Best Week 2015, Consternated!
On occasion I grow frustrated with the state of our hobby. Specifically, with the critical side of it. About a month back, maybe two, somebody was upset over one of my reviews. It was for a game I had found interesting and thought-provoking, though certainly not “fun” in the traditional sense of the word, the sort of thing I was glad to have played a few times but never intended to return to. As I conversed with this critic of critics across a handful of emails, we finally got to the bottom of his complaint.
“You never said if it was FUN,” he wrote. “A game should be fun, period. If you can’t tell me if it was fun, you should not write a review.”
Absurd. Just as I can read a book for many reasons, or listen to a piece of music for many reasons, or watch a film for many reasons, so too can I play a game for many reasons. I can play a game because it’s fun, absolutely! But I can also play a game because it educates me in some way, or brings people closer together, or provides an experience that sparks my imagination, or shows off something innovative. I can play a game because it makes me sad. And to me, that is fun.
That’s what today is about. What follows are ten of 2015’s best games that I probably wouldn’t describe by simply slapping the adjective “fun” over the top. Instead, I found them interesting, or innovative, or enjoyable with some provisos.
It’s not that I don’t find Chaosmos fun —because it is — it’s just that I’m much more impressed with the way it handles its hidden information. Players are tasked with finding and keeping possession of a specific card hidden on a single unknown planet. To that end, every planet has its own corresponding envelope, brimming with cards that make the search easier, whether by helping you peek at planets or other players’ hands, or by attacking people to steal away the Space MacGuffin. Travel across the galaxy to rifle through these envelopes, stash the item away on a backwater planet until the time is right to retrieve it, or bluff about stashing it and leave a trap behind instead. The game is fun, but the concept is the real star of the show.
DRCongo is a tough game to parse, and not only because the board’s colors clash into an icky pudding of green on green. As a Congolese industrialist, it’s your job to put down insurgents to pave the way for construction projects, steal blood diamonds, and erect as many industries as the land will bear. And yet, in a better M. Night Shyamalan twist than M. Night Shyamalan has managed in years, you’re the good guy. The nation’s last best hope at stability and prosperity, in fact. It’s like you’re the Star Trek version of an industrialist, except set in one of the most corrupt, unstable, and undeveloped nations on the planet. In a game that’s more frustrating than fun — though intentionally, since dealing with perennial uprisings would certainly be a pain in the ass — the result is one of the most optimistic games of the year.
#8. Artifacts, Inc.
That Ryan Laukat is one of the best artist-designers working right now, there’s basically no dispute. That his games are cheerful, clever, and largely free of conflict is also beyond argument. But nowhere is that tougher to stomach than Artifacts, Inc., in which player interaction is so limited that playing with more than two people can become a drag. Naturally, the solution is to only play head to head, though the downside is that you’ll never be able to enjoy 1930s artifact excavations (sans Nazis) with everyone at once.
#7. Fief: France 1429
So long as it has to do with feudal politics or the Catholic Church, you can do pretty much anything in Fief: France 1429. Fall in love? Check. Murder your spouse in a fit of jealousy? Check. Channel your grief into becoming the Pope? Absolutely. Toss in the expansions and you can go on Crusade, join a martial knightly order, and conscript the best armies the 15th century has ever seen. It’s fantastic stuff. At least until the king you carefully groomed over the last two hours suddenly catches plague and dies, or rainstorms mire your armies during a crucial campaign, or good weather only seems to favor the baron in the next valley over. Fate is fickle like that. Fief might be one of the coolest games I’ve ever played, but it’s also one of the most infuriating.
Equal parts solid and mean, Nevermore is my sort of drafting game. Murder your opponents (at least until they manage to reincarnate out of raven form), steal their stuff, feed them crummy cards, then cry when they turn those crummy cards into the game’s best hand. Unfortunately, all this good stuff is beset by the possibility of a staggeringly long playtime. With the right crowd, Nevermore becomes an amazing conversation game, reminiscent of old ladies’ bridge clubs but with magic spells and backstabbing. Without that group, however, it just doesn’t work.
#5. Champions of Midgard
In my review of Champions of Midgard, I pointed out that its main breakthrough — the use of dice for fighting monsters, rather than merely spending static resources — was an excellent way of spicing up the worker placement genre. I also mentioned my reservations about this innovation being padded by commoner fare. It’s like eating a cookie where the dough is fresh and delicious but the chocolate chips are stale charcoal nuggets. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. I dunno. In either case, Champions of Midgard stands out as a good game that could have been excellent if it had only decided to embrace its cleverness a hair’s breadth closer.
#4. Onward to Venus
And thus begins the Martin Wallace section of this list, where every game is semi-brilliant and usually enjoyable, but simultaneously falls under the “blender” school of design in which ideas and themes and settings are tossed into a juicer and whirred together. These sorts of designs are often tasty, but generally have a few chunks of something left over at the bottom. First up is Onward to Venus, a fascinating ditty about steampunk ships colonizing the Solar System, putting down native rebellions on Mars, and hunting big game on Titan. It was an interesting game made more interesting by the appearance of random events like a Moon-man uprising, an alien invasion, or a Martian bid for independence. Unfortunately, many of these were unlikely to ever occur, making 95% of the game about controlling factories.
#3. Moongha Invaders: Mad Scientists and Atomic Monsters Attack the Earth!
I’m knocking this compelling game of sci-fi monsters and the scheduled demolition of planet Earth because its name is too long. Kidding! I’m knocking it because the pieces are awful, at least in the second edition. The rest of the game is fabulous.
#2. A Study in Emerald (second edition)
My favorite Martin Wallace game of the year is also my least favorite, largely because the first edition of A Study in Emerald is one of my favorite games ever made, while the second edition is pared down to dangerously anorexic levels by comparison. Worse, the second edition does further insult by being the better game. If it were capable of reason, I’d challenge it to a duel.
Okay, Martin Wallace segment complete.
#1. The Grizzled
If I’m being honest, The Grizzled isn’t much of a game. It’s simplistic. Just avoid matching threat symbols, pray for luck, and occasionally take a limited action like giving a speech or handing your pal a mug of coffee. It’s also a silent game, so don’t expect much laughter, and absolutely don’t tell any jokes or you’ll come across as sort of a jackass. It certainly isn’t “fun.”
However, The Grizzled is also one of the year’s best offerings, tackling heady themes of silence, shell shock, and fraternity. It’s about the wordless support that passes between men of action, about barely scraping through dire times, about being a soldier who doesn’t quite understand, or even care about, the politics of the day. It’s a sobering experience, and it’s also one of the year’s best by a tremendous, yawning margin. I recommend it.
And that’s it! What are your picks for the year’s best games that aren’t necessarily fun, or that require particular caveats for enjoyment?