According to my handy-dandy BG Stats App, as of today I’ve played 80 different games this year; almost half were new releases. As usual, that places me squarely in the Cult of the New camp. And the year’s not over; a few Kickstarters and pre-orders are on their way, and several really good games landed in FLGS’s just in time for holiday gift-giving. Still, it seems as good time as any to take stock of the year’s highs and lows.
From where I stand 2016 was not a year of great innovation in the tabletop world. I played many good games, many fun games, but few games that broke new ground in their mechanics or theme.
The most innovative gaming experience I had in 2016 was playing Millenium Blades, an economic game masquerading as an homage to CCG’s. Not only does the real-time buying and trading set it apart; players “live the dream” from lowly n00b with only a starter deck to Tour-level player with OP promos all in the space of two hours. The theme IS the game, and the cards, with their numerous pop- and geek- cultural references, are funny in and of themselves. 2017 will bring new decks to play with, and (something I’m really looking forward to) a cooperative-style campaign against AI-driven bosses.
My other nominee for Top Innovative Gaming Experience is not in a new game per se. Instead, Fantasy Flight’s Descent: Road to Legend, (released last spring) takes an already-excellent delving experience and adds an app that assumes the role of Overlord. Now adventurers can play truly co-operatively, or solitaire, with much more ease and variety of play than before. Road to Legend renders previous co-op modules irrelevant (although thrifty players—like myself—will hold onto them as backup in case the app becomes obsolete). In the fall FF re-released Mansions of Madness in a similar format, equally successfully, and for 2017 they are promising an app for Star Wars: Imperial Assault (#omnomnom).
Meanwhile, other games took tried-and-true mechanics and slapped on new paint with enjoyable results. I wrote about Star Trek: Panic! back in July, and still feel it freshens the tower defence genre enough for all players, not just Trekkers. Similarly, Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle, although clearly intended as a gateway deckbuilding game, is a worthwhile experience even if you’re not a Potterhead. You play through each book in separate gaming sessions using a Legacy-like device of little boxes which you open as you progress; each box contains new cards and components which you add into the mix, ramping up the difficulty. Experienced gamers are explicitly guided to start with Game 3, and personally I found myself challenged only when I hit Game 6—but at that point it becomes a tense and challenging race to defeat all the Death Eaters before they take control.
Some big-name designers delivered solid gameage in 2016. Martin Wallace’s Via Nebula is a pickup and deliver train game wrapped up in an attractive steampunk balloon wrapping. Uwe Rosenberg twisted a few faces of his Rub-Gric’s cube and brought us A Feast For Odin, which for all its daunting array of choices and point-salad victory conditions integrates theme with gameplay better than anything since Caverna, and unlike previous games has an elegant solitaire variant which goes beyond play-on-your-own-and-beat-your-previous-high-score. Phil Eklund and Sierra Madre Games released Pax Renaissance, a worthy successor to previous card-driven history games. The folks at White Wizard released Hero Realms, which added character classes and a campaign mode to the still-amazing Star Realms system. And Stefan Feld released Oracle of Delphi, a game where players race around a modular board to complete quests for Zeus. (A racing game? Hold the phone.) It certainly departs from his usual pasted-on-theme point-salads and I think it’s one of his best.
Other games which were highlights for me in 2016:
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Having covered the Best Ofs, I feel duty-bound to share my biggest disappointments of 2016. Here are games which I feel aren’t necessarily bad, but did not deliver for one reason or another (literally, in one case):
7 Wonders Duel: Pantheon was an expansion I was so excited to play, since the base game is one of my two-player favorites: tight, balanced, and just the right mix of tactics and strategy. Pantheon definitely adds a huge new layer to consider, in the form of gods who can be drafted in Age I, and whose powers when invoked in Ages 2 and 3 can drastically alter the gamescape. The trouble, for me, is that while Pantheon adds significantly to the game, it also turns it much more into a brain-burner. I’m not sure it’s worth the tradeoff.
I wrote about Star Trek: Frontiers back in the summer and have not felt the need to return it to the table since. The reasons for this are in the article, but I will recap by saying that Andrew Parks wasted several opportunities to better integrate the Trek theme into Vlaada Chvatil’s amazing Mage Knight design (data crystals? really?). Although the game is more streamlined and forgiving than Mage Knight, that did not translate into a more enjoyable experience for me. On top of that, the graphic palette of the board and some of the counters is too dark and hard to read.
Oh Legendary Encounters: Firefly. How I wanted to love you. You shiny thing you. You had so much promise. You introduced so many new twists to the Legendary franchise: talents and flaws; jobs; inevitable enemies; ship strikes and repair; character bonuses. But aside from the truly amateurish artwork, there seemed to be such balance problems in the later scenarios, to the point where I begin to suspect that the game was absolutely meant to be played all the way through, instead of three-episode mini-arcs—because there simply isn’t enough time, starting with a basic deck, that you can buy the cards you need to deal with all the threats in time. They took you out of drydock too soon, Firefly.
Now Friedmann Friese dear fellow, I adore you. I thought Power Grid: The Card Game was brilliant (see above). I’m still defending 504 to the hilt against the haters because I think it’s genius—even though I haven’t played it for over a year. And when I saw you were working on a legacy-style card game that could be reset without taping together torn-up bits of cards, I bit my fanboy knuckles with delight. Sadly, Fabled Fruit is, well, flat. The fact is, there is little urgency in the theme of assembling fruity drinks. And since the number of cards in each game does not scale by the number of players, with two and three players the game lacks tension and mutates much less frequently. I could house-rule it, but shouldn’t you have thought of that? The game is very kiddie-friendly, I’ll give you that; I just went in wanting more.
And finally: Orcs Must Die: the Boardgame. Kickstarted: fall, 2015. Promised delivery: January, 2016. Delivered: not yet. People have moved on–and by people I mean my son. By the time it gets here he be like “Orcs Must Die? Meh. Now Overwatch: the Boardgame, that I would play.”