Last year Larry Levy and Tom Rosen wrote a series of articles called Notable Notables. They looked at each of the last 20 years and listed the five most notable games released during each of those periods. They also did a pair of companion articles in which they gave their favorite games each year over the same timeframe.
Well, we had so much fun with those articles that we decided to extend the choices to last year! Specifically, we’re looking at the period from July 2013 to June 2014 (the gaming fiscal year, which is the period of eligibility of most of the major awards). But the same questions remain: what do you think were the most notable games released during that year and what were your favorite games of the year?
In order to get even more opinions into the mix, we now have four folks making lists: Larry, Tom, Ben McJunkin, and Joe Huber. Each of us has our own opinion about what makes a game notable and, of course, we all have our own favorites. Hopefully, that will make the choices even more entertaining!
So let’s get started with the first question: What were the five most notable games released during the 2013-2014 gaming year? You can use whatever parameters for “notable” that you think are appropriate (including but not limited to the criteria that we used for this exercise the first time around). Note that each of us independently picked our notable games and favorite games, and only compiled them here once everyone had locked in their selections.
LARRY’S NOTABLE NOTABLES
- Russian Railroads – This was easily the most honored game of the year, as it swept the DSP, IGA, and Meeples Choice awards by wide margins. It’s also a top 50 game on the Geek, where a steady trickle of session reports and strategy postings show that it’s still being actively played. A relatively easy choice for the top spot.
- Caverna – Didn’t do that great with the awards, but it shot up to the #4 spot on the Geek, proving that it’s more than just a spinoff of Agricola. It definitely appears to have staying power and “Caverna or the ‘Gric?” may soon replace “Boxers or briefs?” with gamers.
- Istanbul – It won the Kennerspiel and finished second in the DSP award, a pretty unusual combo. It’s a middleweight game that fans of heavy games also enjoy, making it a great crossover game for different types of gamers.
- Concordia – Gerdts eschews the rondel and still finds success, to the tune of three major nominations and a Meeples Choice award.
- Nations – There were a ton of Civ Lite games that appeared during the year and Nations was the most popular of them. In fact, it’s currently in the top 40 on the Geek and shows no signs of fading.
Larry’s Commentary on the Year: Dice drafting games sprung up with a vengeance during this period. These are games in which a bunch of dice are rolled each turn and the players take turns choosing them, to carry out an action or for some other use. From what I’ve seen, this usually isn’t strictly necessary for the games to work, but designers have been swarming to the mechanism like sharks to bloody chum. I’m not sure what the attraction is—perhaps some additional replayability or randomness, or maybe it’s just because games with dice are suddenly the cool thing. The trend has only increased during the current year. At best, I find it mildly annoying; at worst, it can detract from a design and appear hopelessly out of place. But I don’t expect it to go away anytime soon.
TOM’S NOTABLE NOTABLES
- Machi Koro – I picked Love Letter for 2012-13, and I think Machi Koro has definitively continued the trend of minimalist Japanese games having breakthrough worldwide potential.
- Russian Railroads – Confirms that people really do love the Stefan Feld kitchen-sink philosophy of game design (even though this one is not by Feld of course). The popularity and pervasiveness of Russian Railroads begins to confirm my own growing distance from the core of the hobby, as I focus more of my time on things like Netrunner, Descent, Risk Legacy, and the like.
- Warhammer 40,000: Conquest – This entry is a stand-in for everything that Fantasy Flight Games is doing these days to push the hobby in new directions. There was no perfect FFG release in the 2013-14 period to encapsulate this, but Warhammer 40,000: Conquest was announced during that period and was publicly available less than two months after it closed. I wanted to go with XCOM as representing FFG’s innovation until I discovered it was released more recently than I realized. But it really is Living Card Games that are taking over the world, like it or not. The business model is just so strong and the designs continue to be remarkably compelling, despite the quantity that keeps getting churned out. Hopefully this will continue with the re-launch of A Game of Thrones, regardless of the change in FFG corporate ownership structure behind the scenes.
- Spyrium – It’s William Attia, c’mon! I may have a soft spot for Caylus going all the way back to 2005, but I think the next big thing from Mr. Attia deserves a spot for sure. Many have forgotten about it now, but it really did dominate at GenCon (and furthered the growing trend of GenCon releases in advance of Essen).
- Splendor – I was really struggling to find a fifth game for this slot, but this seems to fit given its popularity and pervasiveness. I personally hated it, so while it’s much simpler than Russian Railroads, my comments from above similarly apply here for this end of the spectrum for the apparent direction of German-style games.
BEN’S NOTABLE NOTABLES
- Caverna – I hate to see this game here, but I feel I have no choice. Although Uwe Rosenberg’s reimplementation of Agricola scarcely received attention from the major awards (for reasons we can all likely understand), this game will almost certainly be the longest-played, most remembered, and most beloved game from 2013.
- Russian Railroads – Russian Railroads took home most of last year’s gaming award hardware. Gravity also took home most of last year’s Academy Awards (7 wins!). Both are the same kind of perfectly polished, perfectly pointless awards-show vehicles that seem to attract instant attention and are unlikely to have much staying power.
- Eldritch Horror – Another revamping of a long-successful franchise (if we count Russian Railroads as an 18xx spinoff, we’re at three in a row!), this title will likely remain relevant for years to come, with lots of profitable expansions for FFG.
- Concordia – I know, I know, “What about Istanbul?” Yes, this is the Kennerspiel runner-up, but it trumps the winner here, both because it received more award attention and because it has been better received by the game-buying masses. My only doubt is whether it has a broad enough distribution to stay relevant going forward.
- Nations – I hope to never have to play this game, but I can no longer hope it will be laughed away as a poor attempt to “fix” a popular game by adding randomness. It is clearly notable, and looks to remain so for the foreseeable future.
JOE’S NOTABLE NOTABLES
Joe’s Opening Comments: In choosing the 5 most notable games, I had to start with the question: what makes a game notable? I decided to consider a number of factors, and as much as possible to discount my own opinions—or lack thereof. As a result, I’ve chosen five games of which I’ve played — one.
- Caverna – Why is this game notable? It’s the highest ranked on BGG among the 2013 releases – and has even passed Agricola in the rankings. That’s a very impressive accomplishment in little over a year.
- Lewis & Clark – This game is one of a few games (along with Concordia and Rococo) to introduce hand-building, an interesting variant on deckbuilding. And it’s a game with a very notable mix of an American appreciation for theme for a European game. Either alone wouldn’t be enough to make this list, but the combination was enough for me.
- Nothing Personal – So what makes this game notable? A few things. First, it’s a case of someone notable for their role as a podcaster and reviewer moving very successfully into the design realm. It’s also—due to some mixed experiences with Game Salute—become a bit of a lightning rod for various Kickstarter arguments, as Nothing Personal arrived as promised while other projects from the same time frame were delayed or otherwise troubled.
- Ogre Designer’s Edition – The notability of this game comes from a number of factors. The success of the Kickstarter campaign—particularly for a reprint (albeit on a very different scale)—was very impressive. Though perhaps not so impressive as the box for the game, nearly three times the size of Fantasy Flight’s “coffin” boxes.
- Pathfinder Adventure Card Game – There are many challenges in translating the essence of a role-playing game into a boardgame, but the enormous draws of RPGs have always made such attempts noteworthy. And, when they are as successful as Pathfinder has proven to be—unquestionably notable. Seeing this game on so many best-of-2013 lists—particularly those lists which didn’t otherwise match well with mine—suggests to me a very notable game.
Okay, those were everyone’s thoughts about notable games. Now, which games were your personal favorites from the year?
- Russian Railroads – A great strategy game by Hans im Glück. I love how many options and viable paths to victory there are. But the best thing about the game is how smoothly and quickly it plays. This still gets a lot of play with my group and that’s fine by me!
- Spyrium – An economic game stripped down to its bare essentials, but with great gameplay. The way that placed workers determine both auction prices and cash payouts is its defining feature and is very clever. Its replayability is excellent, which is remarkable, given that almost all the cards are used in every game. Best of all, it plays really fast and has become our go-to design when we want to play something meaty in a short time period.
- Patchistory – This game is long, fiddly, and has some potential balance issues. But it’s also dramatic, with wild swings of fortune, very interactive, and has the epic feel of a great civilization game. The patching mechanism is brilliant and there’s plenty of other terrific design features. This is a flawed game, but nevertheless, a great one.
- Caverna – Despite the obvious similarities with Agricola, it really does play quite differently. I like the greater number of options and paths to victory, but miss the variety of the cards. Overall, I probably slightly prefer Caverna as the more open game, but both are excellent designs.
- Nations – This was clearly designed to fix a game (Through the Ages) that in my opinion, absolutely didn’t need fixing. But it’s engrossing in its own right and its shorter duration means that you can manage a 4-player (or even a 5-player) game in a reasonable timeframe. It’s no TtA, but there’s a good chance it’ll get to the table more often.
Larry’s Personal Perspective: For me, this was a great year for games. Essen in particular was fantastic and might well have been the best show in the 15 or so years I’ve been actively following German gaming. As the list I give above shows, there was exciting stuff from veteran designers, as well as newcomers. There are some aspects of the hobby I’m not thrilled about (such as Kickstarter), but as long as publishers keep cranking out games like these, I have no complaints!
- Patchistory – Epic civilization games are awesome. Through the Ages, great! Clash of Cultures, fun times! Patchistory, yeah, I’m down with that. 7 plays in and loving it.
- Netrunner: Honor and Profit – Larry is going to kill me for including an expansion, but the Honor and Profit expansion for Netrunner was excellent and did a great job resuscitating a struggling faction. Also, Netrunner is the only thing I ever really want to play these days, so it’s got to be on the list in some fashion.
- Star Wars: Echoes of the Force Cycle – Now Larry is really rolling his eyes, but the Star Wars LCG is excellent, and the Echoes of the Force Cycle did a really nice job innovating on the concepts in the game and taking it in interesting directions (despite the disappointing need for such quick errata).
- Bruxelles 1893 – I still like German-style games, such as this really clever design by first-timer Etienne Espreman that integrates a wide variety of mechanisms, which could have felt disjointed if not expertly done.
- Yunnan – Another European game that sat well with me because of how interactive it was and the potential for really nasty plays that messed with your opponents’ plans. It’s also a perfect game to drink tea while playing.
- Patchistory – Still better than any 2014 release I’ve played. On the cusp of my personal Top 10, but just outside.
- One Night Ultimate Werewolf – A huge personal surprise, given that I dislike regular Werewolf/Mafia games.
- Wildcatters – A very good game with some rough edges, I worry that I won’t find opponents now that the “newness” has worn off (CO2 suffered a similar fate in 2012).
- Machi Koro (with Harbor Expansion) – A delightfully serene little game of rolling dice and buying pretty buildings. I may be the only person in the Zip Code who liked it, but I adore it.
- Abluxxen – This was a relatively shallow year, so being fifth on my list isn’t saying all that much. Nevertheless, Abluxxen is the only other good game from this time period still on my shelf. (Larry comments, “Ben’s not alone in his positive opinion—Abluxxen won the a la carte (Best Card Game) and Spiel der Spiele (Austria’s Game of the Year) awards as well.)
Ben’s Personal Perspective: 2013 marked my first-ever trip to the Essen game fair. For the most part, I was disappointed. Not by the event itself (although in some ways, it deviated from my expectations), but by the fact that I elected to attend during what I considered to be a relatively mediocre year. While many prominent designers and publishers released games last year that are ostensibly in my wheelhouse, I found the vast majority of them to be merely fine. After a couple of plays, sometimes less, I was perfectly happy to recoup my investment and move on. That list includes nearly every game that won a major award (and thus most of the games that I expect will appear frequently in the “objective” portion of this list). But here’s the upshot: Had I not attended the fair, I would not have been exposed to several of the games that my “favorites” list comprises. These were not “mainstream” designs, for the most part, but rather were the quirky games by small publishers that had to be hunted down in the recesses of the Essen Messe. And my life is better for these games. A year later, these remain among my favorites, and are better than the vast majority of mainstream titles released again this year. 2013 was not a bust after all.
- Russian Railroads – It took a while before a worker placement game really worked for me, as they are often very limiting in the options they provide. Russian Railroads avoids this trip, provides a theme of real interest (and a few subtle nods to 18xx, which I appreciate), and has held up well through extensive play.
- Lewis & Clark – I’ve always been a fan of exploration games, but was cautious about Lewis & Clark, as I didn’t see how a single expedition could be well carried out as a competitive game. But the game not only works—it works exceptionally well; I particularly appreciate the ties to history throughout the game.
- Twin Tin Bots – For some time, this was the only unusual game I could list among my very favorites for the year. I was very disappointed by Roborally, as it did not make sense to me to have my programming options limited; here, the programming options are (other than some special commands) freely available, but the ability to change your program is very limited. It’s a gloriously chaotic game, with a great theme.
- Glass Road – I’ve never had as much luck with Rosenberg’s board games as with his card games, but Glass Road sounded quite interesting—and proved to be my favorite of his recent games save for possibly Le Havre.
- The King of Frontier – The only favorite of mine I didn’t discover until 2014, The King of Frontier is a fascinating mix of Puerto Rico and Carcassonne, but plays faster than either—and with a very nice depth for its length.
Joe’s Personal Perspective: In general, my favorite games published in 2013 are strangely well aligned with the better rated and ranked games on BoardGameGeek. Which makes the list a bit less interesting. I’ll give an honorable mention to Concordia—a game I rate a 9, but which falls just outside of my top five games for the year.
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So that’s how the four of us viewed the 2013-2014 games. How about you? What do you think were the most notable games of the period and what were your favorites?