The year 2018 is nearly done. Holidays are booked. Festivities are prepared. It is a long year of gaming for me, and there are lots of interesting games that came out of 2018. Some I hate; some I love. These are the Top 10 games that were released this year. Note that I regard Kickstarter games to be released on the month that they were delivered to backers. Top games that are ‘new to me’ in 2018 will be posted next.
The “Almost Made It’s”
But, first, let’s start with the “Almost Made It’s”. These are the games I haven’t played enough, but probably would be in the ranking if I have. Alas, some games will eventually become the #11 and #12.
- The Estates – You play as dodgy development firms building houses as requested by the city council, and you all try to jostle and wrestling control of the buildings you all collectively build. A very mean and fun game, and it is short enough that it doesn’t overstay its welcome.
- Gunkimono – An abstract game where you place domino tiles on the board and you score points on how large the land that you have created. Once it is large enough, you can place a fortress on that piece of land to score points every time, only to have your friends cut down the size of that land. A very simple but mean game.
- Nyctophobia – A game where all players are blindfolded, except for the game master, who is also the murderer. Players are all stranded in the pitch-black forest, trying to get away from the murderer, find the car, and get the hell out of there.
Reykholt is a game about growing vegetables inside your many Icelandic greenhouses, and then feed them to ungrateful tourists. It is a game designed by Uwe Rosenberg (Feast for Odin, Patchwork). I will let you guys know now that Rosenberg is one of my fave designers, so I am slightly biased towards this game. Indeed, how can you not find growing veggies in Icelandic greenhouses enticing?
Reykholt follows the tried-and-tested worker placement genre where each player has three workers and you sent them to action spaces in a shared board. These spaces allows you to get vegetables, build greenhouses, and plant crops. This simple act of planting is really satisfying: when you plant a single carrot into, say, a greenhouse that can have 5 crops, the planting will result on the entire greenhouse being filled with carrots. You will then harvest one every turn, like an investment scheme but with vegetables.
Another thing that made this game tick for me is that the game diverge away from the bland point-scoring efficiency that most games of this genre follows, by replacing it with set objectives you must fulfil to advance the scoring track. Like, if you want to advance one step, you need to pay 1 carrot, and then 2 tomatoes for the next step, then 2 cauliflower for the next, etc. Meaning, sticking with a single strategy knowing it generates so many points doesn’t happen, since everyone has to grow all the vegetables to advance on the scoring track.
09. Dice Hospital
Dice Hospital is a game about treating those sick cutesy dice, and try not to let a single die die (hah). You start a round by selecting which ambulance (each filled with sick dice) you want to admit into your hospital. If you selected ambulance #1, you get the dice with the worst conditions, but you go first on the turn order. The better their condition, the lower you go on the order. First player then has the first pick of whether expanding the hospital by adding one room or hiring one more staff.
Players will then manage their hospital by assigning staff members into rooms to treat their patients. What made this game amazing is that the dice are the patients – you can see it in the game’s art itself. Each dice has a health from 1 to 6. If you increase the health to 7, it gets discharge. But if a die is not treated at all during that round, it degrades by 1. If it reaches zero, the die…dies. Any die that goes to the morgue gives you a penalty. Each player then scores according to the number of their discharged patients. The more they discharge on that round, the better the score.
I love how the game pretty much goes real-time once everybody gets their bonus room or staff. I often value player interaction, but that’s because I want to be invested on other players’ moves during their turn and not get bored. But Dice Hospital avoided the dull moments of solitary Euros by letting you puzzle on your own. Oh, which die will I treat and how? How can I pull off this combo? Is it possible for me to discharge four patients? OMG I can! And then you have this calm satisfaction that you’ve done your job, only to look up at what your friends have done and say Wait! How many flipping dice you’re discharging? EIGHT?!
You can see more of my thoughts about Dice Hospital here
Lowlands is a game where you are all farmers near the North Sea, and the tide is rising. Doom is coming. Or is it? Will you help build up the communal dike for everyone to benefit; or will you focus on your own raising more sheep, but risk that the tide will break the levee and drown all of your fortunes? Decisions.
Lowlands was designed by Claudia and Ralf Partenheimer, but this game feels like an Uwe Rosenberg game. However, the Partenheimers have included a flavour of semi-cooperative into the core of an otherwise generic rural agrarian themed game. Players are given the choice of whether they want prioritise raising sheep or strengthen the dike. Every round the tide rises and it might break the dike. If it does, the value of the sheep decreases and building the dike grants you more points. But if the dike holds, it’s the other way around.
Just to add a sprinkle of spice into the mix, the rising tide is determined by cards with numbers on them. The back of the card shows the range. So, the tide is not completely random, but it still gives enough uncertainty for every player, putting them into an agonising choice: sheep or dike? It is this simple semi-cooperative element that makes Lowlands an interesting see-saw puzzle between selfish profit and collective safety.
07. Sunset Over Water
Sunset Over Water is a beautiful game about painting landscapes. Nothing is more soothing and relaxing than to just sit back, make yourself comfortable, and paint. Oh man, how wrong you are. Players in Sunset Over Water have to pick up 3 cards from their personal deck every round. Each card has 3 information: what time you will wake up, how many times you can move, and how many landscapes you can paint. Later on, landscape paintings you painted can then be sold for commissions, which earns you points. This choices of 3 cards in your hand is the crux of the game.
You want to wake up early, because the time determines the turn order; early birds go first, late risers go last. The movement tells you which direction and how many; can you reach that landscape at the corner of the map? Do you have the right card to move on that direction? And of course, along the path you take, you can paint as many landscapes that your card allows you to. Every landscape you paint, you take the card and keep the place blank. Not only can you not paint there again (Boo! You can’t copyright nature!) but you or anyone else cannot move through that spot again. Now you see why painters want to rise up early and go first.
Sunset Over Water is a game where players agonise over the 3 choices they have in their hands every single round, as they ponder over this beautiful map of nature’s beauty. It is a very tight and mean game (especially on 4 players), where you will wake up early, but not early enough, that someone else snatches that card you’ve coveted. I found that this game, in comparison with many filler games, is a thorny rose amongst lilies, and it will have a special place in my collection.
06. Brass: Birmingham
Brass: Birmingham is the sequel to the original Brass – which now have a new edition called ‘Brass: Lancashire’. In this game, players set out to build their industrial empires, only for it to implode at the end of the canal era – when, for some reason, all the canals disappear like magic – and only for your empire to grow once more on the next era with railway tracks.
Brass: Birmingham was a difficult first game for me, with its heavy rule-set that is more complicated than your average heavy Euro, with its exceptions and different rules between the canal and railway eras. Plus, the game has added more rules on top of the original heavy rule-set of Brass. Oh how fun it is learning and teaching this game.
Nonetheless, repeated plays from this beautifully produced game, designed by Martin Wallace, shows a dynamic gameplay where a player’s decision can create opportunities for others. A game that is complicated, but grants you enough freedom to get out of the conundrum you found yourself into. It has restrictions on how to place your canals, railways, and factories, but it never restricts your strategy. A game that doesn’t value solitaire efficiency, but rather synergy between players. My games of Brass: Birmingham with first timers often start with players by themselves, trying to avoid others, only to change their game later to help others score, so they can score bigger points. That, my friends, is the magic of Brass.
I have dreaded the worst when I was explaining this game to 3 of my friends. We sat together in the dining room, teams were set, Decrypto splayed on the table for the first time, and their faces showed utter confusion. Let’s just play the game one of them said. I sighed out of relief. Phew. At least, that bit’s done. Let’s just have a fine time playing just one game of this, and I’ll chuck it in the to-sell bin afterwards. Solved.
Well, that night, we were astonished by Round 3 of our first play, realising the genius of this game, and then proceed to have 2 more plays of it after that. It was Codenames that made it to the to-sell bin that night. I wish I can explain how the game works, but you might find yourself giving the same expression as my friends.
Decrypto is a simple exercise about the delicate balance of cryptic communication. To make your words cryptic enough that the other team can’t understand you, but clear enough that your team can understand you. The agonising trial as you try to write the clues on a piece of paper. Triumphant cheers when a team cracked the code. A simple quiet smile on someone’s face when they understood what word you’re referring to. Decrypto is a tight-rope walker, walking above a blazing fiery pit, condense into a small box.
04. Architects of the West Kingdom
Without a doubt, one of the late risers of 2018 that made it into my heart so quickly. A game set in the Carolingian kingdom of West Francia where players try to build buildings or the city’s cathedral to score points, by placing your workers here and there. Cool: so far, so Euro. However, certain things about this game have made me curious.
Architects allows little blocking, which is the opposite of what’s typical on worker placements. Plus, the more workers you have there, the more resources you get. Sounds lame, I thought. Worker placements are all about the passive aggressive blocking of other players, by occupying a space before they do. Another thing is that space are limited to stop everybody from just taking that spot again and again and again.
However, there’s something that this game have done that is really amazing. A twist in this innovative game made Architects shoot up to #4: players can capture a group of workers in a spot. Sounds simple, but the execution is brilliant. This rubber band of fun allows players to keep adding more and more workers onto a spot to get more resources , stretching the fun band, only for someone to pull that rubber band back by capturing all of their workers there. A restriction that doesn’t stop people having fun. Of course, the capturing player has incentives to capture as they can send those workers to a jail for money. This means that both sides feel satisfied. it doesn’t have much of the passive aggressive blocking of your usual worker placements, which often results in the blocked player feeling frustrated.
03. Century: Eastern Wonders
Century: Eastern Wonders is the second instalment in the Century series by Emerson Matsuuchi. The game is set in the old East Asia where traders thrive in spice trading. Indeed, the spice must flow. The premise of the game is pretty much the same as Century: Spice Road: gather spices, trade your spices for other better spices, and sell them for points.
Unlike its older sister, Eastern Wonders introduces a shared map for everyone to sail around with their boats. It still has the same Century puzzle of trading spices, but on top of that, players are racing throughout the sea to plant their trading posts on every island they could land. Yes: you have to. As the cost of the trading post increases on each existing trading post on that island. First come, first serve. So, you rush. You go from island to island, to plant trading posts. Then, you met your friends and say “Oh, hello!”, only for them to say “Give me your spice, sucker”. Now you have to give them one of your spices for stopping on where they are. Great!
This game made it to #3 due to how tight the race is, especially on a 4 player game. You want to be efficient in your trading, doing as few trades on fewest islands as possible. However, you also want to do more trading, because you want to plant trading posts on as many islands as possible. You want those trading posts because you cannot trade on that island, if you don’t have one, and placing enough posts gives you a permanent bonus of your choice. All of these crammed into an elegant 1 hour game, sitting inside a small box.
02. The Mind
How can someone explain what’s magical about the Mind? It’s a cooperative game where you all play cards from your hand, and the played cards have to be in ascending order. The cards go from 1 to 100. There are no turn orders and anyone is free to play cards whenever they feel like. If someone played a card and another has a card less than the one played – breaking the ascending order rule – the team loses a point.
The kicker here is that there should be no communication with other players. Yes. That twist is what’s great about the Mind. Players silently look at each other, or maybe not at all, and decide when to play that 24. Man, that 15 card is played. It’s still a bit far to play it. I’ll wait until it’s at around 20, and I’ll play it. Awesome. You nailed it. You’re a genius. You are the master of games. You’re a genius. The 21 card is played. Great! You played 24. And oh no… your friend has 23 in their hand unplayed. So, your team just lost a life because of you. You’re a genius.
That is what makes the Mind ticks with my head. The triumphant fist-in-the-air cheer when your team played all the cards without losing a life. The pain of losing a life when two players played a 45 and a 46, but the 46 was played first. The tense cowboy-duel-at-high-noon staring stand-off when two players refuse to play their last cards first, believing their card is the higher one. The Mind is a game that I’ve got for around a tenner, and manage to bring repeated joys and defeats, so easily and so succinctly.
This game is one of the titans of hype of this year. I went to one of the meetups I frequent and someone wants to play Root. I was quickly enamoured by the art of Kyle Ferrin, and immediately said yes, I’ll play. A couple of hours later, including a slow and torturous rules explanation for all of us newbies, my first game of Root ended in disappointment. I spent most of the game getting the grasp of it, making my Cat Empire work, and didn’t really try to counteract my opponents. What I shame. I thought.
I went again the next week, and the same guy offered Root again. Hmmm… again? I don’t know why but I did it anyway. Maybe, because of the salad of ideas that’s living inside this game that made me play it again, despite the initial disappointment. Maybe, because I find it better to grasp and play than the complex counter-insurgency wargames I’ve dabbled once. Whatever it was, I’m glad I have done it. Root end up winning my heart on the number 1 spot on my second game, and the next, and the next.
Root is a game about forest animals vying for control of their forest they live in. Each of the four factions are so different that every player is playing a different game with different rules. You could be the mighty cats building an industrial empire; Or the birds who needs to follow a set path of actions or the government falls apart; Or you could be the Woodland Alliance, insurgent guerillas who wants to liberate the forest from the cats and the birds; Or you could be the sneaky vagabond, going forth on your quests by yourself and trade with the other factions.
Root is a mixture of ideas that results into this strong potent concoction that is hard to initially dive into, but can be very rewarding once you grasp the game. Each faction I want to try, but then I also want to master each faction as well. The interaction of these factions swirls into such a satisfying experience. You look at said concoction and ask Uhh… ewww, that looks poisonous. But no, you realised that it is an explosion of flavour.
Standing head tall about everyone else, Root is my ‘2018’ game of the year.