Top 5 Elegant Board Games of 2016

As I was walking through the trades hall at PAX Australia 2016, looking at the huge variety of tabletop games available, meeting tabletop publishers and playing their games and, borrowing a game from the Tabletop library and playing in the freeplay section, something really stuck out to me as I previewed some of the new games: we’ve had some truly elegant games this year. But what makes a game elegant?

When I typed “define elegant” into Google, it gives me these two definitions:

  • pleasingly graceful and stylish in appearance or manner.
  • pleasingly ingenious and simple.

When it comes to board games, often people throw the word elegant around for anything that matches one of those two meanings, but for me and compiling this list I only wanted to include games that intersects the paths of something that is simple (ie. easy to learn, not too many rules, quick to play, etc.) yet ingenious (makes us think in new ways each time we play), BUT it also has to be very aesthetically pleasing, where the game’s components and artwork really stand-out and really captures our imaginations to produce a remarkable gaming experience. When these two elements of elegancy share a symbiotic relationship to the core of the game, that’s when you have a truly divine, elegant game.

Elegant board games are must-haves for anyone that doesn’t have “gamer” friends to play with, or really want to infect their non-gaming family with the board game bug.

So, if you’re looking for your next “must have” board game, a special gift for your favourite gamer, or just something to really “WOW!!” your family in this upcoming holiday season, here is my Top 5 Elegant Board Games of 2016.

pic23727901#1 — Lanterns: The Harvest Festival

  • Publisher: Foxtrot Games
  • Designer: Christopher Chung (Renegade Game Studios)
  • Artists: Jason D. Kingsley, Christina Major, Tyler Segel, Beth Sobel
  • Players: 2 – 4

Did you ever watch Tangled and just fell in love with the scene where Rapunzel and Flynn are rowing their boat through the lantern festival during the song “I See The Light” and absolutely fall in love with how beautiful that scene looked? Now imagine if that was a board game.

Lanterns took a while to reach Australian retailers, but by the time it did, it was disappearing off shelves in droves. I noticed that on the Friday of PAX, many of the retailers had quite a few on their shelves and by the Sunday they were all gone. It’s understandable why though: it’s just a brilliant game, in so many aspects.

Photo: François + Daphné

I could bog you down into details on how to play this game (which is super easy to learn, by the way) and explain how incredibly ingenious it all is, but let me just say that Lanterns won the 2015 Mensa Select award… So let that just seep in for a bit.

The thing about Lanterns that I love is that the points are usually very close throughout the game every time, and there isn’t normally a player that has an unassailable lead. Having said that though, so much relies on scoring at the right time: do you score a set of lanterns which another player is going to try and score on their next turn so you can prevent them from scoring as many points, or do you score the other set that you’ve made that gets you more points but when the other player scores theirs it won’t make that much of a lead. One wrong turn isn’t just the difference between a few points, it can be the difference between winning and losing.

Photo by Henk Rolleman

Photo: Henk Rolleman

For me though, Lanterns redefines elegance in board games. Every time I play it I fall in love with it even more, from the pretty colours splashing out across the table to the simplicity of how the game works, and always how close everyone’s scores are throughout. I’ve yet to find a single person that hasn’t been impressed by this game when they play it. I’d easily place Lanterns in one of my top five all-time favourite games, and wouldn’t hesitate for a second to recommend it to someone who hasn’t played a modern board game and would like a recommendation.

Super conveniently, this game was just featured on the new season of TableTop with Wil Wheaton! It’s also available as a purchasable app on iOS and Android!

boite-plat-tokaido-deluxe-1024x1006_us1#2 — Tokaido Deluxe Edition

  • Publisher: FunForge
  • Designer: Antoine Bauza
  • Artist: Xavier Gueniffey Durin
  • Players: 2 – 5

Although technically Tokaido isn’t a new game (it’s been available on shelves since 2012), this year we saw a new deluxe edition hit our shores, and although it’s pricier than the standard edition, I’d argue that investing in the deluxe edition of Tokaido is the best decision you’ll ever make.

Photo source: heroesworldonline.com

Photo: heroesworldonline.com

In Tokaido, you are on a pilgrimage through Japan, your single goal being to have the most rewarding experience. You can visit hot springs, eat delicious meals, see stunning sights (the updated artwork in the deluxe edition really makes this), collect souvenirs, among many of the different experiences you will encounter on your Tokaido trail journey.

The thing that really makes this game so unique is that while it’s a race to do the most things, it’s actually beneficial to be in last place, as it means you have more opportunities to do and experience more on your journey. However, the game also rewards you for being the first to complete certain experiences. You can sit there wondering if it’s worth jumping ahead to score those bonuses and have to wait for everyone else to catch up (potentially getting more things accomplished than you), or whether to just be patient and just hope that these experiences happen when they happen.

Photo source: heroesworldonline.com

Photo: heroesworldonline.com

While there are many ways in which this edition is superior to the standard edition, the Deluxe Edition truly makes this game come alive in two major ways; the first one is the coins, they’ve replaced the cool-looking cardboard coins from the standard game and turned them into amazing metal coins that just feel really nice to touch and hold in your hand. We, as humans, are an incredibly tactile species – if you or the people you play games with are often fiddling or playing around with their game bits during play, they will adore the sensation of holding and feeling these nicely weighted metal coins!

The second way the Deluxe Edition really makes this game truly aesthetically elegant is one that I feel is really overlooked (particularly when people talk about the pros and cons of the Deluxe vs Standard editions) but to me it’s something that literally just makes the game a million times better and I honestly don’t remember how you can play standard Tokaido without it – a CD soundtrack featuring 26 tracks of traditional Japanese compositions to fully immerse yourself in the wonder of the game. It acutely brings out the zen of the game for that immersion into the theme of being able to stop, slow down and take time to smell the cherry blossoms and relax in the onsens (hot springs).

Tokaido Deluxe Edition is quite pricey, but honestly, if you’re already smitten by Tokaido and want the quintessential version of this game, it is highly worth investing in the Deluxe Edition. It would make for a great family present to that special gamer in your family, or even that special family of gamers. Also, if you already own a copy of Tokaido, you can always get the Deluxe Accessory Pack and upgrade your game without having to get a whole ‘nother game!

If you’d like to learn more about this game, including how it plays, guess what? Tokaido was also featured on an episode of TableTop with Wil Wheaton!

FinalSushIPARTY.Tin TOP.indd#3 — Sushi Go Party!

  • Publisher: Gamewright
  • Designer: Phil Walker-Harding
  • Artist: Nan Rangsima
  • Players: 2 – 8

Okay, now you’re probably thinking that there’s this current trend of Asian-inspired games that’s only making the list… Well, I promise that’s just a coincidence, because this game makes the list because of its merits in elegance alone.

Sushi Go Party is a game where you get to make your own sushi train, eating the most delicious (and kawaii) looking assortment of sushi and other assortments of Japanese canapés.

Photo: Antony Hemme

Photo: Antony Hemme

You may be thinking “wait, I thought it was just called Sushi Go?” or “Is this an expansion to Sushi Go?” To clarify: Sushi Go Party is not an expansion. It is its own game, but it’s also a more advancement on the regular Sushi Go without needing Sushi Go to play… The best way I can think to describe it is that Sushi Go is Charmander and Sushi Go Party is Charizard.

So many games are using the “card drafting” mechanic that Sushi Go Party makes great use of, but Sushi Go Party just does it so…well, elegantly! The way you can customise each game to suit your gaming moods; want to play a game that has really high points? Want to have lots of player interaction with plenty of cut-throat actions? Or do you want to have a nice gentle relaxing game where everyone’s working towards just having a great meal together? There are combinations of setups to suit all of that and plenty of room for you to find your own perfect setup to suit you and everyone you play with!

Photo: Ashlee Cramb

Photo: Ashlee Cramb

Unlike Sushi Go though, Sushi Go Party is a lot bigger in size (and scope) than Sushi Go, so probably not one that you’d carry around in your pocket. However, it does add so much more customisation, combinations and computations to how you want to play and the way the game is played that the amount of ways you play it is practically limitless!

If you’d like to watch the original Sushi Go being played to get an idea of how to play Sushi Go Party, you can watch it being played on TableTop with Wil Wheaton! (I promise I’m not paid to promote their program *gets handed a big money bag by Geek & Sundry* ah, yes, thank you, my uh clean laundry…)

pic27307541#4 — Burger Up

  • Publisher: Rule & Make
  • Designer: Matthew Parkes
  • Artist: Stephen Gibson
  • Players: 2 – 4

Moving on from one food game to another (note to self: stop writing blog posts that features food on an empty stomach) let’s talk about one of my new favourite games, Burger Up!

Okay, I may sound a little patriotic here because it’s designed by Aussie Matt Parkes, and published by Brisbane publisher Rule & Make, but honestly Rule & Make are really paving the way forward for the Australian board game industry because each game they’ve published so far has been a AAA quality game – from the very foundation of game mechanics to the breathtaking artwork, graphic design and quality components – Burger Up is a testament to this fact.

Source: Rule & Make

Photo: Rule & Make

Burger Up feels very similar to Lanterns in the sense that you have that option of choosing when and how much you are going to score. However, I find that the scores aren’t always as close sitting as Lanterns, so in a way Burger Up has less risk-management than Lanterns – but it does have some very interesting strategy plays in the limited hand and burger management, the way that unfulfilled burger orders become more valuable over time, and the option to increase your play by upgrading your kitchen over scoring big points when you score a colossal burger.

It may not have the intrinsically clever game mechanics that Lanterns has, but goddamn is it super fun to build MASSIVE burgers with ingredients that look so tasty that you just want to eat the cards. You’ll create sandwiches with such interesting combinations of ingredients that just sound so delicious that you’ll be inspired to actually attempt to make it yourself in real life.

Photo: Tong Chi Wai

Photo: Tong Chi Wai

I’m no foodie: I have no passion to prepare or cook food, and while I enjoy eating food, I don’t find the passion in it that so many others do. But despite all of this, Burger Up – through its tantalising artwork, and the crazy burgers that you’ll create throughout the game – inspires me to attempt to create and eat these burgers that get made throughout the game, because they sound and looks so good!

Another thing about Burger Up…wait, hang on…my burger delivery just arrived, I’ll be right back…

So as I was saying, Burger Up is a game that really struck a chord with me really quickly, not just because of how scrumptious everything looks, but because of that elegant simplicity of how the game actually plays. I was shown how to play the game by its designer, Matt Parkes, at the Rule & Make booth at PAX. After my first game, I was showing others how to play without checking the rulebook – I could teach this game in seconds. To me, Burger Up is quintessential elegance: simple gameplay with stunning artwork that really stands out on the table, especially when you get colossal burgers with 10 or more ingredients in it.

Honestly, I reckon most people will have the most fun not trying to just win but to just build these burgers of epic proportions!

pic3068462_lg1#5 — Lotus

  • Publisher: Renegade Game Studios
  • Designers: Jordan Goddard, Mandy Goddard
  • Artist: Chris Ostrowski
  • Players: 2 – 4

Okay, you may be thinking that there is something to some Oriental-inspired trend in board games that are making them intrinsically elegant but, despite your first impressions of the game box having a far east theme, Lotus is quite abstract in its play and there’s no real link to any one culture throughout the game.

Photo: Joe Sondow

Photo: Joe Sondow

In Lotus, you are literally blooming these gorgeous looking flowers by placing cards (that represent each petal) around the flower. The artwork is phenomenal too, it actually looks like these real flowers are blooming on the table in front of your very eyes. It’s breathtaking.

There can be a bit of cut-throat gameplay in this, particularly in a two player game, but no more than you’d probably get from a game of Tokaido for example. Similar to Burger Up and Lanterns too, there’s that option to choose when to score, but with area control management, there is more of a power play between players vying for who gets the better play – finishing the flower yourself or, having the majority of control over it or, if you’re lucky – both.

As I am reviewing this game I couldn’t help but liken this game’s gameplay simplicity and ingenuity to Lanterns, so as I was researching it, it didn’t shock me to discover that this game was designed under the same game studio house as Lanterns – clearly they like their elegant games!

Photo: Andrew Brooks

Photo: Andrew Brooks

This game really snuck up on me, I hadn’t even heard of it until I saw it at practically every retailers booth at PAX Aus 2016 where it’s box artwork really jumped out at me, and I’m really glad that it did. It’s such a gorgeous game to look at and play – there’s some real strategy to this game too, more than you’d probably think and that’s the real elegance to it, it’s beautiful, clever and simple. You’ll probably want a rematch immediately each time you play!

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Justin Hallam-Stephens

I am the founder of the former Melbourne-based board games meetup group, Meetings With The Board (currently inactive). I am an aspiring game designer, a feminist ally, and I like playing my ukulele. On rainy days I like to make pillow forts and watch Firefly. @JHallamStephens

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1 Response

  1. November 27, 2016

    […] Hallam-Stephens picks the five most elegant board games of 2016 over on Pop Cultue-y. I’ll try and control myself, but, great pick for number four […]

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