A third consecutive year with a non-German designer winning my Game of the Year would have been unthinkable in the 1990s, but in this day and age it's perhaps not even noteworthy. The globalization of board game design over the past decade has been remarkable, and these days we have great designs coming from all corners of the world, and especially from all corners of Europe. I'm not quite sure what has happened to the Knizias, Kramers, Dorns, Moons, and Teubers of the world in recent years, whose games still dominate my all-time Top 25 favorites, but I think it has something to do with the classic great designers getting stuck in a rut (see, e.g., Alcazar, Ra: The Dice Game, Samurai: The Card Game, and the ad nauseum additions to the Keltis, Ticket to Ride & Settlers of Catan families), while the new designers are the ones pushing the envelope and innovating. The German dominance of my Game of the Year ended in 2006 with Mac Gerdts' Imperial, and the non-Germanic three-peat started with Vlaada Chvatil's Galaxy Trucker and Antoine Bauza's Ghost Stories. After sending the award out to the Czech Republic and then France, what country will it land in next? For the answer to that, you'll have to first read through a discussion of the nominees.
2009 was a strong year for board game design, but then again I'm not someone who subscribes to the pervasive philosophy that every new year is the weakest year thus far. You'll find such doomsday predictions exceedingly common among the board game community, that the previous year was the worst ever, and asking what has happened to the golden age of game design. I've personally found that there are a handful of great designs just about every year, along with a handful of good designs, and then plenty of mediocre, poor, and terrible designs. Games seem pretty well spread across that spectrum each year with some years being a little better or a little worse, but no extreme outlier years in my experience. Some years it is particularly hard to select a Game of the Year because all of the nominees are truly outstanding candidates (e.g., 2005 with Kreta, Twilight Struggle, Caylus, Louis XIV, and Bonaparte at Marengo; 2004 with In the Shadow of the Emperor, Goa, Antiquity, and Reef Encounter; 2000 with Java, Carcassonne, La Citta, Princes of Florence, and Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit), while other years the Game of the Year really stands out from the field of nominees (e.g., Imperial in 2006, San Marco in 2001, and the Knizia three-peat of Tigris & Euphrates, Through the Desert, and Ra in the 1990s), but either way all 15 years since 1995 have offered board game enthusiasts worthwhile designs (which is not to say that there were not great designs before 1995, like Die Macher, Survive, Can't Stop, Extrablatt, Dune, Um Reifenbreite, and Igel Argern, but rather that the great designs were fewer and further between before the renaissance truly began in 1995). If you've followed my In With The New series, with the Q1 & Q2 installment and the Q3 & Q4 installment, then you know that I tried roughly 145 new games in 2009, which made selecting the Top 5 nominees a difficult affair, but whittle it down to a mere five games I have done, although I will mention another five honorable mentions at the end as well just to tip my hat to the plethora of good new games that missed the cut by only a slim margin.
Hansa Teutonica -- Unassuming Turned Contender
The first nominee is a game that I dismissed out of hand after reading about the game and looking over the components. It seemed dry, bland, and uninspired. It appeared to be just like a thousand other games, with nothing to distinguish itself or make it worth further investigation. Hansa Teutonica was not at the top of just about anyone's radar going into Essen 2009, but it took the board game community by storm at BGG.CON 2009, and has many clamoring for a reprint now. While I find the rules and components to be underwhelming, it turns out the game itself is surprisingly good. I have played the game nine times now (at all player counts from 2 to 5) and Hansa Teutonica is solidly my surprise hit of BGG.CON (just as Planet Steam was my surprise hit of the convention in 2008).
It's an addictive game. I find myself always wanting to play again so I can try a different strategy or try to refine the same strategy to get it to work. You have so much control over the way the game plays out from beginning to end that you feel as if you should be able to accomplish what you set out to accomplish. And yet there are so many different ways to score points that it's easy to get distracted during the game by a short-term opportunity, at the expense of your long-term objectives. The game has a very nice flow to it as the turns move quickly, with each player only adding a few grains of sand to the eventual beach of the game on any given turn.
One of the most remarkable things about Hansa Teutonica is how much interaction there is. It's a German-style game with plenty of wooden cubes and an overused theme, but multi-player solitaire this is not. It's an in your face, almost viciously contentious battle for control of the various trade routes and city guilds across the board. The game's displacement mechanism is reminiscent of, yet superior to, that employed in Endeavor, as it does not punish the defender for getting in the way, but rather rewards them and punishes the attacker, while somehow still retaining a significant incentive to attack. I'd be remiss not to mention the fantastic use of a technology tree in this game, which provides a delicious tension between developing each skill a little bit for flexibility and control over your board position, versus developing fewer skills more fully for bonus points.
I should also mention that the game scales reasonably well from 2 to 5 players, but I enjoy it best with 3 or 4 players. I was not particularly fond of the two-player and five-player versions. The added chaos of 5 players and the extra time between turns made it less enjoyable, although it was still surprisingly not bad. The variant two-player rules felt too restrictive to me, limiting where you could place, which discards the very free-form nature of the game; plus it adds an extra layer to think about with moving the special marker around, and you really don't need something extra to think about and plan for in this game. While the game works with 2 and 5 players, I think the sweet spot is in the middle, and I especially thought the two-player design diverged a bit too much from the regular game for my tastes.
All that being said, this game is bound to disappoint many because expectations are being raised too high during the time it will take for a widespread reprint to become available. I, and many others at BGG.CON, were pleasantly surprised by Hansa Teutonica because there were no expectations. Now that the game is being talked up by so many people, I don't think it will impress people in the same way that I found myself impressed and caught off guard. Hopefully people can enjoy it for what it is and not set the bar too high in the intervening months, but knowing how much I tend to anticipate unavailable games and how often they disappoint, and having seen the impact of delays on countless prior releases, I have significant trepidation over how well Hansa Teutonica will be received by the wider market.
Imperial 2030 -- Manipulation through Investment and Warfare: Refined
Imperial is another game that I originally wrote off before trying, writing in my report on Essen '06 that it seemed too close a sibling of Antike (which was a game I had tried and did not enjoy), but Imperial ended up being my Game of the Year for 2006. The middle entry in Mac Gerdts' rondel trilogy stands head and shoulders above its predecessor and successor. The combination of the beauty and simplicity of the rondel mechanism, with the brutal machinations of a Europe where the Great Powers are torn in many directions by competing investors vying to manipulate the will of the governments and bend them to their financial purposes, is truly brilliant.
Imperial 2030 seemed like a risky proposition. Attempting to design a follow-up to a game as well-received as Imperial seems like a daunting task, given the high standards to which it was bound to be held. Imperial 2030 not only meets that lofty bar, but possibly exceeds its parent. After only 3 plays of Imperial 2030, I can't yet say whether I prefer it to the original, but I can unreservedly say that Gerdts has created a very worthy follow-up to his 2006 Game of the Year. As a disclaimer, I should say that if you were not a fan of the original Imperial, then it's unlikely that Imperial 2030 addresses your qualms. However, if you did enjoy Imperial or admired it with some reservations even, then Imperial 2030 is well worth checking out.
I recommend starting with this video demo by Gerdts at Essen to get an explanation straight from the horse's mouth. I'll summarize the high points for you here. First, Imperial 2030 is a new map, and who doesn't love new maps? They're such a great way to get a new experience without having to learn a whole new set of rules (see, e.g., Age of Steam). In particular, the new global map reduces the size of home nations so as to reduce the maximum number of factories and include more neutral territories and more water, giving you more territory to fight over and making naval convoys more significant. Second (and perhaps more importantly), Imperial 2030 revises the rules for advancing extra spaces around the rondel so that it not longer costs a flat 2 million per space, but rather costs 1 plus the nation's power multiplier. This provides for a scaling cost that is lower at the beginning of the game (making it more feasible to do so early on) and higher at the end of the game for the high scoring nations (making it more expensive to skip from Taxation to Investor and back to Taxation in two turns). Those are the principal advantages, but you've also got the introduction of the Suez Canal and Panama Canal, along with a new $30 million bond that allows country control to shift later in the game. There's truly a plethora of things in Imperial 2030 that make it potentially even superior to its progenitor, while still remaining perfectly true to the spirit of the game. I hope to have the chance to play both games many more times as they each provide a nearly peerless experience when it comes to gaming.
Last Train to Wensleydale -- Wallace Innovates Again
You might want to take my opinions on Martin Wallace's many game designs with a grain of salt or two because my feelings seem to be inverted from the masses more often than not. I have been disappointed with many of Wallace's more recent designs, such as Automobile, Steel Driver, Brass, and After the Flood, so Last Train to Wensleydale is the return to greatness for Martin Wallace for me that Notre Dame was for Alea a few years back. I'm a huge fan of some of his older designs, such as Liberte, Age of Steam, and Byzantium, and have been looking for a Treefrog game that I could enjoy without much luck until now.
Last Train to Wensleydale is fantastic because it's a train-themed game that feels very different from most other train-themed games (I avoid using the phrase "train game" because of a mind-boggling level of debate over what qualifies as a "train game"). I enjoy Age of Steam, Railroad Tycoon, and Steam as much or more than the next guy, but it's nice to have a break from figuring out those six-length deliveries for once. And Wensleydale is so much more approachable and intuitive than the mind-boggling Chicago Express, another that I enjoy but have trouble wrapping my head around. This is a game that focuses almost exclusively on its strong suit, which is short-term tactical decisions through the management of five different currencies, all of which can be used for multiple different purposes. You have to balance your investment cubes (used for buying track and bidding in auctions), white influence (used for track building turn order and eminent domain to kick obstinate farmers out of key territory - I wonder how many other games feature eminent domain), brown influence (used for shipping turn order and purchasing trains), and red & green influence (used for connecting to major cities and selling track). It's a very tricky balancing act and you never seem to have enough of one crucial currency at the right time, and a surplus of another type that you don't need and can't use.
The game is not without its downsides, including an ugly game board (which is putting it rather mildly), a fiddly setup (add a bunch of small wooden bits to the board, only to have to remove many of them shortly thereafter), an anticlimactic final turn, and one potentially overpowered geographical area of the board (need further plays to evaluate, although the auction should help compensate by driving up the price of being the first with access to this area if everyone is aware). However, despite all of that, Last Train to Wensleydale is a game that I've thoroughly enjoyed playing six times so far and that I look forward to exploring many more times. I've taught the game to a variety of different people and have seen reactions across the spectrum. As a result, I don't think it's a game for everyone as it's somewhat quirky and kind of an odd ball game (what else could you expect from a game ostensibly about mango papaya cheese). But if you're looking for something a bit different and you enjoy some of Wallace's quirky designs then be sure to check out Wensleydale.
Mr. Jack in New York -- Subterfuge and Guile: Refined
2010 was apparently a year for successful follow-up games. Like Imperial 2030 above, Mr. Jack in New York is another fantastic sequel vying for Game of the Year. However, as with my caveat above, Mr. Jack in New York is an excellent stand-alone game that meets or exceeds the high bar set by its predecessor, but it doesn't change enough to make it something you're likely to enjoy if you didn't enjoy the original Mr. Jack. Having played the original Mr. Jack 49 times, I can say I'm a big fan of this Cathala-Maublanc team effort (not to mention the fantastic artwork of Pierre Lechevalier, who has thankfully returned for another round across the Atlantic). I've had the chance now to play the sequel 5 times and I am fairly certain that it is a very worthy successor.
It's clear that Cathala and Maublanc have learned a lot about the game system in the intervening 3 years since Mr. Jack was released. They have tweaked that system just enough to create a stand-alone game worth owning, while leaving it still true to the original. Mr. Jack in New York offers a new board and 8 new characters with all new special abilities (although some are especially reminiscent of special abilities in the original game). The most striking thing about the new board and gameplay is that it is much more open. There are fewer buildings and gaslights obstructing your path at the outset because the players build them over the course of the game with the new characters' special abilities. The game is much more dynamic than the original. Where Mr. Jack feels static, Mr. Jack in New York feels fluid. I don't have sufficient experience with the latter yet to say for certain that it's definitely an improvement, but I get that sense from my initial plays and I trust that the designers have learned more about the game system since its release (and particularly given their work on the excellent Mr. Jack Extension). While this is not a game for people who didn't enjoy the original (unless you simply had small nitpicks), for fans of the original, this is proving to translate remarkably well in its journey across the pond.
And The Winner Is...
Stronghold! Poland caps off the Non-German three-peat, following on the heels of the award going to the Czech Republic and France. Designer Ignacy Trzewiczek and Publisher Portal take home the top honors for 2009, ten years after the publishing house first opened its doors.
If you don't know much about Stronghold yet then you should check out this video explanation of the game from the Geekdo booth at Essen 2009. Or for a more stylized video about the game, check out this dramatic trailer on YouTube. It's basically a game about a siege, like Helm's Deep in Lord of the Rings but without the license, where one side plays the invader and the other plays the defender. I gather it has rules for playing with more than two players, but like Queen's Gambit and War of the Ring, I imagine these might be fairly tacked on as the game lends itself to being a two-player duel.
I had read much of the buzz surrounding Stronghold back in October 2009 and been completely unmoved. It was clearly one of the most highly anticipated games leading up to Essen, right up there with Dungeon Lords and At the Gates of Loyang (incidentally both duds in my opinion), but for some reason Stronghold didn't appeal to me whatsoever. Ignacy Trzewiczek's Game Designer's Journal on Boardgame News detailing the origin and development of Stronghold did not initially capture my interest in the way it captured the interest of so many other BoardGameGeek users (although revisiting after falling in love with the game has been a treat). For some inexplicable reason, I was remarkably disinterested in Stronghold before actually trying it out, considering all of the buzz leading up to its release.
Despite all of that, half-way into my first play of Stronghold I was completely hooked. I realized I was on the edge of my seat, anxiously planning my moves, and eager to see what my opponent would do next. It was a remarkably tense, exciting, and engaging game. It's a highly asymmetric game, with one side playing the Attacker and the other side playing the Defender, and the two sides functioning extremely differently. For the first game I played as the Defender and it was interesting to see how I was constantly afraid that the Attacker was about to break into the castle, while the Attacker was constantly afraid that I would rebuff him at every rampart. We were both convinced that the other was winning and we were both nervous wrecks. I knew from that first game that this has all the makings of a great game!
Stronghold is a fatalistic game about a siege where the Defender is doomed and the Attacker will inevitably breach the castle, so the outcome of the game is not based on whether or not that occurs, but rather based on how much glory each side earns over the course of the siege. The Attacker begins the game with 10 glory points, but must give the Defender 1 glory point at the end of each turn in which he or she fails to breach the castle. The Attacker can earn extra glory points by completing certain defined "glorious deeds." The Defender begins the game with 4 glory points, which the Defender can give up in order to gain various one-time special abilities. The game ends once the Attacker finally breaks into the castle, which leads to a few final points being awarded, and the winner being the person who has the most points. While the Attacker will ultimately "win" the siege by breaking into the castle and the Defender's troops are doomed, the game is nevertheless exciting and engaging. If the Defender can hold out for enough turns, then he or she will earn enough glory to win the game. This focus on lasting enough turns while the opponent is hurrying to breach the castle is the definition of tense. It is truly a nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat affair that makes most other games look tame and dull by comparison.
The mechanics of Stronghold are very clever. There are 6 phases in each turn: Supplies, Machines, Equipment, Training, Rituals, and Dispatch. Each phase is represented by a card. The Supplies and Dispatch phases are the same every game so there is one card for each. The middle four phases can be very different from game to game, and there are five different possible cards for each of those phases. The Attacker randomly selects two cards out of the five for each of those phases, looks at them, and then picks which one he wants to use for the given game. The cards show different types of machines and equipment the Attacker can build, different training to undergo and rituals to perform. This makes each game surprisingly different. I've played Stronghold 10 times and am still seeing brand new game states and item combinations each time.
The second clever mechanic besides the variable phase cards is the hourglasses. The Attacker draws a random assortment of fourteen units (strength 1, 2, and 3) from a bag each turn, and allocates them to a variety of tasks throughout the phases leading up to Dispatch (where the remaining units are sent marching towards the Defender's castle walls). These tasks include things like building catapults, ladders, and banners, or training as archers or artillery men. For each action that the Attacker takes, the Defender earns an "hourglass" token per unit spent, which the Defender can use for numerous different defensive actions in a variety of the Defender's buildings: Forge, Workshop, Scout Headquarters, Cathedral, Barracks, and Guard Tower. For example, the Defender can train or move units, and build cannons or pots of boiling oil. This means that the Attacker controls the pace and flow of the game, only giving the Defender hourglasses when he consciously decides that doing so is worthwhile, and potentially denying the Defender hourglasses at a critical moment in the game, which effectively paralyzes the Defender. The Attacker is in the driver's seat, dictating the terms of the siege, and yet struggling to overcome a defense that initially appears nearly insurmountable.
There is obviously a lot going on in this game, but it all makes sense and fits together remarkably well, which means that despite the game's significant complexity you don't need to constantly be referring to the rules. The game just clicks and works in a way that most games this long and complicated rarely do.
Playing Stronghold always makes me want to play it again. In fact, I've frequently played it twice back to back. While playing as the Defender in one game, I'm coming up with all sorts of grand plans about how I would play as the Attacker and easily win the game. Then I try to implement those plans and fail miserably. This just makes me want to play the game again even more! I'll try a strategy focused on siege machines and a feint towards one side of the castle, and then when my plans come crashing down around me, I eagerly want to set the game back up and try again with the same or a different strategy. It's an addictive and engrossing experience that is hard to stop thinking about and pondering long after the game has finished and been packed away. It's that after-the-fact reflection that transforms a game from great into something truly special and worthy of being Game of the Year.
Honorable Mentions -- The Next Five
Limiting myself to just 5 nominees was very difficult, and since it's fairly arbitrary, I might as well mention another 5 great games from 2009 here. In another year any of the following five might have garnered a nomination, but it was a competitive field and so these games just missed the cut.
That wraps up another great year of games. 2009 proved once and for all that the German monopoly on good board game design is over. The Czech Republic, France, and Poland have seen to that, along with many other countries around the world that are delivering solid designs these days. Regardless of where it happens to be from though, Stronghold simply excels and richly deserves recognition as 2009's best game. It was a year where many hopes were dashed with numerous top game prospects failing to live up to expectations, but you'd never know it looking at this list of ten. If I've learned one thing, it's that I shouldn't be too quick to trust my instincts about a game before trying it because I'm a surprisingly poor judge of what I'm going to enjoy and what I'm going to dislike until I actually have the chance to sit down with a game and experience it for myself. I'll certainly remind myself to keep an open mind and try as many possible new releases to see what really works in practice, not just on paper (or the screen). Rather than trying to judge what games are worth trying from just reading about them, perhaps I'll let others like Valley Games sift through all of the chaff to find the wheat, or the noise to find the signal if you prefer. With that being said and having tried most of the notable releases from the past year, these are the ten games that I think mark 2009 as another in a long line of wonderful years for gaming.
(See Boardgame News for a version of this article with additional comments on it)