End of the Year 2021: Favorite Tabletop and Other Non-Typical Games

2021 was another odd year for gaming with others, especially in-person. Escape rooms and arcades had new sanitation and social distancing rules, if they were able to open at all. TTRPG groups were able to meet again, when household restrictions allowed, but many continued to use Zoom and other online tools. Shortages and delays hit the industry. Speculation on trading cards see major retailers temporarily ban the sale of Pokémon and other TCGs.

Despite the challenges, there were dozens of amazing tabletop games released this year. itch.io continued to be a great place to join game jams, support charity bundles, and discover small developers. And, of course, the launch of Waypoint Plus gave our community several great streams to enjoy together.

What are your favorite play experiences outside of “typical” video games in 2021?

Wizards of the Coast made a wildly overpowered Magic set a few years ago called “Throne of Eldraine” that functionally ate their Standard format for two years. Everybody hated Standard because it was mostly Eldraine cards. Even after banning like, two rounds of Standard cards: still Eldraine. Oko, Thief of Crowns was banned in literally four formats (a record).

And then Eldraine rotated and suddenly Standard was checks notes good? I know everybody has it out for Alrund’s Epiphany because extra turn strats bum most people out but the turns are big. The decision trees are big. You’re playing with laser precision to sneak through your big play. I don’t remember the last time I had that much fun playing Magic. Even in losing I had a ball because everything felt great.

I’ve been playing Commander too (I’m very picky about my Commander decks) but the couple weeks I managed to sneak in were some of the best Magic I’ve played in years.

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I think board games fits under this category?

I have loved discovering Spirit Island this year. I’ve always found co-op board games a difficult sell because it’s really easy to slip into situations where some players have more of an idea what to do than others. This can very quickly turn into people not feeling like they have agency.

Spirit Island addresses this by… just having an exceedingly complicated board state. The amount of content in the game (with the expansions) is staggering, and the theme is a great alternative to the tacit / explicit endorsement of colonialism in many board games. Ratcheting up the difficulty level of the different adversaries gave me a similar feeling to ascension levels in Slay the Spire / Monster Train, which is great.

I have also recently been loving Tapestry Arts and Architecture. Yes, I know it’s not great to pat Spirit Island on the back for it’s theme and then pivot immediately to a game that has about as nuanced a take on history as Sid Meier’s Civ. But the mechanics of Tapestry are such a great balance of simple turns and variety of rewards. The game was dunked on pretty hard for having a significant amount of luck (which, to be clear, it does). But the fifth track in this expansion gives you more flexibility to roll with the punches. The variety of the cards, civilisations and tracks means that each game you are usually taking a drastically different road to the end, even after many plays.

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In the “tabletop games on a computer” field, my ongoing (and now on hiatus for the last 6 months, but…) D&D 5e* game has been conducted over Discord + Foundry VTT since its inception last year, and this year we briefly experimented with adding Talespire to the list of tools (unfortunately, just 2 sessions before we went on technology-and-then-free-time-induced break).
Personally, I much prefer the managed Foundry VTT approach to running a TTRPG - and I’d probably use a Foundry instance even if I was DM/GMing a game in person. (I’m not the GM for this game, though.) There’s enough useful automation of rules (and visual hints for things like line of sight) that you can get by with a lot less mechanical knowledge in your players - which is important because in my experience, about 50% of players [at least, of 5e D&D] have terrible rules retention, even about their own characters. Plus, it does bookkeeping for you.
(I’m pretty sure you could even run a PF2e, or other “crunchier” ruleset with players barely noticing.)

Talespire, frankly, I’m more ambivalent over. Sure, it’s a true-3d virtual space, contrasting to Foundry’s more traditional 2d space with flat tokens, but it also has almost no useful integration of automation itself [there’s an API for integrating calls out from remote servers - including Foundry - to tell Talespire to “roll some dice” or “take health off this token”… but that still misses a bunch of context for the meaning of the rolls, and it’s not as slick as a truly integrated VTT is].

*5e’s not my favourite RPG, or even my favourite edition of D&D, but… you play with the ruleset everyone else wants. :wink:

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I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to play a lot of great games in person this year, some published this year, some published 10 years ago, but there’s no question about my tabletop GOTY: it was the year of Netrunner.

I assume most folks here have heard of it, but just in case: it’s an asymmetric cyberpunk card game where one player (the corporation) is trying to complete secret agenda cards, while the other player (the runner) is trying to steal those agendas by hacking into the corp’s servers. There’s lots of writing about how great Netrunner is, so I won’t go on at length but the core of it is a brilliant design.

What elevated the Netrunner experience of 2021 to GOTY levels for me was Project NISEI’s release of System Gateway and System Update in March. System Gateway is an exceptional introduction to the game. The cards are super cleverly designed, with nothing feeling out of place or unnecessary. Sure, not every card in SG shines in the wider competitive formats, but as a self contained introduction they are incredibly thoughtfully designed. Cards like Smartware Distributor, Creative Commission, and VRcation teach a runner how to plan your turn and economy, while cards like Spin Doctor and Seamless Launch teach the corp some of the fundamental challenges of playing defense. Clearinghouse and Urtica Cipher teach you that sometimes, the corp is gonna have to bluff. And all of them are presented with beautiful art and crisp, clear design elements. With SU and NISEI’s previous Ashes releases, there is a clear on-ramp to wider card pools, which made it easy for me to get into the game but also made it easy for me to teach all my friends and get some of them hooked too.

There is so much more I could write about Netrunner, but I will instead post a single card, one of my favorites from SG, that I think captures some of what I love about it:

image

Depicting one of the SG runners participating in a strike on the moon, it has an undeniably leftist theme but also an incredibly fun card design that I think gets more interesting the more you see it in play (a testament to this is an 1800 word review on NRDB).

Netrunner was always a bit of a gaming missed connection for me, and it’s been a joy to have finally gotten to experience it. That WPR episode really was a holiday Netrunner miracle for me, and I’m grateful to Cado for the serendipitous podcast that lead me down the rabbit hole.

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I’m a big fan of the Yu-Gi-Oh! TCG, but more than that, I am a big fan of the Yu-Gi-Oh! anime series. So the new Brothers of Legends packs are pretty fun for me. Lots of anime-exclusive cards were finally brought to the game, including a favorite of mine: Kuribabylon. And the terrible Noble Knight cards that Sherry LeBlanc has in 5D’s, none of which I would ever put in a Noble Knight deck but all of which I find delightful and hope I can grab sometime just for the joy of it.

Haven’t played too many games new to this year, though I was gifted a copy of Wanderhome and when I’m able to get a booster shot, I’ll probably drag a few friends into a game. Beautiful art, at least. And I played a game of The Fuzzies with a friend, it’s like Jenga but with a tower of cotton balls. It was fun, and it’s a reasonable price, so I’ll probably pick it up for myself if I see it in shops. Should be good for when I have my niblings over.

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My “non-traditional” game is a browser Minesweeper game I’ve been playing in the background at home for years now. But I discovered this browser version lets you set any game you want, so I decided to create Death March Minesweeper. 50 x 50 with 600 mines, so it’s bigger and thicker than any difficulty level on basic MS Minesweeper (which they ruined back in Windows 10 and have never fixed, oh well.)

Here’s the one time I’ve managed to complete the challenge:

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I’m concerned about what sharing this might lead to, but have you seen this million cell minesweeper Gita covered last year?

You can’t change the mine density, but it’s still a true death march. Obviously, it can’t test puzzles to make sure they’d be solvable, so you run into some times you just have to guess, but it’s still good for self imposed challenges. I found trying to clear a path from one corner to the other an interesting way to play.

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I did but the problem with that version is that MS Minesweeper (and the online ports) has logic built in that your first press will always be a safe square, usually a pretty wide “sea” to give you some kind of starting point to the puzzle. I think the underlying programming runs such that the puzzle doesn’t actually generate until you uncover that first step.

With this version, the puzzle is generated already. I tried this five times and on first click landed on a mine three of them, a two with no other context which led to me guessing and dying, and then a 8, no kidding, so guessed three more times getting 2s 3s and a mine. So it’s cool, but it’s a bad version of the game.

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Yeah, that’s 100% the problem I was thinking of. It’s a pity there’s not a more fully featured version, but given how niche it is already, I can’t really expect more.

I got back into Chess over this past year and it’s been a lot of fun.

Also, not sure if this is where you would put crosswords but, I started watching Chris Remo’s YouTube series where he does the New York Times Crossword every day and it inspired me to start doing crosswords too. I’ve even made a few of my own at this point.

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