Sunday, January 29, 2012

2011 – The Year in Hobby Games, Part III: Wargames

Trying to take the pulse of the wargame zeitgeist once a year, while entertaining to try to do, may not be the most productive use of time.

For one, it’s a small market. There are only a few publishers who reliably publish a few games  a year (GMT, MMP, Columbia) supplemented by a wide variety of players that range from inconsistent to not-yet-proven to low-volume single-man operations (OSG, Academy Games, Compass, L2, Clash of Arms, and Simmons being a few that I buy from occasionally). While what to me seems a rather surprising number of wargames get published each year, a lot of it is clearly game-designing/publishing-as-hobby or labor-of-love type stuff.

Secondly, wargame companies have tried pretty hard, with significant success, to isolate themselves from the brunt of market forces. The widespread use of pre-order systems (as pioneered by GMT with P500) has allowed publishers to make a lot of games, but also to offload a lot of downside risk, with all the moral hazard associated with that. While GMT has been a great asset to the hobby, producing many games of very high quality, at the same time they’ve also been the poster child for preorder funding gone wrong, churning out a shocking amount of absolute dreck – games that aspire to be as good as Fantasy Flight’s biggest misfires. Far too many of their games still have an underdeveloped, unfinished feel.

Two years ago, I was pretty depressed about the state of wargames. GMT had just gone through a bad patch of printing a bunch of junk (PQ-17, Pursuit of Glory, 1805: Sea of Glory, Fields of Fire), MMP had recently published The Devil’s Cauldron with its interesting system married to a spectacularly bad rulebook and set of scenarios, Columbia was coming off the badly underdeveloped Athens & Sparta, and outside of ASL things were looking really grim for medium-to-high end wargames.

Then within two years, we’re getting Sekigahara, No Retreat! The Russian Front, Breakthrough: Cambrai, Battle Above the Clouds, Normandy ’44, and Bataan!, just to pick a few recent top-tier type games. So I’m out of the “where are we now” business. I’ll take what I can get.

My game of the year for wargames has got to be Sekigahara. I have a review on my blog here, cross-posted to BoardGameGeek here. It’s by far my most-played wargame (almost my most-played game of any kind in fact), has been well-received by everyone I’ve played it with, and is a brilliant game design by any standard. It has what’s been missing from the vast majority of eurogames of late: attention to detail and real artfulness. There are still a couple rough bits – Tokugawa may be favored significantly until you find the rhythm of the game and slightly after that, and it doesn’t seem to have quite as much range as one might, ideally, like. Still, it’s one of the most striking wargame designs in many years.

Let’s not stop there, though. There was a lot of good stuff this year, including many games that are playable in an evening and have 12 pages of rules or thereabouts.

No Retreat! The Russian Front is easy to underestimate both because it’s not that novel, system-wise, and because of its Victory Point Games heritage. It’s a really terrific, compact game that packs a lot of punch though, and like Sekigahara it gets a top recommendation from me. I think the key thing that I like about it is how well the card deck seems to have been designed. The capabilities of the events provide uncertainty, tension, and the occasional nasty surprise without being generally overbearing – all of which give the game some drama and make it a lot more than just a chit-pusher. Skip the always-uninteresting ’41 game and start with the short ’42 and ’43 scenarios, which are great and highly playable. I’ve played over a dozen times, had a ton of fun, and am yet to attempt a full-on game. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the GMT version has an unfortunate and unreasonable amount of errata, and you’ll need to get updated rules and play books from GMT’s site, as well as make a note of one card (General Mud) with an unfortunate mis-wording. Yeah, I wish they had done a better job and normally this would be a huge red flag. In this case, though, No Retreat! still plays very well and I hope later entries in the series will jump from VPG to GMT and get professional treatment.

Breakthrough: Cambrai is the latest entry in the area-impulse game genre from Mike Rinella, the current torch-bearer for this system. I like Mike’s games and am a fan of both Monty’s Gamble: Market Garden and Shifting Sands, even though both have a couple minor rough edges. Breakthrough: Cambrai feels like his best effort yet. It plays quickly, in 3 hours or less, and gives a really good feel for late-WWI-era battles, which feature a strange alchemy of lightning blows which rapidly gain a lot of inertia. The British player has to know when to chip away and when to use the sledgehammer. The battle is undeniably a British show and the pressure is on them to win, but available local artillery means the Germans will actually do more counter-attacking here than they do in Breakout: Normandy, or the Soviets do in Turning Point: Stalingrad. There is a pretty nasty one-game learning curve on this one, the British may well not get much past the start line the first time, but after that games are tense and go to the wire. This is another top tier game.

Nightfighter is a niche game as it’s a game where one player moderates and one player plays. I like it because it sets out to do something interesting, capturing the flavor of the air war at night both in terms of a cat and mouse tactical game and its technological back-and-forth. It works, it’s fast-playing, it’s quite playable. I have a review here.

Conflict of Heroes: Price of Honour restored my confidence in this series. Like Commands & Colors (and unlike Squad Leader, ASL, or ASLSK), Conflict of Heroes has a somewhat narrow range of types of scenarios that are going to work. With limited turn counts and punishing system-level penalties for destroyed units in both gameplay (command points) and in victory points (dead trucks count the same as dead King Tigers), the force disparities, scenario sizes, and unit quality ranges have to work in a somewhat constrained design space. Which is fine, but you do have to live in that space, which in previous games the scenarios have not always done. Price of Honour seemed to me to do a better job and brought me back on board with the system.

Speaking of C&C, Commands & Colors: Napoleonics was a really nice addition to the system, if you can get past the horrible rulebook and terrible player aids. I like the force asymmetries (the French powerful in melee, the British at range), I like the variety of units, and the way it models combined arms is as good as anything. Like all the C&C games, though, it’s hugely dependent on well-designed scenarios, something that every C&C game ever published has struggled with. There is a limit to what you can do with the meeting-engagement victory-by-body-count format. If you live within that format, you’re fine. Try to break out and it’s a slippery slope to boredom, frustration, and the flea market. C&CN is good, but the second scenario – Rolica (French Second Position) – is truly terrible and if you just run through the scenarios in order you can get a pretty bad impression. The recent The Spanish Army expansion is good too and has new and better – but still not good – player aid cards.

L2 reissued Breakout: Normandy this year, and while the quality of the reprint isn’t as good as it could be, this is still one of the best wargames ever made and it’s great to have it back in print. I like that they added color-coding to the counters, but the huge footprint on the new map isn’t great and the plastic X’s for disruption seem a little cheesy. I think I still prefer my original Avalon Hill edition. The rule changes are fairly minor but all to the good, I think. I still wish there were scenarios starting in week 2 or 3, though. Unlike the games I've mentioned so far, Breakout: Normandy is meatier and probably takes 5-6 hours to play to conclusion.

War of 1812 is a fun, nicely-flavored Risk-derivative team wargame. It runs a touch long for what it is, and operations have a lot of inertia once they enter enemy territory (admittedly faithful to the history), so the risk of drawn games is non-trivial. But, it’s got well-done asymmetric sides and the team aspect works. Not likely a lot of staying power, but fun for what it is.

With all that, I still have a large to-play pile, and some of it I'm really optimistic about – particularly FAB: Sicily, Birth of a Legend, No Retreat 2, Rommel's War, Shenandoah Campaign, Strike of the Eagle, and The Last Success. There were also two new monsters that I'm actually going to try to play in 2012, Decision Games' Axis Empires: Totaler Krieg! and Dai Senso!. I rarely buy Decision's stuff, and don't have much room for real monster games like this anymore, but I got sucked into learning these games because of their intriguing take on allowing the early days of the war to develop in different ways, and because they seem to have found a good scale. There are red flags, but I hold out hope.

Of course, not everything that came out this year was great.

A Few Acres of Snow is a bubble game for me. It’s clever, and I like the concept of wedding the popular deck-building idea into a wargame as a planning/command-and-control engine. A Few Acres of Snow just hasn’t really grasped the limitations of deck-builders, which can have problems when decks either get too small, or too large with respect to the complexity of the actions they are required to perform. Once your empire gets too large, it gets much too hard to get things done, and conversely the game is vulnerable to deck-pruning strategies. It also doesn’t have much to say about the period. This is an idea that if further developed has promise. As it is though, it shares the unfinished feel of most of Wallace’s games, even with the major rules revision released late in 2011.

I was excited to try King Philip’s War after getting a lot of value out of the designer’s Hearts & Minds, but it couldn’t get traction like the previous game did. An obscure topic that isn’t cleanly presented, gameplay that was surprisingly static, and some odd gamey tactics all combined to sap the energy of the game. It was fun for a play or two but didn’t live up to hopes.

Storming the Reich from Compass was an odd game. I kinda liked Red Storm Over the Reich but it was too large and there were some odd ways the various movement phases played out. I thought Storming the Reich might find a sweeter spot with a system I found fundamentally interesting. But too much seemed out-of-kilter. The Germans field units of wildly varying quality in this campaign, but their good divisions (like Panzer Lehr) oddly lack any staying power. There is a bunch of clunky design-for-effect stuff like Monty’s Blind Spot that constrain the game. This whole campaign is one that is really fought on three different scales: tactical for the breakout from the beachhead, an operational race game to the German frontier, then a strategic supply-driven slugging match for the final battles. No game I’ve yet played has managed to put all three phases comfortably under one roof.

Case Yellow was classic Raicer: a couple clever game mechanics which neatly capture important bits of the campaign, weighed down by a hugely excessive playing time. This would have been fun at 3 hours or so, but at the easily 6+ it runs, not so much. When combined with Storming the Reich and Stalin’s War, I think Raicer has finally burned through his stock of goodwill from Paths of Glory and Barbarossa to Berlin.

Space Empires 4X is a totally mystifying game. The designer has repeatedly said on various forums that he understood the problems this genre of games has (do I really need to list them all again?), and then proceeds to design a game which still clearly has all those problems. This is a frustratingly bad game because it it seems like it just couldn't have been played outside of the designer’s game group, seems to have never really been in front of a critical audience. Tediously long, painful bookkeeping (which is also hidden and unverifiable), attritional combat that leads to endless indecisive slugathons, inability to accomplish anything ... I really wanted to like it and gave it every chance to work, but it just doesn’t at a fairly basic level. Everyone I played it with was even less charitable than I. There is absolutely no reason to play this instead of Eclipse.

Fighting Formations will almost certainly appeal to you if you are a Combat Commander fan. I’m not, but it had a chance to suck me in, but it didn’t – the order system is too abstract for my tastes, and the game doesn’t really have anything to say about platoon-level combat that hasn’t been said.

Sun of York would be fun I think at half the game length. It’s very nicely evocative of period combat, but I just don’t think it offers the players much of anything in the way of interesting decisions. Given that, I think it needed to play quicker.

Looking Back

Looking back at my 2010 piece, I’m pretty happy with my picks. Normandy ’44 has probably gotten more table time than Battle Above the Clouds or Bataan, but I attribute that more to topical draw than game quality. Julius Caesar and Stronghold have retained their pull and held up well.

Hearts and Minds is an easy game to like but a tough game to love. I’ve played it in 2011 but the feeling of problematic pro-NVA balance persists. The game plays very well but it’s hard to resist the feeling of inevitable NVA victory, not just on the battlefield but also on the victory point track. I still like the game, but will try starting in later years if I play again.

The outlier is Labyrinth. Apparently it got 5 plays this year, not bad for a game that isn’t “current”. On the other hand, it hit a wall after that. I am still fond of the gameplay, which is interesting in a lot of ways. I am less fond of how it treats its theme. For example, preemptively invading Iraq is a really good idea for the US, almost a no-brainer. The more I played the game, the more I got the impression it was an ex post facto rationalization of US policies and not a nuanced view of a tricky topic or a game with anything of its own to say. Then, the Arab Spring fully revealed the game’s fundamental misunderstandings, consigning it to being more of a historical curiosity that tells us more about the people who created it than about the topic it covered. And yet ... it’s still an interesting game, mechanically and narratively. I still rate it pretty highly on BoardGameGeek. You just have to get past the theme.

Finally, from 2009, The Caucuses Campaign is still going strong, with another 5 plays this year.

Wrapping Up

I felt really positive about wargame releases this year. We didn’t get any great medium-heavyweights like we did in 2010, but in terms of highly playable games 2011 was terrific, and there are (as always) several rather promising games I haven’t even had a chance to try yet. If we’re lucky, maybe it’ll be a trend.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Intermezzo: RPGs in 2011

This review of my role-playing experiences in 2011 will necessarily be of a different character than my boardgame wrapup, since my time for RPGs is so much smaller and I make no attempt, generally, to be on the cutting edge.

I got back into role-playing about 10 years ago with D&D 3.0, which quickly became 3.5, which became 4.0. The arc of my story is one of mounting frustration with D&D specifically and d20 more generally. The question I always had was, what exactly is this game doing for me?

D&D, as a game, emphasizes resource management, which boardgames do much better. And tactical combat, which again, boardgames do much better. And power-combo-seeking, ditto. What’s left? Narrative? Boardgames like Beowulf, Tigris & Euphrates and Lord of the Rings do this rather well too, in most cases far better than a run-of-the-mill D&D adventure does. We’re left not with anything concrete, only with this elusive idea of roleplaying, of immersing oneself in an alternate world and trying to vicariously experience it.

So I spent many years trying to figure this whole roleplaying thing out, what it was and how it was different, how it was supposed to be fun, and how you actually did it. The various treatises on the subject are surprisingly unhelpful, as are all the boilerplate “what is roleplaying” bits you routinely find at the beginning of sourcebooks. It seems that your GM (or Keeper, or DM, or whatever) has come up with a story, and you need to find some way to play your character in the story in a way that meshes with the GMs vision, without actually knowing what that vision is or where the story is going. You need to come up with motivations for your character that will feed the directions your GM expects you to take, without knowing what those are.

If you take the whole roleplaying thing seriously, it can be a bit frustrating.

This year, I finally got it. From where I stand, this entire genre is misleadingly named. It should not be called “roleplaying”. It should be called “collaborative storytelling”. Obviously we can’t change it now, after 30 years, that would be confusing, but I found that when I just flipped that switch in my brain and viewed the whole exercise from a slightly different perspective, everything about why this genre is different, fun, and worthwhile clicked. Roleplaying can obviously be a large and fun part of collaborative storytelling, but it’s not primarily why we’re here and – interestingly – you don’t actually have to do any roleplaying at all for the whole genre of “roleplaying games” to work and be fun. You do need to do collaborative storytelling, however.

As always, the light came on only by running and playing in actual games. In this case the system was Kenneth Hite’s Trail of Cthulhu, built on Robin Laws’ GUMSHOE engine, and the adventures were from the excellent collections Out of Time and Stunning Eldritch Tales. The transition was rocky and I’m not sure if I’ve brought most of my fellow-players along, but for the first time in my many years of playing these games I feel like I’ve found a good spot and understand what’s going on and why the experience is interesting and different and worth playing in addition to my primary interest in boardgames.

GUMSHOE is confusing for many people I think because it is simultaneously very different from and very close to traditional RPGs. On the one hand, you can argue that systematically, the only difference between GUMSHOE and traditional RPGs like d20 or GURPS is a single die roll. In scenes where characters are pursuing the core activity of the system – solving mysteries – skill checks are automatically successful. That’s it. It’s a complete game-changer in practice though, because it makes the default expectation for core activities success rather than failure. Instead of thinking “I wonder what the difficulty level of that task should be”, the GM instead has to think “what information can I give them as a result of this course of action, and what are the consequences”. Instead of our first thought being about how the players’ ideas might be negated, we’re instead forced to think about how to move the narrative forward in a collaborative way. This is huge.

This of course opens up a whole set of ancillary questions for gamemasters: how to we encourage good, story-building ideas in our players? How do we set expectations, set tone, set parameters? These questions are not always easy to answer, but they are much more interesting, tractable, and amenable to reason than the frustratingly open-ended “how do I tell a good story in an RPG?”.

This brings me to my second discovery of the year, which is Graham Walmsley’s Play Unsafe, the best and most useful practical guide to good roleplaying (for both players and GMs) that I’ve come across. It’s a fast read – I finished the whole thing in a couple hours – and provides concrete and useful tips that anyone can pick up and put to use right away. The key insight here is that the techniques we should be drawing on for inspiration in our roleplaying are not from acting or narrative writing but are the skills and ideas of improv theatre. Once it’s properly explained it’s so obvious that one wonders how the hobby got this far without figuring this out and using it as the foundation for everything we do. The old and often-repeated conceit that the characters play in a world created and described by the GM is seductive but, I’ve come to understand, fundamentally misleading. In actual practice, the GM brings his or her idea of the story to the table, and perhaps it is the dominant one, but unless your GM is master-level everyone present is going to have in their minds a different idea of what the world is like, different ideas of the flavor of the story and how it will proceed. A good roleplaying experience will take these different ideas, weave together the good bits, and tell an interesting story. The best, perhaps only, way to do this is via the techniques of improv.

Bring these ideas together, and you’ve got an understandable, practical, working structure for how to really make RPGs fly. Two more pieces would help fill in the details and round out 2011 for me.

The first was Robin Laws’ book Hamlet’s Hit Points, which I wrote about at some length in August. I won’t say much more about it here – you can go back and read the piece, if you want – except to mention how clearly things clicked into place as I read it. Because of my background in music and music theory, I recognized immediately and correlated the technique of cycles of hope and fear, or tension and resolution. It was also clear how these same techniques were used in boardgames. Again, the default literary tendencies of my RPG creations were running up against the collaborative reality of how RPGs actually work, producing bad results. I needed to be much more adaptable and sensitive to story beats. Actually integrating the lessons of Hamlet’s Hit Points into my RPGs is what I’ll generously call a work-in-progress, but it was clear this was something to aspire to as part of a good roleplaying experience. It was also clear that the ethos of collaborative creation was the only practical way to accommodate it, and so GUMSHOE provided the structure in a way that traditional techniques did not.

The last thing I’ll mention from 2011 was Ashen Stars, the big new addition to the GUMSHOE family. The reason I am so excited about Ashen Stars is how it brings all this collective thought together and trains it on a game. We have the core GUMSHOE system, which is systematically based on this idea of collaboration which I have come to believe is absolutely core to fun roleplaying. The many useful, practical tips the book provides for players and GMs emphasize this. We have a backstory of a Star Trek-like universe fallen on hard times which is not only broadly accessible and incredibly creative, featuring fascinating species and a great mix of the familiar and unusual, but is also highly sensitive to the very specific needs of gaming. This is not just a cool or imaginative setting; this is a setting that is designed from the ground up to actually be gamed in. I love how the game prioritizes the practical details of interesting collaborative storytelling. The core activities are well-specified, with the tenor and tone of the game set within reasonable constraints the GM and players can work with. The character creation process has at its core a feedback loop which allows players and GM to negotiate the flavor of the game and how they will explore the world; this is key not just because it kicks off the process in a productive way, it also gives the players the important message that “hey, your ideas are important and you have a stake in the creation of this story”. I love the section on GM advice which gives specific, practical, actionable ideas that will easily have you up and writing good stories (and as an aside, these tips are extremely helpful for writing adventures of any kind – Kim and I have been using them for an Arcana Evolved adventure she’s working on and found them very useful). This whole thing is a terrific package which begs to be gamed, which hopefully I’ll have a chance to do in 2012.

So that’s the story of my total conversion to GUMSHOE as the most sensible solution to the practical problems of roleplaying, one that keeps the flavor of the stories we’ve come to love but allows you to actually game them. If, like me, you come from a long background of D&D, GURPS, Traveller, or even Call of Cthulhu, the conversion process may involve pain. Trust me, it’s worth it.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

2011 – The Year in Hobby Games, Part I: Boardgames

I’m going to break down my 2011 retrospective into 3 parts, the easier to fit in a blog and to deal with the three different market categories of hobby games: boardgames, RPGs, and wargames. On to boardgames ...

In years past – in fact for as long as I’ve been writing about games, over 15 years – I’ve been generally upbeat about the state of hobby boardgaming. This year is the first time I have ever felt fundamental disquiet about the broad direction in which things are heading, at least from the point of view of the sorts of games I like. I think there are a few reasons.

First, obviously, is the slow exit of Reiner Knizia, Klaus Teuber, and Wolfgang Kramer from the scene. Knizia is still doing a few games, but I count only one hobbyist’s game in his 2011 releases, Star Trek: Expeditions (a typically excellent design butchered by the WizKids production). He’s doing some great work on iOS games, but that space hasn’t quite developed yet into an alternative platform for hobbyist games. Teuber is limiting himself to a small amount of Catan-related output, which is fine – the remake of Rivals of Catan was very good – but even I, an absolute die-hard Catanophile, am willing to say the franchise is getting tired. Kramer had only the good but unremarkable Artus. In a hobby dominated by a cult of amateurism, these three seasoned professionals have been the go-to guys for good games that push the state-of-the-art for almost 20 years, and nobody as yet is stepping up to fill their shoes.

Secondly is the apparent implosion of Fantasy Flight, the most significant publisher of hobby boardgames designed and sold in America (other major US publishers in our segment like Rio Grande have very large percentages of their catalog made either in Europe or by European expertise; on the other hand, for Wizards of the Coast, boardgames are just a sideline). Fantasy Flight has always been a frustrating company for me, as in the past they’ve been able to routinely come up with good ideas and then routinely drop the ball on basic execution, but I kept hoping they’d learn to execute. This year, I flipped from hoping to writing them off. Their output is of course rather large – 2011 releases fill two pages of search results on BoardGameGeek – but everything I played this year was completely derivative and dire, well beyond even my jaded expectations of mediocrity. The Lord of the Rings Card Game is just an unimaginative retread of every other LCG they’ve done, devoid of thematic material and with major packaging problems. Mansion of Madness is a soulless dungeon crawl with tedious gameplay and painfully un-fun scenarios. Elder Sign is a confusing mess (subsequently ported to iOS/Android and made – almost unbelievably – even more incoherent). Rune Age is just every deck-building idea available thrown into a blender without any sense of taste or artistry, with predictably ugly results. These are not near-misses, or good ideas poorly executed. This is the result of someone playing at owning a game company. I am really not looking forward to seeing them mangle the Star Wars license.

Thirdly is the maturation of Kickstarter. I don’t like or dislike Kickstarter; it’s certainly the direction that things are going in general, and will benefit many. It’s hard for me to see the explosive growth of boardgame projects being pitched and receiving funding there as anything but a bad thing though, and potentially dangerous for our niche of the hobby in ways that are under-appreciated. Kickstarter can fill an important role, mitigating the risk of publishing narrow-audience or avant-guard games or helping establish companies that have a clear but untested vision. But we are already a boutique market that I believe cannot afford the pressures of a thriving vanity segment – a segment that was probably already too large before Kickstarter. The stuff that Kickstarter has funded so far has not been novel or risky. To the contrary, it’s been entirely derivative, conservative, and well-served by existing publishers, a veritable cornucopia of vanity projects. To the extent that Kickstarter is used to fund endless new worker placement or deck-building games, its sole function will be to offload risk from publishers to customers, and the primary risk being offloaded is that the publisher won’t do its job properly. What company in their right mind wouldn’t go for that deal? But what customer should? The result of this significant shift in risk and reduction of publisher “skin in the game” for generic eurogame projects is going to be invariably bad for customers, bad for professionals trying to earn a living, and bad for overall quality. GAMA should prove its value to customers by mandating a “funded by Kickstarter” box logo.

Look, I’ve been down this route. I’ve been a loyal GMT customer for almost 15 years, and this is how they do business. I can’t count how many times over that period I’ve wanted to get in my car, go down to Hanford, and throttle someone for producing a transparently dysfunctional game for which GMT bore comparatively little downside risk. I live with it only because despite the significant moral hazard it presents, I still believe it’s the only way that a variety of small-time, riskier games that I really want to own will get made. If you think I’m going to subject myself to this for some lightly-themed worker-placement or deck-building game, you’re sadly mistaken.

That’s a lot of doom and gloom, and to my mind, 2011 produced a shocking number of mediocre games. However, there are clearly still publishers and serious designers doing good work, albeit with varying degrees of consistency: Friedmann Friese and Martin Wallace serve their niche audiences well, even if those niches do not generally include me; Matt Leacock (as many of you know, a good friend of ours) has reached a lot of gamers and near-gamers with Pandemic and Forbidden Island; Uwe Rosenberg has had a rebirth as the designer of meaty euros; Phil Eklund at Sierra Madre seems to be really hitting his stride with High Frontier and Bios: Megafauna; Tom Lehmann has done great work with Race for the Galaxy; and Rob Daviau’s Risk: Legacy is one of the most fascinating new games of the last few years.

What it all adds up to though, for me, is a missing middle. Niches with specific and clear tastes seem to be well-served (of course, they aren't hard to design for). We have a fair number of highly-tactical, no-hidden-information, balance-is-for-suckers games for example, and RPG-crossovers who can supply their own narrative when the game fails to provide have a nice array of games to pick from. For those of us who like the traditional values of German games though, who want broadly accessible games of elegance and taste, and who value boardgames for their own unique expressive power and not just as an annex to some other art or as simply a vehicle to relive the joys of something else entirely, things seem to be getting squeezed.

At the end of the day, I have no pick for a hobbyist’s Game of the Year 2011. Sure, I could have picked something safe like Forbidden Island (robbed in the Spiel des Jahres, in my opinion: Qwirkle? Seriously?), Airlines: Europe or ... um. I like Quarriors quite a bit and ended up playing it a lot. Gnomes of Zavendor was quite good. Nightfall is a surprisingly impressive design. Star Trek: Expeditions would have been an easy pick if the graphic design hadn’t been so completely incompetent. Bios: Megafauna is pretty cool, if not as cool as High Frontier (but what could be?), but I haven’t had a chance to play it very much yet. But realistically, all these games are either too safe, too flawed, or in the case of Forbidden Island, a game I’m too personally close to (sorry Matt).

With all that Sturm und Drang done with, there were still a number of high-quality games this year. Here are my favorites:

My most-played new game was Quarriors, which is good fun despite production issues (hard-to-read dice and cards). It’s fast, it’s pretty simple, and it’s got enough variability to have some staying power. The balance is clearly not right – big creatures are too important while cheap creatures are rarely worth buying, and even beyond that several high-end creatures seem badly unbalanced – but fast-playing and exciting covers a lot of other sins. The first expansion (Rise of the Demons) has terrifically entertaining packaging but suffers from what seems like the first-expansion-curse of not very inspiring gameplay.

I was somewhat surprised, when checking my BGG stats, to see that Nightfall was one of my most-played games in 2011. I really like Nightfall, and I tried to break it out whenever I could, but very few people I played with stuck around for game 2 or 3. I think it’s an extremely clever design, with the chaining rules adding a very interesting layer of playing off of your opponent’s decks. It also works well in masking how many wounds people have and thus who is winning, a key aspect of these designs that has to work. Plus, it’s the first (and still only) truly novel post-Dominion deck-builder. At the end of the day, though, this is a king-of-the-hill, eviscerate-your-friends game, and as the people I play with get older this sort of thing is appreciated less. Like Thunderstone, Nightfall also suffered from a very uneven first expansion (Martial Law). The second expansion (Blood Country) seems better, but it’s recent and I haven’t had a chance to play with it yet. Different numbers of players makes for a dramatically different game experiences here. Probably the best bet is 3 players. I like the chaotic, strung-out feel of 5, but I think it just takes too long if you’re not a committed fan.

Black Friday was a “gap” game, released (barely) in 2010 but getting a lot of play in 2011. It’s classic Friese – horrendous rules, fiddly setup, bad information communication, a lot of process, and if you screw up any of it even slightly the game easily goes off the rails in dire ways. Once you get it right though, this is a fun and flavorful game that is both an entertainingly cynical editorial and a good game of judging risks and timing markets. This idea has been tried so many times with so many unsatisfactory results, it’s cool to see it actually work. I think the game got hammered by bad early buzz due to its terrible rules, and I saw it being liquidated in various ways throughout the year which is a shame because this is one of Friese’s best offerings. He just desperately needs to outsource his rules-writing.

Bios: Megafuana was a late-year arrival that I’ve played a handful of times and only with 2 players, but I’ve been really impressed. It’s streamlined the somewhat ponderous American Megafauna down to a 1-2 hour game with almost no loss of detail at all. There are a lot of moving parts here, so it’ll be hard to say without a bit more play, but I’m very optimistic about this one.

Star Trek: Expeditions is a typically great Knizia cooperative game. As is so often the case, he gives us something that feels comfortable and yet is new in many ways, and also a game that nicely evokes the feel of the original series. There are two caveats, though. Firstly, the difficulty levels are not as well calibrated as they were in Lord of the Rings, to my mind. Cadet is really much too easy and will leave the game feeling flat. Captain is much better, but the tension will be over how well you score, not whether you succeed or not. Admiral level, on the other hand, is a very tight game which is hard to win and which I’ve enjoyed by far the most. The second and far more substantial caveat is that the graphic design and layout on this sucker is really hideous, worst I’ve seen in ages. Text is small, low-contrast, and unreadable, frequently making import decision-making information inaccessible. The clix are a bad solution to a non-problem and serve only to further obscure things. It’s actually kind of depressing. This is a very good game, one of my favorites of the year actually, but the presentation difficulties may be a backbreaker.

Ascension continues to grow on me with two excellent expansions, Return of the Fallen and Storm of Souls, aided and abetted by the best iOS implementation of a boardgame currently available.

51st State got a bunch of play and is another game that, while not without issues, has at its heart something interesting and novel. Much of the iconography is horribly confusing and the rules aren’t great, but the game still is very tight with Puerto Rico-like levels of early game tension as you try to get your fiefdom established and on the right side of the power curve. The choices between trade, conquest, and integration are always difficult. The game tension attenuates as the game goes on unfortunately, but still, this is a worthy addition to the San Juan/Glory to Rome/Race for the Galaxy family of games, if not exactly on par with those classics.

Gnomes of Zavandor is the latest addition to the Zavandor franchise, and while it doesn’t grab me quite as much as Mines of Zavandor did, this is still a tight, elegant, well-designed game that takes the core Zavandor ideas and presents them in a new light. I really disliked Outpost and was not that impressed by Scepter of Zavandor, but all of Phoenicia, Mines of Zavandor, and Gnomes of Zavandor have really hit the spot. If you want a traditional tightly-designed German game, this might be the best of the year.

Thunderstone continued on its roll, with several good expansion. The last one (Heart of Doom) was probably the best yet, but Dragonspire and Thornwood Siege were both great too. The base set and first expansion were, in retrospect, quite uneven but the game powered through for me by being novel and compelling in other ways. Fortunately things have tightened up, and new players should start with Dragonspire and skip the early expansions. There has recently been news that AEG intends to do something of a reboot of the franchise in early 2012, taking into account the things they’ve learned in the past 3 years, and I take that as a good sign for the future of the game. This is something Dominion is well past due for.

There isn’t a lot to say about Small World: Underground, other than it’s a worthy addition to the franchise. I’m continually surprised by Keyaert’s ability to add more interesting special powers to the game without too much duplication, given the huge number already out there. This is a little more fiddly than the classic game, and first-time players may find it more bewildering, but I quite liked it. The humor on the places and artifacts is a little tired and unthematic though.

Airlines: Europe is the latest iteration of Alan R. Moon’s Airlines/Union Pacific idea, and I think it’s substantially the best version. The added tension of managing cash makes the game more nuanced, and adds more incentives for incremental stock play which benefits the overall pacing and game tension. There are a few minor signs that the balance between the various conflicting forces might not quite be right, and like its ancestors it doesn’t scale all that well and really wants 5 players. Still, it’s one of my favorite of his designs. It hasn’t caught on much with people I’ve played it with though, and I’ll guess that it’s because Airlines: Europe is basically the same core idea and is the same game he’s been endlessly tweaking and re-tweaking since the original Airlines. That was in 1990.

Castle Ravenloft and Wrath of Ashardalon (Ravenloft actually being from 2010) surprised me by how much I liked them. Are they great games? No. They show Wizards' traditional looseness with rules-writing which is almost tolerable in RPGs but not great in boardgames – thankfully these are cooperative. Despite a general lack of imagination in the designs, they usually play in an hour or so, capture the feel of cheesy dungeon crawling D&D nicely, and are well-paced. I think Wrath of Ashardalon is the better game as it closes some gaps and generally feels tighter with better-managed threat. Given the number of horrible train wrecks in this category – Descent, Mansion of Madness – it’s nice to have one that basically works. I’m off the train though; I have no real urge to own The Legend of Drizzt.

Kingdom Builder is Donald X. Vaccarino’s latest post-Dominion effort, and it succeeds in bringing Dominion’s spot-the-combo hook to a short tactical positioning game. I’ve definitely enjoyed the game. I think, though, that it has the same flaw as Dominion: it embraces game imbalance as a design element. In a lot of instances there is going to be a single “broken combo” or key scoring element that you have to grasp immediately or you will lose, and often games are decided before the actual play has had much chance to develop. I think this idea of identifying interesting and powerful interactions is fundamentally appealing, but you can’t just throw out the idea of design balance like this if you want your game to live on. Powers and abilities should combine to reliably produce interesting games in interesting ways, and if they don’t – especially if the game is entirely front-loaded as Dominion and Kingdom Builder are – there will be trouble. Don’t get me wrong, this is a fun, light-ish game which I am still rather enjoying, but there is nothing fundamentally new here and it’s just not in the same league design-wise as Ascension or Thunderstone. I expect I will be done with it by the middle of 2012.

Eclipse is a late-year arrival that I’ve played only once but about which I am very optimistic, so you’ll probably see more on it on the blog in early 2012. It plays cleanly, at a good pace, with plenty of action, and seems to actually understand the reasons most games in this computer-to-board genre fail. I enjoyed this and am quite hopeful, but more play will decide.

I’ll close out with a brief retrospective on my 2010 article.

My Game of the Year pick for 2010 was High Frontier, and 2011 has done nothing but reinforce that as the right choice for me. I’ve logged 16 plays between the base game and the expansion, which is amazing for a game of its size and scope. This is a terrific game which, while it’s going to appeal to a somewhat more hard-core audience than most, is still remarkable for how elegantly it tackles its subject matter, how accessible it makes a complex topic, and how well it stands as a design.

Ascension stands out as a game that I didn’t really consider as game-of-the-year material at the time, but which has gone on to be played more than a lot of the other games on the list combined, and which I now consider a standard in my gaming collection.

Of the actual new games that came out in 2010, only these two – High Frontier and Ascension – have broken out to get regular repeat play.

Of the rest, the games that I have maintained enthusiasm for are The Hobbit, Take it Higher!, Mines of Zavandor, and Homesteaders.

On the other hand, Macao, Master Builder, and Railroad Barons are all gone from my collection after having failed to live up to hopes. Neither Master Builder nor Railroad Barons turned out to be very solid as games, and Macao was just boring. None were great picks in retrospect.

7 Wonders tanked, somewhat predictably. It was a fine game, but for me it was never going to achieve long-term staying power due to its inherent tension-management problems (too many high-stakes decisions made too early with too little information, too much tension draining out as too many endgame plays become automatic). The 7 Wonders: Leaders expansion was as good as could be expected and revived it briefly, but I expect it’s about done now.

I mentioned a few games that I hadn’t gotten to yet (Merkator, Poseidon, and Luna), all of which I have now played, but none made much of an impact.

So what’s the takeaway here? There were a fair number of good games this year, but I have real uncertainty about whether an important core niche I care deeply about – elegant, artful, accessible, and envelope-expanding boardgames – is going to continue to be productive. While I like High Frontier, Thundersone, and 51st State, it’s games like Settlers of Catan, Lost Cities, El Grande, and Modern Art that have been the key drivers in moving sophisticated boardgames from a geeky niche to a much more broadly accepted hobby. Importantly, these were all games that were designed for the geeky market segment originally, but because of their outstanding artfulness and quality, and because they pushed boundaries and in their own way told interesting stories, they jumped rails and went mainstream. We need designs of this form for our hobby to continue to thrive as it has for almost 20 years. I’m not declaring the form to be dead yet – Forbidden Island is certainly a worthy successor to those classics – but for the first time I have significant doubts.

Fortunately, I think that the way we tend to group games into boardgames, RPGs, and wargames is completely artificial. I don’t believe any of these traditional categories (and perhaps more importantly, market segments) of games are different in any fundamental way, and for me there were some pretty exciting developments in those areas in 2011 which compensated for the weakness I perceived in boardgames. Stay tuned!