Tabletop games are omnipresent nowadays. Whether they be party games at family gatherings, heavier strategy games or sessions of any number of the growing ranks of quality independent pen-and-paper RPGs, tabletop games are bringing more and more people together. They also happen to be quite difficult to keep up with in the same sense as you would music or video games. Release dates are often fuzzy, and you need people as well as time to invest in the hobby. That’s why we at Unwinnable are taking the approach of letting our discoveries and experiences steer the ship instead of that pesky concept of “timeliness.” As such, these are the tabletop games that spoke to us in 2018, with a healthy smattering of recommendations of some awesome, off the beaten path indie RPGs because we love them. (Jeremy Signor, Curator)
I’ve given Dungeons & Dragons a few good honest tries and I just cannot get into it. I love the roleplaying aspect, but the lack of a concrete objective breaks me out in an anxious sweat. Just tell me what you had planned, DM, and I’ll do that! That’s why I adore Betrayal at House on the Hill; it’s D&D light, steeped in a delicious eldritch horror theme. Early in the game, the mood is governed by a rising tension as players try with each dice roll to avoid triggering the haunt, their chances getting worse as the game goes on. When the action finally begins, your new motives (as well as those of your opponent[s]) are outlined in a tidy little book and each playthrough triggers a different scenario. It’s got all the stat building, characters and enriching story lines of D&D, but provides a guiding hand along the way for those of us petrified by endless choices. (Alyse Stanley)
Charterstone is a competitive legacy game where up to six players are tasked with building a new village outside the borders of the kingdom of Greengully, which each assuming stewardship over a portion of the map. Over the course of 12 rounds, you’re collectively responsible for building farms, mines, logging operations and so forth. Using its accompanying app, you can see where your village exists in the broader world relative to others who are also playing the game.
As each round moves forward, and the story (which is impacted by player actions) slowly unfolds, it becomes apparent that not everything is quite the way it seems. Yet, the even more compelling story might be the one you make up with your friends as you establish roles in your burgeoning community. The excitement of never quite knowing what’s coming next makes each round something you look forward to, and with each game lasting around an hour or two, it’s well-suited to becoming a weekly game-night fixture for a few months. (Ben Sailer)
Kingdomino was on sale and I can’t really pass up the opportunity to get a board game for less than $15. Dominoes are one of those things that were once kind of impossible to escape in my family but have since fallen out of favor. Kingdomino beautifully merges the simplicity of a tile placing game with the deep strategy of Carcassonne. I even spectacularly lost my first game because I’m bad at math and kind of careless. But even being bad at math it’s a breezy game that’s easy to pick up and difficult to master depending on the crew you have. I like lighter fare sometimes, being able to pick up and put down something is beautiful feeling. So is having something that doesn’t require a whole session to learn the rules. It might not be the kind of “showstopping” game that gets your board game crew pumped but its simple, reliable, and amazing. (David Shimomura)
The thing I love most about Azul is it’s simplicity.
The set up is easy. Each player gets a game board made up of five rows, five columns and a scoring marker. A series of intricately designed coasters that represent tile factories go in the center of your table and four brightly colored tiles are placed randomly on each coaster.
Play proceeds around the table as each player selects a particular color tile from a factory. The player then places the remaining factory tiles in between the factories. As play progresses, each player is trying to fill their mosaic with matching tiles. The trick is, you can only fill one row up with a single color per round. If you end a turn with more tiles than you can place, the extras cost you points at the end of each round.
The board and pieces are elegantly designed and the gameplay is super calming. It’s my favorite board game experience of the year! (Ian Gonzalez)
Root’s origin is an old board game standby at this point – Kickstarted smash whose stock almost instantly evaporates at cons and in stores. It’s a pyramid of hype that can’t possibly hold all that weight, or at least, so I felt before PAX Unplugged, where I succumbed to self-disgust and gave it a spin. I stand before you humbly converted, praising Root’s asymmetrical and adorable woodland control game. Like the most celebrated and imposing Euro-games, tokens pack the box and an outlined rule book teeters precariously on the lip of overwhelming interactive systems, where no player can really help the other because they’re mostly playing different games. But on the map and through the art everyone clashes, paying tolls or stealing items, expanding an empire or fomenting an explosive revolution, scraping for victory points until the combustible end. Root is rich and frothy, everything the whispers promised and more. (Levi Rubeck)
My time spent with Between Two Cities was relatively brief, with admittedly only a single game under my belt so far, but that single game was a lot of fun and encompassed a lot of things I look for in a board game. It’s simultaneously competitive and cooperative (I vastly prefer indirect over direct competition), with players trying to work together and build synergies off of their neighbors’ cities in order to maximize their own personal score. You have to construct each city like a jigsaw puzzle, with different types of buildings scoring differently depending on what they’re next to or how many of them are in a single township. You even get to manage two cities at once (hence the title) and work off of two separate neighbors, which can lead to some interesting choices and sacrifices.
Then again it might just be the indirect competition that I love so much, I dunno. (Rob Rich)
The “cult of the new” put me off of Scythe for a couple of years. Its 2016 release was characterized by omega-level hype, which is something I tend to avoid. Once I finally got it to the table earlier this year, however, I cursed myself for not giving it a shot sooner. Scythe is one of those rarities that live up to the hype, its sandbox-style gameplay wholly unique in the board game space. The incredible theme and art certainly help a great deal, too.
Once our first game was finished, everyone at the table traded strategies and made plans for how to approach the next game. Scythe had managed to worm its way into all of our minds, planting seeds of method and design. This, if you ask me, is the highest praise you can offer a game – you know you’ve got something special on your hands when you’re thinking about it after it’s been put back on the shelf. (Sam Desatoff)
By giving you enough rope to make your own noose, board games become these surprising, hilarious, entertaining things all because your choices continue to haunt you throughout. Welcome To allows you to do just that, and it combines this phenomenon with the inherently thrilling act of filling in blank spaces on a sheet until it’s something full and personal to you. A roll-and-write in the same vein as Yahtzee but infinitely more interactive and thoughtful, you’ll watch numbers and symbols appear on three decks of cards as you choose one to include in your personal town. But space is at a premium, and you can only write numbers in ascending order. Add in special scoring powers that are paired with these numbers, and you’ve got a juicy puzzle to contend with. You live with your mistakes in Welcome To, and your sheet serves as a monument to them. (Jeremy Signor)
I’ve been running a game of Blades in the Dark since this summer. Besides the post-apocalyptic Victorian Ghostbusters setting, what really stands out in John Harper’s book is the game’s format: players run in gangs, carry out self-contained jobs to make money and advance their status in the criminal underworld during their downtime. The resistance and stress mechanics let the players push back against the game master’s decrees, turning the table into a kind of push and pull conversation over what happens next. Unlike most tabletop RPGs, Blades in the Dark has a move built in to negate whatever consequences the GM just tried to lay down for your daredevil player character. But of course the half-starved thieves and scoundrels of Blades can only evade death for so long: eventually that stress counter is going to go over the edge. (Daniel Fries)
Every Wednesday during lunch period, I run a Dungeon World campaign for a group of 8th graders. These kids are from very sheltered households; most of them didn’t even know about Dungeons & Dragons until Stranger Things came out. They wanted to try a tabletop RPG but had no idea how to start. If you’ve ever seen a character sheet for D&D you’ll know why; that thing is intimidating to any first-time player, especially if you’re 13.
Dungeon World plays like a simplified, streamlined version of a standard tabletop RPG. The leveling system rewards you even in failure, and having each class’ abilities so clearly laid out helped the kids early on define who needed to take point in combat and who was a glass cannon. It’s a fantastic creative and cooperative game and we all adore it. Wish them luck in destroying Miss Smithers and the homeowners’ association. (Gingy Gibson)
I don’t play a lot of tabletop RPG’s. I don’t really care substantially about wizards and big men with bigger, compensating swords. It has been this whole in my social life – as friends rally together to fight beholders and dragons, I am left out of the loop. Until World Wide Wrestling. See, I may not care about tabletop RPG’s, but I care an awful lot about professional wrestling. Nathan D. Paoletta has managed to construct a tabletop RPG that somehow feels like the rough scrabble world of indie wrestling, a world where I can let friends play with weird wrestling gimmicks while playing my own role as a sort of owner-cum-beleaguered announcer. It’s all the things other RPG’s promised me, but this time, I actually care. (Amanda Hudgins)
In the Bluebeard folktale, a newlywed bride is left home alone with the keys to every room. Her husband tells her to explore freely, but one room is forbidden. She, of course, succumbs to temptation and eventually opens that door to find the corpses of Bluebeard’s previous brides within and, once her murderous husband returns, she joins them.
Bluebeard’s Bride is a story-focused horror roleplaying game that uses the framework of the folktale to explore femininity. Unlike most tabletop RPGs, players don’t take the roles of different characters, but rather control different aspects of the Bride’s personality – animus, fatale, mother, virgin and witch – with each taking the lead at different times as she explores the rooms of the estate. Each room contains a Horror which, when dealt with, tells something of the Bride as well as her husband. Eventually, the Bride arrives at the forbidden door and decisions must be made.
It is easily the most creative and intriguing roleplaying game I’ve encountered this year, and one of the most beautiful thanks to Rebecca Yanovskaya’s decadent illustrations. A fine addition to your shelf. (Stu Horvath)