Best Week 2018: The Messenger!
Every so often, I’ll play a game that lends a new perspective. Not necessarily anything transformative, but a greater appreciation for a moment in history, or a certain cultural function, or an abiding curiosity about how injection molding works. What can I say — I’m easily astonished.
For today’s Best Week entry, we’re talking about the year’s best message games. These are the titles that had something to say and said it with clarity, style, and hopefully a really cool map.
#5. Cataclysm: A Second World War
If ever a war was immortalized in cardboard, it would be World War II. But not quite like this. Rather than focusing on military minutiae, the selection of tank chassis and bomber targets, Cataclysm adopts a strategic view. That’s been done, you say? Nah, zoom out. Further. Keep going until multiple countries are lumped together for the sake of convenience, until entire army groups are represented by a single cardboard chit, until the entire war, both European and Pacific theaters, are arrayed upon a table. A regular table, not some grognard’s custom-built frigate deck.
When I say “strategic,” I’m talking about everything a nation needs to win a war. Industrial planning, war readiness, timely speeches, national morale, bullying your allies into joining the fight. There are still maneuvers and dice rolls, but they’re viewed from afar, the business of your generals and admirals. Instead, your responsibility is found in the aftermath, whether capitalizing on a success or setting policy in the wake of a catastrophe. Remember that scene in Darkest Hour when Winston Churchill can’t believe the French army has collapsed? That’s you. The defeat wasn’t yours, but the fallout certainly will be.
The result is an ambitious and sprawling perspective on WW2, one where arming revolutionaries can have as much of an impact as rolling tanks into your enemy’s capital. For every complexity, it returns yet another layer of verisimilitude.
And you can read about it right here!
#4. High Treason: The Trial of Louis Riel
My main takeaway from High Treason squirted ice water into my veins. Not a lot. Maybe a teaspoon. But enough that it made me think about some things.
High Treason opens with jury selection. One side wants to hang a man. The other hopes to exonerate him. Both are hunting for sympathetic ears. Here’s a Government Worker; perfect for the prosecution, except he’s also French and Catholic. Dismissed. Back and forth it goes, exposing information and dismissing those who would favor your opposition too easily, until all that remains is a stacked jury.
As a game, it’s a tense volley of examinations and cross-examinations, of evidence submitted and dismissed, of grandiose speeches and a deliberating jury. As a statement, it’s pointing out that justice is as much about perception as anything else. Louis Riel committed treason? According to whom? The answer could have everything to do with who you ask — which is why it’s so essential to make sure the jury is filled with the right people.
And in the end, a man will either swing or get away with murder. But don’t worry about that; it’s secondary to winning.
I happened to review High Treason, for your reading pleasure.
#3. Meltwater: A Game of Tactical Starvation
While the world burns with nuclear fire, your best chance of survival lies in how much clean ice you can melt. Too bad about that other guy. Word is, he wants all the ice for himself. Never mind that there’s enough to go around. It won’t last. We know that deep in our bones. Past our bones, really. Deep in our genes. You take what you can get, because if you don’t have it right now, you’ll never have it.
So it goes in Meltwater, winner of “Most Depressing Game of 2018.” As the Cold War turns into a literal contest to see who can better survive the cold, two sides rush to secure the last habitable territory, drinkable water, and supply caches — and end up ruining those very things in the process.
It’s bleak, both in narrative and in play. Your primary actions feature such holiday cheer as “force enemy civilians into slow starvation at gunpoint” and “contaminate the landscape with nuclear artillery.” When the end finally arrives, it’s less of a triumph and more of a coda for humanity. After the terror we’ve wrought on the world for the sake of having more, all that remains is to turn off the lights.
My review was a little bit melancholy.
#2. Sol: Last Days of a Star
Speaking of squandering our resources, Sol is a conservationist’s dream game. Taking place in the far future when we’ve harnessed the power of our home star, it turns out that we’ve actually tricked the sun into going supernova. Surprise! Naturally, the only solution is to keep using it up — faster than ever, actually — in order to fuel our worldship’s voyage to the stars. And everybody who isn’t aboard? Too bad, so sad. The point of an ark is to save the righteous few, after all.
Sol also stands out as a title that has something to say but is determined to look good at the same time. As a result, it’s easily the most gamey of today’s titles. Your mothership spews sundivers, which either assemble gigantic structures or, ah, dive into the sun to generate more thrust for your worldship. Its actions are meant to be carefully optimized, and anyone’s structures can be used for your purposes, though their owner will reap the reward. It’s the sort of game that demands the occasional long pause while you assess how all those moving parts fit together. If your worldship is here, then by the time these sundivers arrive there, then it will have circled around to—
Either way, every action slowly heats the pot until it boils over. Think of it like a race, except the finish line leaps closer every time your feet stomp against the track. It’s a testament to how much a game can accomplish when a bit of care is paid to its thematic side.
You can read my review of Sol over here.
#1. This Guilty Land
The emotion at the core of This Guilty Land is disgust. For the institution of slavery, yes, but also for the bitter poison of compromise that allowed it to persist for so long. According to the game’s designer, Tom Russell, compromise is but one more cudgel in the oppressor’s hand. If you aren’t getting your way, envision a simple tactic: threaten violence. To avoid that violence, the nation will strike a deal, probably one that begets complacency and abuse, and then go home to celebrate. There was no violence! Surely we all got what we wanted! Peace in our time!
As a game, This Guilty Land is unrepentantly challenging. While one player helms the noble forces of Justice, another must adopt the whip-hand of Oppression. Certain actions are difficult to pull off, while others will demolish your reputation among your supporters. You can get stuck with bad cards, or watch as policies are passed at inopportune times, or lose control of vital Senate seats right before you had an opportunity to force a law into existence. Don’t complain too furiously. That sense of deadlock is deliberate. So it goes when the nation teeters on the verge of inevitable Civil War. Like a car swaying on the lip of a cliff, the immediate impulse is to freeze.
It’s important that this should be a functional game as well as a worthwhile message, and This Guilty Land thankfully accomplishes both. It’s a tale of bickering politicians trading tit-for-tat political barbs. When at last one side delivers a blow that punches past the usual rejoinders, the entire political landscape is often upended. Expect both stagnation and metamorphosis in one sitting.
The point is, if you can stomach This Guilty Land’s heavy material and uncooperative gameplay, it’s an essential example of what a game can accomplish when it embraces the weight of its creator’s opinions.
Read the review here.
(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. In the meantime, please share which games spoke to you this year. What did you learn? How did you learn it? Feel free to share below.)