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The biggest board games and role-playing games of the winter

Altered Carbon has a new role-playing game, plus a new game about our National Park System

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Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Take our mittened hand and let Polygon’s Winter Games package for 2021 guide you through the playground of wintertime games — what’s great, what’s not, and what exciting features await you in the games coming out in February and March.

It’s a new year, and that means new tabletop games are hitting the street. Maybe you’ve run out of puzzles and you’re looking for a new solitaire experience, or maybe you’ve got a rabid group of friends who meet regularly online for a role-playing game. Perhaps it’s just been a long while since you upgraded the family board game collection. Here’s what’s new and notable in the world of board games, card games, and tabletop RPGs in 2021.

There’s a new set of Magic: The Gathering cards, of course, but also a new anthology of one-shot adventures for Dungeons & Dragons. If you’ve tired of sword and sorcery shenanigans, there’s a new Alien-themed RPG and an RPG based on Netflix’s Altered Carbon. There are also two new board games perfect for families — Umbra Via and Waddle Downtown. You’ll find them, and lots more, in our round-up of the winter’s best games.

Remember that you can pick up just about everything listed below at your friendly local game store as well as online.

Alien: The Roleplaying Game

A fireteam runs toward a gunship, which is providing suppressing fire. Chips of rock leap into the air in the foreground, while the background is obscured by smoke. Image: Free League

Free League has a bona fide hit on its hands with Alien: The Roleplaying Game. The award-winning system relies on solid gameplay mechanics to build tension, while drawing on the rich, lived-in feeling that makes the film franchise so unique. This winter, there are two new pieces of Alien content on the horizon, and both of them are worth a look.

First up is Alien RPG: Colonial Marines Operations Manual, a new campaign module written by Andrew E.C. Gaska and Paul Elliott. It includes everything you need to create your own badass team of Xenomorph-hunting roughnecks, including weapons, vehicles, and a healthy dose of lore.

If you’ve not had the pleasure of playing Alien yet — or simply aren’t able to get together in person — Free League tells Polygon that an officially licensed version of the ruleset is headed to the Foundry virtual tabletop platform this winter.

Altered Carbon: The Role Playing Game

New in January is the release of the official role-playing adaptation of the Altered Carbon universe. Based on the Netflix series, this RPG should have a bit more broad appeal than if it were solely based on the novels by Richard K. Morgan. Physical copies of Altered Carbon: The Role Playing Game Core Rulebook are available now for $50, while a $24.99 PDF version can be found on DriveThruRPG.

Check out the Hunters Entertainment website for more information as well as free downloads — including the quick-start rules.

Dungeons & Dragons’ Candlekeep Mysteries

Dungeons & Dragons fans have lots to look forward to when Candlekeep Mysteries arrives in March, with 17 new one-shot adventures from 19 different designers.

This book is a bit of a departure from D&D’s usual fare. Often we’ll get a book filled with new character options, magic spells, and arcane items to play with. Sometimes we’ll get a whole new campaign. Candlekeep is an anthology of adventures that can be played by characters of just about any level. Best of all, these adventures are designed to be plugged into any campaign that you’re currently running, so there will likely be lots inside for clever Dungeon Masters to borrow.

You’ll also be able to find the same content online through a number of sources, including D&D Beyond, Roll20, and Fantasy Grounds — which is also on Steam.

Magic: The Gathering’s Kaldheim

The newest set of collectible cards for Magic: The Gathering takes planeswalkers to the frozen reaches of Kaldheim. This Viking-themed set went live at the end of January both as a physical set of cards and a digital set of cards on Magic: The Gathering Arena — which also launched on Android on Jan. 28. A version of the game for iOS and tablets is in the works.

Imperial Struggle is back in stock

A game of Imperial Struggle Struggle laid out for solo play. Image: Scott Mansfield/GMT Games

The spiritual successor to Twilight Struggle, one of the most critically acclaimed board games of all time, Imperial Struggle quickly sold out when it launched last year. Publisher GMT has a second printing up for grabs this winter. If you’re a fan of strategy gaming, take note, as this two-player game also makes for a decent single-player experience. And it looks gorgeous on the table, to boot.

Parks Memories series

I was immediately smitten with Parks at Gen Con 2019. Here was a thematic game about the U.S. National Park System with lots of delicate wooden bits and a stunning set of art assets. The Fifty-Nine Parks Print Series also serves as the inspiration for a new, lighter matching game called Parks Memories.

Perfect for players aged 6 and up, Parks Memories accommodates anywhere from two to eight players (higher counts require players to divide into teams). Best of all, that glorious art is rendered on richly colored, thick card stock that you’ll get to handle every round. There are three different versions of the game to choose from: Parks Memories: Plains Walker, Parks Memories: Mountaineer, and the Barnes & Noble-exclusive Parks Memories: Coast to Coast.

Sword and Sorcery: Ancient Chronicles

If you’re hungry for a new dungeon crawler, then Ares Games has good news for you. Its latest boxed set, Sword and Sorcery: Ancient Chronicles, ships this winter.

Ancient Chronicles is a campaign in a box that does not require a game master to run. Expect a rich fantasy world and lots of colorful plastic miniatures with this cooperative action game. It’s good news for fans of solitaire games as well, since the game scales from one to five players.

An upgrade for Fire in the Lake, part of the COIN series

Fire in the Lake: Insurgency in Vietnam is a well-regarded look at the Vietnam War co-designed by Volko Ruhnke, an instructor at the CIA. It’s among the best games in his COIN (counterinsurgency) series of wargames. First released in 2014, Fire in the Lake is getting a new solitaire bot — effectively an upgrade for solo players.

Many GMT games have a solitaire mode. One of my favorites, Labyrinth: The War on Terror, for instance, comes with a massive flowchart that you have to unfold and make your way through on every turn. The Tru’ng Bot upgrade for Fire in the Lake makes that solitaire mode much easier to manage by introducing a deck of cards — not unlike the solitaire system used by Stonemaier Games’ Scythe.

Inspiration for this new upgrade came from the fans, GMT said. They wanted a version of the card-driven bot from Gandhi: The Decolonization of British India, 1917-1947 — the ninth entry in the COIN series — and the designers were happy to oblige. If you already own a copy of Fire in the Lake, you can preview the rules online, or read a blog post by the design team. The upgrade is available for $25 at the GMT website.

Umbra Via

Pandasaurus Games offers something a bit more abstract and low-key than the Vietnam War. Its latest game, Umbra Via, launches on March 17. The tile-laying game uses a unique bidding mechanic. Players hide their stockpile of flowers behind a screen, then use them to purchase tiles to fill out the game board. The original design was a bit less colorful. It also involved recapturing bits of your soul, which is a little heavy for a family game. That didn’t stop it from winning an award from the team at Cardboard Edison. Now that it’s been picked up by a major publisher, I’m curious to see how the wider reception pans out. The two- to four-player game runs $39.95, and it’s suitable for ages 8 and up.

You can pre-order Umbra Via at the Pandasaurus website.

Unmatched: Little Red Riding Hood vs. Beowulf

The Unmatched series from Restoration Games and Mondo is a miniatures skirmish game, a re-implementation of various mechanics from Milton Bradley’s Star Wars: Epic Duels as well as Fantasy Flight’s Tannhauser, both now out of print. It’s a thoughtful design, one that handles common issues like adjacency and line of sight with simple rules. It also uses textures and patterns to improve accessibility for colorblind players.

This winter, the lavish game gets two new combatants. Unmatched: Little Red Riding Hood vs. Beowulf will finally allow you to pit a preteen girl against a mythical warrior. Like other Unmatched sets, it includes some beautiful miniatures that are elegantly washed to resemble a statue. The real treat here is all the gorgeous art that Mondo brings with it.

Head to Mondo’s online storefront to pick the game up for $24.99.

Cover art for Waddle Downtown shows a group of adorable penguins crossing the street. It is heartwarming, and chilling, as the insensate evil lurks in the heart of a major metropolitan city. Damn them. Damn their adorable little bowties to hell.
30 to 50 feral penguins.
Image: WizKids

Waddle Downtown

Last but definitely not least is Waddle Downtown from WizKids. We’ve all been cooped up at home these last 11 months or so, and humanity’s absence from urban areas has allowed nature to begin the slow process of reclaiming the land. Perhaps no species has more aggressively displayed its dominance during our absence than the lowly penguin, which can regularly be been seen touring the nation’s museums in ravening, ferocious herds.

Designers Raph Koster and Isaac Shalev have captured this new form of avian terror in their latest game. “The penguins are hitting the town,” says the back of the box, “but herding penguins as they visit places is easier said than done!”

Be safe out there, penguin wranglers. We’ll see you in the spring.

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