GIL Series: Let's Fight Uniquely
Games I Love (GIL in the title) is an article series about games I sincerely love. Inspired by numerous "best 100 games of all time" lists, I initially sought to cover 50 games, as it's a nice number. However, upon reflection, I settled on a core group of 37 games. For each article I've grouped some of the games based on a label or quality I have deemed relevant.
One of the first premises that really fascinated me in tabletop games was the notion of asymmetric play. Completely different factions, different rules, and in some cases, different games. There are a lot of ways to skin this cat, and I also think it's a premise with which most designers get carried away. But, conflict, and war games, seem to be the true natural home for htis. Applying asymmetric abilities for a unique, or different goal, is such a rich premise that I have decided to dedicate a full group to it. For this group, I'm writing about Root, Star Trek: Ascendancy, and Rex: Final Days of an Empire.
Root is charming as hell, full stop. The game pits three distinct forest civic institutions against one another, plus a bastardly racoon, and the fight begins. Reading the flavor text makes me laugh, stacking the little unique meeple shapes is charming, and screwing with people as a racoon is always funny. But, it is somehow both its elegance and wanton disregard for constraint that has it vying for a slot in my top ten games of all time.
Root, unlike so many asymmetric games (even others from Leder), is very distilled. It doesn't take an hour to teach the game, because while they are different, each faction mostly uses the same tools, mostly wants the same things, they just go about them differently. But, about three rounds in, things get ridiculous. The woodlands alliance (imagine a guerrilla army + the zerg) explodes in a clearing and wreaks havoc. The Eeyrie once again collapses from yet another mad emperor and endures a setback. The raccoon was hoping they'd weather the story to hold back the wily industrial cats. And the industrial cats just keep building and building. Why do cats want wood so much? Because they're capitalists I suppose.
All of this charm and all of these simple systems combine to form a game that is so compelling, rich, and tense until the very end. I find myself perfectly happy playing the same faction over and over to master them, or getting thrown into something differnet. I'm a huge fan.
I should also note that some of the expansion races are hilarious. The lizard cult in particular cracked me up, both in how they're presented, but their intuitive, ridiculous mechanisms. Root is really special in a way I struggle to fully describe.
I've written about Root before, so if you want more of my thoughts, go here.
- 2-4 Players, about 75 minutes to play
- Designed by Cole Wehrle
- Published by Leder Games
- Large investment (over $50)
- Currently out of print, with more copies on the way
- Expansions: Yes, and they're quite fun.
Star Trek: Ascendancy
I bought this game when it was on sale, not so much because I'm a big Star Trek fan, and not so much because I heard too much about the game, but because images of it just made me curious. And indeed, you should be curious. Instead of a pre-defined board, or a miniatures style measurement system, the game board is a series of randomly drawn planets, with positions determined by their discoverer, in between short, medium, or long distances of warp travel. This alone creates a spider web of planets that makes every game distinct. Every universe is always unique.
But, layered atop that is a game of technology escalation, distinct asymmetric research decks, and two simple powers that change how you fight and how you win. The Romulans are sneaky, whereas the Ferengi are filthy rich and weird about women. The Klingons are obsessed with battle, whereas the Federation cannot attack innocent planets. Perhaps this is a recurring thing for me, but when designers are able to squeeze great variety out of elegant rule sets, it leads to intergalactic mayhem that is incredibly compelling.
Our time in Ascendancy has been very fun. You have quiet, sneaky victories where we forget to keep the Federation in check, all the while murdering each other. You have desperate alliances to keep the ascendant faction in check long enough to crawl, panting, past the finish line. It's a long game, often right at the three hour mark, and it can be risky for some groups as it doesn't have a guaranteed end, but a finish line one must cross. But, it's well worth the marathon, and full of great elements.
If you ask me? I'd climb over the back of this chair and make it so.
Star Trek: Ascendancy was my one of my big games of the year in 2017, if you want to read more here.
- 2-3 Players (more with expansions). I recommend you stick to 3 or 4. About 3 hours to play.
- Designed by Aaron Dill, John Kovaleski, Sean Sweigart
- Published by Gale Force Nine
- Large investment (over $50)
- Easily Available
- Expansions: Yes, and the new factions add a real punch. They change the game for a great value.
I love Dune. In fact, my Folio Society copy of this great text just arrived. A trio of designers crafted a phenomenal tie in in the late 70s (if I recall correctly), and I think it's safe to say it's one of the best licensed designs of all time. Fast forward to a few years ago, when Fantasy Flight, somewhat surprisingly if you asked me, developed the game quite brilliantly to streamline and simplify this great design.
I love Rex. We, love Rex. We've played it a handful of times and it tells great stories. Yes, the loss of the Dune license is painful in Rex, but frankly, you can ignore the cat emperor because the strength of the Dune license is so embedded in its DNA that you cannot mistake the smell of melange. Dune takes wildly powerful asymmetric powers, like receiving all the money spent by other players, or being able to see hidden information, or recruiting freely, but still somehow seems fair? It isn't balanced, and really, I'm not sure any asymmetric game is or should be balanced. Asymmetry in my opinion is inherently fun, because being special is fun. With games like Rex, you take the fun, but create a sandbox of reasonable, fair, and excitign competition.
Come for the beautifully incorporated Dune-ishness. Come for the moment when you teach the game where, after every power is doled out, an opponent goes "wait that's not fair!" Come for the devious battle where you betray someone just as Yueh betrayed the Duke Leto #spoilers. There is so much here, it's so rich, it's so wild, and it's such a great system to create story moments.
In the past I've written extensively about Rex and Dune, including this first (and only, sigh) entry in a series I called Quagmire. Read the past content here.
- 3-6 Players (I recommend more than 3), about 90-120 minutes to play
- Designed by Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge, Peter Olatka, with development in this version by John Goodenough, Corey Konieczka, and Christian Petersen
- Published by Fantasy Flight Games
- Large Investment (Over $50)
- Not Easily Available. Gale Force Nine is about to re-release Dune, though I'd be curious to see what, if any changes they make as I think Rex is a great development.
- Expansions: No