Best Week 2016, Adorable!
Sometimes, all you need to achieve greatness is a dash of cuteness, the nutmeg of game design. What follows are the best adorable games of the year, which means these are probably the games I’d play when I’m not in a particularly serious mood, or perhaps with a young child. Though, yeah, you caught me: I’d play almost anything with a young child because I lack any filter for what’s appropriate at any given age. So it goes.
#8. Dingo’s Dreams
Okay, so Dingo’s Dreams is basically just Bingo, but with variable goals and cute-as-buttons animals. Somehow, improbably, against all odds, that’s enough to make this one of the most calming games of the year. Review.
#7. Happy Salmon
Ask anyone in my gaming group, and they’ll confirm that I’m overbearingly fastidious when it comes to caring for my games. “Don’t bend the cards,” pitched in a voice that’s as carefree as I can humanly manage — which means it hisses out like I’m a crazy shut-in newspaper-hoarder who’s just noticed that you’ve dog-eared 1971’s Sunday Times— is easily my most-spoken phrase on weekends. The grand exception is Happy Salmon. My copy is scraped raw. There are holes punched straight through some of the cards, footprints on the back of others, and one with gloss that’s begun separating. And I love it for that, because a copy of Happy Salmon that doesn’t look like you choked a shredder by shoveling too much of the deck through it at once is a copy that hasn’t been played enough.
#6. Tiny Epic Western
The Tiny Epic series has never been so not-tiny, yet I can’t help but love the way this latest entry packs so much gameplay into such a diminutive package. Each round is structured around a series of hands, all deriving their strength from whichever single card you pocket at the outset, which makes the entire game play out as a series of slow reveals and hopeful guesses at what your opponents hope to accomplish with their own tucked-away card. It isn’t a perfect game — the shootouts between dudes are a stinking letdown, for one thing — but it’s great for those who want a little bit of thought without blowing a circuit. Review.
#5. The Dragon & Flagon
Even the setup for The Dragon & Flagon feels good, arranging tables and rugs, adorning each place setting with its own mug, strategically placing chairs and barrels. The only thing that feels better is taking it apart. And you will take it apart. Objects will be chucked, carpets will be tugged, and a good percentage of your total swings will result in comical whistles through the air. This is one of the better programmed movement games out there, doubling down on what makes this type of game tick; specifically, that failure must be humorous, feel natural, and leave the entire table just as satisfied as they would have been if the hit had connected. Barroom brawling has never looked nicer. Review.
Something from Ryan Laukat was bound to appear on this list. In this case, it’s his take on swashbuckling adventure. Which, for fans of his designs, feels as fresh as it does familiar. Whether you’re bargaining for control of islands or conquering them, shipping timber or hiring a pack of sea serpents to do your fighting for you, nearly every passing knot in Islebound is a delightful one. Review.
#3. Mr. Cabbagehead’s Garden Game
Todd Sanders is no stranger to crafting gorgeous solo titles, but I’m not sure he’s ever made anything quite as charming as Mr. Cabbagehead’s Garden Game. Here, you’re cast as the titular Mr. Cabbagehead, a lonesome, uh, cabbage-head who desires nothing more than the heart-of-romaine of Eudora Brassica. What follows is a solitaire delight as you assemble the most pleasing garden possible, dodge nosy neighbors, and keep bees. The result is a tidy little score-chaser that deserves to be played over and over in those quiet moments when a pool of morning sunlight warms your kitchen table. Review.
#2. Mechs vs. Minions
Not only is Mechs vs. Minions one of the year’s most dizzying bargains, forking over an entire treasure chest of toys for a shockingly low price, it’s also an insanely good time. Like The Dragon & Flagon, this is a programmed movement game that focuses entirely on the hilarity of your mistakes. In this case, however, you and some friends have been tasked with steering cumbersome mechs into battle, whether towing mines or defending your mech-pilot-school from hordes of attackers. By pitting everyone against the game and providing loads of comedy-fodder in the struggle to manage your pinwheeling mechanical walkers, this is the sort of thing where nobody gets left out in the cold while everyone else has their fun. All are welcome here. Add a few light legacy elements, and you’ve got one of the most delightfully silly games of the year. Review.
#1. Kodama: The Tree Spirits
In a year full of rattlesnakes, it’s Kodama that I’ve played endlessly. At first glance it’s a game for kids. For one thing, rather than using a defined table space, you spread your branches from trunk to tip organically, scoring points in the simplest fashion imaginable along the way. And there’s something to be said about a game that doesn’t rely on grids or iconography to convey information, but instead displays everything as budding flowers and chubby caterpillars. Then again, it also provides a perfectly adult-worthy time, with seasonal goals and woodland spirit bonuses to maximize, providing all sorts of reasons to visit again, over and over, growing and planting and counting up those plump evening clouds. Best of all, it’s a soothingly meditative experience, especially when you let yourself sit back and admire the thing you’ve grown. Sometimes it’s nice to play a game that isn’t about anything more complicated than the beauty of a tree. Review.
As always, thanks for tuning in! Tomorrow we’ll be talking about the best iterative games of the year — that is, the games that don’t necessarily do anything new, but do the old stuff with such aplomb that it’s hard to whine about them hogging up shelf space. Until then, feel free to let the world know what your own adorable games of 2016 were!