Each year we put out our lists of our personal favorite games which we played for the first time this year. The game didn’t necessarily have to be new, we just had to have played it for the first time in the last 365 days. 2016 was interesting for me compared to 2015. In the previous year I played an absolute TON of games which I’d never been introduced to previously, but this time around that number was much smaller [approx under 40 this year]. However, the quality of the games I played this year was dramatically higher, this really could have been a top 20 list and they would have all still been outstanding games.
It might be surprising that I’d never played this before and I don’t really have an excuse on why I hadn’t. I did some work demoing games for Fantasy Flight and in doing so finally got hooked on the gem collecting gloriousness that is Splendor. It is a quick and simple strategy game of collecting gems (poker chips) and cashing them out to expand your gem trading empire (cards). Despite its simplicity it is highly competitive and has enough going on that I’m almost always down for another round of it. This has become one of our mainstays for introducing people to modern board games.
Tasty Minstrel has quickly become one of my favorite publishers. They have a whole line of games that come in boxes that are a little bit larger than your wallet and each of them has a deceivingly “big” packed inside. Flip City combines push your luck elements with those of a deckbuilder. The catch is that all of the cards are double sided and you can only turn them over if you meet the right criteria. This has become my go to travel game, it plays up to four players but can also be played by yourself which along with the size of the box make it perfectly suited for this.
This was my most anticipated game of Gencon. While it does make my list it wasn’t quite as spectacular as I had hoped. Mystic Vale is essentially a deck builder but rather than adding cards to your deck over the course of the game instead you sleeve plastic transparencies over your cards to alter what they do. It is an ingenious system and I’m looking forward to seeing how AEG iterates on it. Mystic Vale in many ways is the bigger box version of Flip City. The game does feel a bit like you are playing solitare at times, an issue many deckbuilders have, although its unique mechanic allows for it to be played more quickly and smoothly than counterparts.
Courtney had played this during 2015’s GenCon and couldn’t stop talking about it, so when it arrived at our doorstep I couldn’t wait to see what all the ruckus was about. You play as paleontologists collecting dinosaur bones so that you can later put them on display by laying them out on the table to build your very own dinosaur. It turns out that historically many early paleontologists were complete jerks to one another and this game brings that out in a rather light-hearted way by encouraging players to collect notoriety. Great Dino Rush hits all the right notes perfectly and delivers a tactile gameplay experience unlike anything else I’ve played.
Robot Rally is a classic game which has a special place in my heart, in it players clumsily give orders to their droids that are competing to navigate an obstacle course. Bomb Squad takes that and turns it into a cooperative game where you and your cohorts must help a bomb defusal robot disarm bombs and rescue hostages… the catch is that the bombs are about to explode and you must frantically get the robot to them before time runs out. This all takes place in real time and there are typically eight minutes before the first bomb goes off. This game is intense but it is so satisfying when your team works well together and everything goes as planned.
Something is afoot and your cappos are not all being honest with you. Someone has taken your diamonds and it is up to you to ferret out the thief and ensure that they sleep with the fishes. Mafia De Cuba is a social deduction game where one player, the mob boss, starts with a cigar box filled with diamonds and tokens. The box is passed around the group with each player secretly taking either a token or some diamonds. Taking diamonds makes you a thief and each type of token has a specific role assigned to it (FBI, Driver, Loyal Henchman). After the box makes a full circle it is up to the mob boss to conduct interrogations and make accusations.
Bonus Points: This game is best played over pizza at Giordano’s.
This game was designed by some Chicago locals and when I heard that it was a game which revolved around arguing I was a bit skeptical. I had a hard time seeing how it wouldn’t result in friends just getting frustrated with one another. That is so far from the case as this game very quickly takes a dive off the deep end into the realm of the absurd. Players alternate arguing the merits and dangers of making seashells the galactic currency or outlawing the use of brain melting devices on squid people. What really makes this game tick is that any argument a player makes is automatically considered to be undeniable fact, it becomes a game of “Yes, but...” Furthermore, all results flow over into future rounds. Yes… we might have all agreed that forcing Humans to fight to the death for entertainment was for the greater good but how does that impact the decision to build a force field around the Horsehead Nebula?
Galactic Debate has resulted in some of my most memorable gaming moments of 2016. You need to play this game!
Intermission: My top 3 were tough for me to rank, they were all very close and each blew me away for totally different reasons. If you’re looking to try something new I can’t recommend these enough.
People kept telling me that I needed to play this game, that they had played it and instantly thought of me. The people had spoken, and they were right. This game is my jam! It is super easy to teach, it plays in under 30 minutes, it uses drafting as a mechanic, it involves placing tiles, it involves competing AND cooperating with others and to top it all off it takes the same amount of time to play regardless of how many people there are (plays up to 7). Everyone is working to build a bunch of cities, but rather than working on your own individual city, players work with those adjacent to them to collectively build the greatest city the world has ever seen. Between Two Cities was likely my most played game this year and I hadn’t even discovered it until June or July.
I don’t really like Pandemic… there’s just something about it that feels dry to me or as if it is a “solved” game. When Pandemic Legacy became the latest craze I didn’t even consider giving it a chance, I knew I didn’t like Pandemic so why would I ever want to commit to essentially playing over and over again? Wow was I wrong. Towards the end of Summer we got a group going and I was hooked! This takes the base game of Pandemic and quickly escalates it to something entirely different and unrecognizable but strangely familiar. Your actions and the outcome of each time you play continue to permanently impact future sessions. It tells a story, it has a narrative, and every time we play I can’t wait to play it again. I’ll spoil the fun if I mention anything else, but if you’re at all like me and you wrote this one off because it couldn’t possibly be as good as everyone was saying, well then you should give it a chance because you’re in for a pleasant surprise.
Special Note: for those unaware this game does of the hurdle of essentially requiring you to play with the same set of people from start to finish across multiple play sessions.
You are at sea aboard a combat-equipped submarine and just been alarmed that there is an enemy vessel lurking somewhere nearby, can you hunt it down without being detected? Are you the predator or are you the prey? Captain Sonar takes the outdated game Battleship and actually makes it fun. Best with two teams of four, each player takes on a specific role aboard their submarine. The Captain dictates the heading of their vessel for everyone to hear; meanwhile, the Sonar Operator listens carefully to try and track opposing team’s course. The Chief Engineer does their best to keep the ship from breaking down while keeping core systems online. Finally, the First Mate readies torpedoes, arms mines and sends out drones to locate the enemy sub before it is too late. The game has a turn-based mode but is best played in real-time. Anyone can play this game, it doesn’t have a ton of pieces, the rules are fairly simple and you don’t have to be a “gamer” to figure it out. Captain Sonar hits on the theme perfectly… Now I just need to convince Sean Connery to come over and play with me.
Honorable Mentions: Grand Austria Hotel, Race For The Galaxy / Roll For The Galaxy, Halo: Ground Command, Star Wars Rebellion, Dead of Winter & Long Night. – These are all incredible games but they just barely didn’t make the cut they were all kind of tied for 10th. In most cases I just haven’t had the chance to play them enough.