SU&SD’s Top 50 Games Ever, 2015! #20 to #11
Operator: Sir, the site was never built for this! She’s going to buckle under the pressure!
Quinns: There’s no turning back now. We’d never make it. The only way out… is through.
#20: IMPERIAL ASSAULT
SU&SD’s unorthodox 6 player campaign variant here
Quinns: Matt, what’s going on with our copy of Imperial Assault? I heard you spilled something on it.
Matt: Uh, no! Everything is under control. Situation normal!
Paul: “Normal” is not how I’d describe Imperial Assault. Perhaps “Descent 3.0” is one of the more peculiar ways, but it certainly deserves a little more hyperbole. It has great miniatures, it has a flashy board, it has very snazzy custom dice but, most importantly, it has fast, exciting and sexy rules that define how you play with all these, that allow you to have blaster-filled adventures, that even allow you to explore a grand space opera campaign, across the stars. It’s really good.
Quinns: What happened?!
Matt: Uh… had a slight tea malfunction. And there was an incident with some dipping soup. For bread. You all have a single bowl of soup and share the bread by dipping it. But, uh, everything’s perfectly all right now. We’re fine! We’re all fine here, now, thank you. How are you?
Paul: “Fine” is also not nearly good enough to describe a game that lets you play with a giant AT-ST, that also works as a separate skirmish miniatures game, that lets you build a character over time and watch them evolve through a campaign where the stakes rise ever higher and higher.
Quinns: I’m sending Leigh up.
Matt: Uh, negative! Large leak! Very dangerous.
Quinns: Who is this? What’s your operating number?
Matt: OKAY I ADMIT IT I’M THE SPY are we in a school?
#19: DEAD OF WINTER
Paul: A lot of games try to wind narrative around their mechanics or attempt to grind it in like spices in a sausage, but most of the time they just can’t get the taste right. Usually you just end up with a theme or concept which, at best, explains what you’re doing, while story actually driving a game generally remains the preserve of tabletop RPGs.
But Dead of Winter makes a beautiful bratwurst. There’s an enormous deck of cards that might potentially squeeze out a new slice of plot every turn, most of them written in a way that introduces their events so very naturally. That in itself is great. Then there’s all your hidden objectives that have you sort of helping out, but not always. Then there’s the race against time. Then there’s the constant search for food and fuel.
Quinns: Yep. Some folks online have dismissed Dead of Winter now that the hype’s dissipated, but not us, simply because no other game so successfully pairs plot with puzzle. It’s not just a story sausage, there’s a satisfying wad of mechanical mashed potato, all of it sopping with the sauce of hidden roles, beautiful art, straightforward rules and adult stories.
Almost every table of people I’ve sat down to play any board game with will add dark or adult subtext to what’s happening in the game we’re playing. In another best-in-class award, Dead of Winter remains the only board game to admit that its players can probably handle some sex, drugs & rock and roll. And by “rock and roll” I mean “mothers running off into the frosty horizon because they caught a glimpse of their dead son”.
Matt: The only reason I haven’t bought this is the sheer talent of the team behind Dead of Winter, and the knowledge that they’re implementing a similar system of fragile alliances into the next Crossroads game, whatever it is.
The zombie theme in Dead of Winter feels tired, but I liked that the real foe seemed to be a blend of madness and ice – a pressure cooker of stress that’s expertly reflected by the increasingly strained relationships between the actual players. Giving everyone their own weirdly specific task for each game makes it so much harder to pinpoint traitors, and thematically I love the way it reflects the grey reality of survival – this idea that losing the plot and getting obsessive about strange things isn’t just the reserve of those who’ve turned a bit evil. The tight links between mechanics and theme are what make Dead of Winter hot for me, linking all those hot sausages together in… that thing where all the sausages are linked together by the casing. What do you call that?
#18: GALAXY TRUCKER
Review here at 22:05
Let’s Play here
Matt: I can entirely appreciate why a lot of people really wouldn’t like this game. It’s all very well to try and explain that half of the fun is watching your creations getting torn apart by asteroids, but when your mother’s third spaceship falls apart within minutes and her cargo floats off into the vast void of space, there’s only so many times you can tell her that this is definitely fun.
Thankfully, no-one’s run of bad fortune lasts forever, and eventually you’ll find your unbelievably wonky space-creation sailing through the cosmos without a care in the world while the impeccably-crafted ships around you fall apart like wet paper bags. Galaxy Trucker isn’t fair, but that doesn’t stop it being tons of fun.
Quinns: It’s totally unfair! Your friend’s cargo pouring out into the vacuum of space, never to be seen again, isn’t intrinsically funny. What’s funny is that it could have happened to you, but didn’t. You’re laughing with relief.
But you’re also laughing because every disaster feels unique, which I think is Galaxy Trucker’s magic trick. Whether it was ironic or inevitable, whether it was because of hungry aliens or explosive batteries, whether something like this happened not 5 minutes ago or has never happened before, it’s always a joke you haven’t heard before.
Tell you what, though. It sure is hard work selling a game with that logo.
Paul: No go logo. I shouldn’t like Galaxy Trucker as much as I should, as it’s a game with a lot of very random nonsense, but I think it still manages to reward good ship-building, it surprises you at least once every round and, by being very obviously a hard game, it doesn’t make you feel so bad if you’re not very successful.
Quinns: Let’s not forget the rule in the manual that if anyone made any money during the game, they’re all the winner.
Paul: Yes! You’re supposed to struggle in space. It’s fine. Actually, it’s terrific. It’s still terrific, years on. Czech Games are one of the best makers of board games out there and it’s stuff like Galaxy Trucker that makes me so damn impressed, and the definitive Anniversary Edition is one hell of a collection.
#17: RACE FOR THE GALAXY & ROLL FOR THE GALAXY
Race review here at 14:30
Roll review here
Paul: Like a weary, battle-scarred veteran, Race for the Galaxy maintains its place in our top games, muscling many of its peers aside despite its age, despite its competition. I would say that it’s tough, like a piece of jerky, but it still has so much more flavour than that, so much more subtlety.
What do you think it is that still makes Race for the Galaxy good? Is it the sheer size? The variety of cards? The fact that you can now enjoy it as an enormous collection of expansions or as the new, independent and self-contained Alien Artefacts or Xeno Invasions versions, both revamped and revitalised angles? There so much Race for the Galaxy to choose from.
Quinns: You know, it’s like Dead of Winter- a perfect marriage of theme and mechanics, but as compact as Dead of Winter is broad. Everyone knows that Race for the Galaxy is an incredible game because of its masterful implementation of cards acting as locations in your tableaux and the currency you use to pay for them, but they’re also sweet nuggets of narrative.
Paul: Then Roll for the Galaxy came along and made me a very happy bunny. It has that same gradually growing tableau of planets, it has an INSANE amount of cute custom dice and, like Race, it has those very simple decisions about how to spend what you have. Perhaps that’s been the key in these Galaxy games all along. Simple decisions with a big impact. How appropriate, for space opera.
Podcast impressions here
Let’s Play here
Paul: This is it. This is our game of comedy and improvisation and jokes that are somehow conjured out of midair by just a handful of cards. A game about being a terrible, terrible candidate for a job interview already sounds like a great idea to me, but it’s executed wonderfully by this very, very simple framework. Cards with strange characteristics are your cues for what your character is like, but it’s up to you exactly how you reveal those, exactly how you execute them.
Maybe you start by hint at something that you only reveal on your final card, subtly teasing it while you go through all the rest. Maybe you play everything in an overblown way. Maybe you’re subtle, gentle in how you express yourself. It’s entirely up to you. Funemployed gives you the pieces, so many pieces, but it’s up to you how you want to put them together. There are so many joyful combinations.
Quinns: No game has made me laugh more. I honestly couldn’t tell you what I love the most- pitching my C.V., watching people pitch theirs, or being the interviewer, besieged by weirdoes.
Topically, Funemployed is finally available on Amazon here in the UK. That was touch and go for a second! Without a global release we couldn’t have featured it on this list, and that would have made me a sad (unemployed) panda.
#15: FURY OF DRACULA
2nd edition review here
3rd edition review here
Paul: This is it. This is our game of-
Quinns: Stop saying that!
Paul: This is our game of hidden movement! Of sneaking and slyness. I always liked the second version of this game, even if it had clunky combat, but now the third form of Fury of Dracula is smoother, sleeker, its cracks filled and its scuffs painted over. There’s so much tension to be felt playing Dracula as you sneak across Europe, hopefully leading those four hunters on a wild goose chase, quietly listening to their attempts to deduce and divine your location. Is Dracula in Germany today? How about Greece? No, it’s probably too sunny.
Matt: I AM A WOLF YOU CANNOT CATCH ME. Hello there, my name’s Dracula. Edward R Dracula. Thanks for coming and looking at my game. I like the bit where mysterious fog traps half of the hunters in London for two days, or the bit where I crush all of their puny human weapons with my fabulous vampire hands, or the bit where I drink their blood for fun/sustenance. I don’t like the bit where everyone works out that you’re basically just doing laps of Spain, pins you in a corner, and gets up in your grill with garlic-based problems. I am looking for a non-serious relationship with four weak hunters, must have poor quality weapons and GSOH.
Paul: I do love how tense combat is. A good fight might be the climax of the game, it could be the end of somebody, or it could be a brief battle from which one or both parties might flee to lick their wounds, ready to duel again another day. I really like you, Fury of Dracula, with your traps and your tricks and your doubling back. I’m very glad you’re back, better than ever. There’s some good hidden movement games out there but, oh my, you’re the best.
#14: TWO ROOMS AND A BOOM
Let’s Play here
Quinns: Over the last year we got carried away by Two Rooms and a Boom. We’d reliably run it at conventions and conferences, assembling 20+ player games simply because we could. And you know what? Two Room and a Boom became less fun. I was filled with doubts. Were we wrong to champion it?
Of course we weren’t. We were just pushing it too far! In fact, just last month I had the best game of it I’ve ever had. We had a cool 12 players separated by a glass partition, and the twist that only 6 of the players belonged to the red and blue teams, while the other 6 were all mad grey roles playing their own games. It was perfect. A maelstrom of politics ensued, like a general election on fast-forward, and I remembered that I love this goddamn game.
More games we can play on our feet please, designers! All I’ve got in my collection is this and Panic on Wall Street, and I want more.
Matt: What surprised me most about Two Rooms and a Boom was how much fun you could end up having even when given a boring role. Prior to playing as just a RED TEAM or BLUE TEAM member I’d wrongly presumed that there wouldn’t be much that I could do. But the thing that makes this game so utterly fantastic is that the role you’re given at the start doesn’t dictate the nature of your game – that’s entirely up to you. I’ve seen players decide to devote all their time to trying to spy on players as they show each other their cards – that’s legal within the game rules so deal with it, suckers. I once spent a whole game having deeply misleading conversations with allies when I knew that members of the opposite team were in earshot. It worked – they got entirely thrown off the scent and put the bomber in the room with the wrong guy.
Hidden identity games can often fall flat if the people who end up being vital characters fail to dive in and embrace what they can do, but I think what makes Two Rooms so perfect is that you don’t need to be handed an important card to be instrumental in winning the game. Anyone at any stage can be as engaged or as passive as they wish to be. It’s probably the perfect party game.
Brendan: I concur. The most dramatic game of this I played at GenCon was when I got the vanilla Blue Team card and was lucky enough to find allies and the Prez quickly. After that, there was a perverse joy in putting our entire room on lockdown, yelling my suspicions and abuse at any new blood that walked in the door. I find there is a weird thing about hidden role games, like Resistance or Werewolf: The Law of the Loudest. The person who talks the most, the fastest, the loudest — they tend to be believed. And while this is still true of Two Rooms, it is also entirely possible to project the image of a quiet wallflower, yet retain a hefty amount of influence, pulling strings from the sidelines by making shady deals with the Neutral characters. It is pure politics. As far as games of trust and information go, this is the daddy.
Paul: It’s the best big game. It’s probably the best game for parties or for people who want to do that Resistancy, Werewolfy bluffing thing. It’s got all those optional roles you can swap in or out. It’s so good. Show me your card. C’mon, just show me your card. Show me.
#13: ONE NIGHT ULTIMATE WEREWOLF & DAYBREAK
Podcast impressions here
Paul: I am increasingly okay with short games. I remember the day I first noticed that a lot of games had strict turn limits, and didn’t rely on total player elimination or complete, overwhelming success on one player’s part. I remember thinking “That’s good. It ensures you make the most of the playing time you have.” I always make the most of a round of One Night Ultimate Werewolf.
I’m not saying I’ve wholly fallen out with normal Werewolf, but I much prefer the idea of a tight game of rapid deduction and misdirection. And then you can do it all again immediately after.
Matt: As much as I love traditional Werewolf (i.e. Werewolf in top hats with cigars and brandy while the ladies make small-talk on the residence’s veranda) I can easily see the appeal of something much tighter. Part of what makes Werewolf magic is the post-game moments where you sit around dissecting the events that just unfolded. The randomised edge of elimination that tends to dominate the start of the game can easily end up making a round boring – wiping out interesting characters before things have even had time to warm up. Duff games once in a while aren’t too much of a problem, but I’ve had Werewolf sessions with new players fall totally flat just because of an unlucky run of less interesting scenarios. Considering everything I’ve heard about One Night Werewolf it seems increasingly awful that I’ve not yet played it.
Quinns: What?! But you were at GDC when we were demoing it all week!
Matt: I know, right?
Obviously One Night Werewolf is good because it removes the player elimination from Werewolf. But it’s magic because it harvests the best 10 minutes from an hour of Werewolf and chucks away the rest. How did it do that? Magic!
Quinns: We removed Dixit from the list and placed Mysterium way higher. It’s like a pokemon evolved, and not one of the crap evolutions, either. This is like a Psyduck into Golduck.
(Kids who are too young for that particular pokemon: it’s from the original Gameboy version of pokemon, which also had the most unfortunately named AND shaped pokemon of all time, Weepinbell.)
Paul: Oh heavens, a pokemon evolving isn’t a bad way of describing it at all. I’ve got to say, though I do still like Dixit, my affections have swayed towards Mysterium. This year, I’ve played just one game of the former and at least half a dozen of the latter. The conclusion of any game of Mysterium with friends inevitably results in one of us going “Well if I was the ghost it’d go much better than that,” before finding out that, actually, we’re all crap ghosts. Being a ghost is a difficult job.
But it’s also a funny job. It’s a head-scratching job. It’s a job where you make the best of what you have. Man, I guess being a ghost isn’t going to be an easy thing for me to ease into, is it? Still, I already have so many good memories of Mysterium, memories of games where, for some crazy reason, a friend thought I would associate a particular thing withanother particular thing. Really? Really?! What were you thinking?!?!
Quinns: My favourite thing about Mysterium is bending the rule that the ghost player can’t talk. Watching my friends collapse into hysterics when I started banging my head against the hollow wall behind me was in my top gaming experiences this year. This is absolutely a game that explains why poltergeists get mad and throw things.
2nd edition review here
3rd edition impressions here
Matt: It’s like the cheery nephew of Dungeons & Dragons started a band with Subbuteo’s son, and neither of them know how to play any instruments and yet they’re having tremendous fun. I’ve got a bag of coloured discs of wood that you wouldn’t believe. It’s whopping. That’s the only adjective I’m willing to accept.
The recent revamp of Catacombs just makes everything bigger, adding dollops of colour and three tablespoons of twee. You can play as a chicken! That’s a bit of a change since the original, no?
Paul: Ah yes, that original. That charming original, with its slightly bizarre art. But you know what? We didn’t care back then, either. All we really cared about was how much fun it was to play something that was a fine mix of dexterity and strategy, where one of those two could (and always would) undermine the other. Catacombs is a game where your cack-handedness can undermine your plans, but also where one expert shot can flip a game in your favour. It’s nothing like what you’d expect when you say “holiday board games,” but would there be any better, sillier, more slapstick way for family and friends to get together and cause chaos? No. The answer is no.
Matt: Yep, I adore the clash of strategic planning and the ease in which your fingers can mess everything up. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched as the healer accidentally storms right into the heart of a posse of orcs, the player who just launched it dropping their head into their hands. In most hands it’s a comedy of errors, but Catacombs is also a game of real skill – a bit of a rarity in the tabletop scene.
Quinns: Agreed. Pitchcar is the beloved dexterity game in the board gaming community, but the 3rd edition of Catacombs can (and SHOULD) knock into it and send it flying under the sofa, never to be seen again.
I love Pitchcar, but it needs to up its game. Imagine a new edition with the beautiful art, and the generosity and ideas of Catacombs! Then we’d have a real race.
Tomorrow: THE TOP TEN.
SU&SD’s Top 50 for 2015