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Top 5 from 2011 - games released during the year that are worth the recognition.

Steve Berger
United Kingdom
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I saw a comment somewhere on the geek which suggested that 2011 had been a poor year for games, with no new ideas and lots of regurgitated mechanics. Well, I can agree with this sentiment in many cases – I purchased a couple of deck building games that really didn’t do anything that new. Rune Age took the deck building idea and turned it into what seemed more like deck stripping. Blood Bowl: Team Manager just seemed to support a leader too much, and didn’t feel either new or exciting, although it was good to see an old name return.

I own 16 games from 2011 – I’ve played a few more than that, but if it was really good, then I would have enjoyed it enough to buy it. Of the 16, one was a playtester copy which I’ve promised not to blog about (it needs a lot of work). One was a review copy I said I would blog about but I really don’t have anything to say that is positive at the moment. As a game it would work as an app, but as a physical card game it suffers and I’d rather be playing KardCombat.

Barons was a purchase based on a review, and after a few plays, I’m really not seeing what this game has to offer. The card combinations are fairly uninspiring, and the card art is poor. The game is chaotic, and becomes a ‘bash the leader’ chase to the finish line. This particular gaming issue is a real problem for me. I don’t usually enjoy these games, and often find that they aren’t won by a good player, but come down to the most manipulative or whiny person to take the win. I enjoy player interaction, but like fair play.

There are also games that I really want to like, but have issues that make them hard work to enjoy. Unfortunately for me, despite writing about it previously and heaping praise on it, Discworld: Ankh-Morpork seems to end the same way almost every time I play it – the deck runs out, and the player with that objective takes the game. This is a real shame because otherwise this is an excellent game with great artwork, and a fun theme.
Friday deserves a mention – I’m not going to put this in my top games for the year, but it is a great little solo experience that works really well. The only failing it had for me was that it was a little too easy, even on the hardest level, and once I’d worked out the best process, I could beat it 3 out of 4 times. The idea is excellent though of taking the experiences you have to survive and using them to make you stronger, and also the idea of aging each time you get through your deck. This was a surprisingly fun little card game.

Another noteworthy game to not make the top list was Fortune & Glory. I played a fellow gamer’s copy of this in one of my local groups, and really enjoyed it, but had no intention of purchasing it. Then it popped up on ebay and nobody was bidding on it, so I grabbed it as a bargain. It is an experience game that I may have played more of if it wasn’t for two of the games in my top 5 which do a similar thing, but a whole lot better.

A few other honourable mentions – Revolver: The Wild West Gunfighting Game is an interesting 2 player thematic card game that is simple, but tense, and great for a bit of table talk between players. However, it is dependant on getting the right cards when you need them, so is a little too luck based.

Last mention goes to the very divisive Panic Station. I played this just before Christmas with my Sevenoaks group, and it didn’t work because they are just all too polite – the same group struggled to get to grips with BSG because they aren’t very good at lying. When the infected Player tried to trade an infection and failed, the player he tried to infect immediately accused him, and he admitted what he had done at a point when he should have denied it, and accused that player of lying, or trying to set him up. This game really needs the right players for it – it needs people who can role-play. With the right group this would work far better than it did on my one experience, but as a game will only ever be as good as the players involved in it.

Right, with all of that out of the way, I can move on to my top 5 of 2011.

5. Sekigahara: Unification Of Japan
Whilst trying to drum up interest in my Sevenoaks gaming group, I got an email from a local gamer who couldn’t make the group, but was interested in meeting up anyway, so I went round to his, and we played this. I had little idea of the rules, and we jumped straight in, but it struck me pretty quickly that this was an excellent game. The rules are so much easier to follow than the genre usually forces upon you, and the combat was fully reliant upon good hand management. I picked this up pretty quickly after my first play, and have really enjoyed each outing with it. My most enjoyable moments have been the points of brinkmanship where I know I don’t have the cards I need to defend a vital point on the board, and if my opponent attacks me I’m finished, but I look confident and ready for the fight. Or when I’m confident I can win a battle only to get trounced because my opponent has been building a hand ready for the same fight.

The game is well produced, the blocks represent forces well, and look impressive when in a large stack. The downsides are insignificant – sometimes the blocks obscure important parts of the map, the block towers can fall over, there are no tracks on the board which would have made the game a lot easier to play, and two of the black army symbols look quite similar, and have caused some game changing confusion at times. In another year, this would easily have made the top 3, but there are some excellent games out there to compete against it.

4. Gears Of War: The Board Game.
Well, I’ve already rambled on about this one in another blog. It’s an excellent game, well produced, great miniatures, thematic, tense, works well solo, this is one of two reasons why Fortune & Glory (which was released at the same time) fails to make an impact. When I game, I tend to lose myself in it – I played Ora Et Labora at the weekend, and you could have let a firework off in the room and I wouldn’t have noticed. Gears Of War takes this a step further though – I’m fully immersed in the game, but thematically I’m dragged in too, more so than the video game ever did. Maybe because the boardgame experience is about thinking, whereas the videogame is about reacting. What do I do? I’m hurt so do I retreat for cover and heal up, or do I push on and try and take that last monster out? It took me something like 7 attempts to beat the first scenario, and I enjoyed every minute of play, even if sometimes I got no further than the second room. I actually think this game is much better than the license suggests.

3. A Few Acres Of Snow.
The imbalances and reported imperfections this game has don’t bother me too much, even though maybe they should. I play with the amended rules now, but I’m not a good enough gamer, and I simply haven’t played this enough to have worked out the best way for either side to win. Playing this on Yucata on occasion has seen me get trounced easily as both sides, so go figure. What appeals is the mechanic, the idea of taking the Dominion deck builder and actually making a game out of it using a board to give it that physical presence, and a better understanding of what the situation is. I’ve had some really tense, close run experiences with this, and am really looking forward to seeing how this is developed with Mythotopia. For me, this game was the most exciting development in gaming during 2011 – the idea of taking a deck building game and making it a boardgame.

2. Mage Knight: Board Game.
I actually enjoy this more solo than playing with a group. It’s a deep, complicated game that provides the player with the freedom to play, and a highly varied gaming experience each session. Getting all of the rules right all of the time is quite a challenge in itself, and solo this is less of a frustrating experience as downtime looking up a particular rule only slows the game down for that player. This is a terrible reason not to play this with more, but actually it works really well just as a solo. There is so much else to interact with in the game – do you take over the Keeps to get your draw up? Do you go for spells? Any game where I find myself thinking ‘I need to get out of these woods – night is coming’ is a hit for me. It isn’t quite a deck building game – you only get through your deck a handful of times, but you really need to make every card count. The number of variables is huge, from the tile draw order to the monsters in the locations, to the advanced action and spell cards that come out, the units you can hire, the combinations mean you’ll never see the same game twice.

It has issues – something this big always will. The rules being split over two books is almost laughable. There is no index for looking something up, and often I found myself hunting for a rule I know I’d seen in one of the books somewhere. Every time I read the rules, I spot something else small I’ve missed, but I suppose so what? I’ve got it 90% down, and it still fells like a great game. The pieces are excellent, the artwork is thematic and clear, but it does take up an awful lot of space on the table – even in solo it fills a large dining table. The card stock is really truly awful – I hate sleeving games but felt with this (at that price tag) it is essential. Mage Knight is a beautiful monster.

1. Eclipse
Maybe an obvious choice, but I don’t care. Earlier I moaned about bash the leader games, and this is probably one of those, but it is terrific, such a punchy game. It doesn’t do anything new, but it does refresh lots of old ideas, and takes a mix of mechanics to make an outstanding game. The game appeals to the child in me, and really creates a story each time you play it. It rewards aggression which really makes a change for this type of game – the player that keeps out of the way is much less likely to win in this than in, say, Shogun. You need to get your hands dirty, you need to make alliances. There is so much to do – conquest, research, exploration – all there for the taking. The alien races add some freshness to it as well. Each game is different, new and exciting – the strategy that won the last game may not even be an option in this one and players need to react to the game as it evolves.

So, a really good, exciting bunch of games in the top 5 for me. Personally, 2011 was an excellent gaming year with some really top quality games. For 2012, I’d really like to see designers continue to push at the boundaries, and not just redevelop old games, or churn out expansions. All of my top 5 were excellent games out of the box, and none of them felt like they needed an expansion to work properly. Having said that, I’m sure at least two of them will have expansions in the next year, but for now they work just fine as is. Fingers crossed for so many good new games that this list needs a top 10 for 2012.
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