What Makes a Real Science-Fiction Game?

Ten years ago, I wrote an article called “Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, Part One: A History and Ten Top Games”, which discussed some top science-fiction games. Looking back, it’s shocking how inadequate the science-fiction market was at the time. Two of the “top” games I mentioned, Diceland (2003) and Light Speed (2003) were quite small press. Two others, Blue Moon (2004) and Blue Moon City (2006), trended more toward science fantasy — or even pure fantasy. Mission Red Planet (2005) was the only mainstream game from my list with strong science fiction themes. There were some others of course, with Starfarers of Catan (1999) being the most obvious, but as a whole science-fiction games were pretty scant ten years ago, especially among pure Euros.

Fast forward a decade. I recently spent an evening where I played Star Realms (2014) followed by The Captain is Dead (2014, 2016)A few months ago it was a couple of games of Jump Drive (2017) followed by Galaxy Trucker (2007). There have also been games of Colony (2016), Master of Orion (2016)Roll for the Galaxy (2014), and others. In other words, science fiction games have gotten really big in the eurogame space — in large part due to non-German designers.

Obviously, science-fiction theming gives these games different façades. But a game’s genre should be deeper than that: it should determine the mechanics of the game, and ideally those should be mechanics that wouldn’t be possible in any other genre. So today I ask: what makes a real science-fiction game?

I’m going to take a look at several popular games that I’m familiar with to answer that question. I’ve purposefully avoided licensed offerings, as they obviously have very different reasons for their theming.

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Return to Pathfinder Adventure Card Game II: Skull, Wrath, and Mask

It’s three years later, and I’m still playing Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. With a total of 87 plays (including 39 of the original Rise of the Runelords game), it’s on the verge of surpassing Dominion as my most-played deckbuilder. During those three years, Paizo has also released three new adventure paths for PACG — essentially, three different games using the same core systems. So this week I’m going to look at each of these variants and see how each has changed the deckbuilder genre, for better or for worse — or alternatively how they changed the other major aspects of PACG’s gameplay, which fall into the cooperative gaming and adventure gaming genres. If you’d like to read my previous articles on PACG, take a look at A Deckbuilding Look at Pathfinder Adventure Card Game and Return to Pathfinder Adventure Card Game — The Campaign. Continue reading

A Bagbuilding Look at Automobiles

I long ignored Automobiles (2016) because I thought it was just a variation of the simplistic deckbuilder train game, Trains (2012).

Nope.

I was fooled by AEG’s Trains-Plains-and-Automobiles (“Destination Fun”) branding, which is actually three different games with three different mechanics. Except Automobiles is a bagbuilding game, so it actually is in the same category of gameplay as Trains, and even offers the same mix of relatively simple ***building play with a physical board.

The Game

In Automobiles,you’re racing cars around a track. Each turn, you pull some cubes from the bag, and use those to your benefit. White, gray, and black cubes move you around the track in specific lanes — but they also give you worthless brown wear cubes. Special blue, green, purple, red, and yellow vary their effects from game to game and tend to give you improved movement on the track, improved purchasing power, or the ability to junk those annoying wear cubes.

Each turn you’ll use some of your cubes to buy new cubes and some for their special powers. The ultimate object is to get around the track faster than your opponents.

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New to Me: Spring 2017 — So Much Co-op!

I’ve co-authored a pretty extensive book on the design of cooperative games. (It’s currently seeking a publisher.) As a result, I’m usually quick to suggest a new co-op game hit the table … and a lot of them did this Spring. Sadly, I thought most of them were bad!

in any case, this is my listing of new-to-me games played this Spring. As usual, they’re evaluated by my personal likes, not their intrinsic quality. 

The Very Good

Kingdomino (2016). This Bruno Cathala game is a short and simple filler. You essentially draft domino-tiles, with your draft order based on the quality of your last tile: the better the tile you pick, the later you’ll go in the next draft!

The object is to build your tiles (which depict terrains and victory point multipliers for those terrains) into huge groups to score maximal points.

There’s not a lot of complexity here: you take a tile, your place a tile. Nonetheless, the game is a lot of fun and places very nicely fast. This may be because I always like creative games of this sort. However, there’s also just enough choice to keep the game interesting. It’s a fine little filler. (In fact, it almost made my great listing.) Continue reading

What Makes 10 Great Games Great

I’ve been keeping track of my games played for almost fourteen full years. That means that I have a pretty robust listing of games that have worked well enough to get numerous replays from me over the years. They represent a set of great games, with features that any would-be great game could endeavor to repeat. So this week I’m going to go through my listing of those top games and offer my opinions on either of their best features — the ones that make them so worth playing and replaying. Continue reading

Deck Management is the New Roundel

It’s been over a decade now since Mac Gerdts produced Antike (2005). Its core mechanic was simple but innovative: allow players to take actions for their turns, but place all of those actions in a circle (on a rondel). Then, limit how far a player can advance on the rondel each turn. In Antike, you usually move just 1-3 spaces on the 8-space roundel, but you can spend resources for more advancement.

This limits players how often players can take specific actions. The result is an interesting puzzle of play. How can you successfully combine together several disparate actions to make a winning strategy? Do you streak around the rondel to get to the “good” actions more quickly, or you do slowly edge around to get a little of everything?

A designer can also have a lot of fun with the rondel, choosing whether to put the same action on multiple spaces (such as the duplication of the “maneuver” action in Antike) and choosing how to arrange all of the spaces to maximize efficiency, to maximize player frustration, or toward some other goal.

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A Deckbuilding Look at Valley of the Kings

Valley of the Kings is an older game from AEG that’s one of the smaller deckbuilders, coming in at just 96 cards. Though a lot of its mechanics look familiar, there’s also enough variation to keep things new and interesting.

Valley of the King already has two standalone expansions: Afterlife and Last Rites.

The Game

In Valley of the Kings (2014), the object is to leave behind a great tomb. Much of the basic play is what you’d expect. You play cards for either special actions or for gold, which is used to buy additional cards. However, each turn you can also “entomb” one card: you basically filter it out of play.

The catch in Valley of the Kings is that your entombed cards make up all your points. And, it’s entombed sets of cards that really score. If you entomb a bunch of different cards all in the same set, then you score a bunch of points! Continue reading