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The Top Tabletop Games Of 2016

by Matt Miller on Dec 23, 2016 at 09:00 AM

The field of board, card, miniature, and role-playing gaming continued its meteoric growth this year, exploring hundreds of innovative designs and varied themes. The selections here run the gamut from family-friendly stacking games to complex strategic affairs for dedicated hobby veterans.

If you want more tabletop gaming recommendations than what you can find right here, you can check out our dedicated Top of the Table hub, as well as selections from recent years, including picks for the best tabletop games of 2015, 2014, 2013, and 2012.

To explore the full article, click through the selections on page one (here), two, and three for ten of the best in board, card, and miniature gaming, ordered alphabetically. For five of the most compelling role-playing releases of 2016, hop to page four

Captain Sonar
Publisher: Matagot

Think of Captain Sonar as if Battleship grew up, layered on a wealth of new facets, and invited more players into the mix. Teams of up to four take on distinct roles as captain, first mate, engineer, and sonar operator, and navigate their submarine through treacherous waters in search of the enemy. A divider screen splits the table in half as each crew operates in secret, leading to tense but laugh-inducing confrontations. The game’s components, in particular, are a surprise; rather than cards and dice, the game is almost entirely played with dry-erase markers on erasable plastic sheets. Captain Sonar is ideally played by a full complement of 4v4 player teams, but it can also work with as few as two players; the focus on cooperation, coordination, and detection makes for a thrilling competition. Read a more complete write-up to learn more.

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Codenames Pictures
Publisher: Czech Games Edition

The follow-up to last year’s widely-praised Codenames is just as fun as its predecessor. Two opposing teams of spies try to hunt down agents in the field, but instead of secret words, the guesswork is all about surreal pictures. Spymasters give clues that relate to specific cards, and the rest of the team puzzles out which pictures match. Innovative, deductive, and highly replayable, this new variation is great on its own or can seamlessly combine with the original game. In addition, Pictures offers some new variant play options that are a lot of fun to discover, even if you’ve already played dozens of sessions with the first game. Codenames Pictures (and its predecessor) are a perfect choice for parties where you might expect team sizes to fluctuate, as the game easily supports players drifting in and out of the fun. Of all the tabletop game releases of the last few years, the Codenames family of games has an almost universal appeal that is unmatched. You can get more details about the game in our full recommendation.

Conan
Publisher: Monolith

Fantasy miniature combat takes center stage in this adventure game in the one-vs-many style. A single player takes the role of the overlord and his minions, while everyone else controls Conan or one of his companions. Scenario-based battles put tremendous control in the hands of players to shape how a fight unfolds, while the Overlord employs a brilliant and balanced control mechanic that keeps the action taut and moving fast across the four included board maps.  Adult fantasy fans will thrill at the constant battles, even if the sex and violence of the art and actions makes this a no-go for some, particularly younger players. 

Next Page: Build the monuments of ancient Egypt, and uncover the secrets of a Lovecraftian mansion

Imhotep
Publisher: Thames & Kosmos

Ancient Egypt needs stone masons in this light and easy-to-learn twist on classic Euro-style action selection and resource management. Quick turns and seemingly simple choices layer in depth as any given game of Imhotep unfolds. Players deliver stone blocks to sites of antiquity, like towering obelisks and majestic pyramids. With multiple ways to score points, each player must balance the need to stock boats and deliver blocks to a desired port. Elegant and intricately balanced, Imhotep is this year’s choice for a pure but easy-to-learn strategy experience. If your family or friends are hungry for rewarding strategy, but they aren't necessarily looking to spend countless hours learning something complicated, then Imhotep offers accessible play that is nonetheless elegant and amusing. 

Junk Art
Publisher: Pretzel Games

Mixing structural know-how with aesthetic beauty, Junk Art is a tactile stacking game about strangely shaped rings, bars, beams, and pots that must somehow fit together into growing (and delicate) towers. The dozen gameplay variants keep sessions fresh, from desperate races to finish your tower, to challenging competitions for height or color-matching. Gameplay is brisk, entertaining, and adaptable to group skill level.  It’s easy to admire the dozens of colorful wooden blocks that make up the game’s components, and the use of cards that match each game piece offer an easy way to randomize piece selection. Family and friend groups with a penchant for structures and engineering will be delighted by the focus on balance, and replay value is particularly high. If you're still not sure, read more about the game in our dedicated write-up.

Mansions of Madness, 2nd Edition
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games

Narrative moments steal the show in this app-aided adventure into the menacing Cthulhu mythos. Players cooperate to investigate a supernatural site, encountering mind-shattering monsters and mental challenges in one of several story-focused scenarios. The heavy lifting of rules in this new edition comes through a free digital application, admirably keeping the gameplay focus on teamwork and the existential hysteria of your sanity-impaired heroes. Detailed unpainted minis stoke the imagination, showing off seemingly helpless investigators coming face to face with tentacled terrors and unhinged cultists. Mansions of Madness also has a great puzzle mechanic that’s used a few times in each scenario, demanding that players work together to breach doors or uncover secrets through multi-step puzzles that unfold within the app. In virtually every aspect of the game, horror fans should appreciate the focus on story, discovery, and lurid Lovecraftian insanity. We've got a complete evaluation and additional details right here.

Next Page: Take your final exam in Potions Class, and explore a galaxy far, far away

Potion Explosion
Publisher: CMON

The Potions final exam is here, and only the cleverest brewers can graduate. With its dispensary of colored marble ingredients, Potion Explosion might look like a match-three video game, but actually offers a deep and entertaining mix of resource acquisition and point maximizing. Completed potions come back into play as special abilities that change the playfield, keeping kids and adults alike constantly needing to shift their tactics.  The physical marble dispensary at the center of play is great fun, and the random nature of the way marbles fall into its slots keeps everyone paying attention, even when it’s not their turn, as they look for new ways to optimize their score. 

Scythe
Publisher: Stonemaier Games

Giant steampunk mechs wander the countryside of a beleaguered Eastern Europe, and you must lead your faction to popularity, seizing power as you go. Scythe is a stunning mix of activities, juggling combat, faction development, exploration, and more across a sprawling map filled with resources and story encounters. Everything from the in-game coins to the miniature mechs and leaders help to reinforce the unusual and original themes and setting. A clever approach to upgrades is particularly innovative, encouraging thoughtful deployment of resources across your playmat, leading to tough decisions of what actions and abilities you want to prioritize. The intimidating scope isn’t for beginners, but longtime hobbyists should rejoice, as Scythe is one of the most sophisticated and multi-layered strategy games in a long time, filled with lavish illustrations and cleverly realized mechanics.  

SeaFall
Publisher: Plaid Hat Games

Patient gaming groups that meet regularly will be surprised by this ongoing and ever-changing campaign of adventure and discovery on the high seas. SeaFall is an ambitious legacy game that finds players exploring a wide-open ocean board, discovering new lands, uncovering lost civilizations, and unlocking secrets that reveal themselves at designated moments throughout multiple game sessions. Complex and often slow-paced, SeaFall is nonetheless unlike any game you’ve played, where the rules (and even the cards and components) change in response to your choices. SeaFall should only be tackled by groups willing to commit to several lengthy sessions, but design purists are likely to fall in love with the ways all the disparate elements of the experience fit together. 

Star Wars: Rebellion
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games

Dedicated Jedi who want an injection of character into their asymmetric strategy should strongly consider a run at Rebellion. Imagine retelling the classic trilogy with your own twists and turns, complete with captured heroes, planet-destroying Death Stars, and hidden rebel bases. Fantasy Flight’s massive game balances narrative and strategy in elegant counterpoint, and features space combat, daring missions, area conquest, and deception. The Imperial hunt for the Alliance has a completely different feel of play compared to the desperate attempts by the Rebel players to build support among the galactic citizenry, but somehow it’s all perfectly balanced and fun. This is the Star Wars board game you always imagined playing. Check out the complete review for more. 

Next Page: Investigate five of the most exciting releases in tabletop role-playing games from 2016

In addition to the card, board, and miniature titles highlighted earlier in this article, it would be a shame to not highlight some of the innovation and excitement unfolding in the role-playing scene. Writers and designers continue to explore new takes on established themes and games, and this year’s selections include everything from brand new games, to new revisions, and even the revival of a particular mega-adventure that deserves special highlighting.  

Delta Green: Agent’s Handbook
Publisher: Arc Dream Publishing

Most Lovecraftian horror stories default to the 1920’s New England setting that first gave them voice. But what if that same Cthulhu mythos fast-forwarded to the modern era, where an ultra-secret agency tracks the supernatural oddities that threaten to emerge, destroying both sanity and life? That’s the gist behind the latest iteration of Delta Green, a long-running RPG setting rooted in the Cthulhu mythology, and now unfolding as a new standalone edition. The Agent’s Handbook is the primary player supplement that is already available, set to be joined soon by a larger core release that includes additional detail for the “Handler” GM-style role. But even with this opening player-targeted book, you can easily get started on gaming within the Delta Green universe, with rules that include everything from character creation and gear to rules for handling the slow descent into madness.  Delta Green puts a focus on tense investigations, unexpected combat, and an ever-present impression of fear. 

Dungeons & Dragons: Curse of Strahd
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast

The world’s most well-known role-playing game continued to unfold new content this year, but an easy favorite is the massive adventure entitled Curse of Strahd, which recreates one of the most memorable adventures in D&D history – Ravenloft. That original early 1980s adventure helped to popularize horror role-playing, and subsequently blossomed into a dedicated campaign setting. This retrofit to the original adventure includes a full storyline for ten levels of character development, but it also goes out of its way to refresh the setting of Castle Ravenloft and its surroundings. Curse of Strahd does a phenomenal job of keeping the action and encounters freeform, allowing groups to dictate how the adventure unfolds, and when and where they go next. Classic gothic horror storytelling takes center stage in Curse of Strahd, and the return of this adventure for the new edition of D&D provides the perfect opportunity for newcomers to get a taste for one of the definitive role-playing classics.

Exalted Third Edition
Publisher: White Wolf Publishing, Onyx Path Publishing

The sheer audacity and size of this role-playing game is enough to capture attention, but it’s the smartly written rules, rich world-building, and over-the-top in-game narrative action that are the real reasons to give it a chance. This new edition is absolutely massive. The full-color core rulebook clocks in at over 650 pages, chock full of great writing and a tons of illustrations. The system focuses on narrative richness in your play sessions, which is especially apparent through the insane combat and stunts systems that define action sequences during play. Mixing together influences from anime, kung-fu movies, Final Fantasy video games, and epic fantasy novels, Exalted puts players in control of nearly godlike entities whose actions can help to reshape the entire world. Exalted isn’t for beginning role-players, and wading through its weighty tome is a big job, but veteran groups are likely to be blown way by the flexible and engaging options on offer. 

No Thank You, Evil!
Publisher: Monte Cook Games

It’s rare that I can recommend a new kid-targeted role-playing game without caveats for house rules to strip away non-kid-friendly elements. But unqualified recommendation is easy in the case of Monte Cook Games' latest creation, a brilliant and highly-targeted introduction to RPGs for the youngest players among us. Players build their character around a simple sentence that describes themselves; more complicated sentences are reserved for older players that want more complexity. Adventures unfold in the magical land of Storia, which is filled with the bombastic creatures and situations of childhood imagination. Charming, easy to learn, and ideal for family gaming groups of mixed ages, this is my current favorite option for introducing kids to the fun of the medium. Looking for advice for introducing this game and other kid-targeted RPGs to the young players in your home? We've got you covered

Shadowrun Anarchy
Publisher: Catalyst Game Labs

The concept behind Shadowrun is easy to cheer for. Envision a cyberpunk future populated by creatures drawn from magical literature, like elves, dragons, and trolls. Shamanic magic melds with cyber-espionage in a heady mix of sci-fi and fantasy. The current edition of the Shadowrun RPG is great fun for experienced role-players, with tons of detail to help flesh out characters and worlds. But Shadowrun’s 5th edition is also an intimidating beast, and might scare away those looking for more of the theme and less of the rules. Enter Shadowrun Anarchy, an alternate ruleset to role-play in the Shadowrun universe, focused on a far less complex set of guidelines governing the way the game evolves. A smart and simple game mechanic keeps the action brisk and fun, allowing players to focus on the storytelling, and gives tremendous control to players (not just the gamemaster) to shape the ongoing story and scenario. 

 

Thanks for checking out this year’s selections for the best tabletop games. There are so many games that deserve mention that couldn’t squeeze into this accounting, so I hope you’ll continue to check out the column in the coming months, as I’ll be highlighting some of my other recent favorites after the New Year. If you want some additional recommendations right now and you missed them on the first page of the article, you can click on the banner below to visit the Top of the Table hub, or for selections from previous years, you can see picks for the best tabletop games in 2015, 2014, 2013, and 2012. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share your favorite releases from this year in the comments below.