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Barnes’ Best- 2015 Game of the Year Awards

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It’s been a great year for games- and not just because I played and reviewed more this year than I think I ever have before, but because there were a number of really high quality, innovative releases that came both through traditional publishers as well as crowdfunding. My collection has a high turnover rate- I don’t keep games that don’t get played regularly beyond the review period- but this year I found myself constantly struggling with finding space to put new games that I want to keep around for a while.

So of course it’s the last day of the year and it’s time to hand out the Barnes’ Best Awards. This year was pretty tough, and I had something of a dry run with the Win, Place or Show feature I ran over at Miniature Market’s Review Corner. I picked three games there- all three are represented here as well- but I was limited to games that Miniature Market stocks. Which actually cut out my Game of the Year choice. I’m also once again changing the format because I can do that, so that I can make sure that the runners-up get their time to shine. Let’s get right on with it then.

Barnes’ Best Honorable Mentions

These are all great games that I felt deserved at least a curtain call before we hand out the awards and head into 2016.

Broom Service- Like a lot of modern Eurogames, this one made a big splash and then sort of disappeared. It sold out as soon as it came out. It even won the Kennerspiel des Jahres. But it’s quietly shuffled away, out of the limelight. Which is a shame, because this is a charming family game with a toothy edge- and a really cool “brave witch”/”cowardly witch” mechanic driving the action. I still love this game, and I find myself trying to get folks to play it quite a lot. If only my kids were just a little older.

XCOM– It’s kind of been shunted off to the side now, but Eric Lang’s “other” 2015 release was a compelling, innovative game that used an app that everyone worried would be obsolete ten minutes after it was released. This was a cool co-op that tried a few new things…and scared away the old folks. It definitely qualifies for a spot on the list.

Blood Rage– And here is the Eric Lang game that everyone liked. Blood Rage is a stunning piece of design work, demonstrating a level of discipline and restraint rare even in the hybrid sector. It’s more Eurogame than Ameritrash in many ways, but it is just about as bloody and breakneck as any other game out there. A great production rounds out one of the best packages of 2015.

Space Cadets: Away Missions– Dungeoncrawlers were a dime a dozen in 2015, but this is the one that had the most heart and the most fun to offer. The golden age sci-fi setting paired up with a couple of exciting, innovative mechanics made for one of the year’s best examples of the genre.

Argent: The Consortium– Level 99 doesn’t make bad games, I’m convinced. But Argent: The Consortium is the best thing they’ve done to date. This is a heavyweight worker placement game that dares to be openly confrontational, competitive and cutthroat. Rich with detail and narrative, Argent would be the best Harry Potter game of all time…if they had the license.

Evolution– Dom Crapuchettes took a Russian card game design and built a surprisingly narrative, thematic game on it. Evolution is really quite simple, but just like in biology things can get complicated pretty quick. I love how this game effectively creates a different biome with each play. The Flight expansion only made it better.

Magic: The Gathering: Arena of the Planeswalkers– After much angst over whether or not Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro would support this sort of sideways resurrection of Heroscape, the deliverable was a top-notch mass market game with plenty of fun right out of the box. It of course did leave me wanting more, but this game has nowhere to go but up. If the powers that be will let it.

Risk: Star Wars Edition– 2015 was the year that Star Wars returned, and this $25 mainstream title completely surprised everyone by turning out to be a redevelopment of the old Queen’s Gambit design from the Phantom Menace. But this time, the action is set during the three-layered Battle of Endor that closes out Return of the Jedi. Simple, fun, full of drama and loads of Star Wars love.

Before I get into the “big” awards, I want to hand out a special merit badge for Most Improved. This one goes to Star Wars: Imperial Assault. I did not like the core box when I reviewed it late last year. I didn’t feel like it captured any sense of Star Wars, and I didn’t care for the Descent-derived mechanics. After a great mini-campaign expansion (The Twin Shadows), numerous villain and ally packs, and a new Hoth addition, I’ve come around on it. Not quite 180 degrees, but when my friends ask me to bring it over I don’t cringe. Both the skirmish mode and the campaign have improved greatly with more content

Now, the Barnes’ Best Awards for 2015.

2nd Runner Up

Warhammer Quest: Adventure Card Game– I’m kind of surprised that this little game beat out some of the above, but pound for pound this is one of the best card games on the market. It blows its competitors out of the water by offering a rich, challenging dungeoneering experience with meaningful cooperation, interesting mechanics and a genuine sense of that old Warhammer Quest atmosphere. I keep coming back to this game- specifically the Delve mode- over and over again and I come away satisfied every time. It’s the game that I wanted the Lord of the Rings LCG and Space Hulk: Death Angel to be. It’s also the game that I wanted Pathfinder to be. Adam and Brady Sadler completely knocked it out of the park on this, and I think with expansions it will be a game we are talking about throughout the next year.

 

1st Runner Up

shadows

Shadows of Malice- I don’t think any game touched me in 2015 quite the way that Shadows of Malice did. I requested a review copy of this game from one-man-band Jim Felli almost exclusively because it looked so different than anything else from the graphic design to the concepts to the gameplay. And it is very, very different. It’s lean, spare and minimalist but it somehow manages to evoke the same kind of storytelling and engagement that a great D&D campaign or a game of Magic Realm might. It’s a little awkward, a little alien but once you dig into Mr. Felli’s unique vision, an incredible adventure game like no other unfolds. Compared to other, similar designs this game felt like something on the vanguard- daring, risky and challenging.

 

BARNES’ BEST GAME OF THE YEAR 2015

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Cthulhu Wars- It’s something of a Cinderella story for this $200 gorilla because I never thought I would cover it- let alone own it. But Sandy Petersen and his gang agreed to send me one, and I’m glad that they did because it turned out to be my favorite game of the year. It was also the most surprising game of 2015- it wasn’t bloated or underdeveloped at all like most crowdfunded games. Instead, it was lean and quick, managing to feel both old school and forward thinking at the same time. Of course, the production was just insane, with HUGE plastic figures that managed to pop even my miniatures-jaded eyes. Above all else, Cthulhu Wars provided some of the most fun sessions I had all year and I’ve found myself counting down the days until the next wave of expansions ships- I can’t wait to see how the other Great Old Ones, maps and other features work in this system.

So that’s it folks, everybody go home. Wait…what’s this then…apparently there is another. I’m so sorry, there has been a mix-up. One of the games of 2015 is upset because it did not get a medal. So I’m going to go ahead- on behalf of my children, River and Scarlett- and invite this game up to get the MOST AWESOME GAME OF 2015 Award.

Ladies and Gentlemen, LOOPIN’ CHEWIE!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Cracked LCD- Space Cadets: Away Missions in Review

Dan Raspler and Al Rose want you to know that they love classic, golden age science fiction and Space Cadets: Away Mission is their statement of intent to rescue the genre (at least as far as games are concerned) from decades of dreary, dour, wartorn atmospheres and barely human space marine killing machines. SC:AM takes us back to a more optimistic era of rayguns and fishbowl helmets, of Saucermen and stern-jawed, crew-cut heroes. It is a very modern, very well designed dungeoncrawler with tons of miniatures, scenarios, AI opposition, dice combat, loot, et cetera, et cetera. There are 20 scenarios out of the box, and in each you’ll generally do pretty much what you expect to do in these kinds of games- shoot stuff, move/explore, pick up some new gear, flip a switch or two, exit to the shuttle before it all goes pear shaped. (more…)

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CW3

Cracked LCD- Cthulhu Wars in Review

I was very, very skeptical of Cthulhu Wars to say the least. I’m not a big supporter of the current trend toward crowdfunding in the hobby games market and I’m not entirely on board with the concept of these “Cadillac” games with astronomical presale prices. But there were three things that drove me to ask the publishers if they would send me a press copy. One is that I had heard great things about it from folks whose opinions I trust. The second is that I wanted to see what one of these luxury class games- in this case one retailing for $199- had to offer in comparison with more traditionally priced designs on the marketplace. The third is that Mr. Petersen is certainly not some upstart, armchair game designer selling their product with a flashy video and lots of promises. This is the guy that created Call of Cthulhu, still my favorite RPG of all time. And he also had a hand in designing games like Doom, Quake and other seminal, hugely influential computer games.

So “the Great Old One” himself responded, issuing a command to one of his Servitors to send a copy to me. A few days later I got this 11 pound box in the mail and opened it up to find a big, black box with good illustrations and luxurious embossing. It looked deluxe, sure. Opening it up, I was a little underwhelmed at first. It’s hard to not expect to be completely blown away, but the reality of it is that Cthulhu Wars is still a physical product, not a life-changing experience. But then I dug through the layer of punchboards and the map and saw IT. It wasn’t Cthulhu that caught my eye, it was Hastur. A huge, bright yellow monstrosity that put me in mind more of old fashioned plastic dinosaur figures more than gaming miniatures. I picked it up and just kind of laughed at it. Was it the taint of madness? (more…)

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Cracked LCD- Survive! Space Attack in Review

Survive Space Attack

This one is over at Miniature Market.com’s Review Corner– a write-up of Stronghold Games’ latest Survive! title. Having rescued the classic Parker Brothers family game from languishing out of print, Stephen Buonocore and his gang are now moving on to applying the Survive! concept to a new setting. Geoff Englestein (who did the excellent Space Cadets as well as the tragically underplayed Ares Project) and his family have turned in a very respectful update to the original game that adds some fun new elements.

I can’t say that I prefer the setting because I like the old “Escape from Atlantis” business. But the new material works and it is totally in the spirit of the original game. My five year old son LOVES it, he asks to play it every day…so I’d say it’s a great choice for a family/kid-friendly title.

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midgard

Cracked LCD- Champions of Midgard in Review

midgard

Champions of Midgard is a really good game. It’s new from Grey Fox Games and designer Ole Steiness (Police Precinct). It’s also one of the best looking games released this year, all done up in a heavy metal Viking motif with rockin’ fonts and illustrations that will make you want to throw up horns and lick the blood off a battleaxe as you ride a flaming longship into Valhalla. There is dice rolling, monster fighting and a brilliant mechanic that allows you to shame your peers that have proven too cowardly to do battle with the local trolls. It’s easy to get folks interested in it, it’s easy to teach and it’s easy to play. And it’s a single purchase title, not a product line with 25 expansions available out of the gate.

(more…)

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psycho raiders

Cracked LCD- Psycho Raiders in Review

psycho raiders

I love it when games have moments- those points where the narrative, the structure, the rules and the interaction all come together to equal something more than a group of people rolling dice and pushing counters around with a context mostly held together with pictures and nomenclature. Nate Hayden, one of the best game designers working today, blew me away last year with The Mushroom Eaters. A game full of moments. I named it my Game of the Year last year because that’s what you do as a critic when something has a profound effect on the way you think about whatever medium it is that you are criticizing.

Psycho Raiders, which Mr. Hayden and his gang released last year as a “Halloween Horrorgame Magazine”, had a moment. Fleeing from the titular murderers that had already immolated their friend, three young campers on Halloween night in 1978 made it to the outskirts of a small, rural town. They managed to scream loud enough to alert a mechanic in the gas station. He grabbed a hammer and ran outside, seeing these kids running from a black van and a couple of gas masked psychopaths on foot. The mechanic threw the keys to a fixer-upper parked under a streetlight to Randy, who had been injured when the Psycho Raiders attacked his pickup with a flamethrower. Ginger had run alongside Randy, while their friend Dawn made a run for the woods.

All three made it to the car. The mechanic stalled one of the raiders, attacking him with the hammer. The van sped along the road while the kids got the car going. Randy floored it. And flipped it on the first turn out of the gas station.

All three crawled out. Randy told the girls to run for it. He picked up a tire iron, badly hurt by this point but determined to fight back. Torch, the raider with the flamethrower, blasted him again but it wasn’t enough to kill him. But it still set him on fire. He was about to die from burning on the next turn.

And then it started raining. The friend I was playing with uttered “bullshit.” We cracked up, because what else are you gonna do but laugh at that?

With the fire out, Randy lunged and smacked Torch with the tire iron. But Beau, one of the other Psycho Raiders stood by and laughed, jabbing their victim with a rusty old saber. Randy just wouldn’t die. He took a swing at Beau, but he dropped the tire iron. Beau stabbed him through the eye.

It was such a strangely sad, grim moment. Randy was at the end of the line and he knew it. But he grasped at every chance he could take. It felt like he deserved a better end, and when it rained on him it almost felt like there was a shot at survival. But when he dropped his makeshift weapon- bloody, burned but still fighting- it was like this nihilistic collapse of goodness, courage and hope punctuated by a bloody red KILL card.

This is the root of what makes Psycho Raiders great. It’s brutal, violent and it has that same sense of grand guignol seediness that permeates the kinds of gritty horror films that the game is clearly referencing. It’s a game that is not fair. It does not seek to empower its players. It does not serve to make anyone feel smart or clever. When playing as the campers, it captures a sense of being hunted down and slaughtered by amoral, remorseless human monsters. When playing as the Psycho Raiders, it puts the player in the role of soulless, evil gods of death deciding not if people are going to die, but how mercilessly they are going to die. It is the perfect horror game that accomplishes a level of psychological terror that I, for one, previously thought was not possible in game design.

Needless to say, this is not a game for everybody. It’s rated X and it means it. This is savage, questionable entertainment rife with the very blackest of humor and heavily influenced by 1970s exploitation films. It’s the tabletop equivalent of a video nasty. Yet it is a game that should be played by anyone that thinks they understand what atmosphere, theme and narrative mean in the context of a gaming hobby currently bogged down in a morass of bloated production values, redundant structures, a despairing lack of risk-taking and a complacent fear on the part of designers to challenge players to expect more.

Ironically, this is a game that could have been published in 1980. The very specific, simulation-oriented rules call to mind classic SPI or Avalon Hill adventure games, not Fantasy Flight or Z-Man ones. Most of the game is very simple and familiar in terms of movement and combat, it’s all classic hobby gaming structure. The map is paper and printed right there on it are all the tables you need to roll on for results. Be prepared to bring your own dice, cut the cards out yourself and supply players with pencil and paper. If all of that sounds barbaric to you, maybe give Psycho Raiders a pass and go play Last Night on Earth instead.

It’s old fashioned and out of fashion, but there are two masterstrokes that modern designers should be paying attention to. One is the hiding mechanic, which lets players place and move multiple on-board tokens to obscure where they actually are. The other is the best use of the tired, hackneyed “traitor” mechanic I have seen to date. There are a couple of townsfolk that can enter play like the mechanic mentioned above. The Raider player can secretly designate a die roll’s worth of the townsfolk to be sinister and on their side. What’s more, the Raider player can actually let the campers use the townfolk and decide at an opportune moment for them to show their true color, which is of course always black.

There are also many details such as rules for screaming, unsafe driving, for using a telephone, for weather, for spreading fires and for tear gas. There are rules for if Joey shows up in his Camaro as a kind of white trash Deus ex Machina as well as other events that could happen. You may never see any of these things happen because the gameplay is wide open- how the story of these campers on the run from the Psycho Raiders is entirely up to you. Situations like the moment described above may occur once but never again. This is truly emergent gameplay enabled by relatively loose rules and a masterful design-level grasp on balancing playability, simulation and narrative.

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The old timey packaging is absolutely brilliant- it is an old fashioned magazine game. The components are a paper map, a few counters and some cards that you have to cut out yourself. The illustrations are willfully crude, unrefined and raw. If you expect every game to be stuffed full of possibly toxic made-in-China plastic and kitschy-ass fantasy artwork, you might mistake this game for ugly or cheap. But the slightly sleazy, off-putting visual design is absolutely part of the package.

You even get a gas mask-wearing underwear model in the centerfold, standing in front of a wood panel wall with a cheap Halloween decoration on it. It’s the kind of slightly upsetting thing that makes you feel like something is wrong either with the people who made it or with you for buying and owning it. Flipping through the magazine, which contains the rules, there are several weird cartoons that range from surreal to disgusting. There’s an upsetting piece of short fiction. This stuff is as transgressive as board games get. This stuff is as immersive as board games get.

But most significantly, the magazine also includes a comic that serves as a direct prelude to what occurs in the game. Turn one literally picks up right from the last panel, with the campers’ pickup barreling down the road with the Raiders’ van right behind it. From there, the players finish the story. This is how background story or fluff text should be done from here on out.

Psycho Raiders actually came out last year but for various reasons it was one of those games I never got around to. At this point, it’s clear that I was wasting my time looking for transcendent moments in other games. This is the real deal, this is the mythical, Utopian game I’m always on about that is innovative, progressive, playable, narrative, thematic and compelling. It’s every bit as good as The Mushroom Eaters, and as such I’m appending my 2014 Game of the Year award to include both games released last year that have Nate Hayden’s name on them.

This is an incredibly renegade, daring piece of game design and packaging that makes me want to buy a copy for every single person who has ever used the asinine turn of phrase “dripping with theme” and one for every person who thinks that anything coming out of the morass that is Kickstarter is anything approaching “innovative” or “progressive”. It would be an object lesson in what a truly maverick game product should look and play like in 2015, even if it is defiantly and gruesomely atavistic.

NoHighScores_HighScoreAward_NoEcho

 

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mistfall

Cracked LCD- Mistfall in Review

mistfall

Mistfall, a new game from Polish designer Blazej Kubacki published by NSKN, is quite a piece of work. I think it’s very good and I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone that enjoys the Lord of the Rings LCG but doesn’t care for the dec construction, that thinks the Pathfinder ACG is too simplistic or that enjoys the intricate puzzle-solving of Mage Knight. We’re in similar territory, design-wise, as those three titles but the setting is a very well-crafted Eastern European-tinged fantasy setting that nips some of George Martin’s chilly atmosphere and creates a cool context for its unique characters to quest, battle and improve over the course of its scenarios.

However, there is one big wall separating the masses from engaging with Mr. Kubacki’s intricate, quite complex creation. The rules. This is one of those games where you might read the rules and respond with a colloquialism common in the American south- “do what now?” (more…)

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Cracked LCD- Secrets of the Lost Tomb in Review

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Everything Epic’s maiden release, Secret of the Lost Tombs, is a hybrid of the dungeoncrawl and narrative-oriented adventure genres, a combination that isn’t as common as you might think given how overpopulated both types of games are these days. It features a setting in which it totally makes sense that Teddy Roosevelt would lead an expedition into a subterranean Masonic lodge to decipher a code left by Ben Franklin that can be used to awaken and control a giant monster that helped the Colonies to win the Revolutionary War- one that is spoiling for a rematch with the giant monster that fought on Britain’s side. Oh, and you might meet Dracula and Blackbeard along the way. In a Mongolian tomb. (more…)

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Cracked LCD- Xia: Legends of a Drift System in Review

xia

xia ships

At first glance, Xia: Legends of a Drift System sort of looks like another entry in the 4x space empires sweepstakes. But it’s really closer to something like Merchant of Venus or Gale Force 9’s Firefly game. Like those titles, it’s a pick-up-and-deliver game with both mercantile and adventure gaming elements It features a strong “open world”-style emphasis on allowing the player to chart their own course through options that include good honest work as well as criminal enterprise, exploration as well as material advancement. The goal of the game is to set out in a starter spacecraft and earn the most fame points by the end of the game. And how you get them is really up to you. (more…)

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yashima

Cracked LCD- Yashima: Legend of the Kami Masters in Review

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Yashima: Legend of The Kami Masters is a pitched battle between two to four combatants wielding the powers of the martial arts, magic and nature spirits. Think of it something like a cross between the arcade classic Yie Ar Kung Fu, a Chinese Wuxia film and the summoning spells from a Final Fantasy game. It is a focused concept rich with background story and setting, but without many contextual frills. There are no scenarios, there are no resources and there are no objectives other than defeating your foes. It is essentially a card game not unlike Yomi or BattleCon, but it uses hex-based terrain tiles and miniatures to express distance, position and the scope of attacks. I really like what I’ve seen from the game so far, but it also leaves me with a feeling that this design- which has great potential- isn’t quite to where it needs to be just yet. (more…)

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