Now that we’ve finished selecting the most notable games from the last 20 years, we’re going to pick our favorites. In case you missed it, last week Larry and Tom seized control of the OG to run the Notable Notables series. The series worked backwards through two decades of games to highlight the ones that we thought were most significant and notable based on awards, reviews, popular appeal, and reputation over time. As you saw, Larry and Tom don’t agree on much, but there were plenty of years when we could easily agree on the most notable title of the year. However, when it comes to actual favorites, as you’re about to see, there’s far less agreement. Today and tomorrow we’re going to work our way forward through those same 20 years to pick our favorites (and you’ll get a chance to see just how much we left our personal preferences out of last week’s series). As with the Notable Notables, we’ll make our selections based on the July-June gaming calendar year. And for context we’ll also list the major award selections for that year, as well as the top ranked game on BoardGameGeek. So if you were stuck on a desert island with just Larry’s or Tom’s selections, which would it be and why?
Tom: Magic: The Gathering (Runner Up: Loopin’ Louie)
Larry: I’m the Boss! (Runner Up: Intrigue)
Spiel des Jahres (SdJ) – Manhattan
Deutscher Spiele Preis (DSP) – 6 Nimmt!
BoardGameGeek highest ranked (BGG) – RoboRally
Tom – Here we can already see that Larry and I are not going to see eye to eye. I love I’m the Boss as much as the next guy, but not picking Magic for this year is like heresy. You can give Sackson game of the year for 1962 and 1980, but not 1993. We agreed Magic was the most notable for the year, but apparently Larry doesn’t enjoy the finer things in life. Magic was a joy to play in the 1990s and cube drafts continue to be very entertaining and challenging to this day. As for Loopin’ Louie, BGG pegs it at 1992, but the SdJ considered it in this award season, so I couldn’t resist picking it as my runner up for the year. Such a wonderful kid’s game that is great fun for adults too.
Larry – I played Magic a couple of times when it was released and wasn’t impressed. Guess I’m just not a deckbuilding kind of guy. And I’m the Boss! is one of the most enjoyable, rollicking, and laugh-inducing games around, particularly with 6.
Tom: Settlers of Catan (Runner Up: Colonial Diplomacy)
Larry: Medici (Runner Up: Condottiere)
SdJ – Settlers of Catan
DSP – Settlers of Catan
BGG – Settlers of Catan
Larry – More contrarianism by yours truly. I played Settlers quite a bit when it first came out and I enjoyed and admired it. But I never felt it was the amazing game many said it was, mostly because of the frustration level in just about every game when the dice don’t go your way for several turns in a row. It’s probably been 15 years since I’ve played the game and I don’t particularly miss it. Medici, on the other hand, is an excellent exercise in valuation and continues to get played even to this day. I actually found this to be a weak year, with the very solid Condottiere being the best runner-up I could find, but it’s probably my least favorite game of any on this list.
Tom – Settlers is the easy and obvious pick. Not picking it is just being obstreperous. It’s like leaving Citizen Kane off your best movies list just to be difficult. As for Colonial Diplomacy, I like the game a lot, although it’s mostly a stand-in for Diplomacy since we opted not to pick all the way back to 1959.
Tom: El Grande
Larry: Flaschenteufel (Runner Up: Get the Goods)
SdJ – El Grande
DSP – El Grande
BGG – El Grande
Tom – El Grande, El Grande, El Grande. That says it all. The reigning king of area control games was widely recognized as the champ at the time and continues to be recognized to this day by BGG. There’s something just so perfect about El Grande’s mechanisms that it’s been replicated and copied so many times since. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then El Grande has got to be one of the most flattered games ever. I still love to this day the agonizing decision about which power card to play each turn, trying to balance the availability of units with the selection of a useful action card. The game also requires such artful manipulation of your opponents, which makes it a tense and supremely engaging affair.
Larry – I’ve played El Grande 5 times and each one has been a disaster. It’s possible the game hasn’t aged all that well, but I’m also willing to say that not every game works for every person and leave it at that. Flaschenteufel, though, is not only an excellent and mind-bending trick-taker, but one of the few of that genre that is well themed. And I’ve always had a soft spot for the underrated Get the Goods.
Tom: Netrunner (Runner Up: Lowenherz)
Larry: Lowenherz (Runner Up: Serenissima)
SdJ – Mississippi Queen
DSP – Lowenherz
BGG – Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage
Larry – Even though Klaus Teuber will always be known for Settlers (and rightfully so), for me his unquestioned masterpiece is Lowenherz. This was quite an atypical design for him, as it’s one of the nastiest games I know, since the players are required to butt heads every turn. Just a brilliant game and one that’s as great today as it was almost 20 years ago. Serenissima is a gorgeous and clever game of trading and empire building in the Mediterranean. It was one of my very first German game purchases (I must have asked the FLGS owner half a dozen times if there really were English rules in the box) and it gave me a real appreciation for how different these kinds of games could be as compared to standard American fare.
Tom – If Netrunner is a game that I could gladly play over 200 times last year then it must be a design that has aged incredibly well. I enjoyed the ’96 version for several years before getting the new version, but don’t have a strong preference either way. It’s possibly the best card game ever either way, with wonderful asymmetry, bluffing, and tension galore.
Tom: Tigris & Euphrates (Runner Up: Through the Desert)
Larry: Schnappchen Jagd (Runners Up: Tigris & Euphrates, Tycoon)
SdJ – Elfenland
DSP – Tigris & Euphrates
BGG – Tigris & Euphrates
Tom – I was shocked to discover that Larry didn’t pick Tigris & Euphrates as his favorite game of 1997. He never ceases to amaze. I’ve played the game 97 times now, more than almost any other game, and it continues to be a pleasure to play. I particularly enjoy watching the board shift and morph over the course of the game with the rise and fall of empires. The merging and falling apart of kingdoms creates a remarkably dynamic game that always keeps you on your toes and is surprisingly thematic for a Knizia game.
Larry – Just call me the Amazing Mr. Levy. I like T&E, but haven’t played it in years. I freely admit it that its strategies may be beyond my capabilities. I’m also a bit bothered by a fairly high luck factor in a game of this weight. But I make no apologies for my love of Schnappchen Jagd (aka Bargain Hunter), which is a truly innovative trick-taker, perhaps my favorite 3-player card game, and more proof that Uwe Rosenberg was pretty damn good even before Agricola.
Larry: Tikal (Runner Up: Chinatown)
SdJ – Tikal
DSP – Tikal
International Gamers Award (IGA) – Tikal
BGG – Samurai
Larry – Tikal is a tremendous game and my third favorite design of all time. It was also the first German game that really captivated me and made me realize that these were the games I had been searching for my whole life. As you can see by the award listing, the rest of the gaming world agreed at the time; Tikal and 7 Wonders are the only two games to sweep all three major awards. Although it takes a bit of effort, the charges of extreme “analysis paralysis” have not been a problem for me, as I’ve never played a game with experienced players that took longer than 2 hours. So all of the lovely Action Point decision making in a reasonable timeframe makes this a big win. As for Chinatown, this is as pure a negotiating game as there is. I’ve been lucky enough to play it with people who consistently come up with imaginative deals, which makes playing the game a delight.
Tom – I think Ra continues to be the best auction game to this day. The way in which it quickly differentiates players’ positions to make valuation an individualized proposition is masterful. And the chance for all but one player to chant “Ra! Ra! Ra!” near the end of a round is pure joy.
Tom: Stephensons Rocket (Runner Up: La Citta)
Larry: Princes of Florence (Runner Up: Stephenson’s Rocket) (Honorable Mentions: Time’s Up!, Taj Mahal, Roads & Boats)
SdJ – Torres
DSP – Taj Mahal
IGA – Princes of Florence
BGG – Paths of Glory
Tom – With 425 designs to his credit on BGG, Knizia is incredibly prolific, and while I haven’t tried nearly all of those games, I feel reasonably confident saying that Stephensons Rocket is his best ever. I actually discovered it fairly late, after Chicago Express, but it turned out to be the game that I had wanted Chicago Express to be. It removes the precise valuation required by the auctions and allows you to play based more on intuition and gut instinct. The veto mechanism is just brilliant and makes for a game with absolutely no down time. And the static board somehow manages to result in vastly different games each time depending on how circumstances develop in any particular game. Stephensons Rocket can be tough for new players to wrap their heads around, but it’s well worth the learning curve for the ultimate payout.
Larry – I agree that Stephenson’s is Knizia’s best game and that the veto mechanic is one of my favorite ever. But as good as it is, Princes is just a little bit better. What a fantastic design, requiring you to do so much with just 21 actions! It’s one of only five games I rate a 10, with Stephenson’s being a shade behind it.
Maybe it’s because this was my first year with a games group that focused on Euros, but I list more games here than for any other period. For this exercise, I wanted to mention any game that I give a rating of at least 8.5, and since I have fewer than 50 of those, I could usually manage that with no more than 3 games a year. This year was an exception, as I had to cite 5 titles. However, the gap between Princes and Stephenson’s and the other 3 is sufficiently great that I decided to only give them Honorable Mention status. Those are still three great games and Time’s Up is easily my favorite party game of all time.
Tom: Java (Runner Up: Carcassonne)
Larry: San Marco (Runners Up: Traumfabrik, Babel, Capitol)
SdJ – Carcassonne
DSP – Carcassonne
IGA – San Marco
BGG – Carcassonne
Larry – The pie-dividing rule in San Marco is one of the most clever and original game mechanisms I’ve ever encountered. My original group loved the game with 4, because you could try to get into the head of the one opponent you were splitting for and arrange things so that she would choose her preferred stack and still leave you the cards you wanted all along. So satisfying when you got it right! But for either 3 or 4 players, this is a hugely enjoyable game. Moon and Weissblum were on a roll that year, as Capitol is almost as good. I also love Babel (one of my favorite 2-player games of all time) and casting Boris Karloff in Gone With The Wind in Traumfabrik.
Tom: San Marco (Runner Up: Wallenstein)
Larry: Puerto Rico (Runner Up: Funkenschlag)
SdJ – Villa Paletti
DSP – Puerto Rico
IGA – Puerto Rico
BGG – Puerto Rico
Tom – I know I was supposed to pick San Marco in the previous year according to Larry because it came out before June 2001, but I’d already made my selections on a calendar year basis before Larry suggested switching everything to a July-June year. I was fine with some of the other changes that required, but bumping either Java or San Marco from game of the year just wasn’t something I could bring myself to do. Java and San Marco are my two all-time favorite multiplayer games and lumping them into the same year would just be too much. If you haven’t tried either of these games then do yourself a favor and do so as soon as possible, or even if you have tried them and weren’t particularly impressed, then try them again. Java is the pinnacle of action point games, giving players a wide open playground to explore, and San Marco is the pinnacle of area majority games, including an ingenious mechanism for allocating resources.
Larry – Obviously, my friend Tom isn’t very good when it comes to following rules, which makes me question why I’d want to play games with him. But of all the years to deliberately miscategorize a game, why choose this one, when you could follow the rules and pick one of the great games of all time, Puerto Rico? Having the players choose the order of the phases of the turn (and get a benefit from the phase they choose) is a brilliant idea that, surprisingly, is rarely seen in other games. We played the hell out of this when it first came out and I’m still ready to play it at any time. And my runner-up this year is another of my favorites, Funkenschlag. What a marvelous combination of ideas and mechanisms in this game! Even though I’m not a huge fan of the crayon drawing, I prefer this version to Power Grid, as I like the pacing better in Funk. Still Friese’s masterpiece in my opinion.
Tom: Age of Steam (Runner Up: StreetSoccer)
Larry: Age of Steam (Runner Up: Amun-Re)
SdJ – Alhambra
DSP – Amun-Re
IGA – Age of Steam
BGG – Age of Steam
Larry – Age of Steam is the train game for me, a hugely successful attempt to include most of the scope and strategy of an 18xx game within a reasonable duration. This is a harsh, unforgiving game and that’s why I love it. Amun-Re is a heavy and wonderfully designed auction/building game, the last example of the kind of thing that Knizia used to bring us on a regular basis. The auction mechanism is a terrific refinement of the system first introduced in Evo. It remains one of the small number of games I’ll always suggest if we have 5 players.
Tom – We finally agree! Hallelujah!