Best Week 2017: The Elegant!
Fun fact: Nine out of ten oceangoing pirates read Space-Biff! Best Week! It’s true.
Perhaps it’s because pirates appreciate simple games that yield hidden depth. If so, today is the day for them, because we’re looking at the eight best elegant games of the year. These are the ones that are simple to learn yet hard to master, or simply ingenious, or just downright simple.
#8. The Godfather: Corleone’s Empire
There’s a horse head, a drive-by automobile, and a bust of Vito Corleone, all rendered lovingly in plastic. What’s more The Godfather than that?
Well… plenty, and I had my reservations about how Eric Lang’s The Godfather: Corleone’s Empire failed to connect with the themes of the movie in any meaningful way. But let’s put that aside for now, because this is a rather good worker placement and area control game, and one that’s accessible to boot. Here, your workers are split across two categories. Soldiers are the low-level button men who boss around storefronts and live to take a bullet. The higher-ups are for controlling wide swaths of area, skimming from a whole range of businesses at once. And between the two, you’ve got to put New York City in a headlock, complete jobs to blow up your rivals, and squirrel wads of dirty money into your private retirement fund.
The beauty of Corleone’s Empire is that it never veers into complex territory, yet still allows for all sorts of gangland capers. A well-timed car bomb can clear out a neighborhood, while a police chief in your back pocket can make spurious arrests on your behalf. It may be The Godfather in name only, but it shows that there’s still plenty to be done with worker placement and area control.
#7. Sid Meier’s Civilization: A New Dawn
Along those same lines, Civilization: A New Dawn doesn’t quite recapture the sprawl o’ history displayed in its 2010 rendition or parallel titles like Clash of Cultures. The goal was to slim down the complexity of Sid Meier’s landmark video game series, and instead it could almost be described as bulimic.
However, when viewed from the perspective of its two central mechanisms, A New Dawn has plenty to offer. Every player’s row of cards represents both their civilization’s technological achievements and their available actions, with both growing in tandem as the game progresses. These cards then drive the expansion of each player’s miniature empire. Resources are gobbled up, natural wonders are exploited, and man-made wonders rise in their place. The interplay between the map and your row of cards is easily the game’s best offering, and creates plenty of flashpoints where a single upgraded tech can have cascading consequences.
The long history of man is thus writ short. Sometimes too short, but it’s hard to deny the allure of A New Dawn as a quick race to conquer the planet.
#6. Tiny Epic Quest
The Tiny Epic series just keeps getting better and better. Also prettier and prettier.
This year’s other Zelda game, Tiny Epic Quest is all about living the dream as a hero of a candy-colored fantasy kingdom. And while it sacrifices some detail for the sake of speed, a lot of the basics are right where they should be. Goblins pester the roadways and must be removed, dungeons are time-consuming and risky, and your character’s growth is not only measured in heart containers and energy jolts, but also in the equipment strapped right onto their star-shaped bods. It’s a movement and time management puzzle at its core, but there’s plenty to consider while trying to outpace your friends’ growth.
Come for the backdrop of robots being granted curated sentience, stay for the clever mathematics puzzles. Sentient doesn’t necessarily hang much weight from its wallpaper — it’s not as though we were going to be cracking the mystery of AI ethics anyway — so instead it focuses on what it does best. Namely, making every decision as infuriatingly multi-layered as possible.
Consider this. You’ve finally found a robot that works for you. It will plug into your mainframe and generate tons of revenue, and that’s after it manipulates your program dice just right. Essentially, you’ve tricked this robot into using its newfound free will to benefit your faceless corporation. However! Just because this particular machine would be a nice addition to your growing stable of robo-friends doesn’t necessarily mean that it meshes with your long-term goals. Those require you to deploy those bladerunner-coated agents and cylindrical assistants to lock down the right contracts. Which in turn might mess up your short-term profits.
Back and forth it goes. For a game with such simple rules, there’s no such thing as a simple move in Sentient.
#4. The Lost Expedition
Your first few plays, The Lost Expedition’s turn by turn process has all the solemnity of a funeral dirge. Cards are doled out and then laid on the table in the order of your choosing, and the resulting conga line is rarely an optimistic one. Venomous snakes, piranha-choked rivers, leeches clinging to your adventurer’s testes — it’s all a bit much. Bit by bit, your stores of ammunition, food, and health are depleted until your party succumbs to the inevitable.
Then you begin to learn to read the lay of the land. Opportunities make themselves visible, while threats… well, they’re still threats, but at least you have a better idea of what you can sacrifice in order to stagger a few steps closer to the lost city of Z. Most of all, you learn that the proper ordering of your cards can mean the difference between arriving half-dead at El Dorado or just being dead.
You’ll still lose. Often. But with those failed expeditions under your belt, The Lost Expedition is an entirely new thing, more about optimization and maximizing your odds, and certainly more about the very bad things that will befall this latest batch of bullish explorers. It’s good stuff, and one of the more straightforward solo offerings out there.
#3. Not Alone
Also known as My Very First Asymmetric Game, it’s hard not to appreciate how Not Alone pitches itself as approachable. Everybody is cast as the crew of a downed starship. Together, they must explore the landscape, looking for ways to boost the signal of their fading wreckage. Cooperation and merry hijinks ensue.
Or they might if one person weren’t playing as a flesh-eating ultra-alien. While the survivors are bouncing between destinations — reflecting their signal off the ocean, exploring in the rover, hiding in the jungle, daring each other to enter the alien’s lair — their pursuer is hounding their tracks, setting ambushes and doing its dangedest to out-guess where its prey will appear next.
Most crucially, Not Alone offers a whole lot of tension, especially once the alien has done some real damage and the survivors start getting their poop in a group, all without any significant rules overhead. Instead, everyone can simply sit down and focus on the process of surviving the next few minutes.
Another asymmetric game, Fugitive is all about the thrill of the chase — though this time it’s a highly procedural affair that mimics a heist flick.
One person stars as the fugitive. They’ve got a fueled plane on the runway and a palapa by the beach in a country without extradition. The only problem is getting there. Especially when the other player is the marshal, a deductive genius who packs a (dry erase) notepad. Every turn, the fugitive runs, inching from one location to the other unless they’re willing to burn their hand to move in leaps and bounds. Then the marshal guesses where the fugitive has been, and the accuracy of their detective work determines whether they get their collar or look bad in front of the mayor.
It makes for a thrilling game of tag, especially for a game that plays in around fifteen minutes. For best results, play twice with reversed roles and compare notes.
The drag. Many game nights reach it. It’s the moment when the main game is done and put away, but nobody wants to go home yet. Somebody chimes in that it’s time to play that game again — you know, the short one — only to be silenced by a chorus of groans. You’ve played it a million times, and it isn’t that good. Then somebody mentions another game and everybody lights up. There is it. The one.
In 2017, the title that successfully became our drag game was Ethnos.
The gameplay is so simple that even a halfwit halfling could figure it out. On your turn, you either take a card — drawing from a face-up selection or the top of the deck — or send a gang of fantasy creatures to lock down one of
Slovakia’s Ethnos’s many regions. As time goes by, the difficulty of sending a gang into a region grows, but that’s not the real beauty of this thing. Rather, it’s that each of the game’s twelve races behave in their own peculiar manner.
Centaurs let you chain together multiple gangs. Wizards let you draw new cards. Wingfolk can fly pretty much anywhere rather than sticking to their color-designated region. Orcs pile up and give you points at the end of the game. Merfolk gather on the beaches until they get to invade a bonus region. Halflings, uh, are numerous.
It isn’t the deepest game in the world, but it’s enviably simple, the sort of thing that’s playable after your brain has been fried by a more complicated title. It just fits, like a missing puzzle piece, into one game night after the other.
As always, I welcome dissent. What were your favorite elegant games of the year? Did I misuse the word “elegant,” or is your definition simply more dull than mine? Comment to find out! And come back tomorrow for Best Week Day Three!