Let’s address the elephant in the room. As far as years go, 2020 was a real downer. It isn’t necessary to say why. Such an utterance would only grant it additional power.
Fortunately, certain games were a relief. A vacation in miniature, you could say. These are the titles I was able to get lost in, if only for an hour or a few minutes, and forget the low-grade anxieties that attended every waking moment.
There’s nothing quite like counting out your moves. Or obsessing over the perfect placement of a polyomino. Or examining the unfurling board state until your eyes cross.
Today is about those games. The ones that saw me picking over every detail, every possible move, every counter-move. These are the ones that hurt so good.
There’s a reason Best Week arrives when it does. Popular belief would say it lands at the end of the year, but that isn’t it. Best Week happens when it’s needed most. When the world is cold and dark, Best Week is here to draw our attention to the games that mattered.
And there’s no better way to flip the bird to a dismal year like 2020 than by celebrating the games that stood up to the giant, pounded their shield-arms, and said, “You know what, jackass? Even though everyone has fallen into the habit of taking afternoon naps, even though it’s almost next year and I still find myself thinking it’s October, I’m going to be my best self.” Call them redesigns, call them spins on familiar formulas. Either way, these are the games their designers decided to revisit in order to craft something new.
It isn’t possible to discuss Tom Russell’s The Vote without invoking her earlier design This Guilty Land. In part because they both make use of the same game system, a masterclass of functionality that demands periodic trips back to the rulebook, though in fairness this year’s outing putters along more smoothly, less opaquely, and buoyed by a tighter narrative arc.
If only the similarities stopped there. Instead, the lion’s share are more thematic, and by extension more somber. This Guilty Land was designed to evoke frustration. With its systems, yes, but also with the injustices permitted by those systems — and worse, enabled by them. Features rather than bugs. In Russell’s hands, the gridlock that prevented emancipation is the same gridlock that prevented women’s suffrage. Which is a long way of saying that The Vote is a streamlined and more playable version of its former self. But as a metatextual continuation of This Guilty Land, it’s far more than that.
Longtime readers will probably be aware of my search for non-traditional civilization games. That’s why I was so eager to take a look at Jeff Warrender’s The Sands of Time, which flew under my radar a couple years back. Its approach could almost be described as abstract, crowded with cubes and cylinders alongside the more immediately evocative building tokens. Perhaps most notably, it manages to come across as the story of civilization as told over a long period. A millennium, maybe two.
And if nothing else, it definitely manages to be “non-traditional.”
This was supposed to be a short piece.
My curiosity for Andrew Looney’s pyramid system began with the discovery of Pyramid Arcade on the shelf of a local game store. Twenty-two individual titles, all crammed together like the stacked pyramids that have been the system’s hallmark for a quarter century. The set was so overpriced that it sat there for three years, unpurchased by me or anyone else. According to the owner, somebody eventually stole it. I’ve pined over might-have-beens ever since.
But time heals all wounds. To make the system easier to break into, Looney recently issued four sets of his famed pyramids, ranked in order of ascending complexity. Today we’re looking at the introductory box. And let’s just say, as far as relationships go, this one’s off to a rocky start.
For decades games have noodled over how to represent technological progress. Tracks? Random cards? Kitsch that doesn’t bear any connection to its stated purpose? Sorry, that last one was a dig at Tapestry. I’ll never pick on it again. Promise.
For Beyond the Sun, Dennis Chan goes with the technology tree. A sturdy favorite. Reliable. Dull, even. Except in this case, Chan has done the unexpected by introducing something new to the idea: a pulse.
I’m as surprised as you are — it’s the ninth episode of the Space-Biff! Space-Cast! Today I’m joined by Armando Canales, Lyndon Martin, and Brian Willcutt, the designers of this year’s controversial title The Cost. We discuss the game itself, along with broader concepts of moral game design and how to focus a game’s intended story on the elements that matter most.
It’s no secret that I was mixed on Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game. Here’s my alibi. Sure, you could pin some slight motive for revenge on me. It was wordy in a way I found personally offensive. The interconnected cases were thick like a ball of old cheese. And sure, not every function of its app was what you’d call obvious. But kill? Who, me? C’mon, officer. It was a fling. I haven’t even thought about Detective in two years. I’m back together with the wife and everything.
You wanna know who I think killed Detective? I’ll tell you.