Guest List: Dan Phipps's Top 10 Games of 2017

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Dan Phipps is a Space Records Guy in Los Angeles. He designed Nine Lives to Valhalla in an attempt to take the most chill, pastoral tabletop RPG and make it about death metal viking cats. He’s let his portfolio page go to seed so you can give him a hard time for his bad opinions on Twitter at @itsdanphipps.

Most Improved: Destiny 2

Hey, remember Halo 1 and 2? Because honestly, I’d kind of forgotten. But there was a reason I spent so much time on four-player Blood Gulch maps, drinking beer, and crashing alien tanks into each other. And man, that’s what Destiny 2 is about. There’s a lot going on in the Destiny franchise that, honestly, I’m not sure why it’s in there. I couldn’t tell you the first thing about the story, the classes are similar enough that I’m not sure why they bothered, and someone’s always trying to get me to join their endgame faction like space-marine Jehovah's Witnesses. But I only get out of my bright-pink dropship for two reasons: to shoot aliens with red shields with my red-bullet gun and to get them purple gems that turn into better guns. Like Halo before it, Destiny 2 has a tight gameplay loop that stays fun throughout. I’m not sure what else I’d want.

Attendance Award: Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle

Oh, this game. Listen, the presentation was imperfect. The humor just straight-up doesn’t work unless it’s being delivered by the 100% perfect Rabbid Peach. The limitations on team composition are arbitrary and frustrating, and there’s little reason to use anyone you pick up in the second half of the game. Getting coins feels grindy and the co-op was clearly an afterthought. But if you want to make a turn-based tactics game, look not to XCOM or Fire Emblem; Mario + Rabbids is the place to start. The colors are bright, the characters are charming and highly mobile, there’s never a wasted turn, and the enemies are interesting. At no point did I miss the granularity of a 43.82% chance to make a shot in favor of Mario + Rabbids’s simplified system. You can take your grim realism and permadeath and shove it. For all its flaws, this is the most fun I’ve had with a tactics-based game in years. If there’s a game that deserves a spiritual successor, it’s this one. 

Participation Award: Battle Chef Brigade

Ok so it’s Iron Chef except the theme ingredients are monster guts and the monsters are still alive and you have three minutes to find them, kill them, and cook them in a gourmet dish. There’s so much that’s good about this premise and Battle Chef Brigade uses every part of the hydra. It’s a hybrid of a light platforming combat and match-3 gem puzzle game. I’m…honestly not very good at it? Half the time I kind of panic and start moving gems around at random, which bodes ill for my chances going into the final judgment before Mina can join the warrior-chefs of The Brigade. I don’t really care, though. I’ll turn out for your Reality Show + Monster Hunting premise pretty much every day. The time-pressure to make as many as three high-points-scoring dishes can be a Master Chef-level challenge, but the story is as pure as the Great British Baking Show.

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10. Horizon Zero Dawn

Guerrilla Games | February 28th, 2017 | PlayStation 4

You’ve seen this game before: Horizon Zero Dawn is a greatest-hits album of AAA games from 2013 to now. Stealth like Metal Gear Solid V, inexplicable ancient voice recordings like BioShock, Tomb Raider’s crafting and climbing systems, and the whole Ubisoft open-world playbook is on display here. But Horizon does it all better and does it in a world that’s just fundamentally more interesting. For the most part your quests are more interesting than rote object collection, and they’re handed out by a cast of characters that are total babes. The omission of a dating system is… well, probably a good idea but still a bit of a bummer. Honestly, the worst thing about Horizon is that, unfortunately, it came out the same year as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which launches this whole open-world premise into the future. Still, after being so frustrated with the nature of open-world games that have come out of late, it’s great to see a game so well executed with a solid premise and also robot dinosaurs.

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9. Hollow Knight

Team Cherry | February 24th, 2017 | Windows, Mac, Linux

I love maps, and I’m pretty sure Team Cherry loves maps too. Hollow Knight is a well-executed Metroidvania with simple controls, weird and beautiful art, a deep sense of tragedy, and sound design that evokes just how gross these adorable bugs must be. What made it stand out for me, though, was how it handles maps. The first half of the game really shone for me as I was forced to make hard choices about spending money on navigational aids, precious loadout slots on a compass that indicated my current location, and seeking out the cartographer beetle in the treacherous new zones I found. While I frequently felt lost, Hollow Knight gives you just enough information to get back on the main quest - something that helped keep me on track during the first half of the game and helped me wrap things up when the skill challenges required for the True Ending (™) got to be too much for my poor, casual thumbs. It’s moody, fun, charming, and it didn’t overstay its welcome.

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8. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

MachineGames | October 27th, 2017 | Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Like Terror-Billy himself, Wolfenstein: The New Colossus feels like a miracle from outside time, dropped confused and loudly into a 2017 full of pearl-clutching over what white supremacists think about Game of Thrones. As in The New Order, B.J. Blazkowicz is an improbably realized protagonist. Half-Jewish and Aryan-passing, a lesser title would ask why you don’t just walk away. In The New Colossus we meet the Blazkowicz patriarch, whose abuse casts your swath of bloody retribution in stark light. There’s a lot that works in this game and some amount that doesn’t — the game clearly wants to be played on its easiest difficulty yet chides you for doing so. You’re frequently fighting enemies who are dressed in all black in dark environments; I found myself waiting patiently to be shot at so I could find the next ethno-state enthusiast to cut down like a lawnmower who just learned about the paradox of tolerance. I’m gonna make it to the year 2018, somehow, with no clear idea how to respond to tiki-torch wielding anti-semites surrounding black churches. I envy Terror-Billy for his clarity of purpose, but I don’t envy how he got there.

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7. Pyre

Supergiant Games | July 25th, 2017 | Windows, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4

Ok, so it’s NBA Jam except the basketball is a magic orb and you have to dunk it in a fire and you can cast spells and your team is talking dogs and demons and harpies. I love this game for all the same reasons as Battle Chef Brigade but where it stands apart is in its refinement and scope. The world is bigger, the art is better, there’s more of it, and everything about it is weirder. Beyond its magic team sports, there’s a fantasy realm with deep history and team management concerns between events. Pyre borrows the best bits from those dry-as-dust fantasy arrow-counting simulators and replaces the core game with rad as hell fantasy soccer with your freedom on the line. I had no idea I needed this game but here it is and it’s excellent.

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6. Super Mario Odyssey

Nintendo EPD | October 27th, 2017 | Switch

Don’t call Super Mario Odyssey a comeback - like almost every game in the Mario catalog, this game is a joy to play. The controls are responsive and satisfying, the core game is toast simple, and the game loves to reinvent itself over and over only to abandon those ideas long before they go stale in favor of something new. It is charm incarnate. There’s functionally infinite game here—if you wanted to seek out all 999 power moons I’m sure you could. Like Destiny 2Odyssey is unapologetically a fun video game about exploring new worlds and smiling the whole way. Unlike Destiny 2, Odyssey is hilarious, accessible, and is marred only by the inclusion of motion controls which, as always, only kinda work.

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5. Apocalypse World 2e and Monsterhearts 2e

Apocalypse World: D. Vincent Baker and Meguey Baker | 2017 | book, PDF
Monsterhearts 2: Avery Alder | 2017 | book, PDF

It is an indefensible sin that I am lumping these two together but 2017 was a big year for games and I’m running out of room. If you want to understand how tabletop RPGs work you should own and read both these books. Even if you never play them or have no interest in exploring a crazy Mad Max world or roleplaying as a CW show about sexy monsters. Which… well, there’s no accounting for taste, but if those ideas don’t do anything for you maybe you should check your pulse. If those two things sound like they have little in common it’s because the only thing linking them is a design philosophy and dice-rolling mechanic. Where they ended up is completely different.

Apocalypse World and its various evolutionary offspring (of which Monsterhearts is an excellent example) represent a sea change in how tabletop RPGs are presented and talked about. The focus is shifted away from meticulous preparation of combat encounters and feat trees in favor of a more flexible in-game experience. It’s a step away from playing at simulation, focusing on interesting outcomes and trusting that the table will do what makes sense. These games run like an impressionist painting. The things that don’t matter blur and fade so that you can really focus on the bright, shining core of whatever it is you care about. Whether it’s having ill-advised monster sex or putting even more spikes on your war-buggy, these games are a great start if you haven’t spent an evening rolling dice with friends.

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4. Night in the Woods

Infinite Fall | February 21st, 2017 | Windows, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Man, you really can’t go home again. Night in the Woods is a gem of a game, analogous to last year’s Firewatch in how laugh-out-loud funny and deeply sad it can be. Exploring Possum Springs with Mae retains its charm throughout as you slowly learn more about who she is, what she’s done, and how it’s affected the people around her. At first glance the actual gameplay can appear thin, but the use of minigames to evoke specific feelings keep things exciting and justify why it’s a game instead of a novel. This game feels like a Richard Scarry book about who I was in college and what might have happened if my garbage work ethic and lack of self awareness had been a little more intense. Persona 5 comes higher on this list but Night in the Woods is more accessible, cheaper, and better respects your time. If you’re looking for a good story, this is the best one that came out this year. If I wasn’t such a nerd for game mechanics this would absolutely be my game of the year.

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3. Persona 5

Atlus | April 4th, 2017 | PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3

Persona 5 is 2017: The Video Game. It’s about the struggles of those who have suffered abuse at the hands of the powerful, and it gives equal weight whether the source of that power comes from high school sports, government corruption, or your own memories. The characters are flawed in the ways that survivors are flawed—impatient with coping mechanisms they don’t understand, loud, irrational, and wounded. Also like 2017, the pacing is glacial. The dialogue repeats itself and it feels like you aren’t free to really explore the network of trains and psychosexual dungeons for hours and hours. While the narratives that surround the major arcana of this game are well realized and fun, some of the narrative jaunts are awkward, poorly thought out, or offensive to my delicate American sensibilities. It took me 100 hours to see this game through and there were still things left undone which, as my time gets more and more precious, is hardly a selling point.

Still, if ever there was a time for a game about how hard it can be to make the new friends after you’ve suffered a blow from people miles away for reasons you don’t understand, it’s Persona: a game about improving yourself, making the most out of your days, acknowledging and embracing how the world sees you as a means to fight back. And, yes, a game where a cat turns into a bus and you can execute a cat-samurai and the mothman to make some kind of weird horse-monster. 

Persona 5 is maximalist in every possible aspect: its music is wild, its interface is loud and beautiful, its central metaphor is literally a prison. I’d understand if you skipped it this year, but if the idea of some kind of weird Jungian tarot Pokémon used to explore the subconscious of Harvey Weinstein to defeat his demon monster inner-self and bring justice to the actual person sounds like a good time, you owe it to yourself to at least watch a Let’s Play of it.

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2. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Nintendo EPD | March 3rd, 2017 | Switch, Wii U

Man, Breath of the Wild is gonna ruin some games for me. Just like Metal Gear Solid V single-handedly killed my experience with any stealth-based game since, Breath of the Wild’s systemic approach to open worlds blew my hair back. Like most of the games I enjoyed this past year, Breath of the Wild does a lot with very few ingredients. And it just…lets them interact. Leaving apples near the fire means you got some baked apples. You throw a stick and the dog will fetch it. Cook sugar, flour, milk, and butter together and it’ll make a cake! Probably. Who knows? Unlike Minecraft’s obsession with crafting recipes that the player is forced to guess, Breath of the Wild has its own internally consistent logic that invites you to experiment and doesn’t mind if you forget. Your list of quests is mercifully short, and if they’re boring you can just ride off in some other direction.

Like Fallout, Skyrim, Far Cry, and The Witcher, the world in Breath of the Wild is beautiful. Unlike them, it isn’t such a drag. Despite the world-ending peril you face, the color palette and cast of characters are both wildly colorful. It borrows my favorite page out of The Witness’s book—dotting the landscape with environmental puzzles and not highlighting them. The only thing that actually for real didn’t work for me was the puzzles that require you to recreate a landscape, and even that had a helpful NPC to give me hints at various stables. 

Lots of games are grindy. They assign you a task and you fulfill it. And I’m not going to pretend Zelda doesn’t need saving or that some weird kid doesn’t want 10 grasshoppers. But Breath of the Wild does a remarkable job of always having something worth checking out on the horizon, some weird abandoned structure popping up around the corner. Grasshopper kid can wait, and Zelda’s got Ganon under control for now.

1. Blades in the Dark

John Harper | 2017 | book, PDF

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So, Blades in the Dark is a tabletop RPG not wildly dissimilar from Apocalypse World. It’s about a crew of scoundrels in a haunted city pullin’ heists, building up turf, and getting in over their heads. It’s the only game on this list I’ve been consistently playing for months and will probably be my favorite RPG for a long, long time. It’s a false dichotomy but I still think of games in terms of fluff and crunch and I have a hard time leaving crunch behind. Sure, it’s a fire axe, but how many damage dice am I rollin’? Blades is the best effort I’ve seen at threading the needle between the two, keeping things loose but affecting things in a meaningful way.

It’s a lot of fun for the GM, especially once you start preparing the way Blades wants you to prep. A general understanding of what’s going on in the city, a few secrets to slowly reveal, a handful of named characters and locations, and you’re ready to roll. Your scoundrels will do the rest, seizing on the realization that it’s fashion week and looking for an opportunity to pull a score. All you need to do is complicate things. The fact that the players can spend stress to resist whatever you’re hurling at them, that they decide what tools they brought with them in flashbacks so they always have what they need, that they know people and it’s assumed they prepared appropriately…you can do a lot as a GM without breaking the game and ruining the fun. Drop shipping containers on them, light the city on fire, stab them in the lungs, start the time bomb. They’ll be fine! It’ll all come out when they start doing opium to deal with the stress and wounds they’ve piled up.

My only critique of Blades is the downtime segment, which feels a bit board game-adjacent. Handling your larger gang can occasionally feel complicated and arbitrary as you manage your two overtime actions and handle the police. These edges are easily filed off through play and do a good job of keeping things on track during the early sessions, but it wasn’t long before I started to wish the experience was more streamlined.

If nothing else, the thing to take away from Blades in the Dark is the realization that tabletop RPGs are not video games, and the GM is not a computer. That means rules will only be applied when remembered, that context is more important than math, and that no two groups are the same. Designer John Harper invites you to make decisions artistically, not as his avatar at the table. Chapters end with questions to consider: how do you feel about how the example GM handled this? Maybe there was a missed opportunity or the tone was more lighthearted than you’d generally go for? There’s no reason to stop and look up the exact difficulty of a well-made lock because literally who cares. If they’re having trouble they can flashback and get the key. 

Blades in the Dark is my Game of the Year for 2017 because it delivers on something I’ve wanted in a game for a long time: a tabletop RPG with an emphasis on flexibility and story, but with a solid game engine ticking underneath the surface. It took me a couple reads to understand how the various systems interlock (a perhaps overly-thorough breakdown can be found here) and I completely forgot essential elements of the game for the first few sessions. But like the scoundrels of Duskvol, this system always seems to bounce back. Blades is a welcome addition to any game collection whether you’re starting to find your Dungeons & Dragons campaign a little stale, looking to run your first game, or just enjoy good weird fantasy worldbuilding.