When you hang out with Bonus Rounds you play a lot of really cool games. Now that 2016 is finally coming to a close I find myself looking back and reminiscing about all the wonderful stuff I played for the first time over the course of this last year, and am naturally forced to create a numbered list of my favorites. I wish I could put them all on this list (okay fine, there are a few I’m actually happy to snub), but alas, the list can only go to 10. As a side note, this is not a list of the best games of 2016 but rather a list of my favorite games that were new to me in 2016, so don’t get on my case about how some of these titles are not totally new.
A cooperative game about time traveling detectives who need to correct faults in the timeline. Yes please. The basic mechanics of this game are very simple, there’s a board with a time track, some special dice, non-specific tokens and some player tokens. The base game comes with one scenario (1920’s French asylum), but each scenario is really its own unique game. These scenarios come in the form of a large deck of cards that creates the entire experience as it guides you through cycling through it. The game winds up playing like the old computer version of Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego, with the sequence of the deck forming different rooms that the players have to explore, finding items along the way and battling grotesque monsters. If you run out of time, and fail the mission, you can always go back and try again (you are time travelers after all), but even with unlimited time, solving the mystery is no picnic. Unfortunately, each scenario can really only be enjoyed once, but the experience is incredibly engaging and actually pretty challenging (at least the first scenario was, as that’s the one I’ve tried). Because of that I think this game struggles to find itself being worth the price for most casual gamers, but there really isn’t anything quite like it out there, and I’m really excited to see what they wind up doing with all this design space.
Quadropolis is a minimalist strategy game from Days of Wonder that really managed to win me over. The game revolves around each player building their own cities in a grid in front of them made out of tiles that are purchased from a larger grid in the center. Each tile is a different district of a city, like apartment buildings, factories or parks, and each kind of building will score the player points in different ways at the end of the game. If that all sounds familiar it’s probably because that also describes like a thousand other games. What makes Quadropolis different is how the tiles are acquired. Each player has four workers numbered 1-4 that are each an arrow shaped piece of cardboard. Players take turns spending their workers to buy tiles out of the center, by placing their worker on the outside of the common grid with the arrow pointing towards the tile the want. When you place your worker, you take the tile that is the worker number of spaces in from you worker, and then have to place that tile in a space that is in that number row or column in your city. So for example if you place your #3 worker on the outside, you take the tile that is 3 spaces in from where you place it, and then have to build it in either the 3rd row or column in your own city. Because of this the game becomes very strategy heavy and very thinky (for the record I’m a big fan of thinky) while keeping the basic mechanics of the game incredibly simple. It also seemed to play really fast for having such deep strategy, which makes it an awesome pick for any game night.
Grand Austria Hotel makes it onto my list for just being an incredibly solid european strategy game. In it, each player runs a cafe and hotel. You spend your turns attracting customers, serving them what they desire, and then putting them up in your hotel for the evening. You have to manage and hire staff (that give you special bonuses), keep track of your cash flow and prepare for visits from the emperor. What stands out about this one is how dice are used as a mechanic. At the beginning of each round a handful of dice are rolled and then sorted out by number in a common pool. On your turn you take two dice from this pool and take the actions that corresponds to their numbers. Not only that but the action changes depending on how many dice are in the pool when you take it. This adds a lot of depth to how you plan out your actions, both because of how competitive it can get among players to take dice and because you never know at the beginning of each round whether or not the action you need will even be available. There’s a lot going on with this game, but it all manages to feel very put together and satisfying.
“A card game based off of a popular video game,” you say, “well that sounds like a pile of hot garbage!” In general I’d tend to agree with you, but for me Bloodborne pulls off not only capturing the feeling of the video game incredibly well but also manages to be a very fun, tight card game that even those unfamiliar with the franchise can get into. It’s a game of collecting blood, the player with the most will be the winner. Of course there’s no better way to gather this blood than by hacking and slashing disgusting monsters and taking theirs. You gotta stay in the fight to collect that blood, but if you hang around too long there’s a good chance these monsters will kill you, taking away all the precious blood you’ve been collecting. You can always head back to the base to bank the blood you have on you, heal yourself and even get some new weapons in the process, but timing this well can be a challenge. The system for taking damage has a chance to snowball too, so even the weakest of creatures can one-shot a player, making it feel just as lethal as its video game counterpart. The designers did a great job making Bloodborne way more than just a gimmick.
I, like most people I assume, have been a fan of the hidden information cooperative card game Hanabi for some time now. Bomb Squad is a game that takes that experience to a whole new level. Everyone has a hand of cards that they hold facing outwards, so that everyone but them can see what they have. Each of the cards has a different action that you need to use to program your bomb defusing robot such as moving, turning, saving hostages and actually diffusing the bomb. Players go around the circle giving clues to other players about what is in their hands, playing cards down to program the robot’s sequence, discarding cards to charge the robot’s battery and finally executing the sequence. Oh, and like most good games centered around diffusing bombs, it’s very rigidly timed of course. As you can imagine the robot’s programming can very easily go awry, and with the clock baring down on you it takes a group with nerves of steel to pull off this daring rescue. I’ve always been a fan of timed cooperative games, and this one really brought it together for me.
This is a game that feels exactly like if someone came along and said, “Carcassonne is an alright game, but I bet we can do a lot better.” Mission accomplished. Isle of Skye takes the basic tile-laying, landscape-building mechanic made famous by Carcassonne and adds a whole lot of depth to it. Each player has their own kingdom that their building instead of a collective one, but acquiring the tiles you need to build it isn’t as simple as just randomly drawing them. There’s a whole purchasing system where players set prices on the tiles draw so that other players can buy them, but if nobody is interested in the price you set then you’ll be the one fronting the bill. Also, some of the main criteria for how points are earned get randomized every single game, so there is never just one winning strategy. This one feels incredibly well put together, and will frankly replace any desire I have to play Carcassonne ever again.
If for no other reason, this one makes it onto my list for just the raw number of times I’ve played this one over the last year. It’s a fast, small-box game that makes it into my bag every single time I go out to a game night. In essence, Welcome to the Dungeon is a dungeon crawling game of chicken. There are 4 different brave heroes in the game, each with their own starting HP and unique set of gear. Players take turns either by passing and sitting out the rest of the round, or raising the stakes by either adding another monster to the dungeon or taking away a piece of the hero’s gear. Eventually, all players but one will have passed, and that player will now be forced to go in as the hero and fight all the monsters with with what’s left of their gear. If they survive they get a victory seal, get 2 and they win. If they perish, then they will lose a life, lose 2 and they’re out of the game. Each of the different hero’s has a very different itemset they take with them, so changing them up between rounds makes the game very interesting all the way through. Plus, the whole game revolves very heavily around figuring out just how ballsy everyone else is at the table and whether or not they’re looking to sabotage the dungeon for other players, so you never know how a round if this game will unfold. It’s truly a game that I am always excited to play.
Raiders of the North Sea is a unique worker placement game that puts you in the shoes of a Viking captain. You spend your turns gathering provisions and silver, hiring crew and then setting off to sea to raid unsuspecting strongholds. Players earn points by fighting valiantly (even dying) in glorious combat, collecting plunder and making sacrifices to the gods. First off, they pull off the theme incredibly well. Everything you do in this game feels meaningful and and really Vikingy (if that’s a word). Secondly, the worker placement mechanic in this is very unique. You always start and end your turn with a worker, meaning that you take two actions on most turns, the one where you place your worker and one where you acquire a worker. On top of that, once players start going on raids you start acquiring different colored workers that have different bonuses and are required to do certain tasks. This all adds a super interesting strategy onto the game that really makes it stand out from the crowd. Overall, Raiders of the North Sea feels so put together that I would highly recommend it both for veterans of the worker-placement genre, and those looking for a good intro.
Again, going just by sheer volume of play time, this one definitely makes it high on my list. I’ve played this game easily 100 times since picking it up. Mafia de Cuba is a social deduction game where one player plays a mob boss hosting a dinner for his faithful gang. Unfortunately there are some not-so-faithful thieves at the table who will inevitably steal some of the boss’ precious diamonds, and it will then be the godfather’s sole mission to get them back. The way the game plays is that whoever plays the mob boss will start with a cigar box full of role chips and 15 diamonds. The box then gets passed around the table, everyone has to take something, and then the mob boss holds an investigation to figure out who stole diamonds. The role chips people can take instead of diamonds might make them loyal to the boss, loyal only to the person to their right, or even an FBI agent looking to get accused. What makes this game work so well is that everyone’s motivation can wind up being so complex, in part because everyone is actually choosing what they will be. Most social deduction games randomly assign roles, but allowing choice reduces the level of anxiety that can go along with these types of games and makes it feel like you’re really playing the other people at the table, not just circumstance. I’ve played a lot of good social deduction games in my time, but I think this one is my all time favorite.
And finally, the game that I cannot manage to shut up about this year, is Star Wars: Rebellion. When this game first came out I thought to myself, “great, another star wars game from Fantasy Flight. How forgettable!” Now I love me some Fantasy Flight, don’t get me wrong, but the whole Star Wars things has been beaten into the ground since the original trilogy came out and the other stuff by them in this canon has never quite left me hungry for more. But let me tell you, Rebellion knocks it right out of the park. It’s basically the original trilogy from a macro perspective that takes place on a big star maps of all the planets from the universe. 1-2 players take control of the empire, a militarily dominant force looking to conquer as much territory as possible to ultimately find and destroy the secret rebel base. The other 1-2 players play as the rebellion, looking to evade the empire, accomplish strategic missions and run out the clock so the rebellion can spread beyond the empire's ability to control. Although the whole thing really plays out on a large scale, with tons of cool minis and even a few death stars (that’s right, death stars plural), all the actions taken over the course of the game are done with heroes from the movies, that can change up a little from game to game, and that really puts you right into some of the best moments of the original trilogy. Outside of absolutely nailing the theme, this is an incredibly well done strategy game of epic proportions that would likely make it high on my list even if it was skinned differently. It's certainly a big box game, but well worth the price, and I know I’m gonna be playing this one for years to come.
I would like to conclude with some honorable mention for some games that couldn’t find their way onto this list, mostly because I only played the prototypes. One has to go out to the game Galactic Debate, which was made by a few cool guys I know from Road to Infamy Games. It’s a really fun, improv-based game of alien political debate that I’m certain is gonna be accompanying some late night drunkenness for a while. They had a kickstarter for it that ended earlier this year and it should be available to buy on their website in March. The other one goes out to the game Shut Up, Cat! that’s getting published by another really cool guy I know at Argyle Games. It’s a dice based memory game where each player is competing to be the first to get a full-night's sleep despite the intrusion of their house cat. It’s a super fun little game with a great theme and I eagerly anticipate the launch of the kickstarter that should be coming some time in 2017.