Chess, Draughts, Cribbage, Bridge, Go and many other traditional games are completely abstract in nature. Yes, sure, there is a theme in Chess. There are two fighting armies facing each other in the battlefield, and it makes sense for the peasants, i.e. the pawns, forming the biggest part of the army and being the most dispensable – but it pretty tenuous when it comes to how these pieces move. Draughts, on the other hand, is a completely abstract game of course. Many traditional games have great depth and complexity, showing that there is no need for a theme in a good game. So let’s explore this some more.
|Release Date: 2012||Players: 2-5|
|Designer: Jens Drögemüller, Helge Ostertag||Length: 60-150 minutes|
|Artist: Dennis Lohausen||Age: 12+|
|Publisher: Z-Man Games||Complexity: 4.0 / 5|
As witches fly overhead, giants stomp around the wastelands, swarmlings huddle in swamps, chaos magicians cause, well, chaos, halflings burrow the plains and engineers build their bridges from their mountains, you roll up your carpet and prepare to continue through the desert in your nomad way. As you consider the scene in front of you, something nags you. Engineers building bridges from mountains – that doesn’t sit right somehow. Yet, that’s not all. Suddenly the desert in front of you terraforms into a wasteland. Deserts aren’t much of a laugh and wastelands don’t seem much different, but terraforming in this fantasy setting seems completely out of place. You half expect a spaceship to land in front of you, when instead a giant places a dwelling in the newly created space. Not only that, they then proceed to convert the dwelling into a trading house. It is not clear what giants have to trade, but you consider it for a moment, before you decide to send one of your priests to advance on the cult track for air – because after all, everyone needs air to live. A moment later you realize that you’re in a giant game of Terra Mystica by Z-Man Games.
I think for many in the hobby, playing games is about having fun with other people – and that is no more so true when it comes to enjoying a game with the family. I absolutely love spending an evening solving crimes or building the best bird reserve there is, instead of sitting in front of the TV. It’s great to play a quick mint tin game while we wait for our food in the pub on a family day out. There are many opportunities to play games with the family, and the games don’t necessarily need to be family games.
|Release Date: 2018||Players: 1-5|
|Designer: Przemysław Rymer, Ignacy Trzewiczek, Jakub Łapot||Length: 120-300 minutes|
|Artist: Aga Jakimiec, Ewa Kostorz, Rafał Szyma||Age: 16+|
|Publisher: Portal Games||Complexity: 2.5 / 5|
The rain is relentless, pouring down in heavy sheets, making the city outside your office window appear like it is behind net curtains. The James River appears to be bubbling, but you haven’t noticed any of it. You have spent the last few hours staring at your computer, checking various databases and cross-referencing intel. You drank at least six coffees, yet you’re no further. Welcome to Detective by Portal Games where you’re an officer in the recently created special unit of Antares. Your task is to solve curious cold cases, following up leads and doing other detective work, all against a mercilessly ticking clock.
If you fancy yourself as a police detective, then try the amazing Portal Games game Detective. In this video I show what comes in the box.
There are no spoilers in this video, in the sense of that I only show you what you would see when you open the box yourself and have a good rummage around. I don’t open case files or show you any case details, so you’re safe. Read more
|Release Date: 2017||Players: 1-2|
|Designer: Alex Bardy||Length: 15-30 minutes|
|Artist: Alex Bardy||Age: 8+|
|Publisher: Alex Bardy||Complexity: 2.0 / 5|
I haven’t yet reviewed any pure print-and-play (PnP) games, but Alex Bardy contacted me via Twitter and sent me a complimentary copy of Minty’s Bootiful Football Game. I decided to try it and wasn’t disappointed. As the name suggests, it is a mint tin game all about football. Now, I love mint tin games, in case you hadn’t noticed, but football isn’t really my cup of tea. Yet, when I played this game, I actually really enjoyed it and did get the feeling of taking part in a real football match – but let’s start at the beginning. Read more
For many of us it is easy to forget how we started with tabletop games. We have now played so many different games and followed the industry for some time that we forget the games we used to play and love. Of course, we have stopped playing some of these early games for good reasons. Our tastes will have changed and as we discovered more games we realized what it is that we enjoy more than the games we started with. However, that doesn’t mean our early games are bad games. In fact, it will be these games that are great for introducing new people into the community. Read more
|Release Date: 2017||Players: 1-4|
|Designer: Juma Al-JouJou||Length: 30-120 minutes|
|Artist: Klemens Franz||Age: 12+|
|Publisher: Karma Games||Complexity: 3.4 / 5|
Economic simulation games set in 19th century Scotland are few and far between, but Clans of Caledonia by Karma Games is one of those rare games. Your role is to expand your influence in the Highlands, cut wood or mine ore for income, plant the land with wheat, as well as herd cows and sheep. You build factories that turn your milk and grain harvest into delicious cheese, bread and, of course, whiskey, all of which you will export and trade for imported sugar cane, cotton and tabacco. It is very much what you would expect from any other economic simulation game of the same ilk, yet Clans of Caledonia is exceptional because the theme and mechanisms fit like glove and hand, making for a really smooth gameplay. Read more
The more modern tabletop games I play, the more I realize how stories are at the core of each and every one of them. I accept that there are abstract games all about mechanisms, strategy and making the most effective moves, but even these games have a story to them, even if it’s not at the fore. After all, stories are an intrinsic part of our culture, and storytelling has been around for such a long time, that nobody knows when it began. Read more
|Release Date: 2013||Players: 1-4|
|Designer: Robert Auerochs||Length: 60-120 minutes|
|Artist: Klemens Franz||Age: 12+|
|Publisher: Lookout Spiele||Complexity: 3.0 / 5|
Here is another review of a game that is quite a few years old. Bremerhaven by Lookout Spiele is from 2013, so over five years old, but it is probably the only game with a secret bidding mechanism that really works, and lots of player interaction without making you feel helpless if the other players gang up on you. There is also a huge time element in the game, that keeps you on your toes. To top it all off, the game also has a really fun theme, beautiful illustrations and a really tense gameplay. As you can see, I really like the game, so let me explain a bit more. Read more
|Release Date: 2016||Players: 1-5|
|Designer: Jamey Stegmaier||Length: 90-150 minutes|
|Artist: Jakub Różalski||Age: 14+|
|Publisher: Stonemaier Games||Complexity: 3.5 / 5|
I know, Scythe by Stonemaier Games has been out since 2016 and has had a couple of expansions released as well, including promo packs with additional encounter cards. So chances are you have already heard plenty of reviews about this game and maybe own it yourself, but I still felt it’s worth reviewing, because I am sometimes surprised by how many people still don’t know Scythe. Read more
|Release Date: 2015||Players: 2-4|
|Designer: Thomas Spitzer||Length: 60-90 minutes|
|Artist: Johannes Sich||Age: 12+|
|Publisher: Quined Games||Complexity: 3.0 / 5|
Haspelknecht: The Story of Early Coal Mining, to give it its full title, is a kind of action selection game by Quined Games set in the Ruhr region of Germany. The game is set at a time when the area was still covered by forests and coal was first discovered close to the surface. During the game your task is to dig up that coal until its depleted and you have to start digging deep pits to get to this precious resource. The great mechanism in this game is the action selection element, where you draw all tokens of one colour from one of a number of common pools at the start of each round. These tokens are then used to activate your workforce and develop new technologies. It sounds simple, but it creates a really complex, interesting game with lots of options and very few player interaction. Read more
In my view, the tabletop games community is generally a friendly, welcoming group of people. We seem to know that we are all human beings, and each of us has different skills, experiences, backgrounds, challenges and attitudes. We do our best to ignore stereotypes and prejudices and try to allow anyone join in the fun of escaping to another world, solving difficult puzzles or do whatever constitutes playing a game. Of course, our community isn’t perfect, but I would say the trend is in the right direction. The same is true for modern games, and many designers and publishers are clearly doing what they can to allow more people to join in the fun. There is still more work to be done of course, but again the trend seems to be in the right direction. Read more
Prompted by my recent review of Lincoln by PSC Games and Worthington Games, I wanted to discuss the topic of war as a theme in modern tabletop games. Depending on whether a game uses a real historic event as its backdrop, or creates a much more abstract scenario, people will react differently. Tackling the American Civil War, as Lincoln does, is very different to using a sci-fi setting with space ships. Many people simply don’t feel comfortable with games set in a dark time of history, while others don’t mind if the game recognizes what has happened and respects the terrible nature of the events from the past. Read more
Ever so often something new hits the tabletop game industry and when this happens, it is always hard to say if it is just a flash in the pan or a new breakthrough that will turn out to be a game changer. However, I will stick my head out and make a prediction – and be happy to swallow my hat, if I turn out to be wrong. Read more
Prompted by the recent announcement of Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig, I thought I would look at co-productions in the games industry as a whole. So, in case you don’t know, Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig is a collaboration between Bézier Games and Stonemaier Games. Designed by Ben Rosset and Matthew O’Malley, with artwork from Agnieszka Dabrowiecka, Laura Bevon and Barlomiej Kordowski, this game is an amalgamation of Between Two Cities and Castles of Mad King Ludwig. Read more
In my view, themes very often make or break a game. Even a game with the most amazing gameplay will be broken by a badly chosen theme. Of course, different people will like different themes. However, irrespective of what people like, blending theme and gameplay is vital to a game’s success – and here is why.
First of all, a good theme makes a game much more accessible. Abstract games like Chess and Go have very little theme at all, and for many people that makes them very hard to learn. Clans of Caledonia’s theme on the other hand makes decision taking feel very natural, because it is very clear what consequences each decision has. Terra Mystica’s theme on the other hand goes against the gameplay, and the game would be better as an abstract strategy game with only a minimal theme.
Secondly, a theme changes how entertaining and enjoyable a game is. Fluxx for example applies the same basic gameplay to different themes. The original Fluxx is great fun, but when you play Oz Fluxx or Pirate Fluxx, it feels like you are playing a completely different game that is more fun to play.
To further strengthen the power of a theme, it needs to be applied to the artwork and design of the game. Scythe’s miniatures for example really add to the theme and take you deeper into the game’s world. Realistic resources are another example, but whatever you do, it is important it doesn’t feel gimmicky.
So how important is theme for your game enjoyment? Do you have a favourite theme? What games do you think benefit from a good theme? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below and get the conversation going.