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What Are We Playing? [Jan 2024]

Periodically on this blog we highlight a handful of tabletop and digital games to spread the word about interesting experiences and support other creators. Here's the first roundup of 2024!

First Ascent is a strategy game about rock climbing, which means it was basically made for me. When things seem too perfect, I tend to ready myself for disappointment, but this game was such a pleasant surprise! Despite the vast number of components, it was easy to learn, and there was just enough player interaction and randomness for a rock climbing theme. Some lingo might go over your head if you know nothing about climbing, but gameplay will still make sense. I appreciate that it celebrates taking the best route strategically rather than making it a race of who can get to the top fastest—in fact, getting to the peak just gives you a small bonus, and is not the main goal. The game captures the essence of climbing, which is much more about efficiency and technique than speed. The one downside for me was the artwork, which could be improved. Overall, this is a well-balanced game with a good application of thematic elements that climbers and non-climbers alike can enjoy.

Difficulty: 2/5

Time: 20 minutes per player

Screenshot from The Looker video game featuring rows of benches surrounded by hedges statues and a castle in the background

The Looker is an amusing satire that pokes fun at The Witness for being pretentious. While I can certainly understand feeling that way, I still think The Witness is brilliant (and I don't know what could possibly knock it down from my top 3 video games). The gameplay generally still centers around drawing lines from A to B, but rather than a rigidly guided path, there is a pencil that allows you to draw loosely and sloppily, which made completing lines a little finicky at times. This game has funny moments, but some puzzles had what felt like a "guess what I'm thinking" mechanic without the kind of feedback offered by The Witness when an input is incorrect. Without clear feedback to test theories, I had to resort to a walkthrough at times, which is ultimately a less satisfying solve to me. Because it's a satire, some jokes obviously won't land if you haven't played The Witness, but you may enjoy this either way—despite my gripes, it was a fun way to spend an hour, especially for the low price of absolutely free.

Difficulty: 2/5

Time: <1.5 hours

Phantom Ink is a word-guessing game that's played in two teams, and one of my new favorites for 4+ people (you could still play with three if one player acts neutral). It's quick and easy to explain, and the communication mechanics are unique and clever. Each team has a clue-giving ghost that can intentionally try to confuse the other team while also helping their own, which adds another level of creative complexity. The overall simplicity with an extra layer of potential strategy makes it appealing to both gamers and non-gamers. This game is a great option for parties or as a warm up on your regular board game night.

Difficulty: 1.5/5

Time: ~15 minutes

Murder on the Ornament Express is a fun, festive game for the holiday season, and the mystery plot of a melted snowman is just plain adorable. There is some decoding involved, but it's primarily a deduction-based mystery, and at times it was necessary to notice small details in the cards to piece together what happened. Occasionally, the cluing felt a bit ambiguous and made it slightly difficult to deduce the answers cleanly, but thankfully the hints were helpful in confirming our answer and allowing us to move forward. Overall, Murder on the Ornament Express offers a light, entertaining holiday challenge for a wide range of experience levels and ages. It works well as a bite-sized solo puzzle, while also being family-friendly and very approachable for beginners and non-puzzlers.

Difficulty: 1.5/5

Time: ~1 hour

Part show, part escape game, Rise of the Fungi is another delightful experience from Headlock Escape Rooms. Played over Zoom with a live host, this game is a standalone prequel to The Keeper & the Fungus Among Us. I loved revisiting this adorable world full of miniatures, puns, and puppets. Everything is lovingly handcrafted, from the detailed sets to the campy musical numbers. It's such a unique universe, and we felt immersed in the experience and invested in the characters in a way that's rare for a game based on Zoom. The accessible puzzles and overall tone make it a great choice for a family game, but because the focus is on the silly narrative as much as the puzzles themselves, it's still fun for seasoned puzzlers looking for an entertaining experience.

Difficulty: 1.5/5 Time: <1.5 hours

The Antigravitation puzzle box offers a variety of intriguing puzzles and some neat mechanisms. However, I found the last puzzle to be a bit nonsensical, and struggled to open the box even after looking up the solution. Given the price point, I expected a bit more interactivity from the box—its entertaining elements ended too quickly. I also encountered an issue with one of the puzzles getting stuck, making it impossible to reset. That aspect was a bit disappointing. Overall, there are some novel mechanics here, but the execution could be improved for a better experience.

Difficulty: 2/5

Time: <1 hour

What have you been playing lately?


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