Our Favourite Games 2014

Hey guys! This is Game Guru Earl, bringing you my personal favourite games of 2014. It's early into 2015, but it's never too late for a top 10 list. After all, top 10's make the blogosphere go round.

Just as a quick tidbit on myself, to get you a bit acquainted with my own personal preferences - I've been playing games my entire life, but my love for the hobby reached its peak just three years ago. It started with A Game of Thrones: The Board Game (Second Edition), continued to Cosmic Encounter (my personal favourite) and continues on through games like Avalon, Hanabi and Seasons.

But enough about me, you're here to see some games with a number attached to them. 

10. Arcadia Quest

CoolMiniorNot practically prints money at this point.  Every Kickstarter campaign they've had since their uber-popular Zombicide has been funded in a short period of time.  Sometimes I wonder about the actual quality of their games, and whether or not people are simply backing the games because of the amazing miniature figurines.  I was hesitant when I learned of Arcadia Quest.  I read the rulebook and decided it wasn't for me and gave the Kickstarter a pass - especially considering how expensive the game is.  Luckily, a friend of mine bought it and I had the chance to give it a fair shot. 

Admittedly, I've only played the game once so please keep that in mind, but I had such a strong impression of the game that I really felt it deserved a spot on this list.  The combination and balance of PVE (Player vs. Environment) and PVP (Player vs. Player) is really nice.  The characters are all fun, quirky and unique.  The team building aspect gives every player a different style of play - also increasing the replayability of the game.

Looking forward to playing more of this in 2015.

9. Splendor

For me, the most important factor in terms of deciding if I like a game is theme. I've enjoyed quite a few bad/mediocre games that have a theme I can't resist (see: superhero games). I'm more willing to accept a game with strong theme and weak mechanics than a game with strong mechanics and weak theme. But like all things, there are always exceptions to the rule. Splendor is that exception for me.

A game where players collect gems and purchase cards representing gem mines and transportation methods for gems, in order to collect more gems - it's a tough sell. But once you begin to play it, especially in a two-player setting, you really feel the tension and mental tug-of-war. With very simple mechanics that anyone can pickup in less than 5 minutes, there's a low barrier to entry. As long as you can look past the theme, Splendor will definitely keep you entertained and thoroughly engaged.  Most groups I teach it to don't just play one game, they go on to play a second and third time.  It's quick, it's simple, but it's deeper than it looks. 

8. King of New York

When King of Tokyo came out there was a huge buzz because of the name attached to it. Richard Garfield is the man that brought us Magic: the Gathering and he had tried his hand at board games before, with some mild success (RoboRally and Netrunner). But when he tried his hand at something a little more accessible to the masses, he hit the jackpot once again, as King of Tokyo became a top seller and won numerous awards and accolades. Naturally, the hype was huge when it was revealed a sequel was on the way. But does it live up to the hype?

Yes. Not a strong 'yes', but it's not like they had to reinvent the wheel.  King of New York takes what everyone loved about the original and adds more, without losing the soul that gave King of Tokyo its success.  The elements they add, give the game a stronger thematic feel of being a monster terrorizing a city, as opposed to just collecting a random counter of stars/victory points. The addition of boroughs give all players the feeling that they are impacting the game at every turn of the game, without succumbing to the randomness of the dice.  And yet, despite each monster spending more time destroying neutral units in their respective boroughs, the interactivity still remains with the new 'Ouch!' face of the dice. There are more unique actions on the dice, instead of just numbers taking up half the faces. 

King of New York retools and refreshes the formula that Garfield introduced to us in King of Tokyo. Is there space for both games to exist on a gamer's shelf? I would say so. While they are largely very similar, King of Tokyo's success was strongly rooted in its easy learning curve and simple mechanics. New York adds stronger mechanics for gamers, but increases the amount of rules and mechanics the player has to keep track of.  For people looking for something easier to engage with, Tokyo still has a place.  But for people looking for more meat with the same face, King of New York is what you have been waiting for. Can't wait for the inevitable Power Up! expansion.

7. Machi Koro

I have to admit, I'm not a huge fan of Settlers of Catan. It serves as an excellent gateway game that can scratch a similar itch for people familiar with Monopoly.  It can still be a bit of a challenge to pickup for people unfamiliar with games outside of the Hasbro/Mattel collection.  Machi Koro does for Settlers of Catan what Sushi Go does for 7 Wonders.  It simplifies the fun, interesting part of the game and packages it into a quicker and easier to learn game.

With a gorgeous art style, Machi Koro, delivers an all-around package of fun game mechanics, great art and fun interactivity amongst players.  Players can build their cities any way they believe will earn them the most income, whether it be hoarding Ranches in order to cash out with Cheese Factories, or providing a super convenient collection of Convenience Stores for their citizens.  How each player builds their city is up to them, and like all dice games, they will be put to the mercy of the dice gods.  With one expansion (Harbour) out right now and at least one more on the way, the game will continue to grow and add more and more for gamers who want a bit of a deeper experience. 

If Settlers of Catan is the gateway game for prospective gamers, then Machi Koro is the gateway game for families, children, elders and just about anyone you can think of.  

6. Star Realms

I had big reservations about Star Realms when I learned about it.  I already had a few go-to deck-building games and I wasn't sure if I could fit another one, let alone one that only supported two players with one copy of the game (you're forced to buy the game again just to get the starting cards if you want to play with more than two).  And then we opened it up and there was the clunky health tracking system via cards.  We ultimately kept track of health on our phones.  With all of this working against Star Realms, it managed to still be one of my most enjoyable experiences in 2014.

The first few times I played the game it was through the multiplayer game modes. Emperor was the most fun of the ones we tried.  There are two teams with one Emperor and two Admirals.  The Admirals are trying to protect the Emperor, while trying to deal with the opposing Admirals trying to get through them.  The first team to take out the opposing Emperor wins the game.  There are some cool dynamics to this mode, like choosing how to direct your attacks or giving up cards to your Admirals to help them out.  It was a really fun and unique deck-building experience.

Afterwards I purchased Star Realms on my phone, and for months I was battling the computer AI, during subway trips to and from work.  The head to head experience is really strong.  Many deck-builders can be played with two, but few are as engaging and tense as Star Realms.  If you enjoy deck-building games or just card games in general, do yourself a favour and try this one out.  I'm always trying to find a pair of people to teach this one to at the cafe. 

5. Sheriff of Nottingham

I love bluffing games.  I may not be the greatest at it, but those types of games are the ones I tend to find the most enjoyment in.  Sheriff of Nottingham is essentially Customs: The Game.  I know it doesn't sound very interesting when you put it like that, but it's a blast once you really dive into it.  The game reminded me of a few games I've enjoyed previously like Ca$h N Gun$ and Article 27.  But it does what those games do in a much tighter package - and closer to something like Cockroach Poker.  It's colourful and whimsical art really brings to life the spirit of the game.  

The Popping Pouches (maybe I should trademark this) would be #1 on my list of Best Game Components of 2014.  In Sheriff of Nottingham players can bribe the sheriff to open other player's bags or to let their bags slip past inspection.  This allows for some great bluffs and double-bluffs.  But the way the Popping Pouches work, gives a real *pop* to the tensions of the bribery part of the game.  Because once you hear your pouch pop, there's no going back.  This usually elicits a smug grin on the face of the briber or a look of sheer horror and shock.  

Sheriff of Nottingham is a great, quick game of determining not just who is the greatest liar, but also who's the greatest truth teller. 

4. Dice Masters

I was finished with collectible games in 2003.  With my addictive personality, I knew I had to give it up.  Sure it just lead to me finding new vices (like World of Warcraft), but at least I wasn't gambling my money away on the tiny chance of getting a shiny new card.  It is now 2015, and I have WizKids to blame for my relapse into collectible gaming.  I managed to stray away from Heroclix, but when I found out about the Dice Masters engine I knew I had to give it a shot.  Essentially the game is a mix between Magic: the Gathering and a deck-builder (or more appropriately, dice-builder).  Slap a superhero theme to a strong engine and it's like I'm in grade 5 all over again.  

The collectible aspect of this game might be the only reason it didn't make it into the Top 3, but at the same time there's some sense of satisfaction of opening blind packs.  It's a thrill that I do enjoy quite a lot.  And it's less of a negative when the game is so affordable.  Priced at just $0.99 for a booster, which provides 2 cards and the matching dice, the game is affordable as long as you can control your spending habits.  WizKids managed to keep costs low enough to entice people like me, who had all but given up collectible gaming.

But let's talk about the game.  It is more than just a solid engine, it's excellent.  The team-building aspect really gives a strong theme to the game.  Building a team of X-Men has a lot of advantages as opposed to just mixing a random assortment of heroes and villains.  But that's not to say you're limited in terms of what teams you can build.  It's very open to the player to find out which combinations work best and with the team size at 8 characters, player's can also throw in a few characters to counter situational opposing teams. 

I've managed to maintain my spending habits with the game so far. But with the DC Comics set coming out in March and full compatibility with the Marvel sets, I can finally build my dream team of heroes and villains.  Magneto, Dr. Doom and Lex Luthor will rule the Dice Masters universe with an iron fist.  

3. Five Tribes

I don't like worker placement games.  I have to be upfront with you guys, because if you like them then you would probably be best to keep that in consideration when reading my list.  I like my games to have a certain level of interactivity amongst players and many worker placement games I've played just don't reach that level.  Naturally, #3 on my list would be what some are calling a worker displacement game.

The main mechanic of Five Tribes is essentially borrowed from the very old Mancala - a game from centuries ago.  I remember learning to play Mancala from my aunts and grandparents.  After playing Five Tribes, I wondered why it took us so long to bring this mechanic back to our own modern board games.  It may not be the most thematic implementation, but it was implemented in a very fun and rewarding way.  Big moves were often met with "Oooh's" and "Ahhh's".  I'm sure we'll see more games use this worker displacement mechanic and find better ways to implement it thematically, but for now Five Tribes does an incredible job with making it fun and gamey. 

The hardest knock on the game though has to be what everyone calls Analysis Paralysis (AP).  Because of the combination of mechanics at work, combined with the randomized tiles and Mancala gameplay, there is typical dozens of moves available to the players at any given time.  And any time one move is made, it creates dozens of new moves.  This leads players to overthink their turns in order to maximize it.  My suggestion to everyone playing Five Tribes would be to encourage everyone not to overthink their turns.  Find a strong move and go for it.  Let the chips fall where they may.  Eventually you will be comfortable with the mechanics and setting up future plays or preventing others from getting big gains will just become second nature.  With just four games under my belt, I was already beginning to see things that would have taken me hours to see before. 

In terms of traditional, competitive board games this was easily my favourite of the year.  It's an overwhelming game when you try to take it all in, but it's actually a very accessible game.  I would test anyone to give it a shot, and I would really love to teach this one to people at the cafe.  

2. Concept

Before falling in love with competitive, strategic board games, I was in love with games like CraniumTelestrationsSay AnythingScattergories and so on.  Some of my favourite games are party games. They're the easiest to teach, often provide the most laughs, and overall create a level of interaction that is unobtainable in most strategy games.  You can be competitive or carefree and gain the same level of enjoyment.

Concept delivers a package that is both unique and unlimited in terms of creative potential.  If you're playing the game for the first time, I would suggest ignoring the rulebook and even the reference sheets.  Concept works best when you allow your imagination to run free of any limitations.  Players take turns giving clues by using coloured cubes and shapes on a board of various icons depicting things like color, size, shape, animal, gender.  Everyone else has to guess what concept the player is trying to convey with their arrangement of pieces on the board.  It can be as simple as something like "Elephant" or as hard as something like "Luke, I am your father".  Some of the best clues I've seen were clues that would break the rules if you followed them to a T. 

I've always likened Concept to charades, but without having to act it out, and instead creatively using icons on a board in conjunction with coloured pieces to get complex concepts across to other people.  When someone guesses a difficult concept, there's a bit of a spark that happens.  It happens in a few party games where it feels like someone is reading your mind, and that happens right here in Concept.  It's a feel good time.  And whenever you're done with the main deck, you can always make your own expansions of words and phrases - like I intend to do. 

1. Dead of Winter

If you asked me what the perfect combination of elements to a game would be I would say: semi-cooperative (like Avalon), variability (like Cosmic Encounter), custom dice (like Dice Masters) , strong theme (like A Game of Thrones: Board Game), heavy interactivity (like Hanabi) and just a touch of random chaos (like Escape: Curse of the Temple). So apparently Plaid Hat Games has a set of mind readers dedicated to creating what might be my favourite game of all-time.  Dead of Winter implements all these things and does so while maintaining it into a game that just makes sense from front to back.  It's easy to toss in a bunch of cool mechanics into a game thinking it'll be a great game, but it's a very tough task to keep everything honest to the theme and heart of the game. They've managed to do this with Dead of Winter.

Players are all working within a colony in a post-apocalyptic world infested with zombies.  Scrounging for food, gas, medicine and tools they must put together a collective effort to complete the colony's main objective.  But while this is going on, every player has their own secret agenda that they must complete alongside the main objective.  And sometimes, their objective is counterintuitive to the main one.  And sometimes, one player is just fed up with the colony and bides their time waiting to betray everyone and greedily push their own agenda.  

Zombie games have been done before, it's a saturated market in almost all mediums (television, film, literature, games).  But Dead of Winter succeeds in the same way that The Walking Dead and The Last of Us succeeded most recently.  The game is about the survivors, not the zombies.  The zombies are just a backdrop of the game.  They could be rainbow-coloured unicorns and the game would still phenomenal.  The biggest enemies in post-apocalyptic worlds aren't the zombies, it's the survivors doing what they must in order to continuing surviving.  

The Crossroads cards really add a story to the game, and keep you invested in the actual plot of the game.  Very few games keep the narrative at the forefront, but Dead of Winter is constantly barraging you with events and story. It's never overly serious or heavy-handed.  There's humour to many parts of the game.  Whether it be something like the drunken santa whose special ability is to sacrifice himself to boost the colony's morale or outright ridiculous like a dog talking to strangers, using a shotgun and dragging a horse's carcass to the colony to feed everyone.  There's a real charm to the narrative.  

I could go on and on, raving about what makes this game my favourite game of 2014 - and maybe favourite of all-time but instead I'm just going to say, come and play it.  It's one thing to listen to me ramble about how awesome it is, and it's another to experience it yourself.  We have it on our shelves and I get genuinely excited when I see people playing it.  I love the game a lot, I'm sure that much is apparent here.  But the only thing I love more than the game itself, is watching people fall in love with it too.  So go play Dead of Winter!     

Oh, and thanks for having the patience to read through this list.  

And if you didn't, TL;DR GO PLAY BOARDGAMES!

Earl OliverosComment