Best Week 2019! The Aesthetes!
Another day, another fraction of Best Week come and gone. Gone, too, are countless possible categories. To tell you the truth, the process of sorting these lists is so tricky that I’ve considered defaulting to “prettiest games.” Problem is, have you seen games these days? They’re crazy. Entire mountains of colorful plastic. Louvre-worthy art out the wazoo. One of the handsomest games of 2019 wasn’t even eligible for consideration because it was an unreleased prototype.
Which is why today’s victors are more than merely pretty. These are the titles where visuals are the gameplay. Where your decisions are based largely upon the visual information spread before you. In many cases, the math takes a backseat to the arrangement and spacing of the pieces. And often, this visual shorthand prompts both a synesthetic reflex and unexpected consequences.
#6. Red Alert: Space Fleet Warfare
Design by Richard Borg. Art by Rhys Pugh. Published by PSC Games.
Richard Borg’s Commands & Colors system has always carried the advantage of sharp visual play. With its generous playmat, Christmas-colored spaceships, and arresting visual arithmetic, Red Alert is probably the best time I’ve had with the system since the second edition of BattleLore flopped. Need to gauge your relative strength on any given flank? Glance at the table. The quantity and sizes of the ships are all you need to make informed decisions.
Meanwhile, the game packs enough chance to give eutychemaphobes a heart attack. Between the dice, battle cards, and more dice, Red Alert soars by the seat of its pants, piloted more by instinct than number crunching.
#5. Ecos: First Continent
Design by John Clair. Art by Sabrina Miramon and Matt Paquette. Published by Alderac Entertainment Group.
Everything in Ecos is visually driven, even to its slight detriment — by which I mean it would have been nice to get some titles on the cards if only so I could finally understand what all the game’s geological functions represent. Still, all those crisp colors and distinctive shapes form a syntax that’s understood ocularly before it finishes the trip to your remaining senses. Need to score the largest forest? It’s right there. The forest. You know what a forest is. Want to place a mountain but not alongside other mountains? Make it so. Migration? Nudge some antelopes.
Even better that Ecos is one more testament to simultaneous play. There’s very little downtime, its continent growing and crunching with ease. It’s a god’s eye view of the world’s formative moments, minus the whole dinosaur bone smuggling incident. Let’s not ruin it by introducing humans.
#4. Moon Base
Design by Naotaka Shimamoto. Art by Yoshiaki Tomioka. Published by itten.
Subtract the moon and the world’s cutest first player token (a marbled blue Earth in the distance!) and Moon Base would be unquestionably considered an abstract game. Instead, it’s an abstract game on the moon. The draw is all about the game’s rings; one for each player, plus a neutral color that can either help or hinder your plans, or sometimes both at once. Establishing colonies and resource bases seems straightforward until you realize this is also one of the year’s most contentious hate-placement games. See a rival opportunity? Block it with one of your own.
The result is a game that’s about overlooking openings as much as it is about making them. Despite its gorgeous appearance, all those swirls become visual static that obscures a perfect placement until it’s too late. Very nice. Oh, and it also contains a purple space dildo, which was a rather sex-positive thing to do.
#3. Mr. Cabbagehead’s Garden
Design and art by Todd Sanders. Published by LudiCreations.
Whether solo or in its surprisingly enjoyable dual mode, Todd Sanders’ onetime print-and-play masterpiece is even finer as an official publication. As before, the titular hero (he’s a head of cabbage) is growing a garden to impress Eudora Brassica with a blue ribbon from the garden festival. As all cannibalizing gentlevegetables know, it’s the layout of one’s garden that draws adoration. Every turn revolves around a choice of which veggie to plant, while the others are tossed out. It’s akin to choosing which of three children to keep and which to toss into the compost heap. Since, you know, you’re also a veggie.
On a less grim note, this is also one of the best short-form solo games of the year. Within the span of twenty short minutes, you can expect choices, consequences, and far too many turnips.
Design by Jordy Adan. Art by Luis Francisco and Lucas Ribeiro. Published by Thunderworks Games.
I could have written a list entirely composed of polyomino games. Instead, Cartographers gets to shine as possibly the best flip-and-write game yet crafted. To call it Tetris on a pad of paper might sound reductive, but there’s a ring of truth to such a simplification. Here, though, rather than laying solid rows, you’re hunting multiple objectives by planting forests, raising towns, and occasionally raiding other players’ pads with monster attacks. Bonus points if you mess up Geoff’s pad with ugly goblin-script.
Jordy Adan apparently doesn’t understand how cartography works — if it did go this way, someone would be in big trouble for how preposterous Italy looks — but he certainly knows how to craft a game where the layout of your kingdom is both personal and all-important. For added flair, colored pencils are highly recommended.
#1. Era: Medieval Age
Design by Matt Leacock. Art by Chris Quilliams. Published by eggertspiele.
Okay, so there’s a downside here: that yellow pegboard really looks quite awful. As an upside, its presence is sheer utility, a justification for the townhouses, markets, churches, and imposing gray walls you’ll soon fill it with.
There are about a dozen reasons why I love Era. It’s a perfect dice game. It lasts just long enough to make each placement matter. Somebody usually fails to finish their walls. It has polyominoes but doesn’t ever recall Tetris. Most of all, however, it’s an excellent visual game. Upon growing acquainted with its selection of structures, you can tell at a glance what everything represents. Here’s the hospital where buildings are safe to cluster; over there is a residential area doomed to attract plague; and across the table somebody has decided to wall in their farms. What an intriguing perspective on agriculture. Regardless, Era does just about everything right, right down to the way it employs those bazillion plastic pieces.
What are your best games of the past year that communicated much with their table presence?