[Editor’s Note — The Opinionated Gamers would like to welcome Mitchell Thomashow to the roster of writers! DY]
Long ago I gave up on trying to comprehensively sample the many excellent new games that come out during the course of a year. There are just too many of them and I can’t keep up with all of the new releases. Plus I found myself making hasty judgments, not giving games enough of a chance and assessing them without giving them the benefit of multiple plays. As we know, many games have subtleties and depths that are slowly revealed. Some games seem very enticing initially, only to wear out as we discover their sameness or predictability.
Since I don’t sample as many games as most of the “Opinionated Gamers”, it may be useful for you to know which games I try and why. I am interested in games that reflect originality, are the latest efforts of my favorite designers, have themes that particularly appeal, promise depth and variability, generate an interesting buzz on the geek, and scale well for two players.
My “top” games of 2010 reflect (1) a small sample size, (2) almost exclusively two player gaming experiences, (3) games that I have played at least ten times.
Given all of those caveats, here are the 2010 games that give me the most enjoyment and will surely be in my game library for years to come.
(1) Dominant Species
For years I have been craving an evolutionary ecology game that has depth, playability, is non-didactic, and uses the dynamics of species competition and habitat change as a fundamental principle of game design. Dominant Species succeeds! Although it is primarily a worker placement game, it blends a dynamic randomness that demands flexibility and improvisation, while rewarding analysis. It’s a twenty-first century ecological GO. There are many ways to organize the game depending on how much time you have and how many players are involved. I have only played Dominant Species as a two player, one animal game. Yes it’s long (two and a half hours under those conditions), but it is thoroughly absorbing. As I haven’t yet tried it multiplayer, I can’t comment on how it scales up, But as a two player challenge, it is highly original and rewarding.
This is a wonderfully original multi-use, combo card game. After several dozen plays, I remain intrigued at the unfolding depth, the emergent properties, and the improvisational excellence inherent in the game play. Once you understand the intriguing strengths and weaknesses of the symbols, and how the symbols flow through the various phases of play, you realize that the dogma effects are less chaotic than they first appear. There are surprising chain reactions and sequences that can thoroughly demolish your planning, but that also make for fascinating (albeit frustrating) come from behind momentum shifts. Innovation is decidedly not for control freaks. It does reward out of the box, improvisational thinking as well as any game I’ve played. This is another twenty-first century game that emphasizes flow and creativity more than analytics. I worry about too much randomness with three and four player versions. As a two player challenge I think it’s got just the right balance between order and chaos.
Poor Merkator, the elegant, under-appreciated, Uwe Rosenberg masterpiece. I’ve read all of the criticisms (dry cube pusher, soulless Euro, multiplayer solitaire). I’ve played Merkator over thirty times as a two player game. I absolutely adore this game. It has rewarding depth, interesting card play (disguised as contracts), a clever geographical dynamic that includes time and space, a well balanced scoring system, and surprising variability from game to game. We play the basic game, chucking the random loss of goods rule. It takes 45 minutes and we are thoroughly engaged. This is much more than a tactical cube pusher. Each game calls for a different approach. It rewards adaptive flexibility depending on the building card sequence. Once you understand the following sequence, the bonus cards, and the flow of contracts, you can plan ahead, and do some serious damage to your opponent, especially in a two player game. Merkator is an original blend of movement, planning, timing, and trading. I find it colorful, engaging, and dynamic.
4) 7 Wonders
Another game whose originality lies in its novel blend of familiar mechanics. If you like card drafting, simultaneous play, icon-rich cards, and civilization building, then this is hugely appealing. I have not played this with just 2 and I can’t see why I would. The sweetspot is 3 and 4 as you have a much better sense of what’s going on. 7 Wonders is just plain fun. It’s not deep, but there’s enough strategy and tactics to keep your attention. The replayability is surprising.
5) Keltis: Das Orakel
I view this as the most highly evolved and interesting of Knizia’s sequence of games that began with Lost Cities. He’s experimented profusely with the Lost Cities organizing principle, morphed it with various tiles, boards, and paths, finally yielding Das Orakel. It plays quickly, scales very well, offers many ways to score, and provides interesting choices. It’s one of Knizia’s best incarnations, and should finally be the end of the line for this branch of Knizia’s design tree.