The ongoing board games renaissance may be wonderful, but it raises some familiar problems. Many tabletop gamers will cringe at the notion of applying mobile game marketing jargon to their pastime, but one thing has become hard to deny: board games are facing their own 'discoverability' problem. Like a mobile app store grown flabby with free-to-play clones, in the world of board games it is increasingly tricky to stay on top of the sheer number of new releases. Players struggle to find them – and designers struggle to stand out – in an oversaturated market.
That's not to say board gamers have to wrangle with too many lazy clones or demanding commercial models – the odd collectable card game aside. But today it is harder than ever to keep up with the cardboard kingdoms to which you should devote your time.
That was strikingly apparent over last weekend, on the floor of the UK Games Expo, which brings together tens of thousands of players and hundreds of tabletop designers and publishers for the country's biggest congregation of its kind. Throughout a cavernous hall of the Birmingham NEC, with demos spilling out into countless hotel rooms, tournaments were played, queues formed at stands selling specialist dice, prototype board games were tested by the public, and myriad new releases jostled for attention.
From indie obscurities pitched on rickety trestle tables to new releases employing globally-known licenses, the following stood out. Some are atypical, others are unreleased, and each deserves discovery.
Superhot: The Card Game
Board&Games, Releasing now
Despite a triumphant Kickstarter campaign, this card game based on the innovative indie FPS video game seemed to be a complete surprise to many at the expo. Perhaps the word-of-mouth hit of the weekend, Superhot: The Card Game offers a streamlined, simple deckbuilder – think genre classics like Dominion and Ascension – that takes the unusual step of focusing on single-player as the main way to play. Also supporting two-to-three players, it's light, quick-playing and relatively simple to learn. The designers have kept just enough deckbuilding convention in place so as to hit the gameplay beats that make the form so satisfying, but innovation comes in how it replicates gunplay, in combination with the famed 'time moves only when you move' rule of videogame original.
Formal Ferret Games, Out Now
So often board and card games that lampoon their subject matter do so at the expense of mechanical elegance. That seems not to be the case with The Networks. A quick play session at UK Games Expos reveals a lavishly produced, surprisingly thoughtful and refreshingly strategic parody of what it is to run, schedule and manage TV networks. From placing celebrities to shuffling schedules, throughout there's a superb blending of theme and gameplay, and the mix of mechanics delivers something delightful. The game's out now, and an expansion is due in August.
ITB Board Games, Coming soon
At first glance Sub Terra appears be made from a number of familiar elements. Building a board from tiles in-game evokes a sense of Carcassonne, there's a little Forbidden Island to the general layout, and some of the interaction design will feel occasionally familiar to those who enjoy co-operative play's biggest names. Yet this cave-diving survival horror game is much more than the sum of its parts, and brings a bounty of new and revised concepts to the table. It really does require teamwork over a bossy lead player, and smartly balances depth and accessibility.
My Little Pony: Tales of Equestria RPG
River Horse, Out now
That's right. The 2012 My Little Pony CCG wasn't at all bad. And whatever your perspective on My Little Pony and 'brony' culture, this new book-based RPG is actually pretty great. It is, after all, a true tabletop role-playing game from the same mould that birthed Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder. Here things are decidedly simpler, because it's aimed at kids, but the parents have been kept in mind too: think of it like a gateway to role-playing for those who, like so many, have struggled to find an entry point to D&D. And who doesn't fancy assuming the demeanour of Rainbow Dash and her companions, even for an hour?
Escape the Dark Castle
Themeborne, Kickstarting now
At the opposite end of the vibrancy spectrum from My Little Pony, the entirely monochrome Escape the Dark Room delivers a gateway to some of what tabletop role-playing games are about. Here, though, while the artwork evokes a sense of early 2000AD fantasy comics, the gameplay mostly comes down to a central card game. Borrowing from both interactive fiction and RPGs, it promises to deliver narrative atmosphere and cooperation through a smart mechanic — a deck of oversized cards become book pages that tell different stories for each playthrough.
The Football Game
London Board Games Co, Out now
Football board games of any substance are a rarity – yeah we all like a game of Subbuteo, but that's about it. Perhaps this is because of preconceptions about the tastes of 'serious' tabletop gamers, or maybe the sport's mainstream status dooms it to generic family titles of little depth. But this is surprising because so much of football chat is about strategy, statistics and arguing over rules — exactly like many board games. The London Games Co has tapped into this with The Football Game. The title might not give much away, but this fairly elaborate card game offers a good deal of depth and intricacy. It isn't comparable in complexity to something like Football Manager, but there's enough going on beyond the distinct theme to make it highly enjoyable – and if nothing else, it's a reminder that not every gamer is served by the dominant themes of fantasy or sci-fi.
Of the many hundreds of games on show at UK Games Expo, there were many deserving new and coming releases that could have joined the list above. But there's only so much space available, so honourable mentions go out to the following, which are well worth checking out if you thirst for more.
- Lavish samurai-themed miniatures wargaming release Test of Honour
- The reissue of the 2007 classic light but tight palace raiding game 12 Thieves
- Randomly generated dungeon crawler Dungeonland: 12 Realms
- Coming historically accurate card game 1066: Tears to Many Mothers
- A beautiful produced reissue of 1973 icon Escape From Colditz , with updated rules
- The new second edition of AEG's playful co-op spaceship management game The Captain is Dead
- Pocket-friendly deckbuilder Flip City: Wilderness
- Delightful and distinct pollen harvesting game Nimbee
- The soon-to-be-released, wildly flexible expansion to Settlers of Catan, Legends of the Sea Robbers