Best of 2017 (So Far)
on Jul 27, 2017
We're well into the second half of the year and with convention season here - not to mention a veritable avalanche of new titles to carry us through to 2018 - it's a great time to take stock of what the top games of the year so far have been. I expected our entire reviewer panel apart from me to pick Gloomhaven, given its stunning result in our triple header review, but our gang selected quite a diverse bunch of games. And for the record, I'm dead set on actually getting to play Gloomhaven myself before the year winds down so I might join in the chorus when our Game of the Year discussion comes up. But we've got some time to kill before that, so here are our writers' picks for the best of 2017 so far.
Review Corner Editor-in-Chief
Nominally, Warhammer 40k 8th edition is what I should slate here because it is my most played, most obsessed over, and most loved game of the year. But I wanted to highlight a smaller, less monumental game for this feature - Kevin Wilson's Escape from 100 Million BC. This little adventure game from IDW was released a few months ago with very little fanfare and virtually no pre-release hype. But I could smell that certain X-factor charm about it, and I'm very happy that my instinct paid off. This is Mr. Wilson's best original design to date, a lean and fun-to-play adventure game with some cool themes and great mechanics, hitting the perfect balance between hobby-level complexity and the accessibility of family gaming. The time travel concept is handled better than in any other game I can recall, as a major theme is how messing around with the past can negatively impact the future. I'm especially pleased that it has a real theme like that, and it isn't just another repetitive adventure game with different nomenclature and flavor text. I've not played Byron's pick, Anachrony, but it sounds like these two make 2017 a great year for time travel designs.
I retired from 40k a few years ago, but was drawn back to the Grimdark this year by a surprising new product. 8th edition? Nope. It was Shadow War: Armageddon convinced me to unearth my Space Marines and Astra Militarium again. It takes the mechanics of 2nd edition Warhammer 40,000 and the old Necromunda game, then adds a wrinkle even 8th edition can't manage: a legacy. Members of your kill team get wounded, get killed and get upgrades in the crazy, brain-damaging 40k way. Armageddon combines the personalizing of Warhammer 40k and adds persistent characters that evolve with your campaign, fleshing out your tale of heroism and death even further. Plus it takes one set of figures and less than half an hour to play. I didn't think I'd ever say it, Games Workshop, but I'm glad to be back in the 41st Millennium.
The easy answer is Gloomhaven. But I'm following The Kinks and taking the hard way. I'm going to pull back from the obvious and go to an unheralded title that came out of nowhere and doubled me over - Sidereal Confluence: Trading & Negotiation in the Elysian Quadrant. With a title long enough to give you strep throat, this thing backs its name up with an experience that's altogether unique. This real-time trading game has players swapping cubes (resources) to power economic converters and produce other goods. It's about maximizing production by assembling packages of set types with the difficulties being that you must trade to reach your potential. If that's not bananas enough, the game features nine completely asymmetrical alien races. We're not talking a faction with a unique special power, but races that contain unique mechanisms and ways of playing. These are radical shifts in the dynamics of play and each shuffled set of participants produces a unique strategic pool. This game is just crazy and it needs to be on everyone's collective radar.
I appreciate Charlie's willingness to highlight something unknown. I normally might push to a smaller title like the excellent Ethnos; not this year. Not in a year where Cephalofair Games dropped the extravagant and innovative Gloomhaven. This 18+ pound box is massive in content, in scope, and in ambition and succeeds on all levels. In a twist on the Legacy system, your characters are fleeting. They'll grow and level up but can be replaced as needed and they'll ultimately retire, allowing you to unlock one of the many hidden and secret classes. Various groups can play together with different characters living in Gloomhaven, but it's the city that persists across all plays with branching narratives and alternative paths. Every scenario is a puzzle of efficiency and rich decisions, tactical decisions of movement and combat must be balanced against strategic use of powerful abilities and hand management. Gloomhaven is not just my favorite game of the year; it is one of the best games I've ever played.
The year is already half over and several big titles are still awaiting their debut. But that doesn't mean we can't look at some of the amazing items that have already arrived this year. And among them is the newest entry in the One Night series, One Night Ultimate Alien. While the original remains the classic flagship of the series, each of the other versions brings something new. And with Alien, it brings a healthy dose of enjoyable chaos as players will shift their motivations based on who else is in the game and what the app declares. The app does a great job of changing up the experience each play and you never really know what you'll get. You'll have players trying to convince you that they are aliens, blobs that need to be swayed, and a vicious rivalry between Groob and Zerb. While it lacks some of the subtlety of the original, it makes up for it in good times and a lot of laughs.
2017 has been very interesting so far, especially with all of the less-known and nascent publishers putting out quality titles. Now, I haven't been playing a huge volume of games as I've been focused more on playing fewer games far more times each, but there has been one standout game that has surpassed all others I've played this year: Mare Nostrum Empires. It is unreservedly awesome in every conceivable way, and despite being a reimplementation, it feels like an entirely different game. Between the low downtime, strategic options, exceptional components, and asymmetrical gameplay it is nothing short of a masterpiece of modern game design. As much as I revere Cyclades as "the game" of land and sea conquest, Mare Nostrum Empires has managed to surpass it in my mind due to being able to distill an epic scale game down to a few hours and with relatively low complexity.
Though technically a 2016 release, Star Wars: Destiny wasn't widely available until a few months into 2017. It has stolen my heart and I don’t think our love affair is going to end any time soon. I picked up the Rey and Kylo Ren starter sets figuring I’d play a few matches to satiate my curiosity and then trade it away. Instead, I jumped down the rabbit hole, drank the Kool-Aid, and opened my wallet to Fantasy Flight. Yes, Destiny is a CCG and there are some problems with that model, but there’s nothing like the thrill of ripping open a booster pack and discovering what’s inside. With games being so quick and engaging, it's hard not ask for "just one more". As my most played game of 2017, I don't expect anything else to overtake my excitement of Destiny this year- and possible the next.
One of the biggest problems with wargames has always been accessibility. Depending on who decides to swing by game night, I can't necessarily pull out Triumph & Tragedy or one of the COIN games, because it takes a special breed of human to brook a forty-minute rules explanation before we even start pushing pieces around the table. But consider Time of Crisis - for a game bent on simulating the Roman Empire's third century, which was rife with civil war, barbarian invasion, assassination, plague, inflation, and every other nasty thing you can think of, this game's a cool summertime breeze. It pulls it off mostly by zooming out to the grandest of scales, pitching your noble family's aspirations as a deck of options — a membership in the Praetorian Guard here, some treasure to buy off invaders over there. It's enough to reanimate the over-trod husk of deck-building.
Gloomhaven isn't just my game of the year so far; it's the game of my life. But since Raf left little unsaid about that not-so-little gem, I'll take this opportunity to shine the spotlight elsewhere. Anachrony might be dubbed Twelve Monkeys: The Worker Placement Game. Set in a future ravaged by a global cataclysm, where mankind has splintered into four conflicting ideologies, Anachrony begins with the realization that the Day of Purgation was merely the shockwave, sent backward in time, of a much larger and deadlier future event. Taking command of the ideological paths, players compete to gather resources and workers, research future-tech, construct buildings, and prepare for the coming impact. The same principles that allowed the Purgation to travel backward in time allow players to borrow resources from their future selves, but failing to pay back your time debts generates paradox and potential anomalies. Worker placement is nuanced: there are four worker types, each specializing in different tasks, and traversing the Outback to the World Capital requires putting your worker in an Exosuit, which must be powered up at the start of the round. The four paths are also unique, encouraging asymmetrical playstyles and supporting replayability. It's less of a revelation than its time-travel theme would suggest, but Anachrony is a supremely polished worker placement game for the future.
After debuting late last year, Renegade's Clank! sold out and was functionally unavailable for months after its release. The reprint reached most of us in 2017, so the gap from release to reprint can easily qualify this brilliant dungeon exploration deck builder as a "First Half of 2017" game. I don't often enjoy deck builders, but there is something unique about the style, gameplay, and theme of this entry that keeps me bringing its box back to the table. If Dominion represents the abstract side of deck-building games then Clank! is the opposite, with a colorful board filled with a maze of rooms that players compete to delve into, explore, loot, and escape from before the vicious dragon wakes up and devours them. The bright and cartoonish art and short play time -- I don't think I've ever had a game take more than an hour -- make it a very light and fun experience while still allowing for all sorts of clever and varied strategies. Will you delve into the deepest depths of the dungeon and grab the most valuable artifact, or will you abscond with an easier, low-value artifact and retreat, triggering the dungeon's collapse and hoping that your rivals get caught in the debris?