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Roll-and-write board games are having their moment in the sun

Wingspan creator’s The Fox Experiment leads a pack of new games at Gen Con 2022

Domesticated and wild foxes chill with Soviet infantry in a pastoral village setting. Image: Pandasaurus Games

The COVID-19 lockdown was truly the best of times and worst of times for the board game industry. Forced inside for months on end, consumer demand for board games skyrocketed while supply chain problems made getting those games harder and harder. The most popular games to come out of the pandemic are the roll-and-writes, a genre of game that lends itself well to socially distanced and even Zoom-based gameplay. That popularity was reflected at this year’s Gen Con, where the presence of these games at numerous companies’ booths suggested that we’re entering a new age of innovation for the genre.

Roll-and-writes represent a lot of opportunity for the designer since they can accommodate higher player counts, flexible asymmetry, and brand-new ways to approach co-op and competitive gameplay. Interestingly, the “writing” portion of these games has shifted from pad-and-paper setups (as in games like Cartographers) to laminated dry-erase mats (which most of the new games at Gen Con featured). With a few years since the craze kicked off, every aspect of these games have been tinkered with and improved over time. It sure ain’t Yahtzee anymore.

Twilight Inscription

The industry tile from Twilight Inscriptoin. Image: Fantasy Flight Games
The warfare tile for Twilight Inscription is, by and large, inscrutable. Image: Fantasy Flight Games
The expansion tile from Twilight Inscription. Image: Fantasy Flight Games
The navigation pane. Image: Fantasy Flight Games

Designer James Kniffen came up with the idea for Twilight Inscription almost by accident — it came to him as part of a series of pitches he was working on for Fantasy Flight. The prospect of condensing Twilight Imperium, a game famous for its complexity and length of playtime, into something as compact as a roll-and-write was no easy task. It took over a year of work to get it to its final state, the key breakthrough being the decision to split the game into four separate sections: Warfare, Industry, Navigation, and Exploration.

What Kniffen ended up with is a perfect distillation of what people are looking for in a classic game of Twilight Imperium: important choices, space politics, and plenty of ways to build your civilization. All of the cultures of the original game are represented as well as much of the flavor and setting, all condensed down into about two hours of gameplay. The goal, Kniffen said, was to make it easier for new players to get excited about the setting while still letting longtime players get the experience they’ve grown to love.

Zombicide: Gear Up

Along the same lines is Zombicide: Gear Up, a flip-and-write from CMON and Guillotine Games that is meant to be a gateway to the bigger world of Zombicide. It’s a co-op variation, another new change to the genre we began to see this year, and it pits survivors against zombies in the standard Zombicide way. The Zombies are defeated by essentially coloring in their shapes, with each survivor’s abilities and weapons dictating how you fill out each zombie. Covering certain parts of the zombie can give you ammo, shields, or reduce damage. There are also boss zombies like the Zombie Cheer Squad who present unique challenges to deal with as the survivors complete their coverage.

Mission Control: Critical Orbit

Th3rd World Studios is also innovating in the co-op roll-and-write form with this new game, which turns four players into the support system for a space mission in danger. Players must work together from their own individual board, each with their own unique set of challenges, to help save the day in just 20 minutes. The asymmetrical and co-op gameplay allows for plenty of tension and exciting communication-based play, and constraint cards help increase how fast your games can go.

The Fox Experiment

The genre of roll-and-writes has become so popular that other games are starting to borrow elements from them, as seen in Elizabeth Hargrave’s next outing: The Fox Experiment. Pandasaurus’ crowdfunding campaign goes live Sept. 6. Inspired by the real-life experiments in Russia to domesticate foxes, this adorable title has you rolling dice to get the right mix of traits to breed into the next generation of foxes, marking off those traits on a card as you go along. While things like trait tokens and upgrade tracks add more variety to the gameplay, at its core this builds on the model of roll-and-writes that have been so popular. With new games like The Fox Experiment already finding new ways to implement the genre, there’s no doubt we’ll see these mechanics across the industry even more as time goes on.

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