Best Week 2021! Escape! Escape!
The wheel has turned once more. We’ve heard some good advice about how to keep hold of our fractious sanity. From me, the sage advice-giver. Make something. Learn to rely on each other. Be strong. Reject orthodoxy. And now, last but surely not least…
No, really. Get out. Use a nail wrested from a rotten floorboard to pick the lock. Pry the handle from the rusted door. The billionaires are doing it. Look at them, fleeing into orbit or the depths of digital consciousness. They know where the days ahead lead. So run, run, run into the night. And although the magic circle offers scant protection from the cold, take some solace in the year’s best games of escape and evasion.
#6. Super-Skill Pinball: Ramp It Up!
Design by Geoff Engelstein. Published by WizKids.
I’m a sucker for roll-and-writes, but I’ll be the first to admit that the concept needs a shake-up. The closest it’s gotten is Super-Skill Pinball, which also appeared in last year’s Best Week for its weirdly faithful recreation of pinball. Engelstein’s second outing is more assured and inventive than his first attempt, featuring casino heists, speedway races, and team cage matches, all of which are more velocitous and carefully designed than any of the tables from 4-Cade. Am I thrilled that WizKids has announced a Star Trek set for next year? You betcha.
Oh, what are you escaping? Gravity. Exactly like the Bezos. Duh.
#5. Crash Octopus
Design by Naotaka Shimamoto. Published by itten.
Crash Octopus is weirdly relevant. Because of the shipping crisis. Okay, it’s a stretch. But “we were sailing along when suddenly a big dang octopus attacked us from the depths of the sea and now we’re trying to recover our cargo and also a captain, yes, any ship’s captain!” makes more sense to me than “stevedores?” as an explanation for shipping mishaps. Even after watching the second season of The Wire, I’m not sure what exactly stevedores are for.
But I digress. This is one of those rare games that makes failure more interesting than success. Consider what happens when somebody gets close to escaping with their cargo. At every opportunity, the other players will try to turn the octopus against them. But since that means bouncing a die off the octopus’s head and into their ship — easier said than done — the scene is set for unintentional comedy as all that precious cargo starts spilling overboard.
#4. Burgle Bros 2: The Casino Capers
Design by Tim Fowers & Jeff Krause. Published by Fowers Games.
Inasmuch as Burgle Bros 2 is about breaking into casinos, it’s also about breaking out of them. That’s but one of its many improvements over the original. The basic formula is reassuringly familiar: case the joint, avoid guards, fret over positioning. But the sequel knows better than to burden its players with exceptions and corner cases, letting you get down to the business of figuring out how to crack that vault.
When those numbers tumble into place, that’s when the game reaches its most riotous pitch. Rather than busting in, you’re busting out. And while the specifics venture into spoiler territory, concealed within multiple envelopes, I can tell you that they provide a fitting crescendo to the nerve-straining orchestration of the break-in.
#3. Sleeping Gods
Design by Ryan Laukat. Published by Red Raven Games.
After being spirited away to a magical archipelago, the crew of the Manticore finds themselves in quite the pickle. Fortunately, they’re a highly trained squad of killers, engineers, and survivalists. Maybe everybody was like that in 1929. Sleeping Gods is Ryan Laukat’s most sprawling opus to date. Equal parts choose-your-own-adventure storybook and press-your-luck survival adventure, there are dangers and goodies around every corner.
Upon finding themselves in an abundant and exciting realm filled with treasure, a pressing need for their services, and absent the racism and prejudices of our own world, your crew naturally hopes to return home. What gives this tale its stakes, of all things, is a timer, with each turn bringing you one step closer to the game’s final confrontation. The pressure is on, encouraging you to forego trips back to port and mental health breaks. It’s escapism as escapism, and it’s lovely.
#2. Sheepy Time
Design by Neil Kimball. Published by Alderac Entertainment Group.
In a spurt of unexplained cosmology that we desperately need expounded, the sleep sheep stand between us and our gravest nightmares. That’s all it takes to make Sheepy Time one of the most pressing escapes of the year. Rounds literally revolve around a wheel, your sheep striving to leap over their dream-fence while remaining between one and nine steps ahead of a rude awakening. Upon completing the circuit, they’re free to escape — but because sleep-sheeping is a competitive job market, they’re compelled to flee as far as possible before making their exit. Parable of capitalism, much?
Maybe, maybe not. As an exercise in testing the odds and outrunning your friends, however, Sheepy Time is unparalleled. Make sure to hoard those Z’s and hit the right dreams, and you’ll come out the other side in one piece.
#1. Mind MGMT
Design by Jay Cormier & Sen-Foong Lim. Published by Off the Page Games.
Hear me out. What if board games are one more mode of control? What if they’re meant to keep us sedentary, granting our tacit compliance to the forces that control the entire world from behind the curtain? What if — what if, man — what if a board game could activate your psychic powers?
Cormier and Lim’s Mind MGMT, based closely and collaboratively on the trippy comic series by Matt Kindt, is the surprise knockout of the year. It begins as a hidden movement game. Then you begin opening boxes. With each addition, the game morphs in unexpected ways while still keeping hold of its core identity. In the static, patterns begin to take shape. Soon it taps into that voodoo space where you’re seeing glimmers of your opponent’s intentions, except you can’t explain how. Are you seeing the real solution? Or are you making things up? Either way, Mind MGMT is a paranoiac’s game, self-doubt and cold sweats and all.