Took me some time to get this post together, but wanted to make sure I shared out on Distilled plus some other games we played this year while at Gen Con. There are new games coming to my collection from Kickstarter, namely Return to Dark Tower and Unmatched Tales to Amaze, those will be covered in the next game session so we had to get this one out.
I might only have spent 36 hours at Gen Con, 8 of those running Terraforming Mars, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t time for games! I boast about how little time I spend eating and sleeping at Gen Con to maximize time spent playing games, and so I played games this year. Maybe not quite as many as past years, and in some cases, I had to observe rather than actually play, but I still took in enough to serve it up to you.
Distilled (2023) by Dave Beck, art by Erik Evensen, published by Paverson Games and 9 others
I’ve played it twice now and it’s currently my favorite game going, the one I want to play every time we get together. I mentioned in a prior post that I’d do a full review, but I’m doing it right here in this post.
Mainly, I feel like an entrepreneur. I feel like I dusted off an old building and got it working and making liquor and money again. I also feel a bit like a craftsman and a tiny bit like an artist, for crafting fine spirits.
Just to be clear, you’re brewing spirits, not cocktails or drinks. There are other games where you make cocktails and/or serve drinks. In this game, you create vodka, and/or rum, gin, whiskey, soju and more. Each has its own recipe that you have to learn, plus you also need to gather water, yeast, and the right kind of sugar (grain, fruit or plant). Personally I find that almost all vodka tastes the same, unless it’s made with potatoes.
Do you do something in this game?
Oh heck yeah. You build up and run your own business, specialize in certain alcohols, buy equipment and upgrades, hire employees and specialists, and at least have the potential to create some really interesting spirits. Each distiller identity has a special identity, and hails from a different part of the world (American, Europe, or Asia/Oceania). Your character also comes with a special family recipe for distilling a signature spirit that nobody else can make. That recipe can be enhanced with a signature ingredient that you’d use an action to collect later on. Certain types of spirits have to be aged at least one round before you can sell them. Even if you lose, you can still create an extremely flavorful batch of Whiskey or Gin.
What does this game do that others don’t?
A lot comes down to enjoying the theme. There’s nothing like cracking open a barrel of aged spirits, like whiskey, and discovering what flavors you’ve developed. You know, fine flavors like tropical fruit, dark chocolate or… salty manure. Good flavors are worth more but even the bad ones will add a point to the total. The distilling and aging of spirits is fun, and has unique mechanics involved, all of which work well to elevate the theme, while the theme elevates the mechanics.
Anything interesting about the mechanics and game play?
It’s an engine builder and a little bit of a tableau builder with some push your luck mechanics built in, plus a market phase that forces you to prioritize how you want to build out your distillery. Mainly, the mechanics integrate extremely well with the theme, and that’s what elevates the game from merely very good, to the one I want to play all the time.
As an example, there’s a fantastic mechanic when it’s time to distill: You get your water, sugar and yeast together and create a bit of alcohol from them. This is your “backwash”. Then you shuffle up the backwash deck and remove the top and bottom cards to remove the “heads” and “tails”, like you might do distilling a barrel of whiskey. This is not only thematic, but it adds an interesting push-your-luck mechanic (no whammies!) that forces you to make some tough strategic choices, e.g. sugars are generally the most valuable, and you end up with a backwash lacking any sugars, you can’t make your spirit. So you can put in more sugars to offset any bad luck, but these are expensive cards.
Plus, I already mentioned some of the mechanics around aged spirits. You play the flavor cards face down, and don’t discover what you really have until you crack that barrel open, several turns later. Of course, the longer you let it age, the more points you earn, but the less time you’ll have to spend the money you get from selling it — another tough strategic choice in a game that presents many.
How were the theme and components?
The art and components are solid, plus there are upgrades available for most of them such as a wooden barrel token, metal coins, metal cubes, neoprene mats, actual coasters with different spirits on them, shot glasses, and more.
Was there anything I didn’t like about this game?
Two plays in, not a whole lot. I do think there are some strategies that might be generally stronger than others, but I’d really have to play it more to find out, and hopefully the designers did their diligence in balancing it, as it seems they’ve done their diligence in all other regards to this game. The game has a nice “automatic first turn” built in to get players started in their first games, but I definitely think that setup is unbalanced. Next time I play, I don’t want to use those rules. I’m ready to rock without help.
How is the Replay Ability?
I can’t wait to play again. There are a number of different, asymmetric characters you can try out, each with their own unique advantage and signature spirit. There are also a bunch of different spirits you can try to distill, and just trying to make each one could take you a half dozen games or more. Plus, the mix of flavors for your aged spirits will differ every time. There is an aged spirit strategy, and more of a quick make-and-sell strategy, and I would presume some straddling of the two.
There’s already an Africa & Middle East expansion, with even more spirits and characters to try out.
You can see Tim and me hanging outside their booth at Gen Con 2023 behind the woman in yellow.
Do you need to add this game to your collection?
If you have even a passing interest in the fine art of distilling spirits, then your group needs to add this game right away, and start playing it. It’s a great strategy game, and it holds enough just pure fun elements that you’ll have a good time playing it no matter the outcome. The building up of your business, the employees you hire, the barrels you lock away and open up to reveal the flavors, and the mechanic of “distilling” where you lose the first and last card of your stack, it’s all brilliant for the theme.
If you’re ready to move beyond Distilled, here are some other board games we played at Gen Con 2023:
Disney Lorcana (2023) by Ravensburger Games
I will probably remember 2023 as the “Gen Con of Lorcana” more than any other thing. I made sure to play it at least once, but it was just the one time, so my impression of it is extremely limited.
Basically, Disney is trying for its own version of Magic the Gathering, a collectible card game (CCG). Instead of eliminating your opponent’s 20 hit points, you race to gain 20 points, mostly by “questing” for points with your characters. Instead of laying down creatures, you lay down Disney characters, with the major Disney characters acting as the big hitters. For example, the deck I played had Aurora and I played against Fantasia Mickey.
Disney is going all out on this. These cards are nice. In fact, these foil highlights are so nice that I sent these photos to my manufacturer and asked, “Can you do this?” (Yes, it’s called cold foil stamping, and they can! Keep up on the Essence of Eternity launch if you’re interested in learning more!)
Beyond that, I don’t have a deep enough impression of the game. In my one game, my opponent took the lead, and once she did, I didn’t really find any way to catch up to her. It seemed like once she got the lead, I was doomed. So, perhaps the game needs more catchup mechanics, but again, I’d have to play it more times to comment for sure. Beyond that, I can only say that it’s thought out and well done. I don’t think they’re “done” with it in that, I think they’ve got more content they want to get out, and I feel like they haven’t even completely figured out the game yet, as in there will be more mechanics. But it’s a thoughtful game, it features well known Disney characters and like I said, they’re going all out. So if the idea of this game appeals to you, I’d encourage you to check it out. I’m reading reviews out there of people for whom this is their favorite game now, and I can totally see that. Unlocking the full power of Fantasia Mickey, or Princess Aurora, looks fun. On the other hand, if you’re not interested in a CCG or Disney, there’s nothing so game changing about this game to encourage you to check it out.
Nemesis (2018) by Awaken Realms, Rebel Sp. z o o and 11 others
I didn’t actually play it but this game from 2018 was a centerpiece of the weekend for our crew, and I at least got a good, long look at it.
The boardgamegeek description begins, “Nemesis will take you into the heart of sci-fi survival horror in all its terror.” Think the world of Alien, with characters aboard a single ship with a sinister alien that can take over their bodies, meets the game House on Haunted Hill. It’s part cooperative game, part social deduction. Each character has their own goal that they keep secret from the others. This means you and another character may have a shared goal, but you could also be at odds with each other. In almost every game, some will die. In some games, nearly everyone will. In some games, goals are reached, in others, they may not be, or only for one of the players. In some games, there is a clear enemy to the rest of the crew, but other games won’t have that enemy, so each game is different and you never know for sure what mix of goals the other crew members have.
The components are top notch. The art draws you in. I hear the mechanics are easy enough to work with, to do the things you need to do. Friends said this was their favorite game of the weekend, and I can’t wait to play a full version myself that I can tell you about.
Unmatched Adventures: Tales to Amaze by Restoration Games
I backed the latest Unmatched set, and it’s arriving soon, so I’ll have more to say on it, but overall I’m very impressed. I like the era of characters with the likes of Nikola Tesla and Annie Christmas. But, the biggest thing is that there are Bosses capable of taking on multiple decks, and that scale up to face more decks, with built in AI. This is a breakthrough for these types of dueling games and I can’t wait to sink my teeth into it.
Everdell (2018) by Starling Games
This one was on my bucket list, with seemingly more than a dozen expansions, which you can buy all together now in one big box. I finally played through the original, unexpanded game, beginning to end, and discovered the wonder that is this world of Everdell and Root, this one with the full tree towering above the board.
These artists have created a really interesting world of anthropomorphized animals and their human-like interactions. It would be a great game to play with women and children who aren’t as interested in, say, mechs or wizards and dragons and the like, e.g. my wife and daughters. This combines elements of worker placement with tableau building, and it executes it really well, forcing thinky strategic choices every round, but not so many as to bog the game down. I like worker placement games and tableau builders. and I particularly enjoyed the brisk place and the feel the art creates with those mechanics. Add to that a victory in my first game, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. It’s a great game, and I can see why it made a big splash so many years ago. That stated, there’s nothing especially groundbreaking about it aside from the art, which might be enough, and the interesting world of animals serving in human jobs and interacting with one another in ways that generate income and points for you. Even the tree doesn’t serve a game function that couldn’t be easily served without it, it’s not a mechanic integrated into the game theme the way the clock is integrated in Tzolk’in. It’s just a nice tree, a fun way to add your workers each round. I can also see why the world they created led to another game, Root, that made an even bigger splash. I’ve never played Root myself but I’ve seen it played many times and friends love it. Maybe I’ll do it next Gen Con and let you know about it, if you don’t already. Anyways, yeah, play Everdell if you get a chance, as it’s a standard setter in anthropomorphized animals, art in general, worker placement, and tableau building.
Western Legends (2018) by Kolossal Games
We got a game in, because one of our group played it last year, and requested that I bring it so he could play it again. So when I tell you that this is still the best sandbox game going, better than Xia, it’s not just me. I’ve already written up a full review but another play confirms it: Western Legends adroitly captures its theme, and the way it even weaves in story elements to go with solid mechanics and great art takes it a cut above the rest. I’m still trying to emulate them with my own space game.
I controlled Wyatt Earp, but I actually had to abandon the game and turn him over to Deri so I could give my family a call. But I got off to a good start, and Deri steered the famous lawman to victory, moving up the law track and winning his final poker game after losing 2 earlier ones. Tough to win without winning your poker games, but I guess 1 out of 3 will do.
I mentioned in my review several years ago that I really like the Western Legends map, and ep, I’m saying it again. It’s big enough to make you feel like you’re getting far from town when you deal with outlaws, but small enough to keep players in striking distance from each other and in striking distance of at least one of the two towns, where most of the action happens. For example, you can go out to the mountains to mine gold, but you’ll have to swing back through town to cash in on them, giving the bandit types a chance to intercept you on your route and steal your gold.
If you have played a sandbox board game, in any genre, that you think is in the running for best sandbox board game, let me know so I can compare it to Western Legends, because it’s still the best one going.