Quite a year. While it is often tough to get down to five top choices, this time it has been very difficult indeed. The endless new releases and, probably, gradually rising standards in design have delivered at least twenty candidates worthy of consideration.
The Runners Up
I loved Time Stories and then all of a sudden… I didn’t. The base story was fun, engaging and impressive. But then the zombies happened, and the railroading became apparent, but most of all it was the audacious expectation that we were going to fail and then repeat it all, over and over. No sir – I like my déjà vu in very small portions. I am not sure about you, but my gaming time is more valuable than that. And then the story module releases slowed down, the whole thing got pricey, and it got sold. In fairness, Time Stories is beautifully done and I think version 2.0 might be very good, or someone else will crack this format. Another near miss on the narrative front.
Given the lack of interaction and weird abstract sub-game, A Feast for Odin is a remarkably enjoyable experience. But not much of a game, for me. It is more the experience/sim end of the market – I did feel like I was running a Viking village. I left the table wishing it was Native American or Egyptian, which is what experience games are all about. But I did not know, nor care, much about my rivals. As with the Agricola family, I will happily sit down for two or three sessions, see my scores decline, and then forget all about it. The execution is to be admired, as always, but there is definitely something missing from these near solitaire efforts. It is a big enough miss to mean they will never go above a Siggins 8.
In fairness there is not much to Kanagawa. The trade-off is superb theming, the gentle, relaxing pace of play and the fact it looks stunning. It is also highly accessible and saw some play at Christmas. There is some depth here, and more than some fillers I could name, but I don’t think that is the point. Kanagawa is a gorgeous entertainment, an aesthetic diversion. In many ways this is what I like about modern games – the market allows and accommodates many forms.
Considering some of the rubbish he used to foist upon us, Gunther Burkhardt has turned it all around. His latest, Ulm, is a solid, thematic, enjoyable game in the old school mould. And as you know that is always welcome here. I don’t think Ulm is perfect, by a long chalk, because the pacing is everything and I feel we are asked too much in the time available. But the slidey tile mechanism works (the late game shortages do worry me though), it offers varying strategies and hangs together well.
Via Nebula was another hit for me. We played five or six games and that is sufficient endorsement these days (overall average appearances is 1.00065). Okay, it is really a space game or a railway game but you can squint a bit and all is well. Again, as with Ulm, it is and old school game that works, is quick and sets some interesting challenges.
A few more that deserve a mention… Raptor is a neat two player game which seems to have slipped under the radar. The system is clever, the game brutal, and it is all over in thirty minutes. Kraftwagen I liked a lot. It is probably the best build-a-car/thing system I have seen. But the racing element distracts and seems massively overpowered. Racing, or testing your build, is valid as a VP mechanism but it has to be balanced and in proportion or your strategy is governed. Personally, the racing was a release because I could not sell anything on the home markets. I really liked First Class but felt it overstayed its welcome. And finally Patchwork got several plays. I like it but I honestly don’t think it is stellar, so being the highest rated BGG abstract is doubly puzzling.
Quartermaster General: 1914
Quartermaster General: Victory or Death
I will put these in a separate category so I can effectively have seven nominations…. Seriously, they both deserve a Top Five slot. I have made no secret of the fact that Quartermaster General is my hit game of recent years. First came the WWII expansions (both excellent) and last year we got these two new incarnations using a similar core system. However, both are different games and very different again to the original, being longer and more involved. As new periods are tackled, and let’s face it there will be quite a few, I expect a range of play length, control levels and complexity to develop. These games are both tough, cerebral, and dependent on their base history which limits the outcomes, but nevertheless they are gripping games. Superb design, challenging and atmospheric: that is all I ask these days.
The Top Five
Tyrants of the Underdark debuted as that identikit deckbuilder game we see every week on the gaming table. But this time there was something different. Firstly there was a map and, so, strategic possibilities and flavour. Then there are cards you actually want to buy – thematic and useful, you can see exactly what they do and why you need them – and the factions are nicely distinguished. They are a joy to draw and to play – ask yourself if that is always the case. And finally play is refreshingly intuitive. Downside? Very dodgy fantasy names, but not much else. We really like this game. It is a cut above the usual deckbuilder schlock.
Star Trek: Ascendancy is entirely my sort of game. As soon as I worked out the evolving map system I was sold. And the rest isn’t bad either. It is a 4X design but exploitation is limited for the Federation player, which makes sense. The Klingon gets some nastiness skills, the Romulans – which I like to play – get to do mining and nastiness. You might expect a game like this to take a long time but I feel it is entirely playable in three hours, possibly less. And you will have achieved a fair bit. It has some faults. The rules are a bit woolly, especially on warp movement (once cracked, this is very clever). You can easily get hemmed into a corner, or fail to make First Contact, and exploration randomness plays a big part in this. Victory conditions are a little one sided because you are pushed towards the cultural victory, largely because conquering the other two powers is tough. And ultimately it is a three player game with all the alliance, big fleets, warfare and kingmakering that is endemic to the form. But apart from that it is an impressive design. Play it on a Hubbell map and it is a superb gaming experience.
Terraforming Mars gives me a small problem. It is a very good game and was played a lot. But I am not entirely sure why. Apart from the fact that it can run a bit long, and some of the Take That cards could easily go, it seems in all respects a proper game. Well designed, thematic, challenging, and for at least the first five games or so a varied and interesting learning experience. Yes, we use drafting – essential I believe. There are also very nice card combos linking to the fact that there is real strategy here. And time to see that strategy unfold. When it does, it is very satisfying even if you are dead last. It is definitely a feelgood system, marred only by heavy handed Take That. How have they done this? Well, I am going to say it is primarily an elegant design. Nothing much between you and the game system, transparent decision making and visible, often immediate results. There is no clever mechanism as such, just clean functionality. But an absolute ton of work has gone into the cards, the effects and the mix, and their interactions. I am very impressed.
Mansions of Madness v2.0 Some of you will be outraged at this game’s inclusion. Because it has a required (free) app. Because it is mad expensive. And because you have already bought version 1.0. And you know, I completely agree with you. But the game is so good I am unrepentant. I am not going to say, “This is the future”, because it isn’t. I think and hope boardgames will be cardboard, paper and plastic for some time. But for games that need a player to sit out and GM, or just place the pieces, or keep things secret I really think this is the way forward. I love umpired games; in many ways they are the best gaming experiences of all. And this app comes very close to having a human umpire. Wow. Yes. Really that good. The game? Well you know the mechanics – they are on their umpteenth retread. You could sneeze and write the scenarios as are pretty much always the same: weird buildings-odd doors-graveyard-hooded cultists-altar-deep one infestation-boss level strictly optional. Variation on a theme, but we live in hope. It just works. The first game was so smooth the only thing we worried about was the app crashing or running out of tablet juice. Stunning work. And sound effects!
And the winner is…
Star Wars: Rebellion A two player game? From Fantasy Flight? With my reputation? What is the world coming to? Three years ago I started work on a game to replace SPI’s Freedom in the Galaxy. I loved much about that ancient game, even though it was a Star Wars lookey-likey with some really dodgy puns. Nowadays game companies can afford the licences and so we have Star Wars plus: Things that are not in the movies but are clearly out there. Things that should be in the movies but aren’t. Add on a credible driver – find the rebel base – and a fascinating logistics sub-game and we are talking intense, thematic gaming of the highest standard. When I was playing initially I thought about three or four ideas that I might happily encounter. They all appeared. And more. I shelved my design. It is, in a word, brilliant. As good as War of the Ring.
Published in Counter Issue 76