Back Burner Top Tens: My Top 10 (+1) Board Games of 2017

What do you think this is? A list of the best games released in 2017?

You'd be wrong.

Last year, I created my first Top 10 (+1) list, and it was of my favorite games. Games that I would want to play any chance I could game, that I think everyone ought to try at least once, games that I would probably never get sick of. Since that time, I've been exposed to a few dozen other games. I acquired more than 15 games at one game convention alone (Geekway To The West in St. Louis, Missouri), and others through various channels, and I played more games this year than I think I ever have before. Being relatively new in the hobby, my sample size is still pretty small.

Nevertheless, you like what you like, and I like to play games.

With this list, I decided to include 3 Honorable Mentions, because there are just too many games out there that deserve the praise I can't give in a Top 10 (+1) list. I thought about doing a Top 20, but . . . no.

Honorable Mention #1 - BATTLESTAR GALACTICA: THE BOARD GAME
Published by Fantasy Flight Games
3 to 6 players
Playing time - 2-3 hours
Last year's rank - unranked

Even if you're not a fan of the SyFy reinvention of the 1970s television series that aired on ABC, you owe it to yourself to invest an evening into playing the Fantasy Flight board game at some point in your life. If you're a fan, it will only enhance the experience.

Battlestar Galactica had been in my collection for an entire year before I had the opportunity to play it, because the time commitment it takes was a deterrent. I set up a game at Geekway and played this for the first time with people who were all fans of the series, and the wisecracking and trash-talking was a wonderful addition to the gameplay. A game about betrayal, sabotage, and hidden identities, the human players must travel a certain distance without running out of valuable resources (food, fuel, etc.), or they lose the game and the Cylons win.

What makes the game fun is the player interaction -- it's LOADED in BSG. It's one of the reasons the game lasts as long as it does. If there was an online simulated version of this game, even if you were playing against other human players, the game might last an hour. But because of the possibilities BSG presents, you're always going to question the motives of everyone at the table. It's like a more thematic, intricate, beefed-up game of The Resistance, where you're trying to figure out who's loyal to you . . . and who's a frakking toaster.

Honorable Mention #2 - PARADOX
Published by Split Second Games
1 to 4 players
Playing time - 45 to 90 min.
Last year's rank - #6

St. Louis area game designer Brian Suhre first rocketed into the board game universe with this "spacetime rescue" game that scratches the puzzle gamer's itch. Combining a drafting mechanic with a "match-4" mechanic inspired by games like Bejeweled and Monster Busters, and you've got an amazingly crafted time at the table.

You play scientists that are trying to save planets across multiple timelines -- the past, the present, and the future -- from The Quake, an anomaly that is fracturing worlds. The problem is, every time you save a world in a particular timeline, you advance The Quake. So the very thing that is supposed to help in one world is actually causing potential damage elsewhere.

Throughout 12 rounds, you've got the opportunity to save as many worlds as possible, because the more timelines of a particular world you save, the more victory points you can earn. Paradox is one of the more unique games I've come across as far as mechanics go, but the artwork is something to behold. Each of the 15 worlds is represented by a different artist, with a tryptich for each world spanning across the past, present, and future timelines. The first published game from Brian Suhre is accessible enough that even new gamers could grasp it right away.

Honorable Mention #3 - SHADOWRUN: ZERO DAY
Published by Catalyst Game Labs
2 players
Playing time - 15 to 20 minutes
Last year's rank - unranked

I had the rare privilege of playing this game before it was ever released. Brian Suhre, designer of Paradox, is one of the regulars at the closest weekly board game Meetup to me, and he brought the prototype of his newest game one night. A quick, two-player hacking game, Zero Day was picked up by Catalyst Game Labs and brought into the Shadowrun universe.

I can't remember all the details about the game, but I remember we played it twice in a row, and I enjoyed every minute of it. S:ZD plays in about 15-20 minutes, and it's taut and tense the entire time. I would love to put this up against any 2-player game in a bracket style 2-player tournament, because it is just THAT engaging and fun to play. I'm a little disappointed that Catalyst didn't do much to promote the game once it was published and released at Gen Con 2017, because at an MSRP of $19.99, this one belongs in everyone's game collection. The only reason I haven't put it in my actual Top Ten (+1) is because . . . well, I don't own it yet, and I've only played the prototype. But still, this is worth checking out.


On to the official rankings!

11. PAPERBACK
Published by Fowers Games
1-5 players
Playing time - 30 to 45 minutes
Last year's rank - #3

Players of Scrabble, Boggle, Upwords, Words With Friends, and other words games would do well to pay attention to Paperback, a simply designed game by Tim Fowers. Word games are available by the score, but Paperback is the first one to combine word generation with a deckbuilding mechanic, opening up a new dimension in word building.

Fans of deckbuilding games will already be familiar with how this game will play, but newer gamers will be drawn in by the lack of constraints found in the typical crossword-style board layout. With Paperback, you're only limited to the letters in your hand, which could include wild cards that could be literally any letter. With each word you create, it allows you to purchase new letter cards, giving you more purchasing power, and the occasional special ability. Buy Fame Cards to earn victory points, and the player with the most victory points at the end is the winner.

I usually play this game solo, and have been trying to get my wife, who loves to kick my arse in Scrabble, to play it, but she's scared off by the learning curve. I do know that when you play this with other people, turns tend to go pretty quickly. You don't have this 3-minute Let-Me-Look-At-These-Letters-And-Will-Them-To-Make-A-Word-I-Can't-Think-Of waiting period each turn. It's a wonderful alternative to the old standby, and one of the easiest introductions to deckbuilding games.

10. SCOVILLE
Published by Tiny Minstrel Games
2-6 players
Playing time - 90 minutes
Last year's rank - #5

Scoville is a prime example of making a game look marvelous on the table. Not only do you have killer layout and design, and wonderfully whimsical illustrations by Josh Cappel, but you've got little bitty wooden peppers that you "plant" in spaces in the middle of the game board. Some board games make an effort to attract attention to passersby, and Scoville definitely has the Table Presence factor going for it.

Scoville isn't the easiest game to play, but it's got a great theme, and it deftly balances worker placement, resource management, and bidding mechanics to provide the player with an immersive experience every time. Players who aren't used to being plainly decisive might experience some analysis paralysis, especially during the Harvest step -- you move your farmer to harvest peppers by stepping in between 2 peppers, and then consulting a graph that tells you what those two colors of peppers combine to produce -- but the fun of seeing what you can combine while blocking your opponents can be very satisfying. With higher player counts, the pepper plantation grows larger, giving you more options of peppers to pick a peck of.

And really, what's more fun than combining peppers to obtain chili recipes? I would love to host a small-scale chili cook-off where Scoville was the cap on the end of the festivities.

9. PROBLEM PICNIC: ATTACK OF THE ANTS
Published by Kids Table Board Games
2-4 players
Playing time - 30 minutes
Last year's rank - unranked

Scott Almes is a monster game designer. The chief engineer behind the Tiny Epic line of games, Harbour, Dicey Peaks, Loop Inc., and several others, Almes has a knack for taking simple mechanics and creating deep strategy to draw in players of all ages. Perhaps one of the simplest games he's designed, Problem Picnic is another one of those Table Presence games that's also a ton of fun.

You have a team of ants, represented by sharp-looking dice of varying sizes and side counts (d6s and a d12), which you roll onto an area of plated food. Your job is to collect sandwiches, cookies, and watermelon by landing your dice on these cards in the middle of the table, all while trying not to get knocked out of the way by the other players rolling their dice. The fun in the scoring comes when you collect the food, then get to place your plates in particular patterns that could earn you bonus points at the end of the game. So while dexterity is the chief game component, you also have some strategy to work around once you score a plate.

This game was a winner for me when the Kickstarter first appeared, as I knew I could play this with my young nieces and nephews without much difficulty. The colors of the dice are beautiful, the artwork by Josh Cappel is fun and lighthearted, and there's enough decision making to create a challenge for adults and core gamers. You'll definitely want to play this with a full table of 4 players if you can -- the ensuing carnage makes for a downright cutthroat experience.

8. CAPTAIN SONAR
Published by Matagot
2-8 players (stick with 8)
Playing time - 15-30 minutes
Last year's rank - unranked

This entry also made onto my Top 10 (+1) Games for New Gamers list, and for good reason. The familiar wartime feel of Battleship is combined with the immersive team play of actually being inside a submarine, and a real-time aspect is added.

Holy crap, what a ride.

Captain Sonar became a hit very quickly after its release, and is currently the #4 ranked party game on BoardGameGeek (an impressive rank of 94 overall). You can play this game in both real-time mode and turn based mode, but ignore the turn based mode altogether unless you just don't have 8 people at your disposal, because nothing puts you in the moment like playing this game in real time.

I've not bought this game because I can't guarantee that I'll ever be in a position to play with 7 other people unless I'm at a game convention or a full family gathering. But man, what an amazing thing it is to play Captain Sonar, no matter what station you're playing. Each player on the team has a certain task, and they all have to be in communication with each other in order to track the enemy, charge the various systems, and make sure the systems needed at the time aren't broken. This is one of the best team-building exercises I can think of, and I would highly recommend businesses check this game out for its ability to force people to work together. Plus, it's just a really cool game, one of the best I've played last year.

7.  STUDENT BODIES
Published by Smirk & Dagger Games
2-5 players
Playing time - 90 minutes
Last year's rank - unranked

I saw Student Bodies on clearance on Miniature Market's website, and the artwork struck me. The premise of kids in high school battling the zombie apocalypse seemed intriguing, but I held off on buying it because there didn't seem to be a wealth of positive information about it on the web.

At Geekway to the West last year, I purchased several games through the Virtual Flea Market Geeklist on BoardGameGeek, where gamers were selling off their precious cargo, and I figured I'd be willing to give up 12 bucks to at least try Student Bodies. Turns out it was money well spent. Unlike most zombie survival games that are cooperative, in Student Bodies you only have to outrun the other students/players at the table, a true every-man-for-himself scenario.

This brings up a frustration that I have with the board game industry. in 2016 alone, 5,000 new board games were introduced to the market. We're beginning to reach a point of oversaturation, a dangerous thought when considering how many wonderful games are published every year. Student Bodies was a victim of the "good enough to play, but not good enough to pay close attention to" problem, and as a result, there's an overstock of the game in many places. However, this game is a ton of fun!

Race from one end of a hallway to the far end into the Lab, where you'll search for the anti-zombie antidote, drink it, then race back down the hall towards the exit. The first student to make it out the doors of the school wins the game. In the meantime, though, zombies appear after every single turn, so if you're overwhelmed by the zombie horde and become a zombie yourself, your goal now becomes stopping the other students from getting out. With great comic book style artwork and a variety of combat and reaction abilities that can vary from turn to turn, Student Bodies deserves to be on your table. Good luck finding it.

6. DRAGON BREW
Published by August Games
2-4 players
Playing time - 90 to 120 minutes
Last year's rank - unranked

Imagine you're at a tavern, hoisting wooden steins of ales, lagers, and porters, telling tales of foes you've vanquished, and reveling in the satisfaction of another great harvest. Only with this harvest, you've been able to create a bevy of beers for you and your competitors to quaff. In the land of Brumancia, you create beers by harvesting ingredients and combining them into the right barrels to create imaginative concoctions, then submit them to judges, cooking show competition style.

Dragon Brew has the distinction of being the very first worker placement game I'd ever played, which felt like being thrown into the swimming hole down by the old mill so that I could learn to swim. Or in this case, thrown into the mash tanks. And what fun it was. The theme will more than likely be the draw for many -- I mean, making beer in the age of trolls, dwarves, goblins, and dragons? Honestly, that's why I sat down a the table at Geekway to the West in 2016 to playtest the prototype. Even though I had to wrap my head around the mathiness of collecting resources and using them within a certain number of turns, I still enjoyed the process of making beer and presenting them to the judge. I lost that first game by a lot, but resolved to buy Dragon Brew once the Kickstarter went live.

Arriving in 2017, Dragon Brew features warm artwork, plenty of options for players to choose from, and challenging gameplay. It's a thinker, dripping with theme, and it makes me thirsty.

5. SANTORINI
Published by Roxley Game Labs/Spin Master
2-4 players (but really 2)
Playing time - 15 minutes
Last year's rank - unranked

Santorini is one of those Kickstarters I refused to back. I was torn between the toy aspect and the Table Presence the game would provide coupled with the great strategy, and the fact that $50 seemed a lot to ask for in a game I couldn't play solo. Then Spin Master (publisher of such family games as Headbanz, Battle of the Sexes, and Quelf, as well as the Hatchimals toys) partnered with Roxley to bring Santorini to the mass market, which meant I was able to snag it from Target for 20 bucks. Money well spent.

Santorini teaches in about 2 minutes, and plays in about 15. Chess lovers will fall in love with the strategic choices, and game lovers will adore the buildings you create during play, which emulate the beautiful buildings on the Greek island of Santorini quite well. The real challenge, however, rests in the use of the God Power cards, which gives players a special ability only they can use throughout the game. The God Powers elevate the game from mere strategy to infinite replayability, and will keep you coming back to the table to play this again and again.

I could say more, but seriously, that's all you need to know. Go buy Santorini and add it to your collection.

Go on. I'll still be here when you get back.

4. COLDWATER CROWN
Published by Bellwether Games
1-4 players
Playing time - 60-90 minutes
Last year's rank - unranked

I don't like fishing. I used to fish with my dad when I was younger, and his exactness of "this is how we do things right" was a little too much for me to appreciate at that age. As an adult, I understand better the conservation aspect of the sport, but still have no desire to grab a reel and rod and cast my line. So when I heard about Coldwater Crown, I didn't really want to play it. A fishing game held no interest for me.

However, Brian Suhre designed the game, which made me curious, and I read some reviews on how the game is played, and I was, for want of a better term, hooked. First off, the artwork and graphic layout of the game is absolutely spectacular, making it one of the most beautiful games I own. Secondly, the innovative worker placement of taking an action not only when you place a token, but also when you take it back emulates the action of casting and reeling in. Thirdly, Suhre brings the puzzle aspect into this game by utilizing colored gems for bait, and each token action dictating what bait you can remove from your tackle box. When one of tackle box zones empties out, you can catch a fish in the corresponding zone in the corresponding area -- the Shore, the Lake, or the River (an upcoming expansion allows you to catch fish at Sea).

As much as I can't stand fishing, I will play Coldwater Crown anytime someone asks. I was a fool not to playtest it, but I'm so glad I got in on the Kickstarter and have been able to share this game with so many people. The fact that it contains solo play rules that are just different enough from multiplayer mode endears me to this game even more.

3. TINY EPIC GALAXIES
Published by Gamelyn Games
1-5 players
Playing time - 30-60 minutes
Last year's rank - 7

One of my friends currently has this game on loan, and I miss it so bad. I've only had the pleasure of playing it solo, but what a richly developed game Scott Almes has created. Often cited as the best of the Tiny Epic line of games (although Tiny Epic Quest is becoming a new favorite of mine), Tiny Epic Galaxies gets you rolling dice and taking names.

Planet acquisition is at the heart of TEG, forcing you to manage resources so that you can expand your empire, acquire more ships, and even follow the actions of your fellow players. The "Follow" action is an amazing development not seen in many other games, forcing you to consider your choices carefully, as other players may be able to piggyback off of your decision and overtake you.

Obtaining worlds gains you victory points and special abilities, and the first player to 21 points triggers the endgame phase. If you love space, exploration, and rolling really cool looking custom dice, you're going to really enjoy Tiny Epic Galaxies.

2. DEAD OF WINTER
Published by Plaid Hat Games
2-5 players
Playing time - 1 to 3 hours
Last year's rank - 2

Many people claim that Dead of Winter is a clunky game, that the mechanics aren't streamlined, that it feels disjointed rather than cooperative. Some simply hate the mechanic in which one of the players might possibly be a dirty, dirty traitor, out to achieves his or her own nefarious agenda. I don't understand why those people have such a hard time missing the point of this game -- be immersed into the world of zombie survival. Dead of Winter is a basket that lowers your and your fellow players into the deep fryer (or blast chiller, if you will) of zombie survival.

I've had the privilege of playing Dead of Winter with a full table of 5, and as a solo adventure, and the feeling of being on edge the entire time is completely real, no matter what the player count. The Crossroads cards help add story and flavor to your game, and help sink you into the despair and occasional joy that may be felt by people staying in a Colony, trying to survive by gathering resources, and finding survivors that you then have to feed. So many mouths, so little food.

The game forces you to track the number of rounds you play, so there's a timer, but you also track morale, which measures the mental health of the group, and ends the game if it reaches zero. Getting bitten by a zombie may not be a likely occurrence when you start, but at some point during the game, it feels as if the action accelerates you towards more and more danger. There's an inherent risk in simply traveling from one location to another, in killing a zombie, or letting a location be overrun with the undead.

With a full table of 5, you'll spend about 3 hours playing Dead of Winter, so it's an investment of time, but it pulls on your emotions so well and gives you a gaming experience you won't find just anywhere. Even if you only break out this game once a year, it deserves a place on your shelf.

1. PANDEMIC LEGACY - SEASON ONE
Published by Z-Man Games
2-4 players
Playing time - 45 to 60 min. per game
Last year's rank - unranked

The fact that Pandemic, the game that started a worldwide phenomenon, isn't on this list this year is pretty telling, given all the new games I've discovered over the last year. Pandemic Legacy, though, rocketed up to the coveted ranking of #1 on BoardGameGeek within months of its release (in recent weeks, it was unceremoniously unseated by the monolithic adventure game Gloomhaven), and I can tell you through experience that the game's ranking is 100%, undeniably, well deserved.

The "legacy game" format takes a well-known property, like Pandemic or Risk, and creates a story arc that follows throughout a possible predetermined number of games. New rules are introduced, physical changes to the board are made, altering the layout of the world you inhabit, and players are even instructed to destroy game components. This is no joke -- barely into my first game of Pandemic Legacy, I was told to rip up one of the rule cards. It was an odd feeling, having to do that, because no game I'd ever played before had ever told me that part of the play experience was the destruction of game itself.

Diving into a game like this can seem daunting, but at between 45 minutes to an hour per game, Pandemic Legacy lets you consume the world in chunks. In my case, however, I chose to swallow the whole damn thing in one sitting. I hosted a charity event at Geekway to the West in 2017, wherein my goal was to play through the entirety of Pandemic Legacy within 24 hours. Since the maximum number of games the story can last is 24 (a possible two per month in the game timeline), I felt it could be done, and throughout the playing of the game, I helped raise over $1,300 for a fellow St. Louis area gamer who was fighting pancreatic cancer, and who has since passed away. So I felt I had the emotional and moral support of the people who donated, and that spurred me on.

After 19.25 hours, and 17 games, we finished Season One of Pandemic Legacy, and it took me about an hour to clean everything up and walk away from the table. As I broke it all down, I reflected on the experience -- the frustration, the elation of clearing out diseases, the feeling of discovery as each new rule came out, each new component was unboxed, and each new challenge presented itself. I want to play Pandemic Legacy Season Two, but first, I want to play Season One again the way it was meant to be played -- by friends or family, over several gaming sessions, and not in one fell swoop.

I can tell you that, without any doubt, Pandemic Legacy is the richest, most robust gaming experience I've had in my life. Playing through the course of the game felt like a journey, a story that actually morphed and changed with every passing turn. While the overall arc is the same regardless of the box you open, the randomness of the cards and the player decisions made during play ensure that no two games of Pandemic Legacy will ever be the same. I hope to experience this story again soon.


Maybe you found something in this list that you'd like to try. If so, I encourage you to find a Friendly Local Game Store and ask about, or pick up, one of these games. Share them with your loved ones, or play with complete strangers and make some new friends. Pull up a seat at the table and share an experience with someone that will transport you to another galaxy, a rustic tavern, a disease control center, a chili competition, or a Greek isle. Make some fun with someone this year.

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There Is No Box.
Zach