A Round-Robin Letter for 2021 Games and Gaming (and some Music)

It’s the time of year when we think back on what we played, a bit about what we didn’t play, and make lists and rankings and what not. I’m not much of a “best of” person, though I can admit to tiers and talk about general favorites, things I’d like to play more of, stand-out experiences, and things like that.

This is a follow-up to last year’s Round-Robin letter. We won’t have books included this year, as, well, I didn’t keep as good of records and started a lot of books I didn’t finish. It was a year I hoped to make it to Japan, and so spent much of my reading time cramming culturally, historically, and otherwise, for a trip that wasn’t to come (Rice, Noodle, Fish and Bending Adversity were the highlights, though not in that order). I also spent time learning the language (today, as I write this, I learned the particularly useful phrase “I want to buy the most expensive snack in this store.”)

As I like to do, let me get us started with a playlist you can put on and then we’ll get to the games. One of these is a late 2020 release, but otherwise some musical highlights for me from 2021.

As always, it was a year where I feel busier than ever, and wonder how I ever had time for things I’ve done in the past (like writing reviews!) In some months that meant playing less games – and a lot less – and in others I was able to partake in my 1.5-2 groups a week. Babies and work and other life things meant some more two-player games than usual, and as I continue my voyage exploring the present and future of the board game scene in Japan, I’m also looking to the past. たぎる交差 (Tagiru Kōsa) is a 2016 release from Ryohei Kurahashi, better known for Tagiron/Break the Code, that is strictly 2-player. (As a designer, their games almost universally have a single player count.)

It is a logical deduction game centered around 4 overlapping strips of paper that will have one of three colors and one of three letters on it. At the start of the game, players are dealt 3 scoring criteria (such as, earn points for A strips crossing B strips, or blue crossing blue), and they assign them point values. Players then alternate laying out strips and after 4 strips have been placed, tell their opponent how many times they scored and how many points they earned. If you aren’t able to deduce your opponent’s setup, then proceed to a second round, leaving the first round’s setup in place.

It’s a very good game that I’m happy to play any time, and while I was able to play “Tagiron Crossing” a number of times through the year, the pace of new games I play and the limited convention and “game day” time this year meant that many things I’d like to explore more were only able to see a single play or two. One of those games, which remains in the “let’s play this more” section of my new game shelves, is MAST BUY.

Yoshihisa Itsubaki is a designer who has a few design motifs, but the one that grabbed my attention this year was their stick auction games. Sometimes the theme is about pole vaulters and other times it is yacht masts; this fall the game was picked up by itten, where the theme was stripped out and it’s simply about collecting sticks.

Each iteration has a bit of a different auction mechanic, but the core of the game is judging visually, from a distance, if the stick for auction in the center of the table is something you want to acquire. You’re hoping to either get 4 of a kind, or the longest series that are each 5-10 mm apart (depending upon the version of the game.)

MAST BUY has a few special auction quirks that are rare, if not entirely unprecedented, such as certain amounts of cash on hand that give you am immediate “rebate” of sorts and a stone that you, essentially, must use once in the game that stops the auction and let’s you win the current auction for the current bid.

As can be the case with games played once, it can be hard to tell what is novelty and what is treasure. itten’s new edition and the designer’s continued returning to the core game provide me reassurance that there’s plenty worth exploring here.

The Summer felt good though, didn’t it? A few projects had been on the back burner until the after-times, and I dipped a toe in before later pulling it back out, such as my long-planned review of a solo variant for Let’s Make a Bus Route where I play it against different forms of public transit. Here I got on our local street car one Friday night to see how it might work.

When I flipped a card, I would play normally, and the street car I would let move a number of segments equal to the card, but the direction would be determined by the streetcars path over the next number of blocks we took in the real world. There’s plenty of things to be worked out, but it was a good time. I had a nice chat with the conductor about the differences of driving a bus and driving the street car during a stoppage, as there was an accident blocking our tracks ahead, and I met a woman who was going to Japan imminently as part of a broadcasting crew for the Olympics who also introduced me to NUMTOTs, “New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens”.

Still to come are, well, buses, but I think it would also be interesting to visit the local historical society and get information on the first trolley routes in town and see if I can determine a way to play against those.

Also in the Summer…I had a birthday! My wife really knocked my socks off with a surprise party that included a visit from Rand, and afternoon at a local game library, and an evening at a local community center – playing more games.

I talked earlier in the year about Smoox’s 150BG.com convention in Taiwan, but haven’t talked much about the games I picked up from there. One I’ve been meaning to share is the “Double Jigsaw Puzzle”. There were two different sets available this year, and each includes a square frame in which you’ll complete a fairly routine polyomino puzzle, but! Each puzzle piece is two polyominos glued together – which side do you need? That’s part of the puzzle! Here, let’s watch me stumble through it for a few minutes.

So in addition to fitting it in the square, you need to make sure the pieces on the other side “fit” – they don’t need to make a square or even be complete, but they’ll need to not overlap. The two sets are both different difficulties and they make for a delightful distraction.

So…speaking of conventions, I went to the Gathering of Friends for the first time this year.

Postponed to August from its usual April timeframe meant that, well, it wasn’t all frozen and a lot of Summery things were open – like “The Silo” here in Lewiston, where we made an OG writer trip to eat Haystacks and make Dale envious. I ordered a burger (and ate it), but once I saw the Haystacks arriving around me, I got back in line and had one of those too. It was awesome!

And while The Silo has a caboose parked out front you can order ice cream from, we passed in deference to another place, whose name escapes me, but it was quite the discussion. This wasn’t the “what should we play next” discussion of deferring to others on games – no, this was an Opinionated Eaters Try To Decide Where To Get Ice Cream debate! Whereever it was we ended up, this blueberry was pretty great!

As I’ve always heard, the food scene in Niagara is…bleak. I didn’t believe it until I experienced it, but it’s rough. The drive to Lewiston though was quite short and seemed full of promise. More exploring next year.

Ok, we played games too. As I like to mention in my Tokyo Game Market previews, there are traditionally many word games being released that I would love to try, but often they are too rooted in the Japanese alphabets to be translate-able. However, sometimes I work with the designers and they work with me to see if a game will work in English, and that’s the case with Kuromitsu.

It’s a curious game. The publisher is known, to me at least, for their “passing” roll-and-write games, like Alluvium and and Animism, where each player has a specific colored pencil they’ll use, and after a turn, the players pass their sheets around the table, and everyone ends up marking on all of the sheets. That motif is present here in Kuromitsu as well.

You’re collectively building a sort of word search/crossword puzzle (though only readable top to bottom or left to right). One player rolls a die, and this determines the category players will be choosing a word from to write on their sheets. The first player to holler out an applicable word determines the word that everyone will write on their sheet. Your goal, is to have the least-most letters drawn on each sheet – that is, you want the least, but you also want a lot.

So when the die roll hits, you want to find a word that fits the category and uses a lot of letters already printed on your board. You may be able to force other players to use the outer ring of the sheet, and if you do, letters printed there count double! Ack!

The real-time bit is tricky, and that sort of fits your taste or doesn’t. The game can feel a bit like there isn’t much agency, as if you don’t get your word shouted, well, that’s sort of that – write the other person’s word as best you can. It’s a curious lark that has moved to the “keeping” shelf for now, and I think is worth a few more plays.

One of the aspects of the Gathering that I had always envied, was the math trade, flea market, and other spreadsheets of games folks were selling. Some of the games I picked up this year were trick-takers I wanted to own as a library for my trick-taking convention, but have no real plans to play; some were games I wanted to try, but could’ve bought new; others were obscurities that I wasn’t sure I’d ever see elsewhere. (Other times, you just make new friends.) Troia is one of the games I picked up there and the game I played of it was one of the highlights of this year.

Troia is an archaeological themed game, and it fits into the “only played this once” category in a different way, as you’ll see that it is sort of replay-able and not – just give yourself some time between plays.

It is a game where poor heuristics is the point. Good graphic design would take you out of the theme.

It is a game that is a visual dexterity experience. Not unlike The Glorious South, it is a game that plays with your vision in unprecedented ways.

To setup, the game has you “dump” these two sided tiles on the central board. These tiles represent five different strata of the same dig site, and the era they correspond to is shown with a symbol on the back. There are frames for each layer, and each shows the same contour lines; both sides of every tile also shows the contour lines. On your turn, you have a number of action points to take tiles from the center or move them behind your screen (and see what’s on the front!). Some tiles will be rubble on the other side, and some will have…stuff.

So, you look at the board in the center for the piece you want, and if it is uncovered, you can take it. That’s sort of the game.

But the looking! It is visual _work_ to look back and forth from the layer you’re trying to excavate to the center board, seeing if the contours line up, checking if the era icon corresponds, seeing if you can take the piece. Looking back and forth and back and forth and back and forth….as the game incentivizes you to uncover large orthogonal groups, so you must mentally track each of the pieces you’re considering without jumbling the contour lines.

This time I’m sure after one play that the game is both a novelty and a treasure!

Remote games didn’t quite work for me in 2020, and I played even less in 2021, but there was one memorable one. My nephew has a smart phone and it’s limited to essentially calling me and his grandparents. Sometimes he calls because he wants to tell me about an okapi he saw at the zoo or a new dinosaur toy he bought, but one time he called just to play Uno. His mom held my cards up to the phone, and his sister would play the card I told her – though I couldn’t simply say “play the yellow 2”, as she thought that was giving our hand away; instead, I had to say “play the yellow card on the left”. It was pure joy.

….is that about it? Anything else happen this year?

Oh yeah, that. So boardgametables.com retained me to “scout” games from Japan. The first, Time Palatrix (now “Ghosts of Christmas”), was on Kickstarter in the Spring, and the next two, Birth (now “Dandelions”) and Psychic Pizza Deliverers Go to the Ghost Town, were on Kickstarter in the Fall. I am so touched and honoured by the faith Chad has in letting me do this, and I hope I can continue to do it for a long time.

It’s put me in a slightly weird spot with what I review and talk about here, but my personal rule is that I won’t talk up any game I have signed or plan on signing. I posted reviews of Age of Assassins and Encyclopaedist this year, both games I love, but we aren’t publishing. Other games I may leave off of “best of” lists, as they’re signed or I am thinking about signing. It’s a weird spot, but that’s the most responsible way to balance my passions for sharing these games with you.

Oh, and my advance copy of Ghosts of Christmas arrived in time for Christmas. In case you miss it, they made a little logo of my initials to put on the boxes of the games I scout, and I’m forever blessed.

What is my life.

How’ve you been?


P.S. Shout out to fogus’ “Best of” lists, as they are some of the best in innumerable ways, not least of which their focus on things “discovered” this year, rather than “released” this year; extensive footnotes; and sections like “Number of programming languages designed”. They are often inscrutable to me due to how in the weeds they are about programming languages I’ve never heard of, but that’s what enthralls me – there’s so much to discover and explore in this world.

P.P.S. I forgot I did have one whimsical category I wanted to add. Spice mixes of the year. It definitely goes to these two. That sausage seasoning is incredible. I eat a fair amount of what we call “rice snack” in my house, which involves taking a bit of rice from a bowl that sits in the fridge, adding…something? Scrambled eggs, onions, peppers, pecans, broccoli….(or sometimes just spices) and eating it. I love being able to make the whole thing taste like Italian sausage. The other one is mostly seaweed flakes and sesame seeds, which is tasty and also goes good on rice snack. However, it comes with no salt (I think?), and is not for me that way, but a little salt and it’s sometimes exactly what I want.

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1 Response to A Round-Robin Letter for 2021 Games and Gaming (and some Music)

  1. Dale Yu says:

    Awesome recap. I’m blessed to have spent part of this recap with you (being part of your 1.5 regular groups). Some of the games are great, some are OK, and well, some get played once for sure. But it’s always an adventure, and I’m truly happy to have the chance to experience all these games with you.

    And, while you’ve been to the Gathering more recently than me, don’t get your hopes up for food in April. 1) A good portion of the Niagara stuff is closed because it’s the offseason. 2) Nearly everything in Lewiston is closed because it’s the off season. 3) I would not hold our breath on being able to walk across the bridge and eat at the overpriced touristy places on the Canadian side either.

    I cannot wait for our next game night as i’m sure you have a growing stack of Japanese games that we are to play and explore.

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