This was, seriously, the only image I could find for this list.

Stately Selections: Best Video Games of 2016 #3

We’re back with our countdown of the top games of 2016. Yesterday, I was a bit short on time so my introduction was on the brief side. Today, I had planned to regale you with tales of how I’ve yet to murder any children during Christmas break. After starting, however, I realized that it’s a rather boring tale involving lots and lots of Legos.

Instead, let’s continue the countdown. Today we reach the midpoint with our #3 titles of 2016. Because we need clicks, check our picks after the break.

Battlefleet Gothic: Leviathan

Also known as “that other Battlefleet Gothic game,” Leviathan was released quietly on iOS back in June, two months after PC behemoth Battlefleet Gothic: Armada. Like most siblings, they have differentiated themselves in every way possible. Armada is real-time, expansive, and works hard to bring the broadsides and boarding actions of the Battlefleet Gothic game to vivid life, whereas Leviathan is turn-based, adheres strictly to the miniature rules, and still looks much like a tabletop game, 3D effects notwithstanding.

Further comparison of the two is only likely to lead to awkward Thanksgiving dinners and therapy bills, so l’m going to send Armada off to the zoo with Uncle Space Hulk and Auntie Blood Bowl, and get down to why I love Leviathan.

First, there’s that “actual miniatures rules” thing. Games Workshop wouldn’t have gotten as far as they have if their tabletop rules were execrable, but most videogames based on GW properties throw those five-hundred page, eighty dollar rule books out the window. Leviathan and Space Hulk are the only tabletop-rules Warhammer 40,000 games out there.

Leviathan blends tabletop design with 40k Imperial style and 3D art in a way I haven’t seen done elsewhere. The overall effect is of being in an Imperial Navy war room, issuing orders and tracking results on a holographic map table. The game makes you feel like a fleet commander. The ship’s wheel and map table you use to plot out moves are tactile, analogue like Adeptus Mechanicus tech should be, along with the regulation number of gratuitous grimdark skull motifs. This aesthetic doesn’t work quite as well when you play as the Tyrranids (in skirmish mode or multiplayer), as I doubt the hive mind needs map tables.

Leviathan’s campaigns take the form of something like an inverse progress tree, as you deploy your fleets to defensive positions between the Hive Fleet Leviathan and an endangered planet. Even as you win tactical battles you have to stage a strategic retreat as the bulk of the Swarm looms ever closer. In true grimdark fashion, you can’t defeat Leviathan: victory is saving one key Imperium world from the locust-like Tyrranids, for now.

Everything about Leviathan works a treat, even multiplayer… on Android. A new iOS build hit last week, and it’s not very stable on devices with less than 2 gigs of ram, so caveat emptor malum. All that’s missing is a Tyrranid campaign where you get to crush the Imperial Navy and devour Blood Angels chapters whole. #TeamHiveMind

– Tof Eklund

Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak

A sand-blast to play. Romantic and wistful. Techno-Bedouins. Combat carriers crawling through a parched terrain. Chris Foss meets John Deere. In 1999, we received Homeworld. In 2003, Homeworld 2. And, in 2016, the prodigal child returned.

If ever there was a game that set the imagination aflame, it was Relic’s Homeworld. And despite a gulf measured in light years between Homeworld 2 and Deserts of Kharak, Blackbird Interactive’s ground-based prequel retains that magic. To BBI’s credit, Kharak is an even better capital G-game than its spaceborne forebears. Where fleet composition was really the sole driving tactical force in the old games, territory control in 3D space mattered very little. Competent mechanics served on a bed of rich art direction and a good story. Kharak takes both fine narrative and top-shelf art and folds them into a far more nuanced RTS. Terrain, elevation and line of sight matter. The mothership proxies in Kharak’s thunderous carriers afford a greater tactical flexibility than Karan S’jet’s beautiful banana. There’s just more to chew on in Kharak than there ever was in the original Homeworlds.

But I come to Kharak because it is a designer’s dream. A concept artist’s paradise. Each vehicle, a glorious construct of track or hover or tire, rigged with sponsons and gantries. The carriers loom over tiny fleets of salvagers, disgorging heavy cruisers from their fabricator docks like a calving whale. Phalanx point defense chatter ordnance over the undulating berms, as gunships lift from their flightdeck elevators and heave barrages upon encroaching foe. I simply cannot get enough of this brand of science fiction warfare. It’s Herbertian. It’s brilliant.

Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is the year’s finest RTS. Go for carrier.

– Alex Connolly

Warbits

Make simulation not war! Warbits is a turn-based strategy game that ponders a future without warfare where opposing factions put down their blasters and load up a game to settle their differences casualty free. Seems like a real fine idea these days. You summon and control an army of robots and vehicles and smash it into your opponent across a highly entertaining twenty-mission story mode. Warbits also features one of the best online-multiplayer modes in the galaxy with 1 on 1, 2 on 2, or 3-4 player free-for-all matches. Twenty more single-player missions are coming in early 2017 as part of a new challenge mode. This is a must-buy for you strategy gamers sporting an iOS device.

– Nick Vigdahl

XCOM 2

Modern XCOM games are the standard by which other tactical shooters are judged. When someone describes Hard West or Deathwatch, comparisons to XCOM are difficult to avoid. Indeed, in describing XCOM 2, I’m going to do the same thing: it’s a lot like XCOM: Enemy Unknown/Within. The unpredictable stuff seems more creative and unpredictable, the levels, missions, enemies, and upgrades seem more varied, the overall structure of your funding makes more sense, and the urgency-creating mechanisms seem more effective. But it retains much of the overall feel of the earlier games: a gloriously tense navigation of risk on a gameplay level, with an alien theme which makes the thematic stakes as high as the gameplay ones. Only now, you’re playing an insurgency which gradually grows triumphant (hopefully), rather than a global coalition which cannot grow at all. This keeps the thrill of success from being piled entirely onto the final scene.

I’ve been playing on the Xbox One, and for that system it’s the greatest and the buggiest game I’ve played. For possibly the first time, I might not advocate playing on Ironman (which prevents reloading earlier saves); if you hit a bug which makes you lose a valued soldier, that can do an awful lot to alienate you from the game. If that causes [spoilers redacted], and you later see [spoilers redacted] as a result, you might legitimately fear for your controller’s continued structural integrity. Contrariwise, when those things happen because of a risk you ran, they’re among the most meaningful story beats I’ve encountered in any game.

Oh, and this may count as a “lifehack”: try naming your soldiers after real people whose names you want to remember. Not only are you likely to end up at least knowing which first names go with which last names, but you’ll also have far more interesting stories to connect with them. So you remember “Susan Holmes”, not your uncle’s new girlfriend who likes opera and works in insurance, but as a combat hacker who one-shotted a giant robot one mission, but then panicked and killed your son’s music teacher in the next. Oddly enough, I find this makes it easier to remember the opera-style trivia.

– Kelsey Rinella

Snakebird

I really enjoyed my time with Snakebird on PC last year, but as I played, I kept thinking about how great it would be if I were playing on my iPad. Thankfully, my wish came true this year with a fantastic iOS port.

Snakebird is similar to Stephen’s Sausage Roll in that it expects you to discover aspects of its mechanics through experimentation and observation. It also has a difficulty curve that’s more like a difficulty cliff, despite its welcoming aesthetics and simple premise of “side-on snake sokobon”. A peek at the App Store reviews will show angry reviews saying that the first level is bugged or impossible to solve. It really isn’t.

When you hit a sticking point in Snakebird, which will happen often, the best thing to do is to try picking at a different level, or stop playing the game entirely. The solution will often come to you once you stop thinking about it (a hallmark of a great puzzle game), at which point you can whip out your phone and solve the level. It’s really the perfect way to play the game. My only beef with the port is the lack of iCloud save syncing, but I’ve heard enough horror stories about implementing it that I can understand its absence.

I’m still slowly working my way through Snakebird, but it’s been one of my favorite pastimes on L rides this year. The free download gives you access to the first few (challenging!) levels, so there’s no reason to not download it and give it a whirl.

– Tanner Hendrickson

Twilight Struggle

Twilight Struggle was one of my grail games for iPad. Not only is it one of the best tabletop games ever created, but it was announced back when iPads were brand new and no one was quite sure what to do with them. After languishing in development hell for years, simply getting a workable copy on my tablet would have made me happy. Instead, Playdek did what Playdek does and delivered a polished and exquisite version of one of the best two player games ever. A fantastic UI that puts the game log right at your fingertips, as well as a brilliant way of designating how you’ll use each card make it a joy to play.

The biggest complaint since its release has been the weak AI, but it always gives me a good go[disclaimer: I’m terrible at TS and games in general]. Also, the multiplayer system employed by Playdek is so good, why are you playing against the AI anyway? Get out there and nuke some commies.

– Dave Neumann

Summary:

Tof Eklund

  • #5. Severed
  • #4. SteamWorld Heist
  • #3. Battlefleet Gothic: Leviathan
  • #2. ?
  • #1. ?

Alex Connolly

  • #5. Darkest Dungeon
  • #4. House of the Dying Sun
  • #3. Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak
  • #2. ?
  • #1. ?

Nick Vigdahl

  • #5. Solitairica
  • #4. The Battle of Polytopia
  • #3. Warbits
  • #2. ?
  • #1. ?

Kelsey Rinella

  • #5. Patchwork The Game
  • #4. Pathfinder Adventures
  • #3. XCOM 2
  • #2. ?
  • #1. ?

Tanner Hendrickson

  • #5. Pokémon Moon
  • #4. Stephen’s Sausage Roll
  • #3. Snakebird
  • #2. ?
  • #1. ?

Dave Neumann

  • #5. Guild of Dungeoneering
  • #4. XCOM 2
  • #3. Twilight Struggle
  • #2. ?
  • #1. ?

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