At the very first Across the Board, we wanted to showcase the fantastic things happening in the world of board gaming at the moment. We're convinced it has never been a better time to be a gamer, with a never-before-seen number of great new releases appearing every month, and the hobby as a whole reaching new audiences all the time (see the Guardian's new monthly board game column as a demonstration of this).
We picked out a mixture of our favourite new games from the last few years with a wide range of themes and mechanics, to give a flavour of how game design has moved on from the classics we all know and (perhaps) love.
Here's what we picked...
- Colt Express, a game where players are outlaws trying to rob a train in the wild west. Among other things, the box contains six small wooden cowboys, a six-carriage self-assembly cardboard train set (fiddly to assemble but pleasing once complete), and a number of rocks and cacti which serve no purpose in the game apart from helping set the scene. In each round, players take turns adding cards to a central deck to determine what actions their character will perform in what order (climb onto the roof of the train! Punch another outlaw in the face! Grab some loot!). Some of these are visible to other players, allowing them to plan their actions accordingly, but others are secret. Once this is done, the deck is flipped over and the cards are revealed one at a time, playing out the scene on the cardboard tableau in the middle of the table. At this point, players learn whether their meticulous planning will see their bandit smoothly grabbing some swag and exiting the scene, or acting out a mini slapstick routine, swinging wildly at the air and running headlong into the marshal who has unexpectedly appeared in the next carriage. We love this game for its great balance of strategy and silliness (not just the cool toy train, honest!).
- Celestia, a game about going on an airship adventure, on a mission to explore (and... well, loot basically) a series of beautiful floating cities. Players take turns as the airship captain, giving them the responsibility for navigating the ship and its passengers past a series of threats and obstacles to get to the next destination. The captain's ability to do this depends on what they're holding in their hand of cards, known only to themselves. The other players have to decide whether to trust the captain's word that "everything is completely under control, it's only a measly flock of birds, I could deal with that in my sleep", or play it safe and disembark with their loot so far, hoping to watch from the distance as the ship falls from the sky in a ball of flame, at which point everyone still aboard returns to the start empty handed. To get a feel for the game and a glimpse of its gorgeous artwork, check out this review from our favourite game site here, and get a recipe for frittata thrown into the bargain!
- Camel Up, a game about camel racing, obviously! Players are punters betting on the outcome of a race between five camels. The concept is simple, but the fun comes from the hilariously erratic way that the camels move round the track. The unpredictability is generated by the fact that the camels are stackable (camels that land on the same space pile on top of each other, then camels on top are carried along by the camels underneath). The set-up of the game means that you have partial information about the order the camels might move in, so it's possible to think through scenarios and apply a little strategy, which somehow makes it all the funnier when something completely different happens. To quote Shut Up and Sit Down, aspects of this game can cause 'embarrassing, inexplicable levels of joy', which has certainly been our experience.
- Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space, possibly the most tense and exciting game we've ever played, where half the players are humans stranded on a damaged space station, creeping through the darkness in the hope of reaching an escape pod, and the other half are flesh-hungry aliens trying to catch and devour them! The game play has some similarities with battleships, with all players having a private copy of the same map which they use to mark down their own co-ordinates and make guesses about the location of other players. On certain spaces, players must draw a card which might require them to reveal their co-ordinates to the rest of the group, or alternatively allow them to announce a false location (no one else will know which). To add to the confusion, no one knows who is on their side at the start of the game, so even as information emerges about the location of other players it isn't clear who poses a threat (this changes as the game goes on and the aliens reveal themselves via bloodthirsty attacks on other players). Any human who is eaten by an alien reappears on the alien side and joins the hunt for human flesh, however any alien who is (accidentally... usually) attacked by another alien can feel justifiably irked as this is the end of their fun. The designers of this game have very kindly made it available as a print and play, so if it appeals you can give it a try without investing in the full game (which is beautifully boxed and packaged, we should mention). Ideal Halloween entertainment!
- Incan Gold, a game where players are somewhat unscrupulous archaeologists embarking on a distinctly Indiana Jones-esque mission to steal gold, jewels and artifacts from a temple, which just so happens to be infested by all kinds of hazards (snakes, spiders, mummified zombies - the usual). Players test their nerves by pushing further and further into the temple while the threats multiply around them, aiming to choose the exact right moment to high-tail it back to camp with their loot, ideally without having to do too much sharing with the other players. This is another simple concept that nonetheless delivers an easy-to-learn game with a satisfying amount of excitement, strategy and backstabbing. See Shut Up and Sit Down's take on it here.
- Dead Last, a brand new release which is absolutely ruthless. The aim of the game is simple: be the last person left alive and make off with the loot. In each round of the game, players have 90 seconds to subtly communicate with each other to agree who will be assassinated this time, without tipping off the intended victim. When the time is up, everyone votes on their desired target using a face down card. At this point, the person (or persons) with the most votes is eliminated, UNLESS they got wind of the plan and used their ambush card rather than voting for another player, in which case they can eliminate one of their attackers instead. In addition, anyone who failed to vote on one of the chosen targets, or who played an ambush card without being the chosen target, is also dead. This goes on until either one or two players are left standing. In the latter case, a prisoner's dilemma-type showdown ensues to share out the loot (or not!). This game has a unbelievably high body count in a very short space of time, but as the game is usually played over several stages and everyone miraculously rises from the dead to participate in the next stage, there are usually plenty of opportunities to avenge any past grievances. At AtB#1, we played Dead Last in a trimmed-down, single round format as a way of awarding discount vouchers for Patriot Games to those left in at the end of the round, so the stakes were pretty high, but no lasting vendettas were started (at least not as far as we know!).