It’s that time of year again, when we take a look back and do lots of Top game lists, but this year’s end is a bit special, it’s the end of a decade. A decade that started with 7 Wonders, Hanabi & Forbidden Island, and is ending with the likes of Die Crew, Wingspan & Res Arcana. There were lots of hits, even more misses and a lot of games over the decade that got lost in the continuous shuffle. So while a lot of outlets are going to give you their favorites of each year of the decade, we thought it may be a fun idea/experiment to take a look at some titles that have held the interest of folks here in The Opinionated Gamers. So for the next three weeks we’re going to take a look at these games and share our love of some of these off the radar titles. Feel free to participate in the comments and share your thoughts on games that we’ve overlooked.
Expedition Northwest Passage BGG Rank 1277 (Brandon K)
I was recently pleasantly excited when I went through our entire collection of board games and culled a major portion. Excited because games like Expedition Northwest Passage survived and I was going to have fewer excuses to not play it. Yves Tourigny has designed a wonderful Action Point Race game that just oozes with theme and thematic choices throughout. Expedition Northwest Passage tells the story of Franklin’s 1845 doomed expedition. In the game the players are racing to find the Northwest Passage and then attempting to race back before both the other players and the before the board becomes blocked off with ice and unnavigable routes. Some of the time you will be in the boats, while other times you will be mushing along on a sled, each choice allows for different workers allowing more or less action points. Each round the sun moves freezing some areas of the board and leaving others navigable by boats. Truly a remarkable title for me and one I wish more people had the pleasure of enjoying.
Don Q. und die Vermessung von La Mancha BGG Unranked (Joe Huber)
It’s been interesting to watch, as Brian Bankler recently noted, the expansion of boardgame niches over the past decade. 18xx, the example he used, and the one I’m most familiar with, used to be a very small segment of the hobby. And, to be fair, it still _is_ a small segment of the hobby; it’s just that the hobby has grown by enough that a small segment can still support commercial publications in a way that would have once been unfathomable. Just look at the difference in the commercial success of 1856 (Mayfair) and 1846 (GMT).
But – there are niches which remain. Spielkunst – game art – is definitely one of them; honestly, given the nature of the niche, a broadening of the base can’t be supported, since there are only so many copies made. One of the prime members of the genre – both as a designer and as a publisher – is Reinhold Wittig. And in 2008, he started publishing a series of games themed around Don Quixote. Die Vermessung von La Mancha is the third and final game in the series, and likely the one with the best known designer; Heinrich Glumpler is one of the designers of Pairs and the designer of Perry Rhodan: The Cosmic League, among other games. Like all of the games in the series, this is a two player game; players take on the roles of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza – but all of the early plays belong to Don Quixote, until someone claims that role; the remainder of the plays are for Sancho Panza. This makes for a very interesting take on the “I divide, you choose” mechanism, since _both_ players are doing the dividing, until one player finally chooses. 2010 was generally a poor year for games for me, but this one stands out, and is my favorite game published that year.
The Great Fire of London 1666 BGG Rank 2,231 (James Nathan)
This is one of those “hidden color” games that you might find from Colvini, where play colors are represented on the board, but you only truly know which color is yours; the others must be deduced from players’ actions. In the game, a fire has broken out in London and the players’ represent the wealthy landowners –who are also the patrons of the fire brigades! Points will be gained from saving your buildings from the fire, but also for putting out the fire.
If you put out the fire, you’re also sparing some of your opponents’ buildings. Elsewhere, are you being too obvious in revealing your own color?
The board acts as a grid of sorts and players use a hand of cards to guide the spread of the fire. There’s a little too much calculation in how you’re allowed to use the fire cones to spread the flames, but that’s a home for me, and I’m just realizing it has that sort of path-making element that I love in games.
This is not my favorite game of the year, or my favorite unheralded game of the year, but it’s my favorite lesser-known one that I haven’t talked about much, if at all, before.
Hanabi BGG Rank 338 (Matt Carlson)
I don’t attend the many gaming conventions (nor do I play with those who do) my exposure to more obscure games is a bit less than others here, so consider my contributions for often second-string rather than more obscure. I’m a fan of cooperative games, and Hanabi has just about everything I’m looking for, and as a bonus, packed into a small box. The game is simple to play, with the rules easy enough to leap into the game, and players typically sort out the game within the first few rounds of play. However, the winning condition of completing all the stacks of cards remains difficult enough (at least with relative beginners) that there is celebration whenever one pulls off a win. The alpha-player syndrome so common in cooperative games is limited here, because it’s nearly impossible to tell another player what their clues should be. There are two styles of play for the game, those groups who play it regularly and start to develop some standardized strategies, and the casual players who have less codified rules and can easily welcome new players to the mix. I prefer the latter, as that’s the groups with which I typically play. I also own the deluxe version made of mahjong style tiles, and I highly recommend it to fans of the game. Note, I was surprised to see Navagedor has a higher rank on BGG, although I had suspected it might be less widely known. It would have been my other pick, due to its pretty well balanced multiple paths to victory, market manipulation, and its use of a rondel. The multiple strategies available (typically you need to pursue at least two) helps it to keep coming back to the table as I can pursue an entirely different strategy the next time.
Sun, Sea & Sand BGG Rank 2,306 (Jonathan F.)
2010 has lots of excellent unheralded games including Key Market, Famiglia, and Stich-Meister, but my winner for 2010 is Corne van Moorsel’s Sun, Sea and Sand. It has several things I like, including a time track, a modular design with a lots of timing issues. For those who have played Terramara, S,S&S was the first worker placement game I remember where you could place a worker to get a benefit in a future round, losing that worker until that phase. It could probably use some tweaking and variety, but there is no other game like it. About the only thing I don’t like about S,S&S is the absence of the Oxford comma.
Lords of Vegas BGG Rank 386 (Simon Neale)
This game from James Earnest and Mike Selinker is the closest match I have ever seen between theme and mechanics is any game. The theme is about building casinos and trying to take over or absorb those built by your opponents. There are specific tiles available for development each round and you can always take a chance (gamble) to expand your casino into these areas before they become available. You can deal with your opponents and swap tile sites between you, but if all else fails you can always go and gamble in your opponents’ casinos in an attempt to break their bank! It is just so much fun to play and I can remember playing a demo of the game at Essen and getting watched by a crowd of onlookers who could not believe us risking our amassed fortune just to try to break the banks!
Freeze – BBG Rank 6527 (Larry)
For those who have been in the hobby for a long time, unusual games are a real find. If you can discover a truly unique design, that’s something to treasure, particularly if the game is very good. Freeze is one of those games; it was unlike anything else available when it first came out, and as far as I know, it still hasn’t been duplicated.
Freeze is a party-style game in which the players indulge in improvisational comedy. This sounds incredibly ambitious and fragile, but it works a remarkably high percentage of the time. The key is that each player who is performing is secretly assigned a rank from 1-4 for their role, with 1 being the most important individual in the scene and 4 the least. That, and a general situation like “At the beach” is all that the performers are provided with–the rest must come from their imagination and reacting to what the others are doing. And yet, more often than not, this results in truly inspired and hilarious performances, which are hugely enjoyable to both the performers and the other players, who serve as the audience.
There’s a point system for guessing the rank of the performers, but it hardly matters. The fun comes from working together as a team, pulling off a successful performance, and enjoying the imaginative antics of the players. It’s one of my all-time favorite party games and for about 5 years, something I successfully ran every year at the Gathering of Friends. If you have any interest in improvisational comedy at all, I highly recommend you try and locate a copy of this gem. You’ll find yourself laughing right up to the moment when the timekeeper shouts, “Freeze!”.
By the way, of the other games listed here, I also love Sun, Sea & Sand and Hanabi. But I’ve only played Great Fire of London once and hated it! (Sorry, James Nathan!)
Volo BGG Rank 6911 (Lorna)
Volo is a 2 player abstract which contrarily evokes great theme. It’s a connection game but you can easily imagine each piece as a bird trying to join the flock. Having one unified flock is the goal. The rules are simple but the choices are brain burning. It’s a pity this genre tends to be overlooked because some of the best game play can be found in these gems. I’d love to see a blinged out version of this game.
Fresco BGG Rank 285 (Mark Jackson)
Yes, I know this got a big box edition and a ton of expansion modules (I own all of the ones that are released)… but I never hear anyone talk about playing it! (And, due to my regular crew of gamers and their complete lack of taste, I never get to play it.)
And that’s a crying shame, as this is a personal favorite in the worker placement genre… dripping with theme that melds perfectly with game mechanics. And the plethora of expansion modules means you can craft the level of depth to fit the situation.
Also considered for my 2010 pick: Famiglia & Die Siedler von Catan: Der Schokoladenmarkt
Greg S: I will echo Mark’s sentiments. An excellent game that, sadly, rarely makes it to the table. I’ll have to rectify that in 2020!
Also mentioned on the OG Forums for 2010: The Phantom League
Flash Duel Second Edition BGG Rank 2,362 (Brandon K)
A lot of folks around here on the OG will know this one as it’s original title, En Garde, which is wonderful in its own way. Designer David Sirlin made a name for himself in the video game fighting world and he brought his love for Street Fighter over into Flash Duel. Originally a game about fencing, Flash Duel brings a video game aspect to this wonderful push/pull game that is all about defeating your opponent by forcing them off their side of the playing area. You do this by playing cards of different values that move and push yourself and opponents. Sirlin added on top of this characters who have specific powers and abilities to further enhance the strategy of the game. One of the first games that I ever became obsessed with in this hobby.
Rails of New England BGG Rank 5490 (Joe Huber)
Does a game need to be ideally balanced to be enjoyable? Rails of New England _isn’t_ perfectly balanced, and the balance in any particular game can easily be thrown one way or the other by the random events, and how many of those events occur. But the theme is delightful – all of the businesses in the game are based upon historic businesses, with historic effects based upon economic conditions. There are a number of complaints about the game – the city names are difficult to make out, and without a reasonable knowledge of New England geography the game can take longer than is ideal, not to mention the fact that each game _will_ almost certainly be balanced in favor of one player or another. But it’s a very enjoyable game, and my clear favorite among those games published in 2011.
Belfort BGG Rank 448 (Matt Carlson)
While the cutesy comic-like illustrations may put people off, I think they add flavor to this resource-engine, worker-placement game that plays well with five players. Mechanics-wise, there’s a little bit of everything in the game but since they coexist together nicely, rather than leading to specific game-winning combos the game remains approachable. Players basically use workers to get goods and building (permit) cards. Constructing a building has players literally place a building on the pentagram-shaped city board. Buildings grant players a special ability but are also used for area scoring of the five board subdivisions. Some things of note that make Belfort stand out from others of its type. There are multiple types of workers. Dwarves and Elves each can gather resources the other type can’t, with collecting metal requiring one of both types. Gnomes can later be obtained and serves as a type of ongoing worker. The five-sided board make it particularly well suited for a five-player game. (I find 4-player games trickier, but 3 and 2 work just fine.) In addition to building area-majority, it is also found in gathering resources as having the most workers at a location granting a small bonus. The game also has a bit of a catch-up mechanism, as players are taxed based on their overall score, so players with higher scores need to be sure to keep enough gold reserves on hand. Finally, the game always starts with a few special locations/actions (chosen from a potential pool) granting variety from game to game (which I enjoy.) Players can choose to customize their game, by including or excluding those locations that have a strong “interactive” mechanic (read “antagonistic”.) Reading back what I’ve written, Belfort seems to be the kitchen sink of boardgame mechanisms. However, I think the parts work well together as a whole, creating a game that is not overly complex and fairly well balanced.
Dungeon Fighter BGG Rank 905 (James Nathan)
There was a time before my soft spot was Japanese trick-taking games when it was dexterity games, and this is the first of 2 titles I’ll talk about that call back to my dexterity days. (Dungeon crawling and fantasy games have never had an appeal to me, but this is also the first of 2 such games that I’ll talk about.)
Dungeon Fighter is a cooperative dungeon crawl that is pure dexterity shenanigans. As the odds would predict, there’s some sort of way to progress through a dungeon that falls out of a random placement of cards. But how do you fight the monsters? There’s a large target-patterned board in the middle of the table, with higher values towards the center corresponding to more damage against a monster.
To use the target, the player needs to land a die on it, and how you get the die from your hand to the target is where the game comes off the rails (and the reason we’re here.)
Depending upon the monster you’re facing (or equipment you may choose to purchase), you may be forced to (or be able to), attempt exotic methods in order to hit the monster (or do additional damage).
For instance, throwing with your off hand. Throwing under your leg. Jump at the same time. Close your eyes. The options (and combinations) go on and on.
This is not my favorite game of the year, or my favorite unheralded game of the year, but it’s my favorite lesser-known one that I haven’t talked about much, if at all, before.
On the Cards BGG Rank 8636 (Jonathan F.)
2011 was not bad with Helvetia, Hawaii, and Tragedy Looper, but my favorite game was On the Cards, a modular trick-taking game that improves on Stich-Meister. Because the rules keep changing, it stays interesting and enjoyable. I wish it were more widely available, but hope that it will see the light of day again. Honorable mentions to Mage Knight and Tricky Bid as well.
Airlines Europe BGG Rank 363 (Simon Neale)
A reimplementation of both Airlines and Union Pacific from Alan Moon gives us Airlines Europe. This is one of the most family friendly share ownership games masquerading as route building game. The game is straight-forward to learn and completes in just over an hour. This game still gets regular plays with my family despite the influx of much newer games and is one of my favourites from 2011.
Hawaii – BGG Rank 639 (Larry)
To paraphrase a famous saying, some games fade into obscurity due to their own merits (or lack thereof) and some have obscurity thrust upon them. Hawaii is a most unfortunate example of the latter. Greg Daigle’s first (and, so far, only) published design was a major hit following its release at the 2011 Essen fair. It’s Geek ratings were strong, it was being widely played, and it did very well with the major Game of the Year awards (a Kennerspiel recommendation, a 3rd place finish in the DSP, and an IGA nomination). Then, in May of 2012, Tom Vasal posted a video review of the game, which opened with an extended sequence, showing the box being handed down by his many children, until one of them finally tossed it into the garbage. To me, and many others, it was an unfair stunt, solely meant to increase his viewership, but such was the power of Vasel’s reviews that the ratings and plays of Hawaii dropped dramatically immediately thereafter and never recovered.
That was a great shame, because this is an excellent design. You’re buying items to add to the villages on your player board, but each type of item is at its own location and you can’t just point to a spot and make some purchases–you have to move there. In order to move from one location to another, you have to spend one of the game’s three kinds of currency, so your strategy needs to have a spatial element as well as an economic one. The scoring rules are also innovative and the game is hugely replayable (with item prices that change every round and locations that are different with each game). It’s a very well developed design, as is usually the case with a Hans im Gluck game. There’s lots of decisions to be made, but the game rarely drags. Despite being 8 years old, it still gets regular play in my group of “Cult of the New” gamers. Hawaii may have been the victim of a cruel joke, but thankfully, it is still very fondly remembered in my neck of the woods. If you get the chance, you should make a point of visiting the big island yourself!
I’m also a big fan of Airlines Europe, another 2011 title listed here.
Greg S: Another one that I always enjoy, but rarely play. Truly, it is the curse of owning too many games.
Core Worlds BGG Rank 638 (Mark Jackson)
I get that there are reasons that Core Worlds didn’t become the hit it should have been:
- The more players you have at the table, the harder it is to see your options… and, conversely, the more options you have
- The game is exponentially more interesting and involving when you add the Galactic Orders expansion… which wasn’t released in tandem with the base game
- It’s a game that rewards multiple plays… in a climate that is making that more and more difficult with the avalanche of games that appear every year
- It’s not a short game… we played last night (Jan. 2, 2020) and a two player game with experienced players ran an hour and 45 minutes
But take all of that and ignore it, because this continues to be a favorite gaming experience each and every time it hits the table. I wouldn’t recommend learning this deckbuilding/tableua building hybrid with more than 3 players… and I believe Galactic Orders is an ESSENTIAL expansion… but given those limits, hunt this one down and give it a try. (You can read my review of the expansions here on the OG.)
Also considered for my 2011 pick: Ascending Empires
Matt Carlson: I wanted to like this, but believe it ran up against the lack of expansions mentioned by Mark. There was a lot of potential there and I wanted to like it but, as it was, it didn’t provide enough variety to keep the game interesting.
Also mentioned on the OG Forums for 2011: Eselsbrucke and Star Trek Fleet Captains