I’ve never been one for list making I have a general aversion to them. It is my experience they exist to get me off my arse and doing chores like digging up a rose bush or hoovering something the dog left behind. There you are on your day off, a wealth of possibilities ahead of you (Hearthstone, Netflix, PornHub) and stuck to the kettle is the fucking list! Its what I imagine it feels like to be haunted by my mum.
And everybody’s at it these days, especially at a year-end. It’s like an invasion of the chuffing OCD body snatchers. So for these reasons what follows is not a list but recollections of stuff we’ve enjoyed this year. And besides, I blame Charlie as he suggested doing this.
2017 has followed the trend of recent years in offering an unrelenting production line of wallet punishing possibilities. Between Kickstarter brimming with promise often followed by the inevitable backer’s remorse at all the bling but none of the zing. And the comfortable Faustian thrum of the big publishers churning out expansions for last years expansions it’s been business as usual. But with all these releases and at this point we are probably talking thousands of new titles whats lacking is the feeling of any true innovation.
Board gaming has arrived at its Hollywood blockbuster stage with the big names regurgitating past glories either by applying that hot new license sauce or sploshing it with that theme everyone else has been slapping on top of stuff this month. Leaving it to the independents to try and surprise us.
For instance, we had the much anticipated Godfather game from Eric Lang which I’ll go on record as saying I enjoyed despite it’s weak theming and resuscitation of Langs of Christmas pasts. It’s a solid little bastard refreshingly easy to teach that suffered from a bullet-sprayed toll booth ambush from its overproduced components to some underwhelming choices regarding its card art and probably just an onset of Lang fatigue.
First Martians is another that I started the year with stratospheric expectations at the prospect of the reimagining of Robinson Crusoe to complete disinterest following its fumbled release. With its indecipherable rules at launch and an uninspiring implementation of the companion app, it’s a game that should have been a riveting nail-biting experience reduced to pushing cubes about a spreadsheet. I mean its Robinson Crusoe on Mars, how do you fuck that up!
I suppose my feelings are that 2017 has seen plenty of comfortably satisfying titles but not all that many outstanding ones. Here are my highlights from what I’ve played this year.
Yes technically this was a 2016 release but I missed out like many on the initial Kickstarter and quickly corrected this mistake by diving on its 2nd printing.
What can be said about Gloomhaven that already hasn’t, in the last few days its secured itself the top slot on the Board Game Geek rankings which is totally deserved in my opinion and I’m sure will result in a backlash as that’s a thing now.
Gloomhaven is big and I’m not just referring to the hernia-inducing 22lbs of punchboards, miniatures, standees, stickers and mystery goodies in its voluminous box. Its heft is equalled by its scope which is expansive encompassing an entire RPG style campaign complete with recurring characters and an evolving world and situations that players will over the estimated year-long campaign (that’s in real time) explore and discover.
That alone would make the game an event, but its more than that it’s a riveting experience from the moment you get this to the table. The clever card mechanism that it utilises as you battle through dungeons means that every turn offers a wealth of satisfying decisions for players and you become totally absorbed in the development of your character.
Gloomhaven also handles its Legacy moments carefully, they appear as a natural progression of the story and characters, there’s no showboating here or excess. They work to enhance everything that’s gone before and drip enough anticipation that you know that they are coming but are happy to eventually encounter them rather than becoming the focus of what you’re doing. For my money, it’s probably one of the best uses of the system to enhance a game.
I understand that it’s not for everyone it requires a substantial commitment on the part of the players but at no point during our plays has it ever felt like a chore I’ve found it consistently entertaining (so much so I even played a few early games solo to help us level up). And yes I can appreciate that the cost may be prohibitive for some but split four ways brings it down to roughly the same as buying any new release, and to be honest, the sheer amount of game you’re getting makes this immense value for money. We’re around a dozen plays into our campaign and we’ve barely made a dent in the contents and with so many hidden treasures yet to discover its delightfully overwhelming.
Gloomhaven should be hitting retail sometime in January, if you’re only planning on buying one game this year here’s a good place to start.
Bethesda’s Fallout series has been embraced by gamers with its quirky take on the post-apocalyptic genre by setting the world in an alternative 1950’s culture stasis creating a bizarre melting pot where cold war paranoia nudges up against Atompunk technologies. FFG has successfully managed to merge the expansive worlds of the Fallout series into a riveting evenings entertainment. Everything you want from a Fallout board game is here, branching quests scattered across a desolate wasteland of gangs of roving super mutants and malfunctioning robots, levelling up, perks even the combat system, it’s really all rather spiffing.
Taking cues from Runebound its fantasy quest board game it manages to fix all that was hokey and clunky from that and neatly streamline it into a riotous bit of fun. If you love Fallout then everything you’d want and expect is here to find. Popular characters, locations and items take regular bows as you forge your way across the wasteland. There’s heaps of replayability here with four campaigns, five different characters and the ever-evolving quest chains it really does manage to capture the essence of the video game series.
If there’s one misstep it’s the ending which abruptly crashes the fun and is as welcome as surprise sex at a women’s refuge and due to a random card draw may also be completely unbalanced. However, this being FFG then this issue will undoubtedly be mopped up in the first of what I imagine will be a run of expansions, there is, after all, an awful lot of the Fallout universe left to explore.
Rob Daviau when he’s not feverishly creating legacy games found time to set up Restoration Games a new publisher with the mission to trawl back through the archives of lost and forgotten classics and give them a fresh lick of paint. Downforce from Wolfgang Kramer was one of the first to receive the treatment and it’s an absolute cracker.
Players bet on racing cars before play commences and then using hands of cards that move all the different cars separate distances try to get their cars to cross the winning line first. In a neat twist at a couple of points during the game players have the opportunity to bet on what cars they think will win allowing them to switch allegiance and amass the big money prizes.
Recently Osprey reprinted Escape From Colditz and while it was a lavish presentation they missed a trick when reintroducing this old warhorse back to a new generation. They steadfastly took the stance not to tweak the existing design instead presenting the game as something of a time capsule, the problem is that we as gamers have become far more sophisticated and Colditz is very much of its time.
Which is why by applying some minor tweaks and a modern design aesthetic, Restoration has produced games that feel like today’s releases. The big win is that these are just so gosh darn playable and having tried all of the initial release slate I stand impressed, and with Fireball Island next for the treatment I’m officially stoked for what else they have coming.
Superheroes are a tricky subject to tackle in RPGs. Too many tackle the points and balances of how to make powers work in a realistic world. Masks doesn’t care about that. Instead, you play teenagers who aren’t yet able to control their powers, don’t know who they are in life and when they’ve figured it all out, the characters retire from active play as they’re heroes now. Stats are labels like, “Freak” and “Danger”, showing what the characters think of themselves, but this can also change as they accept or resist the influence of other people.
My campaign this year took place in the midst of some massive group upheaval so we had to repilot part way through and played far more than I’d originally intended. The first batch of players created The Periodic Table of Evil, at which point I threw out my notes for a villain group as I could never make anything that perfect. The kids started out as good friends and when one player left and two more joined, things got messier. A redemption-seeking former henchwoman and a boorish mess of a god added a lot more volatility to the mix. I also got to go nuts with terrible villains like Bear Arms (a giant man with bears for arms which were also armed), Chadlantic and The Attacksidermist, whose name nearly made a player walk out. It’s been the definitive campaign of the current group and I look forward to returning to Halcyon City.
BLADES IN THE DARK
A lot of indie and story games have players make their own worlds and that’s all well and good, but sometimes it’s fun to play in a prebuilt world. John Harper’s city of Duskvol is intricately made and presented with gorgeous maps, side views of the streets, gangs and objectives they’ll be up to in the background while the game ticks along.
Players are a gang of miscreants in a haunted fantasy city, barricaded from a fallen world by giant electrical towers. They take part in heists and start missions with no actual planning. Unlike games like Spycraft where you plan for two thirds of the game and then watch everything fall apart, you start as you enter the mission location and then flashback to show how your actions make sense. You can insert guards you paid off, guns hidden under tables or traps. Despite the darkness of the world and the lethality of the system, players are given a level of power and agency to make them seem cool.
Our campaign included a ruinous break-in to a ghost prison, shortcuts through a ghostly realm and a horrible berserker gang leader Ulf, who the group accidentally turned into a vampire. The season ended with a bridge on fire and a gang war with Ulf’s forces breaking out. When we return, the group will need to deal with the aftermath of whatever went on during that fateful night.
And that’s some of the stuff that really shone for us this year. I did play Terraforming Mars which was quite a lot of fun but the components are terrible for its price. If it was cheaper I might have taken the dive. Mech’s Vs Minions is worthy of mention if nothing else for being the other end of the spectrum with its ridiculous production value, and a pretty solid bit of fun as well.
Arcadia Quest Inferno landed with a serious Kickstarter thump and like the original its entertaining nonsense, but I actually think all of the assorted KS bling impaired my enjoyment of the game as it took forever to set up and sort out.
Century Spice Road, Kingdomino and Clans of Caledonia get a mention as they were all comfortably satisfying bits of fun but give it six months and something shinier will have distracted us by then.
Stuff I wished I’d played.
Anachrony looked a really interesting brain teaser with its time travelling worker placement. but I missed out on the Kickstarter and the initial print run, I might get around to checking it out eventually.
More Time Stories scenarios, these have been fiendishly hard to track down flitting in and out of print as they do. And while I really dig the idea I have felt that none of the subsequent stories has been as satisfying as the Asylum case hence my reluctance to commit.
Imperial Assault with the app, this is an easy fix but as I have pretty much everything released for IA yet continue to struggle to get regular games going I’m looking forward to giving this a whirl. Now I just need to paint the Jabba’s Realm and Heart of the Empire expansions.
Thing that most grates from this year…
People still winging about Legacy games! We get it some of you don’t like defacing cardboard. This is fine, do whatever makes you happy with what ever inordinately baffling amount of work you foresee needs doing so that you don’t have to make any permanent changes. Just be aware that I think its silly, and every time I see one of these self important posts on social media replete with a requirements of duplicating card decks and creating tokens etc and told its so easy, I find my head thudding repeatedly into my desk. Here’s a thought for you every day we all are playing a game with permanent effects, where ramifications of our decisions can echo for months, years or forever. Its called life buddy, go and get one.
So 2017. It was alright then.