Another year gone by, another slew of great games to consider! It would be a little ridiculous for us to make a Top 10 list, simply because we haven’t played nearly all the games of 2014, though we’ve played a lot. Instead, we’re going to each share a couple of our favorites, and then we’re going to give our “2014 Game of the Year” award to a game that we unanimously love, and we’ll each talk about why that game is so dang good. Here we go!
Splendor – I’ll never forget reading this game’s rulebook for the first time, which I admit is a weird thing to say. I hadn’t yet heard of Space Cowboys, and I only knew Marc André from the lackluster children’s game Bonbons, so I was not expecting much. Just reading these rules, though, got me extremely excited. This is my kind of game, a fast-paced engine-building card game. And this is one of the clearest rulebooks I’ve ever read in four years of reading hundreds of rulebooks.
It turned out that the gameplay was exactly as I imagined it would be, which is to say, a lot of fun. My wife was pregnant at the time and we couldn’t go out much during the polar vortex, so we ended up playing this five times on the day it arrived! It’s been a hit all year ever since, and deserves every accolade it’s gotten. I understand some people find it dry and boring, and the theme is unexciting, but it’s got that great engine-building feel of Dominion compressed down to a very simple family game, along with fantastic art and components (those gem chips!). I also recently discovered how much this game owes to Saint Petersburg, and just how much of a better game this is as well. Five and ten years, respectively, after its inspirations, Splendor does a great job of improving them in a way that brings engine-building card play to a wider audience.
Star Realms – Much like Splendor, Star Realms is a game that makes every effort to improve upon its predecessors, particularly Ascension. While I had several complaints about Ascension, they’ve all been addressed in Star Realms. The tableau no longer gets stuck with one type of card, because it’s now comprised entirely of cards to buy, and the damage is used to kill your opponent. It’s finally a proper cross between Dominion and Magic, but in space! And White Wizard Games has done everything in its power to make this game as successful as possible, and it’s worked. The game is only $10 at most OLGSs, and the free app ($5 IAP) works and syncs across iOS, Android, AND PC. App developers, take note. This is the premiere board game app in my opinion, even if people have small complaints about the interface. It’s kept me interested in the game all year long, and has been a great way to stay in touch with friends by sharing something together.
Of course, it’s not just the things outside the game that make this great. Gameplay is smooth and exciting, and allows for complete blowouts and surprise comebacks that typically don’t happen in a game like Dominion. The art is also growing on me – I think it’s really the subdued color of the cards that keeps me from loving the art, but it looks great on the app. With four small expansions just out, I imagine I’ll be playing his game for a very, very long time. To me, this is now the deckbuilder on the market, the go-to suggestion to teach new players or have them pick up. Easily one of the best releases of the year.
Samurai Spirit – I’m a long-time fan of co-operative board games, and Antoine Bauza’s Ghost Stories is one of my favorites, despite its brutal difficulty level. When Samurai Spirit was first described to me as “Ghost Stories-lite”, I was intrigued. When I read that it can handle 2-7 players in under an hour, I was excited. Upon arriving in the vendor hall at Gen Con this year, my first stop was the Fun Forge booth to ensure that I could get my hands on a copy.
After nearly a dozen plays, I’m still enamored with Samurai Spirit. The game is essentially the classic film Seven Samurai in board game format. Players take on the roles of samurai tasked with defending a village and its families against three waves of increasingly powerful marauding bandits. The gameplay mechanics are simple, but the decisions are not: Do you fight a bandit? Attempt to protect a farmstead? Assist another samurai who may be in peril?
One of the biggest issues I have with most co-operative games is the quarterbacking problem: one experienced player can dominate the table, making it a lot less fun for the other players. Samurai Spirit‘s simplicity and level of randomness allow it to dance neatly around this issue; there are only a few possible actions each turn, and it’s rare that there’s a guaranteed “best” action. We’ve found that the game is sufficiently challenging — but winnable — without over-analyzing every move. It’s a brilliantly streamlined co-op game that is always a pleasure to play.
Also, did I mention the katana-wielding raccoon?
Abyss – I have a good friend who will often declare a new game an “instant 10” after he plays the first time. My early opinions tend to be more reserved, and I often have to play several times before deciding how much I like a game. Abyss is that rare title where I was hooked from the very first turn.
It’s impossible to discuss this game without pointing out the artwork, which would be a shoe-in if MeepleTown had a “Best Looking Game” award. From the board to the cards to the five(!) different box covers, the underwater-styled art is not only breathtaking but very consistent with the theme of the game. With many Eurogames, it’s easy to forget the theme altogether while playing — I adore Macao, for example, but it feels like a bunch of cards and wooden cubes. In Abyss, everything you see plunges your imagination into the murky ocean depths.
Abyss is a hand-building game at its core, but the extra gameplay elements keep things interesting, from the initial quasi-bidding phase to the unique powers of the faction leaders. And how’s that for a mechanic: the leaders allow you to build a resource engine, but in order to score points, you have to give up them up. It keeps the game constantly evolving and ensures that a good early play doesn’t result in a runaway leader situation.
An “instant 10”? Maybe not, but Abyss is a solid, fun game with an amazing aesthetic quality, and I look forward to many future plays exploring what it has to offer.
Sheriff of Nottingham – When I first started hearing about Sheriff of Nottingham, I was thoroughly intrigued. I love bluffing games and was excited by the idea of one that wasn’t your typical two-sided, “lie so you can win, or figure out who the liars are so you don’t lose” kind of game like Resistance or Coup. The idea of lying straight to someone’s face or using negotiation tactics to actually DO something was an idea I hadn’t really come across in a game.
Luckily, Sheriff does not disappoint. The mechanics are not new, but they are used in a unique way to turn what would normally be a standard bluffing game or a standard set collection game into something more than the sum of its parts.
Even better is the part where you have multiple options on how to handle things. If you want, you can choose to negotiate or bribe instead of lying. If you really don’t want to lie, you don’t have to, and it is still possible to win. Or you can use lying and bribing in clever combinations to get the Sheriff to do what you want in a cunning plot to get the most items into the city and win! Or, if you’re more like me, attempt to use cunning tricks to sneak in high points goods, and fail hilariously.
Actually, the best part of the game is the hilarity of it all. Sure, Sheriff of Nottingham is a new take on an old idea, but the game’s biggest draw is how silly and fun the whole thing is. What this game lacks in complexity and deep thought, it makes up for in uproarious laughter and fun times.
Overall, Sheriff of Nottingham is a great social game that actually requires a touch of logic as well. The two come together in a clever combination to create a really fun and unique game.
Hyperborea – Hyperborea is a very different game with a very interesting mix of mechanics. It’s so different, in fact, that it’s kind of hard to categorize. It scratches a similar itch to Small World or Eclipse, but it’s not really a territory control game. It has elements of civilization building and engine construction too, but it doesn’t quite qualify as those either. For some, this might be a turn-off. However, I’m all about games that are hybrids of different game types: too Euro to be Ameri-trash, and too Ameri-trash to be Euro; they aren’t easily categorized as one thing or another.
I am also all about games that are pretty, and this game is one of the most beautiful games that came out this year. The components are well-made, each civilization has its own stunning art style, and the board is both gorgeous and readable at the same time.
Hyperborea is somewhat deep without being hard to understand. It is detailed yet elegant in play style, and it’s not quite like anything else I’ve played. While there are some things about this game that don’t feel perfect, it is unique and interesting enough to keep me engaged the entire game. Despite any minor flaws, and despite it not quite being what I expected, I thoroughly enjoy the unusual and interesting nature of Hyperborea every time we play.
And the MeepleTown 2014 Game of the Year is…
Derek: I’ll admit that when I reviewed Five Tribes, I was a little critical (Christian says I should have given it a 5/5). Despite all my nitpicks, when it comes to medium-and-heavier games I’ve played this year, this is the one we can’t stop playing. The central mechanic is very fun and tactile, it ties everything in the game together, and the game just comes together perfectly. It’s also got this really cool unique arc where the game kind of declines rather than building up – which I thought I would dislike, but in fact, just the opposite. As weird as it sounds (because they seem dissimilar), this game has about fired Castles of Burgundy for me. They both have lots of different abilities tied around a central mechanism (mancala in Five Tribes versus dice in Castles), but this game plays in half the time, is more tactile and less lucky, has much better artwork, and is just more fun.
To me, this is the medium-heavy game you use to let gamers move on to that next step. It’s also one that we can actually play when the baby goes to bed, because its short length (about an hour with experience) keeps us from pushing it aside when we’re tired and worn out. In The Year of Bruno Cathala, this game clearly stands tall above the rest as his magnum opus – until we see what he pulls off in 2015!
Christian: Five Tribes has quickly become the “go-to” medium-weight strategy game for my local group, especially when new gamers are present. It’s everything a gateway game should be: attractive, accessible, and elegant. The fresh take on the Mancala mechanic (Bruno Cathala charmingly described it to me as a “worker removal” system) is clever and engaging. Executing a good move, especially one that your opponents failed to spot, feels incredibly rewarding. I enjoy the way each session evolves over time, too: early in the game you have just about every option available, but as workers become more scarce, it can be a fairly tense race to squeeze out those last few remaining points.
In a year that featured jaw-droppingly beautiful games like Abyss and Helios, it’s a shame that the artwork in Five Tribes may have been slightly overlooked — it’s gorgeous, and the art design definitely lives up to Days of Wonders’ historically high standards. Between the vibrant art and the colorful components, the game simply looks fun. Then you play, and it is fun.
Five Tribes is a delight for new and experienced gamers alike, and despite Derek’s horrible oversight of not giving it a 5/5 score (just kidding, man!), it’s a clear choice for 2014’s Game of the Year.
Hillary: Aside from what’s already been said, what I love about Five Tribes is that it manages to create new and unusual dynamics, but makes them easily accessible. This game is like no other I’ve played, but I had no problem picking it up the very first time. It’s also great because this means that the game can accommodate different skill levels of players with ease. So many games are super punishing to new players or to those who can’t immediately understand what’s going to happen ten turns ahead based on one move. With Five Tribes, however, a new player can still come up with good moves, and even potentially win.
The other thing I find interesting about this game is that it’s kind of like riding a bicycle. I’ve only played a few times and had a big enough between plays that I was worried I’d need another rules explanation. However, every time I play that first turn, it all just falls into place again. The gameplay is both intuitive and memorable enough that you can come back to it time and time again without brain fog.
Bruno Cathala really hit the right combination of unique mechanics, fun game play, and ease of teaching here. There have been so many games that I loved when they came out but later stopped making it to the table for various reasons. I see Five Tribes reserving itself a permanent place on our shelves.