PAX U 2021 Recap (part 3)

Am I about to become obsessed with Netrunner again? I’d sort of packed it away as a great memory after it stopped getting support from Fantasy Flight. I knew there were people dedicated to keeping it going but I wasn’t sure how effective that was going to be so I decided on a clean break. But then, at PAX, I talked to the people at…

NISEI

Jinteki logo by NISEI CC BY-ND 4.0.

…and they sure seem like they’ve got things under control. So far they’ve released a new starter set, a set of card reprints, and an entire cycle (with a second on the way soon). The legality of all of this is interesting, and when I asked about it they noted that every single art and graphic asset in every card they print is entirely brand new. Furthermore, they operate as a non-profit, which probably helps things. Game mechanisms famously can’t really be legally protected so they appear to be in the clear there. They’re also committed to eventually phasing out the word “Netrunner”, replacing it with simply “NISEI”

I spoke with lead designer June Cuervo and I’ve got to say the future looks bright for this game if she’s leading the way. A professional poker player who did work on the digital CCG Duelyst, June has an incredible understanding of what makes Netrunner fun. When I asked about her design goals, she immediately started talking about reducing the amount of time it takes from entering a functional loss-state and actually losing the game. If you ever played Netrunner during the time when asset-spam was a big corp strategy you know how important this goal is to keeping the game fun.

June emphasized that NISEI is a “do-ocracy”, with nothing getting done unless someone steps up and takes charge of making it happen. It’s a volunteer network in its purest form, and anyone enthusiastic enough can jump in and start discussing (and working on) ways to improve the game.

NISEI also has tournament support, and the most recent Worlds tournament, with 200 participants, had concluded only a couple of weeks before PAX. It was hosted on jinteki.net (where I used to test decks!), which is still going strong. I just checked and 11 games are running right now, which is way more than I expected for a weekday afternoon.

When I was at the small booth on Friday it was super busy. Netrunner still has powerful name recognition and I saw the NISEI people sell multiple starter sets during my brief time there. I wonder, however, if this will end up being a real challenge for them. Presumably the people who have stuck around with the game are the most diehard fans who play at a super advanced level. Are new players going to be intimidated by what is already a complicated game if nearly every player they meet outside of their own home is steeped in advanced strategy? The starter set, which explores basic ideas and strategies, is a good start, but achieving real growth with brand new players is going to be tough indeed.

But seeing what NISEI has accomplished was truly inspiring. I’m going to spend some time diving into the new cards and meta, and I plan on acquiring the new sets if I can find a local place to play with others. Weekly Netrunner night again sounds like a joy. What a brilliant game.

CGE

My first meeting of the con was with the fine folks at CGE, and a line of maybe a hundred people had formed in front of the doors specifically for them. I sort of felt like I was intruding, but found my way inside and found out that everyone was clamoring for the new Lost Ruins of Arnak expansion. I knew Arnak did well but I didn’t know it did that well. I’m going to have to give it another shot.

Anyways, they’ve been all hands on deck for this expansion, titled Expedition Leaders. It’s firmly in the realm of a variety expansion, adding new characters you can play that shake things up. Each one specializes in a different portion of the game, acting as a guide for what you should focus on strategically. Additionally there are two new research tracks to shake things up. It seems like the kind of expansion that easily slots in as a no-brainer inclusion for fans of the game.

Image from CGE

The other recent release from CGE is the new version of Galaxy Trucker, which will hopefully keep this gem of a game in the minds of the gaming public. Most of the changes come in the form of updated art, which is lighter and more colorful so as to better represent this ridiculous game. There’s one mechanical change in the form of “titles” which reward people who build their ships in particular ways. The goal there is to create more of a through-line between the three phases of the game as you’re incentivized to hold on to titles you earn.

Beyond that, there are two games CGE is aiming to release in 2022 or early 2023 that they couldn’t share any more info about (a new Vlaada game, I hope!), in addition to the first updated Galaxy Trucker expansion mid-2022. Anything new from CGE is something to get excited about. They’re low-key one of the great games publishers out there, consistently pumping out fantastic games. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Scorpion Masque and others

After CGE I met up with Matthew Legault from Scorpion Masque. I first met Matthew at PAX U 2019 (I think?) where he showed me stress-inducing fun-fest Stay Cool. This year they have another party game, called Ole Guacamole and now I know what many people feel like when they play Stay Cool. This game is torture. Someone says a word and flips a card. On the card is a single letter. You then have to say a word related to theirs that does not contain the letter on the card. As cards pile up it gets more and more difficult. For me it’s impossible from the start. I can’t play this. Get it away from me. It and my brain do not function together. I’m sure many people will have a blast with it.

But while Matthew still works for Scorpion Masque, the company recently got purchased by book publisher Hachette, which also owns a number of other game publishers like Studio H and Gigamic. So at this PAX he was showing a number of games from other publishers too, like…

Iki, a mid-weight euro with lots of on-the-board puzzly interaction. It’s that sort of game where the process of figuring out what primary action you want to do involves also considering how you might be blocking/aiding other players, setting up later turns, or triggering secondary effects. It’s that sort of tactical “lots of levers” game some people dislike intensely but I’m typically a fan so I’d give Iki a shot.

Oltree is a cooperative adventure game based on a French RPG of the same name. It’s packed with lore which frankly buzzed right past my mind as I was hearing about it. It’s part of the trend of trying to find the middle space between board games and RPGs. That’s often a tightrope walk to say the least, so I’m curious to see how Oltree progresses as you play it. The bit I saw had basic cooperative game stuff but the promise of a deeper story as you progress.

Shamans is a trick taking game with a massive twist: traitors. I have no clue how it manages to make this work, but I’ve seen multiple people speak highly of it on social media. A rules explanation didn’t make me understand how the game doesn’t completely fall apart, but I trust that it doesn’t. I just want to figure out how.

The final game I talked to Matthew about is Nidavellir, and you already heard about that one, so moving on to…

Prospero Hall

Who have a giant Jurassic Park legacy game coming out. This design studio is well known for highly-polished IP-based games that often straddle the line between mass-market and hobbyist. I don’t think anything they’ve ever done is as ambitious as this. It plays out over 12 2-3 hour games after which you’ll be able to continue playing with whatever sticker-laden board you end up with at the end. 

They seem to understand what makes legacy work (a simple core game), as well as what makes it appealing (lots of stuff hidden in envelopes and boxes). The narrative is ambitious, to say the least, spanning a timeline pre-Jurassic Park to post-whatever the newest movie in that IP universe is. Every scenario comes with its own comic book that explains both the new rules and what’s going on in the story.

The production is slick, but you expect slick from Prospero Hall. And their attention to production detail will serve them well in a legacy game. But what got me excited most of all was their enthusiasm. As a design studio, Prospero hall is a bit of an anomaly in our hobby where the role of designer as auteur is firmly entrenched. But I totally buy that Jurassic World: The Legacy of Isla Nublar is a labor of love. I mean, how could it not be when you’re working with that world? Dinosaurs, man.

That’s it for the written coverage. Check back tomorrow for our podcast!

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