column

The Top Tabletop Games Of 2017

by Matt Miller on Dec 29, 2017 at 03:00 PM

The tabletop gaming world has seen a year of innovation and design excellence, with dozens of stellar projects to discover. It’s challenging to narrow down to just a few standouts; this year’s selections attempt to target the most innovative, artistically rich, and elegantly designed games that rolled out to players over the last 12 months.  

Many of the best releases of 2017 boasted intricate “legacy” elements, allowing groups to carry over storytelling and add new game elements from one session to the next. Other projects had abstract, single-session strategy designs that felt inventive and surprising. Still others managed to capture the spirit of existing fictional universes, and translate them into stunning game concepts. 

Flip through the pages of the article to see some of the best the tabletop scene had to offer in 2017. The first half of the article includes dedicated board, card, and miniature-driven games, listed alphabetically. The second half of the article focuses on some of the most intriguing tabletop role-playing products of the year. Enjoy!

The 7th Continent
Publisher: Serious Poulp
Who’s it for? Invested explorers in for a lengthy expedition

Inspired by the “weird” pulp fiction of the early 20th century, The 7th Continent is a story-driven adventure and exploration game built to be played over many interconnected sessions. You and your fellow explorers bear a mysterious curse, and only by discovering the secrets of a lost land can you hope to survive. Wildly innovative, and just as punishing to its heroes as the Lovecraftian stories it emulates.

The 7th Continent can be played solo or cooperatively, and feels like a choose-your-own-adventure, but with significant strategic decisions, skill checks, and visual elements mixed in. The game also features an elegant system for saving your game between sessions, getting you back into the action quickly the next time you play. For more, read our complete review

Azul
Publisher: Plan B Games
Who’s it for? Artistic tacticians 

This stunning yet accessible game casts players as tile-laying wall artists in service to the Portuguese king. Take turns choosing gorgeous resin tiles to fill out your wall, scoring for smart collection and placement. Abstract and beautiful, Azul’s brisk playtime is matched by high replayability.

Azul mixes a drafting mechanic (as players purchase tiles from the available supply) with an intriguing placement challenge, as your board has only limited spots for any given tile. The dynamic becomes more complex the deeper into the game one goes. Azul appeals to player groups who enjoy planning and an indirect theme, and repeated plays reveal the depth of the many paths to victory. 

Charterstone
Publisher: Stonemaier Games
Who’s it for? Enterprising village builders 

There’s not much to your tiny village as your first game of Charterstone begins. The real joy is watching the game board grow and secrets get revealed over many sessions. Players compete to place workers and build new structures across the charming and colorfully illustrated landscape. After a dozen games, your village is complete, and your copy of the game remains playable, but completely different from any other copy.  

Charterstone is a change of pace from Stonemaier’s recent smash hit, Scythe, which was included in last year’s list. While drastically different settings, both games feature compelling strategic decisions and gorgeous (if very different) art styles. The great appeal of Charterstone is the increasingly complex board, as new spaces are getting added all the time, leading to ever harder choices about how to proceed. I also appreciate that Stonemaier is offering a “recharge pack” for the game, letting you reset your copy and play the entire campaign again, if desired.

Next Page: Visit a post-nuclear wasteland, and take on an offer you can’t refuse from the Don


Clank! In! Space!
Publisher: Renegade Game Studios
Who’s it for? Sneaky outer space thieves with a sense of humor

An evolution of the excellent deck-building fantasy card game called Clank, the new version is more than just a sci-fi reskin. Players attempt to sneak aboard the evil space overlord’s spaceship and steal his stuff, all the while making sure not to make too much noise and attract the bad guys. The amusing card art may parody your favorite outer space tropes, but the engrossing stealth-based gameplay is the real attraction.

Deck-building games have seen endless variations over recent years, but this sci-fi stealth variant succeeds with humor and clever twists on the familiar formula of building up a growing personal collection of available cards to be used in play. The silly art and jokes are juxtaposed against a sophisticated game system with tons of depth and replay potential.  

Fallout
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Who’s it for? Post-nuclear super mutants ready to explore the wasteland

Fans of the video game franchise can’t go wrong with this stellar adventure game. From uncovering an unexplored map filled with irradiated monsters to leveling up your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. skills, the board game nails the setting. A brilliant event-based card deck system shuffles in new specific cards in response to decisions each player makes, so every playthrough is customized as you play.

This new Fallout board game taps into the setting locations from Fallout 3, Fallout 4, and their expansions, and echoes many of the familiar factions and conflicts from those narratives. But the board game is much more than a retread of the video games, and offers lots of original (and often darkly humorous) encounters, situations, allies, and enemies, all of which nail the bleak yet compelling tones of the Fallout universe. Read more about how the game works from our original reveal story.

Gloomhaven
Publisher: Cephalofair Games
Who’s it for? Especially ambitious dungeon crawlers 

The massive scope of this tactical fantasy combat game is hard to overstate. Players work together while pursuing their own secret goals as they confront dungeon adventures and engage in an ingenious card-based battle system. In between adventures, the entire world grows and changes in response to player choices, leading to a sprawling campaign that lasts dozens of hours. 

Gloomhaven is imposing, challenging, and wholly original. The battles are tense and varied, and the game world is a blast to uncover. While Gloomhaven isn’t for beginners to the hobby, more experienced gamers are sure to be blown away by the breadth and depth of what’s on offer. You can also read our more extensive write-up and recommendation from earlier this year. 

The Godfather: Corleone’s Empire
Publisher: CMON
Who’s it for? Wannabe gangsters who enjoy area control

Lead one of the crime families of New York, vying for supremacy under the wary eye of the Don. Melding classic Euro-style worker placement with zone control of New York’s boroughs, Corleone’s Empire also boasts some gorgeous unpainted minis, and even a metal suitcase to hold all your laundered money.  

CMON is known for its remarkable miniatures, which help boost the production value of Corleone’s Empire tremendously. But the smart system of emulating criminal acts and territory control stands out, and makes the game shine. The Godfather features that rare combination of accessible and easy-to-learn systems, but without losing strategic sophistication. To figure out if this is the crime family for you, we’ve got a dedicated review to peruse.

Next Page: Try to rebuild the world after it’s been ravaged by epidemics, and grow the tallest tree in 2017’s greenest board game

Pandemic Legacy: Season 2
Publisher: Z-Man Games
Who’s it for? Cooperative survivors ready to make hard choices

The first Pandemic Legacy saw humanity’s slow descent into chaos as disease overwhelmed civilization. 70 years later, it’s time to reclaim the world. One of the most engrossing cooperative games ever made receives a sequel in this compelling campaign of resilience and impossible decisions. Every session, new rules, characters, and game board elements change the dynamic, leaving players reeling to keep up.

While Season 2 is standalone in its rules and setup, your gaming group is best off tackling Season 1 before you dive into the post-apocalyptic angst of Season 2. There’s little doubt that you’ll want to continue after you experience the fun of progressing through that first campaign. Pandemic Legacy is one of the defining game experiences in the modern board game scene, and should not be missed. Learn more in our examination of both Season 1 and 2

Photosynthesis
Publisher: Blue Orange Games
Who’s it for? Kids and adults who love the natural world

This accessible yet surprisingly nuanced strategy game challenges players to grow a forest, competing to capture sunlight for your color of tree as the sun slowly circles the board, shining down from new directions all the time. As your three-dimensional tree game pieces grow, their shadows hamper the growth of other seedlings, transforming the simple mechanic into a conundrum of careful positioning.

Photosynthesis came out of nowhere this year, surprising many with its simple ecological themes and instantly appealing board presentation. The vibrant colors and brisk play time make it an ideal family game for all but the youngest kids, but the game is also an easy recommendation to veteran players, who are likely to find the playstyle refreshing and innovative.

When I Dream
Publisher: Repos
Who’s it for? Party gamers who love words and stories

One player dons a blindfold as the titular dreamer, and everyone else prompts them with clues, trying to get them to guess specific words printed on the beautifully illustrated cards. The problem is, not everyone at the table is giving correct clues. Afterward, the dreamer narrates their (likely bonkers) dream to include the guessed words, leading to a hilarious but rich game of deduction and deception.

When I Dream boasts some surreal and breathtaking art, and the different roles and the trickery they lead to evolve the game into something more than it first appears. Initially, some might balk at the strange idea of wearing a blindfold, or players narrating ludicrous dream sequences, but you may be surprised how quickly disparate player groups warm to the experience, which plays fast, fun, and funny. 

Next Page: Dive into the best role-playing games of 2017

The Best Role-Playing Games Of 2017

In recent years of this article’s publication, the tabletop role-playing games have been included as a separate category from board, card, and miniature games. That’s a decision that's based around the divergent audiences that are often looking for RPGs, as compared to standalone board games. 

This year, the RPG accolades are once again divided out into their own section, but if you’ve perused our Top Tabletop Games in previous years, you’ll notice some new styles of games are included in this second half of the article. That’s because several of this year’s most compelling role-playing experiences fall outside of the normal rulebook or setting categories, and are effectively hybrid experiences between traditional board games and role-playing ones, and are sometimes even built to be played without a game master. Their inclusion in this RPG section of the list (instead of in the board game section) is largely a judgment call, based on the focus on storytelling and choices over combat or strategy. That’s ultimately a loose distinction, but at the end of the day, it added up to more excellent game recommendations to share with you. 

To accommodate this growing category of games, we’ve expanded the number of highlighted role-playing releases from five to ten entries, listed alphabetically below.   

Conan: Adventures In An Age Undreamed Of
Publisher: Modiphius Entertainment
Who’s it for? Barbarians looking for an authentic pulp fantasy

The role-playing game milieu offers no shortage of rich fantasy settings to uncover and explore, so what makes this new Conan game worth discovering? The answer lies in the incredible attention to detail, setting, and tone that Modiphius has imbued in the new game. This is a deeply faithful homage to the original Conan stories of Robert E. Howard. If you’ve ever gotten lost in those brutal and lush pulp stories, you can be guaranteed to find things that make you smile in this RPG release. 

Using a variation of the flexible 2d20 rules, this new Conan rulebook includes exhaustive rules for character creation that focus on character history, caste, education, and other elements that shape your (potentially barbaric) hero. GMs also have lengthy entries to explore, not only on adventure crafting, but how to maintain the aesthetics and tone of a Hyborian Age narrative. 

Howard’s sword-and-sorcery epics were foundational in early 20th century fantasy storytelling, and the developers at Modiphius consulted with scholars who know that work better than anyone in order to formulate the game. Add in a wealth of gorgeous color art that draws on the talents of numerous iconic Conan artists, and this release is as much a tribute to the Conan tales as it is a game in its own right. 

Fog of Love
Publisher: Hush Hush Project
Who’s it for? Couples who enjoy play-acting and storytelling

While it won’t be for everyone, Fog of Love is certainly one of the most unusual and surprising role-playing experiences of the year. Exclusively a two-player game, Fog of Love is a romantic comedy in which each player controls a character in a relationship with the other player’s character. As such, it’s an ideal game to play with your partner or spouse. 

While the outward appearance of a board and cards make this seem like a straight-up board game at first glance, the meat of gameplay is all about role-playing. Each player has unique traits that they bring to the relationship, as well as goals for their character’s future. Because of the variety in those goals, Fog of Love is sometimes cooperative, sometimes competitive, and sometimes a bit of both. Story scenarios play out just like you might find in a romantic film, but you decide what happens with the two leads of the narrative.

Fog of Love is impressively original, and unlike any game you will have encountered before. Couples who love improvisation, deduction, and light-hearted trickery will be delighted by the strange but immersive structure of the game, which also just happens to say some compelling things about love and relationships. 

Genesys Core Rulebook
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Who’s it for? Role-playing groups who desire narrative depth in a setting of their own devising

One of the most compelling mechanics to emerge into RPGs in recent years came from Fantasy Flight’s narrative dice system, which first rolled out as part of the publisher’s Star Wars role-playing game. In 2017, that narrative dice system was given new life independent of the Star Wars license, and rebuilt for play in any imaginable setting, dubbed the Genesys role-playing game. 

There’s no shortage of excellent “generic” role-playing systems on the market, but Genesys does a lot of smart things in its core book to help it stand out. The custom dice that are used with the game help players become more engrossed in telling the story, as the die results tell you not only whether you succeed or fail, but also provide info on positive and negative side effects that might occur alongside your action. Players are then encouraged to talk through the scenario that unfolds. 

Genesys also excels in its guidance on crafting your own homebrew campaign. Included in the book are several shortform sketches of campaign settings for familiar Fantasy Flight properties, which run the gamut from fantasy to horror. But those snapshots also serve to prepare a game-runner to prep their own original universe, and explain how to integrate the rules into that fledgling setting.  

Next Page: Journey both near and far through a whimsical land, then launch into outer space as a magic-wielding explorer

Legacy of Dragonholt
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Who’s it for? We’re ready to play an RPG, but we just don’t have a game master

The Runebound universe has played host to several high-fantasy board games including Rune Wars and Descent: Journeys in the Dark. Legacy of Dragonholt maintains the rich setting of Terrinoth, but shifts gears into a focused narrative adventure with all the trappings – minus a game master. 

Legacy of Dragonholt is notable for its flexible and rewarding character creation and upgrade system. Players choose between six races and seven classes, and parties are advised to build a complementary set of skills and training in order to confront the numerous challenges that lie ahead. Over the course of six narrative adventure modules, players progress through a branching story and level up their heroes, but the Oracle game system handles all the heavy lifting in the back end and through player involvement, so there’s no need for a designated referee, storyteller, or game runner. 

A big part of the game’s thrill lies in seeing choices reverberate across the entire sweeping arc of the subsequent campaign. If your friends are always chatting about how fun it would be to try a tabletop RPG, but no one is ready to step up and run a game, Legacy of Dragonholt offers the opportunity you’ve been looking for. 

Near and Far
Publisher: Red Raven Games
Who’s it for? Players who prefer a focus on narrative choice

A sequel to the excellent Above and Below, Red Raven’s new release follows up on the game world first seen in that earlier game, but absolutely does not require prior knowledge to enjoy, as the rules and adventure are independent. Near and Far is a surprising hybrid of role-playing and board game play, with a fascinating story to tell. 

Up to four players set out in search of a lost city hidden in a land of ruins and strange creatures. Along the way, players shape their own distinct character across a campaign of ten distinct adventures. These stories unfold within the pages of a map book, where you move between unexplored locales, and uncover new secrets. 

Near and Far’s narrative is emotional and engaging, demanding constant choices that send you catapulting forward through the included book of encounters and story snippets that are read aloud to the group. The game is an ideal choice for groups that love opportunities for branching storytelling. And while the full campaign is the best way to play, the rules also include options for shorter form play modes to fit various group time constraints. Without the need for a game master or any special prep, it’s a role-playing experience with a comparatively low barrier to entry – complete with a healthy dose of board gaming aesthetics and components. 

Starfinder Core Rulebook
Publisher: Paizo
Who’s it for? Gaming groups who are tired of the standard fantasy fare, but aren’t quite ready to move on from familiar systems

The Pathfinder fantasy RPG has been a wonderful place to enjoy the role-playing hobby for a number of years. 2017 saw the release of a spin-off of that game, catapulting the narrative thousands of years into the future, where magic lives side-by-side with space-age technology. Plasma cannons get enchanted with holy avenger powers, goblins raid your ship in the depths of outer space, and heroes lead their ragtag spaceship crews into dungeon ruins hidden away on distant planets. 

Pathfinder (and by extension, Starfinder) was originally an outgrowth of Dungeons & Dragons, so players familiar with that ubiquitous system should have no problem feeling comfortable in Starfinder. But Starfinder is much more than a setting adjustment. Entirely new races, classes, and character creation options are creative and exciting, and systems like combat and skill use have been overhauled for the futuristic universe. There’s even an in-depth system to govern ship-to-ship battles out in the void.

Paizo is known for its production values, and Starfinder stays true to that reputation, with positively gorgeous full-color art canvased across the massive core rulebook. Starfinder is a standalone game of impressive complexity yet accessible presentation. Coupled with fantastic world-building, it’s a showpiece for the current rich tapestry of RPG design and aesthetics. Read more about Starfinder in our dedicated look at the game

Star Trek Adventures
Publisher: Modiphius Entertainment
Who’s it for? Star Fleet crews with a deep affection for the source material, and a desire to craft their own episodes

The second entry on this list from the enterprising team at Modiphius, this game deserves inclusion for successfully providing a chance for fans to live out the complete Star Trek fantasy, in just about any form that might take. The game defaults to a setting right in the middle of the “Next Generation” era, but the game’s most compelling trick is supporting play across any of the eras of shows and movies that you enjoy, whether that be the freewheeling antics of Kirk and crew, or explorations into the Delta Quadrant informed by the adventures of the Voyager family. 

Players take on the role of a Star Fleet crew, commonly aboard a starship, but the rules easily support just about any setup you might like – from a deep space station to a marooned planetary expedition. The adaptation of the 2d20 rule system supports both combat and social conflict, and extensive sections of the rulebook divert into galactic history, alien civilizations, and other setting elements, along with how those elements integrate into the rules. 

For fans, the lengthy Star Trek Adventures tome is exciting not just for role-playing rules, but also for glimpses at ship blueprints, insight into galactic races, and other elements of the fiction. It’s clear that the developers share fans’ deep love of the setting, and it shows, through a focus on the heady mixture of combat, diplomacy, exploration, and humanism that is the focus of the game. 

Next Page: Rediscover one of 2017’s best video game RPGs as a tabletop setting, and learn about the first major rules expansion to the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons

Torment: Tides of Numenera – The Explorer’s Guide
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
Who’s it for? Fans of the video game will find this the perfect entry-point into one of the best tabletop RPGs of the decade

One of the best video game RPGs of 2017 was Torment: Tides of Numenera, and the project has its genesis in the wonderfully bizarre campaign setting of the Numenera tabletop RPG. For players who fell in love with the specific cities and setting elements from the video game, the Tides of Numenera Explorer’s Guide offers the ideal way to continue the adventure around the table.

Author Shanna Germain brings a nuanced eye to fleshing out the locales seen in the video games, from the sprawling city of Sagus Cliffs to the insane permutations of the Bloom. In addition to a treasure trove of new setting info, the book also includes new character options, and even ways to play castoff heroes – the same kind of character you control in the video game. 

Excellently written campaign settings are a lot of fun to read through on their own, and many players of the video game might enjoy this book simply as a way to flesh out the game world. For dedicated players of the Numenera tabletop RPG, this is a stellar expansion to the world, and one that could lead to many hours of adventure.

Winterhorn
Publisher: Bully Pulpit Games
Who’s it for? Thoughtful players and real-life activists who wish to better understand the tools being used against them

The indie creative team behind the remarkable Fiasco have a new and unusual project to entice serious role-players. Winterhorn is a freeform narrative RPG for three to eight players, built with a clear motive to explore real-world issues surrounding dissent, governmental interference in free speech, and activism. 

Players take on the role of government agents, discussing and implementing plans to disrupt, dismantle, and ultimately destroy an activist group. In specific roles chosen at the start of the game, players make choices about how to interfere, using clear and deliberate strategies designed to cause maximum damage to the activists’ ability to organize and get their message out. 

Winterhorn is a fascinating cooperative experience that veers into a real-world social commentary, and playing it is meant to lead to some hard questions about the ways that governments protect their self-interest at the expense of free speech. If you’re curious about a deeply immersive and serious game exploring real-world issues, it’s one you should check out. 

Xanathar’s Guide To Everything
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Who’s it for? D&D players ready for an injection of new blood 

The 5th and most recent edition of Dungeons & Dragons has been publicly available for a few years now. In that time, we’ve seen several excellent adventures released for the game, but little in the way of printed material that expands on the core rules presented in the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual.

That all changes with the arrival of Xanathar’s Guide To Everything. This robust release is built with both DMs and players in mind, and offers several new optional rules and options to expand your D&D game. The core classes get new subclasses to try out, and additional ways to encourage the building of character backstory and personality. Dungeon Masters get new optional rules for everything from random encounters to making downtime between adventures more compelling. We also get a ton of new spells to add into a campaign, either for PCs, or their monstrous foes. 

The whole book is wrapped within the fictional wrapper of an ancient and enigmatic beholder named Xanathar, whose regular interjections within the text add flavor and fun. The book is a great addition to the already strong current edition of D&D, and one that deserves perusal by player groups, if only to decide what to use and what to throw out in a subsequent campaign.

 

If you’ve read this far, then you’re undoubtedly ready for even more gaming recommendations. Step back in time to the best games of recent years with our lists of the Best Tabletop Games of 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, and 2012. Or click on the banner at the bottom of this page to explore the full Top of the Table hub of recommendations, reveals, and reviews. As always, if you’re having trouble sifting through all the options, or there’s something specific you’re looking for, drop me a line via email or Twitter, let me know what you’re hoping to play, and I’ll do my best to send you a personalized recommendation for your friends and family. 

A special thank you to all the talented game developers and publishers who made 2017 such an exciting time to enjoy the hobby. And if you’re curious about the beautiful role-playing dice tray you saw on page 4, I’ll point you toward Game Informer’s own graphic designer, Jen Vinson. Click her name to see some of her work, and to ask about purchasing one of those dice trays for yourself or your most cherished gaming friend. Finally, a big thank you to everyone reading Top of the Table throughout 2017; it’s been exciting to see increased enthusiasm for tabletop gaming from our readers, and we’re eager to continue our coverage in 2018.