As I've talked about before, board games aren't simply enjoying a resurgence right now. They're in a glittering golden age with fabulous releases every single week, the entire hobby evolving and adapting with Borg-like ease. There's no easier way to prove it than with my favourite releases from 2013.
Included on this list are a real-time Star Trek simulator, a uniquely dark game of managing a sunny colony, and a card game... with just 15 cards. But each one of these is a classic.
SPACE CADETS: DICE DUEL
Every bit of Dice Duel's pitch makes me smile. First, imagine two space ships in an intense duel. Now, picture each piloted by a team of your friends. Know that these ships are controlled... by rolling handfuls of dice. Finally, picture this absurd dice game having no turns, and being played in real time, as fast as each team can roll their dice.
The basics of this are that the poor player on engineering gets six ordinary dice to roll, with each number correlating to a a different station. Maybe you roll a 1. You can then physically give that die to the Weapons terminal, and the player there can then start rolling (and re-rolling) one of their own dice. When Weapons get the result they want on that die, they can finally return the energy (die) to Engineering, who can cycle it and give that energy to another station.
So that's fine. But what are you going to do when the enemy team is rocketing towards you, with torpedo loaded? As Engineering, do you give energy to the Helm? To Shields? To Jamming? THINK. QUICKLY. QUICKLY.
"Fire torpedoes!" Shouts the enemy captain, and you wince... only to spot the enemy Sensors officer putting his head in his hands. He hadn't established a lock yet, wasting both their torpedoes. Which means... the game's still going on? Oh god! The game's still happening! LOAD TORPEDOES!
Best of all, in a full eight-player game, one player on each team is simply the captain, keeping an eye on the board and screaming orders to their team. Dice Duel might have been the funniest game to come out this year if it actually gave players the time to laugh. Or breathe. And if my copy of Guts of Glory hadn't just arrived.
This one's a hard sell with us coming straight from adrenaline-soaked space battles. Archipelago is a fairly complicated game that sees players managing the economy of a South Pacific colony, literally fretting over the price of beef. In a lot of ways, it's what people imagine board gaming to be. Don't go scrolling ahead, though, because Archipelago is a fascinating psychological exercise.
As usual for these kind of fibre-rich European games, the player who runs the most successful enterprise will win. However, all players will lose if the islands' natives rise up in a violent uprising.
Each turn sees players (theoretically) working together to manage crises in a manner that'll be familiar to anyone who's played the (excellent) Battlestar Galactica game, and failing at this will cause local unrest. Should one of you fail to employ enough locals, or perhaps go the other way and enslave them, it'll similarly destabilise the area.
...Which might be fine. Because there's always the possibility that one player in Archipelago will be the sympathiser, and will win if there's an uprising.
That's an interesting political dynamic in and of itself, but when you add in area control and free trading between players? The game just takes off. "Don't trade with him, he sympathises with the locals." "How can you stitch me up like this? I built the bloody churches that are keeping us safe!" "You're BURNING MY PINEAPPLE FIELDS? I'LL END THIS. FOR ALL OF US."
Like Space Cadets: Dice Duel, it's not just that Archipelago is innovative, polished or entertaining. It's that it has a whip-smart design that's had every single rough edge taken off. Perhaps people aren't wrong, then, to think of Archipelago as a stereotypical nerdy board game: It possesses everything that's awesome about the hobby. It's incredibly smart, absolutely gorgeous, and the island, tech and troubles reshuffle themselves utterly for a different game every time you play.
This tiny game of just 15 cards arrived in an avalanche of hype this year, so I knew what to expect. Coup is an intense game of bluffing, with players working their "influence" (or alleged influence) with five different court members in a deadly game of call-my-bluff. What I wasn't expecting is for it to be so funny, because of one very simple rule I was missing.
Players in Coup are clawing their way towards having enough money to launch a titular coup, stripping another player of one of their face-down cards. Lose both cards, and you're out of the game. Let's say that on your turn you claim that one of your two cards is the Duke, letting you take three coins. You lose a card — half of your "life" — if another player calls bullshit on you and you were lying. But that's not all. The rule I was missing is that if they're wrong, they lose half their life.
Coup, you see, isn't just a game where to stay alive, players have to become enormous gas bags composed entirely of puff and bluff. It's a game where your friend sat opposite might know, in their heart of hearts, that you're full of shit, but can't bring themselves to call you on it because of the terrible consequences.
A lovely, accessible, razor-sharp game, with a lovely, compact, tiny container. Coup just ticks all the boxes. And then has the boxes exiled for treason.
Photo of Coup by Scott King.
HONORARY RUNNER UP: NETRUNNER
Now, Netrunner technically came out in 2012. Technically. But I'm putting it here anyway, and not just because I'm a dribbling addict.
2013 was our first full year of Netrunner expansions, and the swelling card pool (sold in monthly $US10 boxes) has since evolved this game from a dramatic proposition into the hobby it was always meant to be. If you've not yet heard of this mind game of corporation vs. hacker, you'll find my review right here. And if you have heard of it, I'd encourage you to take the plunge. There's so much possibility and joy just in the core set. Whether you want to develop a smash-the-state anarchist, a hacker-murdering sysop, a criminal who controls the corporation itself or a dozen other immensely appealing archetypes, Netrunner might well be the best scene you're not yet involved with.
Quintin Smith is a games columnist able to identify different board game manufacturers by their scent. He is not proud of this. He's part of a team working to make a home for play in Shut Up & Sit Down, and is @quinns108 on Twitter.