(Feature image courtesy of Henk Rolleman.)
Some Notes About the Process
Tabletop gaming is an expensive hobby. The average board game runs anywhere from $30-$80; an RPG habit can run into the hundreds between core rulebooks, monster manuals and adventure settings; and a miniatures game…don’t get me started on miniatures gaming (a hobby truly reserved for the affluent or insane). When presented with the opportunity to compile a list of the Best Tabletop Games of 2014, I didn’t know what to do; while I’ve played a few new games this year, including the fantastic Five Tribes and the award-winning Istanbul, I wouldn’t dream of claiming I’ve encountered a representative sampling qualifying me to identify the year’s best.
So, I went for a democratic approach. I started a thread on the hobbyist website BoardGameGeek where, over a 2-month period, anybody could nominate and vote for a game in a variety of categories. Clearly defining the categories I wanted to see–something for groups of different sizes, something quick, something epic, and special recognition for innovative or unique offerings–I kept the remainder of the process flexible; you didn’t even need to have played a game before nominating or voting for it. Also, to keep the process streamlined, I kept all nominations for the same game bundled together: if you voted for Thunder Alley as the most innovative mechanics, you’d also be voting for it in the other categories for which it had been nominated.
For the full results, and an idea of what to do with them, see the accompanying article. Read on for the highlights reel and Entropy community’s Honorable Mentions.
The Big Winners
Splendor was the highest-voted game overall, which means it also won every category for which it was nominated: Best Wordless Game, Best Small Group Game, and Best Quick Game. Released in March by publisher Space Cowboys, Splendor won accolades for its accessibility and addictive, fast-playing gameplay (the official website lists playing time at a half hour and states that the game can be taught in 5 minutes). Players collect poker chips representing gemstones, then trade combinations of gems in for production developments, allowing them to build toward increasingly expensive and valuable purchases–or attract the attention of valuable nobles. Splendor works equally well as a family game and as a quick “filler” game for hobbyist gamers, which helps explain its popularity on the list.
Despite its unwieldy name, Legendary Encounters: Alien was just one vote shy of Splendor for the highest-voted overall game, leading in the categories of Best Storytelling, Best Cooperative Game, and Best 1-2 Player Game (the game plays up to 5 comfortably, but nobody spoke up for its inclusion at higher player counts). An extension of The Upper Deck Company’s Legendary series of deck-building games set in the Marvel Comics universe, Legendary Encounters is a standalone game (you don’t need to own any of the previous releases to play) that follows the plot of all four films in the Alien franchise. Its story-driven, scenario-based gameplay and innovative mechanics (like scanning blips or being infected with a chestburster) have earned lots of praise from gaming critics and players alike. Look for Predator and Firefly versions of the game in the years to come.
Continuing to count down the overall highest-voted games, Dead of Winter was also nominated for Best Storytelling and Best Cooperative Game, coming in second place in both categories, and was the top-ranked game for Most Innovative Mechanics. The mechanic in question was most likely the Crossroads cards from which Dead of Winter parent series (succeeding titles as yet unannounced) takes its name. On the surface, this zombie apocalypse survival scenario is a true cooperative game: all players win or lose the game as a team. However, the Crossroads mechanic works to counteract the “alpha player” or “quarterbacking” problem some gaming groups experience in cooperative gaming, wherein a single domineering player takes charge of the game, dictating every player’s moves. During a player’s turn in Dead of Winter, the player to their right draws a Crossroads card that lists a condition that might be met–say, visiting a certain location or performing a certain action. If the active player happens to meet this condition, their turn gets interrupted while a potentially game-changing event unfolds. This small dose of secret information, coupled with hidden, selfish objectives for each player, ensures that no single player can control all the action–and makes for some very entertaining table drama.
Lap Dance was nominated for only one category: Most Innovative Theme. And it won. Could it have something to do with the seminude cartoon babes (both male and female) who grace its cover, rulebook and card art? Undoubtedly, yes. But Lap Dance‘s subject matter is envelope-pushing, enough to spawn months worth of vehement online debate. One camp indicts the game for its unnecessarily sultry subject matter, claiming that it suppresses the dark undercurrent of human trafficking and sex slavery in the international sex trade. Another camp acknowledges the title’s progressive approach to gender expectations: patrons at your strip club can and will request dancers of either or both sexes, and some of the game’s “fun rules” encourage transgender roleplaying. Whatever your stance, the fact that it got the conversation started is impressive enough. As for the game itself, it’s a light party game that mixes Yahtzee-style dice rolling with silly card play and goofy voices.
Another deck-building game, Star Realms ranked fifth in overall votes and came second in the categories of Best 2-Player Game, Best 1-Player Game and Best Quick Game. Like Splendor, this wasn’t a huge surprise–Star Realms presents a low barrier to entry in terms of price, rules complexity, and overall playtime, earning the game a place on a diverse range of game shelves. Designed by two Magic: the Gathering Hall of Famers, this 2-player sci-fi game (with variants for more or fewer players) requires no pregame deck construction or expensive booster pack investments, yet it packs a surprising amount of depth in its pocket-sized, $15 box. Players race to amass fleets and construct defensive bases, hoping to be the first to knock the opponent down to zero Authority (a nice word for hit points).
Alien Frontiers was one of the first big Kickstarter board games, teaching players that crowdfunding could occasionally produce a diamond in the rough–a lesson that hasn’t failed to catch the attention of publishers. Originally published in 2010, the game offers a clever mix of dice rolling and strategy, with players attempting to generate certain patterns of dice to take specific actions–identical pairs construct new ships, triplets construct colonies, while runs allow players to raid each other’s resources–with the overall goal of colonizing an alien planet. The original game’s popularity led to a pimped-out new edition in 2014, winning the vote for Best Reprint/New Edition.
I’m going to be honest–this nomination, and the enormous surge of support, came entirely out of left field. Before it showed up on the list, I wasn’t even aware that the game (currently available only in Catalan; English edition forthcoming) existed. 1714: The Case of the Catalans, as it’s translated, models the War of Spanish Succession, with the players joining forces to combat the Bourbon forces while looking out for their own interests. Apparently bridging the gap between accessible Eurogames (the pet term for modern-style high-strategy, low-luck game designs) and forbidding wargames, 1714 received the most votes in the Best Epic Game category, and was also nominated for Best Small Group Game and Most Innovative Mechanics.
As one user wrote on RPGGeek (BoardGameGeek’s sister site), “Any year in which a new edition of D&D comes out is a non-contest.” This must be the case, for Dungeons & Dragons (5th Edition) was the only RPG nominated for the list. While it didn’t lead in any category, D&D received a respectable number of votes and was the de facto highest-voted RPG in the following categories: Best Reprint/New Edition, Best Storytelling, Best Epic Game and Best Small Group Game. While I lack the RPG experience necessary to properly extol its virtues, other critics have praised 5th Edition’s shift of focus from number-crunching combat statistics back toward the game’s original purpose: spinning a good yarn. In his Kotaku review, Quintin Smith pointed out the handiness of the value-oriented Starter Set; the list of suggested (and randomizable) character motivations such as ideals, bonds and flaws; and the modern, understated approach to sex, race and gender.
Taking the lead for Best Large Group Game (also nominated for Small Group Game, Quick Game and Reprint/New Edition), Ca$h ‘n Guns (2nd Edition) is your go-to tabletop Reservoir Dogs simulator. A family-friendly party game that comes with almost a dozen foam guns (for pointing in each other’s faces, natch), Ca$h ‘n Guns casts players in the role of a gang of thieves divvying up the loot after a successful heist. The core of the game is the bluffing mechanic: each player’s 8-chambered gun only holds three live rounds (represented by a hand of “Click” and “Bang” cards). Three of your friends have their guns leveled at your face, but there’s $20,000 on the table. Will you take the risk that all three chambers are empty, or will you bow out of the round, living to loot another day?
Winning in the Best Expansion category, Fleet: Arctic Bounty expands the deck-building card game (yes, another one) Fleet. Originally published in 2012, Fleet is one of those themes that would never work in a video game setting–players are entrepreneurs building up fleets of commercial fishing vessels off the coast of Nunavut, Canada. Gameplay involves managing boats, licenses and crew in a race to haul in crab, shrimp, lobster, cod, and other thrilling prey. The Arctic Bounty expansion expands the 2-4 player game to 1-6 players, adds supplemental crewmates, and introduces variability to the game (no longer will every fishing license appear in every game).
Finally, The Battle of Five Armies received top honors in the all-important category of Best Game with a Literary Theme (the runners-up, in order, included Marvel Dice Masters: Avengers vs. X-Men; Sheriff of Nottingham; Marrying Mr. Darcy; Moby Dick, or, The Card Game; and The Witcher Adventure Game). Inspired by the climactic battle that capped off The Hobbit and set the stage for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Battle of Five Armies is a 2-player duel that comes in a huge box overflowing with plastic miniatures, a spinoff of the similarly overproduced War of the Rings. Focusing on the asymmetry between the opposing armies, the game provides entirely different victory conditions for the Shadow Army and the Free Peoples players. The overlap between Tolkienesque fantasy and high conflict makes this an unsurprising winner in the category, but it may not match all Entropy readers’ tastes, hence the inclusion of the runners-up.
Entropy Community Honorable Mentions
After the polling closed on BoardGameGeek, I invited members of the Entropy community to voice their individual opinions, to appear as Honorable Mentions. Here’s what they had to say:
Byron Alexander Campbell
One of the advantages tabletop games have over mainstream video games is their capacity to entertain surprising, varied, (sometimes) nonviolent subject matter. To supplement the list above, I wanted to take a chance to single out some of the most surprising themes of 2014.
- Zombie 15′ — Exploring the never-before-seen zombie apocalypse theme…okay, exploring the should’ve-stayed-dead, dirt-encrusted zombie theme. What makes this game stand out thematically is its twist on the premise: the zombie plague only affected adults 16 and over, meaning all the survivors are snot-nosed 15-year-olds.
- Sheriff of Nottingham — In this party game, players are wily merchants attempting to smuggle contraband into the city of Nottingham, hoping the Sheriff player doesn’t choose to inspect their pouch while it’s carrying anything indecent. Or, if hoping doesn’t work, there’s always the chance of a bribe….
- Panamax — One of the most popular titles of Q4 2014 is about shipping goods across the Panama Canal…or, more accurately, it’s about buying shares in companies that ship goods across the Panama Canal. You couldn’t make this shit up.
- The Battle at Kemble’s Cascade — A board game that faithfully simulates a coin-up top-scrolling arcade shmup, including screen-filling bosses and collectible powerups.
- Waggle Dance — A game about BEES!!!!
- Greenland — Reenact the clash of three very different cultures on a barren lump of rock none of them had any business inhabiting.
- Belle of the Ball — A game about announcing the arrival of nobles (with names like Manburgerhead Headburgerman) to a grand gala…or turning them away at the door, with your Regrets.
- Get Lucky — A reimagining of 1996’s Kill Doctor Lucky, it still has one of the best themes ever: trying to off the preternaturally fortuitous billionaire Dr. Lucky without being spotted in your attempt.
- Steam Donkey — The official description includes the line “Help is available from enigmatic and mysterious personages: Donkey-boy, Lord Admiral, Princess Royal and Madame Ice-cream.” ’nuff said.
- …and then we held hands… — A two-player, cooperative game about establishing communication and salvaging a failing relationship.
Quincy’s list focuses on easy-to-learn, easy-to-teach games with a low financial barrier to entry.
- Coin Age — Coin Age is incredibly complicated for being in such a small package. It has a huge amount of replayability, too!
- Munchkin Adventure Time — I had low expectations about this version of Munchkin, but its new, simplified card design makes it the best implementation of Munchkin I’ve ever played.
- Tiny Epic Defenders — Another huge game in a tiny package. This game is really challenging,too, but like other hard cooperative games, even losing it is fun.
- Monikers — Monikers takes the best elements of a whole bunch of party games and slams them together. It’s a blast.
- Munchkin Loot Letter — Love Letter might be one of my all-time favorite card games. Retheme it with my other favorite card game, and you’ve got yourselves a fantastic game.
Entropy’s newest Tabletop Games contributor offered his top picks for 2014:
- Galaxy Defenders — This is a gem of a squad-based tactical game that allows for leveling up, campaigning, and is Ameritrashy in all the right places, with fistfuls of dice, tokens, and a setting that brings to mind any number of mid-’90s cheesy scifi actioners.
- Unconditional Surrender! World War 2 in Europe — Makes WWII grand strategy accessible and fun in a way that doesn’t require half a decade to play. More of a sandbox than it lets on, but it’s easy to learn and get to grips with.