This time last year, I was so tired of the generic nature of most new board games that I'd started to wonder if my favourite hobby had passed its glory days. I've never been happier to have been proved wrong. After a couple of years of wretched releases, 2015 has been a stellar time for tabletop gaming.
When there was so much chaff in the machine, I couldn't bring myself to do much more than pick a top three for my best-of-year posts. Sometimes it was difficult to find even three. This time I'm faced with an embarrassment of riches. I've never liked the idea of honouring games by category: it feels artificial. If the two best games this year were both dexterity games (they weren't) then both deserve a mention.
So here's what were going to do. I'm going to run through my favourite games of the year and, at the end, pick one for game of the year. But they're all fantastic. All worthy of your time and money.
Before we get stuck in, I have to admit that there's one title that ought to be in the running which I haven't played. That title is Pandemic: Legacy. Not being an enormous fan of the original, I passed on this at first. By the time it became a must-have game and I wanted to review it, everyone else had it already. Hopefully there'll be time for a review in the new year. I might think that Pandemic is merely average. But since I opened Risk: Legacy this year and it became my sixth-ever top scoring game, I ought to see how the legacy concept works with other systems.
Now, on with the show.
Star Wars: Armada
X-Wing looked fantastic on the table, but it felt more like a crapshoot than a tactical combat game. That's slowly changing but, however good it gets, it'll never offer as much game as Armada does. And even with unpainted fighters, Armada still looks the biz when it's laid out. I was playing in a pub once, and a complete stranger came over and started taking photographs, muttering "that's mint. That's fucking mint."
I'd argue it's actually more accessible than its older brother due to fewer ships and upgrades and a more predictable play time. So, easy to pick up, fantastic looking, rich and deep to play: what's not to love? Well, the price, I guess. But you don't need a lot of ships to build a fun, functional fleet.
The sorts of games we love are often bloated with rules and components in place of actual theme. Sometimes this works, more often it just gets in the way of enjoyment. Yet when designers try to strip these things away to make shorter, simpler games, often all that's left is a hollow shell.
Specter Ops is the grandest refutation of that conclusion I've ever seen. You can be up and playing in minutes yet you might end up playing for hours and hours over the shelf-life of the game. It's built taut, asymmetrical and full of cunning deduction on a foundation that looks flimsy, but is rock solid.
Fury of Dracula 3rd Edition
Hidden movement is one of my favourite mechanics, so getting two top titles in one year is a real treat. And with the original Fury being one of my favourite games, it's no surprise I see 2015 has being an out of the park year for quality.
You'll need to put in a bit of work to figure this one out, but it does play fast and it'll reward you a hundredfold. Dense, claustrophobic and slipperier than a box of frogs yet still full of depth and crazy see-saws of fortune. It'll suck you in and never let you out.
People have been mining the seams of social games and word for so long that it's rare anything of value turns up. So imagine my surprise when a designer known for mediumweight thematic titles turned up a great title that was novel in both genres.
The best thing about Codenames is its chameleon-like ability to be all things to all people. It works co-operatively or competitively. You can play it hard or for laughs. Teams can play it just as well as individuals. Whichever way up you turn it, it's still just as much fun.
You'd not think, to look at the box or read the rules, that this is perhaps the deepest game I've seen in years. It looks and smells like a negotiation game, and there's plenty of that to do. Yet underneath are layers and layers of mechanics to puzzle over and perfect.
That it presents such a compelling piece of alternative history too is just the icing on the cake. With such variety and replay value, Churchill would go on my "if you only had 10 games" list without a second thought.
And the winner is ...
In keeping with the quality of this year's games, this is the hardest choice I've had to make for some time. So I'm not going to make it: I'm going to let my friends and family do it, without them knowing.
They've had a great time with all of the games on my shortlist. But there was one that got asked for over and above the initial wow-factor of any well designed. One that got worked over, worried at, examined in a fierce competition to be the first to be best. One that shut out the world outside more effectively than the rest.
That game is the new edition of The Fury of Dracula.
I had always dreamed that one day, someone might be able to shoehorn the best bits of the two previous editions into one box, but I never really believed it would come true. Yet there it is, a special Christmas present for me. And for all of you, too, if you're lucky enough to find one under the tree. Have a great solstice.