The contributors for this list were Byron Campbell, tabletop games editor at Entropy; Chris Holly, writer of the gobsmacking Playing Detective series; and Benjamin Tiemann, Byron’s regular gaming companion.
Best Tabletop Games of 2016
51st State: Master Set
Byron’s thoughts: If you’ve played Polish designer Ignacy Trzewiczek’s tableau-based civilization and resource-management card game Imperial Settlers, you’re getting essentially the same experience here. In fact, this game’s evolution is analogous to that of the cetacean species: the original 51st State (2010) crawled onto the land to become Imperial Settlers (2014), a hardy, pastoral equestrian race that later returned to the waves to splash around and fuck merrily in the surf as Master Set (2016). This is a welcome act of ludic recidivism. Having all the players draw from the same deck, rather than faction-specific decks, opens up the strategic landscape a bit more and makes for more varied, dynamic games, while the extra step needed to convert raw resources into “contact” tokens adds a welcome bit of crunch. The Fallout/Mad Max-esque post-apocalyptic setting is well represented in the visual presentation, especially the tiny, detailed wooden bits shaped like guns, gears and canisters of guzzoline. Thank god for dolphins, and thank god for 51st State: Master Set.
Byron’s thoughts: This is the era of the cooperative deck-building game, with great titles like Xenoshyft: Onslaught, Mistfall, the Legendary Encounters series, and Hero Realms breaking ground in this once-desolate subgenre. So you might ask what makes Aeon’s End different. The game’s answers are surprisingly comprehensive. Start with the setting, a fantasy realm after the apocalyptic invasion of extradimensional ravagers known as The Nameless; a select few survivors, mostly girls, can harness the energies of these dimensional breaches and learn the “sister-words” to cast powerful spells and defend humanity’s last bastion, an underground city named Gravehold, from unrelenting assault. Mechanically, there are lots of neat little twists, like the fact you never shuffle your deck and that turn order is variable and surprising. However, the biggest selling point for me are the four Nemeses, towering foes whose presence drastically alters the flow and atmosphere of the game.
Ben’s thoughts: I’m really enjoying this deck-builder, especially what makes it different from others. It also should be noted that I normally prefer Ascension-type deck-builders (a scrolling, unpredictable card offer) over Dominion-type (a fixed, consistent card offer). First off, I absolutely love the fact that you just flip your discard over instead of shuffling it; that really allows for some sweet combos. The difficulty has been just right, so those sweet combos aren’t overpowering. The whole experience changes with how many characters you play with, and the multiple characters and bosses, plus the quick setup time, means plenty of replayability.
Arkham Horror: The Card Game
Chris’ thoughts: Combine the money-printing Living Card Game model of Netrunner and Lord of the Rings: The Card Game with the tried-and-true Arkham Files universe that FFG has created. Throw in a campaign system that also allows for oneoff scenario play. Oh, and while we’re at it, let’s give the players actual character classes and themes to build their decks around. Hey, since we’re here, let’s have the game not do that crappy LotR thing that required folks to tear down and rebuild their decks each game just to pick the arbitrary combination lock required to win the scenario. Eh, we might as well also throw in a location-based mechanic that makes the game feel so very much like a good old-fashioned game of Arkham Horror combined with the best parts of a Call of Cthulhu RPG session with characters we’ve come to know and love. Yeah, that’ll do. Okay, boys, that’s lunch!
Yeah, AH:TCG is my game of the year, and it’s not even close. The opportunity for honest-to-god investigation, requiring tactical gameplay and planning, reacting when the plan goes horribly south; the deck customization aspects; the sweet, sweet flavor that FFG does best; and a campaign that doesn’t stop you dead in your tracks if you lose a game; these are the ingredients for my game of the year. Losing a scenario means you take your story-appropriate lumps and soldier on, with consequences affecting the next one in the campaign, win or lose. Sometimes, you’ll add a card to your deck; sometimes, you’ll be down a location or shuffle a baddie into the deck who’ll keep chasing you until you put them down. And best of all, the token mechanic provides for that oh-so-Arkham reliance on luck in impossible situations, creating a space for those thrilling moments of improbable success or defeat that mark the best games of Arkham. I cannot wait to see where they go with this.
Ben’s thoughts: I love the narrative of this game. I’m new to the Lovecraft scene, so I’m looking to this game to help me get into it, and so far I feel its doing a good job. The deck construction is well done so far, and I’m really looking forward to the future expansions. Close enough to LotR LCG to make me feel comfortable, but easily different enough to be able to collect both.
Byron’s thoughts: I don’t own a copy of this game (yet), so I’ve only had a chance to play a couple of two-player games with Ben. It was, however, one of my most anticipated titles of the year; Fantasy Flight made some huge promises, particularly in the way the game system blends roleplaying-caliber permissiveness with the simplicity of a card game. This has the potential to be my game of the year, or even my game of the decade, but I haven’t explored it deeply enough yet to feel comfortable making that proclamation.
Byron’s thoughts: This game was my introduction to the Schwarze Kapelle, an actual, historical conspiracy among the highest-ranking members of Nazi Germany’s military and intelligence operations to assassinate Adolf Hitler and dismantle the Third Reich. With the benefit if hindsight, I shouldn’t have been surprised that such a thing existed; war atrocities aside, Hitler was a radical leader who drastically reshaped the political landscape of Germany, and that sort of change never goes unresisted. Black Orchestra doesn’t attempt to recreate any single action of the Schwarze Kapelle, such as their nearly successful July 20 Plot (synecdochically known to history as Operation Valkyrie), but instead allows players to experience the role of conspirators in a rapidly expanding–both in terms of severity and geography–police state.
Dawn of the Zeds: 3rd Edition
Ben’s thoughts: I’m not crazy about zombies, but this game does it so well. The characters and gameplay really give me the chance for narrative, and I like the progressive build in difficulty. Excellent defense-type game; it normally has me on the edge of my seat.
Byron’s thoughts: It’s a lot easier to love a company when they’re as small as Victory Point Games–until this year, they printed, assembled and shipped all of their games completely in-house and on-demand out of a small office in Costa Mesa, CA. They’re not so much “The Little Game Company That Could” anymore (and they’re leaving California), but they still have a risk-taking publishing sense that differentiates them from the Asmodee singularity. (Asmodee, a French company whose slogan “Entertaining Everyone” is becoming increasingly ominous, has spent the past several years buying up almost every major hobby board game publisher.) VPG’s flagship States of Siege gameplay originated as an engine for capturing the great moments of historical conflict for the solitaire gamer without the daunting complexity of a traditional wargame, but it works equally well as the backbone for a cooperative zombie survival scenario in the tradition of Dawn of the Dead. As Ben mentioned, this deluxe edition collects content from both previous editions and their expansions, plus all-new material, and introduces this generous array of mechanics gradually through an ingenious five-tiered campaign structure.
Elder Sign: Omens of Ice
Byron’s thoughts: Let me be frank: Elder Sign wasn’t a very good game. Set in Fantasy Flight’s Arkham Files universe, it was widely disparaged as “Cthulhu Yahtzee” but lacked Yahtzee’s most critical strategic element, the ability to hold aside and reroll dice at will. Fortunately, starting with 2015’s Gates of Arkham, Elder Sign‘s recent expansions have largely abandoned the game’s initial premise, dumping so many new, more interesting mechanics onto the game that the formerly annoying dice-rolling has been reborn as an oddly ornate action resolution device, more interesting than the “roll a 5 or 6 on a d6” but no longer as overpowering or repetitive as it once as. 2016’s Omens of Ice is yet another reinvention of the system, this one taking Arkham’s investigators north into the frozen wastes of Alaska on the trail of Ithaqua or one of two other icy Ancient Ones. With a two-stage Adventure deck, choice-driven Mythos cards and new considerations like supplies and inclement weather, this is as a narrative-rich new direction for the game, and I’m loving it. As a bonus, 2016 also brought us the print-on-demand expansion Grave Consequences, which turned the Lovecraftian atmosphere up to 11 with Epitaph cards for when characters died and Phobia cards for when the cosmic horror overwhelmed their feeble brains.
Legends of Andor: Journey to the North
Byron’s thoughts: There are a lot of parallels to be drawn to Omens of Ice here: an expansion that reinvents its base game, generous on the content, in a story-led trip to the icy North. Here, though, we’re also talking about a major boon for the North American gaming public, since Legends of Andor, greatly expanded and supported with both physical and digital content in its native German, was treated as abandonware in the US under original regional publisher Fantasy Flight Games. To sum up Andor in a few words, it’s an inordinately illustrated cooperate game of swords and sorcery which simple, puzzle-like mechanics are taught entirely through in-play tutorials. Journey to the North takes what was good in the system and amplifies it with more-replayable Legends, a more deeply fleshed-out mythology, and numerous other updates in a new, nautical setting (with a side-trip to a wizards’ duel in the snowy North).
Legendary Encounters: A Firefly Deck-Building Game
Byron’s thoughts: When Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck-Building Game was released in 2014, it set a new standard both for movie-licensed board games and narrative games in general. Using the easy-to-learn deck-building gameplay of Upper Deck Entertainment’s Legendary Marvel series as a template and a prebuilt, three-act “Encounter deck” for each film in the Alien saga, it did something that’s woefully rare in tabletop games: it managed to create actual plot twists, moments of genuine surprise, exhilaration and upset that aren’t immediately dampened by the need to digest pages of new rules appendices. Continuing to build on what made Legendary Encounters: Alien a success, Firefly should have done Whedonites proud, and mechanically it’s a gorram triumph. Playing through every episode of the short-lived show, players may now go after bounties and side jobs to collect credits that they can spend to upgrade or repair Serenity or get some mendin’ between episodes, and the “Main Character” concept ensures that the entire ensemble cast is fully represented with Talents, Flaws and key moments. It’s just a shame it’s such a powerful ugly creature.
Mansions of Madness (Second Edition)
Chris’ thoughts: Since I’ve written a lengthy love letter at length to MoM1, you’ll be shocked–shocked!–to know I’m a huge fan of the second edition. Replacing adversarial play with co-op or solo Cthulu-ing, the app-driven game streamlines and simplifies the core MoM gameplay into a much more manageable experience. The game can literally be set up in about 10 minutes, the turns are quick, and the rules are clear and simple. Puzzles, clues, and narrative (including dialogue!) are now delivered by the app in a way that would have been impossible in 1E. The fact that 2E includes materials to use your 1E investigators and monsters is icing on the cake, and if some scenarios are weaker or less replayable than others, well, that’s the nature of scenario-based narratives, innit? There’s not a whole lot of compelling mechanics in here, but there is a fast, fun, story-driven co-op experience in FFG’s Arkham.
Byron’s thoughts: This will never replace Mansions of Madness (First Edition) for me. The sheer uniqueness of the game, the deliciously bespoke, almost Rube Goldberg-esque lengths to which it went to simulate things digital games accomplish effortlessly, and the way it allowed a player to fully embody the role of a GameMaster with less than an hour’s worth of preparation instead of a fortnight’s, were all lost in the jump to second edition. On the other hand, I fully welcome the ability to play something at least marginally Mansions-esque solitaire or cooperatively, and the app design is a move in the right direction for hybrid games of the future.
Chris’ thoughts: A Lovecraftified version of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective that manages to add a few more tricks to the box. The time-based nature of each case and the way the text content is gated is almost T.I.M.E. Stories-esque, and works great. There’s even a scoring system that works, which is a leg up on SHCD, too. The writing is good, the cases are clever, and while the easy thing would have been to just create “mysteries” around Lovecraft stories, Mythos Tales smartly uses known Lovecraft (and, at this point, Fantasy Flight) tropes as backgrounds and motivations rather than crutches for the plots. There’s plenty of tentacles, vampires, and other things that go “Tekeli-li!” in the night here, too. A must-have for fans of both SHCD and hideously betentacled beasties.
Perdition’s Mouth: Abyssal Rift
Byron’s thoughts: This game hasn’t enjoyed a wide release yet, but a few copies were sold at Essen Spiele, the world’s biggest board game trade fair. Perdition’s Mouth is a typical fantasy “dungeon crawl” in appearance, but in practice it integrates Eurogame mechanisms like the rondel and hand-management aspects, it uses absolutely no dice, and in a cruel reversal of the current trend toward campaign games, it cripples and hobbles your characters as you play, making them worse instead of better as you descend an abandoned Dwarven temple that’s been taken over by an insect-worshipping cult. As a playtester, I blogged at length about the game earlier this year, so you can see exactly what makes me so excited.
Ben’s thoughts: I really like this game. Obviously, the world and art are on the top of the list. The gameplay is fun, it gives me the feeling of a Euro plus the stress of a looming opponent, but the fact that the game is not very aggressive is attractive to me. The Automa (solo variant) for this game is also well done.
Star Trek: Frontiers
Chris’ thoughts: I’m a fan of Mage Knight, unquestionably. But push comes to shove, I’m a bigger fan of Star Trek. So a combination of the two was right up my alley. ST:F puts a Trek theme on 90% of the Mage Knight experience and fixes nearly every single problem I do have with MK, streamlining or outright ditching the fussier parts of MK (the day/night cycle, combat wonky-ness, movement rules) and replacing them with a game that’s, yes, a little easier but much more tied to its theme. Diplomacy, combat, away teams, the Picard Maneuver; they’re all here, and it’s amazing how just replacing “Fire” and “Ice” with “Photon Torpedo” and “Pulse Torpedo” makes the game a lot cooler. Whereas MK can sometimes feel like an unforgiving taskmaster begrudgingly handing out accomplishments, ST:F wants you to see the cards and flip the tokens and explore the tiles while quoting your favorite lines and blowing up Romulans (you will blow up a lot of Romulans). A great choice if you want something a shade less stressful than Mage Knight or just want a unique Trek strategy game.
Valeria: Card Kingdoms
Ben’s thoughts: This is a pretty simple game, but the satisfaction from just rolling two dice (in the style of Machi Koro) and collecting wooden tokens cannot be ignored. The fact that my wife really enjoys this game gives it an easy bump onto this list.
Tiny Epic Western – This one is more of an honorable mention. I wanted to throw it on here mainly because, of all the Tiny Epics that have been released, this one has really hit it out of the park. Still not the greatest game ever, but I feel it hits all the marks of a Tiny Epic game the best of them all.
Talon – Jim Krohn (Space Empires: 4X, Band of Brothers) applies his considerable talent for streamlining to classic Star Fleet Battles/Federation Commander. Fast, simple, and a lot of fun for anyone who misses the days of checking off system damage boxes but doesn’t have 3 hours to spend regenerating shields (you know who you are).
Star Wars: Rebellion – A great, asymmetrical Rebellion vs. Empire joint that lets you use beloved characters, ships, planets and events from the original trilogy in a game of strategy, surprise, bluffing, and risk-taking. If you’re old enough to have played the game Freedom in the Galaxy, you’ll see quite a bit of similarity here, the difference being that Rebellion is approximately a billion times more fun and playable. Also, Star Wars.
As with any year, there are a number of releases that I’d have loved to play but haven’t had a chance to try yet. Any of these might well be the best game of 2016, but I won’t know until 2017. The list includes:
Terraforming Mars – manage twos of hundreds of project cards to make the Red Planet habitable.
Project: ELITE – real-time defense against an alien assault.
Wizards’ Academy – a bear, a fairy, a talking tree et al. reenact The Sorceror’s Apprentice.
Bios: Genesis – “one to four players start as organic compounds shortly after Earth’s formation, represented by up to three Biont tokens. The Amino Acids command Metabolism, the lipids create cells, the pigments control energy absorption and storage, and the nucleic acids control templated replication. Their goal is a double origin of life: first as Autocatalytic Life (a metabolic cycle reproducing, yet not replicating, its own constituents), and the second as Darwinian Life (an Organism using a template to replicate in an RNA world).”
New Bedford – build a whaling empire in 19th century New England.