Maquis is a solitaire worker placement game about resisting Nazi occupation of a French village in WW2. It was on Kickstarter recently for its new and improved second edition (the differences in art are stark, but the side by side comparison shots are less informative about what mechanical differences, if any, there are), and I backed it, and then ended up playing it over Christmas break a couple of times. It’s quite a bit of fun, although as with nearly all solitaire (and fully cooperative) games, you will eventually solve the game, at which point you can tweak difficulty options up to the point where sheer dumb luck is absolutely required to win, keeping your win/loss ratio even but at the cost of reducing your game to all the complexity of Chutes and Ladders. Sure, there’s lots of suboptimal moves you could be making, but when you know what’s appropriate to every situation, you just do that and hope the cards don’t put Nazis on the locations you’d really like to place a worker right now.

I don’t know how a solitaire game can avoid this, though, and I really like how Maquis gives the feeling of being a resistance group. You have to keep clear routes open to your safehouse, because any worker who can’t get from where they’re placed to a safehouse at the end of the round is arrested and removed from the game, limiting the number of actions you can take in future rounds (and in some cases this causes their action not to complete). The Nazi deck can’t place a worker on a spot you’ve already occupied (except sometimes they can, but that’s an edge case I won’t get into), so you can build routes leading from your safehouse to where you need a worker, but then you might end up with a Nazi camping out on your destination. You could place a worker directly on the destination and hope to be able to build a safe route afterwards, which allows you to build that route based on where the Nazis don’t go, because there’s just about always at least two routes through, so if the Nazis cut one off, you can place workers on the other to keep it safe. In that case, however, you’re going all-in on your ability to keep at least one route safe, because you’ve already placed a worker at the destination, and if they get surrounded, you’re out of luck.

I keep saying “Nazis” but the normal police are actually Milice, French collaborators, and they can be shot dead if you’ve got a firearm to expend, clearing a route home. When that happens, though, the Nazis send in Wehrmacht to replace them, and these soldiers aren’t vulnerable to resistance guns (the manual explains that they’re too good at shooting back). So if you go out of your way to get yourself a gun, you can use it to clear out Milice in a pinch, but you really don’t want to, because the Milice numbers are determined in part by your own – if the resistance gets smaller, the Milice do, too. Not so for the Wehrmacht, though. Once they get put on the board, they’ll be there every additional round. Losing a resistance agent on a board full of nothing but Milice is something you can bounce back from most of the time, but losing a resistance agent on a board full of Wehrmacht can be the tipping point that sends you into a death spiral.

The game also has a diversity in both mechanics and theme for its objectives, ranging from easy objectives like distributing an underground newspaper to counter Nazi propaganda and painting anti-fascist graffiti around town, all the way on up to killing the Milice en masse and stockpiling a huge number of weapons for an uprising. Some of these require stockpiling a certain type of resource, others require visiting certain map locations (often risky ones with only one escape route), some require stockpiling a certain type of resource and then sending a guy with that resource to a certain map location, and of course there’s the one where you just kill every Milice.

As with all solitaire games, Maquis wears out its welcome faster than an equally well designed board game you’d play with other people, but it can be played without the effort of putting a group together and I was able to get through four or five games of it before getting bored, and that was in just a couple of days over Christmas vacation. Writing now from not quite a month later, I feel like playing it again.

Why Haven’t Board Games Gone Digital?

Practically every board game is available as a Table Top Simulator mod if you like the taste of rum and the sound of parrots, so for consumers it’s not really an issue that so very, very few are available as video games. The lack of AI does mean that, unless the game supports solo play, you do have to actually have friends, but the game itself is not only available, it’s available for free.

Table Top Simulator does have some games available as paid DLC, however. And some games are available from the Steam store as standalone purchases with built-in AI. For example: Small World. You can go out and buy that game on Steam and play it against AI and it’s exactly like the board game except with some sound effects and animations.

Why isn’t this more common? Why is it that if I want to play Twilight Imperium or Eldritch Horror (or one of its antecedents) I have to spend like two hours in set up (or push one button in a pirate mod from TTS)? The unofficial Twilight Imperium tournament scene (such that it is – they play on stream is the important thing) run by the Space Cats Peace Turtles podcast has to use one of those TTS pirate mods. I’m pretty sure that such mega-fans of TI as to show up in stream games have bought real copies of the game, but the point here is that they’re advertising for the free version that gives Fantasy Flight zero dollars for their work, and that’s not because they’re bad people or because they’re rebelling against some terrible decision by Fantasy Flight or anything, they just don’t have the option to stream a version of the game that people could actually buy.

I get that the best board game experience is going to be sitting down with real people to actually play it in person as a social event. I get that an AI for a game like Twilight Imperium would barely even be worth having, because so much of the strategy in Twilight Imperium comes down to politicking between many different players, and the only way to get a game AI that’s any good at that is to invent an entire new diplomacy sub-system like Paradox grand strategy games do. I’m not suggesting that digital versions of board games would serve as effective replacements for board games entirely. Particularly if they’re hard-coded like Small World, rather than TTS or Vassal modules that allow you to move the pieces around however you want, and thus support house rules and so on.

But just because digital board games can serve as full replacements for the real, physical thing, I don’t see why they aren’t serving the same niche as digital books: A slightly cheaper alternative with easier logistics, one so ubiquitous that the question isn’t “are we going to bother to offer this game digitally” but rather “can we afford to offer this game physically?”