The 2014 crop of new board games was deep, characterized by two new trends that seem likely to change the industry for the better. One is the increasing importance of crowdfunding in getting new games and even new designers to market, often with the promise of enough orders to sell out an initial print run. The other is the rise of deckbuilding games that draw from the runaway success of the Dominion series, sometimes borrowing much of that game’s mechanics, other times just taking advantage of the audience’s increased familiarity with the deckbuilding concept. Here’s my ranking of the ten best games of 2014, with a few more that might be worth your attention mentioned after the list.
One of a host of Dominion clones on the market, Star Realms takes the familiar draw-five-and-discard format and pits two players against each other in a space combat theme, where each player starts with 50 “authority” points and must drive the opponent’s AP figure to zero first. Cards of the same color/category have synergistic effects that can give the player more money, attack points, or other benefits than the two cards would get separately, and some cards, called bases, are left on the board for future turns until the opponent destroys them.
Like Star Realms, Evolution is a Kickstarter success story, this one picked up by North Star Games for a full print run. Evolution players begin with one herbivorous species apiece and must add traits to that species to help it grow while protecting it from eventual attacks by other players’ carnivores. As the game progresses, plant food becomes scarcer, forcing species to shrink or even to extinction, while encouraging the use of Carnivore trait cards to create more meat-eaters that consume other species. The mix of individual growth strategies with the interaction of trying to eat your opponents out of the game is the real charm. There’s a variant for evolution deniers, who should set up the game as usual, then just declare a winner without making any moves.
Another Dominion clone with slight tweaks to the core mechanic, Valley of the Kings ports the game to ancient Egypt, where players are archaeologists trying to assemble collections of artifacts that will lead to more points at game-end—but only if the player has “entombed” those cards, removing them from his/her hand to ensure they’re scored. Cards come in several colors and categories; getting more cards within a category leads to exponential point gains, as long as the cards are different. The table has a pyramid of six cards from which players can choose, but it starts a bit slow due to the low utility of the starting hands.
Another hit from Days of Wonder, the publishers of Ticket to Ride and Small World, Five Tribes turns meeple games upside-down by starting games with meeples all over the board and asking players to move around and remove them … for fun and profit, of course. Players arrive in the fictional sultanate of Naqala and try to claim tiles by removing the final meeples from them, taking control of them for the remainder of the game. Players then earn points for the tiles, for palm trees or palaces on those tiles, for money, for white and yellow meeples, for merchandise collected, and for Djinns, bonus cards that award players special abilities while the game is active as well as granting points at game-end. Setup and scoring are a bit complex, but the gameplay itself is straightforward once you understand all of the options.
Winner of this year’s Spiel des Jahres (game of the year) award, Camel Up provides good, clean betting fun for the whole family as players place short- and long-term bets on the outcome of the world’s slowest camel race. Players can draw dice from the cardboard pyramid to move the camels, or bet on the order of the camels at the end of the current round or at the conclusion of the entire race. The camel meeples (cameeples?) are stackable, so the order can change quickly when camels land on the same space and form a stack that moves as one. It was too lightweight for an award that’s previously gone to industry stalwarts like Dominion and Carcassonne, but is a solid, fun family game that’s easy for kids to play and still interesting for the parents.
Yet another winning cooperative game from the master of the genre, Matt Leacock, Forbidden Desert takes the mechanic familiar to Pandemic fans (and really, who isn’t a Pandemic fan at this point?) and grafts it on to a game less complex than the original but more complex than the entry-level Forbidden Island. Players form a team of archaeologists trying to find the four missing pieces of a sort of steampunk vehicle that will get them out of the desert where their helicopter has crashed, but must do so before they die of dehydration or are swallowed up by the billowing sandstorms that seem to build back up as quickly as players can clear them. It’s fun and stressful and not quite as easy as we first imagined it would be.
A very cute (in design, not gameplay) game from Japan that takes deckbuilding in a different direction, as players lay their cards out on the table and try to craft the right combinations to rack up more money. Machi Koro players have neighborhoods with various shops and factories (sorry, Suburbia fans, there’s no pollution here), and can earn monetary bonuses with them depending on the roll of the dice on each turn. The goal is to turn over your four special buildings by paying their costs before any other player does, which means the real goal is to get rich quick. It’s the American dream, but with Japanese artwork.
The winner of the Kennerspiel des Jahres (expert game of the year) for 2014, Istanbul makes players into merchants in a Turkish bazaar, buying and selling goods from their own barrows to try to acquire the combinations or the cash required to obtain rubies from the variable game board. Each player has a merchant token and a stack of assistants, leaving one assistant behind at each stop, requiring regular actions to regain those assistants so s/he can keep taking actions. Meanwhile, each player also has a “family member” who’s constantly getting into trouble, so other players can catch him and send him back to jail for a reward. It’s recommended for players 12 and up, but my eight-year-old had no problem figuring out a legitimate strategy for racking up rubies quickly enough to compete.
A map game that beats most map games because the mechanics and gameplay live up to the map’s promise, Concordia sets players on a map of Ancient Rome or Italy, exploring outward from the City of the Seven Hills to acquire different goods from the various outposts on the map, placing settlements to gain future production while trying to beat other players to the corners of the board. The final scoring rests on bonuses for how far your explorers have spread, how diverse your settlements are, and how well you did in deploying your people. If you enjoy map exploration games but have little interest in dice-rolling “combat,” Concordia’s for you.
A wonderful blend of simple mechanics, attractive components, and just the right balance of short- and long-term planning, Splendor is Paste’s Game of the Year for 2014. Two to four players compete to acquire cards from the table, using jewel tokens they get from the bank and the purchasing power of cards they’ve already bought; more expensive cards are worth more points, and the player with the most points after someone reaches 15 wins the game. It plays well with kids aged 8 and up, but is challenging enough for a light game between adults, and has plenty of replay value because the board changes every game.
Other titles of note in 2014: Rococo, Temporum, Roll for the Galaxy, La Granja, Imperial Settlers, Lagoon: Land of Druids.