Best Board Games of 2016

John Pappas /

This article was first published on the Board in the Library blog. Republished with permission.

This was an amazing year in board games with many games popping up perfect for the library. As I stated in 2015, it is nearly impossible to play and review even a large portion of all of the game that comes out in a year. And it is even harder to be able to recommend them to libraries when that audience is so diverse and community so varied. That said, I think I limited it to eight games that will certainly make a wonderful addition to your personal or library's collection.

I try to recommend games with a small learning curve so most of these games are perfect for a budding library collection (Dream Home, Happy Salmon) and if I do include more complex game, they are worth the extra time it takes to learn and will be a better addition to an already established collection (Terraforming Mars, Beyond Baker Street). 

Some games just barely missed the cut. Scythe contained too many components for inclusion and those minis go missing too quickly to keep up. The Grizzled: At Your Orders is an expansion and is mandatory (the base game was included in my 2015 list). Great Western Trail looks amazing but I couldn’t get a copy and thus never made it to my table. A Feast For Odin is just too complex.

There are dozens more worth discussing and recommending to you, and I hope that this shortened list serves as a good representation for what 2016 has offered.

The Strategy Game: Terraforming Mars

(BGG, Amazon) After the success of The Martian, expect a whole glut of mars-themed board games next year and a whole bunch of red boxes in the future. At quick glance you have Surviving Mars, First Martians, Martians: A Story of Civilization and a reprint of Mission: Red Planet. So, you know what you have to do.

The goal of Terraforming Mars is simple: make Mars habitable for colonization and exploitation. Getting it done, however, is far from easy. The entire game unfolds over generations as futuristic mega-corporations battle to change Mars from a red planet to a greenish blue one. This is accomplished by building cities, encouraging vegetation and creating water. To make the planet habitable and end the game three things must happen: atmospheric oxygen rises to 14%, the temperature rises to 8 degrees Celsius (that's correct, in this game you are encouraging global warming) and the oceans are filled.

This game is a chunky engine-builder and full of strategic potential. Unlike many science-fiction themed games, Terraforming Mars focuses on scientific accuracy, attention to detail and technical consistency. You know that part of The Right Stuff where all the engineers are struggling to brainstorm how to make a new thing with a box of old things? It's like that mixed writ large and combined with the Weyland-Yutani Corps ("Building Better Worlds") from Aliens. You have hundreds of years to introduce moss, melt icecaps and crash meteors into Mars before it is any good to humanity.

Fair warning though, it is also really, really, really ugly. The artwork is inconsistent and the graphic design is unfortunate. So, if you are looking to "wow" patrons into gaming at first glance, this isn't the best pick. But if you want to bulk up your collection with a thematic thinker and encourage your patrons to grow, then give Terraforming Mars a chance.

Terraforming Mars has great gameplay and lots of strategic potential to bulk up a collection. It is an amazing game that rewards repeated play. It is best to pair it with, obviously, The Martian by Andy Weir.

The Party Game: Happy Salmon

(BGG, Amazon) Stop reading right here and go buy this silly, ridiculous real-time game for your library—you won't regret it. Happy Salmon is one of those games that children will love, adults will pretend they don't like (but actually do) and can be just as much fun to watch to play.

The game is snappy and fast and, honestly, it takes longer to read the tiny rulebook than to play one full game.The goal is simple: get rid of all your cards. You place the pile of 12 cards facedown in front of you. Everyone flips over the first card. There are four types: High 5, Pound It, Switcheroo and Happy Salmon. Once you see your card, you yell out the title of the card until you find someone yelling the same thing, make eye contact and perform the action on the card. Once you do that, you discard that card and go to the next one. Three to six people will be giving each other high fives, bumping fists, trading places at the table and doing the happy salmon (grab each other's wrist and slap your hand against each other's forearm).

Listen. It comes in a pouch shaped like a SALMON. It's simple, silly and hilarious. You can at least do a round or two at the start of departmental meetings with this game and consider it money well spent. Pair this game with Red Fish Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss and Salmon Fishing in Yemen by Paul Torday.

The Tiny Box Big Game: Kodama: The Tree Spirits

(BGG, Amazon) Invoking images of Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, Daniel Solis's Kodama: The Tree Spirits is a masterfully designed card game in a small box and it will totally enchant you upon first play.

In Kodama, you tend to the homes of the tiny bobble-headed spirits who inhabit your forest. To appease these helpful spirits, you need to tend to their tree according to their exact, and maybe strange, specifications. Their happiness and your success depends one how many caterpillars, fireflies, flowers, mushrooms, are at home in your tree and how many clouds or stars can be seen from their branches. You compete against other players to grow the best trees for your new tree-dwelling buddies. Happy Spirits keep a Happy Forest!

The true beauty of Kodama is the ability to grow your tree. Each player starts with an oversized trunk card and then each card they choose throughout the game is a branch extending from the trunk. The result, at the end of three seasons, is an massive splay of cards representing the tree you created. Everything from the whimsical art to the simple gameplay makes this a perfect game for families. They even included additional cards specifically designed for younger players.

Kodama is adorable, family friendly and best of all, lets you create something satisfying at the end of your game. In Kodama, it is a large, branching and likely lopsided, tree. Games like these leave you satisfied, win or lose, because you created something. Pair it with anything from Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.

The Dexterity Game: Ice Cool

(BGG, Amazon) In Ice Cool, you are all students at a penguin high school. Get it? High School. Ice Cool. Penguins? Right? A little word play and I'm yours forever. Remember that. Anyway.

One player is the hall monitor and the rest of the players are students. The students are trying to collect three fish located throughout the school, and the hall monitor is trying to catch the students and collect their student IDs. As players meet their goals, they draw cards with points on them. At the end of the game, the player with the most points wins.

Each penguin is kind of like a Weeble. They weeble and they wobble but they don't fall down. When players want to move their penguin across the board, they flick them. The students just need to go through the doors to the rooms where the fish are and the hall monitor needs to flick themselves into the students. A round ends when either a student collects all their fish or the hall monitor has collected all students' IDs. At the start of a new round, a different player becomes the hall monitor and you begin again until everyone has had a chance to be the hall monitor. You tally the points on the cards collected through the game and the player with the most wins.

Fun, loud and nicely contained in a box that doubles as the game board. If you want to drum up interest in your board game collection, get a family or two playing this game out in the open and it will definitely draw a crowd. Pair this with reruns of Saved By the Bell.

The Two Player Game: Tides of Madness

(BGG, Amazon) There is plenty of bite in this delightful card drafting game for two players with only 18 cards, a handful of tokens and stunning artwork.

Generally, games with heavy themes (horror, science-fiction, fantasy) have not circulated well at the library but small, simple, light games with heavy themes that it can be demoed at a service point may just work. Tides of Madness offer a tense 20-minute duel where you score points by collecting sets while drafting cards back and forth. At the end of the round you tally any madness tokens you may have accumulated, choose to keep one card for the next round and discard another out of the game. You'll need to anticipate which cards your opponent needs and obfuscate which ones you are looking for while keeping an eye on the madness tokens. They can accumulate, and if you delve too deeply into the arcane, you may lose your sanity and the game.

Only 18 cards in a quick, snappy drafting game, and totally tense! Tides of Madness is to two people what Love Letter is to four. Pair with The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins.

The Editor's Choice: Kanagawa

(BGG, Amazon) Dear Reader, if you have not been introduced yet, let me introduce you to Iello. Iello games have, bar none, the best art direction in games today. Every game in their catalog looks like it couldn't possibly belong anywhere else and every game is aimed straight to the heart of the family gaming market.

In Kanagawa, it is 1840 and you are a student in Master Hokusai's painting school. Your goal is to earn different diploma tiles representing your many artistic successes at the school. To achieve this you will need to expand your studio, learn new techniques and create an epic masterpiece of your favorite subjects (a combination of flora, fauna, architecture and notables) across the Japanese countryside. But you are still in school and your master will be offering many lessons to a select few represented by tiles placed on a rattan central board. You can take a tile quickly or wait until later to get more, but if you wait too long another student may grab your slot, leaving you with whatever is left over. You add tiles to your print (your painting gets longer) or to your studio (your skills improve and you are able to paint different subjects).

Rattan. Game. Board. It rolls up when you are done. I'm flabbergasted and completely in love with this. Best paired with The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima.

The Cooperative Game: Beyond Baker Street

(BGG, Amazon) A spiritual successor to the cooperative card game Hanabi, Beyond Baker Street from publisher Z-Man Games has two to four detectives working together to solve a mystery before that insufferable show-off Sherlock does.

Players have three leads to work on in order to solve the mystery—Subject, Motive and Opportunity. Each player has a handful of clues, witnesses and evidence. What makes the game a challenge is that players are unable to look at their own cards and instead have their cards facing out towards the rest of the players. Cooperation is elementary as players provide clues to each other in order to place the correct cards in the correct places before Sherlock solves the case. On your turn you can provide a hint to another player about what is in their hand, play a card on a lead, confirm a lead, discard a card or eliminate a lead. There is more to the game but if you are familiar with Hanabi (which uses the same cards facing outwards mechanism), then Beyond Baker Street will be quick to pick up. If you are not familiar, it will take five minutes to read the rules and you will be right as rain to play.

Beyond Baker Street adds some added thematic elements including different cases to increase the challenge and character cards that provide special abilities, which make this a nice upgrade to Hanabi or a great starting point into cooperative games. Best paired with Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz.

The Family Game: Dream Home

This game is so adorable I just want to hug it. Look at all those happy people on the box top! The future has so much potential.

(BGG, Amazon) In Dream Home you are building your perfect house, and also a better house than everyone else. Each player gets an empty house tableau with 12 room spaces in it; five on the second floor, five on the first and two in the basement. Players get to choose from a pair of cards with one room and one resource (helpers, handy-persons, architects, tools, etc.) to use in building their home. The room gets placed according to some simple rules, and the resource can be used immediately or later to score more points. You can expand rooms for more points (a playroom is nice but a huge playroom is even better), add decor to provide the perfect finishing touch for a room and get bonus points for functionality.

There is very little room for improvement in this light family game. It is a complete joy to play with people of all ages that plays in 30 minutes. Perfect after-dinner game in your newly remodeled kitchen. Best paired with A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia McAlester.

John Pappas is Library Manager, Bucks County Free Library (PA). Pappas wrote a six-part series for WebJunction on modern board games an their presence in the library space. Read the series here: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | and Part Six.

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