Top Ten of 2010
By Patrick Korner
2010, for me, was a bit of a landmark year in terms of gaming. Not only did I play more games than I had in most years previously (thanks to having two regular game nights a week plus semi-regular opportunities for more gaming on weekends), I played a larger variety of games. Why is this? Two somewhat related reasons:
1. The Eurogame release schedule has gotten more and more padded with ‘meh’ games as publishers try and out-do each other in terms of sheer release volume.
2. More gaming time means more time to explore longer games, which naturally trend me towards more thematic and/or conflict-based offerings.
The second point above has led me into seeking out more and more titles that I’d have never even thought twice about buying as little as three years ago, which is why my latest game order included both Mansions of Madness and Combat Commander: Europe. Three Years Ago Me is rolling on the floor, laughing at Today Me, but there you have it.
Am I saying that the Eurogame ship has sailed? Heck no. There will always be room in my gaming collection for enjoyable, engaging and well-made games. I’ve just decided to broaden my horizons a little. I’m never going to be a full-fledged Ameritrasher, nor am I going to start lurking the forums at Consimworld, but there’s no denying that those genres have produced some damn fine games and will continue to do so. I’m looking forward to 2011 in a way I haven’t in years, which can only be a good thing, right?
Anyways, on to the list of the 10 games that most caught my attention from last year, in no particular order, along with a few other special awards and commentary:
Antoine Bauza’s gorgeously-produced game about building ancient civilizations scratches my long-dormant Magic: The Gathering itch by using the card drafting mechanic to good effect. Just like MtG, it helps to know what card are out there. Just like MtG, you can try and ‘guide’ your left-hand neighbour into choosing a certain route (and thus hopefully leaving the cards that fit better with your strategy alone when it comes time for him/her to pass to the right). I’m looking forward to seeing how the Leaders expansion mixes up the game, but right now this is one of my favourite larger-group games. It’s not especially deep, since it’s possible (especially with a larger number of players) to miss out on the one or two cards that would really underpin your plans, but it’s a fun ride.
Chad Jensen is, I think, a game design genius. Here, you get to be a bird or insect or whatever and try and bring the world under your thumb (or claw or whatever) – just in time for the world to become a very cold place. Jockey for position, establish dominance and score as many points as you can while doing so. Special cards and lots of game mechanics means a fairly fluid board position, which makes for a highly engaging game. The only thing I dislike about this outstanding wargame-pretending-to-be-a-Eurogame is that it’s about an hour too long for pure awesome. So it only gets to be mostly awesome. Note that it is possible to get put into very, very difficult situations – you’re not ‘eliminated’ per se but you will have a hard time pulling out a victory. If that sort of thing turns you off then this might not be the game for you.
The latest Mac Gerdts rondel game, this may be the best of the bunch for me, partly because it’s a deliberately more middle-weight design than Imperial or Antike. It’s also far less overtly conflict-based (if anything, it’s more cooperation-based as there is a fairly significant left-right binding effect), which reduces the game’s frustration factor by a fair bit. Gorgeous production, multiple paths to victory, difficult money-management decisions – lots of great stuff going on here and so it makes the list even if the theme of exploring and colonies is a little past its ‘best before’ date. Cash flow, to me, seems to be the linchpin that allows everything else to work out for you, so keep a close eye on it. You can afford to be broke (or almost broke) sometimes, but you’d better have a good way to make money efficiently before the next opportunity you have to spend it comes around again.
Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-?
Volko Ruhnke’s take on the Global War on Terror is a card-driven ‘wargame’ featuring two vastly asymmetrical forces trying to reach supremacy on a common map, using a common card deck. I’ve mentioned before that I might have had a harder time playing this game if I’d been more personally involved (affected? not sure of the best word choice) by the US efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, as some of the game comes awfully close to ‘too soon’. One very clever item: The US card draw depends on troop deployments (the close to War their stance gets, the fewer cards they get) while the Jihadists depend on funding levels (the lower funding gets, the fewer cards they get). Just one example of how different the two sides play. There is a lot of luck of the dice, but over a full game it tends to even out.
Special Mention: Twilight Struggle
Labyrinth, more than any other game, opened my eyes to the potential that relatively quick-playing conflict-based games offer. It led pretty naturally to Twilight Struggle, a superb game I’d never played before (yeah, I know, for shame), partly because my regular Labyrinth opponent is a huge TS fan. It took me nine kicks at the can before I finally won TS, but that’s because dice hate me. Like, Duh. Obviously.
Okay, back to 2010 games. Haggis, by Sean Ross, is kind of like Tichu for when you don’t have four players. Playing your cards out in various ways, bombs, lots of the climbing game (and Tichu) tropes are present, albeit in new and interesting ways. The biggest ‘hook’, for me, is that each player gets three face cards that can form bombs in a variety of ways. They’re also useable as face cards, and if you bomb a trick you have to give it away. Lots of difficult choices, options in how to play out your hand and tension during gameplay make Haggis a big winner for me. The fact that my wife likes the game and actively wants to play it again is the icing on the cake.
Merkator is pure cube-moving efficiency, courtesy of Uwe Rosenberg. As such, it should be dry as dust and unlikely to find a place on my list. But for some reason, this game just ‘works’ for me, and I find myself not caring that the theme is pretty wafer-thin. It’s possible to win by finding a solid ‘trapline’ of contracts and then working the heck out of them, but it’s also possible to win by continually moving up the contract chain. One downside to the 2-player game is that it’s difficult to catch up if one player has an especially synergistic opening contracts draw, but that doesn’t happen all that often. I’ve easily played this game a dozen times or more and I still find myself wanting to play it again. One of the best of the ‘pure’ Eurogames released in the past year.
Key Market, designed by David Brain, is the first R&D Games offering to not be designed by Richard Breese. Instead, here he took the reins as developer and publisher, although the final product is as “Breesian” as anything else of his that I’ve played. Key Market gained some notoriety thanks to an unfortunate bits shortage / production glitch, which resulted in fewer games being produced in time for Essen than the number of games which had been pre-ordered. Thankfully, after a saga that truly has to be read to be appreciated (check out Richard’s excellent Geeklist on the subject over at BGG), it seems as though most folks who wanted a copy have by now managed to get their hands on one. And they shouldn’t be disappointed – Key Market is a worker placement game, sort of, with some very key (hah) differences, most notably the fact that midway through the game comes Winter, during which essentially nothing gets produced. How you overcome the enforced ‘engine stall’ is a big part of doing well at the game. Add in tremendous replayability thanks to the variety of guilds (place a worker in a guild provide special benefits that break the base rules in a variety of ways) and you have a game I’ve very happy to have on my shelf.
Antoine Bauza’s second game on my list, Hanabi (and its partner game, Ikebana) were published in a very lo-fi manner via Les XII Singes, a tiny French publisher. A shame, too, as it meant that very few folks heard of this amazing cooperative game for a long time. It wasn’t until a few vocal geeks over at BGG started extolling the virtues of Hanabi that it started gaining traction, and even then it was hard slogging due to very limited availability in North America. For those who persevered, though, the reward is one of the most brilliant cooperative games I’ve ever seen. Get a hand of cards and then try to cooperatively play them out into a tableau so that each colour goes sequentially from 1 to 5. Simple, right? Sure, except that everyone can see your cards – except you. So you have to be very, very good at giving the right clues to your fellow players so they know what to play and what to discard. Super-portable, easy to learn (but hard to master!), what’s not to like? The best news? It’s coming in a new, spiffed-up version from Cocktail Games, I think in time for Essen 2011.
My love for Rallyman is no secret – you may recall I wrote a glowing review of it for this site not too long ago. The way the mechanics come together to give you a wealth of options without enforcing a wealth of fiddly rules is truly amazing, given that there is a healthy dose of chrome to up the ‘realism’ factor. I like this best as a 2p game, as I’ve found that with four the downtime between turns is just a little too long. With 3 or 2, though, this is outstanding. It’s also fantastic solo, with plenty of online challenges and races for you to take part in through the game’s excellent website. The best news? An expansion is coming! The Dirt expansion, due out at Essen 2011 (although you can download the rule and tracks from the website if you’re impatient like me), adds new tracks, new rules and new challenges. Even more of a good thing? That’s simply more better.
Originally published as Tahuantinsuyu, Alan Ernstein’s outstanding ‘train game that isn’t a train game’ received a well-deserved facelift and was released as Inca Empire by White Goblin / Z-Man Games. The board is much easier to read (the original had a few roads and borders that were tricky to discern, leading to some house rules as to which region certain roads were judged to in), and being double-sided means I can finally do away with the tape-on board centre overlay that made the game playable with three. It also means that the 3p game is better, as the rest of the regions have been fiddled with a bit too (some have been combined), meaning that the entire board gets used, even with the smaller player count. The new edition includes some special bonus Sun cards too (the cards you play on players that affect what they can do each round), some of which are rapidly becoming favourites. All in all, this is a fantastic game and I’m very pleased it has the chance of gaining exposure among a larger player base.
There were several games I played last year that were clever, or interesting, but ultimately didn’t make the cut. I thought I’d spend a few extra electrons mentioning these, just because it’s my article and I can. Take that, traditional Top 10 list format!
* Gosu: Fun, but far, far too long. My first 15 minutes were bliss, the next 75 were painful.
* Troyes: Came very, very close to making the list. Ultimately the unfair start player effect in four player games did it in. I still like this game a lot, but will only play 2p or 3p.
* Forbidden Island: Gorgeous production at a tiny price. A very nice, simplified cooperative game that I can play with my family. The only drawback is that it’s 4p maximum, which means it will probably never make it outside the family gaming circle.
* Great Fire of London 1666: Very chaotic but still a lot of fun. My group inadvertently came up with several less chaotic variants while sorting out the ‘right’ way to play, and I might almost prefer those.
Finally, a few quick hits on some of the games I played and new right away were in “never again” territory. Your mileage may vary, you may look for different things in games than I, but these are the games you’ll never talk me into playing again.
* Vinhos: I’d love to see what someone like Stefan Bruck of alea would have turned this kitchen sink into. Probably two good streamlined games instead of one overwrought one.
* Alien Frontiers: Space Yahtzee with lots of random effects. Far too long for what it is and hence not for me.
* Innovation: Far too random for my liking. I’ve played this twice and that was enough, thanks. Others have labelled this as Gamer Fluxx and while I think that’s a bit harsh, I can see what they’re getting at.
And that’s it for 2010. For me, it turned out to be a pretty strong year after all, hopefully yours was similar!