Best Week 2016, Overlooked!
Like the slow release of a long-held breath, Best Week 2016 has begun. For the vast majority of the internet, this is old news, to be expected, and all’s well now that it has arrived. For the rest of you, the first-timers and late-goers, we welcome you to the most objective, least biased, most correct of any Best List in the history of this year. Five days, 40 games, only the best.
Today we celebrate the games you probably didn’t play — only worse, you probably didn’t even hear about them. These are the short geniuses in a tall crowd, the unsung heroes in a battle of choirs, the board games with insufficiently-staffed public relations departments.
#8. Android: Mainframe
The thing about Mainframe is that it’s just Dots & Boxes with some magical hacker powers spackled over the cracks. But the thing about that is that pretty much everybody loves Dots & Boxes, at least in comparison to sitting through whatever thing your parents made you attend with them. Mainframe taps into that familiarity: big boxes good, little boxes less good, and there’s nothing wrong with magical hacker powers. It’s the sort of game that looks like thrift-store material — and maybe is, when you get right down to it — but plays surprisingly well while hitting the odd nostalgic note. Review.
Some games are just too sticky for their own good, especially when that stickiness is actual human guts. Ferox strives to capture both the gruesome immediacy and the drawn-out death rattles of the cannibal horror genre, and largely succeeds by pitching its action as a seesaw where players swap their motivation to cause carnage. Review.
Somewhere between the success of Pandemic Legacy and the critical sigh that was SeaFall, Rob Daviau decided to cram every last one of his leftover gameplay notes from Pandemic into the ruby-tinged V-Wars. Where traitors and vampires had previously defied the shoehorn’s call, they at last found a home. And a surprisingly good one when you got right down to it. Massing soldiers to fire live rounds into crowds of vampire protesters, only to realize you’d gone too far, caused a massacre, and helped your enemy’s public image — it was all surprisingly clever and subtle for Yet Another Traitor Game. Perhaps too subtle, since almost nobody played the thing. Review.
#5. Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space
Being the published version of a five-year-old game that anybody could print and play in the comfort of their home office certainly didn’t help Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space crash onto the scene with meteoric import, and that’s a big squishy shame. This is one of the best stealth games of all time, portraying its infested space stations as scratching noises and distant yowls, followed by a panicked sprint for the escape pod and probable dismemberment and incorporation into a dehumanizing hive mind. This is the game that made me afraid of the dark again. Now with felt-tipped pens and dry-erase notebooks. Review.
#4. Dragon Punch
The beauty of Dragon Punch isn’t that it comes in a corny plastic wallet, the sort of thing you might have toted around in middle school. No, scratch that: the beauty of Dragon Punch is that it comes in a corny plastic wallet. No, really. This is a game that’s all about being played anywhere you desire. On the bus? Sure. Recess? Guess so. Lunch break? Why not. Roller coaster? Give it a shot. Even better, the game itself is a perfectly wonderful brawler that outperforms the paper-rock-scissors formula it riffs on. Which makes it all the more tragic that it seems to be getting played nowhere at all. Review.
I’d say that John Clowdus’s designs aren’t noted for their imagery, but that’s not actually true. Neolithic is perhaps the ugliest title from Small Box Games in a while. It looks like somebody just learned about the cell color-shading toolbar in Excel. But behind that boxy exterior lurks a terrifically playable jaunt into village management, hunting, heredity, and the dawn of culture. Review.
#2. Heir to the Pharaoh
Speaking of culture and prettiness, Heir to the Pharaoh sports both, its miniature Nile slowly peppered with monuments, temples, and a big honking pyramid. Every little piece of this puzzle matters, whether on the board or off it, and there’s enough understated trickery to appeal to anybody willing to make an effort past that first fumbling attempt. If this were a list of the Best Games of 2016 That Were Misunderstood by Critics, this would have ranked at number one. Review.
#1. Clockwork Wars
The coolest thing about Clockwork Wars is that it knows exactly how to pull off a twist ending. By making orders simultaneous, putting research right out on the board where it can be captured by anybody with enough gumption, and splitting its attention between armies, logistics, income, heroes, and spies — and somehow making them all feel crucial without relying too much on any one sector — this is the sort of game that never plays out how you expected. A stodgy points-counter where you know who’s going to win many turns before the final count, this is most decidedly not. Instead, you’ll have daring thrusts, cautious feints, and a constant barrage of moves you didn’t see coming, but could have if you’d been just a little bit more attentive. Review.
And that’s it! Tomorrow we’ll be talking about the best adorable games of 2016. In the meantime, feel free to let me know how wrong I was in the comments section. Everybody loves that.