Best Week 2017: The Refined!
If there were a list of all the best Best Of 2017 lists, the Space-Biff! Best Week! would easily be number one. Just saying.
Today we’re celebrating the most refined games of the year. No, not the most hoity-toity games, but the most improved. Whether accomplished by an expansion, a new edition, or a new game entirely, these are the games that stood atop a predecessor’s shoulders and looked good doing it.
#8. A Handful of Stars
Ever since its invention, deck-building has felt like a wonderful mechanism in need of a great framework. Martin Wallace proved it could be done with A Few Acres of Snow, blending deck-building with wargaming sensibilities, then further refined the concept — and added a couple more players — in Mythotopia. It was a near-perfect match, other than a seriously flubbed endgame.
Well, at least Wallace stuck the ending this time. While A Handful of Stars couldn’t reasonably be considered perfect, it’s still a considerable step forward. This time, the whole thing is placed on a timer, emphasizes hot laser death and planetary conquest, and will definitely see you cursing your deck whenever you run out of energy to propel your ships through the stars. Throw in some of the game’s more rule-bendy options, like black hole generators, planetary terraforming, or mobile doomstations, and you’ve got a considerable (and overlooked) contender for the category of Best Deck-Building / Wargame Hybrid For More Than Two Players.
Hey, that may be specific, but it does what it does with flair.
#7. Dark Moon: Shadow Corporation
2017 will forever stand out as the year board games remembered John Carpenter’s The Thing. Unfortunately for them, it’s been two years since Dark Moon captured the claustrophobic terror of being trapped in a remote location with somebody who looks like your buddy but is not your buddy.
Dark Moon was already one of the best traitor games out there, but Shadow Corporation elevates the paranoia until everyone at the table is a nervous wreck. As an expansion, it adds a little bit of everything that made the base game so good, only to upend the experience completely. The new evacuation ship offers a siren song to both humans and infected alike, while the Company Man, who may or may not be aboard the station at all, gives both sides fresh reasons to conceal their identities, separate allies from enemies, and approach victory with the same caution you’d show when circling a hungry lion.
Best of all, Shadow Corporation is the game that Dark Moon never could have been without years of learned experience. It’s more stressful, more argumentative, and nearly always comes screeching to one hell of a final crescendo.
#6. Colonial Twilight: The French-Algerian War
The COIN Series has long been a favorite of mine, but I’d be the first to argue that a reinvention was long overdue. For Brian Train — who also designed A Distant Plain — the makeover comes in the form of a pared-down player count. Rather than centering on four sides and the bickering they must undertake to reach the top of the heap, Colonial Twilight is the tale of two factions trapped in a cycle of escalating violence, terrorism, and shuffle-stepping between contested mountaintops. Come for the history, stay for the border patrolling, base burning, and eventual flood of FLN guerrillas into urban centers.
On a design level, COIN’s seventh volume represents a radical departure from the bones that prop up the entire series. By reworking the way its factions take their turns, a whole range of conflicts have now been opened up for future entries. Not that we need them anytime soon when Colonial Twilight offers so much to chew on.
Once there was Wolfgang Kramer’s Top Race. Now there is Downforce.
The first shots in Restoration Games’ opening salvo were considerable, and none more so than this bullet. Downforce is more than a racing game — and it would have to be to convince me to play it. Rather, it’s a game of placed wagers, jerky maneuvers, and sly betting. Players bid on a car and driver, then make periodic bets throughout the race in the hopes of walking away with a fatter wallet.
Crucially, Downforce is a meanie’s game and it knows it. The race itself is something of a joke, cars stuttering in place until they leap forward a quarter track all at once, or parking on a sharp turn to delay everyone else’s turn, or forming blockades on a straight stretch just because they can. Don’t get me wrong, this is what the game gets right, because it’s hard to imagine a half-hour with Downforce that doesn’t result in belly laughter.
#4. Codenames Duet
Codenames reminds me of chess. Which, sure, is a weird comparison to draw, because Vlaada Chvátil’s party game masterpiece and the ancient game of kings are nothing alike. But both carry that uncanny sensation that they’re litmus tests for your true intellect, as though a failure to win peels back the veneer to reveal that you’re simply not as smart as your opposition.
Enter Codenames Duet. Unlike the original, which was a tightly-wound team game about the solipsistic archipelagoes of meaning that are our shared vocabulary, Duet is put together with mathematical elegance, almost like a Sudoku puzzle. Two players are working side by side — together, which makes the whole exercise many times more pleasant — to decode the ownership of the words laid before them. Some words are yours alone, some are shared, and some just might be one of three assassins, which will end your guessing spree in failure if selected. It’s the board game equivalent of doing a crossword puzzle in bed, but with a little bit more oomph to each guess.
#3. Star Trek: Ascendancy — Ferengi & Cardassians
Last year’s Star Trek: Ascendancy boldly went where plenty had gone before, but it did it with such panache that it still felt like an outlier. Its stellar cartography unfolded organically across the table, riddled with deep-space dangers or opportunities for colonization, and it was brave enough to stick around long enough to boast a satisfying narrative arc from the invention of warp drive to full-on galactic war. Perhaps most importantly, it captured the ethos of its races with a convention-going Trekkie’s assuredness. In fact, its one meaningful downside was that there were only three of them.
Two expansions have rectified that problem. Now the Federation, Romulans, and Klingons are joined by the Ferengi and Cardassians, and their addition amps up Ascendancy to warp eleven. The Ferengi are moneygrubbers who can’t generate culture directly, instead opting to set up expansive trade agreements that let them eventually buy their way into supremacy. By the time they’re a threat, nobody wants to touch them for fear of losing out on lucrative trade deals. Meanwhile, the Cardassians are skilled conquerors, much like the Klingons. But where the Klingons were all about finding honor in the flames of battle, the Cardassians would rather enslave the locals and play empire. With specialized fleets and the constant need to oversee their captive workforce, they’re a deadly but brittle member of Ascendancy’s roster.
Best of all, Ascendancy can now be played with five factions. These sprawling matches consume a lot of time and table space, but they’re worth it for the politicking and sheer scope.
#2. Twilight Imperium (4th Edition)
Speaking of long games, Twilight Imperium’s 4th edition doesn’t take as many hours as you’ve been told. Six hours, tops, unless someone is being inappropriately slow or learning the game or really getting into the roleplaying side of things, but you don’t have any friends who will do any of those things, right?
For your investment of time — not to mention scratch, since it comes with a hefty price tag — Twilight Imperium has been refined with laser precision. Each of its seventeen races is distinct. Every technology fills out a particular niche. Each diplomatic mission comes loaded with the threat of future betrayal. Every battle feels like the end of the world, or at least the chink in your armor that could lead to everything crumbling in on itself.
Put simply, there’s a reason this game has stuck around for twenty years only to come back for more. It’s as brassy as it is big.
#1. Nemo’s War (2nd Edition)
Half of the games on this list were set in space. But the best of them all takes us back to where we started — the belly of the sea.
Nemo’s War is a solo game. It may pretend that it can be played with more, but don’t let that fool you. It’s you, the game, and a whole lot of luck.
Fortunately, Nemo’s War is one of the few dice games I can stand to lose. Even failure to succeed at its many dice-rolls and card-flips and chit-pulls writes a story, the tall tale of a man standing against all the powers of the Earth and coming out the other side. Maybe. Even the Nemo of the novel didn’t make it. Spoiler alert.
The result is one of the greatest adventures ever put to cardboard, not to mention one that weaves a bittersweet narrative about obsession, sacrifice, and pushing things a wee bit too far. Whether stalking the seas, searching for lost treasures, or inciting uprisings against the colonial powers, there’s nothing quite like piloting the Nautilus.
That’s it. What’d I miss? Tell me below and I’ll explain why you’re wrong. Also, check back tomorrow for more of the best!