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!