2016 marked the year where I got more heavily into boardgames, discovering the unique joy of manipulating card, dice and miniatures. With this cardboard awakening came the boardgame community, an almost infinitely more friendly bunch of people than the videogame community where the only time you can usually hope to engage in a conversation is when somebody wants to yell at you for writing a review which doesn’t match their opinion. I love you videogames, but we need to talk about your friends.
This list, therefore, is very much from the perspective of a relative boardgame noob who only dabbled before the start of 2016. Having reviewed 20+ boardgames over the course of the year there is naturally a lot I missed, too.
Before we kick off the list proper, here’s a couple of honorable mentions for games that weren’t released this year, but that I just got around to playing. Click on their names to read the full reviews.
The Gallerist – To date this is the biggest, most complex game I’ve reviewed, and possibly my favorite. Released in 2015 and created by Vital Lacerda this is a prime example of beautiful design. Every comes together to form a deep game that drips with lavish attention to detail.
Thunderbirds: The Board Game – Maybe I just like Matt Leacock because he gave the world Pandemic, or maybe it’s because Thunderbirds in cardboard form is surprisingly awesome. Deserving more attention than it got Thunderbirds is infected with Pandemic throughout, but has plenty of mechanics of its own to flaunt. A brilliantly fun co-operative time.
Mysterium – Oh, if only this had been released in 2016 it would have been my game of the year. A co-operative experience centered around one player sending the other visions in the form of cards in order to solve a mystery. Easy to learn combines with a great theme and wonderfully elegant design.
Agricola – Highly regarded among the boardgaming community, 2016 is the year I found out why thanks to a re-release of this Uwe Rosenberg classic. Who knew farming was fun?
Halo: Fleet Battles – Not technically a boardgame, but worth a mention regardless. While it doesn’t really achieve the accessibility I think it should have been aiming for, or indeed even claimed to have, it’s still an entertaining romp through the Halo universe which features massive ships blowing each other up. Good times.
With the honorable mentions all done, on with the list proper. These aren’t in any specific order because attempting to do that would probably have made my brain explode.
This is awaiting a full review which will hopefully be coming soon. For the moment I’ll just take this opportunity to say it’s a visually beautiful card game that’s quite easy to learn yet has enough depth to make it satisfying. As an art student it’s your job to grab cards and use them to either paint a points-scoring masterpiece or improve your studio. Mixing things up are diplomas for doing certain things, like having several different buildings in your work or loads of trees. The catch is that once you become eligible for a diploma you need to choose whether to take it or leave it. Leave it and you can go for a higher-scoring diploma in that group. Take it, and you can’t take anything else from that group. Winning, then, comes down to building combos and keeping an eye on what your opponents are up to.
A great game for the whole family.
Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition
Out of all the games I’ve played this year few have managed to tell compelling stories like Mansions of Madness. As a game there arguably isn’t very much to it; you move around, roll some dice and that’s largely it. There’s very little tactics to consider and the dice ensure that luck plays a hefty part in the action. But as a storytelling device it’s really rather special, its companion app doing all the heavy lifting of a gamesmaster and thereby turning Mansions of Madness into a spectacular adventure that works not only with a group of friends, but also as a solo experience. Indeed, playing alone was actually my preference for this one, enjoying it in much the same way I would a good book. The sense of discovery is just wonderful, and the detailed descriptions, atmospheric music and sound effects help to set the stage.
It has also be intriguing to see a videogame DLC model being introduced in the form of new downloadable scenarios alongside more traditional physical packs that add more monsters and tiles. With that said I still believe the base game doesn’t have enough content for its steep RRP. A few more scenarios and quite a few more monster types would have gone a long way, as would have better quality miniatures. But then some giant tentacle monster appears and such concerns seem trivial, really.
Champions of Midgard
Worker placement is probably becoming one of my favorite genres. Indeed, over the course of this year I got to play both The Gallerist and Viticulture, and both have wound up being two of my most beloved games.
Champions of Midgard doesn’t shake up the genre, but it does do it rather well. With just room for a single worker on each space being the first player is vital, but there’s almost always something useful you can do, even if somebody else managed to snag the spots you wanted. I also appreciate combat being handled by dice because it brings a little randomness into the mix without it being overpowering – sending Vikings on a sea voyage to slay a beast or just tasking them with fighting a troll is more interesting when you have to weigh up how many you should send. It’s tempting to spread out to fight numerous foes to get even more glory, but sometimes you need to send extra troops just to deal with that one big beast. Finally, the theme and art are great.
Star Trek: Ascendency
I grew up on sci-fi thanks to my dad, completely engrossing myself in shows like Stargate SG-1, Farscape and, of course, Star Trek. I’ve watched The Next Generation, Voyager, DS9 and Enterprise countless times now, to the point where there are very few episodes that I don’t remember.
But it isn’t the name on the box that makes me like Ascendency. Indeed, as I’ll probably mention in my full review the truth is the Star Trek theme doesn’t make a huge difference; you could swap it out for any other sci-fi template and it wouldn’t really change anything.
No, Ascendency is just a good game in its own right. There’s no tight focus on Kirk and co. or the Enterprise or one crew here, rather it’s on a galactic scale as you control one of three races from the moment they first discover warp drive and begin exploring the black void of space. You’ll take your first tentative warp jumps and discover new planets and civilizations, conquer them with huge fleets or take them over culturally, forge very tenous alliances and generally have a good time. It’s long and the fact that it only supports three players make getting it to the table somewhat tricky, but I think I might just be in love with it. I’m very much looking forward to future expansions, especially if they introduce a more varied player count and expanded diplomacy options.
(Didn’t come into stock in the UK until 2016, so I’m counting this one)
The brilliance of Karuba lies in how simple it is; take a tile, put it down, or spend it to move toward the temple which contains glorious treasure. That’s it. My little niece picked it up in no time, as did my mother and my sister, none of whom are big gamers. I love games like that, where they take little time to learn but are still very satisfying to play.
The premise is also pretty simple; build a path toward the temples that your adventurers can move along. Every has the same board layout and while the tiles are drawn randomly, each player will get the same one. I found it fascinating to watch how everyone was given the same puzzle and the same tiles, but would solve the problem differently. Each person would create their sprawling pathways uniquely. I tended to focus on creating a central crossroads, for example, while other people preferred to start next to their adventurers and work from there.
As Conan the Barbarian I smashed through a wall and proceeded to bit the snot out of a giant snake before hurling a sword to an ally who cut down several Picts. It was awesome.
The thing about Conan is that it’s quite easy to learn thanks to the gem system. There’s only a few different things you can do, and the more gems you pour into doing it the better the odds of success. Oh. Oh. Oh, baby, those gems. There’s something so very satisfying about handling them, and their little plastic twinkle constantly tempts you toward spending everything in one glorious turn and forgetting about that pesky defense thing. It’s such a beautiful system, creating interesting decisions every turn; how many gems do you need to kill that big creature? What if the overlord throws all his/her resources into defense? That could leave you vulnerable if you invest too much in the attack.
Playing as the evil overlord is an equally fun and tactile thanks to the River of Skelos. Moving those chunky tiles around makes you feel like a general planning out a war, or like an overgrown kid flinging little toy soldiers around.
Categories: Opinion Piece