And here we are for another week, with a bit of everything!
I'll start with the Fantasy ones: there is a constant trickle of Fantasy-themed games being released, so let's get rid of them and keep the actually surprising themes for later. The first of the batch is Aura Hunters, an MMO made board game where you face countless monsters to improve your gear, learn new skills, so that you are ready to finally take down the big bad bosses that you will probably be given a good reason to slay mercilessly (e.g. they are just plain evil). The game features a story mode and, if you really like it, a New Game + mode to start over with an increased difficulty level. Expect a crowdfunding campaign on KS in 2023.
Next comes Hero's Journey: Original (I guess this sub-title is actually original), a card-based rogue-like game with a monochromatic aesthetic. You face cards one by one by drawing from a deck, featuring Monsters (to be defeated with a goodly lethal roll of the dice), Locations (that exert an effect), and Scenarios (snippets of stories prompting you to make a random decision). The game can be pre-ordered from the publisher's website already, here.
Fantasy doesn't have to be plain good old monsters-fighting though, and can actually be abstract in disguise. In Suwango for instance, you lay numbered tiles on a grid to surround locations (which grants you points), but you must respect the "code" that numbers must rise from left to right, bottom to top. Now, these tiles also depict a quirky magical creature, so that's why it got a Fantasy stamp. In the solo mode, you play for points, but you draw a random threshold at the start that you must beat to "win" the game (I guess it's more or less the same effect as a bot, except they didn't bother with rules for it to get points). To be crowdfunded in 2023; the rules are already available on the dedicated website if you're interested.
And now that we have done Fantasy we have... Nature! Starting with zoos, obviously. I had never heard about Miller Zoo before, but here it is, featured in a board game. In the game, you are in charge of the complaints office of the zoo, and each round you draw a new animal card that comes to bother you with its needs. You then play a bunch of cards, and if the animal is dissatisfied, it will organize a protest in the zoo that can stir social unrest and further grumbling of the zoo's populace. Of course, this is my own personal take on the theme. But it got "envelopes" that you open one at a time so the magical moment where you open the box for the first time lasts a tad longer.
In the second one, you get to explore a wild river to establish trade posts all along and make some big money in the process. You will explore the river using the mancala technique, that is, you pick a stack, and you drop stuff bit by bit along the way. Animal tokens grant you specific abilities (e.g. if you spot a capybara, you can swap the order of a stack). The whole thing strikes me a little bit like a mechanics/theme mismatch, but it may be fun anyway. Pre-orders are already open on the publisher's website.
And since all good things come in a trilogy, let's end the nature streak with In The Stars, a "roll and draw" game where you must fulfill specific conditions to draw constellations on a colorful board. Aliens can visit you at any time and wormholes can swallow you whole. Well, I guess it's a bit Sci-Fi in the end. I guess we needed one. I'm sorry to let you down with so little here, but the description basically repeats that you roll dice and draw constellations (at least they do list the number and colors of the dice you roll but it doesn't tell me much about how the whole thing actually plays).
... and surprises?
Fantasy, done, nature, done. What can publishers do when they have exhausted these options? History? Even better: medieval Japan! And so, by the creators of The Red Cathedral, we now have The White Castle! The castle of Himeji is one of the most famous castles of feudal Japan, partly because it's one of the biggest and it's rather beautiful, mostly because there was a James Bond movie featuring it. It tells you nothing about the game, but it also happens that I have visited it, and yes, it was worth it*. Anyway, it won't make me interested in the game, since it's pure Worker Placement galore where you must "manage resources boldly" and vie for the court's influence in order to get points and so on. Your workers will either tend to the garden (they did a good job), defend the walls (that's pure gaming fantasy; like most Japanese feudal castles, this one almost never served a military purpose), and ascend the social ladder up to nobility. The game is published by Devir and their games are usually released straight through retail.
And I'll end with a theme that may be a bit unusual... Charlatan! Swindling millions out of the rich sure appeals to me, the French Riviera, much less. Anyway, Charlatan is a push-your-luck card game where you play as a Con Artist trying to pull out elegant and flashy combos to steal the most out of gullible tourists. According to the plan, the game will be crowdfunded on Kickstarter eventually.
I'll end by announcing a few expansions to which I don't want to devote much more than a short notice:
After the Virus: The Long Cold (3 new chapters, new cards, new mechanics)
Living Forest: Kodama (featuring a solo mode that will let you enjoy this Spiel des Jahres title!)
Hippocrates: Agora (four "exciting" modules, because what's more exciting than a module)
* I remember a story about Himeji castle. At the end of WWII, the US forces razed down the city of Himeji to the ground with a one-night massive aerial strike (many other cities in Japan suffered that fate). In the morning, the survivors got out of their shelters, and everything, everything was but ruins in front of them. There was no longer a city, only an open field of rumble. And yet, watching over the scene, the Himeji castle, untouched, magnificent as usual, was still here, intact. And seeing this, seeing their pride still standing, the people of Himeji cried out of joy.