Battle Ravens: I backed this Kickstarter game back in November 2018 and although it arrived on time I hadn’t had much opportunity to try it beyond a few solo games to familiarize myself with the rules and have fun playing with all the amazing cardstock soldier pieces by artist Peter Dennis. Then the week before Thanksgiving my son comes home asking me how much I know about the Battle of Hastings and William the Conqueror (or “The Bastard,” he notes, as he was known before the battle). He loves history already, but apparently found a classmate who was quite interested in that period and shared his knowledge and enthusiasm. “Don’t you have a game about the Battle of Hastings?” my son asked. Why yes, I do. So I mentioned Battle Ravens; the Saturday before Thanksgiving, during the weekend doldrums, I set it up and we played a game, Anglo-Saxons against Normans. We kept things basic – without the tactics cards that add some depth to the game – and had a blast. We bashed away at each other’s shield wall, him concentrating massive attacks on my center and I taking a more generalized, cautious approach. We seemed pretty evenly matched, each taking one of the other’s spaces within a turn of each other. The final victory depended on a series of unlucky die rolls on his part and some lucky rolls for me. Despite losing my son was quite pleased with himself and interested enough to want to try it again (with the tactics cards) in the near future. I’ve featured the game before (“Battle Ravens Looks Ideal for Kids & Newcomers”) and recommend it as a solid historically themed game. It might seem simple at first, with each side bashing away at the enemy shield wall, but it uses some interesting mechanics and offers some challenging player choices.
Terraforming Mars: I’ve heard very good things about this game since its release but never really pursued it given its high price tag and an impression of lots of fiddly bits (and hence crunchy rules). I’m not a huge fan of intricate resource allocation games; but when our Thanksgiving hosts suggested it, I figured it was a good way to experience the game firsthand. The four adults played while the kids plugged into the video games (some things don’t change). It took me a while to fully appreciate the seemingly overwhelming player choices, especially when factoring in various cards played to enhance one’s abilities. The science behind the terraforming theme influenced gameplay in logical ways, though as a corporation concerned more with cultivating plant life on Mars I had more opportunities to change conditions by exploding nukes, mining, and dropping asteroids onto the surface. I was also happy to learn it included rules for solitaire play, offering a chance to tinker with game strategies on my own in the context of a complete game. The game took us most of the afternoon to play – about as much time as the turkey took to cook – so it was a welcome diversion.
Sagrada: After dinner we passed the time with a game of Sagrada, a die drafting and placement game with a cathedral stained glass window theme. I’d played it before a few summers ago with our hosts and liked it enough to get a copy for home. It offers some very good visual challenges arranging dice given certain parameters (no similar ones by number or color orthogonally) while seeking to achieve upwards of four objectives, including highest values on a certain “secret color” of dice. I’m not terribly good at it (especially after way too much turkey and wine), but it served as a good post-dinner diversion. My art-school-graduate wife put her visual arts skills to good use and won handily.
5-Minute Dungeon: To round out the evening our hosts suggested this super-light cooperative game themed as a quick dungeon crawl where heroes try to vanquish numerous foes and a final boss monster in five minutes. Gameplay boiled down to each player trying to match symbols from cards in their hands to those needed to defeat each foe, then slapping them down before vanquishing the adversary...and, in an effort to save time, sweeping the resulting cards onto the floor while someone else drew the next monster. Each hero had some special powers to help defeat monsters, people, and obstacles, and the individual hero decks had a characteristic mix of cards with some specials thrown in. But overall we played (and won) three times. It w as a fun, rousing experience, but I later found myself reading the monster cards, admiring the artwork and the silly puns (“Zola the Gorgon,” for instance) we’d raced through. I found we spent more focus matching symbols from our hands to those needed to defeat an adversary than immersing ourselves in anything resembling a dungeon crawl. An enjoyable filler game, but not one I’d want to add to my collection.
The Bridge with G Company: After we returned home from our Thanksgiving revels I wanted to give one last miniatures wargame scenario a try on the basement wargaming table before it is requisitioned for the duration of the holiday season as a present-wrapping and staging area. I’ve been toying around with – and offering occasional advice on – John Yorio’s G Company World War II miniatures rules for a gridded game surface. I decided to try a scenario he’d found that vexed him: one side with a pillbox tries to defend a bridge from advancing enemy troops. After quickly fashioning a pillbox out of gray cover stock I set up the battlefield, deployed my units, found suitable dice, shuffled my WWII aircraft spotter cards, and started playing. This scenario challenged me to use some rules I’d not used in previous engagements (a scenario based on the British commando raid on the radar station at Bruneval): the defenders had a sniper, who managed to take out one of the advancing platoons’ leaders; and both sides had spotters who could call in heavy mortar strikes. The attackers used a two-pronged advance, one group dashing up the road and across the bridge to try taking out the pillbox in close combat, the other crossing the river upstream and engaging the enemy posted in the wooded areas. Alas, some lucky die rolls, the sniper, and constant machine gun fire mowed down the attackers. I also learned that, in G Company, close combat is brutal, often with one and sometimes both engaged forces eliminated outright. I’m really enjoying G Company; it’s a free game, very much a work in progress, and perfectly suitable for company-level WWII action.
Now that Thanksgiving’s over our uncontrolled descent into the holiday madness truly begins. I’ve already cleared half the wargaming table for gift wrapping. I must inventory our lights and start rigging everything to illuminate the house. The tree and the trains are due to brighten the living room as soon as I deal with my son’s “toypocalypse” and give the public rooms a thorough cleaning. I expect gaming activities to slow until the holiday itself, when gaming gifts appear under the tree and my son has nearly two weeks off until he returns to school...plenty of opportunities to turn to games to engage our imaginations and brighten these darkest of days.