Kris Hall: Best of 2010

Today we’re starting a series of discussions about the best games of 2010.  Or at least our favorite games of 2010.  I’m more comfortable talking about favorite games because I am well aware of my own prejudices, and find it hard to appreciate certain types of games (abstract games, for example).  I doubt that anyone has played all the games that were published in 2010, and there are certainly major games that haven’t made it into my corner of West Virginia (K2 and Navegador among others), but I’ve tried to play every major game (yes, a vague category) that came my way.

The first two games on my list were games that were published in one form or another in years before 2010, but new and improved 2010 editions made them memorable.

Without further introduction, here are my favorite 2010 games.

Tammany Hall.

Published by StrataMax Inc.

Designed by Doug Eckhart.

Tammany Hall was originally published in 2007, but in 2010 StrataMax came out with a new edition that greatly improved the game’s components.  The new edition not only included a beautiful game board, it came in a box like a Treefrog Game, and actually looks like Martin Wallace might have designed it.  This is not surprising as Martin Wallace helped with the physical production of the new edition.

Of course, fine components would mean little if the game itself weren’t fun, but Tammany Hall is a fine area majority game.  Players represent politicians in Gilded Age New York City, and each tries to win elections with the help of the various ethnic groups (the Irish, Germans, English, and Italians) that are pouring into the city.  Placing a cube of one of these ethnic groups into a ward earns a player a chip that he can use in bidding for control of a ward during an election.  A player who wins the most wards in an election becomes the mayor, and usually gets the most victory points for that election.

The Mayor must then distribute offices to the other players in the game.  Each office has its own special power that the player can use in the run-up to the next election.  Because the mayor has no special power, he is at a disadvantage in the campaign for the next election.  This built-in handicap helps keep one player from running away with the game.

Tammany Hall is a bit abstract for my taste, but the design is smart enough that I don’t really mind.  The beautiful new edition makes it a fine game to place on the shelf next to my Martin Wallace games.

War of the Ring Collector’s Edition.  

Published by Nexus.

Designed by Roberto Di Meglio, Marco Maggi, and Francisco Nepitello.

War of the Ring is arguably the best Tolkien game ever made, and the Collector’s Edition is the finest version of this game ever likely to be published.  It is certainly the most expensive game I ever expect to own, but is likely to remain a good investment as copies currently sell for at least twice the original price in the United States.  Although this was a limited edition, two of the Appalachian Gamers each own a copy so it certainly was not difficult for fans to get a copy before it sold out.

The Collector’s Edition boasts a redesigned and larger mapboard, hand-painted army figures, larger easy-to-read cards, a rewritten hard-back rulebook, new dice and a draw bag, and a large box that is shaped like a book.  It is simply a beautiful production.

War of the Ring remains an ingenious blend of war game and Euro-game mechanisms.  While the game is not a card-driven design in the strict sense, the cards are vital and incorporate many events from the trilogy.  Many players (including myself) think that the game has balance issues, and the designers recently polled players to see if there was a consensus view of the balance of the game as they prepare for a non-Collector’s Edition reprint.  I suspect that a majority of players either don’t notice an imbalance in the game or don’t care, although I personally can’t remember the last time the Free People’s side won a game.  But even if the game is not evenly balanced, I find that this fine design is still the best simulation of Tolkien’s epic conflict.

Merchants & Marauders.

Published by Filosofia Editions, Pegasus Spiele, Z-Man Games.

Designed by Kasper Agaard and Christian Marcussen.

I once wrote a column for Boardgame News in which I suggested that Merchants & Marauders should be published by a company like Fantasy Flight or Z-Man Games.  The game had originally been signed with a famous game company, but then the contract was cancelled after the gaming community was already aware of the game.  I downloaded the rules, and decided to write a Boardgame News column to point out that there was a publishing opportunity here.  I suppose it is unlikely that Zev at Z-Man ever read my column before deciding to publish M&M, but at least I have the satisfaction of knowing a decent design when I see one.

I think M&M is the best pirate game I have ever played.  Of course, that isn’t actually much of a compliment because the other pirate games I’ve played have been an unimpressive lot.  But M&M is a fun adventure game that allows players to find victory points in their own way.  They can sail the Caribbean and plunder merchant vessels, or peacefully deliver cargo from port to port, or even go on treasure hunts or other special missions.  Players who choose the pirate path can become the target of non-player warships, but players who remain peaceful merchants can attract both player and non-player pirates.  There is a lot of card-drawing and die-rolling, and players who hate luck in their games should certainly steer clear of this game.  And a full game of ten victory points can take several hours (or just one hour if a player gets very lucky; I’ve seen it happen).  But Merchants & Marauders combines a physical production worthy of Fantasy Flight Games with a design that offers players many paths to victory.  Raise the Jolly Roger!

Labyrinth: The War on Terror.

Published by GMT Games.

Designed by Volko Ruhnke.

I once wrote that I would not be interested in playing a game about any war that Americans are currently fighting and dying in.  Labyrinth made a liar out of me.  So much for my moral fiber.

Labyrinth is not exclusively about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but is a strategic overview of the War on Terror that has been an ongoing conflict since September 11, 2001.  In Labyrinth players are either the Americans who are trying to eliminate terrorist cells and bring good governance to the Islamic world, or the Jihadists who are trying to bring fundamentalist Islamic government to the nations of the Middle East.  Like many GMT games, Labyrinth is a card-driven design that uses cards to bring many real-life events into the game.  Labyrinth is a sort of cousin of Twilight Struggle, another game that focuses as much on political and ideological conflict as overt military clashes.  Labyrinth is a more complicated design than Twilight Struggle, and is probably tied with War of the Ring for the spot as most complicated game on this list.

This is an odd sort of game because the two sides have different strengths and weaknesses.  The American player can overthrow any Middle Eastern government through regime change, but committing American troops to a nation reduces the number of cards that the American player draws each turn.  Trying regime change in more than one nation can truly stretch American resources to the limit.  The Jihadist player often plays the mole to the American’s whacking hammer, but if the Jihadists can create enough trouble in enough nations, the Americans may constantly find themselves one step behind.  And if the Jihadists can get lucky in Pakistan, they may be able to grab weapons of mass destruction, and go for a detonation-in-America victory.

One of the Appalachian Gamers claims that he has never lost when playing as the Jihadists, but I haven’t played Labyrinth enough to know if there is a balance problem.  Certainly there are gamers on BGG who claim that the game favors the Americans.  At any rate, I hope to explore this intricate design in detail over the coming years.  I find it to be an engrossing two-player semi-wargame.

20th Century.

Published by Rio Grande Games.

Designed by Vladimir Suchy.

20th Century was a surprise hit with the Appalachian Gamers.  I had heard little about it before it appeared one game night, and I was delighted to find that it was a suspenseful auction game.

20th Century is a game with two currencies: cash and technology points.  Cash is used for bidding on city tiles that players accumulate over the course of the game.  Technology points are used to purchase technology tiles that have special abilities, but its most important use is for paying for spaces on a disaster track that assigns various amounts of trash and pollution to players who lose the auction that occurs at the end of every turn.

Each city tile holds one or more cities.  Cities (when populated by a population cube) produce varying amounts of cash, technology points, and victory points.  Some cities also have recycling centers that eliminate the trash cubes that come with city tiles.  Eliminating trash cubes helps ensure that city tiles are worth victory points at the end of the game.

The auctions at the heart of the game are usually tense.  Players often can’t get a great city tile without paying a high price, but players who spend too much for one tile may find it difficult to acquire a second tile.  And grabbing more than one tile per turn seems to greatly increase one’s chances for victory.  Players who drop out of the city tile auctions get first pick of the technology tiles on display, but players who wait until other players have gone on to choose technology tiles may be able to grab the final city tiles for a song.

Every year there seems to be some game that comes out of the blue and becomes a quick favorite.  In 2010, 20th Century was that game for the Appalachian Gamers.

Moongha Invaders.

Published by Treefrog Games.

Designed by Martin Wallace.

While many gamers this year appreciated Age of Industry, Martin Wallace’s re-design of Brass, or London, a relatively simple card-driven game, my favorite Wallace game of 2010 was also his goofiest: Moongha Invaders.  In this sci-fi B-movie tribute game players control tribes of alien invaders bent on destroying human cities.  Alien units arrive on the board in a hidden state, and cannot attack or be attacked until they flipped to their revealed side.

Players collect points for the damage they inflict on city spaces, for infecting cities with alien vampires, and for destroying opposing aliens with their Moogres, a monster that specializes in attacking other monsters.  Player also are secretly assigned cities that they are supposed to protect, and they gain points if they can protect these cities from harm until the end of the game.

Players can use the armies and air forces of human nations to attack opposing aliens.  On rare occasions, an atomic bomb may even become available for use.  Hero units can be used to spot hidden monsters, and to attack the Drakoor, the alien vampire units.

Players get an interesting menu of monsters to create and use.  Mechnoor, the giant robot, is the most powerful unit, and is your basic city-stomper.  As mentioned above, the Moogre specializes in attacking other players monsters.  The Bloob are multiple monsters that can be activated for the cost of activating a single monster.  The Shaggoo specializes in revealing hidden enemy monsters, and the Kiddoo is a sidekick who can add his attack to the attack of another nearby friendly monster.  The Drakoor collect points for simply existing in cities at the end of the game, and the Spectoor is a boss monster that increases monster movement when it is on the board.

Not all of these monsters are equally useful, and I’ve found that the Kiddoo rarely turns up on the board.  But Mechnoor, the Moogre, and the Bloob always make an appearance, and the Drakoor show up near the end of the game when they will score points.

Naturally, Moongha is more of a dice-driven slugfest than a luckless strategy game, but that doesn’t mean that it is mindless fun or that diplomacy doesn’t play a role.  Convincing other players that you are not the leader, and therefore shouldn’t be their target is an important part of the game.

Martin Wallace designed Moongha Invaders for the benefit of an Italian game convention, and only limited copies were available to those not attending the convention.  I hope that this game someday becomes more widely available.  I’ll be holding onto my copy.

7 Wonders.

Published by Asmodee.

Designed by Antoine Bauza.

I wish I could be a contrarian and not join the chorus of voices singing the praises of 7 Wonders.  I would probably feel that I had more integrity if I picked another one of the games on my list for my Game of the Year.  7 Wonders may not actually be my favorite game to play on this list, but it is almost certainly the game on the this list that I will play the most in years to come.

If you are reading this blog, I probably don’t have to explain 7 Wonders to you.  But I will mention once again the virtues that get this game to the table more often than any other game of 2010 that I can think of.  The game is short; it can be played in little over a half an hour.  It can handle anywhere from three to seven players.  And because of its everyone-pick-a-card-simultaneously mechanism, it’s always your turn.

The Appalachian Gamers treat 7 Wonders as a longish filler, or as an evening capper, or as the solution to the seven-players problem.  It also makes a great gateway game for first-timers.  I guess it’s just a Swiss Army knife of games, useful for all occasions.  It’s my pick for Game of the Year.

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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5 Responses to Kris Hall: Best of 2010

  1. Doug says:

    Nice list – I agree with half of it :)

    The War of the Ring Collectors Edition is a beautiful piece of work, and I’m thrilled to see someone remembered it came out last year. Certainly one of my top games from 2010. The others were Yomi and the sublime Rallyman.

    I also thoroughly enjoyed my first few games of 20th Century, then the bloom was off the rose and I sold it away. Nice game, though.

    Dunno about Tammany Hall – once you get behind you’re into punching bag/spectator role and the enjoyment gets sucked out of what was a pretty dry game to start with. Only played once, so perhaps need to revisit.

    Merchants & Marauders I found very dull – the game would stop every time a port action was taken. Apart from all dah nice, pretty bits, I found Avalon Hill’s Blackbeard had it beat in all respects – speed, tension, theme, mechanics, etc.

  2. Kris Hall says:

    In one of my first games of Tammany Hall, I was behind until the last election, then came from behind to win. That may be unlikely, but it can happen.


  3. Frank Hamrick says:

    I thought 2010 a wonderful year. London, Troyes, Navegador, Settlers of America, and 7 Wonders all make it onto my Top Shelf (where only the best games reside). That’s five games from a single year. I’d gladly play either when suggested. As you can see, I’m not self-conscious about liking what’s popular. I see little virtue in being different or counter to the majority. Each of these games offers me multiple choices, but don’t overwhelm me with myriads of choices. They are manageable to an aging mind and heavy enough to hold my interest and give me delight in winning, but light enough to enjoy even if I lose.

  4. I think that War of the Ring suffered of some layout troubles in this page. ;)

  5. Neil says:

    “I once wrote that I would not be interested in playing a game about any war that Americans are currently fighting and dying in.”

    I’d never play a game about a war that Americans are currently killing people in.

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