Today I’m running around preparing for the Bookburners launch—the series run starts next Wednesday, so get ready to see me running around with my underwear on my head talking about how cool this thing we’ve all put together is! Basically with Margaret, Mur, and Brian I feel like I’m on some kind of Magnificent Seven style team designed to inject Good Stuff into your readin’ nerves. The pilot‘s just the beginning.
In the meantime, here are some games I’ve been playing on heavy rotation recently!
Vlaada Chvatil’s CODENAMES is the party game you should own.
The concept’s simple: there are two teams of spies, red and blue, and two spymasters, also red and blue. All players see a grid of words on the table—the codenames of secret agents in the wild. The spymasters know which codenames are red agents and which are blue, thanks to a handy key. They have to communicate this information to their team, using only a clue, and the number of codenames that correspond to the clue. First team to contact all its agents, wins!
The red spymaster looks at the table and sees that “STAR” and “MOONLIGHT” are both red codenames; the red spymaster says, “Space: Two,” indicating that two clues on the board correspond to the clue “Space.” The red team looks at the board, hems and haws, and chooses the correct codenames. This is how it is supposed to work!
How it often works instead: the red team looks at the board, hems and haws, decides “STAR” is certainly one of the clues in question, almost goes for moonlight, but then one of the team sees “STATION” over in the corner. It has to be STATION, he says. “Space station, right? I mean, it’s so obvious.”
Meanwhile, red team spymaster is sitting there, doing her best to keep a poker face, thinking, goddammit, how did I not see Station?
So, the red team chooses STATION. Maybe Codename STATION actually attaches to an innocent bystander, or an irrelevant asset! Maybe Codename STATION is one of the opposing team‘s agents—by identifying them, you’ve just handed your opponents an advantage. Or, just maybe, Codename STATION belongs to the dreaded Assassin—and you’ve just lost the game.
CODENAMES is great fun, takes fifteen minutes to play, explains in thirty seconds, and works for groups between two and $max_capacity_of_room. I’ve seen it take parties from dissolute to total good-natured competitive focus in a single exchange of play. It’s the kind of game that will make friends invite you over so you can bring it and play with them.
Give it a shot, is what I’m saying.
Also, it has my favorite mechanic ever: the jerk timer! If anyone’s taking too long to move, just upend this little sand timer, and they have to move by the time it runs out. I wish every game had one of these.
If Codenames is minimalist competitive party fun, Forbidden Stars is the opposite: maximalist hyperaggro spacewar simulator! Set in the Grim Darkness of the Warhammer 40,000 Future Where There is Only War etc, Forbidden Stars is a surprisingly elegant platform for you and up to three of your friends to spend a large number of hours bashing each others’ faces in with spaceships and giant robots.
Forbidden Stars pits Vicious Space Orcs (WAAAUGH!), Chaos Space Marines (BLOOD FOR THE BLOOD GOD!), Space Elves (*creepy silence*), and Myke Cole I mean the glorious upstanding and noble Space Ultramarines in a struggle for control of the galaxy. So far, so 4x. But! There are some neat differences.
Most 4xen (that being a genre of game that relies on the four x’s of conquest: exploration, expansion, exploitation, and extermination) end up being about territorial control. All your space people want to become the largest space empire. Games divide neatly into an early expansionist stage, a later defensive stage in which you ponder your and your enemies’ fortifications in prep for the final assault, and then a final SUPERNOVA DOOM EXPLOSION.
In Forbidden Stars, you win not by holding territory, or building the strongest economy, but by acquiring all your faction’s objective tokens (which your opponents have seeded around the galaxy in hard-to-reach-for-you places) first. Strategic strikes are the name of the game: figure out how to bash in, seize your objective, and leave. It’s an enormous game of capture the flag, only with spaceships and killer robots, which obviates what I’ve heard Django Wexler, who’s better at this stuff than I am, call the SHOGUN problem: in 4x games, often the player with the strongest military loses, because people gang up on her.
Forbidden Stars also offers the most elegant order-issuing system I’ve ever seen: players take turns placing order tokens facedown to various star systems. You’ve issued an order to the Golbez Expanse, or whatever—is that an order to invade? Do you plan to build a factory there? Are you just engaged in some sort of internal reorganization? Your opponents don’t know—all they see is, you’re preparing to do something. But that information might be intended to bait them into a trap: they think you’re trying to occupy a system, so they try to occupy it first by placing an “advance” order on top of what they think is your “advance” order. Only for you to place an actual “advance” order on top of that. Since orders are resolved Last-in-first-out, you’ve just pre-empted their invasion with your own. SCHEMING!
Also combat is a joy, but this post is already too long for me to explain why.
That said and speaking of length—OH MY GOD THIS IS A LONG GAME. Especially—especially—if your friends are the sort of people who spend a lot of time thinking through their moves. There are lots of micro-choices, which means a lot of time waiting for a, shall we say, contemplative player to drop their order. If everyone knows what they’re doing, I can see it moving at a clip—there are fewer fiddly bits than in most 4x games. But my last game was a four-player run with two first-timers, and we called it after eight hours, with a turn left on the turn counter. I was hoping this would be more lightweight than Eclipse, which tends to run about an hour per player for our group, counting rules explanation; no such luck.
That said—while we were all guttering by the end of that run, we had fun the whole time, moving our space armies around the map and cackling about Blood for the Blood God, so and were able to call it with good feelings and laughter all around. This one’s been good for three or four days of fun space warfare so far, which more than justifies its expense in my opinion.