Hey readers. You’ll notice this is not a usual Indie Wonderland title.
A combination of happenstance and stellar alignment saw 2/3rds of Ninja Blues’ authorship coexist in the same space last week, as Ranneko’s work sent him to the greater Boston, Massachusetts area (where I currently live). And while you might hope this would be grounds for unprecedented article/video collaboration opportunities, the truth wasn’t quite that: We elected instead to play games, eat bad American foods, and reenact parts of Fallout 4. I had time to play like, half a video game during the week.
That said, one tangentially site-related thing we did do was visit the 2018 Boston Festival of Indie Games, a one-day games convention where independent developers come to showcase, sell, and elicit Kickstarter promises about their latest stuff. I didn’t find any one game I’d currently want to write a feature on, and most of our time was spent in the tabletop/board games at any rate. In lieu of deep dives, I’ll try to convey some short impressions of the games I’ve seen and played; most of these games are currently gearing up for Kickstarters, so there’s not a whole lot to link to, but any links I can find are included.
Regular writing resumes next week.
BostonFIG 2018, In No Particular Order
A very interesting first game for the two of us to walk into, D.N.Abled (by game designed Marcus Lehner) is a ‘dexterity-based card game’ themed around scientists hitting each other with ‘mutation rays’. The gist is simple: Players take it in turns to draw a mutation card off the top of a small deck, then put that card in front of another player. The only rules are that the card you place must be face-up, and it must touch all other cards that player might have. But what complicates this incredibly simple thing is that any cards you might have in front of you all have special rules on them that describe how you’re allowed to play.
So, for instance, maybe you have the Handcuffs card, which says that (during your turn) your wrists must always be touching. Or maybe you have the Subterranean card, which says that your head must touch the table. Or maybe you have the Hooves card, which says that have to stand on your tippy-toes.
Or maybe you have all three!
Deliver a card to another player correctly, and it’s now their turn; players can only give cards to players that are tied for least, keeping the game somewhat fair. Fail to deliver the card correctly (it lands face-down, or not touching other cards) and you’re out. Last person standing wins. It’s as simple as it sounds, and as fun as it looks, both for children and for adults who never quite grew up. Or as a potentially high-stakes drinking game. Any board game collection could use a low-stakes party game like this, so I’m going to keep an eye out for this one.
Visitor In Blackwood Grove
Publisher Resonym‘s Visitor In Blackwood Grove is a rare example for this list of a game that’s actually already out. You can buy it at Target (thanks for that heads-up, table attendant!). It’s basically Unlicensed E.T The Board Game (not to be confused).
The gist is this: An alien visitor has crash-landed in Blackwood Grove, and erected a force field around their ship. One local kid has been in short contact with the alien, and wants to get through the force field help them repair their ship. However, up to four government institutions have also learned of the crash, and their intentions are… let’s say less wholesome. All of these roles are filled by players (one alien, one kid, and between one and four agencies). The game comes with a deck of cards depicting objects, animals, and concepts: Cards we saw included ‘mouse’, ‘window’, mountain’, ‘foam hand’, ‘match’, and ‘painting’, among others. The alien player makes up a classifying rule for which cards are Allowed Through the force field, and which cards Stay Out. The agency players and the kid then take turns offering cards from their hand to the alien, who tells them whether or not that card passes. Each player builds up their own model of what the alien’s Pass Rule is, and at any time during their turn they can forego offering a card to try and guess the rule instead: The alien deals four random cards and marks behind their secret screen which of those cards would pass, then the guessing player makes their guess, and if they’re right…
I had quite a good time with Visitor In Blackwood Grove. Partially because it’s an interesting asymmetrical experience: Playing as the government officials is way different from playing as the kid, while the alien has a role not unlike a Mysterium or Mastermind operator. The government officials have functionally unlimited cards, and they build up secret stocks of information, while the alien’s and the kid’s cards are in the open and limited. But as the kid builds more trust, they gain some special powers that slowly swings the balance in their favor… unless the government officials use what they learn from spying on them to win first. Partially because of the cute art design and physicality of the play experience. And partially because I could immediately see how well it scales: The alien player can make up simple pass rules when playing with kids, complicated rules when playing with adults, in-group joke rules when playing with friends, and so on. It’s simple to teach, fun to play, and at $20 in a small box, I might actually consider making a stop at Target some time soon.
BeRrY (capitalization non-optional) is a small game built on Move38 Inc‘s Blinks board game system, an Arduino-powered play system of magnetic hexagons. BeRrY then isn’t a standalone game, but a demonstration of the sort of thing you can do with these things.
BeRrY itself was neat enough: Two players alternate detaching one hexagon from the pack of six (picking only those that aren’t boxed in by others) and attaching it somewhere else. If the played hexagon attaches to one or two others, those hexagons shift colour: Pressing the hex rotates its colour from red to yellow to blue (to red again). If the played hexagon attaches to 3 or more hexes, all those hexes and the one that was just played rotate colours. The player who played this hex then gains points for making particular shapes out of one colour: One point for a small shape, two points for a medium, three points for a large. First to ten points wins, or alternatively, the player who manages to make all six pieces the same color simultaneously wins outright.
If recreating BeRrY with your own Blinks magnet-hexes sounds like a fun time, or if you’d love to make your own games with them, a hundred bucks will get you a six-pack of your own.
Sprites: Battle Arena, by Stephen Terenzi and Henry Serafim, is a 2-4 player free-for-all card battle game set in a colourful alternate reality world where energy spirits called Sprites are used to power hard-light constructs and other amazing technology. Humans being humans, they of course decided that the best use for this technology was to create fancy glowing weapons and armor and then beat on each other in an arena. But don’t worry, it doesn’t get as bad as you think. Fights are explicitly not dangerous: Players instead accumulate ‘fans’ by performing cool attacks or successfully defending themselves, and the first player to fully form two ‘fan clubs’ wins the game.
Sprites packs some interesting ideas (in its current iteration, which the developers emphasized was very much in flux and non-final — Ranneko and I spent some time after our game talking game design with them). The landscape of cards is constantly changing, as players draw Sprite cards and equip those to attack or defense positions: The short of it is that attacking is fueled by Sprites, defending and losing might cost you your Sprites, and Sprite cards can become twice as powerful on the first turn of use (if played in accordance with some colour rules), but then afterwards can’t gain that power boost gain, making it economical to swap them out. Special ‘wand’ cards are also hidden in the deck, and whenever players draw these they immediately discard them to the arena floor, where any player can pick them up on their turn. And where many free-for-all battle games can struggle with issues of ‘fairness’ or kingmaking when played with more than two, Sprites actively revels in the chaos. Players can help out each other’s attacks or defense, either to knock a dangerous opponent down to size (losing a battle can cost you your most recent fans) or to gain rewards of their own (helping the victorious side can get you some fans of your own). It makes for an interestingly chaotic experience, which you’ll like more or less depending on how much you care about predictability, consistent tactics, and not having your close victory overturned because you drew a zero-cheer card and then the other guy drew a two.
At time of writing Sprites is still very much in development, so (as far as I know) there aren’t any concrete publishing or Kickstarting plans I can point you to. But if you’re the kind of person who visits indie-friendly board game cons (most notably the upcoming Pax Unplugged), you might run into Henry and Stephen demoing their latest build. And if you do, tell them we said hello.
Tidbit Games’Crumbs is probably the biggest the largest disagreement you’ll find written up in this article. I thought it was reasonably okay, if a little longer-lasting than it should and in need of some balancing passes. Ranneko was about ready to chew his own arm off 45 minutes into our 1-hour-lasting demo game.
The Boston FIG audience at large awarded it the Best in Show Figgie Award.
In Crumbs, players take on the role of one of four groups of common park animals: Ducks, squirrels, pigeons, and chipmunks. For a certain definition of ‘common’, yes. Players place and move pawns around in sections of one of the two double-sided park boards, and ‘scuffle’ and chase each other out in an adorable version of territory control. At the end of every round, the player who went first (the player who had the most crumbs in their tally) grabs the two-dozen-or-so small wooden cubes representing the titular crumbs, holds them over the center of the board, and drops them: Crumbs scatter on the board (and if the fence does its job, only the board), and for each section, the animal group that holds that section claims them. Play rotates until at least one player crosses the 50-crumb threshold, at which point most crumbs wins.
That’s the basic idea, anyway. Crumbs is surprisingly feature-rich when you dive into it, almost a little top-heavy. For instance, players don’t ‘just’ score the amount of crumbs that land in their spaces, but multiply that by a certain number: For some sections that number is printed on the board, while for others it’s indicated by six-sided ‘feeder dice’, which range from 0-3 and which get re-rolled somewhat frequently. Each player draws a newspaper card at the start of their turn, with a range of game effect (including re-rolling the aforementioned dice). Scuffles are determined by combining the number of miniatures in the space with a roll on a different six-sided die ranging 1-3, with losers being sent back to the neutral ‘fountain’ space. Players don’t just take a set number of actions, but actually pay from their bank of crumbs: Two crumbs to move more than once, five crumbs to spawn a new miniature… There’s a big and heavy ‘dog’ mini, which reduces the multiplier in the area it’s in to 0: Players can either pay a lot of crumbs to ‘place’ it, or less to ‘drop’ it — yes, that means what you think it does. And if a falling dog moves other minis around, any new scuffle situations are resolved as such.
Finally, the four factions have different special abilities too. Pigeons are plentiful and cheap, and they can easily travel to and retreat to spaces with other pigeons in them, making them hard to pin down. Ducks are the only critters that can claim crumbs that landed on water spaces, and they can blitz-attack and claim ponds for their own. Chipmunks are great defenders, and they can slowly build a hoard of stashed crumbs, increasing their score multiplier over time. And squirrels are sneaky agents of chaos, able to coexist with the other animals (whether they want to or not) and nab a solitary crumb every time crumbs are scored… until such time that they suddenly burst forth in a buck-toothed rampage.
I actually enjoyed playing Crumbs (despite losing to Ranneko’s chipmunks), but I can’t deny the current working build has some pacing and gamefeel issues. For one, our four-player game lasted an hour, and the other four-player game at the table started at the same time as us and was still going when we wrapped up. That’s a long time to stay engaged with a relatively simple set of mechanics. Part of the problem here is that you pay for advanced actions with the same crumbs that win you the game, particularly buying new pawns and engaging the dog — and if other players start doing this, you have to keep up. But particularly for the pigeons and chipmunks, more pawns don’t really open up new types of strategy, they just make the numbers go up. Some abilities, mechanics, and cards feel a little imbalanced: The chipmunks in particular can increase their defense power, making them almost impossible to dislodge by any non-squirrel player, because attackers can only move three units into a space at a time. Perhaps most damningly of all, the ‘scuffle’ combat is just… not engaging. Because the dice players roll are capped at 3, there’s not a lot of room for wild swings — which is the right choice for a game where most players have nine meeples and they can only move three at a time, but all the same it doesn’t excite. The dice land with a heavy thud, and — oh look, you rolled a 3, we have the same number of units and attackers win ties, so there’s literally no way I can win. There’s no attrition either: All the loser’s units and none of the winner’s units are kicked to the fountain.
And, of course, there’s the inherent randomness of dropping wooden cubes from a high distance to determine scoring. I’m sure a game where all cubes decide to bounce into a 3-multiplier area is over a lot quicker than ours. I haven’t seen it happen but I’m sure it’s possible.
Crumbs is due to make its way to Kickstarter any day now. If you like cute animal fights and you don’t mind a little randomness, consider keeping an eye out.
Surprising Ranneko and I both by not winning any Figgie Awards was That’s Wizard, a two-player card game by Matthew Sorentino and Jamie Noble-Frier about magical duels. I’d describe it as one part deck construction to about three parts tactical card play. Before each match, players construct a ‘deck’ of seven spell cards from several dozen options. Spells belong to schools and have levels, and the only restriction is this: If you want to include a Level X spell from School Y, you also need to include at least one Level X-1 spell from that school. Beyond that, go nuts. But if deck construction isn’t your thing (at all or at the moment), the game also comes with a number of fantasy wizard archetype spell lists, such as the Boy Wizard or the Dark Lord, complete with beginner-level tactics for that deck.
Matches against other players flow in a best-of-X format. At the start of each match, you secretly select two of your spells that will not be in your deck that match; those spells are replaced with the standard spells Focus and Counterspell, which all wizards always have. Players then play in simultaneous rounds: Both place a card facedown, then reveal them at the same time. Players also use a small dial to indicate the spell’s Power cost, also placed facedown. This is important for two reasons: One, most spells have a variable power cost (ranging between three or four options), with higher Power expenditure boosting the effects — but wizards aren’t made of magical power, starting out with only 10. And two, cheaper spells go off first. You can imagine that that matters in a dueling game.
Play keeps going until either one wizard is dropped to 0 Stamina or below, or one wizard manages to get off a ‘victory’ spell — like the Boy Wizard’s Disarm spell, which wins them the match if used against a target with 8 or lower Stamina. If that gets that player enough round victories to win the best-of-X, good for them; if not, players reassemble their whole deck, again pick two spells to drop in secret, reset their Power and Stamina meters, and go again.
Despite having played it only once, That’s Wizard looked very promising to me. It seemed to have a good balance between interesting complexity (a wide range of spells to choose from) and manageable complexity (your opponent only has seven spells during your whole extended match). I could see myself play this game over and over with the same people, gradually adapting to each other’s strategies and learning to counter, the same way I did with Star Realms. Especially if That’s Wizard decides to go a similar asynchronous app route, which the gameplay seems super well suited for. Matthew, Jamie, if you end up reading this — that idea’s on the house. Star Realms grew to have a dozen expansions and tournaments and whatnot, and I’d love to see That’s Wizard go the same route.
I can’t really find any supplementary material about Bardle, a game that I might have thought I hallucinated if it weren’t for the photographic evidence. See?
Bardle is best described, but also worst described, as ‘Cards Against Humanity, but about poetry’. Each round, the leading player takes one of the supplied poems and reads it; a whole-ass poem, some up to fifty lines. The other players each have a hand of ‘theme’ cards: They pick the one they want to talk about with regard to this poem, then play it. Players also each have a hand on ‘constraint’ cards, which they then play on other players, restricting them to talking about certain things: Examples I saw were ‘the use of cliche’, ‘juxtaposition’, and ‘time’. Players each talk for one minute about their chosen theme, and then the judging player picks a winner — you see where the Cards Against Humanity comparison comes from.
The audience for this game is probably so niche as to be two-dimensional, but if you’re in it, there’s a good chance you’ve already stopped reading and are now trying to find out more about this game. Shine on, you crazy diamond.
Last, but definitely not least, Dragoon was at BostonFIG not just as a finished product, but as a finished product with a recently Kickstarted expansion. It’s a game in which players take on the role of dragons who hunt down procedurally-generated villages on a square map, either to subjugate them and force them to pay incremental tribute over time or to destroy and loot them for an immediate finite payout. Game ends when at least one of the 2-4 dragons gains over 50 gold, and most gold wins. As dragons would.
Ranneko and I played two games of Dragoon. The first game highlighted the interesting design decisions and mechanics that went into Dragoon, particularly when played as a two-player game (since that’s how we did it). Three villages are generated each turn by rolling two dice, with re-rolled villages upgrading into cities. Then each dragon takes three actions, starting with the dragon with the lowest score. Moving a tile takes one action, as does either claiming or destroying a village. Dragons can also try to steal from each other, or from a communal ‘Thief’s Chest’ that can accumulate over time. Running into each other causes a simple dice fight, with the winner stealing three gold from the loser and the loser being sent to their lair. And then there are the cards: Each player starts the game with two cards, draws one at the start of their turn, and can use their actions to either discard/redraw or just draw outright (which is pricey). Cards cost no actions to play and can have wide-ranging effects: Maybe your dragon can move several spaces for free, or destroy or claim a village they’re not on, or enter a ‘rampage’ mode where they destroy all villages they walk over. Finally, after all players took their turns, each player with claimed villages rolls a six-sided die to determine how much income they get: ‘a lot’ (6), ‘a little’ (3-5), ‘nothing’ (2), or ‘you actually lose one of your claims’ (1).
The relatively simple set of mechanics makes for an interesting dueling game wherein all players are constantly hyper-vigilant about each other’s capabilities or actions. If I go there, I can do this and this… but then it would take me at least two turns to get over there, which gives them free reign to… The cards throw a necessary component of randomness into the mix, and while it can be frustrating to lose a good plan to your opponent suddenly teleporting back home, Dragoon would be too slow-paced and predictable without them.
It was a good first game, one that I snuck out a close victory on the back of some valuable dice rolls. It was fun to play and fun to succeed and fail at, and moving around big dragon pieces across big lairs on a fancy cloth map had a good tactility to it. Especially since we were playing the ridiculous Gold Edition, which replaces the plastic miniatures with zinc ones with metal coating. Including one set of minis coated in 19-carat gold.
The second game highlighted Dragoon‘s key weakness: Because the base mechanics make for a fairly slow game, the dice rolls and card draws can have a major influence in how things played out. Both were heavily in my favor the second game, catapulting me to an early lead through a series of good tribute dice rolls (max gold three turns in a row) while saddling Ranneko with functionally-useless cards. By the time I had seven claimed villages (including two towns) it was clear I was probably only a few turns, though Ranneko might have been able to stop me with the right combination of cards — and then I drew the card that let me bypass the randomness of gold generation for a turn. And that was that. I still had fun in the second game, but there was no denying that fate just handed me an easy victory.
Dragoon is a hard sell, but also an easy one. It gets the feel of ‘dragon’ right, flying around the map collecting gold and burning all the thatched roof cottages. The slow movement can be clunky, but also add a layer of tactical consideration to the game, leading to choices you might not expect: If a village spawns in your corner of the map, away from everyone else, you could go get it… but that takes three actions and puts you so far away from everyone else. And you happen to have this ‘burn a nearby village for free’ card… It’s a fairly luxurious game to boot: Even the basic edition has a cloth map and cloth carrying back, which doubles as a score tracker. And it all fits very well in a small box with a good insert. It is really expensive, though, and heavily reliant on dice and card luck, which isn’t everyone’s bag. And obviously only get the Gold Edition if you’re an actual dragon.
There were way too many games at BostonFIG to play through in the limited time we had — I haven’t even touched on the second con floor yet, which showcased all the digital products. I kept the actual writing here to the games I actually played, but by way of closing and in no particular order, have some mood shots of the other games I watched and saw…
Jarenth is kind of looking forward to going next year, if he’s still in town around that time. Suggest other indie game cons on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?