It’s that time of year again, where all the good girls and boys get board games under the tree. And for us here at Board Game Gumbo it’s time to look back on the year’s worth of board gaming that was done and decide how those games measure up. This is the first in a series where members of the Gumbo Krewe look back at their favorite new, and-new-to-us, games for 2019.
First up, Bradly is back with his top ten games:
1. Tainted Grail
I knew when I first saw Tainted Grail on Kickstarter that I was going to like it. It was being designed by Awaken Realms, makers of Lords of Hellas, This War of Mine and Nemesis; all three excellent games that you could find on my ‘Top 10’ lists the years they were released. It had interesting mechanics (the combat/diplomacy system) as well as a theme that is quite possibly my favorite of all time (Arthurian Legend). However, I have this tendency to forget about games after backing them on Kickstarter. I don’t follow updates, I don’t read emails and the development of a game after I’ve decided it’s worth my money is just not something I find a ton of interest in. This has burned me in the past when games that I was expecting to be favorites turned out to have shifted drastically during development. This was not the case when Tainted Grail finally showed up on my doorstep; I could tell just from the unboxing that this was going to be my type of game.
Tainted Grail is almost everything I want in a board game; it has story, exploration, an interesting combat/diplomacy system, and a theme that I love. I’m finding myself more and more drawn to these narrative driven games like Tainted Grail, Journeys into Middle Earth, Near and Far, etc. They are fast becoming my favorite genre, and Awaken Realms is fast becoming a very prominent name in the board gaming industry. The last few years has seen offerings from Awaken Realms feature prominently in my top 10 and I don’t expect that to stop next year considering that I have already backed The Great Wall and Awaken Realms has yet another kickstarter lined up for 2020.
2. Nanty Narking
This game is a bit of a cheat, as it is essentially a retheme and reprint of an earlier game. This won’t be the first time that applies to a game on my Top 10 this year, so it’s in good company. Nanty Narking is about as simple a game as it needs to be to in order to accomplish the mechanics inherent in it. There is almost nothing superfluous to the base game, which lets the game play with little to no downtime, checking of the rules or general AP that would typically infect games of its’ kind.
There is a reason why it is my number 2 this year, however, and that’s almost directly due to the extras that PHALANX threw into the reprint. The miniatures that come with the game are well done, especially by board game standards, but are unnecessary in the base game and add unneeded complications when playing with the ‘variant’ rules that add special mini-rules for each building and unit sculpt.
In fact, while I enthusiastically recommend this game, I equally suggest that you play simply by the base game rules, ignoring the various add-ons that only complicate an otherwise exceptional game. Which is a shame because all those unique sculpts that serve no purpose beyond these variant rules bloat the price of the game out of the range of its’ contemporaries. Nanty Narking is a truly exceptional game, good enough to be my #2 game of the year, but in this instance less would have been more.
My #3 and #4 are very close, but Sanctum just ekes out the win here despite the issues with component quality that I have with the game. Sanctum is exactly what I wanted it to be; a board game version of Diablo. I feel that CGE had the same success with Adrenaline and their effort to mimic the FPS quality in a board game, and am excited to see what they do next.
Sanctum itself has some issues for me, but they are fairly limited and I still generally enjoy the game. The card stock is about as poor as I’ve seen from a major publisher, and I worry about the replayability of the game (something Secret Cabal brought up as well). I think after 10 or more plays of Sanctum I may find myself tiring of it, but that’s assuming that there’s no expansions forthcoming.
Sanctum screams for extra content, especially new characters to play as or even just a more extensive skill tree that players can mix and match. If CGE brings those ideas to life then I can see Sanctum holding its’ spot in my collection for a considerable time.
4. Call to Adventure
Roleplaying games are something very near and dear to my heart, so anytime a board game comes anywhere close to evoking the same feelings I have while sitting down for a session of D&D, I’m all in. Roll Player did something like this, at least in regards to mirroring the mechanical aspect of building a character. Call to Adventure also has that feeling I’m looking for, but more attuned to the idea of creating a backstory for a character.
Call to Adventure has a very literary feel to it which I think is very much what Brotherwise Games was trying to do. Playing the game almost feels like you’re ‘discovering’ your character’s backstory instead of actively choosing for them, and that feeling is very typical of D&D for me. It’s a fine line between the Euro mechanics of the game and that bookish quality that it has, but if you find the right balance it’s a truly memorable and enjoyable experience.
5. Lord of the Rings: Journey to Middle Earth
It wasn’t that long ago that I railed against app integration in board gaming. I didn’t enjoy it because I was so used to the feel of cardboard in my hands that I didn’t think that apps could bring enough to a game to make it worthwhile. In short, I was wrong. When done right app integration into a board game brings a whole additional element that can uplift an already good game into true excellence.
Journey to Middle Earth doesn’t have the best integration of an app into a board game that I’ve seen, Mansions of Madness takes that award, but it is done very, very well. It helps that the game has an exploration mechanic that simply wouldn’t work without the use of an app. Beyond that, however, Fantasy Flight Games has been able to add levels of excitement, tension and genuinely good story by use of their app. I’ve found my plays of Journeys to Middle Earth truly enjoyable and only bolstered by the use of the app.
6. Cthulu: Death May Die
Every year I expect Cthulu games to finally hit peak saturation, but it hasn’t happened yet. Death May Die is another entry from CMON with that particular theme, but it’s more than just window dressing. DMD begins with a very simple cooperative system that any veteran of board gaming is going to be quick to pick up. It then layers those simple mechanics with truly exciting scenario play that is both nail bitingly suspenseful and rewarding.
As with any CMON game the minis are something to envy, especially for you amateur painters out there. However, unlike some previous offerings from CMON, there’s more here than just a bunch of pretty plastic. DMD is a genuinely exciting cooperative game that rivals, but doesn’t quite exceed, my favorite Cthulu game or all time, Eldritch Horror. Still, that’s high praise for a game that I’ve only had a handful of plays with; here’s hoping it only gets better.
When Ravensburger started putting out licensed games I was… less than hopeful. Villianous was interesting and I quite enjoyed putting on my best Prince John impression (Huh-ha), but ultimately I think the mechanics of the game let it down. Jurassic Park was even more disappointing. So when they released both Jaws and Horrified fairly close together, I didn’t expect much. A lot of people have been singing the praises of Jaws, and I mostly agree that it is a solid game.
For me, however, the winner here is Horrified. Horrified is a casual cooperative game, both difficult enough to make it interesting but not such a brain burner that you feel punished just for having fun. All of the monsters are thematically interesting and, at least for someone of my age, very entertaining.
Younger players might not see the allure of ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’ but I think most of the monsters are so iconic at this point that they get the gist. More than that, the mechanics of each monster are thematic and mechanically interesting while being wildly different in how they play; and since you don’t play with all the monsters at once, the replayability factor is extensive. This is more a game for starting board gamers or veterans who want a break from the heavy stuff, but regardless it’s fun for everyone.
8. Star Wars: Outer Rim
For several years now Star Wars : Rebellion has not only been the premiere Star Wars game, at least in my opinion, but also Fantasy’s Flight Games‘ greatest success with that particular intellectual property. I won’t say that Outer Rim is better than Rebellion, but if you are looking for something else Star Wars-y to play, it’s definitely worth a look.
Mechanically I have some issues with the game (there is a bit too much luck involved for me) but the theme is so pervasive throughout the entire game that you won’t really mind it (as long as Star Wars is something you enjoy). If you enjoy games that can captivate you with their theme then this is definitely one to look out for.
9. Last Bastion
Here is that second reprint and retheme I’ve been promising. Last Bastion is Ghost Stories from Repos Games with a fantasy theme and limited changes. Since I like Ghost Stories and I prefer a fantasy theme to martial arts, this one is mostly a no-brainer for me.
If I hadn’t played Ghost Stories before it would likely be much higher on the list, but with the quality of games that came out this year #9 is nothing to be ashamed of. If you’ve enjoyed Ghost Stories in the past and are looking for something very similar, but just a tad different, then definitely give this one a shot. On the other hand if you’re never experienced the true dread of a game of Ghost Stories (it’s a hard game to win, folks) and are looking for something slightly less doom and gloom, then start here. I’d say Last Bastion is only about 90% as difficult as Ghost Stories, so there’s that.
7 Wonders is one of my favorite games of all time. I love the card drafting and the way players interact with each other; choosing a card to play is just as much about what’s good for you as it is about what’s bad for those sitting next to you. The game also has some problems, namely with teaching it to new players but also its’ complexity with multiple expansions and the time of play at higher player counts.
Hadara from Z-Man Games solves a lot of those issues with 7 Wonders by making all players draft from a different selection of cards at the same time. It cuts down on the time required to play and makes the ‘log jams’ that are common in 7 Wonders non-existent. There’s also less interaction between players, which is ultimately why I don’t enjoy it as much as 7 Wonders, but it certainly makes it more playable with inexperienced players.
7 Wonders is still my go to game for card drafting, but as I said it has some problems and really takes some getting used to. One of the reasons I like Hadara so much is because I can use it as a primer for later plays of 7 Wonders. Is that enough to put a game in a ‘Top 10’ list for the year? If you like 7 Wonders as much as I do, it is.
Detective: L.A. Crimes – Detective, by Portal Games, was my ‘Experience of the Year’ in 2018. L.A. Crimes wins that award for this year, but it wasn’t quite the runaway victory that is was the year before. L.A. Crimes is still an excellent deductive game, but it’s lost some of the shimmer that Detective had in 2018. I’m all in for Portal’s next installment, assuming there is one, but here’s hoping the Threequel reverts to form.
Q.E. – ‘Party Game of the Year’ almost never makes my Top 10, I just don’t think of them that way. Q.E. by Board Game Tables is insanely fun, especially if there’s some alcohol involved. Bid whatever you want to win the tiles you need for Victory Points, but whoever’s bid the most at the end of the game is eliminated. Simple, pure chaos, and insanely fun.
Best ‘New to Me’ Game:
Pandante – Pandas and betting… what have I gotten myself into? A friend brought this over for a game night and, as someone who will literally play any game I have not played before, I was in. I didn’t expect much from this offering of Sirlin Games, but it really is that good. It would definitely be in my Top 5 for this year if it hadn’t come out in 2014.
— Bradly @bradlybillingsl