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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

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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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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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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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I’ve got a small pile to hand in this week- been extra busy over at The Review Corner with some of today’s most popular titles:

Magic: Arena of the Planeswalkers is, in fact, Heroscape meets Magic. It is also a great mass-market game that has tons of potential, if Hasbro will let it come to full fruition. It’s also probably the best value in gaming at only $29.99 retail.  Five star review is here!

WWE Superstar Showdown is Gale Force 9’s latest, and as is par for course it’s not only really good, it’s really good even for non-fans of the license. It is an officially licensed WWE product (hologram and all) so if you know who Daniel Bryant and Roman Reigns are, have I got a game for you. If you don’t, it’s still a great fighting game that is super easy to pick up and play. I wish it had more wrestlers, especially ones I know from like, WrestleMania III. Four star review is here!

Forbidden Stars is FFG’s latest Warhammer 40k Dudes on a Map game, which fortunately avoids the debacle that was Horus Heresy altogether and is instead inspired by their woefully underappreciated StarCraft board game. But it isn’t as good, and for all of its streamlining and refinement they stuck a tacky, overwrought combat system in there that plays out like a full card battling game crammed into an otherwise smooth-running system. This also makes the game too long. We did a special thing with this, a Head to Head review with myself and my lead writer Charlie Theel. He liked it more than me, so there’s some good debate here in my three star (his four star) review!

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