With 2016 wrapping up, it’s a good time to look back at the year in gaming. It was an incredible year for board and card games, with a ton of impressive releases. Here are my picks for the top 10 games released this year.
(Note: this is using the Essen Spiel 2015 (Oct 8-11) to pre-Essen 2016 (Oct 13-16) calendar many gaming sites and podcasts go with. I think it’s a good timeframe, as games that come out at or after Essen don’t have much time to get played before the end of the calendar year. Also note that I haven’t played everything out there, so this list may change over time!)
Honourable mention 1: Kansas Pacific (David V.H. Peters/Winsome Games/Queen Games). This is another great entry in the line of Winsome Games rail games re-released by Queen Games with nicer components (others include Chicago Express, German Railways, Paris Connection (also by the same designer) and Locomotive Werks), and it has some unique elements. There’s an excellent mix of pressure to rush across the board (only three of the six companies can reach the end, and it’s rare to see three actually do it, plus many cities offer more rewards if you’re there first) and penalties for haste (track’s much more expensive if you build a lot of it, and sticking close to your starting point can pay off too). Granted, this was actually a 2009 release from Winsome, but the deluxe Queen version came out this past year after Essen 2015. If you’re into train games, this is highly recommended.
Honourable mention 2: Tiny Epic Galaxies (Scott Almes/Gamelyn Games). This is my favourite of the Tiny Epic series so far, offering some really cool decisions. It’s a die-roller, but there are tons of ways to use and/or mitigate particular roles, and there are plenty of paths towards victory. Do you use planets for short-term actions or try to colonize them? Will your opponent get there first? How much effort do you put into upgrading your empire? The solo game in this is excellent, and I like it with two or three players too. However, it does feel like it bogs down with four or five; this may be player-dependent (those prone to analysis paralysis are really going to slow this one down, as there are so many possible options), but it’s a game I’d rather play with a small group, and a group that plays quickly. Overall, this is another excellent game from Almes (who I’ve been a big fan of since his very-underrated Kings of Air and Steam.) I Kickstarted the Beyond The Black expansion, and am looking forward to seeing what it adds.
Honourable mention 3: Potion Explosion (Stefano Castelli, Andrea Crespi and Lorenzo Silva/Horrible Games/Cool Mini or Not): This came out in 2015 in Italy, but CMON brought it to North America in 2016. It’s a very cool game that brings a Bejeweled-like Match Three feel to the tabletop, with some neat twists (especially when it comes to using potion powers). My non-gamer wife says it’s her favourite game, and we’ve had a great time playing it together. Highly recommended as a gateway game for anyone who likes that sort of Match Three gameplay.
Honourable mention 4: 504 (Friedemann Friese/2F-Spiele/Stronghold Games): 504 might be the most unique game I’ve ever played, as it’s 504 different games in one box. It’s a fascinating game design experiment, and it works generally well, as long as you’re able to figure out the different modules’ interactions. It also gets better as you play it (even using different modules each times, you get more used to some of the central concepts on subsequent plays). It’s an excellent game to explore, but one challenge is getting it to the table; it’s not always an easy sell to people, and it’s not terribly easy to explain any particular setup. Still, this can be a lot of fun, and I look forward to exploring it more.
Now, the actual list…
10. Hands In The Sea (Daniel Berger/Knight Works): I love Martin Wallace’s A Few Acres of Snow (despite the complaints about a dominant strategy), and this game from Berger and new publisher Knight Works feels like an even better version of it. The Rome-Carthage First Punic War setting is perfect for this, and the deck-building system feels perfect for a clash of those empires; the bigger your empire gets, the more difficult it can be to manage. There are some excellent twists in this one, too, including naval combat/interdiction/support, events and strategies, a neutral city (Syracuse), and more. I’ve played this one a couple of times so far and have quite enjoyed it; I’m looking forward to exploring it even more. Check out Dan Thurot’s excellent review if you’re interested in learning more on this game.
9. Forged In Steel (Wade Broadhead/Knight Works): I thought this was the most impressive game of 2016 on some levels. Designed by Broadhead, a former Pueblo city planner, it’s a fascinating game about the history of that town from 1890-1920, and it has a whole lot going for it. It plays like a combination of Twilight Struggle/other card-driven wargames (using cards for points or events), Carson City (Old West-ish theme, building up the town, points based on where buildings are in relation to other buildings) and El Grande (area control and periodic scorings), with some twists all to itself. It’s incredibly thematic and well-researched, and there are whole lot of interesting interlocking mechanisms, including card drafting, role selection, advancing various progress tracks and more. It’s also quite customizable, with some variants included in the box.
The downside is that Forged In Steel may need some tweaks to work well for your group. For example, my group felt some of the purely-attacking cards were far too harsh for our style of play, so we’ve taken those out, and the out-of-the-box rules (no variants) minimize the importance of the third election (the included Power of Elections variant feels superior to us). There’s also a lot going on this game, and it takes a little while to figure out how everything works together; it improves with multiple plays. This is a game that’s produced both love and hate responses from my group, and while it’s produced some of my favourite gaming moments of this year, it’s not going to be to everyone’s liking. I strongly recommend it if you like long, heavy games with some direct conflict, if you like history and theme, and if you don’t mind experimenting with variants and/or house rules. I wouldn’t recommend it if you want a pure Euro that’s unambiguous out of the box. Overall, though, I love this game and Hands In The Sea, and I think it’s awesome that a small publisher like Knight Works has managed to deliver two such great titles so far. I look forward to seeing what they do next.
8. Terraforming Mars (Jacob Fryxelius/Stronghold Games): This has a lot in common with Forged In Steel as a love-it or hate-it game, and one that may need some tweaks for your group. It includes a variety of options that may help if you don’t like it at first (advanced corporations, the corporate era cards, and the drafting variant stand out), and it also features some attack-heavy cards that may be worth taking out for groups that don’t want that kind of direct conflict. There are going to be some potential downsides regardless, though; it’s a game that’s very much about the cards, and it feels like there are going to be some games (not a lot, but some) that are won just by whoever happens to draw the greatest combos of cards.
There’s a lot to love about this game, though. Its theme is excellent and well-researched, and it feels like you’re actually both terraforming the planet and setting your corporation up for success. There are also a ton of paths to victory, which helps with the randomness of the card draw. While you may not be able to do what you initially wanted to, there’s usually something you can do that will help you out, and in the majority of games, there’s going to be a fair bit of skill involved in finding a winning strategy.
I love looking for and building combos in Terraforming Mars, plus the tension of having to buy cards you’ll need much later well in advance. There’s also a lot of really interesting player interaction beyond the direct conflict, specifically with funding end-game goals you may not actually win, with working together to raise the three tracks (which may allow others to play certain cards), and with on-board scoring interactions between cities and greenery tiles.
7. Best Treehouse Ever (Scott Almes/Green Couch Games): This is one of the best fillers ever. The artwork from Adam McIver is superb, and Almes has designed another winner, providing some fascinating gamer elements (particularly end of round scoring tile selection, the balance marker, and keeping all tiles of one colour together) into a relatively light, quick and easy-to-explain game. It’s also a game that you could make even more newbie- or kid-friendly with the included variants for simplified scoring. Publisher Jason Kotarski has done it again; I’ve been very impressed with most of the Green Couch titles he’s put out, and I’m really looking forward to the full release of Rocky Road A La Mode this year.
6. Scythe (Jamey Stegmaier/Stonemaier Games): In my mind, Scythe managed to live up to its tremendous amounts of hype, not an easy task. The gameplay is excellent, with plenty of engine-building and opportunities for clever moves. The factions and different player board combinations adding to the freshness of each game, and things always depend to some degree on what you get from encounters and what your opponents are doing too. I love the solo Automa system; it takes a little while to figure out the different movement rules, but they’re handily summarized on reference cards, and once you get it, you can play a solo game quite quickly and efficiently. The solo deck-driven opponent also gives you a good bit of the feel of a real opponent (and certainly much of the challenge of facing one, especially at the higher levels) without a ton of rules complexity.
The art (from Jakub Rozalski, whose art and world-building led to this game in the first place) and miniatures here are also gorgeous, and I think the theming is great. I love how the game makes combat important (a properly-timed clash here or there can play a valuable role in deciding a game), but also far from constant, and far from the only way to win. That feels apt, too; these are supposed to be nations rebuilding from a great war, willing to fight if needs be but not necessary bent on conquest.
There are a few potential pitfalls here, though. For one thing, the random objective draw can imbalance things a bit; if one person gets possible objectives that fit well with what their faction/board suggest, it’s going to be a lot easier for them to accomplish that than for someone who draws two tough objectives that don’t match what their faction/board combination excels at. This isn’t necessarily a big deal (it’s quite possible to win without fulfilling an objective, the draw two and work to fulfill one system does help to mitigate this a bit, and this also all depends on how seriously you take winning and balance), but it should be noted.
Beyond that, the combat element here isn’t going to work for everyone; conflict-high players may be disappointed by how much of a Euro this is, and pure Euro players may be a bit annoyed with how much you can possibly lose through conflict. Perhaps most notably, this game can really drag with five players, especially if some of them are new to it or AP-prone. I’d recommend playing at lower counts for a first game and only going up to five with people who know the game (or are willing to play fast anyway).
5. World’s Fair 1893 (J. Alex Kevern/Foxtrot Games/Renegade Games): This is such a cool, beautiful game, and it works on a lot of levels. It’s an interesting take on area control, as you have to carefully balance the areas you’re trying to control with collecting exhibit cards so you have something to actually approve, and the timing of the scoring phases is so player-driven and so important. This plays quite fast, but has a lot of important decisions in that space, and I love the thought put into scaling it for different player counts.
The amount of research put into the cards is fantastic, too; it can be easily ignored flavour text for those who just want to play, but for those who want to actually learn about the fair and its exhibits, this really gives you a sense of history and theme. This can be a great gateway game for people newer to the hobby, but one that still has enough depth for veteran gamers. This game comes from a Murderer’s Row of top boardgame talent (Kevern, developer/publisher Randy Hoyt, artist Beth Sobel, graphic designer Adam McIver, rulebook layout editor Jason D. Kingsley, rulebook editor Dustin Schwartz), so perhaps it’s not surprising it turned out so well.
4. Shadowstar Corsairs (Ryan Wolfe/0 hr Art and Technology): This is one of the most impressive self-published games I’ve ever seen, topped only by the next entry up. Wolfe served as designer, artist and publisher here, and he created an absolutely great game. It has some elements from other sandbox games like Merchants and Marauders (which I love), but a lot of things entirely new to itself, and it feels very thematic and perfect for its space setting. Putting resources in particular physical board spots and moving them around to build things is a tremendous design decision, and I love all the different things to balance, including political and technology tracks, cards, public contracts, what actions to take and when, how you have to stop what you’re doing to score, and more. I also love how you can have up to three ships and have your fleet working in tandem. There’s so much to explore here, too, especially with all the different (and beautifully-done) ships, the highly-modular board setup, the advanced rules (including alien ships, a government cruiser and much more), and the massive decks of cards and contracts.
Shadowstar Corsairs isn’t perfect. It can feel swingy, especially if opponents draw the right cards that work together (however, this can be alleviated in a three-plus player game by teaming up to go after someone who gets a great draw). The dice element in combat does add to the swinginess at times, too (although it’s relatively mild compared to many games; I like the decision to make the maximum modifier plus or minus one). There are a few rules ambiguities that may crop up, and if you have a group that’s super concerned about winning, that could be problematic. Also, this is a game that can lead to long turns, especially if you’re new to it; I’d recommend a low player count for your first few games at the very least, and I prefer to play it with just two or three even after that.
You should also know that this can be quite a mean game. While it’s probably possible to play without fighting, fights are likely to happen in a lot of the games, and they can have disastrous consequences (I do love the rule that lets those without a ship get a new one for free, though, and the rule that provides a safety zone at the central station; those can help people from getting fully picked on or knocked out.) I’d say this is more combat-focused than even something like Merchants and Marauders, and so you should probably only pick it up if you’re fine with a good amount of direct conflict. If you are, though, and if you like the idea of a space sandbox game, get this one. This is a heck of a game Wolfe’s put together, and I hope to play it many more times in the coming years.
3. The Networks (Gil Hova/Formal Ferret Games): Now this is an incredible self-published design. Of course, Hova’s far from new to game design, previously creating the likes of Battle Merchants and Bad Medicine, but it’s quite impressive to see what he’s been able to do as a relatively small publisher. The Networks is a brilliant design, and one that just oozes theme; everything from shows losing (or sometimes gaining) viewers as they age to stars’ or ads’ particular requirements to what particular network cards do to bonuses for specializing in a certain genre makes a ton of sense. The solo mode here is great, and highly recommended. Beyond that, my favourite thing about The Networks is how often it makes me laugh; so many of the show titles in particular are utterly hilarious, and Heiko Günther’s art is great. This is also a relatively rules-light, relatively quick game, and it could easily be played with newer gamers.
The one thing I do wonder about with The Networks is its staying power. It’s a lot of fun to play five times or so, but if you play it a lot in quick succession, the jokes won’t be as funny and the gameplay can start to feel samey. There isn’t necessarily a ton of higher-level strategy (compared to some games, at least) or game-to-game differences. Adding in advanced and interactive network cards helps, and the On The Air expansion (included with the Kickstarter) helps even more, but this is still a game I feel you’re more likely to want to pull out and enjoy every couple of months or so rather than play consistently, especially with heavy gamers. I’m still very much enjoying it though, and I’m looking forward to the further expansion that’s reportedly forthcoming.
2. Morocco (Matt Riddle and Ben Pinchback/Eagle-Gryphon Games): The design team of Riddle and Pinchback have produced some of my all-time favourite games, particularly Fleet, Fleet: Wharfside, Eggs and Empires and Floating Market, and Morocco is another big hit in my books. The base area control idea here sounds relatively simple, but there are so many neat twists on it, from the rooftop cube-gathering determining your placement options to the special powers of particular meeples (and the need to finish second rather than first to activate some of them) to the struggle to build a continuous group of tiles (something that very much reminds me of one of my other favourites, Quebec). This feels like some of the classic Euros (maybe Tigris and Euphrates in particular?), but with excellent elements that make it unique. It’s a game I’ve loved on every play so far, and I’m hoping to play it much more.
1. The Board and Game Game of the Year: New Bedford (Nat Levan/Dice Hate Me Games/Greater Than Games): This is an amazing game, one that manages to take a familiar worker-placement formula and make it feel very thematic and new. Making the starting town spaces accessible to all workers (but with a bonus for the first person to go there) was a great design decision, as you’re never fully locked out from particular things you need (you just may not be able to do them as efficiently). Moreover, the diminishing returns from whaling strikes me as fantastic both thematically and mechanically; it shows the historical effect the whaling industry had, and also provides you with an interesting tension; you can try to launch early (to reap the rewards before they’re gone) before your engine’s fully built, or wait to launch later and deeper, go past your opponents’ ships (and thus pick first), but hope that the best tiles haven’t already been taken.
I love how the town comes together over the course of the game with players building additional buildings, and every game I’ve played so far plays out very differently depending on what’s built when. The base game alone gives lots of options, but once you add in the Rising Tide expansion, the options become incredible. Rising Tide is also recommended for the Ship’s Log options it adds, which add yet more decisions to whaling (and can make being stuck with just empty ocean feel less frustrating). The amount of decisions in the game in general stands out too, as do the different paths to victory; it’s very possible to win through heavy whaling, heavy building, or a mix of both.
I appreciate the decision to offer some thematic setup combinations of buildings in the rulebook, and I’m sure there are many further interesting combinations to explore beyond that. On the variety front, I also love the solo game’s decision to include four very different AI opponents, providing so many options for how to play. The solo game in general is awesome; it’s quick, it’s rules- and upkeep-light (once you get the hang of it; the BGG forum threads are recommended if you can’t figure it out), and it’s quite satisfying. (Also, on the rules front; I think they’re generally good, but there are a few things that aren’t necessarily obvious on first read, and I really appreciate Levan’s frequent presence on the forums to answer questions.)
There are a few component issues to be aware of. My copy had two (out of five) sets of colours with two small ships instead of a large and a small, which could be problematic when you need to tell them apart. However, that should be easy enough to deal with, perhaps by putting a mark or something on one of each pair. The decision to put the ship colours only on the hull also can cause some issues in identifying whose ship is whose, especially between blue and green, but that could also be fixed with marks (or by not using blue and green in the same game if playing with less than four (base game) or five (with expansion)). The biggest problem is that some of the Rising Tide tiles were misprinted; Greater Than Games is reportedly going to provide replacements, and there are corrected versions available as stickers in a PDF right now, so this isn’t a game-breaking issue at all, but it’s something to keep in mind.
Overall, though, New Bedford is the best game I’ve played this year, and the one I’m most eager to play more. It packs a heck of a lot into a short game length (about 45 minutes), it’s so different every time, and it has a great mix of strategies to explore. It feels incredibly thematic, and you can tell that Levan’s really done his research into the town, especially with the descriptions of the different buildings. If you’re a fan of Moby Dick, this is definitely a game you should check out, but I’d recommend checking it out even if you don’t know your Ahab from your Starbuck. It’s a fun game that’s relatively easy to teach, but also one that carries a lot of depth, one that has a lot of territory to explore (especially with the expansion), and one that has a lot to offer. That’s why it’s the Board and Game Game Of The Year.