Post by: Grant Rodiek
It’s always fun to think back upon the year and reflect on the best games. I’m still relatively new to the hobby (only about 5 or so years), which means I don’t typically hold myself to 2014 releases. Instead, I like to comprise a list of games new and new to me that really stood out in 2014.
My list is based on games I felt really stood out, that I played sufficiently to judge, and that I’d easily recommend to others. I make up weird categories in some cases, because I’m a rebel like that.
Most Played Game: Star Realms (702 Digital Plays, 32 Tabletop plays)
If you followed my Ascension career closely, in which I played almost 2000 games, you won’t be too surprised to find that I played a LOT of Star Realms. And it’s so easy to see why. This is pound for pound one of the best $15 games out there.
The game is essentially Ascension v1.5. The designers removed the clumsy point tallying at the end, or monsters versus normal cards, or questionably integrated Constructs (speaking of the base game, specifically). The direct conflict model of points is a real delight and the game doesn’t feel mean or vindictive. I was also really surprised to find the game plays well in team mode, which is why I own two copies.
The expansions should be hitting for Star Realms VERY soon. I can’t wait to play them in 2015.
Favorite Euro: Ra (3 plays)
This is a fantastic game. Once again, Knizia finds an incredibly clever way to introduce a bidding mechanic. Every player has a few Sun tokens, with a number that ranges from 1-16. As tokens are drawn, they are placed in a group together. Tokens are worth points in a variety of ways — typical stuff. When you bid, you bid one of your numbers, highest number wins. You then lose the number and swap it with the one previously spent: sometimes lower (much lower), sometimes higher (the highest!).
The game is so clever and plays with up to 5 people in a lunch hour. I highly recommend this outstanding Knizia for those so inclined.
Second Favorite Euro: Evolution (4 plays)
Evolution is my kind of euro: simple, thematic, and highly interactive. In the game, players are using cards in a variety of ways to carefully evolve their species in hopes of gaining enough food. Species can be given new traits that grant interesting abilities, merely strengthened, or fed to grow in population.
What’s most compelling about the game is that it’s interactive – carnivores exist. They will eat you. Because of this, evolution actually takes place. Something I greatly dislike in many games is the complete lack of arc. Turn 1 is the same as turn 2 is the same as turn 3. In Evolution, you must constantly rethink your creatures and evolve them to remain on top. It’s a tense game that plays in well under an hour and is beautifully illustrated. Give it a look!
Note: I almost didn’t present this category because, as you can see, I didn’t really play many Euros this year. I find my tastes have shifted and I really don’t chase down euros much. I’m really looking for clever mechanics, player interaction, emergent play where possible, and lately, Euros aren’t scratching that itch. We’ll see where my tastes go in 2015.
Favorite Money Drains: Netrunner and X-Wing
I think everyone needs to have a game series they just love. Something where every expansion is gobbled up and they giggle as they open another box or pack. I have two of these: Netrunner and X-Wing. Both of these games are a few years old now, and neither are new to me in 2014, but they played such a prominent role in my 2014 gaming that they are worth discussing.
Netrunner is a game that I’ve bought content for, but haven’t played largely until this year. My friends and I made it a priority to play this year and it was totally worth it. This is a beautiful game, with deep asymmetry (which I love), great theme, and so much flexibility.
X-Wing is a game I’ve played steadily since launch, but I think the new releases, particularly the Aces packs and Phantom are just phenomenal. They are really injecting great new content into this game that keeps me excited. Every time we play we try something new and that’s saying something.
What impresses me most about both of these is just how well they are designed. We are never confused about a Netrunner card or new pilot in X-Wing. The content is so polished and it just makes sense. No, we don’t do tournament play, so perhaps we’re missing some shoddy tuning here and there. But as far as I can tell, these are just wonderfully developed products. That’s something to appreciate as a consumer and aspire towards as a creator.
Favorite Co-Op: Legends of Andor (8 plays)
I had a few I played this year, but the one that really excited me was Legends of Andor. I think the game is just incredibly cool. I like how it combines a tightly scripted narrative with dynamic sandbox elements. It, along with Robinson Crusoe and Mice and Mystics, have been big inspirations for Sol Rising.
I held off playing this game for a long time due to criticisms that the game had no replay factor. But, I’ve played several of the scenarios multiple times and have enjoyed them each play. Which characters you use and how events unfold can really change the story.
I’m also impressed at how clean and tight the game’s mechanics are. I’m not really an elegance guy. It’s not something I really crave. But, Andor is quite elegant and I find in this case, it really helps shine light on the cool story elements. This is a great game and I sincerely hope somebody imports the German expansions soon as I’m almost finished playing all the scenarios.
Favorite Weird Ass Game: Cube Quest (23 plays)
Let me break this down quickly. Each player, behind a wall, sets out up to 25 cubes in any orientation. Create walls, towers, minefields…whatever. You then remove the wall. On your turn, you flick a cube, some with special properties, in an attempt to knock off your opponent’s king cube.
Second Weird Ass: Mysterium (3 plays)
I’m a huge fan of Dixit. It’s one of the prizes of my collection. Earlier this year, I picked up Concept at the recommendation of so many. They weren’t wrong! But, it wasn’t quite for me. The game was a bit…binary? I’m not sure. Well, enter Polish game companies. Mysterium combines the abstract fuzzy, weird art with the crime solving path of Clue. One player, a ghost, gives you completely bizarre cards that represent “dreams.” You must use the clues in these cards to identify the weapon, the location, and the culprit. This is a very challenging and very amusing game that plays with 7 people in under an hour. There aren’t many games that do that and it’s why Mysterium is so special.
Favorite Filler: Colossal Arena (5 plays)
Damn you Knizia! You’re so good and prolific. Colossal Arena is a fairly old Fantasy Flight Game that you can snag for $20. How old? Well, it uses a Clippy (yes, that Clippy) like character to teach you the rules. It’s incredible.
In the game, you and up to 4 others play as folks better on a monster filled arena. 8 monsters enter, and after 5 rounds or the deck runs out, far fewer will exit. You bet on the monsters, but here’s the trick: your bets are worth more the sooner you place them. Sure, you might bet on the Colossus now, but now he’s a big fat target for others to take down.
On your turn, you play 1 card, numbered 1-10, to one of the surviving monsters. Once every monster has a card for the round, and one of them has the lowest card, the round’s over and the monster with the lowest card dies. There’s also some special abilities, but that’s about it. Oh, and some truly nasty fragile alliances. This is a really great game.
Second Filler: Red7 (9 plays)
I really enjoy Red7. It hasn’t been a huge hit with my friends, who range from “cool” to “eh”, but I think the game is quite clever. W. Eric Martin of BGG News described it as the introductory Chudyk. I think of it as an adult’s Uno.
The game gives you a hand of 7 cards, each of which can change the rules of the game or help you win the game under the current rules. It’s a nice little twist to figure out when to play what cards and how to deliver the game winning surprise towards the end of the round to know everyone else out.
Favorite Abstraction: Tash-Kalar (6 plays)
It’s a bit odd having a category for this, as I don’t really play abstracts, but I think this game is fantastic and I needed a category. What I love most about this game is that you feel really clever, but there isn’t too much work. It is somewhat like a brain burner, but doesn’t come with the headache afterwards. You know what Tash-Kalar is? It’s the Coke Zero that doesn’t taste bad. 0 calories but all the flavor. Basically, it’s a mythical light beer.
The first time you play Tash-Kalar you struggle with which shapes to create, how to defy your opponent, and how best to use creatures. But even in that first game, you soon see through the Matrix and you spot the patterns. It becomes dead simple, or so it seems, and then the real game begins.
Not recommended with more than two players.
Best Social Experiment: One Night Werewolf (25 plays)
For a while there, I was really into the Resistance. We played it quite a bit, then I grew tired of it. I felt like every game was just shouting for 25 minutes, followed by some lucky guesses. It felt like a meandering party game.
Then I obtained Coup, and I was really into it. I played it well over 30 times. Then, I grew tired of it. It just wasn’t very dynamic. It didn’t have enough flexibility in its framework to do crazy things.
Then a friend brought One Night Werewolf. After 25 plays, just this year, I’m still in love. Then again, I can’t say no to a lustrous fur pelt.
One Night does a few things I really love. Most importantly, it provides enough pieces of a puzzle that can actually be solved while still providing an enormous stage for social delight. A friend might declare they are the trouble maker and reveal the two they swapped. Then a few minutes later note that was a lie. Then again, note that last one was a lie. But no, seriously. I’m, I mean, he, is telling the truth. The first time you play a Villager you think, ugh, I have nothing to do. But, then you get creative. I’ve had some of my most fun designing ways to be influential and helpful as a villager.
One night is Brilliant with a B (because that’s how you spell it, guys). I’m a little less excited by the expansion, as I find it just leads to chaos and too much info, but really, we can pare that back and just use a few new ones each game. One Night is social deduction best in class. Full stop.
Favorite Game of 2014: Combat Commander: Europe (5 plays)
I really like tactical war games, particularly about the World War II theater. I have more or less everything that’s been sold for Memoir ’44, and I hope to one day play it all. But, I was eyeballing Combat Commander on BGG. Yes, it was less glossy, and yes, it was a much longer game, but the love for it seemed to be unanimous. I asked Josh about it and he gave it every thumb he had. He then found a few others and forced them to also provide thumbs.
I think Combat Commander is a masterpiece of design. It creates these awesome situations full of heroism, bad luck, clever ideas, and dynamic moments. A fire may force your men out of their cover form the woods. A Russian hero may rise to charge the machine gun nest. A sniper may pop your officer, causing your entire flank to crumble. It does all of this with a beautiful card system that is used to initiate actions, roll the dice, and trigger events.
What I love most is that the game isn’t fair, but it’s intensely fun. And war isn’t far. Nor is it predictable. Great commanders figure out what to do when the moment of decision comes. That’s what I find so compelling about this game.
The game is such a great sandbox and I think it’ll be hugely influential over me for quite some time. I’ve already purchased the large Mediterranean expansion and 2 of the battle packs (Paratroopers and Stalingrad). I can’t wait to play them all.
Second Favorite: Rex: Final Days of an Empire (4 plays)
Dune is one of my favorite works of fiction of all time. Though Rex replaces Dune’s original theme with the uber generic Twilight Imperium universe, the mechanics are so deeply intertwined with the theme that like Muad’dib, I can see it even though it’s not exactly in front of me.
Rex streamlines and smooths the incredible Dune experience for the 21st century. If you enjoy dudes on a map, deeply asymmetric gameplay, negotiation, and fragile alliance,s you must play this game. The asymmetric powers are a delight, the combat system will force you to think and rethink every step, and the layers within layers theme of Dune is so present in the game. It’s such a gem.
Third Favorite: Race for the Galaxy (plus the cards for Gathering Storm so we can play with 5) (7 plays)
The first time I played this, maybe as soon as round 2, I said aloud “holy crap this game is incredible.” And it is. Once you get past the icons, which present a steep cliff face of learning, you’ll encounter an infinitely replayable game of constantly interesting decisions.
You pick a strategy, and then you go for it. And if and when the cards you need don’t come, you must evolve and cast your lot with something else. Every card has so many uses and the game has so much compelling room for mastery. This is a brilliant masterwork of card design. There’s a reason it’s so beloved. What an exceptional design!
What did you think? What did I get wrong? What were my stand out choices? Share your thoughts in the comments below.