We’ve all bought things based on impulse, without prior research, without diligently doing our due and sometimes we’ve lucked out and other times we’ve ended up eating a hamburger called The Elvis because we like strawberry jam and peanut butter.
So Mike Barnes from Who Dares Rolls and I thought it would be fun to put together a list of games we’ve bought without doing our prior research, that we bought based solely on the designer’s street cred.
I am no stranger to this phenomenon. I will actively seek out and consume anything that Joss Whedon puts his name to, I’ve even suffered through Alien: Resurrection because it was penned by the god of Geekdom. So it will come as little surprise then that I have fallen prey to this habit in my board gaming. Let’s take a look at my 3 choices and hopefully they will surprise you.
Jay Little - X-Wing
Now, I know what you’re saying, “Chris, you love Star Wars, you would have bought X-Wing regardless”. I am willing to admit that I am a Star Wars universe fan, not so much the movies, but I love playing in that universe, exploring it via video games, board games and RPGs. However, I am also a miniature games snob.
When X-Wing was first announced I immediately renounced it. Prepainted Miniatures were the first turn off for me, as a miniature gamer I pride myself on the quality of my painting and all pre-paints do is push up the price without doing an actually good job, meaning you have to repaint them anyway.
Which leads me into my second reason for dismissing it, the price. X-Wing was released with a “Core Set” which immediately raises red flags, especially with FFG as you generally need at least 2 “core sets” to have a good experience. The word’s core set meant that this was going to be a collectable miniatures game, rather than a complete skirmish boxset with yearly or biyearly expansions. With the core set coming in at £25 (and the fact you’d probably need two) I could see this game becoming very expensive.
Which leads me on to reason number three, the box only contains one X-Wing. In the entire trilogy the only time you see a singular X-Wing is in the Dagobah swamp. For a game that claims to be about cinematic dogfights it seemed awfully light on the stars of the show. Had the opening scene from A New Hope been just two Tie Fighters I think the cinematic landscape of today might look very different.
Then, however, I saw the designer. Jay Little… Now that name might not mean much to some of you but I had just disembarked from a magical journey through Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, before jumping on the Blood Bowl Team Manager Express, I was a big fan of what Jay was doing, in my world he was a visionary stepping into the world of board gaming and if he was behind this over-priced, pre-painted, anticlimactic, collectible, wallet troubler then perhaps it was worth a second look…
I now have 4 foam trays stuffed with models from X-Wing, along with 2 impossibly large ships I find it difficult to store. In fact I have so much stuff for X-Wing now that I actually play it less because there are just too many options to choose from. Despite this the design choices in X-Wing are solid. The Flight Path system is not only simple to explain and use but it allows for intricate ship design and complex in-game tactics.
The relatively simple set of options you have on your turn, coupled with the optional complexity from the upgrade system is an elegant, yet simple solution to the problem of making this game accessible to newcomers and non-gamers but also fun, engaging and competitive to the tournament players.
Sure, it’s a different beast from Jay’s other designs, but you can still see his influences coming through. The critical wound mechanic, which I was so impressed with in Warhammer Roleplay is borrowed without change. The gradual upgrade system from Blood Bowl Team Manager is there too, although implemented through the metagame rather than through the game mechanics.
What I’m saying here is that X-Wing is a fantastic game, it’s fast, it’s fun, it’s hugely thematic and Jay is 3 for 3 in my gaming collection.
Kevin Wilson - TMNT Shadows of the Past
Now for someone a little bit more mainstream, if Jay was my David Fincher then Kevin Wilson is my Steven Spielberg. Kevin is a wonderful and prolific designer, having his fingers in so very many pies. However, where I first fell in love with Kevin’s designs was in #DescentJourneysintheDark.
Sure, Descent is an overwrought version of #Heroquest that took up too much time and way too much table space but it was spectacular. Kevin took those tenants of the Heroquest system, “Double Move”, “Move and Attack” or “Double Attack” and he built one of the best tactical combat dungeon crawlers ever made. In Descent you would go from a know-nothing, low level peasant to a warrior-god over the course of 4 hours. You might win, you might lose, but at the end of it, you’d know you’d played a game!
When I heard that #IDW were producing a game based on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles licence I was super psyched. When I heard Kevin was designing it my brain basically exploded all over my living room; I was that excited. Then I heard it would be drawing it’s inspiration from the IDW comic book series, rather than the 80’s tv series I had grown up adoring and my balloon of adoration began to leak. Then the kickstarter itself launched and the balloon flew about my living room like a flatulent aunt until all that was left was a shrivelled latex puddle of dashed dreams.
The one thing I could hold on to throughout the whole process, as I sunk my hard earned cash into a KS that looked to be pushing 1 million dollars, was that at least Kevin is designing it. As IDW put out featureless 3D printed sculpt after featureless 3D printed sculpt I held tighter to my beloved designer, whispering “please let it be good, please let it be good.” as my dreams were filled with poor quality cardboard and misshapen grey plastic lumps.
The experience of the Kickstarter did not help my mood, the air surrounding the entire process was toxic from beginning to end as the “fans”, the vocal minority, called for IDW to change their plans, to bow to the will of the “many”. I consoled myself by buying the entire TMNT back catalogue from IDW’s digital store and to my surprise I began to fall in love with their vision of the Turtles. I read everything and then I bought everything in hardback bound books and leant them to my friends to read.
Suddenly I was excited again. I was looking past the poor quality of the cards in IDW’s Machi Koro, I was looking past the endless tirade of negativity from the kickstarter comment section, which apparently just said out loud what the other 6000 backers were quietly thinking. I was excited, I was more than excited, I was consumed, just like in my early childhood I was once again experiencing Turtle Fever!
The game finally arrived. I had already replaced all the grey plastic with my own wonderfully sculpted miniatures, sourced from half a dozen companies and costing more than the game itself. Lovingly painted they adorned the map for the intro scenario. I passed out the cards, explained the dice sharing system and we were ready to begin…
I held my breath for what seemed like an age, but finally I knew, Kevin had done it again! #TMNT #ShadowsofthePast is a wonderful tactical miniatures game. Tonally and mechanically it feels different to Descent or really to anything else I’ve ever played. Sure, it has a few errors and the production quality is so-so, but the gameplay is wonderful. It can go long (although one to one and a half hours, not five) and if you play with the full compliment of 5 players it could be a while between your turns. But overall, this is one I’ve loved playing and hope to enjoy for many years to come.
Phil Walker-Harding - Barenpark
Finally we come to Phil Walker-Harding. Phil is like a Pixar movie, his games are cute but there is something magical below the surface that seems to appeal to everyone.
I had ignored #Barenpark when I first saw it at the #UKGamesExpo, the cover reminded me of all the other #LookoutGames, so much so that I assumed that this one too would be another overly complex worker placement game from Uwe Rosenberg and so I naively blurted out “pass”. After the show the game was practically impossible to ignore as reviewer after reviewer had pictures of that damn bear cluttering up my social network feeds.
At last, out of sheer frustration I clicked on a link, just to see what all the fuss was about and that was when I saw the name Phil Walker-Harding. Phil had been the designer on two of my favourite lightweight games, Archaeology the Card Game and Sushi Go Party. If Barenpark could combine Phil’s trademark skill of simple designs with the fun, cutesy art style and theming from Zooloretto, I might have just found the new family weight game I have been looking for.
The problem, of course, with being late to the party is that when you finally do arrive all the vol-au-vents are gone and you’re left with nothing but a wilty lettuce. I was desperate to find a copy, clawing at the walls of my board-game-lined cell, until at last, from seemingly nowhere 10 copies appeared in an online retailer's stock. Quick as a flash I threw together an order and hit “go to checkout” before any other sally-come-lately’s beat me to it.
The game arrived, packaged in it’s own crate like some kind of holy grail and it sat on my shelf wreathed in flames, just screaming to be played, and it got played, at the very first opportunity. And you know what, it’s okay. I haven’t played it since.
I would like to add here that I will play it again, I am not dismissing it. I played it twice and I only played it two-player. I liked it, but I wasn’t blown away by it. I love the art style and the production values, I don’t even mind the much derided box insert. I wanted Phil to set my world on fire, but much like Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, I thought it was very pretty and a not an unpleasant experience, but ultimately it left me wishing it was something more.
Yes, this was a cool subject, being an avid film buff a favourite director attached to a project always influences my interest in seeing it at the old picture house, comic artists and writers get a similar bit of hero worship these days so why not Games Designers.
So let's dig into this, shall we? Let's get the easy one out of the way first, as Chris already prior to this mockingly said I couldn't just put this designer's name three times! As if.
Eric Lang - The Godfather
So yes it's Eric M Lang. Probably the closest we'll get in the hobby to bordering on the superstar Elvis levels of public adoration, or to stay with the film motif he's our Spielberg. Eric is a machine churning out some kick ass designs over the years and in no particular order but Chaos in the Old World, Dice Masters, Arcadia Quest and Blood Rage, I mean that’s a hell of a CV just there.
So my pick was Godfather, it was a double down because I also adore the films..well two of them so just the pitch had me. Lang/Godfather well duh!
Now it’s an expensive game and it did give me pause for thought but the Langster hasn't let me down before and it was in his design wheel house area control and mischief, so yeah ka-ching.
And yes it’s a bit like a mix-tape of his other hits but the game is a really solid chunk of area control, hand management, bluffing, deception and some good old fashioned wanton violence and backstabbing. And kudos for the rules on this one, really simple literally about 5 rules to learn and teach, making it something you can get to the table with minimal headaches, and it was a pleasure to see how complex the game became despite these. There’s a heap of emergent strategies in here. Another Lang design choice.
Yes, it’s overproduced, the theme is mostly of lip service and there were some baffling component choices, the biggest, probably in the lack of art on the cards considering the abundance of stunning images in the rulebook. But taking that aside this is a fine example of the master at work.
Well here’s another curve ball. Not!
Ignacy Trzewiczek - Imperial Settlers.
Ignacy is another of my board game designer heroes. He’s not your blockbuster features director like Lang he’s more a John Carpenter at the height of his 1980's best producing solid stories and action with some rough edges. Imperial Settlers was the polished phoenix like rebirth of his earlier hit the gritty 51st State (that was subsequently given a fresh lick of paint in it’s Master Edition).
This I think was when Portal and Ignacy hit their stride producing a solid and satisfying card game of civ building with a great aesthetic that belayed its vicious gameplay. And much like Carpenter, his later output has been mired not so much by studio interference but by the struggle to encapsulate all the minutiae of his games in a simple rulebook. So like Carpenter Ignacy’s output gains a following some time after its release not so much driven by fan’s uncovering its subtleties or hidden damning societal message, more actually understanding how to play the bloody things.
Despite his rules wobbles he’s still a designer that my ears always perk up when he has something in the pipeline when he does capture that lightning in the bottle it hits with a boom!
Tony Boydell - Snowdonia
We have all our big flashy blockbusters covered, so here’s a designer that's probably closer to homegrown talent someone like Mike Hodges, a director that was as comfortable giving us the ice cool classic of Get Carter to the bonkers Flash Gordon and I think that sums up Tony’s output exactly.
Snowdonia is and will continue to be a classic in typical very British fashion it forgoes huge expansive building of rail networks across nations or the globe and instead settles on the tiny Snowdon railway and the grit and sweat that it took to build those 4 short miles up the side of a mountain. And it does it so well with some subtly brilliant mechanisms and design choices it and its expansions are probably my most treasured board game possession.
There is something quintessentially British about Tony’s output whether it’s the pub in Snowdonia or the entirety of its long mooted follow up “A nice cup of Tea” he’s like Mr Ben or Leo Baxendale, his work just evokes a warm nostalgic feeling. And he embraced this fully when he published Ivor a couple of years ago.
If you’ve not experienced the world of Boydell then it’s really time you did. He’s a British institution.