Nostalgia is a powerful force. Old video games seem to be constantly finding new life through reboots or re-releases on modern systems, drawing back players with fond memories of Asteroids or Final Fantasy Tactics and making new fans. This trend even reaches into the frontier of board games, where some aim to capture the feel of early arcade and console games without bothering to license any property in particular.
Whatever your old-school genre of choice is, there seems to be a cardboard version to play. Soda Pop Miniatures’ Super Dungeon Explore resembles hack ’n’ slash games like Gauntlet and Diablo and uses mechanics similar to the board game Descent. One player takes on the role of The Dark Consul, controlling the dungeon’s monsters and their spawn points, trying to make treasure as hard as possible to collect for the heroes. The other players must mow through the Consul’s hordes and destroy all the spawn points in order to face down the final boss.
There’s more strategy involved in playing Super Dungeon Explore than the video games it’s based on. Rather than just relying on button mashing, you’re required to plot out your moves and carefully use your attacks to avoid being overwhelmed. But it also has a problem found in so many video games: The characters are highly unbalanced. Playing as the rogue lets you easily bypass the waves of monsters, while the Paladin’s impressive healing powers can undo most attacks and even give allies extra uses of their special abilities. Play with different classes, and you’re basically on hard mode.
Sirlin Games’ Puzzle Strike is based on the gameplay of Capcom’s Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo (and designed by David Sirlin, who worked on that game’s HD remake), which had characters from Street Fighter and Darkstalkers matching gems to power their martial arts. All of the game’s adorably illustrated original characters have their own set of special moves that appear on chips, alongside a bunch of general use move chips that players buy from a centralized bank.
Play resembles a deck-building game like Dominion, except instead of having a deck, you have a bag of chips from which you randomly draw and fill up with bought chips. When things go wrong, wound chips—completely useless tiles—get added to your bag and muddy up future turns by adding junk to your hand. Just like the Capcom game, if your board fills up with gems you lose. Many abilities let you fling gems at opponents, who in turn have ways to send them back or just destroy them.
Players on the brink of gem-filled death get to draw more chips to look for an out, meaning it can be the right move to dance on the edge of defeat for the chance to buy better chips and offload your gems. The high number of characters and chip options provide plenty of variety, but the game can be overlong, especially when you’re playing with the maximum of four players and everyone is spreading the pain around rather than focusing on eliminating a single competitor. Even with a steady drip of gems onto each player’s board every turn, there just seems to be too many ways for a reasonably cautious player to keep them from adding up.
Given its inspiration, I wasn’t surprised that Level 99 Games’ Pixel Tactics was the most complex of the ones I played. The card game emulates turn-based strategy games like Final Fantasy Tactics, with players fielding an army of heroes whose abilities depend on which of three rows they’re standing in.
Defeating your opponent’s leader wins the match, but their other heroes have such powerful abilities that you can’t just ignore them in favor blitzing the leader—some powers prevent damage to a leader or keep it from being attacked. The result is something between a game of Magic: The Gathering and a tactical role-playing game.
Pixel Tactics solves one big problem found in many trading card games: getting screwed by a hand filled with too many or too few of one type of card. Each card in Pixel Tactics has four lines of text, allowing it to be played anywhere on the board depending on where you have space or to produce an immediate effect. This creates a whole new level of complexity as you’re forced to decide if playing a character in the front row—because you badly need a defender there—is the right move when you might get more benefit from an ability it can only use if it’s in the rear.
Z-Man Games’ The Battle At Kemble’s Cascade did the best at embodying its genre of choice, using plastic sliders to simulate a side-scrolling space shooter. Each round, the bottom falls out from the board and you remove the bottom cards and add a fresh row to the top. Each player controls a spaceship zipping around trying to earn points by shooting other players and targets on the board.
Your ship’s destruction is pretty much inevitable. Luckily, there’s little penalty for death—your opponents get points if they helped contribute to your fate. Much more frustrating is how easy it is to get stuck behind an immoveable asteroid or another player, which forces you to wait until the layer you’re on falls away and you can take a meaningful action.
Some cards reward Bellonium—which we assumed was pronounced like a mineral made from the lunch meat—and you can use the wealth to upgrade your ship’s movement, weapons, and shields. There are also randomly doled-out goals and achievements that award you with victory points, though these are of radically different difficulty levels. Like the style of game it’s based on, victory in The Battle At Kemble’s Cascade requires a heavy dose of luck along with skill.
Brotherwise Games’ Boss Monster is a tribute to 8-bit dungeon-crawling RPGs, but instead of controlling the heroes, each player has control of an end boss. The game is competitive, with players constructing dungeons with the goal of luring in adventurers that they can kill without attracting explorers powerful enough to topple them.
The game is easy to pick up and fast to play, and the vintage art and ridiculous card names like “The Crushinator” and “Brainsucker Hive” make it charming. New adventurers show up in town every turn and your ability to bring a bunch of them to their doom or send them to smash into your opponents means that it’s easier than most games to recover from being behind. However, some cards are radically more powerful than others, meaning card-drawing luck plays a stronger role than strategically minded players might care for.
Amusingly, Boss Monster’s popularity has led its developers to produce a digital version, which will be available in early 2015, letting us see how it stacks up to the vintage video games that inspired it. Video games have been getting turned into board games for almost as long as they’ve existed and board games are increasingly finding themselves digitized. But this kind of cross-pollination, where game designers take inspiration rather than aim to recreate, produces something special that can bridge the gap between pixels and paper.