Best Week 2016, Iterated!

Wee Aquinas considers "iterated" an insult, and refuses to take stock in today's list.

Innovation is tough. Not just in the sense that being innovative is sort of like being told to sit on your couch and produce the finest cheeses from thin air. But also in the sense that it doesn’t always pay off. Most people don’t chow down on fine cheeses, for one thing. Why not craft the perfect cheddar? Everybody loves cheddar.

Today is a celebration of the year’s best iterative games. That is to say, the games that do the same old stuff all over again, but do it so well that I’m glad they showed up for the party, like friends from elementary school who never changed all that much, just grew up and became better versions of who they’ve always been. These are the games that refine the formula, that snobby critics call “workmanlike” and “uninspired,” while the rest of us slather ourselves in their goodness like a piece of toast before the fondue vat. Apparently I’m hungry tonight. On to the games.

#8. Tyrants of the Underdark

For all its bluster, the Underdark is better-lit than much of the overside.

Not actually all that dark, then.

Somebody at a much more accommodating university than my own could probably write a dissertation on the rise, growth, and deflation of the deck-building game. For a while it felt like the genre could do no wrong. Buying cards, playing cards, winnowing cards — there was something to that tempo, the fattening and thinning of a deck, that saw a thousand crummy imitators burst into existence only to disappear with all the fanfare of a recessing pimple. In this changeable era, Tyrants of the Underdark recognized that it ought to be one of those newfangled “hybrid” deck-builders, where your deck at least has some manner of impact on an ever-changing geography. And it’s, well, rather awesome, actually. By taking cues from some of the more innovative examples of its genre, it produces a tight seesaw for control of its cavernous expanses, while also providing enough trickery to break around the edges of a front-line, to undermine your enemy from behind, or to clog up their deck with worthless cultists. It’s a perfect game for those who want to break out into the slightly wilder world of hybrid deck-building. Review.

#7. Secret Hitler

2016 in review, then.

Seem familiar?

In a way, those Werewolf/Mafia loyalty guessing games are one of the older genres out there. Why, when I was a gangly lad, mixed company would plop down on my pal Sam’s couch, hold cushions protectively over their awkwardly-changing bodies, and play a bunch of dang Werewolf. How consternating. At least Secret Hitler has the human decency to provide a clever and enjoyable time, unlike whatever variation of “Close your eyes, good villagers” we were suffering through back then. Here, loyalties are simple enough that anybody can jump in and play a round or five, but never ever obvious once the game gets going, especially since the Good Guys must occasionally prop up the Bad Guys to get things done. This is one genre that inches forward every year, and this is currently the pinnacle of the form. Review.

#6. Cry Havoc

This is the game I most regret lumping onto this list. The thing is, I truly don't feel like it fit anywhere else, and if this year hadn't been so strong for games, this might have easily been closer to #1. As it is, I've never put much stock into rankings anyway.

Getting pumped for pillagin’.

Since the dawn of human warfare, dudes have placed themselves on maps, warred over territories on those maps, and then stood proudly over their new bits of map. It never changes. Fortunately, the dudes-on-a-map genre is always growing. In Cry Havoc, for instance, the spice of life is deep factional differences. You’ve got the mobile humans, the swarming natives, the turtling high-tech aliens, and the rampaging murder-bots, a.k.a. the faction that prevents this from being Starcraft: The Board Game: Again. In the grand tradition of games like Blood Rage, this is one of those titles where you’ll fight early and often and never let up — and the fighting is excellent, featuring one of the smartest combat resolution systems I’ve ever seen, one that confronts its combatants with constant agonizing trade-offs. Review.

#5. Hands in the Sea

A Carthaginian navy blockading our shores. Nothing new, then.

The sea is lovely, dark, and deep.

Remember when A Few Acres of Snow was all that? As one of the first hybrid deck-building games, it soared like Icarus, then tumbled into the ocean like him too once it turned out that the game was a little bit broken. Cue Hands in the Sea. This might as well be A Few Leagues of Water for how closely it hems to its source material. The thing is, the setting — Rome vs. Carthage — works perfectly, featuring a broad enough stage for a wide array of shenanigans, but one that’s also compact enough to force its actors into elbow-rubbing range every so often. And yes, in this case “rubbing elbows” is a euphemism for “stabbing each other with sharpened pieces of metal.” At least for the time being, every strategy has its counter, every advantage has its cost, and the hybrid wargame deck-building genre has a new champion. Review.

#4. Codex: Card-Time Strategy

Watch out for my adorable animals. They might nip at your throat.

Pondering my codex.

Magic: The Gathering might not be the bear it once was, but… oh, who am I kidding, Magic: The Gathering is still every bit as formidable a beast as ever. Plenty have tried to tackle it and failed. Last year it seemed like Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn might find a toehold, until its publisher handled its momentum with all the grace of an Olympic dasher checking it to the turf at the sound of the gunshot. This year’s contender is Codex. For one thing, this is one of those Magic Clones for Adults, giving you everything you need up front rather than levying a periodic tariff on fun. Also, it solves the pre-game deck construction and random draw problems by letting you cobble together a codex of cards via a handful of straightforward decisions, then having you pick out pretty much whatever you want during the battle. Like a Rolodex of sorcery or something. I don’t know what a Rolodex is. Meanwhile, it captures the rushes, turtles, and economic booms of a real-time strategy game, making it a game of carefully-pitched tempos and gambits. Review.

#3. Evolution: Climate

He's conflicted. The brain in his tail yearns for the sweet release of oblivion, while the brain up top just wants to go on munching the green stuff. AND YES, I realize that the two-brain theory isn't accurate. Jeez. But just imagine you’re a tail-brain that’s more intelligent than the head-brain. You’d dream of death too.

Little does Mr. Dino realize that that falling star is about to turn him into the Sinclair mascot.

The beauty of Climate is that it takes a nearly perfect game and adds just the barest bits, yet the result feels like it’s crawled out of the muck on stumpy new fin-legs. In addition to competing for food and to evade predators, the creatures of Evolution are given an entirely new reason to continue running in place forever by the environment itself. Ice ages kill off smaller creatures, volcanoes drive the entire table towards extinction, and tropical climes mean more food for everyone — which in turn means ever more dangerous carnivores. Where Evolution’s original incarnation was a dynamic and intriguing card game that nevertheless occasionally felt samey after a dozen plays, the constantly changing environs of Climate are a shuddering breath of fresh air through newly-evolved lungs. Review.

#2. Exceed

I realize I keep making that joke, but it's *sort of* true, isn't it? This takes the BattleCON formula, strips its length down, makes it faster and more crunchy, and subtracts everybody's clothes. Sounds like a sequel to me.

BattleCON II.

It isn’t hard to tell that Exceed comes from the same brilliant mind that gave us BattleCON. Both are fighting games where speed and strength factor into each clash, where positioning reigns supreme, and where smarts are at an odd premium for an homage to muscle-memory arcade games. What’s surprising is that they play so differently. Where BattleCON can drag on while its players chew over their options, Exceed rushes forward with the momentum of an enraged bull. Turns are fast, hard-hitting, and feature some of the slickest hand management in this industry. This isn’t to say it’s any less clever than BattleCON. Instead, it focuses less on the he-knows-that-I-know-that-he-knows stuff that featured so prominently in its predecessor, and lets you get right down to the business of knocking your opponent’s teeth out. Where BattleCON left me exhausted after a couple fights, I could play Exceed all night and still be enthralled. Review.

#1. New Angeles

City of Beans!

Welcome to New Ecuador!

You could say that my entire life has been one long odyssey to find a worthy successor to Battlestar Galactica. There are plenty of great ones, ranging from the criminally unnoticed Homeland to the makes-some-sense unnoticed V-Wars. By drawing from the best of them, New Angeles has quickly become one of my favorite games where we reflexively holler “Cylon!” every few minutes. For one thing, it almost entirely lacks grift. There are no space battles to manage, no spreadsheet to squint at. Just a sprawling cityscape burdened with problems, not enough tools to handle everything at once, and a bunch of secret rivalries dominating the table’s political space. Oh, and while everybody is clawing for position, maybe somebody wants to burn the whole thing down. Maybe. You can’t be sure. Though probably. New Angeles even pulls a trick straight out of Dead of Winter by handing everyone suspicious short-term goals that might implicate them as the baddy. Table-talk has never been so urgent or aggressively paranoid. Review.

That’s my list. Really, that’s it. If you have a better idea of what iterative design should dominate 2016, leave it below for our collective edification. Oh, and tomorrow we’ll be back to talk about lessons and feelings and stuff.

Posted on December 28, 2016, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I’m surprised that Exceed didn’t win first place, though New Angeles does look impressive. When you get right down to it a lot of these games are, and this is where 2016 starts looking like a fantastic year of gaming. Not that your previous two lists weren’t also packed with good games, but it floors me that all these titles appeared in the same year. More or less, in some cases.

    On a tangentially related note, I couldn’t help but notice that you haven’t weighed in on the debate raging under your Exceed article over on BGG. I’m curious about your take on the whole thing, though maybe you aren’t interested in wading into such a sticky topic?

  2. Excellent list – played and loved a few of these. My favorite iterative game of the year, and indeed my favorite game of the year, period, is Lorenzo Il Magnifico. Almost nothing new is happening thematically or mechanically – it’s a Mediterranean resource conversion euro using worker placement and tableau building. And yet it’s so tight, so vicious, and so polished, that I consider it a practically perfect ‘You took my spot!’ game. Makes you tear your hair out, in a wonderful way.

    • I haven’t even heard of it, which shows just how much attention I pay to Euros despite enjoying plenty of them just fine. Adding it to the old to-play list. Thanks for the recommendation!

  3. I’d add Onitama here as it is a simple chess variant that sublimely limits choices in a well designed and presented package.

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