It’s that time again. Time for me to list the best releases of the year over the course of two entries of [Card.Board.Box.] and to pretend that anyone out there cares what I think. 2014 was a banner year on a lot of fronts, with plenty of reasons to be happy about this hobby that we all share. Without further rambling on my part, here’s a few of those reasons that I think are really worthy of your notice.
BEST FAMILY GAME: BATTLE SHEEP
Yes, you read that right. Battle Sheep. Simple enough for kids as young as five, but challenging enough for the most discriminating fans of abstract games, Battle Sheep is a veritable wolf in sheep’s clothing. (*the assembled crowd growns*)
One rule keeps things simple. On your turn pick one stack of your sheep chips and leaving at least one sheep behind, take as many sheep as you like and then move them as far as you can in a straight line, stopping only at the edge of the board or another stack of sheep. That’s it. You’ll quickly find yourself running out of room and having to make some hard decisions. Eventually you’ll have no more legal moves, and when every player is in such a state, the game ends! The player with the most stacks (of any size) is the winner. Battle Sheep’s board is modular, providing lots of replay value, and the Sheep “chips” are heavy-weight disks that are very satisfying to move around the table.
Honorable Mention: ORIGIN
Easily one of the most beautiful games released this year, Origin deserves a second look. Easy rules belie a depth of strategy in a game that’s a strange hybrid of abstract and Eurogame, with a teensy tiny bit of civ-builder thrown in.
BEST PARTY GAME: CONCEPT
I really wanted this thing to win the Spiel des Jahres this year (it was one of three games nominated). I’ve played this game quite a bit now, and I’ve played it with a wide variety of people, and often at very full tables of 8 or 10 players.
It’s actually pretty hard to describe this game without showing you the board.
The short version is this: you and a partner receive a clue which you must then attempt to get the rest of the table to guess. You do this by placing cubes and plastic markers of varying colors upon a board literally *covered* in icons representing various concepts: everything from simple ideas like colors, body parts, and shapes to concepts like “happy” or “historical” or “work” or even more complex stuff like “time” or “conflict” or “religious”. Sometimes it’s easy, like with clues such as “bee” but they can get really complicated when you try using these vague concepts to define something like the phrase “vicious circle”.
It’s a pretty straight forward idea for a game, but things really start to sing once you’ve made the logical leap that you are not bound by simply putting one cube per icon. You can pile them up! Or actually move them from one icon to another as part of your clue! Or knock them over! For example, in one recent game, we had a player put a cube on “movies” and then, placing a cube on the symbol for “head” spun the cube around in place on the board. The answer of course, was “The Exorcist”.
BEST PARTY GAME (New Edition): QUACK-A-DOODLE MOO
Published many years ago as “Snorta”, I don’t think there’s a game out there that is quite as capable of making a reasonably intelligent adult feel like such a complete idiot. Every player gets assigned an animal identity, which is shown to the whole table, then hidden. You might be a frog, I’m a dog, and our third player is a cow.
Now we’ve all got a stack of cards in front of us depicting animals drawn from the same set. One player at a time, we flip over one card onto the table, forming our own personal face up stack. The minute the top card on your stack matches a card on an opponent’s stack, you must make the noise of the player with whom you share the card. Here’s the trick. You discover that you and I both have face up cards depicting a cat in front of us… but you have to quickly remember that I am in fact the dog so must bark at me, before I realize what’s up and make a “ribbit” noise back at you. Not a meow. Repeat, now a meow.
Your brain will fail you, I promise, and eventually you’ll be making noises that no earthly animal has ever made.
(The successful noise-maker by the way, gives his face up stack to the other player, who must add them to the stack in their hand. The first player to run out of cards wins.)
From Iello (publisher of King of Tokyo, Titanium Wars and Dwarf King) with art by Naide (the artist behind Seasons and Tokaido). That alone makes it worthy of notice.
In case you weren’t aware, Through the Breach is the new role-playing game based in the setting of the wildly successful skirmish miniatures game MALIFAUX. That setting is a strange amalgam of steampunk, wild west, and horror which I won’t delve too deeply into here.
But what makes Through the Breach my RPG of the year? Well, there are some remarkably fresh ideas in here, from the ingenious way in which a character changes their Pursuit (the closest thing to “class”) every session, to the way in which those Pursuits influence the Talents that a character gains.
One, the idea that each player character is “Fated” which is to say, has some multipart destiny that is actually written as part of the Tarot card-like spread of character creation. Each character’s Fate has five parts, and it is intended that every session of a campaign will resolved one part of a character’s Fate. That also means that a Through the Breach campaign is designed from the beginning to have a fixed end point, an idea that I think is sorely missing from many GM’s RPG arsenals. So you’ve got four Through the Breach players? That means your campaign should last slightly more than 20 sessions. One for each part of each character’s Fate, plus another one or two sessions for an epilogue or wrap-up. I don’t know about you, but when presented with the opportunity to write a session based around resolving stuff like “the last man will speak the lies of your glory” my inner GM weeps with glee.
BEST RPG SUPPLEMENT OR ACCESSORY:
DARKENING OF MIRKWOOD (THE ONE RING)
Yes, I know. I am having a love affair with this game. But they keep upping the ante and producing some of the best RPG material on the market. And this one? The Darkening of Mirkwood campaign? It’s one of the best RPG campaigns ever written. Seriously, that’s not hyperbole. You can check out my full length review by clicking here.
Honorable Mention: KOBOLD GUIDE TO MAGIC
If you’re a RPG gamemaster and you’re not reading the system-neutral series of Kobold Guides, you are seriously missing out. The Magic volume is probably the best one yet, and the recently released Combat book is also a very solid entry.
Best Shot in the Arm to Role-Playing Game Industry:
DUNGEONS & DRAGONS fifth edition
A co-worker recently seemed incredulous when I told him that the new D&D wasn’t even in the running for Best RPG this year for me. Well, cause it’s not. It’s simply not to my particular style, and there’s not much that’s truly innovative here.
But I’ll tell you what, the new edition of D&D is simultaneously the most accessible version of the game in years, and also the version that manages to most harken back to the days of 1st edition AD&D. People are talking about D&D in a way they haven’t in many years, and piles of lapsed players (and parents!) are rediscovering role-playing games. And large quantities of new role-playing gamers are something that I’m very happy to see.
Welcome back, Old Friend.
-Paul Alexander Butler is the Store Manager of Games and Stuff. He thinks the best book you didn’t read this year was Joe Abercrombie’s Half A King. [Card.Board.Box.] is his semi-regular column that he writes for Gamesandstuffonline.com. Part Two of this article, detailing his favorite board game releases of 2014 should be published in a couple weeks.