Best Week 2019! The Raconteurs!
It wouldn’t be a good year without at least a handful of games that know how to spin a yarn. Like any good storyteller, these understand that while the destination matters, the journey is the more important portion. Also like a good storyteller, nobody would describe them as “tight.” To be frank, some of these are flabs. Some have sharp edges. They make mistakes some folks argue should have been eliminated from board games centuries ago.
Not me. The joy of these games is found in the stories they tell. Sharp edges? Psh. You know what has sharp edges? Books, baby.
#6. Time of Crisis: The Age of Iron and Rust
Design by Wray Ferrell and Brad Johnson. Art by Rodger B. MacGowan. Published by GMT Games.
As one of only two expansions in Best Week 2019 (spoiler!), The Age of Iron and Rust transforms Time of Crisis from an excellent game to an excellent-er game. Its primary method is that of doubling. All the cards that originally built your empire have received the old times-two treatment, resulting in more customization than ever before. This allows for populist emperors with mobs at their beck and call, warrior-kings living fat in their breakaway empires, and accusatory demagogues who erode their opponents’ support from the safety of their mother’s basement. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
There are also robot emperors. Just in case you needed some FUTURE in your PAST.
Design by John H. Butterfield. Art by Chad Jensen, Kurt Miller, Douglas Shrock, and Mark Simonitch. Published by GMT Games.
If SpaceCorp weren’t so good, you could almost call it a gimmick game. Opening with the exploration of the inner Solar System, players mine water and build bases at Lagrange points. Then, like a human body gene-edited until its mass and life support requirements are quartered, it transforms. The board flips, new contracts appear, and now you’re exploring the outer system. Later the nearby stars also open up to colonization, the final frontier expanding ever outward.
This is science fiction in its truest form, both conjectural and imaginative. At times it proves a little too austere for those unaccustomed to the rigidity of wargames — in place of flavor, aliens are Philes when they’re nice and Phobes when they’re mean — but it manages to produce an almost-plausible take on the next few centuries of human expansion. Mind the radiation and you’ll do fine.
#4. Getaway Driver
Design by Jeff Beck. Art by Ryan Goldsberry. Published by Uproarious Games.
Remember that driving scene from Drive? You know, the one? The only one? Getaway Driver is sort of like that, except its protagonist happened to phone the entire national guard before stepping on the gas. Cue a madcap escape that wouldn’t feel out of place in Baby Driver. Cop cars, armored cars, motorcycles, helicopters… everything they’ve got is hurtling your way.
What makes it work, though, is its sense of pacing. The driver swerves and puts obstacles in the rear-view, only for the cop player to batter through, swing around the flanks, and call in reinforcements. Like many of the most interesting games from the last few years, it leverages asymmetry to great effect, with both sides playing their own angles. How carefully those angles come together is an act of game design craftsmanship.
Design by Marc Neidlinger. Art by Noah Adelman, Brett Carville, Emiliano Cordoba, Bartek Fedyczak, Noemi Konkoly, and Phu Thieu. Published by Orange Nebula.
Vindication is one of those games that makes you squint. On the surface it’s an adventure game by way of resource conversion. Visiting sites provides cubes, which can be transmuted to other cubes, which can then be transformed into precious bonuses, perks, and points.
But under the surface it’s all about the inner world of its heroes. Cubes aren’t merely cubes; they’re measurements of your character’s attention and investment. Early on, they’re locked away as potential. Over time, they come to encompass needy friends, property holdings, and all the traits a budding hero requires to save the day. This isn’t immediately apparent, and requires a few plays before the mechanisms step aside to let you focus on its inner self. But that’s the precise moment Vindication comes to life, revealing a hero’s journey that’s actually about the Hero’s Journey.
Design by Adam Kwapiński. Art by Piotr Foksowicz, Ewa Labak, Patryk Jędraszek, Paweł Samborski, Piotr Gacek, and Andrzej Półtoranos. Published by Awaken Realms.
Look, you know the drill. Big cold spaceship, ugly-as-butt aliens, busted escape pods, yadda yadda yadda. What sets Nemesis apart is its total commitment to its horror shtick. The ship is uncomfortably vast and despairingly fragile. The intruders are both threatening and unknowable. Anyone might be a spy determined to launch the ship into the middle of nowhere so everybody’s body parts can be harvested by corporate goons. Shoulda read the fine print of the employment agreement; this was all covered.
Yes, Nemesis might kill you twenty minutes into a three-hour event. Really, that’s part of the thrill. In a game about out-mathing your friends, the only consequence of bad math should be equivalently bad sums during the scoring round. In a game about running from aliens whose bodies are made of biological katana blades, the consequence of a misstep should be dismemberment. You’ll think better of leaving an alien larvae in your stomach next time.
#1. Vast: The Mysterious Manor
Design by Patrick Leder. Art by Kyle Ferrin. Published by Leder Games.
Where Vast: The Crystal Caverns was a delightful experiment, its sequel is an arthouse rave of ideas, mechanisms, and roleplaying classes thrown into a blender and set to pulse. There’s a shapeshifting spider that actually shapeshifts. A poltergeist that gets off on moving everything. Skeletons that behave like an entire clackety-clacking army. Even the paladin’s vanilla determination bleeds off the cardboard and into the playspace.
Point is, The Mysterious Manor takes an impossible idea and makes it work not only as a concept, but also as a completely functional (and legible) game. Five asymmetrical characters, each with their own rules and goals and behaviors. The real miracle, though, is how they interact, with everyone taking sabbaticals from their individual quests to hamper their rivals. Once everybody knows the stakes, that’s when The Mysterious Manor gets interesting. And madcap chaotic. Not many games are as rewarding of replays as this one.
What are your favorite games from 2019 that told the best stories?