The Best Tabletop Games Of 2014
Each year, as we wrap up our end-of-the-year video game coverage, I also like to offer up some selections from the other side of the gaming world – the ever-growing field of tabletop games. As has been the case for several years now, the tabletop scene continues to offer some phenomenal social and strategic games. Whether you’re looking for cooperative or competitive, simple or complex, the tabletop scene in 2014 has you covered.
In recent years, I’ve kept role-playing games classified in the same broader tabletop sphere, but this year I’ve selected 10 excellent board, card, and miniature games, along with a separate selection of four of my favorite role-playing game experiences. Selections include games that saw their major public release in the United States sometime in 2014. Each list is alphabetical.
The Battle at Kemble’s Cascade
Publisher: Z-Man Games
While this outer space ship combat game is a fantastic experience in its own right, it should have particular appeal to video gamers, thanks to its pitch-perfect tabletop emulation of a classic arcade shoot-em-up.
The Battle At Kemble’s Cascade casts each of its two to five players as a pilot heading out to do battle in deep space. Your ship has a unique set of weapons and abilities, and each player even has their own missions to undertake as they fly along.
The coolest feature is the scrolling game board, which aims to replicate the feel of a scrolling arcade screen. Card trays each hold a selection of ships, asteroids, mines, black holes, and other objects and obstacles, and you must shoot through the fray to win glory. As any given tray scrolls to the bottom of the table, all of its cards are removed and the tray is put back up top with a new set of cards, so you never really know what’s next.
With a pixel-art visual presentation, and plenty of '80's arcade style to burn, The Battle at Kemble’s Cascade is a delight, whether you remember the good old days of darkened arcades or not.
Ca$h ‘n Gun$ (Second Edition)
My favorite party game of the year is actually a modest refit of an earlier title. The original Ca$h ‘n Gun$ was a fun title, but a few tweaks have helped to make this heist game about bluffing your friends more balanced and a lot more fun.
You are one of a crew of gangsters who has managed a successful heist. Now comes the hard part – splitting up the take. Up to eight players gather around the table and grab a miniature foam gun. After that turn’s mob boss sets out the available loot, each player loads up his gun with a “Click! Click!” or a “”Bang!” card (by laying it facedown on the table). Afterwards, everyone aims their gun at someone else. Is your fellow criminal bluffing, or are they about to actually injure you? Chicken out, and you lose your share of the take, but only the player with the most money who is still alive at the end can win.
Silly, fast, and raucous, Ca$h ‘n Gun$ is a great fit for players new to tabletop gaming, and is an idea filler in between longer games for experienced crews.
D&D Attack Wing
Publisher: WizKids Games
Ever since I read the Dragonlance fantasy novels as a kid, I’ve had a fascination with the idea of midair dragon duels. In cooperation with Wizards of the Coast, WizKids this year continued the successful formula established by Star Wars: X-Wing and Star Trek: Attack Wing, and added a dragon-fighting game into the mix.
The excellent FlightPath game system governs your movements and actions in Attack Wing, offering a dynamic game of guessing your opponent’s strategies within the limits of their unit’s capabilities.
A base starter set includes three gorgeous dragon miniatures to get your game started, but there are already a number of expansion figures to take your game to the next level. In particular, the addition of ground troops like giants help to change up the feel of the game. Add in some beautiful card art and other solid components, and this is one game that’s going to fulfill a lot of childhood fantasies.
[Next Page: My favorite tabletop game of 2014, plus a game that combines physical minis with a digital app]
Dead of Winter
Publisher: Plaid Hat Games
My personal favorite game from 2014 is Plaid Hat’s evocative and theme-driven Dead of Winter. If you’re a fan of the type of tense human dramas that play out in The Walking Dead comics or TV show, or your gaming group is simply a fan of deep narrative options, Dead of Winter is a must-play.
You and your friends are members of a small colony of survivors trying to eke out a sad existence in the wake of a zombie apocalypse. Although the danger of the flesh-eating creatures is ever-present, players must also deal with the ongoing needs of survival, as well as the possibility that one or more of their fellow players may be actively seeking to sabotage the colony.
Ostensibly, each player is working together towards a common victory goal in each scenario. But to win, each player must also fulfill a secret objective – some of which might conflict with other players’ goals. Depending on the flow of the story, you can even be exiled from the colony. Add in some fascinating narrative crossroad moments, and you get one of the most intriguing twists on narrative progression in board gaming I’ve ever seen. While Dead of Winter is not recommended for families, (themes include violence, sex, and other adult topics), other gaming groups will undoubtedly find a lot to love in Plaid Hat’s first Crossroads game. I can’t wait to see what Plaid Hat does with this game structure next.
Publisher: Harebrained Schemes
Earlier this year, we debated exactly how to cover Golem Arcana. Is it a video game or a miniature-focused board game? Ultimately, we decided that its focus on physical component play made it more the latter, but even so, video game players will find Golem Arcana one of the most accessible and fun ways to explore the tabletop scene.
That’s because so much of the heavy lifting of Golem Arcana’s rules is completed by the accompanying digital app. An innovative stylus is used to touch the board and the highly detailed miniature game pieces, and the stylus sends a signal to the app that provides details such as unit movement, terrain details, and more.
The dueling game sets two players against one another, each controlling giant magical golems, and the strategic gameplay is rich and rewarding. However, unlike many miniature skirmish games, you don’t need to spend hours learning the ins and outs of combat navigation, leaving each player to focus on their units and how to best their opponent.
Golem Arcana is highly expandable for serious miniature enthusiasts, but it’s also just about the best introduction I can imagine into skirmish games of this style. If you’re looking for a fun strategic option, but you’ve been scared of the complexities of tabletop rules, this is the game for you.
Publisher: Passport Game Studios
Cthulhu Mythos fans rejoice! Nearly every year brings us some new twist on exploring the nightmarish world of Lovecraft’s horror fiction, and this year is no exception. Passport’s excellent competitive title flips the genre on its head, and puts you in charge of the malicious cultists seeking to bring about the return of ancient and evil god-like beings. Beyond the demented story, Kingsport Festival provides some great gameplay for three to five players.
In each turn, players roll dice that are then placed on various Cthulhu Mythos beings on the board’s periphery. By beseeching these god-like entities, you gain spells, resources, and other benefits that help you to expand your influence across the town of Kingsport. Along the way, you’ll fight heroic investigators trying to halt your insidious plans, as well as block other cultists from getting the influence and power they need.
Kingsport Festival shines because of the constant choices before every player. The interesting dice-placement mechanic encourages creative thinking, and demands careful deployment in every single turn.
The extremely dark thematic ideas of Kingsport Festival should ward off some gaming groups from this otherwise excellent game. If you can embrace the idea of going evil for one gaming night, Kingsport Festival is chock full of challenge and hard choices.
Shadows of Brimstone
Publisher: Flying Frog Productions
Imagine a gun-toting trip into the Wild West, but add in a healthy dose of cosmic horror and otherworldly shenanigans, and you know what to expect from Shadows of Brimstone. Flying Frog’s stellar adventure and exploration game is an ideal choice for players looking for a fully cooperative experience with an unusual theme.
Shadows of Brimstone comes in one of two separate versions – City of the Ancients and Swamps of Death. Each game is independent and can be played alone, but if you become a big fan, grabbing the other version raises the player cap from four to six, and adds new setting and scenario options onto the table.
A great modular board and smartly designed mechanics make Shadows of Brimstone fun, but it’s the option for an ongoing scenario-driven campaign that really helps Shadows of Brimstone stand out. Grab this beefy game if you’re looking for an excellent game to keep your group busy for a few months in a continuous progression.
[Next Page: A game to scratch that Star Wars itch, and a chance to travel back in time]
Star Wars Imperial Assault
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
With Star Wars movie fervor on the rise, many gamers are looking for something new to play in that galaxy far, far away. Enter Imperial Assault, a massive and impressive board game that should more than sate your need for some lightsaber-slashing and stormtrooper-stomping.
Based on the strong design of Fantasy Flight’s dungeon/combat game, Descent, the new Imperial Assault puts up to four players in control of an elite team of rebel operatives fighting the Empire in the wake of the first Death Star’s destruction. Another player controls the forces of the Empire, lending a competitive vibe to an otherwise cooperative experience.
In addition to an ongoing campaign option, Imperial Assault also supports skirmish play for a more one-off Star Wars battle.
Smooth and smartly streamlined rules offer tactical complexity, and the pervading elements of Star Wars lore are unmistakable. Imperial Assault is a big game, and should provide many sessions of fun for you and your fellow Star Wars fans.
Publisher: Z-Man Games
First released in Japan in 2011, Tragedy Looper just made it stateside this year – and we’re lucky it finally arrived. This wildly clever game combines deduction and storytelling with a healthy dose of time travel. The result is unlike any other game on the market.
One player is the mastermind, whose fickle and malicious nature aims to see horrible tragedies like murder and suicide unfold. The other one to three players are protagonists desperately seeking to halt these tragedies before they occur. Individual characters have stats like goodwill, intrigue, and paranoia, and move between various locations as cards are played on them that affect what they can and can’t do.
If certain conditions are met by the end of the day (a single turn) then the tragedy occurs, and the Mastermind wins the round. At that point, a time loop takes players back to the beginning, and the protagonists try to deduce what led to the tragedy, and how they can prevent it the next time around.
A beautiful manga art style and storytelling in the vein of some of the best Japanese anime and video games gives Tragedy Looper a strong thematic draw. However, it’s the Quantum Leap-esque mechanic at the center of the game that helps it stand out as one of 2014’s most unusual and surprising board games.
The Witcher Adventure Game
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
With the recent delay of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, many of us are more than ready for another journey with Geralt the monster hunter. The excellent new board game within the franchise is steeped in the characters and fantasy tone of the series, and is a great way to reconnect with The Witcher.
The board game iteration of The Witcher has an elegant and carefully balanced structure in which each player takes on not only a different character, but entirely different goals as well. Play as Geralt, and many quests and problems are solved with the tip of your sword. Take on the role of Triss, and your adventures are focused on the use of magic. Meanwhile, Dandelion the bard is as likely to resolve quests by successfully talking his way out of them, or running away.
Somehow, all these story-based encounters balance perfectly together, and make for a tense game of exploration and dark fantasy. Add in some beautiful art and components, including some great-looking dice and a vibrant board design, and The Witcher’s trek into the board game space is an adventure well worth having.
[Next Page: Looking for something more involved? Check out picks for the best role-playing games of 2014]
RPG BONUS LIST!
This year, I’ve put aside a special place to acknowledge some of my favorite tabletop role-playing games of the year, set apart from the more single-session focused board and card games described above.
Dungeons & Dragons
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
The 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons was a long time coming. After a contentious 4th edition of the world’s most well-known role-playing game, Wizards of the Coast spent years in a very public playtest to hammer out its ideal vision for the game’s next iteration.
The wait was worth it, with a remarkably polished and thoughtfully constructed gaming system that provides flexibility and phenomenal ease of play. Each of the game’s three core books are finally out, including the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual, and together, they’re all you need to craft and play endless fantasy adventures.
Pathfinder: Advanced Class Guide
If your role-playing group wants to stick with the excellent and time-tested mechanics on display in the Pathfinder RPG, then 2014’s biggest addition is the Advanced Class Guide. This excellent expansion to the core game is ideal for gaming groups that have already spent a few years playing Pathfinder, and are looking for something to freshen up sessions.
Ten new base classes like the investigator and swashbuckler are the real highlights here. Many of these additions combine features from previously established classes into a new whole that has its own thematic hook. In addition, all the game’s classes have new options, including variant abilities and a host of new feats.
The Advanced Class Guide is chock full of options, and it serves as a potent reminder this year that the new version of D&D has some potent competition on the market.
Star Wars: Age of Rebellion
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
I was a big fan of the initial release of Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars RPG last year. Edge of the Empire offered a great starting point, focused on adventures on the fringes of galactic civilization.
The standalone Age of Rebellion RPG is compatible with that earlier release, but can also be played by itself. This new angle on Star Wars action focuses on the Galactic Civil War and taking part in the Rebel Alliance as it seeks to pull down the Empire.
In addition to a host of new ships, abilities, classes, and more, Age of Rebellion also adds a new role-playing focused mechanic for your character called duty. Duty informs your player’s involvement with the rebels, and also helps to guide your character choices as you move through adventures.
These new features are laid on top of an already stellar narrative-focused role-playing system. The unique Star Wars dice and the way they help to resolve chance situations lead to some great action moments. If you’ve always wanted to tell your own story set against the backdrop of the original Star Wars movies, Age of Rebellion is the right choice.
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
Rarely has a title so fully encapsulated the nature of a game sourcebook. Monte Cook Games’ follow-up to its excellent Numenera RPG is The Strange, a game of reality-hopping craziness with an incredibly inventive fiction and solid but simple game systems to back it up.
The Strange operates under the assumption that there are nearly endless worlds linked together in a network, and rare individuals can tap into this knowledge to shift between them. Some worlds are governed by magic, some by technology, and some are simply figments of imagination brought to life in a corporeal space.
Players move back and forth between worlds, changing their bodies and even genders to adjust to the new locations. All the while, the simple-to-pick-up Cypher system puts narrative control in the players’ hands, and leaves the GM free to focus on interesting encounters and crazy moments.
Wrapping your head around The Strange can take a while, and the game seems clearly designed with experienced role-players in mind. With that said, it’s one of the freshest and most flexible RPG systems I’ve ever encountered, and it deserves the attention of any players out there fascinated by the weird.
These board, card, and role-playing games are just a sampling of the hundreds of awesome tabletop experiences that released in 2014. However, if you’re looking for some other options, you should check out Game Informer’s Top Tabletop Games of 2013 and Top Tabletop Games of 2012.