There is, from time to time, some debate over which year was the best for board and card game releases. Was it 2010? Was it 2005? Is it the case, perhaps, that every new year is a best year every for board games? There have certainly been many arguments made, but now it is time to time to settle this question once and for all (for now). And to settle it in the data-driven, objective way that you have seen in things like my statistical analysis for Legend of the Five Rings tournament results. Or perhaps with a completely subjective list of the 10 best games from 2012 based on my opinions at this particular second. One or the other.
10: Suburbia: This tile-laying game from Ted Alspach has each player selecting new hexes to add to their suburban paradise, aiming to provide a layout both appealing and profitable – but not too appealing too fast, because growing your population too much too quickly will be unmanageable. New tiles are selected using the popular mechanic of a row where new tiles have surcharges to select them, with tiles getting cheaper as they hang out longer. Different tiles work together (or not) in variety of ways – for example, factories are negatives when placed next to residential areas, but other industrial property such as warehouses will give bonuses for being next to commercial property, while airports are one of the few tiles that care about tiles in other players’ suburbs (other airport tiles, specifically). Replayability is increased because there are more tiles than can be used any given game, and players also have hidden goals that can affect their strategies throughout the game. (BGG Rank: 50)
9: Keyflower: This seventh “key” game from R&D games, designed by Richard Breese and Sebastian Bleasdale, really attracted a lot of attention last year when it went into full release in the United States. But it originally dropped in 2012, and I was lucky enough to get to play it shortly thereafter. Keyflower’s signature mechanic is the unique worker bidding system, where your meeples serve both as ‘workers’ to activate tiles you already have (or that other players already have) and also as your bids to acquire additional tiles to add to your village. Winning bids go back to the bag, losing bids return to the player, and meeples placed as workers go to the owner of the tile (so if you use meeples to activate another player’s tile, that player will get your meeples for the next turn). The strategy of the auctions is enhanced by the ability of losing bidders to shift their bid to another tile, potentially creating chain reactions. Victory points at the end of the game come from primarily from the tiles acquired, including end-game scoring tiles that players have some control over. (BGG Rank: 22)
8: Guildhall: In this card game from Hope S. Hwang, players must choose their card plays both on the immediate effects they receive and on the longer-range goal of accumulating sets (guilds) of the six different card types (across five colors). Farmers generate a few victory points, the Assassin will keep opponents from getting too close to a set, and the Weaver will help get cards into your ‘guildhall’ that you don’t really want to play. Each player gets two actions per turn – mostly commonly that’s player two cards, but other action options are to draw more cards, or to cash in a completed guild for a victory point card. The lightest game on this list that isn’t named Love Letter (oops, spoiler alert!), Guildhall is good to play both with gamers and with non-gamer family or friends, which is a huge selling point in my book. (BGG Rank 484)
7: Rise of the LCGs (Android: Netrunner and Star Wars: The Card Game): All right, I’m cheating a bit here, wrapping the significance of these two games up into a standing that’s probably higher than I’d give each one individually. They weren’t the first Living Card Games, but Fantasy Flight dropping both of these into the mix at around the same time and to great financial success has resulted not only in more LCGs from FFG, but also in similar release models from other companies, in games such as Doomtown: Reloaded , Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn, and the re-launch of VS. Netrunner, a hacking-themed game set in a dystopian near future, features wildly asymmetrical gameplay, as the Runners seek to break into the data forts of monolithic Megacorps, and is known for the significance of bluffing in its gameplay. Star Wars: the Card Game features … well, Star Wars, with the light side of Rebels, Jedi, smugglers & spies taking on the dark side of Sith, Imperials, and scum, with each side trying to destroy opposing objectives, or control the board until the Death Star is complete. Conventional wisdom will place Netrunner as the better game, but it’s Star Wars (for all of its sometimes wild randomness) that I continue to play … because Star Wars. (BGG Ranks 10 and 234)
6: Seasons: Roll big chunky dice (I think these are why my 5-year-old will ask to play Seasons, even though he has no conception of how the game works), accumulate elemental power, spend it to play magic items and familiars from your hand of cards, and then accumulate a pile of crystals, which serve as both an energy source and victory points. There’s ostensibly some sort of broader theme about a magical tournament, but ignore that nonsense in favor of the title – Seasons. The passage of time during the game adjusts the dice rolled each turn and how many turns the game will last. Players must plan for the different resources likely to be available each season, plus plan the best use of their cards, including which cards become available in which of the three years of the game. This Régis Bonnessée design doesn’t do anything that stands out as notably unique, but the overall experience is. (BGG Rank 116)
5: X-Wing: If you want to talk about industry-shaping, ignore my comments a few entries up about LCGs, and feast your eyes on the reasonably-priced non-collectible miniatures game, which (as much as I have fond memories of it) sometimes makes me wonder how anyone can still play something like Warhammer 40K, where you have to pay several times more and the miniatures don’t come painted. The miniatures are gorgeous and the gameplay is sweet. I have never touched the tournament scene for this one, but it’s still just a blast to play in a friendly environment. Or, for me, with the above-mentioned 5-year-old, who can’t play with the real rules, but still loves flying around the Millennium Falcon. I can’t wait for the upcoming Ghost expansion from Star Wars Rebels. (BGG Rank 28)
4: Terra Mystica: The very epitome of the heavy Eurogame, this design from Jens Drögemüller and Helge Ostertag has almost reach the pinnacle in the BGG rankings, which tend to favor that style of game. Players build different sorts of buildings, which move from the player board to the main board. Each space revealed on the player board means more resources generation of various types. Buildings can be upgraded two or three times, further adjusting resource availability. Playing certain buildings unlocks other action tiles. And clumping enough buildings together means that cities can be formed, with each city unlocking a bonus. Plus there’s a temple track that’s worth victory points, upgrading certain abilities in worth victory points, and each round there is some in-game action that generates a bonus and a temple track that generates a bonus (randomized from game to game). And did I mention that each faction has a different board and ability that can make them play drastically differently from each other? I pride myself on being able to pick up games very quickly, but I’ll admit to my brain somewhat melting the first time I looked at a Terra Mystica player board. But Terra Mystica is well worth that initial steep learning curve, as the various strategic components swirly together beautifully. (BGG Rank 2)
3: Love Letter: While Terra Mystica is the heaviest game on this list, Seiji Kanai’s Love Letter is the lightest. At this point I’m not sure whether to give it props or slops for kicking off the recent trend of ‘micro-games’ but Love Letter itself is a tiny, magnificent experience. In each hand of Love Letter, the players will try to knock each other out of the hand by using Guards to guess the cards in each others’ hands, forcing an opponent to cast aside the Princess card, or, failing that, simply ending the hand with the highest numbered card. Its light deduction means that play skill actually matters, but in ways that don’t deprive non-gamers from having a great time with it. Not only can it be used for family or filler purposes, but it’s great to have a game I actually enjoy playing that can literally fit in my pocket, to be played when waiting at a restaurant or similar circumstances (and that does not involve me staring at a tiny screen and ignoring my companions). (BGG Rank 124)
2: Lords of Waterdeep: From designers Peter Lee and Rodney Thompson, this Dungeons & Dragons-themed board game is on the other end of the eurogame spectrum from Terra Mystica – the epitome of the light Eurogame. Workers are assigned to generate resources, erect buildings, obtain quests, or play cards. Victory points primarily come from completing quests, which costs resources. Lords of Waterdeep doesn’t do anything particularly new or different, but it does what it does extremely well. I can dig pretty heavy games, and I like Lords of Waterdeep – and I can readily play it with pretty much anyone in my family who has any interest in games, a class that is otherwise mostly limited to card games and Ticket To Ride. (BGG Rank 29)
1: Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar: I love this game. Which you could probably tell because I ranked it #1. I like this game enough that, unlikely pretty much any other non-customizable game, I actually researched and worked to figure out a serious strategy, so I could enter a tournament and win a gorgeous, gorgeous painted copy (those gears look great as they come in the box, but they’re stupendous when painted well). On each turn each player must either assign workers to the outlying gears or pick up workers already on the gears, and at the end of each turn the central gear is rotated, lifting the workers higher on the outlying gears. Lots of workers being assigned is better than fewer, and a worker staying on a gear longer means a better action, but there are costs to each of those that must be balanced. Workers coming off of gears generate resources, construct buildings, garner the favor of the gods, or research technologies (which can improve later resource generation, building, or temple presence). I will admit that, without its amazing board of interlocked gears, Tzolk’in might be “just” another excellent worker placement game (one could, for example, simulate the gears simply by having static ladders printed on the board and moving the workers up the ladders each turn). But it does have the gears, and it is glorious. (BGG Rank 18)
Bonus: You may recognize those “BGG Rank” notations as references to the board game rankings on BoardGameGeek. If you do, you probably know there’s always a lot of argument as to their significance, or lack thereof. But, for what it’s worth, 2012 has 12! games in the Top 50. The games that BGG users rate that highly, and which are not in my top 10 (or is that 11?) games of 2012, are: War of The Ring Second Edition (14), Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island (15), The Resistance: Avalon (34), Mage Wars Arena (40), and Descent: Journeys in The Dark Second Edition (42). Just more evidence of the preeminence of 2012!