Best Week 2020! Agony, Sheer Agony!
There’s nothing quite like counting out your moves. Or obsessing over the perfect placement of a polyomino. Or examining the unfurling board state until your eyes cross.
Today is about those games. The ones that saw me picking over every detail, every possible move, every counter-move. These are the ones that hurt so good.
#6. High Rise
Design by Gil Hova. Published by Formal Ferret Games.
Look, I’m just going to put this out into the universe: there’s a reason rondels never caught on the way deck-building did. Very brave of me to say, I know. But it’s true. Rondels are — well, Monopoly is sort of a rondel, isn’t it? Around and around you go, going nowhere.
Apart from High Rise, which takes the concept and gives it a much-needed goose. The focus is on the skyscrapers in the center of the table. That and getting disgustingly rich. Within that framework, balanced between necessary corruption and too much corruption, haste and haphazard progress, careful construction and as many bonuses as possible, High Rise provides every reason to measure out every space. That it does so without getting too nitpicky is reason enough to gorge on its buffet of greed.
#5. Dual Powers: Revolution 1917
Design by Brett Myers. Published by Thunderworks Games.
I never knew I wanted to play a game about painstakingly planning revolution schedules on a calendar. Now that I’ve played Brett Myers’ Dual Powers, I wish more games would embrace the tension of trying to schedule a rally for a particular holiday to ensure maximum havoc to the ruling class.
While its calendar is the freshest part of Dual Powers, it’s hardly the only reason to play. Every element demands perfection: each group of agitators, every closed bridge, every swing of the city’s neutral population to your sympathies. It’s a terrific expression of the oppressive barometric pressure right before a storm — or before a revolution.
#4. Sensor Ghosts
Design by Janice and Stu Turner. Published by Wren Games.
Sensor Ghosts certainly wins the award for “most punitive game of 2020.” Instead of outfitting your ship with hit points or hull integrity markers, a single hit means you’re dead. Sure, you can charge up your shields, but it’s entirely possible to go an entire play without managing even that. Your best recourse is to move carefully, picking through the debris field’s safe zones with the gingerness of a blind man hiking through a landfill.
Don’t mistake that as dismissive. Like its predecessor, Sensor Ghosts is meant to evoke some of the feelings and behaviors that arise from disability. In this case, blindness. When objects are always on the move, a good memory and the ability to prod ahead are your best tools for survival.
#3. The Grand Carnival
Design by Rob Cramer. Published by Uproarious Games.
Should a carnival feature a fire-breather or a roller coaster? An extra popcorn stand or a high dive? Extra barkers where everybody can hear them, or is it legal to hide them behind the motorcycle cage for maximum placement efficiency?
These are the questions that dominate The Grand Carnival, which not only tasks you with designing a functioning circus, but also with marching crowds of eager visitors past its main attractions. And that’s when you aren’t using dirty tricks to ensure your carnival is as profitable as possible. Come for the polyominoes, stay for the intense action optimization puzzle.
Design by Martin Grider. Published by Adam’s Apple Games.
Nearly every game asks you to consider your next move. Good games ask you to consider the moves that may come from that move. And Thrive asks you to consider the moves that don’t exist yet, because they haven’t been added to the pieces via little pegs.
That may be overselling it a scooch. Despite the possibilities that arise when any piece can effectively sprout new abilities, Thrive manages to keep its decision space tight enough to matter. The arena is smaller than your average chess board. Each side only has six pieces. Once those pieces begin altering themselves, everything opens up, although fortunately not into some impossibility space where decisions and foresight don’t matter. Thrive is proof that abstract games are alive and well here in the future.
Design by Reiner Knizia. Published by Ludonova.
Babylonia isn’t the most I’ve focused on a series of moves this year; it’s the most I’ve focused on a series of moves in probably the past decade. That’s how smitten I’ve become with Reiner Knizia’s latest triumph, a sprawling game that’s one part bidding, one part area control, a dash of draw-luck, and entirely the work of a late-stage maestro who still knows how to compose.
Fun fact: I’ve dreamed about Babylonia. No kidding. Looking at my rack of discs, contemplating their placement. Someone urging me to hurry it up. Not that Babylonia is slow or stodgy. It’s both contemplative and brisk, a rare feat. More even than that, it’s one of the finest games I’ve played, full stop.