Here For You in These Unprecedented Times
Well, it looks like it’s time to drag out that old photo that the legendary Ken B. took of me playing Cosmic Encounter like 12 years ago- that’s right, it’s time for Barnes’ Best 2020 edition. What a year, huh? To be quite honest, I didn’t play nearly as many new board games as the folks that run those content creation mills did and I really have no idea what is “hot” or “trending” in the field anymore. There’s so much junk being spewed out on the daily I don’t even care about keeping up. What I do know is that the games that I did play, I sought out and made a point to take a look at because they were things I cared about.
This year in gaming was very much more about TTRPGs than board games for me, and in that arena I’ve been thriving. There has been so much awesome new TTRPG material released this year that was I tempted to only award the coveted Barnes’ Best prize to a bunch of zines and indie books. But there was one game this year that absolutely towered over everything else released in 2020, crushing all beneath it with a massive, webbed foot. Jim Felli delivered one of the wildest, most psychedelic, and original games ever with Cosmic Frog. This game is one of the easiest Game of the Year picks I’ve ever made because no other game was as bold, fun, and beautiful. When I get to pitch this game with “you are a giant frog-god that can punch other frog-gods until they puke up mountains and fall into other dimensions”, I am in the proximity of greatness.
Jim’s work in general showcases so much of what is missing in most games today. His designs have a real sense of heart and soul, they are alive with imagination and inspiration. They are auteur works – maverick and marginal. They are a little complicated and sometimes a little unrefined, but they are never not fun and fascinating. And the very last thing they are is an accretion of synthesized subsystems absorbed from other recent games, they are not the lazy, workmanlike designs that characterizes far too many games today. His work is singular, full stop. He self-publishes everything he does, there are no FOMO stretch goals or mountains of extra “content” and you only get six minis instead of sixty. But these kinds of games – like Cosmic Frog or Zimby Mojo or Shadows of Malice or Bemused – are the ones that still make me excited for the board games medium and its possibilities. And Cosmic Frog is the best thing that he’s done to date.
As for the runner-up, it’s Unmatched: Cobble & Fog. There have been a lot of great skirmish games released over the past couple of years, so many that I am a bit frustrated with them all jockeying for my time and attention – let alone shelf space. Restoration really hit a Victorian grand slam with this one- Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, the Invisible Man, and Jekyll/Hyde all play with tons of flavor and character and the match-ups are just a delight for any fan of gothic horror. Unmatched has seen a few really solid expansions but this is by far the best of the bunch. It's a masterclass in how to convey narrative, character, setting, and atmosphere with very little in terms of rules, administration, or component density. The decks are brilliantly concieved and feature, like all of the Unmatched products, stunning illustrations that are modern and tasteful. I’m very interested to see how the game handles some of Marvel’s odder characters (like Moon Knight and Squirrel Girl) in the new sets next year.
I thought about slating Blitz Bowl season 2 in there, but it’s already made a Barnes Best appearance – it is the best sports game I have ever played, and at this point I’d list it among my all-time favorites.
OK now that I’ve made my obligatory board game picks, let’s talk RPGs.
Two words for you. MORK BORG. In case you haven’t heard about this absolute masterpiece, it is a slim book with some of the most streamlined and efficient rules ever written for a post-D&D “OSR” design. Our very own Andi Lennon wrote a great review of it here and I haven’t seen fit to do one myself. But here's the short version. Mork Borg may very well be my favorite RPG of all time.
Let’s start with the book itself. It’s a small format book almost entirely printed in acidic yellow, neon magenta, deep black and metallic silver. The graphic design is stunning – it’s surprisingly tasteful and modern for a book that is so mired in low-fi dark fantasy, Black Metalisms, and gory images. The rules are almost a whisper in it, so clean and ruthless that reading them makes you wonder why you waste your time on thicker, more robust games. The lore is minimal, abstract, and obtuse coming across more like Dark Souls than Forgotten Realms. It is supremely evocative and atmospheric, and absolutely not a game for those who fill up notebooks about their Tiefling Warlock’s backstory.
The genius of the game is in how it pares so much down to reveal a rotting, blackened skeleton that is all you need to tell ultra grimdark stories…but as in all of the best grimdark, there is a sense of black humor about it all. Indeed, Warhammer Fantasy seems like a big influence on it but with the musical touchpoint being Darkthrone rather than Bolt Thrower. It’s lethal, fast, and frequently hilarious. In my last session, one of the players stopped the party for a second and said “is this who we really are?” That to me is the sign of a great Mork Borg session. The running joke has become that Mork Borg is an odyssey into self-discovery, into our blackest, darkest selves.
You could say, I suppose, that it’s not for everyone but my retort is that I don’t care. This is some of the very best RPG writing and presentation I’ve ever read and I’ve found myself using it as the yardstick by which I compare all other RPG materials. I have practically sold my soul to this book and I have committed to buying everything that will ever be published for it, including the upcoming Putrescence Regnant, which is an adventure with a vinyl LP.
As for a TTRPG runner-up, this was actually harder than with the board game category because so much I looked at this year was so, so good. Alien came out last year, technically, so it’s not “qualified”, I suppose. But the standout would have to be the stunning Neverland from Andrew Kolb. This book, which I think will do well in next year’s Ennies, expands on J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan stories and sets a Hot Springs Island-like hexcrawl in Neverland. As a big fan of Pan, there are lots and lots of lovely, inspired touches and eyebrow-raising extrapolations. The midcentury-inflected illustrations are just splendid and there are so many hooks, locations, and characters to explore. The one big demerit is that it is stupidly written for 5E only. No one playing 5E is going to want this, it’s just not 5E kinds of material. It’s perfect for OSE (B/X) or a bullshitless system like Knave or even Troika.
Alright, that’s all I’ve got. In parting, I would like to take a moment to thank all of the awesome contributors here at ThereWillBe.Games for making 2020 quite possibly the best year we’ve ever had in terms of what we have to offer our audience- I’m really proud of all of you folks for the excellent work you’ve done. And thanks also to our readers for being here to read it in These Unprecedented Times. We’ll keep up the good fight for high quality, written gaming content in 2021 so we’ll see you there.