Another top 10 list?
Absolutely. People love this stuff.
I’m not feeling a lengthy introduction, though. I’ve played almost everything I wanted to that was released over the past 12 months. The gaming year has been kind. There are outliers like Final Girl or Summoner Wars 2nd Edition, titles I’ve been unable to track down, but this is as good as it’s going to get.
10. Magnate: The First City
My full review can be found here.
Why it Matters – James Naylor’s inaugural release is a witty and colorful take on unregulated real estate development. It’s one of the best city-building games I’ve played and captures the majestic feeling of witnessing a metropolis sprout from the ground and stretch to the skies like a field of industrious weeds. A large portion of my enjoyment hinges on the drama invoked as the game culminates with a market crash. It feels like a high-speed collision and it’s as delightful as it is terrifying.
Magnate also values your time. It keeps players engaged throughout and remains social and interactive while not featuring direct conflict. There is an above-the-table presence that helps materialize the narrative of larger-than-life executives cutting up the city while smoking a stogie and counting piles of cash.
Why it’s not Higher – As I said, the game hinges on the crash. Occasionally it will be too predictable and lack tension. Sometimes it will be totally unexpected and harsh, leaving critics unsatisfied with the significance of the apparent randomness.
As a product, it’s also too damn big. I’m very torn on the production because the excessiveness also ties wonderfully into the theme of the game, but it also can detract from the experience. It’s difficult to transport and it’s a bit of a mental hurdle to pull off the shelf.
9. The Initiative
I reviewed this one at Polygon.
Why it Matters – This game came out of nowhere early in the year and blew my hair clean off my scalp. I’ve long been a fan of tabletop escape room games, but this feels like the culmination of many of those ideas. What it does is provide multiple layers to engage, establishing a meta-comic narrative, a cooperative clue-solving board game, and esoteric puzzles bridging the two.
It’s difficult to discuss this experience without ruining its many illusions, but it left me feeling appropriately mystified on numerous occasions. I was thrilled to return to the game, again and again, completing the entirety of the campaign.
I was ecstatic to see Corey Konieczka’s new studio, Unexpected Games, deliver so strongly upon its initial release.
Why it’s not Higher – The first thing many will note is that the cooperative board game portion of the experience is less engaging than the rest. While I did enjoy this aspect of the design, it could have been stronger and certainly is the lesser half.
I also found myself disappointed with the narrative ending. It wasn’t the type of Magic Kingdom firework finale I was expecting. Instead, it was some sparklers and Terry shooting off a roman candle in the middle of the street. Thankfully it’s high notes were so high.
8. Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy
Why it Matters – I will not stop loving the Dune combat system. It’s so brutal and dramatic. Nothing beats it. It’s no surprise then that I thoroughly enjoy a game devoted entirely to that mechanism. This is the ’79 Avalon Hill Dune cut down to almost nothing. All that’s left is a Gom Jabbar ready to pierce your exposed flesh.
For a 40-minute area control game with high conflict, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Why it’s not Higher – As I discussed in my review of the game, while the setting of Dune is present, the themes are entirely absent. In narrowing down the focus of the game they lost what made its five-hour sibling special. To properly reframe your expectations, you need to think of this as an entirely new experience. And while it’s one full of drama and standup moments, it’s also random and at times flakey. You can make a single mistake and the game is gone, floating through the air like a cloud of scattered dust. It’s also not as memorable or impactful an experience as its predecessor.
Curveball, the first entry on this list that I have yet to review. This is partially because I don’t have my own copy. That won’t stop me.
Why it Matters – This is the best lane battler I’ve ever played. You know, those games like Battle Line and Omen. The combination of variable core powers – executed through your camps – and a diverse cast in the shared deck make for such a wide swathe of combinations and abilities to experiment with. You build little two or three power engines, pulling tricks that feel intensely clever. Then your opponent wrecks your machine leaving you to scrape yourself out of the gutter and fight back. It manages this really sharp balance of tight competition while allowing you little bursts of broken combos that simply feel unfair. It’s almost sacrilegious.
Why it’s not Higher – I’ve played this game six times. It’s not let up. In fact, my most entertaining play was likely my last. But in those six plays I would say three or four have been decided by the mid-game. There is usually a moment or two where a player is able to snowball some abilities and seize the momentum. Then it becomes a war of attrition as you try and desperately search for an opening to claw your way back. More often than not, it doesn’t arrive. This isn’t a fatal blow, however, as the game is only 20 minutes or so. And on the rare occasion when you do mount a comeback, it feels that much more dramatic and memorable.
I’m also concerned that the delightful exploration phase will eventually end, and the game may lose some of its prestige. I may not know the answer to that query for some time.
6. The Adventures of Robin Hood
I wrote about this one recently.
Why it Matters – This quickly became my daughter’s favorite game. Well, second favorite. We can’t shake UNO no matter how many times I purposely lose it somewhere in the house.
But it’s not on this list because Lila enjoyed it so. It’s here because we both did. The experience was just something else. This game was perfect for what it was trying to accomplish. It’s simple and bears little intellectual durability, but it’s full of thoughtful design and expertly includes the players as authors of a literary experience. I’m afraid I’ve pumped Robin’s tires too much, but there’s simply nothing like this game and it’s a joy.
Why it’s not Higher – We’ve played through it once and my copy is definitely showing it. The physical demands of the unique tile flipping system are not met by the product, unfortunately. I also thought the game was too easy – although not always – and this resulted in occasional moments of reduced tension. The continual flipping of guard tokens also became somewhat of a chore late in the story.
5. Company of Heroes
It’s been many months since I reviewed this one.
Why it Matters – Company of Heroes finds a delightful middle ground offering a relatively light war-game with a wealth of strategic exploration. The rules density lies between Memoir 44 and Tide of Iron, but the design sits in a distinct niche as it tackles the real-time strategy video game genre. It remains a turn-based game, but it executes on a very fluid round structure where players alternate spending clusters of action points that surprisingly mimics the “actions per second” focus of RTS micro play.
It will take many sessions before you become studied in each of the included four factions. There is a base building element and you will not be able to construct or field all of your units and upgrades. This forces difficult decisions as well as cultured playstyles. Each of the nations plays differently and there is much here to chew on. Yet, you can play a whole battle, to great satisfaction, in around an hour.
This may be my favorite World War Two tabletop design, unseating the mightily flawed Sergeants Miniatures Game.
Why it’s not Higher – There are some stutters, mostly in the arc of play. There is simply not enough time to field your best units regularly, so the game often ends just as you get that Tiger or T-34 into the engagement. The design team is already working to rectify this with a 2.0 version of the game – update kit coming to Kickstarter later this year.
Also, this thing is obscenely big and heavy and costly. Its ease of play partially alleviates this concern, but it’s still a tough sell and a difficult game to transport.
4. Sleeping Gods
You may have forgotten that I reviewed this one earlier in the year.
Why it Matters – This is the best sandbox adventure game I’ve ever seen. It allows you to sail off in any direction and do whatever you want. There is a thread of overarching plot, but it’s relegated to intermittent conjugal visits separated by large swathes of alone time.
The combat mechanism is engaging, and the persistent keyword system is wonderful. This feels like Ryan Laukat’s vision fully realized and is my favorite Red Raven design by far. I’m currently struggling with whether this has overtaken Tainted Grail as my preferred long-form story-game, which is a difficult problem to sort out. Sleeping Gods is so damn open and free, while Tainted Grail is more structured and rigid. This feels fresher and genre breaking, honestly.
Why it’s not Higher – The cost of that freedom is much weaker writing than Tainted Grail. That game featured one of the best dictated narratives I’ve encountered on the tabletop, while Sleeping Gods does very little to wow you with prose or meaty sub-plots. They’re both equally demanding. Sleeping Gods‘ system to save your progress is somewhat daunting, and you’re much better off leaving it all setup for the 15-20 hours you spend inside this fantastic world. That’s something many can’t afford to do.
3. Descent: Legends of the Dark
If you read my review, you know I adore this game.
Why it Matters – There is so much to talk about with this one, and I’ve done much of it already in my review. What I want to focus on here is the primary element which really gets my stomach fluttering, and that’s exploration.
Heroquest remains one of my favorite dungeon crawl board games. Part of that is because it does something most of these games cannot. It fosters a sense of actual exploration. That game did it with that big board teeming with opportunity. Descent does it with an app and 3D elements.
Look, I’ve never felt tremendous immersion with modular tile dungeons. The layout doesn’t really matter, and the surrounding surface or countryside is not at all interlinked to the underground. Just as Shadows of Brimstone did, you can randomize the tiles that appear and the experience changes minimally.
Descent, however, feels like an interconnected environment. The very first scenario establishes the presence of a tower by lifting your miniatures above the table. The implied walls and stretching caverns are illuminated through the impression of three-dimensional objects. There is a real sense of wonder, heightened by the uncertainty of what the app will reveal and its unknown algorithms. Everything feels mysterious.
There’s a magic at work here that is absent from other games, and it’s absolutely marvelous.
Why it’s not Higher – The dialogue is worthy of cringe. The combat can still be repetitive, a problem with most in the genre. The difficulty scaling is also weak, simply buffing opponent’s hit points and lengthening the dungeons which harms the tempo. I also wish the presence of the app was just a tad reduced, although it’s admittedly much better positioned in the experience than that of Mansions of Madness 2nd edition or Destinies.
2. Ankh: Gods of Egypt
In my review, I examine how this is Eric Lang’s most Knizian design.
Why it Matters – As I proposed, this may be Lang’s best work. I feel like it will take several years of continued play in order to suss that out.
I’m a huge fan of Blood Rage and Rising Sun, as the design principles of this trilogy resonate strongly with my soul. My first experience with Ankh, however, was perplexing and underwhelming. Slowly, my admiration grew with each subsequent play. The brilliance of the interconnected systems is subtle, and there is a great deal of depth here to work with.
The interplay between the action system and the multi-vector area control within each region is wild. At every turn you can shift your strategy and pursue a new line. It’s easy to get lost in thought a day or two later, wondering whether the outcome would have changed if you had done this instead of that. It’s a rich and sophisticated design that leaves me flabbergasted and beaming upon its climax. I want to play this at every opportunity.
Why it’s not Higher – Cole Wehrle.
1. Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile
Why it Matters – This is a weird thing. Chances are it’s not for you, really. It’s a campaign game, more so narratively and spiritually than mechanically. The tales created endure, not just as war stories to be discussed when you’ve less hair and more wrinkles, but throughout subsequent plays as reverberations and inspiration for both minute and massive decisions. It’s entirely concerned with an exploration of king-making as the vehicle to author historical text.
On the surface though, it’s an area control game of conflict. It attaches multiple unique paths to victory, asymmetric roles, and social pacts with mechanical consequences. All of this is lashed together and housed within a vibrant world brought to life by Kyle Ferrin’s artwork. It’s a complete and total vision. This is more avant-garde than accessible, and many Root fans have already stumbled into this one mistakenly.
As an artistic work, it’s just brilliant. It must be recognized for the accomplishment it is. This is Wehrle’s second time sitting atop my year-end 10, and it’s absolutely deserved. Don’t be surprised if it happens again next year.