Board games are experiencing renaissance, and I have the great pleasure of having a few friends who follow the board game community closely to bring great games into our circle. Very few if any of these games actually came out in 2017, but I had my first experience with them this year. This is probably the first year I’ve really paid attention to which games I enjoy and made a concerted effort to block time in busy adult life for board games with friends.
So here they are, my top 5 board game experiences of 2017:
Balanced dudes-on-a-map in mythical Greece
One only has to glance at my shelf of board games to be convinced that I am a fan of the “dudes-on-a-map” war game genre. I had fun time on Board Game Geek and the excellent Shut Up and Sit Down cruising through reviews and impressions to discover a trilogy of games from publisher Matagot that I’m very interested to play. These games, Cyclades, Kemet, and Inis, however are popular enough that they go out of print regularly so I grabbed the first in the series that is probably the most traditional.
What makes Cyclades different from main-stream games like Risk or even more modern games like War of the Ring is that the game incorporates bidding mechanics, symmetric map starting positions, and relatively limited play times compared to the 6 hour attrition slogs common to the genre.
Thematically the game is fantastic. Mythical beast summonings and sway with the pantheon of Greek mythology cause sweeping changes in map dominance. This is probably my favorite intro-war game right now.
4) Spirit Island
Cooperative and anti-colonial
Co-operative games are the easiest games to play with friends who are not interested in competitive play. Not everyone is motivated to be the overall “winner” of a game, but even more important when sitting down to a hour-plus board game is making sure that each player is having fun for the full play time. In co-operative games, a large part of the risk of an inexperienced player effectively being “out of contention” and ineffective for the second part of a game where winners pull away from the pack.
Most of these co-operative games involve the players teaming up against a big-bad such as a monster or a mystery. Spirit Island turns that assumption on it’s head, with the players portraying nature spirits on an island being colonized by European invaders. This is a co-op worker placement game with a great theme that recalls all the fun of games like Dungeon Keeper. You get to play as the anti-colonial force repelling what are typically the protagonists in euro-games.
3) The Thing: Infection at Outpost 31
I'd rather not spend the rest of this winter tied to this f-ing couch.
John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of my favorite movies, so I’m already predisposed to like this game. I had the pleasure of playing a 7 player game this December. The game has a hidden traitor mechanic similar to Werewolf or the Battlestar Galactica game. Having recent memory of the movie is probably required to enjoy all the game elements and adding gravity to the various win and loss scenarios. After a slew of zombie survival games, this is refreshing. If you can watch a season of a TV show before playing a board game, it is definitely worth your time to see this movie.
My table of friends had a debate about whether or not the game would be broken if all the imitations (aliens) played quiet the whole game to all try to coveryly sneak onto the helicopter at the end of the game. While I’m interested in having this kind of play through to find out, I wouldn’t be surprised if we only had this impression due to clearing the first few zones of the base so quickly. If the group had had setbacks early, sabotage might have been a quicker path to victory.
All the same, our group had a fun first run of this and an excellent ending reveal. This will likely go into a yearly (cold weather) rotation for that gaming group.
2) Captain Sonar
4v4 battleship with a fantastic game design
Mechanically, this game was the most innovative game I was introduced to this year. Two teams of four coordinate the operation of a hidden submarine, each team hunting to destroy the other team. The game plays out like a very analog Star Trek bridge simulation video game with the players trying to deduce the location of the other ship in real time using a map, a cellophane sheet, and a wet erase marker. The game is tactile, played in real time, and involves creating non-verbal communication short-hand within the crew of four players to out-maneuver the enemy ship.
Exactly eight players is a lot to get to a table, but this game makes it worth it with a short play time, allowing multiple plays through and the accomplishment of shared team improvement in a single night.
This is probably the first team board game I’ve enjoyed.
1) Cthulhu Wars
Asymmetric take-and-hold monsters on a map
With an interesting history from a failed video game kickstarter and the pedigree of being designed by Sandy Petersen, the author of the 1981 Call of Cthulhu RPG, this game is easily the largest “miniatures” game I’ve ever played. The monsters are huge and beautifully sculpted!
This game has an asymmetric take-and-hold war game mechanic. While the board is fairly symmetric in starting position and accessible, as no space is really more than two jumps away from any other space, each faction has very different abilities and strategies in keeping with the Lovecraftian source material.
Cthulhu Wars has all my favorites elements: innovative rules, strong theme from a source material I already like, and some good old dudes-on-a-map fun with a reasonable playtime. Given that the game is expensive and a bit hard to come by, the rare chance to play it probably added to the enjoyment.