Tsuro first came to my attention in my local game shop, as a group of gamers stroked their chins around an arrestingly beautiful abstract. It’s as though Go and Chess had a child. Seeing the game a few years later in Target surprised me–it’s not often that a brain-burning gamer’s game shows up on mass market shelves. It turns out that Tsuro is equally well-suited to quick, casual play, because of the simplicity of the rules and the difficulty of foreseeing the consequences of your actions. Though the adaptation treats its cardboard source material with great respect, going so far as to have you open a digital recreation of the box to start a game, it’s included several marvelous enhancements and an interface which doesn’t allow the limitations of the physical world to get in the way.
Posts by: Kelsey Rinella
TIS-100P, from developer Zachtronics of SpaceChem fame, offers similarly neuron-stretching puzzles without the overly friendly graphical interface. This game simulates finding an old computer and becoming obsessed with teaching yourself to program in its assembly-like language with strict memory limits, right down to recommending you print out a physical copy of its manual. There’s a sort of video-gamey plot revealed through reading bugged sectors, involving a portal to another dimension or a cold-war era AI or something, but it’s about as important as the story in Destiny at launch, so don’t worry about it. What matters here are the puzzles, which deliver the joy of solving low-level coding problems without the annoyance of deadlines, grades, or co-workers.
Offworld Games earned an awful lot of Pocket Tactics‘ goodwill with Legion of the Damned, a well-supported, genuine hex-and-counter wargame playable on an iPhone screen. And this was back in 2012, before phones found the cakes labeled “EAT ME” in Wonderland. Having colonized our stony auricles, Offworld are now attempting to capture the dessicated ventricles of the hearts of the Pocket Tactics crew by adapting Reiner Knizia’s superb The Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation for the iPad and PC/Mac. In a blessing to those who must type the name of the game, they’ve done so without the Tolkien license, so it’s just Reiner Knizia’s The Confrontation, which I’ll henceforth abbreviate to RKC. At least it’s not TLOTRTC, or I’d be in danger of unintentionally summoning an elder god of Mexican origin.
I played a lot of Card Crawl from Tinytouchtales when it first came out. It was a pretty simple game, easy to pick up and with a fantasy theme that was at once as familiar as poker and as fresh as casting spells by playing poker with a demon (I’ve always wanted to play Deadlands). It didn’t take too much time, and had an interface well-suited to a phone. It was a humble design, seemingly meant to fill those periods when you have to wait a bit and want something interesting enough to keep you from nodding off, but not so grand as to make you resent interruption. I eventually deleted it after unlocking all the cards, playing a bunch of constructed, and developing the impression that I’d learned everything I could about strategy.
Stories are very strange. You’d think they’d just be about telling people what happened, but cultural expectations about stories have a lot of other requirements. A perfectly accurate transcript of real people talking sounds idiotic, as is often observed by those who are skilled at writing dialogue. A story told the way life happens would inspire concerns that the storyteller might be suffering a stroke, with bizarre tangents that lead nowhere and near-disasters or obsessive hopes which connect with no larger theme. We often speak of such things as filtered through culture, but this suggests that what’s left was all originally part of the story; a better metaphor might be a shadow puppet seen by the light of culture, so thoroughly do our expectations add shape and color to the result.
Galactic Keep would earn its place in our 2015 wrap-up purely for having virtues so different from those of other games, even other role-playing games. That it delivers so completely on those virtues brings it into the RPG of the Year category, rather than merely ending up in the grab-bag of notable oddities we’re still thinking about. Combat isn’t a massively complex tactical masterpiece (though it does reward attentive play), maneuver is crucial but basic, intricate dialogue trees are notably absent, and characters are pre-generated, leaving little sense of authorship over their identity to the player. Many role-playing fans find those to be their greatest sources of joy in the genre, and Galactic Keep’s refusal to cooperate doubtless contributes to its polarizing nature.
X-Mercs is free-to-play XCOM, and it’s quite open about that fact. It’s an interesting test case in our intuitions about intellectual property in games; most creative works attempt to camouflage their influences. I remember reading a series which was clearly intended to be The Lord of the Rings for people who didn’t like Tolkien’s writing style, but it wasn’t simply called The Shire. Heck, you could be forgiven for not even noticing that The Name of the Wind is basically Harry Potter. X-Mercs takes a more direct approach–like Star Whores, nobody’s left wondering where it got its premise. It also hails from the Star Whores school of character design, but then confounds the resulting expectation of lazy design with a number of mechanical innovations.
This review of Reiner Knizia’s Dice Monsters will largely focus on the criticism that the game feels random. That’s not very insightful. After all, the title of the game has the word “dice” right in it. But that visceral negative reaction, that a game “feels random”, is actually sort of puzzling. Most of the games I enjoy have substantial randomness to manage, and games which give players lots of choices can still evoke that reaction. Fortunately, I was trained as a philosopher [you don’t say? Read on… -ed.], so I’m always attracted to an opportunity to gaze deeply into my navel and extract a clearer meaning for something my gut has told me on several occasions is naturally fuzzy. Perhaps this will help: if you read on, we’ll mostly be talking about responsibility, that beloved topic of mom speeches and after-school specials.
If that doesn’t get you to jump past the break, I’m not sure what else I can do.