It’s not a secret that Tales of the Arabian Nights is one of my all-time favorite board games. I adore the stories that emerge as players fumble around the sands and seas of the Middle East, despite almost non-existent game mechanics. I don’t care if trying to be the winner of a storytelling game is an exercise in futility – most of my games end with several rounds spent in prison. They’re just fun to play.
So, imagine my surprise and excitement when a number of storytelling-focused games released in 2017! And amazingly, most of them are quite good. Some folks are undoubtedly turned off by the growing number of roleplaying/board game hybrids, but I adore games that not only tell a story, but make me want to share that story with others when I’m done.
My most anticipated game for 2017 was possibly the biggest offender of blurring the lines between RPGs and board games – Legacy of Dragonholt. The entire game is spent reading from story books and choosing from decisions that branch the plot into multiple paths. There are no dice, meeples, or wooden cubes – the only other components are tokens to track player turns and motherfucking character sheets. Hell. Yeah.
I mention Dragonholt because it actually won’t make my top 10 list this year, purely because I haven’t had time to finish it. My wife and I only played for a few hours and finished the first book, and by the approximated play times printed on each book, we likely have another 10-15 hours to go. But I’m already enraptured with the storytelling that Dragonholt is offering and I can’t wait to dig into it further in 2018.
With that out of the way, let’s get to the other good games that came out in 2017.
10. This War of Mine
A tabletop game that includes a massive multi-entry tome to read from when making narrative decisions, a la Arabian Nights? Of course it’s going to make the list!
This War of Mine is a very faithful adaptation of the titular video game, where you guide a group of survivors in a war-torn city through their daily lives of gathering food and supplies to make it day-to-day. It’s an odd game that is technically co-operative, but mostly plays like a solo experience that multiple people can share in. I haven’t played This War of Mine with multiple players yet, and I could see it being a little janky in that regard. As a solo or two-player game though, the game is a harrowing experience of barely-fictional survival.
Be warned, it is a brutally difficult game with a fair amount of randomness that can lead to sudden despair and losses. However, it all feels completely within the theme of the game – life in a warzone is hell, and things rarely turn out the way you intended.
I had no idea what to expect from Sentient when I grabbed it at Gen Con. All I knew is that the theme sounded rad as hell (robot/AI manufacturing!), and that was enough for me. And thankfully, the game is really good!
Sentient is a weird mash-up of worker placement, dice manipulation, and tableau building. It’s a fairly simple game, yet each decision has real weight behind them. Do you place extra influence when placing your worker to woo over potential investors? Or do you save them to assist with robots that may screw with your current dice set-up? And do you take the chance with altering one die at the risk of locking yourself out of points later in the round? Sentient is a fun puzzle of creating the best manufacturing line each time you play that doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Oh look, another storytelling game based on an existing video game property that made my top ten! Big surprise, right?
To be fair, I wasn’t immediately sold on Fallout. I’m not in-love with the video game franchise as most people are, and I was concerned about the game’s potential length. My Gen Con demo was short but interesting, but I still had my reservations. I’m glad that the final game completely overcame whatever doubts I had.
Fallout is basically Arabian Nights with more of an actual game bolted on. It’s not a game you should care about winning, because if you do, it’s going to fall very flat. However, if you’re willing to simply let go of the typical tabletop mentality and just see what happens, Fallout can be an amazing evening of storytelling in the wasteland. The length of the game can still be an issue, and things like the market and acquiring useful items can be frustrating. But these complaints are balanced out to me by the amazing quest structure, the XP system, and the V.A.T.S. dice that feel just like Fallout. I’m looking forward to the inevitable expansions – it is a Fantasy Flight title, after all – which will continue to expand the possible encounters that players can experience.
Clans of Caledonia is by far the best heavyweight game I played this year. It would be easy to label it as an historical, Scottish-themed Terra Mystica. And it wouldn’t be an entirely wrong description! It’s fairly safe to say that Caledonia borrows much from the acclaimed fantasy-and-magic euro game. However, it also brings enough fresh ideas to the table to stand completely on its own. In fact, I would dare say that I actually prefer Caledonia over Terra Mystica. Fight me.
Gone are the cult tracks, elements, and magic bowls of Mystica. Instead, Caledonia injects the game full of traditional Scottish ideas like… milk, cheese, wheat, and trade contracts. Yes, that sounds boring on paper, but the game does an incredible job of providing variable clan powers that feel meaningful, and the ability to craft your map expansion and economic engine to your liking. The contracts paint clear goals to work towards, and the spice track offers another avenue for victory points that other players may not see coming.
Century: Spice Road had a great deal of hype early this year as “the Splendor killer.” It’s humorous that board games have reached the point where we describe them as some sort of cold-blooded killer of similar games, but here we are. And honestly, it’s not an entirely wrong description either.
Century is a quick and simple game of managing an ever-growing hand of cards to build your spice engine. That’s it. You acquire new cards that help you obtain or trade cubes faster and more efficiently, so you can turn around and cash in your spice cubes for victory points. The Splendor comparison comes from being a breezy-yet-fun engine builder, and Century certainly scratches the same itch. The ability to build your hand full of cards that let you exchange one color for another is a fun economic puzzle to solve, and one that I look forward to coming back to a lot more in 2018.
I wrote a lot about Photosynthesis earlier this year, so I’m simply going to refer to past me to explain why it deserves to be on this list:
Photosynthesis requires players to think ahead and know that the placement of their trees may not consistently reward them. In later rounds, I managed to position my trees so that they would see sunlight on multiple consecutive turns. I had to be patient, and that patience was rewarded with more available actions.
All trees, regardless of height, cast imaginary shadows based on the position of the sun. The taller the tree is, the longer its shadow and the further it can potentially block a smaller tree from getting energy. Because of the gorgeous three dimensional pieces, it’s easy to see which trees will be successful and which will go hungry each round.
But while one turn may yield minimal energy, it’s entirely possible to see the opposite result as the sun moves on. Light will shine from a different angle, and the shadows will stretch in a different direction than before. This is what elevates Photosynthesis from a simple-yet-pretty game into a top-notch strategy title.
Thanks, Professional Games Writer Josh!
I will keep my thoughts on Pandemic Legacy: Season 2 brief as to not anger the throngs of gamers that lose their shit over spoilers (who would’ve thought that board game spoilers would be a thing?). My group is only halfway through the campaign, so it’s very possible that Season 2 could rise or fall further than its current position.
But at the moment, Pandemic Legacy has found a way to keep a decade-old franchise fresh with new twists on its old mechanics. The only complaint I have so far is that while the premise of the game’s campaign is incredibly strong, the game-to-game storytelling seems a bit lacking compared to Season 1. Hopefully it will pick up as we continue our journey of ripping cards and saving the world.
Azul is by far the most gorgeous game of 2017. Everything from the player boards, factory tiles, and the chunky decorative tiles all look and feel wonderful. It’s also one of my new favorite abstract games. Azul is fast, easy to teach, light on player antagonizing, yet heavy on decisions.
That single red tile might look appealing to fill that row you’ve started, but do you want to put all of those orange tiles in the middle of the table for your opponents? Maybe it’s better to hold off on the red tile and hope that it will still be there a turn or two later.
It’s easy to play Azul as a multiplayer solitaire game, and it totally works if that’s your mood. It also rewards players that are actively checking their opponents’ boards, planning on which tiles are hot commodities around the table to minimize the pain you may feel later. It reminds me of Qwirkle, another abstract game that I love deeply, with the exception that the tiles are all open to everyone instead of concealed in each player’s hands. I’ve logged more games of Azul in the last few months than any other game, and it’s a testament to the game’s quality that I’ve yet to feel any sort of fatigue.
If it wasn’t for some other game coming out in 2017 and dominating most of my time and thoughts, Ethnos would clearly be my number one pick for game of the year. The best reductive description I read that completely sold me on the game is that, “Ethnos is Ticket to Ride meets El Grande.”
It’s an incredibly simple game with a lot of replayability. Each player takes either face-up cards on the table or a face-down card from the deck to play sets of combined colors or combined factions. Each play, called a band, will not only score points at the end of the round, but also potentially allows the player to place a control token of the kingdom matching the color of the top of the played stack. In addition, each faction has a unique power which only activates if they are the “leader” of your band. It’s all fairly generic fantasy themes, which is my only knock against the game. However, the amazing art of legendary fantasy artist John Howe makes it very easy on the eyes and props up the otherwise lackluster theme.
There are more factions in the box than can be played in a single game, which encourages multiple plays with randomized cards. All of the combinations of creatures interact with each other in simple but exciting ways, and the potential for additional factions via expansions is obvious. Area control is typically one of my least favorite tabletop genres due to the cutthroat and prolonged nature of them, but Ethnos brings a fresh and invigorating take on a very familiar type of game.
Gloomhaven completely caught me by surprise this year. I passed on the initial Kickstarter campaign, as both the unknown pedigree of the designer and the grimdark fantasy theme caused severe hesitation. After demoing a friend’s copy of the game, I was intrigued enough to grab one of the only retail boxes because I figured it might be a fun campaign game to play with some friends occasionally.
Boy, was I unprepared for how Gloomhaven would sink its teeth into me.
Similarly to last year’s Mechs Vs. Minions, there’s so much content in the Titanic-sized box that it blows my mind it’s not a thousand dollar game. You get over 90 scenarios, each lasting between 60-90 minutes, with a handful of interesting starting characters and a dozen more that are sealed away in envelopes. The game isn’t shy of showing you exactly how much stuff is in the box, but it keeps much of it sealed shut until in-game conditions are met, taunting players to keep plugging away to see what the mysterious triangle box contains. The game is one giant mystery box, but it didn’t have to rely on its secrets to keep me interested.
The gameplay itself is unique for dungeon crawlers in that there’s very little randomness. Most games utilize dice to determine attacks or defense to simulate a Dungeons & Dragons experience, but Gloomhaven eschews luck for more Euro-game ideologies. Players have full access to their character’s cards at the start of each scenario, and it’s up to them to find the best card combinations that will slay monsters and loot treasure.
I’ve played Gloomhaven more than any other game in 2017 without contest. From the start of January to the end of December, I’ve logged 40 sessions of Gloomhaven! And not only are we still not done with the game, but we’re also not bored of it either. Admittedly, now that we’ve opened just about everything in the box, the lure of the mystery is gone. But Gloomhaven is a fantastic enough game that I don’t need secrets to keep me coming back. I definitely foresee many more hours devoted to stopping the Gloom before we’re finally ready to pack it all up.