Lake Effect's Top Games to Gift in 2017

For eight years (and counting), game aficionado James Lowder has joined Lake Effect, WUWM's locally-produced magazine program, to talk about the best games of the year. We are talking about classic games here, not the kind that are played on a screen.

"The thing that's amazing is how much this has become mainstream culture," Lowder says. "Everybody's watching the Marvel movies and everybody's familiar with The Lord of the Rings, so they understand the tropes and they understand the storytelling."

"Playing Dungeons & Dragons, where you're a hero on a quest like Frodo goes on, is not a mystery now to a lot of people, it's not something that's inaccessible," he adds. "They understand Game of Thrones and Walking Dead, so the games appeal to them too."

And, with that, bring out your d20 and "roll for initiative:"

Top Picks For Family Games:

Credit Blue Orange Games

Kingdomino - This game is for 2-4 players ages 8 and up. You are a monarch trying to expand your kingdom and use domino tiles to do so. "It changes with every turn, and you're building in a five-by-five grid, and then once you run out of dominos everybody scores. It's a really fast game, it plays in about 20-25 minutes."

Khan of Khans - For ages 9 and up, players are cow raiders in a fantasy world in a Bronze Age kingdom. "It's got a push your luck mechanic," Lowder explains. "You're trying to build the biggest herd and then corral them, but if you wait too long, somebody else can come along and raid them...or enemy magic can scatter your cows or take them away before you can actually score them. It's got enough strategy that it's fun for a whole range in the family."

Ghost Fightin' Treasure Hunters
Credit Mattel Games
Rhino Hero - Super Battle

Ghost Fightin' Treasure Hunters - Players are kids working together in a haunted mansion to recover gems. "It's a fun game and it's got a really nice level of strategy that still plays for younger kids," notes Lowder. "Even crossover parents aren't going to be pulling their hair out if they're asked to play this one with the kids as well."

Rhino Hero - Super Battle - For ages five and up, this game is the new version of Rhino Hero (a stacking dexterity game). Players follow Rhino Hero and his superhero friends as they try to get to the top of a structure as it's being built. "Of course, what superheros do when they run into each other is fight. So if superheros end up on the same floor in a turn, they fight and the players move down or up," Lowder explains. "Your goal is to create the tower and be at the top when it falls, unless you're the person who caused it to be careful."

Recommended Role Playing Games:

Lowder says the great thing about role playing games right now is that people are being drawn back into the hobby, just as old classics are coming out with new editions.

"A lot of those computer game people are trying those games and once they play them, they discover, 'Gee, I really like sitting around a table and playing with people in person, rather than maybe over headphones,'" he says. "So there's a lot of innovation going on, expanding the types of games that are available."

Blue Rose and Pugmire are the opposite of the  Dungeons & Dragons combat game, Lowder explains. "They are hopeful games built upon cooperation and often overtly non-violence and finding other ways in which to solve the problems."

Blue Rose is built around a fantasy kingdom and features stories based on a wide range of relationships. "It openly encourages diversity in the types of characters that you draw up...Role playing is about trying different perspective, so if you want to try a different perspective or character - Blue Rose is a fine game for that," he says. "Gorgeous art, really a great game."

Pugmire is "post-apocalyptic but it's not grim." In a world where dogs have succeeded humankind, "they are looking for ways in which to be heroic and live up to the code of man and decide how to be a good dog."

Favorite Hobby Games:

"Hobby games invite longer term commitment to the game," explains Lowder. "Role playing games are a typical example of a hobby game because they require a lot of study of the texts, you play over time, a new character develops, and it's built around campaigns. It's not built necessarily around one-offs. There are exceptions, but that's the general rule."

Credit Arcane Wonders

Onitama - A two-player game played on a grid where you have a master and four disciples. A card game whose goal is to either capture the other player's master or put your master in the pagoda (in the center of the back row of the grid), and you can only use the moves on the cards.

"It's a perfect knowledge game - you know everything that everyone can do at any point in the game," notes Lowder. "It's a really fast game...but it has an incredibly deep strategy to it and it changes every time."

FUSE - Where Onitama is a contemplative game, Fuse is a crazy game where players are a bomb defuse team. "There are twenty or more bombs planted on your ship and you've got to defuse them in 10 minutes. It is a real-time cooperative game...The scalability means that you can make this game as challenging as your group needs it to be."

Credit Wizards RPG /

Tomb of Annihilation - "It's the honking great box of stuff that you will play for a very long time," says Lowder. This game takes you to the jungle where you'll find zombies, dinosaurs, and lost temples.

"It's a cooperative game and it plays like a board game version of Dungeons & Dragons," he explains. "You can play these as one-off scenarios and you can play them as a very long campaign where the game scales up as you play so you get better treasures and tougher monsters the more you go on."

Top Pick of 2017:

Credit Blue Orange Games

Photosynthesis -  In this game, players grow trees. "Depending on how much sunlight you gather based on the trees you plant, that's how many action points you have...but the cool part is depending on where you place those trees, they cast shade on the trees around them," says Lowder.

"It's also a clever use of the theme because you can look at that board and see, 'Oh this tree is taller than the tree next to it, so it's not going to be affected by shade.'...It's got a little more strategy to it then some of the other games...and it is simple enough that people are going to be able to figure out how to play it quickly. But the strategy is very complex and you'll find a lot of replay value in the game."

More Info On This Year's Top Games: