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'Disney Lorcana: Rise of the Floodborn' and more new board games, reviewed

Descent: Legends of the Dark - The Betrayer's War, Disney Lorcana: Rise of the Floodborn, Ticket to Ride Legacy: Legends of the West
Asmodee/Ravensburger
Descent: Legends of the Dark - The Betrayer's War, Disney Lorcana: Rise of the Floodborn, Ticket to Ride Legacy: Legends of the West

While 2023 has surpassed video game records, it's also a great time to be a board gamer. Even after pandemic restrictions hammered the hobby, signs point to its continued growth — the industry is on track to make well over $2 billion in the US this year.

We've sampled some of the year's biggest tabletop games, from quick duels to sprawling cooperative campaigns. Here are our reviews:

A grip of Sapphire and Amethyst Lorcana cards.
/ Ravensburger
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Ravensburger
A grip of Sapphire and Amethyst Lorcana cards.

Lorcana: Rise of the Floodborn

I'm feeling good about my chances. I started the game with the Queen from Snow White, then later played the Beast to banish an opposing Megara. Victory's only a few quests away — and maybe my alternate-world Gaston (subtitled "Intellectual Powerhouse") can give me the cards and beef I need to secure the win.

But despite my lead, I couldn't keep pace with my opponent's tide of characters, from the Duke of Weselton to Steamboat Willie. I'm a hardened Magic: the Gathering and Android: Netrunner veteran, yet Lorcana glory somehow evades my grasp.

/ Ravensburger
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Ravensburger

While I've lost out as a competitor, publisher Ravensburger scored financial success with this new trading card game for kids and Disney fanatics. Debut product The First Chapter quickly sold out this fall, while the expansion, Rise of the Floodborn, is releasing just in time for the holidays. I had the chance to playtest both.

In two-player games that take less than half an hour, you'll take turns conjuring Disney characters, items, and actions. You win not by attacking your opponent, but by sending characters on quests to tick your Lore points from zero to twenty. Most cards serve dual roles: you can put one face down into your "inkwell" each turn, which you'll use to play out increasingly expensive and powerful cards.

The premise embraces a multiverse of heroes and villains, each categorized into three types. You'll see the classic "Storyborn" as they appear in canonical movies, while "Dreamborn" are slightly off the factory mold. But "Floodborn" characters headline the newest set and inject a modicum of whimsy into Disney's tight brand standards. Here, you'll see Cinderella as an armored knight, Belle as a woodland archer, or Cruella de Vil as a runway fashionista.

Much as I enjoyed Lorcana's inventive art and the amusing ironies of, say, Dr. Facilier teaming up with Rapunzel and singing "Part of Your World" — the game has not entirely enchanted me. While Rise of the Floodborn reaches deeper into Disney's catalog (it's got all Seven Dwarfs!), it doesn't clarify the game's muddled identity.

/ Ravensburger
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Ravensburger

Trading card games often break their cards into opposing factions with different game plans, but each of Lorcana's six "ink colors" feel roughly equivalent. Sure, Amber cards care more about Princesses and Sapphire cards let you draw more from your deck, for instance, but they also share plenty of mechanically identical characters. Heroes and Villains aren't wholly defined by specific colors either — Mulan and Mother Gothel both have Ruby and Emerald variants, for example.

Still, such grievances won't slow sales for the families the game caters to. Now more than ever, you can fill your shelves with Disney board games from storied designers: Lorcana slides right next to Disney Dixit, Disney Codenames, Disney Villainous — the list goes on. I got glimmers of a deeper game while paddling in Lorcana's shallows, but it'd take a real transformation to make it truly dazzle.

— James Mastromarino, gaming lead and Here & Now producer

Vanessa McGinnis / Asmodee
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Asmodee

Ticket to Ride Legacy

My first game of Ticket to Ride Legacy: Legends of the West felt like embarking into the unknown. While it's based on a classic, it literally changes the rules as you go in a long campaign designed by industry veteran Rob Daviau to play over 15-20 games. Between each, you'll open sealed boxes and envelopes to find new pieces and stickers to place on the board, depending on the outcomes of the previous game.

The game starts like the original Ticket to Ride, but the first twist comes early with a new rule: now, each player gets two points every time they build a route matching their player color, which fundamentally altered our strategies. Instead of taking tickets that looked easy to complete, I searched the map for unclaimed blue routes and chose tickets that conveniently overlapped.

After your first game, most players will earn a postcard that gives them a secret advantage. Most aren't useful immediately and hint at future mechanics that you'll now have a leg up in. It's such an intriguing tease. After our first game, I earned a postcard from treasure hunters headed to the Sierra Madre. That wasn't a location on our board yet, but I had a feeling that when it showed up, I would have some adventuresome allies waiting to give me a hand.

As the campaign chugs forward, you'll push westward. The game avoids the ugliest realities of the railroads' expansion west (the displacement of Native Americans, the exploitation of laborers, including Chinese immigrants, etc.). Instead, the game makes its ultimate villain the owner of a rival monopolist train company, which seeks to squelch all the players' friendly competition.

My friends and I couldn't put this game down. There were always new twists and new challenges to compete in. If you're a fan of the original game but eventually tired of it, you should book a ticket for Legends of the West.

— Vanessa McGinnis, digital campaign manager

Descent's giant boxes and the dozens of miniatures contained therein.
Garry Butler / Asmodee
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Asmodee
Descent's giant boxes and the dozens of miniatures contained therein.

Descent: Legends of the Dark and The Betrayer's War

Are you a TTRPG player struggling to find someone to run a campaign? Descent: Legends of the Dark, an app-driven board game for up to four players, promises to fill the gap (should you have the budget and space for it). The base game and new expansion, The Betrayer's War, would set you back over $300, and the boxes are HUGE (12"x12"x12" and 12"x12"x8"), so they can store 3D terrain and scores of detailed plastic miniatures. But once we got everything set up, my family and I found it fun and fast-paced.

The App is gorgeous and replaces a flesh-and-blood dungeon master (it's available on iOS, Android, Mac and PC). You can sync your progress between devices and start Act Two, The Betrayers War, with an existing campaign — or view a quick summary of the previous game to jump straight into the expansion.

In Act One, your party must quest to save your homeland of Terrinoth from the demon-tainted Uthuk Y'llan barbarians and the undead servants of Waiqar the Undying. The leaders of Terrinoth are divided and fractious, unable to unite against these common threats. Act Two continues the struggle with the addition of the forces of Dragonlord Levirax. While the App does an excellent job guiding you through the first scenario and teaching the rules, you also get a helpful print reference copy of the rules for reference. As you explore the realm, you're guided to assemble each encounter using the physical terrain and where to place your foes as you discover them.

A handy app instructs you how to build encounters room-by-room across a massive campaign.
Garry Butler / Asmodee
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Asmodee
A handy app instructs you how to build encounters room-by-room across a massive campaign.

During their turn, each hero may perform up to three actions in any order: one maneuver action and two additional actions of their choice — from attacks to spells. Though you quickly fall into a rhythm of combat, it doesn't get boring. The quality cutscenes drive the story along, and each scenario lasts two to four hours. At the end of a quest, you'll return to Frostgate, a city where you'll level up, go shopping, craft items, and visit the armory.

While the combination of app interactions and physical dice proved engaging, it's also very fiddly. We had to use our best judgment when the app and print-outs failed to demystify rules. We also found it challenging to match the miniatures to on-screen foes due to their small size in the app. They aren't labeled either, so having a printed guide sheet for the minis and scenarios feels like an oversight.

Taken together, Descent: Legends of the Dark and The Betrayer's War boast surprising depth and replayability, whether you're flying solo or with a group. It's a colossal toybox for those who love RPG figures and sprawling 3D terrain. Is it worth the staggering asking price? If you have the tablespace and patience, absolutely.

— Garry Butler, PC support technician

Arrange newspaper tiles to make a perfect frontpage in Fit to Print.
Vanessa McGinnis / Flatout Games
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Flatout Games
Arrange newspaper tiles to make a perfect frontpage in Fit to Print.

Fit to Print

When I heard the Prairie Courier needed a new editor, I knew I was hooked. This cozy game may as well have been made special for me, from its newspaper theme to the beautiful art of Thistleville's animal citizens. Even better, it uses one of my favorite mechanics: tile laying.

This light game for up to six players takes less than half an hour to play. Each of the game's three rounds takes three to five minutes — to the second, you have to use a timer to track it! You'll rush to gather story, picture, and ad tiles. Once you're happy with the options you've piled on your cardboard desk, announce "Layout!" to the group and begin arranging the tiles on your newspaper board.

This was my favorite part of the game, speeding to beat my friends and fit all of my articles, pictures, and ads in my newspaper. You have to balance elements to get the best score, turning your front page into a puzzle. For instance, you can't put articles of the same type beside each other and you'll want to place pictures alongside articles that have the same topic. And don't forget about the integrity of your paper; if you publish too many happy or sad stories, you'll lose points for being biased!

Fit to Print is a charming little game perfect for families. I can't wait to take it home for the holidays and race my little siblings to be the first paper off the press!

— Vanessa McGinnis, digital campaign manager

Save the world from Marvel villains in D.A.G.G.E.R (which stands for Defense Alliance for Global and Galactic Emergency Response, by the way).
Vanessa McGinnis / Asmodee
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Asmodee
Save the world from Marvel villains in D.A.G.G.E.R (which stands for Defense Alliance for Global and Galactic Emergency Response, by the way).

Marvel D.A.G.G.E.R.

Every turn in the cooperative Marvel D.A.G.G.E.R. had me on the edge of my seat, unsure if my friends and I would make it to the next round. Over two hours, our superheroes sprinted around the world, throwing punches at minions and defying a villain's schemes in a race against the clock — and we didn't always succeed.

In our first game, Loki unexpectedly teleported to and killed She-Hulk in New York. Unable to do anything to stop it, my fiancé sadly returned her to the box. Luckily, character death doesn't eliminate players, so the next turn, he pulled out Hulk and announced that She-Hulk's cousin Bruce was here to finish what she'd started! We ended up carrying the day, but not before I accidentally got Black Widow killed.

This game for up to five players really shines when you're sharing ideas to use your turns as efficiently as possible. In one game, I had to split my actions between fighting Taskmaster as Black Panther Shuri and rushing back to New York to meet Spider-Man and Elektra for dinner at Aunt May's house so Spider-Man could get his upgrade card. If you're looking for a cooperative challenge with your friends, this globetrotting nail-biter is worth a try – just look out for Loki's illusions!

— Vanessa McGinnis, digital campaign manager

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

James Perkins Mastromarino
James Perkins Mastromarino is Here & Now's Washington, D.C.-based producer. He works with NPR's newsroom on a daily whirlwind of topics that range from Congress to TV dramas to outer space. Mastromarino also edits NPR's Join the Game and reports on gaming for daily shows like All Things Considered and Morning Edition.