Patrick Brennan: My Best Of 2011

Before I start gabbing on about the year just been, I should explain how I can whip out my end-of-year numbers before end-of-year. My gaming year ends (and re-sets) on my mid-December birthday. I used to strive to hit 100 new games each year, and usually managed to creep over the line each December. Because I’d only just make it, I’d then worry about hitting 100 next year (all in a good-hearted , don’t really care, but it’s fun to have a goal type way) so any games bought for my birthday and Christmas would sit on the shelves waiting for New Year’s Day. Much to the angst and chaffing of my gaming buddies who were denied the goodness of newness for the somewhat whimsical satisfaction of meeting an arbitrary number. When the suggestion came from said buddies to declare my birthday as year end, it was met with acclaim as a beautiful compromise – gaming pleasure wasn’t delayed, numbers could be met! As it turned out, that was the last year I ever struggled to hit 100 new games. But the tradition remains.

Anyway, my 2011 numbers are nearly all face to face and don’t include expansions: 182 new titles played, 477 different titles played, 1006 games played.

Games I’ve played 10+ times (8, in order): Lord Of The Rings: The Card Game, Memoir’ 44, 7 Wonders, Flash Point: Fire Rescue, Bluff, The Resistance, San Juan, Pandemic.

Games I’ve played 5-9 times (28): Eminent Domain, Dominion, Claustrophobia, Backgammon, Castle Panic, Schnappchen Jagd, Rallyman, Innovation, Villa Paletti, Mousquetaires du Roy, St Petersburg, Ascension: Chronicle Of The Godslayer, Cities, De Vulgari Eloquentia, Ra: The Dice Game, Geschenkt, Fairy Tale, Dragonheart, Puerto Rico, Roma, Valdora, Tichu, Lords Of Scotland, World Without End, LotR: The Confrontation, Feurio, Finito, Luna.

With that as a background, of those games played for the first time this year, let’s dole out some awards. Some of this replicates a write-up earlier in the year that was covering 2010 releases, but so be it. It also doesn’t include a lot in the way of current Essen releases. Sorry about that. It takes a while for these to trickle their way down to Australia. On the upside, by the time they get here, most of them have been reviewed enough to allow you to pick up the cream and avoid the duds, so that’s a bunch of money saved. Anyway, to the awards …

MOST TIME SPENT PLAYING

MOST TIMES PLAYED

BEST CO-OPERATIVE GAME

MOST AWARDS FOR THE YEAR

The Lord Of The Rings: The Card Game My first play of this, which was solo, was dry, boring and uninspiring. Purchaser’s regret loomed large. I gave it another chance, multi-player, exploring it with a fellow fan of the theme (and Magic player). His enthusiasm for the game has gradually won me over. The more we explored it, the more we found in it, the more we enjoyed it. We dabbled every now and then in deck-building to tackle a tough scenario in different ways, but usually we were content to see what we could do with the vanilla decks. The expansions have improved the capability and variety of the vanilla decks considerably, meaning there’s no need to deck-build to be able to enjoy and be hopeful of winning any scenario multi-player. The vanilla decks are now more balanced and can win solo (using different approaches) against most middle level scenarios with a bit of luck. Those same expansions have also allowed for some interesting ways to deck build which has become important if you want to overcome the tougher scenarios solo. That can be an interesting challenge in itself.

Even though I’m now rating the game a 10, it ain’t all roses. Because we’re getting a lot of play out of it, I don’t mind forking out a bit every now and then for the expansions. Each new scenario provided has been interesting in its own way. On the downside, setting up scenarios is getting longer as you sort through the cards working out which are needed and/or wanted. And what I thought was a clean set of rules on first reading quickly turned into an FAQ mess through all the card interactions, but there are some great aids at BBG to help.

So why do I like the game? There’s good decisions to make throughout on what cards to play and when. You soon learn not to play a card just because you can afford it – it can be important to keep cards as answers to specific upcoming events. It’s a game of choosing which units will travel through your quest (but are then unable to defend against baddies), which do you leave on guard against potential upcoming baddies (the turn of a deck), and which to leave available to whack the baddies back in return. There’s luck all over the place in what encounters are revealed and in what cards you draw. The struggle is to do the best you can with what you get, minimising risks, playing the odds. The scenarios regularly produce tight spots where you think all is lost – it can be an amazed satisfaction afterwards if/as you get through it.

This can be good fun with other gamers (it’s not a spouse game) who are into the theme, who like co-op and who are into the CCG genre (ie comfortable with card effects). Without that it’s going to be tough to get to the table, so it’s not for everyone. But if you can manage all three … it’s a 10.

Most Time Spent Playing Runners Up:

Memoir ’44 – My 8 year old son has pushed to work through each scenario in the Campaign Book with the guideline (for some unknown but fine reason) that the Allies have to win each scenario once before we’re allowed to move on. Lots of play left here! A 9.

Flash Point: Fire Rescue –Flash Point adds a load of randomness over Pandemic in the construction and spread of the fire, all controlled by dice each turn, but otherwise plays similarly. The game’s great attribute is theme. You can put yourself in the building, rescuing victims, or wading around the edge of the fire pushing it back. It’s also a theme that kids love, and it’s easily playable 8 and up. Turns are fast because the decisions are generally straightforward once your strategy is decided – move, fight fire, rescue victims. This is for co-op fans that dig the thematic appeal. A 7 or 8.

Most Times Played Runners Up:

7 Wonders –Enough buddies have secured a copy to see this come out regularly through the year because it’s generally agreeable, enough so that I don’t need my own copy. Re the game itself, it’s all been said I think. An 8.

Flash Point: Fire Rescue – As above.

Best Co-op Runners Up:

Defenders Of The Realm – Great re-implementation of Pandemic, but the lack of consistency between each game (easy vs tense) is against it. An 8.

Castle Panic – For such a simple concept, this has proven surprisingly fun with the kids (and the occasional kidults) who have found it easy to get into the drama of the Giant Rolling Ball creating carnage et al. It’s easy to teach, easy to play and fast. It’s taken over Forbidden Island as the co-op of choice with the family. I’ll probably pick up the expansion that’s just coming out. A 7.

Flash Point: Fire Rescue – As above.

Mousquetaires Du Roy – It’s pseudo Ameritrash (as most progress is achieved via dice combats) but with a Euro theme. We had good fun exploring but eventually felt we’d found the best approach, which then limited replay. The Gamemaster’s decisions are unfortunately limited along the Shadows Over Camelot line – taunting and making the occasional “here, deal with this” decision. A 7.

Hanabi & Ikebana – Really interesting concept, but the “hold your tongue” requirement dampens cheer and groan factor. An 8.

Wok Star – It’s fun, but replay is limited by the real-time requirement, which serves to manufacture the pressure to make mistakes. A 7.

BEST AMERITRASH GAME

There’s so many cool-looking Ameritrash games out there that I haven’t yet got to, but for what it’s worth, we’ve had fun playing:

Invasion From Outer Space: The Martian Game Ok, it’s not much more than an updated theme using the Last Night On Earth system, but here you’re playing more mano on mano, with one player / team, playing each side. The zombies aka the Martians are easier to get out and take more shots, but also easier to kill. The Martian players have nice decisions to make on how to spend their action points each turn – investing in stronger powers to use later on, or doing instant now things like getting more troops out, or moving spawn sites. The carnival players are making decisions about gathering cards vs gathering kills. All of which makes this version more interesting than the original. It’s still little more than various scenarios of dice, move, whack, dice, but it’s a thematic ride which can be fun with the right people. A 7.

Nominations here included:

Android – Your liking of the game will reflect your tolerance for theme over downtime. It boils down to a VP hunt obfuscated by chrome on top of chrome. I’m not sure that the secret suspect and take-that card play mechanisms sustains a game of this length over the long run. A 6.

Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game – Good effort, but I feel too constrained by the seemingly inevitable forced military race. A 7.

Dungeons & Dragons: Castle Ravenloft / Wrath Of Ashardalon – Enjoyable, but the decision making isn’t as tense or interesting as I’d like it. A 7.

Dwarf King’s Hold: Dead Rising –  A neat dungeon bash-em-up, effectively allowing you to play Descent in 30 minutes. It’s a fast whack-fest that’s fun once you get going and have forgiven the poor components. A 7.

Star Trek: Fleet Captains – A 2 player Nexus Ops on steroids. There’s decent decisions to make each turn, but it boils down to a “move, do stuff and then roll to see if you succeed” type game. It feels like you’re playing more to enjoy the theme than the game-play and the result is kind of secondary – which it probably is based on how much luck is involved in the VP cards you get and the die rolls along the way. A 6.

BEST EURO GAME

I’m at a point now where I rarely buy Euros I haven’t yet played, wanting to know for sure it has something special and different about it before any blind purchase. But I did particularly enjoy:

LunaI was expecting a Euro-y, round-based affair, and it is, but the rounds aren’t an issue, they’re just scoring breaks while you wheel your meeples around a stack of locations which change in value, with a raft of possible actions to work through and a wealth of scoring strategies to explore. I was pleasantly surprised at the replayability on offer. An 8.

Nominations here included:

Ascending Empires – Euro-style empire expansion game aka victory point hunt with a mini tech tree. All done neatly, with the hook being that the movement action is a Crokinole flick of your token across the board. Actions are fast and the game whizzes around. An interesting game to play, ranging between peaceful and overly combative, which causes my rating to swing between an 8 and a 7.

Asteroyds – Robo Rally on (a)steroids. Good fun, but for time pressure fast-board-assessment junkies only. A 7 or 8 as well.

Fresco – Ok decisions, but the abstracted theme was just too abstract. A 7.

Glen More – A tight tile collection game, but the slow pace cruelled it for me. A 7.

The Great Fire Of London 1666 – A juiced up Drunter & Druber, which is good, but its downside is being too chaotic with more players. A 7.

Jump Gate – Pleasant and fast game of playing cards to land on planets and collect It’s Mine type scoring cards. Your strategy is to work out what types of score cards others are claiming and go different … and/or hinder them. It’s very light, but it does what it does well. A 7.

K2 – A nice planning game, but I’m not sure how much replayability there is due to limited scenarios and limited interactivity. A 7.

Kingdom Builder – An easy going tile placement game that’s easy to teach so the family can play, and (maybe) there’s enough there for gamers. Good light Euro fillery meat. An 8 to begin with.

London – Ok card-power game, but too much downtime. A 6.

Navegador Good rondel design, but everything just seems so, well, balanced and your fortune depends on being not competed with. A 7.

NorenbercVery dry, semi-blind and somewhat repetitive resource acquisition and spend them game. Done well but no story arc – just do the 4 rounds and add up the VPs. A 7.

Poseidon – Decent mini-18xx, but the end-game feels too repetitive and un-interesting. A 7.

Powerboats – Racing on the seas using innovative dice. Interesting risk decisions to make each turn. A Mississippi Queen killer for mine. An 8.

Troyes – Too hitty, too slow, too round-repetitive and an uninteresting theme. A 6.

De Vulgari Eloquentia A decent game with different avenues to explore and an off-beat theme. A 7.

Vinhos – There’s so many ways to get victory points, the game is one of choosing / developing a strategy that others aren’t concentrating on, and then doing it efficiently. The game therefore provides a lot of strategies to explore, keeps you engaged throughout, provides lots of races along the way to compete for (the only real interaction), and neat ways to get out of jams (such as money shortage). I’ve found the decision making interesting and rewarding, so it’s a keeper. An 8.

There were many other older titles played, the 7ish stuff included Aquadukt, Batavia, Carcassonne: New World, Container, Cyclades, Jump Gate, Opera, Popular Front, Power Struggle, Space Junkyard, Stronghold, The Truckers.

BEST 2 PLAYER

A Few Acres Of SnowA refreshingly thematic design for a “getting old already” mechanic. There are interesting strategic decisions to make on how you build your deck – settler heavy to build cities for VPs, troop heavy to inflict sieges to steal cities, raider heavy to steal VPs, deck manipulation cards, defence cards, and so on. As your deck grows, you get good turns and poor turns, simulating the ebb and flow of the conflict. It doesn’t feel like a war game, more of expansion and competition for restricted spaces, with multiple ways to choose to do it. For me, there’s still lots to explore but I’m not sure how long it’s got ‘til it gets tired. An 8.

Nominations here included:

A Bridge Too Far: Operation Market Garden This is an attack-attack-attack, then do more attack, type of game for a couple of hours. While there are strategic decisions to make (where to drop troops, where to consolidate forces, where to make a concerted effort), the game is a thick-and-fast slug-fest dice-fest. Be prepared for many “you went a bridge too far” one-liners. A 7.

Labyrinth: The War On Terror, 2001 – ? Love the CDG nature and the assymetrical positions, but it’s a bit more of a dice fest than I expected, and it’s not easy working out how to play to win. It hasn’t quite grabbed me yet. A 7.

BEST CARD GAME

The ResistanceWith a willing group who like hamming up the paranoia, this is a really fun secret identity game of accusation and counter-accusation, with theories being thrown around with gay abandon on who the baddies are and who the goodies. The resistance players are desperately trying to work out who their team mates are and get them and only them on the missions. The spies know who each other are, and they’re trying to fool the other players into getting a spy or two onto missions so they can shoot the missions down secretly. The game really shines when clever bluff moves happen at the start, which sets up turmoil later. It’s all over in 30 minutes as well so the time value is excellent, and being able to play with 5-10 players is a big plus as not many games do that well. An 8.

Nominations here included:

Ascension: Chronicle Of The Godslayer – Fast, easy to teach, easy to play deckbuilder, but as you’re going thru and building from the same (big) deck each time, each game and hand might start to feel a bit same-y. I’m uhmming and ahhing over getting expansions. An 8.

Core Worlds –. It seems pretty standard for the deck-building genre (spend your hand to buy either better cards or VPs, then thin your deck) but it’s done well and worth exploring. A 7.

Dragonheart – It works fine as a 7 minute filler at BSW for 2 players, but it’s too random to sustain ongoing play with actual real cards and shuffling. A 7.

Dungeon Raiders – Nice quick game. While there’s not a lot of tension, it’s kinda fun working out whether to go high or low for the early rooms based on what you think others will do, determining what specials to go for, as well as the mini co-op battle drama against monsters to collectively avoid damage. A 7.

Haggis – The uberpower of the wilds wore me down and led to a rating drop. A 6.

Famiglia – A nice 2 player set collecting game with a twist. A 7.

Inquisitio – A card avoidance game with a theme that produces fun engagement with the players. There’s a light decision to make each turn and a bit of “counting matches” to do. It ain’t that taxing, but it provides a great vehicle for allowing players to get into the spirit and start hamming up stories for your “confession”. A 7.

Lords Of Scotland – A simple game of playing cards out, highest total gets the most VPs. The powers added to each suit make it interesting, but also too powerful at the same time, leaving your fortunes in the hands of those who play later in the round. A 6.

Nightfall – Dress it up in Dominion clothes all you like, add a fancy new chaining mechanism to allow all players to play cards on each player’s turn, but this is nought but a multi-player hit-the-leader whack-fest, the winner being who’s picked on least. The nature of which complete overwhelms any cleverness you might be able to achieve with your deck construction. A 6.

Pax – Take the best part of Biblios (the choices between keep, put in a job lot or discard), throw away the auction, add the option to buy a job lot, add in a special power for each of the 7 types of cards and you get a pretty decent game. There’s a bit to consider (re keeping which cards and whether to buy and what then to play) so downtime can be an issue, but it packs a nice enough punch to see replay. A 7.

Stich-Meister  – Every hand is like a mini-game with new rules in itself, so hands can be straight-forward or wacky, but probably rarely what exactly suits your hand. Go with the flow, accept the chaos, score what you will and enjoy it because it’ll be fun when played in that vein. But it’s probably for trick-taking lovers only given the swings in fortune from hand to hand, and will probably drive anyone looking for a serious game around the bend. A 7.

Thunderstone – An interesting Dominion clone with better story and substance, but with the downside potential of bogging down rather than accelerating to an end. Your preference for this may come down to your tolerance of variable game length and perhaps a more uneven progression through the game – or call it improved storyline if you will. An 8.

Older titles played in the 7ish range included Battle For Hill 218, Dixit, Langfinger, Pocket Rockets, Summoner Wars.

BEST LIGHT GAME

7 WondersYeah, your results are decided by what your neighbours deny you and provide you, but its short time frame and ability to take 7 players provides this game a heap of replayability. An 8.

Nominations here included:

Don Quixote – Fun to explore, but too random and solitaire for ongoing play. A 6.

Hey Waiter! – Decent, but it hasn’t grabbed us with replayability. A 7.

Mr Jack Pocket – A really clever reduction of the main game which manages to keep all the agony of the original – which action to take, trying to work out what the other player will do, preventing them from taking good actions, having good actions yourself which can’t be undone. In much less time and at lower cost. An 8.

Samarkand: Routes To Riches – A nice, non-demanding light stock game, but I can’t tell if it’s a meaty filler or a fillery meat. A 7.

Tumblin-Dice – For a stupid, chaotic and uncontrollable dice flickin’ game, this is a lot of fun when you’re playing with any group who are happy to have fun. An 8.

BEST DUNE RIP-OFF

Battle For BaghdadFor all intents and purposes, this is Dune. Same spice-blows, same combat system. Each of the factions has different victory conditions, which create your motivators for attacking some areas / factions and not other areas / factions. Like Dune, you’ll be banding up to stop the super-strong Harko … er Amerians to begin with. Like Dune there’ll be times you’ll go an hour or more without doing much but biding your time, sitting low, collecting cards (which marks it down for me). Because you don’t lose any winning cards from a combat, there can be real momentum shifts in the game, with a faction getting on a seemingly unbeatable roll of successful combats. So the game mostly comes down to the cards – what you pick up, what you play when. Like Dune, the time investment, the flows of fortune and the shifting alliance structures means each game will typically be memorable (which marks it up). A 7.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS OF THE YEAR

The game(s) with the most marked gap between (high) expectation and (low) reality:

Black FridayInscrutable rule-book, non-intuitive play, abstract price manipulation, with your result dependent on odds calculations of what comes out of the bag. All the fragility this promises is frustratingly delivered. A 5.

High Frontier  – Great science but lousy, boring game-play. A 5.

Lords Of Vegas – A crap shoot where decisions don’t matter. A 5.

Mondo – It’s too solitaire and too quiet to be fun, and too monotonous to warrant replay solitaire style. A 5.

Soul Hunters – A quirky card game that offered some interest upon commencement but got lost in its own quirkiness. The first game in years we’ve agreed to abandon mid-way. A 3.

SUMMARY

T’was a good gaming year. If you’re after a bit more info on why I’ve thought this way or that on a game, my comments at BGG (over 1700 now) flesh my thoughts out further. Other than that … catch you later, I’m off to tackle the latest Essen cream!

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5 Responses to Patrick Brennan: My Best Of 2011

  1. Giles says:

    Great write up Patrick! I always enjoy reading a good reflection on the year – great job!

  2. Wil Wade says:

    Nice break down. I have to agree on Black Friday. The rule book is the worst I have seen. At our gaming group a group tried to play it and gave up after about 30 minutes. I helped try to figure it out in a second try on a different day and (after watching the Dice Tower video on it) and one game that was aborted, we played almost through a second time, before figuring out that we had gotten another rule wrong.

    A set of reference cards or a reference page in the rule book would have gone a long way to helping figure out the game, and to play it.

    I think it might play well if we try it again, we were playing with 5 players, and it was starting to get fun before our mistakes started to kill the market.

  3. Eric Brosius says:

    I have the advantage of having played Black Friday a dozen times before it came out, and learning the rules from the designer and not the rule book. The rule book is a tough slog. However, I really enjoy playing the game and have found it to be an evocative depiction of a stock market going through a bubble followed by a crash.

  4. huzonfirst says:

    I agree with Eric about Black Friday, Patrick. The rulebook is indeed a horror and to make things worse, this is yet another example of the lack of player aids hurting the first play of a game (this has become perhaps my top pet peeve about publishers). For both of those, shame on Kosmos. However, once you figure out the correct rules (and having played the prototype helps), you have one of the best stock market games I’ve ever played. It’s a nice balance between player control and uncertainty and I thought it was one of the better titles from 2010.

  5. Alan How says:

    I had similar issues about Black Friday, which ruined our first game as we got a significant issue wrong. And the problem with this is that a tarnished game finds itself behind along queue of new games and ones that worked first time. If you play in a regular group (as I do) then you move on to the next game and it is really hard to get it back on the table. It’s a pity because now that I know how to play the game I’d like to play again, but this means with a new group.

    I often wonder how much blind playing a game gets to check that the game is playable from the rules in the box.

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