As usual, this list is hard to do as when a game “technically” came out is not usually reflective of when I get to actually play it – I can digital download a video game, but a board game can take months to properly distribute to the hobby shops I might pick it up from. As such this is just “The top 10 new-ish games that I got to play this year and really liked” but that title is dumb so here we are oh well.
That said I think surprisingly most(?) of these games came out in 2017.
I love player boards. I have a conflicted relationship with player boards. Usually having a nice player board with things to fiddle with indicates a more complicated game, one that’s a harder sell for friends and comes to the table less frequently. Photosynthesis has a satisfying player board but is also not hard to teach, and is so gorgeous/intriguing to look at that it’s sure to come down more frequently, so I can get my fiddling-with-things fix a lot more often.
I’m not even sure when I first played Patchwork, but it should have probably been on the top 10 list of that year based on how many times we’ve played it. By now I’ve played Barenpärk as well, and I’m still jonsing to play Feast for Odin so my tetromino-powered game fix has still not hit its limit. Cottage Garden is the most elegant way to play with more than two people, and it’s the most visually pleasing one I’ve tried, and it’s easy to teach and learn. Patchwork still takes the award for “best tetromino thing” in my books, since it has such a neat pseudo engine building mechanic but I think this one might come out more often because of its versatility, and it still works just fine with two. Also it’s got more cats.
This rocketed up to being my #1 dexterity game in a single exciting evening that I should probably just describe to you. There’s not nearly as much excitement in winning without a big chance of failure, which is what we were presented with – Flipships is co-op, where you have to flip some ship tokens (coin-sized) on to alien cards as they space-invaders their way towards your end of the table. At the end to win you have to blow up a mothership at the far end of the table – a 6 square inch container, which we had to flip a ship token into four times to win. We spent an hour firing at that mothership, and blew through and wasted powerups that made it much easier to hit, and we were down to just Noémi and four flips left. She had to hit the mothership two more times from the far end of the table in those four shots, a near impossible ask. She hit it twice in only three shots. The unexpected win was so elating that the table just exploded, Noémi collapsed to the ground in shock, the rest of us ran around screaming in joy. The cat was terrified. It’s by far the most excited I’ve ever been by a board game.
My other beloved dexterity game is catacombs and that would come out more often if it wasn’t such a large, time consuming table-gobbling rulesy package. As gorgeous and fun as it is, it’s just a little bit too heavy to hit the table often. Flipships is considerably lighter, so it’s perfect.
Co-op games are amazing and whenever a semi-decent one comes around I investigate it immediately to see if it’s worth adding to the collection. Spirit Island ended up being an easy add – it’s a cooperative anti-colonialism game about playing as some island gods protecting their land by instilling fear and generally wreaking havoc on invaders. So, good start.
It’s actually a lot like Pandemic, which, as I say, I don’t like much, just instead of plagues ravaging the game world the disease is white people which is hilarious. But it fixes the thing I dislike most about Pandemic, in that it’s a lot less of a bummer – the invaders spread, building cities and poisoning the world, but you can fight back. It’s tough, but you can beat them. If you work together you can even murder them all the way off your god damn island. The game ends when they’re all dead or have run away screaming. And that feels real, real good.
Also all the god’s powers are super different and interesting and it’s especially cooperative in that using all your unique powers together is by far the best way to get invaders off the island quickly. You can all sit in your cards and play your own game, but you can’t really win that way. I think that’s actually my favourite thing about Spirit Island.
I’m actually surprised this is so low on my list – at the time it was my favourite game of the year. But then so many other good games came out. So many.
Pandemic Legacy – Season 2
Controversial and unpopular opinion – I like this game a lot better than season 1. This is in no small part due to the fact that I had a pretty bad experience with the first season that I won’t get into much here because then it’ll just be two paragraphs of me ranting – suffice to say it’s mostly not Season 1’s fault. (Mostly.)
However, there are some basic things I like better about season 2. First, I don’t really like Pandemic that much, and Season 2 isn’t really Pandemic (I mean it is, but it isn’t). Secondly, it’s a lot less difficult, and I like winning. Third, it’s just generally more of a positive feel – the world already ended, so there’s really nowhere to go but up. Also, instead of cities getting sicker and sicker and piling on disease cubes and outbreaking them, the city just consumes supplies, which keeps them healthy until of course they run out, and then they get pretty sick, but hey, that only happens sometimes! Until it happens a lot of times. But it’s fine.
There’s still plenty of tension and we can lose at any time, and there wasn’t anything in there that was as earth-shaking as in Seafall or Season 1 in the twist category (although there are certainly some crazy parts, especially towards the end). So it’s just really good! It’s a solid game and we had an excellent time playing it.
Much like Android:Mainframe recently did for me, this game made me fall in love with it for its simplicity, and its depth. In this game you run around with two architects, dropping down buildings and trying to hop on to a tall enough building to win the game, all the while trying to maneuver such that your opponent won’t be able to do the same. You have to be able to move and build with one of your pawns every turn, and it’s easy in the first few games to plop a pathway down for your opponent to just directly hop up to victory. Once you get your head around it, it’s a gorgeous little puzzle, and very satisfying to click together. You both just get into that chess mindset, and sit there frowning at the board trying to think enough moves ahead to guarantee victory.
We picked up and played both of these during/following SHUX, and instantly fell in love with it. KingDomino is such a simple premise: you’re playing dominoes with these kingdom tiles with different terrains, and you have to connect like areas as much as possible with scoring multipliers to make the best kingdom. QueenDomino came out this year and we loved it too, albeit in a different way – it’s got a lot more moving parts, and rules to consider, but a lot more possibilities/ways to score points. I think they each have their place, but Kingdomino is so simple and satisfying that it’s just the easiest thing in the world to have a game of in 15 minutes, it’ll probably get brought out constantly.
Fog of Love
This was built up so much as something that I was just gonna adore, and I ended up loving it pretty much as much as I hoped I would – no more and no less. But I do love it a ton. You each play a character that’s in a relationship, and you deal with situations together while not only trying to make the relationship work, but mostly, make yourself happy. Sometimes it all goes great! But sometimes your own goals are a bit at odds with your partner’s, and sometimes they’re totally at odds and fights happen.
My partner and I made a dedicated slack channel for in-character roleplaying of the characters we play in that game. This decision was amazing because for two people that are pretty timid about out-loud RP, it adds a ton of flavour to the stories we generated with that box. Our most interesting couple was our first, that generally seemed to not click at all during all their small interactions together, but whenever a big critical moment came up it ended up real special for the both of them, which made things sort of get strung along a lot longer than they probably should have? This is such an awesome grown-up game and the situations that get concocted feel so authentic.
I was really worried about this game being over-hyped but it ended up not being so. This is the dungeon-crawler I’ve always wanted: co-op, character progression and story choices, but can play in any configuration, even solo, and with different people every time. And for an RPG with a bunch of moving parts most of those parts are pretty simple and not too hard to remember, and quite intuitive. And man, that card system – it somehow found a way to break up the usual monotony of move, attack, move, attack, move, attack that you usually get in a game like this, and even just that part is praiseworthy. I’ll be playing this game a ton in the coming months and years.
This War of Mine
The sorts of things that are usually found in board games that I end up liking the most include:
– Really neat/interesting rules/mechanics that play off each other.
– Co-op games.
– Games that tell a really good story, and that make your choices have narrative weight.
– Bonus points: a board with lots of spaces to put the components and cards.
Gloomhaven is also quite good at most of this, but no game I’ve probably ever played has done them all nearly as well as This War of Mine. It functions off of worker placement/resource management game as you look after a house filled with civilians living in a war-torn city, alternating with a push-your-luck card game where you send them out that night to sneak around and get valuable supplies to keep everyone alive. It uses something like 15 different decks of cards with varying numbers/prompts for die rolls on them that prompt you with numbers between 1 and ~2500, plus a “book of scripts” filled with these thousands of choose your own adventure passages that relate to those places or situations. They get you to make decisions, and then totally organically, different stuff happens. You’ll be told to put a note on the board to remind you that there are snipers watching your house now so maybe it’s best to stay away from those windows, or be told to check a certain passage later in the game to see what consequences come back to haunt your characters. The book can hit you with anything at all and you’ll never know what’s up next.
And the choices. My god. The choices rise from the mechanics, not usually from a binary in the script, but from your situation. One of my characters kept a diary for many years, writing to her mother that she was separated from by the war, hoping to meet up with her again one day to return it and show her what had happened in her life. She ended up starving to death – we ran out of food. One night our remaining food was stolen and we had absolutely no food left at all whatsoever, and she was the closest to starving. During the phase of the game where we had to choose who to give our portions of water to, we actually did have enough for every character, but it didn’t make any sense to give her water because she was about to die anyway. The leader made the call not to give her any, and there was just stunned silence as we watched her starve to death moments later. We did the right thing logically speaking, but it sure didn’t feel like it. Even worse, days later winter had arrived, and having exhausted all other wood, books and scraps of paper left in the house, the group had to choose to burn her journal in order to survive the night. They would have died if they didn’t, but that didn’t stop them from staying awake all night of guilt.
None of those scenes came from the pre-written stories in the book – they were just things that happened, directly to us. That felt really incredible. Incredibly awful, obviously, but still incredible.
We didn’t end up winning that particular game but after winning a future one we were instructed to open a legacy-style envelope that delivered an emotional gut punch as an exclamation point on the whole experience. It’s not really possible to prepare you for it, and I surely couldn’t do so without spoiling, but luckily it can be reused with other games/groups. So if you get to play this maybe you’ll see it sometime.
I’ve never seen any game do things like this before as organically as This War of Mine does. The cards and character’s status effects play off each other to create these completely remarkable, albeit horrifying, stories. That said, it treats its content with respect, and delivers it directly, not pulling any punches or bothering to make it pretty. This isn’t a game to play when you want to have a good time. My experience with this game was completely profound and unique.
Also, god damn the board is pretty, there are spaces for every deck of cards right on the board, only the character cards need to sit off to the side. So, bonus points awarded.
Wow, if you made it down here, thanks for reading that exhaustive amount of text! Here’s a list of games I really enjoyed also this year but didn’t really enjoy enough to write much about:
- Beyond Baker Street – I didn’t play much Hanabi for lack of theme but the theming on this one is just fine! We play this a fair bit, it’s great.
- Vinhos Deluxe edition – I got this in Seattle last March, keeping up my tradition of buying a Vital Lacerda game whenever I’m at card kingdom. It’s gorgeous and heavy and awesome. God I love rules. Why do I love rules so much? I just love rules. Delicious rules. Oh yeah. Tell me what to do baby. Give me those hot instructions.
- Barenpärk – Sure?? All the Uwe games do this concept a lot better but this one lets you actually fill in every empty space which is a nice feeling.
- Stop Thief (2017 Restoration Games edition) – Yay! This is the first hidden movement game I ever played as a young lad and this updated version that subs out dice movement for cards/actions is excellent.
- Wasteland Express Delivery Service – Awesome pick up/deliver that replaced firefly on my wall! It’s a bit long/heavy sometimes but that theme is worth it.
- Dark Souls – Just kidding, I hated this game. Turns out dark souls as a board game is just… super repetitive and boring.
- First Martians – It’s Robinson Crusoe in space! Also it’s a lot of fun, even if it’s back on that confusing rulebook kick like RC was (which is sad because the new edition of RC had a great rulebook). Maybe I should do a video about this, I have a lot to say about it.