Saturday, January 7, 2017

Back Burner Games Presents: My Top 10 (+1) Games

I haven't been into tabletop gaming that long. So while reviewers and bloggers are giving us their expert opinions on what games are the absolute best, I'm over here in the corner, with a stupid grin on my face, smiling widely, trying to bridge the gap between hardcore gamers and new players. I want to introduce as many people as possible to the wonders of tabletop gaming.

So in compiling this list, I had some pretty strict criteria, and frankly, there was only one: I must own the game. I couldn't list a game that wasn't already in my collection, or that didn't find its way into my collection over the course of the last year.

If I think it's worthy enough to be on this list, I've had to have already put my money where my mouth is. So these are all games that I can go to my shelf, pull out, and teach to someone with little to no reminder prep.


11. Damage Report
Oh, what a problem Damage Report is. And what fun. At its core, it is a science-fiction based pickup-and-deliver game with a real time element. I won this as part of a package of games at a silent auction, and as I was researching how to play it, I discovered BoardGameGeek.com, where most of the resources about the game were found. I was astounded at the possibility of playing a game in real time, where every three minutes, a timer would sound and a new damage report card would come up, telling you where problems on the ship were occurring.

If this sounds like Space Alert, it's because it is. Sort of. It's the same premise, anyway. Space Alert just happens to have better art and was created by a better-known game designer, but it's still a real-time game.

There are issues with this game, namely the art. It sucks. I mean, it's pretty horrible. The publishers could have gone with cartoony art and it would have looked better. But visuals aside, this is a fun, tense game. A heart attack in a box, actually. There's a lot to remember, several systems in the ship that could go wrong all at once, and several people trying to do multiple things by working in tandem, but also by trying to communicate what their plans are. With each passing second, you feel the tension building, which makes this a prolonged shot of adrenaline. I've only played it twice, but I can't wait to get it to the table again, and that's what puts this game on my list.

The very first game I Kickstarted, Operation F.A.U.S.T. takes the concepts behind Coup to a new level. It's a game of hidden roles where the object isn't to eliminate the other players, but to buy art.

The true story behind the game goes back to World War II and the soldiers tasked with recovering artwork that had been confiscated by the Third Reich. You use your hidden roles to gain intel, steal intel from others, steal artwork, or other things. With enough intel, you can purchase forged documents and pieces of art, and the first player to collect $1M worth of art is the winner. The best part about this game is that each role card has two different functions -- a hand ability, which you use if you want to keep the card in your hand, and a table ability, which you use if you decide to discard your card and draw another role card from the pile. Coup only takes about 10-15 minutes, depending on the number of players, but Operation F.A.U.S.T. can take about an hour if you max out at 8 players, so gather people 'round the table and keep your secrets, 'cause it's time to collect some art.

The first modern tabletop board game I played was King of Tokyo, which I didn't latch onto right away. There were more rules than I was expecting, I went through several turns before I realized what was going on, and I forgot about using energy to purchase power up cards. But man, do I like rolling big, chunky dice.

Since that first time playing it, King of Tokyo stayed on my mind. When I got the opportunity to buy King of New York, the sequel, for about half the retail price, I had to take it. What I love about this iteration of the game is that there are more paths to victory than in its predecessor. Yes, it's a player elimination game (which isn't the best), but that's not the only way to win. The Superstar card and the Statue of Liberty card offer more ways to achieve points, and the buildings and military units are another way to create havoc. Of course, since you earn victory points by staying in Manhattan each turn, you can always ride whatever luck you think you have and hope your opponents won't attack you. But what are the odds, right?

For younger players that aren't used to strategy games, I'd whip out King of Tokyo. But for me and others like me that prefer more options, King of New York is the winner.

When I first found out about this game, I thought the idea was superb -- ships are dice, and dice are ships, and the dice are BEAUTIFUL. The problem with the dice is that the manufacturer didn't let the cure long enough, and they came out sticky. Luckily, Fun Forge and Passport Games were kind enough to replace the bad dice with new ones.

I still like the "sticky" dice better, because they're just so damn pretty. So I cleaned them up with soap and water, and viola! Good as new.

And thank God, because this game has TONS of replayability. The abstractness of making the ships able to reconfigure by using the dice as the ships, and reconfiguring consisting of simply rolling each die . . . it may not be the most elegant mechanic I've seen, but dang, is it fun. Yes, the randomness of rolling dice doesn't appeal to many, but I don't have a problem with it.

I won't tell you about the game or how to play it . . . you can look that up yourself. But you'll definitely want to. The way I see it, the mark of a great game is how easily you can teach it to others, and every time I've taught someone how to play Quantum, they've beaten me at it. Every time.

And it's SO PRETTY.

The newest addition on this list to my catalog, Tiny Epic Galaxies made it to the list, whereas Tiny Epic Western did not. Don't get me wrong, I really like TEW, and the way it looks on the table. But at its core, it's a worker placement game, and there are plenty of ways to make the game slow down through analysis paralysis. The theme's awesome, the meeples are cool, and the dice are bullets. What's not to like?

But Tiny Epic Galaxies has tiny ships. And great artwork. And custom dice. And you roll those custom dice. And you can re-roll some or all once for free on your turn. And did I mention it's in space? 

The fact that this game takes up a small footprint by coming in a small box is really deceptive, because there's a lot of depth here. There's a lot of strategy, and plenty of options by which you can achieve what you want. It's simple and complex at the same time, and that's what makes it so appealing to me.

Do you think, maybe, that I like games with science fiction themes?

Paradox was actually designed by someone local to my area, and I played the prototype of this game with him at Gen Con after I'd backed it on Kickstarter. And holy crap, am I glad I did. I was enthralled by the match-4 mechanic (found in video games like Bejeweled and Monster Busters) and how it worked with the drafting mechanic. Save worlds in multiple timelines, but saving the worlds engages the Quake, which fractures worlds and keeps you from earning the points you just gained. So repair and/or shield worlds, save more worlds across more timelines. There's a slight way that you can get ahead of your opponents by drafting the cards they want, but whatever path you choose to gain victory, you've got to work with the Matrix of energy discs in front of you to create the combinations that will give you the energy you need.

Thematically wonderful, the artwork is the major star of the show. Each of 15 worlds is represented by 15 different artist, and each one is fully formed, whimsical, and amazingly developed. Just looking at the cards of each world in triptych format is a joy in and of itself. Some people look down on Paradox for being fiddly, but I think that's one of its strengths, so it takes the #6 slot on my list.

When a game looks so interesting on the table that it turns people's heads, that's a great sign. Every picture of Scoville that I saw online made me want to check it out, but honestly, the box art told me this game was going to be FUN. 

A worker placement game of sorts, it's also a set collector. It's also a resource management game. It's quite a bit rolled into one, but you get to do it with these awesomely colored pepper pieces, and the game board is set up so that you "plant" the peppers into the pepper-shaped holes. You then move your farmer meeple throughout the board, harvesting peppers by going between the ones that have been planted. It's a fantastic combination of mechanics that also changes with each turn, as everyone bids for choice of turn order.

This is one that's slightly heavier than it really should be, as I would love to introduce new gamers to this one. The only reason it's not higher on my list is that the number of variables is so great, which can make it overwhelming for new players. Otherwise, this is such a fun game, a great one to bring to your regular meeting of board gamers. Somebody's gonna want to break this one out.

I have no doubt that if I owned Pandemic Legacy, it would be on this list, and it would be higher than #4. But Pandemic is one of the first games I purchased at full price (if you can call store credit in trade "paying full price"), and I'm so very glad I did. I wanted a game I could play solo, and this fit the bill very well. The tension of not knowing whether or not you're making the right choice from turn to turn is tasty indeed. Because you can only keep 7 cards in your hand, you're forced to discard down to 7 at the end of your turn, potentially throwing away cards that could help you. And once they're gone, they're gone -- there's no shuffling of the discard pile and starting over.

This cooperative game is a great example of piecing a puzzle together, but the puzzle's different each time you play. There are many ways you can lose the game, but only one way to win, so trying to figure out the best way to achieve that winning goal is a fun exercise. 

Pandemic has become a worldwide phenomenon for a reason -- it's a monster of a game. To have multiple expansions for it, and several spin-off games, available is quite a testament to how much staying power this game has. And yet, it's only #4 on my list.

How can this be?

Combine a classic game concept -- making up words using letters -- with a great deckbuilding mechanic, and you've got yourself one HELL of a great game. 

Paperback is fun. With a capital F-U-N. I honestly can't explain what it is about this game that draws me in. It's not the writer in me, it's not the deckbuilding player in me, and it's not because I have a huge vocabulary. I wish I could pinpoint it, but I think it's the simplicity. 

It's Scrabble as a deckbuilder, and without the pesky crossword board to limit you on what letters you can use. You want to create a 10-letter word? By all means, create one. You're only limited to the letters on the cards in your hand. If you've never tried a deckbuilding game before, I would highly recommend Paperback. It does a superb job of taking one of the oldest game ideas and spins it into a wonderfully themed package.

"Immersive" is the word that immediately comes to mind when Dead of Winter comes up in conversation. It's one you REALY WANT to introduce new gamers to, but because of the number of things you have to keep track of, you know they might get overwhelmed. But it's zombies! And it's surviving them! And killing them! And great artwork for so many characters! And the tension of rolling the exposure die EVERY TIME you travel or kill a zombie.

The crossroads cards take the tension up a notch by adding a story element that may or may not come into play on each person's turn. Will it be a positive thing, or a negative thing? Will this make your game harder, or easier to swallow?

This board game is as close to roleplaying-in-a-box that I've played, and it appropriately takes about the same amount of time as a one-shot RPG, depending on the number of players. It's so much fun, and even though you're moving pieces of cardboard around a table, you feel invested. This game makes you care what happens to these fake people. Will you live, die, or be turned? How will you survive?

And why is this game not #1 on my list? Well, that's simple. An RPG beat all the others out.


1. Fiasco
So technically, this is my plus-one. The El Gameo Numero Uno on my list is also the only RPG on my list - Fiasco, designed by Jason Morningstar. I have to credit Wil Wheaton and his TableTop video podcast series for putting me onto this game. It completely reminded me of the work I used to do while playing/working improv comedy professionally. I played it for the first time in June 2014 at a game convention, and I was sucked into how elegantly designed this game was. Not only did it REALLY scratch the improvisational itch for me, but it was one of the lightest RPGs I would ever come across, in terms of system and crunch. Because it's played out in scenes, like a movie, it feels about as natural as it can, and I've used Fiasco to introduce many to the wonders of roleplaying.

In addition, I've written and published 2 different playsets for Fiasco, one of which has won an award, and both of which can be found with every other published playset at FiascoPlaysets.com.


Sound off! What are your personal Top Ten tabletop games? What makes them stand out to you? Leave a comment and let me know.

There Is No Box.
Zach