My Tabletop Games of 2014

A refinement and combination of mechanics


Andy Nealen, NYU / Hemisphere Games

A few days ago I won my first draft tournament. The game I have been playing is Magic: The Gathering (MtG, 1993), and I have spent a few months — and a non-trivial amount of money — acquiring and learning the intricacies of the current expansion set, Khans of Tarkir (2014). This alone could absorb my every waking moment. But 2014 has also seen the further proliferation of Android: Netrunner (ANR, 2012) play, with excellent tournament coverage, mostly by the ever insightful Team Covenant. Fantasy Flight, creators of ANR, made use of twitch.tv to live-stream the recent world championship matches, similar to the quality exhibited by Wizards of the Coast in their ongoing MtG Pro Tour streams. Accessibility of these broadcasts and the accompanying commentary is still an issue, but things are improving constantly, making them more interesting as a possible introduction for curious newcomers. Why am I describing this in such detail? I believe that my love for competitive 1-versus-1 (1v1) card games has increased as a result of the above, and this is most definitely reflected in my list of favorite 2014 releases further below.

2014 is a year in which games and their mechanics were not so much invented or revolutionized, but rather expertly refined. We have seen a consolidation of mechanics, with many interesting re-combinations and hybrids. And, in a welcome change of pace, they do not generally degenerate to gimmicks and one-trick ponies that lack replay value. What has taken place is experimentation with the known, given a better understanding of the current designer tool set. What I believe we could use much more of is insightful writing and speaking about game design details, along the lines of my current favorite, MtG lead designer Mark Rosewater’s Drive to Work podcast. I have plans for this in the form of an NYU Press hosted and published, online only, open access Game Design Journal, for which details will be available soon (early 2015, if all goes well).

But not all great games this year are strictly competitive, and many of them challenge more than two players — I don’t only play card games. The dominant themes in my list besides the aforementioned 1v1 card and dice games are refined Euro games, a few very accessible fantasy war games, one free-for-all battle arena game, and cooperative games; one of those cooperative games has the potential of a betrayer, a mechanic popularized by Shadows over Camelot (2005) and Battlestar Galactica (2008). And there are werewolves and orcs — both fantasy and science fiction — and zombies and sheep. You know, the usual suspects.

10. King of New York

Designed by Richard Garfield

Richard Garfield (Magic: The Gathering, Netrunner) gave us the much beloved King of Tokyo (KoT) in 2011. I think it’s safe to say that it’s still one of my most-played games, as it thrills both experienced players and newcomers, and the set of abilities provides many possibilities. Furthermore, many people love to push their luck in games, and KoT delivers that in spades.

King of New York (KoNY) takes the basic premise of KoT, Yahtzee dice rolls combined with resource management/upgrades and victory/hit-points, and expands the board to allow for a wider variety of choices. The dice have also been substantially altered: instead of mostly rolling for 1–3 victory points, players now also have the option to destroy buildings and military units, or trigger an attack by military units in every borough of the city. Thought you were safe outside of Tokyo? That a jet couldn’t ruin your day in Brooklyn? Too bad (police spending is crazy these days)! If you were looking for a meatier version of KoT, or simply played it too much (what), KoNY is for you. Role-play a monster and eat some choice architecture while beating up your friends. Good times.

9. Five Tribes

Designed by Bruno Cathala

In Five Tribes, Bruno Cathala (Cyclades, Shadows over Camelot, Dice Town) provides us with a modern-day Mancala-with-meeples on a 5x6 tile grid. The meeples come in five colors, each representing its own tribe.

Using set-up randomization, every play feels like a new competitive puzzle. Players are maximizing their land claims and improving their resources through a simple, Mancala-like mechanic: pick up all meeples from a single tile, then move along the board, dropping a meeple on each tile passed, and ensure that the last meeple is dropped on a tile already containing that color. This allows the player to pick up all meeples of that color on the final tile, carry out a unique tribe action, and claim that tile if all meeples were removed. The board state is altered significantly in the process, thereby shuffling the puzzle for the next player. Turn order is of great importance and is thus bid for in each round — an evergreen auto-balancing design technique. And of course, no Arabian Nights themed game would be complete without powerful djinns and slaves.

Yeah, I think we would have been fine without the slaves.

8. Warhammer 40,000: Conquest

Designed by Brad Andres, Nate French, and Eric M. Lang

A few Mondays after work in the fall, I’d meet with a friend who turned me on to this game, and learn how to compete with some decks from the core set. We initially had no clue what was going on, but quickly caught on to the intricacies of planetary battle; units (cards) are deployed to a planet — at a resource cost — , and duke it out in turn order until all are exhausted or destroyed, then refresh, and repeat until one party remains victorious.

This generally happens on multiple planets per turn. Winning planets in a set-collection fashion is key to acquiring resources and winning the game. After we had each won a game, and had sufficiently and lovingly given each other a hard time, I decided, once again, to go deep and purchase more cards.

Warhammer 40,000: Conquest (W4KC) is a Living Card Game (LCG) in the Fantasy Flight line-up that includes Android: Netrunner, Star Wars (another Eric M. Lang design), Lord of the Rings, and A Game of Thrones. Unlike collectible card games (CCGs), LCGs do not have the notion of rarity. All cards are equally available and priced. Games of this ilk still require much study as the card pool grows, but watching the designers expand on the basic rules and mechanics is pure game design joy.

It was said “friend” who turned me on to getting more serious about MtG. Makes sense, seeing that so many games, including W4KC, have cribbed from the ideas set out in MtG and the (fantastic!) game that inspired it, Cosmic Encounter (1977).

7. The Battle of Five Armies

Designed by Roberto Di Meglio, Marco Maggi, and Francesco Nepitello

I think I’ve owned War of the Ring (2004) for about two years at this point. It’s all ready to go, but has yet to be played, and is just mocking me from high above (on my shelf). Whenever I tell my potential opponent that the game will likely take us 5+ hours on our first try, we instead end up playing something lighter. So imagine my delight when The Battle of Five Armies (BoFA) was introduced as a shorter version with a similar but somewhat refined combat system. That said, I don’t see a universe in which anyone but the most expert players would be able to complete this 2-player area-control wargame in 90 minutes (it’s closer to three hours).

The core mechanics of rolling dice to determine the possible actions on a single turn, card and dice based combat, and individual character abilities all contribute to the tension and theme of the final battle of The Hobbit.

I did not particularly enjoy the very much undercooked Desolation of Smaug. But having recently seen the third film in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy, followed by a game of BoFA, I recommend that you put on the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, invite a friend, and send in some orcs, bats and wargs to ruin Bilbo Baggins day.

6. Doomtown: Reloaded

Designed by Dave Williams (II) and Mark Wootton

Doomtown: Reloaded is based on a CCG from the late 90s, Deadlands: Doomtown (1998) which is set in the universe of the Deadlands RPG. In its most recent implementation, the publisher (AEG) has made the change from CCG to LGC, with the first saddlebag (New Town, New Rules) of new cards just having hit store shelves.

In Doomtown, deed cards represent permanent structures that form your side of the town and provide both control and production, while dude cards provide firepower and influence. On each turn, players will be moving around town in order to increase their control while reducing their opponent’s influence. If a player has more control than their opponent’s influence, they win the game. This may sound trite, but most of the intricacy lies in the shootout: players set aside their play hands and pull cards from their deck to form their draw hand, hopefully a strong Poker hand. Depending on the characteristics of cards participating in the shootout—the posse—players get to pull more than the standard 5 cards, and may potentially discard and draw new cards. Hands are compared, and the loser must take casualties proportional to the difference in hand strength. Draw hands are discarded after the shootout, making it much more likely that the main draw pile will need to be reshuffled, making true card cycling a possibility in long games. The likelihood of drawing strong poker hands in a shootout depends not only on the strengths of the posse, but also on how the deck was originally built. And of course there can be cheating (sorry, cheatin’), but that’s too much detail right now. Just go play the game.

More than any other card game I’ve played in recent memory, Doomtown required multiple plays to even grasp the basic concepts. While it felt like we were doing it wrong, it was the fun kind of misstep. The one where we got all trigger happy, wiped the board, and ended the game in the first turn. I mean, what would you do with a shotgun in hand and a strong posse? I’d want to rule the town of Gomorrah.

5. Marvel Dice Masters

Designed by Mike Elliott and Eric M. Lang

When the initial Marvel Dice Masters set Avengers vs. X-Men hit earlier this year it immediately sold out and has not been back in stock. WizKids did not make the same mistake twice, and since the release of the second set Uncanny X-Men all have been able to play this gem. Simply put, Dice Masters is MtG with dice and true cycling as popularized by Dominion (2008). Depending on the rolls, dice may serve as characters, actions, or the energy needed to both purchase and field the characters (i.e. play them to the field of battle).

While substantially different, it is obvious that its roots lie in both Magic (1993) and Quarriors (2011), a game we all wanted to like, but never managed to. Dice Masters combines the (dice) purchasing of Dominion and Thunderstone (2009) with MtG-style battles. Not too surprising, given that co-designer Mike Elliott created Thunderstone and was on the design team for multiple Magic sets.

Still, Dice Masters has some very unique and clever dice cycling mechanics; knocked out dice are rolled and used on the next turn, while character dice that managed to do damage to the opposing player are returned to the used dice pool, where they will eventually end up back in the dice bag from which four dice are randomly drawn and rolled at the beginning of each turn. After a few games it’s possible to see how these two different cycles affect the shape of the battlefield and determine the possibilities afforded to players. Decisions are all but trivial, even with the double randomness of pulling dice from a bag and then rolling them. Dice Masters, true to its name, provides sufficient means to mitigate this seemingly overwhelming randomness.

Warning though, Dice Masters is a collectible dice game with rarity. Given the more casual nature of the game, I think the collectible nature is optional, and not a case of buy to win, as we’ve come to know it from many CCGs in the past. Then again, the dice are pretty cool. You may want to grab some boosters. I know I did.

4. Caverna

Designed by Uwe Rosenberg

In my 2013 list I mentioned that I would have loved to play Caverna, only that its widespread release in the USA was delayed to the first week of 2014. To emphasize just how great 2014 was for tabletop games, Caverna would have been my #2 in the 2013 list; slightly less amazing than my 2013 fave Hanabi, but amazing nonetheless.

Caverna is often termed Agricola 2.0, with many people even removing that game from their collection. From what I can tell, folks just don’t like starving, and that is a thing in Agricola that has been mostly mitigated in Caverna by allowing players to substitute food in many ways. Still, the occupation cards are unique to Agricola and contribute to that game’s feel. I’m holding on to my copy.

So why praise Caverna if I love its predecessor so much? It admittedly removes some of the tedium that is a staple of Agricola and replaces it with dwarves and caves and mining and gems and still maintains the farming element. It’s less and more. It feels like a Rosenberg design, but streamlined and refined. The available cave room potpourri is initially overwhelming (another plus for the occupation cards in Agricola) but one can also concentrate on farming and just dabble in spelunking.

But haven’t you heard that caves and dwarves are all the buzz these days? Go dig. There are gems down there.

3. Arcadia Quest

Designed by Thiago Aranha, Guilherme Goulart, Eric M. Lang, and Fred Perret

It’s always intriguing to read or watch a review in which the reviewer is excited about a game, but can’t quite put their finger on why they’re so enamored with it. Also, it’s said that one should never judge a book by its cover, and to be honest, chibi style miniatures are not everyone’s cup of tea. That said, if you can stomach the confetti color explosion that is League of Legends then you’ll be fine with Arcadia Quest, especially since the quality of the components is on par with those of The Battle of Five Armies.

To bring up League once more, Arcadia Quest is the closest to a MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) I have seen in tabletop gaming, but with the added value of an ongoing quest with multiple short scenarios and ongoing upgrades. Players assemble a guild of three characters at the start, and see them through the individual scenarios in which quest goals must be completed (player vs. environment, PvE) while also defeating the opposing guilds (player vs. player, PvP). This creates a race-like situation in which quest drops only become available to the first person to complete them, and this drop may benefit that guild in some upcoming scenario. As is often the case in dungeon crawler games, Arcadia Quest involves rolling dice to evaluate combat outcomes, but like most great games with randomness, the individual characters and the upgrades obtained along the way provide sufficient means of mitigating dice rolls. And, most importantly, the monster/NPC movement follows simple rules, allows one’s opponents some decision making, and unlike games such as Descent (2nd edition, 2012) do not require a game/dungeon master.

Grab friends, form guilds, and roll a bunch of dice! But also make some interesting decisions along the way. That’s why this game is great.

2. Dead of Winter

Designed by Jonathan Gilmour and Isaac Vega

I’m a sucker for the traitor mechanic in otherwise friendly cooperative games, even more so when the presence of a traitor is not know beforehand. I don’t care much about zombies, but Dead of Winter makes zombies secondary obstacles. The real obstacles are other people and their individual goals. While players are allowed to discuss their goals openly, one may never show the personal goal card. This makes it likely that lies start flying even without a traitor, and that equipment needed for survival is not always being traded to those most in need. That said, it is entirely possible to play the game fully cooperatively and perhaps take one for the team in order to complete a scenario goal. Roleplaying is encouraged, not stifled.

Players control a number of survivors, each of which with their own strengths and weaknesses. On each player’s turn there’s the possibility of a crossroads event: should some condition be met, even something as trivial as one player yawning, then the crossroad card is read aloud. These cards sometimes provide group decision-making, but must occasionally be decided by the player reading the card (the person preceding the current player in turn order). In this case, who knows which of the choices was better?

Characters also move between areas of the play field to search (i.e. dig in card piles) for resources needed to survive, fight off the zombies, and ultimately win the game. In lieu of fuel, wandering between areas requires rolling an exposure die, which may incur a wound, frostbite, or, even worse, a zombie bite. Once a player is bitten, they either spread the disease (roll the die exposure die again) or just decide to take one for the team and succumb to their bite. Managing to navigate the board without being bitten or wounded is glorious.

Then again, there may be a traitor in your midst who would gladly spread the disease, but just harmlessly states that re-rolling that dastardly exposure die is “totally cool.” If your “friend” is constantly consulting the rule book without communicating his or her findings, well, I’d say you should vote them out of the colony (fast).

1. One Night Ultimate Werewolf

Designed by Ted Alspach and Akihisa Okui

In this culmination of hybrid game design, the creators of One Night Werewolf (2012) and Ultimate Werewolf (2008) teamed up to craft One Night Ultimate Werewolf (ONUW), my personal favorite of 2014. While I admire the original Werewolf (see this link for the origin story) and it’s offspring The Resistance (2009) and The Resistance: Avalon (2012), ONUW rejuvenates this game in a way that makes it less likely that I will play its predecessors anytime soon.

The element that makes ONUW and other games of deception (see my #2 on this list) so hard to digest is the element of time. Many of us don’t like being deceived over lengths of time, not even in a seemingly harmless game scenario. If you don’t believe me, go look up the number of friendships destroyed by Diplomacy (1954). ONUW takes deception to a level where it’s almost impossible to hold a grudge; instead of each game lasting multiple rounds (“nights”), the game ends after exactly one round. This is made possible by adding multiple roles that create logic puzzles, but most players don’t have perfect information—or have misinformation—thus complicating the situation. It’s a thing of beauty to realize that, through role manipulation during the night phase, one has become a werewolf. Advanced play requires you to both realize this situation and play it down in order to win when you’re on the werewolf team.

I’ve played this game with any number of players ranging from 3–10 and it always works. I’ve played in with game designers in Las Vegas at EVO, with my friends at NYU, with a gang of writers, and numerous others. Rarely do I find a person unwilling to give it a second try, even those who generally avoid games of deception. And many, many times it’s me who gets the short end of the stick, and that’s fine. I have the expansion set waiting at home, and I can’t wait to play it. TL;DR you need this game in your life. You’re welcome.


And that’s that. Surely one of these games sounds interesting to you. If so, go grab it. Or get in touch with me at andy@nealen.net or @nealen if you want to hear more. I’m told I can talk about these things for hours, maybe days, probably the rest of my life.

In a year in which some of my personal highlights were beating hell in Spelunky (after a mere 250 hours played) and improving my performance as Bowser in the Wii-U version of Super Smash Bros., tabletop games still take up the largest part of my game playing life. And they may be to blame for me not getting around to playing Dragon Age: Inquisition (sacrilege, I know). If 2014 is any indicator, I’m continuing down the rabbit hole of depth and accessibility in games and design. Going deep, to some degree, is the name of my game. It’s the best. You might want to try it.

— 1/5/2015