Top Five “New to Me” Games 2015

I’m unlikely to be playing anymore new board games this year, so this is a good time to look back at games that really impressed me.

Ground rules:

  • The only qualification for this list is that I personally played the game for the first time in 2015.
  • I tried around 15 new games this year, so it was quite difficult to narrow this down. Honorable Mentions include, but aren’t limited to, Between Two Cities, Codenames, and Disc Duelers.

 

5. Imperial Assault

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I imagine this is only going to climb in my estimation the more I play. There’s a ton of components and rules to Imperial Assault, but it’s obvious that’s to make it a deeper and more challenging game as time goes on. The introductory skirmish I played was easy to get the hang of and already felt like an actual battle between two sides with distinct goals. The fact that it’s Star Wars just makes it that much better. Fantastic miniature game all around.

4. Mysterium

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At this point I’ve played so many games that something that seems to have a truly original approach intrigues me greatly. Mysterium is a wonderful asymmetric cooperative game that has a departed ghost trying to guide psychics to the culprit of its murder through sending “visions” consisting of cards with abstract art. The hope is that the cards played by the ghost will indicate specific cards on the game board to the psychics, who are working together and can discuss as needed. Was a lot of fun. Full review.

3. Suburbia

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Suburbia is one of those games that looks more complicated than it is and is fairly easy to pick up. The basic gameplay is buy a tile and play it to your suburb, and the tiles tell you everything you need to know about scoring, etc. The depth comes in from the way the tiles interact. This is a wonderful, accessible game that has been a hit with everyone I’ve tried it with so far. Full review.

2. Tragedy Looper

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Tragedy Looper is somewhat of a tough game to get your mind around, but once you do it’s a great mystery game (a genre that’s underrepresented and hard to do well).  It’s asymmetric, with players who are time traveling and trying to prevent a tragedy, and a gamemaster that is trying to stop them. There are limitations on possible actions based on the scenario and various stats of the characters being controlled, which is where clues about what has happened and how to prevent it come from. I’ve only played once so far, but I adore the concept and despite playing VERY poorly as GM I enjoyed the game and am extremely excited to try it again.

1. The Duke

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The Duke came out of nowhere to become my second favorite game of all time.  It’s an incredible two player game with elements of chess reworked into a much more accessible and variable experience. The vast number of movement patterns allows for deep gameplay, yet the smaller board and limited starting pieces keeps things manageable. The combination of each piece having its movement grid printed on it and the fact that the pattern is different on each side is just fantastic, and makes this both incredibly new player friendly and deep. Full review.

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And that’s it. Was a great year. What are everyone else’s new favorites?

Between Two Cities Review: Balancing Progress

Stonemaier Games has quickly established itself as an excellent publisher that provides games of high quality both in terms of gameplay and production. Viticulture and Euphoria instantly became two of my favorite games, and the Treasure Chest series of gaming tokens are a wonderful series of premium resources token to “upgrade” a variety of games.

So I was quite excited to try out their most recent offering, Between Two Cities. Despite being the first of their games not designed by their founder Between Two Cities keeps up their extremely impressive track record, proving they are as good at recognizing great games as they are at designing them.

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Gameplay:

Between Two Cities combines tile laying and drafting, but the real innovation is a concept of “competitive co-op.” Each turn you choose two tiles from your hand and will play one into each city on either side of you. Your opponents will do the same, so you are cooperating with those players to build the cities. There is only one winner however and your score at the end of the game is that of your LEAST valuable city, so balancing things is key.

The different buildings pictured have different scoring schemes, so there’s a fair bit of strategy involved in selection and placement. In rounds 1 and 3 each player places 3 single building tiles in each of their adjacent cities, choosing two tiles to play from rotating hands each turn. In round 2 each player places a single double building tile into adjacent cities. The variation in tiles, as well as the restriction that all cities must be a 4 by 4 square at the end of the game, gives additional depth and challenge without making things too complicated. There are tiebreakers outlined, but they come up much less than one might think.

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Thoughts:

I’ve played this twice so far, once with 3 players and once with 6, and enjoyed it quite a bit. Unlike most Stonemaier games though this feels quite different at the different player counts. With the minimum players we could all affect everyone else’s cities, so it became very adversarial when someone jumped out ahead. The other two players were sabotaging those cities to let the one city lagging behind catch up. This led to a slight problem we had with the rules as stated.

It’s not always best to be optimal in placing your tile if one of your cities is far ahead of the other. In these cases it matters who places their tile first. The rulebook discourages this “in the name of cooperation” and offers a halfhearted order when needed – the same as seating order determined at the beginning of the game. But at the end of the day each player is trying to win on their own, so cooperating to the fullest on a city when it’s only going to help your opponent win is poor play.

The problem that comes up is that with the order as stated every single time you place tiles, the same person always goes first in each particular city (because the original seating order never changes during a game). This was a HUGE advantage, as both “behind” players were before the player who was in front, so we got to play tiles in her cities first EVERY TURN. She managed to hold on and win by a point anyway, but the issue came up again in the larger game to some extent and we decided afterward to use a rotating “first player” marker to decide this in all future games.

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Because of not having direct influence over every other player the 6 player game was more interesting and seemed more in line with the intention of the game / theme. It was fun both ways though.

The component quality is up to Stonemaier’s usual high standards with nice, thick playing tiles and cool wooden city markers shaped after famous landmarks (I got the deluxe Kickstarter edition so I have extras pictured – the retail game comes with 7 different types). The game design is decent, but the roofs take up too much of the tiles and make the art look a bit bland. Very minor criticism though.

One particularly phenomenal thing about this game is that is plays pretty quick, and it DOES NOT INCREASE with more players because everyone’s making the same few decisions at the same time. I’ve never encountered a game before that scales without significant additional time. Great aspect that makes this quite versatile in terms of fitting it in to our gaming plans for the day.

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Overall:

Between Two Cities is another excellent offering from Stonemaier Games. The “competitive co-op” idea was quite brilliant and equally well executed. The combination of tile laying and drafting elements makes this plays like no other game I’ve ever seen, which is a huge plus with me nowadays. Definitely a worthy addition to the game closet. 🙂

My Top Ten Favorite Games (Nov 2015)

I’ve been wanting to do a rundown of my favorite games, but it’s always a bit odd as the list is ever changing as I play new things. I recently came across a wonderful blog entry by Jamey Stegmaier embracing that change and periodically updating his personal list. So I’m adopting his great idea and will likely be checking in every so often with updates to the below.

Ground rules:

  • This reflects my favorite things to play right now. I love everything on this list. Order is pure personal preference and whole list HIGHLY subject to change, as ten is a small number to cover all the great games I’ve played and something’s bound to be missing.
  • I need to have played something at least twice for it to be eligible. I think something has to hold up to at least a second play to be considered a favorite. So Imperial Assault, Suburbia, Tragedy Looper, and Impulse (and several others) all get automatic honorable mentions. I expect these the first two, at the very least, to jump into the list next time. I also have several interesting looking games I’ve never played in the waiting pile. Should be fun. 🙂
  • Expansions I have are considered with the base game and won’t be listed separately.

10. Alhambra

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A point that will pop up several times in this list is that I love games that are both accessible and deep. Alhambra shines in these respects. The basic mechanics of purchasing tiles and placing them in your own area with the player with the most of each type scoring points is easy to grasp, but the differing distributions and changing costs of tiles keeps things varied and challenging. There are numerous expansions containing several modules that can be swapped in and out to customize things even more exactly to your group’s particular preferences. This is one of my go-to gateway games.

9. Castles of Burgundy

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Castles of Burgundy is unlike any other game I’ve played, and it shines in the unusual way uses dice to determine both which tiles a player can buy and which purchased tiles can be placed on their personal player boards. There are a lot of “moving parts” and things to keep track of, but it’s all logically laid out and intuitive once you get the hang of it. There’s tons of replayability and different viable strategies, even before considering the numerous different player boards available.

8. Pillars of the Earth

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Pillars of the Earth is one of those games that looks VASTLY more complicated than it is. There are a lot of components and mechanics, but it all fits together seamlessly and makes sense. The use of worker cards and execution of resource management is perfectly balanced and well constructed within the theme. Pillars also has the best expansion I’ve ever seen for any game. It adds depth and challenge to the game without losing anything and makes every aspect it touches better. This is always a big hit with my groups and one of the first “heavier” board games we introduce people to.

7. Euphoria

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Stonemaier Games’ second offering, a fantastic dice-as-workers game with an incredibly unique theme of trying to achieve prestige and status in a dystopian world. Little touches like artifact cards depicting objects from today’s world and trying to keep your workers happy and stupid bring the theme to life and it’s very well intertwined with gameplay. Also, the production quality is absolutely unreal, with realistic resources, wooden commodity pieces, wonderful art, etc all making this as great to look at as it is to play.

6. Anima

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It can be hard to capture the feeling of exploration and combat in a card game without getting too bogged down or complicated. Anima and its expansions walk the line perfectly, creating a framework where you’re leveling up your team, gradually facing tougher monsters and opponents, and preparing to defeat the great evil and win the game in a natural progression without needing 100+ page rulebooks. This is the best “simplified” role playing experience I’ve found, and I continue to adore this game years and years after my first play.

5. La Citta

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La Citta is fifteen years old and feels so timeless and classic I’m actually surprised it’s not older. Wonderfully thematic game that combines tile laying and resource management as players try to build the most attractive cities and lure the greatest population (the game’s victory points) to them. Details like needing water sources to grow beyond a certain point, having to produce enough food to feed your population, and a changing priority system signifying what people value most in their cities each round make this a fantastically deep, balanced game.

4. Viticulture

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The debut game from Stonemaier, which instantly made them one of my favorite publishers. Beautifully realized worker placement game that is just completely infused with the unlikely theme of winemaking. The Tuscany expansion adds several great aspects that make it even more amazing, and the game scales incredibly well and feels like the same game no matter the player count. As usual with Stonemaier the production quality is absolutely unreal, with individually shaped building pieces and gorgeous art elevating the immersion.

3. Ghost Stories

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Fantastic co-op game that’s fairly easy to teach but has a lot of variation and depth. Best on its own or with Ghost Moon (Black Secret has fallen flat with my group so far). Notorious for its difficulty, but we’ve found it challenging rather than frustrating. The changing board, player powers and enemy cards make every game significantly different, which greatly aids its longevity. It’s also great to have a go to co-op game on hand, as many of my “non-gamer” friends have really enjoyed trying something that has them working with, rather than against, the rest of the group.

2. The Duke

Game in progress.

I amazed how quick this skyrocketed up my list. The Duke is an incredible two player game with elements of chess reworked into a much more accessible and variable experience. The vast number of movement patterns allows for deep gameplay, yet the smaller board and limited starting pieces keeps things manageable. The combination of each piece having its movement grid printed on it and the fact that the pattern is different on each side is just fantastic, and makes this both incredibly new player friendly and deep.

1. Princes of Florence

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Despite tough competition, Princes of Florence is still my favorite game of all time. It incorporates what’s usually one of my least favorite mechanics (the auction) in a quick and enjoyable way that enhances the balance of differing strategies greatly. The combination of resource management, strategic choices and maximizing opportunities is just perfect and I could (and probably will) play this a million times.

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And that’s a wrap. Will be interesting to track how this list changes in the future. What are everyone else’s favorites?

Looking Ahead: New and Different Board Games

Having too many awesome games to play and try out is a good problem to have. Here are a few games I’m anxiously awaiting an opportunity to try. Each of these has some new twists on established mechanics that seems extremely interesting.

Between Two Cities

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Stonemaier Games previous two games (Viticulture and Euphoria) instantly became favorites of mine, and despite being the first of their games not designed by their founder Between Two Cities looks to keep up their extremely impressive track record. It combines tile laying and drafting, but the real innovation is a concept of “competitive co-op.” Each turn you choose two tiles from your hand and will play one into each city on each side of you. Your opponents will do the same, so you are cooperating with those players to build the cities. There is only one winner however and your score at the end of the game is that of your LEAST valuable city, so balancing things is key.

The idea is fantastic and playtesting feedback and early reviews are very positive about how well it was executed. The fact that other players will always be placing tiles to “your” areas at the same time you do brings discussion and bargaining into the game, which should be a refreshing additional element.

Dark Moon

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I’m a big fan of co-op games with hidden traitor roles, although they can be tough to balance. In addition to having a great, atmospheric sci-fi theme, Dark Moon plays around with different elements of such games in ways I haven’t really seen before. The “uninfected” players are trying to survive through a certain number of game events. The secretly “infected” players are trying to destroy the outpost and doom the crew. When there are more than 1 infected players, they won’t know who each other are. This brings up interesting possibilities of deception and/or working at cross purposes.

But the really interesting part of Dark Moon is that the “voting” system consists of contributing dice to attempt to complete actions or quarantine suspected players. Dice are rolled in secret, but the one you choose to contribute is always public information. This seems to provide a lot more to go on when trying to identify the traitors than normal games of this type, and I’m excited to see how it plays.

Mysterium

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Mysterium is a co-op centered around a group of psychics trying to solve a murder and set a wandering ghost’s soul to rest. All of the co-op games I’ve played so far have either been symmetric (outside of individual player powers) or asymmetric with one player being the villain or game master and the rest working against that player. This is a completely cooperative asymmetric game. There are no traitors, villains or gamemasters among the players, but one player will be the ghost of the departed and is trying to provide clues to the psychics to help them solve the mystery. The theme and setup of the game sound great and I adore the unique take on asymmetry game roles here. Really looking forward to trying it out in both roles.

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Just a quick look at some innovative and intriguing games in the pile. Hope to be back with reviews in the not too distant future. 🙂