Yeah, we know it’s 2018, but we had to get our favorites out there from 2017.
2017 was a great year for gaming, and I believe I speak for all of us on staff that we feel we barely scratched the surface of all the great titles that released last year. That said, let’s dig into our favorites from 2017.
Chris Hecox – Staff Picks
“Choosing my three picks for 2017 was challenging. I had to think less about which games I enjoyed the most, and more about which games I think will have the most lasting impact for tabletop gaming. I hugely enjoyed all three of my picks, and luckily it became obvious most other people will love them like I did.”
Designer: Markus and Inka Brand
Price: $12.99 Amazon
When I first heard of escape room games, I was convinced they were a fad without substance. I’m proven wrong as I reflect on the game of Abandoned Cabin I played with my wife. We played spooky woods music from YouTube and smashed through an unforgettable 90-minute experience.
Our game was full of all the ups, downs, and energy you’ll find by visiting a real life escape room. Sure you aren’t physically in an old creaky cabin in the middle of the woods, but the thrill of completing the puzzles quickly is there. You’ll get stuck on something and set it down to resolve another puzzle, only to hear your solving partners squeal in excitement as they revealed another clue to a different puzzle.
Even though the EXIT games are one-offs and end up trashed afterward, I still recommend the experience. I’ve not played any of the Unlock series, but you can’t beat ruffling through cards and ripping up components in a rush to finish the game. Not for the faint of heart, or those who buy card sleeves and cling tightly to keeping their board game collections in pristine condition.
In The Year of the Dragon: 10th Anniversary Edition
Designer: Stefan Feld
Price: $23.99 Amazon
Like my recent play of Pulsar 2849, my first game of In the Year of the Dragon immediately revealed this would be a game I’d long to play over and over again. Unlike Pulsar, In the Year of the Dragon is set in ancient China, where players must gather resources and prestige in order to be the most well-off and surviving ruler.
Played over the course of a year, each month will feature happy events like festivals for points, and other times punish players with famine, war, or sickness. Because this is a board game, players glance into the future calendar and are knowledgeable of when these historical events will take place. This gives time to prepare and take actions to make themselves ready for whatever is on the way. The game balances this with cardplay, where players must wisely choose when and where to house new people. Adding people to dwellings means more points, but also means they must be fed constantly. Balancing the constant need for food with choosing to hire either elders or younger folk is the test.
In The Year of the Dragon is a 10th anniversary reprint, and though the component quality isn’t stellar, the chance to play this amazing Feld title again makes it worth it. Included are both expansions, which are small but change up the course of the game and add quite a bit. At such a low price point for so much game, one would be a sad individual to neglect giving this one a go. It’s become my favorite Stefan Feld design, held previously to Castles of Burgundy.
Designer: Rob Davieau
Publisher: Restoration Games
Price: $39.95 Amazon
Downforce is a reprint and remastering of sorts of the classic and rethemed Wolfgang Kramer racing titles, of which has traveled under many names. Now widespread, available, and beautifully illustrated and implemented, Downforce is the king of introductory racing games.
In Downforce, players get a hand of cards and bet on vehicles which boast specific player powers. After this, players play cards and race down the track, moving lots of vehicles at once, and using player powers as they go. At three points in the race, players can mark on their sheets which car they believe will win the race overall. Players, of course, want their cars to win, but by betting on other cars (think Camel Up), the options become varied, and it suddenly isn’t imperative to win the race, rather to be the wisest better. Of course, players can change the order on the track by playing cards to get their betting car ahead. At the end of the game, players add up their winnings from placing and betting, and finally lose some cash for the car(s) they purchased at the front. The richest player wins.
Downforce is excellent. It’s easy to teach, and to make matters simpler, includes an easy variant to make it as accessible as possible. Moving cars along the track and ruining peoples’ days is tons of fun, and trying to bet rightly is even better. I feel like this game has to be a success. After all, I played with a group of co-workers and immediately after finishing the game, one of them got on Amazon and bought his own copy. Downforce is so good. If you love Camel Up, you’ll love this one too.
Honorable Mention: Anachrony
I wanted to fit this on the list, but because it’s so heavy and complicated, it makes more sense to pursue if this kind of game is in your wheelhouse. Anachrony provides so many incredible ways to play and boasts multiple expansions, that it feels like a game I want to play frequently. If you love heavier games with great theme and engine-building, this is a great one.
Stephen Hall – Staff Picks
“2017 was a landmark year for board games, a year where boundaries were pushed and horizons were broadened. With the legacy and escape room genres in full swing, we saw a plethora of new ideas come to light, signaling an exciting future. At the same time, we also saw a sort of return to the classics, with reprints and reworkings of time-honored titles like Modern Art, Through the Desert, Stop Thief!, and Top Race/Downforce. From trees to cathedral windows to Russian roulette, we saw lots of fresh themes, beautiful productions, and mesmerizing game systems. All in all, 2017 was a great year, and gamers everywhere should be excited for what is in store for 2018. Following my earlier list of notable 2017 releases, these can be considered my top three games of the year!”
Designer: Michael Kiesling
Artist: Philippe Guérin, Chris Quilliams
Publisher: Plan B Games
Price: $87.03 Amazon.com
From master designer Michael Kiesling, Azul is an instant classic. Featuring lovely components and a simple ruleset, this abstract tile-drafting game is truly a standout title of 2017. It is intuitive to play, simple to learn, and stunningly pretty to look at.
I think I speak for many gamers when I say that the best abstract games are the ones that strive for “minimalism,” the ones that provide interesting strategic options with little to no complexity. Azul revolves around one single action, but it accomplishes so much with it. The game’s simple system is surprisingly nuanced, with players needing to balance working toward their own goals with counteracting their opponents’ strategies. A tricky, rewarding experience, Azul is a game people will still be talking about in fifty years.
Designer: Bruno Cathala
Artist: Cyril Bouquet
Publisher: Blue Orange Games
Price: $16.50 Amazon.com
The more I play it, the more I think Kingdomino is the perfect gateway game. I totally see why it won the Spiel des Jahres. It is a great introduction to two fundamental gaming mechanisms, drafting and tile-laying, but it has enough strategy to keep experienced gamers engaged.
Kingdomino feels immediately familiar to new players, building on the recognizable game system of dominoes. It can be learned and played in a matter of minutes, leaving players wanting to try it again right away. The game requires decision-making and planning, but doesn’t become brain-burning. Its scoring system is clever, but also easy and straightforward, and, most importantly, it’s just really, really fun. It’s everything a family game should be, and I highly suggest trying it out. You might just fall in love with its delightful charm.
Designer: Daryl Andrews, Adrian Adamescu
Artist: Peter Wocken
Publisher: Floodgate Games
Price: $59.95 Amazon.com
And then there’s Sagrada, my favorite game of 2017. Plain and simple, this game is art. Its sudoku-like nature appeals to my enjoyment of puzzles, and its showstopper components really bring the idea of stained-glass window crafting to life.
Sagrada offers a unique challenge, wrapped up in a delightful theme, built on seamless gameplay. It scales incredibly well, even as a solitaire experience, and its variable challenges and card abilities keep each game interesting. It’s beautiful visually, thematically, and mechanically; what more could you ask for?
Derek Thompson – Staff Picks
“These games are some of the most simple and accessible games of 2017, but also some of the best. They’re still strategic, and lend themselves to repeated plays over several weeks or even in the same session. That’s my kind of game! “
Designer: Bruno Cathala
Publisher: Blue Orange
Price: $17.99 MSRP
Bruno Cathala is a master of reusing mechanisms, and he has finally found the right home for the turn order mechanisms he has done variations on in games like Five Tribes and Yamataï. Kingdomino uses the simple idea of “choosing a better piece means you have to wait longer to pick next time,” mixed with simple placement and scoring rules (borrowed from the under-appreciated card game Sobek) and places them in a tiny, extremely attractive package. (This game definitely has the right publisher.)
Kingdomino had stiff competition but quite appropriately won the biggest prize in board gaming, the Spiel des Jahres (German Game of the Year). It’s quick, simple, but still interesting and fun, and anyone old enough to game can play. I’ve played it dozens of time this year, and it’s been a hit every time.
Designer: Phil Walker-Harding
Publisher: Mayfair Games
Price: $42.00 MSRP
It’s too bad that this game is currently hard to find, because it is excellent. Phil Walker-Harding has had a string of decent successes in the “family game” genre (most notably Imhotep and Sushi Go!), but he’s finally knocked it out of the (bear) park. In Bärenpark, players are building their own bear park, not unlike Zooloretto, but with a puzzley tile-laying element more akin to Patchwork or NMBR 9. But for a variety of reasons, Bärenpark stands above all those games.
The gameplay is simple: place a tile, get bonuses (more tiles), repeat. The goal is simple: fill up the board as fast as you can. The scoring is simple: just add up all the numbers on your boards. Yet, the game hides a depth within those simples, efficiently tucking in the tough decisions into the very shapes of the pieces themselves, and the simple concept that taking a piece from a stack later on isn’t as many points as taking it early. These ideas combine into what is the best tile-laying game I’ve ever played, and one I’ll be playing for years to come.
Designer: Emerson Matsuuchi
Publisher: Plan B Games
Price: $40.00 MSRP
Plan B Games, a spinoff of Z-Man Games, has had a great start in 2017, with two very successful games: Century and Azul. Century is frequently compared to the other “baby engine-builder”, Splendor, but I consider them quite different beasts, apart from their boring themes. Century‘s focus is on card play, in an extremely simplified version of deckbuilding (“handbuilding”), and a simple focus on literally converting cubes into other cubes, and then converting those into victory points. (Even the rules sheet quickly dispenses with the flavors of spice and just calls them colored cubes.)
Despite the unexciting theme, Century is one of the cleanest, most elegant engine-builders out there. If you are wanting to get a brand new gamer into games like Race for the Galaxy or Dominion, this would be a fantastic starting point, and yet it’s complex and deep enough for experienced gamers like myself to also enjoy. Turns are lightning fast, and the game never has a dull moment. It’ll be even more exciting next year when it combines with Century: Eastern Wonders, but in the meantime, I’ll be enjoying every moment with my (no longer limited edition) Century: Golem Edition, with its premium components and anime-style artwork. If you enjoy card games at all, this is easily the best card game / engine-builder of 2017.
Thanks for reading our picks from 2017. Tune in tomorrow for a shorter read on our 2017 reflections on the tabletop hobby.