Game of the Year 2019: Sara Elsam's Top 5
Crime, cannibals and cursed potions.
Sara Elsam is one of Dicebreaker’s staff writers, who helped put together the very website you’re reading these words on. They’re also the team’s house expert and lover of all things to do with Dungeons & Dragons and nightmarish creations of cosmic horror. Plus cats.
It’s that time of the year, where we look over the games we’ve loved - and chuck the rest into an incinerator, never to be seen again. Honestly, it’s been a tough call picking out a game of the year for 2019. There have been a ridiculously high amount of fantastic board games and RPGs out and about, and I’ve gotten my claws into plenty of ‘em.
For the most part, I’ve opted for games that have stood out as unique. Blades in the Dark, with its unusual setting and super-fast immersion took the crown for an RPG system, while the pirate-infested sourcebook for Dungeons & Dragons 5E Ghosts of Saltmarsh expanded on the game’s traditional fantasy fare in a way that I - and many D&D groups - found especially delightful.
When it comes to the best board games I've played this year, 2018’s The Quacks of Quedlinburg hypnotised our group with its lurid and very cursed components, while also encouraging a rowdy good time that was accessible to all. Meanwhile, brand new cruel and shocking narrative title The King’s Dilemma trauma bonded us in a way that no other board game ever has. Lastly, I opted for Mansions of Madness: Second Edition, because - despite it being a few years old now - I’ve been enjoying it as a story-based experience that also throws in a ton of abominable miniatures and unknowable curses.
So here are my five top games that sucked me into different worlds parts lurid and murderous.
1. The King's Dilemma
I’ve played five games of The King’s Dilemma so far and, although we’ve not yet reached it’s bloody denouement, I would say it’s provided a very unique gaming experience. It’s like Game of Thrones in that you are ruling a kingdom and the players around the table together form this squabbling council of fantasy houses, each conspiring to get ahead. Meanwhile, everything around you is descending into chaos. You can see what I thought after delving deeper into the world of drunk poets, tainted grain and cruel consequences that make up the game in our preview of The King's Dilemma earlier this year.
You each pick a noble house, which can range from technology-focused communists to xenophobic island folk. The choices here are very fun and come with a detailed biography, helping you lean into the roleplaying - if that’s your jam.
For the first part of the game, you draw out cards, which work as a bit of a choose-your-own-adventure kind of deal. You then all vote together to decide what choice to make. At this point you’re welcome to bribe and bamboozle as much as you please.
You also each have a secret agenda you’ve picked out, so it’s up to you whether you select a decision that works for the kingdom or your horrible self. This leads to fun scenarios, like when one of our more liberal council men tried to persuade us that cannibalism was actually in the interest of the people.
Once you’ve all voted on your decision, the decision with the most power laid on it wins. You then read out the - usually horrifying - consequence of your dilemma, and adjust the effect on the kingdom as directed. In this case, the kingdom’s overall stability is represented by a gauge that outlines different aspects, such as knowledge and military favour.
The King’s Dilemma is a legacy board game that takes place over around 15 sessions. Everything you do is permanent. As such, seemingly inconsequential decisions we made in the early games came back to bite us in later ones. In addition, as things progressed, our decisions become ever more nasty. By the time we reached the fourth game, we’d uncovered a truly terrible mystery, paid a grave and desperate price for past misdeeds, and became strangely bonded by all the terrors we’d wrought.
Despite playing plenty of awesome games this year, I picked out King’s Dilemma as my 2019 Game of the Year for Dicebreaker because it honestly feels very unique. Narrative engine-based games are often overtly simple, but King’s Dilemma’s addition of social subterfuge via the vote betting, plus the fact that its story strands can be very long and unpredictable, makes the whole make-your-own-story angle so that much more compelling.
Buy The King’s Dilemma on Amazon UK/Amazon US.
2. Blades in the Dark
Blades in the Dark is a standout fantasy tabletop RPG that isn't Dungeons & Dragons - and is genuinely unlike any other fantasy RPG I’ve seen, for that matter. It eschews the typical fantasy-horror theme and instead plunges you straight into a psuedo-steampunk world of seediness, ghosts and brutality. You all play criminals, selecting any one of a number of sinister law-breaking archetypes.
Maybe you’d like to play the Spider, a Fagin-esque collector of secrets, complete with a bevy of orphans at their disposal. Or the Whisper, someone who can literally summon ghosts at a whim, and is witness to the ghastly, phantom architecture that permeates the Blades in the Dark world. Or, going in more for more of a traditional fighter role, perhaps you’d like to be the Cutter, who can unleash a level of violence that’s especially frightening.
Now, fantastic setting aside, there are a range of other things that really elevate Blades and distinguish it from its more intensive power play brethren such as D&D. The first is that it’s relatively simple. Instead of rifling through proficiencies and skills, you just get one die to roll per point in a stat. If you have no points in a particular trait, you roll two dice and use the score of the lowest. This means less number-crunching per round, which helps differentiate it for players less accustomed to the RPG grind.
Secondly, you get to build your very own criminal hideout. At the end of every mission, you’ll be able to put across some of your resources into building stuff for the hideout, or for yourself. Want to make a flamethrower? That’ll take a few successful heists, but it’s definitely possible. There’s really no limits to this - which comes to my final and absolutely favourite aspect of Blades in the Dark.
It’s called the flashback mechanic, and it allows you to pull yourself out of shady situations with pure imagination - and luck. The dice giveth as much as they taketh away, after all.
For example, when I played Blades in the Dark with the Dicebreaker team earlier this year, we got into a pretty prickly situation based on a faction we’d pissed off in our previous heist. Seven guards came hurtling toward us, and we had barely any weapons - or, indeed, combat experience.
As ghost-wrangling Whisper Creepy Jack, I decided at that moment that a few years ago I had done a “freelance” job on someone’s house: namely, getting rid of a rotted, eyeless ghost that was particularly noisy. I named it the Wailer. Well, turns out, thanks to that handy flashback mechanic, I had the Wailer in one of my spirit bottles. I threw it down like a cursed Poké Ball and watched it slaughter some of the guards. Of course, if we’d stuck around long enough, the Wailer would have inevitably killed us all too - but that’s kind of the fun of Blades. It’s a dark and horrible world full of lightning, madness and surprise ghosts; I can’t recommend it enough.
Buy Blades in the Dark on Amazon UK/Amazon US.
3. The Quacks of Quedlinburg
I love Quacks of Quedlinburg. It's a game from last year where you all play dodgy doctors - or quacks, if you will - and it’s full-blown old-time fantasy, so you’ll mostly be handling cursed roots and big red bugs.
Every round you mix up a big, horrible potion. The ingredients are represented by tokens that you draw blind from a velvet bag - not unlike pulling letter tiles in Scrabble. But there’s a catch: some of your ingredients are poisonous.
Put enough of the unfortunate cherry bombs in and your entire concoction goes kaboom. So the aim here is to push your luck. And actually, Quacks doesn't penalise you too much for blowing up. I feel like this game encourages your baser instincts - that reptilian part of you that wants to rain destruction on your enemies and bask on a rock.
In-between the brewing, you’ll also pick out which ingredients you’d like to purchase and add to your bag. There are all sorts of potion components to be had: my particular favourites include a screaming mandrake-like root and a spooky skull that grants the power of foresight. Every ingredient gives you a specific boon and the more of one type you have, the more they’ll stack up for additional advantages. It’s these deckbuilding-like aspects (albeit with a sack of tokens rather than a stack of cards) that make Quacks an engaging bag-builder, as you manage your pool of weird and lurid ingredients.
Quacks is very tactile, with its esoteric ingredient markers and lovely little magic potion bottle - which you can pour into your cauldron to mitigate explosive tokens. In addition, it’s quite simple and easy to pick up. It includes a basic ruleset, and then an advanced one for when you’ve played a few more rounds. I’ve found it relatively easy to introduce to brand new groups.
It comprises a good mix of individual strategy in its bag-building and push-your-luck aspects, but manages to be very competitive to boot. Plus it’s hard not to bond over blowing stuff up. You’ll learn quickly who it is that wants to fly too close to the sun - and if you go there yourself, you’ll soar and explode in equal measure.
Quacks is also beautiful, if you like that lurid slightly cursed medieval vibe. The actual potion boards are a swirl of Disney colour, while tokens range from bright orange pumpkins to creepy moths. It’s a strong look, for my tastes at least.
I like playing this along to tavern-esque music and demanding everyone name their quack, specifying what they sell. So far, we’ve had a lich, some sort of potion-building golem AI and a shady wizard.
I definitely recommend this for groups that enjoy fantasy and that want something a little bolshy and fun to sink into.
Buy The Quacks of Quedlinburg on Amazon UK/Amazon US.
4. Mansions of Madness: Second Edition
I’ve been playing Mansions of Madness: Second Edition on the regular for about a year now, and I’ve lost count of all the ways we’ve died. We’ve been subsumed by angry mobs, literally crushed by eldritch abominations and eaten by flying serpents. It’s been wild, and so very grim.
Mansions of Madness is a co-op board game that draws from the seething, squirming horror of the Lovecraft mythos and features its own robot game master (ye gods!) courtesy of its PC and mobile companion app. In each scenario, you build up different environments and set to solving an inevitably cursed mystery. There’s an infinity of abominations to be encountered - all beautifully crafted into miniatures - and the storylines are surprisingly compelling, considering that you know all is doomed regardless of what you do.
Your benenolvent app companion runs you through what needs to be done each turn. Meanwhile, you’ll assemble an assortment of maps, roll unknowable dice and place tokens indicating objects and non-player characters. There are a multitude of different adventures to be enjoyed, which range in size and get increasingly longer in frightening increments.
These adventures are also surprisingly varied. For example, one campaign turned out to be an actual murder mystery, while another involved unravelling a weird conspiracy. Only the first fit the traditional haunted house mould.
There was this one time, we were ever so close to winning, but someone snapped and became obsessed with stealing the sacred weapon we needed. We’ve won once but, I have to say, we’d lost so many times beforehand it still hasn’t quite sunk in.
It’s a popular choice for single-player fans of solo board games and couples too, as it balances well whatever number of players you have.
Mansions of Madness is horrible to you. It makes you do a horror check every round, which are sort of like wisdom checks in Dungeons & Dragons. You’re fighting for your sanity. There are so many bloodthirsty monsters too, plenty of whom are best avoided - that candlestick won’t get you very far when the Great Old Ones descend, as they so often do.
And if you want to get into the roleplaying angle, it includes a range of fun Lovecraft-themed player characters from the Arkham Horror Files universe, like a priest and a privileged noble whose sanity can literally be saved by picking up shiny objects.
I really recommend Mansions of Madness: Second Edition for folks who enjoy storytelling and roleplaying, for despite its flaws it’s one of the best narrative adventure experiences you can have in a board game. It’s one of the best horror board games, and easily my favourite Lovecraft experience on the tabletop.
Buy Mansions of Madness: Second Edition on Amazon UK/Amazon US.
5. Dungeons & Dragons: Ghosts of Saltmarsh
Ghosts of Saltmarsh is a D&D supplement that effectively adds seafaring pirate-themed adventures to the Dungeons & Dragons world. As well as giving you the ins and outs of running a kraken-versus-ship battle, it also includes a range of one-off campaigns. I’ve found that despite my inclinations toward all things cursed and horrible, that a romping pirate yarn makes for a super fun tabletop experience. Perhaps I can blame ultra-violent TV show Black Sails for that. As such, Ghosts of Saltmarsh is easily among the best Dungeons & Dragons 5E RPG campaigns out there.
As a theme, pirates can fit comfortably into a lot of genres. If you like horror, there are plentiful curses and ghostly tales to be had at sea, like mysterious abandoned ships. If high-octane adventuring is more your thing, just set up a treasure hunt replete with a cast of eccentric characters. Alternatively, getting cultists, rowdy political movements and gargantuan dragon turtles involved is also fun.
Ghosts of Saltmarsh features a bunch of short campaigns along with the new rules and monsters, which exemplify the mixed genres. Again, these won’t provide the depth of a full campaign, but they provide an excellent starting point if you're wondering how to get started with Dungeons & Dragons as a player. They range from levels one to ten, so you could take one party through all of them, using the well-detailed starting town of Saltmarsh as your starting point - where the tavern full of adventures lives.
I really like it because, along with this year’s Descent into Avernus and Eberron, it shows how vast the scope of Dungeons & Dragons is. The system as a whole can be adapted to a range of settings, and I’m so glad that Dungeons & Dragons 5E is embracing a breadth of different worlds. Whatever happens, with Ghosts of Saltmarsh, you’re guaranteed a kraken good time.
Buy Dungeons & Dragons: Ghosts of Saltmarsh on Amazon UK/Amazon US.
Read more of Dicebreaker’s Game of the Year 2019 coverage, including the Dicebreaker team’s personal favourites and more designer picks.