Hey everybody, I’m Excalibur, a professional wrestling broadcaster and the disembodied voice that doesn’t belong to hall-of-famers Jim Ross or Tony Schiavone on All Elite Wrestling Dynamite, every Wednesday night on TNT (8/7c). I am also a living human man that plays video games, but more often than not thinking about playing games. With the fair amount of traveling I do my schedule doesn’t necessarily allow me to spend a ton of time in front of the TV or at my desk (I started Spider-Man in March and played through it well into the second quarter of 2019), so something like the Switch is an absolute gift. As are games that are easily digestible in 4-5 hour chunks (coincidentally the same length as many cross-country flights). That’s just my way of saying my list feels a little Switch-heavy. Whatever man, these are the things I really enjoyed in 2019 in no particular order:
I came to the Yakuza series with the release of Yakuza 0, and have enjoyed a biannual return to Kamurocho ever since. Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio changed up their tried and true formula of having you play as a powerful, suave, expert martial artist gangster by having you play as a powerful, suave, expert martial artist private detective. While it doesn’t sound like much, stepping into a new pair of shoes to explore a city I now know like the back of my hand was an enjoyable change of pace.
Not all of the new mini-games worked (I never want to do another tailing mission for the rest of my life), some of the “humorous” side characters are wildly problematic (Ass Catchem and the rest of The Twisted Trio in particular), and the game did overstay its welcome by a handful of hours, but the positives far outweighed the negatives. That said, I am greatly looking forward to changes in combat style and setting for Yakuza 7 next year.
I do not enjoy baseball as a spectator sport, but I enjoy the hell out of Super Mega Baseball 2. With the accessible yet rewarding hitting and pitching, SMB2 feels like a spiritual successor to the NEO•GEO Baseball Stars series in many ways. But with customizable league modes, player and team editors, and online season play, there’s a lot more here than it may seem at first glance. The game’s difficulty system (dubbed “Ego”) is particularly appealing since it can be adjusted on the fly, which means as your skills develop as a player you can increase the level of challenge, whether it’s mid-season, between innings, or even between pitches.
As the Total War series has added depth throughout the years, it hasn’t always worked. The real-time tactical combat that has defined the series has been consistently great, but the turn-based campaign elements have been a little uneven. The “Total Warhammer” games started to find their footing, but this is the first historical entry that I felt did a great job of marrying the real-time battles with the 4X elements.
On top of that, creating two gameplay modes (Romance of the Three Kingdoms for those not looking for historical accuracy, Records of the Three Kingdoms for the grognards) helps appeal to a wider audience and adds even more depth to an already deep game. And it kinda sorta really works, without feeling like a Crusader Kings/Total War mash-up. But actually, that sounds pretty awesome…
Pokémon GO (Mobile)
I’m sure there’s a way to quantify the number of hours I’ve spent with this game, but I’m not sure I want to know. Like many people, I played PoGo for a couple weeks when it came out in 2016, found there wasn’t a lot of “game” there, and quickly lost interest. When a friend told me the game had been fleshed out I gave it a try and was surprised by what I found. If you’re looking to collect the best roster for PVP, there’s that. If you’re looking to collect the toughest defenders so you can hold down a gym and earn in-game gold, there’s that. If you’re looking to collect in order to collect, there’s day-, week-, or month-long events that will spawn Pokémon from other biomes on your home turf, there’s that. A fun way to spend the time between pre-boarding for families and those in need of assistance down the jetway and Group 1.
Sidebar: Pokémon Sword & Shield stink. They are extremely dated RPGs with a nice coat of paint on them. I don’t care about Dexit, I have no childhood association with the Pokémon series, I just want a good RPG. I did not get that. If you are looking for an RPG on Switch, please buy Divinity: Original Sin 2 - Definitive Edition instead. That’s a good RPG.
Without a doubt I have spent more time with the Civilization series than any other in gaming, and while some of the additions to the core game have been very successful, others have not (and thankfully long forgotten). Gathering Storm does a fantastic job of introducing the threat of climate change as a way of spicing up the late game, requiring new strategies in the early game when considering city placement and build order. The addition of the World Congress and the ability to curry favor and trade it as a resource as well as adding weight to proposed resolutions so it’s no longer a binary choice make the familiar feel fresh all over again.
Return of the Obra Dinn (Switch)
A game that I sampled and enjoyed when it came out on PC last year, but really fell in love with when it popped up on Switch. A memorable detective game that presents genuine challenges and rewards a high level of attention to detail woven through a cryptic but compellingly revealed narrative. On top of that, the music (and musical cues) and performances are tremendous, and do a fantastic job of creating an immersive world with a very distinct art style.
Board Game Corner
The vast majority of my multiplayer gaming experiences in 2019 were via board gaming, and I think that is something that will continue to increase as time goes on. Wingspan, designed by Elizabeth Hargrave, is a complex but easy to learn game with near universal appeal due to the beautiful artwork. If your gaming time will be limited over the upcoming holidays due to spending time with friends and family, Wingspan is a fantastic way to scratch the gaming itch, as well as getting non-gamers to play something with a little more depth (and a lot more fun) than Monopoly. It plays in about an hour, supports 1-5 players, and is an absolute joy to look at.
Twilight Imperium 4th Edition
On the opposite side of the spectrum from Wingspan is Twilight Imperium, which had its 4th Edition come out in 2017 but our group only managed to get the table this year. A space-faring 4X in cardboard and plastic form where the diplomatic betrayals are even more dramatic than the combat (though the destruction of a flagship is just as keen as a double cross when it happens to you). It takes forever to learn, it takes even longer to play, but with 17 factions, tons of lore, and countless twists and turns it is an absolute blast if your group has the patience for that sort of thing. It’s for 3-6 players, and the box says it plays in 4-8 hours, but on your first game I’d plan for more, especially if you’re playing with five or six.
Mortal Kombat 11 (PC)
I am a Street Fighter loyalist but have long since left behind any semblance of competitive gaming and now value the single player experience over all else. It feels like the Mortal Kombat (and Tekken) series has grown with me in ways that Street Fighter hasn’t. There are plenty of rewarding single player modes in Mortal Kombat 11, the multi-character story mode and the challenging trial towers to name a few, but there’s also the ability to dive deeper if you want to. A shockingly deep training mode (frame data, combo metronomes, etc.) and healthy online scene are there for those that want to test their might, but for those like myself that want to punch around the computer and have a serotonin hit from unlocking some green pauldrons for a character I’ll never play, it’s a pretty good experience.
Planet Zoo (PC)
A lot of love and attention has been given to simulating the animals in realistic ways, and I think the game is extremely successful at it. Previous zoo sims had a very simple system of wants and needs, but Planet Zoo does a great job of making each resident of your zoo feel like a living being.
Frontier Developments did a fantastic job of creating a sandbox for would-be park and coaster architects with Planet Coaster, but did a horrible job explaining just how the construction and underlying systems work. Planet Zoo addresses many of those issues with a new tutorial mode that introduces the game’s systems over the course of a number of maps. The construction system is still extremely dense and perhaps the biggest barrier to entry, though it is very rewarding once you bend it (somewhat) to your will. The Planet Zoo community is very active on YouTube, helping new players wrap their heads around some of the more opaque parts of the game, as well as putting out some amazing stuff on the Steam Workshop.
Untitled Goose Game (Switch)
As someone that was attacked by a (I nearly wrote “aggressive,” but that would be redundant) goose as a child, this game speaks to me in a way that few others have (through a series of honks). Like Obra Dinn, the stylized art and soundtrack help create a world that is unique and engrossing. While there is joy in engaging in mischief as a goose, that is quickly superseded by the clever puzzle solving at the heart of the game. While the game is on the shorter side, it never overstayed its welcome and lead to one of my more pleasurable cross-country flights this year.
I know I already did a board game corner, but this is my game of the year (even though it came out in November 2017). This is the game I’ve thought the most about in 2019. This is the game that I look forward to playing the most. This is also the toughest game for me to play because of the time commitments involved: it requires considerable set up and getting two to four (five, if you use some house rules) friends together that have hours of free time over multiple sessions. But man, is it fun.
With roleplaying and dungeon-crawling elements mixed with a eurogame-style card-based combat system, Gloomhaven is an amalgam of so many systems that it almost shouldn’t work. But it does, and it works really well. When your group loses a mission it’s usually a learning moment: often it boils down to how your group mismanaged their decks, being more efficient in the early game and saving your powerful, one-shot attacks for when they’re really, really needed. Outside of the combat, the campaign is played in a legacy-style format, which brings the element of permanence found in many video game RPGs into the tabletop world. The box is big, the campaign is even bigger, and I can’t stop thinking about it.