Best Week 2013: Head-to-Heads
Here we are on day four of Best Week 2013, and we’ve finally arrived at my favorite topic: head-to-head games. Dueling games. Nobody-else-to-save-you games. Can’t-blame-your- teammate-when-you-lose games. Two minds locked in ultimate combat, the only other people at the table mere spectators, holding their breath and occasionally mumbling unwanted advice before your backhand slap shuts them up again.
Because this is my favorite genre by far, in place of the usual top five list, today we’re looking at the top ten. Buckle up.
#10. The Valkyrie Incident
I still don’t know what the “incident” in The Valkyrie Incident is referring to, and I don’t care, because very few companies pull off the horizontal-area-control genre or hand drafting with as much panache as Small Box Games.
You’ll be drafting a lot. The game kicks off with a drafting phase, and roughly half of each round sees both players drafting even more. It’s a relief then that the stuff you’re drafting is so cool, from war-babe valkyries with game-changing special abilities to “cogdrive” battle-robots and orbital bombardments. Then you send all those nifty cards you’ve drafted into the fray, trumping each other over and over again as your cards stack in mind-bending ways that will have your opponent swearing you’re somehow breaking the rules. At least until it’s his turn and he gets to do the same back to you.
The Valkyrie Incident isn’t the best title from Small Box Games, but it’s definitely worth a look if you’ve played any of their other stuff.
#9. Hemloch: Vault of Darkness
Although Vault of Darkness shares a couple similarities with The Valkyrie Incident, most notably its horizontal-area-control style, which casts you as one of the power-hungry and corrupt houses of the twilight city of Hemloch, the differences are more profound. Where The Valkyrie Incident is about drafting an army and beating your opponent over the head with it, Vault of Darkness is more about subtlety, about outguessing and preempting your opponent’s moves as you both make use of the titular Vault of Darkness’s relics to send your agents throughout the city to curry favor, manipulate its Nightmare Before Christmas-esque politics, and sometimes resort to good old-fashioned assassination.
Sure, you could use that one card to take solid control of the Alley Maze, but as soon as you pass the vault’s relics to your opponent, what are they planning on doing? Maybe capitalizing on their position in the Boneyard? Or killing off one of your agents to swing the popular vote in the Spires? Should you cut off their plans, or bellow forward with your own? Full of nagging doubts and multiple ways to gain influence and win control for your household, Hemloch: Vault of Darkness is a great entry-point for anyone interested in Small Box Games’ unique brand of gameplay.
#8. Cube Quest
While I usually prefer mind-crunching anxiety and the possibility of ended friendships in my dueling games, sometimes I just want to flick the shit out of something, even if it means having my buddy lift up the couch so I can fish out a game component. In those instances, one of the quickest options out there is Cube Quest.
This tight little dexterity game might suffer from some production issues, from folded mats to over-light cubes, but ultimately those problems stop mattering the instant you realize it takes literally ten minutes to play, and it’s a breeze to create a tower of grunts and blast one of your heavy raider cubes off the top for the win. You probably won’t even notice that the cube’s weight wasn’t enough to keep it from sailing under the refrigerator. At least not right away.
Cube Quest would have been a fine game in an even more basic form, but it’s happy to let you play around by building an army full of freeze spells and medics, or sneak infiltrators around onto the enemy’s side of the board. It’s light, but it’s the good kind of light.
#7. The Convoy
Ignacy Trzewiczek already won our number one solo and cooperative game of the year with the sprawling and ambitious Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island, but somewhere between designing that masterpiece and running Portal Games, he decided to try his hand at invading the territory of Small Box Games with a horizontal-area-control game of his own. The result was The Convoy, set in the same desperate post-apocalyptic world as Neuroshima Hex and 51st State. And let me tell you, this game is brutal.
For one thing, unlike most of these types of games, its two factions are entirely asymmetrical, right down to their respective objectives. You could play as the marching army of Moloch, the game’s “convoy” of murder-machines bent on wiping out humanity for good. These guys fill their ranks with obscenely deadly troops, gradually rolling over the landscape and leaving only smoldering ruins in their wake. Or you could play as the good-guy Outpost faction, mobile and tricky and ready to fight to the death at established hardpoints to keep new-New York from disappearing beneath a tide of genocidal robots.
Like the best games of this genre, The Convoy is mean, letting you and your opponent set up long-form strategies, army compositions, and emplacements, only for the appearance of a single well-timed unit to topple your position like a house of (literal) cards. As the Moloch horde pushes past your EMP cannons and rolls over Cleveland, you’ll swear you’ve never been so invested in the fates of a bunch of fictional post-apocalyptic commandos. Then you’ll swear in a different way.
#6. BattleLore (Second Edition)
I admit it, I’m a sucker for spectacle. Which isn’t to say BattleLore (Second Edition) is only about the whizbangs, what with its adept use of the “Commands & Colors” battle format, clever scenario generation, smooth translation to the Terrinoth/RuneBound setting, and badass game-altering lore cards. But still, there’s something to be said about how fantastic it looks set up on the table. I’ve had friends who normally can’t stand two-player dueling-type games walk in on an in-progress match of BattleLore, only to gasp and ask if they can play the winner.
Really, it isn’t only about how damn good it looks. It’s also fairly simple to pick up on, and the armies are neat and do their own thing, and the scenarios are dynamic and fresh, and for such a big game it only takes about an hour and a half to get through an entire battle.
But seriously, it looks fabulous.
#5. Coin Age
Adam P. McIver’s Coin Age will only cost you a refundable $1.56 to play. That’s because it’s a print-and-play game that could fit on an index card with room to spare, so you could play at McDonald’s and buy some sort of crappy artificial hamburger that will likely give you colon cancer afterwards.
Because you can print it and play it right this very instant, you don’t need me to tell you how good it is. That it’s so compact that the recent successful Kickstarter campaign is going to put the game on a board the size of a credit card. That it uses its coins like two-sided dice, and allows for some shockingly deep gameplay that sees you taking control of a pun-filled kingdom with heads- or tails-themed armies. That the physical size of your coins is a brilliant shorthand for how powerful your troops are.
You don’t need to hear all that, because you’re already printing it off. You won’t regret it.
#4. Omen: A Reign of War: Olympus Edition
Appearing on this list for the third time is Small Box Games, this time with a reprint and legacy edition of their best game of all time, Omen: A Reign of War.
I play Omen weekly, and it probably would have been #1 on this list if the Olympus Edition wasn’t a reprint of a game I’ve been talking and writing about for ages now (“ages” means a little over a year in Space-Biff! time). It’s got everything The Valkyrie Incident has and more: excellent drafting, awesome soldiers, tight mechanics, constant combo-making and combo-breaking, a broad decision space laden with choice-landmines and a vindictive opponent whose cards are every bit as broken and terrifying as yours. It’s full of clever mechanics, a tough economy, and oh so much blood and carnage.
The one downside is that this is probably the last printing of Omen: A Reign of War that Small Box Games will ever do. I hope that’s not true, because this game deserves to be played and enjoyed by everybody who can get their hands on it.
#3. Pixel Tactics 1 & 2
Last year’s Minigames Library from Level 99 Games included a bevy of interesting titles, the most excellent of which was Pixel Tactics. This year, they followed it up with Pixel Tactics 2, which was more of the same, but when the same is nigh-perfect, why muck it up with innovation?
In a way, Pixel Tactics feels like an “accidental” success, like it’s something designer Brad Talton Jr. thought up on the can or in a dream or something. Although it doesn’t look it, it’s rather brilliantly simple, each card actually representing five different units depending on its placement in your army. The result is hard to take pictures of, since each card looks so cluttered, but once the rules click into place you’re presented with a brutal dance between two parties of warring heroes. You’ll have heroes who are great defenders, ranged attackers, necromancers, and one-shot superbuffs, all at once, contingent on how you decide to use them. It allows for endless replayability. Especially once you merge the two decks together and settle in for a best-of-five tournament.
#2. The Duke
The Duke is the most readable game of the year. It’s also the one game I managed to play with my father that he actually liked, probably because it’s filled with so much universal appeal. You know, since it’s kind of like chess, but not boring.
To follow the chess angle, imagine chess but with the ability to call for reinforcements during the game, pieces that switch between two modes as they move and attack, and an abundance of pieces that doesn’t over-complicate the proceedings thanks to the game’s perfectly clear visual language that shows you each soldier’s abilities right on his face. If what you’re now imagining isn’t board game nirvana, you pictured it wrong.
I say this without hyperbole: this is the one game I’d recommend to anybody, anywhere, regardless of their taste in other games. Even if its tile-flipping conceit is too much to wrap your head around (though it shouldn’t be), it’s going to look gentlemanly as hell on your drawing room coffee table. Even if you don’t have a coffee table or drawing room, it’ll transform your trailer’s kitchen/bathroom combo into something resembling a drawing room once you get The Duke up in there.
#1. BattleCON: Devastation of Indines
Level 99 Games is at it again. If Pixel Tactics was a success, Devastation of Indines (endearingly called “Devastion of Indians” at our house because of my failure to enunciate when first introducing it) is the game that won World War Two. It’s a fighting game, and it won my heart even though my life history with fighting games consists mostly of getting kicked off the local arcade by a gang of mean teenagers, losing lots of Power Stone, and then losing lots of Smash Bros.
In spite of the thirty distinct fighters that come in the box, each with their own utterly unique fighting style, it’s ultimately a fairly simple game about bluffing and outguessing your opponent. You pick a combo of base card and style card, maybe beef them up with tokens you’ve earned, then reveal and resolve. It all comes down to watching your opponent as he pretends he doesn’t notice you watching him, trying to figure out whether he’s going to dash to safety or press the attack, or shoot a ranged blast or go into fatality mode, or throw you into a corner or dance around the board until some of his other powers recharge. Each move has just enough going on to create the best kind of agony I’ve felt all year, but not so much as to overwhelm. Best of all, every battle rides on your smarts and ability to outperform your opponent, not how lucky you are at tossing dice or drawing cards.
There we have it — my Top Ten Two-Player Games of the Year! What are yours?