Tom Chick

The 2nd best game of 2019: Control

, | Features

After I finished playing Control, I wrote one of those snooty reviews that talks a lot about subtext and themes and the designer’s possible motivations.  Basically, stuff that doesn’t include potentially helpful consumer information like a description of the plot, how many hours it takes to beat the game, and whether the graphics are visually stunning.  But as I’ve gone back to Control to finish up some loose ends, I’ve noticed that some of my favorite things are things I might not even have realized at the time because I was too busy mulling over national character and whatnot.  So here are a few addendums to the review. Some things I really appreciate about Control as I go back as a completionist instead of a tourist.

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The 3rd best game of 2019: One Finger Death Punch 2

, | Game reviews

Fighting games are a form of puppetry.  You pull the strings, an insensate doll animates, videogame violence ensues.  Most of the puppetry has gotten really complex because most of the puppeteers have gotten really good, and therefore more demanding.  They expect long deep learning curves and literal split second timing. Those learning curves get deeper and that timing gets more precise as brawlers like God of War and Devil May Cry lure away the more casual players like me.

But One Finger Death Punch believes we should all be puppeteers.  

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The 4th best game of 2019: Void Bastards

, | Game reviews

Sometimes when you’re playing The Swindle, a steampunk heist game with cool steampunky progression to pull you through procedurally generated heists, you get a gimme.  A lightly defended computer stuffed with cash, right next to the entrance, with only a couple of robot guards strolling by on their preset patrol paths. Knock out the robots, hack a couple of thousand quid out of the machine, and beat feet back to your airship pod.  With that kind of gift laid at your feet, there’s no question of pushing the risk/reward calculations any further. With pockets that full, why risk running deeper in to scoop up whatever change is lying around on the floor?

But other times, you get a network of defenses sealed tight behind brick walls, swarming with guards, festooned with landmines, eyed jealously by overlapping cameras wired to alarms.  No point bothering. Make do with the scant money you found in the foyer and call it a day. The procedural generation giveth, the procedural generation sometimes don’t giveth.

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5th best game of 2019: Age of Wonders: Planetfall

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It’s been 25 years since I was captivated by Simtex’s Master of Orion and Master of Magic games.  Since then, no one has understood Simtex’s appeal to my imagination as well as Triumph Studios with their Age of Wonders series.  After wallowing luxuriantly in rich (if somewhat generic) fantasy, hammering away at their design like a dwarven smith banging on a mithril battle axe, they’ve pivoted to science fiction.  With Planetfall, they’ve given me everything I want in a 4X, but this time with robots, lasers, alien bugs, hovertanks, extradimensional threats from beyond the galaxy, all that jazz.

But this isn’t science fiction among the stars.  It’s planet-bound, and to Triumph’s credit, that’s clear in the name.  This is hoverboots-on-the-ground sci-fi in the tradition of Brian Reynolds’ Alpha Centauri, itself a vividly reimagined science fiction version of Sid Meier’s Civilization.  You won’t be mastering Orion because Orion is a star. You will instead be mastering Ringworld, Hyperion, Hoth, Pandora.  

And Triumph makes it look easy, because they understand how simple it is to make a great 4X.  Just put interesting units with interesting abilities in battles against interesting enemies for the interesting development of an interesting place.  That’s all there is to it. I mean, duh. Right?

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6th best game of 2019: Field of Glory: Empires

, | Game reviews

As soon as you boot up Field of Glory: Empires, you can tell what you’re getting.  Just look at that patchwork map with those little armies standing around. Look at all those numbers and tooltips and region labels.  Looking at the adoringly historical spreadsheet propping it all up. This is a clone of a Paradox game.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Almost all strategy games are based on either the Sid Meier’s Civilization model or the Paradox spreadsheet model.  Consider Aggressors: Ancient Rome, which covers the same part of the world during the same time period as Empires (the ancient Mediterranean is a popular playground second only to World War II).  Aggressors hews so closely to the Civilization formula that it can feel a bit like Civilization, but with an arbitrary cutoff date before you get to the fun stuff with caravels, gunpowder, and railroads.  It raises the question, “Why aren’t you just playing a Civilization?” The answer, of course, is that you want more historical specificity, and that’s what Aggressors has to offer in its Civilization-shaped package. But will that answer work for Field of Glory: Empires when Paradox already has games with the same historical specificity?

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7th best game of 2019: Phoenix Point

, | Game reviews

You can play X-com for the first time exactly once.  And what a precious time that once. All the mystery and uncertainty, the danger, the discovery, the horror of what those weird little aliens were doing to our cows.  Our innocent cows! What else were they up to? What would you reveal when you finished researching this thing that you found? What startling discoveries would you make on the UFOpedia?  What new powers and weapons would your soldiers carry down the ramp of the Sky Ranger? What horrific things would happen out in the field? What was out there, in the darkness, just outside the range of your flare?  And what is that? You’ve never seen one of those before!

Even after Firaxis picked up the mantle and applied lessons learned from a decade or so of game design, it was a reboot of some of the same mysteries, the same settings, the same aliens, the same weapons.  It was familiar territory, which is partly the point of a reboot. UFOs invading Earth is old-school comfort food, familiar and delicious. Even XCOM 2’s slightly forced concept of a rebel uprising against conquering aliens was mostly familiar.  New words for the same concepts.

Then there’s Phoenix Point.

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8th best game of 2019: Rebel Galaxy Outlaw

, | Game reviews

In modern aerial combat, aircraft fight against blips on screens.  Maybe — just maybe — they might fight against a speck far off in the sky.  Conflict and technology has advanced in such a way that combatants stand farther and farther apart.  From the bow to the gun to artillery to aircraft to ballistic missiles to remotely piloted drones. In future combat in the vacuum of space, combatants will stand even farther apart.

What’s an arcade space game to do?  The best it can. Even then, you’re usually fighting specks far off in space.  If you squint, you just might be able to make out a shape. Is that supposed to be a spaceship?  Yes, it’s supposed to be a spaceship. Then when you get closer, spaceships are so fast and a monitor only affords so much screen real estate, that you’ll miss it if you blink. When things get really up close and personal, you can try to follow a reticle some distance in front of whatever you’re trying to shoot.  Blips, specks, and reticles.

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9th best game of 2019: Transport Fever 2

, | Game reviews

To some people logistics is a chore.  A necessary part of getting to the fun stuff.  The vegetables. To others — me, for instance — logistics is a foundation for the fun stuff. Without logistics in a game, you’re sort of cheating.  How did those bullets get into that gun? How did that fuel get into that spaceship? How did that party get its rations for the trip to Evil Wizard Castle?  What’s in that caravan you have to escort? How did this tavern get its mead? To be perfectly honest, I’d rather move something from point A to point B than shoot a bad guy, slay a monster, or even build a fort.

One of my favorite things in Master of Orion wasn’t any black hole generator or Darlok espionage mission or huge ultra rich gaia planet.  It was getting food from farm planets to the colonies that needed it to grow. This is as good a place as any for a quick shout-out to Star Ruler 2, one of the most lovingly logistics-intensive science fiction strategy games you will ever play.  I’m making that chef’s kiss gesture as I type this.

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10th best game of 2019: Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3

, | Features

Boy, do I feel silly about this.  A Marvel boondoggle taking up a slot on my 2019 top ten list?  I don’t even really like superheroes. They’ve been foisted on to me. They’re shrapnel in a cultural explosion whose blast radius I can’t escape.  I’m at the nexus of three different infection vectors: movies, boardgames, and videogames. I suppose I haven’t put up much of a fight. Come to think of it, I’ve been a pretty willing participant.  I might grouse about Spider-Man Goes to Europe and Marvel Endgame Self-Congratulatory Three-Hour Fan Service Session. But last night, I watched Captain Marvel for a second time. I’ll hold forth to anyone who will listen about Fantasy Flight’s abusive business model, but I just ordered the Captain America deck for Marvel Champions.  Instead of talking about Uncut Gems or Little Women, I had a lengthy conversation with a friend’s mom about how Logan was an Important Movie. Of course a Marvel boondoggle would find its way onto my 2019 top ten list.  

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Qt3 Boardgames Podcast: Marvel Champions, Claustrophobia, Reavers of Midgard

, | Games podcasts

Hassan’s new game, Manaical, is out! If you missed the Kickstarter, you can get it from eaglegames.net. In other news, Tom Chick fights the dumbest villains, Hassan Lopez spelunks with demons, and Mike Pollmann pillages some villages.

Marvel Champions at 6:03, Claustrophobia at 28:15, and Reavers of Midgard at 43:56.

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