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Svarog's Den - Board Games

Games Played at Gen Con 2023: Quicksand, Nautilus Island, and Star Wars: Unlimited

by W. Eric Martin

After yesterday’s bummer of a post, I thought I’d cover a few of the games I played at the show, starting with the SPIEL ’23 release Quicksand from Hjalmar Hach, Lorenzo Silva, and Horrible Guild.

Quicksand is the fifth game with this name in the BGG database, but only the second to include sand moving quickly. The gist of the game is similar to 2022’s Kites from Kevin Hamano and Floodgate Games: Keep sand timers from running out until you win the game. (Should you want more info on that earlier game, I covered Kites in July 2022.)

Co-designer Hach told me that he had started working on this design in 2018, then set it aside because it wasn’t quite coming together, then figured out what he wanted to do with it…only to later have one of his playtesters point out the announcement of Kites. Thankfully, while the games have the same core idea, they implement that idea differently. Here’s how Quicksand works:

To set up, choose one of the 20+ scenarios, then lay out the gear tiles in the specified path and place the appropriate sand timers — which have different amounts of sand in them — on the first gears of the path. (The path might have obstacles on it based on the particular scenario.) Gears feature both a color (orange, yellow, gray) and a shape (square, circle, crescent). Each player starts with a hand of three cards, with a card showing one of the three colors, one of the three shapes, or a sand timer.

Hjalmar Hach at Gen Con 2023 with a non-final version of the game

Once the game starts, players play a card in turn to try to advance the sand timers and keep them from running out, refilling their hand after they play. When you play a color or shape card, you flip all of the sand timers currently on this color/shape, advancing them one space on the path if that next space is empty. When you play a sand timer card, you flip any one timer, advancing it, if possible. (If no timers are on gears matching the played card, nothing happens.)

If a sand timer runs out, flip it and place it next to the gear on which it was previously located. If someone plays a sand timer card, they can recover this timer by flipping and placing it back onto the gear — but only if that tile is empty. If a set-aside timer runs out again, players lose the game.

Once a timer reaches the last open space on the path, played cards matching that gear’s color/shape will flip it — and if it runs out, you lose the game with no chance of recovery. If the sand timers fill the final gear tiles on the path without this happening, you win!

We played and won twice, first with three timers, then with a slightly longer path and four timers. We needed to recover only one timer in those games, and Hach pointed out that two-player games tend to be the easiest because you can more easily communicate and plan who will play what. With each additional player, you have less control as turns move around the table.

Mock-up sand timers that ran out while I prepared to take this pic

When playing the solo game, you must play all three cards in hand before drawing three new cards. This keeps you from holding the ideal card for a turn down the road or a sand timer card to save you from disaster.

The spatial element of the path differentiates Quicksand from Kites as you need to keep the front of the line moving in order to progress, while also staying aware of how much time remains in each timer. Flipping all of the timers on a color or shape feels powerful and is generally a good thing, but not if you had just flipped one of them because you’ll have little time to flip it once again.

Hachette Boardgames had expected only to demo Nautilus Island from Johannes Goupy, Théo Rivière, and Funnyfox at Gen Con 2023, but the game showed up in time for sales anyway.

The game has you scrounging through a wrecked submarine on a deserted island, trying to find stuff that can help you repair the submarine and leave before anyone else, with “collect the most points” being shorthand for that action. To set up, lay out 4-6 columns of card piles (depending on the player count), with each column featuring 1-3 piles, some of which are face up and some of which are not.

On a turn, starting with whoever is closest to the tail of the submarine, i.e., the column with the fewest cards, you place your figure next to an unoccupied column on the opposite side of the board. Next, either you take the top card of each pile into your hand or you play cards of the same color from your hand, with the maximum number of cards you can play equalling the number of card piles in that column.

Matthieu Bonin of Catch Up Games pauses dramatically

When you play cards, you take from the board the bonus token randomly assigned to that color, if it’s still available. These tokens are worth points or give you a variable number of points depending on how well you meet the condition on it.

After playing cards, you can lock that color by placing a porthole token on it, with the porthole coming from the stack (2-5) matching the number of cards you currently have in that color. The highest-valued porthole tokens are on the top of each stack, so you want to lock colors earlier than opponents — but once you lock a color, you can never play it again. If you don’t lock a color at that time, you must play cards of that color in the future to lock it.

When four of the five bonus tokens have been claimed, refill these bonus token spaces.

When someone draws the final cards from a column, complete the round, then play one additional round, then tally your points from bonus tokens, porthole tokens, and the yellow cards in your hand.

To summarize, you’re trying to mesh all of these conflicting desires to end up the most points:

— Getting more cards vs. getting the right cards (by going earlier in turn order next time)

— Playing cards quickly to claim a bonus token vs. waiting in order to play more cards at once

— Claiming a porthole token vs. expanding a color group to claim a more valuable token (since a group can have up to five cards, but you can play at most three cards on a turn)

In short, Nautilus Island has a classic family-game flow, with each action being simple and with players getting in one another’s way constantly by claiming cards, bonuses, and porthole tokens. Good stuff!

• While Disney Lorcana was the trading card game in the spotlight at Gen Con 2023, publisher Fantasy Flight Games ran dozens, if not hundreds, of demos for Star Wars: Unlimited, a TCG that will debut some time in 2024.

The vagueness of the release date was a continuing theme in answers given by Jim Cartwright, FFG’s product strategy director, to my many questions, most likely because FFG needs to drip out info for at least the next five months to keep word about the game in the ears of potential players.

I played a demo game with Cartwright and can run you through the basics: Each player has a deck of cards as well as a leader and a base. (The rules (PDF) mention that the two-player starter contains decks that feature Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.) Each leader is double-sided, with the starting side having an ability and with an “epic action” on the other side that you unlock by having the specified number of resources in play.

From a starting hand of six cards, place two face down as resources; these cards are now out of play. Taking turns, players carry out a single action, which can be:

— Exhausting (i.e., turning sideways) resources to play a card.

— Using the ability of a card in play.

— Attacking with a unit.

— Passing.

— Taking the initiative token, after which you must pass each turn.

Cards consist of units, events, and upgrades. Units are divided into two types — ground and space — and each type stays separated. Upgrades are placed on units and modify them, and events are one-time actions. Players keep taking turns until they both pass in a row, after which players draw two cards, optionally place a card face down as a resource, and “ready” all of their exhausted cards, after which the player with the initiative token takes the first turn.

Your goal is to deal 30 damage to the opponent’s base. When you attack with a unit, you can have it target any opposing unit of the same type (with each of the units dealing damage to the other) or the opponent’s base, which just takes the damage. If damage on a unit equals or surpasses its HP, that unit is discarded.

If your deck runs out of cards, as mine almost did, each time you would draw a card, your base takes 3 damage.

Instead of using the starter decks, you can build your own. Each leader features two of six aspects in the game (heroism/villainy/vigilance/aggression/command/cunning) and each base features one aspect. You can use any cards in the deck that you want — with a minimum of fifty cards and no more than three of any non-unique card — but if a card features an aspect not matched by the leader and base, then you must pay two additional resources to put it into play. Similarly, if a card has two command, and you have only one, then you must pay extra.

Gameplay was relatively straightforward, with lots of back and forth as our units obliterated one another. Luke and Vader both used their “epic action”, then were defeated, after which they returned to their original state.

FFG’s mantra for Star Wars: Unlimited

Cartwright, who was involved with the early design of Star Wars: Unlimited, says the intent was to make the design work for the casual player, someone who had never previously played a TCG, and that feels like the experience delivered in the cards I saw. Ever more so than Disney Lorcana, Star Wars: Unlimited is more approachable as the effects (at least in the starter decks) are short and relatively intuitive. You might not play well, but you should have little trouble playing.

The initial promise of Star Wars: Unlimited is that it will feature “iconic heroes, villains, ships, and settings from all facets of the legendary Star Wars franchise, including movies, TV series, comics, video games, and everything in between”.

Cartwright was mum about anything specific that people might see in the future — a future that includes three sets released each year — instead suggesting that you might think of Star Wars: Unlimited as a highlight reel for Star Wars as a whole. You’re not recreating specific scenes within a movie, but will instead (eventually) have access to all the characters, vehicles, items, and locations that you would expect to see. Cartwright mentioned, for example, that on one of his games someone equipped C-3PO with Luke’s lightsaber, then wreaked havoc on the dark forces.

Cartwright also mentioned that Star Wars: Unlimited is a game for two or more players, but he declined to explain how games with more than two players would work. He also declined to tell me how to leave the demo area, and I’m still stuck there now, writing this report and hoping someone will unlock the convention center doors and let me out.

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