Best Week 2019! The Corrivals!
Righteous fury. It’s what makes me holler and huff at game night. Not very many games can spark it in me, but a few are experts at grinding my competitive side to a razor’s edge.
Today we’re talking about the year’s best games for getting hot under the collar, steamed in the head, and so spanking mad you can hardly see straight. These are the titles that make you drop the f-bomb at that one guy in your game group. They are reminders that we are reasonable beings second, that for uncountable eons before we sat down on the couch to talk it out, our first and original nature was that of tooth and claw. We have incisors and canines for a reason. These games are that reason.
#6. Inis: Seasons of Inis
Design by Christian Martinez. Art by Dimitri Bielak, Jim Fitzpatrick, and Sabrina Tobal. Published by Matagot.
Inis has always been one of those dudes-on-a-map games that vexes fans of dudes-on-a-map games. Its principal draw isn’t the invasion and conquest of territory, although there are invasions and conquests aplenty. Rather, it’s a political game that simmers in its first half and sizzles in the second. Councils will be held. Agreements will be struck and broken. A king will be appointed, but rarely the king you saw coming.
For its expansion, Inis doubles down on everything that made it good in the first place. A fifth player adds further gnarls to its already-knotty plotting. New cards and territories abound. In its most mechanistic touch, the end-game conditions have been tweaked ever so slightly to rid the game of a potential stalemate situation that ninety percent of players never encountered. The result is more of the same, but with enough complications to warrant another try at its thrilling approach to kingmaking.
#5. Paco Ŝako
Design by Felix Albers.
Good old chess. Around for hundreds of years and still making lists. At least in this case, the format in question is “peace chess,” a game about hugging. Or, more accurately, a game about how even cold wars — whether actual international tensions or regular relationships, it all depends on how deeply you’re willing to read into it — can be every bit as fraught as the clashes between medieval armies.
Set that aside, though, because lovers of abstract games will find the game’s combo moves most intriguing. Whenever a piece is knocked out of a hug, it’s allowed to take a move. As these moves cascade from one partnership to another, the entire board state can transform in a moment. Unsurprisingly, much of the game is about leveraging pieces already in unions by shifting them into position for a breakup and fresh partnership. It’s speed dating, basically, but with a higher chance of ending in a victorious embrace.
#4. The Estates
Design by Klaus Zoch. Art by Daan van Paridon and Thijs van Paridon. Published by Capstone Games.
You can win The Estates with a score of zero. Crud, you can win with a negative score. That’s all part of the fun. As land developers, you’re hoping to put together the best highrise project. As a pack of stinkers, you’re hoping to undercut your competition at every turn. Usually through some combination of undercutting rival bids, stealing ownership of crucial buildings, or ruining a project’s chance of completion — and its chance of recouping its investments.
Auction games rise or fall (you could say they fluctuate, tee hee) based on how much wiggle room there is to the perceived value of what they offer for sale. In many games, this value falls somewhere between one positive number and another. By contrast, the properties in The Estates can drop through the floor to valuate at well below zero. Ever wanted to play a game where you win by being the least bankrupt player? This is your chance.
Design by Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge, and Peter Olotka. Art by Ilya Baranovsky. Published by Gale Force Nine.
It’s tempting to talk about Dune with nothing but aphorisms from the chapter openings of Frank Herbert’s masterpiece. Such is the strength of the game that it captures so many of the book’s thematic statements, at least the ones that don’t touch upon Jungian genetic memory or hallucinogenic orgies. Its betrayals, battles, and even mere economics can produce moments every bit as jarring and metamorphic as a great house’s fall from power or the death of a relied-upon character.
And it’s back in print after all these years. Some of its elements might be dated, but there’s a reason people still talk about this game. In more ways than one, this is the granddaddy of how to adapt a setting to cardboard. Which makes it all the more amazing that it’s so bitterly competitive as well.
#2. Pax Pamir, Second Edition
Design and art by Cole Wehrle. Published by Wehrlegig Games.
To speak plainly, this probably could have fit on almost every one of this year’s lists. Aside from being beautiful, spinning an excellent yarn, and walking to the beat of its own drummer, Pax Pamir is a testament to what board games can accomplish — even if only after some significant development to both its systems and central vision.
In contrast to the convoluted (but wonderful) first edition, Pax Pamir has somehow become approachable. Its tale is also more intimate, one of challenged loyalties and shifting allegiances. And it offers so many ways for players to dig at each other that hopeless situations are thankfully rare. Whether clashing armies, choking trade, or engaging in some espionage, this is a playground for the devious and dastardly. If you’re interested in what modern designs are pulling off, there are few examples more essential than this new edition.
#1. Air, Land, & Sea
Design by Jon Perry. Art by Valerio Buonfantino and Stephen Gibson. Published by Arcane Wonders.
Air, Land, & Sea is one of those rare games that completely smashes its own constraints. With only eighteen cards, it’s functionally a microgame, yet there’s nothing micro about the gray matter it burns. With the ability to withdraw early from battles, it emulates the wagers of gambling games, mitigating the luck of the draw or letting you judo a weak hand into an enemy retreat. With its compact format, its card pool is almost immediately internalized, all fury, no dead weight.
Really, though, this is about as “pure” as a card game gets. From opening salvo to the last climactic battle, every play matters. It’s a reminder that not every game needs bells and whistles before it counts as good, even supernal. When the play is this immediate, this impactful, and this considered, the result is something truly special.
And that’s it for Best Week! Which games from 2019 sparked your own sense of righteous fury?