This year  I played 721 games in 311 titles, 187 of which were new to me (beating my previous record of 150). Slightly over 60%.
The big hitters were:
Lord of the Rings: The Card Game (55)
Mystic Vale (33) (all on Yucata)
Pandemic (21) (Season 2 mostly)
The Game (19)
Spirit Island (14)
Lost Cities (11)
It’d be no surprise if they were all there next year as well, although Gloomhaven is taking up the current Wed night slot previously occupied by LotR: The Card Game so the latter will drop. We’re about halfway through our Gloomhaven campaign, and after that, there’s a start-with-fresh-characters campaign we can do, and there’ll also be the expansion. Pandemic will fall off; we finished off Season 2, starting early in the year and finishing in December, more or less mimicking the in-game calendar accidently. It was really good, but the deck roller-coaster luck jumped an order of magnitude at various points (enough to get us upset at the unfairness) before we could get it back under control with powers. We may be wary about any Season 3. We’ll probably do Betrayal at House on the Hill as our next legacy campaign, but our Sunday afternoon campaign slot may be disappearing, so that’s up in the air.
Fivers for the year included: Claustrophobia, Pandemic: Rising Tide, Azul, A Feast For Odin, Magic Maze, A Few Acres Of Snow, Fugitive.
The last three won’t see the table again, but the others will all see play again this year.
Meanwhile, one of my gaming buddies manages an online game store in Sydney (here’s a shoutout to Advent Games!), meaning he can claim trips to Essen as a tax-deductible business expense. If you follow that up with an Essen Review weekend with 60 of your closest friends, where one copy of every game bought for the store is unwrapped and played and then sold off as a demo copy at the end of the weekend to whoever claimed first dibs … well that makes for a pretty cool weekend. So, let’s see how the newness percolated!
27th PASSENGER: THE HUNT ON RAILS (2014)
Each player is secretly one of the 27 passengers, and your job is to name the other players before they name you. A successful naming removes them from the game, a fail removes you from the game, last one standing wins. Player elimination. Urgh. At least it doesn’t usually happen until late, and it has the bonus of allowing you to escape the game if something better’s starting up on another table! You use an action each round to either secretly inspect some passenger cards (and eliminate them from your list, Cluedo style) or ask for attributes of another player’s secret character, trying to narrow it down. 2 or 3 cards get revealed each round (there’s a clock), and it’s pretty random whether stuff gets revealed that will help you identify another character or will help others identify you. There are random events, and your investigations will randomly fail depending on what other players choose as their actions and if they have the right disguise cards. While elimination/deduction games are intrinsically appealing, this adds just too many layers of random to be anything more than passing the time on a train trip.
AZUL: STAINED GLASS OF SINTRA (2018)
Throughout the game I was liking it more than its parent. I liked how you had so much more choice about where to place, making for a bigger decision tree, each limb weighed by its scoring potential and the likelihood of it scoring sooner rather than later. But it turns out that when players have so many placement options, the tension and look-ahead that the parent provides evaporates because so many of your opponent’s turns turn out differently than expected, making it feel more luck-festy and tactical. Sometimes more is less. Still, it’s an enjoyable and welcome rendition for variety’s sake.
FORUM TRAJANUM (2018)
It was one of those nights (pre the Essen weekend!) where I was dead tired, the rules washed over me, and I couldn’t care less about all the bonus drivers. Don’t play this game on those types of nights. The gameplay is relatively simple – choose what you’re getting between two random chits of yours, and then between the one you chose and one received from your neighbour. Get stuff, build stuff. But first, know what you’re building towards as there are bonus drivers everywhere you look and the aim of the game is to lock into them more successfully than the other players. They’ll be your score differentiators in the end, because everyone’s going to build roughly the same amount, so aim for building these synergistically. For me, it felt a little processional – each round you choose between getting stuff that will allow you to build or stuff that will provide bonuses for when you build later. Repeat. If you’ve got the drive to master it, this’ll be a fine game. Just don’t play when you’re tired.
FAST FORWARD: FORTUNE (2018)
Games where you learn the rules after you start playing are just a very special sort of aggravating. We start and we have no idea of what we’re doing. Then, let’s stop the game and read lots of text together. Where’s the fun in that? And because there can’t be *too* many rules for this type of schling, the game-play is over-simplistic, boring, and luck-laden. We gave up after 15 minutes, completely non-caring about where the game might evolve to.
A by-the-numbers Euro (move up tracks, collect sets, a majority race, earn bonus powers, etc) that’s made interesting by the action selection mechanic. You get an action for “free” if you can play a card on the action higher than what’s already there, but at the cost of getting that worse card and diminishing your capability for next round. If you can’t play a higher card on the action you really want though, then you either effectively pay two actions for it, or do something else less useful. What starts off as interesting however deteriorates into irritating as the collateral damage wracks up. The number of times you have to forego the action you want, or pay extra, quickly becomes deterministic on your fortunes. It’s not like it’s deliberate player carnage … it’s just that the only other player who wanted that action happened to play a high card as that’s all they had, accidentally screwing you over. So it ended up being a less than satisfying game of getting lucky, paying overs, or settling for lessers, and given the rest of the game offered little new, we were mostly happy to see the end of it after its 4 rounds.
Each round there’s a common Yahtzee-style contract, and the person who rolls the most pips whilst fulfilling the contract gets the most points for the round. You get two re-rolls, and three do-overs in the game. There’s nothing to do on other player turns so the downtime is pure. There’s more luck and fewer decisions than Yahtzee because you can’t change the contract you’re shooting for based on your roll. There’s also nothing much clever to do. It’s a game you might keep for those times with non-gamers when everyone’s happy to chat and catch up in between turns, and are happy getting told what to roll for when it’s their turn. Which is fine as there’s some cheer/groan factor and the timeframe is ok – there’s room for these types of games, just don’t expect more.
I’ve never rated a game featuring the word Reef in the title higher than a 6, I think because it’s easy to add pretty colours to an abstract game and then try and make it more palatable by adding a reef theme. Add another abstract multi-player solitaire log to the 6-fire here. Each card adds pieces to your personal tableau in one or two colours, but scores patterns in other colours, so first you have to build it before the points come. If only it were a baseball field. But it’s a game of constantly hoping cards come along that match what you’ve built, and then maximising each scoring by repeating patterns where you can. Managing the card randomness is interesting enough to get you through the game intact, but it doesn’t quite overcome that what you’re doing is pretty soul-less and theme-independent.
UNDERWATER CITIES (2018)
It may be long, but it feels like it needs that length to bring it all together so I wasn’t put off by it. I really like this evolution of the action selection mechanic, where you play a card to take one of the actions – if the card colour matches the action’s colour you get the power of the card as well, be it immediate or ongoing. It drives a lot of decisions on card keeps vs action possibilities. There are lots of card powers, which drive synergy engine building (always a favourite) and there’s lots of different ways to approach your VP hunt leaving lots of room for game exploration. Lots of lots. I still think of those domes as Moon or Martian domes connected by airlocks, and the game seems to work just as well thematically that way if that’s your fancy. Anyway, I was engaged throughout and I liked it a lot.
WELCOME TO DINOWORLD (2017)
These used to be zoo games, but it seems dino worlds are so much hipper these days. It’s a roll-and-write with a weird dichotomy. It gives you carte blanche on the map to lay out the animal pens and the paths of your zoo whichever way you like, which causes inappropriate downtime while you develop a plan from your blank slate. Then, each turn you pretty much build one pen, one special building (these change each game to provide end-game bonus score variety) and more paths, which feels overly restrictive. There’s little cleverness with the dice, nor are the building choices interesting – simply go with those req’d by the common scoring goals. As such, I felt little to draw me back.
SPOTLIGHT ON: SAN JUAN (2004)
50+ plays. A brilliant adaptation of the Puerto Rico system to a card playing environment. The game is all about finding combinations of cards that work well together, securing you a source of income (to buy further cards) and allowing you to get VP’s more cheaply. The mechanic of cards being either a building or money, but not both, is fundamental to the constant tension the game produces. Each turn you’re faced with the dilemma of looking for better cards, or which card in the hand do you wish to convert into a building, but can you afford to give up the other potential buildings in your hand and use them as money. The game has been somewhat superseded by Race For The Galaxy which uses a similar system but has been made “bigger” in complexity, but the simplicity of SJ still ensures it has a place in the rotation.
Thoughts of other Opinionated Gamers:
Joe Huber: Interesting to see your take on Fast Forward: Fortune. For me, it’s the best of the series, and the only one currently in my collection. I’ve gone through the deck four times (twice with the prototype), and can easily see pulling it out for a play through once every six months to year – while the first three games were each fun, none of them really drew me in beyond an initial run-through. There’s not that much text to read through, and the way the game changes from play to play keeps it interesting, at least for me. (Note: I received a review copy of the game.) On the other hand, I found Underwater Cities tedious and uninteresting – it suffers from the same problems that most worker placement games do (unrealistically sharp restraints on actions), while also suffering from the issue of random card draws without enough variety to necessarily find a path.
Patrick Brennan: It’s the same issue I ended up having with Fabled Fruit. It starts off as a really basic game that you would never play if that’s all it was, but with the promise of a better game coming just around the corner. But the corner never seems to arrive. All you get are variations on the same basic non-interesting game. I haven’t played the other Fast Forward games, but if this is the best of them, I’m glad others are getting value out of the variation surprises, but it’s obviously not my (nor my group’s) cup of tea.
Fraser: I have only played Azul: Stained Glass on Sintra once so far, and my initial thought was we have Azul, we don’t really need this. It is different to Azul, but is longer and more fiddly and thus I don’t see the pay-off. If I had never played the original Azul, I am sure my opinion would be different.
Fast Forward: Fortune – we played all the way through this in one sitting late on night. It was fun enough, I would have loved this as a teenage boy. These days I would I would put it somewhere around I like it.
San Juan – I don’t play this a lot these days, probably once or twice a year in recent times but it is still a reliable, solid and enjoyable game. Clearly I used to play it a lot more often as I have over a 140 plays logged over a 14 years period. Melissa and I taught it to someone just a few days ago.
Larry: San Juan was one of my favorite card games when it came out and stayed that way for a good long while. In recent years, its appeal has abated a bit, but it’s still a game I’m happy to play. The number of viable paths to victory are a bit limited, which knocks the rating down a bit. Still, it’s very accessible and fun to play, even if I now view it as an I Like It, rather than as an I Love It.
Jeff: Like Larry, I have loved playing San Juan. Unlike Larry, I probably still haven’t played it enough for it to drop from “I love it” territory. For an early tableau-building game, it’s so smooth and elegant, and I’d rather play it than any other game on this list.
Mark Jackson: I’ve found San Juan to be sub-par compared to the richness that is Race for the Galaxy… which means I play it occasionally on my iPad but never face-to-face.
I like Fast Forward: Fortune a lot more than Patrick… it’s not “I love it” but I definitely enjoyed our playthrough of the deck and would be happy to see it come out again.
Jonathan: Our family has enjoyed San Juan a ton, but whether due to groupthink or the game, even with expansion buildings, it is a lowest common denominator game now. Everyone is fine playing it, but no one is excited to play it. Race is a non-starter due to dark art/theme. I keep hoping for an awesome multi-use card game that is not set in the world of Race but is more than San Juan or The City.
Fast Forward: Fortune was my first Fable game (other than Fabled Fruit). I think the reaction to the game is dependent on expectations. The core game is not a great game in and of itself, but potato chips are not a great food. At the same time, a play through of the whole Fortune deck is more fun if you don’t expect the core game to become ‘a game you want to play over and over’ Clearly the awesome fabled game hanging out there is Fabled Stichmeister, so I can only hope it is coming.
I love San Juan but it falls short of greatness due to the valuing of the cards — the more powerful cards are also worth more victory points. I’d prefer if there was greater tension between constructing a strong engine and scoring points.
“The more powerful cards are also worth more victory points”. The lower point cards such as the Carpenter, Aquaduct, Prefecture, Trading House, etc. are the low value, engine building cards that eventually allow you to buy the high value cards that are just worth points.