Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos: 25 Century, Capstone, Inside Up, Plaid Hat, WizKids Games
We’re not quite at the midpoint of 2023 — if the calendar were a Monopoly board, we wouldn’t have reached “Free Parking” yet. But even though the year’s not even half over, there have been several great new tabletop games, all of which are much, much better than Monopoly.
This list skews a little toward longer and slightly more complex games, but that’s just a function of what’s come out so far in 2023. And tabletop fans should expect to see many more big games in the second half of the year, as many are timed to the huge annual gaming convention called Gen Con, which will take place in August. For now, though, these six games will provide plenty of analog thrills.
Photo: James Paul Correia/Inside Up Games
Earth is probably an early favorite to win one of the prestigious Spiel des Jahres (game of the year) awards this summer — just like the game that clearly inspired it: Wingspan. While Wingspan has players using and reusing cards in an attempt to lure birds to their wildlife preserves, Earth ups the stakes with more cards, more actions, and more choices on every turn. Each of the one-to-five players in Earth will “Plant” cards to their personal tableaux, which can grow to a four-by-four grid, or “Water” them, or “Grow” them. Most cards in the game have an action written on them, and when any player chooses the appropriate main action, every player activates all cards they’ve played that match it.
Like Wingspan, it’s an engine builder, only Earth has more of just about everything, including a slew of different ways to gain points. The Plant cards you play are worth victory points, as are the sprouts and leaves that you’ll place on them through Grow and Water actions, and you can create a Compost pile by discarding cards through various actions, using those composted cards either to get other benefits during the game or for more points at game end. There are also four public objectives that players all race to meet, as the bonuses go down the more that players achieve them, and a private objective each player gets to start the game. The icons are a bit much to learn, but the game itself moves along quickly because players do most of their work simultaneously. It’s more complex than Wingspan, with a similar feel that makes it seem like a natural progression for folks who love that game and want something in the same vein.
Photo: Capstone Games
Beer & Bread is a two-player game where players gather grain to — wait for it — brew beer and bake bread. It’s a resource-management game where everything is done through a deck of cards that each give the player three choices: gather resources, bake/brew, or play a tool. The first two vary by card, with bread or beer giving victory points in line with how many resources are required to make them, while the tool powers may let a player gather more resources, increase their resource storage (which is very limited to start the game), or gain more points at the end of the game. The most interesting part of Beer & Bread, however, is the different “years” within the game, which alternate and have different rules for resources and card play. In Fruitful years, resources are more abundant and players will swap hands after each card play — you start the round with five cards, play one, then give the remaining four to your opponent, and so forth. When the game ends, each player tabulates their total points from baking bread and their points from brewing beer. Their final score is the lower of the two — so it turns out that man cannot win by bread alone.
Photo: Alison Burrell/25th Century Games
Motor City is the latest roll-and-write from the designer team behind the very successful Fleet: The Dice Game and last year’s delightful farming simulator Three Sisters. Roll-and-write games have seen a big surge in popularity in the last three years, in part because they’re familiar to most players (Yahtzee is one of the oldest and certainly best known) and in part because most roll-and-writes are quick to play and, like my younger stepdaughter, highly portable.
In Motor City, players are building automotive plants in the heyday of American cars. One player rolls a broad set of custom dice that show different actions on their faces, then all players take turns claiming dice and placing them on the main board for a second action, where all of these “actions” involve marking off one or more spaces on your personal scoresheets. Those sheets are highly linked with bonuses, so as you move up or around a track on one of those sheets, you’ll gain the power to check off other boxes somewhere else and can potentially chain them to turn the roll of one die into multiple checks. The game only goes eight rounds, but each player will get to use 24 dice over the course of the game, so you can get a lot done even in such a short time. I adored Three Sisters, so this is right in my wheelhouse, and I love the interconnected nature of the scoresheets and how it takes roll-and-write games to a higher level of strategy.
Photo: James Paul Correia/Plaid Hat Games
Don’t let the cutesy nursery-rhyme name or the adorable mouse-shaped player pieces fool you — Hickory Dickory is kind of cutthroat, and those mice will fall off the clock whether you want them to or not. Each player has a set of mouse meeples of different sizes and sends them around the clock on a scavenger hunt for various items on their “hunt cards,” gaining points for fulfilling those cards while also placing some of those gained tokens on their personal boards to try to complete rows or columns for even bigger rewards.
The main mechanism here, and the reason you want to hide the sharp objects before you play, is a clock in the center of the game board that has spaces on the minute hand where all players can place their meeples — but space is limited, and it’s a FIFO (first in, first out) queue, so if you want to place one of your meeples on the minute hand, it goes to the back, pushing every meeple already on there forward. If there’s no room, someone falls off on to the current space. Each of the spaces around the clock offers different actions and different items to collect, but if you’re bumped off the minute hand, you may end up on a space that doesn’t help you. There’s also a separate board with tracks that show the chain weights of the clock, and your meeple there can get you points if you take actions that let you move it up that track more quickly. Hickory Dickory offers worker placement, set collection, tile placement, and progress tracks, all things you might expect to see together in a heavy Euro game. It’s not to that level of difficulty, but Hickory Dickory does require a lot of strategy and planning as well as a willingness to cut a mouse if it’ll help you.
No, this isn’t a game about the earthquake that’s likely to drop Seattle into the sea this century but one about the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, which burned through 25 city blocks and damaged much of its transportation infrastructure. That fire led to a rapid reconstruction process that saw the city’s population soar, which Rebuilding Seattle uses as inspiration for its gameplay, with each player managing their own resurgent neighborhood in a game that’s part economic and part tile placement. Players buy buildings of different types and shapes from the central market, trying to fill out their personal grids, which they can also expand by adding suburb grids for more space. In each round, you gain population, add to your neighborhood, and then earn income based on the businesses you’ve attracted. There are also universal events that can change game conditions or create more opportunities for players, and players may even change the “laws” to their own benefit. The game can run up to two hours with a full five players, but it’s not very complex to learn, a welcome trait in an economic game.
Photo: Scott Mansfield
Sister suffragette! This game, by first-time designer Tory Brown, puts players in the fight for women’s right to vote in the United States, with one player/side fighting to get Congress to pass the 19th Amendment and convince 36 of the states to ratify it while the other fights against the process. The game is mostly decided by the cards each side plays; cards can be used for their event text on them, to place cubes into various states to gain control of them, to gain buttons that can be used to obtain strategy cards or reroll dice, or to lobby Congress. The suffragist side needs to place six Congress tokens on the track on the board — but the opposition can remove them via the same sorts of moves. Once the sixth Congress token is placed, Congress has passed the 19th Amendment, and any state with at least four of one side’s cubes is considered to have ratified or rejected it. The suffragists have to achieve their goals by the end of the sixth round, after which there’s a final phase to resolve any undecided states. It’s a two-player game at heart, but it includes rules to allow for team play for up to four players and two different solo modes. The box also comes with a historical supplement and numerous other documents to help interested players learn more about the true story of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States.