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Cracked LCD- Barnes’ Best 2014

barnesbest

 

Unlike 2013, where I found myself locked in an introspective debate over what game was the best of 2013 and arriving at a Triple Crown choice of three, I knew what 2014’s Game of the Year was almost literally as soon as I held the box. But we’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s rhapsodize about the year that was and roll out the Barnes’ Best shortlist.

2014 was, in hindsight, a pretty disappointing year for hobby gaming. Too much disposable product, too much redundancy, too much Kickstarter. Few releases seemed to have any kind of staying power, even really strong serial titles like Warhammer: Diskwars popped up and receded without much fanfare. Dice Masters felt like it was going to be the Next Big Thing, but it seemed to fizzle due mainly to Wizkids’ inability to put product into the hands of consumers. On Boardgamegeek, the conversation (and “hot list”) seemed to be dominated by crowdfunded titles- many of which are still not even physically available and many of which haven’t met expectations for one reason or another. Probably the biggest release of the year, Fantasy Flight’s Imperial Assault, landed right at the end of the year but it turned out to be not a whole lot more than Descent in Stormtrooper drag.

I spent a large part of 2014 in retreat from the mainstream, going back to the kinds of games I was playing 10, 15 and even 20 years ago. I found more satisfaction in revisiting classic Knizia titles and the German games of the 1990s than pretty much anything new I played. With that said, I did appreciate that in some quarters there seemed to be a return to the kinds of simpler, more direct designs that games like Agricola pushed into the peripheral. Titles like Splendor, Camel Up, Lords of Xidit and diverse others almost seemed to be pointing to a “new Eurogames” movement that was really more like the old German games paradigm. And of course, the microgames thing proliferated with smaller boxes, easier rules, fewer components and lower price points standing in contrast to the $300 Kickstarters laden with components and badly developed rules.

But let’s not forget, there were some really good ones that came out this year. Lords of Xidit was great. Galaxy Defenders was far better than I expected it would be. Cathala’s Five Tribes was a terrific example of the new Eurogame, as was Abyss. Sun Tzu is one of the better two player games in recent memory. My First Carcassonne was one of the best kid’s games I’ve ever played. And then there was Hearthstone, which may not exist in cardboard, but it was totally a tabletop game and one well worth playing. It may turn out to be the most culturally significant tabletop design of 2014- more people have likely played it than every game on my list combined.

Who knows what 2015 will bring, but I hope that we’ll see more spirited, unique and innovative titles like the following four games. With that segue, I give you the Barnes’ Best Shortlist for 2014.

Hyperborea

render-hyperborea-fine

This game wasn’t really on my radar to begin with because it looked too expensive and redundant with other fantasy Dudes on a Map games. And I wasn’t sure about this whole “bag building” mechanic, that seemed like it was cobbled together from bits of Quarriors, Dominion and old timey chit-pull systems. But of course, when Asmodee offered a copy for a review I jumped on it. I’m glad that I did, because Hyperborea was one of the slickest and sleekest games of 2014, despite its size and depth. It is effectively a streamlined 4x game that pares away tons of fat to arrive at a core of medium complexity but maximum fun. It’s a game that feels evolved from a couple of recent trends- obviously the whole deckbuilding concept is there, but there are also traces of Nexus Ops, Runewars, Matagot titles such as Cyclades and Kemet, and Clash of Cultures. Fans of any of those games will likely find that Hyperborea’s relatively high retail price is actually justified, because this was the best game in its class this year.

Theseus: The Dark Orbit

theseus

I am a big fan of singular designs that have no discernable antecedents, games that come seemingly out of nowhere. Neuroshima Hex was a game like that, and the designer of that classic Polish title came back in 2014 with this bizarre design featuring four rival factions battling it out on a rotating space station. The mechanics for movement are descended from traditional Mancala-style games, but the science fiction setting and conflict-heavy gameplay give it all a whole new context. I love introducing this game to people because there is always a kind of “WTF” moment- it simply exists outside of the usual design-by-numbers strategy of taking existing ideas and reshuffling them. But once it settles in to place, Theseus emerges as one of the most compelling designs of 2014, a game I’m looking forward to playing more in 2015.

Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem

sons of anarchy

It wouldn’t be a Barnes’ Best end-of-year review without a Gale Force 9 title, and here it is. Sons of Anarchy was a brilliant crime game first, a licensed product with tons of fan appeal second. I know next to nothing about the television program this design is based on, but I totally understand the themes of intimidation, rivalry, illegal moneymaking, and rising through the ranks of a crime organization. Sons of Anarchy, like GF9’s Spartacus and Firefly, is a game designed explicitly to give players exactly what they want from a game bearing a popular IP. But the genius is that it works for everybody, and this hybrid Dudes on a Map/worker placement game with a heavy dose of potentially nasty player interaction gives everyone something to do. Kudos as well for the great production, which includes tiny plastic 9mm pistols and duffle bags of “contraband” (read: drugs and porn).

Thunder Alley (Carla and Jeff Horger, GMT Games)

thunder alley

2014’s fastest game alive was undoubtedly Thunder Alley, arguably the best racing game ever made. If not the best, it is definitely one of the most thematic, completely capturing the essence of NASCAR-style stock car racing. Players control teams of cars, which ensures that even games with low player counts have a full track, but more importantly this design decision brings to the fore seriously strategic concepts like drafting, pushing, breaking away and choosing when to push a driver/car to its limit. The level of abstraction is actually quite high, particularly in regard to compressing races to exponentially shorter lap counts, but this is one of those designs that feels like exactly the right elements were preserved. Often seat-of-your-pants thrilling, sometimes surprisingly cereberal but always fun, Thunder Alley is a great game even if you never thought you’d have any interest in the whole “Rubbin’ is racin’” thing.

And now….I give you…

Barnes’ Best Game of the Year- The Mushroom Eaters (Nate Hayden, Blast City Games)

mushroom eaters cover

 

Above, I said that I knew that this singular, almost impossibly daring board game was going to be Game of the Year as soon as I held the box. But really, I had a feeling it would be when I first read about the game and its concept. I also had high hopes because it was designed by Nate Hayden, who gave us the shortlisted black metal dungeonbrawl Cave Evil a couple of years ago. Yes, this game is about eating psychedelic mushrooms. But it is also about the shamanic experience, the spiritual and psychological journey precipitated by ingesting psilocybin. All of that alone is enough to put off many shrewish game players who would be more comfortable trading for oregano, shooting Nazis or using a +1 sword to stab an orc. But Mushroom Eaters reaches for something completely different than most games would ever even try to attempt. Its themes are far richer, its message much deeper. I found the game tremendously moving, inspirational and thought-provoking. There is literally nothing else like it in gaming, very few games approach the medium as an artistic tool for expression as this amazing design does..

But was it fun? I don’t know if it needed to be, in the same way that a great film doesn’t necessarily have to evoke positive feelings of enjoyment and pleasure. The gameplay design is absolutely sound, and the methods by which Mr. Hayden communicates many of the particulars of the psychedelic experience- its rhythms, its crises, its revelations- are, to be it quite bluntly, a master class in how to express real theme and meaning through game mechanics and rules. This game describes things I have never seen attempted in a set of rules before. There is cooperation, as all players are in the experience together, but there are opportunities for self-discovery along the way. What other game has a player board that tracks the status of your nervous system?

Visually, the game may look crude and amateurish to those expecting Larry Elmore-quality artwork on every game. But the graphic design is better described as raw or anarchic than beautiful. When I first looked through the cards, I knew this game was special, something closer to art than anything published by FFG or Z-Man. The majors would never illustrate a card with a crude sketch drawn on notebook paper. Nor would they produce a stunning fold-out board that evolves as the players progress through the game. Oh, and it’s also in 3D. You’ve got to wear the glasses.

The Mushroom Eaters was never going to be anything less than Game of the Year. The only qualm I had about selecting it was that it is the kind of thing where I think that most people actually shouldn’t play it. It is not accessible or “pop” in any way. It is challenging, unique and really quite demanding. It is also a hard game to come by- my copy was actually hand-assembled, and I believe there are less than 1000 copies in the world. So most people won’t get to play it anyway. But if you have a chance and you are an adventurous game player that wants something more out of the medium than another miniatures skirmishes or worker placement games, do not pass it up. It is one of the most impactful, groundbreaking and resonant games I have played in my entire life.

Barnes’ Best 2012, Console Edition

Reflecting back on the year in video games is pretty grim. There was plenty of mediocre junk and really just a couple of really significant titles. The industry kept truckin’ on toward its self-circumscribed oblivion, writ in DLC, preorder bonuses, shoehorned multiplayer, sixty dollar price points, and endless iteration. Vaporware was popularized by Kickstarter, and indie games apparently brought innovation to the medium by whimsically mimicking twenty and thirty year old design concepts and game styles. Then there was that long, dreary summer where almost nothing of note was released. And then there was Lollipop Chainsaw. Come, Armageddon, come.

But there were some great games this year, none of which have “Walking Dead” in the title. That overhyped, over-feted game is by far the biggest disappointment of 2012- not only because of the lack of actual gameplay, the disjointed Z-grade TV writing, and goofy graphics but also because gamers actually liked this garbage. Are standards of writing and character development in video games that low these days? Look, I like the idea of sophisticated, serial storytelling in games. But when it’s delivered in little more than BioWare-style dialogue trees (sans sleazy come-ons) in a game that makes Heavy Rain look like a video game, we’re moving in the wrong direction.

But these games, unlike Walking Dead, most certainly did not suck. They are Barnes’ Best 2012 material.

First up, two honorable mentions. ZombiU, one of Ubisoft’s WiiU launch titles, received mixed reviews that it mostly deserves because it is hampered by a couple of design-level fumbles (the cricket bat thing) and some hideous visuals. But it’s also full of amazing ideas, pairing up Dark Souls’ fatalism with classical survival horror gameplay. The gamepad makes for some surprisingly compelling mechanics- having to actually look down and rummage through your bag for a grenade while a bunch of zombies are lumbering toward you is one of the tensest, most nerve-wracking experiences I had in games this year. It’s gloriously slow-paced, not at all the shotgun massacre that most murder-fantasy zombie games are.

The other honorable is Dragon’s Dogma. I gave this game a mixed review myself, and it remains a hot mess. It’s an Engrish version of a western RPG, and out of that comes some truly innovative ideas. It’s sometimes infuriatingly obtuse, the game never holds your hand at any point, and it can be ruthlessly difficult. But moment-to-moment, the game is as good as anything released this year. The combat is straight from a brawler but the intricate character development is squarely RPG. There’s no other game in 2012 that let you grab on to a burning Gryphon and stab it to death in the air. I think about this game almost every day, and every day I think “man, I need to get back to that one.”

Now, Barnes’ Best 2012- digital edition. Consoles first.

Sine Mora

 

This incredible game is the definitive “shmup” of this generation. Beautifully executed, masterfully designed, and accessible without shying away from very hardcore difficulty, Sine Mora is the best game that’s ever had the Grasshopper Manufacture brand on it. Working with Digital Reality, the Japanese developers gave us some of the best bosses, levels, and shooter gameplay of all time. And man, that Akira Yamaoka soundtrack. Influences ranging from Cave shooters and UN Squadron to Blacksad and Giorgio Moroder made for a sophisticated, visceral action gaming experience that was hard to beat in 2012.

Journey

I’ve played thatgamecompany’s Journey only one time, but the two hours or so I spent with it were among the most profound and moving that I’ve ever experienced in a video game. Partnering you up with an anonymous online player with no voice communication was a brilliant masterstroke, enabling players to actually experience things like the development of language and the nurturing of relationships. I think those are far more interesting concepts than shooting brown people or anything to do with Kratos. It’s been argued that there’s not much game here and that may be the case, but the sense of exploring more spiritual and transcendental material made this brave, one-of-a-kind games one of the most important video games of the year.

XCOM

Firaxis did the impossible and resurrected X-COM in a way that was both throwback and modern. It is the same game you remember. But it shows almost twenty years of design improvement, refinement, and editing. What’s left is everything that really matters about the original game, and almost all of the clunky filler and old fashioned content cast by the wayside. Of course, bitchers gonna bitch about something or other not being in the new game, but they’re dead wrong. This is the perfect version of XCOM, circa 2012. One of the best squad-based TBS games I’ve ever played, if only because it’s so masterfully pared down to the key values.

Rayman Legends Demo

 

Yeah, that’s right, I put a demo on my Game of the Year list. It’s my show. Write a letter if you don’t like it! This Wii U demo blew my mind, plain and simple. In just three levels, this demo showed more heart, joy, passion, and creativity than any number of AAA bloodbaths or fake 8-bit retro nostalgia exercises. The game pulses with energy and excitement, incorporating recent gameplay ideas cribbed from Cut the Rope, Rock Band, and other modern titles. But it’s still a pure platformer, even though you’re using the gamepad to perform touchscreen functions. The co-op is great, the art style is to die for, and the graphics are as good as anything on the market today. This is definitely one to watch in 2013, and it may be a compelling reason to buy a Wii U- far more so than Nintendo’s own New Super Mario Bros. Wii U is.

The Witcher 2 Enhanced Edition

Even though it was a reissue of a 2011 game, there wasn’t anything on shelves in 2012 better than the Witcher 2: Enhanced Edition on the 360. This game absolutely blew my mind with its intelligent, thoughtful writing, great characters, and completely immersive setting. Add in viscerally strategic combat, brilliant quest design, and sex scenes that were actually intimate and adult rather than the puerile sleaze companies like BioWare slop into their games and you’ve got the makings of something special. I never play 50-70 hour games twice. But I played The Witcher 2 twice. And I would play it again. No part of this game was disappointing, lackluster, or badly handled, and it is your Barnes’ Best GOTY 2012.

That’s it then. Had I started playing Little Inferno before this morning, that may have had a berth on here as well. Brilliant, brilliant game that I’m afraid many just won’t get.

Cracked LCD- Barnes’ Best 2012, Analog Edition

Quite frankly, I thought 2012 was a pretty shitty year for board games. Not just because I didn’t play them nearly as much as I have in recent years due to being in double baby jail with a one year old and a two year old, but also because the really outstanding games were few and far between. There was a whole lot of mediocrity, and then the Kickstarter thing made it possible for any yahoo to sell underdeveloped, unfinished beta prototypes to suckers. There weren’t really even all that many games in 2012 that I felt were compelling enough to try outside of the reprint cavalcade, which caught up this year with Crude, Wiz-War, Merchant of Venus, and Netrunner. I didn’t play Risk: Legacy, the new Descent, Mice & Mystics, or tons of expansions for pretty good games that came out this year. I couldn’t possibly care less about Zombicide, Seasons, or most of the new deckbuilders. Regardless, here are your Barnes’ Best board game picks for 2012.

There were, of course, a couple of really great games that rose above the clutter, made even more cluttersome by all of the Kickstarted crap that’s only just now disappointing “backers”. As usual in my Games of the Year articles, I’ve disqualified reprints and I’m only listing new-in-2012 titles. It just wouldn’t be fair to this year’s new games to shunt them out of recognition because a 30 year old masterpiece is back on the shelves. Because, I mean, seriously- was there a better game released this year than Netrunner? Not quite.

First up, the honorable mentions. Two of these are games designed by personal friends, Battle Beyond Space and Article 27. The former is a great 2-4 player space battle that is dramatic, surprising, and frequently hilarious. The latter is a classically designed pure negotiation game that would be considered a classic had it come in a 3M bookshelf box. John Clowdus did good by us again this year with Tooth & Nail and Donald X. Vaccarino delivered his best game to date with FFG’s excellent cyberpunk heist game Infiltration. Dungeon Command started out good and got better over the course of four releases, offering a simple but compelling dungeon brawl option. And then there’s the Star Wars LCG, which I just started playing in the final days of 2012 but will review favorably next week.

Now, on to the shortlist. The four best games of 2012 and my pick for Game of the Year.

1812: The Invasion of Canada

This was one of the first games I played in 2012, and in my review I mentioned that it set the bar pretty high for the year. I knew all year long that we’d see this game in this column. Play after play, this simple team-based wargame has delivered the goods. It’s fun, fast, and full of interesting strategy. The dice-based combat system allows for some surprising strategic detail, the battles range from complete washes to total devastation, and overall the game has an easy flow that rewards risky play- and cooperation between teammates- over rules exploitation, resource management, or other factors. The subject matter may not be the most scintillating and on the table it looks like total cube confusion , but this was one of the best ways to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the titular event.

Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery

This is 2012’s Cinderella story, a game that beat the odds to emerge as one of the year’s top titles. The strikes against it were potential deal breakers. But these first-time designers, publishing through a company that has never done a board game before, came up with an innovative game that is as conceptually thematic as games like Battlestar Galactica and Dune are. Splitting the process between a nasty take-that card game and a one-on-one gladiator battle with a gambling element, Spartacus did an awful lot with the subject matter without getting bogged down in rules. It definitely has the best- and most necessary- rule of the year: don’t be an ass. This great game can be had for around $20, and with an expansion on the way I expect to be playing it into 2013.

Lords of Waterdeep

Lords of Waterdeep board in play

The genius of Lords of Waterdeep is that is very much a back-to-basics Eurogame, offering a simple but not shallow worker placement mechanic paired up with a fun- but light- dusting of Dungeons and Dragons atmosphere. It’s hugely accessible, unlike so many games in its genre. In a year where I found myself more attracted to simpler, more minimalist designs I appreciated that the designers of this game really cut through all of the bullshit and got right down to key elements that make these kinds of games work. It’ll never be as deep or intricate as Caylus, but it’s a heck of a lot more fun to play and that counts for…well, everything.

Mage Wars

Of course, Mage Wars was hardly a simpler, more minimalist design at all. Instead, this game is a complex, detailed game that feels like an omnibus of hobby gaming concepts. It’s a board game, miniatures game, and collectible card game all in one. It really should have been a hot mess and reading through the rules I thought it would be, but in play Mage Wars offered some of the most rewarding gameplay of 2012. With an intriguing “open deck” style of play that uses binders to allow players access to every card in their deck, the designer made the most of several bottlenecks in the design to keep the decision-making interesting. But it ain’t dry- there’s also plenty of dice-rolling, PVP ass-kicking to do while you’re making all of those compelling decisions. Definitely looking forward to expansions on this one as well.

And finally, Barnes’ Best Game of the Year 2012…it’s probably no surprise, but here we go…

X-Wing

Star Wars X-wing miniatures game in action

X-Wing is quite possibly the best tabletop miniatures game I have ever played, leveraging familiar subject matter and the particular style of Star Wars’ dogfighting scenes to present a fast-and-furious game that feels exactly right and is suitable for any player that knows what an X-Wing or a TIE fighter are. Low rules overhead and the use of templates to handle all of the measurement keep the usual miniatures table disagreements to a minimum, and the novel card-based method of building out and equipping ships makes for a great metagame. And the miniatures are truly impressive- any Star Wars fan that grew up with the toys is going to love them. Yes, this is an expensive game but if it sinks its teeth into you, you won’t notice that you’re spending your games budget on extra Y-Wings and TIE Advanced instead of on other games you won’t play nearly as much. This is a game that’s great as it is today with only four ships available, and will only get better in 2013 as more are released. This was- and is- the 2012 game I played and want to play again the most. A truly phenomenal game that builds on great ideas from its peers and improves everything across the board.

That’s it then. We’ll see what happens in 2013…it may turn out that X-Wing wins this year too! Stay tuned for the digital edition, in which I make one of those crazy statements about a currently popular game that may get me publically executed.