5. Five Tribes
Days of Wonder's single precious entry into the board game scene this year is perhaps not as impressive as it could be, but sure is a hell of a lot of fun to play if you get out of your own way and don't overthink it. Dropping little meeples mancala-style onto nearby tiles is a blast, as is setting up fun tolls for your opponents to pay for taking various actions - or gathering up a handful of Djinns that just let you break the rules of the game. Bruno Cathala's game design might be a little obtuse for first time players and veterans alike, but it's clear there's a method to the madness. Now if only the box art wasn't so weird and orientalist.
Say what you will about the world's oldest roleplaying game, the fifth edition really takes me back to my early days playing third edition - it's familiar to players from the 90s and early 2000s, but includes enough modern game design sentiment that it feels updated to the present. The character classes are a bit complex for some story-minded gamers' sentiments, but the customizability will really speak to those who've grown up on computer or video game RPGs like Dragon Age or Neverwinter Nights.
History is the world's greatest sandbox, and playing in the alternate histories of Europa Universalis has been the best part of my year. I've gotten countless hours of gaming out of it, and it even inspired my newest D&D campaign by firing my imagination on the European age of exploration. The Art of War expansion added so many new features that simplified and streamlined Europa, lending new accessibility that helped me get friends into the game who had been previously intimidated by its complexity.
Shooting aliens has always been a passion of mine, thus my love of XCOM and its derivatives over the years, but Xenonauts added the sheer difficulty and tactical complexity I'd always wanted from a world defense game into the genre. The detailed strategic coordination at the global level gave me inspiration for another RPG campaign, one based on cold war politics, and when you combine that with the awesome work of megagame makersI have a long term project cooked up for roleplaying come next year.
Volko Ruhnke's Counter-Insurgency games have become legends in their own time, both for simulating the tense struggle between occupied and occupier and for promoting the kinds of roleplaying that had all but disappeared on most wargame tables. Like Jason Albert says in this Washington Post article from earlier this year, "Ruhnke's games stood out. He was tackling recent and still-raging conflicts, such as the amorphous war against terrorism in his game Labyrinth. It seemed as if he was attempting to span the divide between the kitchen-table gamer and the grizzled hard cases from wargaming's first golden age." So it should be no surprise that his game Fire in the Lake, a detailed simulation of insurgency and the war in Vietnam, is a crushingly brutal and brilliantly fun experience on any of its many settings. A do not miss for wargamers and strategy gamers of every sort, easily as good as his superb A Distant Plain.