The ďbig danceĒ is still four months away, but my personal gaming madness was definitely November. I played more board games in November than in any previous month, many of them new releases thanks to the fabulous BGG.CON in Dallas, so I thought it might be worthwhile to share my initial impressions to help you formulate your post-Essen shopping lists. Hopefully I can help you winnow your shopping list down a bit if it has grown out of hand, but also help you spot a potential gem or two to throw on the pile that you might have previously overlooked. There are many great sources of information on these games already, from the reviews and session reports on BoardGameGeek, to the other columns on Boardgame News, to the numerous blogs, such as Kulkmannís G@amebox, Melissa Rogersonís Obsessing About Everything, and Mike Sigginsí Gamerís Notebook. However, I might as well add my voice to the din. I thought about listing the 158 games that I played during November in alphabetical or chronological order, but ended up deciding to break them down into categories that would make more sense for purposes of comparing and contrasting the games (e.g., cooperative games, racing games, dexterity games). Without further ado, I present a recap of my November Madness.
Short and Sweet
Before I bore you with my lengthy and inane writing where I go off on unrelated tangents, I thought Iíd give you a short and sweet summary of my thoughts on just the 2008 releases. I got the idea to include this prelude based on Valerie Putmanís most recent column. Just like her column, Iím going to list these new releases in order from my favorite new game of 2008 (Ghost Stories) to my least favorite (Boss Kito). However, Iím going to include any game I think of from 2008, not just brand new Essen releases (so Pandemic, Toledo, and Stone Age get to join the party for example). Iím also going to make a brief comment on each game, since I canít resist, but remember that if you want more explanation of why I like or dislike any of these games, just continue reading further below for more (much more) exposition.
Ghost Stories - My favorite cooperative game ever and my current favorite new game of 2008 after three very enjoyable plays.
Planet Steam - Surprise hit of BGG.CON for me. Deep and fairly long economic game with very interesting supply-and-demand resource market. Trying to time the ebb and flow of prices is an engaging challenge.
Chicago Express - A lot of game packed into a little time (but too big a box).
Galaxy Trucker: The Big Expansion - Fantastic expansion for a fantastic game. New ship classes and tiles, evil machinations cards, and rough road cards make it much more deliciously difficult.
Le Havre - Enjoyed this more than Agricola, although it ran a bit long with 4 players. Hoping that it's quicker with fewer players.
Dominion - Played 94 times in a couple weeks. Very fast and addictive! Already eagerly awaiting an expansion.
Snow Tails - A nice quick racing game with some neat mechanics for drifting and dent cards.
Red November - Wonderfully tense cooperative game that uses the time track mechanic from Thebes and comes in a tiny box.
Ubongo: Das Duell - Good two-player version of Ubongo for head-to-head puzzle solving. Be warned that the five-piece puzzles are much, much harder than the four-piece puzzles.
Pandemic - My new favorite cooperative game until I tried Ghost Stories and Red November, both of which edged this one out. Still waiting for my copy.
Metropolys - One of the best Ystari games in recent memory (better than Amyitis and Yspahan certainly). Intriguing spatial auction game with discrete bidding like Ra.
Royal Palace - I'm on the fence about this game. It felt very familiar and reminiscent of Louis XIV, which may be a good thing or may make it bland after repeated plays.
Duck Dealer - Not as good as other Splotter offerings, like Antiquity or Roads & Boats. For the same price as Planet Steam, the components are embarrassing, and the gameplay is similarly a bit lackluster.
Steel Driver - Interesting train game, but not as tight or engaging as Chicago Express.
Agricola: Through the Seasons - A solid expansion for a pretty good game. Adds a nice extra layer of planning.
Cities - Very quick tile-laying game that is the cross between Carcassone and Take It Easy that everyone says it is. If that sounds like something you'd like then you probably would, if not then steer clear. For me it was fairly mediocre.
Say Anything - Pretty good party game, but not nearly as enjoyable as Wits & Wagers for me.
After the Flood - Yet another overly complex Wallace game. Not bad, but I'd much rather play his Byzantium if I have three-players and am looking for a game with war elements.
Sorry! Sliders - Poor man's Crokinole is certainly apt. Not quite as portable as I was hoping, but still more portable than my Crokinole board. The variable setups and rules are a nice touch, and the price is definitely right.
Space Alert - Fell short of my high expectations. Was a bit boring and simplistic. Wary of a possibly short shelf life (a la Space Dealer).
Ice Flow - Nothing wrong with it, but nothing compelling either. I'll stick with the more stream-lined Hey That's My Fish.
Toledo - It seems like worker placement games may have jumped the shark in 2008. See below.
Ticket to Ride: The Dice Expansion - An interesting attempt to spice up Ticket to Ride and actually worth trying, but Ticket to Ride without the colors of the routes mattering just seems so wrong.
Witchís Brew - Better than I expected, but still too chaotic and random and long for what it is to be worth playing again.
Powerboats - Yet another racing game that overstays its welcome after one or two laps. See also, TurfMaster and Formula De.
Wasabi! - Gorgeous components cover up a chaotic tile-laying game that reminds me of Alhambra due to the inability of players to exert much control.
Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas - Imagine an action-point puzzle game where the decisions of other players can randomly and severely interfere with your carefully planned puzzle solution. Its saving grace was that it didn't last too long.
Stone Age - Yup, looks like worker placement games have in fact jumped the shark.
Street Paintball - 3 seconds of fun, followed by 3 minutes of searching for the rubber balls that everyone just threw at each other, followed by 3 seconds of fun, followed by... you get the idea.
Boss Kito - Michael Schacht has given us such great games like Hansa, China, and Coloretto. This, on the other hand, was miserable.
If I had to name a trend to define board gaming developments in 2008 it would definitely be the explosion of cooperative games. Itís not that the concept of cooperative games where the players work together to defeat the game system rather than against each other is new, but rather that the number of new cooperative games released in the past year appears to be a significant increase over previous Essen crops. Knizia gave us Lord of the Rings in 2000 and Days of Wonder brought us Shadows over Camelot in 2005, but those were the two cooperative games that people primarily pointed to when asked to recommend a cooperative game in the past. Now your options are much greater as the genre is really beginning to come into its own. There have been 5 new cooperative board games released in 2008 by my count, and surely more that have flown under my radar.
Ghost Stories is without a doubt my personal favorite cooperative game. Iíve played it three times now and have pre-ordered a copy so I can continue trying to weather the onslaught of ghosts and defeat Wu-Feng. Ghost Stories was not a title that Iíd been particularly looking forward to or eagerly awaiting, but was a game that Derk Solko suggested and I acquiesced. Thankfully I agreed to go along for the ride, because now Ghost Stories is in the running for my favorite game of 2008. Itís a cooperative game, but I encourage you to give it a try even if Ė like me Ė you didnít enjoy cooperative games in the past. There are so many more interesting and difficult decisions to make in Ghost Stories than in past cooperative offerings. Itís such an engaging game because the players are figuratively and literally surrounded by ghosts that are haunting your village. You really do feel surrounded. Itís a struggle to survive and keeps you on the edge of your seat for the full 60 minutes or so. I was happy to hear that Asmodee is brining this Repos publication to the U.S. audience for a wider release. I should mention that the English translation of the rules has numerous ambiguities and some outright errors, but if you can get past the train wreck that is the rules then I think you might find a gem in this gorgeous game.
Space Alert is another cooperative game that I played three times in November, but contrasts with Ghost Stories because Space Alert is actually a game that I had been eagerly looking forward to trying. It also contrasts with Ghost Stories because it was somewhat disappointing and not a game that I intend to purchase. I think that Vlaada Chvatil is one of the most promising board game designers out there, but didnít particularly care for his newest offering. My favorite Chvatil game is certainly Galaxy Trucker, including its Rough Road Ahead expansion and The Big Expansion, but Iíve enjoyed the experiences of trying his diverse offerings, from Prophecy to Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization, and now Space Alert. Unlike other promising designers such as Mac Gerdts, Vlaada manages to create an amazingly diverse assortment of games (and while I enjoy Gerdtsí designs, and Imperial was my favorite new game of 2006, I did breathe a sigh of relief when I heard heíd finally abandoned the Rondel in his newest game Princes of Machu Picchu, although there are whisperings that the Rondel is simply hidden in Princes, but I have yet to try it to see for myself). Back to the subject at hand, Space Alert is a fun romp that will inevitably be compared to Space Dealer by many since both games use a CD soundtrack to narrate the game experience. Itís amusing and Iím glad I tried it, but the decision-making just doesnít measure up to something like Ghost Stories. The actions to choose between are to move left/right/up/down or to push a button A, B, or C. The players certainly have to work together to make sure their actions are timed well together, but you donít have the same sort of intricate combinations and possibilities that you do in Ghost Stories. Youíre forced to spend many of your twelve actions doing nothing if your cards donít cooperate or to sit in the same room pushing the same button over and over. Itís an experience game and one thatís well worth experiencing, but not one that I want to keep playing, unlike Vlaadaís Galaxy Trucker, which Iíve played 20 times now.
Red November was a surprise hit of BGG.CON for me. I havenít particularly cared for Bruno Faidutti games in the past, from Citadels to Diamant to Vabanque, but Red November was a blast. Itís yet another new cooperative game where the players are working on a submarine where everything that can go wrong is going wrong, including fires, floods, a giant Kraken, and of course a shortage of grog, which makes it feel even more like Monkey Island (yes thatís right Luke Morris, your dream might finally be coming true). Red November borrows the time track mechanic from Thebes where players donít take turns in clockwise order but rather take turns based on whomever is furthest behind on the time track. The actions you perform on your turn take a certain amount of time and you get to continue acting until you pass someone on the time track, and then wait to take another turn until youíre last on the time track again. Youíre trying to survive for a specified amount of time depending on the number of players, speaking of which, I played the game with 4 players which seemed like a good number, but I noticed that the game claims to work with up to 8 players, which Iíll warn you against trying unless you want the game to run long, involve serious downtime issues, and have too many people crowded around a tiny board, not to mention the player elimination issues that would result in serious boredom for the unlucky few. I donít know why games insist on claiming they work with as broad a range of player numbers as possible. They probably do it to expand the potential market and increase sales, but I think it ends up backfiring more often than not when potential buyers play the game with a sub-optimal player count and are turned off (just look at all the people who think Caylus takes 2-3 hours to play because they were tricked into playing with 4 or 5 players when it really only shines with 2 or 3 players, and should only take 60-70 minutes). Lastly, living in a tiny apartment on the tiny isle of Manhattan means that the box size that a game comes in is an important consideration in my game purchases. While I enjoyed something like Planet Steam a bit more than Red November, the fact that you could fit about 50 copies of Red November inside a Planet Steam box means that Red November gets a serious leg up on my wishlist. Red November comes in a tiny box that is the size of the new Citadels box, which means the board and cards are a bit smaller than might be optimal but Iíll live with that since it means more games can fit on my overcrowded shelves.
Lord of the Rings was a cooperative game that I revisited in November because of my newfound love of cooperative games. I hadnít liked it when I played it a few times a couple years ago, but thought that maybe I was missing something and that it would now be up my alley. Turns out my initial distaste was accurate and this will have to remain on my list of Knizia duds. Knizia has designed some of my favorite games of all-time, such as Through the Desert, Tigris & Euphrates, and Ra, but Lord of the Rings is just plain boring. Compared to the new crop of cooperative games in 2008, Lord of the Rings is mundane and uninspired. It doesnít provide any of the engaging decision-making that youíll get in Ghost Stories or Red November, or the raucous experience that youíll get with Space Alert. Instead it provides a dry and tedious exercise in drawing a random tile and playing cards to match the requisite symbols. It really is a souped up Go Fish. Unlike the highly enjoyable Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation also by Knizia, the cooperative Lord of the Rings also fails to capture the spirit of the books and to tell a compelling narrative tale worth recounting to friends later. Perhaps the many expansions fix these problems, but Iíve got enough great cooperative games to keep me busy that Iím not about to go looking for ways to fix this one.
Missing from November Madness: For the sake of completeness, I feel I should mention the other new cooperative game that Iíve played, but not in November, as well as the two other cooperative games that I have not had a chance to play yet, one of which is older and one of which is brand new. First, I played Pandemic three times in August and promptly pre-ordered a copy, which Iím still eagerly awaiting. Looking back, I donít think I enjoyed it as much as Ghost Stories, but itís still a huge step up from the cooperative games of yore. Iím also hopeful that the upcoming expansion makes it even more interesting. Second, I have not tried the older Shadows over Camelot or the newer Battlestar Galactica yet, but both are cooperative games that Iíd be interested in giving a shot sometime. Battlestar Galactica was in almost constant play at BGG.CON, so Iím sure youíll be able to find other sources of information on how it plays if youíre interested in learning more about it.
Racing Round and Round
While cooperative games seemed to be a big focus of designers at this yearís Essen game fair, racing games were a close second. Thereís a long history of racing games, stretching back at least to Um Reifenbreite in 1979 (but a bit further when you count Pachisi from 400 according to the BoardGameGeek database), but that doesnít stop todayís designers from trying their hand at the genre. Iíll preface by saying that racing games are not a favorite genre of mine because they often overstay their welcome, especially by artificially building in length with repetitive laps. Iíll mention three racing games that I played in November, four racing games that Iíve played in the past, and one new racing game that I havenít tried yet.
Snow Tails is my favorite new racing game and now tied with Jamaica as my second favorite racing game of all-time, behind Um Reifenbreite. You may notice a trend with all three of these titles, which is that they all involve one lap and then the race is over (in contrast to Powerboats, Formula De, and TurfMaster). I didnít consciously think about that distinction when sorting these racing games into ones I enjoyed and ones I didnít enjoy, but after the fact itís interesting to notice the stark distinction. Snow Tails is the fifth game by the Lamont Brothers and the fifth with an animal theme (following on Leapfrog, Shear Panic, Hameln, and Antler Island), not counting The 3 Commandments, which was co-designed with Friedemann Friese and published with Andrea Meyer. I think Snow Tails is tied with Shear Panic for my favorite Lamont design although the gameplay of the two couldnít be more different. Snow Tails is a racing game that is vaguely reminiscent of the 1997 Spiel des Jahres winner Mississippi Queen as it forces players to balance the slowness of risk aversion with the speed of being too risk preferring that can result in reduced options or flexibility when things go haywire. Just like Mississippi Queen you also build a curving track out of discrete segments, although itís pre-set in Snow Tails rather than being revealed during the race. In addition, just like Mississippi Queen with the Black Rose expansion, thereís a catch-up mechanic to help the player in last make up ground. While Snow Tails is a bit pricey for gamers in the U.S., I enjoy picking up the latest Fragor Games offering to support the independent publishing efforts of the Lamont Brothers. Iím also looking forward to hosting a Fragor Games day marathon.
Powerboats was one of the many racing games that overstayed its welcome. I just got through espousing the wonderful design of StreetSoccer by Cornť van Moorsel in my last column Varsity Geek, but this time Cornť isnít taking home the gold. Powerboats is a motor boat racing game that was on my list to try because of the intriguing three-side dice but just like Niagara, the gimmick wore thin after the initial excitement of the innovation. Powerboats is a three-lap race around buoys that you set up differently for each lap, scoring points based on your position at the end of each lap (with each successive round worth more points a la Family Feud or the BGG.CON Game Show), and tallying the score at the end. The gimmick is that you use three-sided dice to determine your speed. Itís reminiscent of Formula Dť because you can shift up a gear, downshift, or stay the same each turn by either adding or removing a die from your speed or staying put, and then rolling any new dice and re-rolling any existing dice that you choose to re-roll. The most interesting aspect of the game is actually the fact that you must move the full distance if at all possible, which may result in you shooting off in the completely wrong direction and having to backtrack a long way to get around the next buoy. In the end, Powerboats fails to stand out in a crowded field of racing games, a genre that Iím not predisposed to in the first place, but if you canít get enough of racing games then you may want to check this one out to see if itís your cup of tea.
Formula Dť is an older racing game that I tried for the first time in November at BGG.CON. Itís an older game from 1991 that just got a reprint this year as Formula D by Asmodee, although Iím not quite sure why they dropped the ďeĒ from the name. I was glad I finally had a chance to try this older game with a great group of people at BGG.CON and it was a fun experience that came down to the wire between two cars, even though Speed Racer finished a disappointing distant last and I was in the middle of the pack. I liked the mechanics of using tires, brakes, and fuel, which forced you to decide how risk averse or risk preferring to be when rounding corners and selecting your gear (i.e., die to roll, ranging from 4-sided to 30-sided). However, two laps on a long course made the game run a bit long for what it was. In the end, I think Iíd rather be playing Um Reifenbreite, Snow Tails, or Jamaica if Iím going to be playing a racing game. The biggest problem with Formula Dť is all the counting of spaces that goes into deciding which gear to use and then re-counting of spaces after you roll the die to decide how to move your car. It ends up getting fairly tedious counting all those squares. While counting and re-counting spaces on the track is an issue in all racing games, it seems particularly exacerbated in Formula Dť. This is probably because of the possibility of moving up to 30 spaces in a turn, which is significantly more than in most other racing games where you likely wonít be counting a double digit number of spaces each turn, but rather around 4 or 5 spaces in Jamaica or Snow Tails.
Missing from November Madness: While those were the only three racing games I played in November, I should mention the other four that Iíve played in the past and the other new racing game from Essen 2008 that you might want to investigate further with other sources. First, Leader 1 is the new racing game that I havenít had a chance to try yet, but I saw it being played at BGG.CON so hopefully youíll be able to find plenty of information on this new bicycle racing title (and let me know if you think it will challenge Um Reifenbreiteís stranglehold on the title of best bicycle racing game). Second, the racing games that Iíve played in the past include TurfMaster, Um Reifenbreite, Jamaica, and Mississippi Queen. TurfMaster came highly recommended so my expectations were probably too high, but it was far too long for me to enjoy, despite the nice mechanic of each die roll applying to everyone (a la Galaxy Trucker). Um Reifenbreite is my favorite racing game due to its quick playing time and the fact that itís not simply a first-past-the-post system since it scores all of the racers in each playerís four racer team. Jamaica was a pleasant surprise that Iím tempted to pick up now because of itís one-lap gameplay, gorgeous artwork that deservedly captured the Golden Geek award for best artwork this year, and fun mechanics of collecting treasures and fighting other ships. Mississippi Queen is much improved by the Black Rose expansion, which adds more decision-making into the race with the addition of the neutral Black Rose ship and the difficult to navigate sand bars and floating logs, but is still a middle ground racing game that Iím somewhat ambivalent about, falling between the top tier and the lower tier (sort of like Tribune in my Attia Family Tree article).
To Be ContinuedÖ
Iím onto the eighth page in Microsoft Word, so I think your eyes must be glazing over at this point. I think itís time to ďshut it downĒ (as theyíd say on 30 Rock) and save the rest for next time. For those of you who just canít get enough, Iíll give you a little sneak preview. The six genres of games from November Madness that Iíll be discussing next time include: Dexterous Domination, Expansions are the Spice of Life, BGG.CON is Heaven on Earth, Abstraction, Interwebs, and ďOlderĒ Fare (which includes such ďancientĒ games as Brass and Cleopatra). In the meantime, itís time for me to get working on my December Madness so that I have something to talk about in 2009.
(See Boardgame News for an edited version of this article
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