2015 Games of the Year
This blog has never been a review site, though I've written a few reviews about games and commented on some in a way that can only be read as a wholehearted endorsement. Never the less, the biggest part of my involvement in this hobby is playing games. It's how I learn the most about being a designer! I love looking back on my favorite experiences of the year and sharing them.
So, here are my games of the year for 2015. I have a few ground rules that may make this exercise different for me.
- I don't constrain this exercise to games released in 2015.
- I DO constrain it to games that were new to ME in 2015. Mostly.
- I break things into categories. Otherwise I have to pick just one and that's super hard, man.
- I'm going to limit games to one category, even though they might quality for others.
- I think that's it.
Let's get to it!
Games I considered for this category tend to be Euro style games that favor critical thinking and strategy before other elements. These also tend to be heavier games that take more than 30 minutes, so they aren't really lunch games.
The games I considered for this category include:
- The Gallerist (1 Play)
- The Castles of Mad King Ludwig (2 Plays...though I swear I have a few more)
- Caverna: The Cave Farmers (4 Plays)
- Clash of Cultures plus plus the Civilizations expansion (4 plays)
You'll notice that these games didn't get that many plays, though I think that's reasonable as they are all games that, except for Ludwig, take 2-3 hours. I must disqualify The Gallerist from taking this award. I think it's excellent, but I've only played it once and I don't think it's possible for me to fully evaluate it after only one play. It may show up in next year's list if I play it more and continue to love it.
I find Castles of Mad King Ludwig to be exceptionally fun and charming as all get out, but it doesn't quite thrill me like the other two.
Clash of Cultures really stands out for it's delightful production values, randomly unfolding map, and events that add spice to the equation. I love the broad tech tree and how beautifully the Civilizations expansion guides you without shoehorning you in or adding undue complexity.
Caverna really surprised me. About 3 years ago I played Agricola and I just didn't like it. I hated receiving a massive hand of unique cards. It was overwhelming. I didn't care for the bizarre scoring system and frustrating feeding back pressure. I feel like Caverna fixes this for me. There are many rooms I can buy, but none at the beginning, so I can ease into the 3 or 4 I buy as I go and my strategy unfolds. Scoring is quite simple. Basically, everything gives you a point and only a few things remove them. Feeding is a good back pressure now that I feel can be solved in a variety of ways. Finally, in all 4 plays, every one of us has done something very different.
I give the nod to Caverna for its quickly paced gameplay and wildly divergent paths. I want to continue playing it and Clash of Cultures during 2016. I love them both.
Strategy Game of the Year: Caverna: The Cave Farmers
Games I considered for this category are fillers, party games, and generally, simple games that you can put in front of anyone in almost any situations.
The games I considered for this category include:
- Codenames (49 Plays)
- Qwixx (26 Plays)
- Pairs (23 Plays)
- Tides of Time (10 Plays)
- Welcome to the Dungeon (6 Plays)
Qwixx is a game I absolutely love. We found ourselves breaking it out in all sorts of crazy situations at work or game nights. In fact, we've burned through the entire set of score cards and I'm tempted to buy a second copy for $8 at Target so I don't have to print a bunch. Wonderful game.
Pairs is amusing, and we played it a ton, but I just think it lacks the depth or staying power of the others on this list. I think it's worth the $10 I paid, and the deck is beautiful, but there's only so much going on here.
Welcome to the Dungeon is hilarious and I love how the rounds progress. It's a great push your luck and social experiment and I love watching new strategies evolve.
Tides of Time is probably the best "micro game" I've played. The game gives you 18 cards for a tight game of 2 player drafting. I was working on a 2 player game last year and though I've set it aside, I'm a little delighted to see I came up with the same solution to 2 player drafting as this designer did: remove some cards from the pool. Tides is tense, quick, rewards paying attention and taking some gambles. I really like it.
But, this category belongs to Codenames. I love Codenames. I've played it with my game group, my mother, my uncles and brother, my co-workers, and none of us have ever had a bad game. There is so much strategy, laughter, cleverness, and moments that are packed into this. I guarantee if we sit down to play I'm going to tell you about the time I gave a 5 word clue for Monuments and my team guessed every one. And everyone has a story about how they were 6 clues behind, then win because the other team guesses the black card for an instant loss. I love Codenames. It's just brilliant.
Light Fare of the Year: Codenames
Games I considered for this category are very thematic and evoke great stories and moments. These are games full of flavor, interesting decisions built around a story, and games that capture my imagination.
The games I considered for this category include:
- Merchants and Marauders plus Sails of Glory Expansion (5 plays)
- Space Hulk 3rd Edition (2 Plays)
- Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective (4 plays, though sometimes this meant HOURS of pacing in my backyard)
This is a very tough category for me. I was very strict on the games I put here, which was tough, but essential. These are three games I love.
Space Hulk is just a masterpiece. The game is gorgeous, though assembly is an absolute pain. I've played my friend's copy twice. My copy is punched and about 20% assembled. I hate building miniatures. This game is ridiculously simple for how much flavor it packs in. Your marines have tons of different weapons, yet remembering them is easy. The tracking blip mechanism evokes the best moments of Aliens and is such a great surprise. The game is desperate, tense, and just a joy. I don't know exactly why the Space Marine player must act in real time, but I love that he does. Brilliant. Worth every penny.
Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective is a genius story that you get to play. It's the best choose your own adventure you've ever played. I've played this in my backyard with my dog pacing around with me. I've played it on an airplane with a Dutch dude who was also engrossed in deciphering the red herrings. I've played with friends while we swirl wine and pace about. I've played at work on white boards. This game is brutal, and fun, and brilliant. It won the Spiel des Jahres so long ago, yet remains relevant and fresh to this day.
Then, you have Merchants and Marauders. This is a game I avoided for a long time. It looked too complicated, took too long. Sometime last year I made the decision to start playing longer games and just prioritize them. We did this with Merchants and Marauders and truly dug in. I can see where people think it's too random...if they've only played once. But, as you play, you learn to mitigate the concerns of weather, French naval ships, pirates, and the whims of your opponents. The game is full of so many things, yet every individual component is so simple. You can be a merchant, a pirate, a privateer, anything. The expansion is even better and enriches and tightens every aspect further.
I'm very torn. I struggle to choose between Sherlock and Merchants, but in the end, Merchants has given me the best stories. Merchants has broken my heart, as I detailed in this blog post here. Few games have affected me in this way, so Merchants and Marauders is my winner.
Thematic Game of the Year: Merchants and Marauders plus Sails of Glory expansion.
I debated covering this category, but there are a handful of games that really missed the mark for me. This list isn't games I think were bad, but games for which I had very high hopes and really missed the mark.
The top of this list belongs to XCom (2 plays). This is probably one of my favorite video games of all time. I really wanted a good board game and felt the license was a perfect fit. Unfortunately. I felt very little agency while playing. The app feels like an Event deck spitting out chaos in real time. As an experience, I can see the appeal, but as a strategy game, it completely fell flat for me. I just didn't see the point in playing it.
Epic (3 plays) also fell flat. I love Star Realms and eagerly buy everything that's sold for it. I jump in to play about 50 games in the app every few months and never really tire of the experience. Epic, as pitched, sounded fantastic. Take Magic the Gathering, speed it up, simplify it, and boom. Epic, as played, is just...absurd. The game is actually fairly complex and has many of the mechanisms that come with Magic, though they have a new name, which causes some dissonance. The pre-made decks are just silly. I have no clue how Blue can lose as it steals entire armies, cancels any card play, and is just ridiculous. I won some games on turn 2 because I drew a ridiculous creature and just won.
Onward to Venus (1 play) also annoyed me. This is a really neat simple game about marshaling forces in this Victorian, Steam punk, science fiction setting. You're trying to take over planets and avoid the chaos caused by crises and events. Unfortunately, the crises are tuned to never happen. Imagine if in Robinson Crusoe, bad things are always hinted at, but never occur. It removes the tension and the fun. Well, in Onward to Venus, the game has this really cool system that has been tuned to never occur. Beautiful art and a neat setting cannot fix what is basically an efficiency game with no bite.
Other games missed the mark for me, but these three more than any others broke my little, sad, nerd heart. Did any games break your heart?
Games I own but haven't played but I think they might be fantastic
Yes, I'm stalling, but some of these are key to mention. This is a separate list I've kept because some of these games could have been in contention for another category. Some games were on this list just a few weeks ago and they didn't make it to any list. For example, I think TIME Stories is good, but not good enough. I finally played The Gallerist, and it is in contention, but one play isn't enough for it to win. However, there are still a few games I own, but haven't played, but they are worth mentioning.
- Captains of Industry: I LOVE City Hall. So much. I have little doubt Captains of Industry will be a wonderful game.
- Flick 'em Up: My brother bought me this beautiful production for my birthday, but I just haven't had a chance to read the rules and bring it to the table. A shame.
- Ambush! Joshua Buergel bought me this legendary out of print classic for my birthday and I've had a very busy fall. This one needs serious attention and time.
- Stronghold 2nd Edition: This is a game I've wanted to play for years, but its reputation scared me away. 2nd Edition is beautiful and based on the rules looks incredibly engrossing. I cannot wait to try it.
- Broom Service: We learned Wie Verhext! this year and it's brilliant. A new game, built around the same mechanism, has to be wonderful. I want to buy this one quite badly.
What are your games that you want to play but haven't?
This is my favorite category. It's relatively easy to decide if you simply look at my list of plays. My games of the year are filled with games that I love. Games that grab my mind and never let go. Games about which I'm thinking constantly. Games I considered for this include:
- Android: Netrunner (59 Plays). Not new, but this year was filled with new content.
- Carcassonne (44 physical plays and hundreds via iOS)
- Pandemic: Legacy (18 Plays)
Pandemic: Legacy should be on most people's game of the year short list. The game is fun, surprising, unique, and so lovingly developed. Pandemic is such a great platform for the game, and the steady stream of new challenges, new wrinkles, new rewards, and new triumphs is just a delight. We had 3 marathon game days where we played 5, 6, and 3 games, as well as a few games over lunch. We had a blast every time and just loved it. But, Pandemic: Legacy is not something I'll play again. It'll remain wonderfully in my memory, but it won't continue to affect me. Therefore, I'm not sure I can call it my game of the year. But, this is a 10 out of 10. I'm so glad we played it.
Android: Netrunner arguably shouldn't be on this list, but then again, it's my most played game of the year and I bought every piece of content released for it. I love this game and the experiences it provides me. I love contemplating decks and sorting new data packs. I love tweaking decks that need some love. I love barely winning, or barely losing, and discussing every move and counter play during the game. I'm obsessed with Netrunner and think about it constantly. I even attended my first tournament at the start of the year, which I wrote about here. I love this game, and were it not for Carcassonne, it would be my game of the year.
But, that honor belongs to Carcassonne. This is a "classic" game that is one that should be in every collection. It's 15 years old now and won the Spiel des Jahres in 2001, but like all brilliant games, I feel it's timeless. I played the game for the first time this year, which may seem strange, but, hey, it takes time to get to everything. Carcassonne inspires me so much. It's simple, but there is so much room for skillful play. I love how mean it can be and the joy of drawing that one tile you desperately need. Even better, it has some utterly fantastic expansions that enrich the game further. I've played Carcassonne constantly since I learned it and I just don't tire of it. I think of it constantly, and of designs that I can create from its idea. It's such a good game and one that I look forward to playing with my family for years to come.
2015 Game of the Year: Carcassonne
Thanks for reading. What were your favorite games?