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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Six Designs of Real-Time Games

Real-time games are one of my favorite genres. Sadly, they’re pretty rare too, with a game of real note only showing up every year or two. In this article, I’m discussing several of the most interesting real-time games, to highlight what each does great (or not). Rather than trying to rank these games, I’ve listed them in order of publication … but if you want to know my favorite real-time game, it’s Galaxy Trucker (2007), hands-down.

Ubongo (2003)

UbongoUbongo isn’t exactly a real-time game by my definition. Instead it’s a game that you win by engaging in a task (the placement of puzzle pieces within a grid) faster than everyone else. However, Ubongo shows off the most important element of real-time gaming: adrenaline.

When I first played Ubongo, I was amazed by how jazzed I felt afterward and by how much I wanted to play again. That’s because it does a good job of making you want to play fast and rewarding you for doing so.

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