Happy New Year everyone. I hope that you all had a safe and fun holiday season. As we say goodbye to 2014, that means it’s time for me to run down the best board game releases of the year. I’ve already given you my list of Card Games, Role-Playing Games and more which can be found in [Card.Board.Box.] #23.
Today, it’s board games. And much like my previous article, we found ourselves with a wealth of riches this year. Anybody who hasn’t yet realized we’re living in a golden age of board games isn’t playing the right games. What are those games? Well, there’s a lot of them worth talking about this year, so strap yourselves in and let’s get started shall we?
LORDS OF XIDIT
I really wanted to make this my “Board Game of the Year” but I couldn’t in good conscious do it, since I’ve always made an effort to separate out new editions of games from the running. And while it’s not immediately obvious, LORDS OF XIDIT is in fact a re-tooling (and re-theming) of a Spiel des Jahres nominated game called HIMALAYA from 2002.
The new edition takes place in Xidit, the setting of the popular card game SEASONS (indeed, it includes a promo card for that game.) And while I’ll miss the tea/barely/jade trading and yak herds of the original theme, LORDS OF XIDIT improves upon the original version in some big ways. I loved the original, but this new one is great. Again, almost my board game of the year.
The mechanics are familiar, combining elements seen in other games into a fresh new whole. Programmable movement, area control, pick-up-and-deliver, and hidden resources are all present. And the final scoring is quite possibly my favorite scoring mechanic in any game ever, requiring not that you be the first in each of three categories, but making sure you are not the last in any of them.
The new theme involves an invasion of an ages-old horde of creatures called the Southern Host. As a hero of the realm called an Idrakys, you are charged with mustering forces to defeat these beasts. Each monster requires a specific assortment of units to defeat and you will be granted two of three possible rewards for each one. These rewards involve Bard Tokens to sing of your renown, Towers built for the Sorcerer’s Guild, and of course, gold. You’ll also receive boons three times during the game’s Military Census, when you are rewarded for having the most of the various military units that are as yet unspent on defeating creatures.
Recently, a well known board game webcast series gave this a not-so-stellar review, suggesting that the hidden elements prevented intelligent play, and resulted in some turns that were wasted. To them I say, you’re wrong. The game is a gem because of the hidden elements, and out-thinking your opponents moves is the key to winning. Yes, once or twice a game you may find that you’ve mis-stepped and wasted some actions, but it’s the goal of a good player to foresee these possibilities and plan for them, indeed to force them upon your opponent.
With a quick play time and little plastic warriors that seem like so much candy, LORDS OF XIDIT is the game this year that I can most easily get to the table for new players. My highest possible recommendation.
CLASH OF CULTURES CIVILIZATIONS
I’ve made no secret that CLASH OF CULTURES is one of my favorite games of all time, and has unseated the venerable ADVANCED CIVILIZATION as my favorite civ-builder of all time, but this expansion has managed to make the game even better.
The best expansions often add variety without adding too much complexity, and that’s exactly what CIVILIZATIONS does, adding not only War Elephants and Cavalry, but new city buildings like Monoliths and more. Which is to say nothing of the 14 specific civilizations which give each player access to unique advancements and charismatic leaders. CLASH OF CULTURES is a triumph of a game made even stronger by this expansion.
I have to also mention this new big box expansion to CYCLADES.
CYCLADES had already earned a place on my list of modern classics, but TITANS gives the game a whole new spin, adding a sixth player, new boards, team play, alternate win conditions, unique metropolis powers, and an utterly game changing new God in the form of Chronos, King of the Titans. Chronos is not only capable of (sometimes) giving you access to all four building types, but also the eponymous Titans, which for a price, can give you military flexibility even on turns in which you do not have the favor of Ares.
In direct contrast to my other expansion pick of the year, TITANS changes the base game in a very significant way, and in my mind, can almost be seen as an alternate scenario. A winning addition to one of my favorite games of the last decade.
The 2014 “Thank You for Not F*cking Up a License” Award:
To say that I’m not a fan of licensed games is an understatement. I think the industry relies too much on them, and games based on popular properties rarely manage to evoke so much of what you loved about them in the first place. SONS OF ANARCHY bucks that trend, creating a game that will appeal to fans of the show, but with a simple enough concept that anyone who can grasp the theme of criminal motorcycle gangs selling guns and contraband will also enjoy the hell out it.
Gameplay is basically worker placement. But with fighting. Hidden resources allow for surprise turns of fortune as the seemingly weak gang pulls out an arsenal of firepower. Anybody willing to get into character and start wheeling and dealing will get a LOT out of this.
Best Board Games of 2014:
I’m gonna start with the game that was at the top of my most-anticipated list following the Origins Game Fair in June. I got to play an almost-finished prototype in between rounds of qualifying for the SEASONS World Series (yup, second time I’ve mentioned that game, my card game of the year from 2012), and if nothing else stuck out at me, it was the art on this thing. It’s GORGEOUS. ABYSS is easily the most beautiful game released this year. (And yes, they released the game with five different covers. The contents are the same, but after the first print run, there will only be one available cover. Pick your favorite!)
The throne of the undersea kingdom of Abyss will soon be vacant, and you intend to claim it. In order to do so you must gain the support of the influential Lords on the Council. With simple mechanics (you may only do one of three types of actions per turn) but requiring skillful hand management, you claim Lords belonging to five different undersea clans, each bringing their own strengths to your table. The martial Crab Clan is the one that allows you to do nasty aggressive actions against your opponents, the scheming Squids are the politicians, manipulating the Council in your favor, and the Seahorses are farmers, providing no special abilities but giving you large windfalls of victory points.
Lords may also provide keys, which when collected in sets of three, enable you to claim important Location Tiles which can sharpen your strategy and provide valuable bonus points from a variety of sources, but at the cost of negating your Lord’s special abilities.
There’s lots of player interaction, and many many paths to victory, with four different ways to earn points. It teaches in minutes and plays in about an hour, scaling perfectly from two to four players.
Bruno Cathala’s newest masterpiece, and the most “gamer” game yet to come out of publisher Days of Wonder.
With a great 1001 Nights inspired theme and beautiful components you shouldn’t have any trouble getting FIVE TRIBES onto your group’s table. It’s easy to teach, like most of the Days of Wonder catalog, but there’s a depth of strategy that elevates it to something even the most Eurogame-centric players will dig into.
Players are strangers who arrive by caravan in the Sultanate of Naqala and are attempting to wrest control of the area following the death of the old sultan. (Man, there’s a lot of dead or dying monarchs in the world of board gaming isn’t there?)
The base mechanic is a weird worker removal by way of MANCALA-like movement. The five meeple colors represent the five tribes of people, and both the location and the color of the meeples that your moving give you a variety of abilities each turn, ranging from purchasing market items, getting points from clever play of builders, assassinations, summoning djinns, or increasing the size of your council of viziers and elders.
Like many games, victory is won through point totals, and those points can come from a wide variety of sources (the game even comes with a score pad that reminds me of the one in 7 WONDERS so varied are those sources.)
But it’s the movement rules that make this game unique. Instead of the “space denial” of most worker placement games, the tiled board allows for all sorts of tactical trickery and planning as you attempt to accomplish your goals.
A modular board and large decks of Djinn and Market cards give the game a lot of replayability.
THE BATTLE OF FIVE ARMIES
From the designers of WAR OF THE RING and based on that ruleset, comes the ultimate board game version of the final battle in The Hobbit.
Unlike WAR OF THE RING, which is a sprawling epic campaign of a game, THE BATTLE OF FIVE ARMIES is one battle, designed for two and only two players. And make no mistake, it’s a war game, albeit a very narrative one.
Clever use of the “action dice” is required for victory. You’ve only got so many options per turn, and while the good guys have Elves, Dwarves and Men of Laketown at their disposal, their quantities are pretty limited. The forces of Shadow, not so much.
Two things make the game stand out from other war games, and one of them is taken directly from WAR OF THE RING. The multiple card decks (unique to each player) both influence strategy and drive the narrative of the table. But the real innovation here is the Fate Track. By deciding how many generals he’s going to activate each turn, the good player is also deciding how much power the Shadow player has over the advancement of the Fate Track. The Fate track is what determines the big momentous events of the battle, namely, the arrival of Dain Ironfoot, the aerial reinforcements (in the form of the Great Eagles), and Thorin Oakenshield charging out of the Front Gate of the Lonely Mountain. And if Beorn shows up, that’s some serious bad news for the Shadow player.
The game itself is a sprawling mass of plastic figures played across a board of absolutely gorgeous artwork by Jon Hodgson (of THE ONE RING RPG fame) which beautifully recreates the very specific geography of The Lonely Mountain and the surrounding area. Fans of Tolkien’s novels will find a LOT to like here, and the faster play time and more accessible rules provide a nice entry point to what promises to be a series of games, and a pleasant alternative to those who may be intimidated by the WAR OF THE RING rules.
Board Game of the Year:
I’ve talked about this game A LOT over the past few weeks. I know some people balk at the $99.99 price tag, but I’ve gotten this thing on the table more times than almost all the others put together. I’ve written up a full review which can be read by clicking here.
Hands down, HYPERBOREA is my favorite game of the year.
-Paul Alexander Butler is the Store Manager of Games and Stuff, and thinks designer Bruno Cathala deserves some sort of MVP Award for his output this year.