My Top Games of 2011
It’s good to look back and see how games have changes our perspectives, enriched our lives, or just helped alleviate boredom & curiosity. This list is of the games that gave me something to think about and I think is worthwhile for others to. These are in no particular order, and I’ll end up cheating by talking about a couple I was involved with, though the reason I got involved is because the creator had an interesting idea.
I should warn that I’m not reviewing anything I’m going to talk about in depth. If what I say has you curious, I invite you to Google or click on links for more information.
The Story’s the Thing
Of course, as someone who is primarily a roleplaying game creator, I’ll start with the RPGs that turned my crank. First, let’s go with Technoir by Jeremy Keller. The other night, I watched Die Hard, as fantastic film of the ages as all right-thinking people know. Die Hard is an action movie, the modern-day pulp story. There’s ebb & flow, where McClane gets on top, then deals with complications, and is on top again, like a narrative dance.
Why do I bring up Die Hard? Because I think that Technoir is the Die Hard RPG, if you set aside the cyberpunk element (which is one of the finer treatments of cyberpunk since we starting living in an information-ubiquitous age, so don’t set it aside). The way the game uses Push Dice to create moments where the PCs have advantage and when they’re inflicted with problems is inspired. And the player’s booklet is free to download.
I’m looking forward to the supplements coming out for it.
Dungeon World, by Adam Koebel & Sage LaTorra, is one of the more fascinating things I’ve played, because, well, it’s kinda fucking alien. See, it’s old school dungeon crawling…except it’s also not at all. Imagine taking the tropes of First or Second Edition D&D, and then saying: the DM never has an explicit turn in combat, doesn’t know exactly what treasures are around, the players don’t get objectively better at hitting monsters of a given level, and so on.
The first time I played, I was a level 2 Fighter taking on what was apparently a Level 8 demon. That was really interesting in play, because the monster’s level didn’t affect if I could hit it; that was entirely based on my STR roll — a 7-9 meant I hit it and got hit in return, a 10+ means I hit it and dodged retaliation. A 6 or less was…bad. :) I fought, I rolled 10 once and hit it hard, then I got hit and nearly died by taking 90% of my hit points in one blow. The level of a monster was really only rated in how many hit points it would take to kill and how much damage it did when it damaged (and since the DM never rolls dice in DW, once someone got hit you knew exactly how hard future hits would be).
It’s an interesting case of “here’s this game we’ve played in the past, and now let’s fuck with many assumptions.” I like Dungeon World because it makes me think about that style of gaming in a way I haven’t in some time. I like the like of the Old School Renaissance, though the games I’ve been exposed to have felt phoned in. DW isn’t an OSR game, but it makes me think about OSR gaming as much as it does story gaming.
Daniel Solis released Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple the second in what’s becoming a line of “story-writing” or “story-making” games, games that have a RPG sense but focus on the deliberate creation of a written story rather than playing out a story like you would with a RPG. I was it’s editor, but the design’s all Daniel’s, and it’s making me rethink some of our assumptions about what a game in that space can be. It challenges the genre more than any other game I’ve seen save Fiasco.
Speaking of Fiasco, the Fiasco Companion came out this year. It is a book of accumulated wisdom, one that couldn’t have come out when Fiasco did last year. It’s an interesting community effort, an archive of story-playing ideas, that should be mined for many games both as a book of information and as an idea of a supplement for other games. There’s a bit of that mentality going into Don’t Hack This Game, I can tell you that.
Little Table Games
I’m a fan of board & card games that don’t have a huge footprint on the table — things that are easy to carry in a bag, but pack a big punch. Which is why I bought Diana Jones-nominated Escape From The Aliens Of Outer Space at Gen Con last year. (Which, given that it’s almost perpetually sold out because the publisher can’t keep up with demand, was a good idea.) It’s a hidden information chase game, with some players as humans trying to escape the aliens who are hungry for sweet, sweet man-flesh. Oh, and you don’t know who is who, other than your own allegiance.
The game says two to eight, which in my experience means “you can technically play it with two but it’ll suck.” I wanted to learn the rules with my friend Albert, so over beer we decided it’d be worth playing two player just to see how it works. It was going to be clear who was a human and who an alien, since we have the magic power of deduction with two players.
Once we opened it and set up, we started with my move. Then his. Then we looked at each other and said “holy shit, this is fucking amazing.” I have not played a game that tense in, well, I cannot remember.
I call Escape From The Aliens Of Outer Space the “Battleship meets Alien” game. It’s a brilliant design that reinforces dread through what little information you’re allowed to say during the game. When you can pick up a copy, do it. They also have some resources on their site for reprinting old maps, making custom new ones, and creating new scenarios.
Hibernia & Cambria: These two games come from local-to-me designer Eric Vogel. You might have read his designer diary on BoardGameGeek about Camberia, where he talks about self-publishing and having a publisher for his board games.
Hibernia & Cambria are both great area control games that use dice in creative ways. Cambria gets featured in the link I just shared, so I’ll bring up Hibernia. It’s a small area control game for three or four players as-is, and for two players with a rules variant (which I rather enjoy). Eric has said a couple times that it’s the inversion of Risk — you know where you can expand, but not if you’ll conquer; in Hibernia, the die roll determines where you can expand, but conquering is deterministic rather than random, so you know what you can conquer once you know where the dice say you may expand.
The way you win Hibernia is to loop around a score track, based on the colors of the territories you have at a given time, so the game prioritizes movement and needing to protect or expand in different places on a given turn, rather than the typical “let’s dominate the world” approach. I have yet to win a game of Hibernia, but I get close, and I love the way the game plays.
And I have to say that Eric is a genially wonderful human being, very accessible and very happy to talk about the craft & process. He had a release party recently at Endgame for those two games, and he was pretty damned welcoming.
Eric Lytle, co-creator of the upcoming Race to Adventure! pointed out in the comments below that I didn’t mention Risk Legacy. This version of Risk is by Rob Daviau & published by, believe it or not, Hasbro. I wasn’t sure what to say about it, because, well, it’s a board game with spoilers! It’s a version of Risk with actual stakes: those who win the game — well, the first fifteen times — gets to make a grand alteration to the game that has impact in future games. I will speak of things that one would know by reading the rulebook.
At least, reading the rulebook before it gets changed due to unlockable expansions. Yes, the game changes over time.
A couple of the great folks at Gamers With Jobs invited me to play the second game of their Risk Legacy set, and I was hooked. I put a scar down on a territory and ripping a card up because it told me to. I wrote on the board in permanent marker. Their board will forever be marked because of what I did in one session of play.
I got a set and have been playing it nearly every week with some of the EndGame Oakland board game night crew, and we recently finished game seven. I’ve taken a picture of every aftermath, but I won’t be posting them up until we’ve done all fifteen games. But I can say this much: we keep looking forward to playing Risk. We plot about how we’ll get to mark up the board this time. And even right now, we have a version of the game so very different than one that others have. When the hell was the last time you did since you overcame puberty?
Oh, and the longest game we’ve played was around 90 minutes, I think. It’s the new, objective-based end condition style of Risk. So, a board game with spoilers & real stakes. Have I got your attention? Check it out. (And check out these designers notes, if you dare.)
The Year of the iPad
This was an amazing year for iPad games. Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer is by and large the big winner here; for a few bucks, you could start playing a quick turn-based game with, well, a large portion of the gamerdom. Most people with an iPad I knew had Ascension and played it regularly. Passing references to individual games would happen onTwitter, enough to where people joked that Twitter was the chat app for Ascension.
And it no doubt generated sales for the physical game; I bought it so that I could play it with in-person friends. But the real magic is that I would, while setting up the physical game, hand a friend my iPad and have them play the tutorial on there. Suddenly, instead of focusing energy on the initial teach, what I was doing was reinforcement. And damn it that wasn’t a great way of doing things. I look forward to more games being on the iPad, even of only in tutorial form.
The iPad is not just for board & card games, as demonstrated by the Dungeon World RPG iOS app (and at some point, will also be available for Android). It’s the book, in a form that’s pretty interesting — the individual chapters as a single unit of flow, each chapter a finger swipe away, hyperlinks throughout the document, double-tap navigation, and embedded actual-play audio that can be played near related points in the game (thanks to The Walking Eye).
I found myself thinking about other things they could have done with the app, which is not a slight against what they’ve done, but to highlight that doors have been opened. (And as a software engineer, I’m not so foolish as to assume any feature I’d like is trivial, so I certainly don’t begrudge any “lacking” one. Plus, there’s the future, updates, etc.)
There was a time when I wanted to do something similar, and to see someone tackle it is fucking awesome. Doors are open, friends. Doors are open.
So, those were mine. What were yours?
P.S. Back in January, I set out to do 13 posts a month. Here’s how I did: out of 12 months, I missed the mark on 4. But overall, I did 12 more posts than 156 I set out to. I call the experiment a success, not because of any number, but because I feel good about the output. I’ll keep trying roughly the same output level next year, because blogging is forcing me to put concrete words to floating thoughts in my mind. Here’s to 2012, friends.
 Which, having written one of the settings in the book, is my first cheat.
 Cheat #2
 To clarify: DW has made me think about a style of gaming, but not the very foundations that Do has.
 Some might say that having a quote in the Companion makes these cheat #3. But I wouldn’t.
 Sorry, I watched Lord of the Rings over Christmas. And the word continues to ring in my head, with that orcish growl.
 Which I guess you would believe, since Risk is theirs. Still, it’s been seen as a ballsy move by Hasbro, and I hope to see more of those in the future.