It’s that time of the year, folks. We love awarding things, and after a great year of new games in 2015, we sussed out our favorites. As in past years, each of our writers gets a pick. Then we’ve got an overall runner-up, and then our top choice for Game of the Year.
Now, we fully acknowledge that we haven’t played every game that came out in 2015. It’s entirely possible we missed a gem. But you know what? Who wants to worry about that? With so many games coming out and so little time, our picks are the result of the games that most captured our attention in the first place, and once played proved themselves worthy.
Without further ado… iSlaytheDragon’s picks for Game of the Year, circa 2015.
Actually, one more ado… if you want to buy any of these games, consider using the Amazon links below each game description. Buying via those links helps support our site! Thanks!
And finally… enter our GIVEAWAY for a chance to win some of these fantastic games!
Ruel’s Pick: Steampunk Rally
I rolled a lot of dice in 2015, thanks to our Game of the Year and my Writer’s Pick, Steampunk Rally. What I love about Steampunk Rally is how its mechanics blend so seamlessly into its theme. During the card drafting phase, players choose cards that represent the parts they want to add to their vehicles, rearranging the cards as needed to get them up and running. The venting phase comes next, as cogs are used to remove dice from earlier rounds; you can practically hear the steam hiss as the dice are removed from the cards. Finally, the dice are rolled and applied to each player’s machine during the race phase, powering everyone’s vehicles along the course.
Since everything’s being done simultaneously, the game moves quickly. After a few turns, you start to see your dice combinations working just right, much like the gears of your machine churning along to produce the desired movement. As everybody’s vehicles start to increase in size and complexity it’s easy to imagine them huffing and puffing as cogs and gears fall away, while the inventors frantically dash around trying to keep it all together until the finish line. There’s always a chance of a spectacular crash-and-burn at the end and I’d be lying if I said my gaming group didn’t laugh and cheer whenever it happened.
From its magnificent artwork to its solid mechanics and fun gameplay, Steampunk Rally resonated with me and it singlehandedly changed my opinion of the steampunk genre. While I’m not walking around in a vest and top hat with various cogs as accessories, I’m also no longer running away from all things related to the Victorian Age. All it took was a fistful of dice and a ride in a 19th-century flying jalopy.
Alex’s Pick: Three Kingdoms Redux
What if I told you that there was a game from a first time design/publishing team, that takes up more table space than a game like Agricola or Power Grid but comes a box 1/3 the size of Ticket to Ride? What if I told you there was a game that is as beautiful as it is thematic? What if I told you that it was a game about war but doesn’t use dice or other random elements to resolve battles? What if I told you that it’s 2015’s game of the year?
Well, it’s not officially 2015’s game of the year because of a little thing called consensus, but that doesn’t diminish the accomplishment that Starting Player has achieved with the creation of Three Kingdoms Redux. Yes, it is a three player only game, but it isn’t a hindrance, it’s a design choice. It embraces its tri-part nature and exploits it to become the best game it can be. As three warring factions fight over control of feudal China, every player shares a border with one another and is a constant threat to everyone else at the table. The shifting alliance system pits two players against the strongest player. Nothing is set in stone and past actions can and will be remembered. The three player nature of the game is essential to the experience.
It also depicts war as something greater than just a series of battles. There is no map. There are no casualties. There are no dice. You’re competing not only for border control, but economic development, civil harmony, and political status. War is a whole hearted endeavor that encompasses the entirety of a nation. Winning a battle is only a minor concern in the context of a greater conflict. Supporting and accommodating an occupying force can put a strain on your resources larger than a defeat on the battlefield. It makes it so that losing a bid on the farming action can be as deflating as losing a battle.
There will be those that say it’s too long and it’s too hard to get exactly 3 players for it to be considered for game of the year. They are wrong. The length and number of players were carefully designed elements, not byproducts of sloppy design. If you have even a remote chance of getting the time and group willing play this game, do yourself a favor and visit the publisher’s website to find out where you can pick up a copy.
(Available via publisher’s website)
Jen’s Pick: Mysterium
(Ed. note: Mysteriously, this is all we have for Jen’s writeup…)
Weird. Wonder what it means?
Jason’s Pick: Colt Express
Technically released in 2014 (late November), Colt Express no longer needs wanted posters to attract attention. However, prior to winning the 2015 Spiel des Jahres, most people hadn’t started noticing it until the beginning of that year; and many didn’t start grabbing it until taking the coveted prize in the summer. Since then, it’s already released an expansion, as the award is accustomed to spur its winners.
Significantly, the Spiel des Jahres comes with a certain branding. Honorees are light, accessible designs especially appropriate in both mood and complexity for families and new gamers. Colt Express fits that style from its hat to its boots. It is a pre-programmed movement game in which players are erstwhile outlaws yearning to rob a train. But that doesn’t begin to describe the raucous Old West action and hilarious energy packed into this box.
Each round, players select from a hand of action cards which determine how they move about the eye-catching 3-D rendered cardboard train (assembly required). You can move from car to car, jump up to the roof or back down, pick up loot lying about the floor, shoot another outlaw, and even punch someone in the, well, it doesn’t specify. You choose your cards one at a time and in a specific order. The rub is your actions are intermixed with everyone else’s. As each action affects the next, plans run off the rails before you’ve barely left the depot! So if you figured to be at a certain location three or four turns down the trail, the likelihood of that happening is about as high as getting away from Walker, Texas Ranger.
This is not a deep game meant for serious strategy. It’s a design possessing that intangible fun factor, blasting full steam ahead. If playing in a larger setting, your table’s howling and laughter will soon be attracting attention from gamers all around you. A simple, innocuous action-packed yarn that will appeal to a wide range of ages, you can easily introduce it to any mixed group without feeling like a low-down, no-good, yellow-bellied varmint. It even teaches valuable life lessons. In case you always dreamed of robbing a train, you better play Colt Express first…because nothing ever goes as planned!
FarmerLenny’s Pick: Isle of Skye
Isle of Skye is a special game. It isn’t “innovative,” at least in the sense that most people use that word, but it combines familiar mechanisms in a new and fresh way. It’s simple in that there is not a lot of rules overhead, yet the game offers deep choices that reward players for being clever. Everyone has their own clan territory, yet there is a large amount of player interaction. The mechanisms are the same from game to game, yet there is a large amount of replayability based on the sixteen different scoring conditions (only four of which are used each game). Isle of Skye is simply a wonderful game in a beautiful package. In a hobby market that seems to be trending more and more complex, Isle of Skye a compelling reminder that there is great beauty in simplicity, and there are still plenty of opportunities to be utterly enchanted by elegant gameplay.
Wolfie’s Pick: Fury of Dracula
I just barely got my hands on this game before the end of the year, and oh boy am I glad I did. While I haven’t played previous editions, the 3rd edition of Fury of Dracula is nigh-on a perfect game, balancing the two sides against each other expertly. Four hunters chase down Dracula, clued in to his location only by stumbling on to his trail. Like Scotland Yard, Dracula moves secretly and the hunters must corral him and move to his location in order to uncover him; unlike SY, finding him isn’t an instant loss. Dracula can put up a fight, and any lone hunter will be significantly outmoded; only by trapping him and bringing in multiple hunters do the good guys have any chance of victory.
The combination of everything – the traps that Dracula can set, the surprising ways that Hunters can narrow down Drac’s location – all culminates (usually) in an epic battle that decides the fate of the game. In every game I’ve played, it’s come down to the last turn between Dracula and the Hunters, with a wild ride getting everyone to that place. Dracula is found, and then slips away. He scores influence, but then the Hunters nearly trap him and force him to be on the run, all while carefully encountering the traps he’s left behind to make sure he matures no more vampires. Combat is an elegant game of rock-paper-scissors-lizard-spock which keeps everyone on their toes. IT’s an exciting adventure throughout, expertly crafted and balanced for an invigorating and game-of-the-year worthy experience.
And now, the Runner Up…
XCOM: The Board Game
There are a lot of reasons I think XCOM deserves game of the year overall. It’s got the app-driven invasion force that’s far smarter and more interesting than a CD timer or random decks of cards. It’s packed with cool components and miniatures just begging to be painted. The four completely asymmetrical roles give each player unique and important tasks, and ties them all together so that it’s still a team game. Heck, I wrote an entire article about emergent theme inspired by some of the game mechanics of XCOM.
But the main reason I’m giving it the (unfortunately second) highest honor is because it’s just fun to play. Even at 90-120 minutes per session, it’s probably my most-played (in terms of time spent AND number of plays) game this year. It just keeps coming off the shelf because of the tense and difficult challenge it presents. And it is quite challenging, in a way that is both exciting, difficult, and possible to learn. I’ve played a lot of co-ops, and many of them are “challenging” just by being random and skewed against the players, and plenty of others are just easy to solve. XCOM goes beyond both of these.
I’ve heard people complain about the randomness inherent in dice rolls, but I think those people are looking at it the wrong way. The whole game is set up to be weighted completely unfairly against you. The question is, can you take the few successes you will get and use them to overcome the bad luck? In the best victories I’ve had, by the end of the game we’re barely relying on luck – it’s all about the choices we made, the technology we went all out for, and efficient management of the game’s economy, to get us in a position to claim the victory with as few dice rolls as possible. Yes, you can succumb to bad luck, but you can do that in any cooperative game. XCOM is all about risk, pushing your luck, and hoping for the best – after all, it’s a highly advanced alien attack fleet coming after us.
WINNER: Roll for the Galaxy
2015 was a tremendous year for board games, and when we reflected on the best games, even what was left on the cutting room floor was enough to eclipse the best games of some prior years. But at the end of the decision process, one game emerged on top–and that is Roll for the Galaxy.
Roll for the Galaxy is more than a reimplementation of Race for the Galaxy: it is a new game that stands on its own and is deserving of praise in its own right.
Similar to Race, Roll is not to be embarked on lightly. It has a moderate learning curve, and the way workers, tasks, and money operate, while not complex, is novel enough that it can disorient new players. What Roll for the Galaxy offers is a consistently excellent experience, game after game. Even with just the base game, replayability is immense. Andrew and I (FarmerLenny) alone played Roll for the Galaxy over a hundred times this past year, in addition to the plays of our other writers, and Roll is a game I’m still itching to get to the table. It combines the chief tools one would expect from an American-style game–that is, fistfuls and fistfuls of custom dice–with the interesting decisions and tight gameplay that are the touchstones of Euro games. I love rolling dice, but I don’t often love their unpredictability. Roll for the Galaxy harnesses the uncertainty of dice to provide just the right balance of skill and luck. Roll for the Galaxy also received an expansion in 2015, which offers even more starting setups along with objectives and two new kinds of dice.
Roll for the Galaxy delivers tremendous value for the cost of the package. It’s innovative, it’s accessible, it’s replayable. But more important than any of these things, it is flat-out fun. It’s fun to roll buckets of dice, to hear them rattle in the included dice cups. It’s fun to manipulate randomizing cubes to do your bidding. It’s fun to whip your workforce into shape, and it’s fun to survey your galactic empire, which even when I’ve lost is satisfying to behold.
What do you think of our picks? Let us know in the comments!