Sunday, December 26, 2010

2010 Year in Review

I haven’t done a whole lot of blogging this year, but I can at least give you a year in review.

Hobby gaming, especially board gaming, has certainly exploded in the last 10-15 years in terms of the number of players and numbers of titles published. However, it still must be admitted that we are a small-ish, niche hobby, so it’s not surprising that there is a certain clumpyness to the quality of releases – some years you’ll see clusters of great games, then things will get a little thin for a while. For me, as a gamer who is involved in board games, wargames, and RPGs, 2010 was an oddity: we had a ton of really top-flight wargames released, many more than any year in recent memory. On the other hand, the eurogaming releases weren’t quite up to recent standards, in my opinion.

Chris’ Game of the Year – High Frontier

For me a true game of the year is not just a very good game, but also has a certain something: an addictive quality that leaves you obsessing about the game long after its over, a compulsion to play again, an immersive and engrossing narrative arc, and design grace. True, High Frontier is a Sierra Madre game, so you will at times struggle just to get a rocket off the ground and into orbit, and sometimes a management mistake will leave you passing for 10-15 minutes just to build your reserves back up again and get another mission going. But … exploring space is hard, right? Those asteroids are far away and it takes a long time. Everything else in the game is insanely brilliant, starting with the stunningly innovative map that makes complicated orbital trajectories thoroughly accessible without losing verisimilitude. The management of the fuel, mass, and thrust of your ships is mechanically straightforward but challenges the players in authentic ways. The different modules you can acquire for you ship – thrusters, robonauts, and refineries – are a diverse lot and yet seem well balanced, with different propulsion methods (solar sails, rockets, impulse engines) having different niches for different types of missions. While I won’t deny the game still has rough edges, and it’s a bit on the long side (figure 3 hours until you get a handle on it), still, this is the one game this year that really sucked me in in a way no other game did. It even has an expansion which I haven’t played yet. I have some tips for first-time players.

Chris’ Wargame of the Year – Battle Above the Clouds

It was a great year for wargames, with no fewer than three game-of-the-year-worthy games (this, Normandy ‘44, and Bataan!). But the Great Campaigns of the American Civil War system has a special place in my heart for its elegance, artistry, and evocative way it portrays the campaigns it covers. This move to the western theatre and the Chickamauga campaign has been long-awaited by fans of the system. It’s true that after 15+ years of circulation, the system has accumulated a bit of rules grit, both in that the core rulebook now includes all sorts of special rules for the various campaigns in the series and in that the Consimworld rules-lawyers have managed to bloat a 16 page rules set into 26. But, once you get going with the system, it plays cleanly and gives a really remarkable sense of the command challenges of the ACW. Battle Above the Clouds is one of the most interesting entries in the series, as the campaigns have an interesting mix of broad geographical scope with isolating ridge-line terrain. The included scenarios are both interesting and playable, big enough to show off the strengths of the system, and replayable. This is fortunate because the campaign games are pretty large (32 and 40 turns) – I haven’t attempted either.

On to the rest ...

As always, the “2010” label is a little lax, some late 2009 releases made their way in and some late 2010 games that I haven’t bought yet or gotten to (Merkator, Poseidon, Luna, Thunderstone: Doomgate Legion) have been missed out.


The Hits

Mines of Zavandor: The latest evolution from the mediocre early-90’s game Outpost, Mines of Zavandor seems like it’s finally nailed it. By using four different currencies instead of one, introducing a trading phase, and bringing the time to play down to an hour or so, the game is tight, interactive, and has greatly reduced the problem of bootstrapping and runaway leaders. It’s a nuanced, interesting gaming experience and this is one of my favorite games of the year.

The Hobbit: This is lighter than Beowulf or Lord of the Rings, but still somewhat similar in flavor mechanically and thematically. Like Beowulf, it blends flavors of auction (during travel episodes, you try to acquire experience) and risk (during adventures, you roll dice to acquire treasures), but does it quite differently. Like most Knizia games, it gets a lot of thematic and gameplay payoff on a clean, playable set of rules. In terms of intellectual challenge, it’s not in the same league as Beowulf or Ra, but it’s fun and engaging and no lightweight. There is also an interesting variant that introduces an element of cooperation for groups so inclined.

Race for the Galaxy: The Brink of War: Yeah, this is clearly the end of the line for this particular instance of Race. With all the expansions it’s a bit of a monster that’s hard to handle unless you are a dedicated Race player. It’s still Race though and I enjoy it quite a bit, although my enjoyment is tempered by the sheer impracticality of finding the right players to play it with. I am looking forward to the new arc of Race (rumor mill says sometime next year) which should reset it to a more manageable complexity level.

Macao: Well, OK, this was good, I enjoyed it. It’s got neat elements in the engine-building/card-power genre of Agricola, and the dice pool supplies action points in a way that gives it both interesting variability as well as a tension between maximizing efficiency and getting tasks done that you judge timely. Still, even though I liked Macao, Stefan Feld is wearing out his welcome on the alea label for me. His games are usually thematically weak, and Macao is below average in this respect even for him. He also doesn’t seem to have a ton of range. Don’t get me wrong; for me his games are usually worth a look. But hopefully we can start getting some other designers contributing to the line again.

Homesteaders: This is a neat game that got not just quite a bit of play when it first came out, but held on to get replay throughout the year. Like Puerto Rico, it falls into the “euro empire-building” category of acquiring buildings that have special powers and produce resources, managing workers and cashflow, and turning all that stuff into VPs. It’s a first-time-designer/first-time-publisher and has the associated rough edges, including an endgame that can be brutally calculational and not that satisfying, but overall it was still a good game that plays in a comparatively short time and scratches the same gaming itch as Puerto Rico and Agricola. Three players may be the sweet spot for this one.

Take It Higher: Take it Easy is a favorite game that’s very accessible, but it doesn’t have a lot of depth or repeat draw. Take it to the Limit is a lot of fun but it’s complicated in an edgy way. This game engine has always seemed to me like one Reiner Knizia should take a crack at, and now he has, as a co-designer with Peter Burley, and the result is a game that takes the elegance of Take it Easy and gives it depth and texture. Using octagonal pieces instead of hexagons makes the management of risk more nuanced (although it does also makes the game less visually clean). The tiered rules – basic Take it Easy on an octagonal board with octagonal pieces, then adding rockets, then gold/silver bonuses – provides something for most players, although I think the middle tier provides the best bang for the buck for most social gamers. I like the other two “Take it” games, but I like Take it Higher a lot.

7 Wonders: It’s smoking hot right now, so I find I don’t have a lot to add. It’s fast, it’s fun, it’s got depth for a 30-minute game, it lets 6-7 people all play one game at the same time, sort of. It’s colorful. It’s over-hyped. I honestly don’t think there is a huge amount of real game here, so I’d be surprised if it has much staying power. That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it while it’s hot though.

Settlers of America: The reason I like Settlers as a franchise - even though I don’t play it that much any more - is because each new installment really does try to change things up in interesting ways, instead of being more recapitulation (Ticket to Ride) or bolting more junk on (Carcassonne or Zooloretto). Settlers of America successfully delivers something the Settlers franchise has been trying to do for a while: a bigger, meatier game. It’s trickier than it sounds, since the core game idea has a natural length of about 45 minutes. But through clever parallel development tracks (settlement and rail-building) and through judicious fiddling with the probabilities, Settlers of America works quite well as a satisfying, large Settlers game.

Wacky Wacky West: This is a long-overdue re-issue of Drünter & Drüber, a classic Teuber game which I only played for the first time last year. It has a vaguely Fresh Fish-like feel, where you are building roads to try to bulldoze other players’ properties. It’s a euro-y take-that game, which means (like Colossal Arena or Quo Vadis) that it’s a trashing game, but actually fun.

Master Builder: This is a game that appeals to my quirks as a gamer. I like auction games. I like risk management games. And I like clever theme. So I love that in Master Builder, each worker has his own set of personality defects that may prevent him from showing up for work because he got into a fight, hates his boss, or couldn’t handle a co-worker’s abuse. Plus, the actual construction of all the little buildings into a diorama is fun. As a game it has a few issues holding it back, mainly that early-game bidding is too hard to do sensibly without some experience with the game, but for me the total package works.

Dominion: Prosperity: Back when the base set and Intrigue came out, I was impressed by Dominion and its fast play and “let’s play again” appeal, but I didn’t know how far the train was going to go. Now we’re at Prosperity, and it’s made it a lot farther than I expected. All the sets are distinct and have added interesting elements to the game, and a hand of Prosperity plays very differently from Intrigue or classic, and I enjoy it. That said, Dominion for me is hitting the same wall as CCGs hit eventually: the game-space gets so large and so complicated and new additions are impossible to sensibly develop for game balance such that it exceeds the ability of casual player to deal with it. Also, similarly to Thunderstone, the time-to-play seems to be getting bloated when I think Dominion really wants to be a 30-45 minute game at most. Unless some scheme comes along to help, this is probably where I get off. But it was fun.

Wings of War: Flight of the Giants: Wings of War is a perennial favorite of mine, although not one I get to play a ton. Flight of the Giants is a very clever expansion which introduces large, multi-function planes in a relatively straightforward manner. I enjoyed the scenarios from this set which seemed interesting for a change, and the Giants are more than just large slow-moving targets; some of them have interesting crew-management decisions, and the many different firing arcs make for interesting tactical decisions on maneuver. At first I thought that if this is the route the game was going to go, I would have much rather seen some B-17s and Me-110s from the WWII era; but after playing it maybe the quirky WWI planes really do have better gaming value. Regardless, this is a great addition to the Wings of War line.

Dragonheart: This is a light 2-player game in the card-playing/risk management mold of Lost Cities, albeit not at the level of elegance and subtlety as that classic. Still, it’s an interesting twist on the genre, and the very nice and well-integrated art on the board and cards helps support a mechanically thin, but present, theme. I enjoyed it.

1853: It’s funny to think that 15 years ago or so, back when Mosaic was the browser of choice and there were still raw FTP repositories, I had some significant 18xx cred. Now I hardly play it, other than the occasional games of 1825. Anyway, 1853 – with some relatively minor house-rules we had come up with almost 20 years ago – was always one of my favorites in the series, and now that I’ve turned away from the 1830 side of the 18xx family tree almost entirely, the 1853 reprint is a welcome addition to my collection. Of modest complexity, reasonably sensible length, with the much more dynamic 1825-style stock market that I favor, and interesting but not overblown tactical detail in the route-building, I still like the game a lot. Some of the Lookout additions are unnecessary though and you should not allow them to sucker you: in my opinion, there is no valid opening bid that includes shares in a minor company, despite the new rules to encourage it. I strongly recommend playing the “short” game your first time or two out. Like many 18xx games, it suffers from a chunk of up-front complexity in the opening bidding which is easy to screw up without familiarity with the game. So play the short game to see how those bids play out first. Once you get over the basic comprehension bump, I think the initial bidding is one of the less punishing systems in 18xx-dom. But still.

Thunderstone: Wrath of the Elements: Thunderstone remained easily my most-played game in 2010. The first expansion was good … but it wasn’t a slam dunk. There are some dicey cards in there, from the weak (Blind) to the weird-not-in-a-good-way (Tavern Brawl) to the game-killing (the new Elemental – Nature monster set). Some of the good ideas seem underdeveloped (just one Champion? Just two distinct Traps – Death? Really? That’s it?). There is plenty of good stuff too, but the game as a whole is starting to require discretion on the players’ part when judging a set of cards for interest and taste – and that’s after just one expansion. Any set will be playable, but some combinations of cards aren’t great and some make the game take far too long. I recommend outright banning the Trainer and Elementals –Nature set. I also recommend that you realize that if you include the Traps – Death you’re playing a very different game.

Ascension: Dominion clones are starting to proliferate these days (Resident Evil Deck Building Game anyone?). The good ones, like Ascension and Thunderstone, take the deck-building idea and take it in a new direction. The fun thing about Ascension is that the cards on offer are constantly turning over as only six are available each turn from a large deck with limited duplicates. Because of this, unlike Thunderstone and Dominion which tend to reward laser-like focus, Ascension tends to reward more broad-based deck-building. You never know for sure what’s going to be available, so you want to be prepared. It’s also great that it plays in 20-30 minutes for 2 players. I like the game best with 2; each additional player makes the game a little more chaotic (not necessarily in a bad way) and means the game play rewards “instant” over “permanent” cards. I think it’s good at all player-counts, but people I’ve played it with haven’t liked the chaos of the 4-player game as much.

Small World Expansions: Small World has turned out to have more staying power and more fun in the package than I ever would have guessed. The two expansions that came out this year (Be Not Afraid and Tales and Legends) are both solid and add good new races and variety. Tales and Legends can get a little crazy at times – there are a couple cards in there I’m not a fan of – but that’s about what I was expecting. And you’ll never have to worry about whether or not you advanced the turn marker again.

Railroad Barons: First, the caveat: the rules in the box are unplayable. You need to get the new ones from Lookout’s site. But if you’re reading this, you can do that. My big complaint about most post-1830 18xx games is that they add length and complexity while often giving players fewer legitimate options. So a game billed as a short, less-complex 18xx card game was naturally intriguing. Railroad Barons focuses on one element of 1830, train acquisition and obsolescence, and intelligently develops just that theme and reworks the supporting elements into an interesting, engaging game. Railroad Barons is a little on the long side to make it into my regular rotation of 2-player games, but it’s by far the most successful “reductionist” 18xx that I’ve played.

Finally, some follow-up comments from last year’s piece. There are always a few late-year releases that don’t get a fair shake in these write-ups, and Priests of Ra was one. It has proved to be one of the most interesting and durable of the 2009 games, and I would now rate it as one of the best of the year. Likewise, with dice games being a bit faddish these days, alea iacta est has proved to have staying power and stands above the crowd. Dixit was a game that didn’t make a great first impression (perhaps because it’s sometimes billed as a storytelling game, which it really isn’t) and then it beat out our good friend Matt Leacock’s Roll through the Ages (which has also held up well) for Spiel des Jahres, so it didn’t get a lot of love around here. But I came back to it recently with this year’s expansion (Dixit 2 – I guess they’re better with pictures than with names) and have enjoyed it quite a bit. I needed to find the sweet spot in terms of how much description to try to give, usually just a couple words plus some inflection, and once I got it, it was good fun. Finally, Le Havre got back on the table this year. This is a game that I was on the fence about, going back and forth to the point of actually selling it once and re-acquiring it a year later. Yes, the route to victory goes through Coal and Coke whether you want it to or not. Yes, it’s a touch on the long side and the short game isn’t particularly satisfactory. No, it doesn’t work that well with five. But it nicely fills the niche of an empire-building economic game, and it’s clean, fast-moving, and dynamic. While I acknowledge Agricola’s many charms, that game never exerted quite the same hold on me that it has on gamers at large or the way Puerto Rico did. Le Havre doesn’t either, but it’s grown on me in a way Agricola hasn’t.

The Misses

Fresco: Somebody came up with the acronym JASU, “Just Another Soulless Euro” (maybe it was Brian?). This would be one. It’s colorful at least. I probably shouldn't be quite so hard on it, there is some clever stuff, but it can be an analysis paralysis trap for little purpose. It didn’t grab me at all, even though I’m sympathetic to the theme.

A Brief History of the World: Well, it is briefer than the back-breakingly long History of the World. But it’s still History of the World, which means it’s still all about jockeying for position on the last turn. If you’re in first or second, you get the US or Japan and are guaranteed to lose. Otherwise, if you get Britain and have managed to remain reasonably close up to that point, you probably win. This is a game that should have had the good sense to die back in the 90s when it was still good.

Loot ’n Scoot: I’ve been trying out a number of VPG’s titles this year, since I liked No Retreat! so much. Loot ’n Scoot is sort of a push-your-luck game, but since the decisions about when to stay and when to go are rather straightforward, it’s really just a silly dice game lightly themed. OK, but not at the length we’re talking about here. Or the pricetag.

Terra Prime: I liked Homesteaders, and whenever a new game company impresses me with their first game, I’m good for the second. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out in this case. Take a few great games (Starship Catan, Starfarers of Catan, Merchant of Venus) and put them in a blender. See what comes out. This is another in the long line of games that are killed by slow pacing. The inspirations are obviously good, but it takes too much process and too long to get things done in Terra Prime and too long for the arc of the game to develop. If you’re going to aggressively borrow from good games (not in and of itself a bad idea), make sure to pay particular attention to, and understand, the less-tangible good stuff like pacing, narrative arc, and tension that really makes a game hum along rather than just borrowing the obvious superficial ideas.

Defenders of the Realm: As long as we’re on the subject of aggressive borrowing, it seems like I might as well bring this one up. Wow. They totally ripped off Pandemic. At least, they ripped off the parts of Pandemic that you could rip off without falling into an ethical black hole, which is to say, they didn’t rip off anything really important. Defenders of the Realm is a lot like Arkham Horror: random, long, meandering, unfocussed, and it has good theme only if you bring an affection for the bad fantasy genre to the table yourself and can channel it through the occasionally nice-looking pieces and art. If you’re of the opinion that a game should not rely on its players to provide the theme, you’re out of luck.

Inca Empire: This was derived from Tahuantinsuyu, which had a modestly good reputation amongst people I know, so I was a little surprised by how boring and run-of-the-mill this was when I played it (I’ve never played the original). It’s too long, too hard for the players to exert control, and there is little opportunity for players to differentiate themselves tactically or strategically and therefore for their scores to be, like, more than a couple points apart. The efficiencies to be milked out of the system are too obvious, the play to constrained. And the theme isn’t that strong.

Constantinopolis: A themeless, overwrought economic cube-fiddling game extraordinaire. Given that there are a number of pretty good cube-fiddling games out of late (Agricola, Le Havre, Macao), there isn’t much room for a mediocre one.

Innovation: Chudyk’s previous game, Glory to Rome, was a game that walked a tightrope. Crazily chaotic, but fast-paced and married to a humorous good theme with just enough player control, it worked for me. Innovation didn’t. It’s crazily chaotic as well, but it lacks the theme, it would never be described as fast-moving, it has little sense of control, and it doesn’t scale well as the number of players changes.

Power Grid: Factory Manager: The economy of the game lacks the disruptive events or interconnectedness that tends to make economic game work. I like how it boils the essential decisions of Power Grid down to this very compact package, but the package ended up being too compact I think.

Alien Frontiers: A good try with a number of interesting ideas from first-time publisher Clever Mojo Games, Alien Frontiers just outstays its welcome by about half an hour. I wouldn’t mind so much about its other problems – there is a little bit too much arbitrary “pick on the leader” and kingmaking, and the gameplay is too damped with too many options that add up to about the same thing – if it came in at 45 minutes or less. At about twice that (the last 20 minutes of which is essentially everyone knocking down the leader so someone else can win), it’s pretty tiresome.

Myth: Pantheons: The game actually isn’t bad, but never before has such a potentially interesting game been so completely compromised to the point of unplayability by appalling graphic design. The components here redefine the floor on unusable, at least for a publisher who appears to be trying.

Campaign Manager 2008: This game had probably the fastest fall-off of any game I’ve played in recent times. After enjoying the first couple of plays,I felt like Jason Matthews and his co-designers might finally have taken the ideas first found in Twilight Struggle and brought them to a good spot, with balanced and dynamic game-play married to decent theme. But then I found myself with almost no desire to play it again. I think it was the thin theme which wore off after only a few plays. The states are completely symmetrical, and the decks for McCain and Obama are almost identical and have very limited range. One could forgive a voter in the Campaign Manager universe for being completely unable to tell the two candidates apart. Yes, Matthews finally gave us a pretty well-balanced game, but the price paid to the theme was extreme.


The Hits

Bataan!: The battle on the Bataan peninsula, where American and Philippine forces were bottled up and reduced by the Japanese, might not immediately strike one as a promising subject for a game. But part of Vance von Borries brilliance as a wargame designer is identifying interesting features of less-well-known battles and campaigns and developing them into great games, as typified by his previous Roads to Leningrad. Bataan! is a siege of fortified defenders, but it’s not the same as the slug-a-thons that develop when armored spearheads are forced to tackle infantry strongpoints in Kasserine or his East Front Series; this is a vicious back-and-forth battle as the Allies have to frequently counter-attack to retake lost positions or risk losing entire lines, attacks frequently spearheaded by the elite Philippine Scouts. Positions are taken and re-taken and time wears on everyone. Being familiar with the core systems of von Borries’ operational games, on first impression I wasn’t sure the more siege-type warfare of Bataan! was going to be that interesting. Now I’m really looking forward to Barbarossa: Crimea (from GMT), which features the siege of Sevastopol.

Normandy '44: I’m on the record as being a huge fan of Mark Simonitch’s games, and Normandy ‘44 is more of the same understated brilliance we’ve come to expect after Ardennes ‘44 and The Caucuses Campaign (which was the only 2009 wargame release to get significant play in 2010 for me). It doesn’t use flashy mechanics and will be comfortably familiar to fans of his recent games, but it’s streamlined, clean-playing, and well-balanced, and with minimal fuss is very evocative of the campaign. Like Ardennes ‘44, the full scenario is a bit of a monster, but you can play the first week in about the same amount of time it takes to play the first week in Breakout: Normandy, and it’s a satisfying experience.

Hearts & Minds: I liked this game a lot and it’s my most-played non-ASL wargame of 2010 (granted, it’s pretty short). With a novel twist on the card-driven concept, simple yet evocative rules, and a 2-hour playtime, there is a lot to like here. Like Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, it’s a wargame in which political control is the real driver of the game in interesting ways. There is a caveat, though: my experience is that the game is very hard on the US player, who has a lot of difficult problems to juggle and tends to get critically in the hole before the NVA has to resort to Tet, while the NVA are easy to play once a few key concepts are grasped. Opinion on the net doesn’t seem to be on my side on this one, and discussion on BoardGameGeek has inspired me to get this one out again.

Julius Caesar: This is the first Columbia game in a while that I’ve really liked; they’ve had a bit of a dry run of late (Texas Glory and Richard III were both OK, Athens & Sparta had a lot of problems). Julius Caesar is back on form with a blend of stuff from Hammer of the Scots and War of 1812, combined with some interesting recruitment problems for both sides – troops have to be raised locally, creating an interesting dynamic that while the main action will be in Italy, skirmishes are fought across the board for key recruiting grounds. It plays quickly and fast, and the events in the Hammer-style deck seem finally to have hit the sweet spot for powerful, interesting events that aren’t game-breakers. Good stuff.

Labyrinth: The War on Terror - 2001 - ?: I’m still not quite sure if it’s a keeper, but it does a lot of good stuff: it’s very asymmetric in interesting ways, the Twilight Struggle “have to play your opponent’s events” model feels more thematically natural here, and the pacing and tension of the game seems to be solid (although the endgame of the shorter version isn’t terrific). It’s a modestly complex game with some easy-to-miss rules, but the game gets good mileage out of its complexity. On the other hand, there is some very swingy luck. The US has to check prestige when they invade a country; if they invade Afghanistan on turn 1 (as seems reasonable), the result of that completely random prestige check can have a vast impact on the game if it’s an outlier, with a bad result leaving the US painfully unable to act while a good result turbocharges their game. Ultimately, though, the real question most people will probably have is: how well has the thematic material been treated? It’s a mixed bag. A lot of things are done quite well, but many opportunities to make an edgy, really compelling game were missed. Labyrinth is unlikely to offend anyone who wasn’t predestined to be offended. Which, honestly, might be the problem.

Stronghold: Undead: This is my favorite sort of expansion, one that doesn’t just add a few new bells and whistles but substantially changes the original game. Last year’s Stronghold was a fine game, but it had a wrinkle: the invader’s position is much more tactical and constrained than the defender’s, and it could run a little long. Undead gives the invader a lot more options and flexibility, and caps the length of the game. Great for fans of the original, and even if you liked the idea of the original but the game as a whole didn’t work for you, Undead might do it.

The Obligatory ASL Comment: My single most-played wargame of 2010 remained ASL. It was a good year for new ASL stuff, with Action Pack 6 and its new style of geomorphic boards, the Blood Reef Tarawa gamer’s guide for those who want to tackle that fascinating monster. There was also great 3rd-party stuff, including a reprint of Heat of Battle’s long-hard-to-find High Ground, Bounding Fire’s Blood and Jungle, and LFT’s Operation Chariot. Long-time ASL publisher Critical Hit even got in on the act with Afrika Korps. CH has long been incredibly unreliable, and while Afrika Korps still has its ups and downs, it’s the first product from them that I’ve been pretty happy with. I’ve always been a fan of the desert battles, and with West of Alamein long out of print, it’s great that they’ve picked up the slack here. I think only one of the scenarios I’ve played from the packs so far has been truly awful, which, unfortunately, rates as an improvement.

The Misses

Stalin’s War: The initial buzz was all about broken gameplay that had Germans winning auto-victories by turn 6, but I think that was probably over-done, even without the later optional rules (I talk tactics here). The more serious problem is that the initial invasion of ‘41 is unstable and swingy, such that the conditions for an interesting game developing into ‘42 or ‘43 seem astoundingly low. Which would be fine if the game had scenarios starting in ‘42 or ‘43, but it doesn’t, all you get is ‘41. It’s not a terrible game, but there is so much good stuff out there on this topic.

Washington’s War: In fairness, I was not a big fan of We the People, and my tastes in wargames generally tend to run towards the more complicated, theme-heavy games (as evidenced by these lists). So an upgraded We the People was unlikely to grab me unless it incorporated major redesign. Washington’s War has definitely substantially upgraded We the People, but the core design remains intact, which 15 years later is unfortunate in some respects. One is the stubborn refusal to move to dual-function operations-or-event strategy cards (as in Hannibal), instead sticking with single-function cards but layering on a bunch of special rules to allow the use of event cards as operations or combat cards in limited ways, and to retrieve friendly events from the discard pile with operation cards, creating a nest of unneeded complexity which tries to get at the effects of dual-use cards without the elegance and without actually succeeding, leaving you to get bogged down in rules instead of theme. Washington’s War has 20+ pages of rules, and while it’s padded with examples and illustrations, that’s still a bit crazy for a game that really wants to have about 6. Given that the theme isn’t that strong, and is more narrative than fundamental, Washington’s War feels euro-y and lightly themed to me, and I would much prefer Blue Moon or Jambo or 2-player Race for the Galaxy instead. Or I would just play Hannibal or Rommel in the Desert.

Target: Leningrad: I was sampling VPG’s offerings this year after being impressed by No Retreat!, but I haven’t been very impressed with anything else. This is an OK 1-hour wargame with simple rules, but it turns on only a couple decisions and a few die rolls, so even the 1-hour playtime seems pretty bloated.

Roads to Stalingrad: This is a typical small-press first-release game, combining good ideas that were headed in the right direction with inadequate development. The pacing is too slow, the combat system is too fiddly and cumbersome, and the game seems designed to do the first half (the German attack) well, at which it succeeds, but the second half (the Soviet counterattack) doesn’t seem to work. The Soviet preference for retreats over step losses makes sense on defense, but on offense leaves them bouncing off of German defenses instead of pressing home the attack, and then it takes forever just to get slow-moving infantry back into position. Also, the restrictions on supply placement and the fact that relocating supply dumps is impossible combine to straitjacket the game as well. I’m fairly certain there is a very good game in here somewhere, but more development is required. Bellica apparently intends to make this a series of games, so maybe they can get there. The Gamers’ Operational Combat Series was pretty rough in its first incarnation also.

RPGs and similar things

I haven’t played a ton of RPGs this year, and most of it has been D&D 4E. I have to say, I’ve cooled on the latest iteration of the well-worn franchise; while the rules have been streamlined, we now have a huge proliferation of special powers which themselves make a large contribution to game complexity with almost no payoff in terms of tactical interest or thematic nuance. There are also serious questions in my mind as to whether the game is playable at all beyond about level 8 or so. While 4E is satisfying in some ways, it’s still not the answer. Probably I’ll be headed back to Arcana Evolved, although I’ve got a game of Trail of Cthulhu lined up for early next year which I’m looking forward to.

One product sold in the RPG section that I played in 2010 worthy of mention is Fiasco. This is a story-telling game as much as an RPG, as there is no GM and are no rules for conflict resolution. Instead, it provides a structure for the players to build out and tell certain types of stories, specifically, stories that end in disaster for those involved. The key to the game are the play sets with names like “A Nice Southern Town”, “Tales from Suburbia”, and “In McMurdo Station, Antarctica” which cleverly provide the elements for you to hook up your own personal train wreck. With the rules providing the outline of a narrative structure and keeping the pace of the game moving and finishing in under 2.5 hours, this is a great little system. It’s necessarily tailored to a specific type of story which the players have to buy into – the copy text says “a game of powerful ambition and poor impulse control” – but if you can get into it, this is a lot of fun. There are a bunch of additional downloadable playsets of varying complexity.

Wrapping Up

Any year we get a bunch of new games and a few of them are really good is a pretty good year in my book. As I mentioned last year, I think I am now officially overwhelmed. Far more stuff comes out in any given year than I can possibly keep up with, even if I restrict myself just to games I have a decent chance of liking! Still unplayed (or barely explored) games on my shelf include the new Kings & Things, Castle Ravenloft, Hansa Teutonica, World Without End, the new Republic of Rome, Conflict of Heroes: Price of Honour, Maria, Earth Reborn, Duel of Giants, Shiloh, and Command & Colors: Napoleonics. I still haven’t gotten to Barbarossa: Kiev to Rostov, Baltic Gap, or Hellenes from 2009. And I still have games that I expect to be very good rolling in the last few days of 2010, in particular wargames, as I expect good things from Storming the Reich, Across the Pacific, and The Coming Storm as well as Black Friday, Luna, and Poseidon.

2010 gave me a bunch of games I expect to be enjoying for quite some time: certainly High Frontier and Battle Above the Clouds, but also all of Mines of Zavandor, The Hobbit, Take It Higher!, Bataan!, Normandy ’44, and Fiasco will likely have serious staying power. Race for the Galaxy, Wings of War, Thunderstone, Small World, Command & Colors, and Catan continue to be durable franchises. So life is good.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

2009 in Review

Another year down, another set of games. Each of the past few years, I have made a resolution to buy and play fewer new games just because they look or sound cool, and try to focus on quality. Every year I have made some improvement, and been rewarded with what I felt like was a generally higher average quality of games played. 2009 was better, and I played many good, and good new, games. But – especially in the always problematic area of newish wargames – there is still room for managing the risks associated with new game releases more sensibly. So I hope to improve again in 2010.

Since I never did a 2008 Year in Review, a couple of those games have snuck in.

Game of the Year: Thunderstone

As with many years there were a lot of very good games, and to pick just one seems unfair. But we do these things, and the game that put its hooks into me the fastest and had by far the best “one more game” draw, even with a 1hr+ play time, was Thunderstone. In just 6 weeks or so it rocketed to the top of my “games played” chart for 2009. For me, it's Dominion with subtlety and nuance. The extra tactical and strategic details give it a significant edge in gameplay over Dominion, as well as the obvious advantage of a hugely successful theme. Also very importantly, at the same time as it has added depth, Thunderstone has done away with a lot of Dominion's fluff. A draw plays out quickly, with none of Dominion's fiddly tactical draw/search/action engine management which honestly isn't that interesting and involved more process than decision-making. There are many more interesting choices about how to build and maintain your deck, but once you've made those choices, playing the cards you draw is easy with a minimum of hassle. This, to me, is how it should be. It's too bad many gamers will be put off by the fact that it appears to be a Dominion knock-off; yes, it's a related game (OK, closely related), but it's not a knock-off. It's fast, it's fun, it has gameplay depth, it has theme, it has replayability.

The Year of Great Expansions

It seemed like there were a lot of great expansions out this year: Dominion had Dominion: Intrigue, Pandemic had On The Brink, Race for the Galaxy had Rebel vs. Imperium, Keltis had Neue Wege, Neue Ziele, alea had their Treasure Chest, Galaxy Trucker had the Big Expansion. And those are just the striking ones. We also had good expansions for Agricola, Tribune, Jambo, WWII Wings of War (finally!), and Small World. Hopefully this will continue. As a less active game consumer than I used to be, it's easier to buy and enjoy an expansion to a game I like than it is to figure out if a relatively unknown new game is worth the hassle. Of course, you have to be careful; Dominion: Seaside almost killed the series for me.

New Games that Stuck (in no particular order)

Alea Iacta Est: This is a clever dice game that I'm glad I got from Germany early in the year, given how much it ended up being delayed from Rio Grande (thankfully the early rumors that it would be re-titled turned out not to be true). I was a little surprised to see it amongst my most-played games of 2009, but maybe I shouldn't have been: it's fast, clever, not very complicated, and vaguely unclassifiable (is it a push-your-luck game? area-control game? category dice game? all of the above?). There is more depth than first appears, which reveals itself over repeated play. Not as good as last year's Wie Verhext!/Witch's Brew, but still good.

Race for the Galaxy: Rebel vs. Imperium: Race for the Galaxy needed an expansion to keep players coming back, and at first it actually looked like Rebel vs. Imperium was a bust - too many fiddly rules for takeovers, military looked like it had become too dominant, and playing Race with 6 is at best unwieldy. Then I realized that back in The Gathering Storm we had made a conscious decision to not use the Goal cards, because we didn't care for them much and didn't think the game needed them. That was fine for a time, but when playing Rebel vs. Imperium, it quickly became clear that leaving out the goals had a negative impact on the game. We put them back in, and everything seemed smoother and more balanced. I'm of mixed minds on the takeovers. If you take the rules' suggestion and play half the time with them on and half off, they'll never come up often enough and they'll feel like rules grit. I think it's better to use them in a few games, decide whether you like the whole idea or not, and then either ignore them or always use them. Personally, I like them, as long as they're always (or almost always) in. As long as you've come this far with Race, go for it.

Roll Through the Ages: Full disclosure, Matt Leacock is a good friend of ours and we helped out with this game. But I still quite enjoy this one post-release – with trading.

At the Gates of Loyang: Like Agricola and Le Havre, Loyang feels a little heavy-handed as a design, and perhaps just a touch derivative as it mixes flavors from other games (bits of Jambo, Antiquity, maybe Bohnanza). But it works and is fun, provides interesting management decisions, and luck plays an effective role in the game. For me, though, it's best as a 2-player game.

Pandemic: On the Brink: Again, Matt is a friend of ours, although we were not as involved with OtB. The great thing about this expansion is that almost all the additions add breadth or depth to the gameplay with negligible or zero cost in terms of rules complexity. The new roles and the virulent strain particularly are great and really cheap ways to add variety. Only the Bio-terrorist is a little more involved. I’ve played and enjoyed all the variants.

FITS: This doesn't score as highly as Knizia's other games this year, but no denying its simplicity and elegance, and I've enjoyed 5+ plays.

Ra: The Dice Game: In a year of mining old brands for new products, Knizia again uses the core structure of an old game but re-purposes it. Ra itself was an auction game that put a premium on evaluation and risk-taking. Ra: The Dice Game is a much more compact game that removes the auction element, but retains a similar flavor of evaluation and risk-taking, and allows the players to do a little more planning (because the probabilities are simpler). I generally have less use for lighter games than most, but this is one of those compact Knizia games that combines reasonable depth with accessibility, balances skill with luck very well, and I like it quite a bit.

Priest of Ra: Yet another Knizia tie-in! It seems to really hit the spot: the same auction system but with a completely different scoring from the classic Ra. Plays quite differently, yet retains the feel of the great classic. Simpler to teach and explain, but similar depth.

Samurai: The Card Game: Yet another instance of mining an older brand, this is another Knizia "card game" that stays remarkably true to the board game (as the Euphrates & Tigris card game did). In fact, the only major difference in feel from the board game is that the scoring is open – something we were quick to house-rule by digging up our old player screens from the boardgame. Your mileage may very, but we like it a lot better with hidden scoring, and I suspect the scoring was made open more to avoid having to include another component than anything else. With open scoring, for me it's a bit of an analysis trap that ends up taking longer than it should.

The BoardGameGeek Game: Caveat: I've played this with about 10 different players, and honestly, I think I'm the only one who thoroughly enjoyed it. But nonetheless, I did. It's got a quirky but successful theme, as gamers rush to buy new games of unknown quality and purchasing budgets simply don't enter in to the equation. Probably best with 5 players. Like many Breese games it can be an analysis trap, which is a legitimate complaint even though excessive analysis isn't really rewarded due to the inherent chaos of the system. But I liked it.

Dominion: Intrigue: I quite liked Dominion: Intrigue and felt like it was a more tactically interesting game than the base game was. I played Dominion and Dominion: Intrigue a fair amount in the first half of the year. Then Seaside came out, and the first four games we played all had the Pirate Ship in them, which when it’s out tends to dominate the game in really unhealthy ways. This single card resulted in the entire product line being essentially shot dead. Interestingly, it's thanks to Thunderstone that my interest in Dominion has been revived, reminding me that this game really is fun. Just not with the Pirate Ship.

Galaxy Trucker: The Big Expansion: It's a mixed bag (throw away the four Essen promo cards; they're horrible), but there is enough good stuff in here to keep Galaxy Trucker trucking and mix things up for fans. The new tiles, ships and Rough Road cards seem the best elements. The additional complexity does mean it should only be played with Galaxy Trucker veterans, however.

Stronghold: This seems like a great true blend of a wargame with appropriate euro mechanics. There is a lot of detail here, so it'll take a little while to see if everything is in order, but my half-dozen or so plays have been very promising. Like War of the Ring, the 3- and 4-player version feel a little tacked on, but the 3-player version may still be the best. There are elements of it which don't quite feel right (I wish combat on the walls were more attritional, and I fear there isn’t enough going on with the Battering Ram) but taken as a whole I've been quite impressed.

Modern Art: The Card Game (Masters Gallery): Modern Art without the bidding, which sounds terrible, but isn't – there is still the timing element of whether to hold paintings in the hopes that they will appreciate, or get out of the market. For what it is, I like it, but moreso than the other games it pales in comparison to its parent game. Unlike the Keltis Kartenspiel, for example, Masters Gallery doesn't present a twist or a variation on its parent, it takes just one or two elements of Modern Art and turns them into a standalone game. OK, but Modern Art is such a tremendous classic that without some theme and variation, Masters Gallery is bound to get hammered in comparison. This is the weakest of the many new Knizia games that I give the thumbs-up to, but if you can set aside comparing to its big brother, this is a fun, quick-playing game with some subtlety to it.

New Games that Stuck, Wargame Division

PanzerBlitz - Hill of Death: I wasn't a big PanzerBlitz fan even "back in the day", but the new edition has charms. It seems to strike a good balance between tapping into nostalgia for the old title while updating the mechanics. A solid, workmanlike game, I always enjoyed it and it's more evocative than more mainstream but comparably complex titles like Tide of Iron and Conflict of Heroes. Too bad about the rulebook; it's not as awful as all that, but no question it could (should) have been better.

The Caucasus Campaign: Again, this isn't particularly innovative or breathtaking, more of an evolution from Ardennes '44 and other work Mark Simonitch has done, but at a significantly lower complexity and time-investment level. I liked this as a low-to-moderate complexity game, much more interesting and compelling than the various SCS games or A Victory Lost with only a modest step up in complexity. And the campaign is an unusual and interesting one.

Conquest of Paradise: I freely admit that I like this game more than most people reading this are likely to. Perhaps the fact that it’s a lighter game than it looks can trip people up; even moreso than the successful Star Wars Risk games, this is more of a fun romp than a serious game. Still, as an entry in the category of king-of-the-hill conquer-the-world wargames, this does a bunch of stuff right: it’s relatively straightforward, sensibly short, conflict isn’t particularly bloody, and it’s thematically evocative. It’s still prone to the rich getting richer, but not at an alarming rate, and as I say, it’s over in good time.

The Year of the Knizia Cash-In

So, Reiner Knizia finally wins the Spiel des Jahre. I've played a bunch of Keltis and Lost Cities: The Boardgame (I generally prefer the latter), and have come to the conclusion that in gamer circles it's an under-appreciated classic. Give me this any day over other Spiel des Jahre winners like Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne. “Gateway Game” has become a justifiably derided term, as the label usually gets applied to games like Ticket to Ride which, while they may be fine games, are not “gateways” in the sense that they don't actually bridge the gap between traditional or mass-market games and hobbyist games. They really are going the “wrong” way: they are games that hobbyist gamers can enjoy playing with their non-hobbyist friends, not games that can hook casual or traditional gamers into the brave new world resulting from the boardgaming revolution of the 90s. Lost Cities: The Boardgame (and Keltis) is both a far better game than most Spiel des Jahre winners, and is also an actual gateway game, especially the US Lost Cities version which has a passable theme.

Anyway, in the last year we’ve seen a ton of Knizia games tying in to the Spiel des Jahre winning Keltis and the earlier Spiel des Jahre nominated Einfach Genial:

Keltis - Neue Wege, Neue Ziele: I liked this a lot, as it makes Keltis much more "gamerly". The accessible base game and the challenging (and radically different in texture) expansion make for a good matched set. Too bad there isn't a version for Lost Cities: The Boardgame, but the peril of having a plausible theme is that you can't just go around changing all the underlying dynamics and keep the game hanging together.

Keltis Kartenspiel: Keltis compacted and refactored even further; this is a great and distinct game in its own right, with a different mix of cards and a very clever rule for using pairs of cards of different suits. The types of decisions are the same, but the factors that go into them are obviously different enough to make for a distinct but not misleading game.

Keltis Mitbringspielt: Keltis again, but different again, this time the push-your-luck flavor has moved from being in the play of the cards to being in the draw of the chits. Clever and, again, a game with its own distinct flavor. In general the "filler" category of games is not one that has a lot of appeal to me; I play games to do more than just fill time. But this is a good, clever, short game that packs some punch.

Einfach Kartenspiel: The Einfach Genial scoring idea (your final score being your weakest category) is ported into a game with a different feel, and a clever tweak. Since the card game is shorter and the scores much lower, there are now several scoring tiers and you can't advance your top score farther than a tier away from your lowest score. This adds an interesting dimension to the risk/reward of scoring, which the shorter game (with lower scores) requires. This is a touch light for my general tastes, but once again, Knizia takes the base engine and changes it in interesting ways and makes it fit into a different package.

Genial Spezial: Einfach scoring with a connection-building theme, and a vaguely Through the Desert feel. This almost but didn't quite work for me; it lacks the subtlety of Ingenious. It has only four categories of scores instead of six, the color risk management is much less nuanced, and it's more about just building the connections - something Through the Desert does better and with more flavor. Not bad, but it may be on its way out of my collection.

Einfach Genial Mitbringspielt: A rare complete bomb from Knizia. There isn't a whole lot of game here, and there seems to be an endgame problem (not enough tiles) with 4 players. Very strange.

In general, I'm impressed with the tie-ins. When Coloretto, Ticket to Ride, and Carcassonne got endlessly remade, they usually ended up feeling like basically the same game in the end, or remakes attempting to fix scoring problems with the original. But all the different Keltis and Einfach variants have their own individual feel, all built on top of the two games’ distinctive scoring systems. For the serious hobbyist, none of these are likely to be breathtaking (except maybe Lost Cities: The Boardgame). But for my part, I hugely appreciate subtlety in games, and with the exception of the lesser Einfach tie-ins, these games deliver the subtlety that is Knizia’s calling card.

Games I Liked, but It's Still Early

World Without End: Only played once, and it appears to be a highly variable game, but the one play-through was interesting, fun, and tense. Good potential, and I’m looking forward to playing it again. Unlike the underrated Pillars of the Earth, it has a bit of potential to be an analysis trap though.

Dungeon Lords: Played twice. Still has the great, quirky CGE humor, and the simultaneous-worker-placement is a big win in terms of avoiding the strict serialization boredom of Caylus. But it's got a fair amount of fiddly complexity, and it feels a little truncated. It seems like the story wants to develop more, but, on the other hand, the game itself doesn't want to be any longer. It's also begging for some well-calibrated and judicious randomness; the determinism of the combat phase is thematically odd and may make it more of a brain-burner than it wants to be. I think this will be a good second-tier game, but doesn't capture the same magic as Galaxy Trucker.

Peloponnes: When I read the rules, it sounded like a by-the-numbers eurogame which would go straight to the trade/sale pile, optionally after having been played once. But I did actually play it and was rather impressed: fast, simple, clever, a good and different auction, and despite being fairly abstract it manages to evoke a nice civilization-building feel. Appears to be a great middle-weight, but some uncertainty over replayability and whether the playtime is quite quick enough keep it in this category.

Conflict of Heroes: Storm of Steel: They did some good stuff in the new edition, like allowing both players to have an active unit at the same time. But I also detect some of the exact same “feature creep” that really clobbered Squad Leader when it got to Crescendo of Doom, ultimately requiring the total re-work that became Advanced Squad Leader. No need to repeat the same mistakes, like trying to model snipers with individual counters.

Opera: This is a bit on the bubble. I’ve played it only once. It’s clearly rather derivative as elements and dynamics are borrowed from Puerto Rico, Age of Steam, and to a lesser extent El Grande. But, the game varies them and stitches them together cleanly into something new, and it’s got a lot going for it as a medium-to-heavy euro. But I am worried about the balance. It seems like cash is excruciatingly tight early, but too plentiful later on, and the restriction of buying just two scores per turn seems unduly limiting in the mid-to-late game. So I’m undecided but like to remain optimistic. Unfortunately, the rules are problematic. They’re all in there, but it takes a bit of puzzling to figure out what is actually a pretty streamlined game.

Promising Unplayed Games, Wargame Division

Baltic Gap, Elusive Victory, Barbarossa: Kiev to Rostov: I haven't had a chance to play these games yet but they are high on my list. They are all series games from my favorite wargame systems; they're just time-consuming and I haven't had the chance yet. Of course, Battle Above the Clouds will probably overshadow all of them in early 2010.

Hellenes: I played a lot of this during an early phase of playtesting, and felt like it was a solid game moving in the right direction. I like the changes that made it into the final published version, but haven't had a chance to get it onto the table yet.

Games that Didn't Stick

Space Alert: So close. But ultimately it just had too much of a learning curve, too much fiddly complexity, and was too difficult to play with players of mixed experience. Hasn't seen the table since an initial flush of play. I would like to play this more, but the practical obstacles are significant.

Container: The Second Shipment: At least it's cheap. And the “tournament” game (remove one additional container per player) is recommended as standard. The Gold containers variant is OK, but it only really gives good results with smaller numbers of players and can drag the game out. None of the other variants really work. Honestly, I'm happy to have it for the Gold containers which may come out occasionally, but it's a hard one to recommend.

Chicago Express: A promising first couple of games lead to disillusionment as there just didn't seem to be much game here.

Call of Cthulhu LCG: I was a fan of CCGs back in the day (especially the Middle-Earth CCG), and I had some hope the CoC LCG in its new, fixed-pack incarnation might bring back some of the deck-building magic. I enjoyed a few games but it just didn't get its hooks into me, given the other options available. Another game that could use some dice. I still have hopes that a little more time with it will give this one some legs, but it just didn’t grab me thematically or mechanically as much as I had hoped.

Witch of Salem: Another close one, but the transparently unworkable communication rules leaves you wondering what exactly the designer was trying to do, and if it was a good idea. There are clever bits here but the cooperative elements don’t seem to gel and they don’t add up to enough game.

Steam: Well, I like Steam, in a somewhat qualified kind of a way. I think it's as good as this particular game engine is going to get, and vastly superior to Age of Steam or Railroad Tycoon. The problem here really wasn’t me, it was that the previous games have so alienated many people I game with regularly that convincing them to play Steam is a tough sell. So it sits on my shelf largely unplayed, and even though I like it, the trade/sale pile beckons.

Supernova: This game really should have been good. It's not. It's really close, though. It's begging for an enterprising game designer to find the couple tweaks the game needs.

Galactic Emperor: This, on the other hand, is just a complete mess.

Automobile: Remind me never, ever to play a Martin Wallace game again unless I'm really sure I know what I'm doing. I don't know that Automobile is really as atrocious a game as I think it is. But it's really, really not my sort of game.

Steam Barons: I don't know if the maps play any better as strict 5-6 player Steam games, but as for the stockholding variant for Steam ... wow. This really felt completely disjointed and arbitrarily difficult. The stock market seems to have been bizarrely designed to explicitly mis-price shares so you make your money in game system arbitrage instead of something more interesting.

Endeavor: This seems well-put-together, but it's just so soulless and such an obvious blender job of mechanisms from other games. I can see it will have fans, and I would be happy to play someone else’s copy from time to time, but I’d still rather play the original Goa or Puerto Rico. There is a fine line between repetition and theme and variation, and for me personally, Endeavor is on the wrong side of it.

Planet Steam: The market in this game is weird; like Steam Barons, it seems designed to produce prices guaranteed not to be an approximation of a fair value, so once again we're gaming an abstract, unintuitive, complicated, and athematic market system.

Conan: Another game to which you can only say, "wow". A multi-player king-of-the-hill wargame in which inter-player conflict is extremely attritional and expensive? And where the economic benefits of capturing territory are dwarfed by the costs? Where do I sign up? This problem has been attacked in interesting ways so many times by now, doing a by-the-numbers microwave job like this is really embarrassing (not that that hasn't stopped people). If you can't do better than Risk (c. 1959) ... well, it's not a good sign.

Games that Didn't Stick, Wargame Division

    Richard III: I dunno. I enjoyed this. It's a good, workmanlike game that I'd play again. But partly I think the whole Hammer of the Scots engine has hit the end of the line for me: the game doesn't get great traction on a wonderfully flavorful historical period for me, and I have some suspicions about game balance. And with the short duration, very abstract gameplay, and pretty high luck level, it's more of a medium-weight euro than a wargame and that's a tough category to be in. Crusader Rex remains my favorite in this whole line, and for a short, light, quick-playing wargame, and Command & Colors: Ancients has more draw for me.

    War of the Ring: I have a couple friends who really got into the latest Lord of the Rings minis game from Games Workshop. I really tried to like it. I just couldn’t do it. For me, so much of the miniatures hobby is tied up with the enjoyment of painting the figures, and War of the Ring just requires such colossal numbers of them, numbers I have no time or ability to paint. It wouldn’t be so bad if it was a really cool, or even just cool-ish, game, but it seems like you labor to put 120+ figures on the table, only to have them drop like flies in a game that just isn’t that engaging, and is decidedly odd in a few ways (the rule where a stand is eliminated when it’s down to half-strength has particularly odd implications for formations). Back to the skirmish game for me. For what War of the Ring does, I like the Battle of Five Armies system better.

    Unhappy King Charles: I realize this game has a lot of fans. But for me, it's a by-now traditional GMT card-driven wargame in that it's held down by excessive complexity and then throttled by slow pacing, excessive length, and a lack of tension. The events are a fairly pedestrian lot, and if you don't get the ops you're just not in it. The objectives are too coarse to yield much in the way of excitement – the game is won and lost on control of five regions, but two of those regions are almost unshakably Royalist (Wales and the North) while one is impenetrably Parliamentarian (the East), and so the whole thing hinges on control of a very small portion of the board. So it lumbers along somewhat painfully until it finally ends. UKC! is OK, but I won’t be playing it again. This is exactly the sort of game I'm trying very hard not to buy (or spend time learning and playing) in future.

    Pursuit of Glory, 1805: Sea of Glory, Fields of Fire, and PQ-17: These four games, all released in the last 18 months or so, have savaged my confidence in GMT. GMT has produced many fine games. But I found these four to be so awful, so transparently unworkable, that one would think that a simple sense of simple self-preservation would prevent one game like this from going out the door, never mind four in a relatively brief period.

    Spartacus: As bad as those four GMT games were, this one is still my train wreck of the year. See this thread on BGG. Compass is another game company I won't be buying from again unless I really, really, absolutely know what I'm doing. Recent history has not been good for new medium-to-heavyweight wargames.

    Changing Tack

    Probably the biggest change in my gaming habits this year is that I finally went back to Advanced Squad Leader. I had been toying with getting back into it in 2008, including logging a number of hours on the Starter Kits which are good games in their own right. I started playing again in earnest this year, and it’s been a lot of fun. After years of struggling with whatever high-end wargames companies were putting out each year, only to find that most of them had a wide variety of problems, returning to ASL was like going back to an old friend. Yes, it’s complicated. But it encompasses a vast range. If you like the system, it’ll go a huge distance. ASL will never monopolize my high-end wargaming time like it did in the late 80s and early 90s; there are too many other good games out there now, like the Great Campaigns of the American Civil War series, the Operational Combat Series, and the Barbarossa Series, just to pick a few favorites. But I’m glad it’s back.

    Wrapping Up

    So another year ends and another begins. In just the first week of 2010 I got my copy of a new release about which I am hugely excited, Battle Above the Clouds. A long-awaited reprint should be showing up at my door any day now, Republic of Rome, and I look forward to logging some time on that old favorite. Thunderstone should be imminently available to anyone who wants a copy, and should also have an expansion before too long. Dominion may have two. I hear that Race for the Galaxy may have another cycle. Vance von Borries has what looks like a fascinating game, Bataan!, coming out in the next couple months. The latest alea big-box game, Macao, should be coming along to the US soon. I expect Reiner Knizia will probably design a game.

    Should be fun.