This was my third year at the Expo at the Birmingham NEC, and I’m still no better at managing to play everything I love the look of when I zip around its two cavernous, stall-packed halls. But then, I’m not sure anybody would be capable of achieving that. There are so many tabletoppy temptations and delights, being offered up by such genuinely lovely people who are eager to demo (and great at it), there really aren’t enough hours in the three days it runs. (For the record, I only made it along for two days.)
Still, I did my best. I managed to take a look at 13 games in total, from pre-Kickstarter promos to finished, out now, get-‘em-while-they’re-hot titles, all of which I had a good time with.
But this wouldn’t be a ‘highlights’ list if I included them all, would it? So I’m going to be ultra-ruthless and pick out my top five.
No wait, seven. Yes, seven seems fairer. Seven’s a good number, right?
1. MEGACITY: OCEANIA
Last year designer Michael Fox was at UKGE with Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr, an impressively emotive, narrative-driven game about healthcare and life and death. Megacity: Oceania is strikingly different: lighter, less deep, more fun. Players work together to build a futuristic metropolis on floating platforms in a flooded world-to-be, but are competing to build structures which meet the demands of a variety of contracts.
In this sense, it bears some similarity to The Palace of Mad King Ludwig, except you’re not merely tile-laying here. You’re gathering a variety of plastic building components and physically constructing your buildings during other players’ turns, in such a way that they won’t collapse when you carefully slide them across the table and moor them alongside the other buildings on your own turn.
I’ve never been into dexterity games (I’m more into the dexterity of the mind, man), but this works really well, as it combines the bits-stacking element with a bit of strategy, as different kinds of contracts earn different points at the game’s end. Also, it is fun doing a Godzilla on all those tottering towers when you’re all done.
I already have this Polish company’s Lords of Hellas (an ancient-Greek sci-fi area control game), and I’ve backed the follow-up Tainted Grail on Kickstarter, so I was predictably keen to investigate Awaken Realm’s next offering, Etherfields. And I was very impressed.
It is a cooperative, exploration- and mystery-solving-based narrative adventure set in a realm of dreams, which suggests comparisons with the recently released Comanauts, but it’s much murkier and more adult. And, based on my solo run-through, much slicker, too. Each character — a lost, amnesiac dreamer — has their own deck, which they build up as each story progresses, but what really struck me was the way the storytelling is achieved primarily through visual means, rather than hitting you with stodgy wodges of game-slowing text.
Tiles are laid out to show snippets of surreal landscapes, around which you move your miniature (and this being Awaken Realm, the minis are gorgeous), and play cards to pull off actions. Successful actions will likely reveal something new — and a new card is played down, overlaying the tile and revealing more detail through its artwork. It works beautifully, and it’s beautiful art, too — in a creepy, gothic way.
Time will tell how replayable Etherfields is, in terms of its big story reveals, but based on my hour with it, I reckon it’s well worth backing on Kickstarter when it launches.
(White Wizard Games)
I didn’t get much time with White Wizard’s beefy, Victorian-warlock card battler, but it’s so quick to pick up and slip into, I saw enough to know that it might end up being one of my fave games of the year (I came home with a copy, so I’ll confirm that in a few months).
On the surface, it appears to be a bit of a Magic: The Gathering clone, even if its beastie-summoning characters hang out in 19th Century London, but there’s far more to it: you create a character using three different mini-decks, then spend action points casting your spells or sending your nasty monsters to one of three urban battlefields, all prepped to duke it out during a battle phase, which involves rolling dice and tweaking the results with special tokens. Meanwhile, you have to carefully place your avatar on a battlefield, thinking about where they might be most usefully positioned to take advantage of their unique special powers.
I sensed a lot of potential depth here, and I’m really looking forward to properly diving in.
4. STAR WARS: THE OUTER RIM
(Fantasy Flight Games)
I have to confess, as much as I love Star Wars, I don’t get hugely excited when a new tabletop spin-off arrives, even though Fantasy Flight always create quality products and Corey Konieczka (here co-designing with Tony Fanchi) is a smart designer. It is rather an over-explored theme. However, in this one you get to play as Boba Fett. Or Han Solo. Or Lando. It’s all about the scoundrels and the scum, zipping around all the galaxy’s trashiest, most arse-endy planets to pull off dodgy jobs or collect bounties before your rivals do.
It’s really well implemented, and there’s some nifty engine building as you develop both your character and their spaceship. Plus that rainbow-shaped board looks fabulous on the table. And did I mention you could be Boba Fett? This might be my favourite Star Wars game yet.
5. ROLL FOR ADVENTURE
Last year Matthew Dunstan and Brett J. Gilbert made my ‘Best of 2018’ list with the Tokaido-esque Viking rampager Raids, so when I saw the English-language release of their latest collaboration was debuting at the Expo, I had to check it out.
A light, family-friendly fantasy-quest co-op game, it won’t win any prizes for originality with regard to its theme (heroes unite to conquer a demonic dark lord), but its dice-placement mechanism requires a lot of interestingly tough decision-making, especially as each character has a limited pool from which to choose their dice — one that can be replenished, but only with the placement of more dice in the meantime. I’ve not managed to beat Sauron the generic dark lord yet, but I’m keen to keep on trying.
Party game specialists Big Potato’s latest offering is close to my heart. Like many people my age, I spent an inordinate amount of time during the ’90s wandering up and down the aisles of Blockbuster Video, trying to decide on what movie to watch that night. And somehow, I didn’t get hit by a falling Captain Marvel once.
Anyway, here we have a team-based Blockbuster-themed quiz game, which comes in an actual VHS cassette box, and primarily involves guessing randomly drawn movie titles, which one team member has to place into three categories, requiring describing the film in one word, via a single quote, or act out, Charades-like, in a single action.
The aim is to complete a set of all the genres (including “Animation” which, of course, isn’t a genre, but we’ll let them off, I suppose), and there’s a bit of take-that in the way that you can spend three film-cards of one genre to nick a single card off the opposing team. And the good news is, you don’t have to be a super movie nerd (like me) to pull off a win. It’s less about specialist knowledge than just revelling in a big, shared joy of popular cinema.
7. KITTY CATACLYSM
(Stuff By Bez)
Indie designer Bez has already shown off her single-deck-creating skills with the super-versatile Wibbell++ (see below), a game that keeps on giving with a seemingly ever-increasing number of variants. Her newest design isn’t quite so impressively innovative, but it’s just as visually appealing and still a laugh: a take-thatty, catty quick-play card slammer based entirely around feline puns.
Each turn, a player chucks down a card into their “kitty”, which will score them some “meowney” (between -1 and 3) and force an effect that typically involves drawing new cards, nicking cards from other players, giving cards away, or, in rare cases, forcing a swifter end to the whole game. After all, if any player starts their turn with no cards in hand, it’s game over, and those kitty piles are totted up.
It makes for a great Game Night ice breaker, or something to keep the kids happy on a rainy — or even partly cloudy — afternoon, and I found its cartoony, punny style deeply endearing. In short, it left me feline fine.
And here’s pics of the rest…
Because, like I said, I enjoyed everything and didn’t want to leave them out.
Bosk (Floodgate Games)
Grow trees in a national park, then claim areas with their fallen leaves.
Lander (Intrepid Games)
Compete to colonise a planet after your spaceship’s crashed. In my demo this got quickly nasty (my most valuable crew member was murdered), so be warned: the player interaction can be brutal. (This Kickstarts in October.)
Magnate: The First City (Naylor Games)
Like Monopoly it’s all about property development. Unlike Monopoly it has an in-built property crash element that only adds to the fun. And relevance. (This Kickstarts soon.)
Miremarsh (Room17 Games)
Goblins scamper around a swamp to complete the most quests before they run out of fish. Or get killed. What’s not to love?
Namiji (Funforge Games)
Antoine Bauza’s nautical follow-up to Tokaido, in which you catch sets of fish, paint pictures of whales, and pull prawns out of a bag, hoping you don’t get nipped by a crab. I played the prototype version, but with Naïade back on art duties, it’s guaranteed to be a minimalist beauty.
Wibbell++ (Stuff By Bez)
The other Bez game I played, and you can play it in so many different ways. Love these cards.