I’ve recently become more attune to my personal tastes in games, and what I’ve realized is (for the moment) I don’t tend to stick with games or even specific genres for terribly long. With the breadth and variety of design on display right now I’m content with being a tourist, hopping along from one novelty to the next. The downside is I feel I am missing out on games that demand a “hobby-grade” amount of time from their players. Games like Hearts of Iron, Dwarf Fortress, and Dota 2 seem like they can return what the player puts in tenfold, but for me the return has yet to be worth the initial investment.
But I still want to have my cake and eat it too. Because of this, some of my favorite games of the past few years are those that either streamline, simplify, or distill the experiences of these impenetrable games into a scope that I can manage. Spending fifteen hours just to wrap my head around the basics of a MOBA can be turned into thirty minutes and a few beers with Killer Queen, or spending hundreds of dollars and wiki hours assembling a Magic: The Gathering deck becomes a couple hours playing different games of Dominion. That’s not to say that these games I’m listing are either watered down experiences or perfect substitutes for other games; they simply deliver similar mechanics and experiences in a way that fits my current tastes and commitment level. Maybe one day I will sink enough time into Crusader Kings 2 to breed bastard princes and make 4 failed assassination attempts on the queen of France, but for now I’ll be more than happy with these games.
This game is for everyone that has read a Reddit comment recounting a Dwarf Fortress story, thought “holy moly where has this game been all my life”, gone to Bay12games.com, downloaded it and physically felt the excitement drain out of themselves after hammering at an ASCII world for twenty minutes. That isn’t meant to be a knock on Dwarf Fortress; it’s a wonderfully impenetrable game by nature. But people like me can’t help but crave the moments that emerge from the multitude of systems that make the game so difficult to play.
Rimworld has given me plenty of those Dwarf Fortress-esque stories, but these were happening in the first couple hours instead of in the first hundred hours. Developer Ludeon Studios made the excellent decision to include dynamic tips and tutorials that appear as you progress through the game’s early hours. If it wasn’t for these guiding me along, I’m not sure I would have stuck with it. While Rimworld likely has the steepest learning curve of all the games here, the on-boarding process is friendly enough that I didn’t feel like I had to gain a master’s level understanding to enjoy it, or to get satisfying stories like a rabid squirrel terrorizing my base and forcing all my colonists to cower in a bedroom together until raiders came and killed it.
Into the Breach
Subset Games (PC)
The pre-release appeal of Into the Breach for many people, myself included, was that it might fill an Advanced Wars-shaped hole that has been open for years. In reality, the game we got is very functionally different from Advanced Wars, but not to its detriment. Into the Breach is a fantastic distillation of the tactics genre, including the heartbreak that comes from losing a squad of soldiers you’ve been to hell and back with. But whereas XCOM left me feeling burnt after seeing my team fall after a 30 hour campaign, Into the Breach gives me the freedom to experiment with different strategies from run to run. Yes, losing a pilot you’ve carried through multiple timelines fucking hurts, but the matches move relatively fast here. Entire runs will last anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour or so, expediting my grieving process. Not to mention that the mechanics can be picked up in the first thirty minutes, with a limited set of moves and states to keep track of. There is density in every board of Into the Breach, but this is revealed as you learn and improve so the game feels like it scales with your skill ceiling.
BumbleBear Games (Arcade)
My first experience with Killer Queen was practically transcendental (only 10% hyperbole), and this was in no part due to the 2.5 beers I had going into it. What should have been an anxiety riddled experience of working with four other complete strangers to reach a goal was an absolute blast. Right away I felt like I was making contributions to my team, even if in reality I was targeting the wrong win condition or moving through the map sub-optimally.
It’s a comparison that likely draws ire from both games’ camps, and I would definitely not be the first to make it, but Killer Queen feels inspired by the match structure and flow of games like MOBA’s and Starcraft. Killer Queen does have distinct features that set it apart from these: Matches are short (1-4 minutes), there are multiple victory conditions and the entire game is always visible on screen. In particular, the short matches and constant visibility of the game state make it friendly for new players and condense the experience. After putting fifteen hours into Dota 2, I can confidently say the game isn’t for me. I understand the appeal, but the mental overhead required for the game is daunting. Killer Queen gives me the team dynamics and map control in these games, but in bite-sized amounts that I can’t get enough of. Plus, people are less likely to throw slurs and insults your way when they’re standing next to you at an arcade cabinet than if they’re sitting at a computer a thousand miles from you.
Rio Grande Games (Tabletop)
While my experience with collectible card games (CCGs) ended with Yu-Gi-Oh! in 6th grade, I knew plenty of people through high school and college that played Magic: The Gathering. There was real appeal to the idea of a CCG with a combat system that actually worked, but I felt too exhausted and wallet drained to get into another rat race of booster packs and artificial scarcity. Deck building as a meta-game strategy also fascinated me, but again, I didn’t quite have the patience (or money) for it. And then Dominion came along.
Dominion is a deck-building game, where each play session is changed by the cards you decide to put in to play from the pool of available cards. And what a pool it is. Each players deck is built per match, with strategies changing on the fly based on the chosen cards. Matches can be endlessly fascinating by throwing together bizarre, possibly unbalanced games and trying to build effective deck strategies around it. It removes the anxiety and investment of deck building in CCGs by encouraging experimentation and inventive play. I’ve had more fun with Dominion than just about every tabletop game I’ve tried, and this is in large part due to it’s flexibility.
Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds
Bluehole (PC, Xbox One)
I’ve never enjoyed survival games much, but one that did grab me a long time ago was the original DayZ mod of Arma 2: Operation Arrowhead. It’s well documented how broken the mod and subsequent standalone game are, but it gave me some of the most bizarre, hilarious, and tense online experiences I’ve ever had. There were nerve-racking standoffs with other players that could last hours, or I would be chased across the map by a roaming band of psychopaths until I submitted to their demands. However, the more I played the more I realized that these moments were becoming few and far between. It was taking hours and hours to make any progress with the broken systems and inventory, and the vastness of the land mass meant that encounters became less frequent as the server counts dwindled.
Luckily, the moments I loved from this game, the ones of helpless terror that encouraging cautious play in a way most games are afraid to, can all be found in a 20-40 minute match of Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds. By forcing player confrontations through an ever shrinking circle, those tense firefights happen every. single. match. Some of the “quirks” of DayZ are still there, things like a clunky inventory and world geometry that does not always cooperate with character models. But given that the matches are so short, it’s easy to forgive the game when I can load into another so quickly and be all but guaranteed at least one moment of tension.