.

This is arguably the central and most interesting mechanism in the game. Each madness card will provide a rule or action that the player must follow through on while communicating during the brief planning period with other players. Since a cooperative game normally hinges upon the successful communication of information between players, this presents a distracting and, at times, off-putting hurdle to victory, making this one of the more difficult cooperative games I’ve played.

This is where player buy-in for Mountains of Madness is pivotal. As characters grow increasingly “mad,” they will pull cards from one of three madness decks, each increasing in difficulty. Players actively role-play the described actions from the card when communicating to make it difficult for other players and themselves to meet their objectives. They are purposely choosing to engage in their “madness” in a way that will hamper play. If players are willing to play along with this, Mountains of Madness captures the feeling and reaction to insanity shockingly well. If they don’t buy into the roleplaying aspect of the game, there is very little else to the game.

This is not to say that the rest of the game is bad but the crux of the game is in the interaction between players, their madness, and the struggle to communicate successfully in quick sprints. Players who hold true to their madness will easily make mistakes, forget information, purposely confuse other players, etc. This provides a wonderful comparison to hidden traitor games where distrust is fostered as you attempt to suss out the betrayer in the group. But there is no traitor here, only people attempting to communicate and cooperate within increasingly difficult constraints. In essence, everyone is trying to slightly throw off the game. Everyone is a traitor…

And it is gloriously frustrating.

In Mountains of Madness, 3-5 players will attempt to explore a pyramid shaped set of tiles from coast to mountain, to hidden city, and then to the Edge of Madness and a daring escape to bring back enough evidence to secure their academic futures. Players have a hand of equipment cards representing different equipment (crates, tools, weapons, and books) ranging in value from 2-6. These will correspond to values and equipment to be utilized in order to pass increasingly difficult challenges.

Each round of play is split into a Movement and Encounter Phase. At the start of the round, one player is designated leader of the expedition. The leader ultimately decides the group’s movement and whether or not to discard Leadership tokens. Leadership tokens are a limited currency used to earn additional communication time, rerolling the penalty die, and resting. Resting allows the group to regain used Leadership tokens but forces you to permanently lose one so be careful. If the team runs out of Leadership tokens, the game is lost. So the game is geared towards the use and eventual loss of Leadership tokens.

During the Movement phase, the leader moves the group to an adjacent expedition tile. The leader can confer with everyone or make an arbitrary decision. And while it is certainly possible to shoot straight up the mountain, generally it is best to meander around to try to pick up some relics. A quick shot up the mountain and escape will not provide enough evidence to win. Since the role of leader rotates, the usual issue with one alpha gamer dominating the game is somewhat mitigated since every player gets the opportunity to be in charge.

Once the group moves the Encounter Phase begins and the tile is flipped, revealing the reward for successfully completing the tile. The team also flips over the timer and has 30 seconds to determine which cards should be played and by whom to complete the challenge. However, in the brief time to plan, the players will be hampered by their madness cards. The Leader is in charge of tracking the conversation and the contributions of each team member. Conversation ends as soon as the timer runs out, the Leader decides to use Leadership tokens, or when the Leader takes cards from a player and places them on the Sled board. At this point, everyone silently makes their final decisions and hands over the cards they wish to play.

Succeeding challenges provide advantages like taking away injuries, granting extra leader tokens, and most importantly, give relics, knowledge, ruins, and other cards needed to ultimately win the game. While success means gaining relics, the knowledge along with them means that the player gaining the relic may also gain a more debilitating madness or lose certain abilities. Failure means that you have to leave it to the fates and roll a damage die or choose to upgrade your madness card. While level 1 madness cards can be distracting, the level 2 and 3 cards can be downright disastrous to teamwork.

After the turn, the leadership of the group will rotate clockwise. As you climb higher up the mountain, you will notice that the iconography is not consistent with colors, shapes, or text changing. This is an amazingly delicate touch as you feel your sanity slipping further and further away. This is especially enjoyable if you plan on teaching and moderating this game with new players. That moment when the escape tokens are flipped and suddenly the colors are off is priceless. If the team ultimately succeeds and escapes the mountain, they will compare the difference between collected injury cards and collected relic cards. More injuries than relics equals an overall failure of the expedition.

My biggest gripe about Mountains of Madness is how overproduced it is for what is primarily a game centered around the madness cards. The 30 second burst of planning and conversation hampered by the madness cards takes almost all the focus away from the game board and components. The game could have been much more minimalist in presentation and still just as satisfying. Iello production and component quality is as high as always, it just seems that the game could have been just as effective and fun in a much smaller package with much less included. I would be the first person to jump on board with “Mountains of Madness: The Card Game.”

Mountains of Madness is a tricky game to review. The interactions are so unique that it is a challenge to gauge the game as either a party game or a cooperative game or strategy game. What is it? I don’t know. It’s a strange game but one that everyone seems to really enjoy. For me the madness cards are certainly the most intriguing part and requires perhaps an overabundance of player buy-in to really have the experience succeed. I would recommend this game to anyone who enjoys cooperative and hidden traitor or bluffing games in equal measures. It is challenging, exciting, and hilarious to play but requires more strategy than most party games and more extroversion than most strategy games which may make this game tough to find an audience for. But when you find them, it’s a hit.

Board in the Stacks: Magic Maze

Magic Maze is a real-time cooperative game similar to Escape: The Curse of the Temple or Space Cadets that playes 1-8 people in about 15 minutes. Unlike those though, players do not get assigned characters. Players can control any adventurer at any point of time according to their whim. Where it gets tricky is that players only have one action to complete, and aren’t allowed communicate with each other. There is, however, a large, red, passive-aggressive pawn that can be tapped impatiently or slammed in front of a player you suspect is missing something.

On top of that, there is a three minute timer to watch! If the timer runs out, it’s game over, man! The players lose. Lucky for them, there are tile locations that can allow players to flip the timer to briefly plan and power on. When a sand timer is flipped, players are allowed to communicate and quickly plan out their movements until someone takes an action, then it is back to silent partners.

So let’s sum up: Cooperative *check*, timed *check*, no assigned characters *check*, and players can’t verbally communicate with each other *check.*

Wonderful! This shouldn’t a be a problem at all…

To set-up players will choose which of 17 scenarios they will play. Each scenario has specific requirements on how to set up the tile deck and provides additional rules. Honestly, the first few scenarios (similar to Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle or Mystery: Motive for Murder) serve to get the players familiar with the game while slowly adding additional elements. They can be skipped by more experienced players. Each of the four pawns get placed in the middle of the starting tile. The goal is to get the all four pawns onto their designated space to steal their particular piece of equipment, and then out to the exit space.

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To do this, each player will randomly get assigned 1 of the 9 Action Tiles. These are the actions that can be applied to the adventurers. They include directional movement, going up and down escalators, entering portals, or exploring and adding new tiles to the board. This is the only action a player can assign to an adventurer in the game. Once the timer is flipped, players begin to apply their specific action[s] to the adventures.

Review

While I love the stress and tension of real time games, I tend to only be able to stomach a couple of these games in my collection. Fully cooperative real time games like Escape! Curse of the Temple are a perennial favorite while the team based real time games like Space Cadets: Dice Duel or Captain Sonar provide too much competitiveness along with the tension and tend to not last too long in my collection. Magic Maze falls into the former category and strikes a balance between high tension and short game length.

While the artwork and presentation make Magic Maze seem appropriate to younger audiences, the hectic nature of the game play, the limited time, and the complexity of the later scenarios make it a challenge for younger players. Similar to Hanabi, this game rewards repeat play with a consistent set of players. You will develop a sense of player’s strategies and suss out any tells or hints they unconsciously provide.

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The interactions in Magic Maze are interesting. While most of the game is quiet since communication is forbidden, the small quick bursts of loud, harried talking when a timer is flipped add for a wonderful break of that silence. These occasional bursts are oddly exhilarating. It provides for a quick planning session while the timer is running and just enough to break the tension and get everyone relatively on the same page. Once you get two or three moves past it though, everything starts falling apart.

Scenarios not only increase in difficulty but also provide a scaffolding style of teaching the game through the first few scenarios. Each of the first few scenarios introduce new rules and slowly gives the players an opportunity to get acclimated to the game elements. Each of these learning scenarios can be played quickly and are a satisfying way of introducing the game to new players.

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For a library setting, Magic Maze is perfect! It is hectic, silly, and oddly quiet. It plays quickly in a relatively small space. The cooperative and real-time elements of the game make it appealing to spectate. The slow increasing of complexity tempers the chaotic nature of the game making it more accessible, and this is one of the few cooperative games that successful mitigates the Alpha Gamer problem. It is also provides an mildly competitive feel when players with opposing strategies attempt to move the same pawn. The pieces are limited to nondescript pawns, tiles and some tokens, making circulation simple.

First Looks: Bunny Kingdom from Iello

In Bunny Kingdom, designed by Richard Garfield and published by Iello Games, players draft hands of cards in order to control territories, construct buildings, and gain end game conditions to earn points (ahem…golden carrots) for their Bunny Kingdoms. It is basically a PG-rated Watership Down meets Small World with card drafting and no violence.

The board is a 10×10 grid with a large score track. Letters A-J form the rows and numbers 1-10 form the columns. Forests, fields, seas, mountains, plains, and a couple of starting cities are available for players to control. Some territories will produce resources (forests produce wood, fields produce carrots, and seas produce fish) while others produce nothing. A deck of 180 cards is placed next to the board. Cards include 100 Territory Cards corresponding to every space on the board, Building Cards that can be constructed after the drafting phase and Parchment Cards that provide additional opportunities to score points at the end of the game.

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Bunny Kingdoms is played in four rounds each split into three phases: drafting, construction, and scoring. At the start of the round, players are dealt 10 (or 12) cards. They choose two cards simultaneously and place them face-down. Then pass the remainder to the player on their left or right depending upon the round. The chosen cards are revealed and resolved. Territory Cards and Building Cards are resolved immediately. Parchment (scoring) Cards remain face down and secret until the end of the game.

To resolve a Territory Card, a bunny is taken from the player’s supply and placed on the corresponding coordinate space on the board. Think the coordinate system in Battleship with rows A-J and columns 1-10 (F6, G1, A5, and so on). To resolve a Building Card, take the corresponding building token from the supply and place it on the card in front of them. There are a variety of buildings. They can produce resources, upgrade or build a city, connect two disparate fiefs, and set up a camp to (temporarily) claim an unoccupied area. Buildings can be constructed during the building phase of the current or any subsequent rounds so they do not need to be constructed immediately. Each territory can only support one building and, other than the camp card, players need to control the territory first before building on it.

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Once players drafted all their cards, the construction phase begins. Buildings played during the drafting phase can now be constructed. Most buildings are constructed by moving a token to a controlled territory. However, when someone states they are building a camp, you must check first to see if another player has a camp to build. Each camp has a numerical value and the player with the camp of the lowest value gets the option to place theirs first. There are also Sky Towers which allow you to build towers in two remote fiefs in order to join them. These are amazingly beneficial.

After players construct which buildings they wish, everyone scores their fiefs. A fief is a single set of connected territories controlled by one player. Basic end-of-round scoring is completed by multiplying the wealth of a fief by the strength. The wealth of a fief is the number of different resources produced and the strength is the total number of city towers. So if a fief had a wealth of 2 (say, they produce carrots and fish) and a strength of 3 (they have one 3 level city) then they score 6 points for the fief.

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Four rounds of drafting, building, and scoring take place and then players will do a final scoring where Parchment Cards are revealed and the results are tallied. There is a large diversity of end game scoring possibilities to explore so prepare for a slog and the end of the game.

Bunny Kingdom is a well designed and developed game. This is not surprising coming from the team up of veteran designer Richard Garfield and the artistic powerhouse that is Iello. The mechanisms are streamlined and simple so the teach is fairly easy — Draft two cards and then resolve, build, score and repeat four times. It does, however, lead to a very messy tableau of discarded Territory Cards, pending Building Cards, face-down Parchment Cards, and passed hands. I’m disappointed that no effort was made to create a player’s aid to help organize all these cards. Every game has had some confusion where cards were muddled up requiring time to work out what happened.

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The decision space is comfortable with plenty of opportunities to build or modify your strategy. It provides a pleasurable tension without too much of a strain due to too many options being available. Everything looks good in your hand! There are so many possibilities. I need that but they need that other one and I could do this because I have that but maybeeeee. It is, however, just as random as you can imagine when drafting 120/180 cards. You may not get what you need to complete the strategy so you have to adapt and sometimes you just can’t. If the thought of that doesn’t appeal to you then this is definitely not your game.

The pacing of the game is erratic. To be fair though, this is an issue with most drafting games. Some players will quickly play and pass and others will agonize over choices. However, experienced players will likely be able to burn through the drafting portion of the game quickly after a game or two. The real choke point is the scoring. End of round scoring is a trial and end of game scoring is a travesty. It wrecks the game for me. The setup is easy. The teach is easy. The gameplay is simple. The scoring grinds everything to a halt.

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Iello developed a beautiful game though. They took a solid set of mechanisms with a potentially bland theme (the original theme of the game was Dwarven Roads) and completely turned it around to make something exciting and buzz-worthy.  Interestingly the most interesting element of the game seems to have gone relatively unnoticed — the area control in Bunny Kingdom works entirely without any player interaction. The only possible exception is when two or more players have camps to build. And this is a redeeming design element of the game. It is, for the most part, a very friendly area control game which seems counter intuitive to the mechanism but it does work.

The artwork and the idea of bunnies proliferating over the board is also whimsical and wonderful and I love it. I loved it the moment I heard about it. My only wish is that they could proliferate faster and make less of a mess around the board.

Bottom Line: Bunny Kingdom is a beautiful, albeit messy, “second-step” drafting game. Fans of Sushi Go! can move into a larger decision space. Fans of 7 Wonders can find enjoyment in a similar level of complexity but with an added element of area control. The art is delightful but the small board size and lack of player aids makes for a very clustered and unnecessarily chaotic experience. The drafting is spot on and the area control is the friendliest in the land. There are just enough tempting decisions to make it difficult to decide whether to continue on one strategic trajectory or start a new one.

 

Board in the Stacks: Samurai Gardener

In Samurai Gardener — first published as Edo Yasiki in Japan — from Osprey Games and Hisashi Hayashi, 2-5 players quickly grab and then place cards to construct impressive gardens and score points and bonuses by having rows/columns of similar areas.

Each card consists of six sections with different types of features (pond, tatami mat, garden, and path). At the start of each round, the lead player chooses as many cards as there are players from the draw deck and places them in the middle of the table within easy reach of all players.

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The lead player then calls out “Ei! Ei!” and everyone yells “Oh!” and simultaneously slam their hand down on the card they want. You can also call out “One, Two, THREE” instead. Or you can just place cards and let people choose in turn order. In reality it doesn’t really matter how you do it. Whoever gets to their desired card first gets it. If two players find themselves with their hands on the same card, then the person with more of the card covered gets it.  I played this across a few different groups and some found this an exciting element of the game and others found it repetitive and off-putting. Adding a dexterity/speed element to a card/tile placement game doesn’t add that much to the game-play to make it central to the game.

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In order to construct the perfect garden, cards can be placed adjacent to or overlapping other cards in the player’s tableau but cannot be turned 90 degrees. The short side of cards in your garden should always be facing you. Additionally, you can’t cover an area of three or more of the same garden features are present in a row/column.

Once the cards are placed, rows/columns of three, four, or five of the same area type are awarded points, and there are bonuses for scoring two or more types at the same time. The first player to 25 or the player with the most points when all cards are depleted wins.

Samurai Gardener is a delightfully simple card game that has been a great starter at my library game nights especially for older players who are coming in with very little board game experience but quite a bit of experience with traditional card games. However, the dexterity/speed part of the game was not a big hit and I’ve preferred to have the active player deal and then choose in turn order. Everyone will generally get enough turns to get their first choice.

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What makes this game interesting is the scoring. Each player has four cards in front of them (pond, tatami mat, garden, and path) which are flipped over whenever the corresponding feature is scored (has a length of 3, 4, or 5). However, once flipped over that feature can’t be scored until the cards are refreshed and that doesn’t happen until all the cards are flipped face-down. So, you need to score each feature and then start again. It adds a pleasant amount of tension and decision around placement of the cards and optimizing which which features to score.

Bottom Line: Samurai Gardener is a simple card game with a unique scoring mechanism and an oddly unnecessary speed/dexterity element. Experienced gamers will likely drift towards Honshu as their go-to card/tile-laying game. I can see breaking this out at family holidays or during lunch with co-workers or emerging gamers. Osprey Games continues to present us with approachable, well-produced, and enjoyable games.

 

 

First Looks: Wasteland Express Delivery Service from Pandasaurus Games

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Designers:Jonathan Gilmour, Ben Pinchback, Matt Riddle
Publisher: Pandasaurus Games
Players: 2-5
Age: 12+ (reviewers recommendation)
Playing time: 120 minutes

In Wasteland Express Delivery Service, civilization has finally crashed and sank into a post-nuclear fashion oblivion — everything is all blood, sweat, tape, and spandex. You need to move water, food, and weapons in order to pick up enough scrap to keep your rig roadworthy and knee-deep in eyeliner. Upgrade weapons, storage space and other variable sundries in order to keep up with the competition. Attack and pillage raiders moving across the Wastelands or send them head first into another rig. The bulk of your time, however, will be moving materials for three different factions, picking up other contracts, and dealing with various catastrophic events. The player who first completes three objectives, wins…and then takes a bath.

Unless you are actually living in a post-apocalyptic fallout shelter (give it another year), you have heard of Wasteland Express Delivery Service. Draped in an aggressively busy post-apocalyptic setting and featuring an intensity of artwork that would make Tank Girl blush and Mad Max *finally* go home and change his pants, WEDS is a delightfully chunky mess of a game with a solid pick-up-and-deliver frame. The box is big, the inserts are sponge-worthy (reference), and the rules and set-up requires two advance degrees and a crow-bar to get through. However, once you get this game rolling along, it just keeps on trucking into blissful oblivion.

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So. Much. Tape.

I haven’t had much time to really dive into this game so take everything with a grain of salt. I did have some quick thoughts and wanted to comment whether it is a good fit for a library setting (it is if you are experienced). Despite all the chrome, miniatures, and all the extra bits, this, in essence, is a simple Pick Up and Delivery game with an obscene amount of customization added. The basic mechanisms of the game are already there for you: Move, Pick Up, Move, Deliver, Make Money, Pillage. To their credit, Gilmore, Pinchback, and Riddle (the law offices of…) have designed a wonderfully engaging and exciting game around that notoriously dull mechanism and Pandasaurus Games developed it into a gorgeous piece of sexy shelf candy.

Similar to Scythe (advance warning, I’m going to compare WEDS to Scythe often), the art direction does not correlate directly to the player experience. If you are expecting plenty of Road Road style action between players and factions, you will be disappointed. There is very little direct player interaction although quite a bit indirect interaction (moving Raiders around the board, messing with the commodities market, racing to fulfill a contract). However, unlike Scythe, where the beginning of the game is on rails and basically predetermined, WEDS provides a wide variety of actions and movement across the board. Specifically, the concept of movement momentum was novel where you can move up in gears during your turn (sacrificing other actions) to move further and faster during later turns and burn across the board. In Scythe you have a vast field to explore but will barely move past your starting hexes (just like the lonely peasant you are). In WEDS you get to move all over the board.

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The bulk of the gameplay is very Euro, BUT, it is Euro with tons of trashy chrome to liven it up. Ordinarily, I’m not a fan of chrome. The over-the-top components and miniatures don’t appeal to me. But WEDS offers a solid foundation with some mechanical chrome and it makes it sexy af. On top of the basic delivery framework you have a veritable chasm of customization to drive your rig into. It allows for a level of tinkering and strategy that flows nicely with the simple core. Meanwhile Scythe feels like a bunch of mechanisms bundled together with spit and twine that works but doesn’t necessarily move or hold together well. In WEDS, the mechanical chrome is slick and adds to the gameplay. Oddly enough, it ends up feeling like a tactical game but you’ll be planning out 4-5 moves in advance in order to fulfill a contract…if you are lucky that is.

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The economic system provides just enough interaction to keep the competition on their toes without blowing them up completely. As you complete deliveries you need to make important peripheral decisions on how you upgrade your truck. More space? More guns? Nukes? Turbos? Armor? The action selection (which provides the darling little momentum movement mechanism) is not overwhelming by focusing on “micro-actions” which provide a limited amount of smaller actions to take. It limits AP and keeps the game flowing at a quicker pace without allowing players horde one action and build an engine. The game makes you move and keeps you moving. It is practically a race to the end from the moment you begin. This emphasis on quick decisions, movement, and a focus on completing three contracts to win rather than some sort of totaling (money, points, etc.) makes the Euro feel so much more trashy and fast paced and I love it. The pacing is perfect. No engines to build. No dominant strategy to develop. Just you, your rig, and some assholes temporarily in your way.

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Quick aside: I love the terrain tiles. The modular game board with the intermixed terrain hex-tiles and the square location tiles come together nicely. I’m not sure why *this* is the one thing I find so oddly satisfying but I do. When prototypes and images began to leak out during the development of WEDS, it really stuck with me. Theme aside, I wanted to see how that terrain setup would work. The game trays are also one of the shinier bits in the game. WEDS has something like 600+ bits included and the trays are *mandatory*. In fact, they should now raise the bar for all large strategy games. If I’m dropping $80 on a bulky beast I want these trays included to ease set-up, teaching, and storage. Everything is game trays forever. Thanks, Pandasaurus!

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With so many objectives included in the game, plus the double-sided terrain hexes and the variable location set-up, *plus* the focus on customization and variable player bonuses, WEDS has the potential for lots of variability. Additionally, it includes a campaign narrative arc that is played over 10 sessions plus randomly generated single session scenarios which taps into the immersive narrative popular with storytelling games like Tales of the Arabian Nights; legacy games; and euro/storytelling hybrids such as Above and Below and Near and Far. I am not sure how successful WEDS is in the tricky world of immersive narrative play as I haven’t attempted any of these variants yet but I certainly appreciate their existence and would like to snuggle up with three other people and test them out.

Bottom Line:

“Wasteland Express Delivery Service is big, beautiful, daunting, and sexy af with a straightforward gameplay core and bursting at the seams with mechanical chrome. It is a game where players race to the end while throwing obstacles at each other to be the first to complete a variable set of contracts. The artwork and design is evocative of the theme and setting and the presentation courtesy of Pandasaurus is next to flawless (I’m practically salivating  for Dinosaur Island now). WEDS won’t make it into a circulating collection due to the size and amount of components but it will be the center piece of your game-night. Your rig may be cobbled together but Wasteland Express Delivery Service is smooth as silk. Witness me! 

 

 

Queer representation in board games

The lack of queer people as playable characters with agency or represented appropriately through narrative elements is rarely explored in board games. For many board games, as their popularity increases over years with repeated editions, they can carry forward outdated stereotypes including  (but maybe not obvious to many) the invisibility of queer people. To ensure an inclusive and accessible hobby for all, future editions can correct and should update to modern modes of thinking and representation. Newly published games should be dealing with issues of representation throughout the game development process including design, art-direction, and play-testing. While this seems to be occurring with more positive female (for example, Relic Runners from Days of Wonder) and PoC (for example, Freedom: The Underground Railroad from Academy Games) representation, queer characters are not consistently or adequately represented.

In the RPG sphere, publishers seem to be moving faster. Piazo Publishing has made inroads to providing positive representation across the spectrum in their Pathfinder Roleplaying System [source]. Being described “as a robust fantasy world that incorporates classic themes and tropes while allowing including progressive elements at the same time” [source]. Representation of queer characters in that RPG setting increases accessibility by being reflective of the people playing and/or interacting with the game system and any associated transmedia storytelling. Pathfinder also has featured gay and transgender “iconics.” Iconics represent their character class across Piazo’s entire catalog including adventures, modules, and organized play [source] become something of a type specimen for the class and being represented in many publishing outlets.

In Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition “You could also play as a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for a male. Likewise, your character’s sexual orientation is for you to decide” [source]. Golden Goblin Press, who produces supplements for the popular Call of Cthulhu Role-playing game created a “Heroes of Red Hook” a series of stories to “try to guide our genre towards a more inclusive future…[and] change the legacy of Lovecraft from one of blame, fear, and bigotry, into something more representative” [source]. All of these are examples of long-running and popular gaming systems revising and updating themselves to better embrace equitable representation.

Why is the board game realm lagging behind? Perhaps this is due to the lack of narrative creativity and story in board games which rely on dry mechanics. However, with many board games melding mechanics and narrative potential, I don’t find this argument particularly compelling. Just look at the diversity of characters in Ryan Laukat’s games Above and Below, Islebound, and Near and Far from Red Raven Games. Perhaps it is indicative of the culture of the board game industry. While games like The Dead of Winter and Sentinels of the Multiverse have more narrative potential and concurrently more inclusive representation, most games fall into outmoded tropes. Dead of Winter and Sentinels of the Multiverse both have playable queer characters, allow for queer relationships, and have related story-arcs. Dead of Winter designer, Isaac Vega stated in an interview that as he was better able to understand himself, was better equipped to include topics in his games related to LGBT issues when he felt supported by the culture of the company. Part of this was being more comfortable to be openly gay in his place of work. [source]

“It allows us to talk about things we care about: games aren’t just fun, but are also a medium for people to experience a new story and see and feel things they haven’t necessarily seen or felt before,” he said. “A lot of people playing may never have interacted with someone who’s gay, or trans, or from a different race. So the game becomes a space to tell these stories, start a conversation around the table that could bring these things to light for a group of players.” Isaac Vega, Co-designer of Dead of Winter [source]

Relationship themed games such as The Fog of Love and The Pursuit of Happiness from Stronghold Games also includes queer characters. Specifically, in The Pursuit of Happiness, players can choose from male or female romantic partners. Each card is double sided with a male and female side and if players choose to have multiple partners of various genders. The Fog of Love include packs of cards and specific modifications on providing a more equitable playplace for a diversity of genders and gender expressions. Despite this, representation can be very difficult to identify unless the game has obvious romantic or related narrative themes.

It is possible that many publishers and artists simply avoid queer characters out of concern or fear that the representation would perpetuate homophobic or misogynist stereotypes.

The invisibility of queer characters apply to numerous games and the actual positive representation of queer characters is restricted to only a few examples. Even in those board game, it tends to fall upon players and how they negotiate representation as needed using roleplay and imagination (“You want queer characters? Just pretend they are queer”). But most board games are not like RPGs and an inclusive game design shouldn’t require players to identify queer characters on their own without overt cues from the narrative, art, and the game mechanisms. Without it being designed into the game to expand representation. It is possible that many publishers and artists simply avoid queer characters out of concern or fear that the representation would perpetuate homophobic or misogynist stereotypes. This is certainly a reasonable concern. However, by simply avoiding any representation at all, again publishers are rendering queer people invisible in board games just as they were once invisible in other mediums such as comics, YA fiction, and video games. Cultural definitions, designer/artist intent, and player experience can and should all play a part in the identity of characters.

Queer gamers would prefer more characters that represent them without falling into well-worn tropes or stereotypes. The simplest fix is to include more queer people in the design, development, play-testing, and artistic direction of board games. Bottom line, if you want more representation other than white, cis-gendered, heterosexual men, the easiest way to ensure that is to include more diversity in the game industry and provide an equitable and supportive culture for that expression. This means that game designers, publishers, and developers need to actively work to diversify industry ranks, and combat poor or nonexistent representation by allowing marginalized groups to develop characters and games through their own lived experience. Now, let me be clear that I am not “industry” and have no inside knowledge to the culture of board gaming. Everything is extrapolated and I welcome the experience of others who are employed in the industry.

…by simply avoiding any representation at all, again publishers are rendering queer people invisible in board games just as they were once invisible in other mediums

However, it bears mentioning that media researchers Adam Brown and Deb Waterhouse-Watson found three important concepts when examining gender in fantasy board games.

  1. That gender is fundamental to the design – you can’t simply ignore it
  2. Representations of gender in fantasy board games tends to be problematic, and
  3. That “board game designers and artist have the potential to reinforce, resist, or revise normative gender representations.”

Developments move slowly and the board game industry is just catching up to the board game culture on this one. With examples like The Lost Expedition providing positive representation, LGBTQIA Board Game Nights popping up at Friendly Local Game Stores, more critical theory based reviews, and diverse cultural icons in the hobby, it seems like, at very least, it is moving forward in a positive direction.

I’d like to take a page from Mr. Brown and Ms. Waterhouse-Watson and say that we need to reinforce diversity in the industry, actively resist outdated stereotypes, and continually revise how gaming culture views appropriate and equitable representation in board games.

Thanks, and please game responsibly.

 

First Looks: Near and Far from Red Raven Games

In Near and Far, 2-4 players are competing explorers roaming the land in search for the Last Ruins. To accomplish this, the players travel across several maps (and game sessions) hunting for treasure, discovering artifacts, setting up camps, and completing quests. There are two broad choices what to do on your turn: Stay in town to prepare or go out adventuring. You prepare by taking an action on the town spaces such as recruiting adventures (Saloon), collecting food/money (Farm/General Store), working the mine for precious metals (the Mine), getting a pack-kiwi (Stables), etc. Once you think you are properly outfitted for a journey, you head out into the wilds. The better you prepare, the further you can travel. Or maybe you want to just take a quick jaunt and return immediately into town. Will you focus on battling threats, courting the locals, discovering relics and treasure, completing trade routes, or quest-quest-questing until your little lizard heart’s content? Either way, Near and Far provides an experience that is worth delving into.

If you are familiar with Ryan Lauket’s earlier game, Above and Below, then you know that the spiciest part of this particular game will be the book of stories you read when questing. At the beginning of a game, several quest tokens are placed randomly on the map. When you arrive at one of these quest locations, a story is read from the book and you are given options on how you wish to proceed.

Through this choose your own adventure type mechanism, Near and Far does a far better job incorporating narrative into the game than in Above and Below. In Above and Below, the stories felt random and disconnected. While this gave some interesting diversions to an otherwise static eurogame, they didn’t provide much more than that. With the character and campaign modes in Near and Far plus a neat little keyword element, players can experience a much more cohesive narrative. It still isn’t the central point of the gameplay (you can play a game with very little storytelling) but it sure as hell feels like the keystone of the discovery experience.

I think the team at Red Raven went the distance in providing a game that will appease a wide range of player needs. Arcade mode for those that prefer the gameplay over the narrative elements. Campaign and Character mode for those that want a more engrossing, immersive, and overarching experience and/or character development. The only thing lacking are options for solo or cooperative play (where, honestly, I think this game can shine). I’ve found myself silently wishing we were all somehow playing together rather than against each other. Luckily, you can find both fan-created variants online.

Overall, Near and Far is a lot to digest and this review is far from comprehensive. After a few plays, I am anxious to play more but still prefer the city building aspects of Above and Below over the route building and exploration of Near and Far. However, I have not gone through the campaign mode yet and I fully expect that it will completely convert me. That said, the arcade mode removes the stories entirely and instead provides a small event deck for single map, non-campaign play which I think I will prefer in the long run.

Another small issue is while Above and Below plays well for the entire player count, Near and Far is best and probably only recommended at two players. Three or four drags the game out too tong for a competitive game with too much down time between turns. If three players are taking long journeys and you are getting food at the farm, you are left with very little to do even with occasional quests. With two players, the gameplay is quick and snappy. The narrative in Near and Far is engrossing, while Above and Below was disconnected and bordered on silly. I think the improvement in writing at team Red Raven is obvious.  Additionally, the character design is a diverse, representative, and respectfully depicted. Armor and garb is appropriate and non-sexualized and it is obvious Ryan took time and effort in ensuring this game is welcoming and accessible to a wide-array of players.