It’s February, and we’re kicking off the month with some tabletop highlights!
First time reading our new regular feature? Welcome! Pull up a chair. Here’s your opportunity to see what the Dicebreaker has been playing each week, giving more of a window into games we might have mentioned elsewhere, or games that haven’t made it onto the website or YouTube channel. It’s also your chance to tell us what you’ve been playing (and hopefully enjoying, but maybe not!)
From catching up on some of 2022’s best games to checking out early contenders for 2023’s games of the year, we’ve got cinematic blockbusters, tightly-formed gems and everything in-between. Blow the dust off an old classic you haven’t revisited in a while, or finally slip your latest Kickstarter purchase out of the shrinkwrap.
This week, we’ve been fleeing the mob in the dead of midnight, dodging sniper bullets during the Battle of Stalingrad, hunting Nordic monsters and... gardening.
Let us know in the comments what you’ve been playing recently!
What We’ve Been Playing - February 3rd 2023
I’ve just finished a four-session campaign of Vaesen GMed by our very own Chase Carter. It’s a Nordic horror setting where creatures from folklore roam the lands and slink into human lives. I was a writer-turned-Vaesen hunter with a fear and hatred of the creatures after a sibling was drowned by a kelpie - I may have saved myself at the expense of my brother’s life, but who needs to get into that.
The game feels similar to Call of Cthulhu, another of my favourite RPGs, where you very much feel like a regular person dealing with weird, powerful forces. I found myself nervous of opening any unknown door or ever being alone. It’s fun having to rely on your own wits more than any character abilities, especially when dealing with a mystery.
Chase did an incredible job running us through A Winter’s Tale from the Seasons of Mystery adventure book, where we found ourselves trapped in a tavern plagued by a storm and mysterious movement in the shadows. It was a tense four games as we gradually pieced together the story, dealing with our own prejudices against Vaesen and the fellow tavern-goers. The RPG does a good job of setting up this kind of fun roleplay from the start with your character sheet prompting you to come up with a dark secret and feelings towards the other players.
I may have been lucky enough to have a fun group and amazing GM, but Vaesen’s dark mysteries and paired back mechanics were definitely something I’d come back to again and again.
A mean winter weather system battered Texas this week, so of course I felt like rolling up my sleeves and tending some loamy garden soil. Luckily, I had managed to pick up the green-thumbed roll ‘n’ write Three Sisters from a recent trip to my local game shop, and it proved a welcome distraction from the ice forming around my windows and doors.
Three Sisters derives its name and core gameplay from the Indigenous practice of planting squash (pumpkins, in this case), corn and beans together so that the whole plot can benefit from their natural properties. The towering corn stalks provide the perfect lattice for beans to climb, and the little legumes enrich the soil with nitrogen, in turn strengthening their corny compatriot. The squash plants’ meandering vines and leaves create ample ground cover that dissuades weeds and pests from encroaching.
Designers Ben Punchback and Matt Riddle have translated this mutually beneficial arrangement into a clever and charmingly complex system portrayed as a farm. Players can manage up to six garden plots for their veggie trio, but there are also fruit trees, an apiary, composting and a shed of upgrades that unlock a heap of bonuses. Eight rounds of actions - divined via dice rolls and a rondel - fly by in an eye blink, and it’s all too easy to take on more work than any one farmer can finish.
The real treat of Three Sisters is how all of these little systems weave together and create feedback loops. Two fairly mundane turns spent shovelling compost and planting crops can explode into bonus actions, fruiting trees, flowering perennials and a cornucopia of victory points at the end. Every action benefits at least one other system, much like the eponymous three sisters, so nothing ever feels like a dead choice.
After three games and just as many embarrassing performances, I’m confident Three Sisters will be one of those boxes I pull off the shelf every time the weather turns even the slightest bit moody - a reminder of greener seasons and a genuinely satisfying hour spent dirtying my hands in the metaphorical earth.
I’ve been meaning to return to Mantis Falls since jumping into a demo of this intriguing social deduction game at last year’s PAX Unplugged.
I adore the suspicion and misdirection of hidden role games like The Resistance, but - like many - struggle to gather a big enough group to play them as regularly as I’d like. Mantis Falls looks to crack that problem with a social deduction game designed for just two or three people (but really two people - the third acts as a fairly passive bystander each turn as the active players rotate).
Adding to the unique format is the potential that Mantis Falls isn’t a competitive game at all, as both (or all three) players can actually be innocent witnesses to something they shouldn’t have seen in a mob town, secretly making it a cooperative game. But, there’s always the chance that one is instead an assassin, out to eliminate the witness(es) before they get out of dodge.
Mantis Falls pairs this deliciously tense setup with something I can only describe as “immaculate vibes”, as it soaks its cards in moody noir streetlamps, silhouetted figures, punchy descriptions and the feeling that it’s a game best played amongst smoke, shadow and creeping jazz. (Something the rulebook reinforces by recommending Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks score as a soundtrack, along with an original OST by the game’s creators.)
Each turn has the potential to become a drama in miniature, as the two players weigh up working together or apart to overcome various events and incidents - many of which can go completely unseen by one player, questioning their trust in their partner through subtle if not explicit means. You could hand your companion a gun to fend off a foe, before they instead turn it on you. Or perhaps they convince you to throw a grenade at a looming threat, or for it to turn out to be nothing more than a ploy to leave you empty-handed. Choosing your moment to strike is one thing, deciding whether you’re about to take out an innocent ally is another.
Having now played Mantis Falls twice, I remain totally enraptured by its tight-knit structure and subtle way of throwing up spicy dilemmas among its players. With a good grip on the basics, I’m also fascinated to add in one of the multiple modules included in the box, which offers to introduce more complexity and fun through unique character roles for the players and extra action cards. It’s still early days but, if the promise holds up, this could grow to become an all-timer. Expect to see more of my thoughts on the site soon.
Maddie and I returned to the ruined city of Stalingrad as we continued our lunchtime campaign through Osprey’s newest massive box of tiles. It turns out my fantastic performance in the last outing was rewarded with Maddie using her newly-gifted snipers to turn me into Swiss cheese (or Siberian equivalent). It’s 1-1 and I’m ready for vengeance.
I first played Splendor Duel back at Essen Spiel 2022 and was impressed by how well the gameplay mechanics of the original Splendor had been translated into a two-player format. I came back to Splendor Duel again this week and was happy to find I’m still impressed. Duel still has the elements that make the series unique - the gem tokens, the engine-building and the victory point collection - but it feels different enough to justify its existence.
What I still love about Splendor Duel is how fervently it embraces the competitiveness of the head-to-head experience. There are far more opportunities to mess with your opponent’s plans in Duel than the original Splendor. Taking tokens from the board can place more restrictions on what the other player can do on their turn - such as forcing them to refill the board or take a row of tokens they didn’t want as much. Also, some of the powers you can gain from buying certain cards are designed to directly screw over your opponent.
There’s much more of a rush to the finish than in the original Splendor, as it’s a lot easier to keep an eye on what one person is doing than several others and there are multiple ways to win the game. All-in-all, Splendor Duel is a significantly more intense experience than the previous entry in the series, which is definitely a positive for me.