The calendar may show that 2011 is history, but there’s plenty of last year’s games still to be played in 2012. That’s the problem when there are tons of Essen games to go through and when a lot of English language versions are just getting to American shores. I’ve yet to play Ora et Labora, First Sparks, Hawaii, Dungeon Petz, Quebec, and other notable titles. Even the new games I have managed to play haven’t necessarily hit the table often enough for me to fairly evaluate them.
Still, it’s traditional at this time of year to look back and evaluate the previous twelve months. So that’s what I’ll be doing in this article, with the understanding that I’ll be revisiting this subject a few months later with a revised list. The differences may prove to be enlightening.
The Year as a Whole
2010 was a very disappointing gaming year for me, which always leads to a few fears about the hobby having seen its best days. But as usual, those concerns were groundless and I’m happy to report that to date, 2011 has been quite a good year and has the potential to be well above average by the time I get around to playing all the titles. The Nuremberg games in particular were unusually good. In the next section, you’ll see that the majority of my top games were from the first half of the year. Part of that is due to how many potentially good games from Essen I have yet to play, but much of it is because of the strong group of games that debuted prior to the Fair. So overall, I’m quite bullish on last year and only expect that opinion to improve once I get exposed to the remainder of the 2011 crop.
My Favorites from Last Year
1. A Few Acres of Snow - Leave it to Martin Wallace to combine deckbuilding, finances, logistics, exploration, wargaming, and more in one tidy little package. I’m really not the target audience for this game, yet it knocked my socks off. Using deckbuilding to simulate the logistical delays of a trans-oceanic conflict is absolutely brilliant. Snow has got to be one of the most innovative titles of recent years and the multifaceted play means there’s still plenty of techniques to explore.
The discovery of a killer British strategy (the so-called “Halifax Hammer”) was a little disappointing, but Wallace recently proposed some simple changes which look as if they should restore the game’s balance again. The fact that Snow’s fans were willing to patiently wait for this fix, rather than trash the design, is indicative of the title’s quality and the loyalty and good will Wallace has earned from many gamers.
2. The Castles of Burgundy - Combine Stefan Feld and Alea and the odds are you’re going to get a pretty good game. If the design is based on yet another one of Feld’s innovative dice mechanics, it’s now likely to be great. Castles of Burgundy does not buck that trend. Determining how to best use your dice on each turn is a very enjoyable activity and the game is nicely balanced. My early contests featured excessive downtime, but my current group plays this at a nice brisk pace, making this an excellent choice for any number of players. I expect we’ll be playing this for years to come.
3. Trajan - Herr Feld has to be considered the leading designer of classic Eurogames today, with so many good titles that he can even afford to let his friends publish some of them! The Mancala-inspired action mechanic in Trajan is remarkable and gives the players tremendous scope for advanced planning. The different subgames associated with the actions all have a slightly different feel, giving the game some nice variety. I’m still in the early days of exploring this one, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed what I’ve experienced to date.
4. Lancaster - I’ve been hugely impressed with the early output of new designer Matthias Cramer and Lancaster is probably my favorite of his games. The modified (and contentious) worker placement used here works very well and the players have multiple goals to try to achieve. There are many different aspects to this polished design and they all fit together very smoothly. The only downside I can think of is that this seems to play best with exactly four players; five can still be fun, but it’s a much more bruising affair, with a good deal of thrashing. I’m looking forward to trying out the New Laws expansion, to see how that can shake things up.
5. Airlines Europe - I’ve been in love with the Airlines/Union Pacific system for over 15 years and in my opinion, this is the best implementation of it. Alan Moon adds a financial aspect to the proceedings and that extra element makes this even more of a tense affair. There are lots of other small refinements and all of them are good ones. This is one of the best middleweight designs of the past several years.
6. Helvetia - More Cramer goodness! That’s three excellent titles in two years (he debuted last year with Glen More), which is mighty impressive. Helvetia is a completely charming design where the player actions allow them to construct buildings that create or convert goods, to marry off their meeples (in order to get access to opponents’ buildings), and to use those marriages to have children (more meeples!). The goal is to come up with chains of associated goods, which makes it as much of a puzzle as a game, but it doesn’t feel in the least bit dry and the player interaction is high. The game’s only drawback is that you really need to study all of your opponents’ displays in order to plan things out appropriately and that slows turns down a bit. That’s the only thing keeping this out of the top 5, but even with that, it’s not a long game. Needless to say, I’m anxiously awaiting the next game from Herr Cramer!
7. Pantheon - There are lots of moving parts to this game, but they all mesh together quite well to provide an enjoyable and different feeling experience. Good judgment and bold plays are rewarded and there’s a nice amount of indirect player interaction. While much of the game’s luck can be mitigated against, sometimes a lucky break can fall into a player’s lap and determine the winner. That’s a negative in my eyes, but is the sort of thing that might be minimized with a few house rules.
8. PAX - Now things start getting tougher, as the next group of games are of similar quality. I think I’ll go with Bernd (Peloponnes) Eisenstein’s latest to head the pack. PAX is a fast-playing card game that features a card selection process similar to the one found in Merchants of Amsterdam and Biblios. You’re collecting sets, dealing with finances, and trying to best Rome (and the battles with Rome determine which of the two victory conditions are used). Like Peloponnes, it packs a lot of game in a short time period and gives the players some interesting decisions along the way.
9. String Railway: Transport - I don’t think I’ve ever played a spinoff of an existing design that improved the base game more than this title. The original String Railway–as clever and audacious as it was–was a gimmick; SR: Transport is a game. Now there are real decisions to be made and the luck factor is greatly reduced. And yet, the base concept of railroads and terrain made of string is still there and as delightful as ever. Asmodee has picked up the original game, so let’s hope they (or someone else) will republish the much improved successor.
10. Ticket to Ride: Team Asia - I’m not usually a fan of partnership variants for head-to-head games, as they rarely add anything extra. But Team Asia is an exception, as only some of the team’s train cards are shared and only some of the tickets are known by both partners. So you’re not only trying to figure out what your opponents are doing, you’re also trying to work out your partner’s goals! Plus, the fact that partners sit next to each other opens up a whole new set of gambits to pull off, such as the first partner feeding the second or setting up one-two plays on the board. My only concern after one game is that good luck with having your tickets mesh well with your partner’s might be somewhat unbalancing, but overall, I enjoyed this a lot. I think it’s great that Alan Moon keeps coming up with new twists that keep this classic gateway design feeling fresh.
11. City Tycoon - In this tile-laying game from Poland, players help build a city by constructing the buildings on the tiles they place. Most buildings can be activated by supplying them with power or water. You have to pay for buying and transporting those commodities if you don’t own the tiles they come from or are moved through. Activating tiles earns you cash, VPs, or goods, which can be used to activate other buildings. There’s a lot to think about here and the game seems well balanced. There’s plenty more for me to explore, but this is a nice surprise gamer’s game from Essen.
12. Gold! - A return to form for Michael Schacht, as he once again gives us a card game with simple rules, but which is anything but simple. The key to this quick moving set collection game is minimizing the effects of your opponents’ thefts while not crippling your own thieving, which requires some delicate reasoning and careful play. I think this plays better with three than with two; in fact, I’d say it’s one of the better three-player fillers to appear in recent years.
13. Vanuatu - This game’s gentle theme belies a truly vicious set of mechanics. You assign your action markers to the various actions, but you can only take an action if you have the most markers there. Then you remove all your markers at that action, to give the player with the next highest amount a chance, but if you don’t have a majority at any action when your turn comes around, you have to remove your markers at one action without doin’ nuthin’! Working out the timing and anticipating your opponents’ desires are the key skills here. In my one play, we all stumbled around a bit; what I need to see in future games is if this system is too brutal and unforgiving or if it can be mastered. A game that, if all goes well, could easily work its way into my Top 10 for the year.
14. Uluru - More of a puzzle than a game, but a unique one. Cards are revealed showing different relationships between game pieces on the eight space display (“Green must be on the opposite side as Yellow”, “Blue is at least two spaces away from Red”, etc.). The players try to position the pieces on their displays so that all the relationships are met and do so within the time limit. It’s a nice mental challenge. The bizarre theme (Australian dreambirds?) does nothing for me, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying this unusual game.
15. Eclipse - This is an ambitious, very thematic, and well designed game. There’s a good deal of luck, but most of the effects are well balanced, allowing players to adjust to whatever they encounter. However, there are a number of things keeping me from being as enthusiastic about this title as most of the rest of the gaming world. It’s primarily a wargame and I’d be happier if there were more paths to victory that didn’t involve utilizing military actions. Even though it’s pretty short for a 4X design, it’s still a bit long for me. And while the luck factor isn’t critical, I can see where it might hammer one player or decide a contest. Still, I can’t help but admire the innovative mechanics and immersive and thematic feel. I can see this being a game I’ll enjoy two or three times a year, but not one that I’ll request every week.
Last Year’s Worst Games
Probably my worst gaming experience of the year was with Strasbourg, but I’ve been made aware that this was probably the result of faulty groupthink. So I do want to give the game a second chance, although I’m not sure when that will happen.
Another downer was King of Tokyo (not enough control, not enough laughs, and too long for what it is–not to mention, a bad roll can put you in the line of fire when that’s the last place you want to be). But that’s not really fair, as I didn’t think this would be my kind of game in the first place.
So I think I’ll give my booby prize to Norenberc. I’m convinced there’s a game there, but there’s no way I’m willing to put in the effort required for such an incremental, frustrating, and slow moving title. It was a design that fought us at every turn and that’s enough for me to declare it my Worst Game of the Year.
A dishonorable mention must go to The Great Fire of London, which is not a 2011 title but was new to me last year. My one (and only) game was pretty awful. Any game where the principal entertainment consists of destroying things not because of the game situation, but because you can, is a good one to avoid forever.
Most Surprising Game of 2011
My most pleasant surprise of the year had to be with String Railway: Transport. I had no real reason to think that a follow up to the original String Railway would be a major improvement, but the changes really made this one work for me. It can be hard to rework your own designs to improve gameplay while still keeping the core of the original, so kudos to designer Hisashi Hayashi.
My honorable mention would be another spin-off, Ticket to Ride: Team Asia. I wasn’t impressed when I read the rules for this variant, but the team play really adds a lot of different decisions to the tried and true TtR experience. Very nicely done and not something I saw coming.
Most Disappointing Game of 2011
Two games come to mind. Mundus Novus is just a shortish middleweight, but I had high hopes for it, both because I knew that the core trading mechanism worked so well in Mare Nostrum and because it sounded very promising from the rules. But the luck factor seems very high, much of the trading is inconsequential, and it’s just not much fun. An atypically big miss by the usually reliable team of Laget and Cathala.
The other game that disappointed me is Singapore. Again, the rules sounded very promising, but the fact that you don’t get to place most of your tiles means that it’s hard to form a coherent strategy. It’s another game that features a race to the rear (the player last in points gets to determine the location of everyone’s tiles) and the whole thing has a very peculiar, negative feel to it. I’m not opposed to giving it another try, but I was expecting better things.
There were two other, milder disappointments. Colonial always had the potential to be either insanely great or insanely overdesigned. I’m not sure where it sits after just one play, but so far, it’s on the negative side. More plays are definitely needed. And Drum Roll’s fantastic artwork attracted me from the start. But the cards are too small to show it off properly, there’s so much data on the cards that they appear cluttered, and, while the game itself is reasonably interesting, it takes way too long for what it is.
Right now, 2011 stacks up as a pretty good year for me. But once I get a chance to play all of the games I’ve yet to try, the year could go down as outstanding or just ordinary, if things don’t pan out as expected. In a few months, I’ll let you know how it all turned out.