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New Kids on the Board

new kids on the board feature

2021 – fresh out the box! Amongst board gamers everywhere, you can feel the collective buzz as our hive mind cogitates upon the excitement that comes with 12 months of brand new games!  We eagerly await the next instalments from the ballers of board gaming. Here at Zatu, we bloggers thought we would shine a light on upcoming talent hitting our own tables this year. Whether they be new to the industry or just new to us. You too might want to make room on your 2021 shelves for these new kids on the board!

Joe Packham - James A. Wilson

There’s no shortage of celebrity designers in the hobby game industry. Some, here’s looking at you Knizia, have designed more games than I’ve had hot dinners! When a new game from one of these guys drops it’s all aboard the hype train, and you know that choo choo is stopping at every station! Sometimes though, a fresher face will catch your eye. Some of these new kids on the block are doing some seriously exciting things within the industry, and one such gentleman is James A Wilson.

James has but a single base game published up to this point, but oh boy, it’s a doozy. Everdell burst onto the board game scene in 2018 and immediately caught people’s attention. With its jaw-dropping art and ultra-cute animeeples, it set a new bar for board game aesthetics. Even more shocking perhaps was that, under this cutesy paint job, lay an incredibly elegant and well-designed euro game! Mr Wilson’s debut is ranked number 36 on BGG!

With 3 critically acclaimed big box expansions for Everdell already published, 2021 should see the final instalment come to pass. Plus, having since moved on to Flourish (a card drafting garden building game that was successfully crowdfunded last year), I cannot wait to see what this talented and visionary designer will turn his hand to next. No doubt it will be highly thematic and a feast for the eyes, however. The fantastic Spirecrest expansion for Everdell last year shows that James’ design skills are evolving, and I’m sure his desk is overflowing with ideas and prototypes. Flourish fulfils in March 2021 and the new Everdell expansion is teased for later this year, and so hopefully we’ll be privy to some exciting news from James Wilson and the Starling Games team.

Favourite Foe - Randy Flynn

Say who now? That is a question I find myself asking daily when hearing game designers’ names bandied about in chats and forum posts. And whilst the titans of our tabletop treasures are guaranteed to tickle my fancy (ooh er!), in the dawn of 2021, I am venturing into the unknown.

Comforted by Flatout Games’ decision to publish the purrrfect 2020 hit, Calico, by Kevin Russ (another hot new kid on the board!), I have hitched my player wagon to Randy Flynn and his Kickstarter funded, Cascadia, which is due for release in the summer.

To be fair, Randy didn’t have to work hard to hook me in; touted as a “puzzly tile-layer of habitats and wildlife” and illustrated by the standout artist, Beth Sobel, his game instantly got my palms itching and heart-pounding as I counted down the campaign launch. And, having pledged like a pro, it appears that I am not alone in my excitement for Randy’s commercial debut; the $8,000 fundraising target for Cascadia was passed within the first 14 minutes and has since closed at over $272,000 (not counting late pledges). Less than a quarter of an hour to raise almost 8Gs and close to $300k in 37 days is a definite gee whizz moment by any designer’s standards, be they an old hand or a newbie!

Not only that but, at the time of writing, current Boardgamegeek fan-nominations have pushed Cascadia up to the no. 3 spot on their Most Anticipated Games of 2021 Awards! Not bad for a newbie!

Fanfare aside, Randy appears to be cooking up my favourite recipe; a silky base of simple rules with a thick layer of crunchy play sprinkled all over. Cascadia is a game where, at first glance, you are simply laying matching beautifully illustrated tiles to build environments and expand wildlife populations in British Columbia, but, having stuck your spoon in and scooped out a big ol’ portion, Randy’s design now forces you into tense decisions which can, if you aren’t careful, pop your top button wide open!

Balance and theme can sometimes be hard to achieve in games which have an abstract strategy at their core. However, just like its Calico shelf-fellow, the attention to detail and clever dual-layered mechanic Randy has incorporated into Cascadia is making him one of my one-to-watch designers in 2021 and beyond.

Northan Dice - Tim Eisner

Designers are those eggheads who generate the ideas and birth the brainchild. This explains why certain games of different genres and mechanics often have a similar, enjoyable flair to them; they feature that particular designer’s staple element or key trope. So who do I feel is worth keeping an eye on in 2021? Tim Eisner.

Despite Tim’s fantastic track record, I had never heard of him and nor had some of my gaming accomplices. Which is astounding, as his games are superb. But what he’s got up his sleeve next is what excites me the most.

I’m big on aesthetics, it’s no secret. Flashy visuals, solid miniatures, shiny things; they catch my eye and get me invested quickly. But it needs to make sense and work within itself. Being pretty and disorganised isn’t a good combination in a board game. Whereas for me, it’s a lifestyle choice!

Luckily, Tim Eisner has both a way with theme and a track record for games which are mechanically enjoyable. You’ve probably heard of some of his more successful games: March of The Ants, a superb grid movement, take that game about colonising a meadow with your army, or The Grimm Forest which took traditional tales to their darker roots but with a more competitive direction.

So what’s up and coming from Tim? Well, there are two notable games by this designer appearing this year. A little game called Canopy where players compete to build a beautiful and bountiful rainforest. By balancing what lives and grows there, players will aim to make the best use of the symbiosis occurring to score the most points. It’s a head to head game and requires a level of push your luck and consideration for your existing ecosystem. Also, Wonderland’s War, a drafting, asymmetrical, area control game. Following the quirkiness of The Grimm Forest, the game is themed around the inhabitants of Wonderland going to war after a tea party. It sounds mad, which is perfect for the theme!

Tim Eisner’s record of being superb at applying a theme to a mechanic without diluting either is proven in his repertoire of games. I’m incredibly excited for Canopy for both its gentle theme and play, but also it’s gorgeous visuals, and more so for Wonderland’s War for its area control elements coupled into thematic asymmetry. It sounds mad, but we’re all mad here!

Will Moffat  - Tony Miller

The other Zatu bloggers are very aware of my love for “old school” wrestling. Particularly WWF (now retconned to WWE) and the larger-than-life stars. There's “Macho Man” Randy Savage, Hulk Hogan, “Ravishing” Rick Rude and “Nature Boy” Ric Flair. If you look at my Zatu profile picture, you’ll see that I’m wearing some Randy Savage “Alpine-style” sunglasses that I ordered from the US!

Like most sports, the essence of wrestling is a hard thing to capture in a board game. WWE Superstar Showdown makes a good fist of the paper-rock-scissors mechanism, but new kid Tony Miller (one half of the board game design team of his only other release, Fire in the Library), has come up with a dexterity game called Kabuto Sumo which simulates Sumo wrestling (or a “Royal Rumble”) and is inspired by his son's love of coin-dozer arcade machines!

However, Tony’s extra twist here is that the game’s theme is… beetles!! This is apparently based on the real-life Japanese Rhinoceros Beetles. They can be found butting horns in a fight to dominate sap locations which are the best mating sites... I’m just going to take his word for it!

In Kabuto Sumo, Tony has designed a game where players essentially push wooden discs from a “push platform” onto the sumo ring (which is a circular platform) in an attempt to push their opponent(s (2-4 players) off the ring in traditional Sumo style. The great thing is that each wrestling beetle has its own ability. Each represented by a signature move piece that it can slide onto the board to gain an advantage. Not only that but the Insect All-Star expansion adds eight insect characters to the fray! Kabuto Sumo was funded on Kickstarter last November and is due to be delivered in June 2021. I’m hoping it will be big and get the retail release it truly deserves.

Nathan Coombes – Joel Bodkin

I first came across Joel Bodkin about nine months ago. He is a family man with a passion for gaming who lives in America. He has acted on his desire to use games as an educator. Through conversations with his children, he realised he could use his games to raise awareness about the plight of the oceans. Or even the perilous state of the world’s coral reefs. Out of this enthusiasm and personal expertise, he created Open Ocean. This is his first game and it fulfilled its pledge as a Kickstarter a few weeks ago. What’s more, the print run arrived on my doorstep just last month!

Joel has put his heart and soul into this tile-laying beauty. Indeed, he designed the game in its entirety and even drew the images. In Open Ocean, as you lay your tiles, you create a colourful view of your reef. At the bottom are the corals, protecting the small fish. In tiers above these come the different fish of increasing size. Open Ocean is a dazzling education in marine ecology; players discovering that without the protection of the corals, some fish will be lost to sharks, and that other fish prefer to remain in shoals. The graphics are delightful and information is given in the rules about the different fish types which are so helpful.

Like a band hoping that its second hit will be as good as its first, I have great hopes for Joel and Featherstone games. From what I know of him, whatever comes next is sure to be family-friendly and have a strong educational element. Joel does not skimp on production values. Given the fact that his first game has been honed and polished like a precious stone over many months, I know that his second will also be a gem. Joel Bodkin? Watch this space!