My Favorite Games of 2018: The Dirty Dozen

So it’s July of 2019.  Why am I coming out with an article listing my favorite 2018 titles at this late date?

Well, first of all, it takes a while to try enough games from a calendar year to make such a list be accurate.  The ever increasing number of interesting games released each year, combined with the reduced amount of gaming I’m able to get in these days, means that I’m well into the next year before I have a good feel for what my favorites truly are.  Still, I was getting ready to write this article during April when a mishap led to a torn tendon in my knee. That made it hard to get to my computer and life basically got put on hold. Then, last month, came the Meeples Choice Awards, which I run every year, and I was devoting my time to that.  So this is coming out later than I’d planned, but hopefully most of you will still find it of interest.

Here are my top 12 games from last year, my Dirty Dozen, if you will.  Overall, I found 2018 very much to my liking. I discovered five games that I’d categorize as “great”, which is quite a healthy total, particularly given the lower number of games that I was able to sample, when compared to other years.  Each of these games are ones that I’d happily play and suggest. Here’s hoping to an equally good crop of titles during 2019!

For each game, I’ve provided a brief description, my reasons for liking them, and my OG rating for each one.  They’re given in order of preference, beginning with my Game of the Year:

1.  Blackout: Hong Kong – Alexander Pfister and eggertspiele continue to be an unbeatable combination.  You’re tasked with doing the best job of restoring Hong Kong, following a catastrophic power failure.  Every turn, you allocate three of your cards to gather resources or carry out actions. Then, you try to meet objectives on cards you acquired earlier (to allow you to put those cards in your hand or gain their abilities) and scout unrestored areas of the city (which yields resources and points).  There are a lot of different paths to victory and we continue to discover new ones. Playing cards to different slots seems a lot like Pfister’s earlier Mombasa, but I find the decisions harder here and a good deal of enjoyable planning is required to get it right. On the downside, the production isn’t up to eggert’s usual standards and the game occasionally runs long.  Still, it never drags and downtime isn’t an issue; with experience, we’ve been able to get this down to 2 hours, which is perfect for a game of this weight. In a strong year, this is unquestionably the highlight and I’m always ready to play it again. Rating: I love it!

2.   Teotihuacan – Help plan the mighty Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacan!  Your family sends out workers to assist, and these workers gain in experience, until they achieve enough knowledge to ascend to the heavens themselves!  Or, at least, that’s my justification for what’s happening. Mechanically, the game has a rondel of sorts (of 8 separate actions), only you have 3 or 4 workers out there, any one of which can advance 1 to 3 spaces to carry out the action there.  Most moves let you power up your worker (the workers are dice and the number of pips show their power) and using multiple dice and/or more powerful workers lets you accomplish more at each location. There’s lots of details and all sorts of things you can do, but it never feels overwhelming.  The basic concepts work very well and, with a bit of experience, it doesn’t take too long. In any event, the game probably plays just as well with 3 as with 4 and it shouldn’t be hard to finish a 3-player game in less than 2 hours. It also figures to be extremely replayable, as 6 of the 8 locations can be shuffled prior to each game, along with a bunch of the spaces on them.  So far, this is living up to its reputation as one of the best of the games to come out of Essen. Just as last year proved that Kiesling can make great games without Kramer, so this proves that Daniele Tascini can produce excellent designs without his usual partner Simone Luciani (previously, the two combined on such brilliant titles as Tzolk’in and Marco Polo). Rating: I love it!

3.  Newton – Traipse about 17th century Europe, as you strive to become one of the great scientists of the age.  Each turn, you play a card with one of 5 actions on it, with the power of the action being the number of action symbols of that type showing on your board.  Three of the actions let you move around different maps, accomplishing stuff; one lets you add new cards to your hand; and the last one lets you add books to your bookcase.  That last action leads to most of the in-game VPs, but there are tough prerequisites to placing books, so you need to do quite a bit to make it pay off. At the end of every 5-turn round, you place one of your played cards under your board, giving you an additional symbol for its action on future turns (but depriving you of the card).  So mechanically, this is pretty simple, but it still provides you with an excellent and involving puzzle to solve each game. I find that very enjoyable, enough to overcome the thin theme and the almost total lack of player interaction. Your capabilities slowly ramp up, until by game’s end, you’re achieving a lot each turn, with cascading effects helping you along the way.  Another great game from one of my favorite designers of the decade, Simone Luciani. Rating: I love it!

4.  Coimbra – Try to make your mark in 16th century Portugal.  The game’s central mechanic is a very elegant dice selection system.  There are four differently colored income tracks in the game and each turn, dice which match the colors of those tracks are rolled into a central pool.  In turn, each player chooses one of those dice and places it next to one of several groups of cards (each player winds up drafting three dice a turn). The higher the value of the die, the earlier the player gets to pick which card in its group they acquire.  But the price of that card is equal to the value of the die, so high-valued dice are a double-edged sword. Cards give you instant rewards, capabilities, and let you advance on one of the income tracks. Finally, the color of each of the chosen dice indicates which type of income the player earns, based on how high the player has advanced on that color track (two of the tracks give you currencies, a third yields VPs, and the fourth lets you move your piece on the board, collecting goodies and abilities as you go).  The dice mechanism works very well, with tough decisions throughout, and the rest of the game is also nicely designed. This is yet another example of the excellent titles that have been coming from Italian designers in recent years and I love just about all of them! Rating: I love it!

5.  Key Flow – Originally, this was called the Keyflower Card Game, but it has been developed to be quite distinct from the earlier game.  Like Keyflower, the game is played in four seasons and in each season, the players acquire cards via a 7 Wonders-style draft. The players are constructing a village and the cards are either used to add to the village—providing buildings with capabilities, or resources—or to allow them to activate the buildings of their own village or those of one of their neighbors.  Almost all of the scoring comes from buildings acquired during Winter, the last season, which yield VPs by having certain combinations of resources on cards or which you’ve produced. The village-building concept and iconography is identical to Keyflower, but the game plays quite differently. Removing the auction changes things tremendously, simplifying the design a great deal.  But there’s still plenty of hard decisions to be made in the drafting and in deciding which scoring cards to acquire. The game plays very fast and, while I prefer it with 3 or 4, it’s nice that it works, and takes no more time, with 5 or 6 (just like 7 Wonders). Figuring out the scoring at the end can be a bit daunting at first, but with a few games under your belt, it can be done fairly quickly.  This might be my favorite of Richard Breese’s “Key” games, which given the quality of those designs, is high praise indeed. Rating: I love it!

6.  Gugong – This game is based around the ancient Chinese practice of exchanging gifts, which allowed notables of the time to bribe government officials without violating the law.  In the game, you carry out actions shown on the board by replacing the “gift” card sitting at the action with a gift card from your hand; if your gift card is higher in value (or if you pay a penalty), you get to do the action, as well as the benefit shown on your card.  There are seven areas of the board you can affect, one for each action, and even though they are mostly independent of each other, they are all important. I thought the gift mechanism worked very well, allowing the players to make clever moves to gain the benefits they needed.  The different board areas are also nicely constructed. I’ve only played this once, and our game ran fairly long, but I’d very much like to play it again, to see if my rating might rise even higher. Rating: I like it.

7.  Forum Trajanum – Once again, we have Feld in Ancient Rome, although you’d never know it if it weren’t for the picture on the box.  This time, on your turn, you reveal two tiles on your board and choose one, which provides you with multiple resources (or gives you powerful citizens), as well as carving out spaces for you to build on.  Buildings either give you point scoring opportunities on your own board, or give you placements on the communal board that turn into VPs as well. You’re also trying to match patterns of buildings on the Trajan cards for yet more points.  Yes, it’s a point (Caesar) salad and we wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s quite a few different strategies you can pursue and the decisions of which tiles to keep can be deliciously difficult. This isn’t top-flight Feld, but it’s still pretty good and capable of providing a good mental workout.  I like it best with 3, as befits a time period that featured the Triumvirate. Rating: I like it.

8.  Underwater Cities – We are in the future and the world’s population is out of control, so our only option is to figure out how to establish cities beneath our oceans.  The players are striving to build such cities unda da sea with the help of volunteer labor, but as with all volunteers, the price is right, but skillwise, you get what you get.  The central mechanic here is straightforward: you play a card from your hand to carry out an action; if the color of the card matches the color of the action, you can also claim the benefit on the card, which is almost always a worthwhile goal.  The actions give you the resources and the capabilities to build domed cities, tunnels, and support buildings on your player board beneath the waves. The problem is, each action can only be claimed by any player once a turn (worker placement style) and you replenish your hand via blind draws.  The skill comes in making the best of what you get, but the card luck can still be frustrating when you pick up five red cards in a row. This is a solid game, quite tactical, with interesting decisions, but it’s definitely on the long side, so I’m wary of playing it with more than 3 players (and it might well be best with 2).  It remains to be seen how well players can maneuver around the luck of the draw, but I’m optimistic this will continue to be give us entertaining play. Rating: I like it.

9.  Brass: Birmingham – Sometimes, the sequel isn’t the equal.  Brass (which, I guess, is now known as Brass: Lancashire) is one of the best economic games ever designed.  Birmingham is very similar, so much so that to me, it feels like an elaborate expansion (and I’m not really a fan of expansions).  There are a few differences; ports are no more—instead, in order to sell most products, you need to provide beer (a new good) to a market location as a bribe.  That’s part of the problem—I miss the semi-cooperative aspect of the cotton mills and the ports from the original game, and while the complications surrounding beer are interesting, they might be a step too far for me.  Maybe if I were a better Brass player, I’d embrace the challenge, but to be honest, it’s always been a game I struggle to play well, so I may not be the ideal audience for this version. But the biggest issue for me is the artwork in Birmingham.  It’s so dark! And that’s with the lighter side of the board.  It’s really hard to make out the details on the board, at least with these 60-something eyes.  It definitely made the game harder to play and detracted from the overall experience.  I know that a lot of people adore this style, but I don’t play with any of them!  Between the gameplay and the problematic graphics, I’d much rather play Lancashire.  On the positive side, the player mats in the new game are quite nice and represent a definite improvement.  I still enjoy playing Birmingham, because it’s Brass, but my preference would be to just play the original game.  Rating: I like it (but I love original Brass).

10.  Decrypto – This is a deduction party game played with two teams of players.  Each team has four secret words that the teammates can see, but not the other team.  Every turn, one player must give clues for three of the words, so that his teammates can figure out the order of the words being referred to, keeping in mind that the other team then gets a chance to guess the secret words.  It’s a very clever game of trying to get on the same wavelength as your teammates, while not being so obvious that the other side can figure out your words. Success often depends on using the plasticity of language and I always enjoy that.  It can be a bit frustrating when you and your team don’t connect, but it’s very satisfying when you do and you find the perfect clue. Rating: I like it.

11.  That’s Pretty Clever – The humble Roll & Write levels up.  This is considerably more involved than the average R&W, but it’s also more interesting.  Each player on their turn rolls 6 normal six-sided dice, one in each of 6 different colors.  The active player than chooses one of the dice and uses it to mark off a space on their player sheet, but any of the dice with a lower value must be set aside.  Five of the colors have their own areas on the sheets and each one is scored differently (the sixth dice color is wild). The active player then rerolls any remaining dice (excluding any ones previously chosen or set aside) and then repeats the process until three dice are chosen.  The non-active players can then choose one of the non-chosen dice to apply to their sheets. The central dice mechanic, which tempts you to go with higher values that can reduce your future choices (and make better dice available to your opponents), is very good and all of the players are involved at all times.  The different colored areas, with their interesting scoring rules, are what really make the game work. The four-player game has too much downtime, but the 2 and 3 player games are very good. Actually, my favorite way to play is solo (the provided solo rules are excellent), with the very well designed app. Rating:  I like it.

12.  Krass Kariert – Is it a climbing game?  Is it a trick-taker? It’s a little bit of both, with some Bohnanza tossed in!  Each player receives a hand of cards and the order can’t be changed. The hand is played in tricks where players play 1-3 card combinations, where the cards played must be next to each other in their hands.  Each player must play a combination that is higher ranked than the previously played one. Each player plays once to a trick and the winner gets to lead to the next one. When a player can’t legally play to a trick, they lose a life and another hand is played.  The player that loses their third life loses the game. There are some special cards and other complications, but the essence of the game is managing your hand so that you avoid crapping out. Luck plays a fairly large role, but there’s lots of scope for skillful play and the game is both unique and very interesting.  Having only a loser and not a winner is a bit weird, but I’ve posted some variants on the Geek that lets a unique winner be determined, for groups who prefer that. I think it plays best with 4, although the 3 player game is also quite good. This won the a la carte award as the best card game of the year and I think the honor was well deserved.  Rating: I like it.

Thoughts of other Opinionated Gamers

Patrick Brennan: I’ve played the first 11 of these and it’s a fine list indeed. Of these, the only one I didn’t enjoy as much (and rate a 6) is Gugong, because I found the accidental collateral damage in what’s a low-number-of-actions game to be irritating, but I can see why others would enjoy the game.

The 2018 games I rate an 8 so far are: Blackout: Hong Kong, Brass: Birmingham, Coimbra, Crown Of Emara, Decrypto, Key Flow, Keyforge, Pandemic: Fall of Rome, Root, Underwater Cities and Zombie Kidz Evolution.

There’s a fair bit of overlap there, plus a few games I know Larry hasn’t got to yet.

Tery Noseworthy:  Well, I have not played all of Larry’s favorite 12 games of 2018, most notably Blackout: Hong Kong, which I really want to try.  I am hopeful I will get to try this at an upcoming con I am going to.  I have played nine of them, though not all of those 9 would make it to my top 12 list, if I were making one. Standouts that Larry and I have in common include Newton, which is holding up really well for me, That’s Pretty Clever, and Krass Kariert.  Other games from 2018 that I really enjoy and would make my top list  include Neom, Quacks of Quedlinburg, Let’s Make a Bus Route and Carpe Diem. I think Root might end up there, too, but I need to play it a few more times to be sure.

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8 Responses to My Favorite Games of 2018: The Dirty Dozen

  1. Talia Rosen says:

    Wow, I’ve never even heard of most of these games… that’s a weird feeling!

    Root, anyone? ;-)

    I’ve added Blackout: Hong Kong, Teotihuacan, Newton, Coimbra, Gugong, and Underwater Cities to my “want to try” list… especially Gugong because reasons (i.e., Andreas Steding)! When are you going to spend 12+ hours teaching me those six games?

    I have played Krass Kariert, Key Flow, and Decrypto… winning! Decrypto is amazing, and should of course be #2 on the list just behind Root :-)

  2. huzonfirst says:

    Talia, I acknowledge that Root is a quality design, but it (and probably all other asymmetric games) fall into the “Not for Me” category. I don’t play regularly enough to explore all the factions in a short period of time (plus, there are always other new games I want to try) and until I do, my ignorance of the workings of my opponents’ factions means I am playing blind (since my opponents’ objectives and way they do things is so different from me) and only concerned about my own position. That learning period would probably last at least half a dozen games and until it ends, games like this just aren’t that enjoyable to me. I actually like games with a learning curve, but I still have to feel as if I have at least a rudimentary grasp of things during those initial games and with Root (and even more so, with Vast–shudder!) that hasn’t proven to be the case. The game is ideal for people who really want to explore a single title and take many games to do so (a description which I know fits you very well). But, sadly, at this point of my life, that isn’t how I’m able to play games. Root deserves its exalted status, but because of how I play, it’s not a game I can rate highly.

  3. Pingback: My Favorite Games of 2018: The Dirty Dozen – Herman Watts

  4. Eric Brosius says:

    Maybe it will make you feel better if I tell you that my first thought upon reading the title of your article was “Why is he coming out with an article listing my favorite 2018 titles at this early date?”

    (People will perhaps compare my comment with Mao Zedong’s answer to a question about the French Revolution.)

  5. huzonfirst says:

    Thanks, Eric. We non-thematic, strategic gamers may find our percentage of the gaming population dwindling, but there still seems to be enough of us for publishers to keep releasing the games we love. May it always be so.

    And it can’t be “too early to say” about the 2018 games, because the 2019 titles are coming up fast!

  6. James says:

    Great list Larry!

    Though shame you’re not a huge fan of Brass: Birmingham, I do love the art but appreciate that it is very dark (appropriate for the industrial revolution setting!).

    I’ve come to appreciate Brass (in both iterations) for its elegance, most modern euros seem to substitute endless variable set up options and player powers for actual gameplay depth (eg. Gaia Project, Teotihuacan), in Brass the depth comes from the interaction between the player-driven economy, the network and the various tech paths/chosen builds of the players. Has a lot more interaction and reading opponents than your average euro too.

    What do you think of Coimbra vs Newton? I love Coimbra, it’s a lot simpler rules-wise (and with regards to card symbology) than I thought initially and really is a superb medium-weight euro that plays heavier, compare to Architects of the West Kingdom another game I like, which has the same amount of rules complexity, more complicated symbology (especially because hands are hidden) but definitely feels like a lighter affair (albeit a very quick playing one).

    Haven’t tried Newton, is one deeper than the other? I think I’d prefer Coimbra because it has more interaction, which is something I like in my mid-weight euros.

  7. huzonfirst says:

    I think Newton and Coimbra have comparable depth, James, but they do it in different ways. Coimbra has MUCH more player interaction than Newton does. The latter has a few things that players can strive to get to first, but it’s largely multi-player solitaire. Despite that, the problems the players have to confront are sufficiently interesting that I find it very appealing. In theory, Newton has a Turn Zero aspect, as the players can take in the layout of the randomly distributed tiles on the two gameboards and determine a strategy. I say “in theory”, since I can only focus on a small amount of this information, but I’m sure others can do better with it. Like Coimbra, the cards the players add to their hands in Newton can have a major effect on their strategy (that’s typical of many of the games coming from the new wave of Italian designers). But mostly, the enjoyment in Newton comes from figuring out the timing of playing your cards each turn to achieve your objectives. It sounds simple in theory, but it’s really quite challenging.

    Of course, Coimbra has that wonderfully elegant central dice mechanic and figuring out how to best deal with those results each turn is a lot of fun. I’m still struggling a bit with my basic strategy in Coimbra, so I put Newton a shade ahead of it, but I actually rate the two games very close together. They are pretty different, though, and if player interaction is important to you, Newton may not wind up being the apple of your eye.

    • James says:

      Thanks for the breakdown Larry, I’ll have to give Newton a try then.
      But you’re right Coimbra might be a better fit in my collection given the shortish playtime (1 hr 45 mins or so with 4p), more interaction and great art.

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