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My 2011 in Review: Old Favourites

Ender Wiggins
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This is the final installment of a series of articles, in which I've been taking a look back at some of the new games I've played and explored in the past year.

A balanced approach to gaming means that one doesn't only play what's new and shiny, because sometimes we need to get back to some of the old favourites. I'm constantly playing older games that I've enjoyed for years, and from time to time I've taken an extra close look at an old favourite to feature it in a review. This past year was no exception, and that's why I'm concluding this series with an Old Favourites category. In this final article I'll highlight some of the classic euros that I keep coming back to, like Puerto Rico, Notre Dame, and Railways of the World. What was your most enjoyed game of the old favourites you played this year?

Puerto Rico (2002)

Puerto Rico has enjoyed a long reign of dominance for several years at the top of the BGG rankings. And even though it tussled with Agricola for the number one spot for some time, and has since been passed by the current #1 Twilight Struggle, it still enjoys a strong following, and can rightly be considered a quintessential and highly influential euro that offers much enjoyment and replayability for modern gamers. Since it appeared almost ten years ago, Puerto Rico has earned a well deserved reputation as a quintessential pioneer among eurogames, and is still considered an essential staple of many gaming collections today.

With the game on the verge of celebrating its tenth anniversary, and still enjoying strong popularity despite heavy competition from newer crops of games, I figured that this year was a good time to consider how Puerto Rico holds up as a two-player game, by playtesting and analyzing some of the most popular ways to enjoy it with just two players. When it was first released, Puerto Rico wasn't even considered a two-player game, but was marketed as suitable for 3-5 players. But given the enthusiasm with which the game was received, it wasn't too long before people were clamouring to find ways to make it playable for two players. An official variant was released by the publisher, and has been well received, and over time other customized variants have also appeared. The official variant works quite well, but many people favour what I call the "Craftsman Angst" variant, in which there are 7 roles in play and the Governor chooses 3 and the opponent chooses 2 - this prevents players getting back to back roles as a result of the "Governor Effect" and increases tension.

There is one respect in which Puerto Rico is showing its age. After all, it's been around since 2002 (a pre-publication version was at Essen 2001), so it first appeared almost a decade ago. For the most part it has stood the test of time, and its gameplay holds up well even when measured by the standards of the latest and newest crops of games - many of which are indebted to it and influenced by it. But if there is an aspect that could be improved, it's that the components could do with a visual makeover, particularly the building tiles. The plain text-only purple buildings are starting to look somewhat vintage and austere, and are just not up to snuff when compared with the artistic production values witnessed in the components of most newer euro games today. Fortunately there are ways to get versions with illustrated buildings, either using the print-and-play edition that features Franz Vohwinkel's beautiful artwork from San Juan, or the newly released deluxe edition to celebrate the game's 10th anniversary. This is a classic game that will continue to be popular in years to come.

More about two players? See my article: mb Ender's Overview: An analysis of Puerto Rico as a two-player game, and a comparison of the most popular variants
More about components? See my article: mb Ender's Overview: An edition of Puerto Rico with illustrated buildings - isn't it about time?

Notre Dame (2007)

Notre Dame is and remains an outstanding euro, and several years after graduating off the production line as part of the class of 2007, has to be considered one of the highest achievers of the light-medium games from that year, by typifying some of the best that the genre can offer. It doesn't quite have the depth of classics like Puerto Rico or Caylus, but compensates for this by being more accessible, and serves well as a somewhat lighter and quicker game that is both intuitive and elegant. Yet it's not to be underestimated or considered as a game of luck - far from it, because Notre Dame offers tense and interesting decisions that require you to manage risk and manipulate a very tight economy, and carefully construct long range plans for your point-scoring objectives. There's just the right balance between tactical choices and strategic options, and the card drafting keeps the game interactive without being overly confrontational, while the finite number of possibilities keep the game from bogging down with analysis paralysis.

It's not too heavy, and yet there's also not a sense that so much strategic fat has been trimmed from the design that the end result is muddied by excessive randomness or that game-play becomes a mere shuffling of cardboard and wood with no real flavour, as is the case with some euros we've seen over the years. In many respects I suppose it is an exercise in efficiency, as many euros are, but the random draw of the cards forces you to plan different paths each game, the draft mechanic adds elements of fun and indirect interaction, and the risk management associated with the rats adds tension, all of which prevent it from being categorized with the mundane or blase. In the final analysis, this is no ordinary cube-pushing euro, and while it doesn't pretend to compete with the heavier games in the genre and won't please everyone's tastes, it remains one of the more shining examples of how good a lighter and medium weight euro really can be.

There are those who have developed a strategic `system' in how they play the game, much of which revolves around maximizing the grey person cards. The good news is that a small expansion of nine additional grey person cards gives the game a complete makeover, without changing the core mechanics or feel. For any serious fan of Notre Dame, these new grey person cards are an absolute must have, and I highly, highly recommend them. Notre Dame has always performed strongly in our house, and the replay value and freshness offered by these expansion cards only makes it better. It's amazing what swapping in and mixing nine different cards can do!

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Overview: Why I love Notre Dame. And why I love it even more with the new cards!

Twilight Struggle (2005)

There's a lot of good things that can be said about the current #1 ranked game, Twilight Struggle. With a broad appeal that has potential to please eurogamers and wargamers alike, it's not entirely surprising that it's at the top of the BGG pile. I picked up the Deluxe edition from GMT around this time of the year two years ago, and earlier this year proved to be a good time to get it to the table, at a time when a family member was studying the Cold War as part of a history course. I've also been able to explore online play using ACTS and VASSAL with a good friend, and currently have a game in progress. I've not reviewed it yet myself, but I can recommend Roger's excellent review referenced below.

For those who aren't familiar with this modern classic, Twilight Struggle sees two players compete against each other as the US and USSR, in a bid for world domination and influence during the Cold War era. The game is primarily driven by cards which feature key historical events that are true to the time period and reflect various elements of the tense political and military international cat-and-mouse game. Like global chess performed on the world's biggest stage, this subtle conflict ebbed and flowed in favour of both the Americans and Soviets alike during different stages, and the game captures this nicely. The cards feature events as well as action points that can be used by players to increase their influence in various countries, thus trying to control and dominate specific geopolitical regions, or to perform other actions such as military coups or advance in the space race. When played, scoring cards for these various regions are the main way that the victory points needed to win the game are earned.

The genius and tension of the game lies in the fact that when you play cards that feature events benefiting your opponent, these events will trigger even though you choose to use the card for action points, whereas an event card favourable to yourself requires you to choose between triggering the event or using the action points. This creates an enormous amount of tension, mirroring some of the feelings of this historical period. A complete game often features many micro-battles in particular regions, because when an area seems to become important to your opponent, you can rarely choose to ignore it, and simply by virtue of your opponent's interest it also becomes important to you. I particularly appreciate the historical flavour of the game, and the attention to detail. It has to be admitted that the game isn't for the faint of heart, and even though the rules are not super complex, it's definitely possible for experienced players to become good at the game by knowing the cards and making strategic choices that pay off later in the game. Ideally it also requires being able to set aside a block of three hours or so to complete a single game in one sitting. But if you can find that time and an opponent willing to take on the challenge with you, few gaming experiences can equal a tense game of Twilight Struggle with an evenly matched opponent.

Want to know more? See a full review: mb Roger's Overview: Deluxe Twilight Struggle

Railways of the World (2005) and Railways of the World (2009)

If you're looking for a train game that's a step up from Ticket to Ride, without being too hardcore or complicated, then look no further, because Railways of the World is your game. It is one of the best games I've ever played, and one of my all-time favourite medium-weight games. Don't make the mistake of thinking (as I first did after seeing photos of a massive board and incredible components) that this is just for middle-aged men who drive trains for a living and play with miniature railroads as a hobby, or that this is just for hardcore gamers who like complicated and heavy games, and thus conclude that this game is not for you. Despite the glamorous and epic appearances, this is just another medium-weight game - only way better than most. So if you're beyond gateway games, then you really owe it to yourself to consider making this one of your next steps into the world of gaming!

Railways of the World almost certainly represents the medium-weight railroad game at its best, being at the end of the process and evolutionary curve of development that began already before Age of Steam (2002). Age of Steam was an immensely successful train game that offers a tense and tight experience for hardcore gamers. In 2005 the mechanics and gameplay were simplified and streamlined and attractive over-produced components were added to create the even more popular Railways of the World, which was reimplemented in 2009 as Railways of the World due to licensing issues with the Railroad Tycoon name. At the end of 2010 a reprint of Railways of the World appeared, featuring a number of further cosmetic improvements and small additions to the components. This is the edition to get if you can, because it comes with a map and cards needed for playing on two maps, Mexico (deal for 2-4 players) and the Eastern US (ideal for 4-6 players).

The basic concept of the game is that players are railway executives, who borrow money to finance the building of their personal network of train tracks across a sprawling map, which they use to deliver goods to various cities, and thus increase their income and earn points. In the process, there are all kinds of short term and long term objectives, as well as steady interaction and competition to keep things interesting. It's not as unforgiving as some other games in the genre, and outstanding components combined with delicious, meaty and thematic gameplay without being make this a real medium-weight winner.

More about the game? See my full review: mb Ender's Overview: The quintessential train game for the typical modern gamer
More about the reprint? See my full review: mb Ender's Overview: So you're wondering about the reprint of Railways of the World

Railways of the World has spawned a large number of expansion maps, and 2011 saw the release of several great new additions to the series. Railways Through Time adds the interesting twist of time travel. Players can deliver goods between different eras on eight different boards (The Stone Age, Egypt, Ancient Greece, The Medieval Era, The Napoleonic Era, The Old West, Industrial Age, and The Future), using a selection of maps depending on the number of players. This retains enough of the original to be enjoyable, while adding enough new elements to make it a fun and different experience. The artwork on the new boards is easily the best yet in the series.

Also new for 2011 is the Railways of the World: Event Deck. This is a small expansion that can be used with the base game or with any of the other expansion maps. It consists of a deck of 50 cards, which introduce different random events to the game. Some of these are short-term objectives which will help you, but occasionally there are disasters which will hurt you - just like in real life. Fortunately in most cases you get a turn warning about the next event, so you can plan accordingly. There's nothing game-changing here, but consider it to be extra spice for fans looking to add something new to the game.

More about the time travel? See my full review: mb Ender's Overview: Railways of the World adds time travel to enter the fourth dimension
More about the Event Deck? See my full review: mb Ender's Overview: Adding spice to my favourite train game!

Join the discussion: What is the best game among the old favourites that you've returned to and played in the past year? And if you have played any of above mentioned games, what did you think of them?

Read the whole series: My 2011 in Review: A look back at some new games
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