Best Week 2019! The Inveiglers!
Ah. Welcome. The wheel has turned once again, my friend. Here we stand upon the precipice of a new year. Let us then consider the best games of 2019. There is no better time for looking backward than when we look forward.
Today is a celebration of the charmers, the dashers, the titles you could bring home to mom and not worry about getting asked whether you’ve had your immunizations. It isn’t that they’re soft, although it’s true enough that some of these palms haven’t been worn rough by hard labor. Rather, they’re enticing. These are the games designed to appeal to weathered gamers and pine-scented newcomers alike. They beckon. Oh, how they beckon.
Design and art by the mysterious collective known only as Prospero Hall. Published by Ravensburger.
Horrified is the game I gave to my sister and her husband this year. They love it. She texts me to boast about how they beat three monsters at once, just one horror shy of plunging the world’s unluckiest town into total chaos. When I wrote about it elsewhere and didn’t have any extra pictures to attach, I asked if she would snap a few for me. Instead of setting up a dummy game, they played twice. The pictures they sent were notable for their enthusiasm, each figurine and standee positioned for maximum effect.
That’s the appeal of Horrified. Unlike a better-known introductory cooperative game, it’s rewarding from start to finish. Each monster has its own challenges and its own solutions, creating miniature story arcs to resolve. Each character has a simple ability that completely alters how they approach the game. It’s exactly the sort of game that looks simple, except it’s anything but. The better word is refined. Everything is in exactly the right place.
Design by Matthias Cramer. Art by Klemens Franz and Alfred Viktor Schulz. Published by Capstone Games.
Plenty of games have sought to bottle the card-driven intricacies of meatier wargames into a streamlined package. Although a handful have more or less succeeded over the years, Watergate is one of the better offerings. In part this is thanks to its approachable approach (hmm) to asymmetry. One side plays as the journalists uncovering a scandal that originated within the highest office in the world; the other plays as the inhabitant of that office, Tricky Dick himself, as he tries to trick and dick his way out of trouble. Cue both tantalizing leads and a whole lot of black-pen redactions.
In practice it’s a tug-of-war, albeit one fought over multiple ropes at once. The resulting contest is one of priorities. Uncover leads or sway public opinion? Secure evidence or land a star witness? Everything is up for grabs. Unlike the games that inspired it, however, the play is smooth and absent of exceptions or bulleted rules.
#4. Bloom Town
Design by Asger Harding Granerud and Daniel Skjold Pedersen. Art by Brigette Indelicato and Jessica Smith. Published by Sidekick Games.
Don’t let Bloom Town’s name, flower aesthetic, or chipper colors fool you — the scoring is devious. In fact, Bloom Town is almost an exercise in how to upend something that appears ever so slightly generic (building a town) with a devilishly infuriating endgame. Scoring opportunities are rife, but also loaded. In fact, it’s possible that a particular building’s bonus points might never materialize. Or materialize more than once. Or you’ll forget that scoring token you’re holding. Heaven knows I have.
Not every game needs to be a thematic masterclass to be compelling. Bloom Town is both pleasant and a bit brain-burny. Watch out for subway networks.
#3. Men at Work
Design by Rita Modl. Art by Bernard Bittler and Chris Quilliams. Published by Pretzel Games.
This has become my go-to for blending the silliness of Rhino Hero and the painstaking seriousness of… okay, scratch that. Men at Work works because it’s barely serious enough to pressure you into ever-higher contortions, but silly enough that dropping pieces — and subsequently dragging the bodies and bricks out from the rubble with a hook — is always worthy of a laugh. It certainly helps that your failure becomes the next player’s responsibility. That’s a stroke of genius.
Also, every would-be designer of a balancing game should take note, because the pieces in this game have heft. The beams, bricks, and girders are solid enough to allow for unexpected triumphs, which in turn prompts players to take greater risks. Exactly as it should be.
#2. Unmatched: Battle of Legends
Design by Rob Daviau, JR Honeycutt, and Justin D. Jacobson. Art by Oliver Barrett. Published by Restoration Games.
I’m a sucker for games that let me ambush King Arthur as Bigfoot. I gotta tell you, those Merry Men sure were tasty.
Offbeat match-ups are the marching order in Unmatched, a remake of Star Wars: Epic Duels that ditches the grid for a movement system that works far better than its bubble-peppered surface would lead you to believe. What looks like a brainless bash quickly shapes up as a game of careful resource and position control, where a single step out of place or misspent card can spell complete disaster. This is precisely the sort of zaniness I enjoy — weirdly thoughtful zaniness.
Design by Elizabeth Hargrave. Art by Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, Natalia Rojas, and Beth Sobel. Published by Stonemaier Games.
Don’t listen to the haters. Yes, it’s too pretty by half, but the grassland hues of Wingspan aren’t the only reason Wingspan deserves recognition. It also has that birdhouse dice tower!
Kidding. The real triumph is the way Wingspan creates a tableau-builder that doesn’t quite wander where any others had gone before. Yet it’s remarkably assured. Every detail lands with the grace and noise of a furious swan beating its wings without so much as rippling the pond, from the generous offering of birds and their various effects to the way they tie together with an economy fueled by berries, worms, and an entire hatchery’s worth of eggs. It even exhibits uncommon sense by sticking around just long enough to let you reap the benefits of the engine you’ve built, while still shaving its later rounds so they aren’t unbearably long.
What are the games of 2019 you’d consider bringing home to mom?