Best Week 2013: Alone / Co-Op Time
“What’s this Best Week all about, sir?” I was asked last week by the orphan pulling my rickshaw through the fictional streets of Malgudi. I considered not answering, as talk shortened his breath and subsequently lengthened the journey, but some Christian nook of my heart compelled me to tell him anyway. Perhaps it is because I believe all peoples everywhere should know about Best Week. It is, after all, the most joyous five days of the year, in which all the best board games are compiled, considered, and listed. And everyone loves lists.
Today, on the very first day of Best Week 2013, we’re going to examine the five best solo and cooperative games of the year. There are some natural limitations — I cannot, for instance, award the title of “Best Solo / Co-Op Game of 2013” to a game I haven’t played, and there are one or two games that didn’t come out in 2013 at all. So okay, it’s subjective. But I’d love to hear your input, dear readers, for Best Week is not only about my favorite games — it’s also about yours.
#5. Dark Darker Darkest
After accidentally unleashing Panic Station on the world, a tragic misstep involving a heap of corpses, shoddy science, and a lightning rod, David Ausloos was engaged in a desperate search for redemption. Thankfully, he achieved it with Dark Darker Darkest, mostly by fine-tuning the lightning rod to channel the atmosphere’s unlife-giving electricity to the creature’s feet first, though also by making one of the best dungeon dive-style games to ever sport a zombie.
There are so many little things Dark Darker Darkest gets right. It instantly grasps certain details about the horror genre that so many other scare-themed games struggle to understand: scarce resources such as medical supplies and ammunition. Multiple threats in the form of zombies, special zombies, boss zombies, more zombies, and also a not-zombie fire that slowly consumes the mansion. A constant race against time. Panicked group dynamics that both reward and punish dense clusters of survivors. Even body horror, as your characters become infected and gradually forget their most technically-demanding skills as they devolve into the moaning undead. Sure, each of these systems requires you learn more rules, but once everything clicks into place, Dr. Mortimer’s zed-packed mansion allows for one hell of a ride.
#4. Shadows Upon Lassadar: The Siege Trilogy
I’m a firm believer in print-and-play games, and not only because they’re often free (though sure, that’s a perk). Take the games of prolific designer Todd Sanders, for instance. The playability of his productions is very occasionally uneven, and while they’re undoubtedly gorgeous, they’re also minimalistic in design and don’t transmit well via still shots — unlike the other games on this list, thanks to their actual art staffs and visual design budgets and such.
But a mere picture of some of these games isn’t enough, because beneath the printed-at-the-library homeliness and all those craft store cubes and spare dice, there’s something magical, robust, and often pleasantly surprising to so many print-and-play games. Which is why The Siege Trilogy by Todd Sanders (the second Shadows Upon Lassadar trilogy, consisting of The Siege at Dalnish, The Siege at Nem, and The Siege at Kurth) is one of the best solo games of 2013 in spite of the fact that you can make it at home for the cost of some paper and the will to finally switch out that empty ink cartridge.
There are a few reasons for this trilogy’s inclusion. For one thing, each title is endlessly innovative. The first game is its own take on the tower defense genre, the second is a postcard wargame, and the third is a peculiar little puzzle-style ring-around-the-rosy-corpses… thing. All of them are oddly familiar, while also being totally unique takes on their respective genres.
Another point in their favor is the way Sanders infuses his excellent sense of graphical clarity, assembling instantly readable visual languages that transmit all sorts of information with the barest glance. Before you know it, you’ll be defending the Tower of Dalnish with catapults and an elderly mage, desperately hunting down a baron general to shatter the siege of Nem, and running in a wide bloody circle through the streets of Kurth, scything your sword through dozens of invaders. These games are some of the best I’ve ever played at infusing their gameplay and their stories. And yes, they’re free.
#3. Mice and Mystics
Speaking of excellent stories, I’d be ashamed to omit Mice and Mystics (which really ought to be spelled with an ampersand) from Plaid Hat Games from this list, because its story was — and here’s a word I don’t use often enough in my day-to-day — delightful.
The gameplay was fine. Even good, if that’s your thing. But for me, the tale of Prince Collin and his mouse buddies as they fought to undo the evil spells of Vanestra brought me back to elementary school, to the black-and-white morality of YA novels that espoused virtues like bravery and telling the truth, and explained why those two things were the very same. This is also the game that convinced me that maybe having a kid wouldn’t be the absolute end of the world, especially if I could brainwash her into playing board games. And with games as wonderful as Mice and Mystics on hand, that doesn’t seem like such a remote possibility.
#2. Darkest Night
Okay, forget all that “delightful” crap, because here’s a game that’s soul-suckingly hard. So hard you’ll lose by a mile and swear you’re done forever, only to come back because of the nagging feeling in the back of your mind that Darkest Night is taunting you, calling you wimpy names, and that there has to be a way to beat it. It’s hard because the villain, a dark necromancer whose sole joy in life is to troll the nearby fantasy kingdom, is going to spawn a host of unrelenting blights to blanket the land in desecrations, zombie hordes, vampires, stinky fogs, and all other manner of vileness, and you’re forced to play catch-up instead of actually questing for the holy relics that have a chance of ending this darkness. Unfortunately, the creeping evil will still outpace you, and you’ll play catch-up right into your grave.
Darkest Night seems simple at first. It doesn’t have the many interlocking systems of Dark Darker Darkest or the visual ingenuity of the Siege Trilogy or the snuggly storytime appeal of Mice and Mystics. Instead, it’s got constant thematic oppression. Instead of heroically charging into battle, your heroes slink and hide across the landscape, terrified of drawing the necromancer’s notice. Rather than chugging a healing potion, you limp back to the church to cower under the pews and pray to a deaf god for relief. And in place of leveling up, your characters learn new skills that are as often as not useless, like figuring out how to fight better when they’re not built for fighting in the first place — but that’s the skill you’ve learned and it’s up to you to figure out how the hell you’re going to apply it. Good luck. You’ll need it.
That’s the beauty of Darkest Night. When it steps up and introduces itself, it means what it says. It isn’t calling itself “Kind of Dark Night.” It’s the Darkest Night, damn it, and it’s going to act like it.
And when you beat it, you’re going to feel like the luckiest genius to ever grace this planet.
#1. Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island
Despite all the fantastic contenders, there can only be one Best Solo / Co-Op Game of 2013, and that one can be none other than Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island, the most innovative, brilliant, desperate what-will-I-eat-next simulator ever put down onto cardboard.
Here’s why. Most games, including all the games here, simulate consequences in a straightforward manner. Miss an enemy in Mice and Mystics, it tries to stab you. Ignore a blight and it pollutes the fantasy kingdom faster. Don’t fix your infection, you turn into a zombie. All cool. Nothing wrong with them.
In Robinson Crusoe, maybe you’ll get stalked by a mangy dog. Maybe. There’s no guarantee. But let’s say it happens: you’re out exploring a distant hill, and a mangy feral dog starts following you at a distance. Do you waste the day ranging far and wide to throw off its scent? Or do you walk straight back to the safety of camp? Think hard, because the consequences can be far-reaching. Walk too far and you’ll waste the afternoon and not get anything done, and maybe go hungry or cold because you didn’t have time to scavenge for food or improve your hut’s collapsing roof. One of these things might make you sick or depressed. Maybe you’ll die of disease, or starve, or commit suicide because you’re so bummed that your limbs are always numb. Maybe. Or perhaps you’ll let the dog follow you to camp, and that card will get shuffled into the deck. Maybe the dog will never return. Maybe. More likely, maybe it will return with its whole pack of baying mangy mutts and sack your camp and steal all your food and hurt somebody and collapse part of your palisade.
But you never know. Not for sure.
That’s what makes Robinson Crusoe so damn good. There are always too many things to take care of. Your health, your home, your hunger. Your mood. Your friends. Your equipment. Your bonfire beacon that will signal a ship to rescue you if you can get it built and lit before winter comes. Your adopted dog, maybe. Maybe.
Anyway, those are my picks for the Best Solo / Co-Op Game of 2013! What are your picks, dear readers?