Welcome to the 2018 Zatu Selections - our very own board game awards. In the Hidden Gem category, our team of writers have selected the games that they believe to be worthy of a place on your shelf, despite slipping under the radar. They may not have taken a seat on the hype train, or been boasted about on media outlets, but they are brilliant games that you need to play at least once.
Tom H - Piepmatz
A metric ton of games were released in 2018. Hundreds – maybe even thousands – slip under the radar, unfairly out-shined by the latest ‘Hotness’. Board gamers are like magpies; drawn in by shiny things, but as a result, on occasion we might miss out on some superb titles. One such example: Piepmatz, a charming, gorgeous set collection game, all about acquiring songbirds (and seeds) that have congregated around a bird feeder.
At 20-35 minutes, this card game sits happily in aperitif territory. Players aim to collect majorities of bird types (in which case, you’ll score those bird's egg points; their eggs are worthless otherwise). Male and female pairs of the same bird type score you points though, as do seed cards (which also have an egg value). Set-up sees two randomly drawn birds sitting either side of the bird feeder, and above it four seed cards, sitting vertically.
You’ll play a card from your hand into a queue behind the bird to the left or right of the feeder. If the number of the bird’s (or birds’) value(s) in the queue total more than the bird’s value at the feeder, you collect that first bird to sit face-up in front of you. Also, the difference in value between those two birds is the seed card that you acquire. So, if you play a six behind a four, you’ll claim the four, and the difference is +two, so you’ll claim the second seed card. Then, the remaining bird with the highest value goes to the front of the queue (or should that be the pecking order?). Now, if the total value(s) of the remaining birds behind it is larger than its own, you repeat the process above, possibly gaining that bird for your collection too, and another seed card. Pulling off a chain-reaction move like this is so satisfying.
There is a Ticket To Ride-style ‘face-up or blind’ card draw at the end of your turn, and squirrel and crows can cause harm if drawn next to a seed card for added consideration. With its wonderful thinky options and delightful artwork, Piepmatz is an English Rose of a card game.
Martin A - GuGong
Gugong seems to have gone unnoticed, but is visually appealing with nice components and includes a neat worker placement mechanic where workers are actually cards that allow different actions and have different values that restrict where you can usefully assign them at any given time. All of the worker placement locations already contain a card, so your card will only be effective if it is of higher value that that card.
If so, you get to execute the action on your card as well as the action associated with the location. If not, you can sacrifice some servants to make your card effective or get no benefits. Either way, you claim the card that was previously in the location and it becomes part of your hand for the following round.
Will M - Decrypto
My brother got me Decrypto for my birthday. I had heard of it being a team game about wordplay with a spy theme – hey, isn’t that Codenames? No – Decrypto falls into the same genre as Codenames but it plays quite different.
The box cover and theme of Decrypto conjures up images of overblown 1960's spy equipment and transmitters, with radio wave displays, cables, disc slots and a multitude of dials and knobs, and this theme comes through in the gameplay, where it’s arguable that Codenames’ theme does not.
In a game of Decrypto, two teams sit on opposite sides of the table, grab a note sheet and put four keyword cards in the slots on their screen board – once they’re in there the scrambled letters show a clear word behind each of the four red screens. One player from each team volunteers to be their team’s Encryptor for the round and secretly takes one of their code cards at random – this will show a three digit number, four, one, three for example, and the Encryptor has to give clues relating to the words behind screen four, screen one and then screen three.
The clue can be a single word or a phrase. The team mates must then guess the three digit number. The opposition team then does the same. In subsequent rounds the teams can guess the opposition’s code number based on the clues they hear. If they do so they get an interception token. The first team to get two interception tokens wins – conversely the first team to guess their own code incorrectly twice loses. This means that you’ll want to give clues to your team mates that ensures they’ll get the right answer but without giving it away to your opponents.
I feel this game has somewhat gone under the radar (no pun intended!) and perhaps stands in Codenames’ mighty shadow, but for me and all those who play Decrypto I’m sure we would all agree that this is a hidden gem.
Paul D - Renegade
Richard Wilkin’s Renegade is a game set is a dystopian society where, in an age of super massive computers (SMCs) and plummeting moral standards, an AI built to set things straight has taken over. In a co-operative area control, individual deck building game, the 1–5 players take on the roles of Renegades, those who have avoided Mother’s neural implants and are fighting back against the SMCs.
Each game, the Renegades must work together using their individual special talents to jack in to a server and defeat the chosen SMC. The SMC is run using a deck which has been built from a selection of copper, silver, and gold cards, each of which presents the Renegades with a challenge they must overcome. Success will ease the next step, failure will make it harder.
The cyberpunk theme of the game is strong, with a real sense of hacking and facing peril in the form of AI sparks and guardians. There is a definite Pandemic feel about the way Renegades must keep these under control as should they start exploding, and spreading, the Renegades are going to lose. Small decks, which are iterated through quickly and improved from the Hack Shack on a buy one, replace one basis, mean you get to cycle through and see every card. There are no mega decks here.
Given the variable set-up of the servers and the way SMC decks are built, there is a good degree of replay value. Each session feels like a puzzle that the Renegades set out to co-operatively solve. The dense terminology aside, for both solo and group play, this is a hidden gem worth seeking out.
Thrones of Games - Petrichor
When I first came across Petrichor in the run up to UK Games Expo 2017, I knew it was the game for me. Petrichor, designed by David Chircop and published by APE Games and Mighty Boards, is an area control game where you play as clouds moving around fields and raining on plants so they grow and give you points...WAIT, wait, wait... you see, this game is far more engaging than it sounds.
Seriously, if Eric M. Lang and CMON had released this game it would have had a bunch of miniatures and been called “Rain of Doom” or something. Luckily the folks at APE and Mighty boards were up for something a little different. With Petrichor, David Chircop takes what could easily have been yet another area control, miniature war game and gives is such a unique theme and clever mechanisms that for me it was one of my top five games on 2018 and is presently sat at number eight of my favourite games ever.
Petrichor is a deep yet accessible strategy, area/majority control, and hand management game of clashing clouds on a thunderous quest where 2-4 players (there's also a solo mode and fifth player expansion) need to plan well, select actions carefully, block their opponents and fight for domination of nature.
Probably because it wasn't called Rain of Doom, and didn't quite get the coverage it deserved, it slipped under some people's radar. I've been a big proponent of this game since I got hold of my copy, the fact the components are thematic and excellent quality and the art work from Daniela Attard is stunning doesn't hurt either. If you like beautiful nature themed light/mid weight strategy games such as Photosynthesis, Root and Everdell then this game is in your wheelhouse and worth a closer look.