NYC Gamer              

The Year of Surprises

November 23, 2010

It turns out my board game research abilities are worthless. A few weeks ago I created a list of the top 20 games coming out of Essen 2010 that I needed to try. Fortunately I always try to remain flexible at BGG.CON and open to trying games that hadnt hit my radar before. In the end, none of my top 4 games of the 2010 releases that I have tried so far were on my list of anticipated titles or even considered for the list. Many of the games Id been eagerly anticipating on my list were in fact quite good, but the truly great games in which I see a lot of potential were a handful of games that came out of nowhere for me.

Back in November 2008, I ranked all of the Essen releases that I had tried up to that point in my November Madness column, so I'm going to go ahead and try the same system this time as well. I'll include a few sentences about each game, along with the number of plays on which my opinion so far is based since many of these are preliminary impressions based on only a couple plays. So without further ado, let's get to the games!

  1. Dominant Species (2 plays) - Leading contender for my Game of the Year for 2010. Quite a surprise from GMT and the designer of Combat Commander. Combines the system from Age of Empires III with two distinct layers of area majority and variable player powers to amazing effect. Instantly purchased.

  2. Sun, Sea & Sand (1 play) - Corn van Moorsel has designed some very good games in StreetSoccer and Factory Fun, but this may be his best yet. The theme did nothing for me originally, but it is tied in nicely with the mechanics and components, all of which together quickly won me over. Expand your resort to attract tourists to earn money to further expand your resort. In practice it's great fun and convinced me to buy the game.

  3. 20th Century (1 play) - The third and final game on the list that I have already run out and purchased. By the "other Vladimir" who did League of Six and Shipyard, but surpassing both. I think of 20th Century as a strange hybrid of Alhambra with Through the Ages and Antiquity. Players are buying tiles to build in their own area, which provide money, science, and culture each turn that is tracked on a chart, all the while fighting against garbage and pollution that are piling up. It just works and all comes together beautifully.

  4. String Railway (2 plays) - Zany Japanese games can be wonderful fun and this one is just that. I'm strongly hoping for a U.S. release, perhaps by Z-Man. This is just what it sounds like - a train game played with string. Before the game you setup the boundaries of the board with string, along with a string river and string mountain. During the quick game you simply draw a tile representing a building or destination, place it anywhere and lay a string of your color connecting various tiles to earn points. That's it, place a tile and a string each turn, and the game ends when you run out of string five turns later. Remarkably it's really a rail game that works very well and is very fun.

  5. Antics! (2 plays) - The first game that was actually on my list of games to try and the best of the bunch that I'd been anticipating. Easily the best Fragor game yet. The mechanics of building your own ant hill (reminiscent of Java or Taluva) are very clever and help each player to distinguish his or her own strategy and approach to the game. I personally find the board art rather distracting and difficult to read and am hoping for a reprint with cleaner graphics. A top notch game though that will almost certainly be one of my nominees for 2010 Game of the Year.

  6. Mord im Arosa (2 plays) - Zoch games are often silly fun and this one is no exception. Here's hoping for a U.S. release, perhaps by Rio Grande. I think of this one as a calmer version of Igloo Pop. Instead of a frenetic listening game, this one is a more relaxed listening game. Players are dropping cubes into a tower and trying to hear on what level the cubes land. Thematically players are trying to link evidence of a murder to their opponents and clean up evidence tying themselves to the crime, which actually ties in surprisingly well with the gameplay.

  7. London (1 play) - Martin Wallace's foray into the world of card games masquerading as a board game. London has the feeling of San Juan or Race for the Galaxy as players must similarly pay to play cards by discarding other cards from their hand. However, this time the cards you pay with become available to opponents in a draw pool. The cards have various icons and abilities as in other modern card games, but they boil down to essentially earning you money and victory points. The theme of rebuilding London after the Great Fire is actually present in the gameplay and the cards representing well-known sites in London is a nice bonus. Given the lack of player interaction, I recommend three players rather than four to reduce downtime.

  8. Fresco (3 plays) - This year's DSP winner is growing on me with successive plays. The inclusion of the three "advanced" modules is a necessity in my mind as without them the game is simply boring. Fresco is turning out to be a clever game in the classic German mold and a solid family option. I received a copy as a gift and while I probably wouldn't have purchased the game, I'm happy to have it and break it out with the right crowd.

  9. 7 Wonders (3 plays) - Here's where we get into the games where I'm undecided about whether to purchase the game. The ones above here seem worthwhile of a spot in my collection, but the next few need further consideration. 7 Wonders is the card drafting game that is really nothing like Dominion, Race for the Galaxy, etc. but is often compared to them because it's another involved modern card game. It's more like Fairy Tale than anything else. I've enjoyed the game, but it's really fairly simple at its heart and makes me wonder whether I'll still enjoy it after 10 plays. The fact that it plays up to 7 players is also a bit of a gimmick as the drafting is better with fewer players where the cards cycle back around.

  10. Kaigan (Inotaizu) (1 play) - I was excited to try Kaigan after reading Scott Tepper's Road to Ascora articles - Part 1 and Part 2. The production was very well done with great art and components. The game itself was interesting, but the primary mechanic of playing action cards into groups for selection by players (a la Coloretto) seemed a bit too chaotic for my tastes. Perhaps with greater experience this half of the game would be easier to comprehend and control, but as it is I think I need a few more plays before I'm convinced.

  11. Troyes (1 play) - The "clever dice game" that took Essen 2010 by storm was indeed clever but also a bit disappointing. I'm still interested in playing it again, but my two issues were: (a) players could not effectively plan on other people's turn because your plans are very often disrupted, which leads to significant downtime even for normally fast players; and (b) secret scoring cards are dealt to each player at the start with a few put back in the box, all cards are revealed at the end and scored for all players, but you only know your own, and don't know which 3 out of the other 5 will score. I might prefer to reveal the scoring cards halfway through the game like how players must make bonus scoring selections partway through Shipyard.

  12. Norenberc (1 play) - Andreas Steding's new game, who came out of nowhere last year with the smash hit Hansa Teutonica. Be warned that Norenberc feels nothing like Hansa Teutonica, except that it similarly does have a wide variety of end game scoring possibilities and you don't really need to bother with all of them, but rather seem to be able to specialize which is nice. Otherwise the game is completely different in that it is a more classic stock market game of buying various goods low and selling high. I'd like to try it again, but am not sure the game offers enough new to merit owning.

  13. Tikal II (1 play) - This game doesn't really share anything with Tikal besides its name, but I suppose that fits with the new trend of branding unrelated games to ride the success of others (e.g., Power Grid: Factory Manager, Havana). Tikal II had an interesting action selection method and interesting diverse scoring methods, but there was nothing in the game that really grabbed me and I found the board difficult to read making planning movement tough. I'll gladly play again and it may very well grow on me. If nothing else, sailing pirogues is amusing.

  14. Luna (1 play) - Stefan Feld's odd "moon priestess" game that I'm presuming Alea passed on before it landed at Hall Games, just like Rosenberg's Loyang last year which I gather Lookout passed on. I was afraid Hall might become known for putting out great designer's mediocre games, but Luna was actually more interesting than the rules suggested (and Merkator is even worse than Loyang as mentioned below). Luna was an extremely incremental game, in that players had to do many small actions to build up to and accomplish their ultimate objective of scoring points. It was sometimes difficult to remember from turn to turn where you were at in your five or six long string of actions that you'd planned to get you from point A to point B, but in the end there were interesting choices to be made. There was nothing new or exciting here, but a purchasing decision either way will have to wait pending another play. Like 51st State below, this is a "menu game" where you do one of about 10 to 12 different possible actions on your turn, which makes me wonder what was wrong with choosing from 3 to 4 actions back in the 1990s when Knizia was in his prime (a la Stephensons Rocket or Tigris & Euphrates).

  15. 51st State (1 play) - Convoluted is the adjective that comes to mind. More icons than Race for the Galaxy is another important note to mention. 51st State, by Ignacy Trzewiczek who designed the fantastic Stronghold, shows promise but is remarkably difficult to play correctly and is a game that you have to slog through the first few times. It also desperately needs player aids to identify the icons and list the numerous actions available on your turn. I talked to many people who had similar experiences working their way through the game and never really feeling like they had everything right. Perhaps this one will shine for those that climb their way up the steep learning curve, but be ready for a tough climb.

  16. Travel Blog (1 play) - Vlaada Chvatil took the year off from publishing heavy games, but instead published Travel Blog and Sneaks & Snitches this year, while promising potentially two heavy games next year. I haven't tried Sneaks & Snitches yet, but Travel Blog was actually more fun than I expected. Now we're into the games that I don't intend to buy, but Travel Blog would be a good educational tool, as it tests players' geographical knowledge of the location of countries and states on a map in a fast-paced and entertaining manner.

  17. Asara (1 play) - Did not strike me as Kramer & Kiesling's best game ever as Bruno Faidutti has suggested it might be. Asara wasn't bad, but it wasn't noteworthy or memorable either. The potentially clever and unique mechanic of using cards for the worker placement element and requiring players to follow suit was less interesting in practice than in theory, although could be applied in another game to better effect. Otherwise it was a straightforward tower building game reminiscent of Knizia's similarly uninspiring Palazzo.

  18. Rummelplatz (Fun Fair) (1 play) - Eggertspiele's 15th Anniversary game was hilarious in a convention setting, but not a game that I can imagine playing again. It's composed of 8 separate mini-games and was certainly amusing, but it struck everyone playing as more of a one-and-done affair than anything else. I loved that I came in dead last in the game, but won because I drew the winning gem from the bag on my first pull. That was pretty classic and I totally called it!

  19. K2 (2 plays) - I suppose Poland isn't full of infallible game designs after all. They've brought us excellent games such as Stronghold and Neuroshima Hex, but others such as Witchcraft, K2, and 51st State leave something to be desired. I've tried K2 on the "hard" side of the board and it's still fairly boring. The first two-thirds of the game is just pretty lame and uninteresting. The end of the game gets a bit more interesting as long as the players haven't dozed off by this point, but this is one mountain I think I'm done climbing.

  20. Castle Ravenloft (1 play) - I kept wishing I was playing Descent: Journeys in the Dark when I was playing Castle Ravenloft. I know this game is shorter, but so what. I'd much rather play a great 3-4 hour game than a bunch of okay one-hour games. Wizards of the Coast just simplified this game too much to hold my interest. Ravenloft seems destined to always sit squarely in Descent's shadow.

  21. Lords of Vegas (1 play) - So many dice, so much randomness, total chaos, and yet a bit of fun sneaks in there as well. I suppose the mechanics fit the theme of developing casinos and it's certainly the antithesis of the German-style Vegas Showdown, but it's not a game I see myself ever wanting to play again. I think there's a reason people tend to only play craps when there's money on the line and that's what this essentially is.

  22. Merkator (1 play) - Le Havre on steroids this most decidedly is not. More like Le Havre on ambien. What Merkator really felt like was Traders of Genoa with the heart of the game removed. Players are simply acquiring "contracts" dictating a location on the board and a set of colored cubes that need to be delivered. You get the cubes, go to the place, and receive some money that you use to buy victory points. Then you do it again and again and again. Rosenberg's Le Havre is great and Agricola is good, but Merkator is just utterly unremarkable. It's not bad per se because it functions smoothly, but it's a game that steadfastly refuses to stand out in any way.

  23. Furstenfeld (1 play) - Yet another spreadsheet game by Friese. Not as bad as Power Grid: Factory Manager certainly, but it still doesn't really qualify as a game in my book when it has been distilled this far down to simply doing computations. I don't see how this can be remotely fun or enjoyable, but since games like this keep coming out then I know someone out there must love them and to each his own.

  24. Felinia (1 play) - Slapping a furry animal on the cover of your game may win you the Spiel des Jahres, but it's not going to win me over to this mundane affair. It's really a shame that Schacht's Boss Kito came in last the previous time I made this sort of list and that Felinia suffers the same fate, considering how great Hansa, China, and Coloretto are. Let's just hope that the SDJ jury isn't as enamored with cats as they are with panda bears.

There are still a handful of noteworthy Essen releases that I have not had a chance to try yet. Those include: Key Market, Navegador, Sid Meier's Civilization, Cleopatra's Caboose, Sneaks & Snitches, and all of the many wine games (i.e., Vinhos, Grand Cru, King's Vineyard, and Toscana). I'm most interested in trying Navegador, Key Market, and Sid Meier's Civilization as soon as possible to see where they rank in this hierarchy as I'm hopeful about all of them.

For anyone who might be curious, other than these new 2010 releases, the other games I played at BGG.CON were: the always amazing Die Macher, the aged and decrepit Dark Tower, and a bunch of large dexterity games such as Spinball, Weykick, Piratenbillard, Crokinole, Le Passe-Trappe, and PitchCar. The dexterity games are definitely a big treat of BGG.CON.

Lastly, in case categories are more your thing and assuming that actions/money speak louder than words, I'll go ahead and break down all of the new games into the following categories:

A) Games I have already purchased:

B) Games I am likely to purchase:

C) Games I am undecided about purchasing:

D) Games I do not plan to purchase:

So many surprises and so many great games this year. It's amazing to not see a single German designer anywhere in categories (A) and (B) above, but I'm still having fun going back and acquiring the old German classics that I missed originally, such as Stephensons Rocket which I recently picked up, so I can still keep a nice balance between this diverse set of new games and exploring the tried and true ancestors of this new wave.

(See Boardgame News for this column plus additional comments on it)