Alright then. Here’s my list of the best board games of the year. (The first part of this article, the not-board game list, can be found here.)
As always it represents my tastes, and not necessarily those of the rest of the staff of G&S. Of particular note is that while some of these games may have been available via import from Europe in late 2012, this is my list of games that were widely available on retail shelves in the U.S. starting in January 2013.
Best Board Game Expansion:
(also known as CREATURES CROSSOVER CYCLADES/KEMET)
When KEMET was released, everyone assumed it was like CYCLADES, given the familiar graphic design and gorgeous pieces. It’s not. It’s a straight-up war game compared to the light Civ-building of CYCLADES. But lucky for us, the designers of CYCLADES, Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc didn’t let that stop them from creating this awesome little mini-expansion. Basically, it contains 7 Mythological Creatures cards that allow you to use the KEMET monster figures in games of CYCLADES and 6 Power Tiles to use the CYCLADES creatures in games of KEMET. ‘Cause really, who doesn’t want to see the Kraken wreaking havoc down the Nile river, or the the Mummy using the bodies of fallen soldiers as reinforcements while fighting over islands in the Mediterranean?
Best New Edition(s) of a board game in 2013:
So, I’ve got nearly everything for first edition BATTLELORE. I loved it. But let’s be honest, the weird fantasy version of the 100 Years War wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea (Ostrich-riding Goblins notwithstanding) and the rules set and special rules and troop types had become a bit of a bloated monster. Set up was a pain.
Not anymore. Big, bold battles (with one hour play time!) between the now familiar forces of the noble Daqan Lords and the demon-worshiping Uthuk Y’llan in Fantasy Flight Games’ own Terrinoth setting (home of DESCENT, RUNEWARS and myriad other games.) Unlike FFG’s port of the BATTLELORE rules to their BATTLES OF WESTEROS game, BATTLELORE 2nd Edition actually simplifies and streamlines the rules without losing any of the flavor or granularity of the different troop types. Indeed, the two forces now have their own faction-specific Lore decks, as well as flavorful Objective cards (a HUGE improvement over the 1st editions dry fight until you’ve destroyed X number of enemy units win conditions.)
This may be heresy to some, but this is my favorite of the COMMAND AND COLORS related games that Richard Borg has designed. (That’s everything from MEMOIR ’44 to BATTLECRY and countless others.)
I’m hoping faction expansions for the forces of Waiqar the Undying and the Latari Elves are on the way soon, as I’ve all but completely switched over to the new edition. But I do miss those Ostriches.
So you know how most deduction games kinda suck? (CLUE, I’m looking at you) Or at best, kinda take too long and you feel like nobody is really figuring anything out any faster than anybody else? (Even I have a love-hate relationship with MYSTERY OF THE ABBEY despite my love of Bruno Faidutti designs.)
Well, this one doesn’t. Out of print since about 1988 (despite winning a special “Beautiful Game” Award from the Spiel des Jahres panel) INKOGNITO finally returned this year. Four masters of disguise stalk the streets of Venice during Carnival. Each of them is tasked with discovering which of the other three agents is their partner in crime, and then completing a mission which will only reveal itself later in the game. Naturally, the players are these four agents and only clever questioning and deductive powers will enable you to identify your partner and complete your task before the Ambassador (potentially a fifth player!) discovers your identities. An interesting map with multiple types of transportation combine with gorgeous components (including the downright weird Phantom of Prophecy) and an unusual replacement for the random element of dice to create a truly unique experience that puts other deduction games to shame.
Best Board Games of 2013:
The year is 2112 and has become a strange eco-topian future in which the Ginkgo Biloba tree has become “the symbol of a new method of building cites in symbiosis with nature.” It’s a weird theme, and the game is really pretty, but let’s be honest, it’s mostly an abstract.
But it’s an abstract in the noble tradition of Kramer and Kiesling’s “Mask” series (TIKAL, TORRES, etc.) It’s actually kinda hard to explain without sitting down to teach it, but the heart of the game is tile-laying. Each turn you’re spreading the city out or spreading the city up. There are three colors of tiles: Red tiles (representing production buildings) can be used to gain resources. Blue tiles (academic and research buildings) can gain you more tiles. And the yellow tiles (housing, commerce, culture) can get you victory points, here called “Success Points.”
There are some very unique and clever mechanisms that allow for hostile takeovers of city districts (scored as in classic area control games) and individual buildings. Each player also starts with a selection of three Character Cards which will give you certain strengths and bonuses when the game begins. You can select from pre-built sets of these cards, or draft them from the full set of 27 before the game begins.
It’s not particularly intuitive at first go, but the proof is in the pudding. GINKGOPOLIS has hit my table more than any other game released this year, and an expansion “The Experts” has just landed on store shelves. (Bonus!: It’s a great solo game.)
Here’s a game that I thought was truly under-appreciated. Looking at the game during play, it looks like a deck builder, what with stacks of neatly arranged cards waiting to be purchased. It’s not a deck builder. Not at all.
What it IS is a card-driven war game set in a slightly steam-punky deep-space sci-fi setting. A game that allows you to colonize and conquer planets, purchase and upgrade ships, and build all sorts of refineries, space ports and planetary defense laser cannons. All in the name of controlling the galaxy’s supply of Titanium. It’s a game that rewards knowing when not to attack as much as it rewards a well-timed attack.
(Titanium? Yeah, I don’t know. I assume something got lost in translation.)
Players that enjoy a bit of give-and-take diplomacy with some back-stabbing thrown in will get the most out of this game. Three and four way simultaneous battles with truces, partnerships and betrayals are common. A very fulfilling experience that clocks in right under 90 minutes.
Love Bruno Faidutti’s CITADELS? I certainly do. It’s one of my all time favorites. MASCARADE is Faidutti’s new design, one that has a lot in common with CITADELS. But it’s the differences that make MASCARADE great, and worthy of a spot on this list. MASCARADE is almost like if you took CITADELS and stripped away everything except the hidden role, bluff and double bluff, “I clearly must take the wine in front of you” elements. There’s a reason that the first print run has completely sold out in this country (more soon!)
Just a handful of cards (GORGEOUS, Tarot-sized cards), a Courthouse tile, and some coin tokens. That’s the whole game.
During setup, each player gets six coins, and everybody gets dealt one character card, face up (and there’s only enough characters in play for each player to get one, no more.) Everybody takes a good hard look, and then the cards are flipped over.
On your turn, you may
1. Look at your card (why would you do this? Keep reading) OR
2. Take your card and another player’s card and without looking at either of them, take them beneath the table out of sight. Then you MAY if you wish, swap them before putting them back. Only you will know if they’ve been swapped. OR
3. Declare that you are a certain character (you are allowed to lie). If nobody also claims to be that character, you may use that character’s power even if you lied and without revealing your card. If one or more players also claim to be that character, then all must reveal, the liars must pay two coins to the Courthouse, and the true possessor of the card takes the special action, even if it’s not their turn.
First player to 13 coins immediately wins. There’s a couple more little rules, but that’s mostly it.
Powers range from the Judge (who gets to take all the Courthouse money) to the King and Queen (who get 3 or 2 coins, respectively) or the Fool (who gets one coin and may do the maybe swap two cards trick with two belonging to other players.) There’s even a matched pair of Peasants who each get two coins only if both of them are revealed. There’s a ton more characters of course, and an expansion is on the way.
This one can’t be a surprise to anyone. You DID see that picture up there already yes?
If you have somehow missed out on this game, you’ve probably heard the buzz, and let me assure you, YES. Yes, it’s as good as all that. If I am forced to pick only one “Board Game of the Year” it would be this.
Let’s put it simply. A hexmap fantasy world. Fourteen distinct races, of which you’ll play one. You spend the game building dwellings and trading posts. Temples and sanctuaries. Maybe a stronghold. You’ll increase your seafaring ability, boost the efficiency of your workers, and raise your priests in each of four elemental cults.
There are seven types of terrain. Each terrain type has two races associated with it, only one of which will be in any given game. In order to build on a hex, you must first terraform it to your terrain type if it doesn’t match. Witches for example, build in the forests, Alchemists in the swamps, Dwarves in the mountains. Sometimes terraforming is easy, sometimes it’s a lot of work. Once you build on a hex, it’s yours for the game. You accomplish all of this through proper management of workers, money and “power.” Power in this game is sort of an abstraction of political power. How do you get it? When opponents build adjacent to you. Similarly, building your own trading posts costs half as much money when built next to an opponent’s structure. ‘Cause it’s a trading post, see?
So as you can see, being an isolationist doesn’t work. You can’t really turtle in this game. For the most part, it’s a surefire way to lose.
Once all is said and done, you’ll get a big windfall of points for having the largest area of adjacent structures. You’ll also get some points for your rankings in each of the Elemental Cults, and a little bit from leftover resources. Of course, during each of the game’s six rounds there was also one method of scoring bonus points at round’s end, and those tiles are randomized each game.
It’s these random elements and the interplay of the fourteen races that give this thing tons of replay value. You can be the Halflings who gain victory points simply by working (the noble deeds of honest toil) or the Fakirs with their flying carpets, or the Mermaids with their river spanning towns. New flavors are added to every game, abilities need to be unlocked, and indeed each race is so much more than just its two “special powers”. Costs for various game actions vary by race too.
Like most worker placement style games and their relatives (of which TERRA MYSTICA is one, if you squint) there is a steep learning curve on the first game. But once you finish, and see a final scoring, you’ll immediately want to play again. And again. And again.
TERRA MYSTICA is also one of those rare games where losing is often just as much fun as winning. ‘Cause win or lose, you’ve built strongholds and towns and you’ve created something ya know?
ROBINSON CRUSOE: Adventure on the Cursed Island
My new favorite cooperative game. One of the great ones.
I am of the opinion the truly great co-op games are less like puzzles that need to be solved, and more like stories that you shared with your fellow players. When it comes to co-ops, I want less, say… Pandemic, and more Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings, ya know?
Two to four survivors crash on a remote island. What they find there is based partially on what scenario you choose, and partly on random card draw. There are two things that make this game stand out. First, it eliminates the “one guy who knows how to win and orders everyone around” element that is such a bane to co-ops. And it does it with one little piece of cardboard.
Secondly, the events that occur throughout the game are directly tied to the actions that they players are taking. So if you are attempting to gather resources, you’ll be drawing from one deck of Adventure cards, and if you’re trying to build a shelter, you’ll be drawing from another. This creates a sense of verisimilitude and really helps build a narrative. When the game ends, you won’t feel like you solved a puzzle, so much as you’ll be telling stories about the various adventures that happened. In my first game, we barely survived the opening scenario, and my Soldier had become the de facto hunter of the group, sometimes taking grievous infection-breeding wounds from large jungle cats and worse. Once being almost killed by a rampaging gorilla before the old saber that we had found proved its worth.
That scenario, by the way, required us to simply survive through the rainy season. It gets crazier from there, with scenarios dealing with stranded survivors, volcanoes and cannibal natives. If ONE player dies, the game is over and everybody loses.
I realize that co-op games are not for everybody, but this one directly confronts some of the form’s shortcomings, and makes up for it with a massively compelling narrative.
-Paul Alexander Butler is the Store Manager of Games and Stuff. He’s also been running Tuesday Night Board Gaming since October 2009 and is currently trying to figure out how to bring the GameMaster Guild series of GM workshops back to G&S. Lately, he’s spent the vast majority of his gaming energy on running his monthly One Ring RPG campaign.
[Card.Board.Box.] is his gaming column that he writes for the G&S website. He hopes that 2014 will see more installments of it then 2013 did.