No secret here that I’m a bit of a hoarder (despite many purges of the collection) and also a champion of obscure designs. Hey, my name’s David after all: I’m a fan of the underdog. Over the years I’ve come across a few self-published passion projects as well as offbeat releases by major designers and publishers that never gain traction. They get one printing and then they’re done.
There are those who believe the market is the ultimate arbiter. If it sells, it must be good; contrariwise, if it doesn’t sell, there must be a reason. Pish and tosh I say! Luck definitely plays a factor, as do factors such as barriers to entry. But enough political economics. Here are five of my favorite games that could’ve been contenders, Charlie, instead of bums which is what they are:
Star Wars: The Queen’s Gambit (2000) was the only good thing to come out of Episode One (possibly the entire trilogy). Rob Daviau helped design this epitome of Ameritrash. It uses a Memoir’44/Command & Colours card system (but released before either of those) to recreate the climactic battles on Naboo. Players have objectives on three fronts: the palace, the battlefield, and the fight between Darth Maul, Obi Wan, and Qui-Gon. Not only does it look awesome on the table, it’s a tense and balanced back-and-forth game. I found a copy for $50 at a now-defunct comic store in 2006 and it’s one of my prized finds.
Break the Safe (2003) was Mattel’s entry into the real-time family co-op genre which is thematic, easy to play, tense, and super fun. You have to avoid patrolling guards and guard dogs and disarm traps to break into the titular safe, retrieve the plans, and get out before time runs out. Copies are for sale for over a hundred bucks on Amazon (!) but the GeekMarket on BGG has some available.
Colonial: Europe’s Empire Overseas (2011) is what Endeavor could look like if it wanted to be a medium-weight historical sim (instead of the excellent Euro which it is). Covering the same era of the Age of Expansion, think of it as a historical 4X game and you won’t be far from wrong. Light enough to appeal to casual gamers but with enough historical heft to satisfy grognards like myself, it hit a sweet spot that French publishers Stratagem Game Design never could exploit.
JAB: Realtime Boxing (2011) is honest-to-god what it says on the box: a real-time card-driven boxing game which shouldn’t work but it does. Players “throw” jabs, hooks, crosses, and haymakers on their opponent’s body cards and block their punches by playing on their own. Play cards in the right combo and you can score a knockout; otherwise you’re trying to wear your opponent down and win on points after five rounds. I am far from a boxing fan in real life but I think the game is brilliant, and before you pooh-pooh it you should know the designer and illustrator Gavan Brown is also the brains behind Super Motherload, Brass: Birmingham, and Dice Throne Adventures
Firefly: Out to the Black (2013) is the Firefly game that comes closest to the spirit of the series. Co-operative, mission-based, and with a rulebook lovingly written in browncoat style, it’s a short card-driven game that doesn’t outstay its welcome. Each player takes the role of a member of the crew with different strengths. You have to take on jobs to earn credits and honour; run out of either and you lose. Completing a job requires players to play specific totals of Flyin’, Fightin’, and Thinkin’ cards. Events can help or hurt you by forcing you to draw Alliance cards which can also lose you the game if you draw too many. Originally published by Toy Vault, who first brought 51st State to North America, it’s the game I recommend to any Firefly fan to seek out and play.