Time for some of my favorite games from 2014. This was a really good year for games, and I had some difficulty narrowing it down. Nevertheless, here we go.
Abyss (Bruno Cathala/Charles Chevallier, Bombyx) is probably in contention for the best art in any game ever. The game itself is set in an underwater kingdom where players are trying to gain enough support to become the ruler. On your turn, you could collect allies though an interesting bidding mechanism where a player must offer each card to the other players before he can take it himself. Other players have to pay the offering player if they take a card. Monsters could come up in this process, and if you choose to fight, you’ll get a reward in the form of keys to open locations, pearls to spend on allies, or points. You could also choose to take all cards that have been passed over in a certain color. You can late spend allies on lords that will give you benefits and more keys to open locations. In the end, the player who has gotten the most points is the winner.
This game is a bright and shining example of how great art can elevate a good game to greatness. I like Abyss a lot, though I’ll definitely admit it has its flaws – the monsters are my biggest sticking point because there’s not much incentive to pass over them. But that art just elevates it to a new level. The game came with one of five different covers, and all of them show a different angry dude (or lady) glaring out at you. If you haven’t played it, I’d recommend you check it out; and if you haven’t seen it, you definitely need to go look at the artwork RIGHT NOW.
Castles of Mad King Ludwig (Ted Alspach, Bézier Games) is a game where you’re building the castles of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. In each round, one player sets the prices for different rooms. Then, each player (ending with the one who set the prices) buys a room and adds it to their castle. Each room will generate income and points based on adjacent rooms. In the end, the player with the most points is the winner.
This game was a follow up to Suburbia, with similar adjacency mechanisms. It is its own game, with its own version of the I-Split-You-Choose mechanism. It’s a fun game, and has a very distinctive look to it. I really enjoy putting the different rooms together, and it’s one that I think everyone should try at some point.
Colt Express (Christophe Raimbault, Ludonaute) is a game about an Old West train heist. There are five rounds in the game, and in each round, players will be choosing actions from their hand to play into a common pile. Some of these actions will be played face up, others will be played face down so no one knows what you’re up to. Once all actions have been played, you’ll resolve them by flipping over the deck and revealing what each player decided to do and when. You could punch other players, shoot them, grab loot, move through the train (or onto the roof), or even move the marshal. After the fifth round, the player who has collected the most loot wins.
This game won the Spiel des Jahres in 2015, and it was a very worthy win. Not only does the game serve as a fast and fun introduction to action programming, it’s got a 3D train that serves as the playing surface. I enjoy the theme in this one – it’s like you’ve planned this big train heist, and show up only to find that five other people are trying to pull the same job. Good stuff.
Dead of Winter (Jon Gilmour/Isaace Vega, Plaid Hat Games) is a zombie game that is more about the characters than it is about the zombies. Each player controls several characters, and has a number of dice to spend on various actions. You could collect food or equipment, vote to exile other players, or kill zombies. Each player has a secret goal to accomplish, and the group as a whole has a goal to accomplish. So the game is cooperative, but if you win before you finish your secret goal, you still lose. And of course, there is always the ever looming threat of a traitor…
Dead of Winter out Battlestarred BSG for me. It does a lot of the same things, and does them better. I know that opinion isn’t shared by everyone, but while I like both games, I’d choose DOW first every time. I don’t like zombie games in general, but this one is very good because it really does focus on the characters.
Eggs & Empires (Benjamin Pinchback/Matt Riddle, Eagle-Gryphon Games) is a quick role selection game where players are trying to score as many points as possible by collecting eggs. On each turn, players will select one card to play and reveal simultaneous. Each player has the same deck of ten cards, but only a hand of three at a time. Once revealed, you’ll assign eggs to players based on number and card powers. The cards are numbered 1-10, and eggs go to players in reverse order. However, each card also has a special power that may get you an egg out of turn, or may allow you to get rid of some negative points. Points are tallied at the end of each round, and the player with the highest score after three rounds is the winner.
This game is a lot of fun. There’s a lot of push-your-luck involved, so it’s tough to strategize. But it’s pretty great to snatch out a high-scoring egg from under everyone’s nose and leave the other players to pick at the negative eggs. This is a great filler to have i your arsenal.
Evolution (Dominic Crapuchettes/Dmitry Knorre/Sergey Machin, North Star Games) was a departure for North Star, previously known for its party game titles. In Evolution, each player will control several species and try to adapt them so they can survive and score lots of points. In each round, players will be able to add traits to their species, increase their population or body size, or even gain new species. At the end of each round, however, you have to feed your species, and if you can’t feed ’em, you lose ’em. Once you’ve run through the entire deck, the game ends and the player with the highest score (food eaten plus number of traits plus total population) is the winner.
This was a reimplementation of the Russian game Evolution: The Origin of the Species. As I understand it, North Star’s version took out a good deal of luck and streamlined the system into a much thinker game. It’s still very accessible to players, but has a lot of choices to make as you try to survive. It features some gorgeous watercolor art throughout, and has a giant brontosaurus for a first player marker.
Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck Building Game (Ben Cichoski/Daniel Mandel, Upper Deck Entertainment) took the system from the popular Legendary system and transformed it into a more thematic experience. This game is based on the first four movies of the Alien movie series, and is fully cooperative. Each movie is its own scenario in the game with its own twists and new cards. Players must work together to fight off hordes of aliens, building their own decks and trying to not die. The team loses if everyone dies, but if the scenario is completed, even if only one person remains, everyone wins.
I am NOT a fan of the Alien movies. I’ve only seen the first two, but the first one was too slow for me (which is typical of Ridley Scott films), and the second suffered from an overabundance of cheese (which is typical of James Cameron films). However, this game really puts you into the true terror of the series – you don’t know what’s around the corner most of the time, and most of the time, it’s something that will totally kill you. It’s a very violent game – a lot of the imagery is NOT suitable for children – but is highly thematic in a way that the Legendary games are not.
Patchwork (Uwe Rosenberg, Lookout Games) is a two player game about putting together quilts. Each player has their own 9×9 quilt board, and on your turn you will either purchase a piece or pass. If you pass, you move your piece to directly in front of your opponent and collect buttons for every space you crossed in the process. If you purchase, you’ll choose one of the first three patches in line and buy it using buttons and time (marked on a time track). Purchased patches go on your quilt board. Then the player in last place on the time track (which could be the player that just went) gets a turn. The game is over when both players have etched the end of the time track, and the player with the most buttons (minus points for empty spaces on your board) is the winner.
Patchwork is quick, simple, and a LOT of fun. It’s very much a puzzle game as you try to work out how to fit your polyominoes into your quilt. There’s not a whole lot of interaction, other than figuring out how to use the time track effectively and snatch pieces out from your opponent. But it’s a great game, and one I’m glad I own.
Rattlebones (Stephen Glenn, Rio Grande Games) is a dice-building game in the truest sense of the term. Each player has three customizable dice, and on your turn, roll one. If you roll Rattlebones, you’ll advance his figure on the score track. If you roll a number, move one of your monkeys around the track and possibly change a face on that die to match where you landed. If you roll a special face, you’ll take a different action – get gold, get points, get stocks, get stars, and so on. If your score marker meets Rattlebones on the point track, you win.
Rattlebones is a pretty simple game, and there’s not a whole lot of depth. But I find it extremely fun, and it’s been a very successful game to bring out with family and friends. It’s a little like Dominion: The Roll-and-Move Game, which sounds terrible. But it isn’t. The recently released Dice Forge also has a dice building mechanism, and people seem to like that a bit more, but I still really like Rattlebones.
Red7 (Carl Chudyk/Chris Cieslik, Asmadi Games) is a quick card game with a lot of thought behind it. Each player is dealt seven cards, and a rule is placed in the center of the table (whoever has the highest card wins). Each player is then dealt a card, and the player to the left of the current winner is the first player. He must either play a card to change the rule so he is now winning, or he must play a card to his palette so he is now winning, or he must do both of these things so that he is now winning. If you are not winning at the end of your turn, you lose. The last man standing wins the round.
On paper, this is a very simple game. In practice, it is a brain burner. It’s a puzzle where you know that if you cannot win, you lose. There are some advanced rules, but frankly, the basic game adds plenty of challenge. I would play with the scoring variant where the cards that won the round for you are set aside into your score pile. This is my pick for my favorite game of 2014 – I love it. (Oddly enough, my pick for favorite game of 2014 back in 2014 was Argent: The Consortium, which wasn’t officially released until 2015. My pick for favorite game of 2015 was Colt Express, which I didn’t play until 2015. So there you go.)
Splendor (Marc André, Space Cowboys) was a game that felt like it kind of came out of nowhere and just blew up. In the game, you are collecting gems in order to gain lots of prestige points – you know, typical Euro nonsense. But as you collect gems, you spend them on different cards that will later give you discounts on future cards with the goal of getting the aforementioned points. When someone reaches 15 points, the game ends and the high score wins.
I really though this game would win the SdJ in 2014, but it was beaten out by Camel Up (which you may notice is NOT on this list). I like Splendor a lot, but lately, I think it might have been killed by Century: Spice Road. We’ll have to see as time goes on. Splendor is still a really good game.
And that does it for 2014. Thanks for reading!