Larry Levy: Best Games of 2010

There has never been a calendar year in which I didn’t find plenty of good new games that I thoroughly enjoyed playing.  But there are better years and there are lesser years and I’m afraid that 2010 definitely qualified as one of the latter for me.  In fact, it’s probably as down a year as I can recall since I discovered German games way back in 1999.  None of the new games struck me as being great and the number of ones that were worth adding to the rotation was considerably lower than usual.  I don’t view this as being anything to get alarmed over—2009 was a very strong year for me and 2011 is off to a fine start.  So it just seems to be a one year issue for me.

Despite this, there were still some mighty fine games to discover and I didn’t have any trouble putting together a top 10 list for the year.  These, then, are my highlights from the year that was.

1. Navegador:  There’s a lot to like about the latest of Mac Gerdts’ rondel games.  It plays very smoothly and turns are very fast.  The graphics are excellent and the mechanics tie into the theme very well.  It’s practically luck-free, but still doesn’t feel dry or scripted.  It’s also quite challenging without weighting you down with excessive rules or calculations.  The key is to try to specialize in the things your opponents are paying less attention to and that’s more than enough to keep you on your toes.  This has been consistently enjoyable and I’m certain it will continue to get steady play in future years.

2. Vinhos:  I’m still coming to grips with all of the aspects of this game—it has a ton of rules (possibly too many) and I’m nowhere near grasping the ramifications of many of them.  But even at this early stage, I can tell this is a fascinating game.  One barrier to grokking this design is that it’s not what it appears to be.  Producing a single world-class wine isn’t nearly as important as cultivating lots of crappy brews (to serve as bribes that gain you extra actions).  There’s a tremendous amount to explore here and I’m not sure how this will rank when I get a better feel for the game.  But right now, it’s clearly one of the best games of the year for me.

3. London:  I’m a big Martin Wallace fan and this is one of his most accessible games.  Using your cards to build and run your city is very enjoyable and there are plenty of strategies to explore.  I think the 3-player game is best, as the downtime is lessened without any real loss to the gameplay.  The game’s big drawback is its low level of player interaction; if defense were a more viable option, this could have easily been my game of the year.  But it still ranks as one of my favorites and I’ll happily play it at any time.

4. The Speicherstadt:  It’s rare for a filler to make my top 5, but this one has given me an awful lot of enjoyment over the past year.  The bidding mechanic is wonderfully elegant, but there are plenty of nice gambits and dirty tricks available.  Money is extremely tight, which gives the game a very high angst level.  It plays equally well with 3-5 players and packs a whole lot of game in 45 minutes.  I consider this one of the most underrated games of the year.

5. 7 Wonders:  I expect you’ve heard of this one.  No, it’s not a great game, but it’s an awful lot of fun to play and it’s a game that can work in so many situations.  I much prefer it with 3 or 4 players, but it’s still the best choice when you have 6 or 7 folks looking for an opener.  Even though you can debate how much control you really have, there’s a ton of decisions and they feel important, so that and the very attractive theme keep you coming back for more.  This is one of the few games where I’m looking forward to the expansions, because it’s practically built for them.

6. 20th Century:  Even though this game features plenty of auctions, it never feels samey.  It helps that there’s different kinds of bidding rules and that there are enough things to worry about that you’re always engaged.  It’s a little too abstract to take full advantage of its theme, but the concepts still shine through and it’s consistently enjoyable.  It’s another fine game from out of the Czech Republic.

7. Asara:  I’ve only had one game of this Kramer and Kiesling design, but I was very pleased with how well it played.  There’s lots of choices for how you build your towers and prioritizing them can be agonizing good fun.  The central suit locking mechanic doesn’t dominate, but instead provides the foundation on which the game is built.  Player interaction is good, as there’s plenty of opportunities for screwage through grabbing cards early and fighting for tower dominance.  This should be an ideal middleweight, since it can appeal to more casual gamers while still providing experienced players with a good challenge.

8. Famiglia:  This 2-player card game from Friedemann Friese has simple rules, but lots of scope for skillful play.  You use the special abilities of the cards to slowly build up your Mafioso “family” and the player with the most total strength at the end of the game wins.  It plays very quickly and is a great value at less than $10 from just about any online retailer.  It’s stayed a bit under the radar, but it’s well worth checking out.

9. Glen More:  This Alea mid-sized game from newcomer Matthais Cramer has the players claiming tiles to place in their display, which activates all the adjacent tiles.  As is so often the case with Alea, it’s short on theme, but features interesting mechanics.  It borrows some ideas from other designs, but doesn’t particularly feel like anything else I own.  The 3-player game may be my favorite way to play, in spite of a “dummy” player, since it reduces the downtime.  Not top-flight Alea, but still quite good.

10. (tie) Hanabi:  As a matter of fact, Antoine Bauza did design something other than 7 Wonders last year.  This is a fascinating cooperative deduction game in which the players hold their hands of cards backwards, so that everyone knows what’s in your hand except you!  By cleverly giving clues and applying careful reasoning, the group tries to get as many cards successfully played as possible.  It’s very clever and totally unique.  Currently, this is half of a tiny game (with only a tiny distribution) called “Hanabi & Ikebana”, which should be more readily available this Summer in a Cocktail Games version simply called Hanabi.

10. (tie) Sun, Sea & Sand:  The latest Cwali release is a no-luck, perfect information game about attracting the most tourists to your island resort.  Despite all the data available to the players, this isn’t at all dry or scripted and it gives you a good mental workout without being overly cerebral.  The buzz on this isn’t too high, but just about everyone I’ve played it with regards it highly.  The worst thing I can say about it is that it lacks excitement, but it’s still a game I always enjoy.

Those are my favorites from a less than stellar year (which nevertheless still featured plenty of good gaming).  Other games I enjoyed include Troyes, Luna, Black Friday, Florenza, and Key Market.  2011 is already off to a great start, so I fully anticipate more good times at the game table and plenty of titles to write about in next year’s “Best of” article!

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16 Responses to Larry Levy: Best Games of 2010

  1. Larry – I pretty much agree with your thoughts (2010 being a down year) as well as your top 6 picks. The bottom 4 I haven’t played at all, or enough to put on a top 10 so I’ll definitely have to give them a try. I want to rate Troyes high but there’s just something about it that isn’t quite right (probably the fact I haven’t yet figured out how to win at it).

  2. Larry Levy says:

    I think Troyes is a fine game, Jasen, with very innovative rules for dealing with the dice. I haven’t really grasped all the nuances of play either, but I’m always happy to play it. The only thing that bothers me about the design is the hidden objectives. Too often, these are impossible to figure out and they turn into an undeserved bonus for the person who happens to guess correctly which are in play.

    • Jennifer Schlickbernd says:

      I cannot believe that you would have an issue with the hidden objectives of Troyes, yet still place Egizia as a good game? What?! :) Egrezia in my opinion is the worst hidden information game I’ve played in a long long time.

      You can just not play with the hidden cards in Troyes if they bother you since they don’t seem to be worth a significant amount of points anyway. You would change Egizia completely if you removed the hidden information from that game.

      So please if you don’t mind and if I’m not too late, I’d like you to ‘splain yourself :) Nice article!

      • huzonfirst says:

        The main reason I don’t have a problem with the Sphinx cards in Egizia, Jennifer, is that only the player who draws the cards can score for them. So no accidental rewards. It’s true, sometimes opponents can sniff out what your objectives are and can try to play defense against what they think you’re striving for. But in my games, at least, this doesn’t happen often enough to worry about–we’re usually too wrapped up with meeting our own objectives. So to me, the Sphinx cards are ways of giving players their own personal goals, which they may or may not meet.

        Can the cards be unbalanced at times? Yes. Can you get lucky with related cards and unlucky with clashing ones? Yes again (although the latter case can be mitigated by drawing lots of cards). Should the cards the better tuned to take the number of players into account? Absolutely. But these flaws aren’t enough to keep me from enjoying an otherwise well designed game (particularly with 4 players, where most of the cards seem to be properly balanced). And none of these issues have to do with the cards being hidden, which I don’t view as a problem at all.

    • Jennifer Schlickbernd says:

      First off I should make clear that I respect your opinion and I appreciate you responding to me.

      What I intensely dislike about the hidden information in Egizia is that you have no clue who is actually winning. And sometimes you should not complete the pyramid or whatever because if you do you might give someone points! This for me is the antithesis of gaming…I have a better chance of winning if I score less. Whereas Troyes doesn’t have this issue at all. Yes other people can benefit from the rewards but for how many points? Nothing that really matters.

      To each his own naturally and I hope you enjoy both of them :) Thanks again for the response.

  3. Tom Rosen says:

    I knew we liked different games, but I didn’t realize how different! Then again, there are 2 games that overlap between our top ten. You can probably guess what they are, but if not then at least my best of 2010 is going live tomorrow morning :)

  4. Larry Levy says:

    Then it’s a good thing I snuck the correct list in ahead of yours, Tom! :-)

    • Ryan Saunders says:

      Larry, unlike the other commentators, I think your taste in games is most similar to mine. Now you’ve intrigued me to look at your 2009 best games list, where can I find this and other best of lists by you?

      • Larry Levy says:

        Ryan, I probably did a Top 10 list for Boardgame News last year, but those files are no longer available. So since you expressed interest, here are my favorites from 2009:

        1. Automobile (by a wide margin)
        2. Macao
        3. Egizia
        4. Endeavor
        5. Dungeon Lords
        6. Factory Manager
        7. Power Struggle
        8. Peloponnes
        9. Jaipur
        10. Homesteaders

        Other games I liked last year, in alphabetical order, are BasketBoss, Bonnie and Clyde, Campaign Manager, Hansa Teutonica, Inotaizu, Last Train to Wensleydale, Masters of Venice, Masters Gallery, Ra: The Dice Game, Roll Through the Ages, Shipyard, Small World, Steam, Tobago, Trader, and Vasco da Gama. Hope that helps!

  5. Mark Jackson says:

    I, like Tom, only have 2 games that overlap with yours. This is, of course, NOT a surprise. :-)

  6. jeffinberlin says:

    And I’ve only had the opportunity to PLAY two of the games on this list. So much for the “home court advantage” of living in Berlin:)

    I’ve had fun playing 7 Wonders and Die Spiecherstadt, though, and look forward to trying out Famiglia, Navegador, Sun, Sea & Sand, Hannibi, and even London. Someday…

  7. Josh Miller says:

    Tom and Mark, I’ve got you beat. Larry and I only overlap on one game! But my top ten isn’t quite ready for publication. There are a few more games I’m hoping to try, including Hanabi from Larry’s list.

  8. Ryan Saunders says:

    Thanks Larry for the 2009 list – more goodness to research and play.

    One game you did not mention on the 2010 list that was on my radar was Inca Empire. Were you able to play this game? What are your thoughts?

  9. Larry Levy says:

    I haven’t had the chance to play Inca Empire yet, Ryan, but I’m a big fan of the original game, Tahuantinsuyu. Since IE looks like a nicer looking and quicker version of this (with sticks being used as a substitute for the slower crayon drawing), I have every reason to think that this is a great game as well.

  10. Jeff Lee says:

    Hi Larry,

    I was wondering what games in 2011 you think are really good so far. For myself, I though 2010 was a pretty decent year, although 2009 was probably better. I can’t say that 2011 is a good year yet though.

  11. Larry Levy says:

    Jeff, my entire exposure to 2011 designs came at the Gathering, so if you check out the article that I posted yesterday, you’ll get a good idea of what I thought. To summarize the highlights, Pantheon, Die Burgen von Burgundy, and Airlines Europe are all very good and Gold! is a fine filler I’m happy to play. For me, that represents an excellent showing from the Nuremberg fair; usually, most of my gaming goodness comes out of Essen. Your experiences may differ, of course.

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