Last week I talked at length about Campaign games and why I love them, covering which ones I was most excited to get to the table in 2021. This week we take a look at the top ten campaign games that slipped through the cracks for reason or another.
Most gamers would have this one at number one. The thing is, despite the rave reviews I keep seeing for Gloomhaven and Jaws of the Lion the game just looks bland to me. The cover doesn’t excite me, the art and the graphic design feel tired, the ability cards are entirely mechanical, no art to brighten up the festival of brown presented there. The hexagonal boards and the art there on look dull and uninspired making me feel like I’m back in the old school D&D days playing on graph paper with cardboard standees.
Gloomhaven seems to essentially boil down to a combat puzzle, how to successfully kill everything before you run out of stamina and need to retire. This seems to lack the storytelling I seek in my dungeon crawling adventures, even simple quests to add some variance such as protect this item, escort these noblemen, rescue the princess, but Gloomhaven seems to simply be kill these guys but make sure you do it efficiently.
Nothing about the presentation of this game makes me want to play it and yet it is so well regarded, so beloved despite all that, that I feel I owe it to myself to at least play it once to see what all the fuss is about.
Editorial Note: I have now played Gloomhaven Digital.
9. Under Falling Skies
I’m not a solo gamer by default, normally if I have time on my hands and nothing to do I’ll play a video game rather than a board game. But with the current pandemic I’ve been playing more solo stuff than normal and I’m interested in giving this one a go.
Under Falling Skies was originally a print and play style game which has been revamped and buffed up by the boffins over at CGE to a full retail release resplendent with a fully fledged campaign. The base concept here is you are in control of a military base during an alien invasion and you are rolling dice and assigning the numbers to various sections of the base to fight off the attackers. The higher you roll the better but the higher you roll the faster the aliens will come for you.
Each game of Under Falling Skies progresses you to the next unlocking new cities, new bases and plenty of other exciting things but reportedly nothing that completely changes the gameplay. This one has charted in every Top 10 Solo games list I’ve seen for the year and I like the look and theme of this one, so if I’m going to give solo gaming a try I think it’s going to be with Under Falling Skies.
8. Arkham Horror The Card Game
I love Lord of the Rings LCG, it’s my second most played game of all time, so when FFG announced the next iteration of the LOTR system was going to be Arkham Horror I was poised to jump in… but I didn’t. All reports said that this game is the game Lord of the Rings should have been, that it is a better evolution of that system, a better story telling game. All of that may be true, but here is another truth…
Lord of the Rings has had 9 cycles of card packs, 17 deluxe expansion boxes and dozens of solo releases and I own nearly all of them. The game in its semi complete state has cost in the region of £1000 or roughly £3 a play. If upon release you had asked me to drop a grand on a game I would have laughed in your face and so when Arkham Horror released I had to ask myself do I really want to spend another £1000 on a game that will compete for time with a game I already own and love? And the answer, of course, had to be no.
So while I’d love to bust out the Arkham campaign and play through every iteration I just cannot justify the outlay or the time it would take.
7. Machi Koro Legacy
There is an argument to be made that campaign games and legacy games are not the same thing, however I would argue a legacy game is simply a campaign game you only play once. Machi Koro came out to a fair amount of buzz back in 2012 but quickly became passé and even ridiculed by serious gamers. However for me Machi Koro is a great family weight engine builder that plays well in most settings.
In Machi Koro players roll a die and activate all the buildings that match the rolled number. Typically any such activation generates income of some kind. The player may then spend income to build a new building or one of their four landmarks, building all of which will end the game in victory for that player.
In Machi Koro Legacy the premise is the same but players play through an eight game campaign experiencing new content as they play through the story. New cards are introduced like new mini expansions easing players into new concepts and giving them some control over the type of cards available in what will become their own custom set of Machi Koro.
This is one that I want to play with the Game Night crew, back in the early days we played through Season 1 of Pandemic Legacy in monthly installments which went over well but was a little too rules heavy towards the end of the campaign. Machi Koro would give us that sense of a connected series of games but would play out in a shorter time frame with less rules intimidation.
Direwild is a game I have added to my cart on multiple occasions because I love the concept of it. It is a deckbuilding game with adorable creatures and each round you play each card either as a creature or as keyword to buff your creature. So instead of just playing a Kitten, you can play an awkward, feisty, fluffy kitten.
Once you have decided which creature and which buffs to play you then use your creature to attack on the map and here’s where I just could not get excited. The combat just seems dull. The map is an 8 x 8 square with some blocking terrain and a few special spaces, the whole deck building side of the game which seems really cool translates into pushing your hero around an uninspired square fighting generic minions.
But I really like the art, I really like the creature crafting idea, I love deck builders and dungeon crawls so this game ticks so many boxes that I want to try it out, so if you love Direwild please let me know in the comments and maybe I’ll try and grab a copy!
5. Legacy of Dragonholt
Legacy of Dragonholt, designed by Nikki Valens, came a little bit out of left field for most people. This is essentially a vast, expansive, "choose your own" adventure with RPG elements set in the world of Terrinoth, Fantasy Flight Games' own fantasy universe.
From what I’ve heard this game is very similar to the early D&D games, like Baldur's Gate. There are six major story events for you to explore and a series of town quests that can be completed, essentially making the town, or hub world, a seventh level. I really like the idea of this game, it’s a light D&D style game set in a world I enjoy and I’d have picked it up if it weren’t for two things.
The first is the price, this one clocks in at ~£50 which feels expensive for a game with only a handful of components. And yes I know you are paying for the development time, the extra writers and all that but it still does feel very expensive for what is essentially a big choose your own adventure book.
Secondly it’s a lot of reading. If I’m going to play this one I want to play it with eloquent players that will get into the theme of the game, embody the characters and really embrace the storytelling aspect of the game and ideally I’d want to play it with four and I just couldn’t see that happening. So for now Legacy of Dragonholt is one that’ll remain on my wishlist, but if I find the right group I’ll definitely be jumping in on this one.
4. Journeys in Middle Earth
Lord of the Rings is one of my favourite themes, I have waxed lyrical on it many times. When FFG announced this adventure game with an epic scope, a box of minis, two game modes and the app driven system from Mansions of Madness I was intrigued but the price point was rather steep. For some time now FFG’s games have been increasing in price with each new release and each time I fell for it, tumbling into a vast pit of FOMO but with this one I didn’t.
If Lord of the Rings the Card Game were not so great and my Descent collection not so vast, I might have felt more compelled but the truth is I just wasn’t pulled in. My first problem was with miniatures, they didn’t feel very Tolkien to me, too chunky, blocky and angular.
Then we have the theme, it again felt off, half the characters were known personalities, the others of FFG’s imagination. When we had Imperial Assault all the characters were invented, allowing you to tell new tales and brush elbows with the dramatis personae of the Star Wars saga. Here we have Aragorn, adventuring alongside Bilbo, with Elena and Beravor… This never happened, how could it? Bilbo and Aragorn never met until Bilbo had retired to Rivendell and he certainly didn’t go off raiding orc camps then!
Not only that but the stories I’ve seen from a variety of reviews just don’t seem very Tolkienish either, in fact you could largely do a global search and replace and slap a D&D theme on there and the whole game would play out largely the same.
Finally we have the Battle Maps… yawn! They are so bland I thought I was looking at a prototype. With FFG games we have come to expect great art all over every component but here we have a grassy, featureless field and an even more featureless generic rocky floor which I assume doubles up as a cave and a tavern. On top of that these so called “Battle Maps” seem to offer all the tactical choices of snap, with just five spaces apiece it would seem to be nearly impossible for any tactical manoeuvring, terrain or line of site rules or really any crunch at all.
Now, why is this even on the list if I’m bashing on it so hard? These are the reasons I didn’t buy the game, the reasons I don’t plan on buying the game in the future, but if someone were to offer me a seat at the table, I’d be on it like a hobbit on pipeweed.
3. Pandemic Season 2 (& Season 0)
After we played through Pandemic Season 1 I was done. I was not aching to play Season 2, I was burned out. I played through Season 1 with the Game Night boys, they are casual players and we play together once a month, Pandemic Legacy was a big commitment and it was intense. I had a few games of Pandemic with the boys to ease them in before throwing in the legacy stuff.
I should have played more base game Pandemic. At the time I had probably played Pandemic 80 times, I had also dabbled in expansions so I had some idea about how the new Legacy elements worked. The boys had played twice with no expansions. Pandemic Legacy is like going from zero to eighty eight miles an hour. It starts out okay but soon you’re managing multiple new rules, cities have entry restrictions, viruses respond in different ways, every player has multiple additional skills they can use, it’s a lot to take in and a lot to manage.
When we were done everyone had had an experience, largely positive but it was also good to move on and to experience new things. I was glad to have played, to see what it was like from the inside, it is a game you have to experience to appreciate what it is accomplishing but I didn’t really want to jump back in… That was until last year.
We were in the pub (pubs… remember those… good old days) and, without prompting, one of the boys, who has been largely non-vocal when it comes to expressing interest in games, turned to me and said, “We should play Season 2”. This was followed by a series of nods and murmurs of approval from around the table… This must be what winning feels like, they actually requested a game… how can I say no?!
2. Forgotten Waters
Forgotten Waters is a pirate-y storytelling from Plaid Hat Games… This one was in my cart and it eventually escaped for one simple reason, the pandemic. Forgotten Waters is absolutely a game I want to play, coming from Plaid Hat who make the best storytelling games and the designer of Dead of Winter, Issac Vega, this one had me salivating from the announcement alone.
The art is beautiful, the game is fully fleshed out with voice acting for the story bits and from all the stories I’ve heard, this is one of the best narrative games on the market. Add to that the fact that it plays with a higher player count and that the “campaign” is only two sessions means I’ll likely be able to get this one to the table with the Game Night guys and actually finish it.
Mechanically the game seems simple enough, utilizing the storybook system made popular by games like Stuffed Fables and Comanauts. It also has a real time component as players race to assign their pirates to various tasks before resolving those tasks in order, giving it a feeling of Space Alert but without the complexity. As for the theme, who doesn’t want to ride the waves and roam the seven seas looking for booty? Give me a cutlass and a parrot on my shoulder, I’m coming aboard!
After finishing Stuffed Fables I immediately wanted to try Aftermath, the newest game from the creative mind of Jerry Hawthorne. However, delays pushed the release back and I got tired of waiting for the new shiny storybook game and instead I dived into Jerry’s back catalogue and grabbed myself a copy of Mice & Mystics instead.
Aftermath is a new universe of anthropomorphic creatures. Humanity has mysteriously vanished and nature has reclaimed the world. You are a band of plucky critters, surviving in the Aftermath of this event. In order to win the campaign you and your colony must survive, as well as each player must achieve their own personal mission.
The story is immediately compelling, pulling in inspiration from Jerry’s previous titles as well as a brand new setting. This post-apocalyptic world of rats and weasels armed with steampunk style weaponry, is juxtaposed against a green and vibrant world reclaimed by nature. Jerry has a way of taking dark themes and not removing the darkness but adding enough levity that he brightens them around the edges. For example, Stuffed Fables, while being a game ostensibly about children’s toys, still manages to deal with grown up themes and a nightmare world and Comanauts, while being primarily a game of dream hopping adventurers also deals with mental illness, emotions and the human psyche.
In Aftermath the mechanics of the game have you building a colony of survivors, ensuring they have enough food and supplies, while exploring the world around you to achieve your own personal goals. Like Forgotten Waters, this game makes extensive use of the storybook system allowing the players to visit dozens of different and varied locations and even old locations can change upon a revisit. This time around the dice system has been changed to a card based success system to help reduce the randomness and give players more control over their actions.
There’s a reason that the top two games on this list are from Plaid Hat Games, when it comes to storytelling and world building they are world class and it is not a question of if I’ll ever play Aftermath, it’s simply a question of how soon!
Editorial Note: I have now bought Aftermath!
Honourable Mention - Gen 7
Ah poor old Gen 7, I was so hyped for this one when it was first announced, a spiritual sequel to Dead of Winter with a Battlestar Galactica-esque vibe. It took a goodly long time to arrive and when it did it arrived with a hefty price tag attached to it which initially caused me to give the game a swerve, along with the fact that it only played with 3 or 4 and not 2 which was the likely player count I could rely on for a campaign style game.
Then the reviews started to come in and the game was taking dings left, right and centre. At this point I still held out hope, after all Comanauts took a fair panning from reviewers but I still liked it and played it through to completion. But as the game started to hit bargain bins I knew that the likelihood of it being good was beginning to diminish, even so I still stop scrolling when I see it in a sale section and ponder if I might try and get it to the table.
However the final nail in Gen 7’s coffin has to be the release of ISS Vanguard. ISS Vanguard from Awaken Realms has the same feel of a gigantic space opera where you’re also managing a crew and dealing with far reaching consequences but with much more favourable reviews and stunning production. So Gen 7 will likely always be the one that got away…
Let me know down in the comments what campaign games you want to play but haven’t gotten around to purchasing yet and which games I didn’t mention but that I should check out.