Best Week 2018: The Pure!
When I say purity, what does it conjure? Morality, perhaps? The state of your heart? The criteria for entrance into the cult operating beneath your local import shop?
Today isn’t about those things. Rather, it’s about the five best games of 2018 that did one thing and one thing only. These are the games that didn’t need a dozen event decks or special edge cases or unexpected dexterity elements. They’re games, dammit, and that’s all they want to be, with all the cruft pruned away. In other words, purity.
#5. Welcome To…
Ever since cavemen realized they could play Yahtzee with the teeth they’d lost trying to eat granite, roll-and-write games have been a part of this grand tale we call Humanity. And although Welcome To bucks tradition by dumping the dice for a deck of cards, the whole thing is as familiar as it is clever.
Three cards, each with a number and an action. Everyone picks from the same pool, pencils in their chosen house number, and maybe takes the action. But despite working from the same set of cards, everybody’s idyllic neighborhood quickly develops problems of their own. Sprawling fence lines, empty lots, incorrect postal addresses… yet the entire endeavor is hypnotic, lulling everybody into a comforting rhythm of picking numbers and wagering on where they should fit. One time we sat there for five minutes, our limbs heavy and warm, until somebody wondered aloud if we should flip over the next trio of cards.
The silliest part? You can play with a hundred people at the same time. Though that means buying the game all over again, because the pad will have been used up. Oh well. There are far worse games to support.
You can read my review right here.
Now that hybrid designs are all the rage, it’s been a while since I played a pure deck-builder. Remember Dominion? No need to move pieces around a board. Just you, some opponents, and whoever can best manipulate that deck of cards.
Much like peppermint Binaca, Grant Rodiek’s SPQF spritzes you with pure nostalgia. There’s a board, but it’s an unintrusive little thing, reserved for tracking your resources, some upgrades, and banked cards. The name of the game is hand management, with the twist that unused cards are sent straight to your market row — and possibly your rivals’ possession. Every decision is thus doubly burdened: not only must you consider what’s most useful from each hand, but also which cards you’d rather not offer to everyone else. At some point you’ll lose something precious. Nothing is permanent.
Still, it’s far less chaotic than it sounds, in part because it’s possible to “follow” other turns with boosts of your own. It’s the law of Monopoly: by making sure the best stuff is happening on some other idiot’s turn, it’s easy to ignore that you probably aren’t doing very well. That’s how it goes in SPQF, except it’s a delight from start to finish. There’s always some smart trick you could pull — and probably two or three smarter ones that you’ve missed.
My review? You’ll find it right where it should be.
#3. CIV: Carta Impera Victoria
If this year’s Best Week featured a “Most Overlooked” list, this would be number one. It seems to have sold decently. Then most of its purchasers played it a single time and subsequently jettisoned it from mind and home.
Which is a stinking shame, because CIV is a game that reveals itself by degrees. Sure, that first play is mostly about drawing cards and hoping for the right combos. But once you know what lurks within the deck — and I mean once you really know, both what’s there and in what quantity — that’s when CIV springs to life. In one sense it’s about metagames, and the way somebody’s religion-heavy play will be supplanted next time by military, or science, or utopia. Try it a second time and it barely resembles the first attempt. Same goes for the third try, and the fourth. With a seasoned group, it’s horrifically cutthroat, every card counted and parsed and countered. It’s one of those rare games where it pays to shoot for a tiebreaker. How many games even require you to know the tiebreaker?
The title is also a pun. Whether that’s a selling point is probably the most accurate judge of whether you’re a decent human being.
My review is over here, and you’ll notice that I voice my appreciation of the title’s punniness by slamming it.
Grant Rodiek was born with a pure heart. A pure fat baby’s heart. How else could he manage to find himself on this list twice?
By remaking Solstice, mostly. Imperius is better in every conceivable way. Where Solstice was a (cheerily) complex web of hidden and public information, Imperius is always clear about its stakes while not being nearly clear enough about the details. Some cards are visible, others are hidden. Far more infuriating, your cards are drafted, but not all of them belong to you. When you ship somebody off to a planet, there’s a good chance they’re working for somebody else. Which maybe doesn’t matter, provided you dump them onto some backwater or into a losing battle.
Cue a whole lot of bluffing, information control, and second-guessing where you sent House Whatchamacallem’s ambassador. Will that deployment come back to bite you? Or is that precisely the right destination to rob him of any value? When the cards are down and all is revealed, expect hoots of triumph and groans of disgust. There’s nothing quite like winning a struggle you didn’t even know you were waging.
But this is Rodiek’s design wheelhouse, and the apparent chaos can be tamed with clever play. It requires a keen eye, smart drafting fingers, and a sharp sense for when a situation smells wrong, but shrewd players will be spinning those wheels within wheels within wheels in no time.
My review is also like Dune. Somehow.
#1. The Mind
Ah. Here it is. The game that sparked a bunch of What is a game? discussions. And every single one of them is totally worthy of your time. I promise.
But to save you the effort of looking them up, the answer is that there isn’t actually a line, a blood-red chalk-scratch on the asphalt with activity on one side and game on the other. “Step over to this side if you’re willing to show some spunk,” the grizzled admiral snarls. Except this admiral only thinks he’s grizzled; he is in fact a slightly too obsessive enforcer of definitions, and he needs to let the joy of this hobby into his heart rather than fretting over what it constitutes. A game is a game when you bother to play it and call it a game. Definitions were always handy shortcuts rather than hard rules anyway.
And The Mind? Baby, this thing’s a game through and through. Play the cards in order. Don’t talk about it. Throw the occasional ninja star. This is the whole of the law. Go and learn.
Is its whole spooky action at a distance shtick pure hokum? Oh yes. But it’s effective hokum, simulating extrasensory something-something by attuning everybody’s… you know what? Call it what you will. Dress it up in science or drape it in mysticism. Either way, that count from 1 to 100 is as pure an expression of play as they come. Go ahead and surrender to the childlike wonder of it all. It’s better that way.
In my review, you’ll enter a deep trance.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi. Tomorrow we’ll be looking at five more games — but before we do, please tell me which of 2018’s games captured you with their elegance, purity, or stately grace.)