2015 has been an excellent year for board games of all varieties, and it’s also got to be the year where I’ve played the most new material (I think I have reviewed around 50 releases, and played many more). Many of these games will find permanent homes on shelves, some will fade away, but I think there are a few that are timeless, that are bound to become mainstays of the hobby for several years, and strangely enough, none of them are strategy games. Card-combo fests Elysium, 7 Wonders: Duel and Deus represent an amazing year for gamers like me, but the following three games are truly something unique, and represent one of two big paradigm shifts in our hobby. (The other being the advent of the Legacy-style game.) Speaking of Pandemic Legacy, none of us have played it yet though we expect it to be our respective Christmas trees – yet we’re still very confident in our Game of the Year award, for reasons you will see below. Onward!
While I don’t think that Mysterium necessarily represents an evolution of Dixit (still an amazing game in its own right) like others do, it certainly is an entirely new experience that transcends the implicit boundaries of game design. It’s thematic, it feels strategic, yet its mechanisms are really just matching pieces of artwork together. And somehow it feels like a party game, despite all the deliberation and frustration this game can bring. One of the most interesting things about this design is something I don’t hear mentioned often: it is one of the few co-op games out there that, like Hanabi, has no A.I. pitted against you. So, it feels interesting and cerebral, while purely being an exercise in communication among your friends, instead of fighting against a randomized deck of cards. An instant classic, for sure.
I originally didn’t believe the hype behind Spyfall in the eight or so months before it came to the U.S., but when it finally arrived, I took it to a friend’s bachelor party and we found ourselves crying with laughter in under 30 minutes. The concept makes little thematic sense, but it paves the way to an immense amount of hilarity. The entire game is centered around trying to get one particular person to say something idiotic, yet this is a party game that offers an incredible mix of tension, humor, and clever play – and it’s rare that you get all three of those at once. Stinker, for example, is another hilarious party game from this year, but it doesn’t offer chances for cleverness, nor the tightly wound nerves of Spyfall.
I vividly remember some hilarious one-liners, especially spies who got away through ridiculously accurate statements, but I also remember some brilliantly laid traps, like when someone intentionally asked (while at the Bank) “Whatcha doing here on the weekend?,” knowing that the spy would (and did) screw up and blather on about how it “seemed like a good time to come by.” Clever moments like that, combined with the outright hilarity of the accidents that this game creates, make it the funniest game of the year, and one of the most strategic “funny” games I’ve ever played.
Since Gen Con, there’s been no doubt in my mind that Codenames is something uniquely special. Much like Dominion, it feels like something that should have always existed, and you can’t believe it didn’t until recently. This is a game that has potential to transcend boundaries, to move from board gaming to the mass market, to convert families and friends and families of friends to the hobby. I would still call it a party game, but it’s so cerebral, so interesting, so strategic, and yet with such a minimal ruleset. It tests us in ways that games often don’t, forcing us to think carefully and creatively about what a word on the page (or card) really even means. It cuts to the core how we communicate as humans, and in that way brings us together in a deeper, empathetic sense as we find strange and sometimes hilarious ways to (mis)understand each other. In that way, it’s also a teaching tool at many levels, helping children and adults of all ages with literacy, communication, and logic. There are very few classrooms where Codenames wouldn’t make sense – and even fewer game rooms.
The game is infinitely variable and replayable, and aggressively priced to boot – there’s no reason this game shouldn’t be in Targets and Wal-Marts across the United States. I’ve taught this game to at least sixty people in the past four months, and I’ve had a single person dislike the game – everyone else wanted to play again right away. And I will continue to be teaching new players for years to come, even after we’ve ripped apart our copies of Pandemic Legacy and those wonderful memories have faded. Codenames is an enormous blessing upon our hobby, and easily MeepleTown’s Game of the Year.