As the year draws to a close, I have been reflecting on games released in 2022. As this “Freshman Class” prepares to pass the baton to the incoming games of 2023, I want to take some time to honor a few that stood out to me.
- Most Popular
- Best Storyteller
- Best Dancer
- Most Quirky
- Most Introverted
- Life of the Party
- Best Makeover
- Most Likely to Succeed
- Top of the Class
Libertalia: Winds of Galecrest, Stonemaier Games
This game is incredibly versatile and can get along with just about anybody. It can accommodate solo play up to a group of six – and it handles all play counts incredibly well. Having played the first implementation of Libertalia, I would never have imagined this game could work as a two-player experience, but the brilliant addition of the Midshipman tile proved me wrong. All player counts have been enjoyable, but I love this game best with a full table where the interplay of cards creates memorable table moments.
This game is a people-pleaser. Although it has a healthy dose of “take that” I have yet to find a person who walks away from a game of Libertalia unhappy. I think that is due to a sense of fairness in the game design due to the open information and equal starting hands.
Beautiful, versatile, clever, and able to please just about everybody, Libertalia: Winds of Galecrest was a true standout game for me.
Vagrantsong, Wyrd Games
Vagrantsong will draw you in with cute, 1930s-style cartoon art, and before you know it, you’ll be engrossed in a haunting ghost story. The plucky vagrants are thrown directly into a dark situation and must work together to restore humanity to different haints over a series of 20+ chapters.
This cooperative boss-battling campaign does a lot with a little. Each chapter takes place on a single game board and utilizes very few components. And yet, each chapter feels distinct and absolutely drips with atmosphere. It’s incredibly clever and engaging – even a bit emotional at times.
Vagrantsong is the best story-driven game I’ve played in a very long time. The rulebook can be a bit of a headache, but the game experience is 100% worth the learning investment. If you love ghost stories, especially those from Appalachia, Vagrantsong should not be missed.
Tie – Mindbug: First Contact, Nerd Lab Games; Mythic Mischief, IV Studio
The tug-of-war in duel games often feels like a dance. I’ve had the pleasure of playing several two-player battles this year, but two have stood out above the rest to me.
The first is Mindbug: First Contact. It is a clever card duel packed into a tiny box. The play style is very similar to Collectible Card Games (CCGs) with a fantastic twist: each player has 2 Mindbugs at their disposal. These alien creatures take over the brain of your opponent’s cards and trick them into fighting for you. The simple addition of these Mindbugs adds weighty decisions to a relatively simple system. It’s been a great game to toss in my purse for a quick battle just about anywhere.
Mindbug is short and snappy, but Mythic Mischief is a long, slow-burn dance. Players are in control of a team of monstrous schoolchildren sneaking around a library, trying to get their rivals captured by the hall monitor – the Tomekeeper. Players will use unique abilities to maneuver about a grid and change the landscape by moving bookshelves, students, and even the Tomekeeper. The actions are simple, but there are so many ways to manipulate the board state that it is a thoroughly brain-burning puzzle.
Mindbug has been a family favorite for a while now. Despite being extremely new to the collection, Mystic Mischief has stood out as a strong contender for one of my top duel games of the year. I couldn’t choose between them, so as of now, it’s a tie.
Cactus Town, Second Gate Games
Cactus Town was an impulse purchase from our local game store. The small box drew me in with its lively cartoon art. The employees at the store spoke highly of it, and it seemed like it might be a game that worked for our kids, so we decided to take a chance on this strange little game.
Cactus Town is bustling with colorful characters – sneaky outlaws, determined peace officers, shady bounty hunters, and even a vengeful Can-Can dancer! Each group has its own victory condition and must plan actions carefully in order to outwit everybody else. This small box is packed with action and chaos and is a perfect asymmetric game for the entire family. It is strange, clever, and full of quirky charm. It might be the best, and certainly the most unique, impulse purchase of the year!
The Guild of Merchant Explorers, Alderac Entertainment Group
Games of The Guild of Merchant Explorers are bound to be quiet affairs. The simultaneous turns might have the occasional groan when a less-than-ideal card flip upsets plans, but for the most part, there will be very little player interaction and no reason to communicate. When you’re in the mood for a fantastic, multiplayer-solitaire experience, look no further.
Don’t let the abundance of beige art and nondescript cubes deter you – this game is chock full of satisfying gameplay. It performs similarly to flip-and-write games with a fantastic twist that allows you to program a unique action set for every game. Developing a strategy to move your explorers across the map, setting up trade routes, and plundering treasure can be deeply satisfying – especially when you have set yourself up for success and it all comes together as planned.
Sometimes I want my games to be interactive. Other times, I want a quiet, cozy, multiplayer-solitaire experience. When I’m in that mood, The Guild of Merchant Explorers is a joy.
Life of the Party
Shoot for the Stars, Big Potato Games
Party games can be a tough sell – sometimes they go a little too far with raunchy humor, or they might force players into embarrassing situations. Shoot for the Stars is one of those rare gems that can make practically any player feel at ease. After a few rounds, even strangers will be good-naturedly debating and laughing with each other.
If there’s one thing Americans seem to universally love, it’s The Price is Right. Shoot for the Stars taps right into that and turns this exceedingly-simple concept of guessing numbers into an engaging, memorable party game experience. I have used Shoot for the Stars as an icebreaker game several times now, and it never disappoints. It is a great trivia game for those who don’t know trivia because everything is about “guesstimating” and seeing how high you can push things before you’ve gone too far. This one consistently brings laughs and smiles to the table.
Tie – Everdell: Newleaf, Starling Games; Meadow: Downstream, Rebel Studio
Everdell and Meadow were already pretty great – beautiful, clever, and well-liked. But this year they welcomed expansions that made them even more appealing!
Newleaf offers several fixes to the issue of card stagnation in the meadow that can occur – and they work beautifully. The additional cards add a lot of fun combos to exploit and have helped my husband and I re-discover why we love this game so much. There are a lot of Everdell expansions to explore, but it’s safe to say that Newleaf stands out above the rest to me.
Meadow is a pleasure to look at and play but there aren’t a lot of strategic paths to take. My husband and I usually end our games with scores within a few points of each other, utilizing very similar strategies each time. Downstream infuses variability by adding a river module that players may travel on. The river adds choices, but still keeps the relaxing core of the original game intact.
I chose these two expansions as my favorites of the year because they fixed a few issues while preserving the spirit of their original games. I can’t imagine playing without them going forward.
Most Likely to Succeed
Flamecraft, Cardboard Academy
When I first learned of Flamecraft I paid it very little mind. I admittedly discriminated – a game that cute runs the risk of being all style, no substance. But once the game started getting into peoples’ hands, it was impossible to ignore the positive buzz. We decided to take a chance and purchase a copy. And what a fantastic decision that was!
Ultimately, Flamecraft is a standard worker placement game: place a worker, get some stuff, and turn the stuff into points. But here the worker placement facilitates positive interactions between players. By landing on a shop, you help improve it for others who land there. There are plenty of shops to explore, and shifting avenues for point conversion. And it does that all with gorgeous visuals, an attractive theme, and plenty of inside jokes.
Having both brains and beauty, Flamecraft is the full package! It is simple and easy to learn, so it’s appropriate for newer players. But the game still offers plenty of fun and strategy for more experienced gamers. I can see this game gaining popularity rather quickly. I wouldn’t be shocked to see it on the shelf of a big box store in the future. People will be drawn to the gorgeous illustrations and nice components but will stick around for the clever, accessible gameplay.
Top of the Class
Cat in the Box, Bezier Games
Cat in the Box is a trick-taking game themed around the Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment. The game’s concept is simple enough – players have a hand with suitless, numbered cards. The cards’ suits are not determined until it’s played and the cardholder declares (observes) its color. There’s a shared community research board where observed cards are marked. Once a card is declared, nobody else can claim it. If players get into a pickle and run out of playable cards, they cause a paradox!
I consider myself to be a fairly adept trick-taker but Cat in the Box has added a fresh challenge in such a clever way that I always feel like I’m on uneven ground when I play. It’s not often that a familiar mechanic gets shaken up like this – it completely disrupts my usual play style and I love that challenge.
The game follows many other common trick-taking rules, such as following suit and bidding, making it fairly easy to teach to players who are already familiar with the mechanic. The box is small and travels easily. The game plays quickly and has been universally loved by those I’ve introduced it to.
Cat in the Box feels special. It might not be grandiose, but sometimes good things come in small packages. It managed to throw me off-kilter in a gaming category I usually feel comfortable in. It’s safe to say that for me, Cat in the Box was the best game of the year for 2022.
So how do you feel about the games released this year? What are some of the standouts to you?