Board Game Buyer’s Guide: The Best Licensed Tabletop Games Around

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This year, the Geek & Sundry editorial contributors have come together and collaborated to put together several curated lists of games. Whether you’re looking to pick one up for yourself or as a gift, these titles are some of the best the tabletop industry has to offer and we heartily recommend them.

There was a time when seeing a popular license slapped on a new game was the equivalent of a giant flashing DO NOT BUY sign. Typically arriving as a gift from a well-meaning relative, these games would usually end up played once for novelty and tossed into a closet where – if you were really really lucky – they’d end up being worth something on eBay. Those days are thankfully over.

Now licensed games aren’t just a fun way to play in a familiar world, they’re some of the best games around period. From the rambunctiously fun to the hauntingly powerful, here are some of our favorites.

Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle

One of the joys of playing licensed games is getting to see familiar faces and exploring the worlds we know and love.  Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle fully explores this idea by letting players work their way through all 7 books. The base game is fairly simple. Each player plays one of 4 familiar characters – Harry, Hermoine, Ron, and Neville – and works cooperatively to defeat the evil forces of Voldemort. Hogwarts Battle is a deck building game with mechanics familiar to anyone who has played similar games. Each player’s deck starts nearly identical and round by round they’ll add familiar spells, items, and allies from the movies.

What makes this game special is the way it introduces you to the game the way the books introduced you to the world.  Your first game, Book 1, sees you battling Quirrel, Draco, and Crabbe & Goyle as you play through the events of The Sorcerer’s Stone. When you win, you open a little box that introduces new cards and events from The Chamber of Secrets. Each book has its own little box within the game that introduces characters and events from those stories. Your characters grow as well; by the time you get to Book 3 the art changes to older images of the actors and each character is further differentiated with new unique abilities. You, the player, grow along with your character as you work your way towards The Deathly Hallows.

This year also saw the release of Hogwarts Battle’s first expansion. The Monster Box of Monsters adds new challenges and a new playable character – Luna Lovegood – to the game, giving you more reasons to explore this beloved world. It’s also much harder so experienced players can enjoy another play through the game much the same way we might re-read this series again and again. This is a great game to play with friends and the easy-to-learn rules will have you yelling “Eat slugs Malfoy!” in no time.

MSRP: $49.95 – USAoply

Star Wars: Rebellion

In 2011, Fantasy Flight Games announced they’d acquired the license to  publish games in the Star Wars universe, to the delight of board gamers everywhere. Star Wars: Rebellion is perhaps the most ambitious and one of their best. Where a game like X-Wing zooms the focus in on individual space dog-fights, Rebellion takes an expansive look at the entire galactic civil war. The Empire player commands a vast network of systems, producing large numbers of forces and ships as they expand their influence in search of the rebels. Tucked away in a corner of the board, the rebels will play a game of hit-and-run and evasion, strikingly only as necessary to score objectives.

Rebellion is dramatically asymmetric. While both players share rules for movement and a novel leader system that sees you sending familiar characters on dedicated missions,  each side has a very different approach to victory. The Empire is in a race against time, needing to discover and destroy the Rebel base before the seeds of conflict can blossom into full-on rebellion. The Rebels are hoping to win the hearts and minds of the galaxy by successfully stymieing the Empire where they can. Rebel objective cards recreate scenes from the movies – like blowing up the Death Star – and push the Rebellion closer to victory.

Rebellion’s first expansion was also released this year. It brings the events of Rogue One into the game along with people like Jyn Erso and Jabba the Hut. The biggest change it makes is to tweak the combat system. While Rebellion’s combat was perfectly serviceable, it stood out by not reaching the same dramatic heights as the rest of the game. Using the Cinematic Combat rules from the Rise of the Empire expansion players will have a narratively satisfying combat system that also comes with more player control.

The best thing about Rebellion, however, is how it allows you to tell your own Star Wars stories. While all the pieces are there for you to recreate the movies we know and love, room exists to put your own spin on it. What would happen if Luke had been frozen in Carbonite and Han turned to the Dark Side, while Chewy went to Dagobah for Jedi Training? How would things have been different if the Rebel Base had been near Coruscant and the Rebels had launched attacks on the heart of the Empire? Time for you to find out.

MSRP: $99.95 – Fantasy Flight Games

Star Wars: Destiny

Sticking with a galaxy far, far away, Fantasy Flight Games launched Star Wars: Destiny late last year and has already released two expansion cycles with a third on the way. Where Rebellion puts you in command of the full scope of the conflict, Destiny  captures the fury of a lightsaber duel or blaster battle in a fast-paced battle of cards and dice. Destiny is all about the characters. Your deck is built around 1-3 iconic characters from Poe Dameron to Emperor Palpatine and packed with items and ships from across the universe.

Destiny has the pacing of an X-Wing/Tie Fight space fight; rounds are fast and feature a very brisk back and forth activation system. You’ll roll your dice into a pool and then exchange activations. A quick stab with a lightsaber here, a strafing run from your X-Wing there, and suddenly you’re in the midst of a high stakes dance of death that will have your knee bouncing as you wonder why your opponent is suddenly smiling.

I was initially skeptical of another collectible model game, but I’ve found I enjoy opening packs and trading cards among friends. The starter sets are well balanced and manage to tell a compelling story themselves. Kylo is powerful though inconsistent, and he requires investment to keep at peak power. Meanwhile Rey begins weaker but ultimately grows into a powerful force as she understands her abilities. A match between the two starter decks plays out like The Force Awakens. Destiny is my most played game of 2017 and it isn’t close, I certainly wouldn’t wrinkle my nose at a few booster packs appearing in my stocking.

MSRP (2-Player Starter Set): $29.95 – Fantasy Flight Games

The Thing: Infection at Outpost 31

This game has only been on store shelves for a couple weeks but we managed to get to play a game  at Gen Con this year and adored this new take on hidden traitor systems. While this genre is becoming well-trod ground, The Thing manages to bring a few unfamiliar twists. For starters, the alien Imitation players do not get the advantage of knowing who is on their team. It will take guile and bold-faced deceit to send covert signals across the board and through card play, hoping to subtly work together to destroy the outpost. If the outpost isn’t destroyed you’ll want to have played secretly enough to make it onto the escape helicopter. Extreme care must be taken, however, because there are flamethrowers and you don’t want to end up on the wrong end of one of those.

What intrigued me the most about The Thing and has me looking forward to returning to the outpost is the way the game is driven by card play. Like many social deduction games, someone will be nominating a team of people to take some actions and provide information to the table via searching areas of the board. Unlike other games, this team doesn’t engage in an arbitrary voting system. Specific items are needed, dictated by the mission parameters. Additionally, specific team members are needed. You may not fully trust your two scientists but if the mission requires that one of them join the team you’re stuck hoping the players you do trust can mitigate any issues.

I love this game because of the sheer weight of the lying, bluffing, and deceit it requires. It isn’t as simple as telling people you can be trusted. The leader is going to pointedly ask you what kind of items you have in your hand and then force you to prove it when you contribute them. There is room to be deceitful but you better be ready to lie on your feet and bring your best poker face.

MSRP: $59.99  Mondo/Project Raygun

 Star Trek: Ascendancy

Don’t worry Trek fans, there’s something here for you too. Gale Force 9 has made a name for themselves in translating licenses into amazing games. From Sons of Anarchy to Homeland they’ve constantly surprised me with the licenses they pursue and the quality of the games that come out of them.  Star Trek: Ascendancy is an ambitious 4x game of galactic conquest. The base game comes with the Romulans, Klingons, and Federation as playable factions initially limiting the proceedings to 3 players. However, Ferengi and Cassians have arrived; more exciting however is the fact that the Borg are on the horizon.

The two things we love the most about this game are the exploration and the asymmetry. When planets are initially explored, they aren’t in a fixed position on the map. They can pivot and swivel until connected to another planet, fixing the space route in place. This leads to a board that grows unlike any other 4x game out there. No hexes, no familiar layout, just the vast freedom of open space. Winning a game of Ascendancy comes from leaning into your faction’s unique play style. If you’re a fan of the shows you already know what you need to do. The Federation is spreading food and peace while the Klingons are simply looking for their next target. Another Geek & Sundry contributor, Charlie Theel, called this one of the best 4x games out there last year and not much has changed. Warp speed engage!

MSRP (core box): $100 – Gale Force Nine

This War of Mine

This War of Mine is a hard game to play. Not because of the rules or mechanisms, but because it is emotionally draining. It might be surprising to hear that a board game can take an emotional toll but This War of Mine does that. It makes it hard to recommend in the traditional sense. It’s a co-op game where players work together to survive the Seige of Sarajevo. You’ll work within a bombed-out home to make it livable, scavenge for supplies, and repel raiders. This is fairly standard board game stuff but This War of Mine sets itself apart through the use of a large book called the Book of Scripts.

The Book of Scripts has over 1,000 entries and throughout the game, you’ll be instructed to read from it. Perhaps, while scavenging, you’ll come across a small child lost and alone. The book then presents you with a choice: do you take the child in – knowing that you’ll be forced to scavenge additional food and supplies – or do you leave the child behind at the cost of your morale and humanity? These choices are tough and an emotional punch for those who let themselves live in the setting of a game. Not all choices are as emotional. Throughout the game you may pursue dead ends, put yourself in danger, or have happy moments with fellow survivors.

It’s impossible to know what you will encounter and there are enough entries and options to make every playthrough different. There will be games where you die in an almost unavoidable fashion. This is life in war. There will be other games where you survive having created a small community in your home. This War of Mine is not only on this list because it’s good, it’s on this list because it’s important. It’s a big step forward in the growth of tabletop gaming as an artistic medium and is worth playing for that alone.

MSRP: $69.90 – Ares Games

You can pick up these games at quality game retailers. What are your favorite licensed games? Tell us in the comments!

Stay tuned in for more curated lists, including the best games of 2017 and the most hotly anticipated games of 2018. If you want to stay on top of the best and newest of tabletop gaming, be sure to also tune in our weekly show  Game the Game hosted by Becca Scott on Twitch and Alpha.

Want more to learn more about the games listed?

Editor’s Disclosure: review copies of these games were provided by the publisher.

Image Credits: Teri Litorco, Ryan Chaddock, Rafael Cordero, Geek & Sundry, Gale Force 9, Fantasy Flight Games

Feature Image Credit: Rafael Cordero

In addition to Geek & Sundry, Raf Cordero writes for Miniature Market’s The Review Corner and co-hosts the gaming podcast,  Ding & Dent. Chat with him on Twitter  @captainraffi.

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