Best Week 2016, Unique!
Best Week 2016 has come a long way. A very long way. We’ve looked at all sorts of bests. And all of it has led us here, to the final bests, the best unique games of the year.
These are the games that caught me by surprise. Critical darlings, some of them, the sorts of games that appeal to us weathered old sea-hags who write about the things. We’ve seen too much, and regular pleasures no longer delight us, so we seek ever-more peculiar novelties. Or so the conventional wisdom might claim. On the contrary, the games listed here are ones I’d stack up alongside all the others I’ve highlighted thus far. Welcome to day five.
#8. Star Wars: Rebellion
When I say that Rebellion is a deliciously original title, I don’t just mean that it captures the best bits of Star Wars, the epic sweep, the space battles, the heroics. And I don’t just mean that it’s a glossy session of hide-and-go-seek, the overpowering Empire hunting down the underdog Rebellion’s hidden base and hopefully blasting it to smithereens with a Death Star, while the little guys engage in guerrilla tactics and opportunity attacks straight out of a COIN game. I also don’t just mean that it’s wonderfully slick, focusing on individual characters and entire battle groups with equal ease. Rather, I mean that it’s a surprise that there’s a good Star Wars anything, because Star Wars is dumb. Rebellion, on the other hand, is wonderful. Surprise! Review.
At first glance, Inis might not look like anything all that different, especially since it belongs to the same series of mythology and area-control as Cyclades and Kemet. There are dudes who love to fight, so fight they shall. Then something wonderful happens, and rather than brawling all the time, you realize that you can welcome opposing clans into your territory — and that their presence might actually win you the game. From that point onward, Inis sets itself apart from every other dudes-on-a-map game out there by centering on your capacity for cajoling your bottom onto the throne. By pitching itself as a freewheeling game of diplomacy, Inis shifts from same-old to something entirely fresh, capturing the bitter rivalries and jealousies of extended family. Review.
#6. Star Trek: Ascendancy
We’ve reached a point in the progression of the board gaming hobby where the small and quick are often prized over the sprawling and epic. Which often makes a lot of sense. If you can somehow capture a goodly portion of what makes a long game so enticing, but pack it into ninety minutes, why shouldn’t you? Ascendancy doesn’t agree with that. By demanding a good block of hours and a large playing space, Ascendancy marks its territory thusly: big, brash, and capturing the entire sweep of Star Trek history, from tentative exploration to border tensions, alliances, and all-out war. And the effect is spellbinding, truly capturing the spirit of Star Trek without ever plumbing too deeply into any one thing. This is far more than a good Star Trek simulator. It’s one of the greatest 4X games ever put to cardboard. Review.
Nobody puts together games quite like Jamey Stegmaier. Scythe is not only defiantly unique, folding together economic warfare, achievement-chasing, ultra-lite exploration, and a manifest destiny vibe that’s like no other, but it also looks crazy good at the same time. The effect is not unlike meeting a philosopher-king who wrinkles your brain with his expansive wisdom and dresses to stun. I’ve only had that experience once prior to playing Scythe, but I’m fairly certain it’s an accurate metaphor. My favorite aspect of the whole thing, however, is surprisingly simple: nearly everything you do provides both an immediate perk and a totally separate lasting effect. Upgrade one thing and you’ll also get a discount on something else; buy a war-mech and you’ll unlock a permanent ability; gather recruits and you’ll earn a bonus once, and then again whenever one of your neighbors takes a particular action. Simple actions have never felt quite this rewarding. Review.
#4. Zimby Mojo
If this were a list of the most unique games of 2016 rather than the best unique games of 2016, Zimby Mojo would easily be #1. Picture a bunch of cannibal tribes, complete with zombie warriors and chanting sorcerers. Got it? Now add wacky magical witcheries, patrolling enemy sentries, and a cannibal king who’s casting game-breaking spells. Then add semi-cooperative gameplay to knock the king’s crown to the floor, followed by a bloody tooth-and-claw scuffle to drag the royal hat back to your team’s camp. Multiply it by a bunch of players, then make it even weirder for good measure. That’s Zimby Mojo. Review.
#3. Vast: The Crystal Caverns
Honestly, you’re all lucky that Vast: The Crystal Caverns isn’t five separate entries on this list. Each of its actors — Knight, Goblins, Dragon, Cave, and Thief — are tasked with playing their own game, complete with different goals, methods, mechanics, and priorities about who to pursue and who to avoid. The front-end requires a bit of learning, and a solid play or two before the roles click into place. But with an experienced group, there’s nothing quite like watching all those different characters pursuing their own goals. It’s a new brand of chaos, one where every layout of the caverns, every crystal or treasure chest, gives everyone that much more to squabble over. Review.
#2. Captain Sonar
To call Captain Sonar a stressful game doesn’t do it justice. By combining elements of tough-as-nails cooperative real-time games like Space Alert with the thrill of competition and the tension of not knowing where your opponent is, it crafts itself into one of the most agonizing, heart-pounding games of all time. There’s a genuine adrenaline rush to surfacing your submarine for repairs and being certain that your enemy is prowling in your direction, preparing to hit you while you’re at your most vulnerable. Or discovering that you’re right on top of your nemesis, so close that you probably can’t hit them without doing some damage to your own hull. Or realizing that one more move in the wrong direction might send your reactor into meltdown and end the game with all the fanfare of an underwater fart. I could go on. The point is, this game effortlessly produces submarine duels that rival anything shown on the big screen. Review.
#1. Millennium Blades
I collected Magic: The Gathering cards as a kid, but lacked people to play with, ran out of money, and didn’t like filling up my deck with lands rather than even more cool monsters. Later, I bounced off of the Star Wars Customizable Card Game, Star Trek, and another (dumber) Star Wars one that coincided with the first prequel movie. Even so, playing that sort of game seemed like heaven to me. From building one-of-a-kind decks to dominating in tournaments, it all held such appeal. Sadly, the stars never aligned. Until Millennium Blades, that is. For my CCG-starved heart, this is the game that does it all. Money management, the pressure of preparing for a competitive meetup, picking up cool cards and swapping them for way cooler cards, losing a tournament and focusing my next deck to bring my opponent’s set of cards tumbling down… Millennium Blades does all that. And it’s not too overwhelming about it. Sure, there are lots of cards and abilities to parse and combine, because that’s what a CCG is. But it’s simple enough that clever folks can learn it on the fly, finding their sea-legs by watching that first tournament. There’s time to come back. No, really, there is. And then, when it’s over after just a couple hours, you pack it up and you’re done until next time. For all those reasons, this is the CCG I dreamed about, packaged in a way that maximizes my fun while also respecting my time and wallet. All hail the king. Review.
Thanks for joining me on this journey! If you’ve got any other games in mind, the kind that sparked your imagination or showed you how much more there is to discover, please let us know about them down below.