One of the benefits of a regular gaming group is that as well as playing through the classics and revisiting personal favorites, you’ll often have members who bring along the latest big releases or lesser-known titles they’ve backed on Kickstarter. Here are 10 notable titles from the past couple of years that have hit the tables at my group.
Terraforming Mars is arguably the most hyped game of 2017 that I’ve played. You play as one of several competing corporations trying to develop Mars, represented by a hex board. As a group you work together to raise the temperature, oxygen levels and sea coverage (and once all three are maxed out, the game ends), but you also work on private projects that act as individual objectives. It brings together a wide range of game mechanics in a smooth manner, though it’s just about at the top end of bearable game times and wouldn’t be one to play with people prone to analysis paralysis. The big downside is the poor player boards on which cubes (which confusingly fulfill multiple roles) are far too easy to knock out of place.
Sagrada is almost a puzzle. It’s based on a theme of building stained glass windows, but in reality you are trying to draft colored dice that fit into a five by five grid with several constraints (a new die must be placed adjacent to an existing die; you can’t have the same color or number on two adjacent squares; some squares are labelled and can only carry a particular number or color.) The beauty of the game is that you score in four ways: while you will always get the face value of all the dice you place of a particular (secret) individual color, there’ll be three common scoring criteria that are randomly selected each game, along with three randomly selected common tools that you can use such as adjusting a die value, so any one game will be very different to another. It plays quickly as you can easily plan what your next move will be (assuming the relevant die is still available) and there’s some scope for screwing over opponents once you figure out what they are planning.
Raiders of the North Sea is a worker placement game with a twist. Based around developing fighting hordes before heading out to loot overseas, players take two actions each round: once by placing a token on a free space and the second by removing a token from a space. It’s a little jarring at first until you realize the effect is that you will nearly always be able to take the actions you want but won’t necessarily be able to take them in your preferred order. That leaves plenty of room for thinking ahead and developing a strategy, though I can report from bitter experience that the name of the game is indeed a clue and that deciding not to go on any raids will not work out well.
Clank is a deckbuilder/dungeon crawl board game that’s somewhere between “push your luck” and “test your nerve against your opponents.” The more ambitious the actions you take, the more noise you make, which is represented by your color of cubes going into a bag. Awaken the dragon and random cubes are drawn, which translate to depleting health for the player of that color. To win you have to get out of the dungeon alive with the most treasure, but once you’re out, you’re out. It’s a fun set of mechanisms, but it can be hard to adjust to the fact that the whole game is based around making one big timing decision.
Mechs vs Minions is another much-hyped game and for good reason. It’s a co-operative based around a basic mechanism for programming mechs (think Robo Rally), with damage not being a health issue, but rather disrupting and even randomizing your programming. The campaign format means each mission feels very different to one another, with varying challenges and goals meaning you have to adapt to the tactics. While your mileage may vary, my group has found the difficulty just right as almost every game starts out feeling like a hopeless mission only to end in a narrow victory. While it’s a very expensive game (driven by the huge number of components), it could have some serious longevity with the easy scope for both formal expansions and unofficial missions.
Captain Sonar is a party game that takes the concept of BattleShips and splits it into multiple roles on two teams who must coordinate their actions. The challenge is that it can be played in real time which inevitably breaks down into frantic shouting and cross-talk. While I enjoyed it, the main drawback is that to play at its best it really needs not just exactly eight players, but eight players who enjoy frantic communication-based gaming, which isn’t always going to be easy to arrange.
Family Plot is a filler card game that draws much of its pleasure from the character illustrations and names, but is still enjoyable. The idea is simply to collect and play a particular set of seven family members (for example grandfather, mother, aunt, uncle, son, baby, pet) with the aid of modifiers to change gender and age if you don’t have the cards you need. The trouble of course is that opponents can mess up your plans with action cards such as child protection services taking away one of your kids, or even a full on Grim Reaper to wipe out the family (though it’s worth taking some of the Reaper cards out of the deck to tweak the game’s length and frustration level). It’s a fun experience, though not really suited to those who hate luck in games.
Isles of Skye is a simple tile auction and laying game where you are expanding a Scottish clan land. What makes it work well is that any particular game will have five randomly selected scoring criteria, but only a particular combination will apply each round. This makes for a good mix of tactics and strategy as you have to think ahead as to how you will score on future rounds. One big downside is that you can choose the orientation of the tile placement for best effect so, unless you have very tolerant and patient opponents, you may struggle to make decisions during the auction phases unless you have a visual mind that can quickly assess the different options for how you would place the tile after buying it.
Viceroy is another auction and placement game, this time playing cards to build a “pyramid of power,” though the theme is somewhat arbitrary. It’s not an auction in the true sense of the word: instead players blind bid to select one of four cards: if two or more people go for the same card, they all lose and don’t get a refund, so it’s as much about trying to figure out what others will be going for as it is getting the best card for you. It’s not a bad game as such but rather doesn’t justify its play length. The good news is that the scoring and cards scale well, so it should be possible to simply play fewer rounds without unbalancing the gameplay.
Finally, Sunrise City is a city building game with one rule that gives it the edge. The gameplay itself is fairly simple: over three rounds, players select and play ‘zone’ cards that define permissible building types in a location, then bid for the rights to use a particular zone, then construct buildings in line with the rules. In principle that’s a straightforward game of planning and execution, with opportunities to block opponents. The edge comes from the fact that as you amass points, if you even reach a multiple of ten exactly, you’ll get a ten-point bonus. As these can be enough to swing a game, the emphasis is as much on when you score points as how much you score, so you’ll need to be constantly rethinking your plans, particularly as other players may deliberately take actions that give you bonus points.