Best Board Games of 2017
on Dec 28, 2017
Well, there it was folks - 2017. It was, for our Review Corner writers, another year of playing games, thinking about them, playing them again, and then crafting opinions into reviews. We've collectively looked at quite a lot of games over the year and although we have some wildly different opinions as to what the best games of the year that was were. What I think these best-of lists tell us for the year is that there was a lot going on in games, and although I'm not sure there was a clear "best game of 2017" overall, there were definitely some innovative and compelling titles that shone through the burgeoning stacks of middle-of-the-road offerings.
Isaac Childres' Gloomhaven was the game I thought would sweep the lists here, but I'm surprised to see that despite its strong showing, we also have folks that are still playing the Arkham Horror LCG, a couple of listing for the outstanding Restoration Games' reissue of Wolfgang Kramer's classic racing design Downforce, and even some odds and ends that you might have missed. I think this is a solid survey of the year's top games - and since I've not played a few of them myself, I'm hoping to catch up to those in 2018- if I can find time between the inevitable slew of releases the new year will bring.
Happy New Year to all of our readers - let us know what your picks were for the best games of 2017 in the comments!
Review Corner Editor-in-Chief
Gold Pick - Warhammer 40K 8th Edition
This was a very hard slot for me because I could have just as easily slated the outstanding Necromunda: Underhive here or the brilliant Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire- I would be happy calling either of those my 2017 Game of the Year. But the fact remains the best and most impactful game of 2017 as far as I'm concerned is the 8th edition of Warhammer 40k. The latest edition is a stunning distillation of the classic rules set, tailored for more modern expectations and far more accessible than the game has ever been, frankly. It is a divisive release among longtime players, but between the outstanding model releases and new codexes this edition has spawned not even a year into its lifespan, it is clear to me that GW's flagship product is in a better state than it has ever been- and the Dark Imperium box set is one of the best gaming products to ever come out of Nottingham.
Silver Pick - Quest for El Dorado
It's no secret that I am a huge Reiner Knizia fan, but nonetheless I am surprised to see his most recent design on my top games of 2017 list. It's not that his more recent games have been bad, but this is the first Knizia game since Amun-Re (2003) that I feel is a truly world class offering. This game is a brilliant deckbuilding race game with family-friendly rules and the kind of alluring mix of subtle depth and approachability that has always defined the best European designs. It's just a delight to play, and in an era where overly complicated games are mistaken for deep games, it's refreshing to play such a direct and editorial design- let alone from one of the true masters of game design.
Bronze Pick - Fallout
Even though I rated Fallout "just" four stars and sharply criticized it for its shaky endgame and feeble multiplayer features, it remains one of the best adventure games in recent years. It's definitely on trend with current text-heavy adventure offerings like Gloomhaven or 7th Continent, but it offers an extremely smooth, narrative-driven experience that spectacularly captures the essence of the classic video game series. What I like best about Fallout- and the reason it is on this shortlist - is that it's such a surprising design with several novel features (such as the VATS dice system and the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. leveling mechanic) that gave me more "huh, that's really cool" moments than any other game I played in 2017.
Gold Pick - Gloomhaven
Gloomhaven is majestic in scope and harnesses its vision to great effect. It's the type of game that crashes upon the shores and has people talking nearly 12 months after it's initial release. This card driven dungeon crawler is a legacy game paired with a deep asymmetrical class system that will burn your brain and seize your heart. The fact that it contains more content than the story of your life is icing on the sweet sweet cake.
Silver Pick - Sidereal Confluence
This is a weird one, and boy do I love weird games. It's a Euro-style economic design of swapping cubes for different colored cubes, but it avoids the exaggerated yawn by leaning into its wildly diverse asymmetrical alien races. These factions are so unique that some ignore whole sections of the game and others break concepts in ludicrous ways. Combine that with the majority of play taking place in real-time negotiations, and you have a splendid experience you will not find elsewhere.
Bronze Pick - Vengeance
The revenge flick is a staple of our culture. Vengeance brings this staple to the table top so we can wallow in blood-stained arenas of Kill Bill, Payback, and Oldboy. Play alternates between turn based dice drafting in a montage phase, and real-time dice pool rolling against the clock in the Fight round. It's visceral and punches you straight in the jaw as you balance nuanced tactical decisions with heady tension.
Gold Pick - Spirit Island
This game reverses expectations. Instead of colonizing lands, you play as the native spirits seeking to throw off the colonization efforts. But more than just the theme, Spirit Island is a fantastic cooperative experience that requires everyone to be involved. Play can be deliciously complex and the difficulty scales from merely challenging to cripplingly difficult.
Silver Pick - Codenames: Duet
Codenames was amazing, but Duet is amazing-er. Duet takes each niggling issue about the original and turns it into a positive. You can now play with as few as two. You get to play as both guesser and clue-giver, so you have a richer experience. And that also translates into a game that keeps everyone more engaged. Plus, the cards are compatible with the original, which means a huge number of potential words to choose from.
Bronze Pick - London (2nd Edition)
2017 was a great year for taking good games, and making them great. And London is a fine example. It eliminated the clunky elements and some of the imbalance to provide a smooth and competitive experience. But it retained the best elements. You have to do as much as you can with as few cards as possible - since every card rewards you with detrimental poverty. You get to combo out in exciting ways while always keeping a watchful eye on your opponents.
Gold Pick - Unfair
This tableau building title is well-structured, extremely versatile and has a fun setting: amusement park management. In Unfair you build rides, attractions, nifty upgrades and hire staff hoping to lure and entertain guests, milking their pockets for all they’re worth. The components are amazing and the communal board is a shining example of intuitive graphic design. There are multiple thematic decks to mix and match, changing the scope and feel of every session, all providing excellent comboing opportunities. Endgame goals award points for shaping your park a certain way. And events allow you to boost your own business or shrewdly sabotage a rival’s. Unfair lets your group customize the choices, type and style of play to its preferred sensibilities.
Silver Pick - 1750: Britain vs France
You might think it difficult to condense wargaming the grand affairs of 18th century empire-making to a box of cards. 1750: Britain vs. France adroitly manages the feat by repurposing a few familiar concepts without feeling derivative. There are leaders, units, upgrades, resources, events, political alliances and even a game board all represented by cards. Spread about the table, you feel the sense of strategically planning affairs with your ministers of state and general staff - the period artwork emphatically wrapping it all with a bow. Its audience may be smaller thanks to its look and esoteric subject matter, but they will certainly appreciate the smart, streamlined, playable and historically-sensitive experience.
Bronze Pick - Indulgence
This trick-taking revamp from redo artists Restoration Games is a remake of Jerry D’Arcey’s Dragonmaster (1981), aka Coup d’Etat (1966), aka Barbu (c. 1930), the classic card game where players alternate cycling through seven fixed contracts determining what’s worth points - or what penalizes you - each hand. In Indulgence contracts are not fixed. Called edicts, the current lead, or ruler, picks the most favorable of three random ones and wins gems from other players who fail the edict during that hand. However, players may first choose to sin, indicating they plan to fully fail the edict. If successful they win gems from the whole table. Its no trump, plain trick-taking format is easy to teach beginners, while the edict decisions ramp up the tension for more experience gamers - always a good combination for a variety of gaming circumstances!
Gold Pick - The Quest for El Dorado
All of these Gloomhaven fanboys obviously just haven't played Knizia's excellent deckbuilder this year. The Quest for El Dorado doesn't break a ton of new ground in either the race or the deckbuilding genre, but Knizia's masterful, magical game design instincts turned this into something special. Great for beginners, Knizia fans, and gamers of all stripes, The Quest for El Dorado is one of the best deckbuilders I've ever played and the good doctor's best in years.
Silver Pick - Downforce
If choosing a decades-old Kramer design is cheating, then I don't want to play by the rules. Downforce takes everything that's great about Daytona 500 and Top Race, adds its own modern spin, and gives the whole thing a much-needed spitshine. The best compliment I can give this excellent revision by Restoration Games is that I haven't pulled down my well-worn copy of Daytona 500 since I picked it up. An instant classic, yet again.
Bronze Pick- Medici: The Card Game
A card game version of an old auction game? You cultists of the new must thing I'm batty. But no, I'm just correct—Medici the Card Game is not only the best filler released this year, it's also better than its forebear. Blasphemy? Perhaps, but once you're sweating bullets asking yourself if you should flip the next card from the top of the deck or not, you just might agree with me. Fast, brutal, viscous, and simple—Medici the Card Game is one of the best games of the year and yet another Knizia classic.
Gold Pick - Gloomhaven
Gloomhaven is not perfect. The drop-in/drop-out system is a little clunky and I had some initial frustrations with damage and looting that I never fell in love with though I accept. However, it's ambition is unmatched this year (or perhaps the past few years) and it largely succeeds on everything it sets out to do. The legacy campaign and permanence of the City is novel, the tactical card play is innovative and sets your brain on fire like an upgrade Mindweaver, and it has more hours of content and quests than most of the other big name fantasy games combined. I'll be playing this for years.
Silver Pick - Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire
Fast, deviously tactical, and exciting from start to finish, Shadespire knocked me out the first time I played and hasn't let up on the punches since. That's a good thing. A new tactical combat game from Games Workshop, Shadespire was built from the ground up for high level competitive play and it shows. Just when you think you've got it figured out and realize the cards are the most important thing, you get defeated by a Bloodreaver who managed to dance their way across the board never letting you get close enough to crush them like you wanted to. The tactical board play intersects the deck construction aspect in satisfying ways, and the low miniature count makes it easy to pick up even if you've never clipped a model out of a sprue. They even press together so you can have a warband build in less than 30 minutes.
Bronze Pick - Arkham Horror LCG: The Dunwich Legacy
Technically the Arkham Horror Card game came out in 2016, but the core set offered only a 3 scenario taste of this games potential. The Dunwich Legacy (and the remaining expansions in the cycle) tells an 8 scenario story that takes you and your investigators from a sleepy Massachusetts town straight into another dimension. The Arkham Horror card games is brilliant in its use of board game mechanics and components to reinforce the narrative, and is telling some of the best stories in board gaming in the process. From Ashcan's special ability, to a location system I won't spoil here, this LCG shows that Fantasy Flight's suite of designers are at the top of the game right now. Grab a friend - and a pistol - and get to Arkham as soon as you can.
Gold Pick - Unlock!
Charlie has extolled the merits of the Unlock! games in his reviews and I couldn't agree more. After playing the first three games, I giddily awaited the next three and tore through them as soon as they arrived. The puzzles are challenging, but solvable, and the app integration is fantastic. Cracking the codes and punching it into the app makes you feel like the smartest person in the world. The settings are immersive and diverse, which is especially impressive considering the whole game is only a stack of cards. I'm already jonesing for the next set of three, so let's bring on 2018.
Silver Pick - Arkham Horror LCG: The Dunwich Legacy
For the most part, 2017 has been a year of expansions for me and the most notable have been the Arkham Horror: The Card Game releases. The Dunwich Legacy cycle was the first full 8-scenario campaign and it couldn't have been a better start. With every new scenario, my brave investigator "Skids" O' Toole face a myriad of twists and turns. Like the Unlock! series, it was hard to believe so much could be achieved with just a deck of cards. I was visited a museum, a train, and even a [spoiler] all with the flip of a card. Despite being on the brink of losing my sanity, the experience was still unforgettable.
Bronze Pick - Star Wars: Destiny
Back in summer, I cheated by picking Star Wars: Destiny as my "Best of 2017 (So Far)" given it was a 2016 release. Hopefully you'll forgive me because I'm cheating again. Six months later, it has stayed as my most played game of 2017. We've seen two new waves and a second starter set in 2017 that have rounded out the collection. Despite it being everything that I typically avoid in games (i.e., direct conflict, preconstructed decks, and a huge money sink), I'm still infatuated with the whole system. The way that the cards and dice interplay with one another and the relative ease of building a 30-card deck keeps bringing me back for more.
Gold Pick - Shadow War: Armageddon
Want to feel the thrill of the 40k universe without your wallet feeling the thrill of being involved in a pyramid scheme? Then Shadow War: Armageddon is the game for you. I really wanted to revisit the 41st Millennium and this was the perfect way back for me, giving the feel of personalization and story all 40k die-hards want without the need to build an entire army. A troop box from any one of the represented factions and some cobbled-together scenery are all you need to start, and any further expansion is totally up to you. Plus, SW: A goes deeper into the lore than regular 40k, allowing your team to earn skills, get maimed, develop mortal enemies and all kinds of grimdark craziness. Welcome back, old friend. Here's a chainsword to the face.
Silver Pick - Near & Far
Board games are continually chasing the "RPG in a box" feel, and this entry was a surprising, tightly-packaged success. Near and Far offers one or more players the chance to step into a fantasy world and create their own legend. The path to fame doesn't have to be a violent one, like so many of its brethren's offerings, but it certainly can be if that's your desire. Whatever mark you choose to make on the world, Near and Far can enable it, which is the mark of a great game.
Bronze Pick - Gloomhaven
Gloomhaven's on everyone's short list, and I'm torn between putting it there because it's revolutionary in a fun way and putting it there because it's revolutionary in a "well, he put a lot of effort into it" way, kind of like certain movies winning Oscars because the subject matter's something that everyone needs to be aware of and love by default. It is a lot of fun, but it's also a LOT of fun. Almost an excessive amount, and it may take me the rest of my natural life to finish it. The combat system is one of the few that does card-based teamwork, initiative and different character types right, but spending half an hour digging for tokens and orienting map boards only to have the friggin' oozes keep dividing until your team is tabled and you tell your buddies, "Hey, only eighty-seven more scenarios and we win!" can strain any fellowship. It's the significant other who's so much fun you can't dump them, but have a hard time picturing yourself married to.
Gold Pick - Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire
No game this year has captured my imagination quite like Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire. The dueling card play layered upon a simple framework of tactical combat adds a rich texture to the gameplay that begs players to dive in and explore. Unpacking Shadespire returned me to the feeling of first discovering Magic: the Gathering as a kid -- thirsting for repeated plays, daydreaming about deck construction, and pushing strategies to their extreme. The Shadespire core set is a fantastic product as is, but it gets my nod for game of the year because of its promise to grow better with time.
Silver Pick - Downforce
Beautiful components, sleek design, and slick playing all the way up to six players, Downforce takes the cake for 2017’s easiest game to get to the table. However despite its trappings as a lightweight, gateway game, there is enough game under the hood to hook even the most veteran players. Downforce presents an impossible question: can you zig while opponents zag, without straying too far from the group? Whether you manage to thread this needle and complete the perfect race, or stall out spectacularly, you and your friends will be clamoring to go again.
Bronze Pick - Exit: The Game
Exit: The Game sells itself. Bring the escape room experience into your living room at a fraction of the cost of its in person counterpart. And this isn’t some knockoff escape room lite either, this is the full calorie experience. While I haven’t played all six entries into this incredible line of games, the puzzles in what I have played impressed me far more than those in any in person escape rooms I’ve completed. To fit that in this tiny box is one hell of an accomplishment in my book.
Gold Pick - Gloomhaven
Gloomhaven was a shoe-in for my game of the year; it might be the most perfect game I’ve played in my life. Wildly ambitious in scope but admirably constrained in design, it’s a bottomless treasure box that never stops giving. The writing is strong, the setting is tantalizing, and it’s fun to get rewarded in little ways for every play, whether it’s some XP toward a level up, some gold to buy new equipment, unlocking a new scenario, getting to tick off some progress toward unlocking the next character, or just experiencing a new road event. The best part of Gloomhaven, though, is that the card-based tactical gameplay stands on its own merits; it doesn’t even need the ridiculously over-packed box to be as satisfying as Mage Knight.
Silver Pick - Arkham Horror LCG: The Dunwich Legacy
I’ll say it here: I was underwhelmed by the contents of Arkham LCG’s core set, but I had enough faith in the designers to buy into the first Mythos cycle, and I’m glad I did. The Dunwich Legacy cycle proves the versatility of Arkham LCG’s mission structure, with scenarios like The House Always Wins and Blood on the Altar standing out as the best to date. It also showed up what can be done with the game’s campaign structure, playing with expectations in ways I can’t describe without risking spoilers.
Bronze Pick - Apocrypha: The World
Lone Shark Games’ follow-up to the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game isn’t perfect, and the game won’t feel complete until we get the other two boxes in 2018, but as a teaser for what’s to come, The World has me hooked. A significant chunk of my enjoyment comes from the game’s lore, which weaves together conspiracy theories, New Age mysticism, cryptids, and urban fantasy elements to create a weird, frequently funny setting. The streamlined dice-rolling and scenario variety (if you can figure out the Franken-structure) are also promising hints of what’s to come.