Rolling High: The Board Games of 2017

King of Tokyo is still popular, and 7 Wonders still magnificent, there’s been Sushi on the GO, Shadows over Camelot, and a Ticket to Ride. We have ventured deep into Mansions of Madness, felt some Blood Rage, and even been betrayed at House on the Hill.

Here I am, sat before a blank page on the morning of the last day of the year that was 2017 trying to cobble together something resembling a written highlights reel of my time spent gaming over the previous twelve months. Nothing like last minute scrambling to really focus the mind.

In typical fashion for myself, as someone who began playing board games that ran beyond the mainstream flow only as briefly as mid-2016, I still find a lot of my gaming pleasure across the course of a year comes from catching up on gems gone by. This year for example I have finally sampled such glorious delights as, 7 Wonders Duel, Mansions of Madness, Port Royal, Spyfall, and Deception: Murder in Hong Kong. This tends to leave me scratching my noggin as to which games that graced the table were actually released in the year we played them.

However, I’ve started now, so let me try to drag this across the finish line before I can allow myself to melt into a mild rum infused New Year’s Eve haze, roll a few dice with the family, and let Jools Holland tinkle the ivories in the distant background.

Rather than a typical top ten list I have decided to adopt a more freestyle approach. A little Brazilian flair if you will in place of German efficiency (nothing to do with the fact I harbour serious doubts that I’ve played ten 2017 games this year).

My Gloom Haven

One thing this past year has certainly set in stone for me is the fact that I will always be the owner of a fairly sizeable pile of shame. Those games that deserve so much better from me, that should have been christened upon the wooden table, but that remain unplayed, some running months beyond their purchase date. One such game happens to be one of the year’s big hitters. It is called Gloomhaven, and, despite my undiluted joy at its arrival, it remains largely untouched. This was in large part down to the sprawling nature of a game that simply spills from its box to devour every square centimetre of table space, coupled with the mundanity of having to pack it all back up because it’s time for dinner. But, Gloomhaven is to be our winter endeavour, our beacon of gaming light that will see us safely through the dark nights and deliver us into the warmth of the spring sunshine. In fairness, the game will likely see us through a number of winters to come as well, but the key is that it will be played, and if I know myself and my crew of avid players at all, it will undoubtedly be loved. Right now though, as I attempt to discuss games that made a mark in 2017, it’s fairly redundant.

Don’t Dread the Draw

One game that did make a fine impression, and released this year, was a deeply simple, quick-fire, little card game adorned with some of the most sumptuous artwork yet to grace our table. It goes by the name, Dread Draw, and is our new go to filler for those stretched out gaming nights.

Dread Draw at first glance appears almost too simple for its own good. Players draw cards at random hoping to pull ascending power numbers in order to summon the person, beast, or oddity that is depicted upon its face. An ascending number means the card can be played and its powers used against your opponents, no ascension and the summon has failed and the player is out, left to await the damage total inflicted at rounds end. It is such a simple to learn but impossible to put down game that we regularly find ourselves playing round upon round upon round without ever tiring of its charms. The artwork is beautifully dark and menacing, the gameplay is so quick that a few matches can be completed in the time it usually takes to set-up most games these days, and the fun is so prevalent that it overrides any slight issues concerning the random nature and lack of deep strategy within the game.

I like to consider a game’s value in terms of the impact it has upon those seated at the table rather than its layers of ingenuity, complexity or avalanche of miniatures, and in those terms, Dread Draw is quite priceless.

In the Spirit of the Island

I went back and forth a little before including Spirit Island on this journey. The reasons for this stems from my belief that I haven’t spent nearly enough time with the game to fully appreciate or understand its many hidden secrets. However, the time I have spent playing has been enough to establish that Spirit Island is something special, and it is without doubt one of the most creative, deep and thoughtful games I’ve played this year.

This wonderful looking game sees players stepping into the mystical roles of island spirits tasked with fending off the invaders who seek to settle upon their sacred shores and leave death and blight in their wake. The beauty of Spirit Island comes from its depth of strategic thinking, as players have to make big decisions about which powers to unleash that in conjunction with the other players will do the most damage to the new arrivals in town. It would be impossible to even remotely do justice to the gameplay within these few words, and a full meaty bodied review will be cooking on site shortly, but the short time I’ve spent feeling the power of the earth spirit in my fingers has been extraordinary and for me means this one has to have a place on the highlights reel.

Spirit Island is another game I see as a perfect fit for a night of gaming where players want something substantial to chew on. The game is never in a rush to push players along to the finish line and instead is happy to idle along beautifully into the twilight and beyond.

There’s Still Room for Roll and Move

Roll and move games are often derided by the general board gaming community. Seen as something of a relic in gaming terms, lacking the depth and strategy of its modern counterparts. However, I prefer to judge a game on the impact it has upon the gathered players, and in doing so I found a lot to love about, Quest for the Antidote, a roll and move game for 2017.

Quest for the Antidote is predominantly about chucking dice and moving around a board in search of the ingredients that will produce an antidote to the poison currently coursing through the veins of the players, but, it adds some simple combat, some power up potential, and a heap of colourful fun. I see this as the actual antidote to the game buying public’s obsession with Monopoly. It is equally simple to pick up and play, plays quicker, looks infinitely better and is far less likely to end in violent conflict.

This game went down a treat with my family and myself in that it offered a route into the action for all ages and kept us engaged and laughing throughout the experience. It is of course incredibly simple, it lacks any depth of strategy, and it is the dreaded roll and move, but, it is also fun, colourful and chock full of character, and that is enough for me.

The Game is Afoot!

Everyone loves a good mystery right? The chance to flex the grey matter, unravel the clues, and whip the mask of the perpetrator has always been a big draw for myself, meaning that when I got the chance to travel to old London town in Watson and Holmes I was duly excited.

I recently played both this game and its older brother, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, and whilst built from the same foundations the two games actually offer very real differences in approach that should see both sat upon the shelves of your collection.

In Watson and Holmes the emphasis is on competitive deduction, as players attempt to piece together the clues and be first knocking on the door of 221B Baker Street with the solution. The game allows for a gentle build of tension as the air is permeated with secrecy and suspicion, players can hinder one another by attempting to lock down important clue sites, or even bluff others by making it seem a site is important, there is a cool bidding system based upon speed of travel as the players try to decide which parts of the location to visit and who to speak to first, and the whole thing comes together quite beautifully.

Watson and Holmes is mercifully simple to learn, but incredibly challenging to play. The puzzle is all there, it’s just about you as the detective trying to find the right pieces to put it all together..before anyone else works it out. The atmosphere surrounding this game is superb, it feels like there is an unseen clock ticking on your shoulder as you try to read other players reactions and actions, whilst also seeking your own answers. This is the Sherlock game I feel I’ve been waiting for.

Anyone for Shoplifting?

I love surprises from my gaming habits. When a story takes an unexpected turn, when our band of adventurers overcome the spawn of hell just as Death was warming the engine, when I manage to read a rulebook without consulting YouTube for clarification, all these fill me with joy, but, none so much as when a game comes right out of the blue and leaves me floored with its utter brilliance!

Step forward, Magic Maze. If ever a game left me unexpectedly stunned by its magnificence then it was this one. I actually bought this little piece of wonderful for my daughter as a Christmas present thinking it would be nice slice of childish fun. A handful of laughter, tension and downright awesome filled plays later and it was already nestled firmly into a position of greatness.

Magic Maze is a game about a little group of adventurers hitting a mall to steal some much needed items then escaping before a timer drops its last grain of sand. It’s a simple concept, however, thanks to some ingenious co-operative play, no set turns, and absolutely no communication beyond a grim stare or the hammering of a ‘DO SOMETHING!’ pawn in front of the player you want to act, the game reaches incredible heights of utter brilliance.

Here we have a game that is very possibly the most tense I’ve yet encountered, in fact if something such as Shark Island could have bottled just a drop of the Magic Maze tension it might have been a far less mundane affair. Magic Maze builds its frantic nature perfectly, usually culminating in players slamming the pawn incessantly whilst wiping dripping sweat from their brow and staring wide-eyed as sand pours through the timer, it is an absolute blast from start to finish and is probably the game that has given me the most pleasure all year. Forget legacy games, forget epic fantasy lands, forget complexity and miniatures, forget abstract concepts and world building, just put your trainers on, grab the loot, and leg it!

Meanwhile in a Quieter part of town…

I never find it easy to deliver these end of year lists. I simply haven’t played a huge amount of new games. That’s not to say I haven’t played a whole lot of games this year, I most certainly have, it’s just that I’ve been getting my fix from old favourites or older games that are new to me. Games such as Sheriff of Nottingham which never fails to get us laughing, or Dead of Winter, a firm family favourite. King of Tokyo is still popular, and 7 Wonders still magnificent, there’s been Sushi on the GO, Shadows over Camelot, and a Ticket to Ride. We have ventured deep into Mansions of Madness, felt some Blood Rage, and even been betrayed at House on the Hill.

I’ve also enjoyed other great titles that released this year but require a little more playtime before appearing here, or fall just short of the required level, games such as Legendary Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The pile of shame continues to be chipped away at, but Cornish Smuggler still waits patiently for that one day it might see the light of day, and we’ll all be Infected in the near future too. There was the disappointment that we couldn’t find a place in our hearts for those Endangered Orphans of Condyle Cove, and that we’ve barely even got our coats on for some travels into Gloomhaven.

But, the thing that has stood out once again this year has been that no matter how incredible or otherwise the games have been, they have all proved perfect vessels for our travels in to the most wonderful and extraordinary family time, and as ever before, that is the real highlight of the gaming year.

Now, Happy New Year, play more games, and where’s my rum?

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Neil Bason

Neil is a long in the tooth joystick twiddler, re-invigorated by the magic of board games. He spends his time in deepest Cornwall, writing, rolling dice, drafting cards, drinking coffee, and being endured by his family. It is a simple existence.

Latest posts by Neil Bason (see all)

Neil Bason

Neil is a long in the tooth joystick twiddler, re-invigorated by the magic of board games. He spends his time in deepest Cornwall, writing, rolling dice, drafting cards, drinking coffee, and being endured by his family. It is a simple existence.

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