I have been engrossed in the dark trenches of this hobby for over seven years now. I have seen trends change, I have seen popular Kickstarters blow up, I’ve seen What’s Your Game still not deliver Madeira… and yet, as much as I have nailed down my own taste, I still have feelings for games I know I won’t like. Bizarrely, I feel like 2023 has had a ton of titles that fall under this category for me, so I wanted to take this time to highlight those. Not only because, from an outsider’s view, these titles seem (mostly) worthy of sending up, but also because if I can’t love them for who they are, I want someone else to do it for me.
Part One: Look At All These Co-ops!
I used to try to dance around it, but the fact of the matter is, I don’t like co-ops. Matter of fact, I would go so far as to say I hate them. And yet, every single year, there’s at least one or two co-ops that are so intriguing that it’s hard for me to not want to play them. Do I ever get around to it? No, but I look longingly in hopes that tomorrow I wake up a new woman. Anyway, here’s the co-ops from 2023 I’m interested in, for one reason or another.
Tense two-player games are a go-to for me. My partner is easily the person I play with the most, and we are both sickos that like to enjoy time with one another by engaging in high-pressure situations. The idea of us intently working on landing an airplane together in a scenario in which there’s 129378 ways to lose sounds right up our alley. Plus, with the added anger and frustration of the dice determining which actions can (or should) take each turn sounds crunchy and frustrating enough for us to like it.
At the end of the day, though, it’s hard for me to see this as just another game where two players are putting out fires. And the real pessimist in me says that the reason that each player’s dice pool is hidden from one another is simply to prevent quarterbacking and/or to add tension to the game in ways it wouldn’t be present otherwise. Regardless, though, I think if you do like co-op games with more intensity than the rest that relies on limited communication and (mitigable) dice rolling, definitely check it out. I’m sure others on staff here will be writing about it plenty.
I have an immense amount of respect for Matt Leacock. What he has brought to the co-op space within board gaming is on par with what the likes of Mark Herman has brought to wargaming. Pandemic and Forbidden Island alone made up a good chunk of the hobby gaming I did during college in 2012/2013. And yet it is because of what he did in Pandemic that I dislike a lot of co-ops today: most rely on putting out several fires, mostly-open information for a table of players to openly discuss about, and an ever-churning Event Deck to drive it all. These once-brilliant mechanisms have been done to death, to the point that its over-saturation has led to my disdain for co-ops.
And yet, when I saw Leacock was back with a new co-op that wasn’t either a Pandemic or Forbidden title, I was captivated. Someone I respect so deeply was back to the field he revolutionized, with a game about a theme I deeply care about, with an art style I can’t get enough of. I had the crowdfunding page up on phone for the entire length of the campaign, waffling on if I’d back. Ultimately, I did not, and I don’t think I’m going to regret it.
The relative weight to the game is a welcome addition. By adding some complexity, it naturally prevents hyper-specific quarterbacking and leaves some autonomy with each player. By making it so each player can build towards being a more specific “worker” in the system, it makes people feel more accomplished than just being given a “worker” with the exact same skills. But even with all of that added, the playtime seems to have been kept sharp, with BGG users reporting 60-75 minutes with a teach.
At the end of the day, though, I’d much rather play a semi-cooperative game with this same theme called CO2: Second Chance. But, do note, if my hatred of co-ops ever wanes, here is where I’m going first.
Ok, ok, so sue me. This isn’t a true co-op. It’s a 1-vs-many game, where the “many” are on a forced team. But, in my thick skull, it still counts. Beast is easily something I could see myself playing and enjoying, but probably only once or twice. The reason for that is the wild combination of mechanics that I loathe, including Hidden Movement. And yet, in spite of everything, Beast looks to be so close to a game I could love.
I’ve always wanted to find a “hunting” game. Kingdom Death: Monster, but, y’know, comprehensible and affordable. Beast is absolutely beautiful. It has diversity in items, locations, etc. without being a bloated Kickstarter (for now). But the main holdback of my drive to find one of those types of games is that most of the monsters are bot-controlled, and thus unpredictable, boring, or uneven. The idea of making that main monster a player is an enticing one.
“But there’s a two-player mode that’s 1-vs-1! Then it’s not a co-op!!” I hear the voices in my head shout. Well, voices, listen up, because Beast is not a two-player game. If two human beings were to sit down and play the game, the one who is not controlling the titular Beast would be stuck playing two characters. And that’s just not worth the effort.
So what I’m left with is a 3-to-4 player game where there’s inequity of play experiences, and I’m stuck working with someone(s) else. Ew.
Part Two: Look at All These Minis!
I have been playing Dungeons & Dragons since I was in 8th grade. Lidda, the halfling rogue, was the default character I was given to play as when three of my best friends wanted to explore the game together. Since then, my love and appreciation for tabletop RPGs has only grown. With that said, though, I have never clicked with storytelling board games, and especially those attached to dungeon crawler.
Big, over-produced Kickstarter dungeon crawlers often have killer marketing campaigns, and this year I was drawn in by one and still haven’t escaped its clutches.
The Isofarian Guard is almost literally everything I dislike in board gaming: co-op, story-driven, minis combat, forced story reading, enough plastic and paper in one box to break my leg if the box is dropped on my leg… And yet, I still want to love this game! First, it’s clearly a passion project. From the outline of the lore, to the component quality, to the organization, each and every aspect of the game appears to be hand-crafted to make this game as solid of an experience as possible.
But what really pulls me in here is the player count: 1 – 2 players. I’ve always been put off by dungeon crawling, story-driven games that fit 4+ players. In my mind, that space should be reserved specifically for TTRPGs. I would never want to sacrifice my TTRPG audience to play something like Gloomhaven. However, by having The Isofarian Guard be a one- to two-player game, now the title is filling a niche that only the most independent TTRPGs have even attempted to fill. By bringing this experience to a smaller table, it makes me much more inclined to play it some day.
Plus, the smaller table size means that the story can be engaged with in a more thorough and personal way. If just myself and my partner are playing out a scenario where we run into a chap on the side of the road and need to decide what to do, we can eventually come to a unanimous decision on what to do, meaning we both stay engaged with what’s happening because our choice wasn’t ignored. Playing out the Event Cards in Gloomhaven always fell flat to me for this reason: someone will be left out.
As excited as I am to play this title, I just feel that I will lose interest before I get to experience much of the campaign. I have always struggled to explore written narratives in board gaming: I have always been one to click with the ludonarrative over the written one. I don’t think that The Isofarian Guard would be any different. And with its staggering price tag and massive size and weight, I’m just not willing to take that risk.
Part Three: Look At All These Mechanics!
This is a special category just to talk about this one game. As I said at the top, I’ve gotten pretty good at nailing down what games I’ll like, and which ones I won’t. Strangely, though, there are games that exist that I know I would have liked, at some point during my board gaming journey, that I just find entirely off-putting because I’m getting to play them with who I am now. This is a game I have a special type of longing for, because if the timeline of the universe shook out differently, I know this game would have rocked my world.
Darwin’s Journey is an everything eurogame. It has systems on systems, actions on actions, resources on resources. Everything is interconnected, and yet no particular moves matter because you’re moving up some track somewhere. I absolutely loathed my time with this game. I was full of angst while reading the rulebook. This game falls into the eurogame design ethos of attempting to introduce a new mechanic, even if it’s not that well thought out. Having specialized workers in a worker placement game is nothing new, but this game took that to a whole new level that just rubbed me the wrong way entirely, especially as someone that desires conflict in my games. The specialization makes the game almost play itself and makes direct competition incredibly difficult.
Yet, even though I have nothing positive to say about this game today, in 2018/2019 I would have loved this game. Being able to fine-tune my workers and specialize them to my strategy would have distracted me from the fruitlessness of it all. Having the actions all be thematic (enough) to tie back to the theme would have filled me with joy, as teaching the game would have been simpler. The comboing of actions into other actions used to be one of my main drives to new games, and this game delivers that in spades.
I don’t think Darwin’s Journey is a bad game. Hey, most of the games I put at the bottom of my list here this year aren’t bad games. They are just games that are not for me, as I sit here today. And I can’t give these games any credit for appealing to me from five years ago. Besides, you wouldn’t want that anyway because my taste was so bad back then I thought pretending to be a man was an ok choice.
So those are my Missed Connections this year. I’m curious if this is a phenomenon that others experience. Do you have any games that you wish you liked? Do you still feel a pull to check out certain games, even if you think they’ll be failures?