Number 5 – Papers, Please
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I’m not really sure what board game I’d reference to explain why Papers, Please is something that you might enjoy. It has bits of the Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective framework of closely examining all documents for evidence. It has elements of the push-your-luck architecture of Galaxy Trucker where you’re trying to optimise a return while also minimising future disadvantage. It’s odd in that it doesn’t have an immediate parallel but I am still 100% convinced it should be on here.
In Papers, Please you take on the role of a beleaguered bureaucrat in a fictional country during the fall of the USSR. Your job is to police the border, making sure people passing into the country possess all of the correct documentation and conform with all the laws and requirements of entry into Arstotzka. To begin with it’s as simple as checking their passport, but as the days go by the requirements get ever more onerous and complex… and you get paid only when you correctly process a visitor.
Eventually members of the underground start to make contact and ask you to bend the rules. Ordinary people, brought to the country under unsavoury circumstances, beg for your help. Fines await you if you incorrectly process people too often… and your suffering family needs food, medicine and heat.
Papers, Please is about as profound a commentary on the lessons on game morality I’ve encountered, but even if you don’t care about that it’s just an absolutely tremendous game I am sure you would very much enjoy.
Number 4 – Sunless Seas / Sunless Skies
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We liked Tales of the Arabian Nights quite a lot, but the truth is we never really get around to playing it much. Leaving aside the fact it always feels a little bit, uh, problematic… it’s just a lot longer than we generally have time for in an evening. Still, it’s hard to deny that the sense of exploration and adventure is compelling. I’m told Seafall, at its best, has a similar feel although I never even took my copy out of the shrinkwrap.
Enter then Sunless Seas or its followup, Sunless Skies. Remember back in the 19th century when London was stolen by bats and dragged down into Hell? Remember how it became a melting pot of unfinished people, devils, rubbery men and the sinister Masters of the Bazaar?
Well, I guess there was a lot going on in London at the time.
Anyway, both of these games dump you into the amazingly rich and beautifully written world of Fallen London. As either a submariner of the Unterzee of Sky Captain of an interstellar locomotive you’ll have hours and hours of dark and fascinating adventure in front of you. But make sure you keep the lights on.
Number 3 – 80 Days
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If the darkness of Fallen London doesn’t appeal as your replacement for Tales of the Arabian Nights maybe you’d prefer something like 80 Days – a steampunk alternate history retelling of Phileas Fogg and his journey around the world. You play the role of Passepartout, acting as the wordly Jeeves to the often mercurial Fogg. You’ll set the itinerary, pack the luggage, pick the route, and manage the budget. And in the process you’ll find yourself drawn into tales of fascinating adventure in a world at both familiar and eerily new.
It’s an almost entirely text driven game, but the writing is remarkable for just how evocative it is. I’m a fan of text based games. I ran one for a long time and technically still do. I appreciate though it can be a tough sell. 80 Days though only asks a little trust of those that give it a try. ‘Let’s just try something’, it says and then opens a hosepipe of phenomenal imagination on those that took the first fateful train from London.
And then when you’re done? New paths open up. New journeys. New adventures. New routes and discoveries. 80 Days is remarkably generous in what it puts your way and there is no part of this rich and exciting world that isn’t marked by interesting developments, dangerous intrigue, and colourful characters. Supported by lovely music and an oddly pleasing aesthetic, this is a wonderful game.
Number 2 – XCOM / XCOM 2
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If you’re a fan of miniatures heavy tactical gaming, then there is no finer experience awaiting you on computer than in XCOM or XCOM2. I have played them through several times each, and in my last brush with XCOM2 I played it to competition three times and a row and intentionally dragged the arse out of every minute. I don’t know if there’s a more satisfying combat loop in all of gaming. It’s tense and exciting even though it’s entirely turn-based. The latter game, especially when you bring in the War of the Chosen expansion, adds so much oppressive menace into every desperate battle that it pivots from ‘comparative walk in the park’ to ‘All they’re gonna find of us are our dental records’ in the space of a single turn.
And yet it’s extraordinarily willing to help you out – it gives you resources, weapons, assets, capabilities, armours, and more. It layering these bequeathments on until you’re all Warhammer space-marines armed with plasma weapons each powerful enough to burn a hole through God. It does this not to be kind, but to keep you in the fight when all your best soldiers are pummelled into paste by the berserkers that screech all around.
And on top of that, every part of the game beautifully supports all the others. You love getting to the strategic screen to research all your new acquisitions, and you love getting into the field to use the products of your research. The XCOM series is a joy, and a fine replacement for Warhammer, Infinity or any other of your favourite tactical war games.
Number 1 – Cultist Simulator
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Okay, imagine someone took Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective and injected a healthy dose of Lovecraft into the formula.
Wait, hang on – I’m getting a message on my earpiece. It appears someone already did that.
Let’s start again.
Imagine someone took Mythos Tales – that dark, brooding take on paranormal investigation into the darkest reaches of knowledge. Imagine they tied that to the inventive genius of Alexis Kennedy, one of the prime movers behind the gorgeously evocative setting of Fallen London. You know the one – it’s the setting of Sunless Seas above.
Great, yeah? Now imagine someone came along and threw in all the frantic time-based adrenaline of Escape: The Curse of the Temple. What you end up with is something like Cultist Simulator and if you think it sounds magnificent you are not wrong.
Cultist Simulator ascends to the top of the list here not through dark rituals, although they didn’t exactly hinder it in that regard. It ascends by being the best board game that I can’t imagine working in actual cardboard. I’d love to see an attempt made though – something with egg-timers and actual physical blood-letting onto a screaming pentagram carved out of your own soul. Cultist Simulator puts you in the shoes of an unremarkable member of the public who brushes against the occult mysteries that lie behind every day reality. And then it bids you to investigate, and to master, and to indoctrinate others in the dark rites that you discover and develop.
To accomplish this you play cards to the table. Some cards need fed – with dread, with contentment, and with the poor fools that have bound themselves into your service. You must balance the needs of day to day survival against your occult ambitions, thwarted at every turn by the sinister hunter agents that seek to put you behind bars, or worse. You’ll navigate the mysterious dreamlands of esoteric rituals, learn their mysteries, and bring them back to the real world. You’ll conduct dark rites, develop consuming eldritch hungers, and forever strive towards your Becoming.
There is no other game quite like Cultist Simulator and because you can’t have it in your board-game collection you should absolutely have it on your computer, or on your phone, or on the mystic runes that you sculpted out of the bones of your nightmares. And if you want it? It’s one of the pair of games that are part of the associated giveaway for this list.