I like to think of myself as a connoisseur of games, and as such every once in a while I like to make a quick list of things that I like. I’ll be splitting this list into tabletop and video games. For the video games, I intentionally stray away from just saying the “best” games, and instead look at games that are unique or interesting. There’s no particular order to the list, and I’ll include both commercial and freely available games in separate sections.
Savage Worlds by Pinnacle Entertainment. It’s not exactly the most mechanically complex game, but its core mantra is “Fast! Furious! Fun!”, and it lives up to the obvious expectations while being extremely flexible.
Eclipse Phase by Posthuman Studios. Eclipse Phase’s system isn’t necessarily the greatest-the d100 is passable, and indeed enjoyable, but the real joy of Eclipse Phase comes from its incredibly deep and nuanced setting. It is a horror game, and there’s lots of harsh language, however, so not one for the kids.
Shadowrun (3rd Edition) by Fanpro (sold by Catalyst Games Labs). Shadowrun’s 3rd Edition is what broke me into the world of serious tabletop gaming. It doesn’t have quite as much stuff as 4th Edition, but at least there’s not eighty books with twenty pieces of gear each. Plus, 4th Edition is pretty broken as it stands, and the setting just doesn’t keep the cyberpunk feel.
BattleTech: A Time of War by Catalyst Game Labs. I’ve been a fan of all the BattleTech systems, because, let’s be honest, I’m a sucker for stompy (and the MechWarrior video games were a staple of my youth). The system’s simple but manages to pull through despite being basically unchanged from earlier editions. Add in a massively deep universe, political intrigue, and the potential to hybridize your campaign with the BattleTech wargames, and you’ve got a lot of stuff going for you.
Earthdawn by FASA. When this was announced, I shed manly tears of joy. Earthdawn has a really good core mechanic, and an exotic fantasy setting that really is a great source of fun. It’s also loosely related to Shadowrun (though the licenses no longer are held by the same people), and I like to weave elements of Earthdawn into my Shadowrun games. It’s worth a look.
- Tabletop Freebies:
Bill Coffin’s Septimus by West End Games. Perhaps the most polished of the D6 System suite that was released for free, Septimus is an awesome setting that’s really been glossed over because it came at a poor time for WEG. Like its generic counterparts, it is free, but it also includes a deeper setting, useful for a GM who doesn’t have a lot of time to do world-building.
Pathfinder by Paizo Entertainment. While technically, most Pathfinder stuff is commercial, it’s released under an open-game license that allows most of the content to be posted for free, for instance on the PFSRD, which I linked above. Unlike the traditional d20 SRD, which covers D&D by Wizards of the Coast, there is significantly more OGL content with Pathfinder that can be found on the SRD page.
Radiance by Radiance House. The free Player’s Guide for Radiance includes everything needed to play (there is an additional Game Master’s companion, but it’s not needed to play). It has a really high-quality analytical look at the core mechanics of the d20 system, and it’s a breath of fresh air. Highly recommended.
Stars Without Number by Sine Nomine Publishing. Stars Without Number is an Old-School Renaissance game, with a ton of good things. It’s free, and while it’s not the most in-depth game, it’s the sort of game that can go a long way in good hands.
Icar by Rob Lang. Icar’s a unique experience, as far as games go, because it’s made by one person, but it’s got a lot of good ideas; it’s its own brand of science-fiction, and has a unique and humorous approach. In addition, Rob Lang runs 1km1kt.net, a site dedicated to free role-playing games, so if you decide you’re not a fan of the tongue-in-cheek Icar, you can probably find something you’ll enjoy there.
Alpha Centauri. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about this, and truthfully the same could be said about the Civilization series, but I found Alpha Centauri’s increased focus on creating a narrative to be the coolest thing ever when I was a kid.
Empire Earth 2. Empire Earth was one of my favorite games back when it first came out, but it hasn’t aged nearly as well as its sequel, which I’ve found in more recent memory to be both more stable but also a lot faster paced.
Total Annihilation. One of these days I’ll post something other than a strategy game on this list-I actually don’t have a terrible fondness for the genre, but Total Annihilation is a great game because of how everything is balanced without relying on the arbitrary rock-paper-scissors system used by some other strategy games that base attacks on the type of unit. In addition, its massive scale is still impressive, and its Jeremy Soule soundtrack is marvelous.
Fallout. This much beloved series shows how well storytelling can be integrated into gaming. It’s also an example of darn good game design, with brutal difficulty at times (though it’s not artificially difficult, as some modern games become when trying to raise the challenge) and a real push to get the best outcomes in the earlier installments. Tactics on, the games become a little bit easier, but war never changes. Except for Brotherhood of Steel, but let’s not talk about that.
Avernum. Avernum’s the creation of Spiderweb Software, a small indie company that basically makes the same games over and over, continually refining them. Avernum’s a refined version of Exile, which was my first exposure to the series. This includes my favorites, the classic trilogy and Blades of Avernum, which have a much deeper game design, and hours upon hours upon hours of exploration. If you’re interested, head over to their site and grab a demo. Note that Spiderweb charges more for direct purchases than they do for purchasers on Steam or GOG, and the link I sent you doesn’t include the most recent reboot of the first game.
The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind. This one’s really hard to find, but you can get it through Steam. With the in-production OpenMW project, you’ll be able to enjoy perfect compatibility on modern systems, but it runs decently on Windows 7 and XP when I’ve tested it through Steam-it’s unstable, but that’s Morrowind’s schtick. Still, the adventure is great, so long as you can get past the cliff racers and random hit chances.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Perhaps one of the best Bioware games ever (though, compared to most of their EA stuff, the writing’s definitely leaps and bounds ahead), Knights of the Old Republic is an adventure that remembers what adventure is about-not romancing any member of the ship’s crew or going on a bazillion side quests only to have a foregone conclusion, but actually causing massive cosmic change. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely a go for Star Wars fans or really any gamer who enjoys the sort of thing.
Two Worlds 2. Let me preface this by saying that Two Worlds 2 isn’t an awesome game. It’s got major flaws, and while I enjoyed it, I’m a fan of the game mechanics more than the execution. Why? It’s got a surprising amount of depth, decent multiplayer, a fully-featured singleplayer experience, and a magic system that should have been an inspiration for certain upcoming games which were sequels to series that had a custom spellcrafting but chose not to include any dynamic magic instead forcing players to go with whatever the developers wanted and totally weren’t called Skyrim or anything. Seriously, card-based magic. Confusing at first, but when you get the hang of it, you can put a spell on yourself to revive yourself if you die, or create custom missiles that home into foes and then split off into more missiles directed at your foes. Magic’s broken in terms of balance, sure, but it’s awesome for the invested mage.
Just Cause 2. If any game offers freedom to the player, it’s Just Cause 2. The plot’s surprisingly deep without worrying about being serious, and the whole game is a parody and celebration of the action genre with explosions, over-the-top dictators, and jingoistic pride all over the place. I swear there’s more depth, but I’d have to spoil things to do so, so I won’t. However, the real accomplishment of Just Cause 2 is, in addition to being a superb sequel to a mediocre game, the amount of flexibility and freedom offered to the player. Just be forewarned that even though I don’t mind it, one of my friends absolutely hates the combat, and I can see where he’s coming from.
Bastion. It’s hard to even look at Bastion as a game, because it’s so heavily driven by its narrative and beautiful settings; it’s like walking through a narrated painting, testing your skills in action-packed combat with deep emotional undertones. It’s a work of art, if ever a game was, and I recommend it to everyone; its vibrant colors and deep plot mix with challenging but not frustrating combat to create a wonderful experience.
Tales of Maj’Eyal. This game is a wonderfully deep experience, in a new and vibrant setting. I’ve been following ToME since it was Tales of Middle Earth, but its most recent installment changed settings to avoid potential legal disputes. Much more accessible without losing the depth and strategy, it’s really a game to look at.
GearHead. GearHead is an anime-inspired roguelike about giant robots and post-apocalyptic combat. I discovered it years and years ago, and while I swear by the first game’s more complex system, GearHead 2 is also an amazing game. One of the most interesting features is the game’s procedural plot generation.
Battle for Wesnoth. Battle for Wesnoth is a turn-based strategy game with surprising depth and a large amount of community-created content. It’s not one of the games that goes out to redefine a genre, but it’s solid and is a great experience, especially since you can get modules for it that can play like traditional RPG’s as well, and vary in setting and scale from fantasy to science-fiction.
Dwarf Fortress. Dwarf Fortress is an intricately complex game. And by intricately complex, I mean that it’s played using either text or small tiles. Why? It would be impractical to try to keep up with the increasing complexity of the game and create art assets that can match. It’s a city building game where you issue orders to a population of dwarves who have a fair degree of personality and their own unique traits. It’s so complex that there are guides to the guides for it, and it will make lesser computers cry. Still, it’s a game where your dwarves can get in a fight and have the damage to their beards tracked, and it’s a lot of fun.
Notrium. Notrium is a complex science-fiction survival game. It’s also really modifiable, so if you want to change anything about the game (or experience entirely different adventures) you can. It’s a really interesting game, but saying too much more may spoil it.
Transcendence. Transcendence is like the space equivalent of Notrium; a massive space survival game that is also modifiable. It’s an interesting experience, and if you like it you may also want to check out NAEV, which is a more non-linear open-world game that is heavily inspired by a game called Escape Velocity.
So there you have it; several games that I enjoy and felt like bringing to everyone’s attention. Not all of these are “great games”, but I find them interesting from a narrative or game design perspective.
Disclosure: I’m a reviewer on DriveThruRPG, which is part of the reason why all of my links go there, but as a consumer I legitimately find it to offer the best service of all the digital distribution platforms out there, with an unlimited download period and no limits, I still have access to stuff that’s no longer on the site. I get a portion of the proceeds from anything purchased from the links to DriveThruRPG above.