Christmas is over and the New Year has begun! Oh God you haven’t bought your geeky relative a present! YOU MONSTER! What is wrong with you? Every year you leave it to the last minute and end up getting something crap for them from Waterstones! Fear not dear reader I am here to help you with a “definitive” list of recommended tabletop games that you can buy to make up for being a terrible person.
These Advanced Games will more than make up for you missing the Christmas boat. Just insist that they are special and that the extra wait will be worth it! Or you could just buy them for yourself…
The criteria for these lists is: If I own it, I can include it. So if I have missed out on your favourite game it probably means that I do not own it…..yet.
Advanced Games are the sorts of things that make people run away in fear when they look at all the components laid out on the table. They take a long time to play and their rulesets are dense with information. They also tend to be on the component rich side of things so they can get quite pricey. Thankfully they are totally worth the investment due to being some of the best games I have had the pleasure of playing. Seriously if you are looking to buy someone a meaty gift or want to step things up a notch in your board game collection, any of the following games are worth the money.
Star Wars: Imperial Assault
If you ever had the pleasure of playing one of the many Games Workshop miniatures games, especially dungeon crawlers like Hero Quest and Warhammer Quest, Imperial Assault is a must buy. It is a loving recreation of high adventure in the Star Wars universe played out over several campaign missions with you and up to four friends. Similar to the game it is derived from, Descent. Your friends will each assume the role of a hero of the Rebellion, while you as the owner of the game (because that’s how these things always go) will be taking on the role of the armies of the Galactic Empire.
The first thing I need to highlight are the amazing figures. For the price of the game and mass production run for it they are really high quality. In the box you get a good cross-section of all things Star Wars. You have the brilliant hero figures, your standard Stormtroopers and Probe Droids plus a beast or two along with your required Darth Vader figure. The pièce de résistance however is the AT-ST figure. It towers over everything on the table and will strike fear into the Rebel Players when the Imperials plop it on the table during a mission. For me the miniatures are what make the game special and everything that is not a miniature in the box is covered by a token. Thankfully you can buy additional miniatures to replace these tokens, with most of them representing your favourite Star Wars heroes and villains.
I like the figures so much that I have spent the past year slowly and when I have the time, painting all the miniatures that have come with the game. (If you’re interested I am using tutorial videos from Sorastro to guide my amateur painting hand) I am slowly turning these pale grey and cream figures into colourful and vibrant playing pieces that fit perfectly within the Star Wars setting.
As for the game itself it is actually a 2-in-1 proposition. You have the main Campaign game for 2-5 players and then the 1 Vs 1 Skirmish mode that plays out as a tactical miniatures game. I have yet to mess around with the Skirmish Ruleset but the Campaign rules make this game worth it just on their own.
In Campaign the players are divided up into the forces of the Empire and the Rebel Alliance. One player taking on the role of the Imperials while the other players each take control of a Rebel hero. Think of them as a ragtag gang of adventurers whose exploits run alongside those of the main Star Wars cast of Luke, Leia, Han, etc. The Imperial player naturally serves as the game’s equivalent of a Dungeon Master/Overlord. They hold all the cards, know what is going to happen in advance and have the mighty resources of the Empire behind them. The game strikes a nice balance between the two sides. The Rebel heroes have a wealth of abilities to draw from, they can also earn allies and special weapons as rewards for beating certain missions or doing well. The Empire however has a great build up of power over the course of the campaign as the Rebels go from minor problem to, “They must be stopped at all costs!” Everyone grows in power as the Campaign goes on and the game becomes more complex.
The structure of the Campaign also has a cool choose your own adventure aspect to it where players on both sides are given choices for side-missions and success or failure in story missions causes the Campaign to go in different directions. Meaning that there is a nice dollop of replayability to it. It is also expertly crafted to create player stories during play. Those last ditch moves that lead to an incredible victory for the Rebels. The scoundrel character taking out a whole squad of Stormtroopers with a series of well timed shots. The Imperial player placing Darth Vader on one side of the table and just methodically moving him towards the Rebels while explosions are going off and Stormtroopers are dying around him. (If you are the Imperial player I highly recommend doing this! It will strike fear into hearts any Rebel Scum!) Each player also gets their moment to shine during the campaign thanks to side-missions tied directly to their character. Success in these can mean things like the Force Sensitive hero earning her Lightsaber. It creates those epic moments and character beats you love from the movies.
The only real downsides to the game is that it requires some planning and commitment from all the players involved. The Campaign structure of the game and the growing complexity of the gameplay means you need the same group of players to come back to the table each time you play. The solution I have found is to have a handy spreadsheet that I can use to track what is happening in each campaign I am running, 3 at the moment! Because of this my pre-game prep is considerable as I have to take apart various decks of cards and character upgrades from one Campaign and reconstruct them for the next. Then you have the fiddly bit of sifting through all of the games many map tiles to find the ones you need for a given mission. That is a minor quibble though because the detail on the tiles themselves makes the faff worth it.
The rules themselves take some getting used to as well. The game does a good job of mitigating downtime with the full ruleset divided between separate Learn to Play, Rules Reference and Skirmish books. Still you will quickly find that you come across the odd keyword or ability that needs some further clarification and entries in the Rules Reference can be oddly worded from time to time, meaning you have to debate what to do with the whole table before proceeding.
It is all worth it though because the game is so good when it gets going. I am running three very slowly progressing campaigns because I have so much fun playing the game and want to share it with as many people as I can. While playing your table will be covered in a sea of colourful tokens and at their centre is a cool changing diorama of all things Star Wars. One that you and your friends are creating together.
Also having a playlist of the various Star Wars soundtracks playing in the background is a must!
Dead of Winter
I am putting Dead of Winter in this section because of the variety of components the game offers more than anything. This game of zombie survival and betrayal is filled with tokens for everything. It is a game that when spread out on the table, looks like the most confusing mess of cardboard you have ever seen. There is just stuff everywhere, but my oh my, what wonderful stuff it is.
The mess fits in well with the game’s conceit of players having to survive a tough winter in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. The core loop of the game is about searching through the rubbish left behind by civilisation for the key items and weapons you need to survive. The twist to this however is that every move you make with a character you control could be their last thanks to the game’s Exposure Dice. If a piece of plastic could strike pure fear into someone the Exposure Dice is it. Each roll is a dance with death as you wait to see if your character has received a wound, contracted frostbite, got out scot-free or been bitten. If that evil, evil tooth icon appears then that is it. That character is dead. Done. Gone. Expired. Then because this is a harsh game if anyone else is in the vicinity when this happens you have to roll to see if the infection spreads to them. It is tense, gripping gameplay that has everyone invested at all times.
The game is a cooperative effort with all players working together to try and complete the given objective for the scenario you are playing. However there are a few twists to this. The first is that at the start of the game everyone is given a secret objective. These can range from just making sure the main objective is complete to holding certain items and more. Then there is also a chance that someone within your group could be a Betrayer whose objective is to ensure the main objective is never completed. It might seem simple to figure out if you have a Betrayer. It will just be the player who is not being helpful but thanks to the secret objectives everyone has you end up doubting your assumptions. Anyone could be the Betrayer, even the most helpful of players. They could just be biding their time before unleashing hell upon the group.
That is the game at its heart, rising tension across multiple levels. You will see a steady build up of zombies that needs to be managed. You will have more helpless survivors taking up space at the game’s base camp, The Colony. You will forget about the build up of waste and it will become a huge concern as morale slowly decreases. You also have a finite amount of time to get things done. Then you have the added pressure that anything you do could trigger a Crossroads Card. A semi-choose your own adventure decision that could have a big impact on what happens next. You could get a cool reward or a terrible outcome that casts a shadow over the rest of the game. Dead of Winter is a game of choices; tough, terrible and deadly choices.
The downside to this is that it can be very draining to play. There is always pressure to succeed and despite the game’s dark comedy slant to things it is easy to do something to ruin the plans of the group whether by accident or “accident.” The game’s multitude of locations, tokens and decks of cards can also be a chore to keep track of. There are some nuances to how things play out that are not immediately apparent and despite the rule book’s best attempts to keep things simple multiple mechanics can be a bit head scratching at first.
The game as a whole is infinitely compelling and there are multiple variants to the rules to have a go with. From pure hardcore co-op experiences to ensuring there is always a Betrayer in the group. The game is surprisingly flexible for multiple play styles. The story and character focus of the game also makes it a great game to roleplay with players assuming the roles of the characters they control. Heightening the experience into a more structured RPG if you wish.
That Exposure Dice though… Pure evil in polyhedral form.
A Game of Thrones: The Card Game 2nd Edition – Core Set
The newest game in all of my lists AGoT LCG 2nd (that’s the short “simplified” name by the way) is a lovely and deep Living Card Game based on the Song of Fire and Ice books by George R. Martin. I have done a much more in-depth review here but if you have ever enjoyed games like Magic: The Gathering or the Pokémon Trading Card Game you need to give Game of Thrones a look.
The Core Set on its own gives you a good game for up to four players but if you want to get the most out of it you will need to invest in additional Core Sets and find a regular group of people to play with. That is because A Game of Thrones is a Living Card Game so it thrives on its players constantly playing and tweaking their constructed decks of cards. The game also regularly shifts with Chapter Packs of new cards and Deluxe Expansions that add new cards and mechanics to the game. That is why it is included in this list of Advanced Games. You can learn the basics quite quickly but once you go down the rabbit hole it is bottomless. You end up having to memorise key cards and their abilities along with which cards counter or synergise well with others. There is a great tactical depth to the game that thankfully does not rely on you piling too much money into it. That is because the LCG format means when you buy a pack of cards you get all the copies of its contents that you need. No blind booster packs or hunting down rare and overpowered cards.
The game itself is a joy to play. In true Game of Thrones fashion, it is all about lining up you plan then executing it. However your opponent is doing the same so you will also both be trying your hardest to hinder each other’s progress. Plot Cards, card and character abilities, the game’s death mechanic. Everything is pulled from the books and show in a well thought out way that enhances the game rather than detracts from it.
If you are a fan of the show or books I would recommend grabbing a 2nd Edition Core Set. From there it is up to you. Just remember, the more you play the better the game becomes.
Game of Thrones: The Board Game
Game of Thrones: The Board Game was one of the first major non-traditional board games I bought. Mainly because I am a fan of the TV show and it looked really cool. You get a map of Westeros, lots of plastic pieces to represent your armies and lots of tokens to represent your scheming. It is beautiful game of alliances and betrayals as everyone aims to settle who is the one true King or Queen of the land.
I always try to push playing this in a low lit room with people drinking out of the most goblet like thinks they have and most importantly stood around the table rather than sitting. This is a game of domination, negotiation and control. This is a lord assessing the land and pushing representations of their forces around the map as they receive information from their advisors. It feels big. It feels like every decision you make is important. This is a game that causes discussion and arguments to break out around the table. It is perfectly engineered to make people want to drag people to one side and whisper in their ear about teaming up to take down another player when the least suspect it.
It looks and sounds really exciting but in reality my first few games of Game of Thrones were a stop/start process of trial and error. Mainly I was inexperienced with the various mechanics it employs, also more so than almost any other game I own, Game of Thrones has a lot of very, very, very fiddly rules and sub-rules that are hard to penetrate at first. For a session of this game to succeed you need to have the art of explaining its complexities down to a key. It is also a game that benefits from having a dummy turn or two to get players in the swing of things.
It is also a game you need to play with the right people because the length can very wildly depending on the choices the players make. I’ve played games that last 45 minutes and ones that last 3 hours. It all depends on how well your opponents are at planning and scheming.
Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition
Twilight Imperium the crown jewel of my board game collection. It represents, for me the pinnacle for what board game design can achieve. This is a game that generates epic stories on a scale I have never seen before. You have a randomly generated map of the Galaxy, a large amount of plastic ships and tokens to populate it, then heaps of flavour and theme lovingly poured on top. It is a game that will take you the better part of a day to play but the time will fly by. It is just that good.
The best way I find to get people excited to play Twilight Imperium is to say that during the course of a game players will play out their own Space Opera in a mix of the best bits of Star Wars, Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica. It will be methodical at first but become tense and dramatic as big events happen and the game gets closer to finishing. There will be wars, there will be politics, there will be players throwing small cards and lots of dice on the table as they pull of a combination of abilities and rolls that get them the thing they desperately wanted. It is beautiful to play.
The game’s individual mechanics are not overly complex ether there is just a lot of them and each player has a lot of decisions to make in a given round of play. Picking one Strategy for a round could mean you are going for something very specific or it could give you more options to react to what the other players do with theirs. You are also always invested in the game. When you first see that Twilight Imperium can take the better part of day to play you imagine having lots of down time between turns or that something in particular causes the game to drag on but it does not. Everything has been considered, the constantly changing turn order and breaking down of actions players can do means that there is always something you need to keep an eye on or react to when you are waiting for your turn.
The length comes from everything in this game being big. You need a big table (or tables) to play it properly. You have big tiles that make up the board. Big fleets of ships being moved between systems. Big decisions and consequences for everything you do. There is a lot you need to look at and mull over each turn. The game has a brilliant attention to detail that I have not really seen elsewhere. It is not a licensed product so the sandbox you are playing in has its own look and feel. There is flavour text everywhere and each of the game’s many alien races have special abilities that tie directly into their backstories. So much so, that it is a game that many people’s roleplay rather than just play competitively. What is presented to the player is a setting as rich and cinematic as the titans of sci-fi. The more you play the grander the stories will become too. You will have a certain fondness for systems were you had your mightiest battles. When you are sat next to certain races at the start of a game you will groan remembering what happened the last time the Mindnet took half of your planets in two dreadful rounds of play.
The game also has a wonderful habit of throwing options at you. In the base game alone there are heaps of extra tokens and special rules to bolt onto the game to change things up, add more depth and to give you something fresh to do each time you sit down to play this monumental game. The two expansions add even more options with the first, Shattered Empire providing support for two more players. There is so much to see and do with this game!
That is the problem with it though, it is an event when it is played. Which means that it is rarely played unless you manage to gather a dedicated group of TI3 (that’s the “simplified” name) players for regular games. Not many people have 3-6+ hours to set aside to play a game regularly or if they do, they might not have the stamina to reach the end point. It is the game I own that requires the most organisation to setup and play. There are so many things to consider, so many components and bolt-on rules you can give a go. Getting everything out of the box and laid out on the table is something I always block out time for before anyone arrives to play. It is a special occasion and should be treated as such. It demands to be well presented by the host. It needs to be treated with respect and given a proper rules explanation. During the week of a game of Twilight Imperium I will re-read the game’s considerable rule book, scourer the internet for new tips and tricks I can pass onto the other players, do random draws or seek opinion on what variants and additional rules to use. There is a lot to do and then when it is over you have to clean it all up. But damn it. It is always worth it.
There is something special about seeing someone win a game because the plan they set into motion 2 hours ago has finally paid off. Victory in this game is something that is always earned because there are so many ways to obtain it. All fraught with their own dangers and obstacles that need to be overcome. You have to make deals with other player and then go back on them. You have to use the political clout you have earned to screw over all the other players by voting a motion that changes the actual rules of the game. You have to get revenge on the Universities of Jol-Nar for taking one of your planets hours earlier. It is so good. So rich and compelling to play. Just make sure you have the time and a like minded group of people to play it with!
I have my next game booked in for the end of January and I cannot wait to spend a whole day in the world of Twilight Imperium.
So that is it! My recommended games for 2015 just a little bit later… All of the games featured in each of the lists are worth a look at and playing. Just pick the ones that match with your personal tastes, find some people to play them with and have some fun.