It’s that time of year again, when we take a look back and do lots of Top game lists, but this year’s end is a bit special, it’s the end of a decade. A decade that started with 7 Wonders, Hanabi & Forbidden Island, and is ending with the likes of Die Crew, Wingspan & Res Arcana. There were lots of hits, even more misses and a lot of games over the decade that got lost in the continuous shuffle. So while a lot of outlets are going to give you their favorites of each year of the decade, we thought it may be a fun idea/experiment to take a look at some titles that have held the interest of folks here in The Opinionated Gamers. So for the next few weeks we’re going to take a look at these games and share our love of some of these off the radar titles. Feel free to participate in the comments and share your thoughts on games that we’ve overlooked.
Archaeology The New Expedition BGG Rank 938 (Brandon Kempf)
I am a sucker for draw and discard games and set collection card games. One of my favorites is this, Archaeology The New Expedition. The players are archaeologists who are digging in various sites, trying to piece together parchments, pots and other artifacts to sell them to museums. Players will draw a card (digging), if it’s a treasure, keep it secret in your hand. Sometimes you’ll find thieves (steal a card from an opponent), or a sandstorm which causes everyone to discard half of their cards to the marketplace, don’t worry, everyone has one tent that they can use at some point during the game to avoid a sandstorm. After digging the players can trade with the marketplace, or they can sell to the museum by laying down sets, or they can use a map to explore a monument. Play continues like this until the draw deck has run out and everyone in turn passes, the explorer with the most money from selling to the museum wins. It’s a simple trick, drawing a card equals digging in the sand looking for artifacts, and from then on, it all makes thematic sense. Phil Walker-Harding is going to show up quite a bit over this series of articles, and Archaeology The New Expedition was my introduction to his games, and a great one at that. My only real qualm with the game is that it doesn’t play that well at two players, the way the market works, anything you drop usually is going to go to your opponent, so you know what everyone is working on, I think it works a lot better in the three to five player range.
Mino & Tauri BGG Rank 7,032 (James Nathan)
I’m a fan of “games where there is a vertical board and the players see different things on their side” genre. When I make up these mini-categories, and you think “but how many games can their be?”, I usually try not to mention it unless I can name at least 2, and here I can think of at least 3, and I like each of them: Fluch der Mumie; Mino & Tauri; and Mag-O-Mag.
One of the “features” of the latter 2 is that they are also real-time games. The 2017 game I’ll talk about below is real-time, but in general it’s a genre that has gone from a slight plus for me to one I avoid.
Anyway, in Mino & Tauri, the players on each side of the screen are simultaneously solving a maze that is impossible, and it’s quite clear that there are several unconnected paths, and no way to venture from the start to the finish. But, in some manner that mixes in with the theme, it is cooperative, and if you are stuck simply have your other half -the Tauri to your Mino- move for a bit.
Let me explain. You and your partner both have pieces that are connected with magnets on the two sides of the board. You will have limited movement on your side of the maze, but the trick is that as you move Mino, there are no rules as to how Tauri moves on the other side! (You can’t walk through a wall, but your partner can drag you through one.) Mino moves for a bit, then gets stuck and Tauri has to take over. Back and forth. Team work.
Now the maze is solvable.
I played and spread the joy of this quite a bit at BGG.CON in 2016, and now you know about it too. QED.
This is not my favorite game of the year, or my favorite unheralded game of the year, but it’s my favorite lesser-known one that I haven’t talked about much, if at all, before.
Armageddon BGG Rank 3,592 (Mark Jackson)
This was one of those “surprise!” games at Essen 2016 – not a lot of fanfare, relatively unknown designers, etc. – but it continues to be one of my favorite auction-ish games for 3-4 players.
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). 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’ve been working on a review of this for nearly 3 years… don’t let me inability to get it finished keep you from trying this wonderful game. (And it’s still available at pretty decent prices!)
Also considered for my 2016 pick: Hit Z Road
Länder toppen! – BGG Rank 7930 (Joe Huber)
Once again, my pick for the obscure game of the year is – simply my pick for the game of the year. 2017 was an OK year, without a real standout game, but Länder toppen! is quite enjoyable. I first heard about it through Eric Martin’s Spiel preview on BGG, and from the description (roughly: a trick taking trivia game) and the publisher (Drei Hasen in der Abendsonne), I knew it was a game I had to try. And – for me, it’s great. It’s a trick taking game where you are simultaneously playing your hand of 7-10 cards to your choice of 12 tricks. The “trivia” is all data presented on the cards, so players just have to judge – is a population of 400 million people big enough to win? Is an area of 256 square kilometers small enough?
Dynasties – BGG Rank 1595 (Larry)
Matthias Cramer made a big impression on me when he burst upon the gaming scene a decade ago. His first three published designs were Glen More, Helvetia, and Lancaster, and I enjoy playing all of them a great deal. Dynasties isn’t as well known as some of his other titles, but it’s probably the game of his I’ve played the most. It’s a mish-mash of mechanisms: a little pie-dividing here, some resource management there, with a touch of area majority on the board. Thematically, we’re trying to influence the major European nations during the period of the Renaissance, and even though this is done fairly abstractly, it does show the importance of arranging favorable royal marriages (and even royal offspring) during that period. The design is anything but elegant and there’s a fair amount of luck, but it’s great fun to play and skillful maneuvering will win out more often than not. This still gets some occasional play with us and it’s consistently enjoyable.
Ghost FIghtin Treasure Hunters – BGG Rank 1051 (Matt)
Editor’s Note: I think this one is actually 2013? But I ran with it anyway as it should have been in the 2013 grouping.
As a co-op fan, this game filled a need I didn’t know was there. Take the “movement” mechanic of Clue (with some improvements), have players race around the board collecting gems and avoiding (or fighting) ghosts, and add ghosts to the board every turn to give a bit of the feeling of Pandemic’s snowballing danger. Ghost Fightin Treasure Hunters is my go-to game for the times I want an intro-level cooperative game. The dice rolling adds a bit of randomness, making some games particularly hard or easy, but still gives players a good bit of control. The expansion is decent as it mixes things up to add an additional complexity for players wanting variety, but the base game stands fine on its own.
Kepler-3042 BGG Rank 1,579 (Jonathan F.)
2016 was a great year for games. I think I could be happy with a collection from just 2016. Habitats is a fantastic family game that was not improved up on by Nova Luna. Dokmus and Factory Funner were both very good too. I prefer Factory Funner to Factory Fun because Funner has no moving of items which is basically a snoozefest for everyone not involved. Gads Hill 1874 was an excellent release and the favorite of the Old Town family for me, but the winner is the sadly unheralded Kepler 3042. I don’t know how this tech-tree exploration oriented game flew under the radar but will always be up for a go at it.
Gravity’s Edge and Build or BOOM – Unranked (Talia)
These are two phenomenal dexterity games that both happen to be from 2016 and are both unranked on BGG due to an insufficient number of ratings. If you like classic Zoch games such as Hamsterolle or Bausack, then you’ll love these. Gravity’s Edge is a mind-bending stacking game that takes the idea of Tier auf Tier and grows it into a topsy-turvy tower of incredibly leaning and swaying fun. Build or BOOM is a fast-paced competitive construction game of quickly compiling the assigned pieces before your opponent, vaguely like more well-known La Boca, but with more silliness and destruction. If you have a penchant for dexterity games, then these lesser known titles are worth tracking down!
Flatline BGG Rank 1458 (Brandon Kempf)
Let’s start by saying, I loathe real time games. I really do. So I was as surprised as any when I absolutely adored this one. Flatline really manages to control the bad things in real time games that I dislike and accentuate what I do like. You are essentially working in an Emergency Room, this could have been themed ER The Board Game if Renegade had the rights, but alas it’s in some futuristic weird setting. The players are working together trying to save patients as they come into the “ER”. You do this by rolling dice. Everyone gets a set number of dice, sometimes and extra or two, and over a one minute timer you are going to roll dice trying to match symbols on the dice to patients that need help. Now, some patients need more help than others because some patients will have bad things happening while they are active in the “ER”, so prior to the rolling phase there is a lot of planning that needs to happen. Flatline is not just all frantic dice rolling, it controls the pace and gives you the highs and lows, the calm that comes along before, and after, the storm.
Dungeon Time BGG Rank 4,003 (James Nathan)
With this entry we’re back to games that at first glance don’t make sense for me: a real-time game themed around a dungeon crawl? Take my temperature. But look at the designer: Carlo Rossi. As a result of his Hab & Gut, he’s a designer that I keep track of, plus I think I had heard good things about this one from Dale and Karen.
It’s a cooperative game where the players are looking to complete certain missions. The missions will be in players’ hands, along with various tools that will be required to complete them. (For instance, this hypothetical mission requires two satchels, one crossbow, and one potion.) All of that is cards with the same back: a mission is a card, a satchel is a card, etc.
It’s a programming game of sorts as you stack up, face down, what you’ll later flip over and resolve. In our example above, we would, in real time, and with open discussion (but hidden hands), need to play two satchel cards, one crossbow card, and one potion card, face down into the stack before we play the mission card face down.
But, of course, there are a few ways things will come off of the rails. First, there is a hand limit. Each player may only hold a certain amount of items and missions, and so you may need to have a player get some things out of their hand in order to draw more.
You could discard those cards permanently, though you mentally had them earmarked for another mission card. You could also place them in the stack for later. Surely we’ll come across a mission that requires this spellbook card.
But, see, your magic cauldron also has a hand limit. So if you end up with too many types or too many of one type of ingredient unused, you’ll lose. You can place some extra ingredients in the pot, but you need to keep track of them and make sure they get used up!
But, uh, what if other things end up in the pot. See, when you complete the mission cards, they often produce items you may need. Other times they produce items that cause the pot to spill over, like you were boiling pasta and got distracted reading Japanese trick-taking news on Twitter. Anyway, keep track of things.
It’s a lot of fun!
This is not my favorite game of the year, or my favorite unheralded game of the year, but it’s my favorite lesser-known one that I haven’t talked about much, if at all, before.
Escape from 100 Million B.C. BGG Rank 2,980 (Mark Jackson)
So, something went wrong… and we’re stuck in 100 Million B.C. We’ve got to work together to find all the parts to the time machine before our actions and the various wormholesthat the accident created mess up the timeline so bad we don’t exist.
Kevin Wilson’s game of time travel has much of the normal “quests” of a cooperative game – find missing stuff, explore the area, avoid bad things (in this case, dinos), and beat the timer. The nifty twists are the wormholes that spit out figures from the past (or future) – like young Abe Lincoln or Amelia Earhart or a spaceman with a laser gun – that you have to corral and send back through time… and the problem that each dino you kill adds paradox and increases the chance of a virtual time meltdown.
It runs a little long with the full complement of players – but we enjoy it a lot with 3-4.
Also noticed by us… a bit of work and this could be re-themed as Toejam & Earl: The Funkadelic Board Game. (Note: I consider this a positive.)
Also considered for my 2017 pick: Nemo’s War
Q.E. – BGG Rank 3395 (Joe Huber)
OK, BGG has complicated things by separating Q.E. into two entries, but regardless – I’m referring to the original. It’s really only a four player game – three just isn’t as interesting, but having tried the 5th player expansion, neither is 5. The game solves what I have long considered a flaw in auction games – the artificial constraint of how much money players hold. In Q.E., you can print up as much money as you wish – so if you really want something, go ahead and print more. Just – don’t print the most. The idea of the game is so simple and straightforward that I’m amazed I hadn’t seen this done before – and all the more impressed that Gavin Birnbaum managed to not only have the idea, but to make it work.
A Handful of Stars – BGG Rank 2032 (Larry)
One of the most famous failed designs in the history of modern gaming has to be Martin Wallace’s A Few Acres of Snow. The game itself was hugely impressive and filled to the brim with clever and innovative mechanisms. Unfortunately, as most of you no doubt know, it’s one of the few popular games that can truly be said to be “broken”, as the so-called Halifax Hammer strategy has been shown to be dominant. It’s still possible to enjoy the game (the Hammer is not a easy strategy to play and ignoring it and just having fun with the design isn’t hard at all), but there’s no question that knowing that the game is solved takes away much of its appeal.
Wallace tried, and failed, to fix Snow, so he then did the next best thing and came up with similar games that weren’t broken. Mythotopia wasn’t bad, but it had a very bland theme and a problematic endgame. For me, the game in this family that seems to work the best is A Handful of Stars, which switches the action to outer space, letting the players conquer planets, instead of snowy patches of land in the New World. There’s lots of similarities to Snow, but there’s also plenty of innovative touches and it’s very much its own game. Specifically, it plays much faster than either of its two forebears, with teleportation via blackholes occuring midgame to really open things up. Given the designer, its pedigree, and the fact that this was the last Treefrog game, you’d think it would be more highly ranked, but for some reason, it only has the tiny number of 600 ratings on the Geek. Regardless of that, this is a game I badly want to play more of, to satisfy myself that this is truly the best member of the Few Acres family.
Spirit Island – BGG Rank 13 (Matt)
As a co-op deck-builder with a technology tree and unique player abilities, Spirit Island pushes almost all of my buttons. Players are spirits that cooperate (along with the natives) to push back settlers from invading their island (the main play area) while trying to minimize the “corruption” generated by said invading settlers. Each turn a player selects a start-of-turn option on their player board. These typically add “presence” to the island (revealing upgrades on their personal board), buy cards, gain power (spent to play cards,) or redraw spent cards. “Upgrades” usually increase the power gained each turn (income) or allow for additional card plays. Every spirit’s board is unique (and has additional thematic powers that can be triggered during a turn) so the types of player interactions vary greatly each time the game is played. To top things off, in addition to the numerous unique spirits available, the game can have thematic elements (such as different corruption penalties, adding in events, or having colonist invaders from a specific country.) If this sounds like a game with everything but the kitchen sink, it is. Its variety and complexity is its downfall. It avoids the problem of one player quarterbacking everyone else by the sheer amount of information and options available. Players can cooperate to defend sections of the board or try to trigger favorable power combinations, but trying to micromanage all the players would be a herculean task. The risk of AP (analysis paralysis) is extremely high, but since players generally take their turns simultaneously games with non AP players can move along at a reasonable clip. For good or ill, every time I finish a game I feel like my brain has had a serious workout.
The Shipwreck Arcana BGG Rank 908 (Jonathan F.)
Lots of good games in 2017. Slightly under the radar games included Gentes, Istanbul: the Dice Game, and Lovecraft Letter, but I’ll go with Shipwreck Arcana. A delightful co-op deduction game with clever thought processes. I like the small form factor and big thought process. It is probably best to play it with extensive discussion at first and slowly constrain discussion. If there is a knock, it is that it is very group dependent whether or not it will go over well. If your group likes deduction and Die Crew, don’t miss The Shipwreck Arcana.
Twin It! – BGG Rank 3,633 and Shaky Manor – BGG Rank 5,323 (Talia)
Twin It! is one of the very best speed pattern recognition games ever created – better even than the legendary Jungle Speed, I dare say. The art on the cards in this game is truly phenomenal. And the way in which the game makes all cards on the table (including previously scored cards and cards on top of you deck) live and in play, creates a truly and uniquely encompassing atmosphere. Combine all of that with the clever team / partnership rules, and you’ve got a brilliant package. This game is a work of art, both visually and mechanically. As for Shaky Manor, it’s been a huge hit with my four-year-old, so I’d put it near the top of children’s dexterity games. The four unique monster pieces cleverly behave differently in gameplay and provide a perfect tactile element for children to enjoy, as well as endless variations, plus a wonderful catch-up or balancing mechanism for ensuring that children and adults can compete together.