Best Week 2013: The (Other) Games of the Year
Ahhh. The fifth and final day of Best Week 2013. Breathe it in. Breathe it. You smell that? That’s the scent of the ten best games of the year, not counting the genres we’ve covered thus far; so no fillers, expansions, solo, cooperative, or head-to-head games. Everyone on today’s list is playable with three or more players, occupies at least a couple hours, and — here’s the important part — is one of the best games of the year.
Also, we’ve got some investigative journalism for you. That’s right. You can find it all below.
#10. Firefly: The Game
Okay, so I didn’t think Firefly: The Game was all that great. For one thing, it had less human interaction than I prefer, to the point it was possible for players to go an entire game without impacting each other’s experience in any meaningful way outside of the occasional randomly drawn card that would move the Alliance Patrol Cruiser or the Reaver Homicide-Ship into deadly proximity. For another, it just took too long, and you can only sing “The Ballad of Serenity” so many times before your ears start to bleed.
So why is it on here at all? Well, without it this list would only be nine entries long, and I suspect a nine-entry top-ten list would probably be a disappointing way to conclude the festivities of Best Week 2013. The main reason, however, is a pair of friends who really enjoyed the experience provided by Firefly: The Game, and who insist the upcoming expansion, which will apparently redress the lack of player interaction, will completely fix the game and make me like it too.
Fair enough, because there is a lot to like here, especially if you’re a Firefly and/or Serenity fan. Highlights for me include laughing as Jayne Cobb and all his crewmates were eaten by Reavers, pulling off a big heist before the opposing captains could catch up and swipe the job, and the pleasant rhythm the game naturally falls into once everyone’s too busy perusing all the job and market cards to quote the TV series anymore. The point is, if you’re a fan of the show, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy the game.
#9. Clash of Cultures
Now that we’ve reached the part of the list I’m more enthusiastic about, let’s talk about Clash of Cultures, the best Civilization-type game that doesn’t actually have “Civilization” in the title.
It sure has everything else though, starting with a broad tech tree that will undoubtedly explode newer players’ brains until they realize it actually feeds them options at an acceptable pace. It’s got modular cities that grow outwards as you research and add ports, fortresses, temples, and academies — and the ability to mess with your opponent’s cities by influencing them with your religious and cultural superiority. There are invading barbarians, natural disasters like volcanoes and droughts and plagues, and a combat system that avoids descending into the incomprehensibility of many of Clash of Cultures’ peers.
The one downside to the proceedings is that it’s possible you might get some oozing components. Like so:
The game’s second edition has apparently solved the mystery of the oozing yellow components, and Z-Man Games will send you replacements if you request them. And no, Clash of Cultures wouldn’t have been #1 if its components hadn’t been melty. That was a joke.
#8. City of Remnants
I’m glad Plaid Hat Games is so willing to innovate with their designs, because otherwise City of Remnants wouldn’t exist. That would be a shame, because can you think of any other game that even attempts to blend action points, area control, auctions, deck building and hand management, dice combat, tile placement, asymmetrical factions, and elements of worker placement? Not to mention a theme that sees four species trapped on a prison planet, and fighting for dominance by selling drugs, running protection rackets, and selling their own fighters into slavery.
Think about it for a second: for all this game’s bright colors and light sci-fi theme, it sure provides lots of shady options. And before you go making assumptions, I think that’s decidedly awesome.
Not all its ideas sync perfectly all the time, but it comes improbably close; and anyway, refining your drug business into a criminal empire complete with sleazy nightclubs and the ability to kill the police with wild abandon is a thrill provided all too seldom in the world of boardgaming.
#7. BioShock Infinite: The Siege of Columbia
From the same company that published City of Remnants — Plaid Hat Games, in case your memory didn’t hold out for the last two minutes — comes another game about a conflict over an unexpectedly xenophobic science-fiction megalopolis. It’s BioShock Infinite: The Siege of Columbia, and this time the city is Columbia and the xenophobes are the Founders and the Vox Populi. Their supremacist views don’t really matter to the gameplay, unless you consider how much red hates blue and vice versa.
For a dudes-on-a-map game, The Siege of Columbia has a few tricks up its sleeve. For one thing, this is one war where establishing a static holding pattern by hunkering down in a fortified position won’t do you many favors, considering the shifting victory conditions that arise across the map. Then again, even riding the rails from one of the city’s floating islands to another is fraught with peril, as the ever-present threat of a mile-high drop means you need to think carefully about the risks you’re willing to take.
When all is said and done, this is easily one of the best dudes-on-a-map games of the year.
#6. City of Iron
After winning both first and third place on our filler games list this year, Ryan Laukat decided to also design, illustrate, and publish one of the most intriguing deck-building games of all time, City of Iron.
Despite all the deck construction City of Iron lets you do, it’s totally unlike any other member of its genre. For one thing, its card order is highly deterministic, meaning you won’t have to cheat for a peek at your upcoming cards since you already know their exact order at all times. Additionally, rather than working with a single set of cards, you’re constantly balancing the needs of two decks, full of both civilian and military options. This opens up into a surprisingly broad game that lets you interact with its world in multiple ways, all of them relevant to your quest for supremacy. You could bully the market by setting up production of turnips and moss, invade neutral towns for their limited resources, or explore distant lands to expand your industry. And all the while, there’s more player interaction than you’d expect from a Euro-style board game, complete with frisky economic deals, stolen colonies, and heated bids to be the first player to get their hands on a bottled demon factory.
You read that right: bottled demons.
#5. The Quiet Year
You cannot be told what The Quiet Year is. Not because it’s the Matrix. Because it’s anything. Whatever you want it to be.
Okay, I’ll give it a shot. It’s a map-drawing game, where you and a handful of fellow players create your own tribal landscape. Or post-apocalyptic bunker complex. Or lost-in-Disneyland dream-scenario.
It’s also a storytelling game, where you work out the tale of a shared community. The only problem is, unlike an RPG where you have one central storyteller while the other players take on the role of actors within that person’s fantasy, everyone in The Quiet Year is the game master. That means you’ve got four people at a table, each one pulling the story in a different direction. You might want to tell the tale of that infant girl your tribe stumbled across in the woods, but your buddy is preoccupied with the seriously lame discovery of a herd of goats. Sound dull? Just wait until you get a glimpse into the tall tale you and your friends come up with when your stories and long-term goals start to collide.
Which in a way makes The Quiet Year also something of a social commentary, though I wouldn’t dare spoil the surprise for you.
#4. Ladies & Gentlemen
Ladies & Gentlemen is another game that made me think about things beyond the usual “How do I beat Geoff?” In this instance, it was the distant and somewhat clinical nature of Victorian relationships, and how relieved I am to be in a rewarding partnership. Utter relief, I’d call it.
If this thinky stuff is too much for you, be assured that Ladies & Gentlemen is an excellent and hilarious game in its own right. Break your group into a bunch of spousal units (ideally with some gender- or partner-swapping), instruct them that they’re a married partnership composed of a stingy gentleman and a profligate lady respectively, and watch them nag the hell out of each other as they try to assemble the best plumage for the upcoming ball. You’ll hear manly men start whimpering about their withholding husbands, girly girls demand that their wives “don’t take that tone,” and so long as you’re using the gossip cards, you’ll hear enough catty in one night to last a year.
And if you have an odd number of players, have the leftover take on the roll of the courtesan and blackmail the “husbands” into buying her a bunch of expensive finery, lest she let the scandal slip at the party. This game deserves to be on this list for that twist alone.
I have a soft-spot for both semi-cooperative games (the kind that see players working together but not really) and hidden objective games (where you know how to win but not really). Archipelago is one of my favorite games of the year for how well it succeeds at both.
First up is the semi-cooperative bit. See, Archipelago is about heartless European colonizers, bent on exploiting the Caribbean’s resources, trade, and, ahem, labor. Which means people. Yeah, it can get a little dark. Which is why you always have to deal with the very real threat of a native uprising slitting your throats at night. Surely it’s better to work together than to die alone?
On the other hand, while it’s possible to slip up and lose as a group, there can only be one winner. And each player is holding just one of the cards that tells you what the victory conditions are. So while you’re cooperating and keeping rebellion at bay — unless someone is holding the card that will make them win instantly if a rebellion occurs, so tread carefully — you’re also watching each other like a cast of hawks. John just built another boat, but why? Is that one of the victory conditions? Or should you build more churches, since Mark has like a million churches?
It’s tense, it’s tight, it’s beautiful, and it’s often merciless.
There isn’t a single game on this list that has the distinction of causing as many fights at my house as Tomorrow.
Which makes perfect sense, considering it’s about six nations trying to eradicate roughly 70% of the world’s population before everyone dies of ecological collapse. Mostly you do this by setting off genetically engineered super-germs that wipe out tens of millions in the span of months. You’re doing a good thing, you tell yourself while you try to fall asleep at night.
Like Archipelago, this is a semi-cooperative game that hits its genius stride when it’s making you hate your friends. The goal is to be the most powerful nation remaining at the end of nine rounds of brutal population-culling. It therefore behooves players to keep a close eye on each other, since any nation that sprints out front is likely to wake up to a nasty case of ebola. If you find yourself losing by too much, you can even unleash your nuclear arsenal to poison the soil and make everyone die together.
And you will die together. Often. Because Tomorrow is pitiless like that.
As much as I love subtlety, my favorite game of the year is one that abandons any pretense of the stuff in favor of beating each other over the head with mythological creatures, magical god-powers, and having better pyramids than everyone else. It’s called Kemet, and it’s some kind of wonderful.
It’s another dudes-on-a-map game, but it’s one that understands that most dudes-on-a-map games spend too long on setup. Too much building up, then too much time spent with thousand-yard stares as you search for a weakness in your opponents’ fortified positions.
Instead, Kemet has you fighting battles on the first turn. If you aren’t fighting, you aren’t winning.
You have to play it to understand how it works, but everyone is a target all the time. And everybody is overpowered somehow, thanks to their personal stockpile of prayer- and pyramid-fueled upgrades. One player might be able to teleport around the map through stargates, and your other buddy might be earning more prayer/money points than everybody else combined, and your spouse might be fielding an unbeatable army led by a towering mummy, but you’re riding into battle atop a bird that lets you bypass walls. Boom.
It’s so good that I haven’t found a better way to articulate the beauty of the thing than I did back in March. So I’ll leave you with that instead of coming up with something new:
The best part about Kemet is that it occupies the slender path between hardcore and light gaming. It’s breezy enough that everyone can learn it, get into it, and have fun, but serious enough that your friends are still going to be pretty damn torched when your Giant Scorpion army wins an upset victory against their Royal Scarab strike force. I think it’s best summed up by something a friend said last week when one of our players began wheedling for a deal — one of those “If I don’t invade you right now, what do I get out of it? Will you not invade me for two more turns?” things. My friend turned, looked him in the eye, and said:
“No deals. This isn’t that kind of game.”
Well said. It isn’t that kind of game. Because if it were, there wouldn’t be enough blood.