Not the crap ones, though. 2012 saw board gaming continuing to grow from a greasy teenager into an intimidatingly gorgeous adult, with great games popping onto shelves every month like bones slotting audibly into their proper place.
This was also the year that video games have decided they want in on the action. In the last couple of months tie-in board games have been announced for Bioshock: Infinite, Crysis, Arkham City, even indie curio Sir, You Are Being Hunted.
Will they be rubbish? Who knows! Until then, let’s look at the top 5 board games of this year. Have you bought /yourself/ a Christmas present yet? Just sayin’.
This year, it was Finnish monsterpiece Eclipse that made the most lasting impression on the scene. The game’s goal was to take the 4X genre (Galactic Civilizations, Sins of a Solar Empire), where competing players scan and subdue a galaxy, and lock that appeal into something shorter and more elegant. Something that lasted a bantamweight 45 minutes per player.
The result is fascinating. Here’s a genre that defines itself as being ponderous, suddenly stripped down to players snatching precious planets from one another with the cunning and bitterness of hobos brawling over lustrous pennies. There’s still so much going on, from frantic researching of tech, to designing ships, but with absolutely none of the bookkeeping.
All the heavy lifting is done by the game’s ergonomic design. As you socket population cubes, ships and tech into place, the galaxy’s new vital statistics are revealed on the player mats you removed them from. It’s as joyous as advancing through an advent calendar.
There’s a fundamental disagreement at the heart of board gaming, which is that games have to either tell stories or offer a perfect challenge. Eclipse represents a heroic compromise. Players can enjoy telling rich stories of betrayal, plasma missiles, last stands and genocide, yet the game itself isn’t some fluffy array of cards and ideas, as 2011’s uniquely awkward Star Trek: Fleet Captains was. Instead, it’s a rock-solid challenge that’ll reward every ounce of attention you choose to invest in it. Beautiful.
City of Horror
You might have heard of 2012 zombie board game Zombicide. Zombicide‘s fine. It’s good. But it’s just a miniatures tactics game, in the style of Dungeons & Dragons. You’re better than that, and that’s why you buy City of Horror instead.
It’s the same problem: you’re tasked with keeping a handful of survivors alive, but in worse circumstances than you’ve ever seen before in a zombie game. Your only equipment is a tiny hand of one-shot items meant to last you the entire game, and these aren’t, like, shotguns and grenades. Maybe you get a prop pistol. A can of mace. A flare gun.
That’s because City of Horror isn’t a game of defeating the zombies, but buying yourself a few precious gasps of breathing room… by feeding other survivors to them. A game of City of Horror is actually a game of shouting, pleading and threatening your real-life friends in a dark game of politics, its heartbeat the spoken “Three, two, one” of a table of players counting down to their voting (via pointed fingers) as to who’s getting pushed outside.
City of Horror is as simple as it is smart as it is a faithful zombie game as it is personal as it is lovely to look at on your table. Any two of those would be reasons to own it. But all five? That’s gold.
Netrunner was rebooted this year, and is now the sexiest collectible card game ever made. HIGH PRAISE, I’m sure you’ll agree. You’ve heard of Magic: The Gathering? Netrunner is what the designer, Richard Garfield, did next, with an eye to making the game more like poker.
One player runs a cyberpunk corporation, from a glittering News Corp parallel to a Blade Runner-like replicant manufacturer. The other player, armed with an entirely different deck, is a hacker, with the enviable job of smashing the corp’s glittering superstructure and picking through the pieces.
What’s fascinating about Netrunner is that in the hacker’s quest for those precious Agenda cards, they can raid not just the shell game of the Corp’s private servers, but the corp’s secret discard pile, his hand, or even scratch cards off the top of his deck. On a good turn, they’ll slip out of that dark machinery of bluffs and traps without so much as a scratch on their ego, leaving the Corp player swearing. On a bad turn, they’ll receive that darkest of scars on their moth-like career: a trace on their physical location. Suddenly, they’re only one card away from the corp levelling their entire city block.
Every single person I’ve sat down to play Netrunner with has become hooked on the idea of making a deck, something made more palatable by the game’s publisher, Fantasy Flight, selling Netrunner via their “Living Card Game” model. After the core set, you don’t buy randomised booster packs, but pick up expansion decks that Fantasy Flight release every month. It’s not quite the future of card games, but it could probably pass for a Blade Runner-esque day-after-tomorrow.
Technically this came out in 2011, but 2012 was Risk Legacy‘s year. Gaming groups across the world were cracking open the game’s briefcase-like box and embarking on campaigns with no idea where this game was going to take them.
Risk Legacy is a clean-cut example of how joyous and experimental today’s board game scene is. In its tidy box are not just whole packs of cards of sealed cards, but entire sealed compartments, which you only open after certain things happen in the wars of your world.
In other words, as you wage wars on this private Earth of yours, you’ll change it forever. It’ll gain a history, with irradiated regions and new cities (“ROBERT-OPOLIS” scrawled on your board, forever, in leaky pen). Cards are torn up. Winners sign the board. Within just a few games, your copy of Risk Legacy will be entirely unique.
How about that?
I don’t own Risk Legacy, but my friend does. The other week he lifted up the box inlay, looking for more space to put the game’s latest surprise, and found yet another secret pack of cards taped to the bottom of the box.
“DO NOT OPEN, EVER”, it read. When my friends finish their campaign, they’re going to burn it.
Board gaming, ladies and gentlemen.
Finally, we arrive at Mage Knight. Probably (definitely) (maybe) the actual game of the year.
The Czech designer, Vlaada Cvatil, first came to my attention with Space Alert, a kind of soviet Star Trek where players crew a ship together in real time, trying not to fly into moons or be eaten by slime while remembering to nudge the computer so the screen saver doesn’t come on. He also made Galaxy Trucker, a game where players first build ships from a junkyard of cardboard tiles, take off in a convoy, then collapse into hysterics as an asteroid breaks someone’s ship clean in half. Both of these games are skewed, genius, and hilarious.
Mage Knight is interesting because the publisher Wizkids came to Vlaada and asked for something achingly traditional: a fantasy game of wizards questing across a landscape. “OK!” says Vlaada. Then however many months or days or seconds later, he emails them this” a design for the maddest, most intimidatingly intelligent “traditional” fantasy game ever made.
You know how, in Tolkein’s fiction, Gandalf oscillates between terrifying magic spells and being just a guy with a stick? Mage Knight is a Gandalf simulator. Everyone’s wizard is a deck of cards, and it’s your job to make the most of the cards you draw, the amoral eddies of the shared mana pool, the time of day, the terrain, your minions, treasures and opponents, all to the point that you take your friends’ breath away every turn.
When you succed in Mage Knight, it’s staggeringly epic. Your wizard treks to a mountain monastary to learn the darkest magic, only to use it to slaughter the monks themselves. Or better yet, he warps time in on itself, buying yourself an extra hour of sunshine to cast that holy spell that’ll allow you to assault an entire walled city, with just you and your merry band of lumberjacks or mercenaries or whoever else you’ve tricked or threatened into following you around.
But the beauty of Mage Knight is that when you fail, it’s still epic. Crawling away from an ambush with some orcs, your hand overflowing with wound cards, you’ll be facing down a challenge that’s unique to anyone at the table. Come back from that, and it won’t matter how powerful your friends become. You’ll have the moral victory.
In my board game review show we compared Mage Knight to a game of learning to fly. Here on Kotaku, I’ll call it the most complicated, the most nuanced and the most interesting puzzle I played this year.
You’ve seen how many wonderful ideas, how much love and wit there is on this list. When I tell you that Mage Knight is everything that board gaming can be, just know that it’s a warning as much as a compliment. Proceed with caution, young apprentice.
Quintin Smith is a games columnist able to identify different board game manufacturers by the smell of the glue they use. He is not proud of this. You’ll find his analogue ramblings at Shut Up & Sit Down, his board game site, and @quinns108 on Twitter.