Games of the Years: 2003-2013

Last week Larry and Tom worked their way backwards through the past 20 years to pick the most notable board games of the past two decades in the Notable Notables series, and yesterday they began working their way forwards through those 20 years to pick their personal favorites in Games of the Years.  Today, we will finally put this epic seven-part series to bed by finishing the second half of our Games of the Years.  We managed to agree on two games yesterday, San Marco and Age of Steam, and today we add one more to the consensus in 2006.  You can probably guess what it is.  As with yesterday’s selections, we’ll ask again if you were stuck on a desert island with just Larry’s or Tom’s selections from these ten years, which would it be and why?

2003-04

Tom:  Santiago  (Runner Up: Pingvinas)
Larry:  Goa  (Runners Up: Maharaja, Power Grid)

     Spiel des Jahres (SdJ) – Ticket to Ride

    Deutscher Spiele Preis (DSP) – Saint Petersburg

    International Gamers Award (IGA) – Saint Petersburg (2p: Memoir ’44)

    BoardGameGeek highest ranked (BGG) – Power Grid

Tom – I have Morgan Dontanville to thank for turning me on to Santiago, which is one of the best five-player games ever.  I tend to prefer games at the smaller end of their player count range generally, but Santiago is one of those rare gems that actually benefits from being played with a full complement of players.  Five-player Santiago can be vicious and nasty as your crops dry up and die, but that just means you didn’t offer a large enough bribe to get the precious canals flowing your way.  Pingvinas (better known as Hey! That’s My Fish! or Packeis am Pol) is a wonderful two-player abstract game with a nice penguin theme.  The particularly challenging first few turns remind me of Through the Desert or Fjords, which is a good thing, and the modular board makes for a new puzzle each time.

Larry – Goa is a classic efficiency Euro, Rüdiger Dorn’s masterpiece plucked from a period where he was clearly the best game designer in the world.  Mastering the intricacies of both the auction mechanism and the tech tree advancement is always a hugely enjoyable challenge.  Maharaja is yet another excellent Kramer/Kiesling game, an extremely tense and demanding title that doesn’t get played often enough.  And even though my heart belongs to Funkenschlag, the gameplay of Power Grid is almost as good, and it’s considerably shorter and much better looking.

2004-05

Tom:  War of the Ring  (Runners Up: Antiquity, Nexus Ops, In the Shadow of the Emperor, Kreta, Louis XIV)

Larry:  Louis XIV  (Runner Up: Jambo)

    SdJ – Niagara

    DSP – Louis XIV

    IGA – Ticket to Ride: Europe  (2p: War of the Ring)

    BGG – War of the Ring

Larry – It’s a Dorn sweep!  (I did mention he was the dominant designer in the world at that time, right?)  Louis gives us perhaps the most interesting application of Dorn’s celebrated “walking” mechanism (always executed differently for each game), as you have to decide each turn how to best use the cards you were dealt to curry favor from those pals of the King.  Jambo might be my favorite two-player game of all time. There’s nothing particularly innovative about it, but it consistently gives you interesting decisions on every turn.  And while I rate the previous year better than this one, I acknowledge my younger partner’s enthusiasm for gaming at this time.  There was a whole lot of amazing stuff coming out circa 2004 that appealed to gamers of almost every taste.

Tom – I just have to jump in here to proclaim this the best year in gaming!  I tried hard to keep myself to one runner up for all the previous years and wanted to make fun of Larry when he couldn’t exercise that kind of self control for 1999 or 2000, but knew this year was coming when I wanted to pick a boatload of games.  All six of these games would be in my all-time Top 50 without question.  War of the Ring is an epic and incredible American-style two-player game, while Antiquity is one of the most punishing and trying German-style games ever.  Nexus Ops is a perfect 60-minute team combat game, while Kreta, In the Shadow of the Emperor, and Louis XIV are all remarkably innovative takes on the area control genre.  Given that Twilight Struggle and Caylus below were also 2005 releases, that was an utterly incredible year for strategy games.

2005-06

Tom:  Twilight Struggle  (Runner Up: Caylus)

Larry:  Caylus  (Runner Up: Canal Mania)

    SdJ – Thurn and Taxis

    DSP – Caylus

    IGA – Caylus  (2p: Twilight Struggle)

    BGG – Twilight Struggle

    Golden Geek (GG) – Caylus

Tom – I’ve enjoyed Twilight Struggle 39 times, but not all when it came out.  Those are actually spread out fairly evenly with about 5 plays every year for the past 7 years.  That says something about the staying power of this game.  There are plenty of games I play 30 times in the year or two after they come out but then they sit on the shelf gathering dust.  Twilight Struggle hits the table a decent number of times every year because there’s something so compelling and replayable about the experience.  I was daunted by the game at first, but thankfully stuck with it and have reaped the fruits of that time investment many times over.  The game is an absolute treasure and deserves its current #1 status on BGG, even if it’s only my #14 game of all-time.

Larry – The year is dominated by two all-time classics (Caylus and Twilight Struggle), and yet neither are huge favorites of mine, making this a fairly weak year for me.  Caylus probably would be a game I’d like a lot, but I haven’t played it enough to become proficient at the strategies, so when I do play, I find myself falling far behind my more experienced opponents.  And given my lack of card-driven game experience, Twilight Struggle is very much a struggle for me (I do better with another Matthews design, 1960).  Caylus is still good enough for me to tab it as my game of the year, while Canal Mania is easily my favorite Ragnar Brothers design, a train game (okay, a canal game) done right.

2006-07

Tom:  Through the Ages  (Runner Up: Imperial)

Larry:  Through the Ages  (Runners Up: Phoenicia, Medici vs. Strozzi)

    SdJ – Zooloretto

    DSP – Pillars of the Earth

    IGA – Through the Ages (2p: Mr. Jack)

    BGG – Through the Ages

    GG – Shogun

Larry – Through the Ages may include more good and innovative ideas in its design than any other game I’ve played.  It took a while for it to work its way up my personal ratings chart, since it’s a long and very intense game, but I finally decided it had to be my favorite game of all time (unseating Puerto Rico, which had been there for many years). Naturally, it’s my pick for this year.  I also adore Phoenicia, as a wonderful game of judgment and valuation, without an ounce of fat on its bones–what a tragedy that JKLM screwed up the rules, artwork, and components so badly.  And Medici vs. Strozzi is another game where getting the values right is so delightfully excruciating; played by two evenly matched opponents, it truly is a knife fight in a phone book.  For me, it’s Knizia’s last great design.

Tom – Seeing Imperial there as the “runner up” breaks my heart a little as it’s an all-time Top 10 game for me, but with Through the Ages as my all-time favorite, I suppose Imperial just got unlucky in also being a 2006 release.  As a longtime fan of Diplomacy, the shifting control of great powers in Imperial is a fantastic innovation that pulls players in all sorts of crazy directions as their machinations for European domination unfold.

2007-08

Tom:  Galaxy Trucker  (Runner Up: Before the Wind)

Larry:  Agricola  (Runner Up: Brass)

    SdJ – Keltis

    DSP – Agricola

    IGA – Agricola (2p: 1960)

    BGG – Agricola

    GG – Agricola

Tom – I love Galaxy Trucker.  I just love it so much!  It is one of the most fun board games I have ever played, if not the most fun one.  And the expansions are perfectly tuned to reinvigorate the game after you’ve played it a ton of times.  The raucous joy of watching everyone’s ship fall apart is hard to beat, particularly by the quiet and studious game of Agricola.  This year also saw the oft-overlooked Before the Wind come out. Before the Wind is a game about extortion.  It looks dry and boring, but it’s quite the opposite.  Before the Wind is a fantastically vicious and interactive game with a mundane theme of shipping goods.

Larry – Two great games this period, whose ratings have shifted for me over the years.  I was an early adopter on Agricola, then fell behind the power curve, and now am getting back into it thanks to its terrific iOS port.  It may not be my favorite worker placement game (that comes a little later), but it is an excellent and innovative design with a hugely enjoyable theme.  Brass is almost as good, although I’ll probably never be particularly good at it.  But in spite of my struggles with it, I always enjoy it and it easily makes my #2 spot for the year.

2008-09

Tom:  Ghost Stories  (Runner Up: Battlestar Galactica)

Larry:  Automobile  (Runner Up: Steel Driver)

    SdJ – Dominion

    DSP – Dominion

    IGA – Le Havre (2p: Day & Night)

    BGG – Le Havre

    GG – Dominion

Larry – Man, I love Automobile.  It’s not the easiest game to get to the table, because its complex and unforgiving nature limits its appeal, but it’s just a fabulous design.  Like Princes, it’s also a minimal action game (this time, you only get twelve actions the entire game!), so every turn counts.  I also think Wallace has given us the best production mechanism I’ve ever seen in a game, where overbuilding (both in terms of factories and cars) is punished as much as underbuilding.  Wallace was at his absolute peak at this time and even though Steel Driver isn’t nearly as good as Automobile, I’m still very fond of it.  Many players dislike the scoring mechanism at the end of the game, but I think it’s the best part of the game.  It’s not nearly as chaotic as most assume it is and properly judging how it will play out is the key to winning.

Tom – Note that Ghost Stories is the best cooperative game ever, but Larry doesn’t appreciate cooperative designs at all.

2009-2010

Tom:  God’s Playground  (Runners Up: Stronghold, Hansa Teutonica)

Larry:  Macao  (Runner Up: Egizia)

    SdJ – Dixit

    DSP – Fresco

    IGA – Age of Industry (2p: Campaign Manager)

    BGG – Dominion: Intrigue

    GG – Hansa Teutonica

Tom – God’s Playground is one of those quirky Wallace designs that is wonderful despite being rough around the edges.  I’ve only had a chance to play it 6 times, fewer than just about any other game on this entire list, but each of those three-hour plays has been a blast.  Yes it’s long and has a lot of random elements. Yes there are chromey, obtuse rules that you’re bound to forget.  But the experience is memorable and has a unique feeling, making it a game I’m often proselytizing for.  On the other hand, it was a tight year with Stronghold and Hansa Teutonica both being strong contenders.  All are very different games, but great for two, three, or four players depending on how many people you’ve got.  Stronghold is a two-player siege game where both the attacker and defender can somehow feel hopeless at the same time.  Hansa Teutonica is one of the most interactive and brutal German-style cube pushers of all time.

Larry – Not a great year for me.  Macao is another quality Alea/Feld partnership that I always enjoy, but I rate it lower than most of the other first choices here.  Its dice mechanism is one of Feld’s most elegant efforts, though. Egizia is always fun because the stress of wanting to do that action far down river, but knowing that it will force you to skip lots of other good ones, leads to plenty of pleasurable angst.

2010-2011

Tom:  Dominant Species  (Runner Up: Antics)

Larry:  Navegador  (Runner Up: Castles of Burgundy)

    SdJ – Qwirkle

    Kennerspiel des Jahres (KdJ) – 7 Wonders

    DSP – 7 Wonders

    IGA – 7 Wonders (2p: A Few Acres of Snow)

    BGG – 7 Wonders

    GG – Dominant Species

Larry – I’m a big fan of Mac Gerdts, the creator and chief proponent of the rondel, and I consider Navegador to be his masterpiece.  It’s a wonderfully smooth, superbly designed game full of interesting decisions.  It’s also unfailingly enjoyable and provides one of the most reliable game experiences I can think of.  The theme and the components also add to the game’s appeal.  Castles of Burgundy is another favorite and is my top-rated Feld design.  I think several other games by Herr Stefan have more innovative (and certainly more elegant) rules, but Burgundy scores high just because it’s so much fun to play.  Both games play very well with different number counts.  So my two choices for the year have a good deal in common.

Tom – I still remember so vividly when I learned Dominant Species late at night at BGG.CON and instantly fell head over heels for the game.  I ordered a copy online the next day and played it several more times that weekend.  I’m obviously a huge fan of area majority games, but it had been a number of years since one had measured up to the bar set by El Grande and San Marco.  Dominant Species easily did and continues to impress.  Antics is hands-down my favorite Fragor game, in part because of the ingenious way it implements the three-dimensional building mechanism previously seen in Java and Taluva.

2011-12

Tom:  Risk Legacy  (Runner Up: Summoner Wars: Master Set)

Larry:  Ora et Labora  (Runner Up: Trajan)

    SdJ – Kingdom Builder

    KdJ – Village

    DSP – Village

    IGA – Trajan (2p: Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small)

    BGG – Eclipse

    GG – Eclipse

Tom – I wrestled with this selection for a while because I love both Risk Legacy and Summoner Wars so much.  I really think Summoner Wars came into its own with the release of the Master Set two years after the initial release, so that’s why I put the game in this year.  But Risk Legacy was just such a novel and captivating experience that I couldn’t pass it over.  Rob Daviau struck gold with the idea of a game that changes permanently based on the players’ actions and the implementation was equally impressive.  I’m still dumbfounded that Hasbro allowed this to go to print, but am gleefully hoarding a couple extra copies to play in the years to come.

Larry – I was quite hesitant about Ora at first, as it seemed so similar to Le Havre.  But it only took me a few turns to see that it played quite differently and I feel all of the alterations are considerable improvements.  In fact, I enjoy it so much that I rate it as my favorite worker placement game and it became the first game to appear in 5 years to jump into my all-time top 10 (Through the Ages was the previous one).  Trajan is another quality Feld and the Mancala mechanism is just brilliant.

2012-13

Tom:  Keyflower  (Runner Up: Ginkgopolis)

Larry:  Tzolk’in  (Runner Up: Terra Mystica)

    SdJ – Hanabi

    KdJ – Legends of Andor

    DSP – Terra Mystica

    IGA – Terra Mystica (2p: Le Havre: The Inland Port)

    BGG – Android: Netrunner

Larry – My two choices are so close together that it’s practically a tie for the top spot.  I also struggle to play both of them well, so I can’t even use my own proficiency to break the logjam!  I enjoy the planning in Tzolk’in just a little bit more, so I give it the nod.  The gears in that game, which allow you to automatically assign greater rewards to workers that spend more time in each area, are such a clever innovation.  I also like the cards that allow the players to choose their own starting position.  But Terra Mystica is such a detailed and well-designed game, one that truly rewards good planning.  It also features tremendous replayability, with all of the very different races and the variations in the starting game position.  These are two games I’m always happy to play!

Tom – Keyflower and Ginkgopolis are easily my two favorite games from 2012.  These days its hard to find room in my collection, or on my shelves, for many new releases, but those two definitely made the cut.  There’s something in particular about the auctions and worker placement in Keyflower, constrained as they are by the meeple colors, that makes the game interesting, fresh, and a pleasure to play.

2013-2014

Tom:  Patchistory  (Runner Up: Geistesblitz 5 vor 12)

Larry:  Russian Railroads  (Runner Up: Patchistory)

    BGG – Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords [as of Jan. 21, 2014]

Tom – It’s obviously a bit premature to pick a game of the year for 2013-14 since the year hasn’t even ended and there hasn’t been enough time to fully explore even the titles that have come out so far.  But we couldn’t help ourselves from sharing our admiration for Patchistory.  And it’s only the 4th game of the year that we agree on in 21 years.  Then again this is a tentative game of the year selection at this stage and Larry is already threatening to bump up Russian Railroads if he keeps enjoying it for some strange reason. In a year with plenty of interesting releases, Patchistory is the clear winner because it does something fresh and new in the epic civ game space.  I’ve enjoyed four plays of Patchistory now, with all of the player counts, and it scales well too for a civ game.  Through the Ages is still the king, but after 70 plays, I’m happy to try something different for a change of pace. Sid Meier’s Civ, Clash of Cultures, and Nations don’t quite cut it, but Patchistory could very well be the prince.

(Of course Larry had to go and flip his selections after I wrote that, geez…)

Larry – The contrast between my two picks is most interesting to me.  Russian Railroads is an extremely smooth playing and very professionally designed title.  It’s not particularly innovative, but it’s a fast-playing efficiency game with plenty of enjoyable decisions and lots of paths to victory.  Patchistory, on the other hand, is long, very fiddly, has a number of holes in the design, and most games will feature some balance issues.  But the patching mechanism is brilliant and leads to tons of angst.  The game is very interactive and has many highs and lows, giving it quite a different feel than Russian Railroads.  I finally decided that some of its rough spots were enough for me to put the Hans im Gluck design on top, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see these two switching places with some regularity as I continue playing them.

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19 Responses to Games of the Years: 2003-2013

  1. brianfrahm says:

    Great post gentlemen.

  2. Larry – “knife fight in a phone book” ?! :-)

  3. 2003-2004
    Memoir ’44

    2004-2005
    Heroscape

    2005-2006
    Vegas Showdown

    2006-2007
    Galaxy Trucker

    2007-2008
    Race for the Galaxy

    2008-2009
    Im Reich der Wustesohne

    2009-2010
    Summoner Wars

    2010-2011
    Fresco

    2011-2012
    Risk: Legacy

    2012-2013
    Descent: Journeys in the Dark (2nd Edition)

    2013-2014
    not ready to call this one (yet)

    overlap
    with Tom – 2 games (Summoner Wars, Risk: Legacy)
    with Larry – zero, nada, zilch

    It’s a good thing we like playing games together, Larry… cuz we SURE don’t choose the same games. (We always have Sun, Sea & Sand…)

  4. Wow, Santiago and Twilight Struggle are the only ones I really love (plus Brass if I include runner-up selections). Amazing how different gamers’ preferences can be :)

    • Tom Rosen says:

      Yeah, with hundreds of good games released every year, I imagine you could get a lot of gamers in a room and still find very little agreement on “game of the year” for any given year… but thankfully you can still find agreement on something that everyone is up for playing usually… as long as Larry isn’t in the room ;)

  5. Jacob says:

    This was a lot of fun to read. I didn’t realize the list was for “favourite” game. I thought it was for the “best” or “most impactful” game that year (which requires criteria, I know). I don’t know God’s Playground, for example, but would you say it was the best game made that year? I’m not a big fan of Dominant Species, but I would label it the best of its year. Just a thought for a future article.

    • Tom Rosen says:

      Thanks Jacob. Our “Notable Notables” series last week was intended to list and discuss the games that we thought were “most impactful” (http://opinionatedgamers.com/2014/01/17/notable-notables-1993-1996/). Today and yesterday, we decided to just focus on our personal favorites. I would not say God’s Playground was a particularly impactful game from 2009. As discussed last week, I’d give that honor to Dixit, while Larry would give the nod to Hansa Teutonica. But I do love playing God’s Playground!

  6. Eric Brosius says:

    Here’s my list. I’m omitting wargames.

    2003: Paris Paris
    2004: Saint Petersburg
    2005: 1846
    2006: Through the Ages
    2007: Race for the Galaxy
    2008: Snow Tails
    2009: Martian Rails
    2010: 1880
    2011: King of Tokyo
    2012: Starship Merchants
    2013: 1775: Rebellion

    • Eric:

      You have made some excellent choices here (Race, Snow Tails, etc.) – but all that goodwill is washed away in my astonishment that your favorite game of 2003 is the abysmal Paris Paris. Why why?! :-)

      • Eric Brosius says:

        I love Paris Paris. I’ll freely admit that it’s tactical, but this list is about the games I like, not the objectively best. For context, though, my runners-up for 2003 are:

        Alhambra
        Coloretto
        R-Eco

        None of them is a brain-burner.

    • Tom Rosen says:

      Glad to see King of Tokyo on the list! Larry thought I was crazy when I picked it for the notables list last week, but I not only enjoy the game, I think it is one of the more widely played and enjoyed games of that year… and it’s Garfield too of course!

  7. seisyll says:

    I find myself waffling between both of you – some years I agree with Tom, others I agree with Larry. Siding with Tom on the Keyflower vote and with Larry on Ora and Labora (and other perfect information games.) Can’t decide between Santiago and Goa – both are so good. Whatever the case, these are all among my favorites. (In large part because I tend to seek out the games that the two of you recommend.) I wish Innovation would see some love – that’s the only omission I can see.

    Thanks for this series – you both have an incredible eye for games!

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