Warning: This post contains plot spoilers for all four Uncharted games. If you haven't finished playing them, and you don't want the story spoiled for you, stop now.
My boyfriend and I have started playing more games together, including single-player games. (We discuss what's going on together and take turns 'driving.') Our first gaming project of the year has been playing through the entire Uncharted series, and it's been interesting to play all four games back-to-back. The characters grow on you as time goes by, and you become increasingly engrossed in their stories.
This is probably why Uncharted 4 is really pissing me off.
I'm not saying that Uncharted 4 is a bad game or that I am not enjoying it, because it is a good one, and I am enjoying it. But after watching Nathan and Elena's relationship grow over the course of the first three games, I am very upset by the way Elena is being treated in the fourth.
Elena first appears as a plucky reporter in Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, the first game in the series and definitely the weakest (although it's still a lot of fun). She and Nathan have obviously become close by the end of the first game, but have drifted apart by the time they meet again in Uncharted 2. Elena continues to be adventurous, and she runs into Nathan while pursuing a megalomaniacal warlord who happens to be searching for ancient treasure. She and Nathan officially get together at the end of the second game, and they have an estranged marriage in the third. Once again, Elena appears partway through Uncharted 3, this time because she is working in Yemen and is willing to get press passes for Nathan and Sully (Nathan's mentor and father figure). In other words, throughout the series, Nathan and Elena may have a fluctuating relationship status, but Elena is an adventurer in her own right who pursues her own interesting work.
At the start of Uncharted 4, Elena and Nathan are happily married, although Nathan is still experiencing some wanderlust. Elena is still doing some travel writing, and she tries to support her husband's need for adventure by suggesting he take a treasure-diving job in Malaysia. Nathan refuses and seems committed to a calmer, more domestic life.
Soon, however, Nathan's long-lost brother, Sam, shows up and convinces Nathan that his life depends on the discovery of a lost pirate treasure. Nathan hasn't told his wife about Sam because he thought his brother was dead and because he felt partially to blame for it. Rather than actually talk to Elena about what's happening, Nathan is soon casually lying to her about his trip to "Malaysia" and leaving a trail of mercenary bodies behind him as he and Sam hunt for the treasure of their youthful dreams.
Elena hasn't reappeared in the story yet, but I keep wondering to myself: How can Nathan be so damn happy? He's enjoying his cute banter with Sam and Sully, blithely lying to his wife over the phone, and generally being a huge asshole. And both Sam and Sully—who at times seems to respect Elena—are going along with it. Why does no one care about Nathan's marriage? Why is Elena suddenly the "boring," "serious" one? WTF even is this?
I wonder how I will feel about Nathan by the end of the game. But even if this is just "growing pains" and he goes back to a calm married life in the end, why the hell does he still need to grow up?
A lot of exciting stuff is happening for solo board gamers in the next few months! Expansions for old games, reprints of hard-to-find games, and some new adventures await us all.
Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective Expansion
Originally printed in the 1980s, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective has been in need of an English-language expansion for years. I myself have longed for an expansion on this very blog! But now fans of the game are going to get their wish: Ten new cases, in English. Four of them are thematically linked and allow you to chase Jack the Ripper and solve one of the greatest murder mysteries of all time. I truly cannot wait. I had been kind of dragging my feet on the last two cases from Consulting Detective because I wasn't ready for the game to end. Now I can really sink my teeth into them because they'll be an appetizer for more cases to come!
New Releases from Chip Theory Games
Chip Theory Games is a game company run by two brothers who produce beautiful, high-quality games. They recently had a successful Kickstarter for a dice builder called Too Many Bones. I'm not sure about that one yet (at $125, it's an investment), but their most recent newsletter contained some other very exciting news.
First, there are going to be two Hoplomachus expansions that introduce the cities of Carthage and Machu Picchu. If you haven't played Hoplomachus yet, you are missing out. It's a fun gladiatorial combat game that can be played solo, vs., or co-op, and it's enjoyable no matter how you play it. Adding more cities to the mix means more interesting mechanics to toy with. Also, I can finally play out my Rome vs. Carthage fantasies on a neoprene hex mat.
In addition to expansions for Hoplomachus, Chip Theory Games is introducing a smaller solo or vs. game about lockpicking. It's called Triplock, and while there isn't too much information about it yet, it's visually very enticing. After all of the time I've spent picking locks in Skyrim and other video games, cackling all the while, I know that the lockpicking theme is totally going to do it for me. Plus, it'll be in a lower price range than most Chip Theory Games. Sign me up for this one.
Terraforming Mars Reprint
I'm sure I'm not the only one who didn't manage to get a copy of Terraforming Mars the first time around. The game sold like hotcakes, and based on the reviews, that's no surprise because it's excellent. As Stronghold Games has said both online and in podcast interviews, however, the second printing will be available at the end of January or in early February. Soon, new competitors will be able to join the terraforming fun!
So far, 2017 is shaping up to be an exciting year in gaming for me. And this is even before any big new games are out—sometimes all you need for a good time is a well-timed expansion. With so many other stressful things happening in the world right now, I'm glad to have some good stuff to look forward to.
Sometimes, board games come in boxes with inserts that suit them just fine. Some publishers even include little plastic baggies in their game boxes to make it easier to sort tokens and other small pieces. (This is great, because I used to have to raid the kitchen for sandwich bags.)
But if you've invested in an epic-size board game like Mage Knight, Robinson Crusoe, or Eldritch Horror, plastic baggies are quickly going to become a burden. You could spend an extra $20+ on a custom insert from Broken Token (and there is no denying those inserts are both functional and attractive), or you could do what I do: Raid the tackle box section of Wal-Mart. I usually end up with Plano boxes, which cost $2–4 apiece. The larger boxes I have purchased are in the 3600 size range.
At first it felt a little bit wrong to throw away the original inserts. Robinson Crusoe had a fun one that looked like the inside of a treasure chest. But I tossed it in favor of easy setup and well-organized game tokens. I don't even remember what the insert for Mage Knight looked like, which either means that it was unremarkable or that I have gotten over the guilt of tossing out things like that. Mage Knight was one of my bigger organization projects because it's such a heavy game that comes with so. much. stuff. But I'm satisfied with how it turned out! My current setup includes both the main game and a couple of the expansions.
Organizing my game tokens is not just about organization. When I get a new game and have to figure everything out for the first time, it can be a little bit overwhelming. I find that creating my own way of storing the game helps me work through the rules and to understand the game a bit better in general—you have to know a little bit about what you're doing if you want to organize something well. It's also a bit therapeutic, as the many of you who like to punch cardboard know already.
Organizing games according to my own system also makes it easier for me to set them up later, because I already "know my way around" and there is a logical place for everything. I also like being able to make room for expansions within the original boxes to the greatest extent possible. (Although my Sentinels of the Multiverse box has become absurdly heavy because of this tendency.)
If you love to play board games but you sometimes feel frustrated and disorganized, trust me, there are ways to handle this problem. Tackle boxes are great because they not only keep your pieces organized, but they can just be set alongside the game board and used throughout the game—no need to empty and then refill a bunch of plastic baggies to create token banks.
What board game organization schemes have you guys come up with? Leave me a comment—I'd be very interested to hear about how you make game setup and storage more efficient.
This year, I've made a stronger commitment to planning and getting organized, and I've invested in an Erin Condren planner. I've also been experimenting with stickers, stamps, and washi tape to make my week seem more beautiful and fun, even if I'm doing a whole lot of unpleasant stuff (it's testing season).
What, you might ask, does this have to do with playing board games? I've started planning in game time.
One of the most interesting things about looking over your planner is seeing what you were up to at any given point in your year. Your to-do lists send subtle messages about what you thought was important at the time you made them. Last year, I tended to let work take over my entire day, and it left me overextended and frustrated.
When you're busy, self-care is usually the first thing to go. Because I play a lot of solo games, it's especially easy to skip a play session. Outside pressures are high, and if I don't play, I'm not disappointing anybody but myself.
To help me solve the problem of work creep—where work slowly takes over all of your play time—I have begun to deliberately put gaming and other fun stuff in my planner. Just seeing an activity on my to-do list, the check box unchecked, compels me to complete it. Even if that activity is taking a nap. In other words, I'm using my own workaholic nature to force myself to relax and have fun. And so far, it's working!
We live in a world that glorifies work to the exclusion of almost everything else. But to be a more functional human being, I need to play. Scheduling game time in my planner helps me remember to take decent care of myself, even when I'm stressed.
My boyfriend and I have a complicated emotional relationship with Nintendo. Over the past couple of years, Nintendo has favored limited print runs of a lot of its products (as I discussed here), and it often feels like the company is both dishonest and out of touch with its consumers.
Nintendo reps are as slippery as politicians when speaking about the company's future plans. For example, in March, Nintendo denied rumors that it was planning to stop production of the Wii U. By November, Nintendo confirmed that production of the Wii U is indeed coming to a close. Nintendo also suggested for a long time that the NX would not be a replacement for the Wii U, although that's clearly what the Switch is intended to be.
That said, we still went out and preordered the Nintendo Switch this week. And I'm really excited about it for two major reasons.
1) Nintendo is willing to experiment.
I like that Nintendo consoles have a totally different vibe from other gaming devices. Although I am not an XBox or PC gamer, I own and love a PS3, PS4, and Vita. I feel like people who play on any of these platforms are able to have some common gaming experiences. When it comes to XBox or PlayStation, choosing a console is mostly a matter of personal taste and possibly a preference for exclusives like Fable (XBox) or Uncharted (PlayStation). PC gamers have a wider range of options, but a lot of games are released for both console and PC.
Nintendo, on the other hand, is never afraid to offer something completely different. The Switch is unlike any console out there. Not only are the detachable controllers going to lead to games with interesting mechanics, but Nintendo is never afraid to release weird games in general. (Game & Wario, anyone?) One of the mini-games in 1-2-Switch, one of the launch titles, is going to involve milking cows, and another will allow for living room sword fights that allow you to focus on your opponent instead of the screen. (Alas, I might be waiting until it comes down in price.) I'm also excited about Arms, a fighting game in which you and your opponent wail on each other with weird, stretchy appendages. This is too wonky and fun-looking NOT to play:
2) Nintendo first-party games are excellent, period.
Even Wii U haters will admit at this point that the console's failures were not a result of bad games. The Wii U has had some incredible releases, including entries into established franchises such as Super Mario 3D World and new IPs like Splatoon. The Wii U's gaming tablet also allowed for interesting and creative games like Mario Maker. Although the Switch has a weak initial lineup, I expect to be occupied with Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for quite some time. And I have no doubt that Super Mario Odyssey and Splatoon 2 will be excellent—and here relatively soon. If you judge Nintendo by the quality of the first-party games it produces, you cannot help but have faith in Nintendo consoles, even when the business end of things is clumsy.
Nintendo has been stumbling in the last few years. It's not clear that they have learned their lesson with the Switch. The company has also picked up a lot of haters—even some Gamestop employees have openly pooh-poohed our Nintendo purchases over the past few years, and I have to wonder if that attitude has impacted sales to undecided consumers. But without Nintendo, something would be irrevocably lost from the world of video games, and I don't want to see that happen. So we're getting a Switch, and I have faith in it. Nintendo can always be trusted to do one thing: produce excellent games that will be fun and different. Also, by early March, Epona and I will be riding off into the sunset, and I can't wait.
It's a new year, and you might be thinking about trying new things. If you don't play solo board games already, I highly recommend the experience. In fact, this post will be a list of 5 easy, cheap board games that can be played solo. It's aimed at those of you who want to put a toe in the water of solo gaming goodness, but aren't sure if you're ready to dive in.
I had three main criteria when I created this list. 1) The games must be inexpensive ($30 or less). 2) The games must be easy to learn. 3) This is the obvious one: The game has to be fun.
Because of the criteria I chose, my list will be missing some of the mainstays of solo board gaming like Mage Knight or Robinson Crusoe. These games are amazing and you should absolutely play them. If you already play them with friends, by all means try them solo! But I would under no circumstances recommend these as first forays into solo gaming unless you're really hardcore and/or have a lot of disposable income.
So without further ado, here is my list of starter solo games:
1) Friday by Friedemann Friese
($13.64 on Amazon and $13.99 on CoolStuffInc at time of writing)
Yes. That alliteration is deliberate. Friday is a simple, readily-available solitaire card game that you should be able to purchase for less than $15. The concept of the game is that you are Friday, and the clueless and annoying Robinson Crusoe has washed up on your island. Your job is to help him learn the ropes, escape the island, and give you some peace by encountering various challenges in the jungle and then successfully battling some evil pirates. I've previously reviewed Friday on this blog.
2) Onirim by Shadi Torbey
($22.49 on Amazon and $16.99 on CoolStuffInc at time of writing)
Onirim is another simple solitaire card game (although it has co-op rules if you want to add a second person). In this game, the cards represent a labyrinth within a dream world, and you are navigating it while you sleep. Your goal is to escape the labyrinth before you run out of cards, but there are nightmares hiding within the deck that will halt your progress. Onirim is a meditative game with beautiful card art. The box also includes several expansions, so you can try several variations without making any additional purchases. Zee Garcia of The Dice Tower adores this game and has filmed a concise video review.
3) Sylvion by Shadi Torbey
($24.23 on Amazon and $16.99 on CoolStuffInc at time of writing)
Sylvion is a solitaire game set in the same universe as Onirim, but it plays completely differently. Sylvion is a tower defense game in which you control woodland creatures trying to save their home from a forest fire. Each card has a different effect, so you have to choose which strategies to deploy at which moments. To play most of the cards, you have to discard others from your hand, which makes every decision more meaningful. In the advanced version of Sylvion, you draft cards before actual play begins, which provides an additional strategic challenge. I really like this one.
4) Ascension: Deckbuilding Game by John Fiorillo and Justin Gary
($30.34 on Amazon and $27.49 on CoolStuffInc at time of writing)
Ascension is a two-person deck building game that was designed by pro Magic: The Gathering players. Official solo rules were not published until the Storm of Souls expansion, but you can buy any version of the game that you want and download a .pdf of the SoS rules. For me, it scratches that collectible card game itch, but everything I really need can be contained within a single box. You can try out different factions, experiment with how different card mechanics work together, and acquire or defeat increasingly powerful cards. I have discussed Ascension on this blog here.
5) Castle Panic by Justin de Witt
($22.49 on Amazon and $23.99 on CoolStuffInc at time of writing)
Castle Panic is a cooperative tower defense game with official solo rules. The goal of the game is to defend your castle against attacking hordes of trolls, orcs, and goblins, and you win when the last monster is defeated and at least one of your castle towers is still standing. Castle Panic is a great introductory co-op or solo game and it has one of the clearest rule books I've ever read. Even better, if you try the game and like it, you can purchase expansions that vastly improve upon the original concept. (The Wizard's Tower expansion is essential.) I have previously reviewed the game on this blog.
6) Bonus Suggestion: Any Co-Op Game You Already Own and Like
A lot of solo players enjoy playing co-op games on their own by controlling multiple characters. Have you ever wanted to make all of the decisions in Pandemic without feeling like a jerk? This is your chance! Other excellent choices include Sentinels of the Multiverse and Eldritch Horror. If it's already in your house and it's a co-op, you can probably enjoy a solo play session.
If you're curious about solo board gaming and are looking for somewhere to start, I hope this list has been helpful for you. The world of solo gaming is increasingly vast and exciting. Perhaps we will soon be playing alone, together!
The Castles of Burgundy: The Card Game is a small-box distilliation of a larger game called The Castles of Burgundy. Before I begin this review, I want to say: I have never played the original Castles of Burgundy board game. I bought the card game version specifically because I wanted an inexpensive game that I could play solo. (The game cost me less than $10 and was a filler item from CoolStuffInc!)
Sometimes, I don't want my gaming time to be overly complicated. I just want to shuffle some cards, puzzle through some options, and try to squeeze the maximum benefit out of the resources that I have to work with. If that is ever something you're looking for, then Castles of Burgundy: The Card Game is a solid, low-budget option for you.
Like its larger parent, the Castles of Burgundy card game is focused on building up an estate. Your ultimate goal is to earn the most victory points. This can be achieved by building triplets (three of a single building type), Each round, you are dealt cards that allow you to perform actions such as acquiring new cards or placing cards that you already own in your estate. Your purchasing power is based not on actual dice, but on the die values printed at the top of each card. To help you modify the numbers in your favor, you can use worker cards to adjust die rolls up or down. To get access to more cards, you can acquire and then spend silver to take extra actions and draw extra cards.
When you are playing the solo variant of the game, your opponent is a set of AI decks called "Aaron," which stands for An Almost Real OppoNent. Your goal is to stay ahead of Aaron for each of the game's five rounds. If you end a round with a lower score than his, the game is over and you lose. Aaron will automatically acquire increasing numbers of cards per round. The heart of scoring in this game is acquiring triplets, and then getting the bonuses that come with being the first to build a triplet of a particular type. If you don't act fast, Aaron might beat you to the triplets, depending on what cards he is holding in the decks that you create as part of his pre-game setup.
Castles of Burgundy: The Card Game is enjoyable in a meditative kind of way: It gives me a puzzle to focus on, and I enjoy mulling over which options are best when I have several. It's one of my go-to quick solo games, and I will have no problem playing it ten times (or more) in 2017. Castles of Burgundy is also a quick game that doesn't outstay its welcome—although you should expect for it to take up a LOT of table space. The cards are tiny, but you'll be laying out so many of them that you'll be amazed the whole game fits into such a small box.
Strategically, the game is hit or miss. While I am more of a long-term planning type, Castles of Burgundy forces me to make a lot of short-term decisions—the goal of the game is to defeat Aaron round to round, so planning sometimes needs to take a backseat to immediate point gains. Occasionally, no amount of strategy is going to matter. As you might have guessed from the description above, Aaron is an unpredictable opponent: Sometimes, he's a slow starter who doesn't score very many points early on. Other times, he will get a lot of early triplets and run away with the game.
If you enjoy games where you try to wring as much value as possible out of the cards you've been dealt, then Castles of Burgundy is going to be fun for you. The theme of estate building is pretty pasted-on, but I don't really care because I'm in this one for its light puzzle feel. I haven't tried the multiplayer version of the game yet, but may teach my boyfriend soon. Solo play is my usual thing, but I'd like to spar with someone a bit more sentient than Aaron.
When I think about the quality of a game, I often start out by thinking about whether the game is strategically deep, whether the design and components are nice, whether the game is well-balanced.
But some games, like Betrayal at House on the Hill, are fun against all odds. The premise of the game is that you and your friends are exploring a creepy house, picking up random items and experiencing random events. Eventually, however, a haunt will begin, and one of you will turn into a murderous traitor. The exact circumstances of this betrayal are unknown at the start of the game, and there are 50 different possible scenarios for you and your friends to experience.
The truth is that as a board game, Betrayal is awful. If the haunt doesn't start soon enough, the exploration phase of the game will drag. If it starts too soon, the betrayed players are usually screwed. You can't guarantee that you'll get good items during the game, and sometimes terrible events keep happening to your character that mess you up long before the actual betrayer appears. If you're the betrayer, you won't even know that until the haunt begins, so all of your investment in the team can suddenly go up in smoke. There is no set strategy that will keep you alive, and there is no guaranteed path to success. This is not a game for people who like to develop strategic paths to victory. Even the components are pretty bad—the little clips that go on your character card to track your current stats slide all over the place and are essentially useless.
If any (or all) of these things keep you from playing Betrayal at House on the Hill, however, you've missed the point of the game. Every my friends and I pull it out, we have an amazing time, no matter what happens or who wins. This is because Betrayal is more of an experience than a game, and if you're open to having a goofy horror adventure with your game group, you're going to have a ton of fun with it. My gaming buddies still talk about the time that one of us turned into a giant snake, or the time one of us blew the house up with everyone still in it. Also, because the rules are very simple, it's easy to play Betrayal with an inexperienced gamer (although it can be more difficult if that person turns out to be the traitor).
Just like the B–movies to which it is a loving homage, Betrayal at House on the Hill is more than the sum of its low-budget parts. It's fun, and it's the sort of game that will hit the table again and again over the years. As long as you go into it with the right expectations, it's worth your time and money, because you'll have fun every time you play.
During the holiday season, families spend a lot of time together, and need to figure out how to use that time. One of the classic solutions is playing board games, and it's clear that the holidays are a great time for game publishers. The BBC has been reporting for years that board game sales experience a boom at Christmastime. And it's not just niche board gamers who are buying in: A quick Google search for family Christmas board games turns up pieces from several newspapers and even from Good Housekeeping. In other words, there is still a place in our society for board games, and family fun and nostalgia drive a sales boost every year—thus exposing another generation to the same positive board game memories.
This trend makes me think about how we grow up to have the interests that we have and choose the products that we buy. I was more open to modern board games as an adult because I have fond memories of playing the classics with my family as a kid. And the childhood purchases my parents made for my brother and me have also deeply influenced the video games I buy today: I have always and possibly will always be partial to Nintendo and Playstation (sorry, XBox).
Board games may have had another good holiday boost this year by capitalizing on family fun and nostalgia. Nintendo, however, missed just such an opportunity.
Although Nintendo is the gaming system of my childhood (and that of plenty of people around my age), Nintendo seems to be getting stuck on my demographic. As Polygon's Brian Crecente recently noted, NIntendo has been getting in its own way. When Nintendo released the NES Classic Edition—a mini-console with 30 classic Nintendo games pre-loaded onto it—in such tiny quantities, it made a huge mistake. Everyone viewed this console as a holiday must-have, but so few entered the marketplace that most of the buyers who got ahold of them were scalpers who turned around and put them on Ebay for huge markups. (Original MSRP: $60. Ebay price: About $200.) Nintendo had similar problems with its Amiibo toys back in 2015, and it seems they have not learned their lesson. When Nintendo does tiny print runs, regular consumers lose out to scalpers. As a result, Nintendo products don't always make it into the hands of the people who will keep the company alive.
Why is this such a problem for Nintendo? After all, Nintendo is completely selling out of many of the products it releases. That has to be a good thing, doesn't it? Maybe Nintendo's current stock holders are pleased with the numbers, but long-term, Nintendo is playing a very dangerous game.
People like me continue to feel an emotional attachment to Nintendo products because we have such strong memories of Mario, Kirby, Yoshi, and Link. We go back to Nintendo games again and again because they are both wonderfully designed and perfectly poised to bring us fond memories of simpler days. For similar reasons, board games see elevated sales around the holidays, and will continue to do so: People make purchases that trigger fond memories. Experiencing a game while you are young increases your changes of repurchasing that game or related games in the future.
Nintendo could have used the NES Classic Mini to reach an entire generation of young gamers whose parents would have purchased the console out of nostalgia. Those kids would have grown up with a stronger attachment to and interest in Nintendo products, which would make them more likely to play Nintendo games into adulthood—and to continue the cycle with their own children.
By making products that only seem to go to scalpers and hardcore collectors, Nintendo may be preserving its sales numbers in the present, but it is sacrificing its future. There are already reports that there may be shortages when Nintendo's new console, the Switch, is released this Spring. If I were a parent choosing a console for my child, I'd go for the company whose products were actually available—which means that I'd end up buying a Playstation or XBox. If Nintendo doesn't go back to satisfying a broader market, today's kids are going to leave it behind.