Best Week 2021! Save Yourself!
When my first daughter was born, there was a mantra I would whisper whenever she cried out in the middle of the night, when I had chores but felt too exhausted to propel my limbs into motion, when the prospect of reading another history book for grad school felt like climbing Everest. “Nobody’s coming to save you. You have to save yourself.”
Turns out, that same mantra works in the middle of a global pandemic. Today we’re celebrating the games that remind us that we can survive almost anything. Because nobody’s coming to save you. You have to save yourself.
#6. Rocky Mountain Man
Design by Nate Hayden. Published by Emperors of Eternal Evil.
There’s a perspective where Rocky Mountain Man is too fickle to qualify as compelling. Discovering a mountain doesn’t mean it will be part of a mountain range. Instead, it might mean you get mauled by cougars and lose your last horses to an Indian raid. If good storytelling means that B always follows from A, then this game’s tendency to vomit out random encounters, terrain, and perils might prove too chaotic.
I disagree. If anything, not knowing whether your next step will result in a broken leg or lifelong friends with a passing band of natives is the entire point. Rocky Mountain Man isn’t about sowing wise decisions and harvesting steadfastness and comfort. It’s about striding into the unknown for no reason other than because it’s there, getting hurt in a dozen aching ways, and somehow crawling back to safety — a feeling many of us likely understand more deeply than we ever expected.
Design by Tom Jolly & Luke Laurie. Published by Z-Man Games.
After crash-landing on an isolated planet — and calling it a “landing” is generous — it’s your task to move as many settlers from the frozen surface to the bounteous caverns below. Oh, and a cold snap is fast approaching, so you only have a short time before everybody dies. Godspeed, traveler.
What makes Cryo worthy of remark is how it presents its saving act. There are any number of tasks that come before resettlement. Gathering resources, upgrading your drones, thawing your people out of stasis, launching reconnaissance, even navigating the possibility of sabotage. Every group relocated into the planet’s geothermal caverns is another sigh of relief. By making these moments difficult to achieve, the game creates natural crescendos, as well as an unanticipated reminder that behind every survival is a whole heap of effort that might go unseen to the untrained eye.
#4. Judean Hammer
Design by Robin David. Published by Catastrophe Games.
There’s a reason Hanukkah is so much cooler than most other holidays. By all rights, the Seleucid Empire should have absolutely stomped the Maccabees to dust. At the outset of Judean Hammer, it’s easy to see why the Jewish rebellion was so precarious. Jerusalem is in enemy hands. The Seleucids control nearly every territory around Judea, giving them multiple routes of reinforcement. Oh, and there are loads of them.
The strategic situation could hardly be described as balanced. Rather than offering artificial counterbalances to more smoothly gamify the history, Robin David presents a Maccabean Revolt on the back foot. They’re forced to hit and run, set ambushes, and choke off supply lines. In an era that prizes balance over almost every other virtue of design, Judean Hammer refuses to bend. Sometimes the odds are stacked against you. That just means it’s time to get clever.
Design by Marc Neidlinger & Tom Mattson. Published by Orange Nebula.
After crash-landing in an alien galaxy, you’re now stranded on not one but a whole range of alien planets! How’s that for one-upping Cryo? Make no mistake, Unsettled is definitely in the one-upping business. Every planet offers new scenery, mechanics, and things to discover. By extension, that means new things that want to kill you.
This is where Unsettled takes a smart turn. Rather than breaking out the auto-turrets and pulse rifles, Unsettled is a paean to the human spirit. Hm, that’s not quite right. It’s a paean to the human tendency to solve problems with science. Freak storms? Build turbines to capture their energy! Psychedelic fungus? See if it’s edible! Unknown substance? Poke it! And when the big monsters show up, put your legs to good use by hoofing it back to the shuttle. Or have your buddy carry you. Because no matter how dangerous the situation becomes, teamwork is the order of the day. Maybe you won’t have to save yourself after all.
Design by Joshua Van Laningham. Published by Level 99 Games.
On the other end of the spectrum from “teamwork will save the world” lies Bullet♥︎. I mean, not necessarily, since it also boasts a formidable cooperative mode. But in its base incarnation, Bullet♥︎ is all about frenzied self-interest. A volley of bullets is hurtling your way. Why? From whence come these bullets? Who is the bullet maker? Why can you not speak with the bullets? There’s no time for questions, dummy! Dodge those bullets through some combination of pattern-making and energy rationing. The next round sees new bullets appearing — along with all the bullets cleared by your neighbor. Last girl standing wins. Simple as that.
Here’s the thing: as a parable of survival, Bullet♥︎ is the most cynical of today’s bests. Not that you’ll notice. It’s too fast-paced, too colorful, too zany for introspection. Its brand of survival is entirely reflexive. Like dodging an incoming fist. You can worry about teamwork later. Right now you need to duck.
Design by Peter Rustemeyer. Published by Z-Man Games.
Paleo is special. I mean that. Consider how it plays. Everybody draws a card and follows its instructions, choosing from multiple options like scavenging for food, gathering flint, or fleeing from a saber-tooth tiger. Most of the time, one of those options includes abandoning your card to help a member of your clan. Cooperation isn’t a mode. It’s baked directly into the way the game operates. Every single turn, it’s a near certainty that someone will sacrifice to help somebody else. Surviving Paleo would be impossible otherwise.
There are other details I could mention, but they’re secondary to the cooperation Paleo so thoughtfully yet effortlessly engenders. When we talk about how early humankind evolved to become the fittest species on the planet, countless reasons get thrown around. Inventiveness. Tools. Pleasurable reproduction (no, really). Paleo suggests that our biggest advantage may be creative collaboration to solve problems. Any animal can work to save themself. It’s when we work to save each other that we thrive.