In 2017 a little abstract game called Azul made big waves. It nominally has a theme of decorating a Portugese palace with beautiful tilework, but that’s not what makes Azul great. Instead, Azul has a surprising amount of strategy and interaction, compared to how uncomplicated the rules are.
Naturally sequels follow in the wake of this kind of success, and Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra became a thing. This second Azul used the same picking/drafting rules as the original, but had a different scoring system. While considered marginally better than the first, Stained Glass of Sintra didn’t quite supplant Azul.
Ironically, the third Azul game, called Summer Pavilion, came out in the winter of 2019. It again uses the picking/drafting system as always. However, Summer Pavilion adds a few more features to the Azul formula that hobby game fans would appreciate - namely, wild colors and bonus tiles. This gives Summer Pavilion more depth and strategy than even the original Azul, fixing it into the pantheon of classic hobby games.
As befitting its status as a turning point in board games, Catan has many variants and versions in circulation. One of its earliest variants was a space-themed game called The Starfarers of Catan. It introduced some new ideas to the Catan formula, adding an exploration theme to Catan’s existing themes of trade and building.
That only scratches the surface, though. The original Starfarers of Catan from 1999 also included some fancy new components that were pretty epic for the time. Namely, Starfarers of Catan came with four giant Motherships with some amusing integrated uses. The Motherships each contained 5 colored marbles and a transparent bottom section that showed the bottom two marbles. Shaking the Mothership randomizes the marbles and shows two new colors each time it's set down. Additionally, upgrading the Mothership by adding Cannon pieces, Cargo Pod pieces, and Booster pieces increases a players’ capabilities in the game as well. Additionally, the many Colony, Trade Station, Shipyard, and Transport Ships nest within each other to create new, more capable game pieces.
Starfarers Catan had a distinct “toy” aspect to it that is still rare to this day, especially with strategically-focused games. The Motherships and player pieces made the physical interaction with the game much more fun. So an updated version, now called Catan Starfarers, is a welcome update, improving the quality of many of the pieces. Especially welcome is an updated Mothership design that addresses a flaw in the Motherships from the original Starfarers of Catan.
Fun in strategy, fun in theme, and fun in physical interaction all add up to a notable and charming entry in Catan’s long and storied history.
The board game hobby is a somewhat recent phenomenon. Most games that board game fans are pretty much from the past 15 or 25 years, even though board games themselves have been around since time immemorial. Many of the mainstream classic games that American families are familiar with can be up to a century old.
There are a handful of “old” hobby board games that hold a revered place in the hobby. Even though board game design is extremely iterative, these older games stand the test of time. One of these games is based on an epic story from the early days of New Wave science fiction: Frank Herbert’s Dune.
In 1979 a trio of wargamers made a board game that emulated the intense political intrigue of this classic sci-fi novel. The original Dune board game was more complex and time-consuming than even some modern hobby board games. Dune balanced diplomacy with economic management and a battle system based on bluffing. Its impact was indelible. Dune grew to be a legendary game in the hobby, spawning many stories of exciting betrayals and reversals of fortune.
In 2019, Dune made a return. A new version was published by Gale Force Nine with new art, updated components and revised rules that shook off the dust and cobwebs of the now 40 year old game. This Dune, as well, left its mark on the hobby, introducing many hobby gamers to the same system that spawned so many stories. Gale Force Nine’s Dune maintains the legacy of one of the most revered American hobby games.
Paranormal Detectives is a brain-teasingly clever party game. It comfortably lies at a middle point between party games, storytelling games, and family games. It’s not a very strategic game, which is unusual for hobby board games. Instead, the deduction and intuition that Paranormal Detectives leans on makes it a fantastic crossover game that anyone can enjoy.
One player is the ghost of a recently-deceased person, and they have a card that describes their last mortal moments. This story card also includes five facts about how they died: who, why, where, how, and weapon. The other players are psychic detectives, and the first detective to correctly guess the five facts wins.
So how do you get those facts? On their turn, a detective player asks one question, and plays a card to tell the ghost how they can respond. These little mini games can be using a miniature Ouija board, adjusting sliders on the “ghost meter”, twisting wires into shapes, or several other games. The ghost has to be creative to get their answer across, and the detectives have to be clever to read them correctly and piece together the story.
Paranormal Detectives is simple, fun, and engaging in a way that families, parties, and even hobby gamers will love.
One of the best things about the board game hobby is the beauty and aesthetics. Parks is a fantastic example of this. Based on the Fifty-Nine Parks art project, featuring stylish interpretations of America’s captivating natural wonders. The beauty of America’s national parks, interpreted by the creativity of the artwork, is complemented by wonderful graphic design and component production in the board game. All the tokens are nice, hefty wooden pieces, and the layout and iconography on the game’s boards and cards are easy to read and easy on the eyes.
In terms of gameplay, Parks is very accessible as well. The game proceeds in four rounds named after seasons, and players want to move their hiker tokens across the board. Like Tokaido, players can jump ahead as far as they want, but players actually want to take it slow. Each space on the board gives players bonuses. However, sometimes haste is useful, as spaces can only allow one hiker token at a time. Players have to balance going slow to accumulate a lot of bonuses, while going fast to get the bonuses they need.
Parks is a lovely, chill light strategy game that deserves more attention. It’s challenging without being too heavy, and a treat for the senses.
Tapestry by Stonemeier Games has a reputation to live up to. Stonemeier has produced some of the board game hobby’s biggest hits in the past few years, like Scythe, Viticulture, and Wingspan. Tapestry is Stonemeier’s take on a long-time game genre, and their expert touch shines through.
The style of game that Tapestry represents can be called an empire builder, otherwise known as a 4X game - explore, expand, exploit, exterminate. Players in these types of games represent a nation or civilization, and guide that civilization through an epic length of history, from an initial hunter-gatherer phase to the development of spaceflight and beyond. 4X games often describe several facets of civilization macromanagement, commonly including warfare, economy and industry, population growth and happiness, scientific advancement, and sometimes religion and culture.
As can be expected, 4X games tend to be massive,sprawling affairs. Their boxes overflow with dozens of dozens of plastic and cardboard pieces, and their rulebooks are thick and laden with complexity. Stonemeier’s Tapestry, though, attempts to condense an epic 4X experience into a more abstract, but also more accessible, eurogame format. Tapestry still has some complexity due to the many layers of civilization it emulates, but completes its historic story arc in only a couple of hours, instead of several. Warfare is present, and abstracted, and doesn’t punish non-aggressive players, unlike most other 4X games.
With appealing presentation and aesthetics, and streamlined and simplified rules, Tapestry distills the strategy and epic sweep of 4X games into a much more accessible package.