2016 in Review

Hey all!

Just figured I’d pop in and say some stuff about the games I played in 2016, because it’s the end of the year so why not.

(Some time from now, WordPress will generate a Year in Review post for me that I’ll include, here, to talk a bit more about how the year went for What’s Eric Playing? as well, but for now, let’s just talk games.)

Rather than do a Top Ten of 2016 (because I get all weird about ordering things), I’m just going to do Ten (or so) Games that Surprised Me, and talk a bit about why that’s the case. These aren’t quite reviews, but I’ll link to my review of them where applicable.

I plan on writing this in segments, so, check back periodically. I imagine I’ll get through a few on 12/31, a few more on 1/1, and finish up by 1/2. This, as with many of my predictions, proved to be laughably incorrect, so here we are. It’s done now, though!

Contents

1 – Millennium Blades

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So, in case it wasn’t super clear from my past 80 posts or so, I generally try to keep games I play under 90 minutes. I was briefly tempted by Millennium Blades when it was on Kickstarter, but ultimately decided against it because I didn’t think I’d ever be able to convince anyone to play it with me.

Later on in the year (June-ish), it was recommended to me by Maggibot (who is great, btw), and I followed up on it with Mina’s Fresh Cardboard’s terrific review. That said, it wasn’t quite enough to sway me until I happened to go to my local game store and they had one copy in stock. I gave myself a week to think about it, went back, they still had it in stock, and the rest is history.

Millennium Blades, as a quick recap, is a 2-hour-ish game that essentially simulates Yu-Gi-Oh or Magic: The Gathering while lovingly poking fun at them (as well as the whole CCG / TCG scene). It’s also got a lot of cards, if you couldn’t tell from the photo above:

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Each of these is an expansion set. You’ll play with a bunch, but it’ll take you dozens of plays before you’ve really seen all the cards.

In it, you vie to become Millennium Blades World Champion against your friends, but you only start with a simple starter deck and some booster packs. To become champion, you have to win tournaments and build a killer deck. This involves buying booster packs, selling cards on the aftermarket, and trading cards with other players (your opponents!). Oh, did I mention all of that deckbuilding is real-time? Yeah, yeah it is. Once you go to the tournament, it’s a free-for-all. After three tournaments, the World Champion is crowned!

What Surprised Me

I suppose what surprised me most about this game was just how much fun I had with it. I can imagine it’s not for everyone (and if I ever get a review together / actually plumb the depths of this game, I’ll be able to better explain why), but for me it’s great — the right theme (and level of theme), the right intensity (the deckbuilding phase can be stressful), and so much art. All in all, this was the first game that made me really consider that I might be able to get into longer games, and it was a great pick to start that. I’d really like to get more plays in next year.

That said, in Millennium Blades, the “money” is stacks of 10 bills, where each stack is 1, 5, or 10 Millennium Dollars. It doesn’t come pre-wrapped, and it took me three hours to wrap it. I guess that also surprised me?

2 – Dominion: Empires

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Alright, I lied. I am going to do full photography treatments for all the shots. Whatever. It’ll take me a bit longer but be worth it, since these are going to be all-new, fresh shots. Top of the line.

Anyways. Let’s talk about Dominion: Empires. If you don’t know what Dominion is, I reviewed the base game earlier and I have a review of Empires that I published last week. The latest in a long line of Dominion expansions, Empires sees you basically already living it up (as you’d probably have to be if you bought all the previous expansions). There’s SO MUCH DOMINION, NOW:

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It’s a bit more Roman themed, its gameplay theme is “multiple paths to victory” and it adds a bunch of cards. Sure, it got delayed a few months, but it eventually arrived and added even more cards to Dominion.

What Surprised Me

Dominion: Empires kinda popped out of nowhere. I like Dominion (clearly), I’ve played a lot of it, but I felt like Adventures was a nice wrap-up. Empires, however, showed me what you could do with a really advanced expansion. Adding in Debt (making it so that you can pay for cards later), Split Piles (so that when cards are taken is important), and Gathering Cards (meaning that you need to watch what your opponents buy) along with a bunch of other cool features (Landmarks!) really spiced up Dominion for me, as well as likely reinforced my plan to review all the expansions (and update packs). I’ve since reviewed Empires, and it’s my favorite Dominion expansion. For 2017, I want to finish up my collection (missing some promos) and try to dig even deeper into the strategy of the complete game.

3 – Mystic Vale

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This one’s a bit dark, but I like the effect. Mystic Vale is the first game in the new “Card Crafting System” from Alderac. In it, the Vale is dying and you need to save it with your Druid magics. It’s vaguely fantasy, which, y’know, doesn’t do a whole lot for me on the theme, but it’s a fun little game. Plus, the major draw is that it’s a deckbuilder where you only ever have 20 cards — instead of building a deck, you actually modify your cards as you play the game, so your deck gets stronger that way. That’s what those cards in the center of the arrangement are — they are clear thirds of cards that you can use to “advance” a card in your deck. But be careful! Some cards have decay, which can cause you to lose a turn.

Also, it has some amazing art:

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What Surprised Me

I think what surprised me mostly was that it’s kind of similar to Flip City (in that if you flip enough red icons on your turn you lose the rest of your turn and can’t buy anything), but with a lot of added depth. While Flip City is faster, I think Mystic Vale has some more substance to it, so I ended up liking it a lot! The major point of surprise for me is something I don’t really care for about Mystic Vale, in that the base game lacks any player interaction. Once you’re ahead, there’s no going back. That frustrated me some, but I hear it will be rectified in subsequent expansions. That said, I think the Card Crafting System is interesting enough to keep me consistently interested, so I look forward to hopefully more Mystic Vale in 2017. I imagine the expansion will help with that.

#4 – Lotus

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Speaking of amazing art, let’s talk about some of the games I picked up at Gen Con. Some of these are going to end up on my shame list, as I didn’t quite get a chance to play them as much as they deserved in 2016, but we can talk about that later.

Lotus is a game about building a flower garden for zen reasons, and if you do a good enough job you can achieve enlightenment. Which is pretty great, I’m told. Anyways, the game is played by playing Petal Cards from your hand to construct flowers with your opponents, and anyone can complete flowers to earn points. There’s also an area control aspect, which is pretty great. For more about Lotus, check out my review. It’s also, as you can see, got amazing art:

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Very pretty game.

What Surprised Me

I think what surprised me most about this game is that I knew literally nothing about it before showing up at Gen Con. I basically hustled over to Red Raven’s booth, grabbed Islebound, and then passed by Renegade Game Studio’s booth and was like “well this isn’t terribly expensive” and then got it signed, which was pretty awesome. I ended up playing it a few times and thought it was just an awesome game, which further cemented my liking of Renegade Game Studios, which has been publishing great stuff this year (Apotheca, World’s Fair 1893, and soon Honshu, which I’m super stoked for). Gameplay-wise, I was also surprised by how easy it was to pick up. Sure, it’s not as fast to learn as Santorini, but it’s got a really nice lightness to it that makes it really easy to teach to new players, and the art will usually get their attention. For my second purchase of Gen Con, I think it was a pretty good call.

#5 – Unfair

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Another Gen Con pickup, I happened to get on the preview list for this game, coming out in 2017. Most of my motivation for it was “I love Rollercoaster Tycoon and would play a board game version forever”, and, honestly, it’s pretty faithful to the idea of competitively building theme parks. In Unfair, you are competing theme park builders who are trying to design the best park in the land. Fortunately, the city you’re in wants to help you (it’s good for growth) … for a bit. About halfway through the game they realize that they can’t really support more than one theme park in town, so they start turning the screws to make it difficult for you to survive. And, indeed, only the greatest park can triumph.

This is another game where the art is just a complete triumph! It conveys the whimsical nature of theme parks while still looking great and dynamic. Some pieces are even panoramas, and if you put them together they’ll produce a complete landscape:

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All in all, super fun game. I previewed it a while back if you’d like to read more.

What Surprised Me

So I think the first real surprise is that it’s a fairly long game with a pretty significant “take-that” element, and I actually liked it! That’s mostly in part that it’s super modular (you can choose which “themes” to play with, and some are more aggressive than others), so you can remove the more take-that-y parts of the game if they don’t appeal to you as directly, which I appreciate. Plus, the theme and the art are just awesome. It’s super fun to make a robot-pirate rollercoaster and have that attract a lot of guests and whatnot. Plus, it was super successful, Kickstarter-wise, so there will undoubtedly be more expansions coming up soon! I’m looking forward to trying them out.

#6 – Ice Cool

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In keeping with Gen Con games, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about my current favorite dexterity game, Ice Cool. In Ice Cool, you play as a fairly truant penguin, trying to skip out on class so you can snack on some delicious fish. But beware! The Hall Monitor has no patience for your shenanigans. You get to literally flick penguins around an actually modular school; what’s not to love? It’s great for all ages. To hear me gush more about it, here’s my review. Even the penguins and components are great:

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Delightful.

What Surprised Me

This was another game that, like most of the games I tried at Gen Con, was completely off my radar. I think I heard about it halfway through the con and we managed to get in a couple hours in the hot games room and got a game in, and it was hilarious. We laughed quite a lot, and I think that it actually got me onto dexterity games! I hadn’t played a lot of them previously, but I certainly have started playing more, now. That said, I can’t really find something I like better than Ice Cool, and I think a lot of that is the theme. It’s just a super fun game to play, and it gets broken out for most of our game nights, these days. It also travels well, for its size! It just took a while to get my hands on. I love the theme, I love flicking penguins around, and it’ll almost certainly make it to my 10 x 10 this year. If you’re looking for a fun dexterity game, look no further.

#7 – Captain Sonar

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So a lot of games are getting “updates” to try and transition into modern gaming, and some are just getting spiritual successors. If ever there were a direct successor to an older game, I’d say Captain Sonar is the successor to Battleship. Instead of it being a 1-on-1 affair, it’s (up to) a 4-on-4 real-time event. In Captain Sonar, you have four roles: the captain (pilots the sub, makes crucial decisions, wears fanciest hat), the first mate (charges and manages weapons, wears hat of significance), the engineer (manages breakdowns of crucial sub subsystems, also wears a hat I assume), and the radio operator (listens to enemy navigation and tries to guess location, could wear hat also if they wanted). The most important caveat about this game is that it has a turn-based mode, sure, but it can be played in real time, causing one of the most stressful events in gaming I’ve experienced in a long time. I don’t have a review done, yet, but trust me — I’ll get to one soon. Part of the problem is that I’ve only played on one of the literally five available maps:

maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaps

What Surprised Me

Usually I describe Captain Sonar as “oh yeah I almost threw up the first time I played but it’s a lot of fun”. I hadn’t played any real-time games either before this year and this was my first experience, playing in the BGG Hot Room at Gen Con. We liked it so much that we tried to immediately purchase it, but alas, sold out. I’d end up getting it later, but I was surprised that something so unequivocally stressful could be so much fun. My goal for this game in 2017 is to actually review it. That’d certainly be something.

#8 – Cake Duel

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So a friend asked me to take a look at their friend’s game and I was between reviews, so I was like, sure. What I found was a phenomenal (and short!) two-player bluffing game that was everything that two-player Coup should be and isn’t. In Cake Duel, there are warring clans of Sheep that want nothing more than cake (and if you’re wondering why, well, that should be obvious) and are willing to fight to get it. Or, at least, fight as much as they feel up to before they take a nap or something else adorable. And they’re pretty adorable:

sheepie

The cool thing about this game is that you play cards against your opponent face-down and they have to guess whether or not your attack claim (or defensive claim) is genuine. Add in some special cards to mess with the calculus of it and you’ve got yourself a game.

What Surprised Me

I think I haven’t been the biggest bluffing game fan lately because I find a lot of bluffing / social deduction games and that segment seem to benefit from discussing ad infinitum every possibility until you’ve eliminated both all incorrect possibilities and any vestige of fun left in the game. Naturally, I come into them skeptical, but this was awesome. It’s exactly the right length of game for me, it plays great with two, and it’s easy to transport and play (and I think I got most of my Cake Duel plays on planes or while traveling, this year). This is a game I needed, and I’m super glad it exists. My goal for this game in 2017 is just to get the Kickstarter version I ordered and try out the (tons of) new cards that are coming. Super exciting stuff.

#9 – Betrayal at House on the Hill: Widow’s Walk

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I couldn’t just not talk about this — I’ve been literally almost-dead with anticipation for this, the first (and perhaps only) expansion for one of my all-time favorite games. If Pandemic is what got me into modern board games, Betrayal at House on the Hill is what cemented it. I played all 50 haunts (except maybe Firebats) in the original version, so I was super stoked to pick this up. In Widow’s Walk, you can go back to the house, but it has all-new frights (and new haunts!) waiting for you. One of the biggest additions is an entirely new floor, the Roof:

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There are all sorts of new crazy tiles and all sorts of fun things. For more information, check out my review.

What Surprised Me

What surprised me about Widow’s Walk was mostly that it was a thing that was happening; even when I finally had it in my hands I couldn’t quite believe it was real. I was (and am) so excited about it. There are new movement rules around “landings” and dumbwaiters that let you get between floors more quickly, there are little tokens to mark that you’ve already gotten stat boosts from a tile, and there are another 50 haunts to get through. I should be playing this for a while. 2017 goal is to play that last haunt. You know which one I mean.

#10 – Santorini

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I’ve taken so many photos of Santorini recently that it’s probably fine to reuse this one.

Last (on this list, at least) is Santorini, the two-player abstract game from Roxley games. I think so far I’ve played it about 44 times as of writing, which, for any game, really, is pretty high praise. In Santorini, you play as workers effectively receiving assistance from a God or Other Greek Mythological Figure to try and build up the isle of Santorini to prove which God is better. This is a Kickstarter game defined by simple rules, strategic play, and incredible art / component quality, which is really great. Seriously, not kidding about the art:

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Bright, colorful, whimsical, and fun. Everything a solid game should be. For more of my thoughts, I just pushed a review of Santorini a little while ago.

What Surprised Me

I can’t totally remember when I backed this on Kickstarter, but I definitely was a bit hesitant to spend the money on a game I knew very little about. That said, I was really taken in by the art (and by how many stretch goals they had smashed) and kept following along with the progress of the game until it finally arrived. When I first played it, I thought it was fun, but adding in the God Powers was like significantly upgrading the game and taking it to the next level.  I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed it, and ended up playing it an extra five or so times on the spot. It’s short, engaging, and fun, and it may very well be a new classic for me in my game library. So far, I haven’t shown it to someone who’s disliked it, which I thought speaks well to its appeal and accessibility. Goal for 2017 is to review the expansion and just keep chugging along on this awesome game.

Honorable Mentions

I feel like it’s only fair to call out some more great games I picked up this year but didn’t quite get a chance to play as much as I’d like, and since I’m all about turning lists of ten into lists of 15, why not add five more?

Islebound

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Islebound is another Red Raven game (same publisher as two games I’ve really enjoyed, Above and Below and Dingo’s Dreams), which guarantees beautiful art at the very least (just look at the cover). In it, you play as ships going between many islands to try and boost your reputation. To do so, you might use the power of diplomacy to friend various islands and ports to gain bonuses, or you might turn to violence and command pirates and sea serpents to intimidate those islands and ports into giving you whatever they can. Super cool game, modular board, and an advanced side (so much content!), but I only had a chance to play it once in 2016 (picked it up at Gen Con, though!). Looking forward to getting a few more plays (and hopefully a review) in in 2017.

The Networks

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The Networks! I played this a couple times in 2016 but haven’t gotten to it enough to review. In it, you play as rival TV networks trying to become, well, the best. That is how most competitive games go. However, you do so by getting stars, ads, and shows for your network at certain time slots. While doing that you get to see amazing puns, great art, and fun gameplay, which makes this game absolutely delightful. It’s got a lot to it (especially the solo game, which is just hard), so I want to pick it up a bit more in 2017.

Vast: The Crystal Caverns

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Vast: The Crystal Caverns isn’t like any other game I’ve ever played. It’s completely asymmetrical and challenges up to five players to explore, escape, or become the Crystal Caverns (yes, you can play as the Cave; yes, it’s amazing). I only got to play it once this year (as the Cave), partly due to the startup cost of playing it (it really helps if everyone knows the rules for every character, which as you might surmise is not super quick to do, especially with five players), but I’m hoping 2017 lets me go a bit deeper into the Crystal Caverns. It’s such a cool concept and honestly a really cool piece of game design. If you like asymmetrical play or want to see an off-the-wall design exercise, I’d check out Vast for sure.

Evolution: Climate

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Evolution: Climate is super cool! In it, you try to help species survive the changing climate (and occasionally aggressive carnivores) by evolving different traits and abilities to adapt to the world around you. If you can’t adapt, well, then you die. Add in some incredible art (I mean, just look at the game box) and you’ve got a cool game. I didn’t get to play it as much as I would have liked in 2016, but I’m hoping 2017 is my year for this game. Super cool.

Pandemic Legacy: Season 1

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I know this came out in 2015, but it was a huge part of my year so please let me wax poetic about it for maybe a paragraph. My team at work got this and it absolutely dominated our board game lunches for a solid three to five months. My manager and I would discuss it during our weekly check-in (strategy, mostly) and we had a ton of fun with it. I’m not sure when Season 2 comes out, but if you like Pandemic even slightly and have a group willing to commit to this, I would overwhelmingly recommend it. It’s one of the best games I’ve ever played.

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