Last time around, we rounded up games #10-6 on our list of the top 10 board games of 2011. With the new year upon us, it's time to look at what other top-of-the-class titles from last year should be hitting your table in 2012. Hopefully you've got a reliable gaming partner, as the one most noticeable trend in this top 5 is that 2011 was a fantastic year for 2-player games.
5 - Nightfall
Let's get the obligatory Dominion comparison out of the way. Yes, we're talking about the deckbuilding card game genre. While Dominion is the original and has a massive fan base, it's also got an army of detractors. Their complain? The game's theme is dry as a bone. Aside from buying a card your opponent might desire, Dominion players cannot do much aside advance their own success. It's an all-too-common complaint with strategic games, but these players are engaged in "multiplayer solitaire."
Nightfall puts those complaints to rest. AEG was second to market with Thunderstone, a game that tried to add an appealing dungeon crawling theme onto the deckbuilding mechanic, but that never struck a chord with me. Nightfall aims to be the polar opposite of Dominion, with constant player interaction.
Players will use familiar deckbuilding mechanics, as well as a unique combo mechanic called "chaining," to recruit an army of humans, vampires, and werewolves. Don't make the obvious leap to a Twilight joke, though. These vampires don't sparkle. In fact, they deal heaps of damage, and you'll be using a great deckbuilding system to engage in round after round of combat with your fellow players.
Nightfall was a very early 2011 release and I suspect it will be largely overlooked in most year-end roundups. (after all, it is about to have its third expansion already), but make it a point to go check this one out if you haven't already.
4 - A Few Acres of Snow
The number one reason why A Few Acres of Snow generated heavy buzz this year is that it gave us an insight into the future of deck-building card games. As I mentioned before when discussing Nightfall, the market has been flooded with unoriginal deck-building games and cheap sequels, but A Few Acres of Snow has made that mechanic just a portion of a larger experience. Of course, that overall game is a fantastic war game made by one of today's premiere designers, Martin Wallace, making this a great one-two punch.
Deckbuilding as a means to and end is the future, but right now only A Few Acres of Snow and Mage Knight are employing the technique. Of the two, Snow pulls out a narrow victory because it is actually a bit of a genre-bender, broadening its appeal. If you want to start a geek fight, take a borderline war game such as Snow and claim emphatically that it is or is not a member of the genre. Whether it is or is not, A Few Acres of Snow appeals to both the strategic sides of both war gamers and card gamers, giving it a wide appeal among the board gaming geek crowd.
3 - Risk Legacy
If you haven't already heard, this new version of Risk takes players on a 15-game journey where permanent changes can be made in-between matches. These changes take many shapes, but can involve tearing up cards from the deck, taking a marker to the map, or adding in new game-changing rules.
Yet it's hard to place Risk Legacy on a list when I have barely cracked the surface on what this game has to offer. If judging a game is 50% concept and 50% execution, though, then Risk Legacy breaks the mold and earns this spot on concept alone. To say the least, it's quite an outside-the-box idea.
That's not to make excuses for its execution. In fact, while gamers were at first quite vocal with their displeasure upon first hearing they would have to permanently alter their copy of Risk Legacy, designer Rob Daviau's execution showed that their complaints were without merit. As it turns out, turning Risk into a stateful game made it the perfect host for an epic campaign, rather than the agent for some nefarious Hasbro conspiracy theory that "forces" you to buy several copies of the same game. Making sure that Risk Legacy was the former rather than the latter was surely a daunting game design challenge, so credit is deserved here.
2 - Yomi
Using a standard 52-card playing deck as the basis your game can be quite a challenge. Add in the goal of creating a tournament-viable two-player system and you're got a herculean task on your hands. Enter David Sirlin, the game design wiz behind Sirlin Games, MIT grad, and the guy behind Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix for Xbox 360 Yomi was intended to be a card-based version of Street Fighter, but negotiations with Capcom fell through and Sirlin was left to create original characters. With a game as finely-tuned as Yomi, though, who needs licensed characters?
Yomi is built around a rock-paper-scissors system of predicting your opponents next move and planning yours accordingly. It takes all of the head games involved in a Street Fighter match and strips out the blazing-finger dexterity required to be a pro. It's got all the bells and whistles such as a combo system and super attacks that can be unleashed by strategically stockpiling aces. The icing on the cake is that the game can be taught in a minute and fits in your pocket. You just can't find another game with this much strategic depth that can be played anywhere with gamers and non-gamers alike.
1 - Confusion: Espionage and Deception
Another 2-player game! Confusion is the poster child of how to do a board game reprint. The original Confusion was an abstract strategy game published only in Germany during the early '90s, but this version blows the original away. The formerly-abstract game now has a Cold War theme, which is a perfect match for the chess-like game with a hidden information twist. Now, your pieces represent agents for the global superpowers, maneuvering around the board to snag a briefcase and bring it across the opponent's border.
The twist here is that players don't actually know the movement rules for their own pieces, only their opponents do. Whenever a player attempts to make a move, they'll have to ask the opponent whether it is legal. As long as the special "double agent" piece is being moved, the opponent will have to answer truthfully, and players can begin using a master list of units to deduce which pieces on the board are which. The game is incredibly enjoyable, as it takes a timeless classic (chess) and adds a maddeningly fun deduction game on top of it.
There are plenty of great games to choose from this year, so what makes a game #1? For Confusion, it was the production value. The master list of pieces is printed on a dry-erase folder that lets you keep information private, while also allowing for quick cleanup and replay. The real start of the show are the playing pieces, though, which have use a two-piece shell and insert system to mix up units between games and ensure that everyone is starting with zero information.
The pieces themselves are made from a sturdy material not often used these days: abalite (think dominoes). It's hard to describe, but using this retro material actually makes the game feel like something you'd play during the Cold War. Thematically, Confusion has come a long way from being a faceless abstract. That leap makes this game "most improved" and our game of the year.