It’s that time of year again, when I get up onto my pulpit and declare the best gaming titles of the year. Who am I to do this? What special qualifications do I have to make such pronouncements? Hell if I know. I run a gaming store and I have an online column, so that’s good enough for me. And I did have a lot of people tell me that they missed it last year after I had done one for 2009. So here we go. Board games will, for the most part, be left to the next column, but for now, here’s everything else. If you have yet to add these games to your collection, you’re missing out.
BEST ROLE-PLAYING GAME: THE ONE RING: ADVENTURES OVER THE EDGE OF THE WILD
If you’ve spent any time talking to me at all over the past couple of months, this should come as no surprise. Anyone in the shop who asks me about this game is likely to be assaulted by a frothy rant about how this game is the first time any roleplaying game has ever truly done justice to Tolkien and Middle Earth. I’ve already yammered on about it a bit in my column about licensed gaming properties, and trust me, it’s worth the hype. If you are a roleplayer and a Tolkien fan at all, you really owe it to yourself to pick this up.
The short pitch is this: It’s five years after the Battle of Five Armies and the destruction of Smaug. Sixty years before the events of the War of the Ring. So basically, for the length of the entire campaign the One Ring is sitting on Bilbo’s mantelpiece, effectively eliminating second fiddle syndrome. Rules? There’s plenty of crunch, but it’s all narrative. The combat system is deceptively elegant. Additionally, the designer keeps the tone of Middle Earth close to heart. Characters have a “Hope” rating. There’s a clearly defined moral compass (a rarity in RPGs) which is supported by the ruleset. The designer also has the balls to say “No, you don’t get to be a wizard, because the only wizards are the five Istari, and you don’t get to be one of them.” If you REALLY insist on being a wizard or simply MUST have some uber powerful magic item, then this isn’t the game for you. Go write some Middle-Earth skins for your D&D game. But if you want an RPG that’s really true to Tolkien in a way that no RPG has ever been, trust me on this one. It’s perfect.
BEST ROLE-PLAYING GAME SUPPLEMENT OR ACCESSORY: SHADOWRUN RUNNER’S TOOLKIT
Now it’s no secret that SHADOWRUN is my favorite RPG. But that’s not what this is about I promise you. It would be easy to dismiss this box as an over-produced GM Kit and screen, and while it does have a GM screen, it is so much more than that. How many times have you bought a “GM kit” for a game that includes a screen and a booklet or two that are basically useless? Not this one my friends.
There’s an intro adventure. There’s a booklet covering “Contacts, Adventures and Sprawl Sites” which is sort of an imagination starter for GMs needing to pull together a run on the quick. There’s four laminated maps of common locations. There’s six cardstock quick reference sheets that basically give you anything you could possibly need to look up that’s not on the GM screen proper. And there’s an entirely new modular “kit” system for character creation. Not as simple as pre-gens, and not as detailed as build points, but a happy medium. But the best bits are probably the “Anatomy of a Shadowrun” book, which is one of the most useful tools I’ve ever seen for any RPG ever. An invaluable tool to beginner and veteran GMs alike, it actually delineates how all the mechanics come together over the course of an adventure. It’s a step by step walkthrough of a shadowrun with the applicable mechanics in the sidebar. There’s also a booklet compiling tables from the main rulebook and all four supplementary core rulebooks. Talk about cutting out downtime in the game! And that screen, btw? Easily one of the most substantial screens ever produced. Only FFG’s Warhammer Fantasy/40K screens can even compare in quality.
And to round it all off, there’s a poster of the (gorgeous) Seattle skyline art from the screen, and a big ol’ SHADOWRUN sticker so you can pronounce your brand of geek from the back of your car. All of this for forty bucks.
BEST NON-COLLECTIBLE CARD GAME: THE DWARF KING
Enjoy trick-taking card games like hearts or spades, but wish they had a dash of the zany? Or maybe a dragon or two? THE DWARF KING is here to help. One of the surprise hits of the year provides a different scoring condition each round (picked by the holder of the Five of Knights card), and sometimes, true to its trick-taking heritage, the only way to succeed in a round is to not take any negative points. Hell, I’ve seen games played out in which the winner was the guy with zero points; the only one not in the negative. Fast to teach and to play, but with infinite replayability, and it requires next to no space to play. You could play on an airplane.
BEST CONTROVERSY: Double-sided magic cards
Remember back when INNISTRAD was announced and there was a great uproar about how double-sided magic cards were going to ruin the game? Or at least make drafts suck now? Well, here we are almost ten weeks later, and surprise surprise, the game hasn’t imploded. I applaud the MAGIC design team for continually pushing the envelope, even in ways that get some players all in a huff at first. Sure, double-sided cards are weird, but so were Plansewalkers when they were first introduced (hell, I for one, still think the Planeswalker mechanic is clunky.) But MAGIC, above all other games, is one that thrives on change. Indeed, it lives and dies by change. So bring on the transforming, double-sided weirdness in DARK ASCENSION. I’m hoping for an artifact that flips into a Frankenstein-like monster if you cast Lightning Bolt at it.
BEST MINIATURES PRODUCT: DREADFLEET
WARHAMMER PIRATES! Count Noctilus, a Vampire leading a fleet of Undead pirates in an attempt to usurp the very laws of reality! Captain Roth, a Pirate captain, driven by revenge, who after failing to convince the nations of the Old World steals the flagship of the Imperial Navy to form a Grand Alliance to take down Noctilus once and for all.
I honestly don’t know why this game hasn’t gotten more love. Games Workshop backlash maybe? Look, I know their models can be expensive, and DREADFLEET’s one-print-run-only, get-it-while-you-can sales pitch is a bit unsavory, I really recommend you give this one another look. The fact of the matter is, this is a pretty bold release for GW. The re-release of SPACE HULK not withstanding, GW hasn’t published a truly stand-alone product in a really long time. This isn’t yet another miniatures system designed to sell you more and more miniatures. In fact, DREADFLEET is barely a wargame at all. You don’t build an army within a certain point bracket and then duke it out. It is in fact, a super-narrative, character-driven campaign game, though it can be played in one-off stand-alone sessions. Yes, it’s $115, but it’s worth every penny. Ten ships, a pile of islands and shipwrecks, plus a handful of sea monsters and a few other bits besides. Not to mention the stunning (and HUGE!) full color cloth playmat. Plus LOTS of all new original John Blanche artwork. This thing feels scrappy and dirty like old-school Warhammer. It paints up beautifully, but even if you’re not a miniatures gamer, you could easily snap together the pieces, skip the paint, and have yourself a board game. But it really does deserve to be painted.
Get it while you can. Heh.
BEST FAMILY BOARD GAMES:
Mix CARCASSONNE and ZOOLORETTO and set a timer and you’ve kind of got MONDO. With only seven minutes on the clock, players race to grab double-sided tiles from a common pool to create an environment on their personal world boards, hopefully without errors and while trying to score points for animals and fastest completion and yet keeping active volcanos to a minimum. Two add-on modules and a more advanced world board create replayability and interest for accomplished or experienced gamers.
SURVIVE: ESCAPE FROM ATLANTIS
I grew up with this one. In the annals of my personal boardgaming history, my copy of the Parker Brothers version of Survive is the one game that I regret not saving from my Mom’s basement when I had the chance. Thankfully, Stronghold Games has republished this classic in a gorgeous edition with deluxe components and new content. A sinking island and a sea full of sharks, aggressive whales and terrifying sea serpents! Your people tokens have hidden point values which you must remember as you struggle with your opponents to have the most valuable tokens reach the safety of the outer islands. This is one of those rare games that teaches very easily to the youngest of children, but there’s enough opportunity for for backstabbing to satisfy the most cut-throat of gamers.
So there you have it. Not the official Games And Stuff Best Of list, just my own opinions. I’ll have a 2011 Best of Boardgames list up in a few weeks.
-Paul Alexander Butler is the Store Manager of Games and Stuff and organizes the shop’s Tuesday Board Game Nights. [Card.Board.Box] is his monthly gaming column for GamesAndStuffOnline.com. He is anxiously awaiting December 24th of this year, when Ryumyo will reveal himself and herald the birth of the Sixth World.