Best Week 2015, Left Over!
Some games simply can’t be categorized, especially when the categories are as subjective as Best Week 2015’s have been. To make sure all the greatest games of the year get their due, what follows are the best that didn’t quite fit anywhere else.
#10. Colt Express
It’s not even a little bit surprising that Colt Express was the grand winner of the 2015 Spiel des Jahres. It’s just so… family friendly. Between the gorgeous 3D train — and stagecoach and horses if you’ve got the expansion (review forthcoming) — and its simple-as-can-be programmed movement gameplay, this is the sort of thing that can hit the table with pretty much anybody and not drive either the hardcore or the freshmen out of their minds. The main highlight: playing cards face-down when the train barrels through a tunnel.
My favorite Spyfall memory is playing with my ultra-smart brother-in-law, whose singular weakness is apparently an inability to think up questions. Fair enough, since the questions here can be particularly tough to invent on the fly. They’re a paradoxical exercise in precision and vagueness, forcing you to hint at a shared location without being so explicit that you give it away to a spy. Smart stuff.
#8. A Fake Artist Goes to New York
Summed up, this is the same game as Spyfall but with art. A Fake Artist Goes to New York comes in a tiny box and still manages to provide pens, dry erase boards, and some of the year’s most hilarious moments.
#7. Cthulhu Wars
Here’s a game that single-handedly proves how much tactility matters. Cthulhu Wars might be way too expensive, but slamming a Great Old One down on the table and seeing the vibration ripple your drink is about as cool as it gets. Here, the almost comical scale of the pieces conveys their strength. When a real threat appears on the board, you know it.
#6. XCOM: The Board Game
It’s funny to think back on the controversy surrounding XCOM’s required digital app. What seemed like a superfluous bit of gadgetry turned out to be perhaps the neatest part of the game. Faced with alien invasion, players were divided into four roles, each critical in their own way. The Commander balanced the budget and deployed fighters to shoot down UFOs, the Central Officer managed communications, the Squad Leader deployed infantry to battle the alien ground forces, and the Chief Scientist doled out upgrade cards. Of these, my favorite was Central, responsible for relaying the incessant demands bellowed from my phone. The slightest miscommunication or brain fart could spell doom for the whole table, making this one of the best cooperative games I’ve played since Space Alert — which, unsurprisingly, pulled a similar trick with its hectic real-time missions.
#5. Above and Below
There isn’t really all that much under the hood of Above and Below. The adventure book is just fancy flavor text with dice rolls, the town-building follows a breezy formula for assembling a tableau, and the art is — okay, the art is sublime. In either case, this is still one of the year’s most pleasant experiences. Ostensibly, the goal is to earn the most points from gathering resources and setting up your town, but really, it’s about telling inoffensive stories and having a good time, no matter who wins.
#4. Blood Rage
Blood Rage, on the other hand, is about beating everyone to a pulp, all the time. Not that you’d expect anything less of Vikings staring down both barrels of Ragnarök. What’s so surprising, however, is that this is still a thinking man’s game, providing ample ways to earn points. Not winning many battles? Then pick the upgrades that hand out points for losing ships or releasing warriors from Valhalla. Not having luck with your regular fighters? Then hire a Troll who kills off your enemies when he enters a province. There are many paths to victory in Blood Rage, and every single one of them is like banging your head to thrash metal.
Codenames is the board game equivalent of doing the Sunday morning crossword, with a group, on a timer, in which some words belong to you and others to another team, and where you aren’t allowed to give clues more detailed than “Windmill 3.” The great shock is that it works for pretty much everyone.
#2. Forbidden Stars
In an era of boardgaming when brevity is prized over depth, Forbidden Stars just doesn’t give a damn. Here’s a game that will gleefully take as many as three or four hours from start to finish. And yet it’s a masterclass in modern design. For instance, while players are encouraged to fight all day long, shifting “warp storms” periodically cut off entire sectors from one another, making long-term alliances a fantasy. Instead, each round is immediate and hard-hitting, with armies and fleets laying waste to planets and each other. In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war. And here, war is good.
#1. Pax Pamir
Pax Pamir isn’t a game I would recommend for everyone. Each part connects to every other in multiple ways, spies guiding armies, armies marching along roads, roads enabling taxation, taxation blocked by tax shelters, tax shelters prone to being undermined by spies. It’s complicated, is what I’m saying. And that complexity can lead to long turns, thoughtful bids for supremacy, galling failures. And yet, this historical game about The Great Game, the conflict for Afghanistan fought between the British and Russian Empires, is endlessly compelling. As a spiritual sequel to Pax Porfiriana, that’s hardly surprising. What is surprising is that this is even better than its predecessor, thrusting its players into a conflict that requires a steady hand, a faithless heart, and a conniving mind to navigate.
And that’s it for Best Week 2015! Were there any other games that stood out as your favorites?