Best Week 2014, Day Five!
At long last, here we are. The top six games of the Space-Biff! year, sort of sorted into a coherent list of preference.
Appropriately, every single one of them contains zombies.
Okay, that was a big damn lie. Only some of them contain zombies.
#6. A Study in Emerald
If there’s any game from the past couple years that epitomizes “everything and the kitchen sink” design, it’s Martin Wallace’s A Study in Emerald.
Hidden roles? Check. But only for the first fifteen minutes of the game or so. By then, everyone at the table ought to have figured out everyone else’s position — preserve or demolish — on the regime of extraterrestrial deities that has enslaved humanity.
Quasi-historical setting? Check. Not that A Study in Emerald has any desire to hold your hand. A passing familiarity with the revolutionary movements of the mid-19th to early-20th centuries will help put everything in context, and the ability to reflexively recognize names like “Vera Figner” is a boon. But whether you know your history or not, the game isn’t about to explain what’s going on.
Area control? Check. Semi-cooperative play? Check. Obscure ways to score points? Check. Deck-building? Check.
Vampires? Zombies? Check and check. Both have their own sets of unique rules and probably won’t appear in any given game. There’s also a chance Otto von Bismarck will show up and conquer a city, or Cthulhu to eat one, or maybe you’ll just fly around in an airship. Maybe.
The thing is, A Study in Emerald is sloppy and ambitious in equal measures, and somehow it pulls it off in grand fashion. It’s history as perverted by H.P. Lovecraft, Sherlock Holmes versus Azathoth the Blind Idiot God, and it’s compelling from start to finish.
#5. Clash of Cultures: Civilizations
I know it’s courting danger (and assassination at the behest of the Board Game Cult of Pedants) to name another expansion as one of my favorite games of 2014, but Civilizations did so much to revitalize the already-great Clash of Cultures that I absolutely had to include it on this list.
If the original edition of Clash of Cultures had any one flaw (other than the melting yellow pieces, which were quickly replaced), it was its lack of elephants. Also its lack of variety in general, which is quite the statement for a game that had a whole lot of variety. Perhaps what I mean to say is that I didn’t know what I was missing until Civilizations appeared, adding a whole slew of unique cultures to helm, new army types to marshal, great leaders to, uh, lead, and — my favorite — new ways to expand your cities, transforming them into unique hubs of recruitment, commerce, transportation, medicine, scientific advancement, culture, and defense.
Basically, where once I thought Clash of Cultures was an excellent game, I now consider it one of the best games I’ve ever played.
Speaking of games about leading a civilization to greatness, the Korean designers of Patchistory took that whole “tapestry of history” notion literally, and the result is utterly wonderful — and also not half as abstract as it sounds on paper.
Simply put, Patchistory is about quilting together an empire. Each round begins with a bid for various patches, which you then graft into your empire, struggling to work around obstacles like seas or obsolete improvements, and advancing through the ages from Moses, Joan of Arc, and the occasional castle, to Karl Marx, stealth bombers, and the Cristo Redentor. Then tiny workers scuttle about your empire, working farms or in politics, as leaders and wonders and special structures generate the resources that let you keep your people fed, go to war, earn money, or eventually rise to dominance over your opponents.
The way you manipulate the patches, and even how trade routes and alliances are physically laid between you and the player you’re befriending/attacking/trading with, makes the act of empire-building a literal hands-on experience, and easily one of the coolest gaming experiences of the year.
#3. Warhammer 40,000: Conquest
This year I undertook a personal journey to discover a tournament-style card game, and while I didn’t know it at the beginning, Conquest was the destination.
I’ve always felt ambivalent towards the Warhammer 40,000 setting, which sort of comes across like a college sophomore who can’t decide between a major in solipsism or nihilism — yes yes, you’re very grim, but is there anything you want to do when you graduate? — but still has that big dorky “Everything is war!” factor. Which appeals to the side of me that thinks far too many games put a weird amount of effort into justifying their conflicts with pages of text.
Conquest gets it right. Why are these seven factions fighting? “Because there’s a sector of space to fight over,” Conquest replies, with an implied duh in its tone.
For me, that’s the appeal of Warhammer. They fight because there’s fighting to be done. And by golly, Conquest fights well. For one thing, it understands that war demands mastery of both tactical and strategic situations, so it’s up to you to decide whether to invest in winning crucial fights or winning the economic long-game. And both elements are wrapped up so tightly that every single squad dropped from space is a critical flashpoint, consequences rippling outward over the course of the match.
#2. Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game
If you had asked me back in September what my game of the year would have been, Dead of Winter would have been my answer. Now that I’ve given it enough plays to recognize it has some deep-seated issues, it doesn’t quite make that cut — but what its detractors seem to have missed is that it’s still one of 2014’s best offerings, flaws and all.
Yes, it has zombies, and I’m right there with everyone else who thinks zombies have shambled past the finish line by a good mile or three. But unlike most zombie games, its focus is on a beleaguered colony of people, each group concealing their own hidden agendas and selfish desires. The zombies are just background noise for the real gameplay, which is about watching and listening and trying to work with people you don’t quite trust.
Speaking of trust, yes, it’s hard for the colony to survive even without a traitor looking to burn everything down. And a traitor can win in short order if they’re smart about it. But in the games I’ve played, that element of tenuousness, of a group that might slide over the brink into ruin at any moment, is precisely what makes the game work.
Thinking back over the last year, I can remember a good handful of Dead of Winter matches that were an absolute blast — exiling the wrong group of survivors, finally rooting out a traitor only for them to blockade the grocery store, the final stomach-churning reveal of a brilliant traitor at GenCon — and each and every one of them had the table in an uproar. On one occasion we woke up the baby with our outrage. And these were, for the most part, mild-mannered folk, the sort who don’t usually shout when they win or lose a game. But in Dead of Winter, the thrill, the fear, the tension — it becomes electric.
And that’s the sort of thing that makes me play games.
#1. Argent: The Consortium
It’s sheer coincidence that Argent is also Somerset’s game of the year. My wife’s selection has nothing to do with my own decision. I swear.
Rather, I’m selecting Argent because it single-handedly redefines the worker placement genre for me. Which isn’t to say there aren’t any worker placement games out there that appeal to me — we’ve even seen a couple examples over the course of this week. But Argent is different, willing to inject some delightfully different ideas into the mix, and I hope other designers take note.
For one thing, the goals are entirely hidden at the game’s outset, waiting to be revealed by your workers or figured out as you observe your rivals. For another, the workers themselves have a wide range of cool powers, whether bending time, throwing fireballs, or being immune to damage or spells. Between these two concepts, Argent is already unlike any other worker placement game ever made, a game about placing the right worker, with some light bluffing and deduction thrown in for good measure.
And then there are the spellbooks… I’d call them game-bending, but these do more than that. They’re game-twisting. Being able to take half a round’s worth of actions before anyone else can do anything, or ignoring blocking workers entirely, or sending entire rooms of students to the infirmary, or gleaning untold knowledge for a tiny investment of mana — there are loads of possibilities, and the only thing keeping it balanced is the fact that everyone is building their own spell engines and chaining together combos that ruin your plans in the blink of an eye. Right before you explode all their workers.
It is, in short, one of the meanest worker placement games I’ve ever played. And the best by a breezy margin.
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Thanks for reading! For those of you who only read Space-Biff! during Best Week, we’ll see you at the end of 2015. Everyone else, let us know what your picks for 2014 were!