Best Week 2014, Day Four!
“Why thirty?” someone asked me long ago, on Monday. “Why a top thirty, and not a twenty-five? Or a ten? Or a fifty?”
And honestly? It’s because I think thirty is one of the most underrepresented numbers among our generation. Anyone can do a top ten, or a top twenty-five, or a top fifty. But a top thirty?
Only on Space-Biff! Literally.
#12. Fire in the Lake
Any of the entries in Volko Ruhnke’s COIN Series might have won the award for “Most Infuriating Game of 2014.” After all, the recurring joke of our COIN Collector’s Club is that I’m slower to take turns during one of these masterful takes on insurgency warfare than I am in any other game. I spend so much time shepherding, enforcing, and checking the rules behind other players’ actions that when my turn finally sidles around, I have no recollection of what I’m up to. So I’ll, uh… maybe march troops? Or was I going to recruit? Sorry guys, just a minute…
The fourth entry in the COIN Series, Fire in the Lake, not only takes us to long-awaited Vietnam, but also puts a compelling spin on its now-familiar formula by making the game largely cooperative — the NVA and Viet Cong pitted against a US-supported ARVN — though it also turns your allies into your most deadly rivals. Only one faction can truly realize its vision for South Vietnam, so expect lots of “I can’t do that right now, sorry” between ostensible partners, and even outright aggression as you pretend to have each other’s best interests at heart. It’s a lot like me and Somerset’s competing parenting strategies.
Cate will grow up to be a Beastmaster. I swear it.
#11. Cave Evil
Some people aren’t going to “get” this one.
Cave Evil is ugly. The unit illustrations look like the disturbed high school scribblings from the back of that weird kid’s notebook. The colors are drab, including the few splashes of color that differentiate players, and I guarantee you’ll have to squint to figure out who owns which army. It’s also unbalanced. I won one game thanks to a single unit I lucked into recruiting, an all-consuming beast from the bowels of hell who murdered every rival necromancer in my path. And it embraces certain “outdated” design concepts like player elimination. In fact, it revolves around player elimination.
And those details are exactly why it works. More than any game I played this year, Cave Evil succeeds because it so perfectly marries its Black Metal aesthetic and theme. You’re a necromancer living beneath a mountain of corpses — and you expect color? You constantly make pacts with the foulest of the foul — and you expect fairness? Or beauty?
No. I spit on beauty, and I spit on fairness, and I spit on color. Better to rule in an ugly, unfair, monochrome hell than serve in… well, we necromancers don’t even believe in heaven, so there’s no point to finishing that one. This is the only game where your opponent can build an invincible army, brutally murder his way through an emergency alliance, only for you to cave in a section of the mountain and crush his troops into so much gristle. Gristle that you then excavate so you can build another army. Perfection.
If I were to ever compile a “Worst Games Ever” list, it might look something like this:
#2. Panic Station
Fluxx would be one of the runners-up.
However! Redemption is found in Red7, from Chris Cieslik and Carl Chudyk, the latter of whom designed the brain-melting Impulse from yesterday’s list. And even though Red7 couldn’t be more different from Impulse, it still feels like a design from the same warped mind — it’s complex, clever, and demands similarly complex and clever minds in its players’ heads. It was even Jessica’s — Space-Biff!’s brainiest collaborator — pick for game of the year.
To use a reductive analogy, Red7 is Uno meets Fluxx, but good. Excellent, even. Players compete to win hands, or (more often) change the rules so that the goal of the game is completely different when the hand ends. If you end your turn “winning,” you stay in the game. A single misstep means you’re out. Simple as that.
#9. 1944: Race to the Rhine
Apparently 2014 was a good year for games about cooperating-but-not-cooperating. “The year of passive aggression,” historians will call it, once historians have run out of anything more noteworthy than board games to write about.
One of my favorite examples of this friends/competitors genre was 1944: Race to the Rhine, which cast three players as Generals Montgomery, Bradley, and Patton as they sacrifice countless lives in order to cross the Rhine before their allies. It’s a largely fictional take on one of history’s most trumped-up rivalries, but damn if it doesn’t make for a compelling couple of hours as you send elite tank battalions rumbling into allied (!) territory, allow friendly supply lines to be cut, and try to enlist the aid of airborne companies before your buddies can. It’s a game full of bitter ironies when your enemies are little more than a delay and your friends are hellbent on muddying the mire.
#8: Valley of the Kings
I’ve become weary of deck-building games. It’s just that they feel so easy. Glue a setting over the top of the same card offers, draw piles, and endlessly reshuffled discards, and your licensed property now has a deck-builder with a horde of rabid admirers at the ready to defend your cash-grab card game unto death.
And while I’m being slightly hyperbolic there, it’s nothing short of fascinating how deck-building as a genre has gone from brand new to somewhat overplayed since only 2008.
Which is why innovative deck-building games are worth their weight in gold. For example Valley of the Kings, which comes in a tiny box and brings huge gameplay to the table. It mixes up the formula by having its pyramid card offer “tumble” into availability, and making you choose between retaining your best cards for future use or entombing them into your score pile. All because you want to have the sexiest pile of treasures adorning your final resting place, of course.
#7: Cuba Libre
Yes, I’m fully aware that I’ve already featured an entry from the COIN Series on this list — but how could I go on without mentioning Cuba Libre, easily my favorite of the series?
Not only is it the easiest entry to digest, but it also lets me play as Meyer Lansky.
I could give more reasons, but honestly, that’s the main one — that in the midst of its delirious tropical revolution and corrupt banana republic, between three other ideological factions vying for control of their little island, there’s me, the Mob Syndicate, just trying to get Frank Sinatra to play my casinos and earn me piles of cash. And while nobody wants to see me succeed, everybody wants a slice of my banana pie, because boyo, it’s rich and creamy, and why bother fighting when you can grease the right palms?
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The staggering conclusion — the top six games of the year! — will be featured tomorrow, only on Space-Biff!