You may not have heard of him, but for the last ten years, John Clowdus has quietly and unapologetically been producing and releasing the games that he wants to make. He does this through his company Small Box Games, and the titles they put out go for a lot less than what you might be used to, most games selling at $15 plus shipping. They’re able to do this by utilizing pre-orders and small print runs with little to no excess.
While this business model is not unheard of these days, especially with Kickstarter making it a viable option for new and old designers alike, the fact that John has been doing this for a decade now (starting before Kickstarter even existed) is worth taking note of. And Small Box never falls victim to the bloating that other crowdfunded games often do. When they start a new Kickstarter it runs for ten days with only a few stretch goals in mind. This lets them make exactly the game they want to make, no more, no less, and ship it to you quickly in one of their signature black-and-gold boxes.
As is the nature of their selection, most games they’ve made are out of print, but here are three that you can either buy now or pre-order.
Omen: A Reign of War
Arguably their best game, and definitely their most popular, Omen: A Reign of War has had several reprints and additions made over the years. In this competitive, two player card game you and your opponent are two brothers and sons of Zeus, both ready to conquer all of Ancient Greece. To win the favor of the gods you’ll have to prove your worth through your mastery of tactics, combat, and the soldiers, beasts, and oracles that make up your army.
Omen excels at both fast-paced, cutthroat competition and careful planning and strategy. Fans of Magic: The Gathering and Android: Netrunner will find a lot to love here. While it isn’t a collectible card game, the depth of Omen might just surprise you. The game really shines when you start drafting your decks instead of drawing from the same deck (which you’ll start with to learn the game). Soon you’ll learn the value of each card and how it’ll work with the other cards you’re drafting. And soon after that you’ll realize that you’re playing Omen at every single two-player game night you have.
You can buy the Omega Edition now, which comes with an expansion and all the deluxe goodies it’s accumulated over the years, but as of this writing, there are only 45 copies left, so maybe act quickly.
Seii Daimyo is a reskin of the first game that Small Box Games ever made, which went by the name of Politico. Now set in the Warring States period of Japan, The Sengoku Jidai, each player is an aspiring Daimyo with dreams of unifying Japan into a Shogunate under their name. In order to do this you’ll need to utilize your Samurai and foot soldiers (Ashigaru) to gain and keep control of the various locations in the game.
Seii Daimyo is all about predicting the moves your friends are going to make and capitalizing on them. Each player has an identical hand of role cards with one Samurai and one Ashigaru. Whenever you play a role, for each opponent who played a different card, the card you played becomes more powerful. The Samurai are all about seizing and controlling the locations that come up, while the Ashigaru allow you to draw and play Clan cards, which can be used for their special effects or saved for points at the end of the game.
While Seii Daimyo is a 2-4 player game, it is strongly recommended for three or four players. And while it hasn’t yet been released, you can pre-order it on Small Box Games’ website.
Hemlock: Dark Promenade
In a place where night lasts for years, you and your opponent are the leaders of ancient houses in the city of Hemloch. Strange people populate this city, and you’ll need to work with them in order to assert influence in the four districts and gain control over the land before the sun rises. These districts are represented by cards in a 3×3 grid. You and your opponent will play minions to affect one of your three avenues, which will be three cards in a row for one player and three cards in a column for the other.
The interaction can be subtle, forcing you to adopt some mental gymnastics to determine how each turn will go. The game itself is quick, but still maintains the depth that is to be expected with Small Box Games’…games. And all of the delicate interplay and manipulation serves to highlight the theme with its haunting aesthetic. Dark Promenade is actually a sequel to the original Hemlock game, and it looks to be a marked improvement, keeping the best parts of the setting and goals while simplifying some of the mechanics. This game is also available to preorder.
Edit: It was just announced that Small Box Games has been bought by Kolossal Games and will be reprinting Omen: A Reign Of War along with other titles. Excellent news if this run goes out of print before you get your hands on a copy.
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Image credits: Small Box Games