Justin’s Highs and Lows for 2023!

Our team member Justin wrote 166 articles last year and logged nearly 500 plays. Let's find out what made his list of highs and lows of 2023!

Another year in the books! Our writing team recently shared an article with our single-favorite games of 2023. However, I played a lot of other games last year. In the spirit of my roundup of the highs and lows from the games I played in 2022, please enjoy a few other awards and my personal top 10 from 2023.

(A note about the awards below: these winners are based on articles that were published about games I played for the first time in 2023. Game release dates are pretty fuzzy, between crowdfunding prototypes, retail releases, second print runs, and deluxified anniversary versions. Just pretend that everything rated here came out in 2023, because it did…at least, to me.)

With that, let’s jump in, using some of our standard Diamond Climber award categories and some of my own categories too. Let’s go!!

Best Individual Game Component: The Triple-Layer Player Boards, Voidfall

Nothing beats the sensation of slipping one of the House mats into those sweet, sweet, player boards from Voidfall. I was surprised how often I found myself slipping mats into boards, just to check and make sure the mats fit, knowing full well that they did! None of the player boards I handled in 2023 beat the ones from Voidfall. (And, don’t worry—we’ll talk more about player boards later.)

Honorable mention:

Favorite Gaming Mechanic: Hand Management, Voidfall

All the best games I played this year had a specific mechanic that really hooked me. In past years, this included the market board dice rondel from The Red Cathedral, and the action selection mechanism from Carnegie. This award, new for 2023, looks at the best parts of the best games of the year.

The hand management in Voidfall is something else. Across 14 plays, I probably spent more than 50 hours in 2023 staring at the game’s Focus cards, wondering how I could make only two of each card’s three actions maximize each of my turns. How designers Nigel Buckle and David Turczi turned this into a full-blown sorta-4X game still keeps me up at night.

Honorable Mention:

Most Thematic Gaming Experience: Hegemony: Lead Your Class to Victory

I’ll just leave you with this: for one of my plays of Hegemony, the four players dressed up as their respective class. How many games did you play this year where you also played “dress up”?

Honorable Mention:

Best Dice: Thunder Road: Vendetta

A stunning number of games have dice. Most of the dice are uninspired. Not so in Thunder Road: Vendetta, and if you have played it, you know what I mean. I am still laughing about games of TR:V where players rolled the “Stunt Die” and shot one of their own vehicles off the map. Oh my goodness, this game is a hoot.

Honorable Mention:

Best Artwork / Graphic Design / Iconography: Voidfall

In a lot of ways, Voidfall cheated here for what is likely Ian O’Toole’s biggest project to date. I would love to know how many hours O’Toole and the team at Mindclash spent on Voidfall, particularly on the iconography used throughout the game’s three manuals, iconography guide, all of the cards, all of the boards…oh my goodness. Not all games are created equally!

Honorable Mention:

The Most Game You Can Play in the Least Amount of Time: Union Stockyards

For about two months, two of my game groups used Union Stockyards as the long filler that could cover gaps of 45-75 minutes depending on the number of players waiting around between games. And so much happens during each game, between the complete buildout of the stockyards area, to the rise and fall of the hogs market, to the number of times workers have gone on strike. It’s a strangely epic game given how quick it plays.

Honorable Mention:

Best First-Player / Active Player Token: Shikoku 1889

After my first play with the re-release, deluxe version of Ra, I thought this award was a wrap. Then Shikoku 1889 arrived, and I had to admit: the Priority Deal token is magnificent. It’s way too large, it’s a beautiful wooden token, and it puts almost every other 18xx Priority Deal item to shame…most games feature a small, bland-looking card to denote who has Priority Deal. Grand Trunk Games has crushed it with its productions so far!

Honorable Mention:

  • La Famiglia: The Great Mafia War
  • Union Stockyards
  • Distilled
  • Thunder Road: Vendetta

Publisher of the Year (minimum of three releases): Devir

This one can be quite region-specific; here in the US, though, Devir had a stellar 2023.

Everyone in my game groups utters the word “Devir” in the same way, with reverence to a catalog that has smoked it the last three years thanks to gems like The Red Cathedral, Bitoku, The White Castle, 3 Ring Circus, Ierusalem: Anno Domini, and Mille Fiori. Sure, Devir’s 2023 did have a couple clunkers (highlighted below), but given the size of Devir’s release slate, not all games can be bangers. 2023 was great, but the 2024 slate looks even better!

Honorable Mention:

The easy pick for the best icon of 2023

Best Rules for Selecting the First Player: Trolls & Princesses

“Randomly select a first player” is one of the most boring, uninspired ideas in gaming. Sadly, 90% of the games I review don’t even bother coming up with something interesting here.

That all changes when selecting the first player in Trolls & Princesses. Here’s the game’s rule: the player who has the biggest nose plays first.

Honorable Mention:

  • Neotopia (whoever last dreamt of the future)
  • Trickerion: Legends of Illusion (whoever last wore a top hat)
  • Carnegie: Departments and Donations (whoever is the most daring person at the table)
  • Kutná Hora: The City of Silver (the player who was most recently underground)

Best Individual Player Boards: Voidfall

If an award can be won in a landslide, Voidfall won this in a landslide. However, 2023 was an exceptional year for player boards…mostly. Games continue to elevate the meaning of the words “deluxe edition”, so I expect this award to be a fight every year. The tabletop world has decided that all of us need a really cool way to play our own games on a handsome piece of cardboard—double-layered, triple-layered, even quadruple-layered—and I am here to confirm that we must have more player boards!!!

The ten best player boards of 2023:

  1. Voidfall
  2. Distilled
  3. La Famiglia: The Great Mafia War
  4. Brazil: Imperial
  5. Trickerion: Legends of Illusion
  6. The White Castle
  7. Zhanguo: The First Empire
  8. Nucleum
  9. Sabika
  10. Kutna Hora: The City of Silver

Best Rulebook: Voidfall

Voidfall is a bit of a cheat here—it has not one, but three rulebooks, all of them exceptional. It was shocking how often I asked no one in particular about a specific rule, then turned to the section in either the Rulebook, the Glossary or the Compendium and found the answer in short order. These rulebooks are the gold standard for what complex games must do to address their rulesets. Not surprisingly, it was co-written by the best rules writers in the business.

Honorable Mention:

  • Hegemony: Lead Your Class to Victory
  • The White Castle
  • Distilled
  • Union Stockyards
  • Shikoku 1889
  • Zhanguo: The First Empire

Best Player Aid: Hegemony: Lead Your Class to Victory

The rule for me is simple: can I teach the entire game from the player aids?

The player aids for Hegemony, which come on small square sheets of paper for each of the four factions, also includes a game overview aid, to help players remember all the steps required in each round. Accompanied by the larger, double-sided Rule Aids, you can teach a game of Hegemony using only the aids. Given the complexities of the game, this is a major achievement.

Honorable Mention:

  • Kutná Hora: The City of Silver
  • Distilled
  • Amun-Re: 20th Anniversary Edition
  • Inheritors

The Table Presence Award: Thunder Road: Vendetta (Maximum Chrome Edition)

Another one of the easier picks for 2023, Thunder Road: Vendetta almost makes it look like the Mad Max movies are based on this game, and not the other way around. The wash on these toys is fantastic, and each time I set it up, I get giddy at the threat of car combat taking over my life once again. The only way to fly here is the Maximum Chrome Edition, because everything looks so sweet.

Honorable Mention:

  • Voidfall
  • Trickerion: Legends of Illusion
  • Distilled
  • Shikoku 1889
  • Photograph (Wind the Film!)
  • The White Castle
  • Zhanguo: The First Empire
  • Rats of Wistar
  • Hegemony: Lead Your Class to Victory

Best Box Insert: Voidfall

I think this is really saying something: the Game Trayz used for Voidfall might be their best storage solution of them all. I still laugh at how well the game’s combat aids fit into the lower third of the box…not an inch of space is wasted!!

Honorable Mention:

  • Thunder Road: Vendetta (Maximum Chrome Edition)
  • Challengers!
  • Distilled
  • Union Stockyards

Most Evocative Box Cover: Eila and Something Shiny

2023 was a banner year for great box covers, so this might have been the hardest award to pick, given the dozens of excellent choices. But I keep coming back to the image of Eila looking back over their shoulder, with an image in the background of the adventure ahead. The cover, the cards, even the rulebook tell quite a story with this game, and that’s before…well, you should just play the game yourself.

Honorable Mention:

  • Shikoku 1889 (so good that I bought the separate art prints)
  • Thunder Road: Vendetta (ditto)
  • Turing Machine (the most innovative box cover of the year)
  • La Famiglia: The Great Mafia War

And now, some of the standard-issue best-of winners:

Best Filler: Inheritors

Best Roll/Flip and Write Game: Joan of Arc: Orleans Draw & Write

Best Party Game: Vabanque

Best Two-Player Game: Sky Team

Best Train Game: 1880: China

Best Co-Op Game: Sky Team

Best Solo Game: Voidfall

Best Escape Room/Crime/Mystery One-Time-Play Game: Exit: The Game–Advent Calendar: The Silent Storm

Best Family Game: StegegetS Moomin

The Best Games of 2023

First, a couple of Honorable Mentions:

The Princes of Florence

I picked up a review copy of The Princes of Florence from our friends at WizKids, then learned that my Meeple Mountain colleague Andrew picked it up as well…so I reviewed it on another channel instead. That doesn’t change my view that The Princes of Florence would have been on this list had I reviewed it for Meeple Mountain, and Andrew’s thoughts align identically to my own. An exceptional game published with fancy new artwork, the gameplay of the original game (which is now 24 years old!!) puts almost every game I played in 2023 to shame. Each time I play a new auction game, I keep thinking: why can’t XXXX be as good as The Princes of Florence?

Quicksand (Horrible Guild)

Games with Sand Timers

I had the chance to review two sand timer games in quick succession: Quicksand and Skyrockets. Both games are excellent, both games do a lot of the same things, and each has a preferred audience: Quicksand for a party game that plays up to seven, and Skyrockets for a dedicated group that can work through its 30+ episode campaign if they want an extended experience. I couldn’t pick just one game, so I did the noble thing and picked neither…but both remain in my collection!

And now, the top 10…

10: StegegetS Moomin

This one was a major surprise, particularly because I don’t think of Ion Game Design as a purveyor of family-weight content. Let’s just say I was pleasantly surprised! For those looking for something a little different, in a package that kept my kids coming back to the table—give StegegetS Moomin a look.

9: Inheritors

The beauty of trying this game four times with four different groups for my review? Everyone loved Inheritors and many of those gamers like such different things in their tabletop experiences. Low scores guarantee a tight finish every time, and it’s a very interactive experience for a card game that only takes 30 minutes to play.

8: Amun-Re: 20th Anniversary Edition

Another in the long list of games I played in 2023 that came out years ago and are still better than most of the new games hitting store shelves. Reiner Knizia knows a thing or two about games, and one of his earliest designs stands the test of time thanks to a simple bidding mechanic, easy-to-teach rules and a handsome table presence. The auction games section of my collection now stands complete, thanks to Amun-Re, The Princes of Florence, and Stockpile.

7: Age of Industry

Known as “Baby’s First Brass” in the Bell household, I got in five plays of Age of Industry during 2023. Age of Industry is coming close to replacing the Brass games because it plays five players (the original game plays four) and it is so easy to teach while still delivering some of the cutthroat interaction Brass games are known for. Talk about an ugly duckling—the game isn’t pretty, and the included coins might be the worst money tokens in gaming history. No sweat…Age of Industry is fantastic.

6: The White Castle

Gosh, I loved my plays of this game, and I got the chance to play it at least once at each of its four player counts. The White Castle works regardless of the number of players, and with only nine turns, a two-player game might only take 40 minutes. Devir crushed it again with design work by Llama Dice (the duo behind The Red Cathedral, the best game I played in 2020), a handsome table presence and the best back-of-the-rulebook icon guide of the year.

5: Voidfall

In terms of the game design, this was the best game I played in 2023. The reasons why it “fell” all the way to #5? I refuse to teach it, it takes 45 minutes to set up, and I’m still not sure I ever want to try it at the full player count. But Voidfall is the best game Mindclash has ever produced and for solo gamers or those looking for a 4X-like experience, I really can’t think of a game that tops this, not just this year, but ever. It doesn’t hurt that the deluxe edition of Voidfall is such a spectacular work of art.

Some of lead artist Marie Bergeron’s great work on Thunder Road: Vendetta (photo courtesy of Restoration Games)

4: Thunder Road: Vendetta

Each and every one of my Thunder Road: Vendetta games produced hearty laughter, dice-rolled gunfire and a chance to put my favorite miniatures of the year on the table. In terms of creating real memories at the table, only my #1 game did a better job. Play tip: start a game of Thunder Road: Vendetta while also streaming the back half of The Road Warrior (known as Mad Max 2 in some circles) in the background, while playing as the Big Rig using the Maximum Chrome Edition of the game. Bonus points: use the Choppe Shoppe expansion to add variable crew leader powers and weapons for each of your vehicles. You’re welcome!

3: 1880: China

I was tempted to include a couple other 18xx games on this list, including 1846: The Race for the Midwest and Shikoku 1889, but 1880: China is something special. Between in-person and online plays, I’ve now done more than 20 games of 1880: China, and I’m still loving the epic nature of each game. 1880: China is not for the weak of heart (nor is it for a person that has, I don’t know, a life), but if you’ve got 6-8 hours this weekend and a few friends who like to dance in the fire of heavy train games, give this a look.

2: Sky Team

Full disclosure: I played Sky Team at SPIEL 2022, and I knew it was going to make this list even in its prototype form. The shortest game on my list is the one that created the most drama between my wife and I all year long, in a good way…placing dice on our crew dashboard while waiting—hoping!—for the other player to successfully navigate our way out of trouble was a blast. The only reason this one isn’t higher? Sky Team is a fantastic experience, but repeated plays left my co-pilot (ahem, my wife) less interested in continuing through the campaign booklet that extends the game. That doesn’t change my opinion of our initial plays, which were absolutely incredible.

1: Hegemony: Lead Your Class to Victory

This one was easier than I expected, partly because it was the best game I played in the first three months of 2023. Hegemony held off all challengers, thanks to its incredible mix of depth, asymmetry, quality production and a balanced scoring system. I played this one four times for review plays (once as each of the game’s four classes), then three more times over the next few months. I can’t wait to see what this team has up its sleeve next!

The 10 Most Disappointing Games of 2023

Look, they can’t all be winners, right? And when you play nearly 150 unique games, it’s just as important to call out the games that worked as those that did not. A big thanks to all of the people who helped me work through these games for my reviews, in some cases multiple times. It is not easy revisiting a property that doesn’t work.

  1. Roller Coaster Rush
  2. Tapeworm
  3. Bravo Bravo
  4. Sugar Heist
  5. Home Sweet Home (or Not)
  6. What the Cup!?
  7. Cities of Venus
  8. Detective Rummy
  9. Harry Potter Magical Beasts Board Game
  10. Walkie Talkie

2023 was a fantastic year for games. Thanks to everyone involved in my gaming year, from the designers and publishers who put so many great games into motion, to the manufacturing partners across the globe for producing lots of quality products and working with shipping partners to get those games into our hands. To those who put in the tireless effort to run conventions, giving us all a chance to play and talk about these games, another big thanks…and to the game groups I am a part of in the greater Chicagoland area, I couldn’t do any of this without you.

One last shout out: to my family, thanks for putting up with me as we tabled some of the best and worst games the world has to offer. No matter how the game played, I treasured the time I got to spend with each of you.

Here’s to another great gaming year in 2024!

About the author

Justin Bell

Love my family, love games, love food, love naps. If you're in Chicago, let's meet up and roll some dice!

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