What does your ‘new normal’ look like this year? Does finishing your day and plonking down with a controller still excite you? Last year saw many of us having to lockdown to some extent. Your lockdown experience may have varied, but I will assume the following: less face-to-face with friends, less movement, much more gaming as the norm. Perhaps with things seeming a bit gloomy, there may have even been a bit of a reduced spark of excitement and imagination in your life.
Your games device may have been among your greatest friends and comforts in the wild year of our Lord 2020. For others, such as myself, it started to feel like screens, whether for work or play, started to lose their lustre. Videogames can start to fit too neatly into the working-from-home routine in a way that may feel repetitive, more so if you’re committed to a grindy game. For those lucky folk with their next-gen consoles and their Demon’s Souls, I sincerely hope you’re now in the midst of a renewed gaming love affair. For the rest of us, clear some space on the shelves as we take a look at some recommendations for spicing up the hobby with some books and board games in the wider gaming sphere. We are not responsible for any papercuts or cardboard-related injuries.
Nothing like some post-apocalyptic fiction to remind you how great and wonderful things currently are in the world. This series by Dmitry Glukhovsky has been adapted into the depressingly atmospheric and utterly absorbing Metro series, most recently with Metro Exodus. The original book has a lot of crossover elements with the games, such as improvised weapons, endless subway tunnels, and a cast of characters you’ll struggle to pronounce outside of Eastern Europe.
If the Metro videogames are a winner for you due to the sense of immersion and morbid wonder from exploring these insidious underground hellscapes, give the books a thought. If these games were weekend snacks for you, flipping from extremes of stealth action to buggy-car shootouts, look elsewhere. The first book for this series is far more a psychological horror with a vocally young and desperate Artyom, instead. Haunting sounds, transient encounters with monsters and encroaching environmental disaster, resembling something more like Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation (and equally, the Alex Garland film adaption on Netflix).
As this is a series set within Russia, this might be a challenging first read if you’ve not picked up a book for pleasure in a while. In which case, Audible has a fantastic audiobook and hearing all the names pronounced confidently has its own kind of satisfaction.
Geralt of Rivia should need no introduction, and goodness is this series a trip. If you’ve enjoyed the games or, God forbid the Netflix series, then the books are a great way to dip your toes into the universe off the screen. Gerald’s trademark snarky wit will jab and cajole on every page. The Witcher fans here have probably already devoured some of the books and maybe even the attractive comics which I’ve yet to touch.
If you’re looking to start the year off with some lighter fantasy that tonally sits in the middle of the road between Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings, with its more relatable and biting humour, then the first two short story collections are winners. Sword of Destiny has the series’ first stories, many of which feature episode adaptations in the first season of the Netflix series. The Last Wish may be more of a fan favourite, offering essential context and background for our characters and their relationships. These stories are arguably essential before jumping into the saga proper but are easy to digest and don’t beat around the bush.
Like a high-end gift box of assorted chocolates, Bitmap Book’s line of hardcover gaming compendiums is an indulgent, delectable delight. For those with a tidy $80+ to burn, these are a solid remedy for reigniting your wonder in the hobby. I recently picked up The CRPG Book, and it is an extraordinarily functional encyclopedia on hundreds of computer role-playing games. Open this book up to any page, and chances are you either uncover a rabbit hole of nostalgia or curiosity. Say you open to an obscure RPG from the ‘90s, then the chances are there will be a boxout showing installation guides for older titles on modern systems, or recommended mod lists.
I’ve already told my partner to nab the Gameboy box art book for next Christmas. Might have to buy a coffee table to go with. If the price tag is hard to swallow, these have a limited print run with the proceeds going towards an education and welfare NGO in Brazil. Ethical!
Toss a few coins to your local bookstore for The Witcher boxset
Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion
Before 2020, I was in no way a board gamer. Didn’t own any. No interest. Now co-op board games seem to have risen in prominence, which may appeal to the competition-averse among us. The ominous name of Gloomhaven will have perhaps at least inched around the periphery of your pop culture circles at some point in recent years, and this grandiose dungeon crawler is something of a darling in the board gaming circles. I thought it was supposed to be like a self-contained D&D-like experience, but what a surprising delight this box turned out to be. D&D this is not.
What I joyfully discovered is a game that plays somewhat similarly to the combat encounters of Divinity: Original Sin, with players working together to manage elements such as fire and wind, leapfrogging one another around a hex-based map to complete a shared objective while also trying to complete their secret objectives for perk points. The systems will be very familiar to anyone with an interest in turn-based tactical games and western RPGs.
The experience looks like an early 2000s dungeon crawler video game, sounds like a fantasy pen and paper role playing game, and transcends both. If you’re a seasoned video gamer looking to punch cardboard and dog-ear rulebooks, this may be the challenge suited to you. If you’re like me and hesitate with western fantasy themes due to the proliferation of standard archetypes and world-building, you will be pleased. There are no labouring dwarves and wizened elves here. Potions, yes.
The originality on display will make this game a centrepiece with the right group. I can’t wait to get my Mr Ratchet the Hatchet back to the table so he can chase after whichever monster he hurled his ‘Favourite’ hand axe at from across the room. Bless.
Consider the 2020 release of Jaws of the Lion, a prequel to the behemoth 9kg original box, at half the price. JotL pares down the fiddly excess of the base game without diminishing the best parts of the experience. The first 5 of 25 scenarios in the campaign feature a terrific tutorial that the base game desperately needs, which will have you or up to three friends deckbuilding and hex hopping almost in no time – even if you’re new to the medium. If you’ve had even a passing curiosity in the name, or wanted to see what hobbyist board games are currently about, this could be your entry point. My first foray into board games started with Pandemic during the pandemic, but Jaws of the Lion became the light at the end of a very claustrophobic tunnel.
Lining up rows of colourful cubes to score points – it is embedded in the DNA of our favourite casual classics. Enter Azul, a delightfully simple game that has you competing to build a small tapestry of tiles to form a Portuguese mosaic on a 5×5 board. I honestly did not care for the description of this game, but picked it up on a whim over Christmas after discovering the buzz around this. Sometimes buying into the hype can be a treat.
The sheer pleasure of this game is not something that can easily be summarised on paper. This will tickle a part of the brain for those that find immense satisfaction in lining up rows and patterns in Candy Crush, or perhaps even Tetris (and takes about as much time to learn). It’s the kind of game that will ignite the base instincts of the orderly point-scoring gamer, while also having a visual and tactile appeal that will rope in relatives and friends alike on a rainy Sunday afternoon. This has the complexity of a tea and biscuits game that will ratchet up the tension with a table of four, and you’ll be done in a tidy 30 minutes and want to immediately play again.
Mansions of Madness (2nd Edition)
While co-op horror is still in the spotlight because of Phasmophobia, it would be criminal for your group of boisterous paranormal detectives to not give this big box a look-in. A first playthrough of Mansions of Madness feels like it was made to coax over the videogame crowd. Complete with miniatures for both players and monsters, a double-sided modular board, a wild assortment of weapons and items to discover, and a free companion app, the way this game unfolds is not unlike a harsh role-playing adventure.
You and your team of up to five investigators (I recommended you play with at least three) will be introduced with a background introductory voiceover courtesy of the app. Make sure you’ve got your laptop or tablet hooked up to speakers. From there, your ragtag party of conveniently gathered ‘investigators’ attempt to unravel a disturbing mystery while avoiding big spooks and bigger monsters. You won’t last 15 minutes before things start going south, with fearful Wendy Adams being struck with horror after investigating the east wing kitchen to discover an extremely unkempt sharehouse fridge. Nightmarish.
The app-driven dungeon master within the app makes for an inviting learning curve for many players, but the stressful nature of the game should not go unaddressed. Those who have sunk time into Darkest Dungeon will know exactly what to expect, with random events occurring frequently and with often frustrating consequences. These events may damage your player’s health and sanity and cause all kinds of persistent, negative effects. They are often hilariously aggravating twists on ailments from the mundane, such as broken legs that hinder movement or a newfound obsession with arson as an unintended result of staring at a flying snake for too long. While this is a cooperative venture, those that do not enjoy competitive board games for the high stress and tension may be overwhelmed; this game deals out despair in spades. In my handful of 90+ minute sessions with different groups, I’ve yet to have a positive resolution. Hanging by a thread for a good third of a session only to face inevitable doom is common, and will likely leave you either hungering for more of the great calamari god or just wanting a cuppa and lie down.
Mansions of Madness
That wraps up our sample of videogame adjacent distractions, hopefully providing you with some attractive and stimulating options away from the screen. It is important to reconnect with your friends and imagination in the new year. Whether you’re cracking open a fresh paperback or campaign game with your group, I hope you find harmony when you’re feeling a bit gamed-out.