Out with the old, in the with the new - it's a way of life for many in the board game hobby. I love to revisit old classics from time to time, but nothing beats exploring a new game, learning the rules and working your way through that first play as you see how the game comes together and the mechanics interact. As I discussed last month, many games lose their appeal after you've played them a few times because the sense of adventure is gone and the spark of interest that unfamiliarity breeds is extinguished. In that spirit of constantly trying new games and exploring their rule sets, I decided to mentally revisit all of the new and new-to-me games that I played during the first half of 2009 and share my thoughts on them with you. I'll save the games from the second half of 2009 for a follow-up column at the end of year. These are meant to be a cross between mini-reviews and tangential commentary on topics that the games bring to mind. Hopefully these will spur your interest in a game or two, whether it's one that I enjoyed or didn't enjoy personally, perhaps these comments will provide a kernel of information to pique your interest to further investigate and try out a few new-to-you games.
Aber Bitte Mit Sahne - Takes the wonderful split-and-choose mechanic from San Marco and incorporates it into a shorter and lighter game. Results in some nicely tense decisions in this quick game, but pales in comparison to the depth, involvement, and engaging nature of San Marco.
Beep! Beep! - Silly filler game by Valley Games that takes only a couple minutes to play. You're simply trying to recognize color and pictures combinations on a handful of face-up cards, but it's amusing to play while waiting for people to arrive.
Black Vienna - Surprisingly rote and mechanical deduction game given its cult status. The entire game felt boring, scripted, routine, and ultimately random... perhaps I'm missing something about this supposed classic.
Blue Moon - Disappointing card game after all of the Magic-lite descriptions. The decision-making possibilities were uninteresting and generally obvious. Perhaps investing enough time to try various decks and deck-building would yield the game's hidden intricacy, but after two plays I don't particularly want to play ever again.
Catch Phrase - Fun party game, but infinitely inferior to Taboo. The "game" itself is completely broken as it's immediately obvious how to cheat the system and win. Given that it's a party game, I suppose this is irrelevant since everyone can just agree to play by the spirit of the rules, rather than the letter, but nonetheless it seems silly to design a game that is so blatantly flawed. Why not just play the similar but superior Taboo?
GIPF - After having played YINSH, DVONN, PUNCT, ZERTZ, and TZAAR, I finally got to try their parent game GIPF. Just like its offspring, GIPF is another abstract game with easy to learn rules, yet an overwhelmingly confusing array of options for at least your first few plays. The gameplay feels wide open and boggles the mind for those of us just starting out.
Guillotine - Light filler card game that was quick and inoffensive, yet ultimately not particularly memorable. I don't really see any reason to play this over the likes of Coloretto or No Thanks, unless you've really gotten sick of those classic filler card games; even then I'd go next to things like Bull in a China Shop and Fairy Tale.
Jamaica: Extra Treasures - One of those mini-expansions that the collector in me just has to have, even though the game player in me knows that it adds nothing worthwhile to the game. These mini-expansions are insidious because they make you yearn to have them, but they generally add nothing to the game (e.g., Ticket to Ride Mystery Train, Fishermen of Catan, Carcassone: Die Katharer), and sometimes they actively hurt the game (e.g., St. Petersburg: The Banquet). The new Jamaica treasures seem a bit overpowered, but don't quite rise to the level of the broken St. Petersburg cards.
Santorini - Another abstract game that is fairly easy to learn, yet baffling at first, like GIPF. However, unlike GIPF, Santorini didn't have that same wide-open feeling, and felt a bit more constraining. It's not one that I'm dying to play again anytime soon, but I'm not really the target market given my irrational phobia of most abstract games.
Vikings - Surprisingly fresh German-style game, and a solo outing from Michael Kiesling (of Kramer & Kiesling fame, e.g., Tikal, Maharaja, Torres). I'd overlooked the game when it first came out because it looked like just another boring game with recycled mechanics and a pasted on theme, but I was wrong. A friend convinced me to give it a try, and I quickly went out to purchase a copy later that week. The "advanced rules" are what make the game good and I recommend skipping right to those if you have any board gaming experience. There are loads of interesting decisions to make in this game and a plethora of scoring options that have kept me coming back for 10 plays so far, and hopefully many more to come.
Cash 'n Guns - A party game from a few years back that I finally had a chance to try, but as I had suspected, it wasn't really my cup of tea. It could definitely be an enjoyable romp with the right game group, but depends very much on the people you play it with and what they bring to the table as far as spicing up the experience. The game itself gives you fairly little to work with as you simply try to outguess your opponents with very little actual information to go on.
Chang Cheng - Ehhh, a remarkably forgettable game that made little impression at the time, and has left even less of an impression now. That's not to say that it was an offensive or unpleasant experience by any means, but just that it's not a game that stands out in any way among the 600 plus games that I've tried. I wouldn't even necessarily object if someone suggested playing it again sometime, but as the game did nothing to pull me in and make me want to explore the system further, I don't see myself ever hunting down a second play.
Cosmic Encounter - Disappointing. I had high hopes given all of the praise for this classic, but after trying the new Fantasy Flight edition, I don't see what all the fuss is about. If I want to play a fairly random battle game with variable player powers, I'll stick with Dune. I know Cosmic Encounter has the advantage of being much quicker, but I found the sheer randomness of the cards in Cosmic Encounter to be more offensive than the already extremely random distribution of potentially very powerful cards in Dune. The decision-making in the combat seems highly outweighed by the potentially high-numbered cards. The variable player powers are interesting and I'm sure far ahead of their time when first conceived, but experiencing them for the first time in 2009 make it harder to appreciate their original genius, given all of the advances in the science during the intervening years. I've been enjoying a lot of Fantasy Flight games lately like Descent: Journeys in the Dark, Battlestar Galactica, A Game of Thrones, and War of the Ring, but this offering fell flat for me.
Exxit - A quirky and strange abstract game. A back-and-forth struggle with clear rules that nonetheless led to surprising results in their application when a particular play would cause an unexpected chain reaction of plays that left you in a completely different place than you had anticipated or intended. The stark black and red board and pieces certainly made this a very visually memorable game.
Lines of Action - Probably the best abstract game I tried for the first time this year, and there have been quite a few thanks to the Astoria Gaming Society. A fairly old game from the 1960s that I'd never heard of, let alone played, before. I try not to use the descriptor "elegant" too much as it means something different to everyone and is thus impossible to define precisely, but this game did feel elegant to me. That is to say, it felt like the rules made sense, like when you heard them, you felt that is the way they should be, and were always meant to be. The game felt coherent and easy to wrap your head around, but still challenging and engaging.
McMulti - I finally had the chance to try this impossible to find grail game. Interestingly I tried it on the infamous version (for listeners of GeekSpeak) where Derk backbended Aldie's brand new board and broke it in half (and you'll be relieved to know that the game still plays just fine despite having been hideously vandalized). This was one of those game experiences where you win on your first play against an experienced opponent despite not knowing what you did right, and the fact of your winning makes you question whether the game is any good. I jumped out to an early lead due to some lucky die rolls and a lucky card that was flipped up near the beginning, and I never looked back. I'd like to try the game again, but the experience of running away with it on my first play against a far more experienced opponent sours the game a bit for me personally. It was an interesting money management and speculation game though, so hopefully I'll have the opportunity to give it another shot.
Mimic - The worst new game I've played this year, in large part because the rules are very ambiguous and confusing. It's a card game where you play your cards onto the table to form a large tableau over the course of the game, reminiscent of Penguin Ultimatum, but the game just didn't work or come together whatsoever, at least with the rules as written and interpreted.
Pacru - Add this to the list with Santorini and Exxit of quirky and intriguing abstract games that I recommend to people out there looking to further explore the wacky and wonderful world of abstracts. Pacru was a game that seemed to particularly reward the ability to plan far ahead and anticipate how the board would develop, which is an ability I am sorely lacking, but I enjoyed my play of Pacru nonetheless as I just play by my gut instincts and go with the flow.
Roll Through the Ages - This was not my cup of tea. I know many people have been enjoying Roll Through the Ages as a fast dice filler, like Yahtzee but I suppose with a bit more going for it. I found the game to overstay its welcome, even though it didn't last very long, but still somehow managed to get boring and repetitive before it was over. The disaster mechanism, a staple of all civilization-themed games it seems, seemed flawed to me, as it randomly and significantly hurt yourself sometimes and your opponents other times. The components were large and chunky, but still disappointing because the dice were printed so faintly as to be very difficult to read. All in all, one of the biggest misses for me of the year. If I'm in the mood for a fast dice filler then I'd much rather play Sid Sackson's excellent Can't Stop.
Age of Steam: Berlin Wall - I'm a huge fan of Age of Steam and a sucker for new maps, so no surprise that I enjoyed the Berlin Wall map, although not as much as it's companion the Washington, DC map mentioned below. It was a particularly fun day because I had the opportunity to play two games of AoS back to back, first Berlin Wall then Washington, DC. These don't enter my top tier of AoS maps, such as Scandinavia, Ireland, Soul Train, and Japan, but they're in a close second tier for sure, ahead of most of the AoS maps that I've tried, which is somewhere around 15-20. The split of the game into two halves, before the wall collapses and after, is an interesting twist, and forces some tricky planning, vaguely reminiscent of the two halves and planning in Soul Train.
Age of Steam: Washington DC - I enjoyed the Washington, DC map even more than the Berlin Wall map. I really liked the difficult decision between using the Beltway teleporters at the beginning for easier longer deliveries as opposed to going through the expensive central terrain, but the way the Beltway became more inaccessible over the course of the game was clever, along with the role for bypassing the blockades. There was a nice risk-reward system here. The only issue was that in our four-player game, only one person went with a Beltway-heavy strategy, which left them unimpeded, and I wonder whether this map might be better with 3 or 5 players. This reminds me of when I tried Japan with 4, which meant 2 people had to fight over an island, while the other 2 people had their own area, and since then I've preferred Japan with 3 players.
Augsburg 1520 - I had originally overlooked this Alea release back when it came out because it looked like another unremarkable auction game, of which I already have too many. But I later became eager to give it a try because I noticed that it was #1 on my BoardGameGeek personalized recommendations page based on my over 600 game ratings. I figured the algorithm must have some good reasoning behind its recommendation so I sought out an opportunity to play it. Thankfully I played it before I bought it because I was right, it is just another unremarkable auction game. I really enjoy many pure auction games such as Ra, and many games with auctions in them such as Goa, Princes of Florence, Age of Steam, and Amun-Re, but its not a mechanic that particularly excites me so I'm not out there looking for more auction games to add to my collection unless they really strike me as original and fresh, and this one did not. It's certainly not that Augsburg was bad by any means, but it doesn't offer anything new that makes it compelling enough to purchase for me. Now that I've rated Augsburg (a 6 incidentally), BGG has removed it from my personalized recommendations, and the new #1 recommendation is Flaschenteufel. I wonder if I should trust the algorithm and seek out a chance to play this one.
Combat Commander: Europe - I've been toying with the idea of wargames lately and was happy to have the opportunity to give Combat Commander a shot. I'd only played a few before, and generally the simpler and perhaps somewhat atypical ones, such as Hammer of the Scots, Twilight Struggle, and Bonaparte at Marengo. I've found that I don't really love wargames. I don't think they're exactly for me. I like simplicity in my games and streamlined rules without many exceptions or caveats, which doesn't seem to gel with the wargame mentality. I also found this out when I started a thread on BGG seeking wargame recommendations and people asked what time period I was interested in, and I said I didn't care at all. Apparently people playing wargames are often interested in the background and time period, which I am not. That all being said, I do enjoy the wargames that I own mentioned above (i.e., HotS, TS, BaM), and was happy to have the chance to play Combat Commander. I liked how the cards were so versatile, including being used for die rolls, which I thought was clever. I did feel it was odd in my one game how we had this big huge map with a bunch of units, but the fighting got bogged down in one contested area, then again maybe it was just a quirk of that match or maybe it really was a key, decisive area.
Dog - This is very similar to Sorry, except it is played with 4 players divided into 2 two-person teams, and it is played with a hand of cards to choose from and you pass a card to your teammate. Otherwise it's pretty much the same game as you try to get your piece out of the starting area, around the board, and safe at home, including bumping opponents back to their starting area along the way, and avoiding getting bumped yourself. It's certainly better than Sorry as there are some decisions to be made along the way, and of course everything is better with teams, but there's not quite enough there to get this one particularly high up my interest list, especially given the stiff competition for table time.
Sleuth - I already mentioned above that I didn't like Black Vienna, so it should come as no surprise that I didn't care for Sleuth. I determined long ago that racing games aren't for me, and now I've determined pretty definitively that deduction games aren't for me. Fortunately there are more than enough games for me, and I have the hundreds of games to prove it, so never fear I should still find something to play despite ruling out a genre or two. As with other deduction games, there was no there there for Sleuth. It all seemed rote and mechanical. I didn't see any game in the game, let alone fun. Maybe this type of game is too much like the logic games on the LSAT for me to be able to enjoy it.
Roma - Wow, this is excellent! I was really impressed by Roma, so much so that I played it 3 times in a row that first night. I've since played it 11 times and am still enjoying it. I'm always on the lookout for short two-player games and this fits that niche perfectly. I enjoy short two-player card games like Odin's Ravens, Lost Cities, and Balloon Cup, but I find they sometimes don't have quite enough meat on their bones to feel like I've really played a game. So I've been resorting to short board games like Aton, Fjords, StreetSoccer, Cities, Hey That's My Fish, LOTR Confrontation, and Ubongo: Das Duell. Finally I've started to find card games that work great with just two players, are quick, and have enough interesting decision-making to be satisfying, and they are Scipts & Scribes and Roma. I know I'm a few years late to the party on Roma, but better late than never. This gets added to my list of good Feld games, including Notre Dame. I really like how each turn in Roma can often be played a few different ways, especially since you can activate cards that weren't in play at the beginning of the turn or hadn't even been drawn yet. So you can trigger one card or another card, or push your luck by drawing cards to try to find something even better perhaps, and take some money to play a new card, and trigger the new card by placing it in the perfect spot. I like the feeling of pulling off a neat move in Roma. My only issue is with the end game, which can seem to distort player choices as the victory point supply dwindles and you end up sometimes having to take actions that wouldn't normally make any sense. I can't help but think that different ending conditions such as a set number of turns, a target number of points, or even a set amount of time (like Duel of Ages) might make the game even better, but I should play more before I suggest any rules changes.
Rumis - It makes perfect sense that this was recently re-branded as Blokus 3D since it is so clearly like a three-dimensional version of Blokus. Blokus is one of those games that gets better with more plays, so I assume Rumis would also improve with more plays. The first play was really just exploring the system and the pieces, feeling my way through without any semblance of a plan. Puzzle-type games like this seem to particularly reward repeated plays.
Witchcraft - This was an interesting two-player spatial duel of characters with various special powers. It was odd because your options became more constrained over the course of the game. There were a lot of possible choices at the beginning, but the choices became more and more limited as you went (sort of the complete opposite of games like Le Havre or Caylus for instance, where the world of possibilities drastically expands throughout the game). While it was interesting, there's a lot of competition in the two-player, thirty-minute genre, as that's a crowded field, so I don't expect this to see an abundance of table time.
Agricola X-Deck - I was very disappointed with the X-Deck. I'm not in love with Agricola, but I do enjoy the occasional three-player game with the drafting variant (and ideally with the Through the Seasons postcard). The cards in the X-Deck were amusing to read and clever, so I was looking forward to trying it, but in practice it doesn't really work with the game. Wacky and random events that affect the players differently make sense in some games, but not in a slow, plodding, decision-heavy game where the scores are precisely calculated and the options carefully considered. The X-Deck just doesn't fit the underlying game. For instance, in one of the games where I tried the X-Deck, the "Mind the Jets" card came up, which destroys all wooden huts and upgrades all clay huts to stone huts. One player had a clay hut, which was upgraded, and the other players had large wooden huts that were destroyed and had to be rebuilt before the family could reproduce. It made the game completely lop-sided and seemed completely incongruous with the normal tenor of a 90-120 minute Agricola game. Not all of the cards are so drastic, and I understand the expansion is meant in good fun, and many of the cards are very amusing, but actually using the expansion to play a full game makes no sense to me.
Arkham Horror - Fantasy Flight games seem to divide themselves over the years very distinctly into those that I really like and those that I really don't like; unfortunately Arkham Horror fell into the latter category after my first play, but I'm still willing to give it another shot to confirm, just as I gave Twilight Imperium two tries before deciding that it really wasn't for me. It's interesting because I really enjoy Descent: Journeys in the Dark, War of the Ring, Battlestar Galactica, and A Game of Thrones, but really can't stand TI3, Cosmic Encounter, and now Arkham Horror. I suppose this means I really need to try some of their other games that I'm skeptical about, but which could I suppose end up being favorites, such as StarCraft. I think the biggest hurdle to Arkham Horror for me is that I know absolutely nothing about the underlying subject matter and have absolutely no interest in that subject matter. Theme is not usually a major consideration for me, but when it comes to these sorts of epic games, I guess it's a different story, which explains why I like Battlestar Galactica, and Dune and War of the Ring for that matter. This is really cemented by my explanation here of my initial dislike of BSG before watching the television show, which seems to be a common experience. I think when it comes down to it, I'm happy to disregard the theme of a one hour game, but less inclined to do so for a three or four hour game. This seems like a good theory until you try to explain my love of Die Macher, which is simply inexplicable, but so very fantastic; who knew German elections could be so much fun.
Botts & Balls -A disappointing game primarily by virtue of its grail status. The game itself was a fine multi-player abstract robot soccer simulation, but given that it's so incredibly rare and expensive, my expectations were inevitably built up beyond what was reasonable. I'm certainly glad I got to try the game, but even more glad that I can cross it off my list and not try to track down a copy. If only the same could have been said for games like Star Wars: Queen's Gambit and Antiquity before I had to splurge for those! I should warn you that Botts & Balls is an extremely spatial game where you need to try to see how the position on the board of many units will change as a result of various things happening, so if Chess or Project GIPF scare you then steer clear of this one.
Cavum -A solid Kramer & Kiesling design. Better than Australia certainly, and perhaps on par with Maharaja and Tikal, but definitely doesn't measure up to the K&K greats like Java and Torres. Cavum is actually remarkably unlike any of those prior K&K offerings because it's a route-building game, vaguely reminiscent of Age of Steam as you try to plan out routes to pick-up different color goods. The twisty, turny routes were a bit frustrating (like in Metro) and the destructive dynamite was a bit frustrating as well, but the way in which actions were allocated and turns divided provided a nice amount of flexibility as to your approach. Moreover, the scoring system seemed to reward various approaches, which is appreciated. The Doyle artwork, including his signature attention to detail, makes for a visually appealing experience, and thankfully one that doesn't prioritize form over function, as El Capitan has been accused of doing, perhaps rightfully so to some degree.
Diamonds Club - Frequently compared to Goa because of the way in which the available things to purchase are displayed and selected, but really nothing like Goa at its heart. Diamonds Club appears after my one play to be a simpler and more straightforward design than Goa, with slightly less convoluted scoring. This was one of those games that was very mediocre in my mind, which I don't mean in a bad way because I'm on the fence about buying it, but it didn't really stand out enough to purchase. And the one thing that really stands out about it if anything is its theme, which I find fairly off-putting.
Fast Flowing Forest Fellers -Diamonds Club's mediocrity beats out Fast Flowing Forest Fellers misery by a long shot. Having disliked most Friese games that I've tried and having disliked most racing games that I've tried, I should've known going in that this one might not be for me, but I'm always happy to try any game once or twice, and I was hoping that this game might be fast and light enough to be enjoyable. Unfortunately it's light enough for sure, really too light in terms of rules, but not fast enough by a long shot. It's a ridiculous exercise of constantly taking two steps forward and one step back, or maybe three steps back, and thus painfully inching your way towards your goal.
Igloo Pop -After the rules to this game were explained to me, my first reaction was: "That's it? So who goes first?" That's when I learned the most important rule of all: Everyone participates simultaneously! That's the key that makes this a fast, frenetic, and fun filler. Just look at all those F's used to describe a fabulous and fantastic non-Friese game. For those not familiar with Igloo Pop, the basic premise is that players are confronted with a bunch of identical-looking plastic igloos, which you shake and then guess how many beads are inside (or fishsticks or Eskimo children depending who you ask; speaking of which, this game has possibly the best descriptive paragraph on the back of the box ever). The game works because everyone is simultaneously grabbing and shaking these igloos so it's a chaotic and loud scrum. With the right group, this one is a perfect 15-minute blast. Another winner from Zoch!
Geisterwäldchen (Ghost Grove) -An amusing children's game with a clever gimmick of covering pieces to block the magnetic forces attracting them to each other. Not on the same level of children's games like Igloo Pop, Gulo Gulo, or Giro Galoppo, but a decent very fast race game in its own right.
Good Question -Seeing as this comes from the same designer as Mr. Jack among other things, I feel as if we must have gotten a rule or two wrong because this party game made no sense. And given that party games are held to a very low standard in terms of making sense, this one was remarkable in its failure to even meet that low standard. Basically it tries to use the same mechanic as Barbarossa, Cluzzle, and Dixit of trying to give vague clues to a group of people so that they eventually guess what you're describing, but not too quickly or easily. Your randomly given an answer and a theme, and must pose a question to the other plays, so that they guess your random secret answer, but ideally so that some people guess wrong before someone guesses right. It's intended to be a party game I suppose, but it's simply not fun and not entertaining to watch people come up with random vague questions for random answers. I enjoy many party games such as Taboo and Attribute, but this fails to grab players in the same way and make them engage with each other.
On the Underground -It's the dreaded middle ground of a German-style game that is too complex to be a good family game, but too simplistic to be a good game for those who enjoy heavy games (i.e., gamer's game, if the term wasn't so loaded). I felt Thurn & Taxis suffered the same problem (along with its other problems, including its utter lack of intentional player interaction, as opposed to random side effect player interaction). The convoluted mechanics for moving passengers in On the Underground transform it from a fluffy game like Ticket to Ride into a game that really benefits from players' familiarity and comfort with game mechanics and rules, which means it just won't work for its likely intended audience.
Pitch Car Extension 2 & Long Straights -The more expansions for Pitch Car the merrier. It's a game that benefits from as many and as crazy expansions as you can muster. After 4 plays, I'm still not convinced the game experience is worth the price or the setup time, but thankfully friends have invested the money and time, so I can just show up and enjoy the game without having to worry about justifying any investment besides the 30 enjoyable minutes it takes to play.
Ruse & Bruise -A decent little fast-paced card game that accommodates up to six players reasonably well. The fact that you have an entire deck full of different cards with different abilities makes for a steeper learning curve than you'd normally want in such a light and quick game, but veteran gamers should be able to pick up the symbols and special abilities relatively quickly. It's ability to scale to accommodate various player counts and its speed are its assets, which may just overcome the shortcoming of its learning curve if you stick with it.
Sylla -It's a Ystari auction game with an everything but the kitchen sink approach to the incorporation of mechanics, what more could you possibly need to know? It fits the mold of all recent Ystari games, so if those are up your alley then Sylla will likely be too. It seems like the kind of game that you'll have a very good idea of whether you'll like long before you sit down to play, if you have much prior Ystari experience. As I've said before, Ystari releases since Caylus haven't been my cup of tea, so just as with Amyitis, Bombay, Yspahan, and Mykerinos to some extent, Sylla didn't grab me or hold my interest me. I'm sure there must be a target audience out there for this type of game that Ystari keeps publishing, and I'm sure I must not be a member of that audience.
Wings of War: Famous Aces - Wow, this was surprisingly fun. I'd heard of Wings of War before but never seriously looked into it and figured wrongly that a game about WWI airplane combat couldn't possibly resonate with me. It turns out that it's remarkably accessible and enjoyable. We played a six-player game divided into two teams of three people each, so we set out the 6 airplane cards on the table, and just started flying around the table trying to shoot each other down. It's a free-form version of RoboRally where you can fly anywhere and the secret and simultaneous movement selection makes for some unexpected results. Fortunately the planes don't collide since they're presumed to have flown at different altitudes, but unfortunately your teammates can surprise you by flying between you and your target enemy. It's very light, but there's enough there to keep it interesting for the quick time it takes to play, and the rules allow for customization depending on how many layers of complexity you'd like to include. Fantastic game for large groups if you purchase enough expansions so that everyone can have a plane.
Airships - I certainly don't mind dice in games (see, e.g., Die Macher, Age of Steam, Twilight Struggle, StreetSoccer, Byzantium), but dice games don't seem to work for me, such as To Court the King and now Airships. Dice as an element of a game among a larger whole make sense, but dice as the focus of the game is just not something I find interesting. Since Manhattan and Puerto Rico, Seyfarth has really struck out with me, from San Juan, to Thurn & Taxis, and now to Airships. It's not the kind of game that I'll refuse to play again because it's quick and inoffensive. In fact, I played it a second time two months later in July when someone suggested it, but it's not something I'll suggest or purchase because I'm generally looking for a more memorable game experience, something that you can think back on later and that has substance worth recalling. Even short and light games, like Wings of War above, can have this, it's not just the province of the long and heavy games, but sadly Airships lacked this quality, in the same way that To Court the King felt pointless.
Burg Ritter - Well this is a strange and silly children's game if I ever saw one. It's difficult to describe how the game works, so probably best if you just go check out this photograph. Now that you've seen how it works, you know that it's a strange cooperative exercise of trying to quickly stack large wooden pieces without actually touching those pieces, except by means of a strange implement that requires all four players to cooperate in concert simultaneously. It requires finely tuned motor skills, so I can't imagine young children being able to manipulate the device. It was hard enough for adults to do it, especially given the time pressure. I know I had fun and was laughing during the game, so that's just about all you can really ask for with this type of game.
Cannonball Colony - Phil Harding has really impressed me with his two self-published games - Archaeology and Cannonball Colony. The rules to both games are fantastically well-written and easy to understand. The components to both games are surprisingly good for a self-published game. And both games work very well and are interesting. That being said, neither is particularly a game geared towards me as a game player and my interests, but I'm nonetheless very impressed by both. Archaeology is a card game analogous to Lost Cities in terms of weight and length, which is not really my cup of tea. Cannonball Colony is a very abstract spatial positioning game, with a neat theme certainly, but still practically a Project GIPF game, which is also not really my cup of tea. So I'm not the audience for either, but I know there is an audience out there for both games, and hopefully that audience will have the opportunity to connect with these high-quality limited release games.
Chopstick Dexterity MegaChallenge 3000 -As you can no doubt imagine from the title, this is a very silly dexterity game where two to three players face off by simultaneously trying to grab small wooden bits from a common bowl using chopsticks and try to transport them to your own private bowl. A certain shape and color of pieces is randomly determined each round as the target, and then it's a no holds barred chopsticks match, which can get pretty vicious. It works surprisingly well as a game, as long as no one player is significantly more of a chopsticks expert than the other players, in which case you can definitely expect a route, since a catch-up mechanic this game certainly doesn't have.
Clocktowers -I keep trying Moon & Weissblum games hoping in vain that they can capture the magic that made San Marco so amazing. Whether it's Mammoth Hunters, Capitol, New England, Oasis, or anything else the duo has done, they're often good, but never great in the same way as San Marco. They really did set the bar too high and it's colored my ability to objectively judge anything else they've done. Clocktowers suffers the same fate. It's a decent little card game that distills the mechanics of Capitol down to a 15 minute filler, so if that's something that appeals to you then by all means go for it.
Dominion: Envoy & Black Market - After playing Dominion over 100 times in the first couple weeks after it was released, I quickly tired of the game. It was addictive, but not something I really enjoyed. I was hoping that expansions like Envoy & Black Market and especially Intrigue would inject new life into the game so that I could get another 100 plays out of it. Unfortunately new cards for Dominion haven't had the desired effect and I think it's time for me to retire from playing the game. Despite how short the game lasts, I find myself getting bored halfway through the game usually and wishing it was over sooner. This seems remarkable since I'm happy to sit through a 4 hour game, but Dominion nonetheless seems to overstay its welcome for me and new cards don't seem able to cure that.
End of the Triumvirate - An older game, if you can call 2005 old, that I'd been wanting to try for a while, but had never gotten around to playing. For no apparent reason, I always mixed this up with Scepter of Zavandor, I suppose because they're both Z-Man releases that came out around the same time. They're both games that I had some desire to try, but no strong desire to buy. Of course in practice they're actually completely and utterly different. I enjoyed the military aspect of End of the Triumvirate, although three-player games with a military aspect trouble me given the fact that they're not zero-sum like two-player games, and the best course of action for Player C when Player A is winning and attacks Player B may be to pile on and also attack B in order to catch up to A. It seems to be an issue with the military aspects of many three-player games, such as Through the Ages, and is why I'm often a fan of two-player gaming even for games that can accommodate more players, but this one is obviously geared towards three-player gaming so I should give it another shot or two before really passing judgment.
Finito - I suppose I'm generally not inclined to like many filler games, and this was one that definitely didn't click with me. Placing numbers randomly and then sorting them into sequential order... yawn.
Fits - Then again, here's a filler that I actually enjoyed, despite my general spatial impairment. This is just a really clever Knizia design and it's nice to see him doing an original game for once rather than repackaging an existing design. Of course it shares the same pieces as Blokus, but is really a completely different game. It's an enjoyable solitaire puzzle that you can try to solve while sitting around the table with friends and then compare how you did at the end. The different boards, including the Alspach expansion boards, certainly help keep it interesting.
A Game of Thrones LCG - I enjoyed trying this game and would be tempted to buy it if I didn't know that I'd feel compelled to buy all of the expansions, which I really don't want to do. It's also the type of game that would benefit from a regular opponent, which I don't see myself having for this game. I particularly enjoyed the game because I'm a fan of the novels on which it is based. I actually can't really see someone who is unfamiliar with the novels enjoying this game very much, unless they're a die-hard CCG fan. It was a well-designed and intricate CCG, not just a licensed product for the sake of a licensed product, but knowing the characters and events definitely contributed significantly to my enjoyment (then again maybe I'm just particular about that sort of thing since I couldn't enjoy the Battlestar Galactica board game until I'd seen the show, having tried it both beforehand and afterwards).
Genji - A game about composing Japanese poetry sounded original enough that I just had to try it. Unfortunately they seem to have forgotten to include the game in there with the theme because the mechanics make little sense, fail to present interesting decisions or engage the players, and left everyone going, "Wait, huh? That was it?" It was amusing to read the poetry on the cards, but there are better places to go looking for poems if that's what you're after.
Lifeboat - This game was remarkably unpleasant. It's just a long drawn-out affair of nasty and brutal negotiations without any interesting gameplay underlying those negotiations. As someone who really enjoys Diplomacy, the fact that the negotiations and alliances in this game bothered me is saying something. It's because there's no game there on which the discussion is based, unlike the tactical maneuvering in Diplomacy. It's also ironic given my enjoyment of Diplomacy, but Lifeboat took far, far too long to play for what it offered. The randomness of the card draw and the capriciousness of the players got old long before the game ended.
Race for the Galaxy: The Gathering Storm - I gather I'm one of the few who really doesn't like Race for the Galaxy. The mechanic of having the cards in your hand double as currency is clever, but I dislike it nonetheless because it forces me to evaluate all of the cards I've just drawn, and then discard the vast majority of them in order to play one of them, so the cards themselves end up not mattering in most cases, which I find frustrating. It forces all of this analysis and decision-making which ends up being wasted and irrelevant more often than not. I think I must also just not be a fan of hand management and card combination games generally. And cards games that aren't really much quicker than a comparable board game always leave me wishing I'd just played a board game instead. I suppose I'm a bit prejudiced against card games. This game and San Juan also feel boring as players simply go back and forth building things, racing to build whatever they happen to draw. Luckily it seems as if everyone else should be able to find plenty of Race for the Galaxy opponents without needing me to play. Seven plays of Race for the Galaxy has been more than enough for me.
Railroad Tycoon with Rails of Europe - I came to Railroad Tycoon after having played Age of Steam over 30 times. I had some trepidation because of the warnings that other Age of Steam fans had given me about the significant inferiority of Railroad Tycoon. As a result, I was pleasantly surprised by Railroad Tycoon. I didn't like it quite as much as Age of Steam, but when it comes to Age of Steam, Railroad Tycoon, and now Steam, they're really all so much more similar than I think most people admit. I have a feeling most people just prefer the game among this trio that they happened to play first since it's most familiar, at least that's the case with me. I enjoy playing the other offshoots since they're basically just like variants and I don't see any reason to pick a single favorite that you need to stick with to the exclusion of the others. The essence of all three is the same and I'll happily play any of them just about any time.
Rukshuk - Dexterity games can be really enjoyable if they are challenging but don't cross the line into frustratingly difficult. Rukshuk crossed that line. Stacking oddly shaped rocks turns out to not be fun, go figure. I'll stick to the tried and true dexterity games like Crokinole, WeyKick, Loopin' Louie, Piratenbillard, Tumblin' Dice, Zopp, etc.
Scripts & Scribes - Fantastic! I'm really impressed by this card game. I've played it four times now and am eager to get a copy when it's finally reprinted. I named it my favorite card game of 2008, but it's more than that, it was a real contender for my favorite game period of 2008. This game looks unassuming and ordinary. It wasn't on my radar whatsoever until a friend got a copy and suggested playing. It's now one of my favorite card games ever. I've always liked, but not loved, card games like Lost Cities, Odin's Ravens, and Balloon Cup. They're a good idea, but not quite satisfying. The idea of a unique and novel card game with staying power to play in 20 minutes with your significant other has proven elusive. I've ended up turning to small board games in order to get enough decision-making to be satisfying in that time frame, such as Aton, Hey That's My Fish, and Fjords, but Scripts & Scribes is a card game with decision-making and tension galore. I won't go into great detail, but essentially you're trying to get the majority of cards in various colors, and each turn you draw three cards, allocating one to yourself, one to your opponent, and one to a common pool that will be auctioned off at the end of the game. You draw the three cards one at a time, making the decision of where to allocate before seeing the rest of the three, which makes it a tense and agonizing decision. I highly recommend this card game for anyone who has enjoyed the Kosmos line, but hasn't found them to pack quite enough of a punch.
Small World - Unlike most games which go down hill for me after a few plays, Small World has been growing on me with each successive play. I started off not being particularly impressed, but then played it again and liked it a bit more, and then a little more after the third play, etc. Now I've played it 5 times and just purchased a copy. Strangely enough, it was the announcement of the fan-designed expansion contest that ultimately prompted me to buy the game. I found that the fan-designed expansion contest worked very well for the Mr. Jack Extension, so was hopeful that it would be just as successful for Small World. The greatest appeal of Small World comes with the many possible combinations of races and special powers, so the addition of even more races and special powers to increase the number of combinations significantly is a very welcome addition for me. I'm particularly happy with the fact that Days of Wonder included four different boards to accommodate two, three, four, and five players. Being someone who is picky about the number of players in a game, it's very nice for a publisher to acknowledge that different player counts require different boards, rather than just turning a blind eye to that reality and slapping as broad a player range on the box as remotely feasible. The heavily saturated colors of the board and units do make it somewhat difficult to step back and get an overview of the board position, but I enjoy the game as a light and fast romp, rather than a slow and tactical game, so this isn't much of a problem with the right opponents. Lastly, I'll say that the decision of when to send your civilizations into decline is wonderfully tense. I'm often so hesitant to pull the trigger on a decline or over eager to do so, and often regret my decision after the fact, but that just gives me more impetus to continue revisiting the game and tailoring my approach.
Tiki Topple -This was a random and senseless exercise. I cannot fathom how games like this manage to win the Mensa Select award (except for the fact that their selection process is fairly ridiculous). It's a game where everyone is trying to rearrange nine colored blocks to match their secret and randomly drawn card. Players take turns playing cards that allow them to modify the arrangement of the blocks in some way. It takes too long, builds in artificial length by requiring multiple unrelated rounds (see, e.g., Rum & Pirates), and is boring within two minutes of starting.
WeyKick on Ice - This, on the other hand, is a blast. I'm a huge fan of WeyKick, and while I don't enjoy WeyKick on Ice quite as much, any form of WeyKick is far better than no WeyKick. This game is somewhat like air hockey, in that two players face off in an attempt to knock a marble into their opponent's goal by using a round paddle of sorts. The trick in WeyKick is that you can't directly touch the thing being used to knock the marble, but rather can only influence it by moving magnets around underneath the board. It's tricky to get the hang of at first and feels somewhat counter-intuitive, but is a joy to play. WeyKick on Ice simply substitutes the little wooden men from WeyKick with little wooden men that have hockey sticks, making the game a bit more difficult. I'll stick with WeyKick personally, but highly recommend giving this game a try.
Dominion: Intrigue - I think I said just about everything regarding Dominion and its expansions that I have to say above. I tried Intrigue seven times to make sure it wasn't going to breath the new life into Dominion that I had been hoping for. Clearly Intrigue and Seaside have done just that for countless people, but the new cards are just variations on what we've already seen, albeit more complex and with more decisions to be made after having purchased them, but still more of the same as far as I can tell. I'm happy with the almost 150 plays I got out of Dominion and think it's time for me to hang up my hat and move on.
HeroScape Master Set: Rise of the Valkyrie (with many expansions) - I finally tried HeroScape for the first time this year as a few friends started getting very into the game and buying the game and many expansions. So my first experience was not only with the base game, but with around 10 expansions thrown into the mix as well. It's handy to have friends that are so into the game because they can take care of the laborious setup before you even arrive, since preparing the map for battle sounds like it takes as long as the battle itself (which reminds me of a series of games about tanks, elephants, and goblins). Unlike that series though, HeroScape was really fun. Sure it primarily revolved around rolling gobs of dice and sure it was essentially playing with little plastic army men, which may explain the appeal in great part due to the nostalgia factor for a long-gone youth spent in large part making up rules for grand army men warfare. But despite all that, or more likely because of all that, it's simply fun. I was actually struck by how much more complex the game is than I had anticipated. The base rules themselves are quite simple, but when you throw all of the many units' special powers into the mix, it becomes a lot to keep track of. We played four-player games divided into two teams of two players each, which I think was a great way to structure the battle. Being a long-time fan of team games, from Nexus Ops to Ingenious to Crokinole, I particularly enjoyed the team game elements of HeroScape when played this way. I found the three-player free-for-all to suffer from the same issue as discussed above regarding End of the Triumvirate and Through the Ages. HeroScape doesn't seem like a game I'm going to start purchasing any time soon, given the space it takes to store and the setup time, but it's one I'll be happy to play, especially if we play a team game and someone else sets up the map.
TOP 5 FOR Q1 & Q2
Out of those roughly 70 new and new-to-me games that I tried in Q1 and Q2 of 2009, there are five that really stand out as games I purchased (or definitely plan to purchase when reprinted in the case of Scripts & Scribes) and want to play again and again in the years to come. Those five are:
The reasoning behind those five should be apparent above. Just missing the cut were Lines of Action, Small World, and Age of Steam: Washington DC & Berlin Wall. What strikes me about these Top 5 is how light they are. Given that my all-time Top 10 consists of games like Antiquity, Die Macher, and Java, it's surprising to see such quick and simple games topping my list out of so many possibilities. I think I'm finding more and more that there's a place in my collection for games of all lengths to fit any amount of free time, whether that's 15 minutes or 4 hours. I'm happy I tried all of the games discussed above, even if there were a few rotten apples in the bunch, because it allowed me to discover a handful of great games that I would not have learned about otherwise. Finding just one great game is worth trying ten so-so games as far as I'm concerned. This is why I'm always open to trying any game at least once, and usually twice since that second play helps firm up my opinion much more reliably.
That's just the first half of 2009. Check back at the end of Q4 when I'll discuss the new games and new-to-me games tried during the second half of the year, including Age of Steam: China, Automobile, Clippers, Das Motorsportspiel, Descent: The Road to Legend (and Tomb of Ice and Altar of Despair), Elfengold, Mu & Lots More, War of the Ring: Battles of the Third Age, Winner's Circle, Atlantic Star, Bombay, HeroScape Marvel, Straw, Container, Dixit, Endeavor, En Garde, Ghost Stories: Chuck No-Rice, Last Train to Wensleydale, Maori, Pack & Stack, Pandemic: On the Brink, Peloponnes, Poison, Ra: The Dice Game, Ricochet Robots, Steam, Treehouse, Alice in Wonderland Parade, BasketBoss, Dungeon Lords, Ghost Stories: White Moon (including Village People & B-Rice Lee), Imperial 2030, Mr. Jack in New York, Tobago, Turandot, and many more to come I'm sure once BGG.CON is over, including hopefully Shipyard, At the Gates of Loyang, Greed Incorporated, Colonia, Stronghold, Vasco de Gama, The BoardGameGeek Game, Opera, Carson City, Middle-Earth Quest, Bunny Bunny Moose Moose, Day & Night, God's Playground, and Alcazar. Looks like there's still plenty more out there to try and wade through so I'll keep at it and report back on my findings.
(See Boardgame News for this column plus additional comments on it)