As the summer comes to a close, along with the board game industry award season, and as we ramp up for a new year in gaming that begins with the slew of new releases timed to the Essen game fair in October, I thought it would a good time to take a moment and look back at games played, games loved, and games loathed. Rather than a crown a single champion though, I’d like to acknowledge a variety of games in different categories. Of the 249 different games played over the past year, these are the handful of games that I’ve played that merit special recognition.
Most Played Game: Railroad Ink | Runner Up: First Monday in October
My most played game is Railroad Ink, but a close second is the prototype for the game that I’ve been designing called First Monday in October. These games could not be more different, but I’ve been enjoying both immensely in different ways. While I was initially skeptical of the roll-and-write and flip-and-write genre, I think what I actually disliked was the numeric focus of many early games in the genre, epitomized by Ganz Schon Clever and later compatriots like Dizzle and Metro X. In practice, I’ve turned out to be a huge fan of certain games in the genre, such as Railroad Ink and Cartographers, which allow players to relax, draw, and plot out their area — trying to simultaneously plan ahead and adapt to unpredictable circumstances. The combination of variability and predictability in Railroad Ink, along with the ratio of its duration to its luck, make this a perfect package for me. I love that the game works so well in its base version, but that it comes with additional dice and rules to mix things up and keep it fresh. Railroad Ink feels like a game that really rewards playing it dozens of times, but at the same time manages to be accessible and rather non-intimidating to teach or learn. With several hundred possible games on my shelf, Railroad Ink has proven to be such an easy one to pull out over and over again when feeling undecided or tired at the end of a weekday.
First Monday in October is a close second (although beloved Root is second if you don’t count my own prototype). I’ve already spilled plenty of metaphorical ink about First Monday, but for anyone that missed it, I’d encourage you to check out my initial designer diary about the gradual years long development process and many different gaming influences, along with my subsequent detailed write-up on one of my favorite aspects of the game, or there’s the GeekList format about the game’s inspirations if that’s more your speed (which includes some recent late-breaking additions). Given how much the game has evolved over the past year, it’s hard to say if all of the plays could reasonably be counted as the same game. But as daunting as it is to say, the game is now done, and in the hands of the wonderful publisher and artist to eventually reach anyone that happens to be interested in checking it out.
Best New Game: Q.E. | Runners Up: Mandala, Silver & Gold, Fox in the Forest Duet
I think the best new game from the past year is an easy call for Q.E. I know it had a 2017 version and all, but I was not introduced to the new version until December 2019. Having played it five more times in 2020, I’m confident in saying this game is a masterpiece. Having even played it with a researcher at the World Bank, and hearing that the game is scarily realistic, just makes the game all the more compelling! I’ve long adored auction games like Ra, Princes of Florence, and Keyflower, and now Q.E. joins that pantheon as a remarkably fresh take on the concept. The idea behind Q.E. is so radical that you think it’s a joke when the game is being taught to you. An auction game where you have infinite money and can bid any integer that you can think of? Yeah, okay, sure. But it doesn’t just work, it truly sings. It is a psychological thriller in a box, and a game where you are really playing the other players in one of the most tense board games out there. I would never want to confine this game to a cloistered game group (although that might be fascinating in its own right to see the group think that could develop over time) because I think it shines brightest when you bring it to a meetup and see its utterly topsy-turvy nature at its finest. Back-to-back plays are even better if you have time because of the added layer of psychological uncertainty that becomes more poignant in that second play.
There are so many excellent runners-up though, including Mandala, Silver & Gold, and Fox in the Forest Duet. And if I lost all sense of composure, I’d add Cartographers and Draftosaurus too for good measure. Those are five games that deserve a place in your collection. Mandala is an extraordinary brain-burning two-player card game that has far more depth than its simplicity or short duration suggest, while Fox in the Forest Duet is the cooperative trick-taking game that you didn’t know you need, and Silver & Gold is just pure addictive fun in a tiny box! I particularly love how nuanced the gameplay and thought processes are in Mandala, and how fresh and engaging the cooperation and dialogue feels in Fox in the Forest Duet.
Favorite Game Played: War of the Ring | Runner Up: Through the Ages
But what, you say, was my absolute favorite game played in the past year? That would have to be War of the Ring, of course! I only played it 6 times in the past year, bringing my total up to an even 60 since I started falling for War of the Ring in 2007. I look forward to the day in a few years when I hit 100 plays of this gem. And while I’ve always shied away from proclaiming a favorite game, War of the Ring has certainly been vying for that position, if not holding it, for some time now. I especially love that I can play the base game when I want something familiar, or use the small Lords of Middle-Earth expansion to stir things up a bit, or layer on the large Warriors of Middle-Earth expansion to really shake things up. The narrative arc of a game of War of the Ring is unrivaled, except perhaps by Through the Ages, Twilight Struggle, or Antiquity. These are memorable games that somehow make 3 hours fly by, and always leave me wanting more. I end the game thinking about how it took shape, the crescendo of its action, what I might have done differently in hindsight, and when I can hopefully play again in the near future.
Best Children’s Game Played: Outfoxed | Runner Up: Trash Pandas
I’ve played a lot of children’s games with a five-year-old in the past year, but the best one was easily Outfoxed. The way that Outfoxed teaches reasoning and logic to a child is a real joy to watch. I’ve found that the game engages remarkably well, lasts just the right amount of time, and helps kids learn and grow in a tangible way while having fun. I have had such a great time watching my kid realize that one fox or another can be excluded from consideration due to a new clue, and it’s even more fun when they realize that a particular fox might in fact be the culprit. I credit this game with really helping my child transition from the youngest Haba games to a broader range of games… such as Trash Pandas.
While it was a leap to try Trash Pandas, it has worked surprisingly well. My child loves the card names and art, and has really worked on reading skills in order to read the cards. It’s fascinating to see the push-your-luck mechanism at play in a child’s mind, as they shift from risk averse to risk preferring, and it’s lovely to see them realize that a particular card’s ability is perfectly suited to the present moment. While we also enjoy playing Shaky Manor, Fireball Island, Valley of the Vikings, Bugs in the Kitchen, Ghost Fightin’ Treasure Hunters, Igloo Pop, Dragon’s Breath, Zombie Kidz, and so many more, Outfoxed and Trash Pandas take the cake this year.
Games Played Only 1 Time That I Wish I’d Played More: Java | Runner Up: El Grande
Unfortunately, 105 of the games played in the past year (42 percent) were only played once, and some of those were amazing games. Most wonderful of the bunch was Kramer & Kiesling classic Java. I’ve enjoyed Java 17 times over the years, and did get it to the table once, although I’d love to explore its depths more often.
I tend to prefer open-ended games with more free-form decision trees, and Java gives you that wonderfully wide open feeling of having a million different things you could do. You’re not forced to pick from a small menu of options. While the way in which the board develops at the beginning of Java is so free-form that it can be daunting to many players, it is liberating to have that much extraordinary flexibility in a game. While this leads many to criticize the game for analysis-paralysis, it simply leads me to select my opponents more carefully. As long as you’re playing with people who think during other players’ turns and don’t need to calculate every single available move, this game will move at a reasonable pace and, more importantly, be worth the time invested. Yes, Java can be a quiet and pensive experience, but it’s also got plenty of exciting moments as sprawling cities are chopped up and reconfigured in surprising ways. In the end, Java is the game with the looks, the depth, the uniqueness, and the replayability that make it a true classic.
Game Played Only 1 Time That Was 1 Time Too Many: Century Spice Road | Runner Up: Exploding Kittens
When I had the unfortunate experience of learning Century Spice Road, I thought it was a parody. But sadly it’s real. It’s an actual game that just seems like a parody of a “cube pusher.” Why are we gathering cubes to convert into other cubes, as if we were excited about a stripped down and simplified take on soulless 2009 Queen flop Colonia? I’m all for peaceful resource gathering with pasted on themes, but this really takes it to the extreme! Century Spice Road is truly the most bland game that I have ever played, and I’ve played at least 1,724 different games at this point. It’s not necessarily the worst game that I’ve ever played because it does seem to function as an exercise in cube conversion, but it exhibits no soul, no imagination, and certainly no raison d’être. And then there’s Exploding Kittens, which I think is just Uno for drunk grown-ups that don’t know about the existence of dexterity board games or social deduction card games…
An entire “awards” column with no mention of The Crew or Wingspan…? Heresy!
Here’s to more Railroad Ink, Q.E., War of the Ring, Trash Pandas, Java, and many more in the year ahead!