Welcome to Part II of my best of 2014 awards in board games. This part will discuss the top 20 games of the year, the top 5 expansions, the best solo game experiences of the year, and a list of honorable mentions.
Just a note: I am not including expansions for consideration for the top 20 games. Also, games that were up for consideration last year (such as Summoner Wars: Alliances) are not up for consideration again this time around.
A second note: This list considers my favorite games of they year. However, there will not necessarily be a correlation to my top 100 games of all time list because the lists consider different factors.
With that, let’s begin!
Section 1: Top Five Board Game Apps
2015 was not a banner year for apps. Although plenty of promises were made, many were unfulfilled (I’m looking at you, Twilight Struggle and Glass Road). Also, many of the most exciting app releases were merely updates of apps released in prior years, including the long-awaited faction update for Summoner Wars and the India map for Ticket to Ride, as well as expansion content for Sentinels of the Multiverse. However, in terms of the apps that were the most interesting new releases this year, this is what I came up with.
Steam, or Age of Steam, or Railways of the World is a large-scale railroad game. I never play it on the table, due to its weight, size, and age, so the chance to play against an AI or two is a welcome change. The AI is challenging enough for me, and I enjoy the experience. However, the app isn’t particularly well-designed or good looking, and many things are less-intuitive. In a regular year, this probably would not make the top 5, but for 2015, it does. Still, it’s a fun game to play to pass time and get an older game to the “table” in a manner of speaking.
Brass feels somewhat more polished than Steam, although it suffers from a number of flaws as well. The interface is somewhat difficult to use and sometimes does not communicate how to play very well. The tutorial is acceptable, but leaves a lot out. However, in terms of how the game looks, Brass is lovingly designed and provides a fine experience.
XenoShyft was quite a surprise, both as a physical game and as an app. The physical game had some problems: it is extremely fiddly, impossible to sort and store, and takes a long time to set up. However, all these problems are nicely solved in the app version. Although initially the app had multiple bugs, it has been updated regularly and now provides a smooth, intuitive, and easy way to play a great cooperative deck-building game without the the hassle!
As a game, Splendor is somewhat over-rated. It is a well-designed, simple game, but perhaps it got a bit over-played when it first came out. The app version, however, streamlines the gameplay experience and provides several levels of AI to play against. It also includes multiple puzzle challenges for a solo experience, some of which are infuriatingly difficult! Splendor is an extremely well thought-out app implementation and would qualify as one of the best of the year in any year!
(1) Le Havre: The Inland Port
However, hands down the best app of the year, in my opinion, is Le Havre: The Inland Port. Not to be confused with Le Havre itself, Inland Port is a very different gameplay experience. The app improves on the charm of its physical predecessor and takes it to new levels of playability. The app features a great tutorial, intuitive interface, easy online play, and several AI levels. The only negative is the lack of an undo button, which can be frustrating especially when first learning the game. However, the reason this app wins the award for best board game app of 2015 is that I would honestly rather play the app version than the physical game. It is the right mix of simplification and streamlining and it takes a game I only enjoyed before to one I love to play!
Section 2: Top Five Game Expansions
While 2015 was not a great year for apps, it was a phenomenal year for expansions. And in case anyone is wondering, since Summoner Wars: Alliances was my top expansion from last year, it is not eligible again this year. However, even eliminating the obvious favorite, I had a very difficult time narrowing my list to just five expansions! However, here they are, the best expansions of 2015:
(5) Russian Railroads: German Railroads
This one just barely made the cut off. As Russian Railroads was this year’s winner of the Mormon Standard Time Award, I only tried it for the first time a short while ago. However, I loved the game so much that I was extremely excited to try this new expansion. German Railroads expands on the base mechanisms of Russian Railroads and improves them by adding the ability for players to customize the way they score. This adds great variety to the game and keeps players constantly re-evaluating time-tested strategies. A new coal resource is also added, which while somewhat more complicated, also allows additional strategies and opens the game to a whole new level of customization. The expansion does what an expansion should do: it improves the core game but does so without adding many new rules. The modules of German Railroads integrate nicely with the base game, and after playing with it, I can hardly imagine ever leaving it out. Plus, the expansion adds a solo player variant, which is a very welcome addition since this is a game that I have a but of trouble selling with my regular playgroup. One negative, though: the expansions name is really poorly chosen: “Russian Railroads: German Railroads” screams out both “confusing” and “boring” so loudly that players may be put off and never experience the great additions contained in this box!
(4) Sentinels of the Multiverse: Wrath of the Cosmos
Sentinels of the Multiverse gets better with each expansion. Each new set of heroes and villains adds new challenges and new possibilities. However, of all the different expansions that have come out for Sentinels, I think Wrath of the Cosmos is my favorite. The heroes introduce unique new playstyles, and the villains are hands-down some of my favorites that have ever made an appearance. The stories these characters create are engaging and epic, and the new mechanisms blend seamlessly with the existing content to make this expansion a perfect addition to any Sentinels collection. I think the strength of this expansion can best be evaluated by the fact that I almost forgot it came out this year because if fit so naturally into the story and fun of Sentinels of the Multiverse. Now if only we could fast-track this expansion for app implementation…
(3) Ticket to Ride: United Kingdom
I am always excited to see more for Ticket to Ride. And while some of the recent maps (Africa and the Netherlands) have underwhelmed me a bit, I am always curious to see what new twists on the solid game system can be thrown at me. In this expansion, two very different experiences are presented. Pennsylvania is a simple map perfect for new players in which players collect stock certificates by building certain routes. The stock system is very easy to understand, but it allows for a wide variety of new gameplay tactics. The United Kingdom map, however, is a much more complicated experience in which players need to buy technology cards in order to expand their networks. This allows each player to customize his own experience and changes the game flow dramatically. Both maps are extremely fun to play, and I highly recommend both of them. The expansion is an easy choice for any Ticket to Ride fan, and easy one of the best expansion map sets for the game.
(2) Concordia: Salsa
Concordia Salsa has a couple strikes against it, so let’s start there. First of all, the art is really just terrible. However, it only appears on the box, so the game play is not hindered. And second, the name is really just…awful. The game has nothing to do with chips and nothing to do with dancing. And while the rules do explain that Salsa is Latin for salt, based on the name title and the box art alone, I was reluctant to try this one. However, I am sure glad I got it! Concordia: Salsa adds two new maps to play on and also adds some simple mechanisms that greatly enhance the play of Concordia. First there is salt, which acts as a wild resource. But more importantly are special ability tiles both for players to start with and to acquire during the game. This expansion blows the doors off Concordia but does so with such simplicity, grace, and style that I will never again play Concordia without it.
(1) Imperial Settlers: Atlanteans
Easily the best expansion of the year, Imperial Settlers: Atlanteans is just so much fun to play. The expansion adds another faction, which is exactly what Imperial Settlers was craving. The new Atlanteans play so very differently than the base game factions, though. This expansion feels fresh, new, and exciting, yet does so without being complicated or materially changing the way the game is played. And while Atlanteans adds some different strategies, possibilities, and deckbuilding options, it does so in a why that is balanced, smooth, and natural. For anyone who enjoys Imperial Settlers, one of my top 10 games of all time, Atlanteans is a must-have!
Section 3: Best Solo Games of 2015
A late addition to this list, I wanted to look briefly at the best Solo Play experiences of the year. Gaming is my way to unwind, but living alone, I can’t always get someone to come over. Because of this, I am always excited when a game includes a solo variant for me to try. This year, particularly at the end of the year, several great solo-variants were released. I won’t comment on them heavily, but I do think that companies who go through the effort of producing a solo experience deserve praise, so here are my favorites solo variants that came out in 2015:
(5) The Bloody Inn
Included in the base game, the Bloody Inn solo rules manage to create a challenging full gameplay experience without the use of a dummy player. This means I can enjoy the game without worrying about bookkeeping. It is a great game to play while binge-watching a show on Netflix and is a well-thought-out addition to an already great game.
(4) Five Tribes: Solo Variant
An unexpected surprise, the solo variant was released as a free download. It creates a full game experience which is both challenging and engaging. And although released late in the year, the solo version means that I can get this great game to the table more often.
(3) Russian Railroads: German Railroads
Russian Railroads is a game that is a little older and a little heavier than most of the games my regular groups like to play. This makes it harder to get to the table. Now with the solo expansion, I am able to try out all the new toys as often as I like. The simple changes allow me to experience the brain-burn of Russian Railroads (and its new German Railroads expansion) without needing to berate someone into playing with me. Plus, there’s no AP!
(2) Tiny Epic Galaxies
The game was packaged with several different levels of solo play difficulty, which shows great forethought. Although the rules description is a bit fuzzy on some points, the solo game itself is easy to get into, and it allows me to experience the joys of galactic conquest on those days where I may not have someone else to play. The solo game was a great addition to this game and is one of the best solo games of the year.
(1) Orleans: Invasion
The expansion included three different solo challenges, plus another that came with Spielbox magazine (which is in German, but that isn’t a problem for me). Each solo challenge give a scenario and goals, along with specific pre-set events that will help or hinder your progress. These scenarios allowed me to experience the game’s core mechanisms without a dummy player or bookkeeping, which created four unique and fulfilling gameplay experiences. This is a fantastic solo scenario, and for me the expansion was worth the cost just for one of them alone! Easily the best solo experience of 2015, Orleans: Invasion regularly invades my table on nights when I’m all alone with no one else to play with!
Section 4: Top 20 Games of 2015
With the expansions covered, we will now discuss the top 20 games of the year. However, since there were so many great games, I need to list a few honorable mentions first. These are in no particular order.
- Roll for the Galaxy
- Summoner Wars: Alliances*
- Above & Below
- Artifacts, Inc
- Pandemic: Legacy
- Broom Service
- Between Two Cities
- Space Cadets: Away Missions
- Grand Austria Hotel
- Mage Wars: Academy
- Gold West
- La Granja
- The Gallerist
- Favor of the Pharaoh
- Warband: Against the Darkness
Each of these games falls slightly short of Top 20 material, but each is indeed a fine game that is worthy of your time!
*Note, because of when they came out (and perhaps so that this list doesn’t end up mirroring my top 100 list too closely), Deus and Summoner Wars: Alliances are not being considered for this list. Summoner Wars Alliances would easily be my number 1 game, and Deus would easily be in my top 10…but I decided to consider them as 2014 games because of when I played them. So, they get an honorable mention (because they are AMAZING) but not a spot in the actual list.
And so, without further ado, here are the top 20 games of 2015.
Codenames was probably the biggest hit in 2015. I know Pandemic: Legacy may have been more popular, but I see Codenames lasting longer. The game is ultra-simple; effectively it is a modern version of Password. On a 5×5 grid, each team is trying to find only the words that are assigned to his team. One player will give a one-word clue and the other players try to determine which of the unrelated words are intended. The joy of the game comes in finding a golden connection between several unrelated concepts, and there are moments of both excitement and frustration as player outsmart themselves. Effectively, Codenames is a slimmed-down version of a very popular game from last year, Tajemnicze Domostwo/Mysterium, though what that game did with visuals, Codenames implements in words. Simple, fast, and a hit with almost any crowd, Codenames is easily one of the best games of 2015.
Ophir is a pick-up/deliver game with fantastic components, great artwork, and simple gameplay mechanisms. The action takes place on a very narrow board, which requires more efficiency than your normal delivery game. Other players are constantly getting in the way, which leads to interesting interactions, and special abilities allow players to try different strategies. The game is also stunningly beautiful and was a wonderful surprise.
(18) Cthulhu Wars
In terms of overproduction, Cthulhu Wars has it in spades. In fact, this is a game where people probably know more about the components than the game itself, as the game features enormous plastic sculpts of the usual Lovecraftian suspects. In terms of gameplay, the game is effectively a clone of Chaos in the Old World, with a few minor changes. Since I love Chaos, this game was a shoe-in for me, although its high price point, heavy weight, and impossible storage may make it difficult to justify for some players.
Despite the horrible artwork which looks like it’s from one of those annoying facebook games, Automania is a refreshing, fun euro game in which players compete to make the best cars. Unlike heavier car games, such as Automobile and Kanban, Automania strips away most of the fat and provides a streamlined experience in which players focus on the design and sales aspects of the game. Clever demand mechanisms and special player abilities make the game an ever changing puzzle that is simple to teach and a pleasure to play.
(16) New York 1901
A game I initially expected to dislike, New York 1901 has turned out to be a smash success in 2015. The game involves taking over lots in New York on which buildings can be built, then building the biggest and best buildings. Players will then strategically destroy and rebuild more prestigious buildings, all the while competing for frontage on specific streets of New York for bonus points. The game is extremely easy to grasp, though when played with the right people it can be intensely competitive and surprisingly mean. I have gotten a lot of mileage out of this one!
(15) Flick ‘Em Up!
As described in my Top 100, Flick ‘Em Up! is just pure fun. The game involves playing through several scenarios in which players flick their cowboys around a western town. Everything about the game is engaging, and it is extremely easy to convince almost anyone to jump in and play. I have not yet tried the game’s Stallion Canyon expansion, but look forward to doing so. And while the game is super-high quality to begin with, I can also see myself upgrading it to the deluxe version which has been announced.
(14) Tiny Epic Galaxies
A big game in a tiny box, Tiny Epic Galaxies is a fast-paced space colonization game using dice. Though perhaps not truly “epic,” game play is fun and fresh. Players roll dice and then perform the indicated actions, all directed toward upgrading their empire and advancing on any number of planet colonization tracks, which when fully completed award points and grant special abilities. The game also features an intriguing solo-play mode with various difficulty levels, and all in a small game box that can easily be carried almost anywhere.
(13) Forbidden Stars
Back-to-back with Tiny Epic Galaxies is another space themed game which is not tiny at all, but is quite epic. Forbidden Stars features deep space combat. The game’s four factions are delightfully asymmetrical, and players have the ability to upgrade and customize their armies over the course of the game. Combat is both card and dice based and feels fresh and engaging. And because the way to win the game involves conquering several enemy-controlled objectives, the game forces direct interaction from the start. This is a game that I wish I could play more, but even as it stands is one of the best space combat games around.
(12) 7 Wonders: Duel
Originally, 7 Wonders came with a two-player variant. Unfortunately, it was just awful. This makes sense, as drafting is difficult to do in a two-player context. Yet with 7 Wonders Duel, all is forgiven. The clever pyramid mechanism allows that same drafting feel in a head-to-head situation. The game is fast-paced and extremely simple to learn, and allows the same 7 Wonders abstract civilization feel in a much smaller package. The three victory conditions keep players on their toes and allow even a player who seems hopelessly behind to stay competitive. An excellent two player game, 7 Wonders Duel has surpassed the original game for me.
(11) Steampunk Rally
This game was also a surprise for me. Initially I was predisposed to dislike it, as after watching reviews I thought the game’s main selling point (the use of different inventors) was pretty much a gimmick. However, when I actually played the game, I realized it is an excellent drafting and dice manipulation game. Players draft cards to build fantastic inventions to race toward victory. Iconography and graphic design are smooth and greatly enhance the game. The slight asymmetry between players gives the game some variability, but not so much that one character is instantly better than the rest. The game is very fast-paced, and once players understand how it works, most of the action is simultaneous. This game an excellent surprise for me, and narrowly missed making my top 10 for the year.
(10) The Bloody Inn
Perhaps the strangest theme for the year, the Bloody Inn sees players as innkeepers attempting to murder their wealthy guests, steal their money, and dispose of their bodies. This could make one leery of staying in a country roadside inn for sure, but in terms of a game theme, it makes for an intriguing experience. The game play itself involves hand management and clever use of cardplay. And while it has not been a hit with every playgroup, The Bloody Inn grabbed me from the start! It is a small, quick little game that I would gladly play anytime!
Stockpile quickly made my top 20 games of all time. It is one of the cleanest, most well thought-out designs I have played in a long time. The game involves bidding for stocks, trying to acquire the most valuable shares. Players are aided in this by insider knowledge as to how some shares will perform. The game is as much about reading other people’s reactions as it is buying and selling, and the innovative stock split and bust mechanisms breath new life into the field of stock games. Plus, the game comes with two expansions, adding player powers and adding variability to how shares perform, both of which integrate seamlessly into the base game. Stockpile is a game I would recommend to almost anyone, and it is one I am always eager to play.
(8) Isle of Skye
Another pleasant surprise, Isle of Sky is a delightful tile-placement game along the lines of Carcassonne. In Isle of Skye, players draw three tiles, then secretly set the price of two of them, and choose one to discard. Players then buy tiles from each other at the prices set and add the tiles into their personal landscape. Each game will see a number of different aspects scored, so players need to pay attention to what is worth points each game in order to know what the best tile is for each situation. There is a good deal of variability in the game, and players are constantly involved in what other players are doing. The game is about the perfect length and always fees refreshing and exciting.
(7) Champions of Midgard
Many people (myself included) compare this game to Lords of Waterdeep. In Champions of Midgard, players are gathering resources to fight monsters to earn points. The main resource is different kinds of dice, which are rolled to combat monsters. A worker-placement game, Champions of Midgard offers a more thematic experience than many games of this genre, and the luck of the dice adds just enough randomness to ensure that the winner is never predetermined. Unfortunately, the components of the game have an air of cheapness, but the gameplay itself is solid. Champions of Midgard is one of the best games of 2015 and one of the best worker-placement games of all time.
(6) Rum & Bones
Easily the best two-player game of 2015, Rum & Bones is an intriguing battle between two pirate crews. Players can select among four different teams of pirates, building a team of 5 heroes and hordes of minions. Some of the players characters move in an automated fashion, but the bulk of the game involves action selection and combat using the players heroes. Components are stunning, and the artwork is deeply thematic and evocative. Although the game is a nightmare to store and difficult to set up, when it does get to the table Rum & Bones is an epic adventure that I am always eager to experience.
(5) Voyages of Marco Polo
Although on its face, Marco Polo is a straightforward Euro-style trading game, there is more lurking beneath the surface. Marco Polo was a stunning surprise for me, quickly securing a place in my top 20 games of all time. One of the best features of the game is how every player has a special ability that is just amazing. Also, while this is a dice placement game (along the lines of Alien Frontiers), Marco Polo cleverly allows players always to perform their chosen action, while rewarding the player who takes it first. In Marco Polo, the game is as much about travel and trade as it is cleverly exploiting your strengths, and the game is a fantastic experience that I am eager to try again and again.
(4) Specter Ops
Plaid Hat Games has another hit with Specter Ops. The game involves hidden movement and deduction, with one player secretly trying to accomplish objectives and escape, while the others try to hunt him down. Turns are extremely tense in this game, as hunters lay down a dragnet to catch the agent, while the agent tries to exploit his strengths and avoid detection. This is easily my favorite hidden-movement style game, and it is one I will gladly introduce to anyone.
A 2014 game that took all year getting to my table, narrowly missing the cut off for my Top 100 list, Orleans is the best deck-building game there is. And although the “deck” in this case is a cloth bag full of player tokens, the game takes deckbuilding to a new level. Players have a wide variety of paths to victory, whether it be by building trading posts across a market, trying to generate massive amounts of cash, collecting plentiful resources, or building all manner of special unique abilities. Much of gameplay is simultaneous, which helps avoid the AP that would normally result from a game of this type. Also, the game includes a fantastic expansion that introduces several solo and cooperative gameplay modes, which takes this little deckbuilding game to a whole new level. If it had managed to reach me a little sooner, this game would easily have been in my top 20 games of all time, possibly in the top 10. But I guess we need to wait until next time to see where it ends up!
(2) Blood Rage
It is difficult to find enough praise to say about this game. Blood Rage is an over-the-top, epic production and is possibly the finest game Cool Mini or Not has produced. The game blends card drafting, clever card combat, army customization, special abilities, resource management, area control, and fantastic sculpts to produce a singular game experience unlike anything else! Because the game looks so fantastic, it is extremely easy to get to the table, and although I am not a fan of the artwork, many are! The game does not take long, even with a full set of five players, and turns are always very fast and interactive which keeps things engaging. Blood Rage is one of the best games of the year, and it narrowly misses the Number 1 slot.
(1) Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn
And coming in at Number 1 is Ashes. I love this game. I love playing this game; I love listening to podcasts about this game; I love looking at the stunning artwork on this game…I really love everything about Ashes. Though it does work best as a two-player game, I also enjoy it with 3 or 4 players as well. The game allows for clever deck construction and head-to-head play, cleverly integrating dice to allow players a constant flow of resources. And while deck customization allows for the maximum in competitive play, players can also experience 100% of the game’s features using the standard base decks included in the box. Ashes is both a work of art and a masterwork of game design, and I look forward to seeing where this game goes from here!
And that is my top 20 games for 2015. This was a year of surprises and I am grateful I got to play so many great games! I hope 2016 is even half as good!
Anyway, enough looking back — go out there and play and you’ll be board no longer!