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It's Dangerous to Go Alone - Take This!
Anyone who pays close attention to our website may have noticed the avalanche of new pre-orders that have become available over the past few weeks, including the sheer deluge of the last 72 hours. This won't come as a surprise to those who keep their ears to the ground and their fingers to the pulse of our hobby; after all, according to BoardGameGeek.com, there were nearly 4000 new games published in 2018 alone, and that's not even including expansions to already-extant titles (the expansions, by the way, push that number up to just under 5000). With numbers like that, the towering, cramped and cluttered shelves of our brick-and-mortar store make a little more sense, don't they?
Most of us have our favourites, the publishers or designers that we watch more closely than others to make sure we're on top of the news about their upcoming releases or launching Kickstarters. Some people do their utmost to remain abreast of all the board-gaming news, not wanting to miss a beat. And the really dedicated among us - with, let's be honest, more disposable income than this hobby typically makes available - travel to the biggest gaming conventions in the world to get first peek at what's coming down the pipes.
But even with all of that, the sheer, staggering number of new games can make it hard to keep up. Even those of us who work in the industry are often surprised when something new shows up in a brown cardboard box, completely overlooked by all of us, save for the eagle eye of The Boss (Editor's Note: The capitalization makes him sound much more sinister than he is, and he is definitely not using the threat of the moat alligators to make me write this). But, as the lucky individual tasked with getting all of those pre-order listings up for you, I've had a bit of an advantage when it comes to getting a preview of what will soon be gracing our castle shelves.
So for anyone staring down that wall of pre-orders, wondering where to even begin, here is a list of my top 10 (currently) anticipated releases of the next few months.
10. Dice Forge: Rebellion (expands on Dice Forge)
Dice Forge remains one of the most unique games that I've experienced in the past few years in this hobby. (You can read The Boss' take on it in a previous blog post here.) I love games with lots of bits - the fiddlier the better - and Dice Forge certainly fills that niche. Clicking those dice faces in and out is so satisfying, and the game plays so quickly that it's a rare occasion that it can't find its way to the table.
The one downside, however, has always been the..."sameness" of the game. Sure, you have a variable set up, with different challenge cards finding their way on to the table, and the randomness of the dice-rolling mechanic means you'll never play the exact same game twice, but at a certain point, you feel a sense of "been there, done that".
Which is why I'm SO EXCITED! about the expansion coming out! It promises new challenges, new dice faces, a new board - in general, a whole new way to play that I'm sure will inject some much needed revivification into an already solid title.
9. Pearlbrook (expands on Everdell)
I missed the Everdell train when it first came out, but I played it for the first time about a month ago and it absolutely captured my heart. Everything about the game is quaint, but don't let its fuzzy, friendly faces fool you - there's a chewy little tableau-builder hiding under the cutesy woodland theme! It's a game that is easy to learn and forgiving of first timers, one that excels at a gameplay style of what I like to call, "push the buttons and watch it go" - you don't need to and, in fact, cannot establish a strategy from the get-go, and instead can make random choices and selections to see what happens when you do.
Plus, those components! That giant tree! Those squishy berries! The beautifully illustrated cards!
It was a given, then, that I would be excited about the prospect of an expansion. Pearlbrook introduces a new board, the River, with its own resource (those pearls!) and its own mechanics. The Events of Everdell are replaced by Wonders, and the new River destinations add an element of the unknown to the otherwise mostly-transparent gameplay. Pearlbrook looks to add a little more strategic "crunch" to this "nature valley".
I am a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings; I have read the entire trilogy at least once a year since I was in fourth grade and my mum gifted me a coffee-stained tome that was on discount at our local bookstore (someone snuck it into the coffee shop). I named my dolls Galadriel and Glorfindel, I practiced reciting the songs of the Elves, I wrote my Grade 7 Science notes in Cirth runes, and I translated Disney songs into Sindarin Elvish. Obsessed doesn't even begin to cover it.
But as a gamer, I've felt like the games on offer don't quite capture the world of Middle-Earth the way I want them to. I'm not much of a wargamer, so titles like War of the Ring or the Games Workshop games never quite struck my fancy. Hunt for the Ring is intriguing, but I'm typically not playing with enough people to really make it shine. I do have a Lord of the Rings Trivia game...but no one will play it with me (do you know what colour Tom Bombadil's boots are?).
And then in swoops Fantasy Flight Games with this title, making every tiny corner of my LOTR-loving heart light up with glee. A cooperative adventure game, allowing you to embody your own characters, members of the Free Peoples living out their own adventures against the backdrop of the end of the Third Age? A vast, dungeon-crawl style campaign where every adventure builds on the last? Seemingly endless replayability, using the companion app that FFG has nearly perfected with Mansions of Madness to create and populate and guide you through a rich and vibrant world?
Sign me the heck up!
Just about the only thing I love as much as Lord of the Rings, that is as much a part of the very fabric of my identity, would be Harry Potter. Like many millennials, I grew up on the Harry Potter books, reading the first three in 3rd grade and carefully following the boy wizard's adventures through all the years that followed. When USAopoly came out with Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle two years ago, I was in raptures. the game was so lovingly designed, with every card connected to the lore of the series in the most attentive ways. The effects of the spell cards made sense; the villains and locations and added cards of each of the subsequent Years was reflective of the events of the books and films. It was a deck-building game made both for people who know and love deck-building games and those who had never touched one before, uniting both groups through a common cultural love for the world of Hogwarts.
It also did a wonderful job of paying homage to the friendship shared by the main characters, taking the form of a cooperative game where you all win or lose together, supporting one another with spells and abilities, and strategizing as a team to take down the forces of He Who Must Not Be Named. But sometimes...well, sometimes you feel more like Harry and Draco than Harry and Ron. Sometimes it isn't enough to unite and win the day with the power of friendship, sharing your victory as you snap the Elder Wand in two and toss it into the ravine (after fixing your glasses, for Merlin's sake!). Sometimes, you want to just...win.
And then here comes USAopoly, hearing the plaintive wheedling of our competitive souls, with Defense Against the Dark Arts - a.k.a. Dueling Club. A game that takes the core gameplay of Hogwarts Battle - the cards, the deck-building, the careful attention to HP lore - and turns friends into rivals. It's no longer about saving the world from You-Know-Who; it's about winning. It's about being the best.
6. Potion Explosion: The 6th Student (expands on Potion Explosion)
I think we're all at the point where we can admit that, no matter how "core" our gaming status is, no one is immune to the addictive charms of bright, cheerful mobile puzzle games. Bejeweled, Candy Crush, Kwazy Kupcakes - we just love to make brightly coloured pixels explode in satisfying chain reactions with the swipe of a finger. Right? (Admit it. You know it's true.)
Horrible Games/Cool Mini or Not had that figured out way back in 2015 when they released Potion Explosion, an endlessly satisfying game of strategy and set-collecting that replaced those sparkling pixels with marbles rolling down the tracks of a cardboard dispenser. For those not in the know, Potion Explosion puts you in the shoes of a student at the local Hogwarts knock-off (Editor's Note: Actually, it was my safety school, thank you very much), crafting potions by combining volatile ingredients and trying to score points by mixing up the most complicated brews possible. The best part, of course, is the way that the game allows you to take advantage of chain reactions, pulling one ingredient from the dispenser to set off as many explosions as possible, granting you more and more and more delightful ingredients as they roll their way down.
The one downside to the game thus far was the player count. The game has always felt to me like it should be able to play more; it has that sense of a light party game, something people can pick up quickly and play in a short space of time, accessible to just about everyone no matter how much gaming experience they have and juuuust strategic enough to be enjoyable for heavier-leaning gamers. But, sadly, 4 was the limit.
Until now. Potion Explosion: The 6th Ingredient does what I've been waiting three years to see, adding room for a 5th and 6th student to join the class. The publisher has updated the old cardboard dispenser to a new plastic one, and the expansion comes with one of those, as well - necessary for those games at extra player counts, as two dispensers are needed, while also serving as a replacement for those of us with the cardboard dispenser of the first edition. But as if that wasn't enough, it also introduces even more new mechanics, new ingredients, and new potions to the mix, ensuring that the game remains as fresh and fun as it has ever been.
5. Escape Plan
I've just realized that this is one of only two non-fantasy titles on this list. What can I say, I live with my head in the clouds. (This won't come as a surprise to literally anyone who knows me.)
But then again, who hasn't fantasized about being one of Ocean's Eight (or, yes, Eleven) and participating in the heist of a century? So maybe this is a fantasy title after all...
But to explain why I'm so excited about this game, I have to talk about another one. Vital Lacerda is one of, in my personal opinion, the most interesting designers working in our hobby today. His games are marked by being heavy, strategic beasts, with gorgeous production quality and components in gigantic boxes and highly unique or unusual themes. The Gallerist, one of his previous titles, holds a permanent place on my own all-time Top 10. It remains one of the most unique games I have ever played. I've gotten it to the table just a handful of times, but every single time it feels entirely different. I'm constantly discovering new strategies, new mechanics, even, and how they all interplay with and around each other. I feel like I'm constantly learning and relearning the game, discovering new and more exciting, innovative ways to try for the win every time I sit down to play. It holds the honour of being one of those games that I just can't solve; where the route to victory isn't immediately obvious. And while I haven't played his other titles yet, I have heard similar things about Lisboa and Vinhos, as well.
So take all that, all that delightful innovation and crunchy strategy and beauty of production and depth of gameplay...and then apply it to a game where you are playing as a member of a crew who has just pulled off the heist of the century. How can I NOT be excited?!
Ah, here we go. Back on brand.
So, in fairness, this one is a bit of a cheat, because while I am truly excited for the game itself, I'm more excited about it as a vehicle for expansions. I still remember feeling myself vibrate with excitement when I first read the news; that some game called Call to Adventure, being made by veteran publishers Brotherwise Games, had secured the rights to make expansions based on the works two of my all-time favourite fantasy authors: Brandon Sanderson (specifically, The Stormlight Archive), and Patrick Rothfuss (The Kingkiller Chronicles, the first book of which is The Name of the Wind).
I immediately went digging into everything that I could find about this Call to Adventure, of course, because how could I not?! And what I found just served to make me even more excited about not just the potential for games based on my favourite novels, but the base game itself. It's a tableau-builder, which Brotherwise has already proven they excel at (Boss Monster is one of their flagship titles), but one that incorporates some incredibly cool and innovative mechanics. Remember how I mentioned that I took all my notes in Grade 7 Science using Tolkien's dwarvish runes? Call to Adventure uses a "rune-rolling" system, rather than dice, to resolve challenges. The in-game points system serves to encourage and bolster story-telling, rather than forcing players to craft their own theme and story around dry mechanics. And everything in the box is absolutely beautiful.
Rather than play through a series of adventures, with winning being dependent on success and failure, the game calls itself a "hero-crafting" game. It's all about crafting the hero's journey for yourself, using your successes and your failures not as a measure of your skill but as a way to realize a unique character, living their own unique story.
All right, so I’m going to preface this with a bit of honesty–I don’t generally like bluffing and deduction games. I am bad at lying, I am bad at telling when other people are lying, I am bad at convincing people that I’m not lying – I’m just bad at them. And when you’re bad at a game, it doesn’t tend to be a lot of fun. Werewolf, The Resistance – these games are not my cup of tea. And here's the thing; Guardian's Call is a game that is primarily bluffing and deduction.
I was privileged enough to get the chance to play this one in advance of its release. When first looking into it, while I was excited by the theme and the concept, as well as everything around the game, I was prepared to be pretty “meh” on the game itself. But folks, after having played it? This game is fun. I loved it, despite being bad at it, and even though I received a sound thrashing at the hands of my loved ones (on my birthday, no less), I wanted to play it again. I want to play it again now, just writing this, just thinking about it, because it’s just…it’s a darn good game.
And the thing about it is that it is simple. It's straightforward to learn and, as long as you don't overthink it too much, straightforward to play. Yet at the same time, this is a gamer's bluffing game. There is strategy here, rather than just luck and lying, and it lights up parts of my brain that I probably don't use nearly enough.
It's also by one of my current favourite board game publishers, Skybound Games. (You may recognize that name from my last blog post as being the folks behind The Grimm Forest.) They have been as consistent as ever with this title, giving us awesome representation in their cast of characters, beautiful and thoughtfully-made components, and a rich world to play around in. I just - I cannot say enough good things about this game.
2. Bunny Kingdom: In the Sky (expands on Bunny Kingdom)
If you have been into the Castle anytime since I started here, there is a solid 50/50 chance that I have recommended Bunny Kingdom to you. It's a fantastic game. Despite the cutesy art and theme, it's a really good, solid card drafting/area control game, that plays excellently at all player counts. It's intuitive to learn and a delight to play, and despite consistently scoring in the neighbourhood of 90 - 120 points, there have been very, VERY few games where the end-game point differential has been over 10 points.
For a game that actively encourages you to undermine your opponent(s) through card drafting and card trashing mechanics, and which gives each player the chance at obtaining upwards of 10, even 15 secret scoring objectives, that is nothing short of impressive, and it's something that keeps us coming back to this one over and over again. This is definitely all-time top 5 games.
So...my utter, sheer delight at learning that Iello was releasing an expansion for this gem of a game cannot be overstated. An expansion that not only included more mechanics and another board (IN THE SKY! BUNNIES! IN THE SKY!), but also the capacity for adding a 5th player to the shenanigans? And the potential for even MORE rabbit-themed puns? I'm not certain how Bunny Kingdom could possibly get better, but I have enough faith in Richard Garfield and the folks as Iello to trust that, somehow, it is.
1. Detective: L.A. Crimes (expands on Detective - A Modern Crime Board Game)
Our group recently finished playing through the core game of Detective. I am not exaggerating when I say that, regardless of where the game ends up on our Top XX lists, it will forever remain one of the most intriguing, innovative, and engaging gaming experiences I have ever had in my life. It is...indescribable, and incomprehensible, and no matter how perfect an experience it was I wish there was just so much more.
It is everything that I want from a deduction-style game: gamified enough to feel like an actual board game and give you a true sense of win/lose (looking at you here, Sherlock Holmes), smart enough to force you to really work your brain, rewarding enough to give you those epiphanic moments where you link everything together, and open-ended enough to give you the freedom to come up with your own theories and narratives that fit the facts you discovered - no matter what the intended truth actually was.
Even though the base game only came with five cases, we got over 30 hours of gameplay out of it. Even with having to replay cases, those subsequent playthroughs still took three hours and lead us down paths of information we never even knew existed from our first playthrough. But all good things must eventually come to an end, and we did eventually solve the fifth and final case, ending our game.
Until Portal Games announced the L.A. Crimes expansion, a new story utilizing the Detective game system, taking place in the gritty streets of 80s Los Angeles. It utilizes new mechanics, gives the players new options and new actions (stretching the laws and avoiding bureaucratic red tape? yes please), and, best of all, provides a new campaign of three interwoven cases.