The flow of new games in 2015 just kept going, with more variety in the games I was able to sample than I found in the games I tried in the previous year. The year also saw two all-time classics from Reiner Knizia—Tigris & Euphrates and Samurai—receive slick new editions with improved artwork courtesy of Fantasy Flight Games, both essentials in any serious collection. Here’s my list of the ten best games I tried in 2015, along with a few others of note listed at the end. Machi Koro, which I thought should have won the Spiel des Jahres (game of the year) award this fall, was on my list in 2014, but the Kennerspiel des Jahres (expert’s game of the year) winner is also my #1.
10. Flea Market
A very silly game, light on strategy (although not quite devoid of it) and, in our experience, best enjoyed by the maximum five players with plenty of adult beverages around. Players buy and sell goods—each of which happens to resemble an artifact from a famous film—at a flea market, but their ability to do that and the price of any transaction is determined by the roll of the game’s three dice. It could be frustrating if you tried to play it as a serious economic game, but it is anything but series and in our experiences quick and fun with a few beers out on the table.
The year’s top complex strategy game, although the complexity comes from the number of options available to players rather than excessively lengthy rules. Orleans is simple to learn but plays out over eighteen rounds, which means you’re in for the long haul, choosing between acquiring more follower tokens to allow you to make more moves later in the game and moves that offer the potential for more points. It’s less complex than games like Le Havre or Caverna, but expects a similar level of dedication.
8. Mission: Red Planet (second edition)
This new edition of the 2005 game from Bruno Faidutti and Bruno Cathala (no relation) updated the artwork but also added several rules changes that enhanced gameplay. The steampunk theme is a bit tacked-on, but the remainder of the theme is straightforward: players compete to land astronauts on Mars and place the most in each of the various regions to gain resources from the red planet, but can also sabotage other players, launch ships before they’re fill, and even kill off astronauts already in play.
7. A Game of Thrones: Card Game
A new entry in Fantasy Flight’s series of Living Card Games®, this deckbuilder offers sophisticated gameplay that has you constantly engaged in combat (with cards, not actual weapons) with one or more opponents, and the best integration of theme and game I’ve seen in a very long time. Each player starts with a deck that represents two houses from the series, while the traits and capabilities on the character cards are closely connected to the actual characters’ details.
From Marc André, the designer of Splendor, Barony looks a bit like Settlers of Catan but is actually a clever game of territorial control where players must plan early to maximize their potential moves in the brief but critical endgame. It looks simple and will keep scores close until the final round, but the nuances of the game’s design may only become apparent after you’ve found yourself stuck without a legal move because of something you did (or didn’t do) ten moves earlier.
Tetris for two players? Uwe Rosenberg is better known for his long, complex strategy games Agricola, Le Havre, and Ad Infinitum, but he also designed this little gem where two players compete to fill up their 9×9 boards by drawing oddly-shaped “fabric” tiles from a central supply, which recalls the mechanics of that classic Russian puzzle game. The scoring is as elegant as the game play itself.
So delightfully simple, albeit not quite as full of antioxidants as the name might imply, Cacao is simple to learn and hits the right amount of randomness to give every player a fair chance to stay in the game. Players build the board as they go as in Carcassonne, but acquire points mostly by gaining and selling cacao beans from the tiles they lay or from adding water resources when those scarce tiles appear. It moves very quickly although I don’t think it has the replay value of the games above it.
3. 7 Wonders Duel
The original game 7 Wonders is an all-time great, but requires 3 to 7 players, with a 2-player rules variant that doesn’t play as well as the regular game. 7 Wonders Duel isn’t a straight adaptation of the initial game, but uses the original’s theme and some of its mechanics while incorporating more direct competition between the two players, including two victory conditions that allow one player to defeat the other before the game’s ordinary completion. Duel retains the original’s concept of “chains” of buildings, but simplifies other rules to make it a faster experience that retains replay value even for the same two players.
2. Baseball Highlights: 2045
As a full-time baseball writer and lifelong fan of the actual sport, I never thought I’d see a baseball-themed boardgame that I thought was any good. Simulation games tend to leave me cold, mostly because of the amount of time they require. Games that slap a baseball theme on some unrelated mechanic are usually silly or utterly ignorant of how the sport works. But Baseball Highlights: 2045, while definitely silly, manages to integrate the baseball theme into a basic deckbuilder game that is highly extensible and offers plenty of replay potential. It’s easy to learn and you’re never left hoping the inning is going to end soon.
1. Broom Service
The Kennerspiel des Jahres winner for 2015 was indeed the year’s best new game, a game that has surprising depth beneath the lightweight theme of witches and potions that looks like the designers swiped it from a cartoon aimed at young girls. The real separator is the mechanic around role selection, where only one person can take on a role in each round … but multiple players can try for it, meaning you have to think about timing and try to read your opponents. In an era where many complex games feel like highly sophisticated solitaire, Broom Service constantly reminds you that you’re competing against other warlocks and fairies.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.