Top Plays of 2016

Making last year’s Top Plays of 2015 post a tradition, it’s time to count down my most played board games of 2015! You can see everything I played, tabletop-wise, over on BoardGameGeek. And stay until the end, because at the end of the list, I set myself some hobby-related goals for 2017.

While most of my tabletop time in 2016 was been spent on board and card games, I did manage to up my role-playing a little bit. There was the stop-and-start campaign of Skull & Shackles, sadly more stopped than started, and a biweekly playthrough of The Dracula Dossier for Night’s Black Agents. I continue to hope that next year will be the year that I get more regular role-playing opportunities, and I have some thoughts on how to achieve that.

That said, on with the countdown, from least plays of 2016 to the most.

5. Betrayal at House on the Hill

That perennial favorite of mine, the haunted house-building, cheesy horror movie tribute game Betrayal got a richly deserved expansion this year, called Widow’s Walk. The prospect of experiencing new haunts helped me get in six plays of the game in 2016, though maybe half of those came after the expansion’s release. Probably my most memorable session of the game remains playing through “The Manor of Your Demise” and teasing out just how deep down the rabbit hole one can go.

4. Codenames

Codenames is the second newest game to make this list. It’s a party-sized game, where two teams try to figure out what the hell the spymaster means by “Blue 2” and other clues meant to help them pick out specific words from a grid of options. It’s also one of those games where you can rack up a lot of plays in one or two sittings as teams shuffle around, or someone tries to reclaim their dignity after a poor turn as the spymaster. Of my seven plays of Codenames, I struggled as the spymaster every time I was in the hot seat.[1]

3. Arkham Horror: The Card Game

The most recently published entrant on the list, the Arkham LCG was my only — and thus most — anticipated game to play in 2016 since news first slipped out in April. The blend of cooperative play and the Cthulhu mythos really appealed to me. I’m reasonably certain I’m on record in at least a couple Decked! episodes or comments noting I played Arkham‘s predecessor primarily for the theme, rather than the thrill of competitive play.

I don’t know yet if Arkham has staying power for me, but experiencing the design of the Curse of the Rougarou standalone expansion did far more to convince me I would enjoy playing this game than the introductory scenarios in the core set did. It seems very likely I’ll get in more sessions in 2017 than the eight I managed in 2016.

2. Call of Cthulhu: The Card Game

It will surprise no regular reader of Held Action that I have played quite a few games of the Call of Cthulhu living card game, going so far as to make videos of them for the internet’s delight. The Cthulhu LCG is my all-time most played game on BoardGameGeek, with 189 matches logged. In 2016, however, Call of Cthulhu slipped to second place for plays of 2016. I “only” got in 10 matches, and that was probably thanks in large part to at least one “you people need to buy all the extra packs I ordered” draft event at Black Moon Games in Lebanon.

Since Fantasy Flight stopped publishing new cards — and yes, the game is still enjoyable without a constant stream of new material — that put a major damper on the local play group making the time to get together. I’d love to play more — and still have yet to make substantial use of anything from The Mark of Madness — but I anticipate this game being in direct competition with the Arkham LCG for time and attention. The local play rosters for the two games are almost identical and we are all working stiffs with a limited amount of time on our hands. So it goes.

1. Sentinels of the Multiverse

And as the Call of Cthulhu LCG slips from first, so does Sentinels of the Multiverse rise to take the crown. This is the title that people at area game nights have come to expect to see me toting. I introduced my friend Margot to the game this year, and she took to quite readily, so the list of people who are almost always up for a game of Sentinels is slowly growing.

While I got in 11 plays of the ink and cardboard version of Sentinels this year, I logged far, far more time playing the digital version. I took advantage of free time over the holidays this year to knock out the achievements a solo player can attain, including all the story challenge achievements for unlocking variant character cards.[2] All that remains is the achievement to play with Handelabra or Greater Than Games, or someone who’s played with them.

Sentinels has been the game that occupied most of my attention in 2016. Handelabra Games launched a phone-friendly version of the game, giving me something to do during downtime out and about — I knocked out a quick game waiting for Rogue One to begin last week, for instance. The weekly one-shot challenges became the feature of Decked! episodes. Greater Than Games raised funds for the game’s final expansion and host of bonus content, which also helped reinvigorate my interest in the game.

Tabletop Goals for 2017

I’d like to start a new part of this end of year post tradition: setting some play goals for the year to come. In no particular order, I would like to:

  • Get in more plays of the games I own and enjoy. Eldritch Horror has yet another big box expansion on the way and I have barely scratched the surfaces of the Strange RemnantsUnder the Pyramids and Signs of Carcosa expansions. Likewise, there is so much more of Widow’s Walk to play.
  • Play more role-playing games. Dracula Dossier is my regular game at the moment and as one that’s played on the weekend, there are often things that get in the way of everyone making it. I’d like to find or start a regular game on a week night that isn’t already crammed on everyone’s calendar. By some twist of synchronicity, everyone in Chittenden County thinks Tuesday is the optimal night to play games, which means there’s a plethora of choice, but not a lot of crossover as people commit to one place and set of players.
  • Find and create my next big game-related project. I’ve produced a podcast. I’ve made YouTube play videos through Decked! I like to produce game-adjacent content, it seems, and I would like to find a new endeavor or area of interest to focus on, like I have with Cthulhu commentary and Sentinels one-shots in the past. I don’t know what shape that might take yet, but I’ve been giving it thought and hope to come up with a fun project for 2017.

[1] Almost as much as playing the ghost in Mysterium.

[2] In fact, Steam’s telling me I spent almost 70 hours on the game in the last two weeks, though I’m not sure if that’s total time the game application was open, or time where I was moving the mouse and clicking things.

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Arkham Horror LCG: The Devourer Below

Wendy finds herself confronted by two Deep Ones, by way of Monsterpocalypse figures.

For the third and final scenario of the Night of the Zealot introductory campaign for Arkham Horror: The Card Game, we found ourselves short one plucky librarian, owing to the whims of the weather. So Ray, Tom and I decided we’d call this a practice run and see what happened before playing “for real” when Carlo could join us.

In short and without getting spoilery, we got housed. We had one decent shot at achieving anything resembling a victory, but the path to that pyrrhic, ethically ambiguous victory was clogged with extraneous monsters and there was no way to clear it.

The general consensus seems to be the introductory scenarios are highly variable. Some people report walking through them without breaking a sweat. Others, like I and my friends, get walloped every time and seemingly without any ability to fight back. I imagine we’re just not playing very efficiently and that people who are more used to this style of cooperative card game — Arkham reportedly shares as much DNA with Lord of the Rings: The Card Game as it does with Netrunner, if not more — are more used to the deck design and play style that gets stuff done in spite of the endless series of obstacles the game throws up.

Umordhorth, the Devourer Below, as rendered in a Monsterpocalypse figure, is unimpressed by investigators who futilely scrabble to throw tasty morsels in its maw.

Also, Tom wanted me to talk more about what he did during the game, so I guess I’ll mention that Skids got trapped in the woods and spent the remainder of the game, which was four or more turns, completely unable to get out of that location or contribute to the nonsense happening just one space over.

Furthermore, during setup for the game Tom couldn’t find his tokens — they were hidden under a Terry Pratchett novel — so after tearing his basement apart, we mocked up a chaos deck with a stack of playing cards.

Arkham Horror LCG: The Midnight Masks

Player markers for Skids, Wendy, Agnes and Daisy cluster on the starting location for a scenario of Arkham Horror: The Card Game, with clue tokens scattered before them.

Playing with old school Arkham Horror standees and fancy tokens from Stonemaier Games, courtesy Carlo.

Picking up after playing through The Gathering, Ray joined to make the group a quartet. Ray played Wendy, while Carlo, Tom and I kept Daisy, Skids and Agnes, respectively.

This was not an easy scenario. Three players handled The Gathering really well — way better than my two player attempts previously — but we struggled to get any traction with Midnight Masks. Every other encounter card took away the resource we had to accumulate to advance to victory. Carlo thought it was just a rough draw, but I’m inclined to think it’s a deliberately tough scenario, with the intent that the players do the best they can and get out. Possibly it’s to teach players that knowing when to resign is important in campaign play like this. It’s certainly in keeping with the themes of Lovecraftian stories and role-playing. Most anecdotes about doing well in a Call of Cthulhu scenario — for relative values of well — end with “and then the survivors ran.”

Second time out with Agnes, I found her even more perplexing. She’s not a strong investigator, but that’s what I found myself doing. In retrospect, I should have looked more closely at her spells, as they’re more about dealing with enemies and interfering with the encounter deck.

Next time we play, I’ll keep that in mind as discover whether what we uncovered during “The Midnight Masks” will be enough to help us through the final chapter of this Arkham Horror mini-campaign.

Arkham Horror LCG: The Gathering

Wendy and Roland's marker cards cluster around the Attic location, teeming with clue tokens.

Wendy and her friend Roland explore the attic of the nightmarish Escher monstrosity her home has become.

At the risk of excess melodrama, the Arkham Horror card game has been a bit of a light at the end of the tunnel for me. Fall’s traditionally a busy time of year for me, with both Carnage in the offing and my professional commitments. Once it was pretty clear that the game would be available November 10th, I wanted to make a point to get the first game in as soon as possible. Usually, I get a game and it takes two or more months to get some people together to play it, especially in November as we’re all wiped from Carnage and the holidays are ramping up. So I was pretty happy that my friend Tom was free last night and interested enough to give the game a try. Three and a half hours from purchase to play is probably a new record for me.

The first session is always a learning experience. Fantasy Flight’s new model of a short rulebook and a longer, encyclopedia-style volume of rules concepts worked pretty well. The short Learn to Play rulebook basically walks you through setting up and playing the introductory scenario. I noticed what seemed to be some discrepancies in card names and numbers when assembling the encounter deck, so I think that may have affected this particular session, since not every ghoul made it into the encounter deck.

Like Netrunner, Arkham has an action economy. Each investigator can do three things on their turn, selected from a list of choices, including things like draw a card, gain a resource, investigate a location and so on. Figuring out the efficiencies of the game — when and how is it best to gain resources, for instance — is going to be one of the first steps to being a better player.

In this first session, Tom and I took the approach of pushing through the investigators’ act cards as quickly as we could, reasoning that the advancement of the agenda would only make ours lives more difficult. In retrospect and without divulging spoilers, that may not have been the best choice, as it meant we didn’t spend time exploring every location or drawing useful cards from our decks.

On first blush, I like the way the game plays. It has an elegance that comes from how both Netrunner and Eldritch Horror mapped mechanics to their respective themes. It’s very role-playing game-like, with unexpected developments built into a scenario and not necessarily loss conditions, but “worst result” situations.

I’m a little concerned that there’s not a lot of meaningful replay value in an individual scenario, unless one enjoys taking every possible character configuration — now Wendy armed for combat, and then Roland as a hyper-investigator, and how about Daisy with guns! — through the story line, which reminds me an awful lot of grinding characters through certain entries in the Final Fantasy console franchise, or playing against progressively higher difficulty settings. The flip side of that is Fantasy Flight has a steady stream of expansion products planned that I may never have time or inclination to go back to the core box scenarios, unless I’m teaching the game to newcomers.

Netrunner certainly taught me that one new product every month will challenge my ability to squeeze in both modifying decks to take advantage of new investigator cards and carving out times with friends to play through the new scenarios. Deckbuilding in Arkham is less onerous than Netrunner, happily, as it’s a single 30 card deck and players don’t develop a new list for league night every week.

And I’m curious to see how deckbuilding works out over the course of a campaign. If people play the scenarios as they’re released, rather than waiting until the full cycle’s worth of cards are available, how many of them are going to utilize the rules for paying to swap cards in and out?

Announcing Arkham Horror: The Card Game

WithArkham Horror: The Card Game box cover. Investigators fight mythos monsters under a looming full moon.Fantasy Flight Games made an official announcement: they are publishing a cooperative Lovecraft-themed game called Arkham Horror: The Card Game.

There’s currently a handful of information wrapped up in marketing copy, but the nut of the game seems to be players choose one of five characters and build a deck around them, drawing from cards suited to a character’s classes. Roland Banks, for instance, can use Guardian cards of all levels, and Seeker cards up to level 2. Each character has some cards that are automatically included, both good things and bad things; to continue the example, Roland always has his .38 firearm and a strong dose of paranoia.

A sample layout of Arkham Horror: The Card Game shows two investigators' tableaus and the locations they will explore.

A sample layout of Arkham Horror: The Card Game shows two investigators’ tableaus and the locations they will explore.

Characters work together to defeat a series of scenarios, it seems, much like in Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, but with a persistent, legacy-style campaign structure. The campaign log sheet shows characters track the traumas, assets and weaknesses earned in each scenario. Furthermore, as characters advance through scenarios, they level up and gain access to new cards. It’s an interesting concept that brings in the character advancement portion of a role-playing game with the deck evolution aspect of something like the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game.

When I first saw the news yesterday, I was immediately psyched, and not just because it was confirmation of rumors that started back in May. A cooperative card game with the Cthulhu mythos theme was exactly what I’ve been wanting. As much as I enjoyed playing Call of Cthulhu: The Card Game, my least favorite part of it was the head to head competition. I’ve enjoyed cooperative games since I first found them with the 2005 revision of Arkham Horror and later Pandemic, and I especially like the theme of investigators struggling against the unknown forces of a universe far vaster and more inexplicable than they could have imagined.

This game will attract a different crowd of players to some extent. It’s not head to head competition, so people who enjoy that play style will continue looking elsewhere. The emphasis here seems to be on developing a narrative over the course of a campaign. This feels like an “experience game,” as my friend Rod likes to say, where years later, you’re still chuckling over the time the deputy of Arkham and his buddy Earl pulled up outside the general store, realized how many monsters were prowling around and immediately roared off again in the patrol wagon. I really hope this new card game follows suit, letting stories like that emerge from game play.

It’s been a delight to see how quickly the discussion for Arkham Horror gets moving over the last day. There’s a Boardgamegeek listing — and I am tickled to see people already trying to surmise an expansion release schedule — a subreddit, a Facebook group, a section on the Living Card Games community on Google+, and so on. It was a matter of two hours and change before someone said, “Hey, let’s make a podcast!” And I, of course, have been trying to visualize how to capture a four player game on camera for Decked!

With the impending end of the Sentinels of the Multiverse line, I was already missing having an ongoing game line to follow and get excited about. With luck, the Arkham LCG will be exactly what I’m looking for.