Best Board Games of 2017

I fully expect that the flood of amazing games is going to slow down eventually. To abate somewhat. Maybe even decline. Yet, every year ends up being as amazing as the previous. Until I looked back, I thought 2017 was a fairly average year (it felt horribly below average, at least, for several reasons) however, for gaming, the year was actually stellar with some amazing releases.

As I state every year, it is impossible to play and review even a small portion of all of the games released in a year. It is even harder to recommend them to libraries when that audience is so diverse, communities so varied, plus the added challenge of focusing on the unique needs of circulating collections. That said, I think I limited it down to nine games that will certainly make wonderful additions to your library’s collection.  I try to recommend game with a small learning curve so most of these games are perfect for a budding collections (Herbaceous, Photosynthesis) and if I do include more complex games, they are worth the extra time it takes to learn and will be a better addition to an already established collection (London: 2nd Edition, Wasteland Express Delivery Service).

Some games just barely missed the cut but are still worth your time. Spirit Island is amazing but was too complex for new players. I was unable to play Codenames: Duet or Dinosaur Island in time for this list. Azul is gorgeous and Plan B Games is doing an amazing job with such a small catalog but I couldn’t get enough plays in to be able to review it. The same goes with Queendomino (the older sibling of last year’s Kingdomino) from Blue Orange Games. Renegade Game Studios is releasing a trilogy of games from designer Shem Phillips that have my beard all aglow — The North Sea Trilogy — Shipwrights of the North Sea, Raiders of the North Sea, and Explorers of the North Sea. I am in love with Raiders but it is a 2015 title so I left it out.

There are dozens more worth discussing and recommending to you and I hope that this shortened list serves as a good representation for what 2017 has offered. If you have opinions share them here or at the League of Librarian Gamers Facebook Group.

The Strategy Game: London (2nd Edition)

In London, designed by Martin Wallace and published by Osprey Games, 2-4 players are working to rebuild the city after the Great Fire of 1666. The process will take decades and players will need to purchase land, develop their boroughs, and run their city in an efficient manner to avoid poverty and debt.

If you enjoy city-building card games like Machi Koro, San Juan or Imperial Settlers, London is a perfect “second step” into more strategic games. The theme is accessible and it can be taught and set-up quickly. Despite the thin rulebook, the game has a surprising amount of strategic depth as you struggle with which cards to purchase, when to take loans, and when to best run your city.

The Gateway Game: Bunny Kingdom

Bunny Kingdom is a card drafting, area control game from Richard Garfield, designer of King of Tokyo and Magic the Gathering. Each player takes control of a crowded warren of rabbits seeking to expand and explore new lands. As you draft cards, your kingdom and options to score points will grow. But in order to do well, players need to make sure they diversify their resources, broaden their scoring potential and adapt their strategy to some friendly hate drafting.

Bunny Kingdom has plenty for all sorts of gamers. Fans of Sushi Go! can move into a larger decision space. Fans of 7 Wonders can find enjoyment in a similar level of complexity but with an added element of area control. Fans of Small World may enjoy the added element of drafting. And everyone will be charmed by the cute artwork and tiny bunny meeples. The drafting is seamless and the area control is surprisingly friendly.

The Experience Game: Near and Far

In Near and Far, 2-4 players are competing explorers roaming the land in search for the mystical Last Ruins. To accomplish this, the players will explore across several maps (and game sessions) hunting for treasure, discovering artifacts, setting up camps, avoiding bandits, and completing quests through a large, “choose your own adventure” style storybook.

There are two broad choices of what to do on a turn: Stay in town to prepare or go out adventuring and explore. Once you think you are properly outfitted for a journey, you head out into the wilds to try your luck. The better you prepare, the further you can travel, and the better story you tell. You can focus on battling threats, courting the locals, discovering relics and treasure, completing trade routes, or quest-quest-questing until your little lizard heart’s content. Either way, Near and Far provides an experience that is worth delving into.

The Cooperative Game: The Lost Expedition

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The Lost Expedition is a cooperative card game where players control an expedition searching for the legendary city of El Dorado. You will need to carefully manage food and ammunition while focusing on the many pitfalls and challenges the jungle will definitely throw at you. Success is simple: Have at least one member of your group of three survive to the end. You will take two jaunts into the jungle each day, setting your agenda by playing a path of event cards. Each card provides different options and when resolved can move your party closer to your goal but the choices are tough.

With cooperative gameplay, exceptional representation, tough decisions, and beautiful art from Garen Ewing, The Lost Expedition is an exciting addition to any library collection. It holds true to its literary inspiration — The Lost City of Z by David Grann.

The Tiny Box Big Game: Herbaceous

Herbaceous is a simple set-collection card game, with stellar artwork from Beth Sobel, where players are competing to pot herbs by the strategic placement, and swift collection, of sets of cards. Each player has exclusive access to their personal herb garden and shared access to a community garden.

The turns are simple. First, a player can optionally pick up herbs from both their private and/or the community garden and place them in one of four containers for points. Then two cards are drawn one at a time. They can decide to either keep it in their personal herb garden or put in into the communal garden. If kept, the next card they draw goes to the communal garden; if placed in the communal garden, the next card goes in their personal garden.

The Abstract Game: Photosynthesis

In Photosynthesis, players are each a unique species of tree attempting, through careful planning and cunning abandon, to find a place in the sun to generate energy, grow, spread seeds, and eventually be harvested for points. As your trees grow and spread, they gain more access to the sun as it <ahem> rotates around the board. But be careful! Competing trees can tower over you and block out that precious sunlight.

This is a gorgeous game. As the game progresses, a colorful forest canopy emerges, with trees spreading out, growing tall and eventually falling away. The rules are simple enough for a new player to understand the core concepts after a few turns. And despite the colorful backdrop, hidden beneath is a surprisingly tense game as you jockey to position your trees optimally while carefully watching what other players are doing.

The Editor’s Choice: Wasteland Express Delivery Service

In Wasteland Express Delivery Service, civilization has finally crashed and sank into a post-nuclear fashion oblivion — everything is all blood, sweat, tape, and spandex. You need to move water, food, and weapons in order to pick up enough scrap to keep your rig roadworthy and knee-deep in eyeliner. Upgrade weapons, storage space and other variable sundries in order to keep up with the competition. Attack and pillage raiders moving across the Wastelands or send them head first into another rig. The bulk of your time, however, will be moving materials for three different factions, picking up other contracts, and dealing with various catastrophic events. The player who first completes three objectives, wins…and then takes a bath.

This is a beast of a game and I would never recommend it for circulation, but while draped in an aggressively busy post-apocalyptic setting and featuring an intensity of artwork that would make Tank Girl blush and Mad Max *finally* go home, WEDS is a delightfully chunky mess of a game with a solid pick-up-and-deliver frame. It takes a while to set up and the rules are extensive. However, once you get this game rolling along, it just keeps on trucking into blissful oblivion.

The 2017 MVP: Century Spice Road

Photo Credit: Mikko Saari from Flickr https://flic.kr/p/HYotVa

I don’t think any game this year has made as big and far-reaching a splash as Century: Spice Road — from Plan B Games and Emerson Matsuuchi with artwork by Fernanda Suárez. It is played at every board game event I have at the library and I always have a copy available. Players are caravan leaders traveling the silk road to deliver spices. Each turn, players perform one of four actions: They can purchase a market card to put in their hand or take the free one. They can play a market card from their hand to produce, upgrade, or trade spices. They can spend spices to fulfill a demand and claim a victory point card for points. Or you can rest and pick up all the cards played back into their hand. The game ends when someone collects the fifth victory point card. It is a wonderfully quick and snappy and plays well with two all the way up to five players.

What even excites me more about Century Spice Road is that it is the first game in a planned trilogy of games from Plan B Games. The next of which, Century: Eastern Wonders is coming out this summer. Each game can be played separately or combined together. And if Century Spice Road sets the tone for the quality of production and design, the rest of the trilogy will be amazing. If you purchase any game for your library, make it this one. It is a staple.

Queer representation in board games

The lack of queer people as playable characters with agency or represented appropriately through narrative elements is rarely explored in board games. For many board games, as their popularity increases over years with repeated editions, they can carry forward outdated stereotypes including  (but maybe not obvious to many) the invisibility of queer people. To ensure an inclusive and accessible hobby for all, future editions can correct and should update to modern modes of thinking and representation. Newly published games should be dealing with issues of representation throughout the game development process including design, art-direction, and play-testing. While this seems to be occurring with more positive female (for example, Relic Runners from Days of Wonder) and PoC (for example, Freedom: The Underground Railroad from Academy Games) representation, queer characters are not consistently or adequately represented.

In the RPG sphere, publishers seem to be moving faster. Piazo Publishing has made inroads to providing positive representation across the spectrum in their Pathfinder Roleplaying System [source]. Being described “as a robust fantasy world that incorporates classic themes and tropes while allowing including progressive elements at the same time” [source]. Representation of queer characters in that RPG setting increases accessibility by being reflective of the people playing and/or interacting with the game system and any associated transmedia storytelling. Pathfinder also has featured gay and transgender “iconics.” Iconics represent their character class across Piazo’s entire catalog including adventures, modules, and organized play [source] become something of a type specimen for the class and being represented in many publishing outlets.

In Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition “You could also play as a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for a male. Likewise, your character’s sexual orientation is for you to decide” [source]. Golden Goblin Press, who produces supplements for the popular Call of Cthulhu Role-playing game created a “Heroes of Red Hook” a series of stories to “try to guide our genre towards a more inclusive future…[and] change the legacy of Lovecraft from one of blame, fear, and bigotry, into something more representative” [source]. All of these are examples of long-running and popular gaming systems revising and updating themselves to better embrace equitable representation.

Why is the board game realm lagging behind? Perhaps this is due to the lack of narrative creativity and story in board games which rely on dry mechanics. However, with many board games melding mechanics and narrative potential, I don’t find this argument particularly compelling. Just look at the diversity of characters in Ryan Laukat’s games Above and Below, Islebound, and Near and Far from Red Raven Games. Perhaps it is indicative of the culture of the board game industry. While games like The Dead of Winter and Sentinels of the Multiverse have more narrative potential and concurrently more inclusive representation, most games fall into outmoded tropes. Dead of Winter and Sentinels of the Multiverse both have playable queer characters, allow for queer relationships, and have related story-arcs. Dead of Winter designer, Isaac Vega stated in an interview that as he was better able to understand himself, was better equipped to include topics in his games related to LGBT issues when he felt supported by the culture of the company. Part of this was being more comfortable to be openly gay in his place of work. [source]

“It allows us to talk about things we care about: games aren’t just fun, but are also a medium for people to experience a new story and see and feel things they haven’t necessarily seen or felt before,” he said. “A lot of people playing may never have interacted with someone who’s gay, or trans, or from a different race. So the game becomes a space to tell these stories, start a conversation around the table that could bring these things to light for a group of players.” Isaac Vega, Co-designer of Dead of Winter [source]

Relationship themed games such as The Fog of Love and The Pursuit of Happiness from Stronghold Games also includes queer characters. Specifically, in The Pursuit of Happiness, players can choose from male or female romantic partners. Each card is double sided with a male and female side and if players choose to have multiple partners of various genders. The Fog of Love include packs of cards and specific modifications on providing a more equitable playplace for a diversity of genders and gender expressions. Despite this, representation can be very difficult to identify unless the game has obvious romantic or related narrative themes.

It is possible that many publishers and artists simply avoid queer characters out of concern or fear that the representation would perpetuate homophobic or misogynist stereotypes.

The invisibility of queer characters apply to numerous games and the actual positive representation of queer characters is restricted to only a few examples. Even in those board game, it tends to fall upon players and how they negotiate representation as needed using roleplay and imagination (“You want queer characters? Just pretend they are queer”). But most board games are not like RPGs and an inclusive game design shouldn’t require players to identify queer characters on their own without overt cues from the narrative, art, and the game mechanisms. Without it being designed into the game to expand representation. It is possible that many publishers and artists simply avoid queer characters out of concern or fear that the representation would perpetuate homophobic or misogynist stereotypes. This is certainly a reasonable concern. However, by simply avoiding any representation at all, again publishers are rendering queer people invisible in board games just as they were once invisible in other mediums such as comics, YA fiction, and video games. Cultural definitions, designer/artist intent, and player experience can and should all play a part in the identity of characters.

Queer gamers would prefer more characters that represent them without falling into well-worn tropes or stereotypes. The simplest fix is to include more queer people in the design, development, play-testing, and artistic direction of board games. Bottom line, if you want more representation other than white, cis-gendered, heterosexual men, the easiest way to ensure that is to include more diversity in the game industry and provide an equitable and supportive culture for that expression. This means that game designers, publishers, and developers need to actively work to diversify industry ranks, and combat poor or nonexistent representation by allowing marginalized groups to develop characters and games through their own lived experience. Now, let me be clear that I am not “industry” and have no inside knowledge to the culture of board gaming. Everything is extrapolated and I welcome the experience of others who are employed in the industry.

…by simply avoiding any representation at all, again publishers are rendering queer people invisible in board games just as they were once invisible in other mediums

However, it bears mentioning that media researchers Adam Brown and Deb Waterhouse-Watson found three important concepts when examining gender in fantasy board games.

  1. That gender is fundamental to the design – you can’t simply ignore it
  2. Representations of gender in fantasy board games tends to be problematic, and
  3. That “board game designers and artist have the potential to reinforce, resist, or revise normative gender representations.”

Developments move slowly and the board game industry is just catching up to the board game culture on this one. With examples like The Lost Expedition providing positive representation, LGBTQIA Board Game Nights popping up at Friendly Local Game Stores, more critical theory based reviews, and diverse cultural icons in the hobby, it seems like, at very least, it is moving forward in a positive direction.

I’d like to take a page from Mr. Brown and Ms. Waterhouse-Watson and say that we need to reinforce diversity in the industry, actively resist outdated stereotypes, and continually revise how gaming culture views appropriate and equitable representation in board games.

Thanks, and please game responsibly.

 

What Games Should I Get? July Edition

Unlock! – These are “escape room” themed cooperative card games which require a free app and play up to six people. Each game provides an immersive and tense escape experience with very few components. Each deck consists of only 60 cards which, along with the downloaded app, will detail as set of puzzles, rooms and objects the players interact with during the game. The rules are minimal with the companion app providing a timer, prompts, and hints throughout the game.  You progress through the game by locating numbered cards from the deck whenever you enter a room. Each room will have numbers sporadically located within it. As you search through the room, you find the correct cards and combine them in order to unlock other cards and more puzzles. It is very much feels like a streamlined and simplified version of T.I.M.E Stories. There are currently three available which I listed in order of preference. Which alternatively, is also listed from hardest to easiest.

  1. Unlock! The Island of Doctor Goorse This actually splits the group into two different teams and my favorite.
  2. Unlock! The Formula Simpler than The Island of Doctor Goorse.
  3. Unlock! Squeek & Sausage Weird.
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Image credit: https://boardgamegeek.com/image/3301603

The Lost Expedition: A brutal and unforgiving cooperative game in the vein of The Grizzled but with more of an adventure/exploration element. Based on the book, The Lost City of Z, The Lost Expedition delivers an immersive and exciting experience for a variety of gamer types. You can play solo. You can play cooperatively with a team or competitively in a head to head two person race to the end. The goal is to get at least one member of your team of three adventurers through the dangers of the jungle and to the ruins of El Dorado alive.

Players need to strategically determine their path through card play and discussion, and then make decisions on how to best manage their resources (food, ammunition, and health) while keeping at least one party member alive to reach the goal. Players guide the entire team through the jungle rather than choosing an adventurer to play so player elimination is not an issue nor does the death of an adventurer end the game. The card art is beautifully done by illustrator Garen Ewing. The gameplay is satisfying barrage of hard choices, tough mitigation, and a challenging puzzle that can be played repeatedly.  What was pleasantly surprising and certainly an indication of Garen Ewing’s ability and Osprey Games’ artistic direction was the diverse and inclusive representation of the native cultures of the region and within the team of explorers.

Century Spice Road: Players are leading competing caravans to the Mediterranean sea. You will be trading spices and contending with each other over trade routes in order to gain the most wealth and win. If this sounds similar to Splendor, you are correct. It is but with a bit more added complexity. The amazing card art is from up and coming board game artist Fernanda Suárez who is better known for her work on Dead of Winter and Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn, both from Plaid Hat Games, and her illustration in the Pathfinder RPG from Piazo Publishing.

The gameplay is simple. There are two rows of cards: Market Cards and Victory Point Cards. On your turn you can purchase a market card and put it in your hand, trade or sell spices by playing a market card from your hand, gain a point card by meeting their requirements, or rest and take all previously played cards back into your hand. Basically, you are using cards to add, upgrade, or trade the spices in your caravan in order to purchase cards for points. If your copy of Splendor is constantly getting play and never on the shelf, consider Century Spice Road.

Cottage Garden: This is from Uwe Rosenburg, the designer of Agricola and Patchwork.  Similar to Patchwork, Cottage Garden, is a tile placement game where you need to place tetris-style shapes to score points. I learned recently that this style of game is called  Polyominoes where “geometric figure formed by joining one or more equal squares edge to edge.” <gif> Unlike Patchwork, which only plays two players, Cottage Garden will play up to 4 and is a much simpler game. You will be placing shapes (flowers) on your personal grid (flower bed). Players each have two flower beds. The goal is to fill them as efficiently as possible, with pieces pulled from a central nursery board. Flower tiles of different shapes will be present on a grid. Flower pots (small squares) can also be pulled to fill in any gaps that my start to pop up in your garden. Cats can be earned later in the game which serve the same purpose as flower pots, albeit furrier. This game has cozy, calming, veneer which hides a tense puzzle that may cause your brow to sweat. Cottage Garden, like the adorable cats within, can soften the most hardened gamer and still purr when an emerging gamer tentatively approaches.

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Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mikkosaari/31232668856

CLANK!: The current hotness when it comes to deck-builders. Players are thieves breaking into a castle and then sneaking through a dungeon to snag artifacts, treasures, and secrets. However, there is a dragon down there and if you make too much noise, it’ll wake up grumpy. The more treasure you take, the more noise you make! Each player starts with a deck of basic thieving abilities (burgle, scramble, sidestep, and stumble) which will be improved as you play by purchasing new cards and then shuffling them into your deck. Cards have boots, skill numbers, and swords which allow you to use devises, fight monsters, and move through the dungeon. However, some cards also cause you to gain CLANK! And Clank! will attract the ire of the dragon. If your library has Dominion and would like a deck-builder with more pizzazz, go for Clank!

Near and Far: This is a storytelling adventure game where you are exploring across several maps. It can be played as a campaign, as a character adventure, or as an arcade (without the storytelling). So much variety in this game. If you wanted one game for the more strategic player, go for this one. My first looks are here.

Kingdomino: In this Spiel des Jahres nominee, players compete build the best kingdom. Each kingdom is basically a 5×5 grid of dominoes. At the start of the game, each player starts with a single square and will build outward with dominoes. If they play well, they will end up with a combination of 12 dominoes on their grid. Real quick, let me explain that each “domino” is divided into two different landscapes on one side an numbered 1-48 on the other. At the beginning of a round, dominoes are drawn and placed on the table in numeric order going from lowest to highest and then flipped to their landscape side. Each player gets to pick a domino and places their worker on it. Another column is drawn again and placed in a similar way from lowest to highest and then flipped to their landscape side. Players then collect their tile, place it in their kingdom, and move their worker to a new domino. This continues until all dominoes are exhausted.pic3301603_lg.png

The choices are simple, the game is inexpensive, and it can be taught and demoed easily from a service desk. If you like Carcassonne, but would like something that played a bit faster and doesn’t have that obnoxious, farmer rule, this one is an easy purchase. It should win the Spiel des Jahres this year so it’s a great family game. I’d get one for each branch in my system.

First Looks: Near and Far from Red Raven Games

In Near and Far, 2-4 players are competing explorers roaming the land in search for the Last Ruins. To accomplish this, the players travel across several maps (and game sessions) hunting for treasure, discovering artifacts, setting up camps, and completing quests. There are two broad choices what to do on your turn: Stay in town to prepare or go out adventuring. You prepare by taking an action on the town spaces such as recruiting adventures (Saloon), collecting food/money (Farm/General Store), working the mine for precious metals (the Mine), getting a pack-kiwi (Stables), etc. Once you think you are properly outfitted for a journey, you head out into the wilds. The better you prepare, the further you can travel. Or maybe you want to just take a quick jaunt and return immediately into town. Will you focus on battling threats, courting the locals, discovering relics and treasure, completing trade routes, or quest-quest-questing until your little lizard heart’s content? Either way, Near and Far provides an experience that is worth delving into.

If you are familiar with Ryan Lauket’s earlier game, Above and Below, then you know that the spiciest part of this particular game will be the book of stories you read when questing. At the beginning of a game, several quest tokens are placed randomly on the map. When you arrive at one of these quest locations, a story is read from the book and you are given options on how you wish to proceed.

Through this choose your own adventure type mechanism, Near and Far does a far better job incorporating narrative into the game than in Above and Below. In Above and Below, the stories felt random and disconnected. While this gave some interesting diversions to an otherwise static eurogame, they didn’t provide much more than that. With the character and campaign modes in Near and Far plus a neat little keyword element, players can experience a much more cohesive narrative. It still isn’t the central point of the gameplay (you can play a game with very little storytelling) but it sure as hell feels like the keystone of the discovery experience.

I think the team at Red Raven went the distance in providing a game that will appease a wide range of player needs. Arcade mode for those that prefer the gameplay over the narrative elements. Campaign and Character mode for those that want a more engrossing, immersive, and overarching experience and/or character development. The only thing lacking are options for solo or cooperative play (where, honestly, I think this game can shine). I’ve found myself silently wishing we were all somehow playing together rather than against each other. Luckily, you can find both fan-created variants online.

Overall, Near and Far is a lot to digest and this review is far from comprehensive. After a few plays, I am anxious to play more but still prefer the city building aspects of Above and Below over the route building and exploration of Near and Far. However, I have not gone through the campaign mode yet and I fully expect that it will completely convert me. That said, the arcade mode removes the stories entirely and instead provides a small event deck for single map, non-campaign play which I think I will prefer in the long run.

Another small issue is while Above and Below plays well for the entire player count, Near and Far is best and probably only recommended at two players. Three or four drags the game out too tong for a competitive game with too much down time between turns. If three players are taking long journeys and you are getting food at the farm, you are left with very little to do even with occasional quests. With two players, the gameplay is quick and snappy. The narrative in Near and Far is engrossing, while Above and Below was disconnected and bordered on silly. I think the improvement in writing at team Red Raven is obvious.  Additionally, the character design is a diverse, representative, and respectfully depicted. Armor and garb is appropriate and non-sexualized and it is obvious Ryan took time and effort in ensuring this game is welcoming and accessible to a wide-array of players. 

Board in the Stacks: Holmes: Sherlock and Mycroft

In Holmes: Sherlock & Mycroft (BGG, Amazon), the famously super-smart brothers Sherlock and Mycroft are investigating an explosion in Parliament. But like most siblings, they couldn’t possibly work together and are competing against each to be the first to crack the case. Time is limited and they have one week to search and find clues, talk to contacts and solve the mystery.

The board had eight spaces for cards plus the ever-present Doctor Watson, Mrs. Hudson and Inspector Lestrade. Eight character cards are placed face-down on the board and as the days of the weeks drift by on an opioid-induced haze new characters are drawn and placed onto the board. The clue cards are shuffled and placed next to the board with four clues face up to form a market. Clue cards consist of numbered clues, wild cards, and map fragments. The numbered clues are a pyramid deck (I adore a pyramid deck) where there are three cards ranked a three, four cards ranked a four on up to nine cards ranked a nine. Lastly, each player gets three meeples and five magnifying glass tokens. The tokens are used to purchase clues, and the meeples are placed onto the board to complete actions.

The game is played in seven rounds. At the beginning of the round a new character card (two are added on day one) is added to the board. If you are familiar with the round cards in Agricola, this will sound familiar. Take the top card from the deck and place it in the spot appointed for the current day. Any meeples placed on the board from the previous round are stood up. One day one, each player has all their meeples so this can be ignored.

During a player’s turn, they will select a character card, move and place their meeple *flat* on it, and then take the card’s action. They can move any upright meeple to any card which currently does not have one of their own on it. Once a meeple is moved it is laid down to show it have been moved this round and can’t be moved again until the next round. Play then moves to the opposing player and this continues until all meeples have been moved and placed and three actions taken.

At the end of the round, any character card with two meeples are flipped over and unavailable for the following round. Any cards flipped the previous round are flipped back over and available the next round. Think about how exhausted you would be if *both* Holmes siblings grilled you in one day. The only ones immune to this are Watson, Mrs. Hudson, and Lestrade who due to their constant interactions with the brothers have, no doubt, built up some amount of resistance.

I’ll spare you a description of all the cards. Dr Watson lets you spend one magnifying glass token to take one clue card from the market and place it in front of you. Mrs Hudson allows you to draw three magnifying glass tokens from the supply. And Inspector Lestrade lets you spend three magnifying glass tokens to pick any two clue cards from the market. When a clue card from the market it pulled, it is placed face-up for everyone to see. However, cards pulled face down from the deck remain secret and are placed face-down.

At the end of the game players can assign any wild cards (one wild card per clue type) and each of the number ranked clues are scored. The player with the most cards of a rank will get points equal to the rank of the card minus the number of cards the opposing player has. So if Sherlock had two of the three ranked cards and Mycroft had one, Sherlock would score two points for that rank. Bonuses are scored for having all of one type of clue. Map fragments are scored -1/1/3/6/10 points for 1/2/3/4/5 fragments.

Holmes: Sherlock & Mycroft is a very simple worker placement, set collection game. It feels like a step up from Lost Cities or Shotentoten. While most games like this will limit the amount of choices as the game progresses, the decision space increases as the game moves towards the end. The variability of the character cards makes it more difficult to form a consistently winning strategy and requires more tactical actions. The order of your actions is just as important as the actions you are taking especially with the flipping of character cards as they get exhausted.  

There are some additional cards that can be included in the game if you wish to increase the difficulty. Sherlock/Mycroft cards allow clues to be reserved from the market and the villain cards cause players to lose clue cards or magnifying glass tokens or decrease the number of actions that can be taken. Personally, I preferred the game without these additions. In fact, the way the game randomizes which characters will be added to the tableau and in which order provides enough variability. This prevents a stable strategy from emerging early in the game and forces players to be more fluid.

Endgame: There is always room in my collection for simple worker placement games and Holmes: Sherlock & Mycroft, for what it lacks in theme, makes it up in simple game-play and enjoyment. This is not the immersive experience that is present in Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective but more a head to head abstracted game of push and pull as you attempt to deduct what clues your competitor are collecting. New gamers will have an easy time getting into this game and it is a perfect introduction to worker-placement style games. For experienced gamers, there are slight but pleasant notes of Ticket to Ride and Agricola that fit into a much briefer time frame.

Board in the Stacks: The Mysterious Forest

The Mysterious Forest (BBG, Amazon) from Iello may be one of the few memory games I actually enjoy. The game is inspired by the digital graphic novel series, The Wormwood Saga, by Daniel Lieske. It plays 2-4 humans aged 6+ and plays in 10-30 minutes.

The players work together to help Jonas, our young protagonist, cross the Mysterious Forest and battle the evil Queen of the Draconia (this queen is certainly NOT kind or particularly nice or really human). You play the game in three phases. In the first phase you scout the path that Jonas will take through the forest. The forest will be made up of 8-10 cards depending upon the difficulty setting. Each card has amazing artwork from Mr. Lieske and the different items needed to continue past the card. The goal of this phase is to memorize the items one card at a time. It sounds like a lot but luckily we are all working together.

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The next phase is preparing for the journey. Jonas has a backpack with more than enough room to fit everything he needs but do you remember what those things are? Each player will take turns rolling four dice and choosing two of the items that are rolled to put into Jonas’ backpack. This continues until the entire backpack is filled with equipment. It is pretty much your standard camping fare — rope, magnifying glasses, compasses, maps, wooden swords, lighters, and Loki. Wait…what? When you roll your little animal friend Loki, you get to send him back to the camp for supplies. He is extremely helpful and can fetch you an item when you really need it!

The last phase is Jonah’s expedition through the forest. Are you ready? Did you prepare him with everything he needs? You flip over each card and resolve it once at at time, moving equipment from the backpack onto the card as needed. If you forgot something then it is a great time to send Loki back to grab it for you. Did you plan well enough?

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The game consists of three different types of cards that you use to set up your path through the forest: Forest Cards, a Wanderer Card, and a Final Battle Card. The Forest Cards I explained above but the Wanderer Card offers you a strange proposition: He will trade you his magical staff for a certain amount of equipment from your backpack. Think about this deal carefully. The staff has the ability to create two items whenever you need them but there is a fee. You can complete the trade with the wanderer and gain his staff and the two tokens that come with it or, if you are confident with your equipment and memory, you can continue on your way…no hurt feelings. The last card in the forest is the Final Battle Card. If you planned well, then this should be no problem but if you planned poorly you may find yourself lacking in something critical to win.

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Bottom Line: Iello has succeeded in making a memory game fun for families (and not just for kids). Normally a memory game involves a repetitive motion injury from flipping over tiles but this one adds enough dice rolling and art to keep it interesting. Not interesting enough to play without kids but interesting enough to actually enjoy the experience. Much of that enjoyment is due to the fact that the card art is absolutely gorgeous. Each forest card is different, showing a unique situation such as slipping down a cliff and requiring two gloves and a sturdy rope to successfully get back up and to the next card. In the end, you have a small story of what happened and how you resolved it. The storytelling aspect is not necessary but it is certainly fun. The box opens like a book (which is a nice touch) with a few short comic panels to get you into the story.

Generally, memory are fairly simple: Either you remember what you need to remember or … you don’t. However, with the added element of luck in the dice rolls plus the wanderer’s staff and the help of your best feline(ish) pal, Loki, you can certainly mitigate your forgetfulness. While the game-play itself is simple (basically try to remember everything and then roll dice to get it) there are some additional decisions that make this game a cooperative challenge for children too old for standard memory games but maybe too young yet for the standard cooperative entry point of Forbidden Island. As an added bonus, you are provided with a few different difficulty settings. You may start as a Budding Explorer but you will be a Hero of the Forest in no time.

Best Board Games of 2016

2016 was an amazing year in board games with many games popping up perfect for the library. As I stated last year, it is nearly impossible to play and review even a large portion of all of the game that come out in a year. And it is even harder to be able to recommend them to libraries when that audience is so diverse and community so varied. That said, I think I limited it down to eight games that will certainly make a wonderful addition to your personal or library’s collection.  I try to recommend games with a small learning curve so most of these games are perfect for a budding library collection (Dream Home, Happy Salmon) and if I do include more complex game, they are worth the extra time it takes to learn and will be a better addition to an already established collection (Terraforming Mars, Beyond Baker Street). 

Some games just barely missed the cut. Scythe contained too many components for inclusion and those minis go missing too quickly to keep up. The Grizzled: At Your Orders is an expansion and is mandatory (the base game was included in my 2015 list). Great Western Trail looks amazing but I couldn’t get a copy and thus never made it to my table. A Feast For Odin is just too complex.

There are dozens more worth discussing and recommending to you and I hope that this shortened list serves as a good representation for what 2016 has offered.

The Strategy Game: Terraforming Mars

terraforming-mars(BGG, Amazon) After the success of The Martian, expect a whole glut of mars themed board games next year and a whole bunch of red boxes in the future. At quick glance you have Surviving Mars, First Martians, Martians: A Story of Civilization, and a reprint of Mission: Red Planet. So, you know what you have to do.

The goal of Terraforming Mars is simple: Make Mars habitable for colonization and exploitation. Getting it done, however, is far from easy. The entire game unfolds over generations as futuristic mega-corporations battle to change Mars from a red planet to a greenish blue one. This is accomplished by building cities, encouraging vegetation, and creating water. To make the planet habitable and end the game three things must happen, atmospheric oxygen rises to 14%, the temperature rises to 8 degrees Celsius (that’s correct, in this game you are encouraging global warming), and the oceans are filled. This game is a chunky engine-builder and full of strategic potential. Unlike many science-fiction themed games, Terraforming Mars focuses on scientific accuracy, attention to detail, and technical consistency. You know that part of “The Right Stuff” where all the engineers are struggling to brainstorm how to make a new thing with a box of old things? It’s like that mixed writ large and combined with the Weyland-Yutani Corps (“Building Better Worlds”) from Aliens. You have hundreds of years to introduce moss, melt icecaps, and crash meteors into Mars before it is any good to humanity. Fair warning though, it is also really, really, really ugly. The artwork is inconsistent and the graphic design is unfortunate. So, if you are looking to “wow” patrons into gaming at first glance, this isn’t the best pick. But if you want to bulk up your collection with a thematic thinker, and encourage your patrons to grow, then give Terraforming Mars a chance.

Terraforming Mars has great gameplay and lots of strategic potential to bulk up a collection. It is an amazing game that rewards repeated play. It is best to pair it with, obviously, The Martian by Andy Weir

The Party Game: Happy Salmon

happy-salmon(BGG, Amazon) Stop reading right here and go buy this silly, ridiculous real-time game for your library — you won’t regret it. Happy Salmon is one of those games that children will love, adults will pretend they don’t like (but actually do), and can be just as much fun to watch to play

The game is snappy and fast and honestly, it takes longer to read the tiny rulebook than to play one full game.The goal is simple: Get rid of all your cards. You place the pile of 12 cards face-down in front of you. Everyone flips over the first card. There are four types: High 5, Pound It, Switcheroo, and Happy Salmon. Once you see your card, you yell out the title of the card until you find someone yelling the same thing, make eye contact, and perform the action on the card. Once you do that, you discard that card and go to the next one. 3-6 people will be giving each other high 5’s, bumping fists, trading places at the table, and doing the happy salmon (grab each other’s wrist and slap your hand against each other’s forearm).

Listen. It comes in a pouch shaped like a SALMON. It’s simple, silly, and hilarious. You can at least do a round or two at the start of departmental meetings with this game and consider it money well spent. Pair this game with Red Fish Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss and Salmon Fishing in Yemen by Paul Torday.

The Tiny Box Big Game: Kodama: The Tree Spirits

kodama(BGG, Amazon) Invoking images of Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, Daniel Solis’ Kodama: The Tree Spirits is a masterfully designed card game in a small box and it will totally enchant you upon first play..

In Kodama, you tend to the homes of the tiny bobble-headed spirits who inhabit your forest. To appease these helpful spirits, you need to tend to their tree according to their exact, and maybe strange, specifications. Their happiness and your success depends one how many caterpillars, fireflies, flowers, mushrooms, are at home in your tree and how many clouds or stars can be seen from their branches. You compete against other players to grow the best trees for your new tree-dwelling buddies. Happy Spirits keep a Happy Forest! The true beauty of Kodama is the ability to grow your tree. Each player starts with an oversized trunk card and then each card they choose throughout the game is a branch extending from the trunk. The result, at the end of three seasons, is an massive splay of cards representing the tree you created. Everything from the whimsical art to the simple gameplay makes this a perfect game for families. They even included additional cards specifically designed for younger players.

Kodama is adorable, family friendly, and best of all, lets you create something satisfying at the end of your game. In Kodama, it is a large, branching, and likely lopsided, tree. Games like these leave you satisfied, win or lose, because you created something. Pair it with anything from Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. 


The Dexterity Game: Ice Cool

ice-cool(BGG, Amazon) In Ice Cool, you are all students at a penguin high school. Get it? High School. Ice Cool. Penguins? Right? A little word play and I’m yours forever. Remember that. Anyway.

One player is the hall monitor and the rest of the players are students. The students are trying to collect three fish located throughout the school and the hall monitor is trying to catch the students and collect their student IDs. As players meet their goals, they draw cards with points on them. At the end of the game, the player with the most points wins. Each penguin is kind of like a weeble-wobble. They weeble and they wobble but they don’t fall down. When players want to move their penguin across the board, they flick them. The students just need to go through the doors to the rooms where the fish and the hall monitor needs to flick themselves into the students. A round ends when either a student collects all their fish, or the hall monitor has collected all students IDs. At the start of a new round, a different player becomes the hall monitor and you begin again until everyone has had a chance to be the hall monitor. You tally the points on the cards collected through the game and the player with the most wins.

Fun, loud, and nicely contained in a box that doubles as the game board. If you want to drum up interest in your board game collection, get a family or two playing this game out in the open and it will definitely draw a crowd. Pair this with reruns of “Saved By the Bell.”

The Two Player Game: Tides of Madness

tides-of-madness(BGG, Amazon) There is plenty of bite in this delightful card drafting game for two players with only eighteen cards, a handful of tokens, and stunning artwork.

Generally, games with heavy themes (horror, science-fiction, fantasy) have not circulated well at the library but small, simple, light games with heavy themes that it can be demoed at a service point may just work. Tides of Madness offer a tense twenty minute duel where you score points by collecting sets while drafting cards back and forth. At the end of the round you tally any madness tokens you may have accumulated, choose to keep one card for the next round and discard another out of the game. You’ll need to anticipate which cards your opponent needs and obfuscate which ones you are looking for while keeping an eye on the madness tokens. They can accumulate and if you delve too deeply into the arcane, you may lose your sanity and the game.

Only 18 cards in a quick, snappy drafting game, and totally tense! Tides of Madness is to two people what Love Letter is to four. Pair with The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins.


The Editor’s Choice: Kanagawa

kanagawa(BGG, Amazon) Dear Reader, if you have not been introduced yet, let me introduce you to Iello. Iello games have, bar none, the best art direction in games today. Every game in their catalog looks like it couldn’t possibly belong anywhere else and every game is aimed straight to the heart of the family gaming market.

In Kanagawa, it is 1840 and you are a student in Master Hokusai’s painting school. Your goal is to earn different diploma tiles representing your many artistic successes at the school. To achieve this you will need to expand your studio, learn new techniques, and create an epic masterpiece of your favorite subjects (a combination of flora, fauna, architecture, and notables) across the Japanese countryside. But you are still in school and your master will be offering many lessons to a select few represented by tiles placed on a rattan central board. You can take a tile quickly or wait til later to get more but if you wait too long, another student may grab your slot, leaving you with whatever is left over. You add tiles to your print (your painting gets longer) or to your studio (your skills improve and you are able to paint different subjects).

Rattan. Game. Board. It rolls up when you are done. I’m flabbergasted and completely in love with this. Best paired with The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea
by Yukio Mishima

The Cooperative Game: Beyond Baker Street

beyond-baker-street(BGG, Amazon) A spiritual successor to the cooperative card game Hanabi, Beyond Baker Street from publisher Z-Man Games has 2-4 detectives working together to solve a mystery before that insufferable show-off, Sherlock, does.

Players have three leads to work on in order to solve the mystery — Subject, Motive, and Opportunity. Each player has a handful of clues, witnesses, and evidence. What makes the game a challenge is that players are unable to look at their own cards and instead have their cards facing out towards the rest of the players. Cooperation is elementary as players provide clues to each other in order to place the correct cards in the correct places before Sherlock solves the case. On your turn you can provide a hint to another player about what is in their hand, play a card on a lead, confirm a lead, discard a card, or eliminate a lead. There is more to the game but if you are familiar with Hanabi (which uses the same cards facing outwards mechanism) then Beyond Baker Street will be quick to pick up. If you are not familiar, it will take 5 minutes to read the rules and you will be right as rain to play.

Beyond Baker Street adds some added thematic elements including different cases to increase the challenge and character cards that provide special abilities which make this a nice upgrade to Hanabi or a great starting point into cooperative games. Best paired with Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz


The Family Game: Dream Home

This game is so adorable I just want to hug it. Look at all those happy people on the box top! The future has so much potential…

(BGG, Amazon) In Dream Home you are budream-homeilding your perfect house, and also a better house than everyone else. Each player gets an empty house tableau with twelve room spaces in it – 5 on the second floor, 5 on the first, and two in the basement. Players get to choose from a pair of cards with one room and one resource (helpers, handy-persons, architects, tools, etc.) to use in building their home. The room gets placed according to some simple rules, and the resource can be used immediately or later to score more points. You can expand rooms for more points (a playroom is nice but a huge playroom is even better), add decor to provide the perfect finishing touch for a room, and get bonus points for functionality.

There is very little room for improvement in this light family game. It is a complete joy to play with people of all ages that plays in 30 minutes. Perfect after-dinner game in your newly remodeled kitchen. Best paired with  A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia McAlester.

Games in the Stacks! Knit Wit

Historically, modern board gamers tend to turn up their collective noses up at party games, considering them less a game and more an activity beginning and ending on a whim or laugh or pulled groin. Any modern board game entries into the party game space are usually dominated with social deduction games (generally clones of The Resistance or Werewolf) and Apples-to-Apples knockoffs — All of which focus on deceitful or outrageous antics of the players involved. This is fine, but that also tends to make the sphere of play centered on extroverts. So, it is refreshing that simple(ish) word games such Vlaada Chvátil’s Codenames (2015), Alexandr Ushan’s Spyfall (2014), and Gaëtan Beaujannot and Alain Rivollet’s Concept (2013) are gaining some traction and bringing hobby and casual gamers together. Innovative gameplay plus a variable social aspect makes these games accessible across wide demographics. This, along with the pedigree that veteran game designers such as Leacock and Chvátil bring, is happily breathing new life into the party game space.

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Games In the Stacks! Broom Service

Welcome to Broom Service! Ours is a delivery service where we enlist the services of the finest and most dedicated witches, druids and gatherers, to find and deliver a selection of fine potions to your tower. No matter the location, the distance, or the obstacles, we’ll get it there. Don’t waste your time with the competition, even though they will likely feed you the same line since we all are competing from the same pool of magical talent. The play is simple —  For each of the seven rounds of the game, players will choose four of ten role cards to help them gather potions, fly across the board, deliver potions, and clear obstacles. However, each role card has a safer, “cowardly” action and a daring, “brave” action. If you go for the gusto and take a brave action you may lose everything. If you sit back and play it safe, everyone may leave you in the dust. You’ll need to read your rival delivery services and do both to make it in Broom Service.

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Games in the Stacks! Oink Games

A group of poor explorers. Unlimited riches. Untold Danger. Oink Game’s “Deep Sea Adventure” and “Troll” both play with these themes. They are quick to learn and play. They have minimal components and look gorgeous on a shelf…but, despite the packaging, are they any good?

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