Christmas is a perfect time to play board games. Our writers were busy playing game before, during and after Christmas, and here are their games of the month for December.
Tom H - Vanuatu
My pick for December would have been Teotihuacan: City of Gods – but it’s out of stock at Zatu at the moment, so that felt like a bit of a tease! Instead, I plumped for Vanuatu (second edition, by Quined Games). Players are rival islanders in ever-expanding idyllic South Pacific archipelago tiles, trying to explore for sunken treasure and fishing the ocean (then sell them for Vatus, local currency), all the while building island huts and transporting tourists to them.
Worker placement elements are afoot here, where majorities of workers on an action space get to activate said spot. The placement of your workers is done in two phases (placing two workers down, then three). A smattering of deduction occurs, too – if you fail to read your opponents' plans for the turn you could end up with no legal moves… This results in you retrieving some workers without doing the action you really needed to make the rest of your turn an efficient one!
Turn order is really neat in Vanuatu. The first player wins tie-breaks (if worker totals are tied on an action spot), but of course, they have to invest their pieces down first, so the last player can analyse the board and has a far better chance at guaranteeing what order they retrieve their workers. Players also have a different player power each round that they get to pick. Turn order determines that these rotate in a satisfying manner.
Similar to how the 2018 reprint of Brass: Lancashire really embellished a bland playing board, in this 2016 second edition of Vanuatu you’ll revel among the bright and warm colours – crystal clear waters and vivid, tropical fish. We’ve had a mild winter by our own British standards, but I began to lust after a beach holiday after playing this!
Ben G - Dice Throne Season 2
Ten months after I backed it on Kickstarter, Dice Throne Season 2’s enormous box arrived at work, full of cardboard and dice. I had first heard about the project when designers Nate Chatellier and Manny Trembley discussed it on a podcast I like and I had been eagerly anticipating it.
From the moment I took off the box lid and started looking through the contents, my excitement rose. The full Battle Chest box contains eight playable characters, each with five custom dice, a unique deck of 30-something cards, unique health and currency dials and a full set of character-specific tokens.
The beauty of this game’s art and presentation made looking through the components and sleeving the cards a joy. I grasped the basics of the game quickly and was able to teach it to my wife without trouble. Before too long we were deep into a tight, dramatic first game that I won at the last gasp.
Dice Throne Season 2 is very well-balanced. I haven’t seen a single character that feels like it’s outclassed or significantly better than the others. It even comes with suggested pairings that help you to learn the game with more obviously well-balanced matches. Everything about it is designed to produce a fast-paced, exciting game.
Yes, there’s a lot of randomness in the dice rolling. Sometimes you roll five sixes and you’re flying. But it’s a dice game. If you don’t like rolling dice, just skip it. There are ways to mitigate the randomness, but it’s a factor. I personally love the drama of it and I’m a sucker for the tactile nature of the action.
As much as I’ve loved my first month of playing this game, it’s not perfect. Some of the rules around when you can play certain cards are murky and fiddly. I feel like timings and specific outcomes could be clarified in a number of cases, as my wife and I struggled to work out exactly how a specific effect should work.
But those drawbacks shouldn’t detract from what is an excellent duelling game. It was my second most-played game in December (behind my game of 2018, KeyForge) and I look forward to many more thrilling plays.
Nick W - Underwater Cities
Underwater Cities caught me by surprise. It went from me not hearing about it, to it being quietly hyped in the dark corners I inhabit. The look of the plastic domes intrigued me, and early reviews claiming ‘This is the game Terraforming Mars wants to be’ were almost certainly clickbait, but also planted seeds in my mind. Terraforming Mars is a game I love, despite its shoddy workmanship in the components area, so even if the rumours were only half true then it could be worth a look?
I managed to snag a copy after Essen and I’m extremely happy I did, as Underwater Cities is an amazing and satisfying game, that will give you lots to chew on. It’s true that it does have a ‘feel’ of Terraforming Mars, there is card play and engine building, but the additional action selection and the actual card play feels a tad tighter than the former thanks to a clever system of colours and the way different cards work. There is production but only three times in the game as opposed to the end of every round.
You will be working on your own underwater world trying to build up sustainable cities supported by transport networks and buildings for producing important stuff like food. Cards will provide one off boosts, upgrades and extra productions, but there are also some special cards that cost a lot of credits but reward you with a chance for many end game points. This can all feel a little overwhelming on your first play but great iconography, a well written rulebook and player aid make it easier than some. If you get a chance to, I highly recommend you delve under the water and start building some cities.
Andy P - Aeon's End Legacy
As my second most-played game of 2018, you can imagine my joy when my Aeon’s End: Legacy Kickstarter arrived on my doorstep one hour before my final gaming session of the year. I swiftly grabbed the pile of sleeves I’d been hoarding in preparation for its arrival, sent a simple message of ‘game time’ to my two fellow mages, and headed off to defend Gravehold once more!
Having waited since February, me and my regular playgroup were eager to get started. Yet, in an unforeseen twist, we also had one additional player join our party, a player who had never heard of the game, much less played the previous incarnations of the system. I admit I was a little sceptical of letting them join, but I agreed… and it was the best possible decision I could have made.
Legacy teaches the standard Aeon’s End system in a way that flows and allows players of all levels to grasp the system and run with it. I was relieved that teaching of the system was broken down into separate stages based on the flavour of the product: You are apprentice mages, the B-team of heroes compared to your A-list mentors. You have access to very little, striving against ever-increasingly more powerful Nemeses, and every new ability you unlock brings you in line with your peers.
There were a few hard moments, including a loss in Chapter three, but the gamer who had joined us went from a hesitant “I’m not sure” to an “I love it, I’m in!” after three chapters in the space of an evening. I even managed to get a quick word with designer Nick Little, who believes Legacy is the best product for new players, and after one session, I’m inclined to agree. This is my one to watch out for in 2019, and I expect to get many more sessions out of it in the coming months… if we can curb our excitement and resist bombing through the chapters in a couple of day-long sessions!
Will M - Azul
December was another good month of gaming for me as I received everything I asked for on my Christmas Wishlist and I also introduced my wife to what has become my game of the month for December, Azul.
Azul won the 2018 Spiel des Jahres, beating off competition from The Mind and Luxor, and in December 2018 it beat off Lanterns: The Harvest Festival and Forbidden Desert to become my game of the month – very prestigious indeed!
Azul is a fairly abstract tile drafting, tile placement, pattern building, set collection game, where you’re supposed to be tiling the wall of a Portuguese King. It’s hard at first to articulate what makes this game so great, but it has a fairly addictive quality and plays out as a push-your-luck puzzle where at first you may feel like you’re all playing your own separate game, but then the indirect (and sometimes dastardly) interaction becomes evident when you realise you can draft the tiles your opponents need, hopefully leaving them with unwanted cracked tiles on their floor!
I have a decent weekly games group, I play a lot of solo games, and my daughters play games with me from time to time, but Azul is a real gem because my wife likes it – it falls into the same category as Splendor, Imhotep and Lanterns as a game that my wife actually asks to play, and that makes it a winner in my house!
James H - Detective
What can I say about Detective? It’s flipping awesome! You don’t play Detective, you are detectives! In fact, I haven’t played a game like this one - half way through, we had actually forgotten we were playing a board game at all. Even with cards and little wooden pieces that manage time and location, it’s very easy to get lost into a case.
Detective is also a rare game in our collection because it’s the only game my wife has requested and owns. She was initially attracted to it because she loves cracking mysteries in TV shows like Sherlock and figuring her way out of escape rooms. We have both enjoyed EXIT games like The Pharaoh's Tomb and Unlock! games, but Detective feels quite different.
Detective is our game of the month because it is so clever and immersive. There are five cases (at least) to do and players choose which specialist to play as. We played the game as a couple and really enjoyed figuring out the case together. The hardest part isn’t just figuring out what has happened - it’s deciding based on limited information which leads to follow and which to spend your few skill tokens to dig deeper into.
It’s probably impossible to explore all of the leads in one playthrough. Because each choice eats away at your fleeting hours, it has a feel of T.I.M.E Stories but we actually preferred Detective. Building evidence and constructing a case requires careful thought, a pencil and plenty of paper. We found digging through the game’s online database lots of fun (although there were server issues, post-Christmas!)
If you like solving mysteries and using your noggin, grab Detective, donuts and coffee, and carve out a few hours for something special.
Tom G - Sheriff of Nottingham
Interestingly, December has been jam-packed full of bluffing games for me! Exploding Kittens, Skull and Cockroach Poker to name but a few. The one game however that really stole my heart (and the game table for most of the month) is Sheriff of Nottingham! This intriguing bluffing game sees players take on the role of either a devious merchant, trying to get their legal and not-so legal wares into the city of Nottingham, or the Sheriff, who is stubborn old gent that hates anything from liars to illegal goods.
Each round, one player will be the sheriff while the other players become merchants. They must choose to either keep their hand of six goods or discard as many or as little as they want in exchange for goods that are visible and face-up or draw form the blind draw pile. They then load up their carts with 1-5 goods and approach the Sheriff, where a declaration is made.
This is where it gets interesting as players may only declare legal goods, while also declaring just one type of good and the exact number of goods in their bag. So, if you want to be a bad merchant and try and smuggle in contraband, you MUST lie about it either way. Maybe you want to sneak a few chickens in along with your apples, or a nasty crossbow as well? Make sure you are confident in your declaration as the Sheriff can then choose to inspect your goods. Hopefully, he will let you pass, however, if he decides to search, then you better hope you were telling the truth!
If you were, you’re in luck! You have caught the Sheriff out and he must pay you a fine. However, if you have been a bad merchant, and lied to the Sheriff, he will fine you for each good not declared and confiscate them! The game continues, and the winner is the one with the most coins at the end, once all the bonuses have been added up.
This game is unbelievably addictive, and I found myself putting on a Ye Olde English accent throughout! I never thought so much fun could be had by placing cards into little bags and lying about what’s inside, but this game manages to do just that! It has barely left the table this month and remains there as we head into January! Who knows, it may just grab my Game of the Month next time round!?
Ben S - Dragon's Gold
Christmas time is always a great time for gaming and my favourite game this month was Dragon’s Gold.
Dragon’s Gold is not really a theme that particularly appeals to me but the gameplay is so different and so fun that it is quickly becoming one of my favourite games and certainly provided the most entertaining gaming experience of the month.
Every player is given a certain number of cards (made up of knights, a thief and a wizard) each with an assigned value. In the centre, there are a number of dragons, with an assigned value and a number of jewels on them – a reward for defeating them. In turn, players simply place their cards down next to a dragon until the total of the player’s cards is enough to defeat the dragon. Simple.
The real fun starts when the dragon has been defeated. Once the dragon has been defeated, the players who sent a card to defeat that dragon then have 60 seconds to negotiate who gets what. This really is where the chaos happens. Everyone automatically is trying to get the best deal for himself/herself and almost always the jewels can’t be split equally! Cries of “I gave the most cards,” and “My total towards the victory was the most,” quickly follow but this really does not mean anything.
Opposing players can simply stick to their initial demands. However, if the 60-second timer runs out before everybody is happy with the negotiation, nobody gets anything! It really is a brilliant mechanic that turns a simple game into one of the most hilarious games in existence.