Best Week 2021! Make Something!
I don’t mean to brag, but after nearly two years of a global pandemic, I’ve become something of a professional when it comes to keeping hold of my waning sanity. So what better categorization for the best board games of 2021 than the five pieces of advice that have kept me afloat?
Take today’s motif, for instance. Need to survive another lockdown? It’s easier if you make something with all that spare time. Model airplanes, a novel, stacks of newspapers bound in twine and arranged into a hoarder’s maze — it doesn’t matter what you make, just so long as you make it. Today is a celebration of the board games that let you do exactly that. These are the makers.
#6. Merv: The Heart of the Silk Road
Design by Fabio Lopiano. Published by Osprey Games.
What’s a merchant to do when their trading hub is threatened by a Mongol horde? Hire defenders and build walls, sure. But building walls takes a while, so why not also get rich in the meantime? There are faraway cities to send caravans to, spices to amass, and local leaders to rub shoulders with.
For all of Merv’s grim posturing, the Mongols are basically another expenditure line in your accounting books. The fact that you’ll never be truly massacred is half the charm. The other half is Fabio Lopiano’s smart action selection system. Your trading houses unlock new actions and resources, but can also be used by rival merchants. By the end of the game, each step around the city’s perimeter spills out resources and options at thrice the rate of the game’s opening turns. It’s a satisfying way to ignore an existential threat on the horizon in lieu of immediate profits. Some things never change.
#5. Magnate: The First City
Design by James Naylor. Published by Naylor Games.
No matter how severe the crisis, no matter how difficult times become, some people float to the top like fibrous turds in a dirty commode. Magnate: The First City is an ode to those lovely folks. When a town council votes to deregulate every zoning and construction ordinance overnight, the locals’ panic selling is your ticket to skyrocketing profits. Buy land, build cookie-cutter houses — or office buildings, shopping malls, and pollution-belching industrial parks — and then flip them for easy money.
With roles like these, the inevitable crash feels almost like cosmic justice. When at last the market bubble bursts, those who preempted the collapse will make bank. Everybody else will find themselves wondering what’s the point of an empty shopping mall. Either way, Magnate offers a wickedly gleeful perspective on land development while providing a visual feast.
#4. Imperium: Classics & Imperium: Legends
Design by Nigel Buckle and Dávid Turczi. Published by Osprey Games.
Even though deck-building is all about building decks, it doesn’t exactly scream “look at what I made while locked in my house.” In part because, since the dawn of time — 2008, to be exact — we’ve been filling decks with more cellars and workshops than ten Medieval villages combined.
Imperium is an entirely different matter. The goal is to shepherd one of sixteen civilizations (eight per set) from infancy to their ideal form. What exactly that ideal looks like depends on the civilization. Where some cultures double down on the whole “supremacy” thing, launching invasions and gobbling up geography, others might be more interested in trade, technology, developing culture, or swapping masks between themselves. No, really. Every culture in Imperium has its own ideals to promote, and learning all those individual paths to victory makes it an exemplar of becoming.
Design by Friedemann Friese. Published by 2F-Spiele.
Sometimes one thing must be removed for another to flourish. At least that’s the lesson I gleaned from Faiyum, which sees you mercilessly culling the local crocodile population in order to build towns, workshops, and roads, all in service of pleasing some distant pharaoh. I hear the guy’s a real crocophobe.
But while the crocodeeples are adorable enough to cause guilt pangs when you sacrifice them for points, the real standout is Friese’s card system. As infrastructure spreads across the map, anybody is able to use it — provided they’ve purchased the right cards. There’s a careful balance to be struck between erecting and utilizing structures, with cards cycling in and out of use over time. By the end of a session, you’re left with a living representation of this developed oasis, one that speaks to the many interests that directed its fashioning.
#2. Brian Boru: High King of Ireland
Design by Peer Sylvester. Published by Osprey Games.
Some of these entries have taken the “making” thing literally, focusing on edifices you can see and handle. Brian Boru includes some physical making of its own, letting your clan claim the allegiance of far-flung towns and perhaps build a monastery or two. But its real emphasis is more ephemeral: nudges of influence, alliances of marriage, maybe a few rolled Viking heads. The sorts of things that don’t often wind up adorning a mantelpiece.
For all that, its politicking still has a certain corporeal bearing. The game happens “above” the table, so to speak, played out with cards and trick-taking, but it still evokes the sensation that you’re stitching together a hard-fought kingdom from many disparate cloaks and banners. This is one of those rare games that comes at you sideways, hinting at its possibilities rather than laying everything on the table outright.
#1. Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile
Design by Cole Wehrle. Published by Leder Games.
More than any other game, Oath is about making history. I’ve called it the world’s first game about historiography, and that’s a description I stand by. Where most games take a narrow view of power, Oath projects that power both outward and forward. Outward, because it can be defined in so many different ways, and forward, because it’s preoccupied with not only this play, but also the next, and the next, and the next.
It’s also Wehrle’s least approachable game yet. I don’t say that lightly. Many have tried to come to terms with its complex play space, only to report that they have no idea what’s going on. Or worse, no idea why they should care. But for all the hurdles it throws up, it’s a remarkably rewarding game, asking you to reexamine your assumptions about both games and about the workings of history. It tasks you with nothing less than crafting an entire power dynamic. An entire history.