The idea that someone could design a meaty game with tough decisions and pack into into a small box, possibly no bigger than a deck of cards, well, to me that is the epitome of cleverness and elegance. I’m going to call them TARDIS games, because they’re bigger on the inside. And I won’t stop calling them that unless I get a cease-and-desist from Steven Moffat himself.
TARDIS games pack all that junk in their tiny trunks by making components serve multiple purposes, which insert Interesting Decisions into places where you might not predict.
A good example is Sail To India, from AEG. Hisashi Hayashi, the designer, is perhaps better-known for bigger designs such as Trains and, more recently, Yokohama, but he’s also carved a niche for himself with quirky games like String Railway and Rolling Japan. Sail to India came out in 2013 and despite the AEG brand is not well-known but it distills an Age of Discovery-era Euro down to its essential elements quite well.
In Sail To India it is the limited number of Wealth cubes each player has which Hayashi makes serve multiple purposes. Players must balance competing needs to explore, trade, and acquire knowledge–all necessary for victory. And because the locations players explore are depicted on cards which can be shuffled and re-ordered, every game is different. Brilliant.
Making one good TARDIS game is the mark of a clever designer. Making several is the mark of outright genius, I say. Consider the Tiny Epic series from Scott Almes. I think Tiny Epic Quest is the best of the bunch–it just came out and I reviewed it recently (article is here), but this is just the latest in a string of winning designs. (I do find Tiny Epic Western the weakest of the bunch despite its strong theme.)
Less-known but perhaps more impressive are the TARDIS games from Chris Handy. In 2014 he released his first “Pack O Games”, 8 designs each the size of a pack of chewing gum using around sixty Juicy-Fruit-sized cards. And these were no mere assembly-line knockoffs: you had SHH, a cooperative spelling game; GEM, a bidding and set-collecting game; BUS, a pickup-and-deliver transit game, and so on and so forth.
(Did you notice each of the games was three letters long? Yet another constraint, and a logical one, in the sense that a tiny package needs large-fonted titles.)
In 2016 Handy Kickstarted a new set, this time with stretch goals consisting of ten all-new chewing-gum-sized bijoux. The general favorite, and mine, is GYM, a drafting game with Battle Line-style mechanics that packs an amazing amount of gameplay into such a small space. Truly, Handy is a craftsman of great skill.
And so we come to the main focus of my article, actually an expansion to a 2015 TARDIS game by Alexander Pfister called Oh My Goods! (originally Royal Goods). Pfister has been on a hot streak the last couple of years, designing popular titles such as Port Royal, Mombasa, and most especially last year’s big hit Great Western Trail (which I wrote about in September).
Oh My Goods is a production-efficiency type game with a push-your luck element, where players race to amass the most VP through buildings, which are paid for by producing goods. There is no board–only cards, which can be used as basic inputs, buildings, or (when face down) finished goods whose value depends on the card they rest on. Every round you’re only going to build at most one new building, so the trick is to set up “production chains” where the output from buildings A & B, for example, become inputs for building C, which produces super-expensive goods that allow you to build the big-VP buildings.
The push-your-luck element comes in because the available basic inputs every round are randomly determined and variable in number, and you have to commit to what you’d like to build midway through the turn, before you know what’s going to be on the table at the end of the round. If you guess wrong, your buildings will lie idle because not enough inputs, so tough luck, Charlene.
Plus you only get to activate as many buildings as you have workers, and you begin the game with only one; you get to purchase Assistants later in the game, but they are limited in supply and less productive. All of this adds up to a challenging game which requires flexibility and boldness.
Oh My Goods! is definitely a TARDIS game and I like it quite a bit–but it suffers a bit for being bland and generic in a Catan kind of way…until this new expansion came out.
Oh My Goods! Longsdale in Revolt is literally a game-changer, being a legacy-ish cooperative campaign consisting of five Chapters. You have to meet each Chapter’s goal in order to move on to the next. In the first Chapter the town of Longsdale is suffering from famine because of neoliberal IMF-driven policies–er, I mean “someone” has been burning their corn fields. You-all have been asked by the King to step in to make up the difference. From there, the story throws in rebels and marauders, and you will be asked to take sides…
Longsdale in Revolt adds new cards and a new resource, “strength”, which you can probably figure out serves a combat purpose. The new cards consist of buildings and personalities, which are introduced from Chapter to Chapter. Sometimes cards are removed from the game (all new cards are numbered, making this process less tedious than it might be). There is a solo mode with different setups and goals. And you can also just throw all the new buildings into the mix and play the old-fashioned way (“all inclusive mode”).
My only complaint is that the game leaves you hanging after Chapter Five–what happens next? Luckily, the next expansion, Escape to Canyon Brook, is due out later this year.
But even so, Oh My Goods and Longsdale in Revolt are a matched set of TARDIS games that I think are an indispensible part of any tabletop gamer’s travel pack. What say you?