This year saw a lot of milestones for the hobby, not least of all being the 50th anniversary of Gen Con– the first time the gargantuan convention sold out. Along with the industry, the games themselves have grown: games like Gloomhaven, 7th Continent, and Massive Darkness made a giant splash both with critics and players as well as promising hundreds of hours of replayability. Even the mammoth game that– arguably– started it all: Twilight Imperium got an upgrade. One might think this year would be my favorite year for the Big Game– capital B, capital G.
Except, my attention has been elsewhere, and I might argue so should yours. This year has also made great strides in small games as well. Now, I have nothing against the grand, complex, narrative driven behemoths. But game innovation isn’t only about adding more, it’s also about refining simplicity. As Eric Lang said, “Complexity is a concession.” My 2017 picks epitomize this notion. Even still it was a difficult task to narrow down, but for the sake of brevity– as I do want to say a bit about each game on the list– I’m only including my top 3 from both traditional and crowd funded publishing; 6 in total. These games have managed to make experiences that are not only simple and inclusive, but also fun as hell.
From the publisher of BIG games, CMON– formally known as Cool Mini Or Not– comes one of the smallest games. By small game, I don’t mean tiny footprint or concept: it’s got cards with different abilities, it’s got a board, it’s got area control, supports up to 6 players; all the makings of a big, complex game. Yet it’s anything but. By small game, I mean all the things that each player needs to know and keep in their head to play the game can be explained in 5 minutes. I’ll let that sink in for a minute: someone who’s never played the game– never even heard of the game– can pick it up and in 5 minutes start playing with a modicum of competence, or at the very least feel competent. There’s something extremely powerful to that quality. Consider how many games come out a year, how much time is spent learning to play each of these games, and the amount of time spent teaching it– not just once, but once for every time you play that game with a new player. That’s a lot of time spent on an activity that is not the reason the game was purchased and brought to the table.
Ethnos cuts straight to that reason: playing the game. Moreover it does so without sacrificing the qualities of gaming that make it fun and interesting. It takes a quality from classic cards games: making decisions simple. So so simple. Distilled to the most basic choice path one could possibly distill to: binary. On a player’s turn they will either draw a single card, or play a set of cards from their hand simultaneously for points and board interaction. This, more than anything, makes turns fast, like super fast. Even in a 6 player game, if a player turns away for even a minute they’ll find themselves holding up the game.
So what’s the big deal, right? Just because something is simple, doesn’t automatically make it fun or interesting. No, the thing that makes this game interesting is the tension of the simple rule: when you play cards, you place the rest of your hand on the table face up to let the other players snatch them up like vultures. The tension is further increased by the mechanic of points garnered from sets of cards, and territory controlled. Playing smaller sets might get that player fewer points, but it gets control tokens to the board faster. Each time a control token lands on the board, the larger the sets need to be– and therefore more turns required– to land more tokens. Borrowing strategies from games like Gin Rummy, Jaiper, and Ticket to Ride, players push their luck gathering larger and larger sets, at the expense of waiting too long and watching those cards– and ultimately points– go to your opponents.
Ethnos does pretend at a theme, a Tolkien battle between warbands of Elves, Orcs, Undead, Giants, Dwarves and more. In practice? This theme is nothing more than food coloring to an otherwise delicious meal. Purely presentation. In some ways, the theme works against the game, warding off newcomers with the threat of some involved wargame that takes hours to resolve. But at the end of the day, players will finish their first game in under an hour and be itching to immediately play again, and again, and again. Rest assured, this game is bordering on addictive. Within the first month of the game releasing, I’ve played it more times than 90% of the games in my collection. With its ease to learn and wicked fast play to keep players engaged, it’s a fantastic game for both families and hard-core gamers.
Century: Spice Road and Golem Edition
There’s not much I can say about this game that I haven’t already said about Ethnos, and that’s a good thing. Century: Spice Road, from Plan B Games, is crazy fast to explain to new players, with simple objectives, and a choice of only 1 of 4 possible actions each turn. The biggest difference is there is little player interaction. This is largely a lite Euro game, where the central mechanic is basically a deck builder… without a deck.
Each turn a player will either: pull a single card from the center into their hand, play a card from their hand to collect/trade resources, use resources to score points, or pull all cards previously played into their hand. There is little to no randomness aside from the cards and the quantity of points that become available to collect. The tension comes from making sure each player can get to the prime cards and the points. So, like every deck builder, the goal is to build the most efficient engine possible: to collect more resources in fewer turns than the others sitting around the table.
So, what’s fun about that? Or more over why does this end up on my top picks for the year? Aside from all the qualities it shares with games like Ethnos– or the game it was marketed to ‘kill’, Splendor– each round of Century feels like progress, like large steps are being made toward the objective. And those steps feel good, each action affirming how clever the player is. In fact, many of those actions feel so good that it’s difficult to remember the game isn’t about who can take the most clever turns, but rather the most efficient ones. The way the game does this is rather simple: exquisite game design. Because the game is so easily understood at a glance, everything in the game feels intuitive, planning out 5, 8, 10 turns in advance becomes a cinch. Individual decisions become less and less the interesting event, but rather the engagement comes from the fulfillment of best laid plans
The largest drawback is, like most Euros, the theme is a little dry. This was not lost on the publishers that reskinned the game into the Golem Edition. It is exactly the same rules, except the art and components are different. And it’s gorgeous. I won’t claim it vastly improves the experience, but it does enhance it. There are scheduled compatible sequels to Spice Road, however, and it’s uncertain how the Golem Edition will factor into those.
Okay, okay– I realize that it’s a little fanboyish to include 2 of my top picks this year from the same publisher. But Azul, also from Plan B Games, is absolutely gorgeous. From a simplicity perspective, this game nails it will a whopping 3 types of functional components: a bunch of colorful tiles, a place to pick them up from, and a board to place them. And that’s exactly what you’ll be doing. Picking up tiles from one place, and placing them in another to make a pattern. And that’s all the players do. It would be extremely difficult to find a simpler mechanic than that. Of course, there’s more to the game and scoring, but the essence of the game can be summed up in that one sentence.
The point of the game is to fill a 5×5 grid with 5 different color tiles, using only 1 unique color per row and per column. Each row is loaded by building sets of a specific color tile to the side. If at the end of the round the set is complete, the color tile is loaded into the grid and points are scored. Still pretty easy. Well, the trick comes that when you pull a tile from a location, you must pull all tiles of the same color from that location. The unpulled tiles get thrown into one central location, which, in turn, is a place that tiles can be pulled from later. Still nothing crazy, right? Now add other players: these jerks are pulling your tiles, leaving you only with the ones you don’t need… but you still have to pull those tiles, which is a problem since if you can’t find a set to put those tiles in, they subtract from your score.
What makes the game interesting is that you’re less concerned about the economy of turns than timing of them. Each player wants to be the first to grab the tiles they need, but that must be balanced with preventing the central location from getting too large, and blocking others from getting the colors they need to score. The elegance of it truly boils back to its simplicity. But in addition to being simple and gorgeous, the game truly innovates. This isn’t a restructuring of an existing mechanic. This game feels fresh and new, which is rare for games of this low complexity.
TAK: A Beautiful Game
Of all the entries to this list, this one might be the weirdest; not the game itself, but the life it’s taken on. First, the game existed in the minds of millions in 2011 before it ever actually hit tabletops. Tak is originally a work of fiction from the mind of Patrick Rothfuss from the book “A Wise Man’s Fear.” Those millions of minds in turn decided to crowdfund this game, from designer James Ernest and Cheapass Games, to bring it into existence 5 years later, and a year after that, finally release it to the public. It’s entirely possible this game got funded due to the popularity of the book, but don’t let that fool you. It’s fantastic.
Following in the footsteps of abstract games of yore: such as chess, checkers, go, penti, othello– Tak is made explicitly for two players. It also focuses on tactics and strategy, perfect information, zero randomness, and– you guessed it– simplicity. And while I’m a fan of (some of) those games, not one of them is something I’d recommend to a new player. Some take too long to explain and even longer to master. Others have optimal strategies that can guarantee at least a draw without a single concern what the opponent does, so let’s just say their replay value is limited. And still others just feel dry, slow, and– quite frankly– boring.
What Tak does is learn from these games, what makes them fun and engaging, and what makes them dust collectors on the shelf. The goal of the game is build a road from one end of the board by placing stones along a grid. Each turn players can either place a piece on an empty space on the board, or move a stack of pieces already on the board to an adjacent space, regardless of whether it’s occupied or not. If it is occupied, the stack gets larger, controlled by the player’s piece on top of the stack. The board is small to keep the pace of the game tight and constantly feeling on the verge of winning or losing. This also means that each move can affect a larger percentage of the board, making each action more meaningful and changing the board enough to keep options open.
The rules are also easy to explain, and more than that, intuitive. Players new to the game can– and do– feel confident in their abilities after just one short game. And in my experience they do want to play that second game, and third, and so on. And get excited enough about the game to pass it on to someone else. This is rare, especially for a game that feels so classic. The downside? Honestly, is the price point. Of all the games on this list thus far, it’s got both the simplest and least number of components, and yet the MSRP is 25% more. Full disclosure, I’ve never read the book this game was based on, but the price of the game makes me feel like I’m buying into the IP more than I’m buying a game. The game is still worth it, though, fan of the book or not.
At a glance Eschaton looks like a lot. Much like Ethnos, Eschaton by Archon Games has got a board, pieces, several decks of cards, and territory control. And comparatively to the other games on this list, this game is more: bigger in complexity and scope. But where the other games on this list are simple on their own, Eschaton offers simplicity subjectively when compared to games that offer the same experience.
At its core this game is exactly like Tyrants of the Underdark, and knowing that Tyrants was a top pick of mine for 2016, it shouldn’t be a surprise Eschaton is on my 2017. Both are deck-builders, both use the cards as actions to interact with the territory control on the board, and both even have a similarly dark theme. But where they differ is where Tyrants tries to add to those mechanics with large number of different cards and sub mechanics, Eschaton strips them almost bare, focusing on the core.
Most of the text has been replaced by iconography, each with its own designation on the card to make for an at a glance understanding of the card’s value. The regions on the board were made fewer but larger to encourage more interaction between players. They even innovate on the deckbuilding side of things. They upped the number of cards available to choose from, upped the distribution of each card, and then they reduced the number of different types of cards. Players can also remove cards from their deck any time they choose. The end result highly mitigates the randomness that plagues this mechanic. The end result is a much sleeker, leaner machine that cuts right to all the nastiness you’re going to inflict on your opponents.
Yea, that’s right, it’s not a game where you are nice to your neighbors. The premise of the game is each player is a cult leader looking to seek favors of the Dark One by being as mean, and cruel, and murdery to those around you as possible. Bring about plagues, scour tomes of dark knowledge, conquer and convert all in your territories. Luckily, the game moves fast enough that for all the damage you can inflict on others, they bounce right back in the next turn, preventing any one person from gaining too much of a choke hold on the game.
The one caveat to the game is that while it absolutely nailed the aesthetic, the user design suffers a bit as a result. Text and numbers can be difficult to read, whether through poor contrast or illegible script. The components, including the box insert, are well intentioned, but do not feel like they have the production value of something one might pick off the shelves of a game shop. But that is more than okay. Everyone I’ve played with has taken notice of what a labor of love Eschaton is. It revels in its imperfections. At the least it didn’t print expansion cards on different card stock than the core game (looking at you, Tyrants of the Underdark).
Sol: Last Days of a Star
Like Eschaton, Sol from Elephant Laboratories is another fantastic labor of love. And also like Eschaton, it’s not a ‘simple’ game. But one might expect that from a game whose premise is mining a sun until it goes nova, the winner being the ship with the most momentum to escape the blast. Granted, neither is it grand and sweeping, but there’s a lot of moving parts that keep it from being as accessible as the other games on this list. Despite that, this game has got a lot going for it.
First and foremost, this game is the prettiest game I have ever played. I don’t say this lightly. Everything from the card and board design, to the plastic sculpts, to the art betrays a level of care and attention to detail that sets a new bar in the industry. Nothing about this game feels cheap or shortcut. The designers and publishers went over and above on this game. Even the rule book was a joy to flip through. Which is fantastic because they also included an even thicker book of art and lore!
Despite that, there isn’t any bloat to the game’s mechanic or pace; it’s a lean– if not multi-limbed game. Nothing in Sol acts as a distraction to the actual game play. The mechanics themselves are also pretty easy to learn individually; the trick is seeing how each of the different mechanics form a necessary network. Each player’s mothership orbits the sun, depositing probes (sundivers) along the orbit. Each action is used to move these probes deeper into the sun, convert probes into structures, or use probes to activate structures. The structures themselves can either collect energy from the sun, convert energy into points (momentum), or– of course– build more probes. Each action, of course depletes the sun; a deck of cards, and once the last card is pulled, the game ends.
It’s a delicate balance to make sure that each turn is maximized, holding enough probes, structures, and energy to keep the engine moving, all while timing efforts to the orbit of the mothership. It sounds like a lot and it is! Luckily, Sol doesn’t throw players in the deep end. Early in the game, it’s simple to get the initial plates spinning by limiting the actions to just a few. But it ramps up just fast enough to stay interesting and by the end, players are amazed and confident at the multitude of plates they’ve gotten aloft without breaking a sweat. After about one full game, the way the mechanics interact with one another have clicked, and the board gets cleared to set up for game two to enact everything learned.