Game Spotlights

Published: December 11, 2023

Adam Knight

Games of 2023: The 12 Next Levels

As 2023 comes to a close and we’re looking for gifts to give—sometimes just to ourselves, it’s been a year, right?—it’s worth checking in on the board gaming’s sweet middle. Gateway games, those first steps after learning Monopoly isn’t the beginning and end board gaming, still have the classics: Azul, Catan, Carcassonne, Dominion, you know the ones. This list is for after, the new 2023 board games to try when you’ve whet your newfound tabletop appetite.

The games below run the gamut, from two-player co-ops to real-time parties to tense duels. All guaranteed to be easier to wrap than a partridge or a pear tree.

Sky Team

This two-person co-op pits you and your co-pilot against the forces of air traffic control, gravity, and velocity. Every round you’ll have a chance to chat before rolling several dice. After that, the talking stops and you’ll each take turns using those dice to radio other planes away, keep your aircraft level, or slow down, butGames not too much or you’ll never reach the runway.

Sky Team is tight, fast, and simple to understand, making it a great pick for a puzzle-loving partner. It’s not easy, but with a half hour play time, bouncing back for another round is a simple choice. The game is also packed with scenarios adding difficult slaloms and other challenges, ensuring enough enjoyment to get you all the way through Winter break.

Isles of Trains: All Aboard

If your family loves Ticket to Ride, take a look at Isle of Trains: All Aboard. You’ll be drafting cards to build up your train and send it scurrying from one end of the map to the other, delivering cargo and passengers for sweet, sweet points. Decisions come with each card, choosing whether to use it to buff your locomotive or23223560056b.jpg (2000×1488) get it scooting along to the next destination.

A setup like this might seem like a solitary episode, but Isle of Trains throws in big bonuses for dumping cargo and people onto your opponent’s trains. Helping others to help yourself, so to speak, but getting the timing right so you come out ahead gives this easy-to-learn train game a tricky twist.

The Search for Lost Species

A sequel to The Search for Planet X, The Search for Lost Species comes gliding back to Earth in this deduction game. You’ll be racing against other researchers trying to, well, find those lost species. Cards and a free companion app offer clues as you bound through a jungle map trying to deduce where your quarry might be hiding.Games When it’s not your turn, paying attention to what your opponents try (and find) might be just as useful, keeping everyone engaged from start to finish.

What The Search for Lost Species offers over its predecessor is more asymmetry, with unique abilities coming up for grabs to the players. Add in multiple maps and you have plenty of game for anyone interested in a logical deduction puzzle. That said, between the two, I’d follow your preferred theme: if space is your place, Planet X is going to be the better choice.

Daybreak

A disaster-prevention game by the designer of Pandemic, Matt Leacock, Daybreak casts the players as world powers seeking to stop climate change from superheating the planet. If you don’t work together well enough, society collapses and you all get to experience the Mad Max films. Get your act together, though,asmday01.jpg (551×595) and you might keep Immortan Joe in the realm of fantasy, where he definitely belongs.

For fans of co-op puzzlers, Daybreak offers up a new treat. While Pandemic is easier to grasp for newbies, those looking for a level up will find a toothy challenge here. Much like the recent Votes for Women and John Company Second Edition, Daybreak packages a compelling message around its gameplay, a thematic wrapping that only adds to every play.

Rolling Heights

Sometimes, though, bigger is better happens to be that compelling message. Rolling Heights has you chucking meeples to make taller and taller buildings. You’ll toss those little meeples into a personal box, and depending on how they land, get to use special abilities, score points, and construct new buildings. As you play,aeg7085.jpg (471×472) towers grow before your eyes, creating a plastic city in one of the neater component effects you’ll ever see.

Tossing those meeples is the game’s core action, a push-your-luck roll and re-roll fest that lets the game keep on moving while you debate risking a bust to get one more resource and, thus, the perfect building you need to score. If you’ve played Yahtzee, Rolling Heights makes a good next step, and the looks alone earn it a shot at your table.

Terraforming Mars: The Dice Game

Okay, so you’ve stacked up Terraforming Mars and its expansions like Prelude, or maybe you have Ares Expedition lurking, but your game group (or family) balks at the rules, the length, the difficulty. Enter your onramp with Terraforming Mars: The Dice Game. Simplifying the core Terraforming Mars concept with dice, this small-Gamesbox title streamlines its bigger brethren into a fast, chewy game best at two.

You’ll be tossing dice to gain resources only to spend them tweaking the red planet to your liking, playing cards, dropping water and trees, or snagging victory point goals. To keep the game moving, every turn gives you a simple choice: make more dice, or take actions with the dice you have. Choosing which direction, and whether you can wait to get more dice before your opponents steal your desired spot, keep Terraforming Mars: The Dice Game juicy, and a nice companion to its longer, larger pals.

Marvel Zombies

Yet, maybe you want something longer, larger, but still flush with dice. Enter Marvel Zombies, a 2023 entrant in the sprawling Zombicide universe. This dice-chucking dungeon crawler—of a sort, you’re not really dungeon-diving here—swaps the roles, casting you as zombified heroes in search of delicious, delicious brains.mzb002.jpg (640×640)

Marvel Zombies is an event game, a big production complemented by rules easy enough for anyone who’s tried Talisman, Heroquest, or Dungeons and Dragons to understand. Every turn you’ll move, you’ll attack, you’ll try to achieve the scenario’s objective before you starve or the remaining, non-zombified heroes destroy you. A unique hunger bar has you getting stronger and stronger as your need to feed increases, but wait too long and you’ll collapse. It’s a neat tension-driving twist to a well-designed action adventure, one you can try even if you’ve never touched another Zombicide game.

Dungeon Scrawlers: Heroes of Waterdeep

Who needs turns, tiles, and a rules deluge when a real-time rumble can get you that monster goodness in a few frantic minutes? Dungeon Scrawlers: Heroes of Waterdeep comes at you fast, giving you and up to three friends a dry-erase marker, a map, and a dream. The player with the most points when time runs out or thewzk87570.jpg (718×1024) dungeon’s final boss bites it is the winner.

Dungeon Scrawlers isn’t just a maze: in these walls lurk monsters you’ll have to fill in, spells you’ll trace to cast, and treasures to circle. You’ll want to be fast enough to earn points, but spending too much time going after everything will leave the boss beautiful and your hero something less than heroic. Scores tally up over three rounds, with modifiers aplenty to add twists to every ten minute play, perfect to get your game night started or close out an adventurous evening.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Boardgame

Who says you can’t have horror games over the holidays? The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Board Games defies licensed IP pitfalls to make a light semi-co-op chase, where you and several friends must outwit and outrun Leatherface (or each other) to survive. Your goal is simple: gather enough gas cans to fuel the van, then getGames gone. You’ll be moving up to two spaces per turn on the top-down board to get to those cans, with most spaces adding tokens to a dangerous draw bag.

After you’re done skidding around Leatherface’s ranch, you’ll draw a token from that bag, see whether more Slaughter family members join the fun, and decide whether to risk drawing another on the odds you might see a bonus or your swift demise. Don’t let the title fool you – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Board Game is campy good fun that plays in a breeze, great for laughs as your poor crew tries to escape cinema’s worst family.

Bot Factory

For those with an interest in heavier games, Vital Lacerda is likely a familiar name. Bot Factory is as good an entry point to his style of systems-within-systems euro design as exists, namely because Lacerda designed it. You’ll be doing just what the title suggests: building bots, and you’ll be doing it with magic of WorkerGames Placement.

Lacerda’s distinct joys are all present here, albeit in streamlined form. You have contracts to fulfill, with the games meat in how to efficiently gather parts to score those points. Kanban EV’s Sandra’s here too, popping up around the factory to judge your progress and either find you wanting or deserving. Player interaction crops up beyond the usual space blocking, as parts made by others can be used by you, while everyone tries to get the factory working towards their own objectives.

At under an hour for a play, Bot Factory is both approachable and filled with fun decisions. And if your table likes this one, then you’ve a whole wonderful Lacerda world to explore.

Ivion

Sometimes you wake up and want to brawl, not with fists, but with fantasy. Ivion is the present you’ve been looking for. While Unmatched is the easier, more accessible dueling title, Ivion expects more from you, and delivers.

Before every match, you’ll take your character and do some light deck-building, setting up potential combos and deciding something new to try. This deck-Gamesbuilding is controlled via specializations, helping speed up your crafting—this isn’t making a 60-card Magic: The Gathering deck from nothing, folks—so you can get to cracking your opponent’s skull.

Once your strategy’s set, you’ll duke things out on a tight grid, managing resources and your hand as you cast, clash, and counter your opponent. Well-matched duels can run nearly an hour, but those minutes will fly by as you punch and parry each other. Ivion, available in two-hero starter packs, is a great next step for anyone whose played Unmatched, BattleCon, or other dueling games.

Star Wars: Shatterpoint

Last we come to the most hobby-intensive games on this list, 2023’s Star Wars: Shatterpoint. A miniatures skirmish game, requiring assembly, terrain, and tactics, you might wonder what it’s doing on a list of titles meant for relative newcomers. The answer? Accessibility in a game type notorious for lacking it.Games

By Atomic Mass Games, the same folks who make the equally inviting Marvel: Crisis Protocol, Shatterpoint offers a great starter set with all you need to re-live epic Star Wars battles. Every match lays out objectives, which might affect who you’ll want to bring to the battlefield, and once the game begins, it’s alternating activations all the way, ensuring nobody’s left watching the minutes crawl by.

Shatterpoint up-ends the usual miniatures games goals by making unit elimination a rarity: most scenarios will have your teams dodging around the map going after shifting objectives while making key attacks to drive off enemies. You’ll have more time to use your characters, learn their abilities, and have fun, again and again.

If you’re looking for a good way to get into miniatures wargaming, Shatterpoint is one of the best places to start, particularly if you have any fondness for a galaxy far, far away. Just make sure, as with any miniatures game, you or whomever you gift Shatterpoint to is willing to build and paint the awesome figures inside.

Twelve’s enough, right?

That’s it, folks. Twelve games released in 2023 perfect for board gamers ready to take the next step into the hobby. Some of the above are lighter than others, so use your best judgment when picking something to wrap, but you’ll have a hard time going wrong with any of these. And if a title isn’t in stock, drop it into your want list and you’ll get notified the moment it’s back.

Next up, what if you’ve thrown a thousand dice, placed a million workers? What does 2023 have for you?

More than you might think.