OG Unheralded Games of the Decade 2018 & 2019
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 few 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.
Gunkimono – BGG Rank 2286 (Brandon Kempf)
Heartland was probably my first “grail game” that I had searched out on BGG. I know, it’s a bit odd, but it sounded right up our alley. All those years and I never did pick up a copy for one reason or another. Then Renegade Games steps up and they re-release it, with a new theme of course and a couple changes and we now have Gunkimono. Gunkimono is a tile laying game where you and your opponents are placing double tiles out onto a board and scoring either victory points for like color groups of soldiers or Stronghold points which leads to more victory points as the game progresses. Everything is cumulative here. If you score a grouping worth a handful of points, your opponents can hop in and score for more since they are adding to the grouping. So while it’s always tempting to go for the big points, sometimes it can be more beneficial to break up that big scoring area as quickly as possible which leads to some wonderful combative play. Another fun part of Gunkimono is the three dimensional placing of tiles, you can stack them on top of each other, creating some unique opportunities. Absolutely a gem of a game and now that I have it, I have since obtained a copy of Heartland as well, and I like the changes here, they definitely helped the game in the long run. Also, don’t sleep on the card game adaptation/re-imagining, Rolnicy or as Renegade is calling it, Gloomy Graves.
Stock Hold’em – BGG Rank 10,946 (James Nathan)
In general, over the years my “to play” shelf has been quite small, and typically didn’t last much more than a few weeks. My budget for new games has usually matched my ability to get things to the table, and that’s that. In the last year or two, things have shifted slightly. First it was a shelf, now it’s that shelf and the top of another bookcase. They lay under games that I haven’t played yet, or want to play more. This sort of “inbox” of games is new for me. It’s a product of two things, I think. First, solving the puzzle of obtaining Japanese titles means that more, but smaller, games are coming in, and second, if there’s a title that I think I want to share some words about, I play it more than in years past when I didn’t share as much; I worry that if I move those games to the shelves of titles I’m keeping more long term, I’ll “forget” to get back to them. (If I “forget” them, isn’t that a damning enough review? Maybe.) (Also, third reason, sometimes I’m waiting on myself to translate things, so that also puts things in a holding pattern.)
Anyway, Stock Hold’em is the elder of the inbox shelves. I played once when Rand came to visit a few years ago, and again on a copy I later picked up, but it’s probably been 15 months or so since I last played it, and I have only played it the two times. The first was a 3 player game, and the other was 4 or 5, I don’t recall or keep such stats.
Anyway, again, I loved the 3 player game! The other was missing the same spark, so I’ve partially been waiting for the right 3 player occasion, to bring it out again.
(This really is me talking about one of my favorite unheralded games of the year. I’m going to move this qualifier up this time. To quote myself “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.” The venn diagram of things I’m confident enough to call my favorites from this year and are unheralded is largely a single circle and I’ve probably talked about them before: Hiktorune, Tenka Meidou, Peter’s Two Sheep Dogs, Pikoko, Let’s Make a Bus Route, etc. For years this recent, I have to dig further into titles I’m slightly less willing to call my “favorite” as there has simply been less time to get things to the table.)
Anyway, again again, you’re assigning values to stocks via poker hands of sorts. There are 6 companies for which you can buy and sell stock. Each round the companies will end up having 5 cards assigned to them, as in a poker hand, and each company’s value will be determined based upon poker type qualities of the 5 cards: x-of-a-kind, flushes, straights, etc.
The cards have one of their two attributes, suit or rank, shown on the _back_ of the card. Each round, 2 cards (I think…) start assigned to each company face up, such that all players will know both attributes of the cards played. The players then take turns playing cards _face down_ to the companies, such that only they know both attributes, but everyone can see the one on the back. As well, players can see the backs of the cards still in your hand. (As you’re playing these cards, you’re also buying and selling stocks, and there are a few other quirks.)
I find the deduction and commodity speculation aspect intriguing. Attempting to determine, based upon the attributes I can see, my analysis of your portfolio, and what I know about your future plays, have you tanked that stock or helped it out? Where _didn’t_ you play that card and what could that mean? (I just think you have more control over all that in a smaller player count game.)
Anyway, next time you and I and one other person are playing games, let’s play this again.
Blöde Kuh – BGG rank 6265 (Joe Huber)
This is only the second instance where the game I’ve chosen _isn’t_ my favorite game from the year, but my second-favorite game. My favorite game – Lift Off – isn’t _that_ well heralded, but I decided it was too well known to choose here.
Blöde Kuh, in contrast, is safely unheralded; to be honest, it’s a game which I wouldn’t have paid any attention to if it weren’t for the designer and the publisher; the combination moved it to my “need to try” list, even if I wasn’t enthusiastic about the game description. Or, after playing it once; fortunately Hilko Drude had mentioned that the game got better for him with more play. So I tried it more – and I’ve grown to really like the game. It is a light, simple, and (appropriately) silly game, with more than a bit of luck in it, but it’s also quick, plays well with many players, and most importantly – fun.
Mark Jackson sez: I agree with Joe… this is an excellent pick.
Railroad Ink – BGG rank 533 (Matt Carlson)
I start scraping the bottom of the barrel for 2018 and 2019 as it takes me awhile to get to many of the newest titles. At first I was going to go with Gizmos as it has a nice snowball effect and the marbles are cute, but I realized I played plenty of Railroad Ink (either version, although I tended to start with Blue) Yes, it’s another roll and write game, but it came out in the early waves and the freedom to write down lines almost anywhere on the board makes most decisions interesting, rather than having an obvious play on any given round. It works well with non-gamers. The rules are pretty intuitive (if not always the scoring) so I can get a group of up to 8 (with both blue and red) up and running in just a few minutes.
Talia: This was my most played game of 2019, and one that I heartily agree with for inclusion on this list! A real gem with a ton of replayability.
Krass Kariert – BGG rank 2141 (Larry)
With hundreds of new card games being published every year, you have to wonder if it’s possible to come up with something new. Then you play Krass Kariert and realize it isn’t merely possible, you just experienced it. Krass Kariert is a climbing game (similar to Tichu), in which you can play combinations of cards to each trick as long as they’re higher in rank than the previously played cards. The big innovation is that you can’t change the order of the cards you are dealt and you can only play combinations of cards if they’re next to each other in your hand. This means you have to plan how to best play your cards in order to milk the most valuable combos out of them. That’s important, since the last person to play all their cards loses a life and losing all your lives means you lose the game. There’s no winner, only a loser, and while that’s a bit odd, there’s plenty of variants available that let you come up with a single winning player, if that’s important to you. Even with the base rules, though, the game is so engaging and accessible that it’s just plain fun to play, even without a winner. Krass Kariert proves that there’s still innovation in the good ol’ card game and the experience it provides is anything but crass.
Of the other games mentioned here, Key Flow is also a big favorite of mine.
Key Flow – BGG Rank 1569 (Jonathan F.)
Drafting was a hot mechanism for much of the decade, but for me Key Flow is the high point. So much game in about an hour and for six people. It has choices, a tableau building, a bit of hate drafting, and “Key-goodness”.
NEOM – BGG Rank 1452 (Mark Jackson)
My initial rules read of NEOM (prior to seeing the game) made me think it would be an interesting but difficult to play 7 Wonders knock-off. I’m happy to say that the first day I taught/played (a few weeks after Essen 2018), I was proven wrong… and ended up playing it 3 times in one day. As soon as it became easily available in the U.S., I jumped on a copy… and it’s now in regular rotation here at Chez Jackson.
I’m a huge fan of both 7 Wonders and Suburbia – enough so that I own every expansion for both games and plunked down a C note in order to get the Collector’s Edition of Suburbia. So, when a game can easily be described as combining some of the best bits from both of those games, I’m in.
And that’s the way I introduce NEOM to gamers – the drafting is similar to 7 Wonders and the tile-laying feels like Suburbia. But that misses some of the innovations that make Neom more than just another chip off the old blocks:
- Using a “bomb” draft item (Flood, Fire, Crime Wave) in each era that hurts others but denies you a turn
- The initial “seeding” draft of cornerstone tiles – they do more to set strategy than the similar Leaders expansion in 7 Wonders
- The simplified resource system – including the creation of trade routes and the ability to buy resources from someone farther away at a slightly higher cost
Most important is the reality after 15+ games that there are multiple ways to win:
- Focus on your cornerstone tiles
- Build a suburb (lots of residences)
- Be the resource king (and the $ that go with it)
- Build a balanced city
Also nice – it plays well with 2 players (using a similar system to Fields of Green), balances nicely with 3-5 players, and even has a decent solo mode.
Also considered for my 2018 pick: Wildlands (BGG Board Game Rank: 918)
Trapwords – BGG Rank 1,576 (Talia)
Trapwords is one of the best party games that I’ve ever played. It’s basically Taboo 2.0, with an overall structure that closely resembles that late 80s Hasbro classic. The key innovation in Trapwords is that: (1) the other team comes up with the list of forbidden words (rather than the game providing a list); and (2) the clue giver doesn’t even get to see the list of forbidden words, so you’re blindly giving a clue and trying / hoping not to use on of the banned words. This forces some truly wonderful and hilarious circumlocution!
Hats – BGG Rank 4418 (Brandon Kempf)
Okay, so I’ve reviewed Hats relatively recently. I’ve even reviewed another recent game that gives that similar feeling even more recently in Mandala. So I won’t gush too much here, but I do want to say that if clever little hand management card games are your thing, Hats is going to be right in your wheelhouse. It’s a wonderful hand management game where you basically create your own scoring on a community board that is always in flux. Play a card to the community scoreboard and take the card you replaced into your scoring table. Dead simple in premise, but absolutely a wonderfully clever little game.
Caravan – BGG Rank 5,468 (James Nathan)
It’s a bit early to talk about favorites of 2019 for me, and the line I’ve been including with each of these I won’t even use here, because this could end up my favorite game of the year! As with Stock Hold’em above, I haven’t played enough to make such a call, and those inbox shelves have some contenders, still waiting to be played, played more, or translated. But this is the one I want to highlight, of that I’m certain.
Dale reviewed Caravan earlier this year, so if you want to read the whole thing it’s over there, but I think it’s a delight. As I said then, it has the classic feel of a 15-20 year old German game (which is a complement). I’m very much for elegant rule sets that can result in tense decisions on both a strategic and tactical level, and that’s what Caravan delivers.
When friends haven’t heard of some games I bring out, some small print run Japanese hipster game, I understand that, well, how would they have heard of it. But when a game such as Caravan seems to have fallen off the broader community’s radar just months after release from, what to me, is a major publisher, I’m filled with what I’m sure is a too-familiar feeling of malaise, decrying how it didn’t catch fire and is it now too late and already forgotten.
Anyway, please try it. You’re in for a treat.
Parks – BGG Rank 467 (Joe Huber)
I fear that 2019 was mostly a year of not finding interesting new releases for me. I played Just One for the first time, and enjoyed it, but it’s even better known than Parks. But Parks is more than well enough known that I don’t need to say much more than – it’s my favorite 2019 release, and in fact the only 2019 release in my collection. (Just to be clear – I don’t consider games I design to be in my collection, even though I do obviously have copies of them.)
Barrage – BGG Rank 560 (Larry)
Most of the games that have appeared in this series of articles are underrated because they are relatively unknown. Barrage, on the other hand, is notorious, and it’s that notoriety that leads to it being rated too low, in my opinion. Specifically, the components in many copies of the game are extremely sub-standard, which led to many complaints and accusations during its Kickstarter campaign. The tragedy of this is that this poor publicity has kept many from experiencing Barrage’s extraordinarily good gameplay. The game is highly interactive, in a way that most current Euros are not, and players can try to leech off of, or get in the way of, their opponent’s plans. There’s also some excellent innovation, specifically with its very interesting production mechanisms. Finally, it’s quite thematic, as the game’s mechanics are closely tied to its theme of generating energy from hydropower. The game plays fabulously well and for me, is the best new title I’ve played from the past five years. Hopefully, the outroar over the Kickstarter campaign will die down soon, so that more people will be encouraged to check out this wonderful design.
Kauchuk – BGG Rank 7,849 (Mark Jackson)
Using rubber bands & a peg board for area control (in a stunning variety of modes) is genius. I want to clarify a rule (how big an area can you surround with completed areas and claim?) and I’m not in love with the cardboard scoring track – but I’d be more than happy to play again. This doesn’t work quite like anything you’ve played before… and it is well worth seeking out.
For more information, check out Dale Yu’s excellent review here on the OG.
Also considered for my 2019 pick: Coloma (BGG Board Game Rank: 1994)
Silver & Gold – BGG Rank 1,193 (Talia)
I fell for Silver & Gold last spring, and I’ve remained a huge fan for many months now. It’s a fast (20 minute) “flip and write” game that has you completing island cards using Tetris / Blokus shapes. It’s remarkably fun and engaging, considering how simple and quick it is. There’s something beautifully elegant about its compact design and limited use of variance to create unpredictability without chaos, and randomness without losing a general sense of control. It’s the perfect size and scope for a quick taste of strategy gaming after a long day.