Tetris for two players? Uwe Rosenberg is better known for his long, complex strategy games Agricola, Le Havre, and Ad Infinitum, but he also designed this little gem where two players compete to fill up their 9×9 boards by drawing oddly-shaped “fabric” tiles from a central supply, which recalls the mechanics of that classic Russian puzzle game. The scoring is as elegant as the game play itself.
So delightfully simple, albeit not quite as full of antioxidants as the name might imply, Cacao is simple to learn and hits the right amount of randomness to give every player a fair chance to stay in the game. Players build the board as they go as in Carcassonne, but acquire points mostly by gaining and selling cacao beans from the tiles they lay or from adding water resources when those scarce tiles appear. It moves very quickly although I don’t think it has the replay value of the games above it.
3. 7 Wonders Duel
The original game 7 Wonders is an all-time great, but requires 3 to 7 players, with a 2-player rules variant that doesn’t play as well as the regular game. 7 Wonders Duel isn’t a straight adaptation of the initial game, but uses the original’s theme and some of its mechanics while incorporating more direct competition between the two players, including two victory conditions that allow one player to defeat the other before the game’s ordinary completion. Duel retains the original’s concept of “chains” of buildings, but simplifies other rules to make it a faster experience that retains replay value even for the same two players.
2. Baseball Highlights: 2045
As a full-time baseball writer and lifelong fan of the actual sport, I never thought I’d see a baseball-themed boardgame that I thought was any good. Simulation games tend to leave me cold, mostly because of the amount of time they require. Games that slap a baseball theme on some unrelated mechanic are usually silly or utterly ignorant of how the sport works. But Baseball Highlights: 2045, while definitely silly, manages to integrate the baseball theme into a basic deckbuilder game that is highly extensible and offers plenty of replay potential. It’s easy to learn and you’re never left hoping the inning is going to end soon.
1. Broom Service
The Kennerspiel des Jahres winner for 2015 was indeed the year’s best new game, a game that has surprising depth beneath the lightweight theme of witches and potions that looks like the designers swiped it from a cartoon aimed at young girls. The real separator is the mechanic around role selection, where only one person can take on a role in each round … but multiple players can try for it, meaning you have to think about timing and try to read your opponents. In an era where many complex games feel like highly sophisticated solitaire, Broom Service constantly reminds you that you’re competing against other warlocks and fairies.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.