The 10 Best Video and Board Games I Played in 2018

Honorable Mention: Yoku’s Island Express

I bought this game on a whim, hoping it would occupy my time on a long flight without being a huge commitment like every other video game seems to be today.

The pinball gameplay was a perfect fit for the Switch, which, because it separates your hands more than a usual controller, feels moderately like an actual pinball machine. The gameplay was challenging but not punishing; the soundtrack breezy but not saccharine; and the Metroidvania level design was expansive but not overwhelming.

Overall, there aren’t many tight, unique games that pack as much fun into a refreshing six hours as Yoku’s Island Express. And sometimes that’s exactly what you need.

10. Marble It Up!

Marble It Up! feels like a throwback to early 2000s games that can pre-installed on your parents computer in the best way possible. The marble gameplay is stripped to its barebones: Start on a level, and figure out the fastest way possible to reach the end (while maybe picking up a few diamonds along the way).

There’s no unnecessary frills here. No lives system, no tacked-on multiplayer, no story: it’s just you, your marble, and a pulsing soundtrack to get your flow going. There are some subtly genius design decisions here as well, like instantaneous respawns, no loading screens between levels, and a silver-gold-platinum rating system that will keep you trying the same level over and over again. The resulting package is a mesmerizing challenge that appeals to anyone that can use a controller.

9. Tzaar

The best abstracts aren’t really that abstract. Rather than creating theme from illustrations and flavor text, they tell a story from the feeling the gameplay elicits.

Tzaar, despite its minimalist design and plate-like pieces, feels like a grand war: Nations rise by adding to their strength and conquering other nations, and then suddenly fall to superior nations. And the players must carefully balance all of their resources (three types of pieces: Tzaars, Tzaaras, and Tots) — if you ever run out of any type, you lose.

You can teach Tzaar in minutes, play it in 10, and I can’t imagine ever getting tired of it.

8. League of Legends

So far this list has been made up of elegant, lean experiences you can learn quickly and enjoy at any level of play. League of Legends is not that. League of Legends is a bloated curse of a game with the most intense learning curve and toxic community I’ve ever seen.

I hate it. But I also love it? You will be beaten, badly, until you feel like you never want to play it again. Your teammates will flame you and confirm that you do indeed suck and are the reason why your team is losing. But you’ll come back. Because maybe this time you’ll be the one to beat someone badly and make them never want to play the game again. Maybe this time you‘ll be the hero for your team.

The game is a curse. But sometimes curses can be fun.

7. Innovation

Civilization is one of my favorite game series. I also love card games with crazy powers, a la Magic: The Gathering.

Therefore I love Innovation, a bonkers card game by evil genius Carl Chudyk that somehow captures the feeling of playing a 12 hour Civilization game in a box that can fit in your pocket.

6. Portal 2 (co-op)

For some reason I’ve yet to play through the single player campaign of Portal 2. But I did beat the incredible co-op campaign over a few frustrating, glorious nights that ended up being one of my favorite gaming experiences.

The challenge of both having to figure out a puzzle — and then communicate and execute the solution with someone else — is extremely rewarding. And it helps that Portal 2 had some of the most mind-bending and genius puzzles I’ve ever seen in a game.

5. Brass: Lancashire

On the surface, Martin Wallace’s Brass: Lancashire is relatively simple: You start with eight cards representing different cities or types of industry. You can use those cards to execute a few different actions, like building canals, upgrading your industries, building industries, selling cotton, or even soliciting a loan. Every time you do any action, you have to get rid of a card. Easy!

Except that once you start playing, you’ll be paralyzed by the intricate clockwork that is the game’s many systems, including but not limited to: hand management, money management, area control, a player-driven fluctuating resource market, and an income system where you can go into debt. And, oh yeah, there are two phases of the game. About half-way through, all the canals go away, all your dinky little coal mines get removed, and it’s time to start building railways.

Once you get it, the game does become relatively simple and smooth to play. But it never becomes easy. And because the building and scoring systems require dependency on your fellow players, your strategy constantly has to evolve. It’s a genius design that’s lasted for more than 10 years for a reason.

4. Slay the Spire

Deck-building + rouge-like seems like one of those “no duh” combos that it’s amazing no one had done it before Slay the Spire. And boy does Slay the Spire do it.

If I was ranking games by addictiveness, this game would easily be number one. The loop of: beat monster, add card to deck, beat monster, upgrade card in deck, got its hooks in me immediately, and the varied play-styles of each “hero” and the expansive card deck ensures the game doesn’t get boring.

There are too many rogue-likes where it feels like the rogue-like progression systems are the meat of the game. Not Slay the Spire, which builds on other deck-builders while adding its own twists and somehow balances the difficulty despite thousands of variables.

By the time you’ve reached the top of the Spire, you’ll have a deck made up of memories: Cards you won after barely surviving a battle, cards you’ve pined over for room and room and finally got, cards you had to sacrifice half your health to get, cards you blew all your resources on upgrading hoping they’d work in the clutch of your next pitched battle. And when you lose, you go back and remember all the “could’ves” and “what ifs” and immediately want to try again.

3. Subnautica

I like exploration and building games, but I’ve never really delved deep into one (no pun intended). While gathering resources and building things can be fun for a bit, I always eventually get bored — maybe I’m just not creative enough, I don’t know.

Subnautica is a totally different kind of exploration and building game. For one, it’s not a brown-colored Early Access clone with naked player-controlled cavemen running around and destroying your base the second you leave it. Instead, it’s a beautifully detailed single-player experience with no guns and no other players. And most importantly, a story that’s actually good.

There are too many amazing design decisions here to go over, and I don’t want to ruin the game’s slow-burn reveals by going too deep (sorry). But even if you never liked exploration/building games and think it’s an overly saturated genre, you need to play Subnautica.

2. Tigris and Euphrates

There may not be a more perfect board game than Reiner Knizia’s Tigris and Euphrates. Originally released in 1997, the game is still played religiously today because of its unending depth and almost chess-like gameplay that captures its theme of warring civilizations astoundingly well for such an abstract game.

It took me many, many plays (on my phone app, mainly) to begin to grasp this game. But when the light turned on, and I knew this was the best board game I’d ever played.

1. God of War

The original God of War series never appealed to me. I beat the first game, and never had a desire to play the rest. It was just another button-mashing, combo-tastic action game with “epic” set pieces and a gratuitous dude-bro ethic.

God of War is a complete reboot of the series that strips away what made the series tired while still maintaining what made it unique. It smartly draws from some of the best games of all time (namely Zelda and Metroid), moves the camera to an over-the-shoulder view a la Resident Evil 4 or Dark Souls, and makes Kratos an angsty daddy rather than a raging dude. The combat is still brutal, but the the camera angle and — most importantly — new weapon (the Leviathan Axe, maybe my favorite video game weapon ever), slows down the pace and emphasizes dodging and counter-attacking as much as button-mashing. The set pieces are still over-the-top, but they feel carefully chosen and are interactive rather than long QTE sequences.

The game is also “open world” — sort of. It’s more than possible to never stray from the main story’s path, in which case you’d never realize the game wasn’t on-rails. But the flexibility and side missions are there if you want them, and they’re not under-baked fetch quests like most open world games today. Most importantly, the game is carefully restricted via a Metroid-like progression system where you need certain weapons and powers you only get later in the game to access certain levels and loot.

It all comes together into a surprisingly old-school style of game that would have felt at home on the Gamecube if not for the spectacular art design and graphics (seriously, the art design here is off-the-charts).

It’s a testament to drawing from proven design recipes and honing down what makes your game unique — in this case, the combat and set pieces — to perfection. And that’s not even mentioning the surprisingly moving story, welcome comedic elements, well-paced puzzle breaks, wildly varied levels and enemy types, and so many other small details that makes this game a masterpiece.

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Freelance writer and former Arts Editor @VermontCynic.

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Dillon Baker

Dillon Baker

Freelance writer and former Arts Editor @VermontCynic.

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