After a second bout of stomping around the halls of Birmingham’s NEC, amid the comfortable clamour of excited gamers getting hands on with new titles and apparently fatigue-immune designers and publishers keenly presenting their fresh table-top wares, the first weekend of June is now officially my favourite of the year.
It’s not just that I get to spend a whole weekend playing new games, or go on a fevered shopping spree (I was actually remarkably restrained this year, forking out for only one game). It’s also that I get to share my hobby-based bliss with several thousand other people from all around the world, joining a sonorous vibe of benevolent collective involvement which everyone gets to enjoy. Seriously, I didn’t see a single sad or angry face the entire time I was there.
But you’re not reading this to get some happy-clappy psycho-babble about why I think board-gaming could save the world. (It could.) You want to know what games I enjoyed most. So let’s get to it.
If there was a theme this year, it was compactness. Without trying, I ended up playing mostly card games and came home with only small boxes. And not just because I don’t like hefting big boxes. I love hefting big boxes. I think, perhaps, as table-top gaming continues to seep back into the mainstream, designers and developers are realising that reach requires affordability — not everyone’s willing to fork out £90-odd for a lavish, miniature-packed cardboard crate, which will be added to a room’s worth of game storage. Also, of course, smaller games are cheaper to produce.
The other theme, I guess, would be history. During my two days at the Expo, I wended through the Roman era, the late 11th century, the 1960s, the so-called Dark Ages and the post-Black Death years. Which all sounds pretty grim, but I enjoyed it.
Before I get to the list itself, a couple of honourable mentions. Firstly, Emerson Matsuuchi’s gorgeous Century: Eastern Wonders, which was one of the most anticipated games of the Expo, and is a real treat to play. But I didn’t play it at the Expo. Why? Because I was lucky enough to receive an advance review copy a few weeks ago, and you’ll be able to read my full write-up on that in the next issue of Tabletop Gaming magazine, out at the end of June.
Secondly, Inspiring Games’ Legends Untold, a card-based dungeon-crawling RPG-in-a-surprisingly-small-box, which was demo-ing this year, but which I played and covered in my 2017 round-up. It will finally be out in October I believe, so look out for my review in an upcoming issue of Tabletop Gaming.
And with that done, to the highlights themselves:
HOLDING ON: THE TROUBLED LIFE OF BILLY KERR
Designed by Michael Fox and Rory “Story Cubes” O’Connor (whose Untold: Adventures Await won Best Family Game this year), this co-op title was one of the most buzzed-about games of the weekend. And with good reason.
Taking a boldly grown-up theme, Holding On casts its 2-4 players as nurses in a hospital, tending to a patient named Billy Kerr. Having suffered a heart attack on a flight from Sydney, Billy’s only got days to live, but has a lot he needs to say about his life. So not only must you work together to keep him as comfortable as possible, you must also try to draw memories out of him and piece together the story of his life before he shuffles off his mortal coil.
The gameplay mixes worker placement and push your luck elements to great effect, as you have to balance proper medical care with teasing out his memories. These are represented by beautifully illustrated cards (painted by Bryn Jones), which are prefaced on the turn by snippets of dialogue from Billy (written by Good Vibrations screenwriter Glenn Patterson), and fit together to form a fantastic pictorial grid of Billy’s entire life — which, fascinatingly, incorporates real historical events, from the ’60s through to the present-day.
To say more would be too spoilery, but this was a hugely impressive package, and I cannot wait to pick up the finished game on its October release and properly delve in to Billy’s troubled life.
1066, TEARS TO MANY MOTHERS
A two-player deckbuilder duel (which has all the cards you need in the box), it essentially recreates the Battle of Hastings, and the events leading up to that momentous seaside clash. One player takes the Saxon deck, the other the Norman deck, and you each play through a series of objectives which keep you on the road to the climactic conflict, all the while trying to undermine each other before you go properly toe-to-toe.
It’s beautifully rendered, with unique art on every card, along with a huge variety of card abilities (a la Magic The Gathering) and really interesting, well-researched flavour. And it’ll come with a solo mode, too, which gets my vote.
GLADIATORES: BLOOD FOR ROSES
BadCat Games’ second title is an engrossingly tactical, quick-playing card game which replicates the thrill and danger of 1-1 Roman gladiatorial battle with a neat trick-taking dynamic.
Designed for 2-5 players, it sees each player choosing a single foe on their turn, throwing down an attack card (say, Thrust) which states a specific counter. If the other player has the counter card (for example, Evade), they throw that down. Then it’s back to the first player to try and counter that counter (maybe with a Feint) until a final winning card is played.
But that’s not all. As well as dealing damage, your gladiators need to earn the favour of the crowd as well (represented by rose petal tokens), so the more entertainingly you fight the better. Plus, before each bout starts, you secretly bet on the outcome (even betting against yourself), to earn more glory — which, rather than coming as victory point tokens, is represented by ‘cheese wedges’, which you use to fill a circular tray.
This was my first game of the Expo, which I played with my wife Lucy and my kids, and we all instantly fell in love with it. It will Kickstart in October, BadCat tell me, so look out for it there — and check out their Facebook page here.
The latest title from veteran British designer Martin Wallace, Wildlands is a fantasy skirmish affair, published by Osprey Games, which Wallace describes as “a small-scale platoon tactic game”, configured to have a very “simple core” mechanic to make it play as smoothly and swiftly as possible, with minimal rules referencing and a quick set-up time.
Like Gloomhaven, it’s dice free and deck-based; unlike Gloomhaven it won’t take ages to lay out and get going, with the starting box coming with a two-sided map you just chuck on the table. Each player can choose from a squad, each squad having its own well defined characters and a deck which offers different strengths and weaknesses to the others.
I didn’t really have a chance to play it properly, but it looked sooo enticing, it’s already on my Most Wanted list.
Sinister Fish’s latest is a strikingly illustrated card game, designed by Haakon Gaarder, in which each player builds a village in Europe, just after the Black Death has ravaged the continent. With so many people roaming the countryside looking for work and a place to live, you want to attract them to your village, and make it the most thriving, productive community in the game.
Really, it’s all about building up the best synergies by selecting and playing cards in such a way that they form production chains. So in order to play a Carpenter, you’ll first need a Lumberjack; Miners are required before you can get a Mason, and so on.
The game ends after two coin-earning market phases, but these are not triggered at set times, only after two of the six central drafting decks are depleted — and the decks can be topped up by players tactically discarding from their hands. Which adds a whole level of strategy that I really dug.
Don’t think there’s enough Viking-themed games out there? Then Raids is for you! Honestly, I can’t get enough of the hairy plunderers on my table top, so I really enjoyed this.
Iello’s latest, typically polished title is essentially a race game, but one where you have to make carefully considered stops along the way, perhaps to trade, or raid, or fight a giant mythical monster.
Each ‘race’ has a different objective (earn the most resource points, have the biggest spread of different resources, etc.), which are randomly selected each game to keep things interesting. But you only have limited space on your longboat for Viking fighters (represented by lovely little wooden meeples), or goods, or battle-power-boosting weaponry, so you have to think carefully.
A lovely little area control game from independent designer Robbie Munn, who told me he deliberately kept the board and components as small as possible so that it could be easily transportable. Which, as someone who travels a lot, and who hates to travel without at least one game in my luggage, I could certainly appreciate.
Each player takes the role of a monster-conjuring wizard, who has to battle the others for control of the eponymous island (lovingly rendered by Munn himself). You do this by spending energy to place sprites, trolls or a wyrm on the board, with each creature having its own abilities. Sprites, for example, are weak but find strength in numbers, and as low-cost creatures, they can easily sprawl across the board. Trolls are the bruisers of the game, while wyrms can spend energy to move through other pieces on their side and spring attacks at the front lines.
It’s quite a light game, but no less fun for it, with territory changing hands rapidly and excitingly over a swift, involving play time of around 40 minutes.
A party game with a pig-based fantasy theme, BaRPiG, as the title suggests, is a deliberately silly experience. Each player takes a pig-shaped, booze-pun-based character (eg the Barbeerian, the Pintsess, and so on), who has their own special ability, triggered when they level up. Each round, the players take it in turn to roll a single, six-sided die, with ties re-rolled. Whoever gets the highest roll levels up, and their ability is triggered.
Cue the party-game daftness as, for example, the Pintsess chooses another play to try and “charm” them, or the Palealedin chooses a monster or villain and forces the other players to come up with the best explanation of why they’re not that monster or villain. Penalties are applied to the losers, who either lose drinks, which are the game’s currency and can be spent on handy Items, or Sober Points — and the drunker your pig gets, the harder it is to compete.
The winner is the first pig to get to fifth level. Which sounds ridiculously easy, but actually takes a while, especially as a round winner isn’t allowed to roll the die in the following round.
I’ll be honest: this isn’t usually the kind of game that attracts me, but having been compelled to give it a go by my eldest son, I’m now completely won over. It’s fun and quick and ideal for any gaming session where you don’t want to get too deep or serious.
Independent German designer Kai Herbertz demo’d his latest game for me, and while finding it initially hard to settle into the rules, I became engaged by this sci-fi military deckbuilder, in which players have to conquer planets to either earn victory points, or new cards, or gain the opportunity to throw weak cards out of their respective decks.
The twist on your usual deckbuilder is twofold: firstly, many cards can be rotated to employ a different (often weaker) effect, which can give you a reactive edge when the circumstances are right. For example, if you’ve invested too much energy in your initiative-granting spaceship cards, only to find you won’t have enough ground-troop power to pull off a planet-surface win, then you can rotate your card and switch to earn a bit of ground power.
Secondly, there is a simultaneous-play dynamic by which all players arrange their hand as they see fit, dividing their troops into two or three waves using numbered divider cards, which they can direct at multiple planets. Then all the cards are revealed at the same time, and the results of the battles worked out.
It has great strategic potential, I feel, and I’m looking forward to spending more time in Herbertz’ nicely illustrated space-operatic universe.
MR CABBAGEHEAD’S GARDEN
Inspired by weirdy Victorian artwork he found on vintage seed packets and seed catalogues (all of which is present on the cards and box), Sanders has created a solitaire card game in which, as Mr Cabbagehead, you have to plant vegetables in points-earning groupings, hoping for a coveted blue rosette. However, each time you pop off on holiday (after each of the game’s four rounds), one of your troublesome neighbours (Lord Carrotbody, The Mayor Of Oniontown, and so on) raids your precious patch.
It’s quick, fun and gently tactical, but most of all it’s a strange, visual treat. And LudiCreations have worked with Sanders on creating a two-player variant as well, though I haven’t had a chance to try this out.
WEIRD THINGS HUMANS SEARCH FOR & CLICKBAIT
A visit to the UK Games Expo wouldn’t be complete without a stop off at the Big Potato stand to see what crazy, colourful party-game strangeness this lovely bunch have come up with now, and after enjoying last year’s The Chameleon, I this year got to have some lightweight fun with Weird Things Humans Search For and Dr. Reiner Knizia’s (!) Clickbait.
Both have an internet theme (as you’d expect from the names). Weird Things is based on real Google searches. You’re given the first few words of the search — eg. “Why is the Pope…” — and have to make guesses at what was the most searched-for phrase. After correctly guessing “always a man?” and “so rich?”, I learned the most searched for phrase was actually “Why is the Pope important?”.
Clickbait, meanwhile, tasks players with coming up with the best tag lines for ridiculous products (such as “Monkey Butler” or, er, “Human Milk Ice-cream”), but you can only use words which begin with letters determined by the role of a set of dice.
Both games are, like most of Big Potato’s offerings, quick to play, impressively offbeat, smartly designed and probably best appreciated after a few cheeky snifters.