Best Week 2021! Force of Will!
Enough of yesterday’s hippie-dippie kumbaya nonsense. Teamwork is great and all, but sometimes you’ve got to stick up for yourself. Pare away your fleshy parts. Make of your heart a stone. Become a creature of iron. Run in one of those mud marathons. Et cetera.
Today we’re celebrating the best games about asserting yourself in the face of irreparable differences. These are the two-player games that require you to plant your feet, lean back, and heave until you either win or tumble into the chasm.
#6. No Motherland Without
Design by Dan Bullock. Published by Compass Games.
This is the reddest game ever put to cardboard. Red as a statement piece. No Motherland Without is so red that the game is secondary to its redness. You could go blind staring at that board, traces of crimson lingering in your charred retinal tissue.
Good thing it’s nearly as bold a plaything, forcing players to confront the individual lives trampled beneath the boots of geopolitical giants. That’s if North Korea counts as a giant; Bullock is careful to portray it more as a minor actor with outsized ambitions. Those ambitions soon overwhelm the happiness prosperity of its citizens, imprisoning defectors across multiple generations or purging elites who’ve lost their relevance. The opposition, spearheaded by the United States, may be strictly better, but its policies are often no less impersonal and leave plenty of crushed lives of their own. A discomfiting look at a totalitarian nightmare.
Design by Carlo Bortolini. Published by 1 More Time Games.
Compared to some of its peers, Riftforce doesn’t look like much. “Numbers?” the straw-man purist declares. “Where are the abilities? The icons? The Marvel Cinematic Universe tie-ins?” Except Riftforce doesn’t need any of those things. A straightforward draft, that’s its jam. That and escalating deployments across five locations, abilities triggered via suits and numbers, and the occasional replenishment of your hand.
The many descendants of Battle Line have developed in any number of directions. Riftforce is all about those suits and numbers. It’s design as distillation, homing in on the core of what makes the genre so intriguing. It helps that each of the suits is driven by a sensical ability, provided you read them as fantasy archetypes. The result is a wonderfully crisp tug-of-war between players.
#4. Kabuto Sumo
Design by Tony Miller. Published by Board Game Tables.
My seven-year-old has declared that she wants to be an entomologist. I don’t know if pushing Kabuto Sumo’s hefty wooden discs counts as studying insects, but she seems to think so. This has been “the bug game” for months. She squeals with delight when she discovers a new detail. Like the dung beetle’s bumpy roll of poop, the detachable pincers, the long needle-like stinger that looks like it would push discs but really just slides between them instead.
And unlike some of the games my daughter has an interest in, Kabuto Sumo doesn’t put me to sleep. This isn’t to say it offers strategic depth, but there are subtleties to uncover. Many of the game’s beetles can trade discs for special abilities, and there’s something akin to form behind the way all those discs collide and shove against each other. Apply pressure to the proper spot and watch your opponent tumble from the stump.
#3. Summoner Wars (Second Edition)
Design by Colby Dauch. Published by Plaid Hat Games.
There’s nothing quite like rediscovering an old favorite. For me, the original Summoner Wars functioned much like a lifestyle game, right down to the deck construction and tournaments and enthusiastic glimpses of upcoming factions. When at last it began to wane with age and increasing complexity, I was content to depart as fond friends.
I suspect there’s no recapturing that moment — or my surplus free time — but it’s refreshing to see Summoner Wars given new life. While still in its infancy, the second edition is already superior in many ways, stripped of the problems that soon dominated the original’s faction design and metagame. Whether it will eventually boast as many factions and fans remains to be seen. For now, though, this is far better than a remake. Its battles function like the original game at its best, filled with risks and clever maneuvers and unexpected turns. Minus the obscene turtling, thank goodness.
#2. 1979: Revolution in Iran
Design by Dan Bullock. Published by the Dietz Foundation.
When does a revolution begin? That’s one of the questions behind 1979: Revolution in Iran, which stands a decent chance of not even reaching 1979. Whether the Shah’s oil fortune is nationalized or the Coalition gets what it wants in the worst possible way, Bullock’s second game of 2021 continues to ask uncomfortable questions that don’t come paired with easy answers.
Take, for example, the game’s examination of democracy. Rather than casting influence as a simple binary between Team A vs. Team B, here influence is portrayed as dynamic. You’ll discover that the same factions that supported your side under one regime will slip into the opposing camp once your own president is installed. It’s an exciting and distressing argument in a game full of them.
Design by Daniel Piechnick. Published by Roxley Games.
Two gangs of raiders. Limited water. Mutants and punks. Hot pink. That’s Radlands in a nutshell, and it’s sublime. There are so many details that fall perfectly into place. Consider the game’s water economy, which understands that interesting decisions arise both from limitation and from figuring out ways to squirrel past those limitations. Or how your limited manpower doesn’t feel like it’s selling you short. You’re a bunch of scrappy punks in the wasteland. An army, you are not.
Best of all, though, is the way Radlands feels like a genuine scrap. Both sides need to defend three camps, but you’re effectively on a timer. Sometimes literally, since events tick down every turn until they’re triggered, and often that means somebody’s camp just got plundered. Rather than offering big numbers, nearly every warrior has only a pair of hit points, and that first wound renders them useless apart from being able to absorb a second hit. The message is clear: Out here, you’re not much more than meat.