I always remember my elders telling me that as one grows older, time seems to pass quicker. If that is true, I must be getting old. Time seems to be flying by, and I can’t find the “pause” button. This is affecting every aspect of my life, including my beloved gaming hobby.
It doesn’t help that new games are being released at a pace faster than Charlie Sheen’s bizarre outbursts. It also doesn’t help that I was unable to attend the big SPIEL in Essen last year. This combined perfect storm caused me to fall woefully behind on playing and evaluating new releases. Fortunately, four months into 2011, I am just about finished playing the games released at 2010’s Spiel. There are a few more to play, but I don’t think any of those will break into my personal Top 10 from 2010.
So on to the list. Wait … one more interlude. I want to mention a few games that just missed the cut. All of these are fine games that I thoroughly enjoy: World Without End, Tikal II and Parade. But, I am limited to only ten choices, so here are my personal Top 10 Games of 2010, listed in reverse order:
10) Rise of Empires. It is a simple formula: Martin Wallace + Empire Building game = MUST play. Wallace’s Struggle of Empires is one of my all-time favorite games, so I was interested in seeing what further twists he would put on a game in this genre.
Rise of Empires places players in control of an empire that they will guide from the early stages of history to the modern era. Empires will gather territory, achieve advances, construct towns, cities, and great wonders, and engage in conflict with their neighbors in order to expand their territorial holdings. The player who is able to best transform his fledgling civilization into a massive empire will emerge as the world’s superpower and win the game.
The game is played over the course of three eras, each with two rounds. In what is the game’s most distinctive feature and creative idea, the actions a player takes in the first round of an era will be repeated – usually in a quasi-reverse order – in the second round. This forces players to plan their actions for two turns, which requires great foresight, care and judgment.
For years, gamers have been searching for the definitive civilization-building game that can be played in just a few hours. The target has been to capture all of the feel, strategy and epic scope of Francis Tresham’s Civilization without having to invest an entire day doing so. Numerous attempts at such a game have been made, with Rise of Empires being one of the more recent. While I have a strong suspicion that such a search is akin to the fruitless quest for the Holy Grail, I still harbor hopes that such an effort will one day succeed.
Does Rise of Empires meet this challenge? Well, it probably comes just about as close as any game will. It is exciting, tense and filled with a myriad of tough decisions. There are numerous factors to balance, and as in many great games, there are more actions a player desires to perform than he is allowed. One must choose his actions carefully, but even the most careful plans can be upset by the actions of one’s opponents. Adapting to a changing environment – both on-board and in the various tile selections – is a constant challenge.
Truthfully, though, it is probably unfair to hold any game to such a difficult and quite likely impossible goal. Yes, comparisons to other games within the genre are very appropriate, as are considerations to how a game’s mechanisms have been utilized in previous designs. However, each game should be considered for its own merits and not just in comparison to other titles. Rise of Empires is a fine game that attempts to create, albeit in a fairly abstract manner, the feel of empire building. While the absence of historical empires causes the game to feel too abstract, the progress tiles add a touch of atmosphere that does help a bit. Still, I long for the sense of history and atmosphere that is evoked as I lead and maneuver historical empires such as the Egyptians, Syrians, Romans and Great Britain through the challenges of their eras.
The lack of a historical atmosphere, however, doesn’t doom the game. Rise of Empires is very engaging game that constantly challenges players with often agonizing decisions throughout its three hour duration. As with the legendary Civilization, it forces players to pay attention to more than just warfare. Trade, cities, progress, resources, food and finances – all play a critical role in the success of one’s empire, and the challenge is to find the optimum combination and balance. It is a challenge that has proven exciting and enjoyable each time I’ve accepted it, and I have no doubt it will continue to do so in the future.
9) Vihnos. I was dreading playing this game. Really. While I know the game has its fans — particularly Rick Thornquist — it also has its detractors. I tried reading the rules awhile back, and after fighting my way through about 3/4 of the rulebook, my head was spinning. I had flash-backs to Richard Berg’s wargame designs, wherein he attempted to recreate and simulate every detail of a conflict or situation in minute detail. My head hurt.
Vihnos is a highly detailed simulation of the wine production business, with far more detail and intertwined mechanisms than the vast majority of European-style games. Plus, most people have said the game takes close to four hours to play. I had visions of my mind being completely overloaded while slogging through a four-hour ordeal. Fortunately, Rick Thornquist graciously agreed to teach the game to me, and he did a masterful job. The explanation lasted about thirty minutes or so, and we completed the game in under three hours. I understood most of what was transpiring and actually enjoyed the experience quite a bit. Much of this is due to Rick’s expert knowledge of the rules and helpful advice and tips along the way. Yes, he won, but I finished a relatively close second. I enjoyed the game, but now face the challenge of teaching it to folks in our game group so I can play a few more times and write the review. My rating is initially a “7”, but it could rise, especially if I can consistently keep the playing time to under three hours.
8) Egizia. Yes, another game set in ancient Egypt. I’m OK with that, as the ancient Egyptian culture and civilization still evokes a sense of mystery and intrigue, making it an ideal setting for a game. Some have compared Egizia to Stone Age – another game I enjoy – and there are some similarities. It appears to have the same complexity level, and is equally (if not more) engaging. The game presents players with a continuous flow of interesting choices, and it is always a tough decision on whether to pass-up valuable tiles in order to move further along the Nile and grab yet another enticing tile. The game has mostly familiar mechanisms, but there are enough interesting twists to keep it fresh and interesting.
7) Asara. While not at the same level in terms of depth and decision making as some of Kramer & Kiesling’s previous designs, Asara is still a challenging game that forces players to make interesting decisions throughout the proceedings. There is a persistent tension driven by the desire to perform numerous actions, but not having enough buyer cards to perform them all. Plus, opponents can scoop the more desirable and low-cost areas, forcing you to pay more and/or play more cards to perform the same action. There is a constant “Do I play here or there?” choice that confronts players each and every turn. Wait too long and you may well find yourself cut-out of an area, or having the most preferable options in that area taken.
These decisions, however, are not overwhelming, and the game is fairly easy to learn and understand. So, while there is enough here to challenge dedicated gamers, it is also very accessible to folks who are not familiar with hobby games. That’s a big advantage. A typical game plays to completion in 1 – 1 ½ hours, so even the length is suitable for variety of different groups. Kramer and Kiesling haven’t introduced anything revolutionary in Asara, but rather have taken some familiar mechanisms and blended them together to form a game that is tense and enjoyable. Considering their previous body of work, I shouldn’t be surprised!
6) 7 Wonders. On rare occasions, a game is published that causes such a stir that it is akin to a virtual earthquake within the gaming world. The normal buzz surrounding the release of a new game is replaced with a deafening roar, and there is a frantic clamor to acquire and play the game. Such a phenomenon has happened a few times in the past, and it is happening again. The sensation this time is 7 Wonders by designer Antoine Bauza.
Published by the fun-loving, sombrero-wearing folks at Repos Productions, 7 Wonders places each player in charge of one of the seven great cities of the ancient world. Players will select cards that will help them produce resources, construct buildings, earn money and victory points, and perhaps even construct one of the great wonders of the world. Up to seven players can participate in this sweeping epic, which can be played in an amazingly swift 30 – 45 minutes.
7 Wonders is an amazing design. There aren’t many games that can pack this much tension, decisions and strategy options in a 30 – 45 minute time frame, while accommodating up to seven players. The game seems to have all the elements to give in great longevity in a hobby where most games fade to obscurity after just a few years. It also has all of the elements that should make it a front-runner to capture industry awards such as the Spiel des Jahre and International Gamers Award. Although this is a year wherein there have been numerous promising games published, 7 Wonders seems destined to rise to the top.
5) London. Martin Wallace seems to design games that resonate with me. Oh, there’s the occasional miss, but for the most part, I greatly enjoy most of his games. They tend to offer the right mix of depth, strategy and challenge. Plus, one can generally count on Wallace to include an original mechanism or novel twist on existing ideas.
London is no exception. The rules are simple, yet formulating a strategy that properly assembles a superior set of cards that forms a productive, profitable economic engine is a formidable task. It certainly isn’t one that I have mastered, as I have been trounced in every game I’ve played. Still, the game fascinates and intrigues me, and I am continuously pondering various actions I could have taken to improve my performance. From the looks of it, it will likely take me many, many more playings before I achieve a victory. It is a journey to which I look forward!
4) Frekso. I won’t claim that there are highly original mechanisms or new design inventions present in Fresko. There aren’t. What I will claim, however, is that the designer’s blend of familiar mechanisms with a fairly original theme has created an intriguing and challenging game that is always exciting to play. There are so many choices to be made, all of which appear simple in appearance, but often cause considerable angst. Each decision, as well as the actions of one’s opponents, will have a tremendous impact on one’s performance. Attempting to find the correct blend of actions and proper timing is both challenging and exciting.
3) Luna. I tend to enjoy games that give players wide latitude in terms of decision making and creativity. That is why I am attracted to games that give players “action points” that they can use to perform a variety of different actions. Games such as Tikal, Torres and Java are personal favorites. They always play out differently, and there are usually multiple times during the course of a game where one or more players make extremely clever and dramatic moves. I always derive a sense of satisfaction when accomplishing such a feat.
Luna is one of those games. While not using action points per se, players can choose from a wide variety of actions and are free to combine them in clever manners in attempts to achieve their objectives. The game is extremely open-ended and doesn’t follow a scripted path that far too many games employ. Yes, the theme is nothing short of bizarre, but I have been able to overlook that due to the continual opportunities for clever maneuvers and action combinations.
2) Inca Empire. Back at the 2004 Gathering of Friends, I had the opportunity to play Tahuantinsuyu, a design by Alan Ernstein that was published by his own Hangman Games. The game was the hit of the show for me, and quickly became one of my personal favorites. Although it was released in a very limited quantity, in garnered enough support to be named as a finalist for that year’s International Gamers Award. I always wished the game would receive wider distribution, as it truly is a challenging and exciting design with some original elements. My wish has finally been fulfilled, as the game has been republished in a higher quality format by Z-Man Games.
Inca Empire is filled with tension, excitement and uncertainty, and forces players to carefully plan their actions and make tough decisions between numerous options. I have been completely engrossed in each of my games, which have been extremely competitive to the very end. A road here or a city there could easily have spelled the difference between finishing in first place or in last. My games have all been that tightly contested. I find myself thinking about the game long after we have finished playing, wondering what other things I could have done to improve my performance. I also find myself longing to play it again and again.
1)Telestrations. Quite simply, Telestrations is the best party game to be published in the past decade – perhaps even longer. It is the old telephone game put to pad and pen. You know the game: whisper a phrase or story into someone’s ear and have it pass it down the line. By the time it has reached the final person, the phrase or story is almost unrecognizable from the original. The brilliance here is instead of whispering, players are forced to draw the word or phrase, with guesses and more drawing being made along the way. The results are usually hilarious. I can’t remember a party game that is filled with so much laughter. And one of the best features is that the worse people draw, the funnier the game! The game is already gaining widespread distributing and spawning clones from other companies – always a good sign! I have played Telestrations well over two-dozen times since acquiring a copy mid-year, and it has proven to be a smash hit with just about everyone with whom I’ve played. I will be playing this game for many years to come.