Common wisdom seems to be that 2011 is off to a great start game-wise and is shaping up to be a much better year for new releases than last year. I beg to differ. The first half of 2011 has been anything but inspiring, with only a handful of bright spots so far and more than its fair share of duds. I’m here to caution you to beware and at least try before you buy when it comes to many of the most recent releases. It’s possible that my sample size has been too small with 18 releases from 2011 tried so far. It’s certain that many of these 18 games have their fans. But for the opposing viewpoint — and for anyone hoping to save money or shelf space by trimming their wishlist — read on.
I’ll start with some optimism. It’s early yet. There is plenty of time to go and there are even a handful of releases I’m looking forward to trying. For instance, I haven’t tried Yggdrasil yet and as a fan of cooperative games it’s a must try. There’s also the long-awaited Spectral Rails to continue eagerly awaiting. Then there’s the Summoner Wars: Master Set which looks like just the ticket to suck me into this nearly collectible game. There’s even the SDJ-nominated Lancaster by Matthias Cramer of Glen More renown, although the game’s nomination is far less impressive because it sits aside the dreadful Strasbourg. So there are good things on the horizon and always that hope that the next great game is just around the corner. You know that small hope that keeps you buying and trying new games year in and year out.
Some of you may not have had an opportunity yet to try all of the newest crop of games, so I decided to write up why you’re not missing much and might as well continue living in the past. Where to start though as we take this tour of the disappointments? First things first I suppose are the obligatory deck-building games. Thunderstone: Dragonspire and Nightfall are the two that I’ve tried from 2011. Both put their own spin on the Dominion universe, just like Ascension, Puzzle Strike, and all the others that came before. I’m biased since the entire genre fails to excite me. A whole style of game that seems to premise its appeal on its speed is lackluster to someone who seeks out memorable game experiences. I want to be able to think back on an epic game of Through the Ages, Twilight Struggle, or Descent and recall something memorable that happened, or at least to think back on the hilarity of a Haba or dexterity game. Deck-building games are just a haze, a blur, simply passing time, a waste of time. Thunderstone is at least the best because it tries to incorporate some semblance of a theme, but as a result it’s less streamlined and too cumbersome for it’s own good. It’s also dragged down by very poor graphic design in terms of card layout. Nightfall has a clever gimmick in terms of chaining cards together, but it’s far too fast as a two-player affair to be meaningful and fails miserably as a multi-player affair due to the overwhelming emphasis on simply deflecting attention.
What are the worst offenders of 2011 so far you ask? It’s a toss-up between Artus and Strasbourg. Both by venerable designers and both utterly miserable. I had high hopes for Artus given its Kramer-Kiesling pedigree, its Alea brand, and its King Arthur theme. It seemed like such a promising game. I played it twice too just to be sure that it was as terrible as it seemed. It is one of the most ridiculously chaotic games in recent memory. There is absolutely no reason to pay attention on anyone else’s turn or make plans for the future because the board can and will change so dramatically before you go again that you might as well get up and stretch your legs. It’s marginally better as a two-player zero-sum affair, but still an exercise in futility and not worth your time. Strasbourg is one of Stefan Feld’s many recent releases. I think it’s clear that he’s over-extending himself. Feld can be one of the greatest designers out there and has created some fantastic designs in recent years. But as his output grows, the quality is taking a nose dive. Strasbourg is an extremely uninspired exercise in blind-bidding. A series of repetitive auctions where players lock in their bids ahead of time and try to read each other’s mind, not my idea of a good time when the random difference between bids of one or two can be critical.
But it’s not all terrible, some of the games hot off the presses are disappointing because of missed opportunity and unfulfilled potential. Take Burgery Burger von Burgerson of Burgundy, or whatever Alea big-box # 14 is being called these days. It could have been another in a long line of great Alea releases but it needed a bit more time in the oven and seems rushed. The game lasts 25 turns, but I strongly believe this is too many. I don’t care how long the game takes minutes or hours-wise, that’s not the issue. The issue is that a game needs to have an arc like a play, it needs to make sure that Act 4 and Act 5 don’t drag on too long. The denouement in Burgerman of the Burgerland is too long. Games like Princes of Florence are clever because the game’s time-space is constrained and players are pressured to execute quickly and efficiently. The Burgerfest in Burgerspace gives players too much room to work with and as a result fails to adequately incentivize players. 20 turns would be plenty to allow players to formulate and execute a plan without giving players such a big cushion that drains all of the tension from the game. An unrelated issue is that the game loads down its clever core mechanic with superfluous mechanics that could have easily been paired away to make the game shine brighter. The allocation of goods to the various ship spaces is beyond unnecessary and could have been lifted to keep the spotlight on the key game elements. The goods should have been available through a much cleaner and simpler selection method (a by-product of which would be removing the most useless building in the game). Finally, the game needs a small adjustment to balance for when players roll doubles, which are generally inferior. A small consolation or a potential re-roll method would be sufficient, but it’s such a simple and apparent thing that in conjunction with the game length and goods allocation issues convinces me that this game was rushed. When it comes to Die Burgen von Burgund, the disappointment lies in the promise it left on the table.
Then again it’s more fun to lament the bad than to moan the merely fair, so back to the bottom of the ladder. In the camp of games that are not as terrible as Strasbourg or Artus, but still better to avoid are Pergamon and Spring Fever. It pains me to say so for the former because it’s a Stefan Dorra game and I’ve always had a soft spot for Dorra designs (such as Kreta, Njet, and obviously For Sale). Then again Dorra did inflict Tonga Bonga on the world and at least Pergamon doesn’t achieve that level of pain and suffering. If it wasn’t apparent yet, I’m obviously prone to hyperbole, which ironically is an understatement. Pergamon is an archaeology game (a la Thebes) where players purchase artifact tiles to compile sets that they show in the museum for victory points. Visually speaking the game is incredibly difficult to read. You need to pair up the front and back half of various artifacts and as a result need to remember and try to find on the board the back half of a bracelet, but the front of a mask, and the front of a jug, but the back of a vase. It’s a headache and a chore and not worth the effort. Money is tight and turn order is crucial in financing your purchases, but good luck not getting randomly shorted by the cards even after you go through all the trouble of finding the best set of fronts and backs of cryptically depicted artifacts. Spring Fever is much easier to play and much less substantial. It’s purely a light bluffing game of trying to deceive the player to your left and read the player to your right. At least it’s mercifully quick.
That brings us to the whole big middle of the pack – Mondo, Cargo Noir, Pantheon, 7 Wonders: Leaders, Pastiche, Airlines: Europe, and Volle Scholle. Mondo should have struck a chord with me given that I’m a sucker for fast-paced puzzle-like games such as Factory Fun, Ubongo, and Galaxy Trucker. Instead I found it to be a boring and repetitive entry in that venerable line. No matter which of three difficulty levels you try it on, Mondo is too simple. That’s not to say it’s easy, but that it’s straightforward, it’s essentially the exact same each time, and it’s just basic. There’s no there there, to be trite. If you try to scratch the surface of this game you’re liable to tear right through it. Cargo Noir seems tailor made to appeal to the Spiel des Jahres jury, but it looks like they missed the mark. The production values are superb, but the game is simply a round-and-round auction. I wanted off this merry-go-round long before the game ended but it just kept spinning as players bid and re-bid for goods in an auction-set collecting whirlwind. Pantheon was the best effort of the bunch to actually create a solid strategy game. It includes a novel resource management element of managing both your pillar tokens and your feet tokens, the former of which are used permanently and the latter of which are recovered after each of six rounds. The “walking” mechanic to reach your destinations around the Mediterranean is clever, but the game is marred by its overwhelming randomness. The swings of the random deity tile draws, as well as the token and card draws, are just too much and they topple the fine underlying structure that the game has built.
Then there’s 7 Wonders: Leaders, which is the inevitable first of many expansions to 7 Wonders. Leaders admirably tries to inject a dose of long-term strategy into the game and succeeds to some extent, but in the end it’s not enough to notably improve or alter the game. For those who love the base game, I’m sure the new cards will be a fun diversion from the monotony. For those who were already bored, there’s not enough new life here to resuscitate your interest. Pastiche takes the theme of Fresco and ramps it up into a technicolor nightmare with a palette that extends to the likes of olive, scarlet, magenta, violet, teal, amber, and everyone’s favorite bisque. In a twist, the primary colors are actually the most valuable and difficult to acquire, so the focus is in large part on seeking out the elusive red, yellow, and blue without having to use an entire turn to acquire them if possible. Volle Scholle is a light card game by Martin Wallace of all people. It’s a quick auction game of trying to balance the value of the ice flows you win with the value of the penguins in your losing bids. It could be clever and could grow on me, but in a crowded field it didn’t really stand out. Lastly, Airlines: Europe is the one that really might grow on me but didn’t have that spark that made it memorable at first blush. For now I prefer Stephensons Rocket and Chicago Express for my stock-buying / company route-expanding needs. The randomly limited pool of available stocks was frustrating at times as compared to the open-ended nature of the two I prefer. I can see how the limited options would make for a more accessible, intuitive, and quicker game, but I think those are generally traits for a different audience.
Lastly, to end on a slightly brighter note, some of the better games from the year so far – Uluru, Letters from Whitechapel, BITS, and Olympos. Uluru is the 2011 game that I’d probably say is my favorite if pressed to name one, but so far I think I’d have to say 2011 is the first year since 1996 when I’d rather decline to select a game of the year. Uluru is exactly like a logic game from the LSAT (for the lawyers among you). It’s a game of arranging colored pawns around a table according to a set of rules such as blue wants to sit next to orange, but yellow wants to sit across from green, and green wants to be around the corner from blue. For some inexplicable reason, it’s a concept that really works for me and that I just get. I know that it’s pure misery for many people, so Uluru is far from a game that I’d widely endorse. Instead, it’s a niche game for those of us insane enough to enjoy speed logic puzzles. Letters from Whitechapel is the runner-up for best game among a lame crop thus far. It’s a deduction game of sorts set in the world of Jack the Ripper that I’m told is in the same mold as Scotland Yard. One player takes the part of Jack and tries to avoid the other players working as a team of investigators. The game claims to work for 2 to 6 players, but I think that’s hilarious. With any more than 3 players I’d find it a miserably tedious exercise. With 2-3 players it’s a devious game of cat and mouse that avoids becoming boring and too bogged down in analysis for the most part. BITS is Knizia’s successor to FITS and actually better than FITS due to the fact that players diverge more significantly in their board development and have more open-ended options. But it’s still a simple and ultimately repetitive puzzle.
Finally, Olympos is the new Philippe Keyaerts design from Ystari, not to be confused with Olympus, the FGG game by the Kingsburg guys, or Heavens of Olympus, the game that countless people have warned me not to try. Olympos takes the time track from Thebes (or Jenseits von Theben for purists) and combines it with a deterministic combat mechanism along the lines of Small World, although not at all the same as Small World in how it specifically functions. Olympos works decently well for 3 players, but I’m told and I can imagine it quickly begins to break down when you add a fourth player. The game length would increase, the downtime would increase, the chaos would increase. With 3 it shows some potential of being a decent game of conquering territory to gain resources that are used to acquire technologies that give players special abilities and victory points. I’m happy to see the time track redeployed as it was a welcome mechanic in Red November and tends to force players into interestingly difficult decision-making spaces. However, I’m not sold that Olympos overcomes the fundamental problem of combat games that reward the player who most evades combat. I tend to play such games aggressively and am disappointed when the player who inevitably comes out on top is the one who I happen to attack the least (i.e., Antike, Twilight Imperium). I don’t think a turtle strategy will work to the same extent in Olympos so it may not suffer that fate but at first blush it’s a concern that bears further investigation.
Those are the 18 games from 2011 to prune from your wishlist for the most part. They’re not all bad of course and I’m sure many people out there will absolutely love a few of these. I know you can find plenty of fawning praise out there for new releases, so I thought it couldn’t hurt to add a dash of disappointment to the mix. Now excuse me while I get back to playing the “classics” from 2009 and 2010.