Top Table Award 2022 – the best board games of the year (Saturday Review)

Yes, it’s time for my annual list of the best games of the year. As has become tradition, I also announce which game won the accolade of the Top Table Award, which is now in its fourth year. However, you have to be patient for a little while longer, while I list the best five board games of 2022 in reverse order.

Please don’t forget that my list isn’t restricted to games released last year. My top five were selected from games I played in 2022, irrespective of their release date. There are quite a few games that come out near the end of the year. That means that I won’t have had much of a chance to buy these games or get review copies, let alone get them to the table. So, to be fair to these games, I happily include older games in my list. If you’re after a list of 2022 releases only, then you’re in the wrong place.

Even so, I have played over 60 new-to-me games in 2022, which is an average of just over one new game every week of the year. I have also had over 350 plays in 2022, which is around one play every day. The most-played game for me in 2022 is Town 66. It is so quick to teach and play and has such a wide appeal that it’s really easy to get to the table. The game that represents the biggest divergence from the usual types of games I play is the tabletop skirmish game Gaslands: Refuelled. It is my first foray into tabletop games and I guess it’s about time.

I think 2022 was a really good board game year and it was tough for me to choose my five favourite games. Anyway, here goes…

#5 – Crescent Moon

Release Date: 2022Players: 4-5
Designer: Steven MathersLength: 120-180 minutes
Artist: Navid RahmanAge: 8+
Publisher: Osprey GamesComplexity: 3.5 / 5
Plastic to Non-Plastic: <1% (by weight)Air to Components: 10% (by volume)

Released last year when lockdown was in full swing, Crescent Moon was a game that I wasn’t sure if I would ever get to the table. With a minimum player count of four people, it took a while to get the full complement of my Tuesday night games group together and convince everyone to try this asymmetric game of influence, intrigue, betrayal and battle. Teaching the game to everyone seemed to take even longer, as there are quite a few things to consider and everyone has to learn their faction themselves. The game doesn’t really make itself easy to learn either, with double-side A4 sheets for player aids and a rulebook that could do with a good few tweaks.

Mind you, a game that is set against the harsh background of the Middle East in the 10th century and onward was always going to take a while to appreciate fully. It took me two plays to better understand how the game worked and get a glimpse of what was still on offer and remained unexplored until future game sessions. Crescent Moon packs a lot into what is really a relatively basic ruleset and provides players with opportunities to forge alliances that last just long enough to give victory to the person who is better at negotiation and betrayal.

I know I said that the game has a relatively basic ruleset, which is true, but there is a lot of terminology to learn and lots of things to take in, which can be overwhelming during your first game. If you read my review of Crescent Moon, you will see that I had quite a few issues with the game. However, despite these concerns, it still made it into my top 5 best board games of 2022. That’s simply because the game rewards players who persevere and break through the initial complexity with an exhilarating two to three hours of gameplay with plenty of direct player interaction and a little history on the side.

some of the wooden components representing buildings of different types and some of the cardboard hexagonal tiles making up the terrain
Osprey Games’ Crescent Moon

#4 – Nemesis

Release Date: 2018Players: 1-5
Designer: Adam KwapińskiLength: 180-240 minutes
Artist: Piotr Foksowicz, Patryk Jędraszek, Ewa Labak, Andrzej PółtoranosAge: 10+
Publisher: Awaken RealmsComplexity: 2.0 / 5
Plastic to Non-Plastic: unknownAir to Components: unknown

When it comes to Nemesis, you can’t help but have the word Alien in your head. After all, if Awaken Realms had been able to acquire the licence for this popular 1970s science-fiction, space horror film franchise, that’s the word they would have used. As it stands, you, as the player, have to make the relevant replacement yourself and that’s absolutely fine.

The plastic miniatures that come with the game as well as all of the other components really help you feel as if you were one of the characters from the famous film, even though none of them is actually named in the game. You can be either captain Dallas, warrant office Ripley, ship navigator Lambert, technician Brett, executive officer Kane (yes, you can get infected and die a horrible death in Nemesis), science officer Ash (even though technically, none of the characters in the game is an android) or chief engineer Parker.

Everyone has their own secret mission, some of which may even complement each other. So while you may help each other to start with, you will eventually betray your fellow shipmates in order to fulfil your own goal. It is possible that multiple players win Nemesis, and there are no tie-breakers for that situation, but it’s just as likely that everyone loses – and it’ll not be clear until right at the end. I suggest you read my review of the game to find out more, but let me say that playing Nemesis is an amazing experience. The game really deserves its number four position in my list of best board games of 2022.

Nemesis alien miniatures in front of box
Nemesis alien miniatures in front of box

#3 – Pingyao: First Chinese Banks

Release Date: 2017Players: 1-4
Designer: Wu ShuangLength: 60-90 minutes
Artist: n/aAge: 10+
Publisher: Jing StudioComplexity: 2.5 / 5
Plastic to Non-Plastic: unknownAir to Components: unknown

Once in a while, along comes a game that really hits the spot for me. A game that rekindles something in me that I had long forgotten about. One of these games in 2022 was Pingyao: First Chinese Banks for me. I have not yet reviewed it, simply because I haven’t had the time, but it still deserves to be on my list of top board games of last year.

As a dice worker placement game, it is one of the three or four games that use this mechanism that I added to my collection in the last 12 months. However, the action spots in Pingyao: First Chinese Banks aren’t exclusive. Instead, depending on what dice is already there, you have to pay or gain coins. The dice also decide the order in which players take their actions. It creates a certain amount of randomness, that doesn’t dominate the game. Players have plenty of opportunities to mitigate bad dice results.

What makes Pingyao: First Chinese Banks really interesting to me is that it’s a true economic simulation game. You use your money to make more money. You take loans that give you capital to reinvest for a better return. The game is really exhilarating and creates a very interesting gameplay experience for me. It scratches an itch I hadn’t felt in a while and it scratches it really well.

I hope to review the game very soon, so keep an eye out and check if this game, about the beginnings of Chinese banking in the region of Pingyao, which was created by a Chinese designer and published by a Chinese company, is for you. In the meantime, it takes its rightful place as number three of the top board games of 2022.

the red round tubular counter, a green and yellow six-sided dice and the game board of Pingyao: First Chinese Banks
the red round tubular counter, a green and yellow six-sided dice and the game board of Pingyao: First Chinese Banks

#2 – Brass: Birmingham

Release Date: 2018Players: 2-4
Designer: Gavan Brown, Matt Tolman, Martin WallaceLength: 90-180 minutes
Artist: Lina Cossette, David Forest, Damien MammolitiAge: 14+
Publisher: Roxley GamesComplexity: 4.0 / 5

I think there is a trend for me in 2022: economic simulation board games. They take places 2 and 3 on my top list of board games of last year. I first played Brass: Birmingham in digital format in 2020. I then bought the physical copy in 2022, along with the nice poker chips, which I use in many other games. Setting up the game takes a while, but I think playing it is a much nicer experience. It’s just such a tactile game, for the lovely, heavy poker chips alone.

Brass: Birmingham is a heavier game. The rules aren’t actually that difficult to understand, except maybe understanding the difference between how you consume coal, metal and beer. The complexity of the game mostly comes from the decisions players make. You can’t avoid helping others, but you want to make sure that you get the most benefit out of it and that you help the player who is seemingly in the lead the least. It’s such a lovely tug-of-war between giving and taking. Accordingly, the further you get into each of the two eras in Brass: Birmingham, the harder every decision gets.

While I have never played its sibling Brass: Lancashire, I feel that Birmingham creates an exciting additional level of interactivity through the use of beer, without making it overly complicated. In fact, it feels as if beer is vital to the gameplay and I can’t imagine playing without it. Either way, Brass: Birmingham deserves its number 2 slot in my list of best board games of 2022.

the game board and box from Brass (Photo courtesy of Roxley Games)
(Photo courtesy of Roxley Games)

#1 – Pax Pamir: Second Edition

Release Date: 2019Players: 1-5
Designer: Cole WehrleLength: 45-120 minutes
Artist: Cole WehrleAge: 12+
Publisher: Wehrlegig GamesComplexity: 3.5 / 5
Plastic to Non-Plastic: 30%Air to Components: 10%

Taking the top slot and thereby winning the coveted Top Table Award is a game set in the 19th century in Central Asia, a period that Western historians call “the Great Game”. Of course, what happened in the 19th century in Central Asia was no game, even if the imperial powers tried to portray it otherwise, but Pax Pamir: Second Edition is certainly an amazing game.

As I wrote in my review, the game itself also has its own history. While the first edition’s rulebook contains a long section titled “A Defense of British Colonialism”, which seems to imply that the game portrays a positive period in history, the second edition clearly does all it can to distance itself from its predecessor. Specifically, the second edition’s rulebook explains that some of the notable contemporary people were portrayed as heroes by Victorians, when in fact their involvement was probably more incidental than decisive and that Afghan history makes no mention of them.

Indeed, Pax Pamir: Second Edition puts players in the role of Afghan leaders who try and take advantage of the few opportunities that present themselves to unite the people and the country and create some sort of stability, at least for a short while. At its core, it’s a tableau builder, but in reality, it’s much more than that. It will take a while to really understand the game, not just because you need to learn what the over 140 cards do, but you also need to get a feeling for when you need to change your allegiance and side with whoever seems to be most likely to win. It’s all about tactics.

Ultimately, Pax Pamir: Second Edition is clearly the best game of 2022. It deserves the top slot and the title of Top Table Award 2022. Congratulations to Cole Wehrle and the team for being so brave to take this

Why Table Presence Matters for Board Games (Topic Discussion)

Hi, it’s Joe Slack here. Oliver was kind enough to let me write another guest blog and was excited to hear my thoughts as a game designer and indie publisher on why table presence matters for board games. So, let’s get into it.

There are so many board games released every single year. On Kickstarter alone, 4,042 tabletop campaigns reached their funding goal in 2022, up from 3,520 the year before. Essen Spiel alone saw about 1,200 new releases this year (2023). That doesn’t include all the new releases at Gen Con, Origins and other gaming conventions, not to mention games being released directly to retail.

Sure, some of these numbers include expansions, releases in other languages and various other gaming-adjacent projects like dice, tables and game bags, but we’re likely still looking at 5,000+ games being released in a single year.

That’s a lot of choice. So, what’s a gamer to do? How do you choose what to play and what will stay?

Well, one determining factor is table presence.

Table presence simply means that the game looks great on the table and attracts attention. This can be accomplished through the use of large or unique components, amazing artwork or anything else that really catches the eye. 

If a game looks great and stands out from all the others, it stands a better chance of drawing you in, getting you to ask questions and wanting to play.

So, let’s take a look at some games that accomplish this goal of having a great table presence.

Fireball Island (Photo courtesy of Restoration Games)
Fireball Island (Photo courtesy of Restoration Games)

Examples of Great Table Presence

One of the first games that comes to my mind with great table presence is Fireball Island: The Curse of Vul-Kar. I mean, this game really has it all when you talk about table presence. You’ve got a huge moulded island, plastic trees and bridges and a scary oversized head at the top that spits out marbles to knock players down. This game also has a lot of nostalgia, as the original was released in the 1980s and Restoration Games brought it back to life and modernized it with some new mechanics.

Want to make a memorable game? Why not put a giant tree in it? That’s exactly what Everdell did and it’s done pretty well for itself. But I’m sure that the beautiful art, along with the gameplay had something to do with that as well. It’s got an impressive 8.0 rating out of 10 on Board Game Geek (BGG) and ranks #32 amongst all games ever made. So, in this case, the table presence may bring you in, but the game itself keeps you coming back for more.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the infamous 1963 game Mousetrap. It doesn’t rank nearly as high on BGG, with a measly 4.1 rating and very few ratings above 7. The BGG tagline says “Roll-and-move mice meet a real-life Rube Goldberg contraption!” and that pretty much sums it up. Mousetrap may even be considered more of an activity (sometimes in frustration) than a game, as you spend so much time putting everything together in hopes that it will actually work right and not get stuck somewhere in the procession of items dropping and flipping around.

Classic Success

However, that didn’t stop Mousetrap from becoming a huge success. I wasn’t able to find much in the way of sales data, but I did discover that it sold 1.2 million copies in its first year alone (1963), likely meaning it has sold in the tens of millions since then, so the game did pretty well for itself.

The Climbers is another game that comes to mind. I remember seeing this at Origins Game Fair several years ago and wondering what this game with building blocks and ladders was. The toy and building factor is pretty big on this one and it definitely gets people’s attention the higher it gets built up.

Next up, is the Dark Tower. This is another classic game that Restoration Games reestablished. I haven’t played this one myself but I’ve seen it on the table and definitely said, “Whoa, what’s that?” when I did. There is even a small computer inside the tower that will play music and keep track of inventory. Pretty neat.

Whether you’re a fan of any of these games or not, you have to admit they do get your attention.

There are plenty of other games with great table presence out there as well. This is just a short list of some that made me stop in my tracks.

Mayan Curse (Photo courtesy of Joe Slack)
Mayan Curse (Photo courtesy of Joe Slack)

Incorporating Table Presence In My Own Games

As a game designer facing the aforementioned challenge of competing against thousands of other game releases every year, I’ve definitely tried to keep table presence in mind when I’m working on a game. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the co-designer I usually work with prioritizes this from a very early stage!

However, it’s not good enough for a game to just look good. It has to play well and have strong replayability. As I said with the example of Everdell, the look of the game draws people in, but it is the gameplay that keeps them coming back for more.

When I was designing Relics of Rajavihara, I intended to create a game that was attractive to the eye and got your attention. Stacking and moving wooden crates and blocks around is something you definitely don’t see every day in a board game. Yet, this is recognizable from some video games, so there is also some familiarity, which is usually a good thing.

But I also wanted to evoke surprise and curiosity, which is why each floor comes with its own tuck box. When you open it, you discover a brand new type of block that functions differently from what you’ve previously experienced.

So, I guess you could also say I was going for box presence as well!

Sliding Slabs and Rotating Temples

With our latest game, Mayan Curse, I could tell from a very early stage that it was going to be the type of game that would have people do a double-take. From the sliding slabs to the rotating temple to the Indiana Jones-like feeling of adventure, we tried to bring out that table presence in every component. 

Of course, the gameplay had to deliver on that promise of a great adventure game as well. It took years of adding and removing modules to the board trying to get the puzzle-yness and tension just right, tweaking the rules and objectives to make it challenging yet balanced, and playtesting with dozens of different groups to ensure the right feeling was captured.

If you’re interested in learning more about Mayan Curse, you can check it out on Kickstarter. Mayan Curse will be live on Kickstarter between 24 October and 17 November 2023.

Thanks again Oliver for letting me join you for this guest post!

Useful Links

Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/)

Music: “Chill Hip Hop” by AShamaluevMusic.
Website: https://www.ashamaluevmusic.com