Welcome. It’s a new year, 2014. Man, when did we start living in The Futuretm ? Crazy. Anyway, it’s past time that I offered up my totally personally biased list of Best Games of the Year. The Board Game list will be in the next installment, but for now, I’m gonna offer up my thoughts on stuff a little outside of that realm. So, without further ado, here’s the first half of my Best of 2013 list.
A clever spin on the successful TIMELINE series of games, Cardline: Animals swaps out Timeline’s historical date-matching for well, animals!
So it works like this- You get dealt a handful of cards, all with a name and picture of an animal on the front. On the back, hidden from you and the other players, is the animals weight, body length, and longevity (you decide which of these three date points you will be playing with before you begin.)
A random card from the deck is placed (numbers side up) on the table and on your turn, you must place any card from your hand (numbers down) in order to the left or right (or in between) existing cards on the table. You flip the card, and if you’re incorrect, you must draw a new card. The first player to empty their hand wins! Of course, what you soon realize is that the longer the game goes on, the more cards are on the table and the more accurate your placement will have to be! Of course a rabbit weighs more than a mouse and less than a tiger, but does it way more or less than say, a hedgehog? A great game for animal nerds of all ages. Alas, we’re all waiting on a re-print at the moment, but Cardline: Globetrotter is due out soon too!
BEST PARTY GAME: PIX
I saw this first pop up in my order forms for the store and I thought, another drawing game…BOR-ing. But a few weeks later I got a chance to play it at an industry event. Yeah, this is NOT just another drawing game. Each round players are grouped with one or more other players and each group is given a clue to “draw”. Of course, you’re not so much drawing as creating an image with square magnetic “pixels” that are put on individual player boards. The pixels must be placed within a grid, so doing something like creating a curved line is difficult to do quickly. As soon as one player completes his image, the rest of the table has 30 seconds to complete theirs. (There’s even a few special red pieces that you can use to add color or interest to your drawing, but they “cost” more to use.)
Of all the players in a given group, only the player who has completed their drawing with the fewest pixels gets to show their final image to the players outside of the group. (And those red pieces count as more than one pixel each.) If somebody guess correctly within 30 seconds, both the artist and the guesser get a point. If nobody gets it, then the artist from the group with the next fewest pixels in their art gets to show theirs. Get it? Once that is done, the other group follows the same procedure for the artwork that they created with their separate clue.
Now each round, the membership of each group shifts, so you’ll always be drawing and guessing alongside different players. Make no mistake, this is not a team game, as you are actually competing against the others in your group within any given round.
This game is LOADS of fun. Lots of high-fiving and laughing and crying at our games nights with this one. There’s something just absurd and magical when another player looks at your seemingly random collection of dots and immediately knows what you were trying to do. Like you guys were just sharing brain cells at that precise moment. It’s awesome. I’m looking at you Joe Wheeler.
BEST ROLE-PLAYING GAME (TIE): 13TH AGE and HILLFOLK
What is HILLFOLK? Well, it’s a game about a close-knit group of clansmen and/or bandits in a fictitious version of Iron Age Europe. The details of the setting are largely invented in-game by the Gamemaster and players, which creates a sense of investment that is rarely quantified in modern RPGs. It’s also a game that requires little to no prep from the GM, and one that deals with personal conflict in some revolutionary and compelling ways, utilizing tokens and “emotional rewards”.
But Hillfolk is also much much more than that. It’s also basically the core rulebook for the DramaSystem game engine. Imagine crossbreeding the on-the-fly communal storytelling of a game like Fiasco with the traditional Gamemaster-led sessions of a classic RPG. That’s DramaSystem. So while, yes, the default setting is the Iron Age conflicts of “Hillfolk” the book also contains no less than thirty additional settings, all of which creatively center around a small group of tightly connected individuals struggling for survival in a harsh environment. The thing is also really great for one-shots, although it should be noted that the best sort of play is short campaigns that run 8-12 sessions or so. Twelve sessions? And with hardly any GM prep needed? That’s an investment almost anyone should be able to pull off.
In fact, while I read many role-playing games as part of my job, very few of them actually make it to the table you know? But I definitely see a Hillfolk game in my future, as well as one centered around the rabbits of Malice Tarn.
As for 13TH AGE, I’d recently wrote a bit about it in my last [Card.Board.Box.] article, which can be found by clicking HERE.
The short version is this: 13th Age is a stripped-down to its bare essentials version of D&D. We’re talking monster stat blocks with all of four stats, plus some special ability descriptions. This is a game with the focus squarely and firmly on story and narrative, in the words of the creators, a “love letter” to their experiences playing 1st Edition AD&D, wherein entire worlds and kingdoms were being created out of whole cloth and what lay over the horizon was as much a mystery to the GM as the players. So while yes, this is D&D of a particular flavor, the fact of the matter is that this book is bursting with original ideas that can be ripped piece meal out of it and applied to any RPG. The Icon system alone (wherein during character creation players forge relationships with the iconic NPCs of the setting, resulting in both a richer environment and player investment in the world) is worth the price of admission. The 13 Icons as written are intentionally vague Fantasy archetypes, such that the players and GM can add in specific details to taste. And there’s literally nothing stopping creative players from creating an entirely unique set of Icons for their own games set in their own worlds. It wouldn’t even need to be fantasy.
Want that classic old AD&D feel? Get 13th Age. Forgo all the OSR stuff that’s out there and get this instead. It’s not just a re-hash like so many of those public domain downloads, 13th Age actually adds tons of new content to the proceedings.
On the other hand, if you’re a Gamemaster of any stripe (particularly fantasy games) I’d recommend 13th Age for you as well. Seriously. There are ideas and mechanisms in here that will improve your game. Just a few of these ideas implemented into an ongoing game and you’ll quickly discover that the very way you game has been forever changed. My highest possible recommendation.
I know I know, it may seem that I just blindly recommend anything that comes out for The One Ring. But the fact of the matter is that there’s some small part of me that kept thinking the other shoe was gonna drop and some new release was gonna let me down, proving wrong my blind faith that these guys just “get it” in a way that no Tolkien RPG has ever gotten it.
But no. Every new release blows me away with its quality.
And this? The Heart of the Wild? It may be one of the best setting books for any role-playing game ever. No no really, stick with me here a moment. Sure there has been no shortage of excellent! great! setting books for any number of RPGs over the years. But here’s what makes Heart of the Wild a few steps ahead of them: You’ll actually use it. Every last page, every last word. As a Loremaster, you’ll use every last scrap of the thing.
A deceptively slim volume at 128 pages, this hardcover book breaks down every inch of the Anduin Vale and Mirkwood Forest. Region by region, it covers landforms, wildlife and plants, points of interest, settlements, major NPCs, minor players, influence of the Shadow and more. All of this for 23 distinct regions. And scattered in there like so much treasure to be found are new Cultural Virtues, piles of new Fellowship Phase Undertakings, and no less thanthree new variations on existing Heroic Cultures for characters (Wild Hobbits, Woodmen of Mountain Hall, and Wayward Elves). Plus nine pages of new monsters and adversaries for your campaign. Oh and did I mention plot hooks? Yeah, most setting books have some, but this? If The One Ring line were cancelled tomorrow, this book alone could ensure that you’d be playing the game for many years to come.
I’ll admit it. I’m a Shadowrun fanboy. Been a player and GM since about 1989. And I’ve got to say, 4th Edition, for a variety of reasons, was my least favorite version of the game. Certain mechanical choices combined with what I thought was an awful art direction when it first came out… it left a bad taste in my mouth. But I’m here to tell you that 5th Edition directly addresses all of the things that I saw as flaws in 4th. This is the game that Shadowrun deserves to be.
If you’re not playing this game, there is no better time than now to come on board. In the past, prospective players had been intimidated by the almost 25 years of backstory and metaplot that came along with the setting. The direction of the new edition is smart enough to realize that one doesn’t need to absorb all of that, but simply needs to know the heres and nows of the setting. It’s about fifty years in the future, Magic has returned to the world (along with elves and dwarves and orks and trolls) and the lines of nations have long since been redrawn, with most of the power shifting to corporations. You are a Shadowrunner, a criminal for hire, a deniable asset, in the murky shadows cast by the ever present corporate interests. Ever wanted to be an elven cyber-hacker? How about a troll shaman? A former mafia hitman with a cyberarm? You can do all of the, and that only scratches the surface, believe me.
There’s a reason that Shadowrun is one of the longest-lived Role-Playing Games ever. I mean, other than D&D and Call of Cthulhu, are there even any other games that have been consistently in production for over twenty years? Shadowrun is a cornerstone of our hobby. Come on in, but be warned. Everything Has a Price.
So here’s an odd little thing. A small, unassuming black and white box, with some sorta-kinda steampunk looking artwork. What do we have here?
It’s a game themed on some strange uchronic steampunk version of 10th century Great Korea. But it’s also the best card game of the year. It teaches very quickly and a full game lasts around fifteen minutes. There are only eleven card types and each turn, you are allowed to play as many cards as you like of one type. Unplayed cards are then reshuffled into a new draw pile.
When you’ve got the most cards of any given type on the table, you are entitled to use that card type’s special ability. Most of the card types are numbered, telling you how many are in the game, and also how many points you will score at game end if you control the majority of them. That’s about it. And it ROCKS.
So remember that wooden labyrinth game (more of a puzzle or dexterity challenge really) where you had to maneuver a little metal ball around a maze using dials on either side of the box, attempting to get from one end of the other without dropping in one of many devilishly placed holes? OK, take that, only give it steroids and put it in THREE dimensions and trap the whole thing in a transparent plastic sphere. And make a whole series of the damn things.
Perplexus Epic, released this year, is the most difficult of the bunch, so naturally, when my girlfriend found out about these things that’s the one she wanted. Only I’m the one who can’t stop playing with it. I’ll sit down with the thing only to find myself thinking “just one more try” over and over again and before I know it an hour has passed. I close my eyes and all I can see are those damn ramps and roads and channels, and that freakin’ see-saw thing. If I disappear and nobody hears from me again, you’ll find me at the house, eyes glazed over like Denethor as I gaze into my very own plastic Palantir.
-Paul Alexander Butler is the Store Manager at Games and Stuff. He also runs Tuesday Night Board Gaming at the store and has been known to teach a seminar or two to other retailers about Role-Playing Games and why they still matter. [Card.Board.Box] is his online column about games and gaming for Gamesandstuffonline.com. He thinks the best book you probably didn’t read this year is The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch.