It wasn’t long ago that I feeling bummed, thinking that PC gaming and I were headed in different directions, that today’s gaming trends ran counter to my tastes in entertainment. Then just as the real world seemed to fall apart, 2021 brings me safe harbor from the real world in the form of three of my favorite games ever. Old World was fascinating and brilliant, and, to be honest, had an impact on my life roughly equivalent to making good friends with an addictive street drug. First I played it as an “experience” and then Velociryx turned me towards a harder core approach to dealing with the details. I was obsessed. Until one day I ran across a reference to this weird-sounding update to Master of Magic, and I figured I’d take a quick peek. Never mind methadone, an afternoon with Caster of Magic, and I was totally off my Old World addiction. Unfortunately, this cure also cured me of the desire to see friends or family. So I guess that, as great as I think Old World is, I have to rate Caster of Magic for Windows even higher. Despite its in-your-face “we don’t care about sales” title. Given my obsession, I was almost sad to see that Gloomhaven had finally released their main campaign. A year ago, I had played their EA stuff, but I set it aside not wanting to spoil the real release. But now I was not in the mood for any non-Caster activity. But as luck would have it, one evening I had a spare few minutes and decided to have a quick look-see. I have not played Caster since, so I guess that makes Gloomhaven my #1. Although it seems absurd that games as stupendous and life-destroying as Caster and Old World could be anything other than #1s.
A superb but somewhat impractical board game which turned out to be far more playable as a digital game. I suspect that I sit right in the sweet spot: I played enough TT to have a feel for a lot of inner workings that are not all that clear to first-time digital players. But I did not play enough TT to spoil most of the missions. And as a retiree, I have time to sit and ponder each mission (and each meta-game decision) at length. In any case, months after release, I still daydream about my current mission as I do chores, and my dreams play out on Gloomhaven-like tiles. It’s an illness. The thing with Gloomhaven is that they have nailed all the areas: tactical battles are gripping, the meta-game is deep and immersive, and the atmosphere, particularly the narration and voice acting are way, way better than I am used to in video games. On the other hand, I know that my love of the game has something to do with my growing distaste for the direction of computer role playing games. The more you are in love with the recent crpgs, the less I would recommend the game to you. It looks like a dungeon crawler, but it plays more like chess. With chess pieces hungry for gold and hoping to retire early.
Caster of Magic for Windows
One of the the classics, rewritten so as to provide fierce AI opponents. Yeah, the graphics are what they are, but what a deep and challenging game. It’s a crying shame how little attention this game got, but I suppose a game with these visuals is going to have a limited audience. Yet, I love 4X and there has never before been a 4X that came close to providing this kind of resistance from the AI, nor as many truly useful tools at your disposal to deal with your enemies. Gone are the MoM days where you pretty much won the game during setup and character creation; no matter what combination of magics and abilities, you will face enemies who possess counters to your plan, and you better make sure you have counters to their plans! The game is far more magic focused than the original, which seems fitting. And it can be played on a much larger map against far more opponents.
Like Caster, a dramatic advance for the 4X genre. Late game slog has been much reduced. Turtling strategies have been undercut by events, such that you always have to be on your toes, there’s steady tension. Unlike Civ VI, all the pieces fit together, and, to steal from Lester Freamon, all the pieces matter. None of the game systems are just shoehorned in just for the heck of it. Families are an especially enjoyable addition, and although I know that not everyone agreed, I thought that the CK-style drama really helped the game. Barbarians and barb clans offered a fun challenge, but it often seemed like, in the end, rival nations less so.
Trials of Fire
What @moss_icon already said
#5 Guildmaster mode of Gloomhaven
Yeah, not really a vote because it’s not its own separate game. Even if it has a dramatically different feel to it. The non-campaign half of Gloomhaven strikes me as a tepid knockoff lacking the soul, style, and inspiration of the original. But it’s still an above average tactical battle game and grabs me more than my next-favorite game, Humankind. And it is a game you can play for a short time, have fun, and then set aside, which does not work so well for my top four. Just don’t use it to learn how to play the main campaign, because you will probably come away with all the wrong lessons. In Guildmaster, forget chess, just hit them with your best shot.