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.