Dale Yu: A Gamer Looks at Forty (Part One)


As I approach the hump of middle age, I am trying to take a step back and look at what I’ve managed to do (and what I plan to still accomplish).  I’ve been playing games for over half of the days I’ve been around, and I’ve played a lot of games that I’ve enjoyed (and sadly, quite a few that I haven’t).  Thanks to a recent comment on our internal Opinionated Gamers mailing list, I took a look at the games database on BGG to see just how many different games that I have played.  I figured it would be fitting at this time to look at the Top 40 games (as ranked on BGG) to see how they have held up over the years, and what my feelings are about them…

Note on my methodology – almost all of this is being done from memory.  While I used to be fanatical about keeping stats on playing games, I stopped that habit about 8 or 9 years ago when I discovered that I was obsessed with keeping stats about gaming.  It was getting so bad that the stats were becoming more important than the playing of the games themselves!  Thus, I don’t have any record on BGG or elsewhere of most of my data.

Ratings are based on what I feel at this very moment.  I do not have a spreadsheet anywhere where I keep rankings.  I generally can remember how many times I’ve played a game (as long as I use broad enough buckets) – I will estimate with the following scale

  • Once
  • Less than 10
  • 10-100
  • >100
  • >1000

Of the top 40 games, I have played 32 of them, and based on my rankings, I can say that my tastes seem to diverge from the BGG userbase!  In any event, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to go through the top 40 games and see what I think of them…

(Ratings based on current BGG Rank as of 3/20/2014)

#1 Twilight Struggle

Rating: Not for me.

Times Played: <10

Comments: This one never really captured my attention.  First, and foremost, it’s a 2p only game, and frankly I don’t have time set aside for 2p gaming.  Almost all of my gaming time is set up for groups, and in that scenario, it is very unlikely to only have 2p present.  Until just recently, my kids weren’t old enough to play big boy games at home, though I suppose that I will soon be able to count on ready and willing opponents at home (assuming that the homework is done!).  But back to Twilight Struggle… I am not a fan of asymmetric games, and the card driven action here required more time to be invested in it than I was willing to invest.  I’ve played the game against aficionados (such as Alan Moon) who completely whipped my butt at this game – because they knew which cards were in the deck; what they could do, and as a result, they could make much better informed decisions about how and when to play certain cards.  The best I could hope for was that a sweet combo showed up in my hand so that I could play it.  I can see where people who have the time/inclination to play a game 50 times could love it, but that’s just not me.

#2 Through the Ages

Rating: Neutral

Times Played: 10-100

Comments: This is one that I want to love, but I really just can’t get past Neutral anymore.  I currently have no desire to play it again – partly because it’s so long, partly because I still feel that the whole military beat-up-on-the-guy-in-last-place thing is wonky, partly because I am turned off by the amount of card variance in a four hour game.  I respect the design, and I think that it’s aptly described as “Civ-lite”, but there just isn’t room in my life for four hour games.  I think I need “Through the Ages-lite”! I’m guessing that I played this 10-15 times in the first year of release and then maybe only 3 or 4 times since…

#3 Agricola

Rating: I love it!

Times Played: >100 (prob closer to 300 if you count solo games)

Comments: (OFFICIAL DISCLAIMER – I did help work on the solo game for the 2nd edition, so I am somewhat biased towards this game).  This is one of my all time Top 5 games – there’s so much going on in this game, and each game must be approached carefully due to the occupation and improvement cards that you are dealt.  I know that I just complained that card luck ruins Through the Ages for me, and for many, the luck in the deal here is just as large an issue.  However, I think that there is still plenty of room to develop different strategies in this game regardless of what cards you are dealt.  The other facet of this game (which can be found in many of my alltime favorite games) is that this is a “Turn Zero” game.  What I mean by that is – before the game even really starts, you have a chance to look at the game setup to devise a strategy, and then you have all game to implement it.

#4 Puerto Rico

Rating: Neutral

Times Played: >100

Comments: I current rate this one “Neutral” because I’m just burned out on it, and my last few games of this have been unsatisfying – as a result, I don’t really have a strong desire to play it again.  There was a time when this was the rage, and everyone was playing it.  I probably have played this at least 200 times on BSW (oh the days when I played games on BSW all the time…)  So many people were playing it at such a high level that there were widely accepted Opening Theories / Strategies to playing the game – and that’s not what I’m looking for in my boardgaming.  I don’t want to study a manual on how to play correctly – if I did, I would take up Chess or Go. I feel like I’ve explored this one to the limit after so many online plays.  While I certainly don’t claim to have mastered it – in fact, I’m actually not that great at the game (probably because I have refused to “study” it) – I don’t see myself playing it much any more other than the occasional game to introduce it to newbies.

#5 Android: Netrunner

Rating: N/A (The original version is Not for me…)

Times Played: Zero

Comments: Haven’t played it. I played the original, and was very unimpressed.  I know that this is supposed to be better, but I still haven’t been convinced to try it.  Asymmetrical 2-player only games just don’t do it for me.

#6 Terra Mystica

Rating: I like it.

Times Played: around 10

Comments: I have enjoyed most of my games of Terra Mystica, though I have not fallen in love with it like some of the other Opinionated Gamers.  I like the variety that you get in the game – depending on which of the 14 races you choose (or are dealt), you end up approaching the game in a completely different manner due to the varying special abilities.  This vast selection of races though is also what keeps me from loving the game overall – because I haven’t had enough time to play enough games with any of the races to feel comfortable with the strategy.  And to be clear, that isn’t a failing of the game, that is more a failing of my schedule.  I still haven’t played a game with each of the 14 races, though I hope to get to that goal in 2014.  I just have to find non-AP prone players to do that with…

#7 Eclipse

Rating: Not for me.

Times Played: 1-10

Comments: I have thought for a long while that the BGG ratings and mine do not line up because there seems to be a predilection amongst the BGG user base for long complex games which I have been personally moving away from.  Three to four hour games don’t do it for me.  Heck, in the time that it takes to set this one up, I’d have enough time to get in a rousing game of Web of Power or Dominion.  That being said, I’ve played this three or four times, and it has been the best tolerated of the genre for me.

#8 Power Grid

Rating: I love it!

Times Played: 50-100

Comments: This is another of my all-time favorite games, though now that I think about it, I may not have played this more than once in the past year!  I love the constant fight for efficiency in this game (power plant efficiency) as well as the all important turn order battle that is played until the final round.  In this game, going first in the round is a huge advantage, but this reward is given to the player who is doing poorest in the game at the time.  I know that this sandbagging mechanic turns a lot of gamers off, but I am fascinated by it.  The steady stream of expansion boards keeps the game fresh as each different map has its own idiosyncracies to learn about.  This is a game that I’d be happy to play whenever anyone suggests it.

#9 Mage Knight

Rating: Neutral

Times Played: 2

Comments: Of this sort of game, it’s the one I’ve liked the most.  But then again, I’d rather go home early from a game night than play this sort of game.  I’m a Euro-gamer, not a RPG guy, and not a cooperative guy.

#10 Le Havre

Rating: I like it.

Times Played: >10

Comments: This has been described by some as a “spreadsheet” game – one where you manage resources and abilities on varied buildings, and I would not disagree with that description.  I like this one, but not as much as Agricola or Ora&Labora (all three of these are by Uwe Rosenberg).  I am not a big fan of the fixed number of turns (i.e. as the number of players goes up, the number of actions that each individual player takes goes down) – and as a result, this is a game I really only like with 3 players.  It would be good with 2, but as I said earlier, I don’t play many 2 player games.  Another thing that props up the rating is that one of the ships in the game is named for me.  Admittely, it’s not as nice as the ships named after fellow OG writers Melissa or Larry Levy, but that’s life…

#11 The Castles of Burgundy

Rating: I love it!

Times Played: >10

Comments: This is my favorite of the Feld games, and in fact, it is the only one that I really have a strong desire to keep in my game collection.  Many people (including myself) have commented that the recent Feld games all feel similar – there are multiple ways to score points, some sort of penalty in each of those categories if you are unable to reach a threshold, no way to do well in all of the scoring methods, and some sort of chit/token that allows you to break the standard rules.  The only thing that differs is the theme added to the game and the particulars of the special action chits.  Burgundy fits this description perfectly, but in my opinion, does it the best of the Feldian oeuvre.

#12 Robinson Crusoe

Rating: N/A

Times Played: zero

Comments: I didn’t get this when it originally came out because it was a cooperative game.  As it remains a cooperative game, I still have no desire to play it.

#13 Brass

Rating: not for me

Times Played: four or five (well, if you count aborted games)

Comments: This is a game that was ruined by the abysmal rules.  My first two attempts to play it were at a Great Lakes Games, and we had to abort both games because we made major rules mistakes due to the organization (or lack thereof) of those rules.  There are so many exceptions and caveats in the rules that the whole thing feels simply thrown together.  And don’t get me started about the link that isn’t a link to Birkhead…  There have been a few re-writings of the rules since then, but this bad first impression turned me off on the game.  Like many other under-developed games, I have too many other choices in new games to wade through a half-baked one.  I think there is probably a good game here.  The fact that the game was re-implemented as Age of Industry tells me that for sure. I have played and enjoyed that one well-enough.  But, the fact that the game had to be re-written, playtested and re-released as something else only highlights that Brass was not a finished product.

#14 Tzolk’in

Rating: I like it

Times Played: 3-5

Comments: I loved this one when I first tried it at the Gathering of Friends, and while it has fallen from the ranks of the loved, it is still an intriguing worker placement game that I look forward to playing again.   The timing aspect of the game is fascinating, as you are trying to get your workers on the right gear at the right times to get the actions you want.  The gear on the board are a super eye-catching element, and for the first few games, the novelty of the working gear mechanism was enough to bring the game back to the table again and again.  Once the novelty wears off, what you have left is a solid game with a very interesting timing mechanic – something that puts it solidly in the “I like it” group of games, but there not enough to “love it” for me.  I would be happy to play this with non AP-prone folks, but would run away screaming if any known slow players wanted to play this.

#15 Caverna

Rating: I like it.

Times Played: 4

Comments: This is one of the few games that I can accurately count the number of plays (mostly because it’s so dang new).  This game builds on the Agricola engine and adds a cave/rock excavation part to your player board as well as adding expeditions as a different method of scoring VPs and gaining resources.  I think it’s a solid game (well, once you get rid of the Infinite Ore combo loophole) – but I simply prefer Agricola better.  I think a lot of that comes from the sheer number of plays that I’ve put into the ‘Gric.  Some of the rules in Caverna were possibly developed to address perceived shortcomings from Agricola – i.e. you no longer need to fight for an oven/grill to eat animals, you don’t have to worry about occupational variability (as there are no such cards), but they don’t seem to mesh together as well.  I still have enjoyed my games of Caverna, and I still have plenty of room to explore it, but I think that if I were given the choice between playing the two tonight, I’d still choose Agricola 7 or 8 times out of 10 over Caverna.

#16 Caylus

Rating: I love it!

Times Played: >100

Comments: Another game that I have played many many times on BSW.  This game invented the genre of Worker Placement (at least for me), and like many of the seminal games, I prefer the original to the followup versions.  Every placement of your workers takes thought, and the many a game has hinged upon a single space of movement of the provost.  While the selection of buildings isn’t that large (35ish?), the order in which they come out (as well as ownership) changes how you approach each game.  Trying to figure out when best to score Favors is an added layer of complexity (which I think I still don’t fully understand how to do well… even after 100+ games).

#17 7 Wonders

Rating: I like it.

Times Played: 10-100

Comments: When this game initially came out, I fell in love with it.  The card drafting was a then-underused mechanic, and was a breath of fresh air at the time. There is a little bit of a learning curve to learn the iconography, but it’s something that most games should grasp before the end of their first game (and those games really should be only 20-30 minutes).  After dozens of games, I have found that I still like the game with lower numbers of players (4 or less) as there seems to be a higher feeling of interaction – both in using the opponent’s card tableaus as well as having a chance to see cards more than once.  In a 7 player game, I really don’t care too much about what is going on other than my RHO and LHO – I only pay attention to their cards at the end when we score.   The upcoming expansion (which I had a chance to play with Mr. Bauza at GenCon 2013) may push this back into the “I love it” category though…

#18 War of the Ring (2nd Edition)

Rating: n/a

Times Played: zero

Comments: I defer all comments here to Tom Rosen who was once trying to play this game once a day in 2013.

#19 Dominion

Rating: I love it!

Times Played: >3000 (seriously)

Comments: (OFFICIAL DISCLAIMER – I was one of the two developers for Dominion. That seriously clouds my opinion of the game. Take everything I say about it knowing that I worked on it for over two years…)  I have played Dominion more than any other game, and I frankly doubt that it will ever be eclipsed on the lifetime played scale.  Like Caylus, this was the founder of a genre, and I still appreciate this more than any of the followup games.  The best feature of the game (IMHO) is the near infinite variety of gameplay as this is dictated by which 10 Kingdom cards are included in any particular game.  Additionally, Dominion is a “Turn Zero” game in that much of the game strategy can be planned before the game even starts, and as I have mentioned, this is a mechanic that strongly appeals to me.

#20 Dominion: Intrigue

Rating: I love it!

Times Played: >3000 (seriously)

Comments: (OFFICIAL DISCLAIMER – I was one of the two developers for Dominion. That seriously clouds my opinion of the game. Take everything I say about it knowing that I worked on it for over two years…)  See the discussion above.  Honestly, I don’t care if you consider this an expansion or a standalone, and there have been about 1,000 threads on the Geek arguing for each side.  It’s included on this list because it has a ranking.  I still love it.  Oh, and since I’ve been asked, my favorite way to play is to draw 10 kingdom cards out at random (from the entire Dominion universe) and just play.

Well, that’s the first half of the Top 20 – I will get to the rest of it tomorrow or over the weekend!

Until your next appointment

The Gaming Doctor

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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11 Responses to Dale Yu: A Gamer Looks at Forty (Part One)

  1. Greg J. Schloesser says:

    Great summary, Dale. Honestly, though, you’re a doctor … where in the world do you find the time to assemble these articles? :o)

  2. huzonfirst says:

    Very nice article, Dale. But there are a couple of things I want to comment on, because I feel they leave an incorrect impression. And I need to do it quickly before Rosen writes in and agrees with you!

    First of all, you refer to Brass as an under-developed game. This simply isn’t true. It’s a superbly designed game, wonderfully refined, and it’s exhalted status in the Geek ratings proves that. There are some fiddly rules, that Wallace chose to include for historical reasons, and I have no problem believing that this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But to say that it’s under-developed just isn’t accurate.

    What IS under-developed are the rules. Wallace tried an experimental approach with them (attempting to come up with rules that were good to learn a game from AND to refer back to while playing) and he failed, big time. They’re not awful, but they’re certainly sub-par and are particularly hard to use to learn the game from scratch. Wallace deserves to be slammed for them and if they also cause you to devalue the game, that’s fine. But to say a game is under-developed has a certain connotation to it, as you, a professional in the field, know very well. And the *game* of Brass is anything but under-developed.

    Second, I had to laugh at your characterization of Feld games as being more or less all the same. For one thing, you left out the most important difference in his games, which are the action selection mechanisms. *Those* are the clever parts and the things that excite his many fans the most. But what I found most amusing was you saying that his games are X, Y, and Z and the only things that differentiates them are the specifics. That’s like me saying that fine cooking is a sham: every dish consists of proteins, carbs, and fats and the only difference is which ones are used and how they’re combined! Obviously, those “details” matter tremendously, whether you’re coming up with a recipe or designing a great game. I’m the first to say that there are a bunch of people who will never like Feld and that his designing style is very distinctive. But I think you may have oversimplified his games just a tad.

    There’s no point in you disagreeing with me, because you know I’m right. After all, my ship IS nicer than yours! :-)

  3. Dale Yu says:

    Larry –

    1) your point about the definition of “under-developed” does hit close to home – but I will say that I believe a big part of a developer is to make sure all the parts of the game work. One of the strongest points of our work on Dominion was figuring out how to make the rules accessible and easy to follow in such a small area. I can see you point, and

    2) I have oversimplified the Feldian oeuvre somewhat, but no more so than saying that most of the Rosenberg games are the same spreadsheet game – just with different shaped resources. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I definitely have my favorites amongst the games which I feel are similar (Burgundy von Burgen Burgendy and Agricola).

    3) These are my opinions, and as far as I can tell, they are more correct to me than your opinions :) YMMV.

    4) Do not play with Happy Fun Ball.

  4. Dale Yu says:

    1)continued – I can see your point, and I can say that we simply disagree about the definition of “under-developed”. The existence of the Halifax Hammer in a different Wallace game also points to this same lack, IMHO.

  5. huzonfirst says:

    A Few Acres of Snow is indeed under-developed, because of the Hammer. But no such issue exists with Brass.

    I can appreciate your perspective, that every part of a game is important and worthy of development. But perhaps because I’m a “mechanics first” gamer, I do differentiate between the gameplay and practically every other aspect of a game. There are games that I enjoy tremendously, in spite of poor rules, or poor components, or terrible theming (and maybe all three!). But there are very few games that I like in which the gameplay is lacking, even if they excel in all those other elements. So I’m much more sensitive to charges of “under-development” when they apply to gameplay than when they apply to the other aspects of a game.

    But I have no problem agreeing to disagree. And Happy Fun Ball better be the most developed game in history! :-)

  6. Jacob says:

    Dale, our tastes click. I worry a little about playing Caverna this weekend because I do love Agricola, Dominion and Suburbia (which I know you worked on). Great, great read!

  7. Hi Dale,

    I find it odd that you state ” I can see where people who have the time/inclination to play a game 50 times could love it, but that’s just not me.”

    You were referring to Twilight Struggle, but I’ve heard the same thing said by many other gamers these days about almost every title. It seems to me, at 51, and as someone who has played Up Front over 2,000 times in the past three decades, that this is a way of thinking that makes quite a impact on gaming and how we want to learn.

    How can anyone get good at a game if they don’t play it 30, 40 or 50 times? Are gamers these days simply flitting from game to game to game without really getting into how to play something well, and certainly never playing it well? What happened to learning the strategies? The subtle mechanics and decisions that will make you a better player? Not wanting to repeatedly play a game, especially well-designed ones, this way of playing games seems rather shallow to me … a sort of reflection on how unfulfilled and consumer-driven people are these days?

    I don’t know, that probably sounds like my late grandfather speaking right there. Even games as “simple” as Power Grid or Glen More take dozens of plays to really appreciate how good a game is. If we’re not investing time playing great games over and over again, what are the designers of some of these games working so hard/long for? I’ve only played something like The Duke less than a dozen times but I can see years of playing this one to better understand it and enjoy it more.

    Then again, I’ve pared my collection in the past few years down from well over 300 to just 60 because I’m enjoying quality gameplay over quantity.

    Has this made any sense?

  8. David Chappelle says:

    Could not agree more with Larry’s remarks on Brass. The game is quite good despite the horrible rules. The Birkhead thing is regrettable, doubly so because it so rarely affects the game in any way (but the rule must be explained regardless). But otherwise, I think you are really missing out on a solid game.

    • Dale Yu says:

      @ David – as far as Brass goes – I guess it’s just a matter of taste. As I said above, I have enjoyed the re-boot of Brass (Age of Industry), a game which plays well and has fixed most of the issues. From my standpoint, there is no reason for me to revisit Brass when there is a better alternative in the family. I know that some people don’t like the fact that I’m willing to say that Brass is “not for me” because of this – but that’s how it is.

      The OG rating system is vague as it only has 4 categories. “Not for me” doesn’t necessarily mean that I think a game is poor or unplayable (though it might!) – it simply means that it is not for me. There are plenty of reasons for this. While the system is vague, and this causes its own set of issues, it is also not restricted to the loaded value in a numerical system.

  9. rprasadusa says:

    Finally with some time on my hands, I’m working my way backwards. So this is posted after my comments on Part 2 …

    TS: SO good! Yes, experience (or at least having a player aid with a summary of the key cards you need to know about right now) will go a long ways in this game. If you want to be competitive, you must have some sort of guidance about those key cards. For me, the most annoying part of the game is the dice-rolling. I don’t mind dice, generally, but I’d prefer rolling more dice each time, so that results would be more likely to fit expected probabilities; as it is, the dice can be pretty swingy! Clearly, this game isn’t for you. But for people with any interest in the theme, who like area influence/control, and who can play this repeatedly it’s just brilliant!

    TTA: Also brilliant. Yeah, the military thing is kind of wonky — and my least favorite part of the game. Still, even though I’m not a good player, I really enjoy this one! (I’ve played TS and TTA more online than face to face, though)

    Agricola: “Turn Zero” — nice term! That’s the sort of game I tend to NOT enjoy, or at least to enjoy less. I like some of that (e.g., in Age of Steam you must look at the cubes in Cities and in the Display when the game starts) but I also like there to be stuff that changes during the game such that you must make tactical decisions throughout (e.g., in AoS, consider other players’ builds and which cubes have already come out or are remaining in the Goods Display). Agricola, to me, seems to be too weighted towards that Turn 0.

    PR: I absolutely loved this when I first learned it. It was what got me online playing at BSW, which was what also burned me out on the game!

    Netrunner: played the original way back in the day, and strongly preferred Magic; haven’t played either in years.

    TM: I like it, but definitely don’t love it — it’s another one of those Turn Zero games where it seems the most important decisions are made at the beginning, when you see which bonuses are out, which actions are available, what your turn order is, and which race the other players have chosen before you. Another one I’ve played more online than FTF.

    Eclipse: I loved it when I first played it! I even took a dinged copy off the Prize Table 2 years ago, but have never played that copy!

    PG: Yeah, a favorite of mine as well. It pretty much replaced Princes of Florence for me. We keep buying the expansions, and they keep sitting there on the shelf staring at me!

    Mage Knight: I finally learned this earlier this year. Wow, seems like a cool game! I’ve only played it once, though. Definitely want to play it again, although gaming opportunities seem few.

    Le Havre: my favorite heavy Uwe Rosenberg game. Not at all the Turn Zero thing you see in Agricola, nor does it feel SO constrained in actions. Excellent with 3.

    Burgundy: yet another great use of dice in a moderately heavy Euro. I think I prefer Macao and Bora Bora over this one, but not necessarily by a lot.

    Robinson Crusoe: ditto

    Brass: what Larry said. Rules aren’t great, but the game play is pretty darn good! Even the virtual connection makes sense thematically, if only the rules had explained it as such: if you think of the cards as agents or contacts (people you know in the industry, or people you know in the city), the rules make more sense. Having an agent in a city allows you to build an industry tile there (so you don’t need to be connected to the city). Knowing someone in a particular industry, though, requires you to send that dude to the city of interest in order to build there (so you need that city to be in your rail network). London and Birkenhead are close enough to each other — only a raft ride away — that if you know a Shipper (have a Ship card) and are connected to London, you can get that Shipper to London and he can take a quick raft ride to Birkenhead to build your industry. But you can’t ferry tons of building materials with that little raft … you need the Ellesmere – Birkenhead link to have been built in order to do that. Anyway, the reimplementation doesn’t so much eliminate rules problems (ships, anyone?) as it mostly just opens the game system up for expansion maps.

    Tzolk’in: agreed

    Caverna: 2 plays in and I think I prefer it over Agricola (the ‘Gric is too hard!)

    Caylus: very good, but maybe feels too dry for me to love it?

    7 Wonders: I never liked this with more than 5. Even when I liked it, I never loved it — way too short to be very interesting!

    War of the Ring 2nd ed: same as first … great!

    Dominion/Intrigue: I loved this when I first played at the Gathering. But then, that whole Turn Zero thing happened.

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