With another great year wrapped up for tabletop gaming, Derek and I have selected our favorite games from extremely specific categories. This is a very, very, very serious awards ceremony article, and I hope everyone reading it gains more love and respect for 2016’s crazy slate of game releases.
So, without further ado… The tabletop awards go to…
Best “Medieval Guy On the Cover” Game – Royals
When I first got into board games, I was expecting monsters, dragons, wizards, and so on. After all, everything I knew about gaming was from Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: the Gathering. It turns out that whoever publishes these games often has a different view on what makes the middle ages interesting; namely: portraits of bureaucrats!
Royals is the latest in the line of such games, but, fortunately, it’s far more fun than its cover suggests. The gameplay in Royals primarily centers around drawing colored cards and collecting sets of them, but these cards are used to claim spaces on the board. There, players vie for majority rule in each region, and with the right cards, can stab in each other in the back, supplanting opposing influence with their own. It’s a simple game that is nevertheless strategic and engaging throughout. If you like the card mechanism of Ticket to Ride but want something with more aggression and a clearer scoreboard, Royals is a great way to jump into area control games. ~ Derek
Best “Prettiest Artwork” Game – Scythe
Despite my cries to flee the “Cult of the New,” I fell prey to the hype of Stonemaier’s newest and last Kickstarter release: Scythe. Out of stock everywhere, and on shelves and tables across the world, Scythe led the way in taking crowd-funded board games to new levels. Some have argued its gameplay isn’t terribly innovative, and the component quality is expected from the Stonemaier brand, but almost nothing matches the mind and works of Jakub Rozalski.
Setting Scythe in a post-WWI/steampunk/post-apocalyptic environment, Rozalski paints a beautifully-atmospheric picture of this alt-history. While scenario cards don’t tell as much of the story as I’d like, the snowy fields, metal- and rust-covered mechs, and countryside dwellers tell me a faint, yet visceral, tale of decades past that never became reality. Like the gameplay or not, the board is breath-taking, and the cards and characters speak for themselves: Scythe is here to stay. ~ Chris
Best “Way to Kill Your Friends” Game – Adrenaline
The “dudes on a map” genre, where you send troops out to attack your in-game enemies and real-life friends, goes way back to Risk. Many, many games have contributed to this genre, perhaps most notably Small World, and, recently, Blood Rage. And let me tell you: Blood Rage is an incredible game. So much so that several games in 2016 tried and failed (in my opinion) to recreate its success.
Adrenaline from Czech Games Edition circumvents the problem by approaching the entire genre in a whole new way. When you think of Halo: the Board Game, for whatever reason, you probably think of a bunch of dice, a long rulebook, and terrain pieces on a hex-based map, similar to Memoir ‘44 or classic wargames. Instead, Adrenaline is very much a European-style game with luckless combat, resource management, and a majority-based scoring system. It’s area control, except the areas are the wounds on each player!
What results is a fast-paced, extremely clever game that feels very much like a cerebral strategy game, but also like a first-person shooter. The only real difficulty is memorizing the weapons in your first few games, but, after that, the game plays as smooth as butter. Be prepared for an extremely good time killing your friends, as long as you have enough friends to kill (don’t play with only three players). ~ Derek
Best “The Wife Will Play” Game – Sushi Go Party!
Sushi Go always held a dear part of my heart as one of the easiest, tactical card games I could teach to my family before bringing 7 Wonders into the mix. 7 Wonders is, in my opinion, far too complicated to make sense of for a new table, especially when you can start card-drafting with Sushi Go. Unfortunately, as most simpler games go, I became disenchanted with the lack of variety of cards.
In 2016, Gamewright released the sequel, or remix, of Sushi Go, by introducing Sushi Go Party! This game takes the original formula and does everything right by adding a slew of new set-collection mechanics, artwork, food choices, and components. Sure, some family members can’t comprehend how to use the “spoon” card correctly, but when you’ve seen four separate people buy their own personal copy, you know the game is something special. Big kudos to Gamewright and Phil-Walker Harding with this one. Excellent game for everyone, at an excellent, low price. ~ Chris
Best “Won’t Fit on Your Shelf” Game – Tyrants of the Underdark
I’ve made a big deal this year about valuing innovation and being tired of the same old, same old. However, I view innovation in a broad sense. You could argue that Pandemic Legacy is nothing more than Pandemic mixed with Risk Legacy, but it definitely delivered something new and unique. Likewise, despite being a rather unoriginal worker-placement game, Lords of Waterdeep streamlined the genre and made great effort to imbue with theme–one besides bureaucrats in the middle ages or farming.
That same design duo is responsible for the aggressively unoriginal Tyrants of the Underdark. It’s deck-building, like Dominion, but with a board, like Trains. The decks are “smashed” together like Smash Up. You get points for removing good cards from play, like in Elysium or Valley of the Kings. It’s area-control, like so many other games. And what’s worse: it’s overpriced ($75 MSRP) and the art is far from great (it’s muddy, dark, and plain).
Despite these many flaws, Tyrants of the Underdark is a wonderful game. Much like Lords of Waterdeep, its main appeal is in its smoothness. It mixes these old concepts in new, interesting–but not confusing–ways. Play is very streamlined, and goals are clear. Yet, there are tough decisions each turn, a sense of pride and accomplishment in how you did despite the luck that can be prevalent, and a great variety of setups. Though the theme is loose, it’s one I find interesting, having read many of the Drizzt Do’Urden books by R.A. Salvatore in high school. It’s a game I am always eager to play, although loathe to bring to game nights. Why? You guessed it: the box is too dang big! ~ Derek
Best Game We Finally Discovered – At the Gates of Loyang
I’d always been interested in Uwe Rosenburg’s euro on being the best dang Asian farmer at the table, but never had a chance until this year. A decent rulebook made for quick learning at a local convention I attended. Even though we needed to restart the game during our first play, I became acquainted and swiftly attached to the dynamics of growing your crops, all the while providing for your customers, both new and ongoing.
The simple point-scoring nature of Loyang makes for a clear objective, but one must decide the most profitable and easily-attainable route to get there. From my one-time play of the game, it seems most games are bound to end with tight scoring between players, likely forcing tie games in most situations. In this case, the game will disparage players, spotlighting the clear winner by whoever managed finances and crops better than their opponents. A swell game for sure. Also, reprinted recently from Tasty Minstrel Games. ~ Chris
Best “Biggest Surprise of 2016” Game – Not Alone
I had never heard of Geek Attitude Games or of designer Ghislain Masson before playing Not Alone. I also have a relatively unhappy history with 1 vs. all games, where one player plays against an entire team of other players. Yet, Not Alone brings some clever innovations to the genre and proves itself to be one of the best games of the year.
In Not Alone, one player is a Creature trying to assimilate the other players into the planet on which they’ve crash-landed. The players try to move around and avoid being caught until rescue arrives. It’s a clever double-think/bluffing game, full of interesting card interactions and great artwork. It’s also compact and inexpensive, yet offers a full, satisfying gameplay experience that could anchor a game night. Basically, it’s awesome, and it’s one of my most-played games this year. ~ Derek
Best “Single Component” – Oil Drum (Manhattan Project: Energy Empire)
A wee lad without any comprehension of nuclear warfare, I sat excitedly at my kitchen table, opening my copy of Manhattan Project: Energy Empire. Being totally new to the Minion Games brand, and unsure of art or component quality, I opened up a few bags from within the box and was greeted by overall pleasant artwork and a lovely rulebook. It wasn’t until the first few turns of my maiden game that I needed oil to generate extra cash to fund my building machine.
I had hastily dumped drums into my store-bought, silicon muffin cups, and went to grab three. This made for an unrelenting feeling of joy and satisfaction, as I held three, ice-cold, metal barrels symbolizing brown oil canisters. These dark cylinders have a comfortable weightiness to them, making the reality of poisoning the environment carry even more gusto. By end game, you realize the physical density relates more to the gobs of cash they conceal, rather than your already-polluted player board.
Like the gameplay, these components make players glad, and I’m so fortunate to own a copy of this excellent game. ~ Chris
2016 Staff Favorites – Captain Sonar
I’ve been jaded this past year. 2015 was so good, in part because it was so innovative. Lots of 2016 was the same old, same old; just bigger, prettier, more expensive, and allegedly better. I’ve found most of the hottest games this year to be extremely overrated, as I’ve made it a point this month to play many of the high-ranked games from 2016 in preparation for these awards and others. I like to joke with Chris and tell him to “get off my lawn” as I become an old, cranky gamer.
Yet, jadedness usually ends with people wanting to just stick with what they like. For me, it makes me crave diversity. I look for games that use cardboard, plastic, and our minds in entirely new ways, like how Codenames reinvented the word-based party game or how Mysterium turned the picture-based party game Dixit on its head. When games ride that line between party, social, and strategy games, there’s tons of fertile ground yet to cover.
Captain Sonar deftly works that soil. Two teams face off in what I can only describe as real-time, team-based Battleship. Players constantly shout orders as the Captain steers the ship, and the Engineer tries miserably to keep systems from breaking while the First Mate preps them (“Fire the torpedoes! Use the sonar! Oh wait, we can’t”). The most interesting role is the Radio Operator, whose entire job is to use a transparent overlay to eavesdrop on the other team, and deduce where they are.
Strangely, the whole game is luckless and played merely on dry-erase boards: no dice, no cards, no cardboard hits. Captain Sonar’s only defining component is the giant, beautiful, two-part screen placed between the teams. It enters that ideal headspace that so few games get to. At minimum, you don’t want the game to play you. Typically, you’re playing the game together. At best, the game is a medium for you to play the other players. Some games take many playthroughs among experts to reach that level, but can still do it. Very few offer such immediate access to that ultimate frontier of gaming as Captain Sonar does. ~ Derek
2016 Staff Favorites – Manhattan Project: Energy Empire
As previously mentioned, I hadn’t played anything from Minion Games before sitting down to a three-player game of Manhattan Project: Energy Empire. Boy, was I in for a treat.
I’ve gushed enough about Energy Empire on forums and in my review, but this game is just incredible. I haven’t played it in a few months, but it left such an impression on me for a multitude of reasons, including: ease of teaching, a great rulebook, amazing component quality, subtle player interaction, and fun artwork. I love all of these aspects, but the biggest thing that makes Manhattan Project: Energy Empire stick around is the friends who’ve played it with me and still bring it up from time to time.
I’m not sure I’d go as far to say it was an underrated gem from last year, but I think more people should be talking about it. ~ Chris