Rowan Kaiser is a role-playing and strategy-oriented freelance writer living in the Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter if you dare, like him on Facebook for his articles and podcasts, and if you’re really keen, support him on Patreon.
I hear this was a great year for blockbuster games. Titanfall! Uncharted! Dishonored! Battlefield! Doom! Even Shadow Warrior! I just...didn’t really play any of them. Instead, I ended up focusing on what was arguably the greatest year for strategy games, well, ever. Nothing wrong with those blockbusters--I look forward to playing them, uh, on Steam sale--but holy shit you guys strategy games were AMAZING this year. So here’s my list of fantastic 2016 games that aren’t violent cinematic 8-12 hour action-adventures!
Here’s an obligatory 2015 game that made good in 2016. Heroes struggled a bit out of the game, with genre fans basically treating it as Baby’s First MOBA and it not having the depth to prove them definitively wrong. In 2016, though, it got that depth. With 60 heroes now, as well as bans in draft modes, Heroes is no longer a race to get the most powerful mage and win from there--there’s now a ton of strategic and tactical variety. A huge May patch rebalanced it away from stuns as a dominant strategy. And with Autumn’s Machines of War expansion, it added Starcraft maps and a second Overwatch hero--all of which finally made it feel like Heroes of the Storm had finally achieved its potential as an embodiment of Blizzard’s legacy, and a great game in its own right.
I know I said I was sort of avoiding short, narrative-driven games but, uh, have you seen how gorgeous Firewatch is? My list here is filled with some exceptionally aesthetically pleasing games, but Firewatch may top them all. More to the point, it designs an entire game around that beauty. Sure, there’s a decent story and fantastic voice acting in there, but above all, Firewatch is a triumph of level design and artistic vision.
I like everything about Civilization VI. It takes the beloved formula and improves it in some pretty important ways: the research quests, specifically, are great for focusing both new and expert players on how the game should be played. Meanwhile, the game’s push to have you pay attention to its map instead of a pile of menus results in both beauty and an intentional focus on the things that had made Civilization great in the past. I just...haven’t quite fallen in love with it like previous Civilizations, despite intellectually recognizing its greatness. (The stunning lack of Steam mod support doesn’t help.)
What makes Overwatch special is its ability to tell stories. No, not the rampant fanfic, although that ain’t nothing--the charm of the characters is the first thing you might notice. I mean that every match has a distinct narrative. You know what you’re doing, how you’re trying to do it, what’s stopping you, what’s working, and what’s not--and by the end of the ten-minute-or-less match, you have a story. “An enemy Genji kept getting behind our lines and wrecking us until I switched to Mei, froze him repeatedly, and shut down their payload progress” or “we timed all our ults to seize the capture point right before they won.” This is what any kind of team multiplayer game needs--and Overwatch seems to do it both effortlessly and in faster matches than almost any of its peers.
6. XCOM 2
Everything about XCOM 2 seems like a conceptual improvement over its instant classic predecessor--especially its very clever reframing of the XCOM organization as a ragtag bunch of resistance fighters in a dystopian future. The theory didn’t quite hold up in practice--technical and balance problems always seemed to rear their head in just-frustrating enough fashion to prevent it from being higher on my list. But despite those problems, I still spent hours playing probably the best tactical combat system in existence. And also spend even more hours trying to create the X-Men as my squaddies, because when you can get Mohawk Storm killing aliens, you gotta do that.
This is a game about the entirety of World War II. Which is why I’m going to talk about how amazing it is as an economics game! Building your military in HOI4 is a puzzle that seems both manageable and unsolvable at the same time: you have to balance different types of factories producing different kinds of materiel, then plug that production into a balanced set of units that you then combine to build a damn army. That sounds kinda boring, so lemme put another way: Hearts of Iron IV makes you feel like a genius for juggling a dozen different economic and military decisions at once, and your reward? Killing goddamn Nazis.
Look, I get why CD Projekt Red decided that this expansion--essentially a full-sized new game in WitcherFrance--was their second and final installment in the magnificent Witcher 3 (my GOTY last year, in case you couldn’t tell from the praise). But given how successfully they created an entire, clever story, as well as altering and improving the game’s RPG systems, well, I kinda wish CD Projekt Red would release new expansions in new kingdoms with new characters every year. They’re just that good.
RimWorld is a near-perfect combination of survival strategy, colony building, and interpersonal relationships. It’s like a dream given form; the ideal of taking a hostile environment, surviving, and thriving within it--the strategic version of what people hoped No Man’s Sky might be (and with a dash of Firefly). I believed this was true when the game was released, and still believe it now, but hoo boy did it get tough to recommend in-between. No judgment if you got turned off by the controversy, but this is a list of my favorite games this year. I’d be lying if I didn’t include RimWorld, a game that dominated my summer playtime.
Remember seeing the Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers for the first time? Swarms of orcs climbing walls, desperate archers trying to hold them off, heroes accomplishing amazing feats, exploding siege weapons...it was a damn experience. Total War: Warhammer is a game that seems to be devoted to recapturing that experience. I’m not sure how intentional that is--but judging from the game’s soundtrack, it sure seems to be. Remarkably, for a series that I thought had totally lost the plot just a couple years ago, it succeeds.
My favorite moment had a horde of cheap Vampire units swarming my small, artillery-heavy Human army. A mass of zombies, followed by rampaging skeletons burst out of a forest into the clearing I’d set up as a death trap. Cannons boomed, archers fired, and knights charged as I desperately tried to save my Empire’s heartland from an undead invasion. It felt, sounded and looked just as impressive as I could ever have wanted from it (except for the part where eventually I was overwhelmed and my campaign was effectively ended). And Total Warhammer does this consistently.
There’s a great, if not quite perfect, strategy game in there underneath the explosive Epic Fantasy, too. Each faction feels very different to play, and after six months of expansions, the starting options no longer feel undercooked. The tactical combat plays well, and the Chaos invasion halfway through the campaign does a fantastic job of preventing mid-game ennui. I still have some issues with its prioritization of missile troops, and the southern part of the map feels underbaked, but jeez, it would take something special to knock this off the top of my list. So,
In the past month or so, I’ve seen dozens of game critics on social media ask “What games do I need to play before filling out my GOTY list?” No matter who was asking, and in what context, Darkest Dungeon was my consistent answer. Do you like RPGs? Darkest Dungeon. Strategy games? Darkest Dungeon. Games with clever core mechanics? Darkest Dungeon. Marrying those mechanics to a remarkable aesthetic themes for a complete, coherent experience? Darkest Dungeon. Short games that you can complete in few days? ….okay, not Darkest Dungeon.
Darkest Dungeon is built on three key pillars. First, an intricate tactical combat system that, despite being on a 2D plane, manages to making positioning and movement a critical part of dealing with monsters. Second, it leans hard into a Lovecraftian theme, epitomized by a narrator whose excess verbiage and sonorous tones became instantly memeworthy.
But the thing that makes Darkest Dungeon truly special is how it ties it all together: a “stress” mechanic where your characters’ minds are tested similarly to their bodies on each dungeon run. Your little Plague Doctors and Hellions will continually have their sanity be tested by direct attacks, traps, and even each other. When it hits 100, they snap. Sometimes that’s good--stress turns them into heroes. More often, it can turn a promising expedition into a disaster, when they refuse to fight at a critical moment because they’re too busy complaining. It’s a great game mechanic for adding more dimension to a dungeon crawler, and it also, as Austin Walker argued, takes mental health seriously unlike other games with sanity systems.
And with vampires coming in 2017, looks like I’m heading back in soon. Maybe this time I’ll actually finish!