I struggled a lot with the prospect of making a top 5 list like many other authors have done here at Gamasutra. I have very specific criteria for what I’m looking for in games, and it’s not that there were no games at all that met them. In fact, there were many games that met my criteria, but of those that did so, very few had good “execution” - good support, balance, and a general feeling from the developer that they care about their software. Most of the games that I found interesting this year were small, somewhat undeveloped indie projects that felt more like a result of a game jam than something you can actually make a real part of your life. But these are the games that were significant to me this year, and the games that I recommend to others who share something like my criteria.
What Are My Criteria?
- I’m specifically interested in “contests of decision-making”. This means that I am interested in making interesting, difficult and meaningful choices with irreversible consequences
- I’m highly turned-off by high levels of unfair variance (such as dice-roll combat or other kinds of “output randomness”)
- Also turned off by high levels of input execution, although I’m a little more accepting of this if the game actually has a system and isn’t just an execution contest
- I’m not interested in puzzles - and by that term I don’t mean abstracts such as match 3s, I’ve never considered those “puzzles”. To me a puzzle is something you are meant to solve rather than win.
- I’m not interested in stories in the context of an interactive system. By stories here I mean it in the colloquial sense - obviously all games result in a story in a way, but I mean previously authored stories as you’d find in RPGs or interactive fiction.
- I’m not interested in fantasy simulation, although if a game is otherwise good and also happens to simulate some fantasy without damaging the game system, I’m fine with that.
- I am highly intolerant of my time being wasted by fetch-quests, grinding, running down a long corridor, load screens, splash screens, fixing the camera, or forcing me to make no-brainer choices of any kind.
- I am highly intolerant of offensive IAP being shoved in my face all the time and other abusive F2P type stuff.
- Easy to learn, difficult to master. Both sides of this equation are equally important to me. I value elegance highly and am always looking for a game that achieves great depth and simplicity at the same time.
For more detailed information about what interests me and doesn’t interest me in games, I would recommend reading the BoardGameGeek user “clearclaw”’s profile page, which puts many of my own feelings about games down in writing better than I ever have. My favorite quote of his is from (actually the entirety of) his review of the game Age of Steam:
"After playing your mind quivers, not in shock or burnout, but in exactly the same way your legs will after a pounding your way up a steep hill: in the riotous enjoyment of being alive and working hard and knowing that next time, next time, you can do better."
That’s what I’m looking for in games.
This is the list of games that I like from 2013. I have tried to stay away from ports, like the ports of XCOM (2012) or Agricola that came out on iOS, or Ice Rage on OUYA. All of these games weren’t really introduced to the world in 2013, so I’m not counting them (however I did include one game that did not come out in 2013, with an explanation). Empire, my own iOS/Android strategy game that was released this year, should also probably be on this list, but isn’t for obvious reasons.
I have not ordered this list, because frankly that’s just way too difficult and also probably diminishes the value of this list overall (puts way too much emphasis on the top 3 or so). So the list here is alphabetical. Enjoy!
7 Grand Steps(PC) - I play a lot of games of all different kinds, from many different cultures and time periods and in different mediums, and I can tell you that 7 Grand Steps is one of the weirdest games I’ve ever played. It is part boardgame, part digital strategy game, part interactive fiction, and part… I don’t know what the last part is. It’s essentially kind of like a worker placement / resource management game, but with a long and strange metagame around it that frankly, I wish it didn’t have because it’s super unclear (intentionally so). Also, the core gameplay is held back by the same problems - the designer seems intent on actively hiding rules from the player and intentionally making things obscure. Like the game asks you frequently these personal “what would you do” kind of questions with multiple choice answers, and of course some answers result in some kind of mechanical effect, but I have no idea what the effect is. On top of that, I’m fairly certain a ton of really important things come down to randomness which also really limits the game for me. But with that said, I really commend this game for its weirdness.
868 Hack (PC, iOS) - Michael Brough’s newest work, something of a continuation of his work with Zaga-33, is solid, interesting and original. He’s one of the few “Rogue-like” type designers who really strays from the core gameplay of Rogue and invents his own. I also appreciate that 868 Hack has a bit more “donkeyspace” (room for less-than-optimal, but still decent moves) than Zaga-33. However, I think it somewhat suffers the classic digital solitaire game problem of having a somewhat unclear goal (I wrote about this a bit in my latest GS article), and I think Michael took one of the more unfortunate values of the Rogue-like world with him - this idea that having unclear rules is a good thing, that it’s OK to make the player have to play many games just to learn what the rules even are. With that said, if I had to give a game “best game of 2013”, it might be 868 Hack.
The Banner Saga: Factions (PC) - A visually beautiful tactics game. At first glance, it should be the kind of game that I would absolutely love, because it’s turn-based tactical multiplayer combat. At second glance, it should be the kind of game that I would completely hate, because the grid is rather small and there are squares instead of hexes, as well as nice artwork, all of which suggest that this might be RPG heavy and therefore a big dice-roll fest. Fortunately, those fears were only partially true. The game is actually almost totally deterministic, except I think just if you use range combat then suddenly there’s a dice roll, which is really weird and awful, but what are you gonna do. The production values of this game are out of control awesome, and I’m glad to see a tactics game that’s actually marketable to normal people. A huge problem I have with it is that it’s really slow - you can’t turn off all the God damn animations, so you just have to watch them every single time you make an action. Another issue is that it’s free to play and there’s a ton of unlocky stuff going on, with RPG power snowball metagame stuff too, and it's all pretty noisy. But the biggest issue of all is that even though it didn’t come out this year, Outwitters still exists, and so if I’m going to play a tactical wargame, sorry TBS, but Outwitters kind of obsoletes you. Still, an interesting game and easily one of my favorites from this year.
Beat Bros (OUYA) - This is probably the second weirdest (and I mean that in a good way) game I’ve played this year, next to 7 Grand Steps. In essence, this game figured out how to do platforming with discrete space and time (a grid and turns) in a way that really works and isn’t super-solvable, by tying the discrete time to beats in the music. So every beat you get another turn, and objects that are in motion will move. You get little arrows that tell you where things are headed so there isn’t any guessing involved. It’s really just cool, and there’s even an interesting seeming multiplayer mode. This is a game with massive potential, but it seems to me that the game is sort of in this weird place where it kind of was released on Ouya, but now I’m also reading that it’s in beta or something, so hopefully the developers will support this game for a long time. This could end up being a massive hit. Thumbs up to to UltimateWalrus!
Bomb Ball (OUYA) - The OUYA has quite a few of these little pong/soccer style “get the ball into the other guy’s goal” type of games, which I’m really happy about. Bomb Ball is, from a design perspective, the most interesting and notable though. It has an extremely simple control scheme - you have one button that makes your ball “explode”, pushing any players or pucks in the area to get knocked out at the appropriate angle. One of the coolest little marks of genius in this game is the fact that when you “possess” the puck, it trails behind you. So to shoot it “forward”, the way you are moving, you actually have to stop, and rotate around the puck. This means that you have to use the special action powers to score (which are also mostly quite cool - the best one is a little sentry that you place down and choose a direction, and when the puck reaches it it automatically fires it in the selected direction, which can be used as a “thing to pass to” offensively or as a kind of goalie). Great game - I just wish it had a little more to it. Online play, local tournament support, etc. There’s no reason Bomb Ball shouldn’t be played competitively.
Desktop Dungeons (PC) - QCF Design worked really hard on this new commercial version of the 2010 freeware game for over three years. You can definitely see where the work went - there’s a ton of metagame and some really nice artwork. Unfortunately… I find myself longing for the free version whenever I play this, as I feel that the metagame actually gets in the way and bogs the whole thing down. The new version looks nicer and might be better for a new player, though. Anyway, this isn’t a port exactly, and Desktop Dungeons as a game is one of the best, most innovative digital solitaire games of the past 10 years, so I highly recommend you give it a try.
Divekick (PC, PS3, Vita) - Full disclosure - I haven’t even played Divekick, because it doesn’t support Windows XP (which by the way, ⅓ of humankind still uses). However, I’ve watched a lot of videos of it being played and I know the rules, and I put it here on my list because I think it’s extremely significant. For so long we’ve lived in a world of “more is more”; an insane content arms-race has brought us to thinking that 30+ moves are required for a fighting game. I think this is totally ridiculous, and Divekick illustrates that case very well. While Divekick is played competitively, many feel that because of its stark simplicity, it’s mostly a gag game. Either way, the point is that the amount of depth you get out of just two moves is incredible (due to continuous space and time). So what if you had three moves? Or five? Hopefully, Divekick will make a lasting impression on game designers everywhere.
Four Scepters (Web) - Yet another “boiled down Rogue-like”. I really like these sorts of things for two reasons. One, they actually tend to just make nice quick little solitaire “coffee break” games. Second, they also kind of obsolete “real” Rogue-likes, which are basically the same things but just take longer to play. Four Scepters does have some original ideas to it, though, like the fact that you have four characters to play (sort of like four lives, and in each life you have different powers). It doesn’t waste your time with any of the “fake exploration” that exists in traditional Rogue-likes either. However, ultimately, it’s a resource management game where you’re basically being dealt random resources, so like the big Rogue-likes, it ends up being largely a gambling game. With that said, it’s a good time and definitely worth playing. Go play!
Hoplite (iOS, Android) - Hoplite is more in the 868-Hack territory than just a plain old boiled down Rogue-like. It actually has its own gameplay, I’d say. Hoplite has some really cool, interesting rules, and in a lot of ways reminds me of my own upcoming game, AURO. The reasons that it isn’t my favorite game ever are the fact that, like Zaga-33, there doesn’t feel like there’s quite enough donkeyspace for me, probably due to the fact that you only have 3 health to spend. With that said, one of the coolest things about this game is the fact that you gain energy for using abilities by walking into threatened tiles. Overall, a great game, and I was happy to see it come out on Android before iOS for once! Note that the video below shows the old version of Hoplite - it has recently been reskinned and updated with a nice tutorial and such.
Leap Day (Web) - I can’t really pin down a release date for this game - DanC was working on this back in 2012 for sure, and they made it available for online play at some point either very late 2012 or early 2013. Anyway, over the course of this past year, I played a lot of Leap Day, trying really hard to get into it. Like the designer himself, the great Dan C of Triple Town and Steam Birds fame (by the way, his upcoming Road Not Taken will almost certainly be one of Keith Burgun’s top games of 2014), I saw a ton of potential in this super strange 8-player MMO machine-building game. But also like DanC, who recently decided that the game will be shelved for awhile while they fundamentally re-work the game, I don’t think it quite worked as it is. You can still play it on Spry Fox’ site, and I recommend you do. Probably just because I’m a game designer, I am way more interested in a daring failure like Leap Day than I am in a safe success like The Last of Us or Bioshock: Infinite.
Mrs. Dad VS. Körv (OUYA) - Another super-bizarre multiplayer game. Actually this one is so bizarre that it’s actually two totally separate games in one. Who would do that? As far as I can tell there is no connection at all between the two games, so they just literally put two games into one app for some strange reason. Also the game is called “Mrs. Dad VS Körv”. Like, a title so weird that it’s hard to even say. Anyway, the gameplay of both games is really cool. There’s one “pill-eating” game where you chase each other down, kind of a really interesting deathmatch game, and then there’s a hockeyish sort of game where you get these trails of eggs that you’re trying to bring back to your goal. Both games are really dynamic and fun and I highly recommend you check them out.
And um, and if you watch no other YouTube videos on this page, please watch this dev journal which gives some insight into the minds of this game’s creators.
No Brakes Valet (OUYA) - In this game, you attempt to steer cars that are going way too fast, and try to make them land nicely in designated parking spots, or at least push your opponents’ well-placed cars out of their spots. It was created to be largely a gag-game / a fun party game, but I think it has potential, with some rule tweaks, balancing, patching and other kinds of support, to be a real serious competitive game similar to pool.
Was 2013 a good year for games? Hard to say. I think we’re in a transition phase, and I see signs of real growth. It’s kind of like asking me if we have a beautiful garden - right now, all you can see if you look quickly is dirt, but if you look closely you can see many seeds have been planted and the soil is fertile and rich. Did a lot of truly great games come out this year? My answer is “no” - in fact I’m not even sure I would say a single truly great game by my standards came out this year. However, there were dozens of games that came out which challenged old vestigial models of design, and that’s exciting.
I’m kind of weirded out that there aren’t more boardgames on this list, but it also sort of makes sense since fewer of them come out every year and they’re more of an investment to sit down and get into.
It’s also interesting that the OUYA played such a prominent role in terms of the most interesting games of the year, for me. I generally have a somewhat negative attitude about how things are going for that system. If it doesn’t succeed, it’s quite possible that it just came out a few years too early, or something. The times are changing in favor of more interesting, smaller, system-based apps, but maybe not quick enough to make the OUYA a viable thing right now. We’ll see!
Actually I want to mention a few more OUYA games: Towerfall, Bomb Squad and Hidden in Plain Sight also got tons of play from me this year and are all, at least, fun party games.
Thanks for reading, and I hope I tuned some people into some new games that they didn’t know about.