Best Week 2020! Uncommon Sense!
Common sense is overrated. I’ve known that since I was a boy and my mother kept insisting I find some. I’m more interested in uncommon sense. Piercing observations. Repudiations of the norm. Self-awareness. Now those are qualities to celebrate!
Which is why today, for the final entry of Best Week, we’re taking a look at the games that thumbed their noses at common sense. They took a long look at their genre, gave a gentle shake of the head, and decided that if anyone was going to do it better, it had to be them. Even if it meant turning the genre upside down in the process.
#6. The Field of the Cloth of Gold
Design by Tom Russell. Published by Hollandspiele.
Point salad games sure are point-y, aren’t they? Like an actual salad, I don’t mind one now and then. But they often feel like shortcuts. By connecting every action to a minor trickle of points, a game inherently becomes about optimization, regardless of whether its back-end goals are up to snuff.
Which is exactly what Tom Russell does in The Field of the Cloth of Gold. Nearly every action awards points. A minor trickle, even. But in lampooning the concept, Russell introduces barbs to the formula. Every action also gives your opponent a gift, which they can use to earn points of their own. It’s nitpicky on purpose rather than unintentionally, perfectly capturing the squabble of kings trying to upstage one another with lavish presents while also trying to prove their own superiority. The result serves as an illustration of why point salad designs are so frustrating, while also demonstrating that they can be about far more interesting topics than the norm.
#5. Thousand Year Old Vampire
Design by Tim Hutchings. Self-published.
There’s a handful of reasons I don’t play many role-playing games. Scheduling is a big one. Another is the recollection of past sessions, many of which were so airy that they hardly contained anything substantial. This isn’t to say I’m at all opposed to safe environments or blowing off steam, but I’m more drawn to narratives that leave me challenged.
Tim Hutchings has me covered. In the first case, Thousand Year Old Vampire is solo. No more scheduling around the whims of a group. And in the second, it’s carefully constructed as a mature experience, full of terrible decisions, aching loss, and near-constant anxiety for our mortal natures. My time with this book has tugged out my guts and teased tears from my eyes. Which is rare, since my tear ducts have been reduced to desiccated filaments for well over nine hundred years.
#4. Scape Goat
Design by Jon Perry. Published by Indie Boards & Cards.
Social deduction is everywhere, and not only because the mere act of friendship is also a constant guessing game over whether you’ll wind up stabbed in the back at some point. What makes Jon Perry’s version of social deduction special is that it inverts the usual equation. Rather than knowing your goals and wondering about everyone else’s intentions, here you can’t be certain you aren’t the gang’s fall guy. Sure, you’ve been informed that someone else is going to take the fall. But isn’t that exactly what they’d tell the patsy?
It’s a paranoid person’s delusions come to life. Scape Goat takes the niggling worry that everyone is against you and transforms it into a brisk card game that’s packed with more anxiety than a half-dozen other social deduction games combined. At its best, you’ll witness criminals go running to the cops out of fear of betrayal. Which, when you think about it, is pretty much why criminals turn state’s witness. Now that’s thematic integration!
#3. Dune: Imperium
Design by Paul Dennen. Published by Dire Wolf.
Dune: Imperium isn’t the first deck-building game hybridized with a board. It isn’t even the first commercially successful hybrid. That honor goes to Paul Dennen’s previous title, Clank!, which followed in plenty of niche footprints.
But Dune: Imperium does happen to be the best commercial hybrid thus far, no small feat when its many wheels are taken into consideration. There’s deck-building, cards used for worker placement, cards reserved for periodic skirmishes, resource management, a serviceable solo bot, and other elements I’m probably glossing over, and it’s downright buttery how smoothly they fit together. It’s one of those games that comes together as more than the sum of its parts, and manages to use its license as more than a pretty sheet of wallpaper.
#2. Reign of Witches
Design by Tom Russell. Published by Hollandspiele.
The Pax Series has long been one of my favorites, in part for how a seemingly simple deck of cards can generate an intricate political simulation of a far-removed historical period. Recently, some have asked how to streamline such a complex series for newcomers. The next official title in the series, Pax Viking, is one answer. Pax Adams — better known as Reign of Witches — is the other. And Tom Russell seems to have made it on a whim, or close enough that she gave it away as a holiday sale freebie.
For a minigame, Reign of Witches is astounding. Like other entries in the Pax Series, it’s about struggles both internal and external, waged as the young United States fights the Quasi-War against France while facing the implosion of the Federalist Party. Players are tasked with winning control of the presidency. With scalawag Tommy Jefferson lurking around the corner and hoping to exploit your party’s disunity, that’s a lot harder than it sounds. The result is surprisingly close to other entries in the series, except in this case the game itself functions as the only player at the table who really knows how to use the rules to its favor.
#1. The Cost
Design by Armando Canales, Lyndon Martin, and Brian Willcutt. Published by Spielworxx.
It’s easy to identify the target of The Cost’s critique. Why? Because it’s not only a commentary on the asbestos industry, although its authors certainly hope you come away with a few solid impressions. It’s also a commentary on the state of many board games, whether they be about railroads, economic systems, or other enterprises. Unlike many of their peers, Canales and company refuse to write out the ugly parts. The human toll is front and center, as are the temptations that lead company men to disregard it.
But The Cost has a second twist in store. Rather than being dour, it’s as captivating as the games it critiques. There’s an ingrained expectation that a game can either have a message or it can be enjoyable. The Cost straddles that line, and in the process disproves the notion wholeheartedly. This is one of the rare titles that’s valuable as illustration, as critique, and as a plaything all at once.