Top ten lists are difficult – especially when I don’t get to play some of the “big new games” for 6 months to a year after they’re released… so a few years back, I listed my Best New (to me!) Games of 2011. I then took a break for 2012 (due to general life craziness) and returned in 2013 with my Best New (to me!) Games of 2013. And while I had great plans to publish similar articles for 2014 & 2015, the best laid schemes “gang aft agley”. (Sorry, it’s the English major in me bubbling up to the surface. Don’t ask about Canterbury Tales unless you want me to recite the Prelude in Middle English.)
Even though I didn’t publish the 2014 or 2015 lists, I did create them… and I’ll share them here (without extra comments) for your enjoyment and edification. (I’ve linked to my reviews and blog posts as appropriate.)
Best New (to Me!) Games of 2014
- #10: Four Expansions
- #9: Tiny Epic Kingdoms
- #8: Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Skull & Shackles
- #7: Star Realms
- #6: The Battle at Kemble’s Cascade
- #5: Eminent Domain: Microcosm
- #4: Castles of Mad King Ludwig
- #3: Nations: The Dice Game
- #2: Colt Express
- #1: Clash of Cultures
Best New (to Me!) Games of 2015
- #10: Four Expansions
- Arctic Scavengers: Recon
- Castles of Mad King Ludwig: Secrets
- Galaxy Trucker: Missions
- DC Deckbuilding: JSA, LSH & the Teen Titans
- #9: X-Com: The Board Game
- #8: Tiny Epic Galaxies
- #7: Rattlebones
- #6: Baseball Highlights 2045
- #5: Survive: Space Attack
- #4: Roll for the Galaxy
- #3: Favor of the Pharaoh
- #2: Mage Knight Board Game
- #1: Pandemic Legacy
Before we get properly started with 2016, we need to cover a few games that were excluded from the list but still warrant attention being paid to them.
The Grey Area
I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with the following games – all of them had new editions or expansions this year, but they are not really new to me. So, they ended up here in The Gray Area.
- Descent: Road to Legend
- The tablet (and now smartphone) app for Descent: Journeys in the Dark (2nd edition) is a revelation. We’ve played more in the last year than we played in the previous two years combined. I wrote a review of the game system and the app for the Opinionated Gamers earlier this year.
- Stellar Conflict
- Originally published way back in the day by Cheap*** Games as Light Speed, this reboot is a higher quality version of an old favorite. I also wrote a review of Stellar Conflict for the Opinionated Gamers.
- Order of the Gilded Compass
- I’ve always enjoyed Jeff Aller’s Alea iacta est… so I was excited to see it back in print and in a new edition with a theme I like (Indiana Jones-ish exploration) and more development to give the game greater variety.
- My boys and I were early playtesters (in the fall of 2013)… so the actual physical appearance of Rob Daviau’s magnum opus was really exciting for us. While it has some slow moments, it’s a voyage of discovery that I’m loving, even though my sons are currently “winning”. (I have a plan to rally… never you fear.)
Two games that deserve a mention – but that didn’t quite make the top ten cut.
- Fabled Fruit
- It’s inventive, it’s easy to teach, and we’ve had a blast playing it. It got edged out by Codenames because the non-gamers in my family fell in love with Codenames. (Sorry, Friedemann… take it up with Vlaada.) I wrote a review of Fabled Fruit for my blog, aka pastor guy.
- The Fog of War
- I’m a Geoff Englestein fanboy… and this wargame combines a number of different elements brilliantly to get the “feel” of WWII grand strategy right without getting bogged down in the details. I’m working on a review – but I need more plays before I (a) finish writing, or (b) include it in my new-to-me top ten.
And with all of those detours finally taken care of… here’s the newest edition!
Best New (to me!) Games of 2016
Yes, I’m late to the party (game) on this one… but I’m not usually a fan of word games. (I know, I know… English major who doesn’t like word games. We’re a dying breed.)
However, Codenames isn’t just a word game – it’s a brilliant work of design from (no surprise here) Vlaada Chvátil. The tension of racing the other team, the way the decision tree is pruned as words are chosen… it works like a charm.
No, I haven’t played Codenames: Pictures yet… it’s on my “gotta try” list. (Side note about Codenames: After Dark… we do not need more “adult” party games – in my experience, folks don’t need a deck of cards to say offensive and off-color things to try and get others to laugh.)
And yes, that’s my family playing Codenames in the picture – and, yes, they’re wearing stuffed animal hats. (You were expecting something different from people related to me?)
Full disclosure – my boys & I were playtesters. (The only reason this didn’t end up in “The Grey Area” section of this post is that all of the playtesting happened in 2016.)
We liked it from the start… but I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how well Colony has held up over repeated plays. We keep discovering new combos and tactics – and that’s kept it fresh for us over time.
I also have to give Bezier Games a shout-out for creating a really nice (and free!) set-up app… which allows players to increase or decrease the likelihood of certain cards appearing in your “random” set-up.
I don’t love every Corné van Moorsel game… but when I do, I think they’re top notch. (By the same token, when I don’t like them, I really do NOT like them. Factory Fun is decidedly NOT fun.)
Habitats is one of his games that I enjoy immensely. It’s puzzle-y without being tedious, it’s pretty to look at, and the design keeps the game short enough so it doesn’t wear out its welcome at the table. The wild animal park/zoo theme for this tile-laying game doesn’t hurt, either.
#7: The Pursuit of Happiness
Part of the “Game of Life” genre, The Pursuit of Happiness uses worker placement to draft cards and spend resources. That makes it sound deathly dull – but it does a splendid job of blending mechanics and theme. The challenges change with varying numbers of players – and it even has a decent solo mode.
The general cheerfulness of the design is another point in its favor. Even though you “die” (from too much stress), the game feels like a light-hearted journey through a life. We’ve also been impressed that different tactics seem well-balanced, depending on the goal cards that are out and the number of players in the game.
I wrote a review for the Opinionated Gamers that goes into more detail. Read and enjoy!
Imagine a three-way collision between the Mad Max films, an auction game and a worker-placement city-building game. Throw in a little Notre Dame-ish fend off the invaders (marauders instead of rats) and you’ve got the recipe for what has turned out to be a personal favorite. Workers can be used as currency for auctions (sending them out to build buildings and scavenge resources) or placed on your personal compound to defend against marauders and accomplish other tasks.
The artwork is evocative without leaning too hard into the dystopian grimness… and the iconography is very clear once you get the hang of it. I’ve found that it takes players 2-3 rounds (roughly half a game) to get acclimated and then they’re ready to defend their very tiny barb-wire encrusted empire.
I plan on reviewing Armageddon in the near future… and they didn’t even send me a review copy! (Mark Johnson also did a really nice podcast interview with the designers on BoardgamesToGo.)
#5: Port Royal
The aforementioned Mark Johnson has been touting this as a great little filler game – so I stuck it on my Christmas list. Guess what? He’s right. It IS a great little filler game that combines press-your-luck with worker powers in a 30 minute race for victory points. Borrowing a trick from Uwe Rosenberg, Pfister uses card backs for cash, which means you can’t count on particular cards appearing exactly when you want them. At the same time, you have important decisions not only about what cards you will claim but on what kind of cards you’re leaving for your opponents.
The expansion – which I also received – adds small twists but doesn’t overwhelm the base game. The contracts layer in nicely and actually help give new players something to focus on.
In any other year, Patchwork would have been the best two player game hands down. It’s clever, it’s pretty to look at, and the subtle interaction between players is flat out delicious. My youngest son fell in love with it at CatanCon – we must have played 4-5 games over 24 hours. (We were both reminded of another shared favorite – Flowerpower… not so much because they are the same game mechanically but the feeling you get when playing it and building your tableau.)
Of course, you’ll have to see my #1 new to me game to see what I think is even better than this gem.
#3: The Dragon & Flagon
As noted earlier, I’m a big fan of Geoff Englestein’s designs… and it doesn’t hurt when he decides to revisit one of the classic games from my high school years – Yaquinto’s Swashbuckler. I wrote a detailed review for the Opinionated Gamers – I’ll just note here that this chaotic but intensely enjoyable bar fight game works with the full range of players (2-8) and is filled with exactly the kind of moments you want any thematically rich game to have… those “remember the time you managed to use Chain Lightning to hit all of us in the bar – including your ally?!” kind of moments.
The 3-D components are just icing on an already tasty cake. (Or plate of cookies, as the case may be…)
#2: Cry Havoc
The box art looks like a refugee from one of the games my boys play on the Xbox One. (Sad personal note: I cannot play Halo or Destiny or Battlefront or even Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare II… I spend all of my time staring at the sky or at the ground while the battle rages on around me.)
Don’t let the box art fool you – Cry Havoc is an amazing piece of design & development work. Grant Rodiek and the folks at Portal Games have created an immensely playable combat game, featuring a no dice combat system that allows for the various factions to play to their strengths while acknowledging that different sides have different objectives in battles. The artwork is gorgeous, the iconography on the cards is clear, and the minis are look very good on the board. (Note: the minis aren’t strictly necessary, but I’m really glad they put them in there.)
I’m also impressed that the game plays well with 2, 3 or 4 players – we’ve enjoyed it with each. I also like the variety inherent in the distribution of faction skills that drive the game in different directions.
Most of all, I like that Cry Havoc is the complete package – all of the elements work together (art design, game design, production, development) to deliver a consistently interesting and exciting play experience.
#1: 7 Wonders: Duel
The two player variant for 7 Wonders in the original rulebook works… but it’s not terribly compelling. Basically, it’s an excuse to play with those gorgeous cards.
But the two-player 7 Wonders: Duel is flat out brilliant. While it uses the same 3 age structure and resource-driven building of your civilization, the change to tableau drafting and a changing set of wonders makes it viable and compelling. Even more important is the multiple game timers: there are ways to win a military or scientific victory that ignore end-game scoring.
As much as I love the base game, I think that the expansion (Pantheon – pictured here) takes the game to another level. Not only does it offer more variety, but there are even more priorities to juggle without noticeably lengthening the game.
2017 is already shaping up to be a great year for new-to-me games… what with Clank! and Space Cadets: Away Missions.
Now stop reading and go play one of these games!