Best Week 2017: The Erudite!
Everybody loves smart people. Especially smart people. Perhaps only smart people.
Today we’re looking hard at the best games of 2017 that have something to say, are too smart for their own good, or would like to see you walk away from a gaming session feeling a little bit more enlightened than you were going in.
#8. This War of Mine
It would be an understatement to say I had problems with This War of Mine. Oh, so many problems. But for every one of them, it also does something really well.
Most of the time, what This War of Mine does well comes down to the same thing: it’s excellent at busting us out of our boxes for an hour or three, putting human misery under the spotlight, and reminding us that bad things happen to regular people all the time. Your cast of war-torn survivors aren’t necessarily “good.” There’s the deserter, the burglar, and the lawyer, mixed in alongside more noble professions like the firefighter or teacher. Rather than being good or bad, you’re simply people, trying to make the best of a terrible situation.
In this case, “making the best” usually means compromising your values, but even that overturned sense of morality makes it into the game, with characters wrestling against their empathetic natures whenever you take advantage of someone. In the end, This War of Mine may be handled with fists of ham, and its systems often groan under the weight of so many ideas, but the result is a game that almost always succeeds at making you think.
#7. Bios: Genesis
Phil Eklund is always attracting controversy for his political views, but that strikes me as a wrongheaded reason to criticize the guy. The more significant offense is found on the first two pages of Bios: Genesis, which gleefully outlines approximately ten thousand terms. Everything is refugia, autocatalytic phases, endosymbionts, oxygen pollution, enzymes, and error catastrophes. Yes, these will be on the test.
With its significant lexicon hurdled, Bios: Genesis blossoms into one of the most fascinating games about our current understanding of early evolution. From the primordial muck to single-celled organisms, from RNA mutation to various plant and animal lifeforms consuming one another to survive — and often all these stages at once, with players shaping every step of the chain through their actions — this is the game I wished I’d played when I was still in school. It takes the biological and chemical makeup of our planet and transforms them into objects of marvel, letting us revel in the majesty and chaos of how life may have squirmed into being.
#6. Leaving Earth
Speaking of majesty, Leaving Earth lets you peel back the wonders of our solar system. Not that this will be easy. Here the process of, well, leaving Earth is one that requires time, dedication, and lots and lots of failure.
In fact, constant failure is one of the best things about Leaving Earth. Want to launch a rocket into orbit? Get ready to watch it melt down, or have an o-ring fizzle out, or maybe its fuel mixture isn’t exactly right. Back to the drawing board you go, spending cold hard cash to iron out the problems with your systems. By the time you’re ready for something really complicated — say, setting up a habitat around Venus — you’ll have any number of systems running in tandem, each possibly on the verge of failure if you haven’t properly tested everything beforehand. Which, if you want to beat your competitors in the Space Race, you probably won’t have time for.
Especially when combined with its first two expansions, Outer Planets and Stations, Leaving Earth captures the joy of gradually improving a design, the long years of passage between celestial bodies, and the thrill of uncovering the unknown. As a story about the early stages of space flight and where the coming years may take us, it’s without parallel.
#5. Ortus Regni
Ortus Regni is a game about language.
This might seem wrong, especially when you consider how it’s played without any text whatsoever. Every card is a picture representing an entire unraveled spool of rules, interactions, and abilities. A castle anchors a fief and may house a lord, a vassal may act as one of those lords or supports political struggles, a banquet represents a medieval opportunity for networking, but also diminishes your life expectancy because of all those beef shanks and baked pastries.
It takes a while to learn, no doubt about it. Then everything clicks into place and you can tell at a glance what a rival earl’s lands, lords, and defenses are up to. The table itself is the page, and the pictures lying atop it are the paragraphs, sentences, letters, and graphemes of a shared vocabulary between players. Who’s in the lead? Who’s on the verge of attacking me? Whose ambitions have left them weakened? No need to read text when you can comprehend everything with a flick of the eyes.
More than that, Ortus Regni is a sinister game, prone to grand failures, missteps, and unexpected turns. What’s more medieval than that?
#4. The Fog of War
Sandwiched between the invention of aircraft and the advent of satellites were waged wars of deep misinformation, complete with blow-up tanks, round-the-clock fake radio chatter, and the bloated corpses of the homeless dumped into the ocean in captain’s rags with false orders in their pockets.
Geoff Engelstein’s The Fog of War is perhaps the only game to truly tackle historical operations like Mincemeat and Bodyguard, the WW2 subterfuges that masked the invasions of Sicily and later Normandy by diverting German attention toward trumped-up targets. In this case, the entire scope of the European theater is cast as a series of feints, counter-feints, and counter-counter-feints. Instead of placing tanks, planes, and shooty-boats on the map, as we’ve been doing since Risk made us regret spending an entire day pushing blocks around the globe, everything is hidden on cards. The inclusion of decoys means that you can never be sure whether a territory is garrisoned by five armored brigades or a bunch of wooden boxes with broomsticks sticking out the front — unless you spend intelligence tokens to learn some spotty tidbits of information, though you might as well tell your enemy what you’re up to.
The Fog of War is more than just clever. It’s one of the smartest games I’ve ever played.
#3. Pericles: The Peloponnesian Wars
Expanding on Mark Herman’s Churchill, Pericles is a game about a lot of things. The backdrop is the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta, a conflict that grew to encompass countless city-states, much of the Mediterranean, and eventually even Persia’s interference.
But Pericles is about far more than spears and oars, no matter how big or important a war they stabbed or rowed in. Rather, it’s about the factions that make war such a testy proposition. Rather than commanding the Athenians or Spartans outright, each player is limited to a single faction within their city-state. The Athenians are divided between the aristocrats and demagogues, and the Spartans likewise between two feuding dynasties. Both factions within a city-state want to win the broader war — obviously, since failure likely means enslavement — but they can’t abide the glory and political capital their rivals will secure if they win it.
Cue one of the most painfully smart games of the year. Each round features bitter debates between factions as they chart a course for the war, followed by equally bitter battles between city-states. As a game, it’s not only delightfully complicated, but equally big, bold, and open to any number of approaches.
#2. Time of Crisis
There are certain periods that make sense for games about the Roman Empire. The Great Civil War, for one, because being Pompey is almost as cool as being Julius Caesar. Some of the wars of expansion, especially the Carthaginian Wars, because subjugating foreign lands will always be fun, no matter how often we’re told that conquering people is Very Bad.
The Crisis of the Third Century represents Rome at a low point. Plague, inflation, successful barbarian invasions, petty civil wars, pretenders to the throne, emperors with an average life span of fewer than three years — the glory days are behind us, even as we celebrate the thousand-year anniversary of the great city’s founding.
Then again, times of crisis are also times of opportunity. And that’s where Time of Crisis comes in.
Perhaps the best thing about Time of Crisis is that it feels like no fortune is beyond your noble family’s reach. You can win glory by painting your blade with a barbarian’s blood. You can carve out a separatist empire of your own. You can seize Rome, burn the images of your predecessor, and forcibly disperse the rabble who don’t approve. And yet none of these options require any significant rules overhead, as they’re handled by the game’s efficient take on deck-building. Want to hire those barbarians to join your legions? Pay mobs to pester your rivals? Have the emperor’s bodyguard stab him in the backside? Just pick up the right cards and you’re set.
The result is a game that’s both wildly chaotic and deliciously easy to play.
#1. Sidereal Confluence: Trading and Negotiation in the Elysian Quadrant
I did not see this one coming.
Sidereal Confluence may have the least-comprehensible name of the year, but it also represents the best — and, sure, also the wackiest — take on the subjective nature of scarcity economics.
Each player controls a different space-faring alien race, coming together for the first time to create an intergalactic alliance. Picture Star Trek’s Federation of Planets, except not everybody walks on two feet and wears prosthetic makeup. The point is, everyone comes to the table with their own benefits, resources, and ideas. Some races have universal constructors or giant factories, while others are really good at colonizing planets, opening ancient vaults of knowledge, or maybe just blackmailing everyone.
From that starting point, it’s up to you to invent and trade technology, use resource converters to generate points, and haggle haggle haggle. Over the course of two hours — a hard limit if you use the timed mode, which you absolutely should — you’ll watch your species either assume their destined place as the head of the alliance, or flounder into client-state status. Along the way, Sidereal Confluence flexes serious smarts, letting everyone dictate their own terms about what has worth, and functioning as an exercise in the way we assign value to the strangest of commodities. By the time you’ve finished a single match, it’s set itself apart not only as one of the year’s weirdest games, but also one of the best.
There you have it! Readers, which games stood out as exceptionally smart, clever, or message-centered for you in 2017?
Come back tomorrow for the final eight.