At Wargamer, we write about more or less every game that’s played on a table, from Twilight Imperium to Pool. With the year coming to a close, it’s finally time to crown the absolute best new tabletop games released in 2023, across five key categories. If there’s one tabletop treat to buy from the past 12 months, you should totally pick one of these.
To pick our winners, we considered five distinct award categories: the year’s best board games and best card games; the best new tabletop RPGs; the best MTG set of the year; and the #1 best Warhammer release.
Without these five big names, 2023 would have been a dimmer, duller place to be for tabletop gamers, and every game on this list both surprised and delighted us. We hope you enjoy revisiting these absolute crackers – and maybe find your next favorite.
Board game of the year 2023
For board game of the year, we’ve eschewed some of the bigger, more well-known titles like Frosthaven or Earth (you’ll still find these in our games of the year guide) to place deserved emphasis on a deeper cut. With Freelancers, Plaid Hat Games has done a fantastic job crafting DnD for the commitment-phobe.
Freelancers is a charming light dungeon crawler, and perfect for the board game fanatic looking for an in-road to tabletop RPGs. We’re normally a little wary of app-driven board games, but Freelancers’ central app performs an admirable job as your DM, and ties all the board game’s disparate and arguably somewhat janky mechanics together with remarkable ease.
In Freelancers, you form an adventuring party of wretched ne’er do wells, select one of a bunch of fantasy campaigns, and let the stellar voice acting and excellent humor of the story both wash over and lightly tickle you. Part Choose Your Own Adventure gamebook, part RPG, it pulls you right in with its silly approach to DnD character creation, and its ridiculous classes.
The first thing you do in Freelancers is fill in a mad libs style character sheet, then read one another a little story about your gunslinger who carries a brace of unloaded pistols to hurl at enemies, or your Friar, a chef of the greasy-spoon variety. That tells you right away what you’re in for: this isn’t an RPG for powergamers.
As you may guess, there’s a mechanics-lite approach to Freelancers. An action might require you to make a tricky skill check, but it’s just as likely you’ll have to have to give an improvised, impassioned and ridiculous speech.
And despite this Freelancers still makes improving your character feel greatly satisfying. It’s as good at drip feeding you dopamine-boosting upgrades as the most insidious live-service game, letting you up your characters’ skills to unlock increasingly better dice, gain new equipment, or (best of all) find NPC allies who you’ll meet with on the road.
There’s a playfulness to Freelancers that really gelled with us. It keeps you on your toes. At one point there was an interlude from adventuring as we stopped to fill out our Troll Divorcee’s (one of the possible race/class combos) Tinder profile. At another point, the narrator acted out an outburst, then asked us to point at the player we thought most likely to have said it to decide how to proceed.
Fun, light, and unashamedly goofy, Freelancers is a dungeon crawler board game where you can easily knock out a campaign in three or four hours. Some might bounce off its silliness and low-stakes storytelling, but it charmed the pants off us, and that’s why we’re naming this our favorite of the year.
Card game of the year 2023
Ravensburger’s Disney Lorcana is the first new TCG in a good while that has gotten us truly excited, which makes it the standout CCG of this year. The Disney theme obviously gives the title a massive leg up on the competition, but it’s also a well-designed and well-put together card game in its own right.
We first realized Lorcana would be far more than a thinly-veiled Magic: The Gathering or Hearthstone clone when it was revealed that Lorcana games were won through ‘questing’ rather than using your characters to deal damage to the other player. This simple mechanical difference adds so much more decision-making to Disney’s game. Rather than deciding to ‘attack’ or ‘defend’ you can ‘challenge’, ‘quest’, or hold a character back to keep it safe. A whole one-third additional gameplay decisions!
Other gameplay novelties include the way your regular cards also serve as your resources. Perhaps inspired by the old Japanese TCG Duel Masters, this brilliant mechanic not only means you never draw too few or too many lands or energy, it also gives you a lot to think about. Which cards do you need and which can you afford to ink? When do you stop inking cards altogether? How many inkable cards do you need when deck-building?
A shout-out needs hollering for the fantastic art featured in Disney Lorcana. It’s the same thing that gives Ravensburger’s other hot Disney title, Disney Villainous, its flavor and charm, this authentic-looking artwork that’s not actually a still frame from a movie. It’s also been really cool to see the game reimagine and rework Disney characters, showing us Winnie the Pooh as a honey wizard, or Hades whose overthrown Olympus. We’re excited to see where that goes in the future.
Lorcana gameplay is on the simpler side right now, but that’s to be expected given its relative youth. It’s been fun to jump on board a new card game at its very infancy. Playing a straightforward round of Lorcana after a mind-boggling Magic: The Gathering or Yugioh match is as refreshing as a cleansing cucumber-scented hot flannel, and it’s going to be fun to see how Lorcana evolves over the years. Already, the second set, Rise of the Floodborn has added a lot of intriguing strategies and new synergies.
Check out our Disney Lorcana review for more thoughts on this great TCG.
Tabletop RPG of the year 2023
Warhammer 40k: Imperium Maledictum
Cubicle 7’s Warhammer 40k: Imperium Maledictum is a heavy tabletop RPG that spiritually succeeds the beloved Warhammer 40k Dark Heresy system. You’re no longer required to join The Inquisition, though, and Cubicle 7 has combined Dark Heresy’s d100 system with some standout features from its other TTRPG title, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.
Despite sporting DNA as scrambled as a Space Marine’s, the Emperor’s super-powered troops are not the stars of the show in Imperium Maledictum. Instead, you’ll be playing as the more feeble (but no less essential) members of society in the 41st millennium.
The result of this choice is a low-powered but seriously dangerous game about politics, social intrigue, and investigation. It’s Call of Cthulhu where your mind is ruined by the Warp instead of Lovecraftian monsters, and a single pistol shot can spell disaster. Of course, if you’re as good at derailing games as we are, this can also be a game about overly bureaucratic tax auditors.
That’s part of the beauty of Imperium Maledictum. Its character creation rules offer so many rewarding options that you can thoroughly explore almost any corner of the Imperium of Man. Campaigns begin with creation of a Patron, who grants your party unique boons and liabilities and sends you out on missions.
Choosing to join the Imperial Fleet or the Adeptus Mechanicus can completely alter the shape of your adventures – and not to mention the kinds of characters you’ll build. The Patron system, combined with the faction and role choices you’ll make in character creation, adds huge amounts of replayability as well as some delicious crunch.
Combat isn’t really the point of Imperium Maledictum (and it’s designed to be as deadly as possible – you are one squishy citizen). Nevertheless, there’s enough complexity here to keep fans coming over from the miniature wargames scene engaged. Atmosphere and drama take precedence, but strategy still lurks on the perimeter.
With an extensive armory of rules, world-building (oh, and weapons), Imperium Maledictum is a Warhammer 40k RPG that’s thought of everything. This astounding depth may make it a little dense for the uninitiated, but even if you’re not a staunch Warhammer 40k fan, Imperium Maledictum is definitely worth the try.
Ahead of Henry Cavill‘s Warhammer series on Amazon and the upcoming Space Marine 2, this is the most immersive way to experience the world of Warhammer 40k – without learning how to paint Space Marines, that is.
Magic: The Gathering set of the year 2023
MTG Lord of the Rings
Once upon a time I would’ve said it would be a sad day when a tie-in Magic: The Gathering set overshadowed the year’s premier releases, but I’m a Universes Beyond convert now baybee, and I’m not ashamed to say that MTG Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle Earth was top-notch.
MTG Lord of the Rings had such a neat selection of cards. Directly injected into Modern, Wizards got the power level about right so that they were influential without being as format warping as the Modern Horizons. The designs were flavorful, and full of neat references to well-known characters, along with deep cuts for the super fans. That Shadowfax card that showed the meaning of haste was a slick move.
There were some really strong cards like Orcish Bowmaster and The One Ring (perhaps the best new MTG cards of 2023), and despite their undeniable power they’ve managed to stay on the right side of the MTG banlist. The draft format was compelling, despite the villainous colors being completely overpowered, and the Ring Tempts you Mechanic – which appeared as confusing and annoying as Dungeons at first glance – turned out to be far more fun and intuitive than we expected.
This was a great looking set too, with fantastic alternate arts and special card treatments. I’ve never been one to enjoy cracking packs, but something about it clicked with me when it came Lord of the Rings set (I also had absurd luck, which probably helped). From the uncommon but desirable Nazgul, to the chase race cards, from the borderless cards that made collages, to the map lands, there was something to enjoy in practically every pack.
Commander options were strong too. Galadriel’s elves/voting deck ended up being a bit of a whiff, but Sauron, Eowen and Frodo and Sam’s decks were both powerful and fun to play, plus stacked with valuable reprints and exciting new cards that made up for their slightly premium price tag.
If there are any problems with MTG Lord of the Rings, it’s how hard Wizards of the Coast has milked this crossover. The first wave came with an absolute glut of products, which made things confusing. There were too many MTG Aragorn cards for one thing. And then the return of Middle Earth for the Lord of the Rings holiday release just felt underwhelming.
But overall, those problems are extremely minor and don’t mar what was an almost perfect MTG set, that no doubt brought many new fans to the game.
Warhammer release of the year 2023
Warhammer The Horus Heresy: Legions Imperialis
What do you mean, Warhammer 40k 10th edition? Don’t make us laugh. 10th is great, we like it; it has its detractors at the top tables, but every edition does until the 40k codex books start flowing. Its brand new Space Marine and Tyranids models, and the massive Leviathan launch box they came in, put great big smiles on our faces.
But new editions come every three years like clockwork; weird, surprising format revival experiments don’t. When it really comes down to it, we reckon the biggest new Warhammer release of the year is also the littlest – for a whole bunch of reasons, Warhammer Legions Imperialis is our #1 highlight of the Warhammer year.
If you’ve let Legions Imperialis pass you by, this is a brand new miniature wargame ruleset and model range, which takes the existing Warhammer The Horus Heresy models and shrinks them down to a quarter of the size – with each infantry figure going from 32mm to just 8mm tall, grouping four or five diddy little soldiers onto one shared base, instead of squads of individually based models. All of this is a surprisingly big deal.
It manages to do fan service by (sort of) bringing back the long-lost, small-scale Warhammer 40k spin-off Epic, but also offers tiny-toy wargamers something new by shifting the setting sideways into the gritty mass battles of the Horus Heresy. It makes clever design decisions at several levels, including dovetailing with the Adeptus Titanicus and Aeronautica Imperialis model lines to make a combined, dinky battle-verse.
It managed to genuinely surprise us; not only by offering something fans had been requesting for a decade and all but given up on – but by managing to keep development mostly under wraps, and delivering it (relatively speaking) pretty successfully.
Some reviewers had their gripes with the launch box and some of the infantry models – our own Legions Imperialis review doesn’t call it perfect – but, on the whole, it’s been a successful, surprise gift to smaller miniature scale wargamers among GW’s fan base – the biggest bit of love they’ve been given since 40k Epic finally died in 2013.
If you’re interested, our editor has also written a short holiday message especially to you, our beloved readers.