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I first heard of the Game Parlor when I was prepping for one of the first Pseudocons. My friend John had mentioned that there was a game store in Chantilly . John had spoken to the owner, and the had told him that (please forgive my guesswork – it’s been twenty years) he saw his game store as being a place where you could buy any game and you could play them IN THE STORE!
It was on the intriguingly named Metrotech Drive, a shortcut really from the congested Route 50 to the slightly-less-congested Centerville Road. It really had nothing to do with tech at all, being a long strip mall centered around a K-Mart. It took up one storefront, and was clean and bright and well-ordered. My wife loved it in comparison to the more niche Compleat Strategist near our home in Falls Church, which was cluttered and, at the time, well worn. The Game Parlor did seem to have everything. It had my beloved Hero System roleplaying game, and its many supplements. In my mind, I can still see the ASL module Gung Ho and the historical module Kampfgruppe Pfeifer II on its shelves (and I kick myself to this day for not buying them!). And it was the first place where I saw game tables in the back where patrons could play their games. It was conceived in an era of big stores. Want a book? Borders! Want a beverage? Total Beverage! Want anything else? Friggin’ PRICE CLUB! For gamers, the Game Parlor was all of these and more. It was heaven on earth.
As time passed, the Game Parlor grew, expanding like a Risk player who had just cashed in his army cards. It took over one adjacent store front, then a second, and its inclusive offerings began to be compartmentalized. Want wargames? That’s in the third storefront that had been annexed. Roleplaying? The second one. Dice? A glass counter contained hundreds of them. When the CCG craze hit, the Game Parlor had a wall full of card packs. It even had a dedicated card in the Sim City CCG (don’t ask me how or why, I just saw it pinned to their bulletin board). It got so powerful, it even colonized the crowded and congested Woodbridge, VA..
It expanded its table area, having a few extra large, custom-made tables where the surface was painted blue, I assume so that Fletcher Pratt-like naval miniatures could be played. It had an enclosed roleplaying room where, if you signed up, you could assume your character without distractions from the hoi polloi. It was a destination I made it to whenever I could sneak over from my somewhat nearby work place, Herndon High School (to Centerville Road, then a straight shot to Metrotech). Most of my purchases were roleplaying games and game supplements (I had yet to get back into boardgames), so I won’t list them here. But I spent time and money there, and I can remember a number of times where I brought my infant children in a carrier so that I could peruse this section or that one.
Then, gradually, things began to change. The Game Parlor had some strange practices. For one, it never lowered its prices or had a sale. Games that the gaming market had clearly condemned (I’m looking at YOU, Nero. You, too, Babylon 5 modular game system!) sat gathering dust on their shelves, taking up space that could be easily taken by one of the more recent releases. If you wanted that copy of Avalon Hill’s computer game, Cave Wars (in DOS), it sat on the shelf for years, waiting for you, at its full price of $49.99.
The internet did not help the Game Parlor. I remember one fall, looking at one of the games in the Down in Flames series (I believe the game was Zero!). GMT had it in discount mode, the price slowly and steadily falling until their warehouse was clear. It was down to about $25 on their website when I was thinking of buying it. I went to the Game Parlor, and there it was, full price. I grumbled under my breath and planned to buy it online. Then I stopped by my ever-beloved Compleat Strategist (I saw charms there that my wife missed) and there it sat, at the same price I had seen on GMT’s site. I bought the game, shook my head, and wondered about the future of the Game Parlor.
The Game Parlor began to sell comics. Again, it paid no attention to the market, and it began to accumulate worthless issues of lesser titles that took up valuable game space. I don’t know who bought a laminator at that store, but they began to encase everything in plastic. If I wanted to buy a GURPS supplement or a comic I had never heard of, I was going to have to buy it only with knowledge of the cover and the blurb on its back. And the crinkled edges of their cheap lamination did nothing for presentation. It became walls of crinkly, ugly plastic. How is this better than buying online again?
The Game Parlor did begin to embrace its electronic future, which seemed like a great idea at the time. A friend and I met there one day and played Starcraft on their pay-to-play LAN. It was great! But the hardware and software became dated very quickly, and the cubicle-esque computer desks they had set up began to look as abandoned as other sections of the store. As the economy entered its struggles, the Game Parlor even began to charge for its table time, which meant that it was just as easy and less expensive for my friends and I to meet at my house. Again, why bother? The low point for me came when I went in to post a flyer for Point 2 Point, and when I said it was something I did in my free time, an employee said to me “free time, must be nice to have that.” I bit my tongue but couldn’t help but wonder how a store where the entire premise was that people had free time to play games could have someone working there who felt that way.
In the past few years, the Game Parlor began to look like a forgotten store. Its accumulation of unwanted board games, computer games, and comics crowded out its newer offerings. It closed its Woodbridge location. I kept making the pilgrimage to Chantilly, but my perusal of the store consisted of checking out their “new releases” section (which was small), then looking at those same copies of those games I didn’t want again and again (in contrast, the Compleat Strategist seems to be forever young, with shelves overflowing with recent releases and intriguing older ones). I rarely bought anything there any more, even though I ventured out every month or so.
In the end, I heard about the retirement of the owners of the Game Parlor with a resigned sigh. I wasn’t surprised at all.
I hope that the owners retire happily. They brought years of joy to me and mine. They were a beacon of what was possible in the 90’s and I have a number of great memories of that store. When I was last there a few days ago, one of the owners pointed to a notebook where long time patrons were writing their memories of the store. She recognized me and encouraged me to come back and write something. I think I will. I’ll buy something on clearance(most likely dice), then I’ll write in the book. It will go something like this:
“Thanks, guys, for all of these great years. I’ve come here so many times I’ve lost count. Thanks for the gaming tables and for being there during the many phases of the gaming industry over these years. Thanks for the d20 materials, the CCGs, the Hero System, World in Flames, ASL, all the miniatures and all the dice. When I needed a place to take a breath and think about something other than work, your store was here. When I needed to know people were playing games in Northern Virginia, I could always come here on a Saturday and see the crowds back at the gaming tables. When my college friends and I met to celebrate a friend on the tenth anniversary of his death, the gaming tables at Game Parlor (Woodbridge) was where we met to play Star Fleet Battles. It was the only place that would ever be fitting for such an occasion. Thank you for giving us such a marvelous venue all of these years. I will miss your store greatly.”
It will be missed. I know, I’ve missed it for years.
In contemporary wargame design, a zeitgeist seems to have emerged, centering on World War II strategic games. I know, I know. This, along with East Front World War II and the Battle of Bulge, is one of the more prominent subjects in wargame design. But three games from this year take a new look at this much-trodden design path and, from what I see, will challenge any further entries in this category.
The first released of these three games was Columbia’s Victory in Europe. ViE is World War II in broad brushstrokes. Want to invade France in 1939? Go ahead! Want to start the war with Germany early as the Russians? Can do! But there is a lot of the war you end up not really caring about. The only incentive to take Cairo is that it must be held for a Sea Lion victory, making it a moderately unlikely scenario (In all honesty, it’s probably something we are too enamored with due to movies like Patton and cool pictures of things like the Long Range Desert Group and an egg frying on a panzer). Why invade Greece? Why get involved in Scandinavia? The breakneck speed at which the game unfolds means that there really is no time for these side campaigns. Initially, this was one of my criticisms (other than the ridiculously small map – that round map was a poorly chosen gimmick). I found the game playing almost too quickly. Most of Europe seemed never to be actually threatened. Instead, it became a “smash and grab” operation for the Germans, who then sit back and defend Berlin with all their might (criticism 2 – in order to win, you must take Berlin, meaning that the game really does become a “Berlin Uber Alles” scenario at the end). Kudos to Columbia for the insertion of some interesting, non-Hammer card options, and for the too random but intriguing diplomacy system, but shame on them for the woefully small map and a disappointing endgame. I am concerned, also, that Columbia seems to almost be developing a track record of losing a Besinque design to another company then rushing out a game (remember Athens and Sparta, a game rushed out to beat Hellenes to the market and so undercooked that playing it brought the risk of salmonella?). There’s a lot to like in Victory in Europe and it’s too bad that some poor production decisions cast a shadow over the design. But it still was the first sign that something new was happening.
In August, two truly innovative designs were released on the same day. The first I’ll examine is the hip and much anticipated Churchill by Mark Herman. This game all but removes war from the equation. World War II is re-examined in a series of turns that center around the conferences involving the eponymous Churchill, along with FDR and Stalin. The war in this game becomes a series of classic, pre-designer game ladders of spaces (Honestly, it looks like something out of the Game of Life, not something from a current game, especially a wargame), and conferences take up most of the space in an interesting wheel where three spokes mark the influence of the three nations at the conference. I have only played once (and I look to play again soon), but in our game, winning the war became secondary to winning the game. Victory points were gained in a number of different ways, and, while it was clear that winning the war would garner a huge pay-off, it was moderately easy for two nations to prevent the third from entering an Axis capital. The game was a remarkably unique look at the war (I could certainly see someone saying that it is not even a wargame), one that we have not seen before. There certainly are “gamey” elements, such as the ability to advance two spaces on the war track if you have earned an “autosuccess” in a battle and you roll a ten, and the “roll-a-die-and-hope-for-the-best” nature of using one of the big leaders in conference (Roosevelt could die, for goodness sake! Although I think Truman may be more effective late in the game. The next time I play, Roosevelt may be a bit…reckless).
But, for me, the gem of the three is the shockingly buzz-free Triumph and Tragedy. Let’s start with that buzz. The buzz for Churchill was deafening. Churchill certainly is a unique way of looking at the war, and much of the design is ingenious. Herman is a legend. But Besinque, while not as prolific, has some legendary designs of his own (East Front and Rommel in the Desert come to mind). Even when my friends and I talked about pre-orders last year, they were surpisingly unaware of Besinque’s T&T.
But the T&T's shockingly enjoyable gameplay has changed that. Here we see a much more developed diplomacy system involving cards and influence. Also on these cards are the values that determine your ability to carry on military campaigns, literally “diplomacy by other means.” The second deck in the game allows a player to expand his infrastructure through industry and technological breakthroughs. Oddly, the most interesting aspect of the game is that it starts in 1936, a time when no one is ready for war, and diplomacy is imperative. By the time the war starts, the Europe in which we play is unique. As a player, you may have goals other than take London and Moscow (or Cairo). You may be trying to develop the capacity for the bomb, or you may be trying to become economically dominant (very difficult once you’re involved in the war). The three players lead to shifting necessities that breed strange bedfellows. There are many strange, unofficial alliances that form. The West (a side that includes both the U. S. and Britain) and the Fascists may ally to stop a Communist powerhouse, and the Fascists may ally with the hated Communists in order to stop the West from winning an economic victory. Many times, late in the game, you are officially at war with your ally, having to cease hostilities in order to keep a certain player from winning. By the end of the war, in most of the games I have played, Europe is exhausted and skeleton armies fight those last battles out. It is close and exciting. I am not sure I have enjoyed a game this much since The Napoleonic Wars.
All that said, the most important aspect of these games is that they model history while not dooming players to repeat it. Victory in Europe and Triumph and Tragedy have diplomatic systems that subtly encourage historical webs of influence while not requiring them. Victory in Europe encourages a limited scope for the war and removes a number of “do this to remain historical” exceptions that are part and parcel for WW2 grand strategy. And Churchill has a game where winning the war is, at best, one option among many. Most World War II grand strategy encourages some speculative history (outdoing Hitler, Operation Sea Lion), but really tries to set up a situation where you are modeling history or you are losing. Check out the A World at War tables on their second day of play at WBC and you’ll see identical Europes: France has fallen, and Operation Barbarossa is under way.
Really, the early turns in most World War II grand strategy games are really just precursors to 1941, when the real war gets underway. The only real questions are whether to invade Britain or not, and, failing that, what will Europe look like when Barbarossa begins in 1941? It feels like, if I’m the Germans, I’m racing to do things that have no long term impact, and, if I’m the Allies, I’m controlling pointless neutrals until the real war starts. But not with these three games. Victory in Europe flies to Barbarossa and D-Day, with the shifting economy and power structures partially folded into the card play. Churchill starts with Britain, Russia, and the United States in 1943, where the question is not if the Axis powers will fall, but what will the world look like when they do. And, again, most interestingly, Triumph and Tragedy starts in 1936, where the canvas is almost blank and the landscape of Europe as the war starts may look familiar, but many times does not. The bar has been raised, designers, now we have quick-playing three player World War II games where every decision matters. And, while I’m not sure that it will be a quick play, I look forward to seeing what GMT’s Cataclysm, which also expands the perspective of the war from before Triumph and Tragedy in 1933, to the 1950 Europe that Churchill anticipates, will bring to the gaming table. I also hope to see Geoff Engelstein’s WW2 game (I think it's working title is Fog of War), which promises to focus on the intelligence aspect as a key to the war and is generating some whispered buzz that it might be something special. It’s no longer a question of “how do I make sure that I force there to be a Battle of the Atlantic?” Instead, we are seeing something new emerge.
In 2006’s Who Are You People?: A Personal Journey into the heart of Fanatical Passion in America, Shari Chaudron wrote a chapter about the World Boardgaming Championships that largely focused on A World at War and “doing better” than Hitler. What’s important with these new designs is that the roadmap is changed significantly. As a player, you are more concerned about the needs of your nation than outperforming a historical standard. And that is what makes these important. With designs like these, we’re no longer bound to an unescapable narrative. These games give us templates not to re-write history, but to write our own.
Well, it's been a long time since I started this list. I've played 454 games since starting this list, and our weekly game night has a huge influx of new (or new to me games) in a given month. So, my perspective has broadened a bit. More than I expected, actually. Some great new games have come out since then, and I've been exposed to some great old games. Also, some games that I had been playing have lost their luster. Others have grown into favorites. So, needless to say, my top 100 has changed a bit since I wrote it up more than two years ago. This post will correct that list (and I hope it gets as many reads!).
First up, a fond farewell to those who departed the top 100. As I mentioned above, I have played a LOT in the past couple of years. Even in the two weeks since I started this post, more games have come into consideration (although none have cracked this list. yet.) Games that I liked but did not love made the original list. Some of these are games which have been redone in sleeker versions. But, for whatever reason, the following games did not survive the past two years on my list:
Transamerica (100), High Society (99), Diamant (98), Empires of the Ancient World (96), Claustrophobia (95), Acquire (94), Dark Tower (93), The Resistance (92), Victoria Cross (91), Ace of Aces (89), Nexus Ops (88), Puerto Rico (87), Town of Horror (86), Samurai (85), Eclipse (84), Circus Maximus (83), Bohnanza (82), and Bang! (81), Arkham Horror (38). Whew! LOTS of change coming up, and, most likely, another monster post ahead. Brace yourselves…
So, let’s move on to the movers and shakers. These games all moved up significantly, with one of them fighting and clawing to stay on the list:
Coup (90 to 54) – This has become one of our go-to filler games. A great fifteen minutes each time we play. We’ve played cousins Love Letter and Mascarade. Coup is far and away the best for us. This game also wins for biggest "mover." It is incredible to me how much this has grown on me. I also think the comparatively lackluster microgame "cousins" help this one's position on the list. I come away thinking "that is clever," rather than thinking "that could use some more."
Liar's Dice (97 to 82) – Another great filler. This smallish move on this list is made more profound by all the new additions that are coming up. It is an exercise in probability, but, more importantly, an exercise in bluffing. Another short filler, this one leads to cheering and cursing and is one of the most fun ways to spend fifteen or so minutes. I need a copy of the Richard Borg original!
Andean Abyss (31 to 19) – This one is one of the few to crack the top twenty. When I first wrote the list, COIN was new and this was its sole representative. Now, this has become a game I would look to play almost any time I'm given the chance. I was souring on COIN in general recently and was given another chance to play this. It was a blast! I think that, while its balance does rely on player experience (the Cartels are fighting the government), it does not depend on player experience the way that something like Fire in the Lake does. Right now, AA is the best of the bunch, in my opinion.
Through the Ages (23 to 5) – Again, when I started the list, I had just started to play this one. What a gem. This game grows in my estimation every time I play it. Truly a masterpiece. Right now, I'm enjoying playing it online (http://en.boardgamearena.com/#!gamepanel?game=throughtheages), with my son while he is at college.
And, now, the newcomers:
As with the original list, it took a lot of consideration and thinking to figure out the 100th spot on this list. As I have said before, 100 and 1 are probably the two most significant spots. After 100, you just don’t get in. Dune makes the list for so many reasons. First up, it is one of the best diplomacy games around, period. The unbalanced powers make it clear what one side has to offer the other in an alliance. Clearly, two are stronger than one in Dune. Secondly, its combat system is shockingly unique. I would challenge you to find another system based on it. And, third, it does strike that nostalgic chord for me. As a kid, this is one of the ones (along with Civilization) that I would look at again and again on Games Magazine’s Games 100 each year. I wanted this and I wanted to play it. By the time I was able to reasonably spend my own money, it was out of print, and, by the time I knew how to find things on ebay, it was rare and other rarities (like Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage) had moved ahead of it on my list of desired games. Since I started this list, my group started playing this, and I have thoroughly enjoyed it.
This is one of a couple of games that almost fails to qualify as a boardgame. The board itself is a work of art, and every session we’ve played this has left us thinking aloud about other uses for it (in a roleplaying game where you have to use a limited pidgin language to communicate, for instance). I don’t worry about winning when playing this one (although some of our friends are very good at it!); the experience of communicating with pictograms and cubes makes it always a fascinating experience.
98: Terra Mystica
This is a very good fantasy civilization building game. It might be better called a fantasy improvement on Settlers of Catan. Lots of the same tensions: build up a network of resources, upgrade settlements and buildings, but the game adds the new resource representing magical power and a priest mechanic that you must balance with all of the other considerations. A very good game that, if it had more direct conflict, would likely be higher on this list.
97: Pax Porfiriana
This fascinating game might be higher if I owned it or got the chance to play it more. Its art is strikingly unpleasant, but the game itself is fascinating. It simulates a fascinating time and conflict in Mexican history, and its mechanics are odd yet clever. You have to worry about transportation types, military units, income and the national economy (depression BAD!). But the most important aspect of the game is the type of political influence that you wield. There are Loyalty, Outrage (which leads to U.S. Annexation), Command (leading to a Coup d’Etat), and Revolution (which leads to anarchy). When the "Topple" card is played, and you time things right, you win the game. And if the government is not toppled, the most gold wins (which doesn’t always work hand in hand with your “influence economy”). It is a fascinating and mind-boggling game. After you start to figure things out, it’s a great deal of fun.
96: Bang! The Dice Game
I liked Bang! I love the Dice Game. It’s the only way Bang! stays in the top 100 for me. Still has shooting, hidden roles, and special characters. Basically, it has all I want from Bang! without what I don’t want : to spend a lot of time playing it. I think I might try the Walking Dead version soon.
I’ve been discussing this one in my AAR posts. Really enjoy it. Pretty much a mechanic masquerading as a game, but I like the decisions made. And, as usual, the short time makes the simpler mechanics worthwhile. Also, for those of you who are concerned that my enjoyment of this game heralds some kind of major move in my opinions: it's only number 93!
This probably should have been on the list previously, but it only had one play, late at night at the WBC. A great game about politics in the French Revolution. One of the great designs by Martin Wallace (I think he’s one of my three favorite designers at this point). One of my great gaming excursions in the past few years was getting to go to the world headquarters of Miniatures Market in St. Louis, MO. It’s a small storefront connected to a large warehouse. Right there in the front was a discounted copy of the Valley Games edition. Glad I gambled on it (the gamble being “would my friends play such an old design?”). My son also enjoyed teaching it to some friends this summer.
87: Space Alert
Okay. This is it. Robo-what? This game is a great co-op AND a great programmed movement game. We had a blast seeing how the presence of a timer caused us to struggle in our defense of our ship.
86: 1775: Rebellion
Another one that should have been on the earlier list. I had played 1812, which I liked a good bit, but 1775, for me, was just so much better. I like the multiplayer team aspect of this and the microgame rules. I am very excited about the upcoming design on Vikings and the one on the French and Indian War. The limited cards (although the Vikings game will have more) makes this feel like a microgame, but there are so many things you have to do with so few cards!
85: A Distant Plain
Another in the COIN series. The conflict in Afghanistan is perfect for this series’ four uneasy allies nature.
66: Hansa Teutonica
A heavy euro. A great game. While it is no wargame, there are many interesting decisions to make and strategic positions to take to block your opponents. A fascinating game.
A great four player game that has really survived the test of time. The nature of the map and control of areas and cities is always fluid, and being on top of the world at one point doesn’t mean you won’t be wondering what happened to your army in a later turn. A great game about the unpredictable and always-changing nature of a civil war. I'm also thankful that this got a reprint or I might not have gotten to play it.
64: Imperial Assault
Fixed a number of problems with Descent, Second Edition, the most glaring being the inability to move through opponents, which led to halls clogged with flesh that the party had to cut through. I haven’t played the skirmish game, but the campaign game was a blast. Spoiler alert! This one is already a "dime" for 2015.
58: Nuclear War with Proliferation
Just a quick clarification. Played vanilla Nuclear War recently. Way too dry and frankly wasn’t very much fun. The addition of spies and the SuperVirus make all the difference on this one.
44: Eldritch Horror
Streamlines the enjoyable Arkham Horror, also taking the conflict with the Elder Gods to the world as a whole (which makes more sense to me, thematically). There is so much to like here.
What to say. This might also be its cousin, Kingdom, but I’m leaving it to Microscope until I have the chance to play Kingdom again. I find the idea of DM-less roleplaying fascinating (and problematic – probably a topic for a future blog post), especially as it related to collaborative storytelling. While I am forced into an incredibly restrictive system for this game, those restrictions force players to develop the ideas and build the world in a more logical fashion (although absurdity can definitely be a problem). I know this is a roleplaying game, but its rules, use of physical space (through the index cards), and limited actual roleplaying make this seem as much of a board game as, say, Dark Cults, in my opinion.
25: 7 Wonders
Rare to have a game that works for every number from three to seven. This one does. It also plays very quickly while having some decision making (my favorite being the decision to “build a stage of the wonder” by burying a card, keeping it from my opponents!), making it one of my favorite fillers.
20: It Never Snows
This really should be all the games in SCS, but It Never Snows, as what David Dockter calls “a big, dumb monster,” is brilliant. I feel like a number of real-world strategies are modeled by its simple design. Why did the paratroopers land where they did? Well, you can decide on your own drop zones. Odds are (other than the unrealistic ability to drop in Arnhem itself) you will find that the historical landing zones are probably the best. And, with the strategic movement rules, you had better get a hold on those crossroads. Afrika, Yom Kippur, Bastogne, they’re all great. But It Never Snows gets to hold the banner for the series on my list. (I should note that Day of Days is another possibility, but its comparatively high counter density makes it more of a challenge to play. Hoping to get it on my table with my son over Christmas).
13: A Study in Emerald
And a few of these games have pushed their way into my favorites. I love A Study in Emerald. I have read the story, and I am somewhat familiar with the mythos. But this game would be fascinating even if it were about its original theme (anarchists in the early twentieth century). The secret sides are interesting, although only a small part of the game. The idea that ,if anyone on your team is in last, points-wise, you lose, is fascinating. I love the deckbuilding and the odd permanent effects you can bid for as if it was a card you were adding to your hand. I love the fear of the zombies and vampires and, of course, Cthulhu. This is a game where every decision made is key and every play made ends up a battle. It’s not the easiest game to teach, but, once people get it, they see the many little battles occurring worldwide.
9:Triumph and Tragedy
And one very recent game has cracked my top ten. I have fallen in love with this game. At its core is the idea of “diplomacy by other means.” It is loosely a World War II game, starting in 1936 where the focus of the game is getting allies, building up your forces, and building your infrastructure. The game has very simple rules, but, at its core is that three way struggle among the West, the Communists, and the Fascists. It is easy to layer a narrative over the happenings, even when they veer from history (which they almost always do). I have seen the Fascists and the West have to tentatively ally to hold off a Russian juggernaut. I have seen a communist Spain (obviously, the Republicans won the civil war). I have seen the Fascists abandon Eastern Europe to an Iron Curtain in a strange negotiated deal that allowed them to try to fend off the West. I have seen the Germans take Moscow, the Russians take London, and the West take Baku. The game is a roller coaster ride where the three players are not tied to a script the same way they are in, say, Europe Engulfed, or A World at War. This game breaks into my top ten, but it could very well rise higher with more plays.
And a Change….
The last thing to note is a significant change at the top. I have decided that ASL is number one. It is nothing against the War of the Ring. I still love it. But it falls to number two. My son and I have got ASL down to a science, where we can set up a scenario quickly and break it down quickly. When I think of possible games to play, I always consider ASL as an option. And when I think of my favorite gaming experiences every year, ASL is always at the top of the list, whether it be a rousing four player session of Scenario C (available at the MMP website) or the simpler pleasures of a journal scenario, ASL is a game I am always willing to play.
Well, that’s it. After a long time and a shifting landscapes of games, I have finally finished discussing my top 100, both at the time I started the writing and at the time I finished it. If there are significant changes or additions, I may revisit this list, but it will probably be more in the form of a game added from time to time. While I’m glad I did I undertook this task years ago, I’m also glad I have finally finished it.
I hope to be back in two weeks, and I hope to delve into some issues in gaming.
Before I go, here is the list in full (with some faulty grammar and overly shortened titles - this is the working list):
2. War of the Ring
3. Paths of glory
4. Napoleonic wars
5. Through the Ages
6. Hammer of the Scots
8. FAB Bulge
9. Triumph and Tragedy
10. Struggle of Empires
12. Middle Earth Quest
13. A Study in Emerald
15. Asia Engulfed
16. Mage Knight
17. Wilderness War
18. We the People/Washington’s War
19. Andean Abyss
20. It Never Snows
21. Breakout Normandy
24. Command and Colors: Ancients
25. 7 Wonders
28. Summoner Wars
29. Battle line
30. Rune wars
31. A few acres of snow
33. Europe Engulfed
34. Victory in the Pacific
35. King of Tokyo
36. Ticket to Ride
37. Battlestar Galactica
38. Dungeon Lords
39. Age of Empires III
41. Times Up
42. Napoleons Triumph
44. Eldritch Horror
45. A Victory Lost
47. Hearts and Minds
48. FAB Sicily
49. Settlers of Catan
50. El Grande
51. Neuroshima hex
54. Richard III
55. Kingdom of Heaven
56. Panzer Leader
57. Pitch car
58. Nuclear War (with Proliferation)
60. Shadows over Camelot
61. Fighting formations
62. Russian campaign
64. Imperial Assault
66. Hansa Teutonica
69. Twilight imperium
71. Republic of Rome
74. Blood bowl team manager
76. Wiz war
77. War at Sea
78. Up front
79. Combat Commander
80. Castle Ravenloft
81. Liars Dice
82. Warriors of God
83. Crusader Rex
84. Rise and Fall
85. A Distant Plain
86. 1775: Rebellion
87. Space Alert
88. Shifting Sands
89. Cosmic Encounter
91. Stellar Conquest
92. Twilight Struggle
94. Last Night on Earth
95. Lost cities
96. Bang! The Dice Game
97. Pax Porfiriana
98. Terra Mystica
Thanks! And see you again in two weeks!
Top Ten Post
Well, this is it: the top ten. It’s been almost two and half years since I did what Tom Vaselrecommended years ago and created a top 100 (not sure it’s for everyone, though. At the point when I made this list, it seemed like I had more games that I had played that were on the list than were off it. That has since changed). I’ve learned to link to games in my post. I’ve become a part of a heck of a game night (including Tom Grant of the I’ve Been Diced podcast) and a periodic part of another (that includes Volko Ruhnke!). I’ve started to record all of my plays. I’ve found an iOS app (https://appsto.re/us/WWXm1.i) that is an incredible aide in recording plays. In short, it’s been a great couple of years.
So, what is this list? I think it reflects a number of my loves. It has wargames. It has hybrids, both hybrids of wargames and Euros and hybrids of boardgames and roleplaying games. It has games with multiple paths to victory. It has games where there are a both a multitude of options and situations where it seems like you to much to do. It has block games and card driven games. And of course, it has games from my top two designers: Rick Young and Martin Wallace (but watch out, guys, Vlaada Chvatilis coming on strong).
After seeing #11, then this entry, it’s easy to see that I love this system. The battle tactics are a little superior in Friedrich, in my opinion. The main reason for this is that there are key areas on the Maria map that you absolutely cannot take without a certain suit. This has led to one of my friends playing with each player having his own deck. That’s not for me for a variety of reasons, one of the key being the limited card counting that this takes away (“I have all the 13’s in spades; I’m going for it!”). But other factors give Maria the nod. First up, it is a three player game. This has become something of a moot point as other three player games are being released (Churchill and Triumph and Tragedy chief among them), but, at the time of this list, three player wargames with clever mechanics and/or unique themes were fairly rare. Secondly, there is the interesting political system. We generally keep the effects from becoming earth-shattering by careful card play, but there is always the potential of key events coming to pass because of those cards. And the third advantage that this game has is that, while it does have the dramatic game-state changes of Friedrich, these are not brought about by random card play, but instead by board game-state changes and player decisions. If the Prussians take these spaces, this happens and changes the game signficantly. When the French withdraw from Austria, this happens, again changing the game. Each game is fascinating and surprisingly unique. I don’t get to play it enough.
9. Struggle of Empires
This may qualify as a “nostalgia” ranking. I do love this game, but, if pressed, I would have to admit that some better games are lower on this list. But, it’s my list, so there. Anyway, this game has a few mechanics that really make it shine. The first is the alliance system which forced a 5 or 6 or 7 player game into two sides. This doesn’t eliminate kibitzing and it doesn’t eliminate stabbing an ally in the back (by just not following through on a promise to help – you can’t attack them directly), but it certainly limits both. Also, the game has the unique (for its time) mechanic of choosing and purchasing tiles that, over time, define your nation’s distinct characteristics. The differences between these abilities are subtle at times (trained native as opposed to militia comes to mind), but the accumulation of abilities over time lead to one nation being more of a “colonial” nation while others fight tooth and nail for the German States (oh, how many times until I learn…). Combat is also limited and crippling attacks can only occur as a series of nations committing to attack an adversary again and again, with only one power actually gaining the prized control marker. Try convincing your allies to help you out while they receive little or nothing. In the end, these types of attacks just don’t occur often. In short, great game, played many, many times. In my not-so-humble opinion, you can’t go wrong with this one.
8. FAB Bulge
Rick Young’s genius comes in recognizing what the games he loves do well and adding a wrinkle to it. I believe the heart of this game can be seen in Tigers in the Mist. But the game’s innovation comes in the Special Actions (evolved from the same mechanic in Europe Engulfed, adding meaning through complexity, rather than just rules exceptions) and the ability to lock units into an extended combat, rather than just rolling and one side dying. Each well-played game sees the emergence of the Bulge, then the dangerous possibility of breakthrough. The Allied player spends the first part of the game scrambling to plug holes, and the German player spends the entire game on the clock, trying to move as fast as possible while still being effective and not taking unnecessary risks (only necessary ones). A high-intensity, layered experience.
7. Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage
This game is probably on any wargamer’s top ten list. We the People worked, but Hannibal took that one extra step that changed everything. It added the choice between Ops points and the event text. Also, for whatever reason, the generals and combat system (combat cards) worked more effectively than in We the People. After listening to excellent The History of Rome podcast, I have also come to appreciate how the emergent behavior of the game reflects history. Early on, Rome does not want to directly engage Hannibal, so a Fabian (named after the consul Fabius, of course) strategy of waiting and pouncing whenever the opportunity presents itself emerges. I thought that the placement of influence markers was a bit “gamey,” but, according the podcast, much of the war ended up being Hannnibal going through an area, converting it to supporting him, and the Romans coming behind him and converting it back. And, of course, in the late game, Scipio and Hannibal go toe to toe. I can’t wait to get it to the table again.
6. Middle Earth Quest
This is by far my favorite of the character-driven adventure games that have come out recently. Middle Earth Quest has what I like to think of as “game opulence.” The clever mechanics are not driven by subtraction, but by addition. Each character has a unique deck that serves as a measure of endurance as well as the character’s hit points (when you move, play a card; when you fight, play a card, when you run out, you are exhausted). There are unique decks of encounters for each region. And the asymmetrical play of the two sides is fascinating. This is a licensed game that trades on the game, not the use of esoterica from the property. A brilliant game for a great license. I would love to see some kind of expansion or a re-theming of this game to another time in the Tolkien stories. Maybe Tom Bombadil Quest? Or Silmarillion Quest?
5. Hammer of the Scots
This is one of the most incredible design moments in history. It launched a whole new side of Columbia Games, a side that they have never really turned from. The 25 card deck, with 1’s, 2’s 3’s, and events both limited the playing space of the game to a few pieces at a time (something that seems key to me in game design these days) and allowed for a slightly more unpredictable and tense “fog of war.” Suddenly, whether or not my opponent had the “Truce” card that would prematurely end the turn became imperative, as did whether or not he had the “Herald” card that could give him one of my nobles for free. The game is almost chess-like in its discussions of key territories and possible opening moves. The dice and cards can also make an almost impossible turnaround possible. Jerry Taylor, the designer, once told me that he had seen “the Scots reduced to just a few soldiers hiding out in caves in the north” come back to victory. There aren’t many (well, maybe four) better than this one.
4. Napoleonic Wars
How is this not number one? Well, I guess you could say that about many titles in my top ten. Napoleonic Wars has been criticized for its flaws – buckets of dice combat (see Geoff Engelstein for a rebuttal please), the chaos of the cards, the victory die roll at the end of every turn. But I still love a great deal about this game. I love the “teaming up” of players against the French. The option is there to switch sides (again, super cool that it is an option), but, if you do, you are likely to be merely welcoming your new French overlords. I love the unique personalities of the different nationalities. I love the advantage and “game within a game” of trying to get that last move of the turn. And, now that it is clear that three players is the way to play Nappy Wars, it is already one of the best three player wargames out there (according to me, the best). I also have to admit that, when I discovered Napoleonic Wars, it was after years of playing almost exclusively role-playing and beer and pretzels games, followed by some dabbling in Euros. What Napoleonic Wars did for me was to bring me into the fold of the competitive players and to show me the nuances of the true “designer wargame.” From here, I jumped back into wargames. I branched out into other multiplayer games, other two player games, card driven wargames, and even online gaming. Heck, I even started a podcast. It was what turned me on to the new age of wargaming and made me fall even more in love with a hobby that I have loved for over thirty years.
3. Paths of Glory
While I played Napoleonic Wars better than I ever played Paths of Glory, I still rank Paths of Glory higher. Why? Because of the intricacy of play. Each card has so many options (replacements, ops, events, strategic redeploy, war status) that it makes each decision torturous. I always feel like I have so many things to do, both acting and reacting, and I can’t seem to make all of my options match up effectively. This game almost never plays out quite the same. You always have an idea of how things will play out, but the order of the cards have significant say in this. Many times, you are sweating out the timing of a Strategic Redeploy or the playing of a replacement card. Other times, Ops are so critical that, if you do not play them RIGHT NOW, you will lose the game. I have to balance the card options, the three (or more) fronts, all while watching my supply lines and the VP count. Brutal. And I love it.
2. Advanced Squad Leader
There are so many reasons why this game is one of my very favorite games. The best thing about this game is that it blends strategy with just enough unpredictability to make the game really sing as you are playing it. It is an exemplary “experience” game, where, at game’s end, what you remember are the stories (for instance, in the scenario I am playing at this writing, a lone German leader with a light machine gun has escaped a close combat by running up the stairs of a multi-story building. Now, part of the game is something of a sniper duel between him and the Russians in Stalingrad’s streets. Or there is the lone German leader who, through failed rolls of his allies, ended up attacking a tank by himself.) The overall strategy still plays out, and tactics are paramount as you maximize your possibilities and minimize your vulnerabilities. But units break at inopportune times. Sometimes, they become less effective for the rest of the game. Sometimes, under fire, they suddenly go berserk or one of them becomes a hero. And the endless stream of scenarios and maps give countless new challenges to the player. Also, the stereotypical 80’s wargamer would move all of his units, then go make a sandwich while his opponent made his move. ASL’s inclusion of opportunity fire, morale checks, rallies, and routing keeps you completely engaged during your opponent’s turn. I also have to say that a minor reason this game is at the top of my list is that it has such a large community of players. The stereotypical wargamer sits in his basement and moves cardboard around by himself. Not with ASL.
1. War of the Ring
What can I say? Number one. After a great deal of thought, this is the one that I would put on the table without hesitation and play again and again. I love wargames; I love Tolkien (not obsessively, mind). I know the issues with the board size (and still haven’t bought the latest version) and the problems with the miniatures. But I love the asymmetry of Shadow vs. Free People and the multiple paths to victory (sound familiar?). I love the unique play of the quest for the Ring. I love the simple political play as you decide who to bring in and when. And I love the breaking of the Fellowship. It’s a tough call between this and ASL, but I think that’s largely due to the respect I have for ASL as a franchise and a flagship for the wargaming industry. When it comes to playing a game and loving it, War of the Ring is it for me.
Well, that's it. The next post will try to adjust the list to account for all the playing I've done in the past few years. I was not surprised at all the change at the bottom of the list, but there are definitely some changes at the top. And I might be falling in love again. See you in a couple of weeks.
Well, the top twenty. This part of the list is pretty darned strong, in my opinion. These games are games that I have loved. Some are original to the point that they are genre-defining or -creating. Others should be. Still others are the best implementation of a particular system we have yet seen. Now, I must note that, as I write this, I am getting ahead on writing the blog (finally!), and am actually working on my list revision post (to be posted after the top ten). It has been fascinating seeing how much the entire list changed, but, while there will be many changes, there will be very little change in the top twenty. It's a difficult group to crack. So, enjoy this part of the list and look forward to seeing what has and has not changed in about a month.
20. Command and Colors: Ancients
Well, this is my favorite version of the Command and Colors system. I have to admit to not playing a few (Battle Cry, that samurai one, Napoleonics, Battlelore – although I hear there’s an app for that.). But I get so much from this game and there are so many expansions – why do I need another? I love the interesting cards (especially Line Command, which changes the entire nature of your strategy, forcing you to think long term in a way that Memoir does not). The addition of leaders is a fascinating wrinkle. The difficulty in getting commands to certain of your troops (“why don’t I have a ‘Command Units Center’ card?!?”) seems to me to be accurate historically. Also has that excellent wargameroom (http://wargameroom.com)
And the first is the best. While Summoner Wars is excellent and deserving of being in the top 30 (and its cousin, Mage Wars, may be in the correction post), this is the one that gets the higher ranking. Such an original design. The geomorphic maps and their method of selection are clever in themselves. And each army has its own flavor. But most of all, I love the simple card mechanics where cards have multiple uses with minimal text. The games are rarely blowouts, and people have correctly applied the term “chess-like” to the game. It’s a game I don’t play enough, honestly. And I really wish that I would see Distant Landsand the fantasy version, Fury, come out (although there is news - https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/1380624/any-news]news -on the latter!). Sigh. No accounting for taste sometimes.
Okay, I have played this so much now that I see it largely as a mechanic, but what an original mechanic. I see this as one of the classic “themeless Euros,” maybe the definitive one, but I do enjoy the deckbuilding. It’s a very mechanical enjoyment for me. There is a predominant strategy (the “Big Money” strategy), and a number of ways to outperform that strategy or circumvent it (the Dominion equivalent of a “Zerg rush,” for instance). There are also some powerful combos of cards. If the game were re-themed, there is a creative thrill there. The mechanic provided has also given us some great subsequent games:Mage Knight (a stretch, but I’m going for it!), A Few Acres of Snow (butMartin Wallace had evidently never “thinned his deck”), Blood Bowl Team Manager, the iOS app Ascension (wait, my producer is telling me that there is also a boardgame?), along with some other games that are less successful but still can be fun. Okay, and some pretty bad games (first sign – the words “Deck Building” in the title). Full disclosure: I still play the game vanilla (I know, shocking).
17. Mage Knight
I was a role-player in high school and college (and still am on occasion), but wargaming has always been at the heart of my gaming. Mage Knight combines these two very effectively. I get to play a unique character with a barely unique deck of cards that dictate actions (only one is actually unique to each character and is something of a variant on a standard card), and I quest around the board, accumulating power and adventuring. Okay, roleplaying itch scratched. I also have the ability to accumulate bands of fighting men, represented by cards, which become key as I eventually fight dragons and such and besiege cities. Also, due to the card-drafting, deck-building mechanics, the game gives me the opportunity to find uniquely powerful combos to use to defeat my enemies. It’s a bit hard to attack other players, kind of falling into the “multi-player solitaire” trap, but I find the interactions with other players interesting, both when we race to defeat that dragon and gain his hoard, and when we combine to attack that particularly tough city.
This game has Diplomacy at its core, but has overlain it with an investment and share-buying system where actual control of different countries moves from player to player. While control of a country is central in achieving victory, victory is only through how much money you make. Through warfare and expansion, a country’s “value” increases, as does the value of your shares. This game is also my first experience with a rondel, where you can skip up to two phases (even more for a price), adding an interesting ability to catch your opponents off guard in order to make an investment or an invasion or some such. I have played its sibling, Imperial 2030, and the problematic iPad app, but, for me, it’s all about the original, and all about face to face.
15. We the People/Washington’s War
And the first is (one of) the best. Washington’s War (or, as it was originally called, We the People) is the card driven wargame that all others trace back to (Rommel in the Desertuses cards in a different way, but seems like another ancestor to Card Driven Games to me.). This game combines the go-like placement of influence (even with a “leave space in the middle of the influence rule”) with simple card driven mechanic. This game has each card with an event OR a number of ops, which evolved very quickly (in Hannibal, I believe) into having both on the same card. The counter density is low (when it comes to units) and the game does a great job of simulating the Revolutionary War in my experiences. And it definitely rises on this list for inspiring so many games that I love. Honestly, the card-driven system is what brought me out of wargaming “retirement.”
14. Wilderness War
As I look back and write the entries for these games, I have to admit that sometimes I’m entertained. Here is a card driven game that is almost spitefully put ahead of its grandfather. But, for me, the placement is correct. Wilderness War would have been in my top ten a few years ago, maybe even in my top five. I love the easily-seen-therefore-difficult-to-master strategy for the Brits. As the French, you know what is likely to happen and you have to prepare for that. As the Brits, you know that your opponent knows what is likely to happen. So the French know that the Brits know…heck, you get the idea. There are a variety of ways to score points and a variety of key cards that may or may not emerge in game play. Some events seem to be key until you don’t have them, then you generally find that a new strategy can be worked out. I find the game fast-paced and engaging to the end. Please note, though, that I only play the tournament scenario with the “advanced” rules. That is the game in its best light, in my opinion. This also marks the first game I know of by the genius of COINand Labyrinth, Volko Ruhnke.
13. Breakout Normandy
This is my top rated area-impulse game (the game type starting with Storm Over Arnhem). It’s also one of the games Don Greenwood is most proud of (on David Dockter’s Guns, Dice, and Butter podcast, he actually called it a “perfect game”). The landings on D-Day have the historical gravitas to make them something I want to experience through gaming. The impulse system, while not lending itself to an accurate simulation of the weaponry and scale, does a great job of representing the land-then-pinned-down nature of the Normandy beaches. The game has that classic chess-like characteristic of having very simple rules where the execution of those rules on the game board result in an incredibly tense experience where every move matters and you want to take back as many as you execute. In short, I’m relieved that the enigmatic L4 re-released this a few years ago.
12. Asia Engulfed
Another incredibly chess-like game. As you may have noticed, one of my favorite things in a designer is to see a series of games where game play is significantly different from title to title. Rick Youngdefinitely falls into this category, and Asia Engulfed was the game where I really saw this come to fruition. I expected a port of the Europe Engulfed system to the Pacific theater. Of course, there was the question of how he would do fleets. And that is where this game moves from being good to being great. The rules are not as simple as Europe Engulfed, but the chrome added provides a fascinating learning experience about the Pacific war at sea. As Rick likes to do, he has pulled bits from his favorite games into a new recipe that outshines the sum of its parts. The China theater is interesting, but the influence of air units makes “Island Hopping” essential for the U.S. player, and really adds the “every move I make is SO important” feel to the game.
I also am a fan of hybrids, and this is one of the first I encountered (along with the underwhelmingly Euroish and not-appearing-on-this-list Shogun). The fog of war element is interesting here, as is the playing-card-driven combat system. The combat system seems, when you hear about it, almost clownishly simple. But try to take out an opponent. You must be very careful how you play your cards, or you end up with the ubiquitous “take one loss and retreat” result. This is also a four player game that is essentially three against one. Sure, you could fight with someone other than Prussia, but, after your fight was resolved, you would simply be welcoming your Prussian overlords. This game also features the interesting “clock cards” mechanic where the game evolves over time, with some powers actually dropping out of the game as time goes on (but the player plays on with a smaller force). Prussia’s strategy has to be to hold on to dear life. It’s actually a very well-developed narrative. That is, until I experienced another, very similar game (spoilers!).
So, in about two weeks, I'll post the top ten! Then will come a corrections post, then I should have the time to open things up a bit and write about some larger gaming issues. Looking forward to wrapping this up!
We arrived in Lancaster on Tuesday afternoon and made our way immediately to the open gaming area. The open gaming area was swamped, largely due to its being the early home of the A World at War tournament (after the auction, this group migrates to the main tournament hall).
First, we played the “reserve a table” game, where Owen acted like he was setting up Splendor while I ran to the car to get a game. Then Owen and I set up and re-learned the excellent Polis and actually played through a turn before our WBC friend John showed up:
John: “You guys just starting?”
Owen: “Just finished the first turn.”
John: “Oh, well. We have set up Fire in the Lake and were looking for two players.”
Us: “Erp. Oop. Um. Hang on a sec –“
So, we ended up playing Fire in the Lake. I cannot decide about this game. At Pseudocon, I was practically ready to declare the COINsystem dead to me. Fire in the Lake seemed like a broken game where any action was immediately reversed, and this has been my friend Kevin’s criticism of the system all along. But I also remain intrigued about a simulation of the most famous, most problematic counter-insurgency operation the United States has ever been in. It was a conflict that changed our nation, and that is the kind of thing I want to explore.
Also, while at Pseudocon I was becoming convinced that COIN was not the system for me, a subsequent (admittedly begrudging) play of Andean Abyss completely switched me back to an affirmed COIN-head. The game was fast-paced. The many oppositions became apparent as the game went on (the Cartels had better take on the government, because the FARC cannot effectively counteract both the AUC and the Government). And the game progressed! At the end of the game, it was clear that all of us were close to our victory conditions and, if the game hadn’t ended in this propaganda phase, it would end in the next. All of these are hallmarks of a great game!
So, when offered the chance at WBC, we played Fire in the Lake.
The game does stand up as a COIN game. It is a bit long (I would estimate a game without an AV would play in about 10 hours), and, while that should not be a problem for a wargamer, it is not a “set up and leave set out” game. And getting four committed players to take the same roles in consecutive weeks (especially at this stage in our lives) is difficult. But the balance of powers is again interesting. We only played to two coup phases (the equivalent of the propaganda phase in the other COIN games), but we did have a situation where different players would inch over the victory line, then be dragged back below it. It felt a lot like Andean Abyss with the historical flavor of Vietnam.
But there was the NVA player.
The NVA is problematic. It is a side where you have to wait and build, then wait some more and build some more. You are slowly prepping for the end of the game. If the game ends early, you are almost certainly not the winner. And, if you stick your head out of your tunnel, you will end up getting it cut off. It is a side that prepares for a lunge, then lunges. And, if the lunge does not work, the NVA likely limps along for the rest of the game. Maybe I’m wrong, but the length of the game and the NVA’s woes put this game behind Andean Abyss and A Distant Plain when it comes to COIN for me (I can’t comment on Cuba Libre, because after a very fast first game, I have had trouble getting people to play the darned thing!). Any way, I hope to be proven wrong, but I’m going to need a ten hour window and three other willing players to try it again. It may end up being the Twilight Imperiumof the COIN system (that is, it is a game where it is hard to find the time and people to play).
After our shortish game of Fire in the Lake, we played a quick game of Colt Express, a game that is not getting very good buzz among my friends, but a game I find enjoyable nonetheless (and it won SdJ!). It’s fast; it has the planned movement mechanic (a mechanic I find slightly tedious in Robo-Rally); and it has a nice balance between “take that” and “grab the loot.” Owen and I enjoy it.
So, after our play of Colt Express, we went to dinner. And we never made it. We encountered Ron Draker in the hallway as we were about to leave, and he had Triumph and Tragedyunder his arm and a gleam in his eye. He asked if we had tried it (no) and told us he loved it. I suggested that he teach it to us, then we realized that we could play it now and shovel in food from the Host. So Owen and I ate Stromboli (at least that was what it was called) while learning the game.
I played this a number of times at WBC. Owen played it even more. And Ron was the one who taught it to us. I am pretty much done with World War II grand strategy. I know the script. Germans invade Poland (along with Russians). Germans invade France. In 1941, Germans can attack Russia, and do (except in the rare instance of an Operation Sea Lion). U.S. can lend lease weapons until it becomes fully involved. U.S. builds up troops in Britain, then invades France, usually through Normandy. There is usually a practically meaningless conflict in Africa, just so that the Afrika Korps can be played. There is usually strategic bombing and U-boats. I’ve played and played these. I’ve loved them. But I need something new.
Triumph and Tragedy is that new. The game begins in 1936, with diplomacy card play and a slow buildup of troops. There is a technology mechanic that is mostly elegant (get two of a kind – okay, not elegant – but you must balance this tech advance with things like industry value, secrecy, and other special events that can count as something of a wild card, given the right circumstance – elegant!). Once the war begins, it is something of a standard block war game (without A, B, C, 1, 2, 3 – did Columbia clear this??). But at the heart of the game is the idea that you can make uneasy alliances with your opponents. The Communist – Western alliance only works as long as one of the two powers does not begin to emerge as a favorite, as a leader. Some games have the West and the Germans ally for a short while to hold off the Soviet juggernaut. Sometimes, the Soviets have to negotiate non-agression with the Germans because the West is beginning to pull away. I like the simple battles, but I love the uncomfortable decisions you have to make about who your friend is at key moments in the game. Thank you, Ron, for sharing this gem with us. I really can’t wait to play Churchill, but this one is already a winner for me. In our game, somehow, I won (I honestly don’t remember how).
Wednesday morning, we taught the game to Kevin and played two more games of it. Like I said, becoming my favorite. Kevin pushed the card play to its limits in both games but likely should have spent more on troops. In one game, my Axis won by taking two of the Communist capitals. In the next, Owen’s Communists developed the Atomic Bomb!
After this, some more of our contingent arrived and we played a game of Sentinel Tactics with five players. This game may not be the multiplayer game I would like for it to be, but I like the way it takes the special abilities of Sentinels of the Multiverse and smoothly ports them into a game of powerful combos and interestingly unique characters. Sentinels of the Multiverse can feel like an accumulation of modifiers and is very mathy. Tactics, though, feels like the combat game that Multiverse claims to be. I feel like there may be too much down time for the heroes, but this is a quibble. I have not tried it, but I would bet that the game could really shine as a two player (or three player) game.
We then played one of our annual Battlestargames. The cylons won. Sigh.
Thursday morning found Chad and I carrying what I hope to be a tradition into its second year – playing ASL. We played Scenario J105, which had my Russians struggling to storm some Germans who had holed up in two buildings along a train track. I was able to get one of the buildings (half of my victory condition!), but I was thwarted in my attempt to meet the requirement of advancing some Russian squads onto the far side of the board. Chad, and the Germans, win.
At this point, things began to slow down a bit. I got in a game of Welcome to the Dungeon with Larry, John and Dave. I actually like the game a lot. It doesn’t have much there (I think it qualifies as a microgame), but what is there can be a lot of fun for the thirty or so minutes in which you play it. You are all controlling both the dungeon and the adventurer going into the dungeon. As the game progresses, you either remove the ability of your mutual adventurer, place a monster in the dungeon, or pass. Once you pass, you’re out. If you are the last player left (never passed), you go into the dungeon and see if you all had left enough for your adventurer to survive the dungeon. Fast and fun, with some interesting decision making. Larry spoke up a bit early and said he did not like the game, which, of course, meant that the rest of us told him it was our favorite game ever.
We also played Bang! The Dice Game, which, for me, takes out all of the unnecessary bits from the original Bang!, leaving the core of discovering who your friends and enemies are and shooting people. Its speed matches the intensity of the game, too, which means that, about the time I’m ready for it to end, it does.
Then we got to one of my favorite moments of the con. AJ, Kevin, Owen, TJ and I had begun a campaign of Star Wars: Imperial Assault at Prezcon. We played a number of the scenarios there, and continued our campaign in a session or two on our weekly game nights. So, by the time we got to WBC, we only had three scenarios left to play.
I had grown a bit frustrated with the game, especially as the Imperial player. My frustrations fell into a few categories:
1. It was VERY hard to affect characters in the later scenarios. They had grown very powerful. In one scenario, I kept shooting at a character, who kept being able to then move. The scenario was a bit of a race, and I ended up giving him a head start, just by targeting him.
2. It can be tough to be one against many. Their many minds are working against my one. This shouldn’t be as much of an issue as it seems to be for me, but the main problem is that they are constantly collaborating and reminding each other of abilities. Even though I was collecting abilities myself, I would forget some in the heat of the moment, making myself a bit less effective while they performd at close to optimal performance.
So, in our first scenario of the night, I actually won! Some scenarios have wounding all heroes as a victory condition. With enough concentrated firepower, this can happen. And it did. While I ended up losing the final two scenarios, that one victory made me believe that it was largely my own lack of diligence that was unbalancing the game in favor of the heroes. The next two scenarios ended up being close Rebel wins, which I can live with, especially as I feel that in the last scenario, I had ineffectively used Darth Vader. He’s not a killer; he’s a delaying mechanism.
We completed the campaign! Next up, the mini-campaign from the new expansion. And, this time, I get to be a hero!
The real defeat, though, was that we all ended up going to bed around 4am. What was I thinking? I’m NOT 21 any more. Oh well, we still were up bright and midday for the next day of the con.
TJ and I met for breakfast, lingered too long, and ended up starting our Red Winter game too late. Red Winter was very interesting while keeping a simplicity that reflects modern wargame design. The most interesting things about the game were the unique terrain (that’s not a clear space! and ice is deadly!) and the night turns add a fascinating element. We ended up playing the five turn introductory game, but I would definitely like to try a longer scenario.
After this, TJ and I were waiting for our friends to wrap something up so we could rejoin the group, so we played a quick game of Neuroshima Hex. TJ absolutely crushed me (at least in part because I had forgotten how exactly the different simple pieces of the game fit together), but this is definitely one of my favorites. If you don’t know about it, get the app and fall in love.
This led us into the new Dark Moon. I love the Stronghold model. Stephen makes bold decisions, really needed in boardgame publishing (I’d like to see more of this from Columbia, for instance). In this case, he decided to publish something off of gaming’s “secret menu,” BSG Express, now re-envisioned and polished into Dark Moon. Instead of spaceships and starvation, it’s disease. Instead of Cylons, it’s the Infected. I like the dice and their “good die, bad die, super die” qualities. But, in both games I ended up playing, I was Infected, and I found my options limited. It’s hard to conceal what you’re doing, so any move leaves you revealed. In both games, I took one action posing as a non-infected, then had to reveal. I think I’m going to pass on buying this one. I like Battlestar, and I like streamlined games. But this one is not that much shorter than Battlestar, and it sacrifices some key elements. First off, Cobol and its shifting alliances adds an interesting twist to the game. The point of Cobol is almost certainly to mirror the licensed story, but the game effect is that it is likely that someone goes from human to Cylon at the midpoint planet. This means that, when you are suspecting your fellow players, they have been working alongside you with no secret intentions for Galactica to make it to Earth. Secondly, in Dark Star, it is easy to counteract the negative buildup in the game. In both games we played (more on the second one later), the board, at some point, was cleared of concerns. When you lose food in full BSG, it is most likely gone for the game, with few options to get it back. So, less crisis and less of that “friend or foe” doubt. In short, BSG Express is not enough express, not enough BSG for me. If I want to play a quick game of role deduction, I’ll take Bang! The Dice Game. And if I want some Battlestar Galactica, well, I’ll play the original, thanks.
The rest of Friday was a lot of games, but not a lot to write about. We played two more games of Bang! The Dice Game, a “bar game” called Pairs (fine, but only as a bar game or really quick filler), A Fake Artist Goes to New York (a drawing game that was more fun than it had any right to be), and Pictomania (fun, good partyish game for gamers). Let’s move on to Saturday.
Saturday morning found Kevin and I playing our second face to face game of Paths of Glory. I was the Allies this time, and the Central Powers’ constant, consistent, and well-applied pressure did me in in about ten turns. I love the game, but have a lot to learn still.
Kevin then played one of his prototypes with us– a Diamant-like push your look game called Snatchers. Fun game with some promise.
While waiting for the “Event of the Evening,” a Command and Colors Epic Ancients eight player game, Joe, AJ, Larry and I played a couple of hands of Welcome to the Dungeon, becoming a very capable filler for me, but I think Joe was underwhelmed.
Then came Epic Ancients. What to say. When we first played this two years ago at WBC, it was easily the hit of the con. It was a great experience, almost a party game atmosphere as we talked across the table. Ah. That’s it. The multiplayer epic experience seems more like a party game to me. So much of the battlefield is beyond my control/influence. I get one card (or I don’t), then I move my limited number of pieces. Command and Colors Ancients is great, but with eight players, Epic Ancients is almost CCA minus. I like the rowdy atmosphere (one of our players actually warned people in the relatively quiet Expo Center that we would be getting “pretty loud,” although we were nothing compared to the Tequila-Mariachi El Bronx-Thriller crowd that was downstairs from us), but the experience over all falls a bit flat. Maybe it was not having a high enough victory point threshold (our scenario played to seven), and I certainly believe playing an Epic game one on one would be – well—epic, but the game fell a bit flat for me this year. We ended up playing twice, then split off one last time into Dark Star and Mythotopia.
I was in the Dark Star group, wanting desperately to like it more. This time we had a couple of problems. One was a late-night play, then change the circumstances, then re-play that had a strange logical effect that could, if abused, lead to a quick revelation of the Infected. Problem. The second was that one of the players was clearly an Infected. He acted so suspicious! For the record, questioning everything is suspicious, especially when you question statistical probability that is pretty clear (When you have a die with six faces, and four of them are negative, it is more likely than not that you will have a negative result. If you’re not desparate, and you roll one die “hoping for a positive result,” you’re a fracking Cylon – I mean Infected.). I was the other Infected, and was quickly weeded out, or at least forced out, which was incredibly frustrating. Then, it turned out that Mr. Suspicious was NOT an Infected; he was just inherently suspicious. Almost saved the game. Almost. The second game followed the same pattern as the first: the non-Infected were able to clear the board of concerns, and seemed to be winning the game going away for about 80% of the game. Then everything came crashing down and the game ended. My question is this: if this is the pattern of the game, why even play the first 80%? This game needs a Cobol. I’ll play it again gladly, but I won’t be purchasing it.
Sunday morning found me playing Triumph and Tragedy for the fourth time (!) at the con. This time, I began to have some concerns that, if war is started too early, the game could really drag on into a seven hour or so playtime. Thankfully, that is the only game I played where this happened. Triumph and Tragedy was the, ahem, triumph of the con and is already one of my favorite games. I did not get a chance to play Churchill, which I’m sure I’ll enjoy, but T&T was a pleasant surprise. I had been looking forward to this one (although the hype for Churchill was greater), and it far exceeded my expectations. Pick it up.
Okay, now some numbers:
26 plays total
17 different games played
7 games new to me
4 plays of Triumph and Tragedy
Perceived hit of con (saw tons of people playing this): Churchill
Perceived surprise hit of the con: Triumph and Tragedy
Personal hit of con: Triumph and Tragedy
Party game I'd like to try again: Pictomania
Party game I'd like to try: Codenames
Before I get to the AAR, a couple of notes. First up, it was great getting some new participants in Pseudocon this year. Bob was a great opponent and true gentleman. Ted was awesomely flexible when people showed up a bit late, and I really appreciate his willingness to scrap his incipient game (twice!) and fit the new people in. And, Chad, I just realized that we missed playing a game together! That will be remedied at WBC!
The first game we played was a seven player game of Struggle of Empires. Yes, seven players. It does take more time, so Pseudocon was the perfect setting. During the game, I punched and built my train for Colt Express (more on that later). I finished re-reading the Fire in the Lake rules (again, more on that later). Somehow, in the game, I was able to get Militia, Mercenaries, Pressgangs and Banking. What a nation! I like to lay low for a long time, then attack in the final war. An opponent made what may have been an ill-advised attack on my sole holding in India. I tried my best to appear to be striking back, while really just weakening an opponent and solidifying certain positions. I think the posturing worked, as did the military buildup. In the final war, I was able to gain second position in the German States and a foothold in the New World. Joe effectively pushed focus away from himself (the leader after War 2) and toward me, but, even with that, I was able to have a roll for the win at a +3. I attacked Joe in Africa, and he played one of his three (!) reserves. I somehow lost and ended up losing the game by 5 points. Yes, if I gain the three points for Africa and Joe loses the three points, I win. I am destined to be second place in that game!
After Struggle of Empires, Kevin, Scott and I played Middle Earth Quest. Experienced players, a great game (although one that I would like to see a refresh on – something Silmarillion-based, maybe? Maybe it should be a super secret project of mine?). Scott was Bereavor (or, as he called him, “Beaver”) and I was the favor magnet, Eleanor. Kevin seemed to play a plot card every turn (except one, where he took one off the track), but Scott’s and my ability to gain favor and put plots to rest really made the difference. We beat him to the finale and had completed our objective (the comparatively easy “complete your quests” objective), so we won!
As I have mentioned, our endurance is not what it once was, so, at around midnight, we were waiting for the last game to finish, then we would call it an evening and adjourn until 10am Saturday. During this time, Richard and I played three two player games of Splendor. Okay, before you comment, Michael, I will fully admit that Splendor has an absolutely pasted on theme. But I do enjoy the mathiness of it, and it is a good fifteen minutes spent. It also qualifies as one of those games where, when you play it the first time, you immediately start thinking about how close you were to winning and want to try it again (this was confirmed this past weekend when I finally got my wife to try it. After a confused first game, she immediately wanted to try again).
That night, John came in and noted that we were reserving cards, the “correct way to play,” as he put it. This, of course, begs a question. What is the correct way to play? Is it to reserve a card early, then work toward it, using your gold chip’s wildness and the occasional two chip grab to make it work? Or is it to play for the nobles? In short, do you work for cards or for nobles? Tough to say. Of course, it depends upon the layout of cards. I’m not sure. The times I have won, all the points came from cards, along with maybe one noble. But my opponents who beat me tend to use the nobles. Maybe the best clue comes from the iOS app. When I lose on the app, it is always to the “balanced” AI.
Richard beat me two times out of three CLOSE games. We called it a night and reconvened in the morning.
On Saturday, we had our “gamemoot” at 10am. I was able to quickly get a game of Fire in the Lake going.
It was interesting.
I played the NVA and, early on, it looked like the NLF (VC) player was in trouble. My first play was the “MiGs” card, which should cripple the U.S. airstrikes! Except, five cards later, the U.S. player (Scott) played the card that canceled the MIGs effect and allowed the U.S. player to “air strike” one space each air strike that did not have a U.S. spotter. Laos and Cambodia were cleared rather quickly and the NVA was effectively crippled. The VC ran over the south of South Vietnam, the ARVN, having embezzled one too many times, were suddenly non-existent, and the U.S. was able to pull out enough soldiers to win the game.
I am now not sure how I feel about the game. Tom Grant has been frustrated with how it models history. Okay. But I have some gameplay issues. I”ve played twice, and, both times, one player was made irrelevant. Also, the game is long. I understand that this is a bit unfair for a wargamer who is in the middle of setting up Day of Days, which will stay set up for a month. But with a multi-player games, it becomes more of an issue. A game like Empire in Arms is a long term team endeavor. It’s an event that you can get a group of committed people to sign up for (even then, you’ll likely need backup players). Games like Struggle of Empires are clearly playable in one night. But Fire in the Lake exists in this strange middle ground of being potentially a ten hour game. It’s very hard to get one ten hour game session. It’s almost as hard to get two five hour game sessions set up. Is it worth it? Is the same type of event that Empires in Arms is? I’m not sure it is, especially if every game ends up having one player crippled to the point of irrelevancy. I still think I like COIN (and really enjoyed a recent play of Andean Abyss), and I really want to love Fire in the Lake. But, right now, the game is almost unplayably problematic.
After Fire in the Lake, we had a run of short games up until dinner time. We played Spiel des Jahres winner Colt Express, which we really enjoyed and look forward to playing again in one of those lighter, thirty minute windows. It reminds me a bit of Robo-Rally, which is too long and overwrought, and the thoroughly enjoyable Space Alert. We then played a couple of games of One Night Ultimate Werewolf, an overrated but nonetheless fun filler for a large group. Honestly, I enjoy watching it more than playing it. But I am willing to play it once or twice when it comes up.
After dinner, we had another short gamemoot, and Scott got Kevin and I going on our annual game of three player Napoleonic Wars. A second turn play of Capitulation took Austria out of the game. The problem was not Austria's getting knocked out, it was their being a subject neutral for a turn and a half. Kevin’s France dominated Europe and we ended up conceding early in turn four.
We closed the night with two games of Bang the Dice Game (SO much better than Bang!) and one game of Nuclear War. Ah, Nuke War. I once loved you, but, after playing this time, you are hopelessly outdated. The mechanics are subpar. It's a take-that game. And my generation may (hopefully) be the last one to understand the dark humor at its core.
So, Pseudocon 26 (the twenty-fifth anniversary!) is in the books, and it was a great time. Some Pseudofactoids:
The most people in my house at one time: 18 on Friday.
The most people in my house on Saturday: 16
We had a weekend total of 24 unique players.
The games that were played that I was not involved in? Roll for the Galaxy (2x), Acquire, Battlestar Galactica (of course,), Splendor (2x), Eldritch Horror, Through the Ages (again, of course), Imperial, Study in Emerald, Forbidden Stars, Struggle of Empires, Shogun, LIberte, King of New York, Castles of Mad King Ludwig.
What a great time! Thank you to everyone who showed up. I hope to continue to grow next year.
This game is so cool it appeared on one of the hippest shows on television, Orphan Black:
It has that epic feel in just a couple of hours. Armies clash with each other and with neutrals. Adventurers quest across the board. Cards not only give special bonuses to a variety of situations, but they also are the random number generator and combat subroutine. And the game hinges on the collection of runestones. This allows the game to be more than just a combat-fest. The flow of the game is: expand and consolidate, then sneak around to collect runestones through trickery and heroes’ quests. Love it!
Please note that I’m talking about the first edition here.
29. King of Tokyo
This has become the default filler game for our group. The Yahtzee elements are okay, but, for me, it’s all about the theme. Giant monsters are cool, but, again, this needs to be treated with a light touch. The game plays fast and loose, but still has interesting choices. You can collect energy cubes to get cards, keep number results, hoping for that elusive three of a kind, or you can be honorable and try to win by killing all of the other monsters. Each game is different and usually ends with one of us saying, “one more time.” If we’re playing, I call Cyber Bunny.
28. Victory in the Pacific
Based on only one night of playing, but what a great upgrade from War at Sea. The addition of air and ground units are key. This game keeps the broad strokes actions of its ancestor, but puts the additional considerations make this the chess to War at Sea’s checkers. And it stands as a great transition point to another favorite game of mine (spoiler alert!).
27. Europe Engulfed
Epic World War 2 game, using blocks. But this game is important because it is the first time Rick Young used the “Special Actions.” These streamlined a great deal that other World War 2 games frankly had a great deal of trouble coordinating. I enjoy the massive numbers of dice and blocks that storm across Europe. The game has interesting and realistic tension points the interesting decision points trying to hold off the inevitable Allied victory in the war in order to win an Axis victory in the game.
This game has no business being this good. It is short and has simple rules. But very quickly, you find yourself thinking carefully about each placement and movement. There have been expansions and shrinkings (down to a travel size). I’ll teach it to you now: each turn you place a tile or move a tile. When you trap the opposing queen, the game is over. Each of the tiles is an insect and each insect has special powers. But even with those few rules, each turn becomes a brain burner.
25. Battle Line
This is also a simple game where the decisions are incredibly interesting. For this one, you are trying to form three card poker hands which will dictate control of different flags. Control five of nine or three adjacent flags, and you win. I probably would like Schotten-Totten more, because I find the special cards add little to the game (in fact, I believe they take away from the game a bit).
24. A Few Acres of Snow
Honestly, the Halifax Hammer ruined this game for me. I loved this and played the heck out of it for a while. I love the deckbuilding mechanic here, especially as it represents expanding your colonial control of the new world. In short, when you take a territory, it makes your deck less efficient. Each of the colonial powers (France and Britain) have different strengths, different spheres of influence, and different realistic paths to victory. I would recommend ignoring the words “Halifax Hammer” on BGG. Get the game and play the heck out of it. You won’t be disappointed, unless you ignore my advice about the Hammer or stumble upon the strategy yourself.
23. Through the Ages
I like Ludology, and I completely understand Ryan and Geoff’s love of this game. The variety of cards and the many different ways your empire can unfold make it incredibly replayable. It is also makes me feel the closest to the way I felt when playing the old Sid Meier’s Civilization computer games. You have to manage a number of factors, including workers’ happiness and efficiency in production of food and mineral resources (I think – oil, coal, iron – hard to find a term that encompasses this, because I believe “resources” are the tokens used to make up your food and mineral resources). Leaders, wonders, and other cards can create some powerful combos. Political cards are powerful, but so are the military actions that, when unused, give you political cards. In short, the game is brilliant and I have to think it will be moved higher in my eventual revisions of this list.
22. Summoner Wars
This game is another example of a simple rules set that makes for a great game. Each player receives a deck of cards that will make up his or her army as they are deployed on the map. Each deck has its own “flavor” (warning: in my online games against strangers, it is clear that one of these decks is more preferred than the others). Your goal is simple: kill the enemy summoner. But you have to be careful. It is a great example of needing the support of a variety of units in order to bring about your plan. If you go directly for your enemy’s summoner, you run the risk of depleting your army early. You have expensive, powerful “champions,” but the risk of bringing them out to fight against your opponent’s army of pawns can leave you vulnerable to your opponent’s champions later in the game. Great game of tough decisions.
21. Dungeon Lords
Again, I cannot believe the variety of games in Vlaada Chvatl’s library. In this and Through the Ages (and, to an extent, Space Alert), you have a number of “levers” to operate, and, if you do it effectively, you are very powerful. If not, you’re in the proverbial “hurt locker.” In Dungeon Lords, you need to build your dungeon with tunnels and rooms. You need to recruit monsters. You need to feed your monsters. You need to have traps to help deal with those pesky adventurers. And, in addition to all of this, you have to pay “taxes.” The game also has the interesting aspect that, when you place your minions to perform certain tasks, the later you place your minion, the more powerful the reward. But if you are not careful, you will lose the opportunity to get what you need at all. Really only works with four players, which is a strike against it, and probably all that keeps it out of my top twenty.
Well, next time we'll start the top twenty (in my day, there was ONLY a top twenty; this generation and their top twenty-fives. Now get off my lawn!). Last summer, I allowed work to encroach on my summer entirely too much. This year, I'm trying to avoid that, and, so far (two weeks in), I've been successful. I hope to get the top twenty in by the end of the summer and the "updates to the list" post by year's end.
I also hope to have a Psuedocon AAR and a WBC AAR post. So, should be a busy summer!
Please thumb my posts!
Taking a break from the top 100 to report on my PrezCon experience.
Before I start on the gaming, I want to address a couple of things. First off, thank you to Justin Thompson for being such a great host. He goes out of his way to introduce himself to everyone at the con. In addition, he noticed that I had a room and actually had them convert my room over to the convention rate (I was late registering again this year – tough when you have a spring athlete as a son). I was astonished and impressed. Then he found me, told me, and commented on how he liked the podcast and was sorry to see its demise. Again, such a nice thing to say. And, finally, he and Grant Dalgliesh made sure I received my newly minted copy of Victory in Europe (on my table as we speak), even though I had not told them I would be picking it up. It made me feel incredibly valued as a customer, attendee, and friend. So, thanks Justin and Grant!
Secondly, there were a few comments (some from my wife) about driving to Charlottesville to play my local friends. Okay, somewhat guilty of this at PrezCon. I will take a second to defend this practice (Kevin had the appropriate response: “but the drive to Ashburn is so long”). First up, I don’t get nearly enough time to play with my friends. We play about once a week, but the extended weekend marathon is a rarity. We could do it at one of our houses (and we do in the summer at Pseudocon), but we would end up displacing one of our families. I have also tried to avoid playing only with my friends at other cons, but those cons had me with a considerable amount of down time. Sure, I played my guitar; I took a nap; I ate out. But I am there to play games! Any way, at any con, feel free to join us, but I’m more of a “camp and play” open gamer, rather than a “mix and mingle” gamer.
Okay, on to the games (2):
The theme here, as you’ll see, is space.
Owen and I had planned on leaving the night of Thursday, February 26. He had soccer tryouts and I thought I might have to coach a game. One possibility was that we would start our two hour trek to Charlottesville at 10:30pm! But that did not come to pass. An ice storm rolled into town on Wednesday, then quickly melted away. But it did do just enough to cancel school for the day and allow us to leave around noon on Thursday.
We arrived at about three, and very quickly picked up gaming. Our first foray into space was a five player game of Martin Wallace’s new Onward to Venus. This game has random tile laying on planets throughout the solar system at its heart. Your troops fly from planet to planet, land, and claim a tile (some of which you actually have to fight for). I am not sure, but I wonder if five players pushed this one beyond its limit. We were able to stave off alien invasion and robotic uprisings fairly easily, which seemed to take away one of the most interesting threats in the game, that modicum of cooperation. Another issue with the game was that you could only attack an opponent if the planet in question had a “tension” tile on it. You would attack an opposing player’s site, and claim the tile. It meant that we could really only directly attack each other on rare occasions, leading to a rather anti-climactic ending where it was clear who would win and it was equally clear that no one could stop him.
On Thursday, we also launched on a campaign in the game we played most at the con, Imperial Assault. Imperial Assault is basically Descent with a Star Wars theme. I was reluctant to purchase it at first because of my group’s dislike of Descent, second edition, but I read that there were significant rules changes, and, if all else failed, I could still play it with my sons. But a few features make this my favorite of these pseudo-roleplaying boardgames.
First, there is the ability to move through enemy units. What killed (or at least mortally wounded) Descent for us was the ability to “clog a dungeon with a wall of flesh,” especially that damned dragon. Imperial Assault allows movement through enemy units at an added cost of movement points. You still can clog a passageway, but, to extend the metaphor, the clog is more like one you can clear with Drano, as opposed to one where you need to use the Roto-Rooter.
The second feature is that the units can’t combo quite as effectively. Kevin, as our Descent overlord, was able to effectively use those flesh mender guys (sorry, forgot the name) with other, more destructive creatures to create nigh-opposable monster teams. In Imperial Assault, the Imperial officers are cool in combination with other Imperial troops, but they aren’t overpowering. Abilities tend to add nice little wrinkles to the scenarios, rather than full-fledged nastiness.
The third feature is the campaign itself. Descent seemed to have more of an open forum for campaign choice, with a map guiding your choices. But this is combined with a reward system where one side (the heroes or the overlord) gets more powerful each session. Imperial Assault is a bit more restrictive in its story arc, but keeps that measure of choice in the “side quests.” And both sides advance a bit each time, through the purchase of equipment and skills for the heroes and an increase in threat points available to purchase baddies along with “Influence” and “Experience” for the Imperial player. Along with this, players who are struggling end up on adventures where they can meet allies or earn skills that will help them as the campaign continues.
Over the course of the con, we played six adventures, with Kevin actually saying that this seemed like the best of the role playing board games. I was the Imperial player and won a few of the adventures, but the story keeps progressing nicely. I recognize the “knife fight in a phone booth” quality of some of the adventures, but, as the campaign continues, the scenarios become more diverse, one with a “shootout at the OK Corral quality” and one where Han Solo escapes his captors.(3)
Friday was a bit of a rough day. It started with a four player game of Mythotopia. This is the four player game using the A Few Acres of Snow deck-building mechanic set in a fantasy world. I have read on BGG about an end game problem. But we have played two player and three player, and, while it was evident that it could become a problem, it had not actually become one yet. Four players proved me wrong and the BGGers right. The end game took forever. It is clever to have an “end the game” action, but the game’s insistence that all battles be resolved before a victor is determined made the endgame an unmitigated mess. We ended up using the VP track to track potential VP, rather than actual VP, because the mental calculus required to determine whether or not one was winning and could consequently end the game, was getting pretty overwhelming with all the “hit the leader” battles on the board. I think deck-building is an incredible mechanic, and I really thought Few Acres had done something original and exciting in gaming. Actually, there is no “thought” to it. The use of the deck-building mechanic to simulate the management of colonial and imperial holdings was brilliant. Then the Hammer fell. Here was a chance to redeem himself and show this mechanic in its true light, but it fails, again, because of a problem that should have been obvious during playtesting. I love Martin Wallace, but his misses are the most disappointing kind, the kind where you realize that 80-90% of the game is one of the most original and exciting designs you have seen, but that 10% absolutely kills it. I’m not ready to write off Mythotopia yet, but I will never play it four player again. Add this to the Onward to Venus! problems, and I’m starting to wonder about Martin’s current design philosophy. Oh well, maybe Hands in the Sea will be what these other games should have been.
We followed this up with an excruciatingly epic game of Twilight Imperium. I still love this game, but, for me, the con is not the place for it. I think the next time I play this one will be a time where I invite people over specifically to play it, and to play it for eight hours. Long games can be great, and I have enjoyed TI3 in the past. But, at a con, whatever you’re doing, you see what everyone else is doing, and when it’s clear you’re not going to win TI, and you see everyone else playing other games, it becomes more and more unappealing to sit and continue playing for hours. When that is what you signed up for, and there are no other options presented, it suddenly becomes much more tolerable. Also, six players may be too many?
We then played one of my favorites – Through the Ages.(4) It was interesting and brain-burning as always. And, as always, the Sudys crushed the Whites. We’re getting better, but still have a way to go to match Sudy-level prowess.
We also played Splendor, which is a small game that packs a big punch. Collecting gems and gathering cards seems so uninteresting, but the simple gameplay creates challenges that make you keep coming back for more. Undisputedly my favorite new-to-me game of the con.
We closed the night with a late game of Infiltration. This game is quite a kick, and its grab and stab nature make it the perfect nightcap to a con’s day of gaming.
Saturday involved mostly new games, with one old favorite thrown in. We played two more scenarios of Imperial Assault (after which, Kevin speculated that it was the best of the roleplaying boardgames) and more Splendor. We also played one of our five player favorites, Battlestar Galactica, and, in hindsight, I can tell you that it is becoming clear that, when I am president, I am a Cylon.(5) After a very hopeful cruise to Cobol, players began the naïve claims that they “hope they’re not a Cylon.” Needless to say, the human fleet crashed and burned once again. Kudos to my Cylon brother Kevin, who was able to keep his identity a secret for a long time after I had revealed myself.
At this point, my nephew Brian arrived and we played a couple more five player games. The first was Tribune, which used cards in a variety of ways. I liked that each suit influenced a different faction in Rome and that these same cards served as a kind of currency. Frankly, there were too many options to clearly delineate in a AAR blog post, so that is in the game’s favor. What I did not like, though, was that it ended up being a very quick game, with Brian jumping out to get three (yes, we were playing the quick game) victory conditions very early. I realize that the longer game required four, but, as we figured it, he would still have gotten that fourth before the rest of us. This game definitely deserves another play due to the interesting variety of means to add to your hand and the variety of victory conditions (it takes a while to get the eponymous tribune, not sure why anyone would?).
We followed this up with Camel Up, which, while random, was a nice, fun diversion. I want it to play with my family.
We closed the night (after midnight) with Concordia, which I find a very interesting game. My "Euro-Fu” is not very good at this point, and I finished a distant fourth of five. Owen, my son, did NOT enjoy the game. I should have seen this coming, as he sees this as a Euro (I agree, with games like Splendor and Camel Up being more like classic "German games"), and he hates this type of game (he also hates Hansa and Hansa Teutonica).
A last comment about Prezcon: vendors. GMT, Columbia, Worthington, Mayfair (I think), and a small vendor selling a variety of games. But I am a buyer, and there just wasn’t enough. I am well stocked on Columbia, Worthington, and GMT. I would have bought: Splendor, Camel Up, the Mountains of Madness expansion for Eldritch Horror, an extra set of Imperial Assault dice, any of a variety of X-Wing figures, the Late Night Double Feature expansion for Smash Up, and Sentinel Tactics, and those wouldn’t have even been impulse buys! The low turnout of vendors was disappointing. I did, however, make one impulse buy: I bought a wooden box in which to roll dice.
Any way, it was my favorite PrezCon in years. Thanks, and (almost certainly), I’ll see everyone again in 2016!
(1) With Footnotes!
(2) Okay, that was the last sentence I wrote for this post. This is a LONG one! Sorry! I hope you have time read this novella!
(3) Interestingly, the last scenarios we played did something dangerous; they removed the “clock.” In the shootout scenario, there is NO clock, the endgame begins when the players do a certain thing. And in the Han Solo scenario, the only clock is when Han escapes, from there, he has a goal. But they both worked. In the shootout scenario, the players delayed activating the endgame until they had cleared some of my creatures. But I started my own clock; I began to work to wound them, one at a time. Surprisingly, both scenarios worked.
(4) If you are thinking “Why not Nations?” please, stop. Nations is okay, but it pales in comparison.
(5)Unless, of course, I am in a game with you. In that case, I’m definitely human.
This part of the list was interesting. FAB and COIN, two of my favorite series, along with co-ops, a mechanic I am getting sick of.
40. FAB Sicily
My least favorite of Rick Young’s designs (wait! I forgot Leaping Lemmings, which didn’t make the cut), this still comes in at 40. The FAB system is fascinating in itself, and Sicily is a mini-campaign that gets too little attention (well, until recently). This game also has an initially weak Axis side that deteriorates further during the game. How will you overcome this as the Axis player? That is the great challenge of this game. A good game that served as a nice segue from Bulge to the much-anticipated (by me) Golan. I may (spoiler alert!) revisit this mechanic in the future but the Special Action mechanic was a great innovation (cue the correction in the comments that Rick Young did not originate the concept…).
Diceless and timeless and endless. Really one of the most clever designs of all time, in my opinion. Each armed force will cancel out another armed force. The only way you win a battle is by having more units than your opponent. But the map means that, most of the time, when you’re in conflict with another player, you’re evenly matched. In other words, you need to ask other players to help you to distract or overwhelm your opponent. The problem, of course, is that this game could continue forever. Finally, remember the axiom of Diplomacy: if you stab, stab deeply. (Quick note: since I started reading Playing at the World, I discovered how important Diplomacy was as an incubator for some of the ideas of Dungeons and Dragons. D&D overuses dice and had an incredible inflated rules set when it became AD&D. So what did these guys see in Diplomacy that inspired something like D&D? I think it may have been the semi-role-playing element of being a head of state (or at least a well-connected representative). It also may have been the open-ended nature of the negotiations and the further dimension of the “stab.” Finally, remember the axiom of Diplomacy: if you stab, stab deeply. )
38. Arkham Horror
All right, I know. One of THE examples of Ameritrash. But I really enjoy it. An example of what I might call “design opulence.” The game has a ton of bits, especially when it first came out. A number of these are cleaned up in the smoother Eldritch Horror (spoiler alert for corrections post!), but the original will always have a special place in my heart. This game was the first co-op I enjoyed, largely because each turn brought decisions: where to go, what to do. Do I go into a gate? Will I survive? Where do I place my characteristics for this turn. I also have to admit a bit of a fanboy excitement going up against Cthulhu or Azathoth. The cooperative game is really entering a glut in my opinion, but this was an early entry in to the genre that deserves its due (I’d play this over Knizia’s Lord of the Rings ANY day).
37. Battlestar Galactica
I don’t know why I keep playing this game. My son is always a Cylon. And, whenever I start as President, I’m one too. The game itself is only marginally interesting, with crises that need to be resolved by the play of certain combinations and totals of color cards. Cylon fleets show up. We shoot them down and escape. But the game hinges on the sleeper agent aspect. But this game always leads to some of my favorite game experiences. One of the best parts of the game is that sometimes you don’t know that you’re a Cylon until you’re halfway back to Earth (of course, if you love “All Along the Watchtower,” you know – you just know). The cooperative game is really entering a – oh, wait, I’m repeating myself. Any way, another good entry in the field. This is one of the games that has pre-empted my like of other games. For instance, when we played Dead of Winter this year, after it was over, my first thought was “well, I’d rather be playing Battlestar.”
36. Napoleon's Triumph
Fascinating and puzzling in its simple rules that lead to such complexity. My love of this game starts with its blocks and their resemblance to the battlefield movement illustrations from those history books from my childhood. I was hooked. Add to this the fog of war element and the simple (yet hard to parse) elements of facing and flanking and you have one of the most fascinating games out there. I’d love to play some time, so feel free to set it up for me. Oh, and feel free to teach me what I’m doing wrong.
35. Time's Up
This is my favorite party game. Wow, more spoiler alerts. Nothing higher than this. Love the three phases. Love the lists. My favorite part of the game is the one word round where every clue is do or die. And the “charades” angle is one that has led to a number of moments relived again and again (especially my sister-in-law’s clue for Sammy Davis, Jr. Let’s just say she tried to represent his glass eye.). My niece also invented a “super secret fourth round” where you still pantomimed the answer, but you did it under a blanket.
A family favorite of ours. Very simple mechanics lead to some cutthroat behavior. You get to move your pieces off the island. You have the oddly cooperative boat mechanics. You have a slightly variable end time. Not to mention that memorizing which of you meeples are worth how many points borders on impossible. My wife loves to send the shark after my swimmers, and we have a tendency to create a “Maginot Line” of sea monsters beside a particular shoreline to keep others from landing.
33. Age of Empires III
A classic worker placement game, and one of my favorites. One of the things I like here is that the game takes just the right amount of time. It means there is a lot to balance (fight natives or create colonies or prep for a colonial war?) but just about the time that I would get tired of it, we are rushing to the endgame. That’s a good design. Give me all I’m asking for and no more. Also was a pretty good computer game!
32. Ticket to Ride
So simple and so good, and another family favorite. I think it is good to draw randomly at times because of the fact that you can draw those wilds. But maybe I’m wrong. And, in the multiplayer, you had better grab up those key two space routes early or you will be suffering. Enough has been said about this classic, and I make no claims of being an expert on this one, so I’ll move on.
31. Andean Abyss
Consider this another spoiler alert for the update post to come after the list is complete. Andean Abyss is not my favorite COIN game. But it is the one that makes this list. Our group is split on COIN in general. It may be a game where you try to make progress, but all of your work for a turn is undone by your opponent. It may be a game where the random turn order and action availability can be crippling for one of the sides. But, for me, this game is one of the most fascinating explorations of uneven sides and “deals with the devil.” You cannot get stuck in a wrestling match with one opponent, or the other two players will take advantage. You also need to figure out early on what devils you need to deal with. And while it is a game of everyone staying pretty close, you need to try to time your push for victory for when the propaganda cards come out. It is a fascinating balancing act and one I find I enjoy. But, if you listen to Tom Grant’s I’ve Been Diced podcast, you’ll hear our group’s disagreement about the system as a whole.
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