Welcome to the 2018 Zatu Selections - our very own board game awards. The Surprise of the Year category includes the top five board games which, as the name suggests, surprised everyone by being fantastic games to play. There may have been very little hype or interest in the games upon release, or perhaps the idea behind the game seemed strange, however those who took the plunge ended up thoroughly enjoying them.
Ben G - Off the Rails
This is a great opportunity to shine a light on a game that would otherwise fly under the radar. Off the Rails, from UK designer Andrew Platt and Rotten Games, is a brilliant tile-playing game for one to four players. Released after a successful Kickstarter, Off the Rails sees players building mine cart tracks that they’ll use to race around and collect gems that appear on the board. Players will use their action points to lay and upgrade track and alter the speed of their cart to pick up gems without falling off the rails. The more players you have, the more likely it is that you’ll race for the same gems and possibly even collide!
A semi-random card drawing system dictates which gems will appear where, ensuring that there is always something to aim for. The real genius of the game lies in the mid-game twist. When you hit a certain point, new gems stop appearing and instead chasms start appearing in the board, simulating the collapsing mine tunnels. At this stage, the game turns into a push your luck experience - how long will you attempt to collect the gems before you make your getaway? There is no time limit, but if you lose your carts at this stage of the game, you’ll miss out on the potential for a fair few points at the end.
Off the Rails was completely unknown to me until I got the chance to play a review copy. I’ve enjoyed every game I’ve played of it, so it comfortably qualifies as my Surprise of the Year. My only criticism is that the set-up is a little fiddly, but that’s easy to get used to. Otherwise, this is a polished, enjoyable game that I’m very happy to own.
Craig P - Welcome to Your Perfect Home
One game that seemed to build traction as the year went on was Welcome To Your Perfect Home, which saw its planned English release in the latter half of 2018. Initially released in the French market by Blue Cocker Games, this “card and write” sees players try to design their perfect housing development on a pre-set street layout.
For me, the surprise came from just how much I took to the premise, despite my first horrific attempt at playing the game, which involved me scoring a lowly 50 points. I cannot think of a week in the past few months where my fiancé and I haven’t sat down to one or two games of this, each time trying to best our previous scores. My reason for putting this forward for Surprise of the Year is seeing just how popular this game has become in the UK Gaming community, all enjoyment being derived from a 200-page pad of town layouts, to a few decks of cards.
It’s the ease of play, inclusiveness, and seeming unlimited options in each game which means each play is different from the last. The recent successful Kickstarter for the expansion, Town Layouts, and in my view the best upgrade to the game, the dry-wipe boards, paints a very bright future for the game. Further surprise has been derived off the back of playing Welcome To… in how much I now wish to try out other games in the same genre.
I have already played Ganz Schon Clever (That’s Pretty Clever, English version coming soon), and found that despite my apparent ineptitude when it comes to games of this type, that I want to seek them out more than ever.
Will M - Architects of the West Kingdom
Architects of the West Kingdom surprised me this year – I have a history of disliking and avoiding worker placement games. I hated the overused iconography of Tzolk’in and I grew weary of six-player Raiders of the North Sea. So, when a friend brought Raiders’ new cousin, Architects of the West Kingdom, to my games group I was not too bothered, but his enthusiasm won me over and I agreed to play.
What became apparent quite quickly was this flipped several of the usual worker placement tropes on their head. Firstly, instead of building your collection of workers up during the game, you start Architects with a full complement of 20 workers. The designer calls it a “worker-investment” game. These workers are not only used to gather wood from the forest or stone from the mine, but to hire apprentices and capture people – yes, workers are never automatically returned to you after use – you can visit the guardhouse to capture opposing workers (and then sell them to the guardhouse for a profit or round-up your own workers.
Another intriguing thing about this game is the notion of virtue – you can decide to get building materials for cheap on the black market, benefit from lower taxes or even rob the tax stand, but your virtue will suffer and you won’t be able to contribute to the building of the prestigious cathedral – plus if you remain nefarious at the end of the game you will end up with a points deduction. If you play the game in a virtuous manner you will benefit in being worthy to contribute towards the cathedral, have your bad debts written off, plus you’ll get a nice points bonus at the end of the game.
There is so much about this game that surprised me, but the crucial thing is I had a blast playing it. Now, if I could only get my hands on a copy…
Nick W - Underwater Cities
I’d seen pictures of Underwater Cities before I heard the whispers that it was a great game, and I was not convinced in the slightest. I thought the plastic domes looked kind of cool but I’d heard literally nothing about the game. And then Essen happened and the whispers started and I realised that the designer was Vladamir Suchy, who was the brain behind acclaimed Pulsar 2849.
I managed to secure a copy of the game and have not been disappointed. In fact, if I had only played it a couple more times Underwater Cities would probably be my game of the year. Since making its way into the hands of the wider public Underwater Cities has been compared to tabletop giant Terraforming Mars. While the gameplay could be seen as similar to a degree, I think it’s the overall feel that sparks comparisons with the planet shaping hit.
While on Mars you are collaboratively shaping the landscape, under the sea you are building your own metropolises and cities. Each turn you choose an action which has an associated colour and then you must play a card, if the card colour matches the action colour you also get the card action too. This means you want to constantly maximise your turns, but as actions are blocked by players it soon becomes very difficult to do so. You won’t end up with a large tableau of cards like you do in Mars, but you will build up your player mat with a network of cities, buildings and tunnels. You will get a number of cards still, but I found them a little easier to grasp than the alternatives.
If you like heavier games, and don’t mind a longer gameplay experience then this is definitely worth checking out.
Tom H - The Mind
A deck containing cards, numbered 1-100. Up to four players are dealt a hand and then have to place them in ascending numerical order – in silence. Now, if you’re anything like me, then after reading that description of The Mind, Spiel des Jahres nominee, you might have a first impression of it seeming a bit… Dull? You might even think: “If I’m being honest, that doesn’t really sound like much of a game, at all.”
And so it was with a tentative preconception that I tried out The Mind, by Wolfgang Warsch. The result, however, was such a pleasant surprise, because in some ways, The Mind is not a game. It’s an experience, a telepathic encounter that you share with other people. When playing The Mind, you cannot, under any circumstances, communicate with each other. No speaking; in fact, no verbal utterances of any form or language are allowed. No silent mouthing, no sign language, no blinking in Morse Code. The singular legal method of information-sharing is by you simply staring at each other. You play your card when you think the time is right.
To begin with, nobody moves. Nobody wants to commit and make a mistake. A nervous burst of laughter erupts, but you hold your finger to your lips. Back to silence. Suddenly, that clock’s pendulum in the adjacent room sounds rather loud. You can hear your own breath. You sneak another look at your card – number 21. Is it the lowest number between the four of you? It might just be, you know… So, you slide your card, face-down, towards the centre of the table. Slowly, ever-so-slowly. You cast one last glance to your teammates – this is it; you’re about to flip it over, unless someone thinks they have a lower card! This is their last chance… It’s astonishing how quickly the tension rises when playing The Mind.
Beat Level One (having one card each) and the cards are returned, shuffled back into the deck, and everyone is dealt two cards each. You go again, trying to place them all in order. Beat Level Two and then you get dealt three cards each…