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Barnes Best 2021

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Barnes Best 2021

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There Will Be Games

My annual Game of the Year Celebration is here!

Like many game players, the pandemic forced a lot of my gaming time online. It’s been a renaissance for role-playing games in particular, and I’ve played more D&D over the past year than I had in the past 20 years. I have a regular Roll20 group composed of longtime friends that live across the country, but since we are all adults we deal with the usual issues with getting together regularly. Again, like many game players, we started hitting up Board Game Arena on nights when someone has to adult rather than take on the Temple of Elemental Evil in our campaign using the best RPG product of 2021, Goodman Games’ extraordinary Original Adventures Reincarnated 5E conversion of the classic module.

On those nights when aren’t saving Hommlet, we are likely playing Can’t Stop on BGA. Thus, Barnes’ Best Game of the Year 2021 is Can’t Stop. This is not a 2021 game. In fact, it’s a 1980 game designed by the great Sid Sackson and it’s one I’ve been playing off and on for decades so it ain’t even a “new to me in 2021” thing.

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I don’t care if it’s not the new hotness.  And I do not give a flying fuck that it’s not some fresh out of the Chinese factory Kickstarter pile of shit or that it does not represent the vanguard of Modern Game Design In This Our Plague Year or whatever. It’s not that there weren’t great, worthy games this year – Dune came back in a svelte new form that revolutionized the way I think about this venerable classic, James Naylor’s Magnate was a stunning economic satire, and Descent: Legends of the Dark actually did something fresh, progressive and innovative with the hoary old Dungeoncrawl genre. But regardless of these successes, 2021 was the year of Can’t Stop. It’s gotten to the point where we only half jokingly refer to our D&D group as a Can’t Stop group.  We even had an unexpectedly long conversation about how to make the game about Dune after we all saw the film.

None of my friends had played the game before I suggested it one fateful Wednesday night a few months ago. There was the expected, initial “WTF is this” reaction to a game where you roll dice, pick a pair, and move markers up a track. But then the special magic that hides behind this game’s simplistic veneer of barely-there rules started to emerge. Over time, the game in my group took on a life of its own. The metagame is insane. We have a list of terms for various aspects of the game. The 7 column is the “Path of the Coward” and wins with it are low key frowned upon. Taking the 6 and 8 has a vulgar one, “Riding the Shocker”. A particularly heroic win- like the one I pulled off last week taking two rows in one turn ahead of another player who was one space away on each is a “Watercooler Game”. Every session is filled with absolutely brutal haranguing, trash talk, and browbeating. None of which are proscribed or metered by the rules.

I’ve come to appreciate this game more than I ever have before. I think it may, in fact, be the perfect game. I can’t think of another game that so succinctly and so directly gives me exactly what I want out of gaming as a whole. No, it’s not some sweeping narrative but I’ve realized over the years that the notion of quality, meaningful narrative in games is largely bullshit. And it’s not some intricate Vital Lacerda clockwork representing the absolute peak of design craft. But it provides so much drama and in fact narrative with a simple choice of die results and then that crushing decision as to whether you should follow the instructions written on the box and not stop or if you should sheepishly accept your gains and pass the dice. It is the ultimate expression of “press your luck” in game design, the themes of temptation, risk-taking, and greed are richer than anything you’ll get out of a CMON box.

There is far more subtlety- even depth- to the game than you might expect. Essentially it is a racing game and an investment game. The decisions seem simple but there is more to it than what you see on the board, whether it’s the old stop sign or the goofy “mountain climbing” thing on BGA. Do you go hard on the 5 this turn or diversify your gains? If you shut off the higher probability numbers early are you risking busted turns in the late game? Do you really think you are going to roll a second box cars this turn? Do you take an easy column or move to get ahead of the leading player on a harder number? I rolled and got two advances on the 7, but what will my friends think of me if I take The Path of the Coward?

I think back to all the much more complicated games I’ve played over the past year and nothing makes me feel like Can’t Stop does. Nothing excites me on a purely gameplay level like Can’t Stop does, even after…I don’t even know how many games we’ve played this year. Since we just introduced a new player to it last week, there’s likely to be many more ahead because he raved about it and now he’s got his girlfriend into it. This is another key asset- this is a game thatanyone, regardless of experience, background, or identity can play, understand, and enjoy. Except for whiners who don’t like dice and don’t understand that this is a game that occurs above the table as much as on it.

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Another aspect that often goes underreported by those who played it at a convention 20 years ago and shrugged it off as an “activity rather than a game” is that this is a design where the outcomes are very direct, very transparent, very focused, and always high stakes. There’s no wishy washy, “clever” bullshit in the way. You roll, you move. You want to roll again? OK, but you might lose it all.  It appeals in the same way that Blackjack does- I’m so close to winning, do I dare to push? The psychology of gain is such a powerful thing, and Can’t Stop centralizes it, rewarding and punishing it in a way that is immediate and impactful. You want “meaningful decisions” and “multiple paths to victory”? That is all this game is, top to bottom.

Some readers may be thinking “Barnes, you’re feeling this because you’ve played it so much recently”. But here’s the deal. If my irreparably jaded ass can play a game 50+ times in a year and STILL find it incredibly engaging, fun, and thrilling then there’s something there and that something doesn’t need to be propped up by a bunch of fucking scenarios, miniatures, stretch goals, variant setups, or any of that other hobby game cruft that has exhausted me on so many modern designs. In so many ways, Can’t Stop is the perfect antitode to the endemic bloat that is poisoning game design here in 2021. It’s a game that holistically represents everything I want, expect, and cherish in games here in 2021 and moving forward. If that isn’t Barnes’ Best then I don’t know what is.

There Will Be Games

Michael Barnes (He/Him)
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Sometime in the early 1980s, MichaelBarnes’ parents thought it would be a good idea to buy him a board game to keep him busy with some friends during one of those high-pressure, “free” timeshare vacations. It turned out to be a terrible idea, because the game was TSR’s Dungeon! - and the rest, as they say, is history. Michael has been involved with writing professionally about games since 2002, when he busked for store credit writing for Boulder Games’ newsletter. He has written for a number of international hobby gaming periodicals and popular Web sites. From 2004-2008, he was the co-owner of Atlanta Game Factory, a brick-and-mortar retail store. He is currently the co-founder of and as well as the Editor-in-Chief of Miniature Market’s Review Corner feature. He is married with two childen and when he’s not playing some kind of game he enjoys stockpiling trivial information about music, comics and film.

Articles by Michael

Michael Barnes
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Articles by Michael

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ChristopherMD's Avatar
ChristopherMD replied the topic: #329009 24 Dec 2021 10:09

We even had an unexpectedly long conversation about how to make the game about Dune after we all saw the film.

The dice must flow.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #329010 24 Dec 2021 10:31
Were you listening in?
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #329012 24 Dec 2021 11:09

You want “meaningful decisions” and “multiple paths to victory”? That is all this game is, top to bottom bottom to top.

You’re welcome.

This may sound hokey, but thematically, this game being named Can’t Stop and its graphic exposition of a Stop Sign in its classic edition is just one more place where six pounds of magic were pushed into a two pound bag. Something this small shouldn’t be this big.

And yes, my group often plays this on BGA while we wait for people to show up. One of our guys has a thousand plays in.
san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #329017 24 Dec 2021 13:35
Can’t Stop is a great game, one of those wonderful Sackson designs that defies age. Sort of like Acquire that way.

Some fav new and new-to-me games from 2021…

- Mystery Rummy games: Take your pick which one, I’ve enjoyed them all. I think Jack the Ripper gets the nod for me. I love games that iterate on familiar mechanics, because they are way easier to play with the broad populace. These are some of the best in that weight class that I’ve played in years.

- The Crew: Just got this on Black Friday and it’s already an all-timer for me.

- Nu-Dune: Someone on these forums mentioned that this sort of Nexus Ops-izes the 1979 original, and that’s about right. It doesn’t replace the original in the hobby, but it’s the one I want to play. It distilled my favorite parts of the original into a much shorter window, and maintained a whole lot of the flavor of the Duniverse.

Disney Villainous: What a cool game. I love how it found a way to nail all those different characters thematically, and make them largely distinct. It’s a surprisingly deep game, and even though we’ve played a bunch it feels like there’s so much left to discover.

Marvel Champions: One of the best solo games I’ve ever played, and just about the perfect commitment level for me in terms of deck-building. I’m most impressed by its scenario design. They do a good job of varying the rhythm of the game, and capturing all the different villains. Not cheap to get into but I’ve had a blast with it.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #329020 24 Dec 2021 17:55
Totally agree on Villainous. I've yet to find anyone local who appreciates the design as much as I do, but it's good to know I'm not alone in recognizing its depth.

Best New and New to Me games of 2021:

Ankh: This is one of Eric Lang's best, which is saying quite a lot. There's so much to explore here that it borders on the absurd. We're just getting into regularly playing with Pharaoh and I agree with him that it shouldn't be played without it, if you're not teaching newbs.

The Crew: Yeah, the hype was deserved. This one is really smart and really easy to sell to the normz, simultaneously.

Dune: Imperium: I still think it suffers a bit on the deck building angle from the inability to remove starter cards, but the mechanics are sound, the tension for board places is great, and the Dune flavor is visible. Very solid.

Cosmic Frog: Completely off-kilter and yet endlessly fascinating. This is Jim's best work yet and we're getting a ton of plays out of it.

Oath: Just another example of why Cole may be the best designer in the industry at the moment. The story potential from this one is of another order of magnitude. It demands a group willing to embrace it (as he says: "We're making someone's favorite game, not everyone's."), but if you have that group, the possibilities are almost endless.
ChristopherMD's Avatar
ChristopherMD replied the topic: #329031 25 Dec 2021 15:43
Fields of Arle - Gets my Game of the Year award. The sandbox farming game has been a chill joy every play. Rare game where I think about it between games too. Apparently they're working on a huge expansion for this.

Nothing else saw enough plays to comment on here. I do expect Mini Rogue to become more popular.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #329032 25 Dec 2021 17:20
^first expansion is very good too.
southernman's Avatar
southernman replied the topic: #329033 25 Dec 2021 17:54
I think Mikey Barnes needs to carry on with RPG games as he has obviously burnt out on boardgames (and nothing wrong with that) and is not finding the love and/or admiration he once had when he found games doing something different.
My 'go to' these days for innovation and freshness comes from designers in Poland and a few other European countries - first found it when I discovered Lords of Hellas from Awaken Realms a couple of years ago and since then I have bought (and am playing) Tainted Grail with Etherfields and ISS Vanguard lined up, and other companies like Into the Unknown and Go on Board joining in.
My best new game played this year is Tainted Grail, a simply amazing experience with a brilliant rich story and an as good game system layered on top of it.
I will also give support to the innovation and depth in Disney Villainous, another first time for me this year ... a few years after Mr Barnes announced it :whistle:.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #329035 26 Dec 2021 01:01
Ha, I forgot about Mini Rogue, I do love that game. Definitely a 2021 highlight. I have the expansions preordered.

Tom it’s no secret that where I am with board games in terms of what I like and what I want is pretty much marginalized in favor of…well, the games you like LOL. So when something significant comes out, it’s more significant.

Villainous has really held up, we still play pretty regularly. So stoked about the Pixar expansion coming.
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #329038 26 Dec 2021 10:27
I actually wish Michael would write about games more often. I don't agree with much of his current perspective, but I find it very interesting and always enjoy reading the articles.
Ah_Pook's Avatar
Ah_Pook replied the topic: #329039 26 Dec 2021 10:32

Michael Barnes wrote: Were you listening in?

There was already a dune dice game called this, if y'all didn't know ;)

For me GOTY had got to be Marvel Champions, I played it like 90 times and I still find it just as enjoyable.

Beyond that I'll give shouts to:

both versions of The Crew (like 70 combined plays there. These are all time greats)
Faiyum (my favorite new euro I played)
Lost Ruins of Arnak (another solid and fun new euro)
Bullet (a delightful spatial puzzle, but very polarizing among my groups due to the real time aspect of it)
Bloodborne (a fun and different feeling Kickstarter dungeon crawler)
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #329042 26 Dec 2021 10:58
Surprising nobody here, Marvel Champions was my favorite game of the year. I might have played 50 times this year, but I usually played with 3 or 4 heroes, which made for a lot of game.
sornars's Avatar
sornars replied the topic: #329044 26 Dec 2021 15:12
This seems as good of a place as any to dump my best of 2021 awards.

Best new to me game of 2021 - Food Chain Magnate: I played this for the first time this year and absolutely fell in love with it. I've been primarily playing it async and it occupies my thoughts between turns where I will literally get up from the computer and pace around considering my options. I won't be doing that in my live plays as I think it may come across as vaguely threatening but it's one of the small pleasures async play affords me. After I commit my moves and wait for opponents to respond I feel like I need a cigarette. I don't love the scripted opening and I'm looking forward to getting more games in with more than 3 players to really see a dynamic market in action but there is so much depth to this game that it immediately shot Splotter up to the top of my publishers to watch list. Horseless Carriage is coming out in 2022 and I'm very excited to see what it's about.

Best comfort food of 2021 - Arkham Horror LCG: This has been my solo game of choice since 2020 but in 2021 it has reinvented itself by introducing me to the multiplayer version. I love the puzzle of the solo game but that same puzzle run in coordination with a friend makes the game shine in a very different way. Instead of being a puzzle you solve alone you get to muddle through with even less information making the game harder but much more rewarding as well.

Best flash in the pan of 2021 - Regicide: There were two weeks or so where everyone was talking about this game and then it kind of disappeared from the conversation. It deserved its time in the sun; I loved seeing what could be done with a standard pack of 52.

Best game that my partner is willing to play with me in 2021 - PARKS (& TRAILS): My partner is not much of a gamer but she's willing to indulge me which I really appreciate. PARKS is pleasant and smooth; not something most on this site would spend a lot of time on but it hits at just the right middle ground between her and my preferences. I really thought the NIGHTFALL expansion brought a lot to the game without adding much overhead but she vehemently disagreed. TRAILS is the lighter version that we brought along on vacation. It's also a pretty fine game that we enjoy playing together.

Best game of 2020 that's on everyone's 2021 list - Oath: I've spoken at length about this in other threads, it's great and everyone should play it at least once (or ideally a few times) just to see how storytelling can be done in a game through purely mechanical means. Even if you know you'll hate the game it's worth a play just to admire its design. Cole is an absolute genius and Leder Games’s willingness to swing for the fences and take risks means they're sitting at the top of my publishers to watch list alongside Splotter. I just wish I was playing this more regularly; it bounced off my regular group and the online group we had going has found it harder to coordinate schedules these days and when our schedules do align...

Best game of 2021 that should be on some people's 2022 list - John Company Second Edition: ... we play John Company. It bears repeating, Cole is a genius. As a game this is leaps and bounds better than the first edition. I personally believe that in making a better game, some of the biting criticism that was evident in the first edition has been smoothed off making for a less interesting critique but the game itself remains interesting while being much more playable. I generally dislike negotiation games mostly because I'm bad at them but while valuing things and identifying leverage remains a core skill required to succeed, the smooth procedural structure winnows the scope of your negotiations to one that's manageable for me. Keep your eyes out for this one and give the TTS mod a go if you can. Hop on the TWBG Discord and arrange a game if you don't think you can find enough folks locally. I've only played this a few times but the prospect of getting it played again is always on my mind.

Honourable mention for the category above should go to Magnate: The First City. I think this was a really solid game and also had some very well done criticism delivered through a mid-weight economic game. Not enough people in the general public have played this due to it being a Kickstarter/currently going through indie distribution. It's hitting wider distribution via retail now and is definitely worth a look once you can get it easily.

Best game of every year - Modern Art: The new edition of RA looks sweet but it won't supplant my favourite auction game.

Can't Stop is pretty good too but I simply don't play it enough to make as strong of a claim as Michael. I'm tempted to snap up a copy with the plastic pylons and stop sign before it disappears. While I do appreciate the smaller box size, I don't think the neoprene version coming out looks very good at all and I'm not a huge fan of the mountain climbing theme that's widely available here in Europe.
hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #329045 26 Dec 2021 15:24
I didn't play many games that came out this year. I barely had any game nights.

The only game I can think of that really warrants mention is Mind MGMT. I have barely scratched the surface, having not even been able to play with the full rules yet since again... no game nights. But what I have played points to this probably being the greatest hidden movement game ever created.
Ah_Pook's Avatar
Ah_Pook replied the topic: #329052 27 Dec 2021 06:52
Looking at Matt's list I definitely forgot Cascadia in my post, that game is great.
mezike's Avatar
mezike replied the topic: #329061 28 Dec 2021 06:00
I find it loveably ironic that the thread in which Michael cold-shoulders board gaming as a hobby is the place everyone feels most appropriate to drop their ‘best of the year’ commentaries :-)

Also great to see the diversity of tastes and depth of thought behind opinions that feels like the TWBG hallmark; I agree with Southernman above that it’s perfectly fine to love your jam whatever it may be, and also with (and extending the opinion of) Charlie that whatever that jam may be, you (meaning all of you) should totally write about it here. Like many I dare say, this site is still my primary source of different + interesting opinions within the hobby.

Adding to the best of commentary I have a few that I liked but only played a handful of times as it’s mostly been a year of playing comforting old favourites. The one game that has continuously stuck around and which I expect to be playing for some time to come is Imperium: Legends. I love that it is something of a deck-building meta with every faction leaning into a different mechanical trope; there are thin deck factions, fat deck ones, tableau controllers, discard manipulators, accelerants that race through their cards, ones that seed waste cards into opponents decks, one that helps everyone else by dragging them along in it’s wake, and more. Layered on top of this are options to tune your faction in your own unique way, opening up some interesting agency and interaction as you adapt your position based on the direction your opposition are taking their own faction. I am completely fascinated by Imperium, enjoyable to play and I appreciate the competence and care behind the design.

Also of note are our favourite party games of the year: So Clover which sits in familiar ground yet manages a truly original twist on word association games, and Pictures with it’s wonderful tactile element of using odds and ends to suggest a connection to a single target image within a selection of photos.
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sornars replied the topic: #329062 28 Dec 2021 06:47
+1 to everyone should write more even if it’s not popular. I’d love to hear what ASL modules are hot in 2021 if only because it gives me a glimpse into something I know little about.

I haven’t played Imperium enough to include it on my list but it’s a good inclusion and I definitely intend to play it more. I was originally concerned about single path to victory/solvability of the decks but then I realised that that this is primarily a feeling created by the decks in Imperium: Classics and more importantly, it doesn’t actually matter. The market forces you to adjust your strategies in subtle ways that can force you to veer off of a main plan; however, even if the decks are “solvable” the process of solving them requires playing the game sufficiently for it to have been excellent value. It’s equally great solo and with two players.

I’ve only played it once but my takeaway is that So Clover does the same thing Wavelength does but with even less scripting. It also helps reveal how bonkers your friends are and the internal maps their minds have. Mapping someone’s preferences to a 1D line means Wavelength can degenerate into a game of “more or less” with a minimal of discussion. So Clover avoids this problem by giving you more degrees of freedom so a discussion is necessary. It’s one of the better party word games I’ve played.

One game of 2021 I really want to hear more about is Atlantic Chase. It’s very much not a me game but I love it when games model fog of war.
Ah_Pook's Avatar
Ah_Pook replied the topic: #329083 28 Dec 2021 15:43

sornars wrote: One game of 2021 I really want to hear more about is Atlantic Chase. It’s very much not a me game but I love it when games model fog of war.

i traded for a copy of this, read through the rules, and then never actualyl set it up to play through a solo game... because thats what i do with solo games a lot of time lol. eventually i'll actually get it to the table!
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DukeofChutney replied the topic: #329084 28 Dec 2021 18:04
GOTY is Mothership RPG for me. I think it released in 2019 but man is it rad! Super lightweight and has some really great modules - Get down Gradient Descent and get down Saturday night.

Boardgame of the year is probably new violent Dune. The only other games I played where Oath and Imperium Classics which I thought were interesting but haven't really bitten me.
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Virabhadra replied the topic: #329164 31 Dec 2021 02:31

sornars wrote: +1 to everyone should write more even if it’s not popular. I’d love to hear what ASL modules are hot in 2021 if only because it gives me a glimpse into something I know little about.

I may not remember to say 'Thank You' for everything, but this forum's commentariat has led me to many of my all-time favorite games.

Very long story short, a friend of the family on the opposite coast had been storing my collection for a couple years and I discovered last August that at some point he had re-married, moved, and sold/donated all of my games without contacting me. Barring the handful of games I’d kept on hand, I have had the pleasure of rebuilding my entire collection from scratch for the last year and a half.

And I do mean 'pleasure.' Running down my collection summary on ToS and asking, “Do I like this enough to re-buy it?” of every title was… illuminating. Yes, it sucked to find or pay for some of those games a second time. However, I didn’t end up re-acquiring nearly as much I expected, and my collection is almost all keepers now. There's even a silver lining to some of the things too costly to replace: sure, I miss owning The Queen's Gambit, but I don't miss the amount of space the box hogs for a game I rarely played. I’m sitting at about 100 games at the moment, which is 1) a psychologically satisfying number and 2) basically what I have space for anyhow. I've spent most of my time tracking down older games, so it was a bit of a shock to see that I've played four games released in 2021.

Crash Octopus: Irresistibly colorful. The core gameplay of flicking treasures at your ship is fairly straightforward; positioning the octopus heads and bouncing a die off them into someone else’s ship to knock their loot back into the sea has a much higher skill-cap, and is that much more entertaining. It is probably not worth whatever post-KS price it’s commanding since the Island and Pink Pirate bits were repackaged together as an expansion that costs as much as the base game. That said, it’s a blast and I am happy to own it. I’m particularly fond of the little pennants they give you to flick things around. No arguments about pushing/pitching/sliding/how long it’s legal to keep your finger touching a piece, you twirl the pennant between your fingers like a foosball rod and hope you don’t hit someone in the eye.

Sleeping Gods: I was unbelievably lucky to score a copy. I found a Kickstarter edition (containing some significant and currently unavailable gameplay content) for a hair above the original price in what must have been the three-day period between the game’s KS release and the industry’s manufacturing / fulfillment meltdown. My girlfriend went bonkers over the game during our first campaign, so it took zero effort to justify tricking out our copy with all the add-ons. Neoprene battle map and metal coins? Yes. Sculpted, painted tokens? Of course. Promos? Every one. Compared to buying a copy of the base game right now, those goodies are cheap.

Do you need all this stuff to enjoy Sleeping Gods? Fuck no. But the bits and baubles do make it seem like a “seeing it on the big screen” version of the game , which has felt worth it for one of these 60+ hour “experience” type titles during quarantine. The narrative doesn’t always pay off the game’s mechanical complexity, which means it can drag somewhat if you’re campaigning for hours on end. As a whole, though, to quote Charlie Theel’s review, “This is good stuff.” Now I have a very nice copy of a very good game and I don’t know what I’m going to do with it once we finish exploring the entire map.

X-Men: Insurrection: Even though I’m glad the Avengers are having their day in the sun, I’ve been into the X-Men to exclusion of most other superheroes since I was a kid. It’s too bad that Dice Tower evidently trashed the game in an early review and potentially jeopardized the possibility of an expansion. I would still like an official version of Nightcrawler. I’ve never played Elder Sign, so maybe I don’t know better, but we liked the one game we played enough that we’ll try all of the scenarios eventually.

Necromolds: My First Tabletop Wargame. Everything about it looks and feels like it was ripped straight out my childhood in the 90's. Smooshing your enemies' monsters is viscerally satisfying and the "toy"/"wow" factor here is incredible. Not exactly the pinnacle of tactical complexity (to be fair, I haven’t played with many of the expansions or optional rules) - still works better than 40k. Molding the miniatures is quick and easy once you've done a couple. (The ring-smashing also gave me the idea for high-stakes Legacy Chess: wooden board, borosilicate glass pieces, and when you capture an opponent’s piece, you smash it with a hammer. For an extra $30, we will engrave your initials on the hammer, which you can also use to mount your board.)