Hey folks. This week I want to do something special – I want to quickly revisit a few board games I’ve covered before – because board games often reveal more of themselves over time. The games I cover this week are ones that have grown in my estimation since I first covered them here. Next week I’ll be talking about games that have gone down in my estimation for one reason or another. I think it might be interesting to see how time has affected my take on these titles, and to see what you fine people think of these games the more you’ve played them.
MAGIC: THE GATHERING – ARENA OF THE PLANESWALKERS
I enjoyed this game a lot when I first played it. And I remember saying – right here – that it was inevitable that the game would be expanded. Well, it has been. But it took ages to happen, and in that time, many people went cold on this fine game. There maybe wasn’t quite enough in the box for people to deckbuild and army build and all that good stuff people enjoy these days. But I played vanilla base-release MtG:AotP again just this weekend, in 3-player skirmish mode, and it was an absolute blast. The game still stands up, because it has a clean and simple ruleset, and a real sense of spectacle on the table. Sure, there isn’t a huge amount of variety in the armies you bring to the table (it’s a miniature-battle game) but I’d argue that each Planeswalker’s distinct troops and powers makes for a game experience that comes with a lot of internal variety. Few games play out the same way, because your fire dude is going to assault your undead lady quite differently from how he’d handle the blue fella or the green lady. I can’t remember the names, gimme a break.
Three player battles often don’t work out so well in board games. Often, two players duke it out, weakening each other for a third player to swoop in. But the scenario of AotP makes for some real strategic thinking, as units jockey for control of scoring areas, and Planeswalkers weigh up the upsides and downsides of getting involved in the battle directly or indirectly.
Of course, AotP is based on HeroScape, which is a game that has been popular forever – so it’s not surprise that the mechanics of this one are still hanging tough this little bit down the line. I think it’s time for me to pick up the expansions, and I think it’s time you check this inexpensive treat out and give it the support it genuinely deserves.
Ninjato is a game that I placed as number 47 on my 50 Best Games of All Time, and it’s a game that will certainly have gone up on that list. It’s a gorgeous worker placement game about ninjas infleuncing clan houses by their actions. There’s also a thrilling (genuinely thrilling) risk-reward element as you send your ninjas into clan houses to steal artifacts and treasures, choosing whether to push on and claim greater rewards or pull out with the spoils gained so far. I love how richly themed this game is, and how tightly the game pulls all its hybrid elements together. Every time I play this one I really feel like I’m playing a different game, because enough of the setup is randomised to change my approach. One session I might be focusing on influencing envoys, the next I might be assaulting houses like ninjas are going out of business.
This is a great one, still great, growing greater, still available.
GEARS OF WAR: THE BOARD GAME
This one is out of print, and it won’t be back. So I’m saying this now – GO AND FIND IT AND BUY IT BEFORE YOU CAN’T. I’m sure it’s out there on board game shop shelves, and I bet it’s on ebay… Listen. If it costs you under 100 quid, get it bought. Because this game is fantastic. It’s just fantastic.
It’s based on a really uninspiring video game, sure, with some horrible character and enemy designs, sure. But my goodness, this board game is one of the best co-operative tactical games you will ever play. You’re a team of COGs, and no – I have no idea what that means. It means you are muscle-bound men with big guns, I think. And you’re facing off against Locusts. These are aliens with giant arms and muscles and stupid faces, like baddies from every comic book in the 1990s. You and your fellow players have a hand of cards that acts as the actions you can take and as your health. So as you do stuff, you get weaker. And then when you rest – drawing cards – you heal. But as you take hits from enemies you lose cards. And then you can do less stuff. And if you lose all your cards you can end up bleeding out. And you will end up bleeding out. A lot.
And so, you and your friends have to co-operate perfectly to complete a number of rock-hard missions against a pack of absolute bastards controlled by an AI card deck that seems to take great pleasure in fucking up your plans.
Honestly, this game… It gets better with every play, because as you get better, the experience improves. It becomes brutal. This is the first board game I’ve played that has a very real sense of teamwork – you can’t leave any man behind. You can’t push for glory alone. At the end of a session you almost expect to find flecks of blood on your teeth and scars on your hands.
The simple genius of that hand of cards acting as both tactical options and health is the key to a game experience that I can’t see any room for improvement in. Grab it while you can, or regret it forever.
Next week, some games that have faded, and why. And why these thought processes? Well, after the summer, I’ll be doing a brand new Top 50 Board Games of All Time video series. It’s time to reassess!