Best Week 2016, Iterated!
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.