Sunday, January 15, 2017

BuckeyeFitzy's Top Tabletop Games of 2016

Having become somewhat of a regular guest on The Geek All Stars podcast in 2016, I was asked to contribute a Top 11 list for board games in 2016. Like most of the contributors, I've played many games but not all the games of course. But when you have a number of different lists combined, I'm sure the end result (released around the end of January) will be pretty accurate.  For example, last year Codenames won, and I would have been fully in agreement.

For reference, the time frame used for "2016" includes all games released between Essen (largest game convention, in Germany in October each year) in 2015 and the day before Essen in 2016.  This time scale provides a fair chance to play things before the end of the year, as many Essen releases take a while to get full release in the U.S. anyway.

You won't find the Scythe type games on this list. Sorry, I just don't have the game groups to support really heavy games, no matter how hyped they are. It also explains why you will see a lot of 2 player games and games appropriate for adults and kids, as that's where the Fitzgerald household is in the year 2016.

Here's my personal list and reasoning for the Top 11 tabletop games of 2016.

Honorable Mentions: 

  • Gobbit (specifically a kid's favorite)
  • Karuba
  • Animals on Board
  • Quadropolis
  • Terraforming Mars
  • Tesla vs. Edison, Powering Up expansion
  • Pokemon Go (it's not a tabletop game, but man did it capture us in 2016)

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11. Imhotep

One of the three Spiel "game of the year" nominees in this past summer, Imhotep released in the summer conventions to a lot of hype. While it did not beat Codenames for the award, with good reason, this game has an interesting and balanced scoring system where there are multiple paths to victory. Each game plays a little differently, and the double-sided player boards give some longevity for replays. Other than a high level of "screw you" factor with anybody being able to move boats loaded with cubes to ports whether they have a cube on it or not, there's not much downside (but I understand that criticism of this one).

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Did you enjoy air hockey and knock-hockey growing up? Well I did, and this is a smaller board game version that has a lot more strategy and learning curve to it. You control your paddle with a magnetic piece under the board, and you have to try to put the ball in the opposing goal while avoiding picking up 2 of the 3 little white magnets in the center of the board. Those magnets (if one becomes attached) significantly alter your control. This game is played by kids and adults equally and will be a cherished toy/game for years to come, even if it doesn't fit the normal tabletop types of game.

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9. Junk Art

Stacking stuff games have been a big hit in our household, whether it is Animal Upon Animal, Rhino Hero, or the like. Thus, Junk Art became an easy hit as a further extension of this type of casual game. For those who want a similar experience as Rhino Hero but with more interesting pieces and a few different rule sets/games to try, this is worth the high cost associated with production of so many distinctive wooden pieces. High quality components are vital to a game like this, and Pretzel Games delivers on that promise. If only they could make a cost-effective one with pieces as big as their demo sets for conventions...!

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8. Save The Cupcake

Here's a hidden gem, unlike the previous games on the list. A limited independent game release at GenCon, this card game sold so well that it may be re-released again in 2017. I hope it is, so I can buy copies for friends and family. This two player game has a pyramid of cards leading to a set of 6-7 plates, one of which has a cupcake (hidden on the bottom side of the card), while the other player rolls 5 boulders one-by-one down the pyramid of cards to try and crush the cupcake. It's ridiculously fun for a theme, and the strategy is decent while straightforward enough for my 8 year old to understand. This is not just a kid's game, however, as it makes a good 2-player filler game for adults as well.

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7. Dr. Eureka

This is easily the best kid's game for 2016, explaining why it ranks so highly on my 2016 list. Dr. Eureka could become a bit of a classic in this genre if it hits the mass market like other games of the type over the past decade. Adults can also have fun with this game, which requires that you pour marbles from one test tube to another to match a pattern on a card flipped over each round.  The game obviously has quick rounds, but it teaches good critical thinking skills, or refines them in the case of adults. The price point is also great (about $20) for this industry where bloated prices abound.

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6. Quartz

This is probably the most controversial game in my list, but it gets this high because it has become one of the most played games for us following the 2016 summer game conventions. However, it would not be that way if I had not designed some house rules you can read about in previous posts. This is a classic press-your-luck pulling stuff out of bags game (in this case, "mining" gemstones out of a bag), with plenty of screw your neighbor cards to mix in over a few rounds of play. With fixed rules, this is a good play, but with the normal rules (most importantly, busting out on a round after only 2 bad gemstones are pulled) this is just a luck fest. At $20 or $25, this is a great bargain considering the components, but beware those normal rules in the rulebook!

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5. The Contender

Another somewhat hidden gem off Kickstarter, The Contender is right up there with Quartz for number of plays we have gotten out of a game in 2016 (AKA, a lot). This was a perfect election year release, allowing for witty presidential debate style game play based on real quotes from U.S. presidential candidates. Add in some 2016 primary cards and some politically incorrect expansion cards, and this holds its own with Cards Against Humanity. While actually having historical quotes on the bottom of the card you could learn from while having fun. Kudos to politics and podcasting nerd Justin Robert Young on a great success in his first-ever game release.

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4. Potion Explosion

One thing I love in tabletop games is innovative concepts, as things like the cube tower in Shogun/Wallenstein and deck building games (starting with Dominion) have captured my attention a lot in previous years. The next two games on this list add similar interesting components which may be used uniquely and well in one game, or maybe adopted in future game designs as well. For Potion Explosion, you are pulling potion ingredients in the form of marbles from a box with a number of angled tracks that roll the marbles down. When you pull a marble out, if the two marbles that roll into one another are the same color, you collect them as well. It feels like a real life tactile version of match-3 games like Candy Crush, and it's incredibly satisfying. Great unique idea for this game.

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3. Mystic Vale

Deck building finally found something as unique in feel as the original concept of Dominion, and that's card crafting from this AEG release. As you can see in the picture, your deck begins with empty slots in the "cards," and you can buy upgrades to slot into those sleeves and make the cards better over the course of the game. It adds a lot of depth and re-playability regardless of the numerous expansions which have already begun, as you might expect. This is a solid innovation that could be used in other games, and it will be fun to see where designers build from this framework.

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2. 7 Wonders Duel

Technically there is a two-player variant set of rules in regular 7 wonders, but it was good to see another classic of modern board game design get a true two-player rules treatment. It has worked well for other games like Bang recently, and it's even better in 7 Wonders. The empire building continues to feel the same way with three phases here, although there is some added strategy in the pyramid of cards you draft from instead of passing hands like in the original game. This is the best 2-player game of the year, and it's ironically a familiar design to many of us. I actually think this will be easier to get to the table than the original, which is really hard to pick up for first time players but more basic than most groups want to play repetitively. That won't be problem with the depth of strategy in this version.

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1. Star Trek Ascendancy

The BuckeyeFitzy game of the year, and it's not even close. That won't be a surprise to anybody who knows my passions, as two of the leading ones are Star Trek and tabletop gaming. This is the holy grail game for Star Trek fans, as Gale Force 9 once again captured the essence of an IP in a game design. This is a long play because it is a 4X game, but the magic of space exploration and building the map and empires over time works perfectly in the Trek universe. Currently only a 3 player game, although it is somewhat playable with two. Expansions with further factions are on the way, and I can't wait to play a 4 player game. In the meantime, we will thoroughly enjoy this more than the nearly 10 Trek-themed titles in my collection (most of which are just OK).

For a detailed discussion, check out The Geek All Stars podcast episode 136 from December 2016. We dive deep into this one. I bought this for too damn much money at GenCon, but the components are amazing quality and are well worth the $60 or so you can now pay for this on Amazon.

It was a solid year of new shinies for the Fitzgerald household in 2016. Plus I never have to look for a holy grail Star Trek game again, which is a huge plus. What are your top games of 2016? Let me know in the comments.

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