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Cracked LCD- Barnes’ Best 2012, Analog Edition

Quite frankly, I thought 2012 was a pretty shitty year for board games. Not just because I didn’t play them nearly as much as I have in recent years due to being in double baby jail with a one year old and a two year old, but also because the really outstanding games were few and far between. There was a whole lot of mediocrity, and then the Kickstarter thing made it possible for any yahoo to sell underdeveloped, unfinished beta prototypes to suckers. There weren’t really even all that many games in 2012 that I felt were compelling enough to try outside of the reprint cavalcade, which caught up this year with Crude, Wiz-War, Merchant of Venus, and Netrunner. I didn’t play Risk: Legacy, the new Descent, Mice & Mystics, or tons of expansions for pretty good games that came out this year. I couldn’t possibly care less about Zombicide, Seasons, or most of the new deckbuilders. Regardless, here are your Barnes’ Best board game picks for 2012.

There were, of course, a couple of really great games that rose above the clutter, made even more cluttersome by all of the Kickstarted crap that’s only just now disappointing “backers”. As usual in my Games of the Year articles, I’ve disqualified reprints and I’m only listing new-in-2012 titles. It just wouldn’t be fair to this year’s new games to shunt them out of recognition because a 30 year old masterpiece is back on the shelves. Because, I mean, seriously- was there a better game released this year than Netrunner? Not quite.

First up, the honorable mentions. Two of these are games designed by personal friends, Battle Beyond Space and Article 27. The former is a great 2-4 player space battle that is dramatic, surprising, and frequently hilarious. The latter is a classically designed pure negotiation game that would be considered a classic had it come in a 3M bookshelf box. John Clowdus did good by us again this year with Tooth & Nail and Donald X. Vaccarino delivered his best game to date with FFG’s excellent cyberpunk heist game Infiltration. Dungeon Command started out good and got better over the course of four releases, offering a simple but compelling dungeon brawl option. And then there’s the Star Wars LCG, which I just started playing in the final days of 2012 but will review favorably next week.

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Now, on to the shortlist. The four best games of 2012 and my pick for Game of the Year.

1812: The Invasion of Canada

This was one of the first games I played in 2012, and in my review I mentioned that it set the bar pretty high for the year. I knew all year long that we’d see this game in this column. Play after play, this simple team-based wargame has delivered the goods. It’s fun, fast, and full of interesting strategy. The dice-based combat system allows for some surprising strategic detail, the battles range from complete washes to total devastation, and overall the game has an easy flow that rewards risky play- and cooperation between teammates- over rules exploitation, resource management, or other factors. The subject matter may not be the most scintillating and on the table it looks like total cube confusion , but this was one of the best ways to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the titular event.

Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery

This is 2012’s Cinderella story, a game that beat the odds to emerge as one of the year’s top titles. The strikes against it were potential deal breakers. But these first-time designers, publishing through a company that has never done a board game before, came up with an innovative game that is as conceptually thematic as games like Battlestar Galactica and Dune are. Splitting the process between a nasty take-that card game and a one-on-one gladiator battle with a gambling element, Spartacus did an awful lot with the subject matter without getting bogged down in rules. It definitely has the best- and most necessary- rule of the year: don’t be an ass. This great game can be had for around $20, and with an expansion on the way I expect to be playing it into 2013.

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Lords of Waterdeep

Lords of Waterdeep board in play

The genius of Lords of Waterdeep is that is very much a back-to-basics Eurogame, offering a simple but not shallow worker placement mechanic paired up with a fun- but light- dusting of Dungeons and Dragons atmosphere. It’s hugely accessible, unlike so many games in its genre. In a year where I found myself more attracted to simpler, more minimalist designs I appreciated that the designers of this game really cut through all of the bullshit and got right down to key elements that make these kinds of games work. It’ll never be as deep or intricate as Caylus, but it’s a heck of a lot more fun to play and that counts for…well, everything.

Mage Wars

Of course, Mage Wars was hardly a simpler, more minimalist design at all. Instead, this game is a complex, detailed game that feels like an omnibus of hobby gaming concepts. It’s a board game, miniatures game, and collectible card game all in one. It really should have been a hot mess and reading through the rules I thought it would be, but in play Mage Wars offered some of the most rewarding gameplay of 2012. With an intriguing “open deck” style of play that uses binders to allow players access to every card in their deck, the designer made the most of several bottlenecks in the design to keep the decision-making interesting. But it ain’t dry- there’s also plenty of dice-rolling, PVP ass-kicking to do while you’re making all of those compelling decisions. Definitely looking forward to expansions on this one as well.

And finally, Barnes’ Best Game of the Year 2012…it’s probably no surprise, but here we go…

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X-Wing

Star Wars X-wing miniatures game in action

X-Wing is quite possibly the best tabletop miniatures game I have ever played, leveraging familiar subject matter and the particular style of Star Wars’ dogfighting scenes to present a fast-and-furious game that feels exactly right and is suitable for any player that knows what an X-Wing or a TIE fighter are. Low rules overhead and the use of templates to handle all of the measurement keep the usual miniatures table disagreements to a minimum, and the novel card-based method of building out and equipping ships makes for a great metagame. And the miniatures are truly impressive- any Star Wars fan that grew up with the toys is going to love them. Yes, this is an expensive game but if it sinks its teeth into you, you won’t notice that you’re spending your games budget on extra Y-Wings and TIE Advanced instead of on other games you won’t play nearly as much. This is a game that’s great as it is today with only four ships available, and will only get better in 2013 as more are released. This was- and is- the 2012 game I played and want to play again the most. A truly phenomenal game that builds on great ideas from its peers and improves everything across the board.

That’s it then. We’ll see what happens in 2013…it may turn out that X-Wing wins this year too! Stay tuned for the digital edition, in which I make one of those crazy statements about a currently popular game that may get me publically executed.

Michael Barnes

Games writer Michael Barnes is a co-founder of Nohighscores.com as well as FortressAT.com. His trolling has been published on the Web and in print in at least two languages and in three countries. His special ability is to cheese off nerds using the power of the Internet and his deep, dark secret is that he's actually terrible at games. Before you ask, no, the avatar is not him. It's Mark E. Smith of The Fall.

6 thoughts to “Cracked LCD- Barnes’ Best 2012, Analog Edition”

  1. Good list. Lords of Waterdeep has easily seen the most play this year with my game group (magic is still king at my house with me and my kids though…Commander/EDH is such a fun format). Mage Wars was a Xmas gift that has completely floored me. Like you, I was skeptical (and I’m still not sure there won’t be a tendency for the books to converge to looking very similar ie. 4 dispel, 4 nullify, etc.), but so far it’s been a lot of fun and the possibilities are intriguing. X-Wing has also been a blast with my two boys (2 on 1), but could use just a smidge more variety. We’re still trying to get enough play with Netrunner for the intricacies to show themselves. Right now it’s been a bit underwhelming. The drawback to the list of top games for me (Mage Wars, X-Wing, Magic, Netrunner) is they are all system games that, while they don’t require ongoing expenditures, we both know that’s what we’ll want to do. Hard to keep that going combined with trying all the new shiny stuff.

    1. That’s a good point about “system” games…but you know, lately I’ve kind of been craving the kind of depth and exploration that you get from system games. The Star Wars LCG, for example, is really appealing to me right now exactly because of that. System games also foster repeat plays, and they tend to have more of a shelf life than one-shot board games. It’s just having others around you that are willing to commit that can make them something of a drag.

      Netrunner definitely takes some time, I think once there’s a few “datapacks” or whatever out you’ll see where the deckbuilding is going to add a lot to it. Conversely, one of the things that was really impressive about the original Netrunner is that it played extremely well with starter decks. I actually used to keep a case of untampered with starter decks around just for quick-hit games where I was teaching or playing with someone that didn’t have a deck.

      I actually haven’t dug too much into the deckbuilding in Mage Wars, but it definitely seems like there are a couple of key spells that you almost have to have.

      1. A “shitty” year for board games?? Seriously?

        Tell me, is the reason you “didn’t play Risk: Legacy, the new Descent, Mice & Mystics, or tons of expansions for pretty good games that came out this year. ” because they weren’t good or because you were “in double baby jail with a one year old and a two year old”

        Please explain.

        1. Yeah, it was a pretty down year compared to past years where there were more great, impactful games. Look at 2011- the best games of the year were things like King of Tokyo, Cave Evil, Eclipse and Mage Knight. Not saying that this year’s best aren’t that calber, but everything between those games and the absolute crap weren’t as good. I played so much ho-hum or good but not great stuff this year it’s not funny.

          I didn’t play Risk Legacy because I don’t have a group that would really support playing it to its full fruition. We like Risk, but we’re not going to play it every session or even ten sessions in a year. It’s a fascinating concept, and I appreciate what was done with it but I think in time it’s going to be regarded as a clever novelty, not an innovation.

          Mice & Mystics, I never got a review copy for. I’m going to ask Plaid Hat for one again, when I asked in November they had alloted every copy to retail which is great for them. I don’t know if I want to buy it after hearing some mixed comments about it.

          New Descent I would have gladly played if I had a chance…but I would not buy it under any circumstance, and I’m blacklisted from the FFG press list.

          Expansions, I just got tired of keeping up with a lot of them. I’m sure the Eclipse expansion is really good.

          I didn’t intend to infer that these things were bad and that’s why I didn’t play them, it’s more a combination of disinterest and also being more focused on family than keeping up with everything coming out. Once the Gameshark checks stopped coming, it started to get harder to justify buying new games when I couldn’t get a review copy or keeping up with the releases.

          1. I think you ought to give the new Descent a whirl. If you don’t want to pick it up because you have the old edition lying around, grab the conversion kit. Even with two people and an hour to kill, this game is a blast.

            It plays so so so much faster and cleanly, and is really basically a new game.

      2. Oh I totally get the appeal of the system games….lord knows, I do (and my wife, game shelves, wallet, internet browsing history, etc. will all attest to that). But that drawback of needing others around with a similar level of commitment is darn near insurmountable for me. And yet, I keep getting sucked in. It’s a disease.

        We just got the first datapack for Netrunner and I can already see the possibilities. Definitely on the list for further exploration….you know, when I’m not playing Mage Wars, Magic, X-wing…etc.

        I’m just not sold on making points the primary deck-building restriction. Part of the tremendous appeal (and I would argue success) of Magic is tremendous differences in play styles for each color. Clearly I need to look at it from a different perspective, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of the base game…you know…time….opponents…blah…

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