GIL Series: Thematic Charcuterie

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.

The category for this second post is Thematic Charcuterie, by which I mean games that have a strong thematic underpinning or premise, yet bring meat and heft to the table. Like charcuterie! Later I have a list that is more "euro" in nature, but for now, we're starting with the beefcake cardboard adorned with neck tattoos. For this group, I'm writing about Ascending Empires, Clash of Cultures, Merchants and Marauders, and Conan

One quick note: Three of the four games are available on Amazon for very reasonable prices, but I don't believe any of them are still in regular production. All of them are rather pricy, but don't worry, I'll tackle the other end of the cost spectrum for my next post. 

Ascending Empires

I chose this first as it beautifully bridges the gap between Ridiculously Stupid (my first category) and this new one. This is one of the first five hobby games I purchased, and I don't believe it'll ever leave. The premise is brilliant and audacious: the author combines a brisk, one turn one action strategy game that is 80% driven by your choices, and 20% driven by how terrible you are at flicking disks. 

The game is a highly distilled 4X experience about exploring and expanding your empire through space. Every decision is deterministic, such as researching new technology or recruiting soldiers or building ships. Every decision, except movement of your ships across your empire or into the territory of your opponents. To move your ship, you gently flick it. Perhaps you brilliantly jump across the galaxy. Perhaps, like the incompetent golfer, you stub your finger on the board and shift your ship one centimeter forward. Perhaps, like the first poor scientist to use warp technology in every science fiction book your disk flips onto its side and careens of the edge, never to be seen again. 

The balance of strategy to flicking is perfect. If it were too heavily skewed towards flicking, it would be maddening. And if it were more geared towards strategy, it would be a rather dry affair with a stupid flicking appendage awkwardly attached. 

Other elements of sharpness include the excellent tableau tech tree, which provides benefits like extra flicks and more efficient recruiting, and a hyper elegant currency system of Units = Buildings = Ships. This is a sharp design, a design far too long out of print, and one just begging to be Kickstarted with an offensive $100 price point. I, for one, would buy another copy.

  • 2-4 Players, about 75 minutes to play
  • Designed by Ian Cooper
  • Published by Z-Man Games
  • Large investment (over $50)
  • Out of Print, hard to obtain
  • Expansions: No

Clash of Cultures

This is a top ten game for me and easily the best civilization game I've ever played. Perhap I haven't played enough, but I find they are often far too long, far too complex, or far too distilled. Clash of Cultures is chunky, but not excessive, and focused where it needs to be. The heart of the game is its gigantic tech tree tableau, where you slowly obtain interconnected abilities that unlock new powers, enhance actions, and grant new structures. The excellent expansion, seamlessly integrated, merely enhances this aspect in a hyper focused, yet potent manner.

You'll face barbarians who stymy your growth, or act as a buffer between your foes. You'll choose which city to upgrade, or where to plant new cities, in order to gain the precious surrounding resources. The map unfolds dynamically to add variety and uncertainty, but not in a maddening sense like Eclipse, where one player discovers Star System Primo and the other player knocks down the moldy door of Star System Garbagino. 

War is quite simple, but decisive, and revolves around a few key units and tech tree benefits instead of piles of fiddly one-off minis. Leave yourself exposed and you'll find your empire suddenly on a diet. The balance of war is quite excellent in this regard, as it's more a threat and counter-balance to reckless expansion than a game of unbridled aggression. 

This is a game that will consume the afternoon, but it allows for good conversation, good stories, grand victories, and after all, your version of Rome can be built in a day.

  • 2-4 Players, about 3 hours to play
  • Designed by Christian Marcussen
  • Published by Z-Man Games
  • Large investment (over $50)
  • Limited Availability
  • Expansions: Yes, and it is highly recommended (if you can find it).

Merchants and Marauders

I often think it's a shame that I only have two brilliant games from Christian Marcussen, but then again, what a gift. If Herbert had only written Dune, would he be any less of a genius? Merchants and Marauders once again demonstrates the broad, hefty view towards a premise, while still showing discipline in the details to create an experience that is often ungainly from others, but not from Marcussen.

Merchants and Marauders is oft described as a sandbox, and by this it means you can be a thicc merchant ship, beavering along the seaways to exploit markets. You can be a daring adventurer, gathering rumor and mission cards that seen you from island to island. You can be a pirate and just straight out slap the NPC merchants, player merchants, or anyone in your way. Or, a little of everything. 

The systems are elegant and intuitive. Each port has a good in demand, which doubles the asking price. Once you sell to them, the demand is fulfilled, and a new one replaces it. Battles involve a simple dice rolling system of assigning damage to various ship parts, like the sails, hull, or canons, with relatively intuitive consequences. Exploration requires you find things, and while your captain may be an excellent sailor in combat, they may be a lousy navigator. 

It's all here, and it's a fantastic way to spend the afternoon. The expansion adds modules you can plug in per your liking, though we've only found a few to be essential. 

The best part about this game is its consequences. If your ship sinks, you lose everything. That may seem disastrous for a game, like player elimination, but you CAN come back, but also, the stakes are what add tension and delight to the game. Others may also see the game as too random, but after several plays, while luck helps here and there, the better player who best manages the risks before them will come out ahead. This is a glorious game, broad in scope, and daring in its design, that'll make a pirate out of you just yet. 

  • 2-4 Players (recommended 4), about 3 hours to play
  • Designed by Christian Marcussen and Kasper Aagaard
  • Published by Z-Man Games
  • Large investment (over $50)
  • Limited Availability
  • Expansions: Yes, but your mileage may vary.

Conan

My favorite memory of Conan is a recurring joke. When Antonio plays as Conan, the game's best hand to hand combat warrior, and he destroys a dozen enemies in a single turn, he slams his dice back on the table and grunts "Conan go sleepy." Conan is not an intellectual exercise, nor would you expect it to be. The cover glistens with a rippling male torso and questionable views towards women. (Note: Others have covered this well and extensively, so I'll just move past it now.) But, the design is brilliant, and it is without a doubt the best all versus one design I've found. It's really damn fun.

The game is a simple abstraction of the exhaustion that faces super human beings when challenged in a contest. Each round you regain a few cubes of energy. You then spend them, however you want, in any order, to move, attack in melee, or use objects. The 1-4 heroes face a never ending horde of enemies, but the heroes are incredibly strong and cut through them like butter. Alas, after a few rounds, the heroes grow tired. Their muscles strain. Their loin cloths chafe. Now, as the villainous player marshals their forces for a decisive knock out punch, you must plan, carefully, how to use your finite energy. 

The game has a lovely flow of incredible carnage, then thoughtful carnage, then final, desperate carnage. Do not be fooled: this is a game of combat and swords from start to finish. As such, it's exhilarating. Furthermore, the elegant system allows for really cool moments, such as one hero tossing another hero a weapon, which they catch and immediately use to crack the skull of a foe. It is neat, comic-book like in its action, and so simple that everyone can remain engaged the whole time. 

Afterwards, you'll all need a cigarette, because oh boy, Conan go sleepy.

  • 2-5 Players, about 90 minutes to play
  • Designed by Frederic Henry, Antoine Bauza, Pascal Bernard, Bruno Cathala, Croc, Ludovic Maublanc, Laurent Pouchain
  • Pubished by Monolith
  • Large investment (over $50)
  • Limited Availability
  • Expansions: Yes, but your mileage may vary. Plus, there are tons of free community scenarios!