My Two Favorite Games of 2017
Every year about this time I like to write a "game of the year" post. Well, today is that day! I do things a little bit differently every year, so here are the ground rules for 2017.
- It must be a game that is new to me in 2017. Not necessarily new to the market.
- I'm going to name a Favorite Big Game of 2017. That means a 2 hour or longer game. Something for game night.
- I'm going to name a Favorite Small Game of 2017. That means a game that can be played over lunch.
I'm breaking it into these two categories because I played so many fantastic games, and it's so strange to compare a 15 minute game to a three hour one, so I won't try. I'm going to briefly discuss the nominees, then name my winners.
Favorite Small Game of 2017
Our lunch group was huge this year. Like an accordion of play, it frequently went from 3 to 8 players depending on people's obligation to play in a Destiny tournament, or fight in Brazilian Ju Jitsu, or some other distraction. We played so many new games this year, but it's come down to a few that really really filled my dark soul with glee. I'll discuss each nominee.
Hanamikoji: I had no thoughts or expectations of this one and it blew me away. I feel like I could play this game forever. It reminds me of the simplicity of Dragonheart, one of my favorites, but more skillful, less luck-based. Every single action of every single round is so important. It's shockingly crunchy. What really impressed me is that the four actions, each of which you must use once every round, are used very differently, and in different orders, based on the cards in your hand and the state of the board. I think it's a masterful design. It is a very strange theme - trying to appeal to Geisha, and I may build my own deck at some point to shift to another one. It isn't something that offends my friends, but it's odd, and somewhat of a "iffy" first stop when looking to Japanese culture for a theme.
No Thanks: It seems strange that I haven't played this game until now, but here we are. No Thanks is a hilarious romp of group think, luck, bribery, and just being a jerk. It's a really funny and fun game that is delightful whether it's 3 or 7 players. We got on a major kick late in the year and played almost 50 times in one month alone. My only real knock on the game is that, no surprise, Mayfair's production is pretty tepid. Winks? WINKS? Shoddy production aside, it's a marverlous game and absolutely belongs in every stocking and every collection. It's perfect for family, and it'll be in my pack for our family trip to NOLA this year.
Illimat: This game really impresses me. I knew nothing about it, saw some Twitter chatter, looked at the screenshots, and said "Yup, gimme." It's a classic card game, so classic that Antonio basically knew it just describing it. His Italian family plays an almost identical game. But, it makes enough changes, and is so delightful to see, that I think you'll fall in love with its charm. We played it quite a bit, and found ourselves sneaking away to play even though the game group was larger. Antonio bought it and they played it for 3 hours straight. It's good. If you like classic card games where sometimes you go the cards, and sometimes you don't, this is it. If you like smooth play and clever play, this is it. If you think board games can be beautiful physical objects, this is it. I'm really taken with Illimat and I arranged it on my shelf so that it could be seen and appreciated.
The Fox in the Forest: Before I go into this, a short story. When Josh and I started Hocus, we had this grand idea of creating a series of games in one box. All of the games would come from a classic core game, like Poker, Cribbage, and Black Jack. I quickly set aside my Black Jack design to focus on Hocus, which was a pain that took us 18 months to crack. Josh, though, kept up with Wiccage and never really let it go. At one point, before it was clear Hyperbole was a dismal failure, he said we should publish it. I said nah, I'm not really a fan of trick taking games. And two player? That seems scary! And also, do I want to be the publisher that just does classic games? Nah. I'm not the right guy for this. Luckily, Randy Hoyt, and then Renegade, were the right...folks.
The final game is very good. It's clever, deviously so at times, and has this great tension of blowing your opponent out of the water - but not too much - or forcing them to win too much by intentionally failing, which gives them nothing. The cards are beautiful, and the design is very simple and restrained. In fact, had Josh and I pursued it, I think we would have gotten way more carried away. The disciplined hand of experienced publishers shows, and this is a very good game. I'm super glad I didn't publish it, because it has been very successful. This game will open doors for Josh, whereas with me? It'd be in my garage like Hocus and Farmageddon.
Ethnos: I love Paolo Mori. He is the Italian super designer always after my affections. Following the BRILLIANT Libertalia is the less good, but still very good, Ethnos. The game immediately grabs my fancy by mixing 6 sets of the 12 creatures to form the deck. Players then draft cards, or play them in sets, in a three round escalating area control affair. The cards in play can wildly change strategies. The result is a very elegant area control game that scales fantastically and plays in under an hour. It's very good, though, man, the art is quite drab and disappointing. The little plastic area control tokens are also obnoxiously fiddly and topple over. While the game has a very good price, it's definitely a bit wobbly.
Favorite Small Game of 2017: I'm a little surprised, but when I really think about it, my favorite game of the year is Hanamikoji. I think it's just a brilliant little game. It is packed with decisions and it's so tense. I think it's incredibly clever and will no doubt inspire me this coming year with my own designs. It's highly recommended.
Honorable Mentions: I just received Ortus Regni. I haven't had a chance to play it yet, but I think I'm going to LOVE it, or light it on fire I hate it so much. I'm curious to see! I'm also very taken with Smile, which just came out. We've played quite a bit already, but I'm torn on whether it's as good as I think it is. At 3 players it's a bit deterministic, but at 4 it's quite fun. But, does it have the legs of Coloretto? I'm not sure, and I haven't had a chance to play at 5 yet!
Favorite Big Game of 2017
Upon investigation, this is a really short list. I mostly played existing big games this year, which I love as I prefer digging deeply into my collection. But, I played two new onesquite a bit, the two I'll discuss, and in hindsight, I played these games over the course of about 9 game nights. As I have anywhere from 0 to 4 game nights a month, that is 2-3 months worth of playing. I love the fact I was able to dig in.
Honorable Mentions: I played and loved Lignum, by Capstone Games, and War of the Rings 2nd Collector's Edition this year. I thought they were fantastic! But, I only played each of them once. I don't feel like I can make a call on them yet. I plan to play both more this coming year. War of the Rings in particular is just a gorgeous thing to behold. I spent too much on it, and I don't regret it.
Star Trek: Ascendancy: Man I love this game, and it's been a real hit with the group. It does so many things so well. For one, it takes many of the elements of games like Clash of Cultures, Merchants and Marauders, and Eclipse, and presents the most distilled version without really losing any heft. The way it executes asymmetry is excellent and to be commended. Players all get two passive abilities/rules to which they must adhere. Romulans get first strike when they attack, and the Federation cannot invade planets to take them over (which means they must use culture instead). Furthermore, every player has a small deck of research cards unique to their faction. This means the order in which they come out, and the order in which you research them, will change your offering. That's all great!
What really stands out to me is the game's map system, which I think is best in class. When you explore, aka fly off a system disk, you roll a six-sided die with 2/3/4 sides. That indicates the length of space lane. You attach this off the disk. Once you fly to the end of the space lane, you draw a system disk from the stack and one event card. The systems are either planets, or phenomena, the latter of which are hazardous to fleets, but provide bonus research currency. The former are modified with very simple event cards that establish advanced civilizations or small tricks. Like the rest of the design, these events are disciplined, focused, important, but not fluffy. They're shockingly good for varying every game.
What emerges is a hub and spoke system that is very flexible. No two systems look alike, and the terrain that forms really alters your decisions. How will you prosecute the war? Where will you place your star bases? It's really good. Furthermore, unlike Eclipse, while there may be set backs, I never feel like the planets alter your fate. I can't stand the way systems emerge in Eclipse, but here? I love it.
Star Trek: Ascendancy is just very good. It's very simple in the right ways and seems to take the approach of presenting a sandbox for people who like the franchise instead of being a dumping ground of fan service. The previous Star Trek game I played, Fleet Captains, was just a mess. It seemed more concerned with saying "Look here, Tribbles, see!" instead of being, well, a good game. Ascendancy is a long game at a solid 3ish hours. It can have a little bit of a final 30 minute seesaw as players execute what they think is their final strike. But, in our games, it always feels dramatic. There's always a big climatic battle. There's always an alliance that holds on for too long. Furthermore, the game is full of tiny elements that move it towards its conclusion. At some point, it will end.
A Feast for Odin: I've written about this fairly extensively on my blog, particularly in regards to how it is an evolution from Agricola and Caverna. I love Caverna, and I think named it as my game of the year previously. Who knows! The thing is, Odin is the best of that series. It just does so many things well. Its worker placement system of paying 1-4 workers is clear and intuitive. The feeding mechanism is really smart, and also elegant, but the fact you can create colonies and "send off people to reduce the feeding burden" is also smart. The entire game is full of this. It's a masterwork of UX, pleasing actions, and satisfying strategy. As I hoped, it's been far easier to teach to friends than Caverna, and not nearly as overwhelming. I've found some friends are annoyed that its cards very from "highly useful" to "highly contextual," but I think if you take them as an element of variance and luck, they are perfectly acceptable.
The reason I haven't played Lignum more, or Bruxxelles yet, or The Gallerist yet, or Nippon yet, or Liberte yet, is because I keep playing A Feast for Odin. I've played it five times now, and every game I end with a smile.
Favorite Big Game of 2017: I was very torn here, and I hate being so predictable, but man, I just love A Feast for Odin. I think it's such a wonderful production, a great game, and I'm glad I held off buying Caverna so I could justify buying this. It may be one of my favorite euros ever. I recommend it entirely.
So, those are my two games. Hanamikoji and A Feast for Odin. Feel free to ridicule me in the comments.