During 2015, there were thousands of new Hobby Board Games released (just shy of 3000 according to boardgamegeek.com, the largest index of board games), which doesn’t count expansions to existing games. It’s impossible to keep up with so many board games coming out all the time, either from the ever increasing number of small publishers or the surge of Kickstarter projects, so you have to make something either truly great or truly singular to capture people’s attention today. Some have great names (Assassinorum: Execution Force, I’m looking at you), some make big splashes on Kickstarter (Exploding Kittens, which was better than it has any right to be), and some try to ride the coattails of great IP licences (like the new Star Wars Risk Edition, which is actually nothing like Risk and a surprisingly decent board game).
Each year, there are a handful of board games that stand out from the crowd. With Christmas nearing, I’ve put together a list of what I consider to be the Top 10 best board games released in 2015. I’ve had a chance to play each of these games multiple times, and they’re all games I intend to keep in my collection for a long time. With each board game, I’ll give an explanation of the game itself, and why I like it.
Before I do that, however, I want to start with a few honorable mentions. These are games I don’t own and haven’t had a chance to play (though I certainly want to), but each of them possesses something unique that I think makes them stand out from the crowd. In no particular order, here are my honorable mentions:
Honorable Mention: Elysium by Space Cowboys
In Elysium, two to four players take on the role of a demigod trying to curry the most favor with the Gods on Olympus. Each player is given a set of four colored columns, which form the basic currency of the game. Each of the five game rounds, or epochs, involves recruiting cards and quests, which are separated between a players Domain area that represents the land of the Living, and their Elysium, the land of the Dead. Most of your points are earned based on the cards you are able to move into Elysium. Players compete for the favor of eight gods, though only five are used in any given game, which gives a fair amount of replayability.
If you like games like Seasons or Abyss, you should also enjoy Elysium. The game plays in about 60 minutes, which feels about the right length to get a challenging experience without taking too long to play, though it can be prone to Analysis Paralysis. It’s definitely one to check out if you enjoy Euro-style games.
Honorable Mention: XCOM: The Board Game by Fantasy Flight Games
The XCOM Board Game doesn’t have the frenetic, first-person shooter elements featured in a number of the video game implementations, but does capture the feeling of having to defend the world against an unknown hostile alien force. This is a cooperative game that features a digital companion application that is required to play the game. Lest that put you off, this is probably the best digital element incorporated into any board game to date. The app is more than just narration or instructions, but actually serves to randomize the game and give the aliens an unpredictable A.I. that responds to what the players are doing and how the game is progressing. While the game is capable of being played with one to four players, I would really only consider playing it with a full group of four. This allows each player to take on one of several important roles responsible for making certain key decisions.
There are a couple of reasons I’ve not played this one yet. First, I don’t know someone who owns it. Second, as someone who is not all that well acquainted with the video game franchise, I don’t feel the connection to the franchise to lead me to want to rush out and buy it. Third, the game has a reputation for being very difficult. Some of you might enjoy that, and I certainly don’t mind challenging games, especially cooperative games, but there’s a real-time element that makes the game hard because you will inevitably make bad rushed decisions that add to the difficulty of the game. It’s a game that really requires you to play it multiple times to understand how the game plays before you have a change to be successful. If you’re a fan of the series and willing to run though a few plays that will end badly before you feel like you get it, this one is definitely worth a look.
Honorable Mention: Mysterium by Asmodee
The easiest way to describe Mysterium is to say that someone took a deck of Dixit cards and made an actual game out of it. That may seem a bit harsh to Dixit fans (I’m not a big Dixit fan myself), but it’s probably more accurate to say that Mysterium is Dixit with theme. In Mysterium, one person plays a murder victim, and the other players are psychic mediums or paranormal investigators who have come to help solve this murder. The victim has a deck of cards much like a standard Dixit deck, and ‘communicates’ with the other players by presenting them cards that represent their dreams. Without any other verbal clues from the victim, the rest of the players are trying to use the clues given to identify the particulars of how the victim died.
I think the main reason I include this board game as an honorable mention is the fact that I don’t really know any other game like this. It’s different and strange, which is usually a selling point for me. The reason I haven’t bought this yet is that this game, more than most others, is very dependent on the group. In the right group, with some ambiance and willingness to dive in, this game can be incredible. In the wrong group, this game can be an exercise in controlled frustration, especially for the victim, who often has to play cards that may not actually have anything to do with the clue he needs them to guess, and has to sit silently and watch while the other plays overanalyze all the wrong details from the card.
So, without further ado, here’s my:
Top 10 Best Board Games of 2015
10. Apex Theropod Deck-Building Game by Die-Hard Games
This board game is my sentimental pick, despite it being a relatively obscure game. This game was a Kickstarter project launched by a military veteran that lives in my area, and the artwork to this game drew me in immediately. I would have been happy if all I got was a mediocre game with beautiful art, but I was surprised by how great this game actually is. It’s a deck-building game (similar to games like Dominion and Core Worlds), where you are playing as the brood mother of a particular dinosaur species. You hunt prey that comes out along a cycling game trail, use that prey to feed your babies, and recruit those grown up dinosaurs into your deck. Occasionally a Boss will show up in the game trail that has to be fought off or killed, and the game ends when a giant meteor strikes earth and everyone is rendered extinct.
This game is chocked full of theme, and may be the game I’ve played the most this year. It can play up to 8, though I would never want to play with more than 4 as the playing time increases linearly per player (at about 30 minutes per player), and has a surprising robust single-player mode. It’s tough, but each dinosaur clan has a distinct style of play that takes several plays to figure out and master. There is a chance with some bad card draws early for an incredibly thematic but frustrating ‘death-spiral’ to take place, where your dinosaur gets so messed up and sick from early hunting mistakes that there’s no recovering. I love this game, flaws and all, and when the designer announced he was taking all the feedback and releasing a second edition with refined game play, more player interaction, and more playable dinosaur species, it was a Day 1 Kickstarter purchase from me, as well as several of the people I’ve introduced the game to. I even funded high enough to be allowed to design a card for the new version, which should tell you how much I enjoy this game. It’s really one of the best deck-builders I’ve ever played, and the second edition will be releasing in January/February of next year, so keep an eye out for that one if it sounds interesting to you.
9. Flick ‘Em Up by Pretzel Games
I’m not typically a fan of Dexterity Games. For those not familiar with the term, the standard bearer of this genre is Jenga, though the term broadly means any game that has an element of physical interaction (dexterity) required, such as pushing blocks, flicking disks, or throwing pieces. For many of these games, the dexterity element is the game, and the concept of theme doesn’t really apply or is loosely pasted on. This is where Flick ‘Em Up is such an interesting departure.
Flick ‘Em Up is a game that strives to recreate an old-fashioned western shoot out. Players split into two teams of sheriffs and bandits then position their figures in their town ready to go. Players exchange fire by flicking disks at their opponents, with hits registering if you can knock the target figure over. You can also move for better positioning by flicking a rounded disk to maneuver between buildings and behind hay bales or other props. You can move into buildings which grants you cover, but if another person enters that building with you, you engage in a duel, flicking at each other over increasingly shorter distances until one of you emerges victorious and the other is thrown out into the street. It’s brilliant, hilarious fun that works well for a wide variety of age ranges, since flicking is a skill we all suck at.
8. 7 Wonders: Duel by Repos Production
7 Wonders is a great board game about civilization building that uses card drafting as the primary mechanic. It’s a game that can play anywhere from three to eight players, though I always prefer to play it with the higher player counts. There are two-player rules included with the game, but they’re pretty terrible. Enter 7 Wonders: Duel. This game, designed only for two players, takes the basic concepts of 7 Wonders, and instead of card drafting inserts a game of pyramid solitaire. Unless you’re a big solitaire fan, that probably doesn’t sound very appealing, but they use the mechanic well. Instead of choosing a card from your hand, you can choose from any card uncovered in the pyramid. Some cards start each round face down so you can’t completely predict what cards will be revealed, but there’s a surprising amount of tactical decisions to be made. Add to that major changes to the military and science systems, a changed system for building wonders, and several other system tweaks, and what you have is a really great version of 7 Wonders that feels like the original game, but plays a little faster.
7. Blood Rage by Cool Mini Or Not
The only board game on this list I don’t own (*yet), Blood Rage was one of the most hyped games coming out of GenCon this year. Thematically, it’s a game about Vikings pillaging the nine Norse realms as Ragnarok begins to destroy the world one realm at a time. Mechanically, this game is a Frankenstein of some of the best elements of other games that works so much better than it has any right to. Take a little card drafting from 7 Wonders, sprinkle in an energy system from Core Worlds, a combat system that’s part Area Control and part Cosmic Encounter, and an empire upgrade system like Eclipse and you get this game that feels familiar and strange at the same time. Oh, and the miniatures. This game features some of the best miniatures of any game I’ve ever seen, which is what you expect from Cool Mini or Not.
I’ve had a chance to play this game a few times now. The theme is strong, and really shines through all the game systems at work here. Blood Rage is unsurprisingly not for the faint of heart. It’s strategic, and brutally punishing of mistakes. Almost every game I’ve played has left someone feeling hard done by. Miscalculations or combat surprises early in a round can severely cripple you for the rest of that round. With only nine territories to compete over, you’ll be fighting multiple times each age, but unlike many direct combat games, winning isn’t everything. In fact, sometimes you’ll send your units deliberately into a fight just so they’ll die and go to Valhalla, since there are several ways to make a glorious death profitable, sometimes even more profitable than winning a fight outright. Then there’s Ragnarok. Each turn, one area on the board is destroyed, and any units in that territory at the time earn glory for their clan simply for having died in Ragnarok. I still don’t feel like I’ve been get my mind around how to win, and I love that.
6. Tiny Epic Galaxies by Gamelyn Games
The Tiny Epic series of games has been mostly a dud for me, until Tiny Epic Galaxies, the third in this line of pocket games created by Scott Almes. Tiny Epic Galaxies is a game for one to four players where each player controls a small system of planets and uses ships to try and colonize new systems or raid systems for resources. Actions are determined by dice rolls, and the game rules include a few ways to manipulate dice if you get stuck with an unfavorable roll. There’s two main currencies in the game, energy and culture. Both can be spent in increasing increments to upgrade your empire, but energy can also be spent to take additional rerolls, and culture can be used to copy the actions other players are taking. This leaves you constantly invested while other players are taking their turns, if you have culture to spend. Colonizing new systems earns you points and gives you access to new special powers, and the game ends when the first player reaches 21 points worth of new colonies. Additionally, the game includes rules for an incredibly challenging single player mode, and all of this comes in a box slightly larger than two decks of cards.
The game is surprisingly strategic, and competition over available systems can be incredibly tight, especially when playing with four. There are difficult choices to be made throughout the game, weighing whether to improve your empire, stock up on resources, or push to colonize a system before someone else can steal it. There are also really interesting combos that can be achieved by chaining together actions between systems you control and uncolonized planets. The ability to spend culture to duplicate the actions of other players can be a huge, effectively either giving you additional actions or forcing other players to avoid taking an action they know will benefit you more. The size of the game makes it easy to carry with you just about anywhere, which is awesome for a game with so much depth and replayability. There’s just so much variety in such a small package that I highly recommend it.
This ends Part 1 of my Top 10 Best Board Games of 2015. What did you think of picks 6-10 and my Honorable Mentions? Comment below with your thoughts!
Also, stay tuned for the Top 5 Best Board Games of 2015, coming soon!