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March 31, 2021
Michael Barnes
December 17, 2020

Barnes Best 2020

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Barnes Best 2019 - The Best Games of the Year

MB Updated
Barnes Best 2019 - The Best Games of the Year

Time to roll out this 10 year old photo...

I suppose it is time to drag out the ol’ “best games of the year” piece for another airing, seeing as it is the done thing among games writers. To be quite honest, I couldn’t be less interested in writing this article for 2019 because more and more, what I like and want from games and what board game makers and designers want to give me are increasingly at cross purposes. It’s true there are plenty of awesome games out there and more on the way, and there are some truly talented folks doing great work in the medium. But by and large, I’m at a stage where I could not possibly care any less about most of the releases that we are flooded with on a weekly basis. It’s become increasingly less worthwhile to spend the time to separate the wheat from the chaff while also becoming more worthwhile to focus in only on the games and types of gameplay that I actually enjoy. To put it bluntly, most of the games I see coming out aren’t worth my time. And it’s not worth your time to read whatever review or comment I can half-heartedly muster for the latest dudebro area control game with 5000 components.

All that being said, I spent more time at a gaming table this year than I have in a while, and almost all of it was spent playing either Dungeons & Dragons or some of my favorite games from years past. I got really into Battlelore 2nd edition and played that a lot after scoring an almost criminal deal on a complete set with all of the out-of-print expansions. I really didn’t play many new games, but the new games I did play were mostly pretty good with a few notable highlights. So that what this edition of Barnes’ Best is going to represent more than anything – the games that I played out of a curated selection that I thought were the top picks.

1) Dune - I don’t fucking care if it’s a reprint. In any year in which an edition of Dune is published, Dune is the best game of the year. The Gale Force 9 edition is lovely, and its currency has meant that the game has made it to the table a few times this year after quite a long time of it sitting woefully unplayed. Dune is the reason I don't like a lot of other games that are reported to be “dripping with theme” because there are pictures and proper nouns on the cards. This game wrote the book on presenting themes, settings, and science fiction concepts in games and it is a sterling example of emergent, player driven narrative in games at a time when too many designs focus on providing a stable experience for play with strangers. It is a masterpiece, and anything else released this year lies in its wake, full stop.

2) Aeon’s End: The New Age – I’m really not sure why I even decided to take up Aeon’s End, a deckbuilder that’s a few years old from a company that barely even registers on my radar (Indie Board & Cards). But I found myself with the War Eternal core set and now here I am with every release in the line barring the legacy one, which I’m sure I’ll wind up with eventually. This is the best deckbuilder I have ever played, beyond a shadow of a doubt, because it is the one that most feels like a CCG. The mechanisms are crisp, the gameplay is tense, the situations dynamic, and the range of cards makes for a compelling challenge every game. I’ve enjoyed it as a co-op game with friends, but it’s really the solo game where this design excels. I would go so far as to call it my favorite solitaire game. 

3)  JAWS – Prospero Hall is on a massive hot streak, doing some excellent work with mainstream licenses and availability. JAWS is their best work to date, a brilliant family-weight game that provides the full narrative arc of the Spielberg classic in a dramatic two-act structure that flips the board and has you play a different game in the back half. There is a through line from games like Survive and maybe Fury of Dracula to this design, and the economy with which this game tells its story is something hobby market designers need to take a look at before they overload their designs with a bunch of inessential junk.

4) Unmatched – In a way, this was the biggest surprise of 2019 for me. I was mildly interested in it, but mainly because I liked the idea that it was literary and mythological characters in a low complexity skirmish game. I didn’t really care that it was billed as a reboot of Epic Duels, because I never really thought Epic Duels was worth rebooting. But this lithe game is the best skirmisher released in a year that saw a bunch of great skirmishers (Judge Dredd: Helter Skelter, Funkoverse, Warcry). It doesn’t seem like much in the initial outings, but subsequent plays reveal a depth that is compellingly competitive. Mind games, psych-outs, risky maneuvers, do-or-die plays – this is a great design and it is blessed with absolutely the best illustrations and graphic design in games this year.

5) Vast: The Mysterious Manor – I called this game the “arthouse dungeoncrawl” and I think that gets to the heart of it. Dungeoncrawl board games, I hate to tell you, are played out so it takes something really special to pry me away from DungeonQuest, which remains the ne-plus-ultra of the genre. Patrick Leder’s Rashomon-like design work here did the trick, offering up what are essentially five different perspectives on the concept complete with competing agendas and co-dependencies. This is a dizzyingly smart design- complex and captivating, uncompromising its idiosyncracies. With the Root expansion inbound and Oath in development, Leder Games is one of the leaders in producing innovative and uniquely asymmetrical designs.

6) Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea – When I saw the online dialogue about this GMT game, I saw a lot of folks complaining that it was a “beat up on the leader” thing with “swingy take that” - a bunch of supposedly negative jargon-y comments. Thing is, all of the modern gamer whining about it made me interested in it and sure enough I loved the game. It’s one of the most ruthlessly brutal take that designs I’ve ever seen. It's as if the design brief was to take the disaster cards in Tresham’s austere Civilization and have them happen every turn. Or the idea might have been to put the rise and fall of a player’s fortunes during History of the World in the merciless hands of opponents. This is a game where you can get completely wiped off the board one turn, and then wipe somebody else off the next. It’s repetitive, too long, and it has a wonderful capacity to make certain kinds of players angry. I love it, but it is really closer to something like War on Terror than Through The Ages. Perhaps it should have been titled Super Smash Civilizations?

7) Lifeform – I DMed designer Mark Chaplin on Twitter and said “hey, I’d really like to review your game Nemesis”. Oops! Fortunately he was a good sport, perhaps thankful that there is only one other Alien-influenced board game at this time. I haven’t played Nemesis and I don’t really care to, but I doubt it’s as good as Lifeform. The rulebook is a mess, the game is fussy and awfully chitty but Mark’s love for the Alien concept blazes through. It’s stunningly complrehensive and offers some tremendously stressful gameplay in both solo and mulitiplayer configurations, which are practically different games. There’s so much I love about this game – the ship display map, the rampaging android, the somewhat weird character art – I can’t imagine any other game with this concept being has heartfelt and passionate.

8) Undaunted: Normandy – I hate Nazis, and I hate playing games where I have to roleplay as a Wehrmacht commander. Even in a fictive game space, I do not care for my in-game ego to be a racist scumbag. Further, I do not give a shit how the Nazis fought, what tanks they had, who was commander at which battle, and how cool it is that a game accurately models the tactical advantage of Stukas or whatever. I used to hand-wave this kind of stuff and think it’s just a game, etc., but the reality of it is that there is no historical or educational reason to pretend to be a Nazi commander. Nor is there recourse in softening the subject by only referring to them as “Germans”. This puts Undaunted in an odd space for me. It is good enough to be Barnes’ Best – it is an amazing piece of design, an innovative light wargame driven by a simple deckbuilding system – that plays quickly and efficiently with a fun mix of board play, cards, and dice resolution. But one player has to be the Nazis, and that sucks. I’m sick of boomer WWII fetishization, but I’m in the minority there. Regardless, if Osprey were to do this up as a Frostgrave-branded fantasy game or maybe do something with the 2000ad license, I’d be so into it.

9) Warcry – I’ve hit something of a wall with Games Workshop- the financial stress and time commitment has become just too much lately and I’ve found myself somewhat retreating from their never-ending stream of great releases - excepting that horrid Storm Vault board game, which was the worst game I played in 2018. This Age of Sigmar battle game went full Chaos and brought in some exciting new factions with great concepts (bird people, snake people, and so forth). The design work took a lot of cues from Frostgrave and other more modern, more innovative skirmish rule sets and it was better for it- it made Kill Team, a game I really liked and played a lot, look like a cluttery, kludgy mess. It’s pushing GW game sensibilities forward, but it is also one of the most GW things you could imagine. The box set was just lovely, and it was really everything you needed to play a great, full game with plenty of options in squad building, tactics, and setup.

10) Res Arcana – Of course I almost forgot to put Res Arcana on this list because everybody else including you have probably forgotten about Res Arcana. In fact, back when I was playing this game when it first came out, I thought “this is going to be forgotten by the end of the year”. It’s not flashy. It’s an old fashioned Tom Lehmann tableau builder that comes all in one sub-$40 box and those kinds of games no longer command the attention that the big Kickstarters do, and they tend to get lost in the shuffle unless they are something like Wingspan and they float to the top. Regardless, this is a wonderful card game that I’ve found uniquely fun to play – contained, easy to manage, and with ample depth to keep players interested past the first two or three plays. 

 So that’s it- the other notables I feel like I should mention were Osprey’s excellent, excellent Judge Dredd: Helter Skelter version of Wildlands, the only really good roll and write Cartographers, and the cardboard shoot ‘em up fun of Core Space. I also loved Escape from the Dark Castle, but that was a 2017 release I suppose. And Jim Felli’s Shadows of Malice came back, which was definitely one of the best releases to hit this year.

That’s it. Now I’m off to go sell some board games to finance some 1st edition D&D modules. Happy holidays and happy new year to all our readers and staff!

There Will Be Games

Michael Barnes (He/Him)
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Sometime in the early 1980s, MichaelBarnes’ parents thought it would be a good idea to buy him a board game to keep him busy with some friends during one of those high-pressure, “free” timeshare vacations. It turned out to be a terrible idea, because the game was TSR’s Dungeon! - and the rest, as they say, is history. Michael has been involved with writing professionally about games since 2002, when he busked for store credit writing for Boulder Games’ newsletter. He has written for a number of international hobby gaming periodicals and popular Web sites. From 2004-2008, he was the co-owner of Atlanta Game Factory, a brick-and-mortar retail store. He is currently the co-founder of and as well as the Editor-in-Chief of Miniature Market’s Review Corner feature. He is married with two childen and when he’s not playing some kind of game he enjoys stockpiling trivial information about music, comics and film.

Articles by Michael

Michael Barnes
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Articles by Michael

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Josh Look's Avatar
Josh Look replied the topic: #305326 20 Dec 2019 09:29
This is an excellent list. Only three games that I haven’t played (Vast, Ancient Civs, WarCry) and one of them I own and am just waiting for the chance to get it to the table (Vast). So I guess I did pretty good this year?

I’m sure that any list I would come up with would be 90% overlap.
Msample's Avatar
Msample replied the topic: #305328 20 Dec 2019 09:45
LOL about financing 1st edition D&D modules. I haven't played in over 30 years, but still out of nostalgia like to read the bootleg PDFs out there of those old modules. The artwork alone brings back memories and is far better than anything I see on newer stuff when I thumb through it. Same for the old Middle Earth Role Playing system.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #305330 20 Dec 2019 10:06
Oh you should look at the Goodman Dungeon Crawl Classics stuff...I love just reading their modules- the writing is solid and the illustrations are Otus quality. And they go FULL ON appendix N and beyond. Laser skulls, ghost fish, hairless tigers that attack with vomit, robots...really fun stuff.
ChristopherMD's Avatar
ChristopherMD replied the topic: #305336 20 Dec 2019 10:32
Goodman also does a few deluxe reprints of classic modules with 5E conversion and the original in the book.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #305339 20 Dec 2019 11:14
Just to follow up on this and another thread: I did end up making that trade for Vast: Crystal Caverns and have gotten the chance to try it. It was definitely worth the trade (got all the expansions with it, too, plus some really nice silkscreened bags for each role; don't know if those were a KS thing or a BGHQ thing.) In an odd way, I found it much easier to both grasp and teach than I did Root, not least because the roles seem to have better explanations and more obvious procedures than the Root factions.

Anyway, I'm certainly interested in Manor and you mentioned that it's an "improvement" on Caverns. How so?
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #305347 20 Dec 2019 12:00
Great list despite saying you're out of the game.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #305352 20 Dec 2019 12:23
Ha ha, I am pretty surly. At this point though, I can’t and don’t really want to keep up with the Theels and Thurots...they play everything. I ain’t got time for that. I’ve enjoyed -playing games- much more over the past couple of years by bowing out of the race to cover everything and have an opinion on everything.
moofrank's Avatar
moofrank replied the topic: #305383 20 Dec 2019 16:33
You should play Nemesis. It is better than Lifeform. Just like I think that Lords of Hellas is better than Kemet. (Same designer, and a serious talent.)

The big differences are that Lifeform is a dead-perfect game of the movie Alien, while Nemesis is definitely Aliens. Lifeform is probably better solo--as you get the sense of isolation from the first movie. Nemesis wants a larger crowd so that the paranoia and not-quite-coop sets in. (But Nemesis still works if you play full the full co-op option.)

You also get to do more on your turn in Nemesis, and the randomness of the setup and events means that the games play very differently. Lifeform is a lot more constrained in terms of what can happen. Nemesis can easily break out into half of the ship on fire, burning out the monsters, but endangering the ship and the rest of the crew struggling to control the fire and break through to the fire suppression station, while trying to make the Pilot explain EXACTLY why he needs to go examine the #3 engine, while the Engineer slips to a control chamber to lock the outer door to the #3 Engine Room.

...and the stock answer about what do do with the Queen wandering about is "I don't want to think about that right now."

Honestly, Nemesis is better.
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #305387 20 Dec 2019 17:58
I've played both (Nemesis twice and Lifeform four times) and still can't decide. The tension to me is much higher in Lifeform but Nemesis' semi-coop story generator is extremely interesting. I wish Nemesis was a good half hour shorter but I never felt that way with Lifeform. You also get weird situations with Nemesis where someone feels they can't accomplish their objective but they can totally fuck over the ship and this risks derailing the game. The ship can also just blow up a few turns in, or you could get Eclosion early in the game and just die, having to watch for 2 hours.
Josh Look's Avatar
Josh Look replied the topic: #305388 20 Dec 2019 18:15
I have both and I’m on the side of Lifeform without question. I want the extra tension that it provides in a game that’s supposed to be mimicking the first Alien, not the weird halfway point between the first and second movies. Nemesis might be prettier and cleaner, but it sure as hell isn’t Alien, and there are *plenty* of games that are trying to be Aliens. I’m glad I own both and plan on keeping them, but Lifeform is 100% worth the extra work.