Mad GIMP skills

Stately Selections: Top Video Games of 2016 #1

I was going to write a long diatribe about 2016 to wrap up the year, but instead I want you all to look at my GIMP skills in that header pic. Yes, that’s a crown. I also wrote in that really sweet “#1”. I figure I had to tell you that it was me because I’m guessing most of you would assume we dropped beaucoup bucks on a real graphic artist. I mean, I don’t like to brag, but I kind of like to brag.

We’re finally here! Our number one games of 2016. What’s at the top? Will anyone pick a mobile game? Will anyone not pick a mobile game? Will David and Maddie ever hook up? [I’ve only seen seasons 1 and 2 of Moonlighting. I’m saving up for the season 3 blu-ray -ed.] All these answers (not all of them, actually) will be answered beyond the break.

Space Food Truck

I noticed, after creating this list, that most of my favorite games of 2016 have female protagonists. Strong women, sure, dangerous women, but also traumatized, practical, vulnerable, queer women, and, if the Captain in Space Food Truck counts, short women who just might be their own manic pixie dream girl, thank you very much. Some years, my favorite games don’t have defined main characters, but this time around the sun, the games that spoke to me mostly revolved around women.

I don’t want to overstate this: Space Food Truck isn’t a character-driven game, it’s a deckbuilding game, and it’s four playable characters are all essential and get equal time. Among deckbuilders, Space Food Truck has two breakout features, the first being an expansive galactic map, and the second and more critical one being cooperative play that turns on the idea of being a good teammate. Deckbuilding games are almost always competitive, a trait inherited from their TCG ancestors, and while cooperative games inherently reward teamwork, they often also reward hoarding and self-interest.

Sure, there are a few, like Vlaada Chvátil’s Space Alert, that genuinely require teamwork for survival, but Space Food Truck actually makes cooperation feel desirable as well as necessary. Each crew member in Space Food Truck has their own customizable deck, but much like a functional real-world team, cooperation means everyone doing their part in a way that makes it easy for everyone else to succeed at their job.

Here’s what I mean: only the Captain can fly the ship. Without her, the titular Space Food Truck stays in a parking orbit forever. But only the Scientist can unlock her best job cards, without which you won’t fly very far, and without the Engineer to maintain the ship, you won’t fly for very long. The very goal of the game, in terms of both game world and mechanics, is to serve the populations of specific planets the special dishes they crave – without Chef to turn rare ingredients into droolworthy entrees, there’s no point in going anywhere.

It doesn’t end there: crisis cards require specific combinations of crew members to meet in a specified place before time runs out, and the Captain can use the ship’s teleported to help… if the Scientist gets around to inventing a working teleported. Captain also gets first pick of new cards when the “store” is restocked, and she must keep in mind what everyone else actually needs, especially the Engineer, who picks last. The interdependencies are so primary, so vital, that you could use this game to teach civics, but, unlike every civics course ever, Space Food Truck makes “playing nice” into a thrill ride.

The cartoony art of Space Food Truck is endearing, and the reference humor and general silliness of the game crack me up. Those elements are critical, albeit more subjective, parts of what makes Space Food Truck my personal favorite game of the year. In the end, it’s simple: playing Space Food Truck makes me happy. As 2016 draws to a close, happiness is dish I’m craving most.

– Tof Eklund

Atlas Reactor

What a coup. We’re here, not just to celebrate a strategy game taking out the top spot, but a multiplayer WEGO effort nonetheless. If you’re keen to wade through the nitty-gritty, go read the review. But the skinny is simply that Atlas Reactor takes what I want from the hero shooter zeitgeist and plants it hard and heavy into a turn-based strategy.

Combat is never dull, moving at a speed that gives just enough time to deliberate with purpose. You and the team begin bouncing around the combat arena, zipping in and out of enemy visual range and putting the hurt in opponents in frenetic game of guesswork and lock-down. The simultaneous attack and move plotting is elegant, and having skills and abilities split across phases means there’s always something deeper to consider in the twenty-odd seconds of higher brain-meets-lizard instinct you’re left to play with.

I don’t care much for the chasing of such a dragon, but it feels e-sporty. Atlas Reactor blows the dust off a style of game that often lacks a required seat-of-the-pants spectator excitement. The close calls of dashing. The pyrotechnics of traps and ultimates. Leashing, buffing and debuffing. Heck, firing electric eels at people. All easily parsed for player and audience alike, with a low barrier of entry and a high chin-stroke ceiling.

Atlas Reactor. Doesn’t get any better in 2016. Committed my move. Boom.

– Alex Connolly

Concrete Jungle

Ever wanted to be a city planner? Well now you can be…sort of. Concrete Jungle is a deck-building puzzle game with a city-planning theme. It is your job to develop parts of the Caribou City using a deck of cards—each depicting a different type of building—which are placed on the game-board to score points. Gameplay is intuitive and challenging, the game’s visuals are attractive, its sound effects and music contribute nicely to the theme, and the voice acting is well done and often amusing. One of the most interesting parts of the game is that decisions you make can come back to be a real nuisance later, so in a lot of ways you’re playing against yourself. Concrete Jungle is one of those games you can give to almost anybody and they’d find a reason to like it and want to keep playing. In fact, it’s a great fit for strategy enthusiasts, casual gamers, card and boardgame players, deck-building fans, real-life architects and city planners, and anybody else who just loves well-made games.

– Nick Vigdahl

Twilight Struggle

In 2016, Firaxis released the Kraken, with both XCOM 2 and Civ VI, the two greatest games in the two greatest strategy video game series ever. But Playdek licensed Medusa’s head from GMT, and their developers sprouted wings and flew it right up to the Kraken’s face. Twilight Struggle held the crown as the greatest boardgame yet for ten years, and for that entire time, I thought to myself that I’d love to play it, but I didn’t know anyone who would devote the hours needed to learn its subtleties with me. Playdek have freed me from that need.

In some ways, it’s a deeply frustrating game. Precisely because it’s so very good, every game feels important, and every failure to pay close enough attention (which often leads to nuclear war) leaves me searching for a way to blame the game, rather than myself. But it simulates the Cold War, a grim and astoundingly delicate worldwide contest for which no one alive could have been well-prepared. It would be a poor simulation if you weren’t constantly tempted to run the DEFCON down to two in a test of absurdly high-stakes brinksmanship. It should feel like driving a truck loaded with plutonium 20 miles per hour over the speed limit on an icy road through a snowy night, and it does.

Also, Twilight Sparkle is a unicorn from My Little Pony. Best not to get them confused.

– Kelsey Rinella

Picross 3D Round 2

Picross 3D Round 2 is the other big surprise of the year for me. Not because I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it, but because I had all but given up hope that it would release outside of Japan at all. Judging by the number of copies of the first game I’ve spotted in clearance bins, I figured the sequel would be too much of a risk to release in the West. Now it’s available in all major territories, and any puzzle fan with a 3DS (good luck finding one if you don’t have one already) should own it.

The game iterates on the already-winning “marble sculpture by numbers” formula of the 2009 original by adding a seemingly small, yet significant, twist: another color of blocks. I would’ve been happy with another set of regular puzzles, but the added complexity is more than welcome. It forced me to adopt an entirely new approach when solving the puzzles. I love Picross games more than most, but I’ll be the first to admit that they can get pretty rote after a while. It took me 70 hours to feel remotely burnt out here, and by then I was nearly done with the game. I could go on and on about how charming and polished the game is, but I already have. It’s a different sort of puzzle game compared to the others on my list, but it’s also the only one that consumed two weeks of my life.

– Tanner Hendrickson

Civilization VI

I’m a Civilization junkie since the early 90’s, so this pick isn’t too surprising. Other than Civ 3, which I never forgave for getting rid of Civ 2’s awesome FMV advisors and wonder movies, each Civ has been on my must-play list from the time of its arrival until the next iteration arrived. Civ 5 was a bit of a disappointment, as it removed features that made Civ 4 such a fantastic edition (religion being the biggest omission of all). The expansions corrected that, making Civ 5 a great entry. The biggest surprise, then, of Civilization VI is that it wasn’t just Civ 5 with updated graphics. No, Civ VI is it’s own game and is full of so many changes that I wasn’t sure what the hell I was doing until about my fifth run-through. Even now, I’m not sure I have a handle on it.

The biggest addition are city districts which prevent each city from looking like every other city in your civ. You’ll have to pick and choose which districts each city will focus on depending on their resources and terrain, and no two cities will ever be just like the others. It’s a fantastic choice, and makes for tough decisions considering that the number of districts you can build is limited by your population and that districts remove the underlying tile benefits. Too many districts and wonders means less farmland or mines, slowing growth to a crawl.

There are other improvements as well. The new government system is fantastic, consisting of cards that you unlock more civic improvements. Thus, you can mix and match policies for you civ based on your current needs.

There’s a ton more here as, unsurprisingly, Civ VI is a huge game. I’ve started at least 50 games since its release in October (finished maybe 10 of them), and I find something new and remarkable each time. All it’s missing are those FMV advisors. Oh, how I miss these guys.

– Dave Neumann

Summary:

Tof Eklund

  • #5. Severed
  • #4. SteamWorld Heist
  • #3. Battlefleet Gothic: Leviathan
  • #2. Ladykiller in a Bind
  • #1. Space Food Truck

Alex Connolly

  • #5. Darkest Dungeon
  • #4. House of the Dying Sun
  • #3. Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak
  • #2. Battlefleet Gothic: Armada
  • #1. Atlas Reactor

Nick Vigdahl

  • #5. Solitairica
  • #4. The Battle of Polytopia
  • #3. Warbits
  • #2. Lost Portal CCG
  • #1. Concrete Jungle

Kelsey Rinella

  • #5. Patchwork The Game
  • #4. Pathfinder Adventures
  • #3. XCOM 2
  • #2. Civilization VI
  • #1. Twilight Struggle

Tanner Hendrickson

  • #5. Pokémon Moon
  • #4. Stephen’s Sausage Roll
  • #3. Snakebird
  • #2. Imbroglio
  • #1. Picross 3D Round 2

Dave Neumann

  • #5. Guild of Dungeoneering
  • #4. XCOM 2
  • #3. Twilight Struggle
  • #2. Pathfinder Adventures
  • #1. Civilization VI

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