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!