I’m writing a couple of top 10 lists for the end of the year as is the routine, but I realized something: a lot of the best board games I enjoyed this year didn’t actually come out this year! Being still reasonably new to the hobby definitely lent itself to this, but last year gave us a great many excellent board games. I decided to make a whole other top 10 list with my 2014 favourites – I’ll put out my 2015 board game top 10 list soon!
Cash ‘n Guns (2nd ed.)
Sometimes with more casual/less serious board game groups it can be hard to teach a game or hold people’s attention enough to get something going. With this game, the minute you crack the box and slam the foam guns down in the middle of the table you’ve immediately got everyone’s attention. It’s just as hard to get people to stop playing with them long enough to learn the rules, but luckily they’re also not difficult at all, and one or two rounds in and everyone completely understands what’s going on and immediately start pointing guns at each other with reckless abandon. It’s still a Munchkin style gang-up style of game which puts it lower on the list but it’s so fun I cannot ignore it.
Some of the smart minds in the board game community call this game solved, but they’re much smarter minds than mine, so I still really enjoy trying to figure the shared puzzle of this game out. It usually seems to leave at least one player ending up somewhat frustrated if they get stuck early, and if any of the catchup mechanics actually work sometimes, I haven’t seen them do so yet. It’s just too unique and cool and I love sitting and puzzling with it even though it takes me an hour to just teach to new players.
This is a game I love and I wish more people knew about. I think it won’t be super popular as it’s sort of a “gamer’s game”, but mechanically it takes two things I like – positional strategy on a board and a 7-wonders esque progressing card tableau – and puts them together incredibly smoothly. It’s really satisfying to set up ridiculous card combos, that generally sends everyone into fits of giggles once they have their own city working to perfection.
King of New York
This is a standalone sequel to the most fun iteration of yahtzee I’ve played – and it is a great followup that takes everything fun about the last one and adds more to make it even better. Stomping through the city and stepping on the military and buildings is exactly what the first one was lacking, and monster fighting makes a lot more sense. Some of it still feels a bit game-y for its own sake (like the statue of liberty randomly deciding to join in and fight with you) and it is still entirely a game of luck, but it’s a really stylish and fun dice game with an amazing theme.
A lot of my friends would probably want this to sit higher on this list. It plays fast, it’s easy to learn, it doesn’t require a lot of thought, and it’s fun to play, because gambling. I enjoy it as a game design interested person because as someone that’s often turned off of games by how dice are used, it has a bunch of cool little ways you can alter the odds in your favour (the expansion that’s out this year does a lot more of this as well). It’s much easier to take less seriously in its theming and it does very well there.
One of the first games I ever really played was a Mancala board that my parents owned (one second of googling will tell you if you’ve ever played it). It’s a strategy game that involves moving stones around a board, distributing them in wells as you go. Five Tribes is literally that game, but with more depth, some awesome artwork and really well-balanced powers available to both sides to trigger. It’s the best game on this list I don’t own yet!
Sheriff of Nottingham
I’m amazed at how many bluffing games made it on to this list (more than zero) despite me really being terrible at lying to my friends. The ones that make it bearable are the ones that make it reasonably a low-effort affair to actually tell the lie. This game can force you into having to lie even just by getting a terrible draw, but it’s not too hard to actually fudge the cards enough to convince your body to pull into tells even when you’re being totally honest. It’s a casual enough lie and low stakes to the point that it’s not game-ending when you’re caught, and it’s super satisfying when you call someone out. It’s incredibly easy to teach and for my money it’s the most casual and friend-friendly bluffing game there is.
The Witcher Adventure Board Game
I’m actually a big sucker for adventure board games. RPGs generally challenge me in that I’m not too good at improvisation, and I try to gamify those situations to the point where I feel comfortable by diving back into the world of mechanics. By no means am I a rules stickler – I’m fine to house rule or let things go if they aren’t fun – it’s just a comfortable frame for me to play adventures in. By that token, more guided RPG style adventures are great. Descent went really well for me, and Myth is a game I’m severely interested in playing if I find anyone interested. Witcher is a perfect middle ground for me – it’s less involved, has board game-y components and rules, and the quests it allows you to complete are so varied and interesting and numerous that it’s fun every time. Each one has a massive card with a bunch of optional sidequests that are all tied into the main plot. There isn’t as much player interaction, but I enjoy watching other people’s adventures so much that I don’t even mind.
Run, Fight, or Die!
The top two games of this list are both zombie games, possibly unsurprisingly, but this one is much more of a real zombie simulator than the other one. If anything, this is the most interesting and detailed zombie simulator I’ve seen. Rather than being a positional game with a map of sorts, everyone deals with their own zombie situation in only one way – distance. You have to deal with a proportional number of zombies that are either right next to you, or further and further away. The dice mechanic and random events, locations, and followers add the ideal flavour, and are totally welcome when it comes to the theme – in a world like this one bad day can easily get your whole party killed, and even when it does happen, the game ends right away so one person doesn’t have to sit out. There’s just so much going on in this game and its series of expansions that we have an excellent time playing this over and over, but even the base game still hasn’t gotten boring.
Dead of Winter
This is seriously frequently requested even still – for a while I wasn’t sure I’d ever need another game. Then I realized I wanted all my friends not to hate each other. Dead of Winter is emotionally draining, simulating the feeling in the room during a zombie apocalypse when you all start throwing into question how much you really trust your friends. The game makes it very easy for a traitor to secretly foil the plans of the group, and it is good at making even innocent people have to act suspicious in order for them to fulfill their own secret objectives. It’s a wonderful miserable time and it is easily the most emotionally intense game of its sort I’ve ever played, even to date.
Bonus Item: Biggest Disappointment!
I just could not find a way to run this game and make it enjoyable. At heart, it’s a beautifully designed game about building and customizing dinosaurs and evolving them in order to survive and get the food they need. At its core, it’s an incredible game and I was sure it was gonna be on this list this year.
It just never ended up being fun to play. Building dinos was satisfying, but the end always left most players feeling pretty raw – it always revolved around carnivores.
A few scenarios showed themselves in my groups. In the first, nobody played carnivores and instead opted to build really defensive, safe species set up in ways that were impossible to attack. When carnivores finally did come out, they starved pretty quickly.
The second was one in which a carnivore came out before anyone else’s, but most players had their species well defended. There was only one player who didn’t, and they just got attacked over and over into extinction by this one monster carnivore that was thrown down. It wasn’t a spiteful act or targeting the weak player, really, because it was the only option to feed that animal now that it existed. However that’s sort of the spirit of the whole game – go after the weak. Usually we do just fine with competitive games, but direct attacks on friend’s carefully built cutely-named dinos and executing them one by one just made the whole table really sour and negative.
I kept trying different approaches with it, and with different tables, but never got different results. I just want so badly for Evolution to be fun to play! But, now it sits on my shelf, and there it will likely stay for a while.
…and that’s it! Two more lists coming in the next couple days before the new year, one with my 2015 board game picks and one with my video game picks, so stay tuned.