We’re going to do something a little bit different today. A spotlight piece of sorts, a tribute to one of my favorite board game designers currently working. There are precious few people that I will blind-buy a game from just to see what they’ve cooked up, and even fewer that are consistently excellent. Jon Perry is on that list.
To call Jon Perry an up and coming designer is to do him a disservice. Up and comers don’t have as many hits as he does. Hell, there are long-established designers with weaker track records than his. Video game history aside because we’re talking about board games here, the man’s got 3 published boxed releases to his name and they’re a hat trick. Moreover, each is distinctly good in their own unique ways. Let’s begin at the beginning:
On a list of 3 it’s difficult to call something a deep cut, yet that’s the best description I have for Time Barons. It began as a small indie print on demand card game for two players with wild art and ideas, a colab between Perry and his pal Derek Yu (of Spelunky fame). By its second edition it grew into a version with twice as many cards, multiplayer support, and twice as much of the aforementioned wild art. It was a striking debut and portrays Perry at his least restrained.
At its core TB is a game of combos. Powerful, unhinged, destructive combos that are so good they often feel like cheating. Opponent has a sniper nest popping your followers as they run from place to place? Simply infect it with the plague and that problem will solve itself. Need to get a leg up on some goons with a battering ram knocking your door down? Travel to the future and invent missiles. Late in the game and running short on minions to do your bidding? Recruit a space ark full of willing workers! Zero percent of this is elaboration on my part, the game is just bonkers.
And yet it’s always manageable, always trackable. The action economy in TB can be cheated, because of course it can, but it still forces players to signal intent and take turns to set up their next masterstroke, meaning the other player(s) will almost always have time to react and prepare countermeasures. It’s this constant back and forth, the waxing and waning of conflict and construction, that makes Time Barons equal parts exciting and cerebral.
If you and your friends are fans of multiplayer CCGs, for example multi-way Magic the Gathering formats, Time Barons couldn’t be more up your alley. At 2p it’s a compelling duel but it’s at 4p in teams that the game really comes into its own. It’s a brawl that plays like little else while also being an easy teach for a game with so many cool ideas, especially if you’re accustomed to gonzo card effects and blowout plays. Of Perry’s ludography it’s possibly the most divisive, but you likely already know if it’s something you want to check out from the description alone. It’s certainly my kind of thing.
Air Land & Sea
This is Perry’s mainstream smash hit. Several print runs due to constantly selling out, a planned expansion, and an upcoming alt-art version with anthropomorphic animals? If that’s not success I don’t know what is. And it’s deserved. Where Time Barons was Perry completely unrestrained, AL&S is proof that limitations breed creativity and in this case, brilliance.
AL&S is a game of tactical concession and losing battles to win wars. Pushing your luck, not against the odds, but against the stubbornness of your opponent. It’s a game of wits and wills, best played staring your opponent straight in the eye, and it does it all with 18 cards. It’s an achievement in efficiency, a game that does so much with so little that it makes larger boxes look wasteful.
On your turn you only ever do one of two things: play a card to a theatre (those being air land or sea if you can believe it) or concede the round and give your opponent points. The latter will happen more often than you may initially think. Newer players tend to let hands play out all the way, which pays out massive points to the winner and makes games end after just a couple rounds. But once both players get the hang of the game’s cards and the tricks they can pull off they’ll start to turn tail at the sign of trouble, and the earlier a player quits the fewer points their opponent receives.
That’s when the mind games take root. Making a splashy play early in the round could potentially net you a handful of points despite your hand otherwise being crap if you’re intimidating enough. If you’re confident you’ve got a great combo, how long do you wait to fire it? And will it break if they have a particular card in response? When do you deploy cards facedown just to add power to a theater, forgoing benefits in favor of sheer numbers? And as you’re thinking about all of these so too is your rival. Every single card played could be the critical piece that spooks your opponent or seals their fate, making each subsequent hand all the more compelling.
AL&S is the polar opposite of a sophomore slump. It’s not just a great game from Perry in particular, it’s a top notch tabletop game that towers above its peers, many of which use far more components to achieve far less. If you have any affection for competitive card games it warrants play, and if you find game design interesting it demands study. It’s a masterclass.
Question: How do you follow a perfect 2p game? Answer: By not making another 2p game.
As if sensing that he could be called a one trick pony for making too many excellent 2p games, Perry decided to flip the script and make one of the most innovative social deduction games in years. Scape Goat flips the genre’s conventions on their head: there are no secret identities, no lies to cover misdeeds, none of the qualities that typify social deduction. Instead your task is to understand your place in the group and whether or not everyone wants to throw you under the bus. Welcome to the worst workday of your life!
Each player is secretly given a target that they’re attempting to throw under the bus. The wrinkle is that one of the players is out of the loop; a fall guy set up by the rest of the gang who’s been given false instructions. That player’s goal is to suss out their other-ness and rat out the collective to the cops before they’re pinned with the crime. Only problem is, no player starts the game knowing what side they’re on and 911 is a very easy number to dial.
Paranoia. That’s what SG is about, moreso than any other game I’ve ever played. As players take actions to secretly trade cards around and attempt to coordinate their under-bus-throwery they’ll start to glean who’s working with whom, only that’s in no way definitive. And easily misinterpreted. And even more easily obfuscated if a player is trying to be a sneak. It’s a game of ever escalating tension, anticipation, and palpable fear as the game takes shape. There are few social deduction games that achieve this level of emotional resonance and none of them play anything like Scape Goat.
SG had a rough initial release, not due to its quality or its anthrogoats, but because it came out in the middle of the worst of Covid. This is a game of signals, subtlety, and sabotage, all things that don’t work quite as well when socially distanced. But as groups have started to reconvene and games are getting played again it’s started to see some time in the sun, and that’s well deserved. Scape Goat is a true original in a crowded genre and proof of Perry’s versatility as a designer. It was this game that made me realize that I have no idea what to expect from whatever he releases next – all I know is that I intend to be there to see it.