UK Games Expo 2019: My Seven Highlights

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?


Megacities Oceania


(Hub Games)

 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.




(Awaken Realms)

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.


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.


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.




(Big Potato)

 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.


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.



Me and the family playing BadCat Games’ Gladiatores.

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:



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.



Tristan Hall’s debut game Gloom Of Kilforth was one of my favourites of last year, so I wasn’t surprised to find his follow up just as impressive.

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.



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.



A proper curio, this, from well-seasoned Print & Play designer Todd Sanders (though previously a P&P title, this one’s been picked up and repurposed by Finnish outfit LudiCreations).

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.



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.
















Tree-planting, demon-fighting, spice-trading and heists. It’s amazing what you can get up to in Birmingham these days…


After going to my first ever tabletop-gaming fair last year — I started big with Essen — it was interesting to have a point of comparison with my second con adventure, at the UK Games Expo in Birmingham’s NEC, from 2 to 4 June.

The main difference was that I made a last-minute decision to turn this into a family trip, bringing along my wife, Lucy, and kids Louis (11) and Max (7), so was relieved to find that UKGE is a much smaller, considerably less overwhelming experience than the Essen Spiel — far more family friendly.

And it proved a more enjoyable experience, too: more chilled, easier to navigate, and it came with the added bonus of Viking combat next to the lake outside the NEC — which Max enjoyed immensely, joining the “family melee” two days in a row (the second of which also, surreally, attracted a slightly confused-looking Predator…)

In short, I couldn’t recommend it more as a relatively cheap family weekend holiday (under 10s go free!) — though of course my main reason for attending was to get my grubby Dan-hands on as many game demos as possible.

Speaking of which, here’s those highlights I promised you…


Designer: Tristan Hall

Publisher: Hall Or Nothing Productions

British first-time designer Tristan Hall was on hand with his freshly, independently published co-operative fantasy quest card game, which instantly tractor-beamed my attention with its ‘RPG in a box’ promise and finely detailed art. A deft blend of Talisman, Forbidden Island and the Pathfinder Card Game, it lets you choose your own character (from a variety of races and classes), then set off on a personal saga of your choosing, which you must complete while the world around you (represented by a randomly arranged 5×5 grid of landscape cards) falls into a demonically conjured “gloom” at the end of each day, or round. If you don’t complete your saga and beat the boss within 25 rounds, it’s game over.

As I’m a D&D nut, this was an easy sell for me, but I really enjoyed its quest-progression mechanic, the way you can nudge the dice in your favour using a limited supply of “fate” tokens, and the sheer variety of playthrough experiences its packed decks allow for. So much so, I bought a box (for £49) and brought it home with me.


Designer: Bruno Cathala

Publisher: Blue Orange / Coiledspring Games

A lovely, vividly coloured light territory-building game, which I played with Louis and which we both instantly loved. The prolific Bruno Cathala designed this, and he’s behind a few of my favourites (namely Five Tribes and 7 Wonders Duel), so it was no surprise to find it was easy to learn and a sheer joy to play for the entirety of each 15-minute game.

Taking elements of Carcasonne and blending them with (you guessed it) dominos, it tasks each player with building a mini-kingdom around a little cardboard castle, matching terrain types (rather than pips) on gorgeously designed, domino-style tiles. Word is, Blue Orange is releasing a more detailed, strategy-heavy version at Essen this year, titled Queendomino. I’m first in the queue.


Designer: Emerson Matsuuchi

Publisher: Plan B Games / Asmodee

A light deck-building Euro-style strategy game, in which you play competing spice merchants, trading up turmeric, cardamom, saffron and cinnamon to earn the most points. What’s particularly pleasing is the way the box comes with four little bowls, each one holding a little pile of coloured cubes representing each spice. Each round you either pick up a card which allows you to take a particular action (for example, switching one cardamom and two turmeric for two cinnamon), or play a card to give you that action, aiming for certain points-winning spice combos determined by a second deck of cards — though the tricky thing is, you can never have more than ten spices in your caravan at a time.

This was Lucy’s favourite game of the Expo, and with good reason: it’s instantly, and pleasantly addictive. I reckon this one’s going to be one of the big tabletop hits of the coming year.


Designer: Hjalmar Hach

Publisher: Blue Orange

Still only at the prototype stage, and set to be French publisher Blue Orange’s big launch at Essen, it was a real treat to be given a preview play of Italian designer Hjalmar Hach’s arboreal area control title. Each player has to plant and grow trees on a circular board representing a forest. The trick is to position your trees in such a way that they get the most sunlight, while also blocking the light from reaching your competitors. But to complicate matters, the sun (represented by a crescent-shaped template) actually moves slowly around the board with each turn, constantly shifting the direction of that sunlight, which really deepens the tactical decisions.

Featuring some truly beautiful artwork by artist Sabrina Miramon, if I get to Essen this year, I’m definitely picking this baby (or rather acorn?) up.


Designer: Kevin Young

Publisher: Inspiring Games

Similar to Gloom Of Kilforth in that it’s a fantasy RPG in cooperative card-game form, though rather than setting out an entire, modular magic kingdom in one go, here you uncover rooms one card at a time to build a map in more of a dungeon-bash stylee. Also, it has a little more focus on travelling and working together as a party, rather than dividing and conquering.

I played this with Lucy and Max — we were an Evicted Noble, a Farmhand and a Student, respectively — and together we managed to obliterate a troublesome gang of goblin drunks. It’s due out in October, and I’m absolutely going to pick this one up. (Did I say I’m a sucker for high fantasy?)


Designer: Henry Jasper

Publisher: Grublin Games

If you read my Essen blog last year, then this one probably rings a bell. This was my second playthrough of Henry Jasper’s asymmetrical, semi-cooperative bank heist game, and I liked it even more this time — especially the way the gameplay, though complex, really allows different entertaining narratives to play out.

This time I joined up with a pair of other players as a gang of “Gentlemen Thieves” (one of several criminal gangs you can choose from) trying to raid two vaults in a bank controlled by a fourth player, who in this case was Jasper himself. We did well, but then Zoe from Bristol went and decapitated a guard with a samurai sword. Things got a bit messy after that…

It’s out in September, and I recommend it to anyone who loves heist movies. Especially movies about heists going wrong; it’s almost more fun to mess up with this game…


Designers: Karen Boginski, Jody Boginski-Barbessi, Kenneth C. Shannon III

Publisher: WizKids

To be completely honest, me and the family only sat down to play this because everyone else was walking on by, and we felt a bit sorry for it. Although the theme certainly appealed — battling Arthurian knights! — and I loved the medieval artwork. In essence, it’s a Whist-ish card game where you lay cards in turn, hoping to get the highest number in different suits; each trick represents a furious tournament melee. But each player gets to choose a character from Arthurian myth (I was the malevolent Mordred), who has their own special power; so for example, I could lay a “Deception” card whatever other suit (“Archery”, “Sorcery” and so on) had been selected. I lost horribly, but it was great fun. The nearby demo-table for Century: Spice Road called us away, but I definitely want to get back to this one day.



Interview: Wil Wheaton


Last summer, when researching my big feature on the resurgence of table-top gaming, I knew I had to speak with Wil Wheaton. Partly because, as a film writer and sci-fi nerd, I just wanted to talk to the guy who starred in Stand By Me and Star Trek: The Next Generation. But mainly because his hugely popular YouTube show TableTop, on the Geek And Sundry channel, has been a driving force in turning a wider audience on to board-gaming.

Wheaton didn’t disappoint. He was vocal, passionate and entertainingly evangelical about his hobby, but also someone I connected with as a gamer of the same generation. Like me, as a young teen he fell hard for games like Warhammer and Dungeons & Dragons, because he wasn’t one of the cool, sporty kids, and found them profoundly rewarding in a way that no other activity could be. Like me, his best friends now are those he met through playing those games. And like me, his discovery of Euro games kinda blew his gaming mind.

So what was supposed to be a quick interview mutated into a long conversation (only slightly edited down here) about his gaming origins, his board-gaming philosophy, the moment he “levelled up” as a gamer, and why he genuinely thinks the world would be a better place if everyone just got around tables and played.


Where does your love of table-top gaming originate? 

I grew up playing board games with my babysitters. Things like The Game Of Life, and Sorry and Monopoly. And as I got older I sorta felt like those games didn’t present any kind of challenge or reward. Then when I was a Freshman at high-school, in grade nine, one of my friends asked me if I played board games. And I said something like, “oh you mean like Monopoly? that’s boring!” and he’s like, “Heh. Come over to the house this afternoon.” And with his friends, who have since become my closest group of friends, we played Car Wars and Ogre and Illuminati from Steve Jackson Games; we played Diplomacy, we played Warhammer 40,000, we played Dungeons & Dragons and we played GURPS. And over the course of the summer, right around the time I was starting to work on Star Trek, those games just completely captured 100 percent of my attention and my imagination. And I’ve been in love with table-top gaming ever since.


It’s interesting what you say about that group of friends being your best friends now, as I’ve experienced the same thing with my childhood D&D friends. As a social experience it can create such strong, enduring bonds. 

Oh yeah, absolutely. I have written that gaming is the foundation and the cornerstone and the mortar which holds together the longest, most important friendships of my life. I mean, the only human on this planet I am close to in any meaningful way that doesn’t involve gaming is my wife. And you know, she plays, but not the way I do. And I think that this goes back to 1986, ’87, ’88, around that time. My friends and I, we were weird. We weren’t cool kids. We weren’t athletes. We weren’t, like, popular. We were just a little odd, and gaming was intellectually challenging, and it let us exist in all these really cool, really interesting worlds where the things that made us weird in real life — which would have been our imagination, and we didn’t know what game theory was at the time but we were certainly using it — those things were rewarded in gaming.


How and when did you decide to parlay all of this into TableTop

When Google was funding its original YouTube channels four or five years ago, my friend Felicia Day called me and asked me if I wanted to add a show to her channel, which she was going to pitch to YouTube. I said, “yeah that sounds great, what did you have in mind?” And she said, “well I know how much you love playing games, would you wanna do a show where you review board games?” And I said, “You know, I think just sitting around and talking about something to the camera is really boring, and I kinda hate the sound of my own voice, and I really think that the best way to review a game is to play it and — oh my god Felicia, we can play games and film it, and we’ll get interesting people like our friends who are celebrities to come and play games with us. It’ll be like celebrity poker, but with board games!” The idea came out of me exactly like that, exactly that fast. Only a couple of times in my life have creative ideas like sprung fully formed from my imagination and this was absolutely one of those times. It was a very painless birth.


It’s had a huge effect on the industry. I was talking to the owner of Orc’s Nest in London, and he said that when you feature a game, he can’t get it to stock in his shop for months!

Yeah… On one hand we feel really happy about that, because my goal with TableTop, and the mission of TableTop, is to share the joy of gaming with the world. I want to make more gamers. I think we live in a time where our entire world is so divided and almost Balkanised, and gaming is this thing that… There are gonna be hyper-competitive dicks in everything that you do, but I was hoping that we could show by example that you don’t have to be super-competitive to have fun in a table-top gaming environment, and that table-top gaming can be about the journey that you spend together when you’re playing a game. It can be about the friendships and the relationships that form over the course of a single game, or over a long campaign. So when I hear that games are selling out all over the place, that thrills me. That makes me really happy, really excited, because it means people are watching our show, and that people who do not already own these games, people who are not already gamers or maybe aren’t as insane about it as I am, they’re going out and buying ’em. It’s like Muggles are buying tickets to Hogwarts. And that makes me so so so excited.

On the other hand, it’s kind of a bummer when someone walks into a shop and is like, “I want Betrayal At House On The Hill”, “Well sorry that’s been sold out, it was on TableTop”. So we sort of created a communication channel with publishers, distributors and retailers, so they know, “okay this is what’s coming up, so if you want to prepare for it and maybe stock more games or plan an event around the release of this episode or whatever, you can do that”.


The last one I bought because of you was Mysterium.

I love that game so much. You know what’s great is that if you also own Dixit, you have like a built-in expansion. You can just use Dixit cards in place of the cards the ghost uses in Mysterium. I fell in love with that game inside of just minutes when I saw it at Gen Con last year.


My kids love it too — it’s an ageless game. 

Absolutely. Yeah. You know what? This season I made an effort when I was choosing games. When I went to Gen Con last year, I went to every publisher that I could and I said, “I really want games that families can play together”. And what I mean by that is, I don’t necessarily need a game that has no conflict, or a game that is super-simplistic. I mean a game that is rewarding and enjoyable for adults and children. And most of the games we chose this year are like that.


How did the current table-top gaming boom first manifest itself to you? 

I guess what we would consider the modern, present era of table-top Gaming probably started in America with the release of Settlers Of Catan. Though I’m sure that someone would argue pretty intensely that I’m wrong, but that’s what I remember. I remember around 1995 this game just started showing up. And even more than that specific game was the design aesthetics and the design philosophy of what we now know of as Euro games. I know for me and my group, Euro gaming was a paradigm shift. In a well-designed Euro game there’s no runaway winner, there’s a fantastic balance of luck to strategy, and we started experiencing things like worker placement and set collecting and resource management — these are all concepts that I had never experienced before. The games that I loved were what we would call Ameritrash games, you know? Like, just lots of dice, and lots of little counters, and like the only game we played that came close to having any kind of negotiation was Diplomacy. (Which is currently banned from our group because some of us are still not over betrayals that happened in 1990!) So I’m guessing it was around the time that Settlers came out that a generation of gamers were introduced to Euro gaming.


That was ’95 and that was a slow, steady, growth driven by gamers. But in the last few years there seems to have been a new wave of enthusiasm, and many newer adopters outside of the hobby hard-core. What do you think is behind that? Apart from TableTop of course…

[long pause] So the reason that I hesitate to answer that is I… Ah… It’s hard to talk about this without feeling like a dick… But I think TableTop has a lot to do with it. What I wanted to do with TableTop was… So there’s gamers who don’t communicate well with non-gamers. Either because we just don’t have those people skills, or because there’s this gatekeeping mentality, right? And I wanted to flip that on its head. I remember when Felicia and I were talking about it, I said I wanted to make a show that facilitated gamers communicating to their non-gaming partners why they loved gaming. I wanted something that would let non-gamers see why gaming is so much fun. And I wanted to expose as many people as I possibly could to this hobby which has added so much joy to my life.

And you know, gaming was already experiencing a resurgence and a renaissance. I mean, there are websites like BoardGameGeek, and people like Tom Vasel, and The Dice Tower, and Watch It Played and Shut Up And Sit Down. Those guys were already doing fantastic work, helping to make games more accessible. But they were talking to gamers, right? I wanted to talk to people who weren’t gamers. I just wanted to throw open the doors and say, “everyone is welcome”.

I just think that we happened to be there at exactly the right time, you know? It’s not like we invented fire. We happened to show up with a whole lot of pine-sap-soaked sticks at the time that somebody else was already starting to build the fire, and as we dumped them on the fire, a bunch of wind showed up and holy crap, look at this fire we’ve built!


It also seems the whole video-gaming boom in a weird way facilitated it. Plus, we now also have board-game apps for tablets, as tasters, almost.

Yeah, that’s absolutely part of it. But I think we have to keep the timelines straight. The board-game apps weren’t really happening until maybe three years ago. We weren’t seeing Carcassonne and Ticket To Ride [on tablets] they just weren’t there. Now that they are, it’s fantastic because they have pretty good AIs you can play against; if you wanna pass and play with your buddy on the train, that’s great. If you wanna play asynchronously with your friends over the internet you can do that. That stuff is terrific.

But I wonder…

You know, video-gaming and multi-player video-gaming, it was fun. And then dickheads ruined it. Then it just became this cesspool of toxic aggression and really unpleasant behaviour. And I wonder if people who had enjoyed that at first were looking for a fun way to play games where you could see the person you were playing with.


Yeah, I loved multi-player games on the Game Cube, split-screen, sat in the same room as your friends… And then the internet kind of killed that off.

When I keynoted Penny Arcade Expo in 2007, part of the thesis of my keynote was, like: I miss arcades and I miss console gaming because we were next to each other. If I was playing Karate Champ with some guy and he beat me, and I was like, “Yeah well guess what? I fucked your Mom!” he would punch me and I would immediately get a reputation, and I wouldn’t be welcome there. So there was, there was a social consequence for social behaviour, and screen names and throwaway email addresses, and lack of accountability removed that. So what I was saying in that keynote, was like, “when you play online, have the same sort of respect for your fellow gamers as you would if you were in the same place. And don’t be a dick”. And that kind of caught fire for a little while.

And that is part of the way we play on TableTop. When we are casting people to come and play on the show, and when we’re getting people prepared to play on the show, I tell everyone: “winning is not what matters on this. What matters is that we’re having a good time playing together and sharing this experience”. And I think that by doing that we’ve actually been able to reach out to people who would be intimidated about going to play in a competitive environment.


There’s also the rise of the non-competitive co-op game. I think that’s a really interesting, relatively recent development. 

I think co-op games are a fantastic way to introduce people who are, like, game-curious. It’s a great way to introduce them to the hobby because everybody’s working together and it really removes the pressure to have it figured out right away.


It’s like life: you either win together, or you lose together… 

I just have to say this: Pandemic Legacy is the most fun I have had playing a game maybe ever. And the Pandemic Legacy campaign that we’re in right now is the most intense and meaningful campaign I have played since like the D&D campaigns that we played when I was like in middle-school. It’s just remarkable. I have a friend who comes out from Arizona to play Pandemic Legacy over the weekend with me, and another one of my friends who just moved to Vancouver. So now we’re in three states, we’re in two countries, and we love Pandemic Legacy so much that we come together from hundreds of miles to play that game. I can’t imagine getting together like that to watch a movie or a TV show or whatever. And that, I think, illustrates the power and value of table-top gaming.


Tearing up the cards is kind of upsetting to me, though…

I know it is. The first card you tear, it is the hardest thing in the world to do. Everything you learned as a gamer is screaming at you, “don’t do this! Why are you wrecking your game!?” [laughs]. And then you’re doing it and it’s just… Honestly it is so liberating. It’s so empowering. And it gives weight to the fact that there are serious consequences to everything you do in that game. It makes it that much better.


I also think that table-top gaming has an appeal over video-gaming, because of its tactility. You know, the direct feedback of getting fingertips on meeples…

Yeah. When I was working on Star Trek I would have a fair amount of time where I wasn’t in a scene and I was sitting in my dressing room, and I didn’t want to read a book or watch TV or do something that would really be super-distracting and take me out of the scene that I was working on. And my hobby was painting Warhammer miniatures. It was like meditation, and it was really fun, and it occupied my conscious mind while letting my subconscious stay with the scene I was working on.

Though I’ve never been good at painting miniatures. I have friends who are comic-writers who live in the UK, like Kieron Gillen and Antony Johnston, who are amaaaazing minis painters. And it’s like, I joke when I go up to Canada that I watch hockey in the original Canadian, and it’s really satisfying. And I imagine that they’re getting to play Warhammer in the original English.


Are you still a Warhammer fan, then? I never returned to it after my teen years…

I still have my Rogue Trader, and I have the first edition of 40K and I have so many issues of White Dwarf, but I sold my army unfortunately. There was that point where I was post-college and I had that awful moment we all have were I was like [puts on doofus voice] “I guess it’s time to grow up and I best get rid of this,” and I really regret it. I miss… I still miss my Terminator Marines. But I wasn’t even all that crazy about the game aspect of 40K. Like, there’s a lot of dice in there, you know? [laughs]. And you can come across people who are min-maxing, which is annoying and not fun. But boy that world, man. The world of 40K is so rich, and just soooo interesting and compelling, that kept bringing me back and bringing me back.


That’s ultimately what’s at the core of table-top gaming’s appeal, for me: it’s about narratives, isn’t it? Whether it’s a 45-minute narrative for a Euro game, or even a 15-minute narrative for a single-deck card game, it’s about enjoying the narrative. Who wins, who loses, it doesn’t particularly matter. It’s just, what story is being told, what drama is happening within that little time-frame? Or that big, long campaign, depending on which game it is. 

I had this moment during the first season of TableTop where I levelled up as a gamer in a way that completely surprised me. I’m very fortunate to know and be friends with Steve Jackson. And that’s kind of big deal for me because I was brought to gaming through Steve Jackson Games. They were the games that made me a ‘capital-G’ gamer, and we asked him [to come on the show] and he said yes. And we played Chez Geek. And I got killed. And when it was over, Steve said, “Look. Every game is a role-playing game. The way to win a game like this is to play with reckless abandon and never stopping to think about the consequences of things, like you would if you were a college student goofing off with your roommates”. And I really took that to heart.

Then I went to look at all the games that I love. And I realised, “I’m playing these wrong. I’m treating this game like it’s a puzzle to be solved and it’s not. It’s a narrative to be told. And I need to play my role in this scenario, as faithfully as the other people who are playing their roles.” And it made me a better gamer. It always comes back to that. It always comes back to the narrative.


Before we get stuck in, I should make it clear that this isn’t a ‘Best Of 2016’ list. Unlike movies, music and TV shows, I don’t (or at least haven’t yet come to) think of games in terms of release dates. In fact, I wouldn’t be able to tell you when some of these titles even came out, without going and checking on BoardGameGeek or something — certainly not in terms of when they first hit UK stores. Games don’t have an opening weekend, a TX or a launch. They just… arrive.

In truth, I kind of like that. Anyone who works in the tabletop-gaming industry will tell you that word-of-mouth it its lifeblood, and this kind of proliferation is so much more civilised and pleasingly organic than the brutal tyranny of the opening weekend in cinema. So, to me, all these games are 2016 games whether they were published in the past 12 months or not. Because that’s when I first played them. So there.



Thorsten Gimmler (Osprey Games)


Just a quick two-player, but it’s a beauty. You lay out a random ‘race-track’ of Norse landscapes, then have to match cards in your hand to the track’s gorgeously rendered landscape images in order to move your raven forward; the aim is for each bird to make all the way around Midgard first.

What really makes it interesting, though, are the ‘Loki’ cards which are limited, but enable you to switch track-cards around, add diversions and even obliterate some of those cards in your path. I actually bought this for my son’s seventh birthday, but still get just as much enjoyment out of it as he does.



Mike Elliott (Asmodée/Space Buddies)


Another light-player, but I am fond of quick ‘filler’ games as long as they’re as deeply engaging over 15 minutes as a big-box title can be over an hour-plus. And that’s certainly true of this ‘toony art-themed single-decker from trading-card-game stalwart Mike Elliott.

Players can choose to either ‘smear’ or contribute to a work-in-progress masterpiece forgery, aiming to win the ‘masterpiece’ card by applying the (yes) ‘final touch’, or ruin it so bad they give it to their opponents at half-value. It makes for some surprisingly tense tactical decisions given the apparent lightness of the strategy.



Peter Lee, Rodney Thompson, Andrew Veen (Wizards Of The Coast)


The reviews for this deck-builder/territory-grab hybrid weren’t exactly rapturous, but as a lifelong Dungeons & Dragons player, I’m a sucker for anything Forgotten Realms flavoured, especially the drow stuff. Also, while it’s an entirely different game to the worker-placement title Lords Of Waterdeep, it feels like a welcome cousin given the same-world setting. Plenty of variety, too, in the kinds of decks you can build. And you get pet dragons.



Matthias Cramer (Pegasus Spiele)


I’ve mentioned this in previous blogs, but this pleasingly weird card game was introduced to me by Peter Wooding, owner of Orc’s Nest in Covent Garden. It’s a German title (how did you guess?) inspired by 17th century mathematician Leonard Euler and naturalist/artist Maria Sibyllia Merian, which requires its three-to-five players to build up ‘fruit mixes’ of gorgeously illustrated cards, by winning tricks and nabbing cards out of other players’ displays.

Exactly how designer Cramer landed on a maths-fruit crossover theme we may never know, but the result is a sweet, idiosyncratic treat.



Uwe Rosenberg (Edition Spielwiese)


Rosenberg is the man behind one of my favourite ever games, Agricola, and though this is a lighter game than that epic medieval-farming worker-placement title, Cottage Garden has greater strategic depth than his recent two-player quilt-building game Patchwork, to which this bears many similarities.

Up to four players take in turns to turn square patches of dirt into bright, blooming gardens, by placing Tetris-y pieces on them in carefully considered arrangements, arranging them so as to not obscure point-scoring flower pots or plant covers. The quaint design may not be to all tastes, but I have to confess it utterly won me over with its mini-cardboard wheelbarrow. And I don’t even like gardening.



Phil Walker-Harding (Gamewright)


Yep, this has been out for ages, I know. But I only picked up this cute, foodie party card game this year, and fell utterly in love with it after just a few plays. As did all my role-playing club buddies; the evening I got it out after a session ended earlier than expected, we found it very hard to stop playing. And I don’t even like sushi.



Oleksandr Nevskiy, Oleg Sidorenko (Libellud)


A fantastic family-game title this (though I’ve never got to play as anyone other than the ghost), and virtually every component is a mini work of art, from the ghost’s screen, to the wildly surreal ‘vision’ cards, to the stylised portraits of the psychics tasked solving this supernatural murder-mystery. The concept makes it sound like a Cluedo rip-off, but in truth it’s closer to Dixit, though reformatted to work as a co-operative game. One player (usually me) is the ghost, who has to nudge the others (playing psychics) via odd daydreams, towards figuring out who murdered them. And where. And with what murder weapon.



Eilif Svensson, Kristian A. Østby (Aporta Games/Pixie Games)


I do like my single-deck card games, as this list makes patently clear. And here’s my favourite of them all. Well, since Citadels, to which this bears a little resemblance. The fantastically illustrated cards suggest a retro sci-fi theme, but it’s the mechanism which wins you over: play a card into the ‘Capital’ at the centre of the table to earn a perk (such as a gold piece, or a bonus card), or build up your ‘hometown’, where you have to earn the highest score… Without ever outscoring what’s in the Capital, otherwise you’ll lose it all. Takes a wee while to get your head around, and there’s quite a bit of mental arithmetic needed, but once you’re into it, you’ll be hooked.



Eric M. Lang (Cool Mini Or Not)


Are you ready to Ragnarok? I SAID, ARE YOU READY TO RAGNAROK!? Eric M. Lang was clearly born ready. This apocalyptic Viking game had me the moment I first unfolded its Norse-themed board and released its gorgeously monstrous miniatures from their plastic-moulded confinement. But what’s best about it is, despite the name and theme, it’s not quite the game of brutal conquest that you might expect. There are mechanisms that often encourage you to deliberately, sneakily lose fights, either by claiming glory through entering Valhalla, or by playing one of several ingeniously calibrated ‘God’s Gifts’ cards that upgrade your clan. Played over three ‘ages’, the stakes rise quickly, and the battles and machinations become more intense, as bigger, badder monsters join the fray, and nastier tricks come into play.



Matt Leacock & Rob Daviau, Z-Man Games


I still haven’t entirely got my head around what an awesome play-experience this campaign-based twist on Matt Leacock’s much-loved co-op is. And that’s because I’ve still not finished it — after four months of regular play, Mrs Jolin and I are still in July. Like all great long-form TV shows, to which Pandemic Legacy has accurately been compared, we can’t wait to see how it all finishes, but at the same time we don’t want to rush to the end. This is a journey that needs to be savoured. Each step towards saving the world from an horrifically mutating disease outbreak (or four) needs to be taken confidently but carefully.

So far the twists have been properly dramatic, the permanent changes to the board-map inherently exciting, and the embellishments to the play dynamic boldly but intelligently applied. I suspect the adventures of Clint McCabe (Medic) and Skye Wenfrith (Quarantine Specialist) will continue well into 2017, and if other, newer games have to wait longer for my attention as a result, then so be it. Pandemic Legacy is worth it.

Interview: Pandemic’s Matt Leacock

Matt Leacock, on top of the world, looking down on his Pandemic Legacy creation.

Few designers have had as big an impact on the current board-gaming resurgence as Matt Leacock. His 2008 debut game Pandemic, in which players work co-operatively to fight viruses, has become a must-have title; while its latest, epic iteration Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 (co-designed with Rob Daviau) is currently at the coveted number-one spot on BoardGameGeek’s league table.

When anyone asks me what new board-game they should try out, Pandemic is always the first that springs to mind. There’s a good reason why the Victoria & Albert Museum Of Childhood put it shoulder-to-shoulder with Chess and Monopoly in its Game Plan exhibition. It’s elegant, inventive, gripping and above all fun — whether you win or lose.

So when I was looking for interviewees to discuss the new golden age of gaming for my feature in The Observer last September, Leacock was the first name that sprang to mind. He was also the first person to reply to me, and the first I interviewed for the piece. Bright, amiable and sharp as a crystal razor, he shared insights into his own evolution as a designer, the games that inspired him, the cultural shift back to the table-top experience, and the impact that Pandemic has had on his life. Far more than I could fit into the feature, and too good not to share.


Take us back to the start: Didn’t you ‘hack’ board games as a kid?

Yeah. So games were my favourite birthday gift. I just loved getting board games for my birthday, and [laughs] there was always this experience where I’d get very excited, open up the box, can’t wait to dig into the game, and then I’d read the rules and we’d play and there would just be crushing disappointment. [laughs] The games just never seemed to be good enough for me. And so I was fortunate that I had an uncle who was into games as well and we would flip over the game boards and try to design something better using the same pieces. So that’s where I really got my start.

What frustrated you about board games back then? 

Well, I remember one specifically was a board game based on Space Invaders, and it was essentially a roll-and-move sort of thing where you shot some chips at the centre of the board and it was just a mindless exercise. There was nothing to it. No depth to it. And then I got exposed to Avalon Hill’s Civilization, and Sid Sackson’s Acquire, and really saw that games could be so much more. But there was this big gap between those two. I had this hunger for something deeper and the market just wasn’t satisfying it.

For so long for me, board games were variants on Monopoly: there is a board and you roll dice and you move pieces around it. It wasn’t until much more recently I found there’s so much more to it…

Yeah, there’s a lot of IP-driven games like ‘this could be a board game’. Like this Space Invaders one. Or various cartoon shows would feature in games, sorta like their companies were just applying whatever they could think of to the licence in order to get crap in a box as quickly as they could.

So what were you doing before you were orchestrating global Pandemics on table-tops?

I trained as a graphic designer, and then went into user-experience design, did a lot of design for community applications for bigger companies like AOL and Yahoo. And then I joined a communications start-up for six years and led the design team there and kind of dropped out of hi-tech to do board games full-time two years ago.

Why did you want to move away from the digital sphere and into this very analogue world? 

I just have this deep passion for board games since I was a kid. It’s been something I’ve always wanted to do, and something just kind of tripped. When Pandemic was released I suddenly sort of had this window of opportunity to follow that desire all along. But I think there’s something else to it. I mean, I really love board games because they help me connect with people. I mean, I worked on communication software that brought people in distributed workforces together so that they felt like they were in the same room but for me it was actually more satisfying to actually get together the people in the same room. Because you connect with people across the table and it’s a nice social thing. I think at the end of a long day at work, after staring at your computer or your phone all day, it’s nice to actually reconnect with other people. It’s a very human thing.

I think what you’re saying will resonate with a lot of people who have got into board-gaming during the past few years. Do you sense this as a cultural shift?

Yeah I think so. I think it’s a lot of things happening at the same time. I think a lot of people are trying to explain where this board-gaming boom came from, because we’ve seen so much growth. I mean I’ve heard as much as 10 to 20 per cent year over year for like the last 10 years. I mean that’s really big. And I think a lot of people are scratching their heads and trying to figure out where it’s coming from. I do think it’s down to people wanting to get together socially. But I also think the games are getting a lot better. I think a lot of the Euros coming in to the States show designers here a new side of gaming, and a lot of the games being developed in the States have a story element to them. And there’s just been so many new ideas floating around, and just such a boom in the number of titles.

Trad Pandemic, in action. Not sure why the discard piles are turned down, though. Have I been playing it wrong?

What specifically was the inspiration for Pandemic

I think I can trace that back to playing Reiner Knizia’s Lord Of The Rings. That was the first cooperative game I played where I realised that they could be engaging and fun. Prior to that, cooperative games were all for kids, kinda limited to sharing and caring and being nice and taking turns and all that sort of thing, which wasn’t really all that interesting. We played Lord Of The Rings and you got scared, there was self-sacrifice in that game. There were all sorts of highs and lows. And at the end of the game everybody felt good, whether they would win or lose. And I wanted to see if I could do something like that. Because I enjoyed playing that game so much with my wife, frankly, I set out to design Pandemic, a co-op game that I would really enjoy playing with my family and with my wife. So that was the initial spark.

Obviously, the co-op mechanic’s important, but in terms of making it about fighting a pandemic, fighting disease, where did that spring from? 

Pandemics were very much in the news. I kind of lose track, there’s been so many different waves and scares between SARS and Bird Flu, that I’m sure it was very much in the back of my mind. I think I was also chasing another game that I had done as a kid that featured a lot of crazy chain reactions. I wanted to see if I could have a game where there was a lot of really frightening non-linear growth. And that just seemed like a natural for that. And also it’s this unfeeling, uncaring very scary enemy that everybody can get behind. I mean, you’re not gonna root for the viruses necessarily, right? You’re not feeling bad if you’re crushing all the viruses. So that seemed like a natural fit. And then I was also fascinated by games that used cards in multiple manners. So I quickly came up with a sketch of a graph of the world and used standard playing cards and just started to experiment with it.

You don’t root for the viruses, but there’s something weirdly satisfying about putting those little cubes on that board… Even though you know it’s bad news!

[laughs] Yeah it’s very direct. It was when I discovered the mechanism for intensifying the disease by reshuffling the discard pile back on top of the deck that I really got hooked. And I found that pretty early, just through experimentation. And that’s sort of the core mechanism that got me excited. And kept me at it.

There have been different waves of trends in gaming over the years. Obviously, RPGs in the ’80s, and then trading games in the ’90s, but this co-op development, this is a relatively new thing in the board-gaming mainstream. How important do you think the co-op mechanic is to this new boom in table-top games?

It seems like it’s a pretty important component. I actually went back into BoardGameGeek’s big database to see how long co-op’s been around and it seemed like new co-op games are popping up right and left. It really did take off after Pandemic was released. I calculated a 400 percent increase in the number of titles coming out that had some sort of co-operative play style after Pandemic‘s release. So that’s a correlation, but I take some of the credit for that. I was pretty impressed with that.

It is a novelty for a lot of people. I grew up playing D&D and the idea of there being no winner, people couldn’t quite get their heads around it. Is that an obstacle for co-op games? 

Yeah, I think it used to be more so. When the game was first released I got a lot more resistance. There were a lot of these broad generalisations, like “German people don’t like cooperative games”. Where did that come from? You know, “I don’t like co-operative games, someone has to win…” But I don’t hear that anymore.

Pandemic obviously changed your life. Tell me about how it impacted on you. 

Well it’s been phenomenal. I mean, I had originally just hoped we’d get maybe a second printing. But the first printing sold 4,000 units and we had a second printing right away! And it’s just been growing, and growing, and growing. Z-Man Games was acquired by another company at the time and they really lit a fire under the game and really partnered with me to come up with Pandemic-related products, so the brand continues to grow. And so it’s just taken on a life of its own. So it’s been… I feel phenomenally lucky to be able to take this journey and this ride, and it’s really allowed me to take this on as a career — which is not something I’d ever have thought I’d be able to do.

Do you know how many units the game’s shifted now? 

Uh, they haven’t actually announced the total number of units, but I can tell you it’s got very very healthy sales. It’s certainly one of the top sellers at hobby stores.

There’s all these different versions. The Cure, State Of Emergency, In The Lab, On The Brink, and Legacy, of course. It seems to be… well, if you’ll excuse the joke, it’s gone viral, right? There’s an outbreak!

[laughs]. Yeah it’s fun to take in new directions. Making the dice game version was very fun because we had to boil it down to its essence and then Pandemic Legacy has been just an enormous experience, building that.

The ad for Pandemic Legacy: Season 1, now possibly my favourite game everI have the blue box. Not sure what that says about me…

Legacy’s really interesting, actually. It’s almost an RPG in a box.

Yeah it incorporates a tremendous amount of storytelling because… It’s similar to an electronic game-play level in that you develop your characters and you level up, you get new rules and the state of the world changes. Irrevocably, in fact. Your game-stage just continues to evolve. So there are not a lot of games like that, and it does have this feeling of this unveiling story. I mean we named it Season 1 because there is an arc to the entire campaign, so it’s akin to watching, I don’t know, a season of one of your HBO favourites, or what have you.

In this new golden era of board games, there is the supremacy of the designer. I love the fact that nearly all games now have a byline on them, like you would expect on a book or any other creative work.

I believe we have German designers to thank for that. They got together in a pub and all signed this agreement that they wouldn’t publish a game with a publisher unless their name was on the cover. And they all signed a coaster and made this agreement, and other designers all over the world are reaping the benefits of that. And so I won’t publish a game in the future without ensuring that my name is on it. Like a book author would expect that kind of credit too, I think it makes sense to do the same for a game. And I think we have those designers to thank for that.



No Messin’ with Essen: Seven Highlights From The World’s Biggest Games Fair

Messe Essen’s Hall 3 at peak gaming time during Spiel ’16’s Saturday.

As I’ve said before, despite having been a gamer since childhood, I still feel new to this world in so many ways, especially in this golden, Euro-dominated era. One way being the fact that, until last weekend I’d never been to a gaming convention or trade fair.

Not through any deliberate resistance. In all honesty, they’d never really been on my social radar. I play with family, I play with friends when I can, and when it comes to buying, I’ve always used to have a good store close by (Orc’s Nest and Forbidden Planet both being within die-rolling distance of my old workplace.)

But last weekend (October 15-16), as part of this self-imposed tabletop odyssey, I resolved to pop my con-cherry by going to the great big grand-pappy of them all: Spiel, in Essen, Germany.

Founded 34 years ago and organised by Dominque Metzler, it this year played host to a whopping 174,000 attendees, with 1,201 exhibitor booths taken by publishers and designers from 50 different countries. Seven of the cavernous Messe Essen exhibition centre’s cavernous halls were filled with eager gamers and industry (token) movers and (dice) shakers. It truly does feel like the great glowing sun around which the tabletop gaming industry spins.

In all honesty, on my arrival late morning of Saturday — Spiel’s third day and its busiest — I was rather overwhelmed. A true case of sensory overload, especially in Hall 3, where all the biggest brands (Asmodee, Iello, Z-Man, Hasbro, etc.) get to show their latest wares, with demonstrators inviting players (aka potential customers) to sit and play their games, teaching them the rules and leaving them to either click enthusiastically, or quit politely and search out other board- or card-based joys.

So it took a few hours of settling in before I found the rhythm of the event and, more importantly, started to wander around the smaller halls, where the independent publishers and designers are found. My time in Essen was relatively limited (one-and-a-half days out of a total possible four), but it was enough to make me understand how this event has become Heisenberg-grade, blue-crystal catnip to board-gamers the world over. And it also made me realise that this tribe is one of the friendliest and most welcoming I’ve ever encountered… And proud to now call myself part of.

If Essen taught me one thing, it’s that you shouldn’t shy away from sitting down and playing a game with complete strangers. Because playing a game with complete strangers is hardly any different than playing with good friends.

Oh, and of course the best thing about going to Essen is discovering new games, whether they’re still at the prototype stage, or have already been in shops for a while. Here, in no particular order, were my highlights:


1 & 2. Capital Lux and TunHell

Two card games from French indie outfit Pixie Games, both of which I played with TunHell designer Vincent Burger, a lovely and winningly modest guy who somehow taught me both games despite English being his second language by quite some distance behind his first.

How to lose at Capital Lux

With beautiful, expressionist art by American painter Kwanchai Moriya gracing every card, Capital Lux tasks each player with establishing the strongest home-town in a kind of neo-Marxist future-world, while also contributing to a capital city which should never be outshone by the players’ smaller communities. So the trick is to score the most points without your total being higher than the capital’s, whose own score is set by the players. It requires some tricky strategy to get that balance right, and I have to say that Vincent utterly slaughtered me into oblivion. I loved it.

Designer Vincent Burger, with his crazy dwarf game, TunHell.

TunHell, Vincent’s own game featuring his own art, too, is a little more playful (and punny), with each player controlling a gang of treasure-hungry dwarves competing to get the biggest haul from a trio of monster-packed mines. We ran out of time to play a full game as it was Saturday evening by this point and the end-of-day bell signalled pack-up time, but it time enough for me to know that I had to play it more. So I grabbed myself a copy, which Vincent kindly signed and illustrated for me.


3. Perfect Crime

Perfect Crime‘s very blue blueprint board. I’m the red meeple, aka the cat burglar.

The upcoming title from Penzance-based Grublin Games, this is an asymmetrical, semi-cooperative boardgame inspired by heist movies from Rififi to Reservoir Dogs. A team of players form the gang of robbers, who must plan out an audacious heist on a bank, represented by a blueprint-style board. Another player must take the role of the bank, working on their defences in preparation for the actual heist itself, which forms the game’s final few rounds.

There were a lot of rules to digest, with tons of potential variables, but it struck me as the kind of game that, after a test run, would hook a gaming group for several more with its entertaining mini-narratives. I had a great time as the gang’s sneaky cat burglar, who ended up being the inside man — at one point I found myself fast-talking a guard who challenged me while one of my partners-in-crime surprise-attacked him from behind with a samurai sword.


4. Summit

On the way back down the mountain in a triumphant co-op game of Summit. Note the triangular tiles. 

The first thing that grabbed me about this prototype-stage mountain-scaling title was its appealing triangular tiles. And the second was the way that it can be played either as a competitive game, with players racing up and down ropes to get from base camp to peak and back again; or as a co-op, with a team of players working with each other to find the best route up. (There’s also a solo mode, which is a variant on the co-op.)

It’s all the brainchild of Canadian designer Conor McGoey, who explained to me that when the game comes out in May, it’ll actually have to describe its co-op mode as an ‘expansion’ which comes in the box, because in focus groups no-one would believe you could truly play the same game either competitively or co-operatively.

I played the co-operative version with an Italian couple (one of whom was an actual rock climber), and we got the highest score of the weekend. Now that’s what I call a peak performance.


5. Gloomhaven

Gloomhaven. Out of the (massive) box. 

While I didn’t get a chance to sit and have a proper session with this, I was utterly besotted by the presentation and concept. Partly that’s because I’m a D&D nut and can’t help falling for Tolkienesque fantasy settings. But also because I love co-op games and am fascinated by the new legacy trend, which Gloomhaven certainly follows. Oh, and it’s entirely dice-free, too. So as well as its card-based mechanics pushing your group (or a solo player) through an ongoing campaign, you can also change the world, with stickers to add to the board as events occur, and characters retiring when they achieve their personal objectives, allowing all-new characters to be revealed from sealed packages. It’s pretty expensive (100 Euros to pre-order on Kickstarter), but I’m seriously thinking about it.


6. Final Touch

It’s called ‘Final Touch‘ over here. No idea what ‘Klecksa‘ means. 

Aka Mona Kleckska in Germany (I think it’s a pun of some kind). A light, quick family-friendly card game in the same vein as Sushi-Go, this is actually the latest from Mike Elliott, a veteran designer who worked for years on Magic The Gathering. The concept is players are rival art forgers who either work together to fake a masterpiece that one will claim glory for, or spitefully smear the work if it looks like victory can’t be theirs. Each masterpiece card has a configuration of paint colours that you have to match with colour cards, hoping to be the player to complete the correct colour set. And if you can’t contribute to the set, you have to lay any card which doesn’t fit the configuration to smear it. Complete the set and you take full points for yourself. Apply the third and final smear, and you give half the points to your opponent.

Final Touch is out over here at the end of November I believe, and would work well as a warm-up game.


7. Tyrants Of The Underdark


Yes, I know this has been out for a while, but Essen gave me my first chance to play it, learning the rules alongside a pair of amiable Finnish blokes who, like me, were suckers for its D&D Forbidden Realms setting. Part deck-builder, part area control light strategy game, it casts each player as the head of a dark-elven house hoping to battle, spy and trick their way to Underdark dominance with the stakes rising every single round. I didn’t have room in my limited luggage to take it home with me, but I’ve ordered it online and can’t wait for it to turn up on my doorstep.


Oh, and I also came home with two games I just loved the look of, but haven’t had the chance to play yet, both with an entirely coincidental garden theme: Uwe ‘Agricola‘ Rosenberg’s latest, Cottage Garden (compete to make the best box garden!), and Mike Nudd’s Waggle Dance, where you play bee hives competing for the biggest pollen haul. BEES.

What I came home with. Gardeny.










Exhibition Preview: Game Plan, Board Games Rediscovered


This and all pics the author’s own. As you can probably tell from the terrible quality. SORRY.

Having spoken with Catherine Howell, curator at the V&A Museum Of Childhood for my recent board-gaming feature (it be here), I was curious to check out the exhibition she’d conceived, with designer Thomas Matthews, about the history of the hobby. So this morning I schlepped over to Bethnal Green for a morning press preview, and found the resulting Game Plan to be a satisfying cocktail of discovery, trivia, nostalgia and reassuring affirmation of my own believe in the wondrous, cohesive value of table-topping. As well as being, y’know, fun.

Howell and Matthews have laid out the exhibition in an intuitive and engaging manner, gently echoing the design of a classic race game and dividing board-gaming’s history into four Ludo-piece-colour-themed sections: Square One, which covers the basics of game design (race, chase, space and displace) and the early history of gaming; Game Of Life, which delves into the 18th Century era of board-games as elaborately designed, educational tools for children; Fun And Games, which focuses on the explosion of mass-produced games during the 20th Century; and Game Changer — closest to my heart — which reveals the impact of both designer-led innovation in table-top social play, and the impact of digital gaming on its analogue sibling.

Each section has a ‘focus game’ which receives the biggest chunk of attention. Unsurprisingly, the first is Chess, then there’s the little-known Game Of The Goose, a spiral-patterned racer in which players must negotiate their way through life, avoiding various moral obstacles. Monopoly dominates the Fun And Games section, as you’d expect, and while I’m an anti-fan, I was still impressed to see Charles Darrow’s original 1933 board on display, hand-coloured on oil cloth with wooden houses and the original playing pieces he’d pulled from his daughter’s charm bracelet — hence their confounding randomness. Finally, Game Changer leads with Matt Leacock’s cooperative disease-battler Pandemic. It’s a thrill to see Leacock’s original prototypes and hand-drawn design sketches, but even more exciting is the supplemental display of his never-published, technically-still-work-in-progress game Ants!, which I now desperately want to play. I LIKE ANTS.


That aside, here are a few of my highlights from the exhibition:

– The revelation that 16th century Indian Emperor Akbar was such a fan of Pachisi (aka Ludo), he turned his palace courtyard into a giant play-board and used slave-girls as playing pieces.

– Realising that Snakes And Ladders originally had a karmic element to it; the end of a snake’s tail would reveal the punishment for bad behaviour, while the top of ladder would depict the reward for thoughtful and benevolent action.


– The ludicrously baroque names that English board-games had during the 18th and 19th centuries, such as: The Noble Game Of The Swan (1821); A New Royal Geographical Pastime For England And Wales (1787); The Jubilee, An Interesting Game (1810); and The Cottage Of Content, Or Right Road And Wrong Ways (1848).

– Spotting this prototype for an English Marvel Superheroes game from 1976, in which “players must challenge Mephisto to get talisman cards — three wins the game”.


– Having my childhood nostalgia buttons jabbed hard by the likes of Escape From The Death Star (1977) and Pac-Man (1982).


– Wondering what the hell everyone involved was thinking when they designed Hey Fatso (1969), the first ‘talking game’ in which children have to hoard unhealthy-food cards when a disc on a vinyl strip yells “Hey Fatso!” at them. Innocent times, eh? (Meaning: times in which being a dick to people was more socially acceptable.)


– Did I mention Matt Leacock’s ant game? ANTS!


Finally, in a nice little flourish, the exhibition ends with a flowchart that enables you discover which kind of gamer you are; or, as Howell’s team puts it, what your “Game Face” is. Here’s my result:

Seriously, the author’s really sorry about the quality here, and promises to buy a proper camera soon.

In truth, Game Plan is probably best appreciated as a family day out (this is the Museum Of Childhood, after all) rather than by hardcore gamers; I personally would have loved to have learned more about the big-name designers who came out of the Euro-games revolution. But this is a broad-strokes exhibition which has to take in a complete history of gaming, so it can’t exactly dwell in every avenue. And it makes its central point well: board-gaming is hardwired into human culture, both inspiring and mentally honing its players, while also holding up a mirror to society itself.

Q&A: CATHERINE HOWELL, Game Plan curator, V&A Museum Of Childhood

Tell me about your relationship with board-gaming.

I’ve worked at the Museum Of Childhood for quite a long time now — 25 years. And I’ve been responsible for the games collections for, oh, at least the last 15 years, and board-gaming has always been a passion of mine, actually. Like many people, I suppose, I grew up playing board games, and I had in my mind that I wanted to do an exhibition on board games for quite a number of years now.

So why was now the right time to bring it to fruition?

Oh, right, well, there’s boring detail about how we program different exhibitions and how we work here, but it’s one of the exhibitions that highlights a major part of our collection, so it was seen as an important topic to cover because we do have pretty good collection of board games. Particularly our late 18th, early 19th-century games — educational games which are unique in the world of game-playing, and not a lot of people know about them. So it’s a good chance to showcase those. But also, I just think playing board games is something that resonates with people.

How does it resonate with you, personally?

I have memories of growing up and playing with my family. That’s a very strong one. We have all the classics in the house, like Scrabble and Monopoly and Cluedo and I think that whole social element of playing… It’s a combination of a social activity and a competitive activity of course, and when you’re playing with your family there’s maybe an extra edge [laughs].

Do you think board gaming is important to society as a whole?

I think it is. And it always has been. I mean, our earliest game dates back to ancient Egypt, the game of Senet. It’s known as the national game of ancient Egypt, because everybody played it. You find it in Pharaohs’ tombs, and you find it scratched on some little bit of tablet somewhere. And we’re bringing it right up to date with computer versions of board games and this new designer-led resurgence. I think for people now it’s quite difficult to understand what board-game playing meant to people in the past. When you go really far back, you’re looking at the origins of Chess and Backgammon and Go and things like that. It was part of people’s lives. A very important part. And gambling was a big thing, too. I mean, this would have been adults, obviously, before games were taught to children.

And then one of the things that happened at the turn of the 20th century, when you had more of an explosion of different sorts of board games — you know production costs came down, companies were able to mass-produce games cheaply, people had more leisure time if they wanted to play them — that was another period when game-playing became really important. It became a really social thing. You see old board-game boxes and it’s not so much a picture of the game that you might get these days, but it’s people playing the game. That’s what you always get as an image.

It’s interesting because now you almost always get the designer’s name on the box, too. Every game has a by line.

Yes, it’s like a book has its author, and the game has its designer. And that’s a very interesting contrast to the 18th and 19th-century games I was talking about earlier, in that these were beautifully illustrated by probably some quite famous people of the time, maybe early in their career, but you don’t get their names, you don’t know who did, you have no idea. I think at the time it wasn’t seen as a serious thing to do and so people didn’t put their names to things. But yes, that’s a real change. From the ’70s and ’80s the game designers started to become better known, but now, with the Euro Designer Games… well, that’s why they’re called designer games!

You’ve said your favourite game is Scrabble, but having delved into designer-led games for this exhibition, are there any that have particularly struck you as personal favourites?

I actually do have to say Pandemic, and it’s not just because we’re featuring it in the exhibition. And it’s so obviously an important one. It sets the bar quite high I think. That definitely leads the field for me. Matt Leacock has managed to link into something where you actually don’t care whether you win or lose… Well you do care I suppose, but it can be just as enjoyable to lose as to win in Pandemic, which is an amazing thing.


Game Plan: Board Games Rediscovered is on at The V&A Museum Of Childhood from 8 October to 23 April. Admission is free. 









The Rules Of The Games, Part IV

Image from Pegasus Spiele,

Confession: when these rules first formed in my head a few years ago, I thought I was being really smart. Then I started writing in earnest about table-top gaming, received my first commission on the subject for The Observer (and you can read it right here), and began digging properly into the subject, talking to the brilliant minds behind it, and meeting more of the lovely people who enjoy it.

That’s when I realised that most ‘Euro’ games, the vanguard of the designer-led resurgence of the mid-‘90s onwards, already apply most of the rules I’ve laid down here: strategy is emphasised over randomness; playtime is stringently and sensitively regulated; player downtime is minimised. I wasn’t so much coming up with my own rules as unconsciously realising and appreciating parameters that designers had themselves already applied, pretty much since The Settlers Of Catan arrived on the scene in 1995.

Yet, even in this golden age of game design, one of my personal ‘ideal game’ conditions is still not regularly met. So I saved it until last…



I’ve mentioned Catan a few times (it //is// the Euro-daddy), but in its basic form, sans expansions, it can only be played with a trio or a quartet. Very limiting. A German card game I love (thanks to a recommendation by Peter Wooding, owner of amazing Covent Garden gaming store Orc’s Nest), named Pi Mal Pflaumen, requires a bare minimum of three players. So, Rule 4 is, by necessity, the one I adhere to least. But still, it bugs me when me and my most significant other, namely Lucy — my wife and number-one fellow board-gamer — can’t sit down, just the two of us, and play something great.

The way board games get people gathering together around a table is, I believe, truly valuable (and I’m not alone in that belief, as my Observer article shows), but I think any game should be flexible enough to work with just a couple. To be honest, this is partly because I have no gaming club in my town (at least until I commit to setting one up), but also because gaming is one of my and Lucy’s favourite things to do together — sometimes with the kids, but often just the two of us. And we don’t want someone to come and play gooseberry just so we can get out a certain board- or card-game.

Speaking of berries, Pi Mal Pflaumen (pictured above) is a joy to play. Designed by Matthias Cramer, it’s inspired by 18th century mathematician Leonard Euler and 17th century naturalist/artist Maria Sibylla Merian and is totally, entertainingly bonkers. There’s no direct translation of the title, because it’s a pun on the German phrase for “rule of thumb” (so perhaps “Rule Of Plumbs” would be the closest). Each player has to create “fruit mixes” with their beautifully illustrated fruit cards (see below) over three insect-inspired rounds (the caterpillar round, the cocoon round and the butterfly round), with a dog card you can play to protect your fruits, and a dynamic whereby losing a hand can actually provide a long-term benefit through the collection of ‘booby prize’ plum cards, which act as fruit-mix wild cards. Oh, and there’s also the Pi cards, where you can add the value of Pi to a particular trick. There truly is no better insect-fruit-dog-maths game out there.

And Lucy loves Pi Mal Pflaumen, too. But the fact we can only play it with another person around (and our kids aren’t really that into it) means it isn’t played nearly as much as it deserves. Three may not be a crowd when it comes to table-top fun, but two is sufficient company.

Image also from Pegasus Spiele,


PS It’s worth adding that I always like there to be a solo option, too, wherever possible. As I slowly, gradually fall out of love with video games, it’s good to know I could grab a box when I’m in a playing mood and no-one else fancies it. My current favourite solo game? The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game.


Next up: I’m done with the rules, but this week I’m off to the press preview of the V&A Museum Of Childhood’s Game Plan exhibition, so look out for a write-up on that.




The Rules Of The Games, Part III

If, as they say, you learn from your mistakes, then by all rights I should by now be a chess master. For the past five years or so, I’ve been playing against my dad, Denis, via an iPhone app, and in all that time I’ve only had three or four wins. This, I’m guessing, delights my old man, who left his comprehensive school at 16 years old without a single qualification to become a market trader (in pet foods and accessories, in case you’re wondering).

It certainly impresses me. And I refuse to be frustrated by my persistent thickie-crapness at the game, because, well, it’s all on ME. That’s the thing about chess. You can’t blame a bad hand, or persistently disappointing dice rolls. There’s only you, your brain, that board, and those pieces. Oh, and your opponent, and their brain too, of course.

The game feels like it might be a code that I’ll one day crack — that the secret to great chess tactics will one day become clear, and that at some point in the future I might actually manage to win more than one game per year against my dad. In short, I’d rather play a game that emphasises strategy over luck and lose every time than consistently win a game whose system is a slave to randomness. I mean, where would be the sense of satisfaction?

Which brings me to the third, and penultimate, criterion by which I choose my board games.



Originally, when sketching out these rules in my head, this rule simply, aggressively (and more elegantly) read: No Dice. I even considered making that the title of this blog. Just to be kind of edgy. But that would have made me a hypocrite, because I grew up on, and still love, role-playing games, and though their reliance on dice rolls occasionally infuriates me, I regard them as a necessary evil*.

Of course, dice aren’t inherently malevolent. Their use in Catan gives the game variety and vibrancy, determining which (if any) resources the players receive on each turn. And their use in Philipe Kaeynerts’ cartoon-fantasy territory-tussle Small World (to boost a final, desperate attack surge) is entirely optional and blessedly limited. The numbers rolled don’t power the engine that moves the pieces around the board, as in so many lesser games. They’re a carefully considered addition to the process rather than the default mechanic, whereby strategy can become an irrelevance in the face of oppressively enforced polyhedral randomness.

It says something that of the games I currently own (not including Dungeons & Dragons 5e), my favourites require no dice at all: Agricola. Five Tribes. Pandemic Legacy. Mysterium. Lords Of Waterdeep. I confess I do enjoy playing the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, but my biggest criticism of it is the way just a few bad rolls can completely devastate the joy of play. (Not to mention kill a character you’ve spent hours building up.)

In most cases, I find, a well shuffled card-deck or two offers a far more elegant and amiable random element. And they don’t keep tumbling off the table, either.


*Actually, I’m now aware of a new science-fiction role-playing game named Faith, which doesn’t involve dice at all, but requires each player (including the games-master) to draw cards from a deck. I am FASCINATED by this, and intend to give it a try soon. In the meantime, if you’ve played it, do please let me know how it plays out.


Next up: the final rule. Three ain’t the magic number.