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.