2015 was a pretty good year for gaming in general. I thought about making a Digital list too, but right now it’d just be Undertale 11 times so I’ll need a bit more distance from that game before I could reasonably talk about the other 10 spots. Anyway, until then, here’s my Top 11 (plus a few) for 2015.
Note: for this list, I’m using the Geek All-Stars Gaming Year (Essen-to-Essen) so anything that released outside of that interval I can’t include yet (unless I really want to.)
1. Roll for the Galaxy – I hate Race for the Galaxy. The game requires players to learn arcane sigils to know what each card does, and requires players to learn what every card does in order to be able to make any kind of competent decision. In Roll, the runes (though still present) are easier and simpler, and the tiles interlock in more ways, meaning less digging for a specific tile and more figuring out how an individual tile will work in your machine. This basically fixed all the things I didn’t like, and added more things TO like (dice manipulation!) Most Dice Manipulation games (Ciub, Favor of the Pharaoh) use it as the core but here, it’s the driver for a combo-riffic building-stuff game, which I think is more fun. Even with the pacing hiccups that can happen with 4, it’s solidly my game of the year, and Ambition just amps it up further, adding more interaction/competition between players than just the San Juan “guess what they want to do” minigame.
2. Codenames – This is the best party game, and the party game that got BGG to respect party games again (last one was Barbarossa? Maybe La Boca? Who knows.) It plays off of skills that party games typically exercise (communication mostly) but adds bits of bluffing and puzzley-strategy that will keep even the most boring person in the world interested. It also manages to have a scoring element that really MATTERS (to people that care about that kind of thing) which allows it to avoid the dreaded “an activity” label that BGGers tend to slap onto games that are any fun at all. My only real gripe is that the hot-seat role is so stressful, I wish there was some sensible way to share that burden, but usually the person who’s most willing to be in that role will also be best at it, so it’s not that big a deal. Vlaada makes players feel clever in all his games, but in this one they actually have to be.
3. Gold West – This is what euros should look like. More games this size/complexity please. It has a puzzley central mechanism that rewards panning forward, and a bunch of lovely mini-games in the periphery that make sure there’s always something to do. The game takes any state that could be a “failure” (not enough wood? not enough metal?) and puts something interesting in its place. Has what I like about Trajan’s game economy (every move is taking/earning new things) but dials down the complexity of the mini-games to a bearable level so the whole thing spins smoothly instead of grinding and screeching if any player’s not read the operators manual cover to cover. Also it takes an hour instead of 2 or 3 which means I’ve played it many many more times than I ought to have.
4. Elysium – Killed 7 wonders in every way, tons of variation, and it’s a drafting game that WORKS WITH 2!?!?!? Also makes open drafting work without being a tremendous horrible ordeal, with the clever option-limiting mechanic. 7 Wonders DUEL seems to play with similar ideas, but the “family” swaps mean that entire systems rotate in and out of the game in sensible ways each time, providing Dominion-esque variance without the boring/broken setups stuff like Potion could produce. The “engine-breaking” decision of keeping a card around to use its ability vs. scoring it early for guaranteed points and a chance at big bonuses is another layer of chewy goodness. A bit of AP is possible since all the options are on the table, and until players are familiar with at least the TYPES of cards there’s going to be a bit of reading which can definitely bog it down. Like Seasons (another game I love) the first game is likely to be a bit rough, but the experience after learning it is so rewarding that I can forgive it. Also this game is simpler and smoother than Seasons, and it’s less easy to completely destroy yourself with a bad choice. Maybe this is how other people felt about Race for the Galaxy? But they were wrong. I am right. Elysium is great.
5. Patchwork – Best 2 player game, super accessible, super elegant, delicious. Predict this will be the default response to “what game to play with my wife?” for the next decade, and unlike “Lost Cities” they’ll be right. It’s a perfect demonstration of what Uwe Rosenberg can do as a designer when he’s not trying to throw five thousand unique tiles at the game just so players can feel like quantum theorists. There’s lots of stuff to figure out and evaluate but it’s all spinning around the same axis rather than pulling you in a hundred different directions. Many of Rosenberg’s other games have an immensely satisfying bit at the core like this (Glass Road is the best example) but then drown you in outcomes that make that core piece feel less and less relevant. This game focuses on that filling, like a Double Stuf Oreo, and who wants an Oreo with extra cookie, anyway? Especially if half the cookies are just useless cardboard.
6. Forbidden Stars – I think I’m gonna have to sell all my other dudes-on-a-map games because of how much this outclasses them. Nexus Ops or Ikusa used to be my go-to example and this makes either of those look like a joke.
7. Above and Below – It’s surprising just how much a little bit of flavor adds to what’s otherwise a pretty standard tableau-buildy-worky-placey thing.
10. Sapiens – Dominoes evolved? One of the most head-spinning games I’ve played recently, with a pretty simple rule-set.
11. Code of Nine – Worker Placement is boring. This game manages to work in deduction/bluffing and make it not boring. Card art is gorgeous.
13. Orleans – Only played twice so far, and it ought to be higher on the list probably but with only 2 plays it stays down here.
Reprint. Saint Petersburg – Reprint, but changes the game substantially and the game still holds up. Purest engine builder ever.
Monopoly. Monopoly – Just out of spite