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My Favorite Solo Board Games of 2020: #1, Scythe

Scythe

A game by Jamey Stegmaier

Stonemaier Games.

BGG listing.

Olga had encountered formidable enemies in her lifetime, many of whom were summarily felled by Rusviet military might, but never before had she faced in battle a man who talked to his pet musk ox. Would he grip both horns first, before bending closer to reveal his deepest confidences into the ox’s ear? Or was one horn sufficient? And though this awakened the smallest smidgen of curiosity in Olga—who was this mysterious Bjorn from the frigid Nordic wastes?—she quickly flicked it aside to concentrate on the task at hand. Ox-whispering aside, she still knew she would reach the Factory quicker than anyone else.

I really, really love this game. When I finally opened the box—after sitting on my Shelf of Shame for months—it didn’t leave my table until after 18 hours of pure gaming pleasure. (Those weren’t consecutive hours; I’m not that kind of a nut.) The art and components are just gorgeous, and this also happens to be the first game I’ve ever blinged out, with upgraded coins and resource tokens.

The Nordic faction won over the neighboring Rusviets

Even now, whenever I take out the board and lay it out on my table, I’m already queueing the epic movie soundtrack in my head. “And so the battle of wills begins,” I say to myself, even if my Automa opponent is acting and moving according to random card draws.

Scythe doesn’t really lend itself well to the narrative fantasy I wrote in the introduction, for the gameplay is a bit drier than what I imply above. (The heroes have a backstory and special abilities, but that’s about it.) But boy does Scythe inhabit its milieu of an alternate-history 1920s Europe, with its cast of squabbling factions; I would love to read fiction set in this world where advanced military technology coexists with agrarian peasant society. (Wait: isn’t that the Global South, but without the mechs?)

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My Favorite Solo Board Games of 2020: #2, Mage Knight

My 2nd favorite solo board game of 2020 is Mage Knight; see a longer session report and review.

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My Favorite Solo Board Games of 2020: #3, At the Gates of Loyang

At the Gates of Loyang

A game by Uwe Rosenberg

BGG listing.

Growing vegetables and selling vegetables were two quite different things, and his parents had never let him forget it. As a boy, he not only helped his father with the harvest—an easier process, in his opinion—but had also accompanied his mother at their makeshift vegetable stand at the Luoyang gates, watching her receive the largesse, or ire, of their patrons. “And you gave that casual customer my leeks?” the regular customers would grumble, and his mother would murmur an apology and pay them two coins for their trouble.

Nonetheless he knew his family was still making the smallest of profits and assiduously saving the money, in accordance to what Confucius had said: “When prosperity comes, do not use all of it.” But Confucius was long gone, and so were his parents, and the work of growing and selling vegetables was now solely his responsibility.

I never thought I’d be so enamored of a game about vegetables, but this game is just superb. Beat-your-own-score engine builders are slowly chipping away at my preference for narrative games.

In the game In the Gates of Loyang you are a farmer trying to advance up the path of prosperity by growing and selling vegetables. (I can’t imagine this is historically accurate—though you have at your disposal an awful lot of untilled land—but I digress.) You also have a particularly finicky set of customers who actually demand money from you if you can’t satisfy their demands, so you commit to a customer very carefully. Some form of polyculture farming is key.

My farmer on the Path of Prosperity
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games

My Favorite Solo Board Games of 2020: #4, Agricola

Agricola

A game by Uwe Rosenberg

Lookout Games.

BGG listing.

She looked out the window of her stone house at the fields bathed in the soft amber glow of sunset, and at her children coming home with their arms full of sheaves of wheat, and with smiles on their ruddy cheeks, and her husband not far behind, his stride tired but confident, leading a cow back from pasture. Her heart was full.

But there was just one thing, one trifle of a thing that bothered her about this otherwise wonderful and patient man with whom she had chosen to spend the rest of her life, and she told herself that in the morning, she would finally take him aside, and point out how the cow in her living room simply took up too much space.

Agricola meeples
Sometimes it’s OK to have a cow in your house.

What a delightful game this is. I must confess that a big reason for that delight must be Agricola’s evocation of some long-buried childhood memory of playing with little sheep and little cows and little pigs and little wooden fences.

Agricola player board
My farm at the end of a game, as seen from above: five fields, pastures, and a four-room house.

My delight comes also from the satisfaction at the end of the game of looking at my farm and my animals and my house and see what I had created. The fact that I call it “my” farm and “my” animals says a lot; I’m looking at my shelf of board games right now and can’t think of a game where I use the same possessive pronouns. (My mechs? My investigators? My mage knight? It’s just not the same.)

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My Favorite Solo Board Games of 2020: #5, Bloc by Bloc: The Insurrection Game

Bloc by Bloc game cover

Bloc by Bloc: The Insurrection Game

A game by R.D. Lee and T.L. Simons

Out of Order Games.

BGG listing.

The day is about to break, but the barricades hold fast against the enemy.

We are bruised and bloody and weeping, but we stay strong.

We feel it in our bones, and hear it singing in our blood: the city will soon be ours.

We shout in one voice, our hearts about to burst.

We raise our fists and touch our rags to the flame.

I imagine your mileage may vary depending on your political persuasion, but Bloc by Bloc is such a thrill. It’s a board game that simulates the mechanics of urban protest uprisings, while raising this instructive question in the player’s head: what does a Bankrupt Junior College have in common with a Polluted Slum? Or a Smartphone Factory with an Immigrant Detention Center? Bloc by Bloc heightens the connections between them by treating these ostensibly different zones, marked by demographic disparities, as analogous sites of capitalist repression and anti-statist resistance.

Your objective in Bloc by Bloc is to occupy and liberate a number of different city districts while building barricades, looting markets, and fending off the riot police—all before the tenth night, when the military is called in.

The crucial lesson here for the players—and perhaps true for radical social movements as a whole—is the necessity for cooperation and solidarity between seemingly different factions uniting against a common enemy.1 In the game, this common foe is the police, who act as the armed representatives of the capitalist state. There’s almost no way to liberate a zone on one’s own without the assistance of another faction. One faction builds the barricades; another brings the Molotovs.