Best Week 2013: The Appetizers
“Filler games,” as defined by Webster’s Dictionary, are those delicious appetizers that are played nearly every game night while you wait for the one or two friends who always show up late. As such, they’re designed for a small group and take an hour or less to play, and they’re as simple as possible to avoid the awkwardness of finishing the rules explanation the moment your tardy friends arrive.
My gaming group has about five of those consistently belated buddies, so while this best-of list is limited to a handful of 2013 releases, it was tempting to include all of our favorite fillers we played this year: Stone & Relic, Master Plan, Infinity Dungeon, 7-Card Slugfest, Titanium Wars, String Doomworms, and The Agents. For all intents and purposes, we’ll pretend these fall under a runners-up category — though they really don’t, since a little bit like the Highlander, there can only be five.
Quarantine isn’t a perfect game. Not by a long shot. It’s got some fairly serious balancing problems, and its designer, a sexy bastard named Mark Klassen — seriously, you should check out his designer page, the man should be modeling men’s underwear or starring in vodka commercials or something — is man enough to admit it. Still, even if this game wasn’t a hell of a lot of fun (which it is, warts and all), I’d include it on this list for “HOSPITAL ALLIANCE!” alone.
It was a Friday evening, very probably in May, and a group of four of us were playing Quarantine for, oh, maybe the third or fourth time. We’d played a few “serious” games (as serious as intentionally infecting your friends’ theme-hospitals with diseases can be), so we were just unwinding by that point. And for whatever reason, someone shouted “HOSPITAL ALLIANCE!” and we all agreed to infect just one of our buddy’s hospitals. He couldn’t clear the infections faster than we inserted them, effectively shutting him out of the game while we all built thriving medical industrial complexes and cured millions of cancer.
On the one hand, this highlights one of Quarantine’s problems. Unless you’re willing to play at some really peculiar diplomacy, there’s no mechanism for spreading out diseases evenly, or permitting staph-ridden players to catch up. But on the other hand, we still call “HOSPITAL ALLIANCE!” from time to time. It’s become a part of our group, a perfect in-joke that means Elliott’s about to get ganged up on. Not because he’s winning. Because we played Quarantine and decided that Elliott’s hospital should become a disease-ridden cesspit, and now it’s something we do in a lot of games. So in its own way, Quarantine has made our group happier. Other than Elliott, of course.
We still play Quarantine now and then too. Just thought I should throw that in there.
Where Quarantine is a bit sloppy, Quantum is incredibly tight. It’s easy to learn, surprisingly deep even though it takes maybe forty minutes to play, sports a pleasant dichotomy between its colonization and military paths to victory, and embraces so many staples of the 4X genre in abbreviated form that it hardly matters that it ends up as more of a 2X game.
One of Quantum’s most interesting ideas is the decision to use dice in place of traditional ship miniatures. This lets you do a whole lot of stuff with just a regular d6, tracking your ship’s strength, speed, colonization ability, and special power with a glance, as well as allowing for the shape-shifting reconfiguration action (space magic) that transforms a ship into an entirely different form. This is one of those rare games with just enough luck to keep things frosty, but not so much that it can’t be mitigated by skillful play.
#3. Eight-Minute Empire
Artist and designer Ryan Laukat has a way about him, and I’m not only talking about his cherubic visage. When it comes to designing great little games, he’s nothing short of brilliant. And nothing — well, almost nothing — proves this more than Eight-Minute Empire.
Does it take eight minutes to play? Well no, and thank goodness for that, because its actual playtime (more like twenty minutes) is jam-packed with tough little decisions, tremendous tiny victories and defeats, and a whole table of people watching the card offer like a pack of buzzards waiting on a dying dingo, praying all the while that nobody will pick up those hallowed build-city or travel-by-sea cards before you get a chance at them. Then they do, you howl, and you console yourself by picking up a crappy action that gives you access to some expensive crystals.
When I first played Eight-Minute Empire, I swore it would be my filler game of the year. As you can see, it’s been bumped to the lowly position of #3, but I doubt even Mr. Laukat himself could express any displeasure considering the games that ousted it.
#2. Space Cadets: Dice Duel
I wasn’t a fan of the original Space Cadets, probably because my real-time co-op time is all occupied by Space Alert, but kinda-sequel Space Cadets: Dice Duel is one of the best team-duel games I’ve ever played.
Here’s how it works. You break into two teams, each person manning a couple stations, stuff like helm and shields and weapons and tractor beams. The goal is to fly through space, pick up crystals to fuel special abilities, and blow up the other team’s vessel. You’ll chat calmly about this for a bit. You’ll say stuff like, “Okay helmsman, you just tell me when you need dice, and I’ll roll fives. And you, shield-guy, make sure to keep the shields charged in the direction they’re facing us. And let’s keep the tractor beam topped off so we can push them into space-landmines, okay?”
Then someone fires the starter pistol (not included) and the table becomes a frenzy of desperate screams, frustrated dice throws, panicked dice-drops onto the floor that prompt terrified Jefferies-Tube crawls under the table, and a whole lot more f-words than your pleasant company would regularly employ. Your helmsman will steer you into a nebula and scramble your sensors. Your shield-dude will forget which way the ship is facing and charge the starboard instead of larboard. Your sensors guy will load up jamming energy rather than sensor locks. Your torpedo guy will load both torpedoes in the rear tube for some damn reason. And the only thing keeping you from completely breaking down into a cold-sweating jaw-grinding mess is the fact that the opposing team just flew into their own landmine.
#1. Eight-Minute Empire: Legends
Here’s the real reason Ryan Laukat’s Eight-Minute Empire didn’t make Number One: because it replaced itself with Eight-Minute Empire: Legends. All in the same year, with another successful and prompt Kickstarter campaign.
This is the definitive version of Eight-Minute Empire. The fine-tuned and straightforward gameplay has remained intact, but with the added benefit of modular boards that make each game’s explorations unique. And individual art for each card, complete with upgrade powers in place of the commodity points of the first game, making every card pick that much more meaningful as you shape your eight-minute empire into something unique. Rather than being the “Kingdom Wot Has Lots of Carrots,” now you’re the Empire Of Flying Minions And Also Elixirs. Or the Hegemony That Cannot Be Attacked At All. Or the guy who’s meticulously collected a bunch of matching sets and will win the game even though everyone’s been ignoring him because he doesn’t have glitzy invincible or flying cubes. As it should be. Play better next time. And “next time” will be in ten minutes, including a bathroom break in between games.
What a brilliant game.
Those are my Top Five Filler Games of 2013. What are your picks?