Probably the best kept secret on this blog is who my favorite designer is (just kidding). It’s…
Vlaada Chvátil is a Czech game designer who has been working in the industry since 1997. He started out as a video game designer, with his most notable project being the 2001 game Original War (which is apparently very highly respected – you can watch playthroughs on YouTube). He’s been working regularly on board games since 2005, and has evolved into one of the most respected, and also polarizing, designers out there. So let’s take a stroll through his catalog to see some of the games he has produced over the years.
Arena: Morituri te salutant was published in 1997 by Altar Games. It’s a tactical combat game that was originally intended to be part of a roleplaying system, but turned out to be a bit too complex. You play cards out in a pre-planned line, and activate them in order. Your opponents will do the same thing, and you’re trying to outthink them and head them off before they hurt you. Combat is done with the attacker choosing a number between 1 and 6, and the defense trying to guess what it is. The object of the game is to reduce your opponents’ health to zero.
I’m not big into the fighting game genre, but I am big on programmed actions in games. Programming would become a big part of Vlaada’s later games, and and it’s cool to see that present in his very first game. There have been reprint rumors about the game for a while, but it’s never happened.
Prophecy was first published in 2002 by Altar Games, and later published in the US by Z-Man. This game is an adventure style game often compared to Talisman, though with a lot more choice. You’re moving around a circular world having adventures based on the spaces you land on. On your turn, you move one space (or more if you pay). If there are any cards in that space, you’ll deal with them. Monsters must be fought using strength or willpower, or you could find treasures and other helpful items. As you go, you’re developing your character, trying to make it stronger so that you can travel up to one of five Astral Planes and try to earn an Artifact. You can play so that the first player to collect two of these Artifacts wins, or you can play to four, meaning that there will be a lot of PVP fighting.
I hated Talisman when I played it. I liked the idea of adventuring, but the only choice is literally whether to go left or right. Here, you can choose how far you want to move, whether you want to have encounters, and have much more of a hand in developing your character. It’s a fairly clunky game, especially by today’s standards, but I enjoy it. I just don’t get to play it often.
Chvátil released two other games in the intervening years after Prophecy – Sherwood in 2005, and Graenaland in 2006. But it was his other 2006 game, Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization, that really got him noticed. Through the Ages is a civilization game that draws a lot of inspiration from Sid Meier’s Civilization console games. Players have a certain number of action points to spend on their turn, and these can be used to draft new cards, discover technologies, exploit resources, raise wonders, and build military. Your goal is to have the most culture after three ages.
TTA is a very dense game. There’s a lot going on, and it can be a very long game. It is very good, and is widely considered to be Chvátil’s masterpiece. Czech Games Edition came out with a revised version in 2015 called TTA: A New Story of Civilization that apparently cleaned up some of the rough edges. That version of the game is currently #2 at BGG. The original version is #12, which is not bad either.
Galaxy Trucker is the game that first brought Vlaada to my attention. Published in 2007 by Czech Games Edition (as most of his subsequent games would be), this is a game about building a spaceship out of sewer parts, then flying it to your destination. Each game takes place over three rounds. In each round, there’s a shipbuilding phase where players are grabbing parts to add to their ship – crew cabins, guns, engines, cargo holds, batteries, shields, and even alien life support. In the second half of each round, you take the journey and say bad words as your ship gets blown to pieces. This might not happen, but it most likely will. The object of the game is to make money, so if you have any at the end of the game, you win! The player with the most money is just a little bit more of a winner.
This was a very different game from Vlaada, but it really established him as a designer who could do anything. As well respected as Through the Ages is, I think it was Galaxy Trucker that really helped him catch on in the gaming world. It’s certainly my favorite of his designs (and my second favorite game of all time). GT also established Vlaada as one of the best rules writers out there – he manages to entertain and teach at the same time. It’s a very polarizing game, however – a lot of people absolutely hate the lack of control in the journey phase. For me, I love the chaotic nature of the game and will almost never turn down a chance to play.
Space Alert was released in 2008 by CGE, riding the wave of cooperative games that started with Pandemic. Space Alert added a real-time element to the cooperative game, and created a very challenging experience. A game only lasts about 20 minutes. The first ten are spent in real-time, with players programming out what actions will be taken. Meanwhile, a CD soundtrack tells you when threats appear, as well as when you must maintain radio silence or when you can draw or trade cards. Once time is up, you see what happened. Each player will reveal their orders one at a time. If the players communicated well and coordinated their efforts, they will be able to survive the attack. However, it’s more likely that at least one of the three sections of their ship will be destroyed, resulting in a loss for the team.
Space Alert has a lot going on, and has the issue that there is a significant learning curve. The rules are structured so you can level up the difficulty as you learn it. But it still takes a long time to teach, and for a relatively short game, that can be a problem. But it is extremely fun, and completely does away with the so-called Alpha Gamer problem with its real-time nature. You have to communicate and have to cooperate, or it will be a disaster. Space Alert is loosely connected thematically to Galaxy Trucker, and has a similar out-of-control feel that some people enjoy and some don’t.
Dungeon Lords came out in 2009 (another CGE production), taking the concept of the Dungeon Keeper video game and translating it to a Euro style board game. The game takes place over two years, divided into productive seasons and combat. During the productive seasons, players will simultaneously choose orders, then one at a time will send their minions to carry out the order. The twist is that you usually want to be second to carry out an order as the benefits tend to be greater. In combat, the adventurers that have gathered at your dungeon’s gate will invade and you have four rounds to fight them off, using monsters and traps that you may have collected. The player with the most points at the end of the game is the winner.
Dungeon Lords is a very difficult game to master. There’s a lot to think about, and you have to be solving the puzzle of how to defeat your adventurers while simultaneously trying to build an efficient dungeon. The game gets some grief for having players having not much control over what happens (does this seem like a theme?), but for me, it’s a very successful fusion of worker placement and programmed actions. I like it a lot, I just have sadly not gotten to play it much.
Dungeon Petz (2011) was Vlaada’s first sequel. It took the theme of Dungeon Lords and created a whole new game around it, where players are purchasing and raising monstrous pets. In each of the 5-6 rounds, players will be allocating their imps in groups to go out and do different actions, such as picking up pets, cages, food, or upgrades. After taking actions, you must meet the pets’ needs – food, play, magic, anger, health, etc. Every round from the second on, there will be a pet competition that can earn you more points. Every round from the third on, there will be a customer that shows up to buy pets. In the end, the player with the most points wins.
My one play of this was marred by bad teaching, but it was still a good time. It’s a very intricate game with a lot of thematic flourishes that really work well. It’s one I’ve wanted to try again DESPITE the bidding aspect. I just haven’t had a chance.
Mage Knight is one of the few games not done in partnership with CGE. It was done instead in 2011 WizKids, using their popular Mage Knight universe. The game is another adventure game as player are moving throughout the world, fighting monsters, recruiting new units, and trying to rid the world of menace. It uses a card play system where each card has something it does, but any card can be used for other things as long as it is turned sideways. There’s a slight deckbuilding aspect to it as you’re adding some new cards to your deck, but the game is really about defeating the scenario.
This game is the heaviest one I own. There’s just soooo much going on. You’ll often have to look at a problem several different ways to find the solution. It’s very puzzly (like most of Vlaada’s games), and a very rich game. It uses the HeroClix system, with cities that have variable difficulty levels. It’s a very good game, it’s just really dense and I don’t get to play much. This year, a new version of the game was released, retooled to use the Star Trek license – it’s called Star Trek Frontiers.
Pictomania is a 2011 party game that is basically Pictionary for gamers. Published by CGE and Stronghold in the US, this game is all about figuring what other people are drawing as you draw. Each player gets a random word from a random card, and must draw it. At the same time, they must keep their eyes on the other players to see what they’re drawing. When you have someone else’s picture figured out, you lay out your guess. You get points both for being correct and how quickly you found their word on the cards.
This game has always seemed really chaotic. In short, a Vlaada game. I’m not crazy about party games, and Vlaada’s 2009 Bunny Bunny Moose Moose didn’t give me much confidence in his ability to design one. But this one looks interesting, and he’s got a really good one coming up on the list.
Tash-Kalar is Vlaada’s 2013 offering, published by CGE and Z-Man. It’s an arena battle game that really is more like an abstract game. The basic premise is that you’re trying to get your minions in certain formations so you can unleash giant beings. Each player has one of four factions, and you win either by scoring the most points by fulfilling quests (standard mode) or destroying your opponents (melee mode).
I’ve never gotten to play this one, but it does seem really cool. I’d love to see Vlaada’s take on abstracts. The game took some flak because people didn’t think the theme was strong enough, but that doesn’t bother me. It’s another unique offering from the master.
Codenames was published in 2015 by CGE, now publishing their own stuff in America. This is another party game, but in this one, a grid of words is set up. Two spymasters try to get their team to guess their codewords first while avoiding the dreaded assassin using a key only they can see. Clues consist of a single word and a number to indicate how many words relate to that clue. The first team to find all of their words wins.
This game is essentially Password, but with more complexity. It’s a lot of fun, and really makes you think. It’s difficult being the spymaster and listening to the other players completely miss your point. The game won Vlaada the Spiel des Jahres in 2016, and CGE released Codenames: Pictures this year as well.
That will do it for season four of The Eleven. I’ll be taking December off, and I considered taking all of 2017 off from it as well. It’s become very difficult to come up with new lists. However, as 2017 is my tenth year in the hobby, I’ll be doing a series of lists covering every year since 2007. That will start in February – season five will kick off in January as always with another edition of Designers You Should Know. Thanks for reading!