Best Week 2020! Some Time Away!
Let’s address the elephant in the room. As far as years go, 2020 was a real downer. It isn’t necessary to say why. Such an utterance would only grant it additional power.
Fortunately, certain games were a relief. A vacation in miniature, you could say. These are the titles I was able to get lost in, if only for an hour or a few minutes, and forget the low-grade anxieties that attended every waking moment.
#6. Empyreal: Spells & Steam
Design by Trey Chambers. Published by Level 99 Games.
I went into Empyreal with high expectations. Sure, it’s a train game with magic, and that alone sharpens the idea to a cutting edge. But more relevantly, it’s the second big game from Trey Chambers, designer of Argent: The Consortium, which to this day I maintain is one of the best and wildest worker placement games of all time.
While Empyreal doesn’t quite match the perfection of Argent, two details stand out. First, it’s a vibrant fantasy that manages to blend zany abilities with a route optimization puzzle that’s dependent on the spellcars you acquire for your line. It’s reminiscent of another continent-spanning race between competing rail companies, except with magic. The second reason is more personal: Empyreal happened to be one of the last games I played before the shutdown placed a hard limit on how many people could safely gather in a closed room. It’s one I intend to return to, especially since it’s far less interesting with three players than with five or six.
#5. Super-Skill Pinball: 4-Cade
Design by Geoff Engelstein. Published by WizKids.
There’s something hypnotic about Super-Skill Pinball’s approach to points. Namely, they spill out so generously that every turn is a fresh opportunity to score. Or a chance to plummet your ball into the gutter. Timed right, even that can be an opportunity for more points. Really, you have to work quite hard to get a bad score.
Known mathboy Geoff Engelstein is comfortable around numbers, and his comfort is translated directly to the game’s dry-erase boards. Each of its four tables is memorable in its own right, with peccadilloes and side-games to explore. My few memories of pinball tables are linked to family vacations. Now I’m more likely to recall whiling away some free time with the Dance Fever table, trying to smash past my own high scores.
#4. Bronze Age
Design by John Clowdus. Published by Small Box Games.
Nothing places a modern collapse into proper context better than revisiting a more profound collapse from ages past — in this case, the Bronze Age collapse that rocked the civilized world prior to 1100 BCE. For all the world’s troubles today, at least we haven’t witnessed an invasion of Sea Peoples. Fingers crossed. We only need to survive three more days of this benighted year.
John Clowdus has always charted his own course, and Bronze Age is no exception. His take on this ancient crisis of the Eastern Mediterranean is one of rise, fall, and rise again, first asking players to build a civilization, then weathering a mid-game upset, and finally putting things back together again. It’s both deeply abstract and graced with thematic touches, including individual civilization bonuses that define how you approach the game’s icon-based scoring. Hopefully one day a game about 2020 CE will be this slick.
#3. Versailles 1919
Design by Geoff Engelstein and Mark Herman. Published by GMT Games.
I realize this one might require some explanation. Isn’t Versailles 1919 about the treaty that ended the First World War? And didn’t it cause a slew of problems in its own right? Right you are. More than that, it’s full of self-serving jerks who’ll gladly deploy their war-weary troops to secure their desired outcome to any number of issues, neglect guests at the conference until they decide revolution is their sole recourse, and deliberately tick off allies to prevent them from signing the treaty. It isn’t an overstatement to say you’re laying the groundwork for the next century’s conflicts.
In spite of that, Versailles 1919 is so grounded, so fully realized, and so carefully expressed that it also manages to contextualize the decisions made by those who hoped to usher the world into a brighter morning, except they couldn’t agree on what that new day should look like. It’s a reminder that peacetime can prove more dangerous than war, while still being compelling enough — and even idealistic enough — to be worth a visit.
#2. Cosmic Frog
Design by Jim Felli. Published by Devious Weasel Games.
Cosmic Frog is many things. Chaotic. Capricious. Chancy. Those are not synonyms. It’s also a sandbox, a space where the whims of fate are of no lasting consequence. More than once this year, I was glad to take a break from an unsettled reality by diving into its unsettled fantasy.
And what a world it is. Broken to pieces, your mile-high frogs are destined to gobble up its components and form them into new universes. There’s also plenty of jumping and punching, and sometimes punching into an alternate dimension and then jumping back out. The outlandishness of the setting is a large part of its appeal, a sheath that keeps the blade from biting when the flip of a card or the roll of a die fails to go your way.
#1. Santa Monica
Design by Josh Wood. Published by AEG.
I wasn’t expecting to fall so utterly in love with Santa Monica. At first glance it’s an unassuming tableau builder, albeit one that knows how to put a spin on the regular journey from barren table to finished portrait. Between some smart card selection and the need to entertain its inhabitants, it provides ample reason to look deeper.
Ultimately, though, it’s the game’s sense of place that does it. The stretches of beach, the tourists and townies going about their business, the dives and destinations, even the game’s use of negative space to better accentuate the positive. Very few games are so transportive that they leave me pointing out places I’m certain I’ve visited. There’s the pier where we played frisbee in the shade! The skate park where we shied away from the locals! The bench where my sister’s sandwich was stolen by a seagull! Santa Monica is a miniature vacation in a box, and succeeds so wholly that it was the inspiration for today’s list.