The truth is that since my focus has switched from designing games to publishing and all the perks associated with it, I have had significantly less time to play bard games. This year however, I made a plan and tried to catch up by playing at least 50 new games. Not only did I succeed, but I managed to play 107 different games, mostly released at Gen Con or Spiel Essen. Some of them have definitely found a permanent place in my collection. One is slowly making its way into my favorite games ever. It’s been too long since I have made any kind of top, so here we go…
At number 5, we have a game which may seem strange after the first play, it stays strange after the second one, but it gives a great feeling of accomplishment, while knowing that you can always do better. I am talking about Gentes, a game from Spielworxx, which is slowly becoming on of my favorite publishers. In Gentes, you get to spend “time” to take actions, while building on one hand a tableau of resources and, on the other hand, a tableau of cards which grant points and special abilities. The game seems awkward at first, but it does flow well, with a mix of racing and optimization. From the explanations, kindly provided by our own NSKN Games rules expert, I had the feeling that Gentes was designed especially for me, as it felt natural to develop a strategy. You still get this sentiment of living/playing on borrowed time, but in this game this is actually true. You can get plenty of actions in one turn, but that means sacrificing most of your next one. You have to carefully balance your choices, between optimizing your current turn and scoring big and leaving yourself time to perform during your next.
The best things about Gentes:
- it plays great with 2, 3 and 4 players,
- it has little down time,
- it allows plenty of strategies and it is a race as much as it is a worker placement game,
- and most of all, it is innovative.
On the down side, after 3 plays the game felt the same, after having seen almost all the cards and I fear on the long run it may lack replay value.
My number 4 in 2017 is Massive Darkness from CMON. People might say “another dungeon crawler” and I must admit that I was among the crowd of skeptics, but I was wrong. The way the map is built is ingenious, the combat system is cool and innovative, making turns rather short and down time reduced to an acceptable amount. I must admit that seeing the quality of the miniatures, something CMON has been very consistent at, probably contributed to Massive Darkness with at least one extra point, but the overall rating and spot is well deserved. There is player interaction, there is the need to strategize (e.g. deciding if and when to split the party), and the game is absolutely beautiful. With a play time of 2 hours per scenario, it is not that long and there is one more thing I feel I need to mention: for ranged characters, the line of sight is intuitive and straightforward, which is a major improvement to older generations of dungeon crawlers. I could keep going about this game for a while, but there are so many reviews out there. All in all, best dungeon crawler I played in 2017 and one of the best ever.
Natives is next in line. This is a game you have probably not heard of, as it was released in a limited amount at Spiel Essen, but it is such a solid and refreshing game that it had to make my top 5 of the year. Published by Cosmodrome Games from Russia, Natives is a card drafting game (I know what you’re thinking now, another clone of 7 Wonders), but this is NOT a clone of the aforementioned 7 Wonders. Natives features an open draft and it focuses heavily of tableau building. You get to draft either elder in your village – and there are 7 type of such elders – which will allow you to draft more items, or you get to use elders to draft good, totems, rites or other items, thus increasing your victory point total.
What I like about Natives:
- short turns, with little down time, especially that with the open draft you do care what other players are drafting,
- tough decisions every turn,
- multiple valid strategies to win the game,
- fresh approach on graphic design.
- and most importantly, simple rules, with no disadvantage for casual players.
I can figure almost no down side of the game, other that it may feel samey after 5 or more plays.
At number 2 there is another massive game, this time I am talking about Anachrony. Designed by a good friend and an up-and-coming designer with a few great games under his name – David Turczi – Anachrony is a lavishly published game, especially if you own the Exosuits expansion. Essentially a worker placement game with aspects of tableau building, Anachrony stands out with a few elements: the need to plan ahead (and back, but we’ll get back to that), the theme which is so well integrated into the game play, the asymmetry and the replay value. Let’s talk about them one by one. The need to plan ahead makes the game strategic and it come from the fact that every turn you can get items from the future, which you will then have to return. The more you get, the better your chances to deal with temporal abnormalities which will create havoc onto your faction board, but a conservative approach may deprive you of vital resources. Dealing with time travel is smart, in fact so smart that it outwits some sci-fi movies. The post-apocalyptic theme integrates great with game play, just think that your most important resource is…water. Each faction is different, and I am not talking only about starting resources and one special ability, but the major victory point collection criterion is unique. Replay value is give by the asymmetry I mentioned, by the fact that you will see with each play new buildings of all kinds, new leaders, a different arrangement for gathering VP and a ton of modules I have not even started going through. Oh, did I mention the insane quality of components?
Before moving to the very top of the list, there are a few games which I love but did not make the cut for top 5. However, they deserve at least a mention:
- Reworld is a mind twister: you play the game in two parts, first loading up a ship with goodies to start of a colony on a new planet, followed by unloading. Computer programmers will love the concept of stack perfectly implemented in this game, in which one is encouraged to plan ahead, but one will most likely fail. On top of that, optimizing your cargo to never have to throw anything into space might play against your achieving the goals which are plenty and very different. All in all, if you’re looking for a different game, this is a good option.
- Photosynthesis is another Spiel Essen discovery which made a splash. It has a beautiful 3D feeling, and all you get to do is plan tree and grow them big, so you can cut them for victory points (OK, everyone feels sad to cut them trees, but otherwise you cannot plant and grow new ones). With incredibly simple rules, Photosynthesis is a gem not only because it plays well, but is also incredibly beautiful.
- If you’re looking for something heavy and mind twisting, you should play Heaven & Ale. It has plenty of knows game mechanisms re-implemented very well, but the best about the game is the scoring system, which makes your brain go haywire. You get to collect a bunch of resources, while not being able to ignore any one of them, as you will get to trade others for it, at a poor exchange rate. Too hard to describe in just a few words, it is one of those games which you will play one, want to play again and remember for a long time. Did I mention that it features a lot of tableau building? 🙂
- Quests of Valeria is the best in the Valeria universe, and I felt the need to mention that. Drafting and hand management at the next level is a short description of the game. I love each game in this universe, but Quests of Valeria stands out among them, with it gorgeous art, simple and smart game play and its length.
Finally, my number one game of 2017 is Clans of Caledonia. This one has been advertised to me (and to others) as a rework of Terra Mystica (one of my top 5 games ever) which peaked my interest, but it also lowered expectations. Now I can for sure say those people were wrong, Clans of Caledonia is a masterpiece of its own kind, and even though it shares some ideas with Terra Mystica, is a completely different game. Since this game deserves a longer rant, I plan to write separately about it next year, after I get to play it a few more times. For now, all I need to say is that it is one of the best games of the past few years, and the rules are simple enough for the game not to be scary.