Top ten lists for 2017 are a dime a dozen. Everybody’s got one. I wanted to do something a little bit different so I put together a list of my games from 2017 that made a positive impression on me and are worth being discussed as the year’s best. But that wasn’t good enough, so I’ve added my thoughts about what I didn’t like about most of these games too, because, well … I like to complain. Other caveats you should be prepared for:
– This is my list and it is tuned specifically to my tastes. I am objectively correct in my assessment of my tastes.
– Yeah, I know I’m leaving off one of your favorite games. That means that I’ve either not played it yet (congratulations, you filthy hipster) or your taste in games sucks. Good luck working that one out.
– There is some fuzziness on the dates of some games. Technically some games on my list probably came out in late 2016 or are early 2018. Its my list, so you’ll just have to deal with it.
– This is a list that highlights the games I feel are deserving of some praise for whatever reasons. I’m not going to limit myself to just 10 games. 2017 has been one of the best years for new games in recent memory so it would be silly to impose an artificial limit. My goal for this list is to share the games I felt that are worthy of attention released over the past year (or so).
– I wasn’t able to get to some big name titles that just aren’t doing much for me. I’m looking at you Pandemic Season 2 and Alien Artifacts.
Without further ado I present …
#22 – Gloomhaven
Nope, your eyes aren’t deceiving you, this list is in fact written in ascending order, and that means Gloomhaven is at the bottom of my list. Gloomhaven does a great job of inventing a deep, tactical, dice-less combat, dungeon crawl system. I love how it handles the unlocking of character classes. Too bad that the game is bloated, grind-tastic, and poorly paced. Leveling and character unlocks should have been sped up greatly. The bland and forgettable story completely betrays the rich and creative world building.
Just a quick aside, this is a good example of why I hate the use of the word “theme”. People use it as a catch all to mean all sorts of stuff and lacks the nuance of words like narrative and setting. In the case of Gloomhaven the narrative is garbage but the setting is fantastic. Stop using the word “theme” folks!
Worst of all, the narrative isn’t enough to keep anybody playing through the obscenely bloated campaign book. By about the midpoint of the campaign, Gloomhaven becomes a grind-fest that only the most devout will see through to the end. Gloomhaven would have been a masterpiece if only there was a good developer/editor to help scale things back. Despite my complaints, Gloomhaven manages to be a solid co-op experience with a good bit of enjoyable hand management moments.
#21 – Deadline
Cooperative mystery solving? Yes, please! Deadline is the antithesis of Gloomhaven. Awesome storytelling grafted onto a total garbage card game. I love the little noir mystery yarns Deadline spins, but why oh why do we have to pace ourselves through a tedious and repetitive card game that overstays its welcome? It feels like I’m doing homework just to squeeze out the juicy story bits. I’m sure there are groups who will absolutely adore the card game portion of the game. There are, after all, people who say they enjoy games like The Grizzled and Hanabi. Nuts, right? Honestly, its a pretty fun experience overall, but I’d rather be playing another mystery solving game you’ll see a bit further down my list.
#20 – Charterstone
Something about how the slow roll out of Charterstone just isn’t very satisfying to me. At times, I feel overwhelmed by all the new content and can’t help but wonder what all the new stuff adds to the game. I am also not the biggest of fans of the feel of the core worker placement engine that drives the campaign. Honestly, I can’t help but feel like I’d rather be playing Viticulture. I don’t need to sink 6 hours into a game before things get interesting when I can just get out Viticulture EE and play a damn fine game from the jump. Gripes aside, Charterstone is still a solid game with a staggering amount of branching development. The game has a nifty aesthetic that is full of a the sugary cartoon art you’d expect to find in an app based game. Charterstone deserves its place on this list for one of the reason’s Gloomhaven does. Its a solidly complex euro-campaign with a baffling amount of detail and nuance. I want more good euro games that have evolving gameplay. I just don’t want the intro game to bore me to tears.
#19 – Jumpdrive
Jumpdrive takes refinement and editing down of a title to an opposite extreme from Gloomhaven. Jumpdrive reduces Race for the Galaxy down to such bare bones that there is almost nothing left. It isn’t a bad game at all, but it fails to leave you with the sense that you’ve really accomplished anything. I am hopeful that maybe an expansion will add just a bit more meat to what is otherwise a pleasant if lean experience. Its a good filler game, and certainly my favorite filler released in 2017.
#18 – Gloom of Kilforth
Gloom would have been my solo game of the year in a normal year, but 2017 has had some truly excellent solo games. Technically, Gloom is a multiplayer game, but I’ve found that it shines best as a solitaire exercise. Think one part Eldritch Horror, one part Lord of the Rings LCG and you’ll start to get a sense of what Gloom of Kilforth really feels like on the table (pretend Arkham Horror LCG doesn’t exist). You are racing the clock to complete quests and generally power up yourself for a final epic show down against the big bad. Gloom has nowhere as rich of a narrative as the Arkham Horror LCG, but the flavor text and GORGEOUS art are immersive enough that you are given an enjoyable, although somewhat abstract narrative.
#17 – Bunny Kingdom
Richard Garfield churns out another drafting game. This time players use the drafting to drive a simple yet enjoyable area control game. I’d rather be playing Blood Rage, but Bunny Kingdom makes for a brutal drafting experience dressed up with Iello’s typical level of component polish. You have to give props to a game design that not only makes hate drafting a viable strategy, but in fact actively rewards such behavior.
#16 – Fields of Green
Fields of Green does more then just re-skin the excellent Among the Stars, it winds up acting as something of a 2.0 edition. Mechanically, the changes improve and enrich the core gameplay without ever feeling like a completely different game. Despite some frustrating issues with the card borders Fields of Green is a must play for fans of drafting games. If you are one of those euro-gamers who enjoy reveling in the false nostalgia of the agrarian fantasy perpetuated by the likes of Uwe Rosenberg, Fields is right up your alley!
#15 – Ethnos
I am sympathetic to many of the criticisms I’ve read about Ethnos. The art is bland. The plastic chits are ill conceived. The color palate alternates between dreary and garish. In spite of these problems, I always have a blast with what is essentially a simple mash up of Mystery Rummy and an area control game. Ethnos is a bit meatier then a filler game, but it gives off much of that same vibe to me, and many of those in my game groups that skew towards fillers have fallen head over heels with Ethnos.
#14 – Near & Far
2017 has been the year of the rise of narrative driven games. Near & Far takes the lessons Red Raven Games learned from Above & Below and made a compelling if not decidedly G rated story telling game. The simplistic, yet butter smooth adventure gameplay acts as a suitable framework to stage the storytelling. My beefs with RRG persist. Ryan Lauket needs a developer to polish off the rough edges of his designs. There is a reason he makes so many games that are 2.0’s or re-imaginings of prior games. I also find that Ryan uses a naive world view as the back bone of his morality tracks. Being a “bad” guy is never a feasible strategy, and most decisions lack moral ambiguity, nuance, or unexpected consequences. As a result, Above & Below can come off as a bit of a dull morality play that feels dogmatic and forgettable. The exception to this though are the outstanding passages written by the always entertaining Alf Seegart. Seegart’s whimsical yarns (often filled with alliteration and an ironic humor) are a joy and carry with them a quality that invokes the specter of C. S. Lewis. As with its predecessor, Near & Far shines brightest when Seegart’s writing is given center stage.
#13 – Clank! In Space!
The follow up to Clank! doesn’t do much to improve on the base game, but the faction cards (lifted from Ascension/Star Realms/Hero Realms) and the bounty hunter cubes add just enough for Clank! 2.0 to pretty much fire the original Clank!. Its like Yoda said, the destiny of all masters is to be surpassed by their students.
#12 – Yokohama
I’m a sucker for a good looking game and TMG did an excellent job blinging out Yokohama. Yokohama is often described as a beefier version of KSDJ winner Istanbul and I don’t disagree with that sentiment entirely. Unfortunately, Istanbul’s luster tends to wear off after a few plays and as a result I think most people have written the game off without ever cracking open the expansion boxes. That would be a HUGE mistake. If you ask most reviewers who’ve been around a while what some of the most important expansions ever made are, a name you’ll hear over and over is the Galactic Orders expansion for Core Worlds, or any of the expansions for Eminent Domain. Galactic Orders (and the ED expansions) really do turn Core Worlds (and Eminent Domain respectively) into one of the best deck building games ever made, its amazing and should be a must try for all fans of deck building. Both of the expansions for Istanbul fall into this same league as the Galactic Orders (and the ED expansions). When added to that base game the expansions almost double the board size and completely overhaul the strategic and tactical depth of the Istanbul system. Istanbul with expansions is Yokohama on steroids, and it is amazing. BUT we aren’t here to talk about Istanbul, we are here to discuss the also excellent Yokohama. Yokohama is one of those games that initially intimidates players with its chaotic board presence, but quickly wins you over and is easily groked. Turns can bog down if you have an AP inclined player, but those choices make for a truly rich medium weight euro experience. Yokohama is my favorite “traditional” type euro game of 2017.
#11 – Nemo’s War
The hype you’ve probably heard about Nemo’s War over the past 6 months is all true. Like Dawn of the Zeds before it, Nemo’s War 2.0 is a fantastic deluxe edition from Victory Point Games. Featuring superb art from the amazing Ian O’Toole, Nemo’s War offers a solo dice & cards experience that is all about efficient action selection. Every game features nifty narrative framing that culminates in an epilogue that puts a nice bow on your game session. This is a collection essential for solo gamers.
#10 – Outlive
Its another post-apocalyptic euro made by a European company, SURPRISE! An even bigger surprise? Its a better Fallout game then the FFG Fallout game. Think Fallout Shelter, the board game. Outlive does an excellent job of evoking a world where might makes right and strength is an economy all its own. Gorgeous Production Values. Strong implementation of game setting. PVP agression with an semi-worker placement game engine. Despite the nastiness, the player interaction never feels overwhelming. Too bad you are stuck with a DUMB story (ignore it and just embrace the setting). Its pricey & can only be found on line. The “retail” version of the game feels cheap and lacking by comparison. Being originally a French title, there is some slight translation goofiness. The room and animal tiles feel cheap and should have been given names that fit with the setting. Tiny details like that go a LONG way.
#9 – Warhammer Blah, Blah, Blah: Shadespire
Is it possible that Games Workshop has figured out the secret to making a good board game? Well, they can’t come up with good names for their games still, and I’ve pretty much lost all hope of that happening. Time will tell, but the initial wave of releases for Shadespire are outstanding. Shadespire is my tactical mini’s skirmish game of choice. Clocking in at 30 minutes or less, each game of Shadespire does an outstanding job of balancing tactics, strategy, and good ole fashioned dice chucking. The balance of randomness to time invested feels just right and I’ve yet to experience an unsatisfying game. Shadespire fires Heroscape, X-wing, and pretty much every other skirmish minis game out there. I can’t wait to see what they have coming!
#8 – Watson & Holmes
Competitive mystery solving at its best. The faux auction mechanism isn’t particularly interesting, but it does build some tension when playing this with a more competitive crowd. In a more relaxed setting, the bidding is almost an afterthought to the mystery solving. Knowing when and how to play your secret powers can be fun, but the balancing of these powers is way off. What Watson & Holmes does though is offer a great storytelling and mystery solving experience. If you are a fan of Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, you probably already own this, but it is definitely a MUST BUY. If I wanted to make one strike against Watson & Holmes it would be that on rare occasions a player can steal an early win based on dumb luck. This is a rare outcome, but it is possible. Cheers to Paul Grogan for his efforts to help edit the English translation.
#7 – Spirit Island
Spirit Island is a co-operative area control game with resource management, combo building, and hand management. That sounds like an overwrought mess, but instead we have one of the better polished and balanced games of the year. The initial learning curve for newbies is a bit tricky with the considerable amount of rules and gameplay overhead to wrap your brain around, but once you are into the deep end of this pool, Spirit Island shines as bright as the Sun! The game pacing is also pretty satisfying. You start out struggling, but thinking you have a chance. At some point things start to get out of hand and you are stuck thinking you don’t have a shot. And in the third act something changes and you become a ephemeral wrecking ball of blood, fear, and bone. Victory is always deeply satisfying, and the variability of player characters and powers is staggering. Spirit Island is a must try for fans of co-op games, and a must buy for those of you who enjoy combo building and area control.
#6 – Xenoshyft: Dreadmire
I must knock Xenoshyft a little bit because Dreadmire is at its best when you include the Kickstarter Exclusive cards. Its too bad that you can’t get your hands on some truly excellent gaming content without going to the second hand market and whoever at CMON decided to release these cards as exclusives should be ashamed. Dreadmire polishes up a few rough edges found in the original run of Xenoshyft. If you happen to own the original set plus the exclusives and Dreadmire, you are in for a treat! Xenoshyft is easily my favorite co-op deckbuilder. The difficulty is suitably tailored to keep the game interesting without being too easy or punishing. The art is solid and often times brutally gorgeous. Best of all, I always get a real and visceral feeling of growth and power as I build my deck. The positive feedback loops are quite solidly built into every game of Xenoshyft and it keeps me coming back for more. I always appreciate a coop that gives me the chance to high-five my team after a job well done.
#5 – The Godfather: Corleone’s Empire
Too bad this game has fallen off most folks radar. I enjoy euro games with teeth. I enjoy a good worker placement game, and I am always up for a good area control game. While this isn’t Eric Lang’s best game (I love Blood Rage), its a very, very, good game. Too bad CMON decided to skimp on the card art for the jobs. Too bad the game insert doesn’t accommodate sleeving your cards very well. The game itself feels extremely well polished, and despite those who might poo-poo the look of the game board, I find it quite functional and interesting. Sure, it doesn’t FEEL like I’m reliving The Godfather movie (which is highly overrated, BTW), but it does FEEL like a New York mobster game and it gives a lot of narrative oomph without a lick of flavor text. Impressive.
#4 – Folklore: The Affliction
Folklore shouldn’t be one of my favorite games of the year. The rules are a travesty. The game play feels like something from ten or twenty years ago. Folklore gets one hell of a pass from me though thanks to its immersive and engaging storytelling. Folklore is a rich Brother’s Grimm styled RPG in a box. While it isn’t a particularly innovative experience, Folklore shines as a game that is constantly changing things up while avoiding falling into a rut. I hope somebody at FFG studies this game because there are a lot of cool ideas hidden in this gem and are well worth emulating. Take my praise with a HUGE caveat, this isn’t a particularly polished game and isn’t going to be everyone’s tea, but for those who enjoy a romping Ameritrash yarn, this is a game worth checking out.
#3 – Path of Light and Shadow
Excellent, excellent, excellent! Easily the best deck building game of 2017. Path is probably the biggest positive gaming surprise I had in 2017. Path not only met, but greatly exceeded my expectations. Path feels like something completely new, although there are hints of Core Worlds (another favorite deck building game of mine) buried deep in the design. I adore how combat is managed in the game, especially how it handles attrition. Path nails its positive feed back loops and is constantly tickling your brain with a sense of power and accomplishment.
#2 – The 7th Continent
The 7th Continent offers a clever blend of exploration and choose your own adventure branching narrative moments. There are easily over a hundred hours of entertainment hidden in the core box plus expansions. The team at Serious Poulp have given life to a fully realized world filled with wondrous and terrible things to discover. Players are guided both by a series of “curses” to solve, but also by a few overarching meta narratives that unfold. While the setting and player agency are both fully developed, the character development or any real sense of character is virtually nonexistent. The 7th Continent is a game that offers a deep dive experience that is arguably more complex and thought out then any game created in an analog medium.
#1 – Legacy of Dragonholt
How could anything possibly out do the story telling of The 7th Continent? The Legacy of Dragonholt doesn’t just tell you a story, it makes you, the player, an actor in a sprawling “theater of the mind” adventure. The pulpy action feels like it was lifted directly from an Indiana Jones movie, or the latest Uncharted video game. The dialog can stumble at times with a heavy dose of dialect and accent, but is otherwise quite charming and frequently humorous. Legacy of Dragonholt is an outstanding collaborative story telling and adventure experience that I hope serves as the first of many such games in the future. Dragonholt is an easy buy without hesitation and is my obvious pick for Game of the Year!