tabletop

Top Ten Tabletop Games Of 2013

by Matt Miller on Dec 31, 2013 at 11:00 AM

This year brought us a wealth of awesome video games to explore, but they’re not the only stellar games from 2013. From time to time we like to take a step back and examine the growing world of tabletop games. Board games, card games, and tabletop role-playing games have seen a renaissance in the last decade, with hundreds of amazing titles that run the gamut in genre, theme, and style of play.

I’ve selected ten of my favorite titles from 2013 to highlight here, representing a spread of competitive and cooperative play, licensed and original works, and a range of complexity from family-friendly games to highly strategic titles of conquest and control. The games chosen all released in North America in 2013, or at least saw their major rise to awareness by the public during that time.

Take a look at my selections, and then share your picks for the best tabletop games of 2013 in the comments below. 

Since the games discussed are from so many different genres and styles of play, I’ve ordered the following list alphabetically.

BioShock Infinite: The Siege of Columbia
Publisher: Plaid Hat Games

Many video gamers count BioShock Infinite among their favorite games of 2013. If you’re in that camp, or if you just like a highly original competitive game, you owe it to yourself to check out The Siege of Columbia. 

Two players (or two teams of two players) take on the role of the Founders and the Vox Populi, and build of an army of followers led by charismatic leaders to try to control the floating city of Columbia. As you play, two wild card elements wander the board in the form of Booker and Elizabeth, often sowing chaos where they pass. 

Plaid Hat Games has found a multitude of ways to tap into the game features of the BioShock Infinite video games, like including sky-lines which units can use to traverse the board at high speed (but at great risk),  and Elizabeth’s ability to alter reality as she moves. The game presents a gorgeous map of Columbia, and the over 50 miniatures included help the table come alive. 

Smartly written rules and beautiful art are the icing on the cake of this excellent release – it’s a perfect transition game for players hoping to make the jump from video games to the rich world of high-end tabletop gaming.

Eldritch Horror
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games

Arkham Horror has been a staple of the board game scene for years – a cooperative game in which players work together to confront a rising ancient evil in a small Massachusetts town. This year, Fantasy Flight released a successor to Arkham Horror that draws on many of the game’s best features, but streamlines play, and expands the scope onto a global scale.

In Eldritch Horror, players each take on the role of an investigator wandering the continents in an attempt to solve mysteries related to the emergence of a world-shattering Lovecraftian creature. Depending on the group’s choice of adversary, the flow of your adventure and objective changes, offering tons or replay value. 

Every part of Eldritch Horror exists to serve the cause of compelling narrative. Your character has death-defying adventures, fights battles, and faces horrible ordeals. Even once a character is defeated, other players can come to have adventures about resolving their fellow hero’s demise. The game also encourages fun risk-taking, where some cards are acquired that might randomly flip later in the game if not resolved, often leading to tragedy. The sense of impending doom and constant setbacks works because all the players are in on the challenge together, and working toward a common goal.

Gameplay moves faster in Eldritch Horror than its predecessor, and it’s a great choice for large gaming get-togethers, since the game supports up to eight concurrent players (albeit with a much longer playtime). Its dark themes might not be a great fit for younger players, but everyone else should enjoy its pulpy plots. For a great entry into higher end cooperative games, look no further than this title.

Kemet
Publisher: Asmodee

The Greek mythology game Cyclades was an excellent game of conquest and fantasy that released a few years ago, and the newly released Kemet seeks to explore a similar concept rooted in the myths and monsters of Ancient Egypt. 

Two to five players each take control of an Egyptian tribe as they try to capture and control the rich lands along the Nile. Along the way, players call on the Egyptian gods to rain down their powers and aid in attaining victory. 

Kemet features a smart organizational mechanic for each turn, in which players take actions during a day phase to deploy their massive armies, raise pyramids, and take over temples, and then a night phase during which players gather prayer and victory points based on the current state of the board. I especially like the combat mechanic, which demands players choose attacks between a set of six cards, with the knowledge that use of any one card depletes it until the rest of his hand is spent. I also really enjoy the mythological creatures that join your forces, each of which brings its own special abilities into play.

Kemet includes a bevy of detailed minis to represent your armies, the coolest of which are the mythical monsters that populate the land. Its two-sided board allows for customized play that works well for whatever group size is playing. In addition, fans of Cyclades will be happy to find that a crossover kit (purchased separately) is available that lets you draw creatures from either game into the other.  Kemet is one of the more challenging and complex games on this year’s list, but if you’re up for a little groundwork, its strategic options are top-notch. 

[Next up: A great new role-playing game, and a family game inspired by a classic arcade title]

Krosmaster: Arena
Publisher: Ankama

Gamers hoping to introduce competitive miniature gaming to a younger crowd should take a strong look at Krosmaster: Arena. It’s larger anime-styled figures, colorful visuals, and straightforward mechanics are a perfect introduction to the genre, presuming your new players are up for a few steps of learning. To put it another way, it's not that this title is simplistic, but the rulebook includes several excellent playable tutorials to familiarize players with the core concepts, so it's easy to work your way up to a full game. I adore the aesthetics of Krosmaster, but beyond flashy looks, it makes the list because of its well-balanced and tactical combat. 

Krosmaster: Arena draws on the whimsical characters of a couple of different online MMOs from French studio, Ankama. There’s even an online digital version of Krosmaster to explore if you want to get to know the game before picking up the tabletop edition. The board game version features a grid map that should feel familiar to any players who’ve engaged with video game titles like Final Fantasy Tactics or Disgaea; it’s a joy to get to play out a combat game in that vein with real, tactile figures at your fingertips. 

Before each fight, players choose the makeup of their teams, draw their teams by chance, or go through a simple draft to get their minis. Gameplay combines miniature movement with the deployment of spells and summons to defeat your opponent. Each character has a limited suite of abilities, so it's not long before you've wrapped your head around what everyone on the field is capable of.

The game components are really stunning. Full color miniatures and vibrant 3-dimensional scenery art makes the board look beautiful. More importantly, much of that scenery has an importance to gameplay, like trees that block line of sight for a spell.

Games play out quickly on the compact battlefields, ensuring no one loses interest through a long, drawn out session. And if your gaming group really enjoys the title, a number of expansion figure sets offer more customization. 

Numenera
Publisher: Monte Cook Games

Monte Cook holds a place of honor in the history of RPG development, thanks to his many design credits that include work building the 3rd edition of Dungeons & Dragons.  His latest released project is a full-fledged role-playing game in its own right, funded through the largesse of the exuberant Kickstarter community. 

Numenera is set in a distant, future version of Earth a billion years from today. Eight great civilizations have appeared and subsequently disappeared over this vast stretch of years, leaving behind the detritus of incredible technology. The people of the Ninth World collect these seemingly magical remnants, and though their utility and functions vary widely, they all are called by a single name – the numenera. 

The game mechanics in Numenera are singularly focused on narrative, often at the expense of detailed rules to resolve conflicts or tactical combat. Instead, gameplay is built around encouraging creative thinking and rich storytelling – with a lot of the weight for the narrative placed on the players rather than the gamemaster. 

The corebook that forms the heart of the game is a beautiful, hard-bound and full color showpiece filled with fantastic art that should help to spur your storytelling. With a richly realized fantasy/science-fiction world, simple but flexible mechanics, and the capacity for endless player-crafted stories, Numenera is one of my favorite RPG projects in years. And for us video gamers, Numenera is also the setting for inXile’s upcoming Torment: Tides of Numenera.

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords
Publisher: Paizo Publishing

In a year dominated by excellent cooperative games, the Pathfinder card game set itself apart with a system that allows character development both during sessions and afterwards, so players can develop a single hero they’ve shaped over weeks or months of play. 

The Pathfinder pencil-and-paper RPG has been a popular option for longtime gaming groups in recent years, and this new card game aims to emulate the progression and cooperation of the RPG within a strategic card game framework. Each player takes a single character, like the fighter, sorceress, or rogue, and its corresponding deck of weapons, allies, spells, and other items. Next, a set scenario dictates several locations for players to visit, each of which contains a prescribed group of monsters, traps, and treasure. The goal is always to track down a hidden villain that lurks in one of the location decks, but you have to dig through various other encounters first. 

In between sessions, your character deck can be fleshed out with new cards found during your previous adventure, and your character’s abilities actually level up, opening up new options for play. Over time, the scenarios and villains get harder, but your newly powered-up character is up for the challenge. New expansion decks (sold separately) continue a full campaign story that could stretch out over months of play.

If you’ve got a gaming group that loves playing story-driven RPGs, but no one to gamemaster your group, the Pathfinder card game is a perfect choice. 

Rampage
Publisher: Asmodee

My top pick for a raucous family game this year, Rampage draws inspiration from the classic arcade game, and casts players as scaly monsters assaulting Meeple City. With silly mechanics all about dropping game pieces, flicking pawns, and even literally blowing down buildings, it’s nearly impossible to not elicit gales of laughter from the group. 

Rampage doesn’t look like any other game on the market. The flat game board looks like the foundation of a small city, but during setup you’ll stack wooden meeples (tiny wooden people) in between layers of different building floors. Your monster then enters the board, and proceeds to wreak havoc, demolishing buildings and eating citizens. 

Each action you take plays into the theme of destruction. Movement involves flicking a wooden pawn across the board, into buildings or even competing players’ monsters. Get close to a building, and you get to lift your monster figure over the board, and drop it onto the building in an attempt to knock meeples into scoring zones. There’s even an option that demands you set your chin on top of your monster and blow as hard as you can to knock down buildings. 

While luck and physics admittedly play a big part in how the game concludes, objective cards and victory points for different colored figures help to add a layer of strategy. There’s even a clever mechanic for meeples that escape the board, and how they fight back against the towering monsters attacking their city. 

Rampage is a significant step up in complexity from simple physical kids games like Hungry Hungry Hippos or Mouse Trap, but it reminds me of the fun zaniness of those colorful games from childhood. If you have a similar affection for active, physical component-based games, Rampage is hard to beat. 

[Next up: Both Star Trek and Star Wars make the list]

Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island
Publisher: Z-Man Games

You are castaways on a forgotten island, and the only thing that might offer a chance of survival is reliance on one another. Robinson Crusoe is a cooperative game all about trying to stay alive against the odds, and working together to accomplish what you can – even though there’s never enough time to do everything. 

Robinson Crusoe is not a beginner-friendly board game, but its innovative game systems and great opportunities for emergent narrative make it worth the time to learn for more experienced players. Up to four players (the cook, explorer, soldier, and carpenter) each have a limited amount of time each turn to investigate their surroundings, build shelter, gather food, and combat threats. While they act, storms threaten on the horizon, beasts invade the camp, fellow survivors become ill and injured, and resource scarcity threatens starvation. 

The game mechanics by themselves offer plenty of fun, but the addition of a half-dozen distinct scenarios help the game to shine, each of which dramatically changes the scope and objectives of your adventure. Robinson Crusoe is an attractively presented and elegant game if you’re up for the steep learning curve that’s required to grasp its fundamentals.

Star Trek: Attack Wing
Publisher: WizKids Games

One of my picks for last year’s top tabletop games was Star Wars: X-Wing – a fantastic tactical game that perfectly emulates the tense dogfights of the movies. Everyone's other favorite perennial science fiction  series got in on the act this year; Star Trek: Attack Wing borrows the FlightPath maneuver system that was used in X-Wing, which it uses to present battles between the Federation, Klingons, and Romulans, but several new elements make the game distinct from its Star Wars brethren. 

Players maneuver their ships around the table, firing off phasers and photon torpedoes as they go. Each ship is led by a named captain that brings with them special tricks and abilities that can turn the tide of a fight. Additional upgrades on your ship, along with other crewmembers, can turn a normally low-powered starship into a powerhouse. 

The base game includes three ships, but a wide array of additional ships is already available with which you can expand your fleet. Attack Wing and its expansions also present a number of awesome scenarios that emulate favorite moments from the TV series and movies, like Kirk’s confrontation with Khan in the Mutara Nebula. 

Above and beyond mechanics, I’m confident that Trek fans will love the detail and color work on the tiny miniature ships that are at the core of the game. For a strong miniature title with lots of opportunities for expansion, Star Trek fans now have just as good of an option as their Star Wars brothers and sisters for outer space combat. 

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games

Speaking of Star Wars, this year’s list is rounded out by another pencil-and-paper role-playing game all about the dark corners of the Star Wars universe. Several Star Wars RPGs have released over the years since the movies first gained popularity, and each aims to distill the essence of the franchise while distinguishing itself from previous games. Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars RPG triumphs by nailing the feel of the cinematic style of Star Wars, and keeping the focus on one part of the galaxy during a very particular moment in history. 

The moment and place in question is the lawless outer rim of the galaxy during the height of the Galactic Civil War between the Empire and the Rebellion. Players take on the role of smugglers, bounty hunters, and settlers eking out an existence at the edge of that massive conflict, and lots of the action focuses on the tough choices facing heroes in that part of the Star Wars universe. 

A big part of nailing the aesthetic comes through a character’s need to enter play with an obligation; think Han Solo’s debt to Jabba. These obligations serve to provide character motivation, but failing to act on your obligation has mechanical effects in the game. 

In-game action is resolved through an innovative dice-rolling system that requires a special set of custom polyhedral dice. Different dice represent positive effects like proficiency in an action, while negative dice represent special challenges in place. The resulting dice throw can show all sorts of results, sometimes indicating success, but with a detrimental twist, or failure but with a lucky side effect. Players then narrate the scene based on the result. 

Edge of the Empire is an awesome presentation of the Star Wars fiction, and the focus on the seedier side of the Star Wars fiction is a nice change of pace. If you’re a big fan of other fixtures of Star Wars, like the big wars or conflicts between the Jedi and Sith, Fantasy Flight is currently working on rolling out additional rulebooks in the next couple of years that address those features in standalone, but compatible game systems. You could start your campaign on the edge of space this year, and over the coming years, get more deeply enmeshed in larger galactic events.

 

If you’re looking for some more recommended games beyond my picks for the top games of 2013, take a look back at 2012’s selections, or peruse several more complete write-ups on AscensionTannhauserCastle RavenloftYomiStar Trek: Fleet CaptainsAgents of SMERSHA Touch of EvilMage WarsThe Adventurers: Pyramid of HorusDixitStar Wars: Edge of the EmpireLords of WaterdeepPathfinder Adventure Card GameEldritch Horror, or Robinson Crusoe. Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to share some of your favorite recent tabletop games in the comments below.