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Retrospective: Board Games in 2018

Board games are an inherent part of my life. For the last several years they were integral to my career and my downtime. I love games, and I’m surrounded by them all the time (that’s a good thing). I play board games a lot. I mean, a lot. So much that I started tracking my plays using an app because not only do I love board games, but I love stats and data. To paint this picture clearly I spent 349 hours playing in 2016 and 318 hours in 2017. 2018 was a different story. Between the miserable first part of the year and the traveling in the middle part of the year, I spent only 84 hours in all of 2018.


Before I dive into the meat and potatoes, let me quickly run through some games that I really wanted to get to play but haven’t gotten to the table yet; Dice Throne, Villainous, and Shards of Infinity all look super amazing and I’m trying to play them soon, as well as the new edition of Arkham Horror. There are also some honorable mentions; Thanos Rising was super cool and thematic and the Thanos figure is a cool needle-moving mechanism. Choose Your Own Adventure was a lot of fun with a really cool story that I played with a great group of people over the course of a couple days. They were both excellent but couldn’t quite make the cut.

You might be asking, why do you do a Top 9? Well, because when I started doing this Instagram was really big into making those 3x3 grid images of your “nine favorite things” and it stuck, so here we are – okay Top 9!

9. Reef (Designed by Emerson Matsuuchi and published by Next Move Games)


The simple design in Reef and the theme of underwater basket weaving (I’m not really sure) didn’t really do anything for me, but when pictures started going around of the board and I saw the elegant table presence of all the pieces stacked on top of each other I got interested. I got to play this at PAX Unplugged last year and learned it in just a few minutes, and played a few games back-to-back really quickly. It’s a simple game with lots of depth, similar to the likes of Splendor or Century: Spice Road – on your turn you have two straightforward choices that present dozens of complex decision branches. Because of that the game plays quickly and has a much more tactile gift than either of those since the little plastic pieces are light and are made to stack. You have to be able to see strategy in matching pieces sometimes both vertically and horizontally which can be confusing, but very rewarding.

8. Duelosaur Island (Designed by Ian Awesome Moss and published by Panasaurus Games)

Let’s get the art out of the way. Kwanchai Moriya is a damn miracle to art. We don’t deserve Kwanchai. This is a compact version of Dinosaur Island condensed down to some tight and deep decision trees for just 2-players. Through back and forth rounds, players collect genetic material to build dinosaurs, which gain visitors, which bring you money, which lets you build a bigger park and get more dinosaurs. This is a fun, intricate loop, with resource management dice rolling and multi-purpose cards which make some of the decisions tense. While both games are great, I found that I much preferred the faster pace of Duelosaur Island even though some of the decisions are much less forgiving because I could learn from my mistake and make sure it didn’t happen in the next game.

7. Death Note: Confrontation (Designed by Mandy & Jordan Goddard and published by IDW Games)


Let me start by saying that I’ve never seen or read Death Note, though I’m familiar with the premise. But this game is amazing, even without being super into the theme. In this game 2 players take on asymmetric roles and use pads of paper to keep notes and check off boxes while one player secretly moves around to murder criminals and the other tries to find them to prevent more murders. Imagine a 2-player only version of Escape from Aliens in Outer Space, and you’ll have the framework for Death Note: Confrontation. Each murder the first player performs gives the second player more information to narrow the scope of their search – but the first player has a number of duds they can use to try and throw their pursuer off the trail. This is a great back and forth game that mixes the best of hidden movement and deduction with asymmetry.

6. Tower of Madness (Designed by Curt Covert and published by Smirk & Dagger Games)


There’s so much to say about Tower of Madness and the instant reaction is usually that it looks like Jenga and that’s not far off. The tower acts as a crucial and thematic mechanism of this game, and gives the game a serious and unique table presence, but there’s a lot more to this game as well. The main chunk of the game involves rolling custom dice for patterns, similar to Yahtzee, to control location cards with effects and point values. Players take turns rolling, matching the pattern if they can – however some of the die faces trigger certain abilities or powers. Failing to match the pattern causes you to pull a tentacle from the tower, which may expel marbles which also provide different effects (such as Spell cards or becoming a servant of Cthulhu which makes the game one vs many). Tower of Madness is insane amounts of fun with an incredibly unique play style that mixes lots of classic elements into something new and exciting.

5. KeyForge (Designed by Richard Garfield and published by Fantasy Flight Games)

The first Unique Deck Game, KeyForge is a competitive one-on-one card game similar in style to Magic: The Gathering and a whole slew of duel-style games that were born from Richard Garfield, but this one is unique in a ton of new ways. The first, and most obvious, thing about KeyForge is that all the decks are different but you don’t build your deck. Algorithms that Richard and the Fantasy Flight team put together make sure that all decks are unique so that no one has the same deck with the same configuration of cards and when you buy a deck you don’t know what configuration you’ll end up with. The second unique thing about KeyForge is that, unlike other dueling games, each player is building something. The precedent set by Magic is that players start with a life total, a value, and the opponent is trying to reduce it to 0 – and this has been the case in hundreds of iterations since then. However, in KeyForge, both players are attempting to build three keys using AEmber, which players can collect in lieu of combat. This positive focus brings an interesting atmosphere to the game, and makes it less socially combative as well as highlighting an objective of building rather than destroying.

4. Pantone (Designed by Scott Rogers and published by Cryptozoic Entertainment)


Known for their Cerberus deckbuilding games (like DC Deckbuilding), Epic Spell Wars, and Spyfall, this is an attempt at making a color and image based party game. If you didn’t know, Pantone is a brand of paint – which makes this one of the most unique partnerships in boardgaming. In Pantone players are awarded points for guessing a character from pop culture correctly. Not unlike other modern party games like Cards Against Humanity, one player takes the role of a judge while others try to guess, but in Pantone players use cards colored completely after Pantone paint colors. In different rounds players are given different restrictions on how many and what kinds of cards to use. At the end of the day it’s familiar enough for families and new gamers, but it’s unique and different enough from other party games that I want to keep bringing it to the table.

3. Root (Designed by Cole Wehrle and published by Leder Games)

The perfect blend of boardgame and war game, Root has amazing art work and unique gameplay that is accessible and unique. Like past games from Leder, Root is completely asymmetrical, and players are practically playing completely different games from one another which makes each play and each turn interesting and unpredictable. Root is not an easy game to learn (much like Vast), but when compared to other war games, it presents an easy place to learn and enter into the community. Each of the factions has their own flavor that makes them stand out as different playstyles, paired with adorable woodland creatures and art.

2. The Mind (Designed by Wolfgang Warsch and published by Pandasaurus Games)


There’s so much to say about the simple, elegant, and frustratingly difficult gameplay of The Mind. Played in ‘levels’ or rounds, the goal is just to play cards from your hand in order with the other players. The deck contains cards numbered from 1-100 and during each level players are dealt cards equal to the level they’re on. The catch is that players aren’t allowed to talk – which makes nonverbal communication, intuition, and counting cards very important. The team are given lives which let them fail, and Shurikens, which make each player discard their lowest card – but in limited numbers that can only be gained back by defeating certain levels. The game goes up to level 12, but I’ve never made it past the 10th.

1.       Expancity (Designed by Alex Cutler and published by Breaking Games)

This city-building game forces players to collaborate and compete while laying down tiles and matching icons. Placing and building become incredibly strategic when each player must place a new tile each turn. Each tile is zoned differently, and has icons representing the different types of buildings, industry, or community that could be in the area. Each player is given a number of contracts they must fill to score points, and can gain more contracts throughout the game. Contracts represent varying shapes in tiles and icons and can be scored at the end of a players turn. These are some of the most interesting choices in the game since contracts are hidden – players trying to build and take advantage of their own contracts may inadvertently assist an opponent. This tension makes each turn radical, fun, and nail-biting.

2019 is already looking at being more play-productive than 2018, and a lot of these I played earlier this year already. I look forward to trying out a bunch of stuff this year (like Guardian’s Call). Soon I’ll post about my Top 9 movies, TV episodes, and books and I’ll have more to say then.


Will Sobel