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2017 Tabletop Staff Picks

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.”

EXIT: The Game: The Abandoned Cabin

Designer: Markus and Inka Brand
Publisher: KOSMOS
Players: 1-6
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.

Read our spoiler-free review of EXIT: The Game: The Abandoned Cabin.

My taste says: yes, the game looks great.
In The Year of the Dragon: 10th Anniversary Edition

Designer: Stefan Feld
Publisher: Alea/Ravensburger
Players: 2-5
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.

Read our review of In the Year of the Dragon: 10th Anniversary.

Downforce cars on race trackDownforce

Designer: Rob Davieau
Publisher: Restoration Games
Players: 2-6
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.

Read our review of Downforce.

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!”

Azul

Designer: Michael Kiesling
Artist: Philippe Guérin, Chris Quilliams
Publisher: Plan B Games
Players: 2-4
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.

Kingdomino

Designer: Bruno Cathala
Artist: Cyril Bouquet
Publisher: Blue Orange Games
Players: 2-4
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.

Sagrada

Designer: Daryl Andrews, Adrian Adamescu
Artist: Peter Wocken
Publisher: Floodgate Games
Players: 2-4
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?

Read our review of Sagrada.


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! “

Kingdomino

Designer: Bruno Cathala
Publisher: Blue Orange
Players: 2-4
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 YamataïKingdomino 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.

Read our review of Kingdomino.

Bärenpark

Designer: Phil Walker-Harding
Publisher: Mayfair Games
Players: 2-4
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.

Century: Spice Road

Designer: Emerson Matsuuchi
Publisher: Plan B Games
Players: 2-5
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 AzulCentury 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.

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Reviews Tabletop

Review: In the Year of the Dragon: 10th Anniversary

Designer: Stefan Feld
Artists: Harald Lieske, Michael Menzel
Publisher: Alea, Ravensburger
Category: Economic, Medieval
Players: 2-5
Pre-Order Price: $29.29 Miniature Market
In the Year of the Dragon: 10th Anniversary is a reprint of the 2007 release by the same name. The first printing dates back to collaboration between Alea and Rio Grande Games. In the Year of the Dragon was designer Stefan Feld’s third game published by Alea.
Preceded by Notre Dame, and followed by Macao, In the Year of the Dragon is the 12th game in Alea’s big box series. This series includes other popular Alea titles, such as The Castles of Burgundy, and Puerto Rico.
The 10th Anniversary edition ships with two expansions: The Great Wall of China, and The Super Events. These were both originally included in 2009’s Alea Treasure Chest, which included expansions for various Alea big box games.

Content Guide

In the Year of the Dragon pits players against each other, seeking the noblest and most well-prepared of Chinese rulers.
Artwork and theme are harmless, though players have the opportunity to hire courtiers that bear Buddha statues, which grant extra victory points at the end of the game.

 

Review

Preparing for the 10th month.
I’ve always had a penchant towards Far Eastern Asian history and culture. One might say my proclivity for this interest is due to my unimpressive ¼ Korean heritage. Though only a quarter of me is linked to the Park genealogy, I still have made an effort to engage Korean friends in cultural questions, in attempts to understand familial structures, military obligations, and academic expectations. Of course, I’ve made an equal effort in tasting incredible foods, such as bul gogi, Shin Ramyun, and my favorite treat: Kimchi.
At some point, I realized the differences between countries like Korea and China were enormous. Like I once did, some might assume customs and lifestyles are close to identical, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Each country even bears totally different social understandings, solely dependent on which region of the country you have focused on. The history behind cities and peoples is fascinating.
Previously, I’ve written on Christina Ng Zhen Wei and Yeo Keng Leong’s present magnum opus, Three Kingdoms Redux. Redux revisits the magnificent stories of the Romance of the Three Kingdom’s novel. It’s in part due to the writings of ancient Chinese authors that we have some historical accounting of events from many, many years ago. Equally of fascination, today we cover Alea and Ravensburger’s In the Year of the Dragon.
In the Year of the Dragon plays out over the course of one year, and sort of finds historical foundation in various events from old Chinese history, dating back to 1000 A.D. From my research, most significant events in that period of Chinese history are more circled around than pinpointed. For example, the Song dynasty establishing schools all over the country ca. 1020 A.D., or the first record of a compass ca. 1119 A.D. What I’m getting at is I’m not sure the 12 months of In the Year of the Dragon actually happened during any year in particular. The game simply takes both prominent and usual events and uses them as the background setting for the happenings of the developing story behind the gameplay.
By end-game, you might expect to have this many court members, but only if you prepare well.
Players take the roles of various unnamed Chinese nobles, ruling over palaces and the people of their courts. With a predictive calendar in hand—foreshadowing the mostly horrible events for the year—the winning player will be one who is most prepared, populated, and meticulously privileged after 12 months have drawn to a close. Careful resource counting, alongside measuring risk and loss, are key to emerging from the mess of other nobles as the most prominent ruler in the land.
Players begin by drafting two specialized members into their court. All of the courtiers provide various bonuses and amplify action tiles. Each person will take up a floor of each player’s palace. Tax collectors, monks, farmers, and scholars are just a few of the people who can be selected to join the court. Farmers can amplify the rice action. Court ladies will give an extra victory point every turn. Healers prevent one court member from dying during times of sickness. Each person plays a pivotal role in ensuring the success of the kingdom they take part in.
Players must also weigh the balance between choosing older or younger court members. Elderly will provide enhanced bonuses to the player when the designated action is selected. Younger courtiers will provide fewer bonuses, but display a higher number. In the Year of the Dragon decides turn order by whoever maintains the highest valued position on the person track. I’d say this represents influence, therefore attaining priority, but the elderly seem more influential and trustworthy, so I’m not sure about the thematic inclusion of the mechanic. It does reign true, however, that those with more years carry the weight of experience.
Each round consists of the following phases:
  • 1st Phase: Action (players place a dragon token onto a group of actions, taking one of those actions).
  • 2nd Phase: Person (players select one person tile to add to their court).
  • 3rd Phase: Event (players execute and resolve the event of the round).
  • 4th Phase: Scoring (players score palaces, court ladies, and privilege tokens).
Choosing the right actions will be critical to success.
The action phase of In the Year of the Dragon is of extreme significance because over the course of the game, each player will only choose 12 actions maximum. In addition, depending on the player count, actions are shuffled and segregated into groups. Once a player chooses a group, they will select one action from that group, and any further players who would hope to play in the same group must cough up three yuan (coins). Money is mostly hard to come by, so if a player can’t afford to take any spots of benefit, they may choose to take three yuan from the supply instead.
Actions do lots of things, like move your person marker forward, grant extra victory points, build additional palace floors, receive fireworks, and more. This is where person tiles come into play, because as you add and lose people in your court, your actions are affected as well. Long term planning will become necessary as you weigh the cost of losing your tax collector on this turn, or keeping him, and losing a healer. “Remember, you are going to need gold to pay off the king in the event round,” you tell yourself. None of it matters when a nasty player in front of you in turn order decides to take the only action group that mattered to you. Unless you can find a way to the front of the queue, you will be scrapping around for actions, hoping for the best outcome.
Choosing younger people results in further movement on the person track.
The person phase is similar to the beginning of the game, but now players choose only one person from either the younger or older row. These tiles are chosen by playing the matching person from their person cards deck. This phase leads to the event phase, where mettle is tested, and weak rulers are shredded.
Different events take place throughout the course of the year. Sometimes plagues hit, causing sickness, killing up to three persons, unless you have healers with mortar and pestle. Sometimes the Mongols attack, giving victory points to each player based on their military count, and killing a person tile from the weakest army. The first two months of every game are peacetime, then the following ten months are randomized. After the events finish up, players receive points for a few particular things, then the next month begins.
At the end of the 12 months, players tally two extra points per remaining person tile, transfer leftover gold and items into points, and might receive extra points from Buddhas in one of their palaces.
Events above and courtiers below.
In typical Stefan Feld fashion, players must focus in many different areas in order to succeed, though no player should strive for excellence. Playing too strongly with wilds to stack up on one person tile might leave you unprepared for drought, forcing you to take more rice actions than is beneficial. Of course, one must balance his approach to gaining persons. While granting many extra points at game’s end, attaining additional people requires more palaces. Having more palaces needs more rice, and takes building actions. When each action matters hugely, wasting an action turn on something trivial will bite you hard later on.
I’ve mentioned this further up, but yuan is hard to come by. Unless you have no money, and the emperor is about to ask for four yuan, it’s difficult for me to recommend skipping out on an action for only three yuan. Money is needed to pay off the emperor, but also comes in handy when looking to buy your way into the royal family through privilege tiles. The larger privilege tile grants two points per turn, but costs seven yuan up front. The smaller tile grants one point per turn, costing only two yuan. Bought early on, the large tile could grant 22-24 points by the end of the game. This is very significant. I’ve seen players willingly suffer the consequences of monthly disasters, only spending all of their money on privilege, giving them influence and power, despite their awful circumstances.
A few of the starting tokens and cards.
The winning player will pick and choose their losses. While it might seem destructive, it’s situationally fine to lose people to disasters, but only if you can wisely manage who dies, and when it happens. My goals have usually been to amass the largest kingdom by game end, though this leads to fairly straightforward games, where I play the events, hoping to mitigate the damages as much as I can. Instead of taking stronger elders, I choose younger in order to maintain pole position and get first grabs at actions. The game forces you to pay close attention to others, more-so than other Feld games I’ve played. In Castles of Burgundy, I’m more concerned with the completion of my estate, only occasionally looking at my opponents’ boards. In Bora Bora, I feel very inadequate when losing out on an action because I rolled too high. Though I’m trying to beat out my enemies, I still need to improve my score and focus on that more than terrorizing my foes.
While Feldian in gameplay, In the Year of the Dragon doesn’t feel like the usual point salad grab. I think the “mechanism” of point salad exists to provide both for many ways to score points, and also for many outs for players who get left behind.
Pretty colors and thin chits.
However, here the name of the game is survival. One will hardly have their hand held when disease strikes and they’ve failed to prepare with healers. When you’re dirt poor, the emperor cares little. He will strike you, swiftly killing off up to four of your court members with no mercy. The fortune-telling calendar, visible to all players, serves to remind you of the many calamities of the future, giving you brief respite when celebrating the dragon festivals, and thrusting you back into chaos as you slog for food and military strength. It’s a wicked game, leaving players battered and bruised, clutching their sides from sobbing at the loss of healers and the decline and decay of unoccupied palaces. They’ve just tossed away three turns of work and lost too many people to recover. They spend the remainder of the game dabbing their sores and plotting for the next game night.
Alea and Ravensburger titles are famously uniform in terms of art and components. My first foray into the big box series was building beautiful estates and towns in The Castles of Burgundy. Not turned off by the non-descript artwork, I instead found peace and level headedness in planning my route to the fastest, largest, most complete estate imaginable.
My taste says: yes, the game looks great.
In the Year of the Dragon follows suit with a familiar palette of colors, though the game board and box are painted in a brownish-reddish hue. Court members feel human and necessary to success. I can’t help but be drawn to the court ladies, who seem less like attractive point scorers and more like Mulan’s entourage of cross-dressing soldiers. Of course, the tokens and chits of In the Year of the Dragon are abundant. The owner of the game will likely spend more than enough time punching out palace floors, only to find jovial excitement at the discovery of the floors fitting together, one on top of the other.
To some, the non-vibrant colors of the big box title might feel stunted, but to me it breeds familiarity and makes me feel at home. The tenacious strategies the Feld games call for is unbridled. I leave each title ready to try another from his catalog. Oh, the joy I experienced when learning of these 10th anniversary reprints so I could sit down and enjoy another Stefan Feld game! Perhaps it’s my love for the depth of these games, or the unassuming nature of the box and art. These games are always a surprise for me, and as I uncover the different ways his mechanics grind together, I find myself thinking about it throughout the day, wondering things I could have done differently, and talking to my wife about how close our score was.
The Great Wall expansion.
I have few issues with In the Year of the Dragon. Sure, I had a few cardboard pieces escape from their board a bit peeled up. I think the machine punched them poorly initially. Upon revisiting the 2007 printing, I discovered the original game also shipped with reference cards for each player. I think this would have been a worthy inclusion, as I’m always a fan of reference cards for reminding players of what they can do on a turn.
The 10th Anniversary edition also ships with two expansions. The first is The Great Wall of China. In this practically necessary expansion, players can choose from an eighth action that allows them to build a portion of the ancient wall. Each time a tile is added, the player chooses from six different bonuses. This could move them up on the person track, give rice, points, or even a palace floor. This is wonderful because it not only pulls back on the cutthroat nature of the game, but it also gives more flexibility to each turn. It also adds extra scoring to each Mongolian invasion event. Players still count victory points for their armies, but if the wall has been constructed up to the event location on the calendar, players will score additionally for each wall they’ve placed. If the wall hasn’t caught up to the month, the player(s) with the fewest built walls will lose one of their court members. It can be both a lovable expansion, and a harsh one.
The Super Events expansion.
The other expansion (The Super Events) adds more variability to each game by adding one of ten super events to the calendar. One little tile is randomly selected from the pool and added to the seventh event in the year. Upon finishing the seventh event, the super event activates. This can cause a number of wacky effects, like resetting the person track, causing the event to happen twice in a row, loss of food, yuan, and fireworks, and other interesting things. We misread the rules and thought this super event was face-down until we executed it in the seventh round. This isn’t the case, though I can imagine players trying out this homemade variant, or even placing multiple super events throughout the year. I find both expansions worthwhile, and almost necessary to experience the game to its fullest.
Aside from the initial punching of chits, I can’t find much to complain about with the 10th Anniversary edition of In the Year of the Dragon. Perhaps some diehards will be flustered with large privilege tiles costing seven instead of six. Maybe some won’t find the art and rulebook likable (hint: I very much like them both). The game doesn’t have an insert to speak of, whereas the original had slots for cards and tokens.
Seriously, this is a mess of people.
Setup isn’t particularly horrible, depending on how you’ve separated things. I’ve bagged all the player cards separately with their dragons and markers. The worst is dividing up each person tile between colors and ages. It’s a little tedious, but pales in comparison to other titles I’ve spent many minutes organizing before playing. I suppose a good insert wouldn’t be too much to ask for in an anniversary reprint. One will find themselves complaining less and less about the little problems when paying only $30 for an incredible game.
In the Year of the Dragon is full of player dependent strategy, while avoiding the easy way out of “take-that” mechanisms. It causes you to think deeply on your choices because you have so few over the course of a game. Every move matters and I love it.
I can’t help but highly recommend this one. Cheers, Alea.

A review copy of In the Year of the Dragon was provided by Alea Ravensburger.