Hoo boy, what a year, huh? It’s been… well, let’s just say that I am literally forcing myself to stop this train of thought because if I don’t, there’s a good chance I’ll get overwhelmed with despair and paralyzed by the anxiety of figuring out what to say and whoops it’ll be another year of unintended blog hibernation.

So instead, let’s talk about board games!

2017 was not the year I started playing hobby board games in earnest. That title belongs to 2016[1]. This year, however, board games took on a new significance in my life. I’ve long loved the power of games to bring people together and forge tangible analog experiences, but this year, that seemed more than idealistic–it seemed necessary. Every time this year that I spread the contents of a game box across a table, it felt like an intentional act of self-care. Games fortified my relationships at a time when it felt like the world was fracturing. When my stomach was a leaden pit, games made me laugh and gave me levity. When my tank was empty and I felt downtrodden and alone, games brought me to the people I love and reminded me what mattered.

I also began the year with a specific board game-related goal: what the board gaming community calls a “10×10”. Between January 1st and December 31st, I decided, I would play 10 board games at least 10 times each. With an ever-growing library of games, I expected this 10×10 would allow me to familiarize myself with a number of games, but also force me not to pigeonhole myself into a small handful of familiar boxes.

It seems appropriate, then, to look back on this year through the lens of games. In no particular order, here are some of the games that stick out to me from my last year of playing.

The “Old Trusty” Award for a Reliable Standby

The winner: Ticket to Ride

You know what’s a good game for introducing to your family on graduation weekend? Ticket to Ride. You know what’s a good game to play with your partner after a long day of work? Ticket to Ride. You know what’s a good game for game-night parties? Ticket to Ride.

Ticket to Ride earned its place on our shelf this year by being a cozy, consistently enjoyable game of set collection and route-building. It doesn’t offer the strategic depth of some other games on this list, but it makes up for it by being a breeze to teach and a reliably fun game to play. I maintain that Ticket to Ride is a particularly great “gateway” game for players new to the hobby because even when you lose, you get a satisfying sense of accomplishment, looking at the rail network you made. Plus, as we discovered when this year when we bought the India/Switzerland expansion, there is enough flexibility in the mechanics to allow for a wide array of new gameplay experiences just by changing maps or tweaking the base rules just a hair.

It’s rarely at the top of my list, but Ticket to Ride is good enough that I’ll almost never turn it down, straightforward enough to share with people new to the hobby, and strategic enough to satisfy. That’s a heck of a hat trick.

The “Nervous Grad Student” Award for a Gateway Game You Can Teach While Waiting to Take Your Orals

The winner: Coup

The counseling department at Gonzaga had a tradition: on the day of our oral exams, we all waited as a group in the student lounge, celebrating as each graduate emerged victorious and wishing good luck to whoever came next. Nobody was alone. Until the last oral of the day, we made sure there was somebody around to send them off and congratulate them when they were done.

That also meant, however, that the day involved a lot of waiting around. Anticipating this, I brought a bag of board games to share with my classmates. I had Spot It! and Forbidden Island, and maybe Red7 too, but the runaway hit was Coup. With the spring sunshine streaming through the windows and the prospect of a post-graduate life just hours away, our group of future counselors sat together and lied ruthlessly to each other’s faces.

Whenever I introduce hobby board games to people who haven’t played before, an element of self-conscious worry creeps into my mind. As much as I love my games, I have to recognize that “board games” still conjures images of interminable Monopoly nights or the rudimentary simplicity of Sorry! for most people. It’s a certain kind of boxed fun associated with picture-perfect Norman Rockwell families sitting around a kitchen table. Though I’m a board game geek through-and-through, I temper my enthusiasm about my hobby with new players. Don’t want to scare them off.

You can imagine my surprise and joy, then, when I wasn’t the one asking, “Go again?” after each came of Coup–it was my peers. A light small-box game of deceit and cunning was the perfect thing to keep us occupied and enjoying each other’s company in our last hours as grad students.

The “Best $10 I Ever Spent” Award for Punching Above Its Weight Class

Cards, tokens, and tin for the game Mint Works
Photo by Kelchior/Eric (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

The winner: Mint Works

I’m a fiend for games that punch above their weight class. Sushi Go!, for instance, is a card-drafting game that comes in a tin smaller than a bargain romance novel and is at least twice as engaging. Star Realms is about the size of a 48-piece box of Crayola crayons, and is a gripping two-player game of fleet-building in space. Both of these games offer gameplay much larger than their packaging and price tags.

This year, after an improbably well-run Kickstarter campaign that delivered months early, a new contender took the title for best gameplay-to-size ratio: Mint Works. It’s a game of managing resources and assembling disparate components into an engine that drives you toward victory. And it fits in a mint tin.

Mint Works quickly became one of my go-to games to throw in a bag for a night out. It’s physically unimposing and easy to teach, but the 15-minute gameplay is rife with strategic choices. Do you set your sights on economic cards that are worth fewer points, but set you up for a strong late-game? Or do you go straight for the points and hope you can race to a win before your opponents? Each turn, there’s only so many actions available on a shared action board, so you have to prioritize and hope that the other players don’t block you out. And when you’re done, you can shuffle it up, swap out some cards, and play again for a different experience.

Mint Works is an essential distillation of the worker-placement family of games, worth far more in anyone’s collection than the pocket change it costs.

The “Golden Bootstraps” Award for Gameplay that Forced Me to Improve

The winner: Brew Crafters

Mint Works introduced me to worker-placement games this year, a family of games where players jostle for available actions. Lots of games present players with options like a respectful family dinner: on your turn, you can take whatever actions you’d like, and when the turn passes, the next player does the same. The options in worker-placement games are more akin to dining with a group of jealous dragons. The first one takes the whole turkey, so you steal the mashed potatoes, only to watch the bowl of green beans snatched from the table and devoured. Whatever you don’t choose, you risk being shut out from until the next turn, so you have to plan wisely. Mint Works showed me how fun this mechanic could be, so it wasn’t long before we slaked our thirst with a much bigger worker-placement game: Brew Crafters.

In Brew Crafters, the goal is to build the best brewery over twelve seasons. Players start each season by taking actions at the market–a classic worker-placement phase where buying hops from one vendor clears out their stock and prevents anyone else from using that space this turn. Once everyone has taken two actions at the market, they then retreat to their breweries, where they can research, brew beer, or purchase equipment. Befitting a bunch of startup microbreweries, everyone starts modestly in Brew Crafters, and each decision gives an incremental advantage, shifting a player toward one play style or another.

Brew Crafters requires long-term strategic thinking and short-term tactical flexibility–but most of all, it requires careful awareness of your path to victory. As I quickly learned, it’s not a game you can win just by playing what feels good. I was so used to games that buttered over skill differences with smooth, comforting chance that this utter lack of randomness jolted me. If I was going to win, it had to be on my merits. By returning the responsibility for my victory or loss to me and me alone, Brew Crafters forced me to play better. The eventual victory was all the sweeter for it.

The “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” Award for Cross-Format Adaptations That Still Work Really Well

The winner: Brew Crafters: The Travel Card Game

How do you take a game like Brew Crafters, which contains enough components to choke a horse, and transform it into a travel game consisting of little more than a deck of cards? I’m not exactly sure, but Brew Crafters: The Travel Card Game manages. The shift from a nonrandom worker-placement board game to a card-based set collection game admittedly introduces an element of chance not present in the larger version, but I was impressed by how this small box still captured the feeling of the bigger game. There’s the same pressure to be efficient with your limited resources, the same sense of slowly building an engine, the same need for flexibility instead of rigid adherence to a strategy.

I bought Brew Crafters: The Travel Card Game a few weeks after getting its bigger brother, and honestly, I’m glad I have both. There are times when I’ll want to play the big-box Brew Crafters, and there are times when I’ll feel more like the travel version. Despite their naming, neither game feels derivative. That’s the mark of a good adaptation, if you ask me.

The “I’m Not Mad” Award for Disappointing Games

The winner: Smash Up

Oh, Smash Up.

It comes from a good place. Like someone I love used to say, it’s the captain of the “Means Well” team. Smash Up recognizes that there’s something incredibly satisfying about custom-tailoring your own deck in games like Magic: the Gathering, but there’s also a towering barrier to entry. Only after you’ve learned the rules, played dozens of games, begun to become familiar with the cards, and learned about principles of deckbuilding can you finally make the deck you’ve been dreaming of since starting the game. Smash Up does away with that with its “shufflebuilding” concept–don’t fret about card ratios or careful synergies, just pick two factions that sound cool, shuffle them up, and play. Ninja Wizards? Knock yourself out. Robot Dinosaurs? Heck yes. Zombie Pirates? GO FOR IT.

It’s a great idea, allowing the personal expression of deck construction without the hours of playtesting. The problem is that the rest of the game betrays this breezy setup. Players score points by “breaking” bases, which is simple in theory but in practice requires a constant arithmetic tally–any time a card is played on a base or affecting the minions on it, you’ve got to recalculate the total power of all the minions on the base and then compare it to the base’s “break point.” It sounds simple enough, but when you’re looking at a hand of cards and making these adjustments nearly every turn, it gets exhausting. It’s just damn fiddly.

And, unfortunately, it still suffers from another problem other card games have: so many cards to read and grok. For the experienced card game players, this isn’t a problem. I grew up playing the Pok√©mon Trading Card Game and Magic: the Gathering, so I’m used to juggling dozens of different card effects. But for players who aren’t so seasoned– again, remember who the “shufflebuilding” concept targets–so many different cards means an exponential explosion of possibilities. That’s a fast track to analysis paralysis.

The few times I’ve played Smash Up this year, it’s been in a casual setting, and the fiddliness has made it a far cry from the easy, zany fun the cover and core mechanic suggest. For Smash Up to deliver on the breezy gameplay promised by its “shufflebuilding” concept, the base game would need something to alleviate the burden of constantly counting power on bases, and the cards would need to be simpler. Save complexity for expansions. There may be a good game behind Smash Up, but it’s not the game it promises on the box.

The “Robe and Wizard Hat” Award for Role-Playing Games

Ten Candles

The Winner: Ten Candles

This year, after reading a glowing review on Shut Up and Sit Down, I bought my first tabletop role-playing game: Ten Candles, a survival horror game played in the dwindling light of tea lights. Despite my bona fide nerd background, I’ve never played a role-playing game, but the tone and central mechanic of Ten Candles were so intriguing to me that I felt compelled to try it out.

We played three times this year, and by far and away, my favorite session took place in an airport-turned-survival camp. I was the game master, in charge of leading the narrative, and I had my players on the edges of their seats as they encountered suspicious packages, dark tunnels, and the groaning forms of abandoned airplanes. Playing Ten Candles made me feel inspired, not only by my creativity and the prompts provided in the sourcebook, but also by the ingenuity and storytelling chops of my friends.

Ten Candles turned me on to role-playing games, and I’m already plotting what sort of new role-playing adventures I want to host in 2018.

The “Too Close to Home” Award for Politically Relevant Games I Didn’t Play Enough Of, Probably Out of Some Sort of Self-Preservation Instinct

The winner: The Resistance

We’re a small cell of resistance fighters lashing out against a dystopian government. Some of our number are spies, however, secretly loyal to the tyrannical regime. Can we see through the deception and successfully fight the power–or will the loyalists in our midst sabotage our efforts and crush our hopes beneath their boots?

Not knowing who you can trust? Finding out that people you knew were much less worthy of your faith than you thought? Organizing your allies and fighting to beat back the arms of a corrupt regime? The Resistance is a great game, and part of me wishes I’d played more this year, but like a champagne flute shattering when exposed to harmonic tones, I was worried that spending too much time on this one might not have the same restorative effect as other games.

Runner-up: Secret Hitler

It’s very similar to The Resistance, but explicitly about fascism. Hoo boy was I not ready for that this year.

My Game of 2017

The winner: Android: Netrunner

I have spent most of this year trying to write a blog post about this game. Although I bought it back in 2015, it wasn’t until this year that I brought it to the table. Now that I have, I am completely hooked.

Android: Netrunner is a two-player cyberpunk card game. It’s asymmetric, so while one player is a dastardly megacorporation trying to advance their aims in secrecy, the other player is a hacker trying to blitz past their defenses and expose their plans. It’s got the bluffing of high-stakes poker[2] combined with the custom deck construction of Magic: the Gathering, but the gameplay is so rich that comparisons like that are beyond inadequate.

I started the year knowing next to nothing about the game. The learning curve is steep, so for weeks, playing Netrunner mostly meant staring blankly at the cards in my hand, the processor in my brain running hot. Play by play, however, I got better. Like Neo jacking into the Matrix, I felt the physical cards fall away, exposing the glowing lines of possibility that traced throughout the game. Netrunner is a beautifully written system that captures the cat-and-mouse feel of a battle between an anonymous hacker and an opaque megacorp, and the deeper I got into the game, the more I marveled at its painfully elegant design.

There’s just so much to love. The way that Netrunner turns the corporation’s hand, deck, and discard pile, zones that are typically safe from opponents’ interference in other card games, into live and strategically crucial parts of play. The way that at its heart, Netrunner is actually a game of economy, with each side using money in different–but equally important—ways. The way that the lack of universal best options means that each player often has to make painful compromises during a game. The distribution model, which eschews the randomized booster pack model in favor of consistent, predetermined packs of cards. The inevitable arc each game of Netrunner takes, thanks to rules which shape dramatic showdowns.

I logged 201 board game plays in 2017, and 34 of them were Android: Netrunner, nearly twice the plays of the runner-up. I fully anticipate playing it just as much next year. Android: Netrunner is one hell of a game, and the joy of diving into it made my year great.


Board games gave me warmth this year, in a time when so much felt cold and fractured. I’m looking forward to 2018, in no small part because I can’t wait to see what memories I can make playing games with the people I love.

Footnotes

The new WordPress Gutenberg editor does not currently support footnotes. This is silly, but here we are. Here are my footnotes from this post, preserved awkwardly until I can reintegrate them more elegantly:

[1] To be clear, I’ve been playing dorky board games for a long time, thanks to parents who enthusiastically brought games like Killer Bunnies and the Quest for the Magic Carrot and DICEcapades to our kitchen table, but 2016 was really when I came into my own and started building a modern hobby game library.

[2] So I’ve heard, anyway. I’ve still never played poker, and the few times I’ve seen it played, it’s struck me as more arcane than even the most complicated game on my shelves.