Our Games of 2016
2016 is quickly drawing to a close, and as is tradition around this time of year, people with websites pretending to know what they’re talking about when it comes to board games tend to create “top 10” lists of the past 365 days of gameplay. We’re nowhere near as organized, so here’s some random thoughts on games we’ve played this year!
I actually only purchased 8 games this year, so it’ll be a short list, but I can definitely give my thoughts on them (in no particular order)
This is by far the most played of my 2016 collection, not only because it’s a great game, but because it’s garnered the most interest from other gamers. I’ve reviewed Mansions of Madness, but for a quick summary: you play as a group of investigators trying to resolve a particular mystery of a supernatural nature. The unique part of this game is that the “bad guy” is controlled by a free app you can install on your phone, tablet, or computer and drives the story forward by unleashing horrifying events and monsters your way.
The game is a great way to get some Lovecraft-ian action into your game nights and has a very low barrier to entry; individual players get two actions on their turn which include “move”, “fight” and “touch icon on screen”. Fans of the 1st edition might not appreciate how simplistic and streamlined they’ve made the 2nd edition, to the point where it feels like a different game. While it is one of the lightest games in the Arkham Files catalogue from Fantasy Flight, the flavour text they’ve poured into the app along with the unqiue experience makes this a game worth getting. Just don’t mind the +$100 price tag.
Oh look, another Lovecraft game. What can I say, I’m a sucker for the lore. In any case, I was a bit hesitant to get into another Living Card Game after my experiences with the Lord of the Rings LCG (spoiler: I didn’t like it), but the campaign-based gameplay along with decks that evolve with your character assauged my concerns and I dove in. I do plan on writing up a more detailed review, but the TL;DR is I enjoyed it!
Perhaps the character deck progression in Arkham Horror LCG is a bit overstated from the media surrounding the game, but the issue I had with LotR LCG was that the entire game was basically in finding the right combination of cards (of which you were only constrained by deck size) and then shuffling and flipping cards over to see if you won in what amounts to a complicated game of War. That isn’t entirely removed from Arkham Horror LCG, but the game is more geared towards the scenario; you enter the first “act” with a deck of cards representing the assets and flaws your character has access to and then, pass or fail, you progress through the other acts in a campaign, taking advantage of experience as well as detriments that you acquire along the way. The campaign style gameplay speaks to me in a way that the “see if you can make these 30 cards work” didn’t in LotR LCG.
Captain Sonar definitely wins the “most unique experience” award of the year for me. Think of Battleship, and then imagine your team are all on the submarine, and you have to all coordinate your actions to move, power, and ultimately destory the other team’s ship. Now do it at the same time as the other team.
While this isn’t the first real time game that’s been released, it’s definitely one of the most tense (rivaling prehaps Space Alert). Whether you’re playing as the Captain barking movement orders to your crew, the First Officer prepping the various stations of your sub, the Engineer managing the damage and repair of the ship, or the Radio Operator who’s entire purpose is to listen to the other team to deduce where they may be, you’re in for a really engaging time. This is one of the few games you’ll seriously feel like you need to take a breather after playing a session, and that’s a good thing.
Millennium Blades is the immediate runner up to the “most unique experience” award; the game’s entire MO is to simulate the lifestyle of a professional CCG player (think Magic the Gathering or Yugioh). It definitely achieves that (at least to the best of my limited experience) by producing two distinct phases - the market phase and the tournament phase.
During the market phase, which by the way is a real time 21 minute affair, you’ll be tasked with buying cards from the market in the form of unrevealed “booster packs”, purchasing revealed cards that other players have sold to the aftermarket from their own decks, and trading with your fellow CCGers to attempt to construct the best tournament deck around. While a tournament deck is normally 60-ish cards, Millennium Blades abstracts this away to about 11 or so cards, only 6 of which you can actively play in the tournament phase. The tournament phase is a head to head competition to get the most points, with which your rank eventually translates to Victory Points and wins you the game.
There is a lot going on with Millennium Blades, particularly with the 500 or so cards that come with the base game (most of which you won’t actually see in one playthrough), meaning the replayability is through the roof. Couple that with a tonne of tounge-in-cheek references to your favorite sci-fi and video game franchises and you get a great experience. Keep in mind this is tuned to those who enjoy CCGs however; if you don’t enjoy swingy last-minute “oh I didn’t realize that card even existed and now I lose” gameplay this might not be for you.
I picked up Dragon & Flagon because it’s a movement programming game (which I enjoy), plays up to 8 players (which is good for large groups), and it’s themed around a bar fight (a fairly unexplored theme). There’s some cool concepts in there, like how taking larger actions consumes more “time” which affects if/when other players can perform actions before you, and how just because you planned to throw that mug at Adam across the room doesn’t mean that he didn’t move out of the way in your drunken stupor.
In practice, Dragon & Flagon is a bit fiddly of a game - while most things can be justified, the fact that you have to justify how things work while playing is a bit of a red flag (to be honest, I find this with most of the Engelstein games). But if you can look past all that, it’s a fun one-hour-ish romp in a tavern with up to 7 other friends.
Games I haven’t played enough to comment on: Seafall, Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle, Not Alone
Expansions I played this year: TIME Stories Prophecy of Dragons & Under the Mask, Eldritch Horror: Signs of Carcosa, Betrayal at House on the Hill: Widow’s Walk
I should preface this by saying that I’m also including latter releases from 2015.
If I were to name my absolute favourite game, I would have to strongly consider War of the Ring. This dramatic retelling of the Lord of the Rings epic is pretty much the best fusion of theme and strategy I’ve experienced.
Like many 70s babies, I grew up a Star Wars nerd so I was thrilled to see Fantasy Flight Games was releasing a board game clearly inspired by the aforementioned classic, except now set in a galaxy far, far away. Instead of the Free Peoples and the Shadow, players take on the role of the Rebel Alliance who are making surgical strikes from their secret base, or play as the Galactic Empire who seek to crush the Rebellion in one swift stroke as their authority spreads to oppress more and more star systems. Each session becomes a unique space opera that borrows some familiar story beats from the Original Trilogy, but re-imagined in new and exciting ways based on player actions.
The only flaw in my mind is that battles are made needlessly more fiddly due to some extraneous card play. I’m not sure how that part got through play-testing.
I love punk game designer Nate Hayden, whose design topics have included prison economies, cocaine smuggling, death metal necromancers, and vision quests while tripping on mushrooms.
His wonderfully perverse Psycho Raiders is essentially Texas Chainsaw Massacre played out as an old-school Avalon Hill hex-and-counter war game. A group of campers are trying to drive, run, hide and escape from the titular Psycho Raiders whose goal is straightforward: kill them all. The game has near-infinite narrative possibilities, which is something I appreciate.
The rulebook can be a bit more confusing than I’d like, so that’s a bit of a drawback. But the rulebook has a centrefold of a woman in her underwear, sporting a gas mask and a machete, standing in front of a faux-wood panelled wall, so…
Scythe had everything going for it right from the get-go: an accomplished designer and Kickstarter veteran with a strong pedigree of past success; INCREDIBLE art and visual design; an intriguing theme re-imagining post-WWI Europe as being filled with armies utilizing giant mechs…
But it didn’t stick its landing perfectly for me, though I think that’s due to my expectations that this is a conflict game. It is not. It is much more a resource management game in which you directly or indirectly earn victory points from any and all actions you take.
It’s a game I’m happy to play, but not one I felt needed to stick around on my own shelf.
With over 60 plays, Mage Knight Board Game by top designer Vlaada Chvátil (I’m glad I’m typing that and not saying it) is easily my most played game. Star Trek: Frontiers is essentially 98% the exact same as MK, with the main difference being that its pasted pictures of Picard and Dukat over top of the previous generic fantasy imagery. I even still use MK language while playing the game: Dominion starbases will also be mage towers in my brain.
The game is still great, but it definitely loses a lot of points with me due to unoriginality.
I once read the original 7 Wonders described as like being part of a knitting circle. I thought that was apt. You really have limited affect on most of the people sitting at the table (assuming you’re playing with 5-7 players). You just happen to all be doing the same activity and can compare results in the end.
Taking the basic foundation of 7 Wonders, which in itself is fine, and making it a 2-player game was a good idea. It now feels much more like direct competition and less like multiplayer solitaire.
The production is chintzy and the setup for each round is a bit goofy, but I generally like it.
I’m not the target audience for a game like this, though. I can see fans of more abstracted strategy games eating this up. Me, I want to be a Psycho Raider and torch some campers with my flamethrower.
Mysterium (Dixit meets Codenames), Black Orchestra (let’s all get together and kill Hitler), Talon (tactical space minis combat without the minis)
Expansions: Firefly: The Game - Kalidasa (this game has one big bastard of a footprint now), Dead of Winter: The Long Night (adds some cool options that add a lot to the narrative),