I’ve Seen Steelheart Bleed – The Reckoners in Review

Sparks! Slontze! Toss in maybe a quote or two from the book series and this is how we begin.

Or at least that’s how I’m supposed to begin.

As an old man from another beloved IP said, “this isn’t going to go how you think.”

The Reckoners, that is the board game, is getting incredible reviews. I’m not oblivious to this. My review isn’t written in a vacuum and I don’t intend it to be read that way. I do intend that this piece of writing’s central message be clear: this design fails to deliver on its promise.

We started from the end but let’s continue from the beginning. A month ago I didn’t know anything about The Reckoners series of novels. These were written by some guy named Brandon Sanderson, some guy who many worship as a deified poet. I wasn’t there and I knew nothing of Epics or Mistborn when this journey began.

Now I know.

In preparation for this game I read Steelheart – the first book in The Reckoners series. Well, actually I listened to someone else tell the story because that’s how we read in 2018.

This is a book aimed squarely at young adults. I wasn’t immediately in love with the prose or verbiage. I’m balding, overweight, and have a nearly five year old daughter; I’m not the target audience. But that setting, oh that setting.

I’m not a fan of super heroes or their stories. The Reckoners is something different. It’s a gritty post-apocalyptic vision where all the supers are vile creatures devoid of humanity. The good guys are regular Joes using technology and a bit of improvisation to take down these invulnerable beasts. It’s fantastic and the narrative is spun at a breakneck pace with meaningful action.

So I hit the cardboard adaptation at 100MPH.

I collided with a wall.

Before we get to those bricks stained with my crimson pulp, how ’bout we lay some foundation.

At a high level this is a whack-a-mole cooperative design. You bounce around a few key locations attempting to put out fires (in the form of Epics, those powerful villains) while slowly chipping away at Steelheart himself. It’s balancing short term versus long term pursuits.

My truth be told, this is a more engaging and interesting design than Pandemic. It’s still a puzzle, but it’s one that feels more dynamic and fluid in presentation. The core dice action system is also a hum-dinger.

In a weird case of love gone wrong, Yahtzee combines with War of the Ring for some sweet undersheet shimmy. It’s that tired roll three times mechanism, but it’s paired effectively with some enormous chunky dice depicting actions.

These actions allow you to contain, weaken, attack, and research Epics. They also allow you to gather money for the group to purchase items. You can even plan by amassing nifty tokens that function as wild dice in the future. There’s a solid degree of choice and the interlocking strategy between participants gives way to constant discussion.

After settling on your results the group then spends their actions. There’s no defined turn order here and it’s all very spontaneous and vocal. The difficulty level of the game is high and you need to be on your toes to stay afloat.

I also really adore the item system. The equipment is supremely powerful and functions as a veiled method of teching up. Your potency will increase and synergies will emerge as play rolls forward. It’s a powerful genesis for momentum.

Then the clock hits 60 and the game comes to a close. The pacing, much like Sanderson’s fiction, is fantastic with constant engagement and no downtime. The only break in attention is found within the administrative portion of enemy resolution. So yeah, who needs Pandemic.

But what about that wall, Charlie, the one with your brain and bone embedded?

Then there’s that.

While this design is undoubtedly fun, it’s a critical failure. Achieving a sense of “fun” is the lowest of bars. A game requires something more to attain greatness. Something more is what I didn’t get it.

The Reckoners lacks drama. No, not the books of course because nearly every page of every chapter tickles the spine. The game, however, is a bit of a stump.

The core dice mechanism is fine and even engaging, but it’s never pushed or extended in a meaningful way. Resolution is deterministic once those actions are decided. This undermines any notion of suspense. Compare this to the source material and you’ll see that it lacks that sense of spirit.


Engaging an Epic in combat should be wild and unpredictable. You can’t even be harmed in this game so play translates to prevention and plinking away at tracks. You’re presented a slow realization of impending doom as the foes action bars resolve. This is the closest we ever get to dramatic action and it’s a slow boulder that we can see in the distance.

Those aforementioned tracks are another cringe trigger. On its face the game does hinge on researching the weaknesses of the depraved villains. This is a key component of the novels as every single Epic has a vulnerability. These are colorful and interesting quips such as being weakened while immensely attracted to someone or while inside a church.

In this design that concept of research is shallow. The implementation functions as essentially a second health meter. Attack this track first with the magnifying glass die face, then later attack this other one with the skull symbol.

A look towards Black Orchestra would have yielded stronger results. That game has players researching Adolf Hitler’s location and planning out an assassination plot. It’s a slow buildup of gathering unique assets before launching the strike. The climax is resolved with a roll of the dice modified by your efforts leading up to the action. Everyone in the room is standing and it’s deadly silent before it’s terribly loud. The Reckoners deserves a similar arc which parallels the subject matter perfectly, but it doesn’t get it.

Instead, the implementation of the fiction’s most central concepts are workmanlike. They’re streamlined and give the game a sense of smoothness, but they’re bland.

Epics themselves follow this philosophy. While they are unique due to an asymmetrical bar of action symbols, they lack presence. Their identity is subtle and mostly evident in the math behind the scene and the challenges they impose. They don’t feel like their source material’s counterparts. You get no sense of Nightwielder’s command of darkness or Faultline’s plate tectonic manipulation. It’s just another track that pops some Enforcement miniatures down and buffs Steelheart. Maybe it attacks the population pushing the Reckoners towards defeat.


You didn’t read me wrong. The condition for defeat is a population track that the lords of Newcago chip away at each turn. The book makes it clear that Steelheart needs subjects in order to find meaning in his existence – the population is his most valuable commodity.

In the game, this is all backwards. A significant theme of the Steelheart novel is how the Reckoner’s actions actually inflict pain and suffering on the populace. A key challenge Megan grapples with is that destroying the dictator will leave many worse off. The cardboard equivalent sidesteps this internal conflict and reframes the discussion. This is a great failing.


Similar to the Epics, we have all of these excellent locations with beautiful artwork and glorious plastic trays – but it’s all meaningless. Locations have no mechanical identity and they’re all the same. This game desperately needs a tether for players to latch onto but it shrugs its shoulders and turns away at each opportunity.

The overbearing abstraction is the core issue. All of the maintenance and resource tracking is not indicative of theme. The fictive work is focused on collecting evidence which leads to large moments of dramatic release. That’s not this game.

This product is beautiful. You can sit there and fondle the trays while ogling the wonderful visuals. You can knock out a solitaire game in 25 minutes or engage with a group of individuals with just a tad more commitment. It’s pleasant and fine. That’s just not enough.

When the sheets of molded plastic are wedged back into that cavernous box, what’s left? There’s no sense of shared fiction. The events of play do not carry a narrative. Nothing unusual happens and no specific slices of sharp story emerge. It’s all just sort of there.

I want to track you down in a hallway of the Indianapolis convention center and fumble through words of excitement. I want a story to emerge, one we crafted of our own accord that felt like The Reckoners but was our Reckoners.

I do understand what happened here. The designers cut away at the complexity and directly aimed the game at wider appeal. The problem with attempting to cater to a more mainstream demographic is that the product is anything but. It’s a $100 release that’s as ‘luxe as it gets. The people buying this game are either going to leave it on their shelf as a memento or they’re going to be familiar with more sophisticated system concepts.

And “so what”, you say. The game offers an enjoyable experience and dresses up the proceedings enough to evoke its paired IP, at least at a surface level. I’m with you in body, but not in spirit. Just yesterday I rattled off several plays all by my lonesome. I could not stop returning to Newcago. But every single conclusion left me just teased and desiring more.

This game doesn’t do it. It doesn’t present the source material as a narrative playground to breakdance through. It’s not Star Wars: Rebellion or Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery. Compare the story beats and you will clearly see this brick is made of porridge.



A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow – A Retrospective T.I.M.E Stories Review

It’s Gen Con, 2015, and I’m moseying around a small room. This particular small room is in the back of a beaming restaurant. It’s a private Asmodee press event where they showcase demos of upcoming releases to members of the media. I don’t know any of these people. I feel out of place and small.

Then I come upon this table with this game I hadn’t heard of. I sit down next to a well known media personality and his wife; we begin.

Like a needle to the vein, the game delivers. Immediately my brain is tethered and my senses tingling. We spend twenty minutes stumbling around an asylum in the 1920s, our sole accomplishment retrieving a bathroom plunger for a man in a suit. He may or may not be mentally unstable but it doesn’t matter. T.I.M.E Stories is what matters.

This is a weird game. I love weird games.


It’s partially a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure thing but it’s mostly visual. You enter a room or location and lay out a row of cards depicting the scene with a panoramic view. Each player can then split and go to a different card – section of the room – or you may team up in case you run into a violent git and it comes to blows.

Unexpected things happen, you see, and that’s where the intersection of mechanisms and joy occur. Sometimes you come across puzzles. Other times you run into traps. Maybe you collect an artifact, out of place in this particular period of history.

At times it feels as though the design space is wide open. The game an engine for a different body with unique contours and doo-dads. Each release uses a few generic token types to present interesting challenges and narrative quips. The same token may represent narcotics your addicted convict struggles to resist, or they may represent ammo for the firearm you recovered. The execution is solid and each module feels writ upon its own cloth.

The objective is to prevent a catastrophe from occurring. You’re working for this sterile and vaguely creepy agency. This asshole Bob continually derides your performance. He’s your handler and you will come to hate him immediately.

Accomplishing your mission is always a fuzzy goal. You need to fumble around an Egyptian village, Fantasy castle, or Pirate-infested ocean and follow the unfolding tale by its scent. The best of the adventures feature those aforementioned twists while buoyed by a slowly developing meta-story.

Yes, the scenarios are linked. Well, most of them. Estrella Drive, for instance, ignores that backbone which contrasts sharply with its peers.

The overarching plot is mostly interesting. There’s some definite shock and awe. One moment threatens to form a major divergence in the narrative with future promises. You make a key choice with long-term consequences at stake.

And this is the problem.


It never really delivers. Yes, a tantalizing quip or two, maybe even a juicy development occurs. But we made this seemingly crucial decision to pick a path and the game seems to not really care. It’s hamstrung to the limited format of a single deck as it putters along its release cycle.

We’re seven scenarios in and you could wrap up the meta-narrative in a couple of paragraphs. There’s always a hint but never an answer.

It’s strongly reminiscent of episodic television, something like Fringe or the X-Files. I bailed on both of these dredges as the drip-feed of the overall story arc was excruciatingly slow. The monster of the week formula is tired and its day is gone.

It does manage to flirt with the edges of wonder due to the sheer breadth of subject matter. Pirates, crusades, fantasy, an antarctic expedition – if you have a box this game will check it. The scope, unfortunately, is never quite enough.

One of the major limitations isn’t found within the gears of the design, but in the production boundaries. Each release is limited to around 130 cards. This actually offers a solid experience in isolation, but it severely limits branching story structures, particularly from the angle of the meta-narrative. This is readily apparent as the game trudges forward and it will drag you out of the here and now as you shake a fist at what this game could be.

That physical limitation also creates a hindrance in assimilating new concepts. Each scenario has its own quirks and rules adjustments, yet they don’t include any sort of explanation material. The introduction of new sub-systems occurs entirely within cards. This means we don’t have a native FAQ or useable examples. There are edge cases. It can feel as though you’re stumbling around Jareth’s labyrinth looking for Toby and Hoggle just keeps spitting in yer eye instead of helping. Dammit Hoggle.

This is all further muddled by the fact that the game is tedious. There’s an artificial tension manufactured from the time mechanism. As you travel and visit scenes, your time dwindles. Eventually it runs out and you must restart the loop. It’s a twisted version of Groundhog Day devoid of Bill Murray’s comedic personality.

You could of course ignore time altogether. The concept is simply a man-made construct, right? It’s all relative holmes.

But this is problematic because the underlying tension of the design is then ripped from its chest. There’s no urgency, skill tests become meaningless, and the whole experience is reduced to ash.


It’s unfortunate the content isn’t gripping enough to justify the lengthy repetition. We’re still chasing the dragon, hoping to catch a glimpse of that tantalizing background fiction.

We’re stuck.

Like a legacy-style game you just want to box, we can’t turn back because we’ve gone so far. The magic has soured and the sun is partially set. Tomorrow we’ll press on, however, because we must. It’s all we know how to do.

The location is my basement and we’re in the throes of adventure. We’re making our way through Brotherhood of the Coast. It’s been several months since the last module was released and everyone is excited to push further.

That small white box is mysterious. It could contain anything. I felt that warmth in my gut just an hour earlier.

Now it’s gone cold.

There are pirate ships, battle, and an interesting twist. None of that really matters. I’m tired. The experience is offering just a smidge of its previous high. I’m looking across my shelves and the game has lost me.

I’ll be back. In a few months my hopes will rise and my heart will stir as I remember those initial days. The relationship may be dead, but those memories will never die. I’ll be back.


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The Martin Riggs Murder Mystery Party – A Countdown: Action Edition Review

Everyone is tense. Somewhere in the building a bomb is about go off. Lenny is a cop, but he’s no ordinary 5-0. He’s a badass with a 12-gauge and hair that’s as out of control as the era. He’s the star of our impromptu little film.

The rest of us are hostages. When those bad mofos charged into the bank everything changed. Dog Day Afternoon, Inside Man, they all had it wrong: This was over in a hurry.

Lenny busts through the doors of the bank, glass spraying across the lobby. No one fires. The perps weren’t taking up defensive positions or loosing hellfire. No, they were hiding. Among the cluster of terrified hostages, the ne’er-do-wells bide their time. It was that kind of day.

This is Countdown: Action Edition, or rather, it’s the setup. It’s easy to be swallowed up in the neon 80s facade of that box. Everything bleeds cool and the game is an easy sell.

Commitment is key. The experience here is predicated on roleplay and improv as it asks participants to slip into character and chat it up. It’s a social deduction-style design where one player – the action star – wants to identify the bad dudes hiding among the hostages. This must be done before the bomb goes off.

The philosophy here is delicate. Countdown wants you to ham it up and roleplay as Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson (sans anti-semitism of course), but it also wants a structured framework to conduct the theatrics.

To get there it borrows liberally. By that I mean it stuffs a pinata with every noteworthy social deduction release from the past ten years and gives you the stick. “Swing away” it commands.

As you tear fist-sized holes in the paper mache the sweet bits begin to pour out. Let’s keep score: We have a bomb and President cribbed from Two Rooms and a Boom. In the beginning of play you pass around a hand of characters and select your poison, a la Mafia de Cuba. There’s a secret Hitler ganked from you-know-what. Don’t forget the lively drunk from One Night Ultimate Werewolf. Finally, a “Big Time Wrestler” from, well, you got me there.


That’s not to say Countdown’s initial appearance is rubbish, but it certainly puts it behind the eight ball. This is comical though and certainly fits the campy veneer. I admit, I dig it. How many games allow you to play Hitler’s brain-in-a-jar? Exactly one, I imagine.

So, actual play. The action hero flips a “countdown” card. This means we’re inching closer to the bomb exploding and tension is slowly elevating. It also directs the hero and pushes play forward.

The main character is given a couple of options. They can release a hostage, effectively changing the status of a character and affecting various win conditions. They can ask a specific question listed on the card. These are one-liners like “What kind of clothes are you wearing?” and “What did you do yesterday?” Or you may be able to ask a yes/no question of your own devising.


You may have read between the lines but Countdown doesn’t work. It’s impossible to hold back any longer so let’s just tear the bandaid off.

This wants to be part roleplay and part social deduction, but the latter is non-existant. There’s no real mechanism to deduce anything of value. Sure, I can ask you what you’re wearing (in a non creepy way). The game requires you stay in character and tell the truth. If you’re the POTUS then you’d say something like “a suit and my magnificent smile.” Sure. Maybe you make a Trump joke and we all laugh. Good times.

Now, if you’re a villain you can say whatever you want. So you choose a role from those available and you lie.

“I’m wearing a suit and an American flag pin on my lapel.”

Wonderful; two players are claiming to be President. One is lying, of course. Now what do you ask them to figure out the truth?

No one really knows.

You can ask more questions about your profession but it never leads anywhere. Players can channel their inner Daniel Day Lewis and leave it all out there. But the game, that important core at the heart of the proceedings, it never works. Side conversations, asymmetrical win conditions, and even some juicy starting information based on those characters passed around – none of this really adds up.

There are interesting scene cards that let you interrupt and take over for a moment. Hostages play these to gain some camera time and sweat under the spotlight. They’re a neat concept but that’s about it. As a humorous example, Aaron was the last player in a recent play. His action scene card allowed him to look at the remaining characters that no one chose. This could be insightful as it would allow you a modicum of information to base your otherwise blind hunches on. The problem is that Aaron was last to select and already knew what was left over. Oh well.


The concept of action film roleplay with a legit social deduction game is wild and exciting. Countdown isn’t that, however. It never gets there. It asks you to bring the fire but doesn’t pull its own weight.

Mechanically it hews closest to Two Rooms and a Boom in feel. Not simply because of the bomb, but because of the open discussion and behavioral focus. This perhaps best illustrates Countdown’s shortcomings. Two Rooms features many roles which force interaction and there are actual mechanisms for attaining hard information and then sharing it. Countdown leans harder into roleplay but never offers concrete information to grease the wheels of conversation.

It could be utilized as a tool to spur improv and drama. There’s certainly a crowd that would find this enjoyable and may not care about the lack of compelling gameplay. Unfortunately, in this format the experience is far too rigid and clunky. You don’t need all the extraneous elements such as characters with hidden objectives or structured discussion. There’s all these cards and decks and it’s a degree of trouble without much benefit.

The closest analog are those murder mystery “games”. They have no real mechanisms but act as an excuse to dress up, use an accent, and get drunk. Not because you have a card that calls it as it sees it, but simply because you want to be numb.

I don’t know what to do with Countdown. It’s a neat little box with some clever ideas, but it forgot the game. You can’t forget the game.


A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Dune: The Board Game: The Book Club

It’s earlier this past summer. I have a moment and something gets lodged in my skull. This is a common enough occurrence, but today we’re talking about a particular moment.


Yes, that game many still talk about from that group of designers who created one of the best games ever crafted – Cosmic Fucking Encounter. But we’re here to talk about Dune.

I’ve decided I’m going to track down a copy. It’s long out of print, but I don’t care because now I must own it. That’s just how it goes.

Immediately after committing to an Ebay purchase of a battered copy of this 1979 artifact, I reach out. It does not take long to find five other brave souls willing to commit. We’re going to play Dune. But first, we’re going to read Dune.

Dune: The Board Game: The Book Club is born.

Confession time: I’d never read it before. Three other group members commit to re-reading the novel, and three of us agree to read it fresh. The game is afoot.


“A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows. To begin your study of the life of Muad’Dib, then, take care that you first place him in his time: born in the 57th year of the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV. And take the most special care that you locate Muad’Dib in his place: the planet Arrakis. Do not be deceived by the fact that he was born on Caladan and lived his first fifteen years there. Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, is forever his place.

Who is this Muad’Dib and what is going on? Dune is dense, not in prose or in its hierarchy of prime movers, but in mysticism and weird. A culture spread to the stars and rejecting the use of computers? Utter nonsense. I don’t get this book.

Still, there’s something here. Paul resists the searing brand of the Gom Jabbar. His fist is aflame. My mind follows suit. There’s something here.

I’m the Bene Gesserit and the game has started but it hasn’t. I have an oblong player aid, torn from a pad manufactured in a year predating my existence. As a cult of mystical witches with de facto superpowers, I need to predict which faction will win and on what turn. Yes, that’s insane. And we haven’t even started playing yet.

I’m lost strategically and barely understand how I’m supposed to win with my faction. The default condition for victory is controlling three of the five strongholds on the board. I’m a group of old hags that may co-exist in spaces with other players. I’m relatively penniless and have some oddball abilities.

I scribble down “Harkonnen on turn 5” and shake my head. I don’t get this game, but I’m excited and the potential is immense. There’s something here.

Dune starts off slow. It begins on Caladan. I don’t care about Caladan. I want spice to flow, sandworms to rage, and massive betrayals. I want what’s been promised by thousands of fans gushing about a book that’s older than time.

“Hope clouds observation.” 

Then it happens. Over a meal, it begins to shake out. Liet Kynes, a geologist with blue eyes, makes his presence known. I’ve never seen someone so engrossed in dirt express themselves so fiercely. Paul asserts himself and gains respect. His potential is brimming. He’s not worried about Tosh station or power converters.


It’s the early going. We have not seen war yet but it’s coming. You can feel it in the air like droplets of water collected in a Fremen windtrap.

And so it goes.

The Baron Harkonnen tosses a mound of spice clenched in his grubby fingers to the Guild. He collects a stack of trained warriors and slams them directly into Sietch Tabr – a stronghold held by the Fremen.

I accompany the gutless Harkonnen troops with one of my witch advisors, along for the invasion. The Reverand Mother gets to witness the sands turn crimson from the front row.

Battle is bananas in Dune. You rotate a wheel to essentially a bid, this is your strength. The catch is that it can’t be higher than the number of troops you have in the territory. You also lose all of those troops, that is, if you win.

The loser of the conflict must instead send all of their troops to the Tleilaxu tanks. Stakes are high as your dead soldiers only drip back to you over time and you must pay in coveted spice to ship them back to Arrakis.

You also choose a leader. One of five your faction begins with, each a notable character from the novel. This is where you see the movers and shakers, mentats and warriors, the most beloved of this newfound world.

Your leader is accompanied by cards. You may pick one weapon and one defense. Liet Kynes chooses the rare and coveted Lasegun. Baron Harkonnen is foolish and relies on shields.

Oh no.

The entire space explodes. A mass of souls is lost.

Things are moving now.

I’m swept up like a wave. The shields are lowered and I am inside those stained off-white pages. Baron Harkonnen slithers from the darkness, Duke Leto falls, and everything is torn asunder. This is the Dune I was promised.

The vile Baron is at it again. He licks his lips; Arrakeen it is. A battalion of seven units assaults the walls of the capital city.

Duke Leto, leader of the Atreides, sits uncomfortably.

After the shock subsides, I slowly push one of my witch advisors into the territory. I’ve not even fought a single battle but this game has me in its throes. Every single conflict is meaningful and the stakes are incredibly high as leaders are at risk and spice is difficult to come by. This bloodbath in particular would set the tone for much of play.

Paul and the Baron marshall their troops. They set their dials and select their weapons of war.

None of it matters.

Thufir Hawat, master of assassins, is a snake. He is in the Baron’s pay and a traitor. The battle is over before it has begun. The Atreides homestead is ash.

“There is no escape—we pay for the violence of our ancestors.”

We’re only an hour in and I know. I love this game.

Stilgar is dead. Paul has established himself as Usul, and they call him Maud’Dib.

Worms. Not only devouring machine and man, but serving as mounts for wiley blue-eyed demagogues. Why have I not read you earlier?

“Without change something sleeps inside us, and seldom awakens. The sleeper must awaken.”

Order is established. Lines are drawn and the mood is set.

Baron Harkonnen and The Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV are wed in spirit and fist. They control Arrakeen and Carthag. They have mobility, they have spice, and they wield treachery.

So we go to war.


The Fremen are scattered in the desert, the Guild quietly amasses stores of spice, Atreides seeks to recover, and I continue to quietly plot.

It’s turn five. Harkonnen need one more stronghold and their alliance will win. But they won’t, because I have predicted it so with the weirding way.

The Baron Harkonnen nudges his forces that have locked down Arrakeen. He contemplates a push to the west, beyond the shield wall. The stronghold in question is being held by the Guild, my co-conspirator and momentary brother.

I want my ally to burn and the future I saw to become the present I see.

But the Baron exercises some uncommon restraint. He doesn’t push out of Arrakeen. My gut burns.

“It is impossible to live in the past, difficult to live in the present and a waste to live in the future.”

Paul Maud’Dib is biding his time. Preparing for the final battle.

The words are coming swift and my head is dizzy. Every chapter bounds forward like a Maker cutting through sand.

Usul drinks the water of life. My entirety clenches.

We’re nearing the end. The second half of the game is fraught with suspense. Every single turn a massive push is made and the balance of Arrakis threatens to shift. It could end at any moment.

We make our move.

The Guild, having spoiled me with spice, launches their assault. I move into the Sietch Tabr. We are going to win.

My ally comes through. It’s all up to me.

I fail.

“Fear is the mind killer.”

The Princess Irulan is dead by the hands of her father, my Bene Gesserit put to the knife.

The last hundred pages are but a moment. Paul Maud’Dib obliterates the shield wall. The Emperor cowers. Usul duels Feyd-Rautha. I’m shocked.

I expect a twist. Everything has been building towards this moment and the inevitable becomes the reality. I pause.

“Think on it, Chani: the princess will have the name, yet she’ll live as less than a concubine-never to know the moment of tenderness from the man to whom she’s bound. While we, Chani, we who carry the name of the concubine-history will call us wives.”

It takes awhile to sink in. I sit there, my thoughts raging and brain agog.

Eventually I see it; the undeniable beauty. The jihad is inevitable. How it occurs and what happens after the liberation of Arrakis is unknown. Paul sees infinite branching paths, but the jihad and the prophet are certainties.

There’s an extraordinary comfort in the multitude of the novel’s readers contemplating the events post-conclusion. Each of us forms a thought on what will occur, how Paul and his people will flourish and die, and what will happen in that godforsaken universe.

In a moment of genius the fourth wall is broken as we, the collective audience, form those branching paths of prescience with our own thoughts, dreams, and desires. We are at one with Dune and all is right.

The planet has shifted once again.

The Guild, in a stroke of genius, plays the “Family Atomics” card. The shield wall is annihilated. The door opens and the storm atop Carthag rages. The Emperor is gone.

The Baron Harkonnen and Edric unite. They are unable to seize four strongholds but it’s too late for the rest of us.

I find common ground with the Fremen and we attempt to expel the invaders from the sietches of the planet’s natives, but it does not occur. We are too weak and feeble and the future has already been decided.

The six of us sit in silent reverance. 40 year old cardboard is scattered across the table, empires shattered. Amid conversation and dramatic theatrics – the magic of the tabletop has occurred; a shared event that transcends the people, place, and time. I’m flabbergasted and would not sleep that night.


Dune, howeverrests. The planet that is most dry is sodden with the blood of countless fallen. A wasteland turned into a wasteland. A domain without a ruler. Dune rests.

“There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.”


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Mellow & Angst -A Yellow & Yangtze Review

And I thought writing about Root was difficult.

Yellow & Yangtze is the sequel to Tigris & Euphrates no one asked for. When Grail Games announced this peculiar title, I cocked my head and sort of mumbled to myself. Yeah, that happens frequently enough, but here it was with purpose.


Reviewing a game can be a difficult task. It’s about providing an analytical view that you want to present as definitive, but it’s never so. Whether you play a game a hundred times or simply three, chiseling your thoughts in stone and presenting them to the multitudes represents simply a moment in time. My piece on Wiz-War is no more omniscient than if I wrote about it after my initial experience. It’s merely a snapshot of a particular view, one that’s in motion and never settles, at least until you’re in the dirt.

So this is me, writing about Yellow & Yangtze, in the most definitive of non-definitive ways.

I’ve wasted enough of your time babbling, let’s get to the point: Is Y&Y better than T&E?

I have no answer for you. From a critical perspective, it doesn’t exist. More accurately: It’s complicated. Let me explain with a thousand more scribbled characters.

Both designs are exceptional thematic works. They condense many many years of historical upheaval into a gripping hour of satisfying hobby. The main loss in transitioning from Mesopotamia to China is in chaos. Yellow is simply a less dynamic design than Tigris.

This primarily occurs in conflict. In the OG clashes resulted in massive swings. A mountain of tiles would be swept off the board into a kaleidoscopic junkyard of cardboard. Civilizations would collapse and expand like a tidal wave bearing down upon a fragile coastal town. An action here and an action there, two large societies connect and the piñata explodes.

I love it.


The timing of when to engage in conflict and have the prescience to take advantage of the resulting swing is a large cut of T&E’s identity. It still owns this as Yellow & Yangtze reigns in the drama and lances the tension.

External conflict in this newfangled work is always performed with red “soldier” tiles. Likewise, those are the pieces removed from the board and discarded to the bin after the flames settle. When worlds collide much less ends up fractured. The winners have more ground and infrastructure to gain, however you only receive a single scoring cube of the color at conflict. So not only is the board state less twisted, but point gain is a bit more even and mellow as well.

One way to view the above division between designs is through the lens of their subject matter. Tigris & Euphrates represents many centuries of development and strife. It’s a wide slice of history as civilizations spring from the bones of their forefathers. Upheaval is just another day of the week.

Yellow & Yangtze, however, presents a more narrow view of geo-political instability. Taking place from 475-221 BCE, it’s capturing a thematic tone that’s altogether different. In this way, you could certainly make the argument that Reiner Knizia has not lost his edge. Sure, Y&Y is less dynamic, as that’s what the design calls for.

Now, this doesn’t change the fact that the chaotic, almost Ameritrash play of Tigris is more compelling. But at least we have context and can develop an abstract appreciation.

War (external conflict) is also reimagined in a more simpler structure. In a battle with multiple colored leaders facing off, you now simply have one large fight with all of the leaders of one side allying against the other. This opens up a bit of negotiation and above table play that’s very enticing. Perhaps more importantly, it’s much easier to internalize for newcomers.

Tigris is a rough game to introduce. The rules are simple but the concepts are difficult to grok. It’s an awkward game in your early plays as you fumble around like a shy teenager interacting with a love interest. Not everyone makes it past that initial dance and some move on. Yellow streamlines the most egregious of these elements and produces a much smoother overall experience.


Let’s move on to the board. I’m talking about the switch from squares to hexes. This I’m totally down with.

The map feels more open and easy-going. You can readily buffer up a leader by surrounding them with black politician tiles – those used with internal conflicts – and the struggle for position is less deliberate. Pagodas, the new fancy term for monuments, are also more easy to build and are slapped down more frequently.

This is significant because if no pagodas remain of that particular color then you steal one. You pluck it up from the board and place the mother in your budding society. This contrasts sharply with the less dynamic war mechanism providing a very fluid experience of shifting strength.

There’s an interesting focus here on the single gold pagoda. This new color replaces the isolated treasure tokens of Tigris. Gold becomes highly fought over as a means to buffer scoring, with that bright yellow building hopping about the board.

The shifting atmosphere is emphasized with a few other clever twists. The strongest is the mechanism of retaining leaders. Leader tokens that have not been placed on the board provide bonuses in different facets of play. For instance, you receive +1 to your army strength in War if your red leader is in reserve. Your blue leader on the other hand allows you to spend one instead of two blue tiles to blow up a space on the board (mimicking the more limited purge mechanism from its predecessor).

This concept of holding back adds weight to leader placement and civilization structuring. If you possess a large number of scoring cubes of a particular color, you may opt to keep that leader off the map once removed. You can now shift to a more aggressive pursuit and lean into the bonus.

Additionally, it’s a small catchup mechanism. If you have a leader ousted you now have a passive bonus activated. Overall, this feels very satisfying and it’s a huge boon when moving to this new design.


The final detail I want to approach is the degree of randomness. A sharp criticism of this system is that your potential is limited by the tiles you draw. The space it operates in consists of input randomness – it provides the user with a jumbled set of options and asks you to perform your best with that draw. You need to be agile and tactically limber.

Yellow pulls out a new trick. Whenever you place a green tile on the board you can refill one of your tile selections from a public offer instead of the bag. This allows you to tailor your strategic approach and make up for a poor draw. It’s delightful because it melds with the other sensibilities of the design offering direct rewards and unique abilities for the different colors. It streamlines the complicated conflict mechanisms while adding depth and weight to other aspects of play. This comes at a risk of overcomplicating the elegance, but it never falls to that threat and manages to remain quite svelte.


The most thought-provoking aspect of this release, and that which seems seldom touched on in early conversation, are the principals which guided Reiner Knizia to re-approach his finest design. There’s a lot of discussion focused around the “what” and “how” of Yellow & Yangtze, but not much about the “why”.

Why redesign your most lauded accomplishment, a game which will exist outside the decay of time and persist for generations? If you examine the details of all of these changes and shifts in structure, you can read between the lines and find that interwoven philosophy. This is a more forgiving and lenient design than its progenitor.

You can more easily place monuments, seeing quicker payoff. It’s easier to buffer your leaders on the board. You have more control over which tiles you pull. External conflicts no longer require the hoop-jumping of procedurally stepping through each subset of factions at war. Leaders forced off the map still provide bonuses.

It feels a little less enigmatic and a lot less brutal. This approach of mollifying the design is effectively modernizing it. For better and for worse and all that jazz.

So, yeah, I don’t know. After a handful of plays I can’t rightly determine which is the stronger of the two siblings. I will say that I’ve had a far better experience teaching Yellow & Yangtze to newcomers, all of which have enjoyed it.

And I’m smitten with the ways in which this design has grown – new uses for colored tiles, more lively monuments, and the forming of momentary alliances – but I still find myself hankering for those colossal shifts in board state. I want nations to crumble before my eyes and dust to settle over the corpses of a once proud people. I want the swansong of achievement to float through the air like fiery motes on the edge of extinction.

I really want to have my cake and eat it too, I suppose (that’s what cake is for afterall).

Let’s do this dance again in another 12 months. Maybe then my definitive non-definitive review will be more definitive.



A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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A Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger Review

It’s not a stretch to refer to the current board game era as a narrative renaissance. We’ve seen a groundswell of story-first designs including Time Stories, Legacy of Dragonholt, and excellent new printings of the Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective series. Hell, I recently played the cardboard take on Big Trouble in Little China and even that has an accompanying booklet of narrative encounters. It’s all the rage as the kids used to say.

So, why not a rebirth of the Choose Your Own Adventure series?


It took me a few moments to get over the fact this was the original CYOA-line as opposed to something more imaginative like Lone Wolf. But yeah, I’m over it and down with the concept. This first release is based on House of Danger, Choose Your Own Adventure #15 from R.A. Montgomery. It appears to hew very closely to the original book, right down to the black and white images and stained white pages. That retro look and feel is one of the strongest quirks of this release and one I revel in. If you’re susceptible to nostalgia and this material resonates, that initial rush will be strong and the allure significant.

I fell for it; nostalgia had me in its throes. I cracked this sucker open and played through it in a hurry, flipping over cards and working my way through the bizarrest of the bizarre like a dunston shot out of a cannon. And now I’m here, telling a tale of my experiences with another tale. It’s all sort of backwards, I know.

First off, the writing is poor. Who am I to judge? Well sure, I agree. But look, it’s simply not great. It’s full of moldy cheese humor and one-liners that will hurt your brain. Faithful to those original works aimed at young readers? Certainly so, but I’m not sure that’s a selling point.


Despite the fact that 90% of this game is text, I don’t think the writing is a significant factor here. The larger question is whether this format justifies itself. Why not simply reprint the original book, for instance? Do we really need a couple hundred oversized cards? Oh lords of narrative, what’s the point?

By extricating the story from those faded white pages and moving it to artificially faded cards, we do gain some utility. There is a board game feel in that you’re tracking your psychic ability and a danger level via meters. You’re making die rolls which add an air of mechanical weight to the adventure. You even have a collection of items that you can manipulate to tweak your odds of success or open new paths in the story. Who doesn’t want a nifty little switchblade card to twirl between their fingers? Why am I asking so many questions?

The system works, of course. There are some interesting decisions, some nifty uses of push your luck, and the die will create some drama. The most significant benefit is that you can play this cooperatively. Now, you won’t do this with a collection of hobbyists because the game is too simple and there’s just not enough there. There’s no greater strategy to haggle over or clues to decipher. This isn’t Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, it’s “do you want to pee on the statue or eat the conspicuous muffin sitting on the ground?”

Playing with a partner does find its niche when you introduce it to a young child. You can include them in the decision process and their virgin minds will likely be blown away by this combination of predestined story and player authorship. Watching a wee human’s overhead lightbulb blare is a wonderful thing.

But for a collection of experienced adults, there’s just not enough depth to plumb. Trying to utilize reason or logic is a fool’s errand. Seemingly correct choices will lead you to situations like a bunch of birds pecking your eyes out. Don’t worry though, death leads to you rewinding and going back to a previous card to choose the other option. This is actually handled with some attention to detail as you’re a psychic detective and this reflects your abilities.

Leaning on that subject matter of mental transcendence leads to a couple of interesting options. Your current psychic level can often grant new options or clues during the story. For instance, you may be awarded a card with some peculiar abstract image on it. This is supposed to be insight representing perhaps a dangerous warning of the future. Likewise, the game begins by having you study an image before proceeding. None of this seems to amount to much as I found very little meaning in any of the illustrations. Your mileage may vary is a saying that kind of sucks, but your mileage may indeed vary.


The game does utilize its format in a few other interesting ways. It breaks the content out into chapters, allowing natural stopping points to shelve the box and come back to it later. I found this not entirely necessary as I rolled through the entire game in two hours, crushing it like a Panzer division driving on Paris. That length felt both appropriate and incongruent with the intended experience.

Let me explain.

At two hours it’s not too long, which is great, but it’s just barely long enough to justify its existence. It’s a filler story-game that you take off the shelf on a rainy day and push through with some humor. Yet, that’s also just long enough that it makes repeating the experience a bit of an effort. Having played through the game once, I don’t think I’ll ever head back to this particular story.

The game doesn’t want this. It goes through many pains to provide branching paths, multiple areas to explore, and even a plethora of different endings. I am slightly curious on what I missed – what I feel is not an insignificant amount of content – but I can’t muster up the desire. It’s a bit of a shrug of the shoulders and a yawn.

I think this game is at odds with itself. It struggles mightily to justify its existence and it never quite manages to convince. If the narrative renaissance is a thing, and not something I simply made up, then Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger will merely be a footnote in the annals, possibly cut for length considerations.


A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Tuplets – Meeple Circus, Spy Tricks, Time’s Up

Some nights I struggle with feeding the machine. Some nights I look at the calendar and spend a whole 10 minutes worrying what I’m going to write about for Monday. Some nights I spend too much time listening to Fun and you get paragraphs like this.

Of course I’ve been playing and writing, playing and writing. I wrote about Western Legends and Shifting Realms just a few days ago. But I’m not quite ready for my next article here, as games need many plays and much time to adequately decipher.

So this is something different. Here we’ll take a curve and chat about some games that have been rattling around in my skull. These aren’t full measured reviews, but a mix of weathered reflection and initial impressions. This isn’t scientific and I’m not a scientific person. I’m just a guy, playing games and hoping Pizzolatto can recapture the majesty of True Detective.

Meeple Circus

It was Gen Con two years ago, which simultaneously feels like a Schrodinger-esque state of 1994 and yesterday. I think that’s what happens when you start getting old – everything feels incredibly distant yet your mind refuses to believe it.

But it was two years ago. Efka and Elaine of No Pun Included tell me of this game. It’s a game about stacking meeples in odd positions Efka says. Cool. Not really, because I don’t care about circuses. They’re bright odorful places of animals and children patrolled by broken souls who gave up on life and became a clown. And there’s that whole animal abuse problem. Take my money, and my dignity.

I suppose they are fun in the abstract sense. I wouldn’t have admitted this before playing Meeple Circus. But here I am.


This is a dexterity game that takes the most mundane aspect of this genre – stacking something atop another – and actually makes it fun and exciting. This occurs because there is a pressure element. The app plays this hilarious yet awful circus tent music and you go to work. You place an acrobat atop a horse, balancing a barrel on its head. The idea is to mimic these goal cards off to the side. Give the crowd what it wants and they’ll praise you. It’s Maximus Decimus Meridius without the blood and subsequent fatherless children.

Yes, it’s wonderful.

Of particular beauty is the final act. You now have a card which requires you do something stupid. Maybe you need to loudly proclaim: “Now presenting…” before you place each piece. Perhaps you need to stop what you’re doing mid-show to eat an imaginary sandwich. These are real things. This game is stupid. It’s also fantastic.

Oh, and that final act – you’re doing the whole thing while the rest of your group watches. They’re verbally spitting in your eye and laughing as your wobbly tower of meeple limbs comes crashing down.

Spy Tricks

Here’s a bit of surprise. I don’t much enjoy taking tricks. Don’t get me wrong, Hearts is fine and all, but I’ve never felt like pulling out a trick taking game when I have dozens of glorious boxes full of narrative and drama.

And along came Spy Tricks.


Wizkids slipped this into a package that arrived a few weeks ago. I tossed it aside because Seal Team Flix was the cure for all my aches.

Well, I recently got Spy Tricks to the table and it thoroughly surprised. This is a trick taking game, but it’s equally focused on deduction.

There’s this simple theme of spies vying for information, which is pretty much irrelevant, but it has us placing a randomized card from the deck out of sight. No one knows what value or which of the three proprietary suits this selection belongs to.

We then deal out the deck and proceed to take those tricks. There are several twists to reckon with.

The goal is to successfully predict which card was hidden. We do this by placing our color coded pawns on a very creased paper mat. There are slots for each of the cards and you can bet on which specific card it is, or simply on which suit or number. Payouts scale based on the difficulty as you’d expect.

What’s interesting is that the winner and loser of each trick place a pawn. This means you can angle for the lowest value card as well as the highest. That simple inclusion is pretty damn fascinating.

Also, as more cards are played they’re placed on that mat. A big picture starts to emerge and predictions formed later in the round have more information to go on.

This is a surprisingly deep game that plays in 30 minutes. You can feint certain numbers, hedge your bets, and manipulate public information by delaying the play of specific cards.

Imagine a hand where you’re dealt the 7 in all three suits. Since you’re a cunning individual, you hold those cards back as long as possible. If you can manage to do so until the final couple of tricks, people may start going all in on some of those values. Suckers, all of ’em.

Spy Tricks is excellent. It feels meaty while still being a joy to play. It’s not as entangling or annoying as Diamonds, and it adds a touch of depth without sacrificing core simplicity.

The components are the weakest element as the cards are tiny and made for small plastic doll hands. At least it’s dirt cheap.

Time’s Up: Title Recall

This is the best party game of all time.

Of all time.

I actually ended this article right there on my first pass. But you want more.

This is one of those all-too-common “get your partner to guess the word” games. So you have a card that says “Hips Don’t Lie” – which is a song by Shakira in case you don’t know.

So you draw this card and must get your teammate to guess it. You can say things like “it’s a song by Shakira” or “it involves your literal sides not telling the truth.” You can do better than this but you get the point.

As soon as your partner guesses correctly you draw a new card and repeat the process. You have 30 seconds to get as many cards as possible.

The magic happens beginning the next round. All of the 40 cards used by the table are shuffled back together. Now we re-do the whole thing but you can only give one word clues. Wait, it gets better.

In the final round all you can do is pantomime. Oh yeah, baby.


What happens is a magical combination. The game continually makes you feel clever for remembering previous clues. It engenders a communal state of improv where people start making physical motions prior to the final round, and then you reincorporate their actions (thus stealing them) later if possible.

This game is great for humiliating people. In a recent play my aunt mimicked child-birth by making some odd motion out of her rear. Despite the fact that’s not anatomically correct, I re-used this pantomime in a later round which resulted in a waterfall of hysterics. More importantly, my team member answered correctly.

Look, I’m a shy dude and don’t like to feel uncomfortable or look stupid. Pull out Time’s Up and I’ll cut a rug or hang from a chandelier. Games are serious business.


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Corrupt Cats – Tiefe Taschen vs. Goodcritters


When I heard Tiefe Taschen was getting a North American release, I literally fist pumped. It was a Tyson-esque thrust into the air that would have knocked a sucker clean out. This is a big deal. Fabian Zimmermann created a spectacular design that deserves wider recognition. It was finally coming.

Then I heard it would be called Goodcritters.

What? Oh, like Goodfellas but with animals. Huh.

There’s no lack of clarity here – that setting twists the nostrils like week-old road kill. Anthropomorphic animals are my version of the zombie, well, unless you’re Cole Wehrle or Brian Jacques in which case keep doing what you’re doing.

The only redeeming quality is that the Boss – Goodcritters‘ version of the President – can attempt a vocal impression of Marlon Brando by way of a weasel. Unfortunately, most people can’t pull that off.

One of the most fantastic aspects of Tiefe Taschen is in how it embraces theme. It goes beyond merely its subject matter and touches on a deeper satirical subtext concerning greed and white collar villainy. The mechanics slowly corrupt the participants and force you down a well of moral bankruptcy that is goddamn poetic.

A cat with a Tommy Gun is the same brand of poetry Vin Diesel crafts on the big screen.

But who cares. It’s just a splatter of ink across cardboard – tell yourself this to reduce the pain. The real swagger is in how it forces above table play swelling with conflict and betrayal. That’s still here, regardless of the appeal to the lowest rungs of the food chain.

That’s not to say there haven’t been changes nor does it mean I don’t have an opinion on said changes. Boy do I have opinions. Buckle up rough riders.


Let’s tackle the worst news first. The largest shift from Tiefe Taschen OG to Tiefe Taschen Furr-y is the softening of repercussions for Presidential failure. When the Boss now cuts the money up and finds their split rejected, they no longer sit out and have to watch everyone else living la vida loca.

That’s great, right? In Tiefe you basically had moments of player elimination mid-game, although that participant would eventually re-enter play 5-10 minutes later. That downtime would be brutal if not for the hilarity of broken promises and unrepetent swindling occuring round to round. If you’re going to be sitting on the sidelines watching TV, you’d hope the show would have some fireworks and drama. Fabian knows how to write and your attention likely isn’t wandering far from the screen.

Still, playing is better than watching. This is a more friendly, widely appealing change that jives with “modern design”. That’s fine, it sounds good and it will likely leave less complainers.

But man, I don’t like it.

As the President is ousted the group shrinks. The collective splitting the cash dwindles – possibly multiple times – and the game presents a shifting dynamic that is wild. That strategic part of your brain wrestles with the emotional corners as the magnitude of betrayal opportunities rise.

Take for instance a common enough game situation: three players remain to split the pot. The President here has a couple of options. They can try to carve up the money evenly, but this is a fool’s errand. Enterprising thugs on the receiving end will realize they can just agree to both vote “no” and then split the take themselves.

The challenge here is that the first player clockwise to vote no would become President. In a two player dynamic the President can give the entirety of the take to themselves. All they have to do is vote “yes” and there’s nothing that other catdog can do about it.

But here your friend convinces you they won’t do that. They’ll split it evenly and you’ll both be happy. Screw President Jen who’s just the third wheel.

Jen sees this coming. Instead of dividing the cash evenly between the trio, she chooses George to receive the largest chunk of skrilla and gives herself just a tad bit less. You see, George is the last in rotation and is the one who could possibly be screwed by Luke in a two player deal.

This depth and balls to the wall confrontation doesn’t occur in Goodcritters. We trade out fascinating political gladiatorial combat for less downtime. These are some of the most wonderful moments and I don’t care about your frowned upon downtime. Suck it up and watch the slaughter unfold ya coward.

That notion of mass appeal keeps rearing its head. It functions as the common theme when running through the changelog and it brings us to our next bullet point. Goodcritters has a lot of cards.

The loot deck is much bigger now. This is because two additional cards are dealt out each round into the haul, as well as more flipping off the deck when a leader’s deal is rejected. There’s loot everywhere. They’re falling out of sleeves, sitting in your lap, they’re jammed into your sneakers.

This flood of cards can feel good. By making it rain, Goodcritters spreads more wealth and more players get a piece of the take. The problem is that it manufactures a state of illusion.

The goal is to end with the most money. If you receive nothing and the leader pulls in $3,000 it’s fundamentally identical to you grabbing $4k and that bozo squirrelling $7k. Either way you’re down by three and needing to crawl your way back in.

Beyond emotional stimulus, the additional mounds of cash obfuscate the math. They make everything a little harder to track and a little more cloudy. This is actually a significant boon and one of the smartest alterations.

The cost here (there’s always a cost) is the general softening of conflict. Tiefe had players splitting less dollars between participants. This means some people naturally get excluded. That’s just mean.

Embrace mean.

The game rides on those emotional waves. It wants you to feel the pain and stab a rabbit over spilt milk. I’m over here sighing just a tad.


There are other changes. The Boss now rotates on a tied vote of confidence but the money is still split. This is fine and keeps that coveted role moving about.

Bribing has also shifted and become more open ended to some degree, although only strictly enforceable in a more narrow band. Again, this is acceptable and not something I’m overly concerned with. Perhaps in my 20th or 30th play of the new version I’ll suss out some of those implications, but as of now they feel lateral as an end user.

Overall, I’m sure you have the picture that I’m a bit of a curmudgeon. I’m still clinging to my cool as hell rare import version with a name people can’t pronounce.

Yet I’m not angry or upset.

All of these changes in direction and shifts in tone result in a game that is more friendly. Even if I want to kick friendly in the teeth, the core is pretty much the same. We’re still bickering and tossing insults while burying knives in each other’s backs.

As a critic, I have to form a wider view than that of simply my own. In this regard, it would be remiss to come down harshly on Goodcritters as it’s serving a greater goal. This deserves a larger audience and the folks at Arcane Wonders are working to make that happen.

But what if you picked up this release and simply want to use those antiquated rules? Yes, it can be done Padawan. The biggest hurdle concerns the loot deck. Trimming it down to a smaller size is easily accomplished. More difficult is in properly placing the end game trigger card.

Tiefe uses a special ruler that you hold up next to the deck and determine the rough position to slide the card into its proper place. Goodcritters went to a new format of dealing out piles of cards and then shuffling it into one of the latter groupings.

One of the blissful elements of this design is that you can absolutely eyeball this. You can place “The Fuzz” wherever you’d like, although this of course requires acumen and experience. For newcomers, you’ll have to just rough it and place it higher in the mix with some guesswork. Failing to do so will result in a much longer experience than you’re prepared for and could possibly lead to an awful first impression.

Regardless of that journey and the obstacles encountered, we should all be overjoyed that this game will finally be back in print. If you’ve never experienced it before, do not let my criticisms deter you. Goodcritters may not have the bite of its predecessor, but it’s still an absolutely wonderful design that yearns for the tabletop.


A review copy of Goodcritters was provided by the publisher.

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Like a Rolling Asteroid – An Empires of the Void II Review

It’s time to fess up: until recently, I had never played a Ryan Laukat release. I know, I can feel your gasp reverberating through my keyboard. I’ve rectified that with both the largely hyped Near and Far and the lesser aggrandized Empires of the Void II. The former is for another day, but let’s take more than a moment to discover the latter together.


There’s a strong sense of story in Laukat’s work as the mechanisms are tightly interwoven with world-building – I know this because I’ve now played two of his games. Empires of the Void II is no stranger to a compelling premise as it has players fleeing an overwhelming invader and settling the far reaches of a war-torn galaxy. It offers a sandbox to adventure in, species to soothe or conquer, and planets to colonize or protect. In many ways it’s an intergalactic litmus test for the dark reaches of your brain matter.

The personality is buoyed by a system that is equal parts a 4x space civ-builder as well as a highly dramatic narrative adventure game. We’ve never seen this before and it’s pretty radical. It worms its way into the cracks between Twilight Imperium 4 and Merchants and Marauders, coming out the other side with its own genetic code.

20180711_192436Once upon a time you dressed so fine, like a crab flying through space and time, didn’t you?

Let’s talk about Laukat’s superb world building. This little slice of the void is known as ‘The Fringe’. Planets are randomly seeded on the board, each tied to a unique species full of flavor and mechanical weight. You can invade these civilizations with a traditional area control model as you fight off the natives and take their soil, or you can provide aid and support through engaging varied events that allow you to increase your political standing with the inhabitants.

The stark contrast between rolling over the occupants with a tank and winning their hearts and minds reverberates strongly. Both paths are legitimate foundations for strategic pursuit, but they afford different outcomes and alternate ways to score victory points. You can perhaps gain the locals as allies, recruiting their units to join your disparate forces and take advantage of their asymmetrical abilities. Or you can of course strip the planet of its resources as any good colonist would.

As the game evolves event cards fire off from a randomized pool. Each planet offers a narrative arc triggered by these cards. Color is injected as maybe your colony is hit with a vicious plague, one you can take and spread to others nearby. Other times pirates will show up and blockade the residents, affording you an opportunity to become their savior. All of these wonderful little bits of story create a sector full of life. As each tidbit pokes its head out of the ground and stares you in the eyes, it’s an opportunity beckoning involvement. The board soon fills with a criss-cross of such activity and the dynamic nature of populations and geo-political considerations arise.

It’s absolutely stellar.


You used to ride on a crystal shard with your diplomat, who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat

Like Near and Far, the best moments are when Grandpa Laukat is standing over the fire, his eyes wide and his voice thundering. As dice and card meet tongue and art, the magic happens and it’s enthralling.

But Empires of the Void II wants to be more than that. Evidenced by the Puerto Rico/Twilight Imperium-style action selection mechanism, this one’s reaching for grandeur. Unfortunately it occasionally stubs its toe and catches its hand in the drawer.

That main system of players choosing action and others following is the first moment of incongruence. It works to facilitate action and keep everyone involved, but it also lacks teeth. The player choosing the action typically receives no benefit besides dictating what everyone will currently do. Because everyone wants to perform a little bit of everything, those other actions will get chosen if you remain a little patient. The end result is a lack of oomph.

But it works well enough, even if I’d like the choice to be more significant. A larger egress is the movement system. This is the great lapse of this work and one which shifts the game in an awkward direction.

The problem is that movement grants a single atomized action. It’s direct and simple, but it provides a stunted incentive structure that restrains agency and fluidity of action. Instead of repositioning your smaller fleets and soldiers about the board, you go to your chunky worldship miniature and push it along a vector in space.

Your worldship is your mobile base, likely containing a stack of troops and possibly some infrastructure to boost your combat prowess. Since movement is limited to a single group, you’re not going to spend time transporting a troop or two with a smaller cruiser. No, you’re going to pick up that honkin’ behemoth and slam it into another planet with force.

This ingrained nature of players mobilizing single vessels feeds the adventure-focused aspects of the design. This worldship becomes your character and an extension of your personality. Those colonists and aliens you’ve scattered about are secondary, and the game shifts from a traditional area control prospect of holding ground to a race of sorts. Turns morph into this high velocity sprint of burning expensive fuel to break atmosphere and head down the well. Make friends or burn it all down, and then repeat the entire process again.

Despite this sort of straight-jacketing of strategic maneuvering, the game still manages to grip the heart. It overcomes that shortcoming by surrounding the adventure game with just enough interesting dials and nobs to fiddle with. This is seen in the civilization aspects such as upgrading your species tech system. The smattering of options and paths to explore on your asymmetrical player board are vital in grabbing attention as well as competing for victory.


You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you

This personalized miniature tech and upgrade system is captivating. You can build bases and academies that you plop down in the backyard of the incorrigible mantis-folk you befriended last turn, opening up additional actions or cards for your to draw. There’s a definite sense of momentum as you work to personalize your people’s developing history and make it your own.

When you break away from focusing on your personalized dashboard of an empire, you’ll hit and engage in those story elements to great satisfaction. Sometimes you’ll fight other players and get your ‘pew-pew’ on. You will see tactical gambits and events occur across multiple plays that provide shock and awe. In that gap between 4x and adventure, Empires of the Void II manages to make its home. It thrives just enough to bring you back to the table. Each play offers new options and vectors for exploration as the proceedings end just before your options begin to diminish or flare out.

Make your choice, commit to strategy, and kick up some dust.

20180711_192411How does it feel? To be on your own, with no direction home, a complete unknown


A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Nyctophobia – A Narrative of the Dark

It’s the third day of Gen Con. This means I’m half-dead, my brain numb from extended wars in the Imperium and ancient Japan, my consciousness slightly adrift as I struggle to remember the resulting peace from a full night’s sleep. 

But it’s the third day of Gen Con – sleep is for the buzzards circling overhead.

So I pull out Nyctophobia.


Heart Rate: 65 BPM

Marcus, my wild-bearded friend who looks one degree separated from an axe murderer, claims the role of axe murderer. He read the rules earlier during some down-time, cackling with glee upon verbiage that’s still unbeknownst to the rest of us. I’m already uncomfortable as the role of teacher is usually my own. 

The board starts out a surfaceless void. It’s full of these concave spaces, yearning for plastic and blood. Our blood most likely because Marcus is the one with the axe and the one the game calls murderer.



I stared into the eyes of the abyss, and they stared back.


Then we put on the blackout glasses. Everything changes. 

It’s disorienting enough to fumble around in darkness, but it’s even worse when you’re wearing dark shades that block out only a majority of the view. The hot lights seemingly miles above create an eerie reflection in the lenses. I can see my own face. It’s like I’m watching myself in the Blair Witch Project, oddly outside my own body. So I close my eyes.

Marcus says he’s setting up the board. I don’t trust him because I’m uncomfortable and out of place. Also, he’s an axe murderer.

It feels as though he’s left us, vulnerable and afraid, as immediate silence intertwines with the seemingly distant cacophony of the hall. Time seems to stretch out. 

Devoid of sight, my brain starts to do funny things. Without meaningful visual feedback to process, my being begins to wander. It feels like an eternity before the board is assembled and we’re ready to go. 

Now we’re in the forest, being hunted. 

Now we’re in Carcosa.


Heart Rate: 70 BPM

Chris takes the first turn. He describes the positioning of his piece with a sharp plastic tree-line to the north and openings along every other vector. He moves a couple of spaces and again describes what he feels. I focus and try to assemble an image in my head, storing it for later as it’s now my turn.

The hunter takes my hand, violently, which causes me to flinch ever so slightly. He places it upon my piece. 

I run my finger along the grooves in the top of the pawn, notches cut in the shape of a cross. I slowly slide my finger down the figure and into the neighboring spaces – careful not to extend too far and cheat. Occasionally I’ll bump a tree I shouldn’t at the corner of a concavity but I do my best to remain in the spirit of the nightmare. This is not hard.

While moving we’re constantly talking. We’re building our own little mental depiction of the board as we’re separated. One of us must find the car – another weirdly shaped double-space piece that’s alien to the touch. This is our goal. While we wander aimlessly bumping into trees and scraping along the edge of the board, the hunter stalks forth. 

It’s the second turn and a picture is starting to develop. I feel like I’ve mapped out my little slice of this fever dream, a nook incredibly small on a board that’s grown infinitely large in my mind. Time and space continue to pull apart and my reality is no longer my reality. 

What the hell is this game?

Then Chris is caught.

The axe murderer squeals in a humorous yet supremely unsettling way. Chris loses one of his two health tokens but counter-attacks the maniac with his rock. Yes, we’re armed with a rock which is a thing in the game. This knocks the lumberjack back, giving Chris just enough space to breath. If he’s found again we lose. 

Run Chris.

Heart Rate: 85 BPM

More terrified than selfish, I push farther into the forest. I then flip my pawn over, burying its cross-like head into the bowels of the earth. I’m hidden which means the murderer can’t murder me. 

Lenny takes his turn, working his way straight south from what we’ve determined is the north west edge of the forest. He’s continually communicating verbally, letting us know what his fingertips collide with so we can expand our imagined maps. 

I make a comment trying to formulate a strategy for next turn. Shit.

I’m no longer hidden. When you talk your piece is flipped upright and the noise token is placed in the space. The axe murderer is coming for me. The edge of my seat is on fire.

Marcus takes his turn. Again, seconds stretch into minutes as my brain is dancing.

“I’m closest to you, Charlie.”

No. Hell no.


Heart Rate: 97 BPM

Then it’s our turn. Chris pushes further north east without incident and hides. He’s smarter than me and doesn’t talk.

I run full speed taking a sprint action and push east. Even so I feel like I’ve covered barely any ground in this godforsaken place.

Then Lenny takes his turn, continuing south. As he describes his little slice of hell I sit there concentrating. My eyes are tightly shut and I’m trying to determine how close he is to my position. Then something magical and terrifying happens.

As a beard barely grazes my left earlobe, an intense growl emerges. I instinctively leap to my right, falling into Chris and nearly landing upon the floor. The axe murderer cackles.

Heart Rate: 112 BPM

What the hell is this game?

It’s two turns later and we’re close. Chris has remained hidden and out of danger. We have no idea where the maniac is. I’ve hit a dead end and hide once again. I don’t talk this time.

Then Lenny discovers the car. He shouts with enthusiasm. I fist pump and yell. Shit. 

But Marcus wasn’t paying attention. He remains quiet. We’re stumbling through Gehenna but he’s sitting in a busy convention hall. He didn’t hear me.

But we found the car. Our hallucination would end soon.

“Chris, I’m four spaces away from you.” Marcus sneers.

If he finds Chris we lose. We call for help this turn and just need to survive the axe murderer’s last charge. So I throw my rock.

I remember the long corridor stretching west-ward from my position. My rock flies down the passage and hits a tree-line, creating noise; noise which the hunter must move towards. 

Marcus groans. It’s over. I let out a gasp as I can’t remember the last time I took a breath.

We open our eyes and look at the board. What felt like hundreds of spaces was only 64. We look at the clock and what felt like an eternal nightmare was only 40 minutes.


I want to play it again, but tomorrow, not now. My body is shaken and my mind ravaged. We feel changed. Not now, but tomorrow.


A review copy was provided by the publisher.

If you enjoy what I’m doing at Player Elimination and want to support my efforts, please consider dropping off a tip at my Ko-Fi.