My annual Game of the Year Celebration is here!
Like many game players, the pandemic forced a lot of my gaming time online. It’s been a renaissance for role-playing games in particular, and I’ve played more D&D over the past year than I had in the past 20 years. I have a regular Roll20 group composed of longtime friends that live across the country, but since we are all adults we deal with the usual issues with getting together regularly. Again, like many game players, we started hitting up Board Game Arena on nights when someone has to adult rather than take on the Temple of Elemental Evil in our campaign using the best RPG product of 2021, Goodman Games’ extraordinary Original Adventures Reincarnated 5E conversion of the classic module.
On those nights when aren’t saving Hommlet, we are likely playing Can’t Stop on BGA. Thus, Barnes’ Best Game of the Year 2021 is Can’t Stop. This is not a 2021 game. In fact, it’s a 1980 game designed by the great Sid Sackson and it’s one I’ve been playing off and on for decades so it ain’t even a “new to me in 2021” thing.
I don’t care if it’s not the new hotness. And I do not give a flying fuck that it’s not some fresh out of the Chinese factory Kickstarter pile of shit or that it does not represent the vanguard of Modern Game Design In This Our Plague Year or whatever. It’s not that there weren’t great, worthy games this year – Dune came back in a svelte new form that revolutionized the way I think about this venerable classic, James Naylor’s Magnate was a stunning economic satire, and Descent: Legends of the Dark actually did something fresh, progressive and innovative with the hoary old Dungeoncrawl genre. But regardless of these successes, 2021 was the year of Can’t Stop. It’s gotten to the point where we only half jokingly refer to our D&D group as a Can’t Stop group. We even had an unexpectedly long conversation about how to make the game about Dune after we all saw the film.
None of my friends had played the game before I suggested it one fateful Wednesday night a few months ago. There was the expected, initial “WTF is this” reaction to a game where you roll dice, pick a pair, and move markers up a track. But then the special magic that hides behind this game’s simplistic veneer of barely-there rules started to emerge. Over time, the game in my group took on a life of its own. The metagame is insane. We have a list of terms for various aspects of the game. The 7 column is the “Path of the Coward” and wins with it are low key frowned upon. Taking the 6 and 8 has a vulgar one, “Riding the Shocker”. A particularly heroic win- like the one I pulled off last week taking two rows in one turn ahead of another player who was one space away on each is a “Watercooler Game”. Every session is filled with absolutely brutal haranguing, trash talk, and browbeating. None of which are proscribed or metered by the rules.
I’ve come to appreciate this game more than I ever have before. I think it may, in fact, be the perfect game. I can’t think of another game that so succinctly and so directly gives me exactly what I want out of gaming as a whole. No, it’s not some sweeping narrative but I’ve realized over the years that the notion of quality, meaningful narrative in games is largely bullshit. And it’s not some intricate Vital Lacerda clockwork representing the absolute peak of design craft. But it provides so much drama and in fact narrative with a simple choice of die results and then that crushing decision as to whether you should follow the instructions written on the box and not stop or if you should sheepishly accept your gains and pass the dice. It is the ultimate expression of “press your luck” in game design, the themes of temptation, risk-taking, and greed are richer than anything you’ll get out of a CMON box.
There is far more subtlety- even depth- to the game than you might expect. Essentially it is a racing game and an investment game. The decisions seem simple but there is more to it than what you see on the board, whether it’s the old stop sign or the goofy “mountain climbing” thing on BGA. Do you go hard on the 5 this turn or diversify your gains? If you shut off the higher probability numbers early are you risking busted turns in the late game? Do you really think you are going to roll a second box cars this turn? Do you take an easy column or move to get ahead of the leading player on a harder number? I rolled and got two advances on the 7, but what will my friends think of me if I take The Path of the Coward?
I think back to all the much more complicated games I’ve played over the past year and nothing makes me feel like Can’t Stop does. Nothing excites me on a purely gameplay level like Can’t Stop does, even after…I don’t even know how many games we’ve played this year. Since we just introduced a new player to it last week, there’s likely to be many more ahead because he raved about it and now he’s got his girlfriend into it. This is another key asset- this is a game thatanyone, regardless of experience, background, or identity can play, understand, and enjoy. Except for whiners who don’t like dice and don’t understand that this is a game that occurs above the table as much as on it.
Another aspect that often goes underreported by those who played it at a convention 20 years ago and shrugged it off as an “activity rather than a game” is that this is a design where the outcomes are very direct, very transparent, very focused, and always high stakes. There’s no wishy washy, “clever” bullshit in the way. You roll, you move. You want to roll again? OK, but you might lose it all. It appeals in the same way that Blackjack does- I’m so close to winning, do I dare to push? The psychology of gain is such a powerful thing, and Can’t Stop centralizes it, rewarding and punishing it in a way that is immediate and impactful. You want “meaningful decisions” and “multiple paths to victory”? That is all this game is, top to bottom.
Some readers may be thinking “Barnes, you’re feeling this because you’ve played it so much recently”. But here’s the deal. If my irreparably jaded ass can play a game 50+ times in a year and STILL find it incredibly engaging, fun, and thrilling then there’s something there and that something doesn’t need to be propped up by a bunch of fucking scenarios, miniatures, stretch goals, variant setups, or any of that other hobby game cruft that has exhausted me on so many modern designs. In so many ways, Can’t Stop is the perfect antitode to the endemic bloat that is poisoning game design here in 2021. It’s a game that holistically represents everything I want, expect, and cherish in games here in 2021 and moving forward. If that isn’t Barnes’ Best then I don’t know what is.