Best Week 2020! Better, Faster, Stronger!
There’s a reason Best Week arrives when it does. Popular belief would say it lands at the end of the year, but that isn’t it. Best Week happens when it’s needed most. When the world is cold and dark, Best Week is here to draw our attention to the games that mattered.
And there’s no better way to flip the bird to a dismal year like 2020 than by celebrating the games that stood up to the giant, pounded their shield-arms, and said, “You know what, jackass? Even though everyone has fallen into the habit of taking afternoon naps, even though it’s almost next year and I still find myself thinking it’s October, I’m going to be my best self.” Call them redesigns, call them spins on familiar formulas. Either way, these are the games their designers decided to revisit in order to craft something new.
#6. Tournament at Avalon
Design by Ken Shannon, Jody Boginski-Barbessi, and Karen Boginski. Published by WizKids.
Tournament at Camelot was fine. Really. There’s nothing wrong with taking a potboiler trick-taker and adding wacky powers. I’m sure it will appeal to trick-taking folk. My wife, for instance. She comes from a long line of hardy trick-taking stock. Whenever I introduce a new example of the genre, she thumps me up and down the table. There’s a reason I only look at one trick-taker each year, wacky or not.
But if you’re going to be wacky, be wacky. That’s what Tournament at Avalon does best. It takes the silliness of the 2017 original and dials it up in every regard. There’s even a hero who disregards one of the game’s fundamental systems, just because. Now that’s confidence in how far you can stretch your own design.
#5. The Vote
Design by Tom Russell. Published by Hollandspiele.
The Vote has furious blood pumping through its veins. Tom Russell had already roundly condemned compromise and fence-sitting with This Guilty Land, her inciting take on abolition and emancipation in the Antebellum United States. From the game’s uncompromising cover to its deliberately bunglesome gameplay, every element was designed to provoke frustration.
The setting has changed and the gameplay has been given some extra shine, but The Vote is as angry as its predecessor. This time around the topic is women’s suffrage. As before, the levers of government remain sticky enough — and see plenty of folks pushing the other way — that it takes a whole lot of grit to press forward one inch at a time. The result evokes many of the same feelings, although with enough quality-of-life improvements that The Vote stands apart as the superior game.
#4. Imperial Struggle
Design by Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews. Published by GMT Games.
Twilight Struggle is one heck of an act to follow. I’d say more, except its status as one of the few wargames that my non-wargamer friends are familiar with is probably reason enough to stick to other design endeavors.
To their credit, Gupta and Matthews capture much of the spirit of the original without just pasting a new setting over the top. The addition of trade considerations, action drafting, debt management, and highly conditional events make Imperial Struggle the more intricate game of the two. Is it better? Only time will tell. For now, it’s a joy exploring what this new system has to offer, and without the benefit (or restriction) of decades of experience guiding the way.
Design by Grant Rodiek. Published by Leder Games.
Fort would be an improvement over SPQF if only because its title isn’t an awful pun that isn’t even in Latin. Fortunately, there’s more than that to consider. It’s also a testament to the difference crisp iconography and solid development can make, courtesy of Nick Brachmann and Joshua Yearsley’s careful tune-up of Rodiek’s original design.
And what a tune-up it is. Fort is a delight, both to look at and play, and those two acts fit together more tightly than I anticipated. Putting together the perfect gang of kids, amassing pizzas and building your hideout, even losing a friend or two along the way out of neglect — it all comes together in one of the year’s most unexpectedly nostalgic games. It helps, too, that this is one of the fresher approaches to deck-building in recent years.
#2. The King Is Dead: Second Edition
Design by Peer Sylvester. Published by Osprey Games.
Okay, this one feels like cheating. This is the second edition of The King Is Dead, itself a reimplementation of König von Siam, and nearly everything it adds to Peer Sylvester’s original formula doesn’t capture my fancy. Specifically the asymmetrical action cards. It’s their symmetry that makes them matter. Once that’s gone, the whole thing descends into nonsense.
That said, without this second edition I never would have played The King Is Dead. That’s reason enough for its inclusion on this list. Why? Because it’s easy to see how it helped influence an entire catalog of designs, and that’s without feeling like it’s missed a single beat itself. Some games tell you they’re about intrigue by putting pictures of knives and cloaked figures on their cards. The King Is Dead is about intrigue because it lets you outsmart your fellow players by being the shrewder bastard. Not bad for a game that only lets each player take a handful of actions.
#1. Unmatched: Cobble & Fog
Design by Rob Daviau, Justin Jacobson, and Chris Leder. Published by Restoration Games.
The Unmatched series was already the best thing to come out of Restoration Games, and that isn’t faint praise. Then they go and make something like this. Cobble & Fog is Unmatched elevated. Not only are its characters interesting as fighters, but also as literary characters written into a game system in such a way that highlights its flexibility. The Invisible Man pops in and out of reach. Sherlock Holmes deduces his way to victory. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde can’t decide who’s in charge. Dracula always has a bunch of bloodsucking hotties on hand. Don’t mistake these for thin veneers. This is about as close to real character work as games get.
I’ll put it this way: more than anyone else, I’m wary of how many licensed sets Unmatched seems to be getting. But if they keep turning out boxes like this, I couldn’t be happier.