Year in Review: Board Games

So…I was super upbeat about miniature games and RPGs this year. Board games are another thing altogether though. This year really felt like the first time I felt like there was a glut of games. And the majority weren’t that good.
As I’m writing this, I’m actually watching the Dice Tower’s Top 10 Games of the Year. It’s really helping me to understand that there isn’t common agreement on the quality of releases this year, so I feel the need to explain where I’m coming from. Not to say anyone else is wrong, but to articulate why I feel a bit down on the state of board games in 2017.
I’m a big fan of measuring quality by the quantity of plays. Great games get played more in the long run. And when they’re new and hot, they tend to get played even more. Looking over my top 20 games by play count (all of which have 5 or more plays), only three were released this year. And of those three, I suspect only one of them will have as many plays next year.
Let’s hold off on any more negativity for the moment and get through my top 10 of the year (we’ll go back to the negativity when we look at my losers for the year!)!
(Quick Note: I purposely excluded any game that appeared on another list. Given how many miniature games have crossed into board gaming, several would have made their way onto this list.)
10. Dice Forge (Asmodee, $40) – Dice building. Great components. an OK worker placement game. That’s pretty much all the summary of Dice Forge you need. I love the mechanism of changing the faces of your dice over the course of the game. There’s really just nothing else like it and I’ll be really surprised to see it replicated (it took the designers several years to source components that implemented their vision correctly). This is a very solid game and the price point is super good for everything you get in the box.
9. Final War (Games Lab, $50 for the starter box) – I’m a big fan of FFG’s LCG line. I even like CCGs, even though I’m past the point in my life where I’m really interested in playing the role of card collector. Final War is a great mix of the two models with a great fantasy universe, and solid mechanics. The only drawback is that this one is a bit hard to get hold of in the states (Games Lab is out of Australia). There was a big push for this one at GenCon, but I haven’t seen much buzz since then (though they’ve released two new expansions for the game).
8. Apocrypha (Lone Shark Games, $60) – Ever wish the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game ran more smoothly? Buy Apocrypha. Now. Even better, I’ve taught this game to several people who aren’t heavy in the hobby market and I’ve not found anyone who didn’t like it. The only concern with this one is that it can be really dark in places. I mean, seriously dark. If you can get past the dark theme, this is a great game to pick up (and I can’t wait to see what they do in the next two sets).
7. Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game (Evil Hat Games, $30) – I love the Dresden Files universe (shout out to the Dresden Files RPG – an amazing game that I’ve hacked multiple times with great success). I’m not a huge fan of cooperative games generally. This game is tense. You never feel like you’re out of the game, you always have interesting decisions to make, and the game is short. You’re knocking out a full game in 15-30 minutes without a problem. And you feel satisfied when you’re done – like you’ve played a much meatier game.
6. Gloomhaven (Cephalofair Games, $100) – I like dungeon crawls for the most part, but there’s a real danger of simply recreating the same game over and over. Gloomhaven brings in a basic dungeon crawl, adds a legacy layer on top and relies on a great little card management mechanic. In fact, the card management aspect of the game is so important, that if they used a different mechanism, I probably wouldn’t even like this game.
5. Photosynthesis (Blue Orange Games, $45) – This is one of my favorite pick-ups from Gencon this year. The mechanism of gaining points by being able to receive sunlight as the sun moves around the board is just great. This is a much meatier game than it looks, but isn’t so heavy that it should immediately turn off people who shy away from more thinky games.
4. Mint Works (Five24 Labs, $13) – This may be the perfect filler game. Mint Works is a great worker placement game that fits into your pocket. Any pocket. It’s no bigger than a tin of Altoids. And it’s a tight little game to boot. There’s a bit of engine building, a bit of player interaction, and there’s even a really well thought-out solo mode.
3. Godfather (CMON, $80) – This game feels like a classic Fantasy Flight title. Loads of player conflict, multiple paths to victory, and some great design decisions that shine through every time you play the game. The theme is pretty pasted on, but I just don’t care. This game scales from three to five with no issue in my opinion (although three can have a pretty serious kingmaker issue if left unchecked). Something else to highlight – they spent money on these components where it made the most sense. Using tins for your loot luggage was a great addition and adds a great tactile component to the game.
2. Sagrada (Floodgate Games, $40) – This is a terrific gateway game that is not getting enough love (partly because a number of the introductory videos from various podcasters have had difficulty with the rules for some strange reason). This is a visually stunning game of building stain-glass windows while dealing with design constraints. I haven’t met anyone who disliked this game and whenever I want to capture attention at an event, I pull this one out.
1. Near and Far (Red Raven Games, $70) – After my primary group’s first play of this game, we immediately played it again. And then made a pledge to play it every time we got together until the campaign was finished. This is a great mix of work placement, adventure and legacy style mechanics. The artwork is gorgeous, the writing is downright clever and the mechanics all work together smoothly. This was the first game added to this list and there was never a question of it being #1.
So…that brings us to the losers for this year. It took some effort to narrow this down to a reasonable number. For this list, for me to add it as a “loser,” it had to be a big release that just didn’t live up to expectations for one reason or another. With that in mind, I’ve narrowed it down to three that I think represent some problems that became apparent this year.
Legend of the Five Rings (Fantasy Flight Games, $35) – I actually like this game quite a bit. It nearly made my top 10 and I will have well over 10 plays before the year is out. Here’s the problem: this game chases away new players. If you aren’t buying your own copy and getting into the game, you play it once, maybe twice and decide it’s just too much. This is clearly the best version of the L5R card game ever produced, but it’s so downright hostile to new players that I’ve got to call it a loser (even though I think there are enough people into the original versions to keep it going).
Dragonfire (Catalyst Game Labs, $60) – This game is so odd. I demoed it at GenCon and really loved it. Then I played it with my kids and we got destroyed. I played it with hardcore gamers. And we got destroyed. I solo’d it. And I got destroyed. See a theme? I’ve talked with numerous people about this game and the general consensus seems to be that everyone recommends house-ruling it if you don’t want to lose over and over again until you’ve gotten enough experience to be able to handle the first few adventures. Guys, that’s a design flaw. This is a great license, a great system, and a horribly missed opportunity.
Star Wars Destiny (Fantasy Flight Games, variable pricing based on product) – Want to figure out how to kill a game that was beyond hot? Create an avoidable shortage of the base set, release the expansion before you can get reprints of the first out and then don’t release anything significant for months. The local scene for Star Wars Destiny went from having multiple groups of 20+ players to barely being able to make 8 players per store event. I think the new draft mechanic is an interesting addition to the game, but I’m not sure it’s enough to regain the momentum FFG lost through terrible operations management.

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