This year, instead of assembling this list from whole cloth at once, I got the idea to start logging all my new-to-me games in January and update as I went along. That’s a much better way to do things, and I’ve already started the list for 2013.
Without further ado, here are my 2012 notable board games.
Flash Point: Fire Rescue – One of the few games I played at Unity Games last year that really impressed me. This is a tense, tough cooperative game in which the players are trying to rescue people from a burning building as everything goes, almost literally, to hell around them. It shows no mercy and stays true to its theme, which is a refreshing change from the usual. I would probably own this except for the fact that cooperative games just get no love around me. I love and own Pandemic (my 2008 Game of the Year) and it hardly ever sees table time.
Merchants and Marauders – As I get older I find that I really like theme in my games. I’ve gotten far less interested in intricate mechanics and more in feeling like I’ve done something after I play a game. I can’t tell you if Merchants and Marauders is elegant, but I can tell you that it’s a lot of fun. Prowling the ocean, becoming or avoiding pirates, exploring rumors, skirting the law, and every now and then slugging it out with each other, this game is a blast, and I’ve never had a bad time playing it, even when I haven’t done so well.
Android – Talk about a game with a great theme and where you feel like something happened! Android is a 2008 game I was wary of for four years because of things said about it. That’s four wasted years, because this game is amazing, and like no other. It’s not really an RPG, or a “storytelling game”, or a murder mystery, though it has elements of all of those. It’s hard to describe but incredible to play. I wrote about it here.
Prêt-à-Porter – Worker placement was everywhere in 2012, and this is the first of three games I’ll mention with that mechanic. This one is also a very tight and unforgiving economic game that requires careful planning and resource management. Of course, it hasn’t gotten as much attention as it should because it’s about the fashion industry and therefore, you know, gay. People who apparently have no problem playing a Renaissance merchant loading oranges onto a boat just can’t get into the theme in this game. I wrote about it here.
Mage Knight Board Game – I haven’t had much luck with this sort of adventure game in the past. Usually they go on way too long or are far too complicated. But this one really hit a sweet spot for me. It’s still pretty long and complicated — I’m not sure I’ve yet played the regular “real” game — and interaction is pretty low, at least in the modes I’ve played it, but it’s a lot of fun, challenging, and full of cool things to do.
Perry Rhodan: The Cosmic League – This is a two-player game very loosely based on a German pulp sci-fi hero. In reality, it’s a pretty straightforward pick-up-and-deliver game where you fly cargo to planets and get cash for doing so. Yawn, right? Here’s the thing, though. It’s super mean! There are action cards you play that can just make your opponent start cursing a blue streak. Nothing about the game seems like it should be that confrontational, but it is, and that really makes this one shine.
Homesteaders – Tasty Minstrel has really broken out big with a number of quality releases. Homesteaders was a rare game that I played once and immediately wanted my own copy of. It’s a resource engine game with auctions, but it goes by at a fast clip; ten turns never seemed so short! Just when you think you have what you need for a good engine, you realize there are only three turns left in the game. A lot of strategy is packed into this game, and I’ve enjoyed trying different approaches each time.
Android: Netrunner – In 2011 I did a lot more of something I didn’t used to do: buying games before I’ve played them. In 2012 I did something I’d never done: pre-ordered a game. Netrunner isn’t technically new to me, as I played the original game back in the day, but not a whole lot and not with any real grasp on it. This new version is fantastic, and I’m hooked for the long run, even though I’m not really interested in doing much deckbuilding with it. This one almost made Game of the Year, but I still don’t have that many people who I think are willing to play it with me.
Hanabi – My friend Mike hates cooperative games, but every game of Hanabi I’ve played, I’ve played with him. There’s nothing to the game: the players are trying to complete a sequence of 1-5 in five different colors by playing cards from their hands. Except they can only see the other players’ hands, not their own, and there’s limited information you can give a person about the cards he’s holding. It’s fun, frustrating, and one of those games you’ll immediately want to play again afterwards because, “come on, guys, we can do better!” Unfortunately it’s hard to get hold of, but there’s supposed to be an American release in 2013.
Lords of Waterdeep – Lords of Waterdeep doesn’t do anything new, but it does all the old familiar things so damn well. It’s an absolute breeze to learn and play, and it’s a rare game with absolutely no excess baggage. Every portion of the game contributes, and in a meaningful, intuitive way. It plays great with two people or with five. It has the best quest. There are other games on this list that are better games, but there’s a reason Lords of Waterdeep got more plays than anything else this year. Innovation and theme are important, but they aren’t everything.
Thunderstone: Advance – Doesn’t really count since it’s not really new new, but a game I already liked a bunch got a makeover so nice that I sold the old version and bought fully into the new version. I talk about it here.
Manhattan Project — I like this one a lot and want to get more plays from it, but I think it suffered from being another worker placement game after Prêt-à-Porter and Lords of Waterdeep, both of which seemed more popular with my gaming pals.
Winter — I already love The New Era, and Winter is an expansion that just catapults it even higher. I doubt I’ll go back to playing without Winter again.
Risk Legacy — Possibly the most innovative game to come out in some time, this one actually evolves and changes each time you play it, developing its own, personalized narrative as you go along. It’s a truly original idea that has the potential to really shake up the whole boardgame world, but it’s an honorable mention because I still haven’t played it.
What was huge for others but fell flat with me? Trajan is probably the one most folks would mention, but it didn’t do anything for me (compared to Lords of Waterdeep here.) I liked Seasons okay, but it didn’t blow my mind. I don’t think even the Uwe Rosenberg fans talk about Ora et Labora anymore. Village wasn’t bad, and I’d give it another whirl, but I wasn’t crazy about it.