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2017 Retrospective: Board Games

This blog post was originally published on the old Word Foreword on January 12th, 2018.

In my day job, I work for a publisher of board games (and trading cards). I'm a huge board game geek (har-har, see what I did there?) and play a ton. I'm also a huge data nerd, so I track all my game plays (through an app called Board Game Stats that links to my BoardGameGeek account). I don't get a chance to play all the games that come out in a year (I don't think anyone in the world has that kind of time, given that some thousands of new games come out every year), but in 2017 I logged 480 plays across 155 unique titles.

This blog will highlight some of my favorite (not necessarily the best, or best-selling, but ones that I had the most fun with and would recommend to others) board games that publishers released in the 2017 calendar year. For the sake of fairness, I omit all board games published by the company that I work for, because I would have a hard time choosing one of them over the year, or comparing them to other games considering I have a personal attachment to many of them (though if you haven't played Legendary: Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Quest for the Antidote, you should).

Before I get into my Top 9 (deal with it, Top 10 is for suckers), I'd like to talk about a few games that I didn't make the cut but are still intense. Tiny Epic Quest is a big game in a small box that looks and feels a lot like playing old Zelda games. My wife (and playgroup) didn't get sucked in, but I found I enjoyed it quite a bit despite a long first game. Pandemic Legacy Season 2 is an exciting new spin on regular Pandemic and had huge shoes to fill with the love and adoration of its predecessor. It's a good game that didn't quite live up to the hype, but if you loved the first season, you'll likely still enjoy the second. Jump Drive is a much quicker and simplified version of the fan-favorite Race for the Galaxy. Of all the games that didn't make my list, this one is the one I played the most of, and I struggled with putting it on there.

I'd also like to take a moment to talk about Roxxon. This was an alright game that had one of the best marketing campaigns I've ever seen. Roxxon takes place in the same universe as Dead of Winter, both by Plaid Hat Games which is a post-apocalyptic plague filled world. Roxxon was stealth announced and launched for sale exclusively by invitation on a website by Plaid Hat Games. Once purchased, the website would prompt you to invite others by giving their e-mail address, thus creating a viral-like experience of spreading. It went viral. People on Twitter and Facebook groups and BGG were all looking and begging for invitations. I'd be interested to know how many units sold like this (I know I bought one and sent three invitations to others, and I know of around a hundred other units that sold around my copy). What an excellent idea, even if Roxxon turned out to be an average game.


And now, on to the show.


9 – Hotshots

Fireside Games struck with this press-your-luck cooperative dice chucker about putting out wildfires. Each character has variable player powers, and the board is constructed using quite a few hexagons that can assemble into different configurations and even different shapes which make for quite a bit of replayability. There are high tension and some quality components with the fire tokens. It's tough and challenging, but also easy enough that younger players can catch on quickly.


8 – Star Wars: Rebellion – Rise of the Empire

This expansion of Star Wars: Rebellion by Corey Konieczka and published by Fantasy Flight Games brought a great game to one of the best I've ever played. Rebellion is one of the most thematic games in history. There's nothing like the immersion that Rebellion gives you for playing through the original Star Wars trilogy, hiding the Rebel base, training Luke to become a Jedi, or building the Death Star. Each side has their own mechanics and goals, along with their own miniatures and decks, but the combat was fiddly and could take quite a long time in a game that is already science fiction epic that can take up to 4 hours to play. This expansion addresses that with a new Cinematic Combat variant as well as adding several characters and ships from the Star Wars: a Rogue One story film.


7 – Twilight Imperium 4

Speaking of science fiction epics from Fantasy Flight Games, they launched a new edition of their flagship original property. Though I only got to play this once in 2017, it was easy to identify the familiar pieces as well as the new (or changed) parts. Our inaugural game took just under 12 hours for six players (who were all familiar with the previous edition, but mostly strangers to each other) and was one of the most fun experiences I had in the year. The fourth edition seeks to streamline the technology portion of the last edition, as well as the way politics and voting work. This is a massive game with intrigue, combat, customization, trading, and politics.


6 – Sentient

If you don't like crunchy, number-focused goodness, then you can pass on this one. I understand that that kind of mechanic is tough for some people to get behind, but if you enjoy Sudoku in any way, please play this great game from Renegade Game Studios. In this robot-making game, you must take cards with values or equations and roll dice to match those values. Robots have certain types, and points are awarded at the end of rounds based on those types.


5 – Century: Golem Edition

Action selection is hit-or-miss for me. Splendor is okay but has mostly lost its luster. Century: Spice Road is the same game as this, but the artwork is bland, but Golem Edition is… beautiful as well as excellent. Cards allow you to gain or change gems; play a card and put it in front of you. On your turn, you can buy a new card, play a card, spend specific gems to score a Golem, or rest and pick all your cards back up. Plan B Games did an outstanding job with both the card art (awesome, colorful Golems) as well as the components. Bright gems stored in gorgeous plastic cups that fit in the insert. Century has a great engine building, deck building, resource management compilation along with a natural game end.


4 – Unearth

Brotherwise Games has done a lot of good with their Boss Monster system (which will be getting a third standalone game soon), but this is their first reach outside of that. Unearth has an incredibly unique art style that makes it stand out, and I absolutely love it. Each turn you will pick a ruin and a die you have (among five dice). Each ruin has a target number to hit, with rewards based on colors of ruins as well as scoring based on tokens on those ruins. I'm usually not one for such luck heavy games, but Unearth offers some mitigation as well as a powerful scale of reward that allows players to participate in scoring even with low rolls. High rolls give you a chance to score ruins, and low rolls allow you to take the tokens. Lots of strategy and replayability here with quick turns.


3 – Ex Libris

Renegade Game Studios hits the list again with the most unique theme for a game. In Ex Libris players are librarians in a fantasy world trying to correctly organize and alphabetize books. That might sound boring, but holy crap is it fun. Books come in different categories like Fantastical Fictions and Corrupted Codices. In this worker placement games, players place their assistants or librarians on boards that change each round that allow to draw or shelf cards in different ways. When someone has completed their book shelf (containing at least 16 cards), the final round is triggered. Players score based on the stability of their shelves, a special category selected for everyone at the beginning of the game, and a secret category everyone is dealt. Not only is this game a blast to play, but lots of love and care went into naming some of the books in the images and makes for some incredible, memorable, and humorous moments.


2 – Wasteland Express: Delivery Service

The last two here are very close. Regarding theme, Wasteland Express: Delivery Service wins by quite the margin. Playing this was one of my favorite experiences of the year. If you ever wanted to play a completely immersive Mad Max game, this is it. All the components are out of this world, and even the insert is comprised of different trays (some of which are actually used during the game). In Wasteland Express you're given five actions a turn to drive around a randomly generated map. Objectives can change from game-to-game, but most revolve around the pick-up-and-deliver resource system that keeps track of the in-game economy with a supply and demand system. Jonathon Gilmour and Pandasaurus Games have outdone themselves with this excellent game.


1 – Tak

Of my 480 plays this year, 101 of them were Tak by James Ernest and Patrick Rothfuss published by Cheapass Games. This game was originally an element of Rothfuss' The Wise Man's Fear. It was played by the main character, Kvothe, and talked about somewhat abstractly. The game went to Kickstarter in April 2016 and successfully funded. The game is an abstract strategy game played with thick wooden pieces and a pawn for each player. The game can be played on a variety of board sizes, but we usually play on a 5x5 board. Players each take turns either placing or moving a piece they control in order to make a road from one end of the board to the opposite end (left to right or top to bottom, for example). Pieces can be played flat, and when moved they can be stacked. Pieces can also be placed "standing" on their edge to prevent their opponent from stacking on them. Our games have been as long as 15 minutes, but we've also had some that were shorter than a minute. The subtitle of the game is A Beautiful Game and damn that's right. Cheapass Games makes a good copy of this game you can find at your local game store, but Wyrmwood makes magnificent copies with other materials that are much more beautiful for much (much, much) more money. For the time we've sunk into our copy, we'll be buying pieces from Wyrmwood to upgrade in 2018.

There are quite a few games that I wanted to play this year that I didn't get a chance to such Legacy of DragonholtAzul, and Dragon Island (another Pandasaurus title). I wish I would've had the time to play all the amazing games that came out last year (that'll be a recurring theme with these posts) but of all the games that were published in 2017, these were my favorites. You can find all these games at your friendly local game store.


Will Sobel