Friday, February 24, 2023

Solo Gaming 2022: The End of the Year Edition

I started doing a lot of solo gaming when my oldest son (and chief gamer buddy) left for college in August 2019. Even with him home during the extended time of quarantine (March-August 2020), I continued playing solo games… and that kept going when he returned to campus.

Solo gaming is now a decent-sized chunk of my gaming experiences – while I am back out playing games with friends and family, 23% of my gaming for 2023 was solo. For comparison, the yearly total for 2022 was 22%, 2021 was 33%, 2020 was 19%, and 2019 was 6%. (A bit of perspective: I had 947 plays of 333 different games in 2022.)

So, this is the third year I’ve been writing these extensive posts every four months to detail my solo gaming. I’ll repeat my same caveat as each previous report:
I know, I know – there are plenty of board game apps on iOS and Steam… and I own many of them. But there’s something really satisfying about physically playing a game: shuffling cards, moving pieces, seeing it all spread out in front of you. 
I’d also add that board game apps must – for perfectly understandable reasons – hide portions of the game from you. One of the delights of a physical game is that the whole thing is spread out across the table where you can soak in whatever details you need. This is true, BTW, for solo or multi-player play.

So, what follows are my thoughts on the sixty (60!) different solo games I played in 2022 – ordered by number of times I’ve played them. (Note: this is not necessarily how much I like a particular game for solo play – for example, I think Soldiers in Postmen’s Uniforms is an excellent solo game design but I only played it three times in 2022.)

Double Digits

Cartographers: A Roll Player Tale (13 plays – approx. playing time: 30 minutes)

An incredibly pleasant flip’n’write game that works like a charm as a solo game… and will also work well as a “over Facetime/Zoom” game if you use the solo rules for monster attacks. The Skills mini-expansion adds another level of decision-making that works well. I’m glad the game is in my collection… adding a set of colored pencils makes my maps look even better!

I’ll also throw in kind words for the Heroes stand-alone expansion & the six new map packs… they add some variety to the game without overly complicating the system. (The only hassle is how to store the game and the pile of maps in the two small boxes.)

Trails of Tucana (12 plays – approx. playing time: 20 minutes)

A really lovely little flip-n-write route building game that I found courtesy of a Twitter friend (hi, Daniel!). Less rules overhead than Cartographers, but with the same “make the best of what you get” vibe. It’s become a travel staple for me – easy to play in a small space with lots of press-your-luck angst on many flips of the cards.

I have had the chance to play with the Ferry expansion maps now, and they add a couple of small twists without doing any damage to the very solid base game.

Aquamarine (11 plays – approx. playing time: 15 minutes)

The second print’n’play roll’n’write (could I possibly use more apostrophes in this sentence?!) from Postmark Games… I find it a little less brain-burning than Voyages (which is also in this list) and great fun to play. It is – to some extent – a tile-laying game as you track your dive adventure.

I laminated my copy of this game – and I carry the two Aquamarine boards (plus the five Voyages boards) in my laptop case along with three d6 and a dry erase pen so I can play pretty much wherever I go.

Five or More Plays

Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North (9 plays – approx. playing time: 40 minutes)

While I’m a big fan of 51st State: Master Set, the dark apocalyptic tone makes it a little tough to get to the table sometimes. Add that the solo module for it is not enjoyable and it hasn’t seen much play in the last few years.

This frustration led me to Empires of the North, the cleaner, friendlier, and more coherently put together cousin to 51st State and Imperial Settlers. The two player is quite enjoyable… and so is the well-thought out solo mode. (And the plethora of expansions just means you have lots of options in how to try each solo scenario.)

The addition of the Wrath of the Lighthouse solo expansion late in 2022 ballooned my number of plays as I attempted to keep my Viking civilization alive. If you’re interested, I reviewed Wrath of the Lighthouse for the OG.

Ark Nova (8 plays – approx. playing time: 90 minutes)

There’s a reason so many people are nuts about this zoo-building game – it’s really that good. And, as you can probably guess by my number of solo plays, it’s an excellent solo game.

The solo design forces you to win the game (get your Conservation & Appeal markers to cross) before time runs out – so you can set your difficulty by where you start your Appeal marker. 20 was too easy – 10 is a good medium range challenge, and 5 is kicking my butt (but I’m getting closer).

I’ve had great experiences playing this game solo, with 2 players, and with 3 players… and I’m very excited about the new expansion headed our way in 2023.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (7 plays – approx. playing time: 75 minutes)

This specifically solo game design from Daryl Andrews & Morgan Dontanville was a Kickstarter that arrived early this year… and I played one game to figure out how many rules I’d misplayed (more than I’d like it to admit) and then a four game campaign (which I won, even though things looked really dice-y near the end of the second book/game. A second campaign ended after two games when the Mutant Leader won our “boss battle” and pounded the Dark Knight into the ground.

I’d put The Dark Knight Returns in the same complexity range as the Pandemic Legacy games – while the rules are clear and filled with examples to make learning easier (particularly with the combat system), there are a lot of plates to keep spinning as you play – a Doomsday Clock that ticks toward Armageddon; Batman’s Grit, Health, and Sanity; the number of riots that have broken out in Gotham; and successfully finding and defeating the villain in each game (Two-Face, Mutant Leader, the Joker, and – spoiler alert – Superman) before time runs out.

This means that the best audience for this game are folks who (a) have read and enjoyed The Dark Knight Returns, AND (b) enjoy learning and playing relatively complex board games. (I count myself a part of both groups.)

I’m looking forward to playing through the campaign again sometime in the next couple of months… and I wrote a review of The Dark Knight Returns on the Opinionated Gamers site!

Undaunted: Normandy (7 plays – approx. playing time: 40 minutes)

One of the last Christmas boxes to arrive in 2021 was a copy of Undaunted: Reinforcements… the expansion that offers extra units, new scenarios, 2 vs 2 play, and – most importantly for this recap – solo play. The AI is smart and keeps me on my toes… and while it takes a minute to figure out how to set up and run, it’s worth the time. I’ve been slowly working my way through the Normandy campaign as the Americans and enjoying each time it hits the table. (One of the bonuses of the design: I can flip to the Axis side and play through the campaign again – both come in the Reinforcements box!)

The AI plays “faster” than we have normally played (in other words, it chases objectives and unit elimination pretty hard)… which has forced me to take more chances and ‘fail boldly’ against it. Makes for a very exciting game.

I want desperately to play Undaunted: Stalingrad (just released)… but the lack of a solo option and no consistent opponent may have that one wait a while. There is at least one more Undaunted game on the way this summer: Battle of Britain!

Dinosaur Island: Rawr’n’Write (6 plays – approx. playing time: 45 minutes)

This is, hands down, my favorite game in the Dinosaur Island franchise.

And it’s a solid solo game – the variety inherent in the set-up combines really well with the “drawing your own park” mechanic to give a Dino Island experience without extensive set-up time or fiddly bits.

I still don’t get the “amber” dice – thematically, they work, but they are hard to read without a strong light source (and that problem is amplified in multi-player games). You can read my full review on the OG.

Heat: Pedal to the Metal (6 plays – approx. playing time: 30 minutes)

With a hearty shout-out to my BGG Secret Santa this year, Heat: Pedal to the Metal was an early Christmas present. We played 16 races over the month of December… and the current hype about its playability and fun are not exaggerated.

Six of those games I played solo, using the Legends module to add five AI drivers for me to compete against. (Note: I’d strongly suggest using the Legends module to fill out the field every time you play, regardless of the number of “live” players.) Three of those races were the 1961 campaign – I managed to place second even after a disastrous 6th place finish in the first race.

It’s a bit like playing Flamme Rouge (by the same designers!) solo – but the tricky problems of cornering and managing the heat of your engine make it much more engaging.

Minigolf Designer (6 plays – approx. playing time: 30 minutes)

I liked the look of this game – a tile-layer with a strong theme of building a miniature golf course – but once I finally scared up a copy, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the puzzle of the gameplay. In a multiplayer game, tiles are drafted in a similar manner to Kingdomino… while in the solo game, the player picks two tiles and places one of them. Both the solo game and the multiplayer game are fun – they are slightly heavier than Carcassonne with a greater variety of scoring decisions.

There’s now a mini-expansion (“Putt of No Return”) to the game that adds new tiles, better artwork cards(!), and double layer boards for tracking par.... and a new expansion with a few more days to go on Kickstarter!

If you want to know more, I wrote a glowing review of Minigolf Designer back in 2021 for the OG.

Resist! (6 plays – approx. playing time: 35 minutes)

I’m six plays in on this solo card game about the Spanish Maquis ongoing guerilla battle against the Francoist regime – four using the basic game rules and two with scenario rules. So far, I’ve only managed to have a minor victory in a single game. (Let’s be clear – this is what happens when you put a risk-taking maniac in charge of the resistance who sends out his Maquis one time too many… or is successful at completing missions but manages to get a bunch of civilians killed.)

I’ve played it at home and on a hotel bed while traveling for work… and even played a game of it last night while I should have been working on this blog post. While the gameplay is simple to explain (particularly with the components in front of you), the decisions can be difficult and sometimes are excruciating – do I sacrifice this fighter’s cover for one glorious attack? will using a weak hidden card with the power to reveal military cards help me or just show me the form of my destructor (to paraphrase Ghostbusters)?

It’s due to be released in the U.S. later this year… and I wrote a review of Resist! for the OG.

Voyages (6 plays – approx. playing time: 20 minutes)

This print & play game system was published via Kickstarter right before Christmas 2021… and the portability (I played both paper/pencil and using a paint app on my laptop) is extremely high. They’ve already published four more maps, each with their own set of rules. (This would be an excellent Zoom/Teams game, btw – for those who enjoy gaming online.) Postmark Games just published a campaign log/mode for the game which I’ll be trying in 2023… and all of it (the five maps, the campaign log, etc.) are available if you purchase the original game.

As I noted earlier, I’ve laminated a set of the maps and carry it everywhere with me in my laptop bag.

Boonlake (5 plays – approx. playing time: 70 minutes)

Boonlake is not a difficult game once you wrap your head around it… but it’s not a game that’s particularly easy to learn from the rulebook. I played my first solo game as a two player game, playing both sides to make sure I had the rules worked out in my head.

Since then, I’ve played it using the solo rules – which are even trickier to get right than the base game rules. There are some eccentric bits in the AIs engine which absolutely make sense in order to simulate a two player game – but are difficult to remember and caused to spend the first couple of solo games flipping through the solo rules.

That said, it’s a solid solo game with intriguing gameplay. I’m a fan of the game as a solo or 2 player – but I’m not sure I want to bring it to the table with more than that.

Dune: Imperium (5 plays – approx. playing time: 70 minutes)

I’m not really a Dune fan – oh, yeah, I read the first three novels back in high school (late 70s/early 80s) like every well-behaved sci-fi/fantasy nerd – but it was never a world or story that captured my imagination. And, yes, since I’ve been a gamer for a very long time, I actually owned the AH version of Dune (aka “Cosmic Encounter meets the Spice Worm”).

Fast forward to 2020/21 and all the hype about the upcoming Dune film… and just enough people said nice things about Dune: Imperium to get me to take a chance on it. 

And – wow! – it was worth it. Much like Lost Ruins of Arnak, Dune: Imperium blends deck-building and worker placement to evoke the feel of the novels/film in an incredibly playable format. Particularly for solo players, the solo deck works like a charm – and Dire Wolf also posted a free app to automate the solo process.

The addition early this year of the Rise of Ix expansion just added to the fun – I like the new variety of cards and technologies… and it feels like the AI is even stronger with this mix of choices. I just picked up the new Immortality expansion, which adds more layers and makes me want to get it to the table this weekend!

For What Remains: Streets of Ruin (5 plays – approx. playing time: 40 minutes)

My oldest son played a game of this solo/2 player skirmish game with me and quickly declared that it felt like playing the X-COM video game. Having never played X-COM (the video game), I just have to trust him.

For me, I really like the immersive storyline/background of a world strug gling to contain the breach opened up to The Basement (another dimension) by underground nuclear testing… and the inevitable battles between factions that make up the three stand-alone boxes of the For What Remains game system.

I also that the chit-pull system for activation works brilliantly here – and the solo system makes solid decisions for your opponent and challenges you to think tactically in order to survive. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the mythology and play styles as you can choose between the six different factions, each with their strengths and weaknesses.

Designer David Thompson has really shown up on my radar in the last few years – what with this game, the Undaunted system, War Chest, Resist! (see above), Soliders in Postmen’s Uniforms (see below), and my old favorite, Armageddon from Queen Games.

It’s A Wonderful Kingdom (5 plays – approx. playing time: 30 minutes)

This solo/2 player card drafting game is a stand-alone cousin to It’s a Wonderful World… but uses a “you cut/I choose” mechanic in the 2 player game which is morphed into a press-your-luck mechanic in the solo mode.

It’s a game that rewards multiple plays, as it is swingier than Wonderful World and learning how to ride the development wave is a bit trickier. The different modes all work well – but I think I’m partial to Advisors or Conquest for solo play.

I wrote a pretty extensive review of the game for Opinionated Gamers early last year.

Wreckland Run (5 plays – approx. playing time: 45 minutes)

The newest game in the Renegade Solo Series was on Kickstarter earlier this year (weirdly enough, at the same time as Restoration Games thematically-related reboot of Thunder Road). In my preview on the Opinionated Gamers, I described it as “a tower defense game… if the tower was barreling down a dirt road at 60+ mph while being fired upon by the cast of all four Mad Max movies and a couple of scary refugees from a Michael Bay film.” That just about covers it for this dice-allocation game/campaign.

I liked it enough that I went ahead and backed it so I could have a production copy plus the expansion… which arrived just before Christmas. I started a new campaign – we’ll see how I do this time around.

Xia: Legends of a Drift System (5 plays – approx. playing time: 120 minutes)

Xia is a sprawling nutty over-the-top wonderful mess of a space exploration/trade/piracy game… and the system for solo play is very enjoyable. It’s not for the faint of heart – a full 20 point game can last 2-2.5 hours for solo play & cover most of my gaming table with pieces & cards. (I think it’s much better solo than the similar Star Wars: Outer Rim – and much more open world than Outer Rim.)

Late last year, I started the solo campaign… and I’m having a blast with it. So far, I’ve accomplished 3 of the 10 objectives and still have a positive score… but I’m guessing it will take another 10+ games for me to finish the campaign. I’m totally up for that.

Quartets & Trios

Call to Adventure (4 plays – approx. playing time: 40 minutes)

The original rules for solo and cooperative play feel rushed and tacked on – which is disappointing, as I really enjoy this character-building/story-telling game with multiple players. Earlier in 2022, I tried a more extensive ruleset posted on BGG… which was better, but still didn’t work as well as I wanted it to.

Thankfully, the new Epic Origins box creates a much better solo experience (and a great multiplayer experience as well). The revised Adversary system is much cleaner. My review of Epic Origins is on the OG.

Dungeon Alliance (4 plays – approx. playing time: 150 minutes)

For me, Dungeon Alliance solo with the Adventure Packs (a very creative expansion idea) is substantially more enjoyable than the still very good Mage Knight Board Game. For starters, it’s a four game campaign… and then there’s the mixture of characters and storyline that feel like you’ve been dropped into the middle of the story. There’s deck-building, there’s crunchy puzzle-solving, there are quests to undertake… and an underlying plot/narrative that bubbles to the surface and helps hold it all together.

This year, I finally finished the last adventure pack… an epic and incredibly enjoyable adventure. I also had the privilege of finally meeting the designer, Andrew Parks, face to face… and hearing more about the design ideas and mythology behind the game. And, since it’s public information now, the news that the next expansion (including new heroes and a new Adventure Pack) are coming in 2023!

Dungeons, Dice & Danger (4 plays – approx. playing time: 35 minutes)

Richard Garfield’s highly thematic roll’n’write is a lot of fun… but it’s pretty brutal as a solo game. Leaving yourself as many positive dice rolls as possible is the key to surviving and winning.

The multiplayer rules of the first edition in English have a MAJOR error on how the game ends… the game should end when each monster has been defeated at least one time by any player.

Era: Medieval Age (4 plays – approx. playing time: 45 minutes)

I found an incredible deal on this Matt Leacock 3D design (and the expansion)… and didn’t really think about the solo mode until it arrived. It’s actually a lot of fun – and it’s just stinkin’ cool to build your city, especially when you add the rivers and roads.

Note: I haven’t seen it as cheap again – so this isn’t really an impulse buy, but I’m glad it’s in my collection. The collector sets became available again through Plan B Games right before Christmas 2021 and I hit the “splurge” button… all of my solo games this year have been kitchen sink games with nearly everything thrown in. 

Lost Ruins of Arnak (4 plays – approx. playing time: 45 minutes)

My pick for Kennerspiel last year was this fantastic multiplayer game of adventure… chock full with a myriad of pathways to win. The solo module (included in the game) works like a charm… and CGE even posted an update to that module that adds increased difficulty and challenge. For variety, you can even play on the more difficult Snake Temple side of the board.

Additionally, they released the long-promised solo campaign – a 4-game series with interesting rules twists and an online app (which I had some struggles with, so I resorted to printing out the files and building myself a paper set.) I’m currently working through it a second time and enjoying it again.

I haven’t used the Expedition Leaders expansion with solo play yet – but it’s great for multi-player!

Port Royal (4 plays – approx. playing time: 15 minutes)

Last year, I played the solo version of Port Royal using the first expansion (with contracts). It is basically a push-your-luck puzzle to complete three contracts with as few turns as possible. It’s not exactly like playing this great multi-player game, but it works and is highly portable.

This year, I received the new Big Box version of Port Royal, so my solo plays were using the Adventure expansion, which I found much more interesting and enjoyable.

Roll Player (4 plays – approx. playing time: 45 minutes)

The Monsters & Minions expansion and/or Fiends & Familiars expansion are required for enjoyable solo play. (In fact, I think this is one of the “required” expansions for multiplayer play as well… it offers more variety and more options for players on their turn. Most importantly, it gives the game an ending via fighting the big boss that is much more satisfying than “hey, look – I built a character”.)

The Guild of Merchant Explorers (4 plays – approx. playing time: 30 minutes)

This extremely clever flip’n’write doesn’t actually contain any writing – instead, you place explorers (cubes) on your map and by completing regions, place village buildings. At the end of each round, all of your explorers are removed from the board, but your villages stay to give you new starting places.

There are four different maps in the original box, with 2 more maps available as an expansion from AEG. It’s been a hit with everyone I’ve taught it to… and I find it relaxing and enjoyable to play as a solo game.

Unpublished Expansion Prototype (4 plays – approx. playing time: 60 minutes)

Sorry… having the privilege of playtesting a solo expansion for an established game that hasn’t been publicly announced.

Everdell (3 plays – approx. playing time: 50 minutes)

Based on the recommendations of others (esp. fellow OGer Chris Wray), I splurged on the Everdell Complete Collection without ever having played the game. There are two solo modes: Rugwort (which is mildly entertaining) and Mistwood (Nightweave & her spider crew) that really shines. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the personalities, plans, and plots available in the expansion.

BTW, Chris posted a weeks worth of Everdell reviews that are a great read if you’re interested. (These reviews pre-date the newest expansions, New Leaf & Mistwood.)

Flamme Rouge (3 plays – approx. playing time: 30 minutes)

During the Tour de France, I set up multiple Flamme Rouge tracks and used three “bot” decks to race against – one “Peloton” team and two “Muscle” teams. (BTW, the solo rules and cards are in the Peloton expansion.)

I also used the excellent Grand Tour app (which is evidently about to become a full boxed expansion).

It’s not the same as playing Flamme Rouge with a raucous group of players… but it made a nice backdrop while I watched Tour de France coverage.

Imperium: Classics/Legends (3 plays – approx. playing time: 85 minutes)

My birthday last June was filled with goodness from Osprey Games… including my favorite new game of 2021. Want more detail? I wrote an extensive review for the OG last summer!

One of the things that caused me to put the Imperium boxes on my birthday list was the promise of a robust solo play system – and David Turczi (who is specifically credited on the cover of the solo play rulebook) delivered.

Each civilization has its own AI set of tables. Five slots are set up and numbered (with provided cardboard counters).The die included in the game (only used for solo play) is rolled and that eliminates one of the slots (or doesn’t – sixes are not a friendly roll in solo play)… and then the remaining cards are revealed and dealt with in order. Impressively, each AI civilization retains a good bit of its character… for example, Egypt accumulates materials in the early going, uses them to attract hordes of population, and then, if conditions are right, converts those masses into Progress. 

In the meantime, the player civilization is running by the exact same rules as the multiplayer game – allowing you to learn the ins and outs of the various decks as well as consider different tactical and strategic decisions.

There is also a simple way to vary the difficulty of solo play… and even a campaign mode in the solo rulebook (which I still haven’t tried).

My only complaints about solo play? Putting the charts for resolving the AI behavior in the rulebook rather than providing them as large cards. Thankfully, a BGG user (props to DocZagreus!) has taken it upon themselves to fix this problem and posted files that do just that. The other issue is that the Qin charts needed to be changed – and the files I just linked to have the changes needed!

I was very excited to see Imperium: Classics getting the recognition it deserves… and to find out that there is another box of civilizations coming next year!

Nemo’s War (3 plays – approx. playing time: 70 minutes)

This solo game somehow got left out of my top 100 games list… which is a complete mistake on my part. It manages to blend Euro mechanics and old-school wargame elements along with a compelling theme. On top of that, the various objectives change the game and how you play by just changing the scoring to reflect Nemo’s vision of a “better” world. 

My copy of the new Journey’s End expansion arrived this summer and I’ve only got to play with it three times… but it dramatically expands the number of possible adventures, adds two more objectives, and has a rewritten rulebook that makes the game easier to learn and play.

I did try Nemo’s War as a multi-player cooperative – which was actually much more enjoyable than I thought it would be. (The rules in the newest edition for this work very well.) Still, I prefer it as designed – an amazing solo game.

Oh My Goods! (3 plays – approx. playing time: 25 minutes)

Solo play requires the Longsdale in Revolt expansion… but there are some clever things going on in this tricky little card game. I received the Escape From Canyon Brook expansion last year – which adds more story and more campaign.

Oh My Goods ranks up with Friday and Palm Island for the best games for solo play in small places (like hotel room desks). I like Expedition to Newdale better (it’s in the same game family), but Oh My Goods is MUCH more portable.

Soldiers in Postmen’s Uniforms (3 plays – approx. playing time: 110 minutes)

I used my position on the International Gamer Awards committee as an excuse to buy David Thompson’s solo game on the German assault on the Polish Post Office in the Free City of Danzig as World War II in Europe began. By the very nature of the battle, it’s a bit of a tower defense game, though one where you are working to set up an escape for the non-combatants and keeping as many of the defenders alive as possible.

The difficulty of the game ramps up quickly as you add in the event decks. It is an engrossing and tense game that takes into account the lack of ammunition, the lack of training as fighters, and the incredible courage of the defenders.

Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition (3 plays – approx. playing time: 70 minutes)

The much-discussed card game version of the board game hit Terraforming Mars – which, quite honestly, really does feel and play like you crossed Race for the Galaxy with TM. It’s a competent solo game that doesn’t take up nearly as much table space as its big brother… and I appreciate them upping the quality/consistency of the artwork. That said, I’d rather be playing the original game with my 3D pieces.

I keep waffling back & forth on this one… I considered selling/trading it, then decided to keep it. My most recent games were really enjoyable – which convinced me to wait and see if the upcoming expansion modules push the game from “like it” to “love it”… or if it ends up on the trade pile.

Unfair (3 plays – approx. playing time: 50 minutes)

I found a copy of Unfair for a great price – and as I’m a fan of the “idea” of a game that imitates Rollercoaster Tycoon/Planet Coaster, I was willing to give it a try. Turns out that my son and I like it a lot as a 2 player game… and the newest expansion that was on Kickstarter in the spring of 2022 will include a solo mode.

Part of that KS released the print’n’play files for the solo mode… and I’ve been poking at it a bit, trying to figure out how to get close to beating it. So far, no success – but I like the tableau building puzzle of the game.

It Take Two To Make a Thing Go Right

Excavation Earth (2 plays – approx. playing time: 95 minutes)

I’m still not sure what to think about Excavation Earth – I like the interlocking mechanics in the game, but sometimes I feel like it’s playing me as much as I’m playing it. I’ve been tempted to track down some of the expansions to see if that helps increase the control – an essential element in a longer design – but it just hasn’t hit the table enough to justify that.

Final Girl (2 plays – approx. playing time: 40 minutes)

My younger son decided to get himself a solo game… and, despite not being a particularly big fan of horror films, went with Final Girl – which takes the base system of Hostage Negotiator and adds layers of variety and theme. He’s a big fan.

So, of course, I asked to learn how to play. He’s sat with me in both games I’ve played (against Faux Jason and Faux Freddy Kreuger) and I have to say it’s a really solid game system with enough twists and turns to more than justify its existence. I’ll be playing more of this one…

Honshu (2 plays – approx. playing time: 15 minutes)

A cheap thrift store copy and some solo rules downloaded from BGG… and this makes for a very compact travel solo game/puzzle. I’m still not particularly in love with the game as a multi-player… but it’s clever and workable as a solo exercise.

Mists Over Carcassonne (2 plays – approx. playing time: 20 minutes)

Both a stand-alone cooperative game AND an expansion to the original game – I played 2 solo games (Levels 1 & 2) and would be willing to play again. Have some serious questions about playing as a multiplayer co-op as the alpha player problem could easily show up to haunt you. (yes, the pun was intentional.)

Stop Thief! (2 plays – approx. playing time: 20 minutes)

Yes, the new edition. Yes, played solo. Yes, I’m REALLY bad at this game… which makes me want to play again and figure out why I’m so bad at it.

Tenpenny Parks (2 plays – approx. playing time: 30 minutes)

The production and artwork of this tile-laying “park builder” are quite lovely… and the solo bot (named Becky) plays a solid but predictable game. I think the game is great for 2-4 players… I’m less likely to bring this one out for solo play.

The Siege of Runedar (2 plays – approx. playing time: 45 minutes)

Runedar is a Knizia-designed cooperative tower defense game… that actually works as a solo game as well without major modifications. The box is the board (with some 3D elements) and there’s a nifty resource collection/deck-building mechanic that allows you to improve the actions you can take.

We’ve managed to beat it on the lowest difficulty level, but moving up a single step in difficulty has proved daunting.

Tiny Towns (2 plays – approx. playing time: 15 minutes)

This 2020 Christmas present was on my wishlist in hopes that my wife might enjoy it… well, I still haven’t got her to play it (yet!), but I’ve become intrigued by playing it solo. It’s short, the puzzle is interesting, and I love the chunky wooden pieces. I went ahead and picked up the expansions when I found them on sale… and they add some nice twists to the decision-making.

Zombicide: Gear Up (2 plays – approx. playing time: 30 minutes)

I’ve been surprised how much I’ve enjoyed this gamer-y version of Silver & Gold dressed in zombie costumes… and, to be fair, there’s more to the game than my tongue-firmly-in-cheek comparison. The solo system works very well… and if you want to know more, I reviewed it on the OG.

One Is The Loneliest Number

Block & Key (1 play – approx. playing time: 25 minutes)

Really gorgeous production (the 3D bits are chunky!) that covers the same ground as Pueblo without all the extra Eurogame stuff. The solo mode has a system to throw random blocks up on the surface to make it work – but it feels like solo was a design afterthought.

Circadians: First Light (1 play – approx. playing time: 90 minutes)

I hesitate to make any judgement here – the first solo play was rough from the rules. (However, I have found both Circadians games to be difficult to learn without playing.) I’m going to need more plays here in 2023... and you can read my review here.

Civilization: A New Dawn (1 play – approx. playing time: 150 minutes)

My younger son is a big Civilization computer game fan – so I hoped I could get him to join me in the newest version from FFG. I think the action system is really interesting and keeps players from over-focusing on one particular element of developing their civ – which may be a good tactical play but isn’t interesting to play against.

However, once we added the expansion, my son showed less interest – so I’ve been using the solo AI rules developed by FFG and adapted for the expansion by Stahre on BoardGameGeek. It’s long… but the AI is smart and plays a tough game.

Dead Reckoning (1 play – approx. playing time: 105 minutes)

For a game with as many interactive elements, Dead Reckoning manages to make the solo mode work and work well. I’m looking forward to adding the Saga elements here in 2023 for a more RPG-lite kind of pirate experience.

Dragonquest: Fantasy Dice Game (1 play – approx. playing time: 25 minutes)

I really wanted to like this game – our family are huge fans of the inspiration for it, Dungeonquest. Sadly, it is a processional and not terribly interesting roll’n’write.

Eleven: Football Manager Board Game (1 play – approx. playing time: 90 minutes)

While there are still some rules questions to be resolved, the underlying game system works like a charm and is great fun to play, especially if you are (like myself) a fan of Premier League soccer. Match play is important – but the game is much bigger than winning matches… it’s actually an economic/management game. After two 2-player games and a solo game, I was waiting impatiently for my my blinged-out copy of Eleven to arrive... and it has! And there will be a lot more solo play in 2023.

Habitats (1 play – approx. playing time: 25 minutes)

A one-time experiment using a ruleset for the ‘Geek… it was just OK. Again, I’m sad because I’d love to play this game more.

Hadrian’s Wall (1 play – approx. playing time: 45 minutes)

I wrote a positive solo review for the OG back in May 2021 of this flip’n’write game. I’m intrigued by the choices I have as a player and the myriad pathways you can attempt in your quest for accolades and glory. After the first couple of plays that ran about 60-70 minutes, I’m now knocking out games in about 35-40 minutes.

The same kinds of resource management issues that draw me into games like Terraforming Mars, Oh My Goods (and it’s cousin, Expedition to Newdale), and Empires of the North are an integral part of Hadrian’s Wall as well. (I’m not saying it’s just like those games or “if you love TM, you’ll love HW”.) These kinds of decisions make for solid solo designs – and Hadrian’s Wall has a lot of them.

In addition, the set-up/tear-down time (due to the flip-n-write design) is minimal, meaning a large chunk of your time is spent actually playing the game. And it has a relatively small table footprint, which means it will work well in my travel kit when I’m stuck in a hotel and need something to play on a less-than-roomy hotel desk.

Finally, it’s always a good sign when you’ve played a game eight times before reviewing and still get in more plays in after that.

Hamlet: The Village Building Game (1 play – approx. playing time: 60 minutes)

I had the opportunity to play Hamlet using the solo rules… now, this (unlike Akropolis) is a for-real city-building game. Both the odd-shaped village pieces and the “anyone can use resources or buildings” rules do some very interesting things to your typical game of this genre. I’d like to try it again, both solo and multiplayer. (I will note that I got to play using the KS edition, which was quite nice.)

Mosaic: A Story of Civilization (1 play – approx. playing time: 105 minutes)

My copy of the Colossal Edition just arrived two weeks ago – but two plays (one multiplayer, one solo) are more than enough to convince me.. Glenn Drover has managed to condense a civilization building game into about 90-120 minutes. There isn’t a combat system – as your primary objective is influence across the various countries of the Mediterranean.

The solo bot (by noted solo mode designer, David Turczi) can be adjusted for difficulty and for “personality” – my first run against him went well but I can see where ramping him up even slightly will make things very tricky – and a lot of fun!

Nations: the Dice Game (1 play – approx. playing time: 35 minutes)

I’d rather play this with more players… but the solo game works well. If I didn’t have a number of better options (see above and below), this would hit the solo table more often.

Return to Dark Tower (1 play – approx. playing time: 45 minutes)

Solo Return to Dark Tower works like charm – with one exception.

The app already has a single player setting and the challenges are scaled appropriately for a single hero. I played my solo game in about 45 minutes (not including set-up and tear-down of the game) and it was very enjoyable.

The exception? When the Tower spits out skulls to the kingdom opposite you, you’ve got to go chase them. (Here’s where the neoprene mat version of the board is nice… the original board works great but has some “bounce” so skulls can go skittering across the table and onto the floor.)

A solid two thumbs up – though not the most portable of solo experiences. If you want to know more, you can read my review on the OG.

Sentinels of the Multiverse – Definitive Edition (1 play – approx. playing time: 55 minutes)

I’m a big fan of the original Sentinels game… and both of my sons decided to get their own copies of the new version as they get ready to leave the nest in the next couple of years. In preparation for a review of the new game, I got in one solo play (as well as five plays multi-player).

The game ramps characters and villains up faster than the original game – and in many cases cleans up characters with confusing and/or uninteresting card choices. So far, I don’t feel like the changes are negative in any way.

Solo works just like solo worked in the previous incarnation – you play multiple characters against the system. I’m unlikely to do that with the new box much when I’ve got the excellent iPad app to play original Sentinels with.

Shake That City (1 play – approx. playing time: 20 minutes)

I played the solo rules wrong with a prototype copy… but I think this is probably stronger as a multiplayer game.

Terraforming Mars (1 play – approx. playing time: 70 minutes)

One of my birthday gifts in 2020 was a copy of Terraforming Mars… and I quickly discovered a thriving community of folks on BGG who love this game as a solo exercise. I now own all the expansions… but I think the best solo configuration for me (so far) uses just Prelude. My win rate is about 50%, which seems right for this style of game. (The arrival of the Big Box expansion makes it even more enjoyable… there’s just something magical about 3D terrain rising from the Martian surface!)

Note: I received review copies of Circadians: First Light, Core Worlds: Empires (prototype – but I bought my own copy of the published game), Dead Reckoning, Hadrian’s Wall, Wreckland Run (prototype), and Zombicide: Gear Up.


  • Double Digits (left to right): Trails to Tucana, Aquamarine, Cartographers
  • Five Plus (top to bottom): Empires of the North, Ark Nova, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
  • Quartets & Trios
    • Top Row: Era: Medieval Age, Dinosaur Island: Rawr’n’Write
    • Bottom Row: Call to Adventure: Epic Origins, Nemo’s War
  • It Take Two…
    • Top: Mists Over Carcassonne
    • Bottom Row: Excavation Earth, Zombicide: Gear Up
  • One is the Loneliest…
    • Top Row: Eleven, Dead Reckoning
    • Bottom Row: Block & Key, Circadians: First Light

Monday, February 20, 2023

Best New (to me!) Games of 2022

For over ten years, I’ve intermittently published my Best New (to me!) Games list… and, when I missed a year or two, I added the missing lists to the most recent post.
However, before we get properly started with my list for 2022, we need to cover a few games that were excluded from the list for various reasons but still warrant attention being paid to them.

Expansions of Note

Sometimes, I’ve put expansions under #10 on the list as a group… but with the plethora of games I want to mention this for 2022, it makes more sense to break them out into their own category. Expansions specific to a game on the list (see: Return to Dark Tower or Everdell, for example) will be dealt with under their entry.

Dune Imperium: Rise of Ix

Dire Wolf managed to make an expansion for the highly touted Dune: Imperium that both deepened game play (offering new options for resource usage and tactical play) and continued to bring the mythology of the Dune universe into the game.

I've since (in 2023) played Immortality - the 2nd Dune: Imperium expansion - and think that adding both of them makes for a very crunchy and enjoyable game!

Empires of the North: Wrath of the Lighthouse

Technically, this is actually called Imperial Settlers: Empires of the North – Wrath of the Lighthouse… but why quibble? Wrath is a splendid solo module for a game that already has a lot of great solo content… if you want to learn more, you can read my review on the Opinionated Gamer site.

Lost Ruins of Arnak: Expedition Leaders

The danger of expansions is offering more stuff that bloat playing time and complicate decision trees… so when you see a box that adds variety and fascinating new challenges without all the mess, it’s time to celebrate. Expedition Leaders is a perfect example of how expansions should work.

Nemo’s War: Journey’s End

I’m (still) working on a full review of the Ultimate Edition of Nemo’s War (which, if you haven’t read anything I’ve written about solo play, one of the best purely solo games in existence)… but for those of us who owned the earlier version, Journey’s End not only added a lot more game content – it also codified the rulebooks and variants in a great new format.

New Editions

A couple of games had new revised editions in 2022 that aren’t really “new to me” – but I’d feel bad if I didn’t give a shout out to them

Call to Adventure: Epic Origins

I reviewed this newest box in the series late last year – my two sons both think it’s the strongest box in the set and we’ve played it a good bit.

Sentinels of the Multiverse: Definitive Edition

Yes, I own all the stuff from the original version (and love it) – but if you want to get into the game now, I’d go with the Definitive Edition. They’ve re-tuned the decks (sometimes in major ways) in order to cut out slow build-up and get right to the fun part of playing Sentinels.

Honorable Mentions

A few games that deserves a mention – but that didn’t quite make the top twenty (what? 20? yes…) cut. They are in alphabetical order.
  • Key to the Kingdom – really nice re-imagining of a childhood classic from the folks at Restoration Games (my review)
  • Marvel: Remix – clever and short card game based on Fantasy Realms
  • Scout – speaking of clever, this card game is growing in recognition & popularity
  • Skymines – I know it’s a re-theme of Mombassa, but I’ve never played Mombassa and I’m enjoying the multi-layered choices
  • The Siege of Runedar – a Knizia cooperative that uses the box/insert as the board
  • Wreckland Run – the newest solo game in Renegade Games series… I previewed it on the OG back early in the year and finally got my “real” copy just before Christmas
Best New (to me!) Games of 2022: #20 – #11

Typically, this is a list of ten games… but there were so many new-to-me games I enjoyed this year, I’ve expanded that list to twenty. While I’ve put them in a countdown order, there’s a lot of flexibility in the ratings… with the right crew of people, I’d be happy to play any of them.

#20: Fort

For those days when you want a game that looks like a kids game but turns out to be a challenging deck-builder with the (actually thematic) twist of potentially losing cards you don’t use.

#19: Free Radicals

You could argue that putting this on the list after a single play is craziness – but I keep thinking about this game and long to play it again. It is a weird mix of everyone doing their own thing on their own board with only some overlap in how you deal with the buildings on the center board and, frankly, it should not work. The wild thing is that it does… and is a lot of fun to play.

I used my Christmas money to get myself a copy of Free Radicals... and more plays here in 2023 confirm my positive opinion from the summer of 2022.

#18: Dead Reckoning

My first play of this card-crafting pirate game was fun, but I had questions. Another game played the next day, and I still wondered if it was worth the time. Fast forward a few weeks and I found myself still thinking about the game and how to better work my crew. I’ve now played it three more times (both multiplayer and solo) and am trying to figure out how to get it to the table again.

#17: Tenpenny Parks

Beautiful production (love the artwork!) combined with fast-moving but think-y gameplay… yes, it’s similar to other games (Barenpark, for example) but different enough for both to have a place in my collection.

#16: For What Remains: Streets of Ruin

I feel like I’m barely scratching the surface of this well-designed post-apocalyptic skirmish game… which my older son assures me is very “X-Com”-ish in feel. I just know that I like the campaign system and the randomized activation of units (simple “fog of war” system).

#15: 7 Wonders: Architects

Opinions are divided about this variation on the classic game in the online board game community – but it has been a big hit with my family and my game group as a quick-playing challenge with an excellent storage system that makes the game easy to drop onto the table and play.

#14: Final Girl

My younger son (who is a senior in high school) was a fan of Hostage Negotiator… but Final Girl blew that completely away. He’s helped me walk through a couple of scenarios of this excellent solo game… and while I’m not a fan of horror films, Final Girl has a fully developed game system and is dripping with thematic touches.

#13: Bullet

As I get older, the allure of real-time games is beginning to fade… but Level 99’s Bullet is an exception. It’s as if they translated the classic NES game Dr. Mario into an extremely playable board game experience. The fact that it works as a solo game as well as a multiplayer is a bonus.

#12: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

As a fan of the original graphic novel (which I collected in individual issues back in the 80s) and of solo games, this one was a big hit for me. My only issue is that the game is at its best as a 4 game campaign, which means I have to figure out how to leave it out for a week or so. (My full review is on the Opinionated Gamers site.)

#11: Challengers

I’ll be the first to admit that reading the rulebook of Challengers! left me cold – on paper, it reads like “War!: The Deck-Building Game”. (Credits for that humorous title go to one of my fellow OG writers.) On the table, however, it’s delightful.

One of the major complaints has been the lack of control… but I’ve managed to win 4 out of 8 games I’ve played (against a variety of opponents and group sizes) and made the final match in all but one of those games, so there is definitely some level of skill in deciding which cards to draft, which cards to cull, and how to play cards that give you options.

Best New (to me!) Games of 2022: #10 – #1

#10: Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done

I cannot believe it took me this long to play this wonderful Seth Jaffee design… I love the way he incorporated a mancala mechanic and gave it variety with upgradable “bins” and individual faction powers. Better yet, none of that interferes with the fast-moving yet thoughtful progress of the game.

#9: Aquamarine

While I like Voyages from Postmark Games a lot, I think Aquamarine is the better of their two print’n’play games. I’ve laminated copies of each map and keep a couple of dice & a dry erase pen in my laptop case so I can play pretty much wherever I go.

#8: Mosaic

My copy of the Colossal Edition arrived the last week of 2022 – but two plays (one multiplayer, one solo) are more than enough to convince me to list the game in my top ten. Glenn Drover has managed to condense a convincing civilization building game into about 90-120 minutes. There isn’t a combat system – as your primary objective is influence across the various countries of the Mediterranean.

More plays in 2023 lock this in for me... it's a brilliant design with great production.

#7: Eleven: Football Manager Game

I’m still waiting for my personal blinged-out copy (sigh)… but my initial plays with a retail copy make me very glad I backed Eleven. While there are still some rules questions to be resolved, the underlying game system works like a charm and is fun to play, especially if you are (like myself) a fan of Premier League soccer. Match play is important – but the game is much bigger than winning matches… it’s actually an economic/management game.

Update: my blinged-out copy arrived... and it's still a great game. I'd focus on solo or 2 player play - game length is an issue, especially with new players.

#6: The Guild of Merchant Explorers

I think this is the next step in the evolution of the roll’n’write/flip’n’write genre… not towards greater complexity (Twilight Inscription was fine but I don’t need to own it) but instead by finding creative ways to tell an ongoing story with good components and well-balanced variety.

#5: Heat: Pedal to the Metal

Heat is what happens when you partner the designers of Flamme Rouge with the production quality of Days of Wonder – an auto racing game that zips along and was very enjoyable to play. My first play was a lot of fun… but now that I have 17 (yes, seventeen) plays under my belt (including racing the 1961 campaign solo and the 1962 campaign head-to-head against my son), I’ll declare Heat as one of the best racing games I’ve played. It’s easy to teach the base game – and then easy to add the extra elements (upgrades, weather, etc.) after that. Recommendation: use the Legends expansion to fill out the field to 6 cars regardless of the number of players… makes the race much more race-like!

Update: evidently, there was expansion playtesting done at a game convention in France recently - which makes me happy.

#4: Everdell

Based on the recommendations of others (esp. fellow OGer Chris Wray), I splurged on the Everdell Complete Collection without ever having played the game. It arrived in late October… and we’ve played it twelve times since. The new solo mode (Mistwood) works beautifully, the components are gorgeous, and the underlying gameplay is solid and enjoyable. Our favorite expansion is Spirecrest with New Leaf close behind. (Chris posted a week worth of Everdell reviews that are a great read if you’re interested.)

#3: Dice Realms

Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, it’s customizable dice – a genre that hasn’t always produced the most interesting of games.

But don’t let that stop you. This is a very quick and unbelievably cunning bit of game design with huge variability in set-up. I know that my Tom Lehmann fan status makes me more likely to enjoy this – but it is objectively a great design separate of that. Big props to Rio Grande for including the proper storage solution in the box for the multitude of tiny bits.

#2: Ark Nova

While Ark Nova has similarities to Terraforming Mars (i.e. buckets of cards, build your engine, resource management), it is very much its own entrancing creation. The solo game is absorbing and the multiplayer game (with 2-3 players) is great fun. (I’d avoid four players due to downtime.) The puzzle of how to build my zoo while building conservation initiatives tickles my brain.

#1: Return to Dark Tower

I managed to review Return to Dark Tower twice this year – the second one (linked here) is the more extensive of the two and includes our thoughts on Gritty mode, solo play, and even the competitive variant.

Flat out, this was the best game of 2022… we played it 21 times this year and I fully expect to get 20+ plays next year. It is an immersive cooperative experience that utilizes the amazing tower and the app to create a game that wouldn’t work the same without them. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Five & Dime

I got curious – how many of my top new-to-me games were in my Five & Dime lists for 2022?

  • Return to Dark Tower 21
  • Dice Realms 16
  • Heat: Pedal to the Metal 16
  • 7 Wonders: Architects 15
  • Aquamarine 11
  • Ark Nova 11
  • Everdell 10
  • The Guild of Merchant Explorers 10
  • Challengers! 8
  • Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Board Game 7
  • For What Remains: Streets of Ruin 6
  • Dead Reckoning 5

So… twelve out of twenty. Not bad.

Looking Ahead

There are a number of games on my radar for this list in 2023… including Thunder Road: Vendetta, Voidfall, Arydia: The Paths We Dare Tread, My Island, Forsaken, and a couple of protoypes I’m not allowed to talk about… yet.

Games pictured above:
  • Top Row: Everdell: Mistwood; Eleven; Return to Dark Tower
  • Middle Row: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns; Ark Nova; The Guild of Merchant Explorers
  • Bottom Row: Final Girl; Aquamarine; Dead Reckoning
I received review copies of Wrath of the Lighthouse and Dead Reckoning. The rest of the games on the list were purchased by me or belong to one of my two sons.

This article appeared originally on the Opinionated Gamers website and has been slightly updated.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Game Review: Zombicide: Gear Up

Let’s begin with a disclaimer: I’m not a fan of zombie games in general. I’ve played my fair share – Dead of Winter, Mall of Horror, Escape: Zombie City, Lord of the Fries, Axis & Allies & Zombies, Give Me the Brain, Dawn of the Dead, Eaten By Zombies, The Great Brain Robbery, and the somewhat on-the-nose named Zombies!!!. In fact, BoardGameGeek lists 1377 different zombie-themed games (though some number of those are expansions). And, despite its ubiquitous nature in the gaming community, I managed to avoid Zombicide.

It’s not that I hate zombies – I’m quite fond of the zombie horde in my Heroscape collection (you can make a really fun army with them and the vampire clan) – and I think that Martin Wallace’s Hit Z Road is both a great game and a fantastic use of theme. I just have a number of other themes I enjoy a lot more.

So, I was pleasantly surprised by Zombicide: Gear Up… which broke my streak of never playing a Zombicide game. This cooperative flip’n’write game does a great job of capturing the theme (wading through a horde of zombies to take out the zombie boss) with a relatively small table footprint and straightforward gameplay.

As Our Story Opens…

Each player chooses a Survivor card – which shows 4 different weapons with their damage patterns and various special powers, as well as tracks to indicate ammo, shields, and health. The Survivor cards are double-sided, with the opposing side having a solo version of that particular hero. The left side of the card also has three “Street Slots”, used to track the shambling progress of the zombies toward the character.

The lead player shuffles the turn cards and lays nine (of a possible ten) of them in a row… and then a row of 7 zombie spawn cards below turns 3-9.

The group chooses a difficulty level (there are four to pick from – more about that later) and a number of zombies are dealt to each player based on the player count and difficulty level.

With that, the onslaught begins…

The Battle is Joined…

The gameplay of Zombicide: Gear Up is simple – the game consists of two rounds of zombie fighting, each with nine turns. On a turn, the lead survivor (player) flips over the turn card and the various players attack the zombies headed towards them. Killing a zombie allows a player to upgrade one of their weapons. Then, the zombies shamble forward and, if they’re close enough, attack the survivors. Finally new zombies are spawned (during the first round) or the boss attacks (during the second round). 

Kill the boss before the end of the second round? You emerge zombie-goo-splattered but victorious. Don’t destroy the boss by the end of the second round or one of your team of survivors dies? You lose.

Let’s walk through a turn in more detail – which will let me explain to you better how to kill zombies… and, because it’s a zombie game, how more of them just keep rumbling toward you.


A turn card is flipped and gives the players three pieces of information:
  • Which weapon they’ll get to use this turn
  • Which zombies will move and/or attack later in the turn
  • If you’re playing solo, there’s a smiley face if you’re allowed to use one of your companions this turn


Using the provided dry-erase pens, players can cross off hit point spaces on the zombie cards in any of their Street Slots. They do so by drawing the hit shape of the weapon indicated on their Survivor card. While hit shapes can be rotated or mirrored, they can’t protrude outside the zombie hit point spaces, nor can a hit point space be crossed off twice. If a player doesn’t want to or cannot use the complete hit shape, they can simply cross off a single space.

When a player crosses off a shield hit point space, they outline a shield on their Survivor card. If they cross off an ammo hit point space, they outline a space on the ammo track on their Survivor card. Crossing off a hit point space with a red damage icon (star) reduces the ability of that zombie to hurt you. 

Each weapon has a different pair of special powers that also affect how they are used (Long Range, Split, Explosive, etc.) or what happens after they are used (Knockback, Scavenge, Lock & Load, etc.). The summary of these powers on the card works well – and there are more specific instructions with examples in the rulebook.

Players can spend ammo after an attack – they can cross off ammo they’ve outlined and X out individual spaces on the zombies in their Street Slots.


If a player crosses off the last hit point box on a zombie, it’s dead. (In the words of The Princess Bride – all dead, not just mostly dead.) That player can unlock one upgrade on one of their weapons. Upgrades must be gained in order for each weapon. 

Zombie Walk

At this point, all of the zombies with movement icons that match the icon(s) on the turn card lurch forward – either one more Street Slot towards each player or, if they’ve reached the final Street Slot, their lurching is an attack on that Survivor. For each damage icon on their card that is not marked off, the player must mark off one damage on their Survivor card. (They can use shields to absorb damage – and this is often the smartest choice in the fight for survival.) 

Zombie Spawn

In turns 3-9, a spawn card is turned over and more zombies appear. Players discuss how best to divide them up – any zombies taken by a player are put in their most distant Street Slot.

The Big Bad Appears…

Round two is similar to round one, but with the addition of the previously chosen Boss Zombie. The Boss starts the round in front of the lead player and moves one Survivor to the left each turn. Players with long-range weapon upgrades unlocked can fire at the Boss, as can the player the boss is in front of.

The boss activations begin with turn 3 of the second round – which can include more zombies in addition to the boss attacking all the players. It can be, in a word, brutal.

The players win by crossing off all the hit point squares of the boss before (a) getting to the end of round 2, or (b) one of them dying.

Silver & Gold & Zombies

It’s not much more complicated than that. Yes, I left out the various kinds of zombies (including Bombers & Stinkies) and didn’t go deeply into the myriad weapon upgrades, but the game itself is pretty straightforward. 

For those who’ve played Phil Walker-Harding’s great little flip-n-write game, Silver & Gold, the most basic part of the game (crossing off boxes to complete cards) is going to feel pretty familiar. That said, I don’t think this is simply a zombie-fied clone of Phil’s design – by adding the variety of weapons & powers, as well as the move to cooperative play against hordes (and a Boss!), Gear Up is its own game.

The solo system uses alternate versions of the Survivors… along with a small deck of Companion cards. The solo player deals themselves three of them at the beginning of the game – and they can be activated when indicated by the turn cards to provide you with some extra firepower. It works very well solo.

Most of our games have been running 30 minutes with 1-3 players… with our one six player game lasting almost an hour. (This is one of those games that runs on the pace of the slowest player.) We haven’t tried any difficulty level but easy – which we’ve won 3 out of 6 plays. (Looks like it’s time to move up and increase the challenge.)

I know portability isn’t important to everyone, but that’s one of the virtues of the game design – lots of variety in a relatively small package. (As spring is my main travel time for work, I’m always looking for solid solo games that pack easily and play in relatively small spaces – and Gear Up fits that bill perfectly.)

MZCU (Marvel Zombie Cinematic Universe)

Although it’s not the point of this review, I need to close by saying some nice things about Marvel Zombies: Heroes Resistance, which is also a member of the Zombicide family. My younger son picked up a copy and has played it a good bit solo (it’s a cooperative game) and a couple of times with me. It does the whole “fight zombies” + “fight Marvel heroes who’ve turned into brain-eating zombies” things very well – it’s quick, there are flashes of luck and chances to make good decisions, and the production quality is very nice for a “starter” kit for the upcoming Marvel Zombies Kickstarter

A review copy was provided to the Opinionated Gamers... and this review originally appeared on that site.