When you look back on a year of games, it can give you some perspective on where the industry is going as a whole. For the most part, I have seen some positive steps in the board gaming hobby. Slowly, but surely the characters in board games are becoming more diverse, themes are broadening to include all sorts of strange and wonderful stories, and the community continues to grow. More and more independent games are being published and some great new designers are adding their creative voices to the collective pool. Some years have a ‘feel’ to them, but 2017 didn’t for me. Despite no single game really blowing me away as the GAME OF THE YEAR, it was a great year if you’re a fan. Here were some of the titles that made an impression on me over the last 12 months.
I find it hard to define my gaming tastes. I like a wide variety of different styles and weights of games, but I’ve never been much of a dungeon crawler in the past. However, this year I decided to give Massive Darkness a shot. I’ve been getting together with a brave bunch of Lightbringers in an effort to work our way through the included quests. It has been a heck of a lot of fun. I like the way you get to develop and customize your character as you gain XP. It’s also the type of game that lends itself to great stories. You work together on a team, taking on goblins, dwarfs, demons, spiders, and troglodytes while exploring the tunnels below the surface of the Earth. It’s an adventure and it’s just fun to see what’s around the next corner. Having played some D&D 5th Edition recently, I thought I might’ve enjoyed this game, but I was surprised how much I did. Massive Darkness strips away the tavern and investigation time familiar in many RPGs and plunks you right down in the middle of a scenario. There are definitely puzzles to solve, but you’ll get to chuck a lot of dice and bash some baddies!
I’m lucky enough to go to a number of different gaming events throughout the year. This year I went to Board Game Basecamp, CMON Expo, Gen Con, Origins, and Breakout Con among others. As is usually the case for me, my favourite experience in gaming this year was at the Gathering of Friends. It’s an awesome event, with a chance to try out new titles, see a lot of great people, and just play. Because it comes early in the year, you get a nice preview of some of the games that are going to be big in the coming months. The Gathering is full of industry professionals, amazing gaming, and of course, friends. It’s tough to imagine this not being the highlight of the year for me every year. For a gamer, it’s Christmas in April.
There have been some amazing game components to come out this year, so it’s no easy task to narrow it down to just one. However, rather than simply picking some beautiful bits, I’m going to go with function as well. The dice in Dice Forge have removable faces that can be replaced with newer, more powerful ones. The game works a bit like Dominion in the sense that you’ll gain new abilities and be able to make bigger moves as the rounds go on. From the very functional insert, to the colourful cards, to the unique and useful dice, everything in this game is amazing to behold. The changeable dice has been tried before in the past, but these big chunky bits are as sturdy as they are functional. You’ll be rolling dozens of times in the game, but these dice stay together beautifully. Not only that, they can be reset very easily for the next game, no matter how many faces change. Good components should add to the experience of the game and these definitely fit the bill.
I mean, this game could fall in a few different categories. I loved it a lot each time I played it, but despite the fact I didn’t play the original, I’m still going to place Downforce in this space. It feels as if you’re playing a tense game of Hot Wheels. You bid for your cars and then it’s off to the races as you strategically move through the track, trying to both ensure your cars finish first and you correctly predict the outcome of the race. The art, components, weight, and fun factor all come together to form a really great package. Can’t wait for more tracks and special abilities to be released.
Who would’ve thought a game about collecting herbs could be so fully engaging. Steve Finn’s design is tight, but I have to think that the gorgeous art from Beth Sobel has a lot to do with the success of Herbaceous. Each card features one of 10 different herbs and the illustrations are just beautiful. It feels like holding a bunch of little oil paintings. It takes subtle art to to convey ideas in board games, and although with the current state of games, there is no shortage of possible choices for this category, Herbaceous took the cake…or the herb biscuit for me.
The mechanics of Viral are not too foreign to those familiar with strategic games, but when you step back and look at the complete package it’s like some kind of cartoonish, Adult Swim nightmare. You play a virus trying to infect a patient worse that the the other diseases swimming throughout their body. From the event cards, to the board art, to the different Virus tokens, everything is done with a consistent sense of humour, but the overall idea of trying to sicken someone is in a word…sickening. Still, a really great game!
Mountains of Madness really came out of nowhere for me. Based on an H.P. Lovecraft story, players work together as they venture up a frozen mountainside in search of a mysterious ancient city. Along the way, they’ll face encounters that will require precise amounts of equipment to overcome, yielding reward or punishment depending on how they do. Of course, it wouldn’t would be an H.P. Lovecraft story if people didn’t go a little crazy. Players will get cards that will affect how they approach the game in increasingly detrimental ways. The further up the mountain you go, the more the game begins to mess with you. Mountains of Madness walks a narrow line between co-op and party game, but one thing is for sure: there’s nothing else like it.
I am not a huge abstract fan, so if I can find one I really like, that’s a winner for me. Seikatsu is a simple game, intended for three players, but not bad with two or four either. You are trying to create the most beautiful garden from the perspective of your pagoda. Each turn you’ll play tiles to the garden with both birds and flowers on them. When the tile is immediately placed, you’ll gain points for the alike birds touching it. At then end of the game, you’ll get points for the same flowers in a row from your perspective. The rules are quite straight forward, but you have to consider each move on a few different levels. Oh, and I forgot to mention, it’s beautiful. This is one I’ll come back to for years.
I have always been a big fan of trick taking games, but one of the knocks against them is the required player count. The Fox in the Forest is one of the first, and certainly one of the most successful trick taking games designed for two players. Set in a fairytale world, players try and win hands, just not too many. There are three different suits with cards numbered 1-11. All of the odd-numbered cards are characters with magical abilities, like changing the trump suit, giving you the lead for the following round, forcing your opponents to play their highest cards, and more. There is a unique scoring system whereby you’ll win points based on your performance. It’s good to do well, but if you win 10 or more of the 13 tricks, you get nothing for your efforts. The Fox in the Forest is the type of game that can go with you everywhere and be played over and over again.
I mean, technically you’re working together in Magic Maze, but it sure doesn’t feel that way when one of your ‘teammates’ is banging that red pawn on the table. Players are tasked with getting four characters out of the maze. Simple enough, right? The trick is that they’re assigned cardinal directions, which is the only way they can move the characters. Adding to the intensity is a sand timer quickly counting down the seconds you have to complete the task. Not difficult enough? Well you also can’t talk. The only form of communication (outside of special pause spots) is by placing a red pawn in front of them to let them know they have to do SOMETHING. You don’t know pressure until you have three teammates staring at you with expectation, and for the life of you it’s not obvious what you have to do. Besides the stress, there’s no game that made me laugh or cheer more this year than Magic Maze.