Cardboard Children – Hardcore Shopping

Hello youse.

Today I want to give you some suggestions for Christmas board game gifts for the more hardcore members of your family. By “hardcore” I mean “hardcore geek”. It’s not a sexual thing. A board game would be a terrible gift for a sexually liberated person. It’d be like saying “I thought you might, I dunno… play some board games instead?” I’m not saying that sexually liberated people don’t play board games, by the way. They do! Board games are hugely sexual. Eyes meeting over a table, hands touching hands, feet brushing feet. Damn. Give me a second here.


So, you have this friend or relative or sexual partner and they are into some seriously heavy weird shit. Maybe you walked in on them some night and they were painting a tiny miniature elf. Maybe you’ve seen them spend weeks cutting foam and sewing lycra so they can pose in costume for creepy people’s cameras at comic conventions. Maybe.

Well, you can’t buy Settlers of Catan for that person. They’re going to have that, or at least know about it, and it’s going to be CHILD’S PLAY to that person. No, you have to go deeper and weirder. You need to impress them with a hardcore, heavy nerd GEEKOPACOPALYPSE of a gift. And that brings us straight down the throat of –


What can you possibly say about High Frontier? I touched upon it in places in the past (as in the weirdest column I ever wrote) but I’ve never really told you how great it is in plain language. It’s a game about space travel and it’s a beautiful, breathtakingly intelligent design. The prospect of learning how to play this game will terrify you. Phil Eklund, the designer, always seems to treat game design as an art form and speaks to you about some big ideas through his mechanics. In the game you have to manage a personal economy, send rockets into space, work out how to manage the space trajectories or whatever and the fuel burn and the thingies – it’s hard to even explain, never mind play. The game isn’t impossible to learn, but it is DAUNTING. The rule book is a good one, but hard to digest. The board looks gorgeous, but incredibly cryptic. I mean LOOK AT IT.

A normal person would run a mile from it. But a hardcore geek in your life? They will LOVE this game.

Please buy it for someone. Get someone into it. I have no-one to play it with.



This game is really something. Your hardcore geek person will probably have played Magic: The Gathering. I mean, who hasn’t, right? RIGHT? Well, what if you told this hardcore geek person that Mage Wars was like a Magic: The Gathering that lets you use all your cards right from the start of the game. Seriously. Each player has a card binder full of cards, a spell book, and can cast any of them from the get go, pretty much. It’s a game about duelling wizards (sorry, MAGES), you play it on a big board, and it’s just a high-action slammin’ jammin’ rammin’ card-crammin’ bit of (I’m all out of things that rhyme with “slammin”) magic.

BANG! You summon some bats.

BLAST! Your opponent fires a big fireball at them.

SKRUNKKKKK! You create a wall of ice.

KADOOOOM! Dunno what that noise is.

There are lots of new expansions too. New wizards (sorry, MAGES) and spell binders and so on and so forth. And there is just so much cool shit in the box, and that’s always good. Geeks love opening boxes full of cool shit that will just be burned in an incinerator when they die. You can read former RPSer Quinns talking about Mage Wars on his cool as shit board game site, by the way, so do that.


It’s still great. New cards rolling out. Growing. Being brilliant. A game of hackers and corporate bad guys. The hackers poking at the corporations’ cards, the corporations trapping the hell out of the hackers’ decks. Bluff, counter-bluff, hand management. Brilliant.

There’s a chance your hardcore geek might already have Netrunner. But I’m a little bit surprised at how slow people have been to pick it up. I mean, I KNOW it is selling like crazy, but I know a fair few Magic players and GEEKS IN GENERAL who just haven’t taken the plunge yet. Take the plunge for them. Buy them Netrunner and watch their wee eyes light up when they realise how much gameplay you can pull out of a couple of decks of cards.


I covered this a couple of years ago.

It’s been expanded since, and the expansion is great (though not essential). This is one of the greatest board games EVER designed. This is a MASTERPIECE. It can be played solo too, so you’re giving a gift that will definitely be played by your geek friend or lover. I can’t recommend this one enough.


Look, I’m going to put this game on every recommendation list I ever make. It’s not even a hardcore, complex game. I’m just putting it here because it’s the COOLEST. This is probably Top Five Of All Time material for me. Cut-throat, nasty, brilliant. Different every time you play. The recent expansion brings the player count up to 6, and adds some amazing new cards into the mix. And in this game, amazing new cards mean amazing new ways to make your opponents want to punch you square in the jaw. It’s also INEXPENSIVE, unlike most board games. Just BUY IT. In fact, buy this one for yourself. READ ALL ABOUT IT.

And finally (running out of space)


Buy this for your favourite geek before it vanishes, possibly forever. Earth Reborn is a scenario-based miniatures skirmish game. It features a board that you build out of Tetris-style pieces, allowing for different map set-ups. It features some brilliant combat mechanics, and a ridiculously deep and elegant orders system. It’s a game that allows you to interrupt your opponent’s actions with prepared actions of your own. It also has a multitude of rules I would file under “cool rules”, allowing you to search rooms, fuck around with equipment, scramble radio transmissions to mess up your opponent’s orders…

Why did this game not take off in a big way?

It’s a brilliant design, and a beautiful production. It’s deep, pretty complex, but teaches players how to play through a succession of tutorial scenarios.

I think the game might just be TOO good. And now it’s kinda sorta forgotten, despite being the ultimate geek miniature fighty storytelling scenario-based battle HEAVEN GAME OF GEEK PARADISE.

This is your final warning. Grab the final copies. Don’t say your auld da didn’t tell you.



  1. jingies says:

    I wish someone would buy me High Frontier, the design of the map board looks wonderful. Think it’s quite out of print though.

    • paralipsis says:

      Yes. For all intents and purposes, High Frontier is currently out of print. The game’s creator mentioned a few weeks ago how many copies he estimated are currently for sale anywhere in the world, and I think that number was somewhere around 20.

      Short of tracking it down second-hand, it is a very difficult game to acquire at the moment.

      And, no, You can’t have mine unfortunately.

      • Syphus says:

        I feel like I know where there’s one for sale here. I’ve always wanted to buy it, but its price and the rather dismal prospects of having anyone else to play it with have kept me from doing it in the past.

    • Nyogtha says:

      Two copies left on Ebay, £30.

  2. squareking says:

    Mage Knight is on my wishlist. Fingers crossed in hopes that I’ve been a good enough boy this year.

  3. Reapy says:

    I took several long hard looks at mage wars. I am passing on it (well firstly no regular opponent for it) due to what seems to be the pacing. It seems that games and turns can take a while and stalemates can occur a lot. I really love the theme of it, just probably not for me with my current boardgaming ability (always a harder thing to judge than a pc game).

    For reference though here are the few games I’ve caved in and purchased and had a lot of fun with:

    Heroscape (impossible to find, the joy in it was the cost + game, but now cost is way out of line, which is a shame, it is/was an amazing system).
    Summoner Wars
    Descent V2 (get over v1 by a long shot)
    Ghost Stories
    Defenders of the Realm
    Cosmic Encounters
    X-wing miniature
    Mansions of Madness
    Arkham Horror ( Grain of salt on this one)
    Survive Escape from Atlantis (HUGEEE Broad appeal on this, can’t recommend it enough)
    Pitch car Mini
    Space Hulk
    Ticket to Ride
    Battleship Galaxies
    Tales of Arabain Nights

    • GentlemanRaptor says:

      Very much with you on Heroscape. I have a friend who has practically every squad (maybe actually every squad) and hero, as well as a lot of terrain. It is always great fun to play, especially when you have time to kill and assemble the *perfect* map beforehand, that is just right for the amount of people you have playing. Lava tiles, lava tiles EVERYWHERE!

  4. McGuit says:

    OK having played all of these games, gather around children.
    This is the scoop.
    According to me of course.
    You can trust me.
    I play nothing but board games with my family and my gaming group.
    Yep, different audiences.

    High Frontiers…. really mathy and not that much fun the 3rd and 4th time around.
    Pass unless you have someone that really would play it with you more than once.
    I traded it for 3 games because the guy heard it was so good.
    Hope he does not know where I live….

    Mage Wars….Boom baby! Well worth the coin and a ton of fun.
    Buy it and the expansions.
    Fireball INC>>>>>>>Duck now!
    Or just do the core set $60 clams US retail and a ton in the box.
    But if this was a Fantasy Flight game, it would set you back 100 for sure.
    Support small game companies (and no I don’t work for them)

    Netrunner…. Best collectable card game since MTG and IMHO much better than that.
    Buy it and a couple of expansions if you like the system. You really don’t need the expansions if you are happy with the core game and are not a collector. Bit of advice, if you don’t want to buy any expansions, then buy 2 core sets as there are some great cards that are in short supply and you are good for ….hmmm…well the rest of your life.

    Mage Knight …. it’s kind of OK but again really fiddley (i.e. lot’s of stuff to to do to provide upkeep between turns).
    Calculations that take you out of the experience.
    I’d pass, but it is a decent Role Playing Game… Frankly if you like co-ops, I’d go “Legends of Andor”.
    And if you don’t, I’d go Pathfinder: the Card Game and laminate the characters so you can go game to game an not ruin (permanently) your characters (hin’t use an erasable marker on the lamination and you are good for years) or….if you like role playing and you have a family go for, “Mice and Mystics” good stuff and both have real role playing in them that go for multiple sessions.
    Both wonderful games that scratch that ol’ D&D itch with cardboard.

    Spartacus: Great fun. Owning slaves and whores. I do like me some whores.
    Great business simulator. but it falls down a little where it should really shine COMBAT….come on now guys…that why I am running a Ludis…? fight, fight, fight, fight….
    Still if you liked the series and have space in your collection, get it …get it…, well there it is right?

    Earth Reborn: Hmmmm is your cousin the designer?
    It’s OK…if you miss out…no big deal. It’s OK….
    There you go the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth….

    • Velorien says:

      I think you exaggerate the fiddliness of Mage Knight. I mean, yes, it has a lot of separate decks and token stacks to shuffle for initial setup, but preparing a new round takes maybe a couple of minutes at most. Take the bottom cards off the advanced action and spell offers, put them on the bottoms of their respective decks and draw replacements. Do the same to the unit offer, but replacing all the cards rather than one. Flip the day/night board and roll a few source dice to put on it. Take command tokens off spent units. If there’s a dummy player, give it a card and a mana crystal and shuffle its deck. Shuffle your own deck(s). You’re done. It practically takes longer to write out than to do, especially if you’re a quick shuffler.

      • Premium User Badge

        Waltorious says:

        Yeah I’m another supporter of Mage Knight. It’s awesome. Rab had the perfect description in his original post about it: it’s King’s Bounty as a boardgame. Ride around the randomized map, hire units to join your army, fight monsters, raid dungeons, learn spells, find loot… it’s fantastic. But it’s also epic. Some people claim to be able to play in game in about four hours, but it takes me all day. Literally the entire day. But when I’m done I just want to play again. It’s that good.

        Somehow I’ve still never played it solo. I always manage to recruit some people for an epic session. I should try the solo game though, I heard it’s a lot of fun.

  5. jomurph86 says:

    OK, here’s the REAL inside scoop on all these games.
    And such.

    High Frontiers
    Definitely a “try before you buy” game.
    And a game you need to play over and over and over to really “get”.
    Probably not a game to buy if you have commitment issues.
    Here are two fantastic articles that will let you know what the 411 is on HF:
    link to
    link to

    Mage Wars
    THE gamers game.
    Like Magic but with tactics, dice, and near-absolute control (so long mana flood/drought, you won’t be missed!)
    On the down side, when you lose, it’s always your fault.
    Rewards dedication to the meta game (deck building).
    Don’t let the non-collectable format fool you, you will NEVER run out of different combos to run.
    BEST WAY TO PLAY (in my opinion): With a 1minute turn timer :)

    I actually haven’t tried this one. I have a buddy who I MageWars with weekly, so I haven’t had the time to dive into anything new.

    Be careful.
    This is a GREAT game, but not what most people expect when they hear the title.
    This is a deep, slow paced (compared to it’s namesake), crunchy, sink-your-teeth in sorta game.
    It’s math-y, and puzzle-y, and a real brain burner.
    Fantastic for solo play.

    Another gap in my gaming experience.

    Earth Reborn
    AMEN to every Robert said.
    This is my second favorite game in my collection (besides Mage Wars).
    It’s tough to get on the table as it requires 2 players both equally dedicated to learning the system.
    BUT, much like a good marriage, the rewards are great for those who want to commit.

    • Syphus says:

      If you haven’t tried Netrunner or Spartacus, I’m not sure I can listen to you on anything else.

  6. jomurph86 says:

    Oh, and yes to Pathfinders, Andor, and Mice and Mystics as really good “lite” alternatives to Mage Knight.

  7. dontnormally says:

    Lords of Waterdeep is fantastic.

  8. Duke of Chutney says:

    I have High Frontier, and both its expansions.

    Its awesome. Rab, i live in Leeds, i could probably ride up to Glasgow for a game.

    Phil Eklund has a shorter simpler card game called Pax Porfiriana which is also great. Worth checking out if its still in print, and its cheapish too.

    I picked up Earth Reborn in a trade a month or so ago, yet to actually play it. Looks cool though.

    Netrunner is a really great game too. Good column as always.

  9. Emeraude says:

    I don’t know. My friends and me still miffed at the expansion model for Netrunner. Too much to upgrade our sets so far.

    Loving the game though. But then we’ve loved it since the fist iteration.

    Still eagerly looking forward to that Shadowrun co-op deck-building game.

    Christmas is probably going to be tRPG shopping time for me, with Ryuutama released.

    • Syphus says:

      You certainly don’t need to buy everything, and in the end, even if you did, it comes out far cheaper than a game like Magic.

  10. Scurra says:

    Pax Porfiriana is another home run from Phil Eklund. It’s “only” a card game, but only in way that High Frontier is “only” a board game… Genuinely brilliant.

    Me, I’m still too much of a Eurogamer to really enjoy any of these recommendations (although I was obsessed by Netrunner in its original incarnation.)

    • Benkyo says:

      Mage Knight is kind of a eurogame in disguise, and not at all like Rab’s other dice-heavy recommendations. It’s also excellent. Give it a try, it might surprise you.

  11. spectone says:

    Since I have young children I shall be relegated to play the “Shopping Game” from Orchard Toys. We also have “Crazy Chef”.

  12. roccaturi says:

    I’ve been deftly avoiding RPS registration for years… And now look at me. But I just had to comment on my sincere pleasure at seeing this list. Especially…

    –High Frontier. I traded for this a month ago. Now, I’ve played the game exactly twice (both times on the solo variant Phi included in the rules — I’m playing with my two brothers over Christmas) and I can safely say there is nothing else like it on the face of this planet and that it deserves the attention of every serious board gamer. If you are drawn to anything technical (I mean ANYTHING technical), this game will tickle you brain into uncontrollable fits. Look at the damn cards! There are beautiful “flavor schematics” for thrusters, reactors, and refineries on every one. They look gorgeous and add density to the game while being completely invisible when you’re focused on getting critical data off that card. The board represents the solar system… yeah, so what? Well, it represents it not in terms of distance between celestial bodies but instead in terms of delta-v, the change in your spacecraft’s velocity that would be needed to get there. (Remember, no external forces in vacuum, so objects stay in motion until you apply new thrust.) I can’t begin to describe what a marvelous physical artifact this thing is. Find a large image on Google and spend a few moments picking out the planets. The board, the cards, and the instruction manual are all so lovingly crafted and so informative without being difficult that it achieves something glorious: you learn things from a board game. Not in a hokey sense, and not in a profound, ultimate-meaning of life sense either. In a subtle but meaningful way, I learned about what near-term space flight might look like from this game and appreciated the joys and frustrations of a mission beyond the sky.

    And of boy did I have fun doing it. The gameplay is a tense combination of card management (your rockets) and area movement (your flight path), while fitting into neither camp entirely. The challenge comes in visualizing a path to your destination, anticipating the challenges that will arise (dear God am I bad at this) and then designing a vehicle that will narrowly fit that mission profile (cutting corners in order to get launched first, most likely). After that, you fuel up and seen this “perfect” rocket into the void. Oh, but you never do predict the mission accurately, and you’ll find yourself praying to Space Jesus that you paid your programmers enough, that the solar flares are light this season, and the fuel fumes you’ve been burning for the last two turns can last you. And all this to get you to the measly Asteroid Belt. Way out there in the blackest regions of the board, you spot the water-laden moons of Saturn, and you just know that those ten inches of deep space… they are beyond of your reach. Maybe next decade.

    Listen, are you intrigued by the game? Here’s two pieces of advice. First, look it up on Youtube. There’s only a few videos, but they give a good tease of what’s going on in the game. And finally, use this marvelous little metric. Do you like KSP? If no, play more KSP until yes. If yes, buy this game at cost up to and slightly exceeding what you would spend on any game from you favorite designer. Phil just supplanted that guy. Never before in my experience has a board game conveyed grand ideas like HF.

    There are two other games from Sierra Madre that I have acquired, sadly just on loan (even rarer then HF). One of them is Origins: How We Became Human, which lets you direct different proto-humans through the last few million years of out history, and incorporates some of the coolest ideas in anthropology and psychology over the last half-century. Phil said in an interview that he has moved increasingly into the German camp with his later designs. A Eurogame of human civilization on evolutionary timescales? Just push all of my buttons, whydontcha?

    Lightning comments to add to the melting pot of goodness other people have been cooking:

    –Mage Knight: Phenomenal. Buy it. Vlaada Chvatil is always interesting, but this is hands down his smartest, sexiest design, and with great components. I hope to see more along these lines, preferably in a superior fictive setting. Vlaada Chvatil’s Morrowind: The Board Game would slay me.
    –Small World: Played once and really enjoyed. Playing again this month. I kind of wish the more historical predecessor (Vinci) had caught on, because giving kooky abilities to ancient peoples strikes me as way cool. Swamp Assyrians? Seafaring Gauls? Berserk Celts? Make this happen!
    –Netrunner: Magic for people who want more dramatic, more involved creature battles. I’ve not hit my stride with this one yet, but I already prefer it to Magic (which I enjoy infrequently).

    • Ninja Foodstuff says:

      what a wonderful comment! I enjoyed that as much as the article itself.

    • colossalstrikepackage says:

      Intriguing. Will keep an eye out for it. Ps – please keep posting such comments; I love your writing style.

  13. Grargh says:

    “Vlaada Chvatil’s Morrowind: The Board Game”

    This would be so incredibly amazing, I am at a loss of words. Please don’t play with my feelings like this :(

    Edit: In reply to roccaturi

    • Moraven says:

      I was sold on it comparing it to Heroes of Might and Magic. Its a great game.

  14. Cara Ellison says:


    • colossalstrikepackage says:

      Yes, but … All of them? Or is it enough to start with the base game?

      • Syphus says:

        The core set is certainly enough to start enjoying. But you will likely want to buy some of the packs, they really open up the game a lot.

  15. Campbell50 says:

    Rab, could you do a buying guide for solo/2 player games? Great guide and I will be buying one of these this Christmas.

  16. Erithtotl says:

    You just cost me over $100!

    Mage Wars and Earth Reborn here I come.

    Already have Mage Knight and am officially a Netrunner addict.

    Btw, the trick with Netrunner is that if you are not playing as part of a group/meetup, its really not the same experience. Much like Magic I assume (which I have never played) Playing with a friend with the base set can teach you the rules but that’s about it.

    • colossalstrikepackage says:

      Interesting. So not one to play with the wife, then?

      • JustAPigeon says:

        I disagree with Erithtotl. My girlfriend and I have played a ton of the base set, there are enough combinations there to keep you going for many hours. I then got hold of the first cycle of expansions and we’ve had lots of fun building decks and playing against each other. Playing with the starter decks is still fun, even after that.

  17. cF- says:

    Good Call on Earth Reborn. One of my fave board games and totally recommended for any on-the-fencers. Satisfies the Warhammer/miniatures itch while being less complex and it feels like you have so many more options when you play. Me and my Mrs love it, a testament to how hardcore it ISN’T (ok so you have to play quite a few of the tutorial scenarios before all the rules are ‘unlocked’ but its fun from the start). Dying for Mage Knight but I’m not sure I can put the OH through that yet…
    We both play Netrunner but are really just learning, it’s fun though!

    Also, No space alert?

  18. belgand says:

    Earth Reborn is excellent. In the Space Hulk/Hero Quest/Descent sort of sphere of RPG-lite board games with tactical miniature battles it’s really one of the best options out there. It can be a little goofy at times and some of the scenarios are broken (I want to say #3, maybe #2 where you need to get out of a room and a clever player can break down a wall and trap you there), but it’s quite a lot of fun. It seems such a shame that we apparently won’t ever get the expansions that were considered.

    The things that make it work so well are primarily because every aspect was thoroughly considered. The scenarios are programmed instructions on how to play the game. True, this can be a weak thing because you only have access to the full rules set once you finish them… and then the scenarios end. The solution for this was to include a thorough random mission generator.

    The rules and character cards were designed to be language-independent so it could easily be sold in a variety of markets. They can be a tad clunky at times, but they thought through how best to make the game widely playable.

    The options you have while playing are very expansive. Basically it feels like the author played similar games and every time someone asked “So why can’t I just knock down that wall? Why can’t I just use the equipment in the zombie lab to make my own zombies? Why can’t shut off the power to open those electronic doors?” they took a note and included it. It’s not as thorough as a full RPG, but it’s well on its way.

    The miniatures look great and come pre-primed in case you want to paint them. If you don’t, don’t worry about it, but they considered the needs of the players who would want to.

    The most telling part of this approach to design though is in the box. Sure, other games have a tray to hold components, but this one was carefully thought through. Every single little piece has a place and fits neatly in it. The official website had a PDF a while back showing the document they sent off to the manufacturer specifying all the heights and details to be certain that every component would fit. The downside is that they don’t tell you how to repack it in the rules and you need to either figure it out or go to the website.

    Definitely play this game. If it falls out of print it’s going to quickly become one of those highly desired cult titles like that people will spend quite a bit of money on in the future. Get it while you still have the chance.