I’ll start with the usual preface: I haven’t played every tabletop game that was released this year.

In fact, I played only a tiny percentage of them, given the limits of social distancing, time, etc. It also didn’t help that my college-age son is less interested in trying new games these days then he is at kicking my butt in Ping Pong and Go.

Still, I found many keepers in the past twelve months, some of which I’ve written about for Midwest Film Journals, Indianapolis Monthly, and others (forgive me for cribbing some of my own copy here).

Let’s start with the most unexpected: Super-Skill Pinball 4-Cade (WizKids).

This one started out with multiple strikes against it. First of all, I love pinball. And I love it because of the physical experience of playing it. Video versions always fell way short, even when they tried to incorporate body English into them. On top of that, I haven’t had great luck with tabletop games that attempt to recreate real-world sports and games. That’s why you won’t find many board or card versions of baseball or football on my shelves. Finally, I’m not big on single-player games or competitive games that are, essentially, side-by-side solitaire.

And yet…

Super-Skill Pinball 4-Cade overcame all of that resistance.

In it, a silver half-ball marker starts at the top of a player board, which recreates the busyness and fun of a pinball cabinet. A pair of dice are rolled and the player can send the ball to a feature on the board (bumper, target, flipper, etc.) that has one of those numbers on it. The number on that feature is marked off and can’t be visited again without a reset. The goal, as in pinball, is to keep the ball alive and score as many points as possible. That means options diminish as play goes on. A combination of skill shots and lucky dice, some multi-ball play, and maybe a risky shake (which can lead to a tilt) — adds tension.

Bonus: there are actually four games in the small box. I’ve only been playing one, Carniball, meaning I’ve got lots more game play ahead of me thanks to designer Geoff Engelstein.

Nature and outdoor games were big this year, perhaps spawned in part by recent breakthrough successes such as Wingspan, Trekking the National Parks, and Trails. In Cascadia (Flatout Games/AEG), on each turn, you collect a habitat tile as well as an animal token and add them to your expanding map. Each animal can only be played on the proper topography tile, though, and each beast also has a different scoring rule. Bears, for instance, only score if in pairs and not next to any other bears. Salmon increase in point value if they are on connected river tiles. You also score points if you have the most adjacent habitats of the same type.

I like the variations

You don’t have to be hooked on HGTV to enjoy Floor Plan (Deep Water Games). Here, would-be designers have to decide, with each roll of the dice, whether to add a room to their graph-paper design (using the dice as guide to dimensions) or add landscape and architectural features, all while meeting client demands. I’ve taken to adding a post-scoring round where we try to rationalize the houses we designed, presenting them as if we are realtors making sales. How to explain, for instance, that outbuilding with no windows or doors? Or the kitchen that can only be accessed via a bathroom?

“Filler” is a term used by gamers to describe those games you can play when a) you and your friends are waiting for the rest of the crew to show up, b) there are two games being played on separate tables, one finishes earlier than the other and wants something to do, and c) you otherwise have 15 minutes or so to kill. For such situations, it’s great to have Abandon All Artichokes (Gamewright) in your game arsenal. This cutesy card game has a simple goal: Deal yourself a hand of five cards, none of which feature the titular veggie. Problem is, you start with nothing but 10 artichokes in your deck. So, on your turn you add one other veggie from a tableaux into your hand to give you actions to help you compost the unwanted produce.

A half-step up in complexity and a few big steps up in elegance, is Flourish (Starling Games). Here, a cardboard garden wall separates each pair of players. You are dealt a hand of cards and have to pick one to plant in your own garden and two to pass over those walls to your neighbors. Cards can show flowers and/or stone tiles, plus end-of-round scoring conditions (for instance, two points for every rose in your garden) as well as end-game scoring. The give-and-take continues for multiple rounds as you build your own while trying to avoid helping other players. If you are feeling a bit more magnanimous, there’s also a cooperation variation included in the rulebook.

Among the movie tie-in games I wrote about for my Midwest Film Journal Roll ‘Em column, a few stand out.

The Rocketeer: Fate of the Future (Funko Games) celebrates the old-Hollywood style of superhero flicks from the time before superhero flicks were considered cool.

It’s a two-player-only face-off between Rocketeer Cliff Secord and the sinister Neville Sinclair, with each having a pair of sidekicks to help out. The board is a set of six locations familiar from the flick, including the Bulldog Cafe and the South Seas Club. Players take turns activating one of their three characters and moving them from place to place to collect valuable tokens and other bonuses and / or trying to punch out their opponents on the same space.

The secret plans for the jetpack start with the good guys, but the right guess as to who has it — and the right punch — could send it into the hands of the baddies. Whoever has the jetpack at the end of each round collects valuable finale cards, which score points at the end of the game. That endgame happens when the zeppelin — with movement determined by newspaper headline cards flipped at the beginning of each round — reaches Los Angeles.

Handsomely packaged, easy to learn and surprisingly strategic, The Rocketeer: Fate of the Future, like the film it’s based on, deserves more attention. 

Even before I opened the box for Fast & Furious: Highway Heist (Funko Games) the challenge for the designers seemed clear: How do you translate a cinematic world that is (I assume) largely about velocity and stunt work into a board game, a format where participants usually have to slow things down to make turn-based decisions? Other intellectual properties emphasize other elements — the Lord of the Rings games may be quest-based and Marvel games may focus on battles — but how do you make an F&F game either fast or furious, or both?

Here’s how.

In Fast & Furious: Highway Heist, players act as a team to succeed in three different scenarios: Tank Assault, Semi Heist and Chopper Takedown. You pick a character and you pick a car. Vehicles are placed on a highway board along with a set of minis unique to each scenario. In Tank Assault, for instance, there’s an armored tank surrounded by four enemy SUVs. The objective is to destroy the tank, and you attempt to do that through a combination of ramming, forcing and shaking the obstructing vehicles, climbing onto your car and brawling, hijacking SUVs and attempting to crash them into the tank and cause enough damage to wreck it.

No, the pieces don’t move themselves. No, there isn’t the kind of adrenaline that the film franchise and similarly themed video games generate. But the theme does come through, there’s real satisfaction in winning and a strong sense of desperation when time is running out on a mission, and, most important for meFast & Furious: Highway Heist is fun even for someone not enmeshed in the film series.

Once we take down the chopper, will I play again? I’m not sure. But I’m also not sure if every game has to be infinitely replayable in order to be considered a success. If it retires after a dozen or so plays, I’m good with it.

Prefer a simpler, abstract game? Anyone who has played Yahtzee knows that some games don’t bother with a theme at all. In Ten (Alderac Entertainment Group), you flip cards with the goal of not exceeding, of course, 10. Numbered color cards add to your total while token cards deduct. It’s a push-your-luck game with a catch: If you quit and take the numbered cards, your opponents get the tokens pictured on the rest. And those can be used to bid on wild cards or buy discarded ones. The challenge is, by the end of the card stack, to have runs of cards in each color. Housed in a small-ish box, the game is perfect for rainy days of “OK, let’s play one more.”

Like the movie biz, the tabletop industry is also interested in reprints, sequels, and reboots. Galaxy Trucker (Czech Games), first released in 2007, is now back in a spruced up, cleaned up, and cartooned up edition. Here, the first part of the game is a frantic race against time to cobble together a spaceship and the rest is spent trying to keep it from falling apart on the job. I’m glad to see it get reborn and hear that it’s nudging into the mainstream.

And among games from the last few years that I had the pleasure of finally getting on the table, I highly recommend The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine (KOSMOS), a cooperative trick-taking game where the challenges increase with every round. Abomination: The Heir of Frankenstein (Plaid Hat Games) is a thematically rich worker placement and resource management game where the workers are your henchmen and the resources are body parts. Yes, the goal is to piece together and energize a creature while keeping an eye on your reputation and upping your skill level. Admittedly morbid, it’s still fun. Much gentler is Mariposas (AEG), Elizabeth Hargrave’s follow-up to her wildly successful Wingspan. Again, the natural world provides the inspiration. Here, players guide the paths of migrating butterflies through three seasons, each with its own set of goals and, like most good strategic games, it requires shifts in strategy from early to middle to late game.

And the best of the how-did-I-miss-its, 2000’s Lost Ruins of Arnak (CGE), a worker placement game and resource management game with a very creative deck building/limiting element in the mix.

There’s plenty I’ve missed and plenty I still need to get to. Feel free to add your recommendations.

And happy gaming in 2022.