Thrills! Spills! Hallucinogenic Venom!
There’s nothing to quite make you question your adherence to the cloying yoke of consumerism like a legion of shelf-toads leering at you. Call it a ‘Shelf of Opportunity’ all you want as it crowds your mental space, but it’s some shameful shit.
It’s been a while since my last full tabletop review and in that time, I’ve been prancing from title to title like a dilettante, working my way through both new arrivals and dusty hopefuls as their intoxicating secretions remind me of the joy of, y’know – actually playing games.
Some of these are undoubtedly worthy of a fuller examination, and that may come in time, but in the interests of wiping the detritus from my mental slate, please enjoy this first entry in a potentially middling series of Toadlicking adventures.
(I refuse to use the phrase ‘backlog’ because its scatological connotation is way too pungent).
Cosmic Frog: World Eaters from Dimension Zero – Devious Weasel Games
Let us commence in a literal fashion then, with titanic amphibians sprawled across the most inviting theme in forever. And that theme is doing a lot of heavy lifting here. It lends a lysergic frisson of countercultural fractal smear to what is already a unique take on area control and collection that sees it positively screaming to be taken down from the shelf. If the experience can’t quite live up to the scintillating premise, then that’s probably because no mere cardboard construct could encompass such majesty.
The push and pull of this one is where it glows with the brightest petroleum rainbow hues – as gullets fill, crowding the oesophagus before being punched asunder and spiralling into distant galaxies – all as the playspace crumbles beneath titanic webbed toes. A deft balance of risk/reward, tactical use of resources and joyful conflict, it nonetheless suffers from a fiddly set-up and a wont to be over almost exactly as soon as things get really interesting.
The shocking disconnect between the eye-shatteringly cool card art and the bland utility of the tiles also proffers a sense of tonal whiplash that a second tab may have sorted out too. Regardless, it shines as it stomps lesser imaginations into the Aith.
Root – Leder Games
Why did it take me so long to get to this one? After both Oath and Pax Pamir left me swooning it was time to reap the Wehrle-wind once more with this tale of woodland warfare. The thought of wrapping my head around the disparate playstyles of asymmetric factions probably stayed my hand more than anything with this one, but I should have realised nothing too daunting could have been embraced with such fervour by the mainstream. And it deserves every inch of sash that has been sewn in its honour.
From a design perspective, Cole Werhle always elicits wonder as to the sheer inventiveness of his interlocking mechanisms. Dude is some kind of wizard when it comes to asymmetry and shifting victory conditions. But unlike many titles whose designs elicit admiration, these ones are also actually fun too. Root offers myriad ways to engage with the game, each of which offer fantastic agency and decision spaces on a turn-by-turn basis, but I found particular joy in balancing the demands of the Eyrie Council. We’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of strategy, but I can see this becoming part of our regular rotation. Good lord this may even be a game where the expansions shed their shrink- a rare accolade in this era of conspicuous plenty.
Nemesis – Awaken Realms
It promised to break the big box Kickstarter curse, but three plays in and I’m done with this one, and most likely done with games of this ilk. I’ve nowhere to store it and its way too big for what it offers. What does it offer? Spectacle. And tension – at least initially. Whilst a fairly masterful, if utterly shameless spin on the ‘Alien’ motif, it stumbles in offering a compelling reason to return. Your first play will be a riot, your second routine, your third rote. The threat control, whilst successful in maintaining a sense of overwhelming clusterfuckery, can often devolve in practice to what feels like busywork, and it tends to overstay its welcome even without the additions nested inside its accompanying raft of extra boxes. The fact that my favourite session with this one was an instance in which my character was eliminated mid-game is pretty telling. I’ve not opened the expansions yet. The minis are pretty.
Space Hulk (3rd Edition) – Games Workshop
Now this is more like it. If you’re after an overproduced sense of claustrophobic tension and xenophobic doom complete with enough plastic to suffocate a Tyranid, then skirt right past Nemesis and into the clawed embrace of this classic. Spoken of in hushed and reverential tones by the old school, this admittedly unwieldy and unbalanced beast is a textbook Amerithrash affair that nonetheless requires some genuine strategic nous on the part of the Marines player in particular.
There’s nothing quite like the feeling of dread that encroaches as your Marines are picked off one-by-one, your remaining Captain sat sweating on overwatch at the end of a dank corridor, whilst legions of Genestealers swarm mercilessly only as his bolter jams. It utilises luck in the most agreeable way to bolster this sense of tension and is light enough that successive snake eyes rarely rankle. The recent passing of designer Richard Halliwell is reason enough to bust this one out in tribute. I refuse to concede that I’m into Warhammer now though. This is Warhammer adjacent. That’s a hill I will die on.
Pax Pamir 2nd Edition – Wehrelig Games
We’re in unabashed masterpiece territory now. I have so many thoughts on this one that it surely would have warranted a 2000-word gush had it not already been dissected by many pens more deft than mine. This is a game that had me committed to imbibing a 500-page historical treatise just to wring the most thematic resonance from its beautifully sculpted bones- and I don’t begrudge it one inch of that investment. Like Sekigahara (which I covered recently) this is a title that oozes an indefinable sense of understated class.
It’s both accessible and oceanic, arriving fully formed yet revealing more of itself with every play until you’re scratching your head in something that approaches awe. It raised the bar for what I expect from the hobby and it comes in a box that actually fits on my bookshelf. Historical, allegorical, and now shorn of the first edition’s baggage, this is a title of rare ambition and grace that both delights in short sessions and demands return visits- as multi-faceted as the Koh-i-Noor itself
Judge Dredd: Helter Skelter – Osprey Games
Back when I was a kid – after an initial blushing dalliance with Archie and EC comics – 2000AD was unquestionably my main jam. Their cynical, parodic take on sci-fi and the sheer artistry displayed by the likes of Slaine, Nemesis the Warlock, D.R. & Quinch and Tharg’s Future Shocks were a welcome gritty antithesis to the spandex-clad banality of the Marvel roster and its ilk.
Those densely inked newsprint pages did a lot to shape and inform my sense of aesthetics during a formative period in my life, and by grafting that theme to the Wildlands system, Osprey games wound up with a hybrid on their hands that managed to be brisk, accessible, and yet tactically satisfying. The art and beautiful pre-shaded minis certainly helped – but it was the tense turn-by-turn asymmetric card play and area control that brought it back to the floor time and time again. Slight perhaps, but sharp.
Forgotten Waters – Plaid Hat Games
This is a ship that definitely left me on the island. It’s barely a game. And yet so many scribes I respect were so effusive in their praise for it that I overlooked my misgivings, blinked as I opened the world’s most generic looking box and dove into these waters with something approaching excitement.
Massively group dependent, this app-driven adventure shines as a prompt for theatrical interaction and banter even as it underwhelms and frustrates with its repetitive paucity of actual gameplay. Roadblocks to progression feel artificial, the core of the gameplay devolves into a series of ‘roll to resolve’ affairs, and the writing, whilst uniformly well executed, is shackled to voice acting that runs the gamut from ‘inspired’ to ‘phoned-in’ with an alarming frequency.
Perhaps it just skews too hard astern from what I’m looking for in a gaming experience these days, but for me -these waters are best left forgotten.
Destinies – Lucky Duck Games
Another app driven adventure with equally slight mechanics, Destinies leans harder into its technological grafting by utilising a succession of QR codes to track the variables of your quest as you work your way through an overland adventure reminiscent of a lither Tainted Grail. It’s too early to call this one, but it definitely helps if you have a group that shines at theatrical baritone and crap English accents.
The scanning of codes, whilst clever, felt cumbersome and I can’t help but feel this trend of trying to shoe-horn a video game experience into the tabletop space is an evolutionary dead end that will wither on the vine. Check back for a full review after we dive into the main campaign.
Blitz Bowl Season 2 – Games Workshop
Blood Bowl light. Fast, fun, frivolous. Like most GW products it practically screams at you to buy more shit – but is in fact a surprisingly fully formed experience. I refuse to concede that I’m into Warhammer now. This is Warhammer adjacent. That’s a hill I will die on.
Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island (2nd Edition) – Z Man Games
If you either love quarterbacking or being quarterbacked then boy do I have a game for you! You better not be thinking of crafting that rope when our settlement is in dire need of pelts. Squabbling ensues. Probably fun solo? Oddly enough we survived our first jaunt to the island. I’m looking forward to the cannibal scenario. More games need cannibalism.
Spirit Island – Fabled Nexus
Like Robinson Crusoe, this is a co-op puzzle of sorts but unlike Robinson Crusoe it offers a sense of individual player agency that makes it a much more compelling proposition. It’s brutal as hell though, which a good co-op game should always be. Each time our island collapses beneath the imperialist blight we are compelled to regroup and redouble our efforts.
The superb anti-colonial theme is a fantastic outlier in a scene swimming with Conquistadors, and the variety of spirits, game modes and difficulties means there’s plenty to go on with here. There is so much to untangle, so many ways to approach the singular puzzle at its core that this feels like several games nestled within the same box and I relish further chances to put the fear into our pale interlopers.
Chaos in the Old World – Fantasy Flight Games
This hallowed title has been on my ‘to do’ list for longer than most. A long-discontinued victim of licensing snafu, I wondered how much of its halo was borne of scarcity and how much of actual gilded light. It arrives in a muscular display of pageantry- triumphant, gaudy and brash, taking time to reveal its nuances. At first Khorne seems nigh-on insurmountable, then Nurgle lurches into prominence, before Tzeentch and Slaneesh show their more devious hands.
Definitely balanced for four players, at lesser counts there are tilted advantages to some factions in the absence of an antithesis to keep them in check. Goofy but surprisingly deep, there is a lot here worthy of further exploration, and it leans into its teenage trappings with aplomb. Heralded for a reason then, but I refuse to concede that I’m into Warhammer now. This is Warhammer adjacent. That’s a hill I will die on.
Brass: Birmingham – Roxley Games
Voted ‘least likely to compel’ for infinity years running, the idea of inhabiting the ruffled sleeves of a Victorian industrialist as protagonist chafed me pretty hard at first.…and continues to do so. Not only is it utterly antithetical to my most fondly cradled ideologies, the white-hot thrill of creating optimal production routes for coal, iron and potted goods doesn’t exactly scream ‘exciting escapism’ to me. I’m all about Dickensian trappings- but I’m much more akin to a laudanum drenched fop or a sooty tearaway liable to push these top-hatted arseholes into a canal than sit fingers tented over a map plotting my mercantile empire. Why can’t there be cannibals or something? Colour me shocked then that I swiftly developed a burning love/hate relationship with this one.
I’m terrible at this game. I borderline hated my first sitting with it, and yet once I had packed away both components and recriminations it wouldn’t leave me alone. I could think of little else until our next session. As I unpicked the mechanics and possibilities it began to beguile. And frustrate. And yet it continued to whisper. It made my head hurt. But it had accomplished something rare. It had inspired me to broaden my horizons. Somehow its exploration of the dourest theme within dourest environs had come to life, demanding that I un-knot its puzzle. It’s not what I’d call fun. Instead it is something headier. A challenge. I’m not there yet but I can see its coal blackened beauty and I am loathe to defy its gauntlet.
Two more games arrived whilst I was writing this. They join (gulp) Imperial Struggle and (good Christ) Paths of Glory atop my teetering inbox. Stripped of the compulsion to dissect them I will be content to wallow in them awhile. In the interim, life beckons.