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‘Spiel des Josh’ Award: 2004 Edition
Joshua Miller
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Michigan
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It seems like every year now, the games just keep getting better. 2004 was better than 2003 which was better than 2002 which was better than 2001. 2001 may have been a down year, and I don’t think I can go further than that – 1999 and 2000 were both great years, probably the best years of the millennium. 2004’s crop of games really blew me away in terms of both quality and quantity of games. Ten Spiel des Josh finalists almost doesn’t seem like enough any longer. There are so many highlights from 2004 that I’m going to fill the entire 25-item GeekList with high-quality games, and still have to leave a few out.

Last year’s Spiel des Josh can be found here:

http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist.php3?action=view&listi...

The pre-2003 lists of winners and finalists can be found here:

http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist.php3?action=view&listi...

For those who haven’t read either of those lists, the Spiel des Josh is nothing more than my attempt to rank the games from each year that I’ve found most enjoyable and/or impressive. Ten games from the 1960’s, ten from the 1970’s, five per year from 1980 to 1996, and ten per year from 1997 onward.
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1. Board Game: Goa [Average Rating:7.70 Overall Rank:52]
Joshua Miller
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The 2004 Spiel des Josh winner is Goa.

This makes two in a row for Hans im Glück, who have amassed an astounding six Spiel des Josh winners in total (Modern Art '92, El Grande '95, Euphrat & Tigris '97, Carcassonne '00, Attika '03 and Goa '04). This is the first Spiel des Josh win for designer Rüdiger Dorn.

I think Goa is the best heavy German game that's been published since Euphrat & Tigris. (Note that the choice of words neatly dodges Age of Steam.) From my first reading of the rules, Goa reminded me a lot of Princes of Florence. The structures of the two games have obvious parallels: an auction of one item per player followed by some individual actions that are done more-or-less in isolation from the other players; repeat until the specified number of rounds have occurred. Both games require careful logistical planning, attention to cash flow, and prioritizing goals in the face of a ticking game clock. Both games have a healthy splash of luck in the form of cards that can be purchased. Both are won with victory points that come from one primary source (works in Princes, advancement in Goa) and other supplemental sources.

The twist is: I'm only lukewarm about Princes of Florence, and I'm absolutely thrilled with Goa. I'll try to hit on a few aspects of Goa that to me represent significant improvements over Princes of Florence.

(1) Goa is more dynamic in its gameplay and strategies. Goa offers a much wider variety of things to do and supports a greater range of strategic approaches. Princes of Florence is very confining. The game starts with several paths open, but as you progress, the strategic corridor you're traveling becomes narrower and narrower. You have to plan far ahead and avoid mistakes. The strategies in Goa are much more flexible. Sure, you have to plan ahead, but it's equally important to adjust your plans to fit the current situation. When I play Princes of Florence, I feel a bit like I'm in a straightjacket. When I play Goa, I feel creative and less oppressed by the game system. The broad and constantly-changing selection of tiles available for purchase each round is constantly creating new and interesting situations and choices. In Princes of Florence, the situations and choices are extremely similar from game to game.

(2) Goa is more forgiving. I've already explained most of this under the first point. Newer or weaker players will get brutalized by Princes of Florence. It's a tightly regimented game system that requires a strategy to be in place almost from the very start of the game. Goa allows you to explore as you go, and there's a greater ability to accomplish things even if you've made a big error sometime during the game.

(3) Goa's auctions are much more interesting, more varied, and more interactive. I could write an entire article on this (and perhaps I will), but I'll spare the details here since this is getting long. Suffice to say that I find Goa's auctions fascinating. They're the heart of the game, and the place where players win or lose. Princes of Florence's auctions are also critically important, and are not devoid of interest, but they're clinical and one-dimensional compared to Goa's auctions.

(4) Goa has less down time. Most of the player actions can be done very quickly, and the auctions do a much better job of keeping everyone involved (because players are allowed to win multiple auctions, and because they play the role of seller as well as buyer). When playing Princes of Florence, I often find myself feeling bored. The pace is slower, and there's not too much to think about once I've planned out my moves. I wait while the other players read and select their cards, I wait while they rotate their buildings to find the best fit, I wait while they figure out whether they can produce a work this round, I wait while they divide their income between cash and victory points.

(5) Goa scales much better. The tension evaporates from Princes of Florence if it's not played with exactly five players. Four is okay, but there's not tight enough competition for the extra professions and the recruitment cards. You can basically put on as many works as you like, eliminating one of the central battlegrounds of the game. To me, it's not even worth playing with any number fewer than five. Goa, on the other hand, is terrific with two, three, or four. The auctions and the cash flow behave very differently with different numbers of players, requiring some large adjustments, and creating a terrific sense of novelty when trying the game with a different number of players.

There are a couple minor blemishes I can see in Goa, but neither is enough to dampen my enthusiasm for the game. The first is that the expedition cards may be slightly overpowered. They're not so strong that they dominate the game, but they're strong enough that it will be tough to win if you can't achieve a two-card draw sometime during the early or middle parts of the game. I like the way that this makes nutmeg and (to a lesser degree) clove a bit more valuable than the other spices early in the game - it makes the auctions more interesting. Lucky card draws can cover up holes in one's strategy, and some players may not like this aspect of the game. The second minor blemish is that the tax track is noticeably the weakest in the four-player game (it's good with three and terrific with two). I don't mind it being weaker, but if this bothers you, you can easily ramp up the number of ducats gained at each level.

I've written too much already, so I'll stop here. I just thought it might be interesting to present some of my thoughts on Goa in juxtaposition to another well-known and highly-regarded game. I'm sorry if it wasn't.

I have some further thoughts on the dynamics of 3-player Goa here:

http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist.php3?action=view&listi...

Special Honors
The Massive and Imposing Granite Trophy - Best Gamer's Game of 2004
The Baker's Pair - Best Three-Player Game of 2004

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2. Board Game: Ticket to Ride [Average Rating:7.51 Overall Rank:83]
Joshua Miller
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At the risk of sounding foolish or grandiose, allow me to go on record with a sweeping statement. Ticket to Ride is the best game ever created for introducing new or casual gamers to German-style games. Of course, not everyone will agree. I've even read some comments from folks on BGG who seem to despise the game. Those folks must be a tiny minority, because I've never met one of them in real life. Every person I've played with has greatly enjoyed the game, and I've played it with many, many people - serious gamers, casual gamers, non-gamers. And after all those games, I still love it and am ready to play again and again. Maybe some day I'll dread the thought of yet another game of Ticket to Ride, but I certainly wouldn't bet on it.

In preparing these thoughts, I've tried to delve into the game's design to discover why Ticket to Ride is a nearly perfect introductory game. I won't try to explain the mysteries of why the game is "fun" for such a broad range of people, but I think I can offer some insight into why it fills the "introductory game" niche so well. Here are the ten specific ingredients that I believe form the recipe for its success:

(1) The game is gorgeous, drawing players in immediately.
(2) The train theme, the U.S. map, and the game's title all have an aura of familiarity (especially for Americans, obviously).
(3) It's very easy to learn and intuitive to play.
(4) The goals are clear and the basic strategies are immediately apparent.
(5) There is a real sense of progress, and players can always accomplish something.
(6) The game is not too confrontational.
(7) Turns are short, and the game moves at a fast pace.
(8) There is enough luck to keep the game lighthearted, not intimidating.
(9) The game plays well with 2, 3, 4, or 5 players.
(10) There are hidden depths that reward experience, and help to hold the attention of any of the more seasoned players at the table.

I can' think of another game that meets these criteria. Carcassonne comes close, but the rules are much more complex and have some strange and unintuitive concepts (farmers, one meeple per feature, horning in, majority scoring, different point values for uncompleted features, etc.). Not everyone will have the patience for Carcassonne, or for something like Settlers of Catan (which also fails on points #4, #6, and #9). I feel like I can successfully play Ticket to Ride with just about anyone who is willing to try a new board game. It's a wonderful distillation of the broad appeal of German-style games.

Special Honors
The Well-Tempered Kazoo - Best Light Strategy Game of 2004

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3. Board Game: Power Grid [Average Rating:8.00 Overall Rank:11]
Joshua Miller
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Michigan
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Many designers have attempted to streamline one of their prior designs, making it shorter, simpler, and more aerodynamic. This is a task that usually fails. Important elements or strategic nuances get cut out of the game, and in an effort to make the game more palatable to a broader audience, the soul is lost. New players might like the game, but those who have enjoyed the older version will mourn what is lost. Power Grid succeeds where so many have failed. I loved Funkenschlag, but I'll probably never play it again. Power Grid is shorter, more attractive, less prone to long stagnant periods, and - most importantly - the pre-drawn routes eliminate the biggest headache and waste of time from first edition Funkenschlag. All of this is accomplished with very little of the "good stuff" sacrificed. Sure, I'll admit that there's a downside to the changes. The game sometimes feels slightly too cash rich. The pre-drawn routes remove a dollop of tactics from the building phase. The game is usually won in the middle stages, and the endgame tension of the first edition isn't always present. None of these factors will keep me from playing Power Grid instead of first edition Funkenschlag.

Halfway into 2004, this is the game that I thought was going to win the Spiel des Josh. I still think it's superb, but it doesn't quite offer the same variety of game situations as Goa. Each game plays out a bit differently, but after playing several times, I find myself weighing the same decisions over and over. Fortunately for Power Grid, they are very interesting and (often) tricky decisions. The auction phase is the most important and most exciting part of the game, with some real subtlety to the decisions about what plants to buy, what price you're willing to pay, and how high to bid up the plants you don't really want. This plant would help my current situation, but is it worth the startup cost? That plant sets me up nicely for the endgame, but can I afford to wait a turn? What are the odds that that terrific plant in the future market will come up if I pass on this one? Is this a plant that is irreplaceable to me, and that I should buy at any cost? How many cities should my next plant power given my current plant configuration and power line network? Great, great stuff. I adore the way the market works in this game and the decisions it forces on the players. The way the plants cycle through the market, the advantage of players later in the turn order, the way the current resource and plant mix affects the worth of the plants, the preview of coming attractions combined with the uncertainty of the next plant to be revealed.

The rest of the game is not quite as interesting, but it's important to get it right. You need to manage your cash to accomplish your goals for the turn. You must decide whether it's advantageous to buy extra resources. Will they be cheaper now than next turn? Will you even need them next turn? Is it worth buying extra just to escalate the cost for the other players? Can you buy enough to ensure your resources don't run out in the last turn of the game? You must decide how extensively to build, whether to hang back or vault ahead, when to break out of your geographical niche, whether to activate phase two of the game. These are not dramatic decisions, and they fall under the unglamorous category "careful optimization of my infrastructure." But after all, we're running power companies here. We're all about infrastructure. But the genius of Power Grid is that it's much more than just optimization. In every portion of the game, Friese has managed to inject a high degree of player interaction into what could have become a "sandbox game" in the hands of a lesser designer; that is, a game in which everyone just does his thing without needing to pay much attention to everyone else.

Special Honors
Sumo Westbank's G@mebox Cabinet of Friends - Best Middleweight "German School" Game of 2004
New Paint and Custom Rims - Best Remake or Spinoff of 2004
The Harmony of the Wu Xing - Best Five-Player Game of 2004

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4. Board Game: Antiquity [Average Rating:7.83 Overall Rank:146]
Joshua Miller
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Holland
Michigan
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COMMENTS FORTHCOMING

Special Honors
The Amazing Male Uterus - Most Innovative or Original Game of 2004
The Slate and Clamshell - Best Art Design of 2004
Das "Ich und Du" - Best Two-Player Game of 2004

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5. Board Game: Cluzzle [Average Rating:6.38 Overall Rank:2110]
Joshua Miller
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Michigan
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Cluzzle was the first game published by North Star Games, a company that is head and shoulders above the competition when it comes to party games. Their first three games Cluzzle, Wits & Wagers, and Say Anything have all made the Spiel des Josh top ten. Since 2004, those three games are the only party games that have made my top ten (through 2010 as I write this update). Their games play very quickly, they can be explained in a minute or two, and they are smartly designed to sharply focus on the essence of fun-making and to keep all the extraneous elements to a minimum (downtime, keeping score, non-essential mechanisms, and non-interactive activities).

Cluzzle is like a game of sculpting Pictionary combined with 20 Questions and Thingamajig. Each player creates a clay sculpture that represents a word chosen from a list on their card (or they can choose their own word). The sculptures shouldn't be too realistic, because they're not worth very many points if the other players are able to identify your word right away. But they also shouldn't be too obscure, because you do need them to be identified - eventually. The later in the game they're identified, the more points they'll score for both the sculptor and the guesser. There are three rounds of clue-giving in which every player is allowed to ask two questions about other players' sculptures. They must be "yes or no" questions, although the sculptor is allowed to elaborate a little bit if the answer is not a clear "yes" or "no." At the end of each round, players may make a guess about the identity of any and all of the sculptures. Sculptors and guessers score 1, 2, or 3 points for correct IDs in rounds 1, 2, and 3, respectively.

Cluzzle is clearly an attempt to build a better version of the older German game Barbarossa, which won the other, more famous SdJ in 1988. Barbarossa was an over-long game cluttered with arcane mechanisms and tasks that distracted from the fun core of the game. Cluzzle is a huge improvement over Barbarossa. It removes the peripheral crap and focuses just on the kernel of fun, which is creating the sculptures, formulating helpful questions, and trying to identify the other players' sculptures.

In case it's not obvious, Cluzzle is a casual game that's less about winning and gaming the system, and more about enjoying the process and the creativity and the laughter. If you generally don't enjoy party games, your unlikely to enjoy this one.

Special Honors
The Award That Was Only Trying to Be Affable - Best Party or Social Game of 2004
The Thingamabob Doodad - Best Gaming Oddity of 2004
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6. Board Game: War of the Ring (first edition) [Average Rating:7.85 Overall Rank:34]
Joshua Miller
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I did not expect to like War of the Ring. When I first read about the project, several warning bells were triggered in my brain: games with miniatures, licensed games, games marketed at teenagers, fantasy wargames, games designed by a "design team," hodgepodge hybrid games in the tradition of Fantasy Flight or Games Workshop, games certain to be overridden with errata, games likely to have all sorts of cumbersome rules exceptions to stay true to the theme. On top of all that, there was already a game called "War of the Ring," and it was a complete mess by almost all accounts. If ever there was a game that I was predisposed to hate, this was it.

Well, you've already guessed what comes next. I gave it a shot, and I thought it was great fun. I'm not convinced it's a game that I'll be playing years from now, but after five plays I'm still excited about playing again. That's good replayability for a game of this length. I would probably have played it several more times already if my main wargame partner liked it as well as I do. Designing a game like this has got to be an extremely tough task, and it's hard for me to imagine the design team doing much better than this. The action die system works wonderfully, the cards are good, the war vs. fellowship tension is balanced well, and there are multiple strategic paths - sometimes. I would have liked a bit more flexibility on that last point. Often your strategy is stereotyped by your current card selection or your action dice or the sheer length of time it takes your troops to get to the more remote parts of the board. This is the primary reason I don't foresee War of the Ring standing up to heavy play over the course of several years. But how many games of this sort really earn that many plays? Very, very few. Overall, War of the Ring succeeds in the dual task of providing an exciting, interesting game and evoking the events and atmosphere of the Lord of the Rings.

Special Honors
The Yellow Toddler Stomp Boot - Best Game of Conquest, Trampling, and Smashing of 2004
The Roll of a Lifetime - Best Use of Dice in 2004

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7. Board Game: Around the World in 80 Days [Average Rating:6.57 Overall Rank:983]
Joshua Miller
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Michigan
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After my first couple of plays, I wrote: "Not bad, but it's probably too light for gamers and may be too fussy for others. I would happily play again, but wouldn't want to play it often."

My evaluation of the game has improved markedly after several more plays. Around the World in 80 Days is skillfully designed to create drama and tactical decisions all the way to the finish line. There are reasons to zoom out ahead of the pack, there are reasons to hang with the pack, and there are reasons to lag behind slightly. Until the end, it's hard to tell who is truly winning, and this allows the excitement to build and build all the way through the game. Around the World in 80 Days is in many ways a simple game, yet it forces you to struggle against it on many levels at once: getting the right special action, finding low-numbered cards, finding matching cards, finding the right train/boat mix, managing your hand, rationing your gold, attempting to be the first or last into a city, avoiding the detective, avoiding being the last to finish, and making sure to beat the ticking 80-day clock. It's not rocket surgery, but it's surprisingly multi-faceted for such a light game. I've played with every configuration from 3 to 6 players, and the game scales well through that entire range.

Special Honors
The "Damn, Here Comes Sam, Should We Split Into Threes?" Award - Best Six-Player Game of 2004
The Tro-lo-lo Trophy - Game That Most Exceeded My Expectations in 2004

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8. Board Game: Reef Encounter [Average Rating:7.19 Overall Rank:313]
Joshua Miller
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Holland
Michigan
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I don't want to pump this one up too much simply because it's not currently available for anything approaching a reasonable cost. I got mine for a bit under $50 and I'm glad I took the risk. Would I pay $100 or more for it? No, I wouldn't, but I do think it's one of the ten best games of the year. I'm sure we'll be seeing someone snap it up for broader distribution within the next couple years. I would be trying to work out a deal right now if I ran a small publishing firm.

Richard Breese has shown a lot of growth as a game designer. His early designs showed a creative approach and some promising ideas, but they didn't quite come together into good games (I'm referring to Keydom and Keytown - I've never had the chance to play Keywood). Aladdin's Dragons was, in my view, his first good game, although I traded it away after a few (enjoyable) plays. Keythedral was also good, but it too left my collection after a few plays. Reef Encounter, though, is Breese's breakout game. It's the game that moves him from the category "designers to watch" to the category "designers who have arrived."

I'll warn potential buyers/players that the rules are horribly presented, and the game mechanisms will initially feel convoluted and difficult. Once you get past those obstacles, you'll find a very sophisticated and enjoyable gamer's game.

Reef Encounter did indeed get licensed for wide release in 2005. I miss the pastel palette of Juliet Breese's art, but the new art is also attractive.



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9. Board Game: Jenseits von Theben [Average Rating:7.19 Overall Rank:1246]
Joshua Miller
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Here's another one that's not currently available. I don't even own a copy myself, but I've had the chance to play it twice so far. Although I demurred with Reef Encounter, I would like to share some thoughts on Jenseits von Theben because there's not much information available right now, and because I think it's the hidden gem of 2004. First of all, the game was published in a limited edition of 100-and-some-odd copies at Essen 2004 by Prinz Spiele, which is the one-man studio of designer Peter Prinz. He's promising a second edition, although I haven't heard any updates since December 2004. Anyone who is interested in news about the reprint can visit his website (linked in the game entry) and sign up for email notification.

I recommend that anyone interested in learning more about the game and why I like it read my preview of the game here:

http://www.boardgamegeek.com/article/462971

Special Honors
The Cardboard Rabbit Hole - Most Effective Presentation of Theme and Setting in 2004

Jenseits von Theben was picked up by Queen Games for wide release in 2007. comments on that beautiful version can be found in my 2007 Spiel des Josh list.

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10. Board Game: Memoir '44 [Average Rating:7.53 Overall Rank:87] [Average Rating:7.53 Unranked]
Joshua Miller
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Memoir '44 is without a doubt the best super-duper-lightweight wargame I've ever played. If I were enthusiastic about super-duper-lightweight wargames, I would probably be pinning a Spiel des Josh onto Memoir '44's lapel right about now. But I'm not enthusiastic about that sort of game. Memoir '44 is impressive enough that it has overcome long odds, placing in the top ten despite my natural disinclination to its genre.

I liked Battle Cry, but there were many annoyances and imbalances, prompting me to introduce several tweaks and rules fixes. The problems included: the edge of the world phenomenon when retreating, too many unusable cards, no way to cycle cards, the overpowered All-Out Offensive card, and the underpowered Skirmish and Sharp Shooter cards. Well guess what? Memoir '44 has fixed **every single one** of these problems! I also like the faster pace and greater maneuverability (appropriate for WWII), the new rules for close assault, and the greater variety and balance in the card mix. Most importantly, I feel like I have important choices to make while playing Memoir '44 - something that didn't always happen in Battle Cry, where the more restrictive cards and lack of manueverability often forced me down very specific paths.

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11. Board Game: Leftovers [Average Rating:6.09 Unranked]
Joshua Miller
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This is not the game 'Leftovers' (which was actually released in 2004). No, it's the place where the Spiel des Josh list officially ends and the list of games that "just missed" begins. Everything else from the next spot on the list on down is a game I admire, enjoy, and am happy to have in my collection. In fact, there are so many good games from 2004 that I'll have to leave a few of them off the list. I'll mention those in spot #25, along with some brief thoughts on the games from 2004 that left me cold.

This is also the place where I'll update you about any other games from 2004 that I hadn't tried yet at the time of publication. I am hoping to eventually try the following games. It's foreseeable that that one or more of these could eventually displace a game currently on the list (Antiquity and Cluzzle have both already done so!):




[UPDATE] Crossed out Antiquity, which now appears in this year's top ten. Added Farfalia to the "to do" list. Added note about Viking Fury/Fire and Axe.

[UPDATE] Crossed out Cluzzle, which has now also made the top ten for the year.



Viking Fury was released in 2004. I didn't play it until the 2007 update Fire and Axe. You can find it discussed on that year's Spiel des Josh list.

In the Shadow of the Emperor, while technically a 2004 release, will be considered for the 2005 Spiel des Josh, since the English edition has been so late in arriving.

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12. Board Game: Fifth Avenue [Average Rating:6.07 Overall Rank:2628]
Joshua Miller
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Holland
Michigan
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If Jenseits von Theben is the hidden gem of 2004, then Fifth Avenue is perhaps the overlooked masterpiece. Well, perhaps not a masterpiece, but a very good game nonetheless. I'm among the top 10% of raters here on BGG, so I guess that makes me one of the game's biggest fans. I'm not completely sure why it has gotten such a chilly reception, and I wonder whether the lack of enthusiasm for the game at last year's Gathering of Friends has created a bad aura around the game. I think it's a very sophisticated and well-orchestrated game that presents players with subtle trade-offs and constant scarcity of resources. It follows the Knizia-esque paradigm of offering a bounty of attractive options, but only allowing players to select one or two.

I'll admit that the game is ugly, the theme is uninvolving, and the strategies can be a little difficult to grasp the first time through. And if players don't see the strategies, they may end up playing the game in such a way that it ends prematurely and without much excitement. Together, all of these factors mean that many people have probably not given the game a second play, or even a first play. I would encourage you to give Fifth Avenue another chance if your group likes delicate but deep strategy games like Taj Mahal, El Grande, Acquire, Modern Art, and Titicaca. I specifically chose those games because I think Fifth Avenue should appeal to the sort of gamer who enjoys games like those.

The game needs to be played with some finesse in order to unlock its potential. It's probably not a game that can be played by force of intuition, as so many German games can. Players must carefully consider what they are trying to accomplish, how they can best do that, and whether they will need the cooperation of one of the other players. I was lucky enough to play my first game with a group that "got" the game, and I loved it from the very start. I suggest playing with four; the three-player game is noticeably weaker.

Special Honors
The Sad Phantom - Overlooked or Undiscovered Game of 2004

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13. Board Game: Ingenious [Average Rating:7.23 Overall Rank:215]
Joshua Miller
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Michigan
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Einfach Genial is a good choice for players who don't mind trying an abstract placement game, but who usually find such games too dry or too intimidating or too intense. Einfach Genial is none of those things. The random tile draw and the multiplayer design put this more in the category of a German-style game than a typical "abstract." I would think of it as a German spatial placement game that simply lacks a real-world setting or theme. For me, it scratches the same itch as Ta Yü. Both are visually appealing, nontaxing, liesurely, and both nicely limit a player's choices to keep them from becoming overwhelmed. I prefer Ta Yü with two players, and Einfach Genial with the four player partnership rules.

Special Honors
The Nondescript Cube - Best Abstract Strategy Game* of 2004

* I'm using a broad, non-technical definition of "abstract strategy game" that is not limited to two-player perfect information games.
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14. Board Game: The Scepter of Zavandor [Average Rating:7.07 Overall Rank:518]
Joshua Miller
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Michigan
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Das Zepter von Zavandor is quite clearly and explicitly based on the old TimJim game Outpost - but don't let that stop you from trying it. I haven't played Outpost, but I've researched it because of my interest in Das Zepter von Zavandor. Outpost has a reputation for tedious accounting, a lack of player interaction, a lack of variety, and a game-killing runaway leader problem. There is still some tedium associated with the accounting, but the math is much friendlier now because you can make change. The player interaction has also been heightened somewhat, there is much more variety, and the runaway leader problem has been completely eliminated! In short, the improvements over Outpost are massive, by almost all accounts.

Having said that, you should steer clear of Das Zepter if you don't like games in which your main goal is to build up an efficient economic engine (Outpost, Puerto Rico, Goa, Saint Petersburg, Power Grid, Roads & Boats, 18xx, etc.). Despite the fantasy wizard spellcraft magical gem fairy dust mumbo-jumbo, this is a game of building economic infrastructure. The game can also be quite long if played with 5 or 6 players, especially the first time through. I recommend trying it with 3 or 4 players at the most. Once you're up to speed, a 3-player game can be completed in well under two hours. My final warning is that Das Zepter is a game that has much less player interaction than many other games - although what little there is can be extremely important: player turn order, bidding for artifacts and sentinels, and timing when to offer them. Mostly, though, it's a game about finding an efficient path through the obstacles in front of you, independent of what the other players are doing. Because it's an optimization game, it might have a hard ceiling on the number of times you'll want to play it. I'm confident, though, that that ceiling is quite high. At the very least there are six different characters to discover (the characters determine your starting resources and knowledge), and each of them can be approached in more than one way.

UPDATE: Well my suspicions were right. I have indeed hit the ceiling for Das Zepter von Zavandor, and don't look forward to playing it again. I would guess that I got about 6-7 games out of it, though, which is very good for a game like this. My biggest beef with the game is the dominance of the artifact that gives you a free diamond and allows you to buy diamonds (Elixer). It's powerful enough that it respresents a "clear best" strategic path in the game, limiting diversity of strategies. Also limiting the strategic diversity is the pressing need to take knowledge of the 7 Sages at some point, and the weakness of the knowledge of Fire (Rubies) and its associated character. Additionally, I've decided that there's simply too much tedious counting and fussing with change in the game. That restrictive non-liquid cash system is part of what makes Das Zepter von Zavandor interesting, but it does cause the game to take too long and really hampers its appeal for non-lovers of math.

Special Honors
The Brain-Shaped Grenade - Best Puzzler or Brainburner of 2004
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15. Board Game: Tanz der Hornochsen! [Average Rating:6.52 Overall Rank:1878]
Joshua Miller
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Michigan
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So far, I like this just a little bit better than 6 nimmt. Tanz der Hornochsen has a more varied texture, more character, and presents more elements to consider. It's also more chaotic, has a higher rules overhead, and doesn't play as quickly. I'm glad I own both (and Hornochsen, which I also like). I would probably lean toward Tanz der Hornochsen for smaller groups of players, and the simpler 6 nimmt for larger groups (or when time is short). The chaos of TdH is just a bit too much with more than 5 or 6 players. 6 nimmt is also too chaotic for my tastes with groups that large, but it works better because it doesn't tempt you to overthink things like TdH does. That's precisely the same quality that causes me to prefer TdH over 6 nimmt for smaller groups: it gives you more to think about, and more opportunities to play with skill.

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16. Board Game: No Thanks! [Average Rating:7.04 Overall Rank:333]
Joshua Miller
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Geschenkt is about as simple as you can get in the hobby game market, but is it beautifully simple or painfully simple? I admit that I lean more toward the first description. And this is from someone who doesn't like games in which one's decisions are overwhelmed by luck. Geschenkt certainly seems to be that type of game, yet I like it. It's appropriately short, moves quickly, and the risk management aspects make for interesting decisions, even if they all pay off or fail based on the luck of the cards (specifically, whether certain cards have been removed from the deck at random).

Special Honors
The Dainty and Adorable Trophy - Best Quick Filler of 2004

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17. Board Game: Blue Moon [Average Rating:6.78 Overall Rank:607]
Joshua Miller
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Michigan
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Blue Moon looked like something I might like, so I purchased it without doing much investigation. I read the rules, and was completely nonplussed. The game did not look like it would work at all. It sounded trite, almost pointless, like Knizia had attempted to capture the essence of a collectible card game and missed the point entirely. But I knew I had to try it because Knizia had fooled me before with this same trick. Ever read the rules to Flinke Pinke? How about Quo Vadis? Even Modern Art sounds kind of ridiculous based on the rules alone. Well, Blue Moon is good. I don't yet have a sense for whether it will remain very good for a long, long time, or whether it will burn out after the decks become too familiar. It probably will burn out eventually, but I think there's plenty of play before that happens. I have five of the six races currently available (all but Terrah), and I plan to also get the Pillar and Aqua when they're available. I'm not interested in the deck-building portion of the game. My recommendation is based on the constructed decks only. You get two races with the basic set, and you'll probably want a couple more for some variety if you find that you enjoy the game.

Special Honors
The Extremely Thin Trophy - Best Card Game of 2004
The Wreath and Crest - Best Game Expansion of 2004*

* awarded to the delightful Blue Moon: The Khind

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18. Board Game: Heroscape Master Set: Rise of the Valkyrie [Average Rating:7.41 Overall Rank:192] [Average Rating:7.41 Unranked]
Joshua Miller
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Note: a terrain setup like the first image would require two sets of Rise of the Valkyrie. The last image shows what can be done if you own a LOT of master sets along with forest, bridge, and castle expansions.

I did not expect to like Heroscape. I'm not typically fond of toy-like games. But when Toys-R-Us was running their 2-for-1 sales on Hasbro games late in 2004, I picked up a couple copies, figuring that they were a good deal at $20 apiece and wouldn't be hard to unload if necessary. For months, those ugly, hulking boxes just sat on the shelf, exiled to my back room, and I was vaguely ashamed of owning them.

Once I finally tried the darn game, I was a bit surprised to discover that it was actually a lot of fun! I've since collected almost all of the assorted junk that Hasbro has pushed my way, and despite occasionally suffering some buyer's remorse, I am still really enjoying the game.

Although I don't have children of my own, I always appreciate games that are great fun for mixed groups of kids and adults. There are far too few of those games, and Heroscape is tough to beat in this category. It's not something I'd choose to play in my gaming group (for starters, it simply takes too long to construct and put away), but I'm very happy to have it around.

Special Honors
The Lead-Free Trophy With No Sharp Edges - Best Childish Game for Adults of 2004
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19. Board Game: Jambo [Average Rating:7.10 Overall Rank:321] [Average Rating:7.10 Unranked]
Joshua Miller
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It was a great year for the Kosmos "Speie für Zwei" series, with both entries narrowly missing the Spiel des Josh list. I've grown increasingly fond of the series through the years. I wasn't impressed with the early games such as Caesar & Cleopatra, The Settlers Card Game, and Kahuna, but many of the games from the last five years have been terrific. Both of this year's releases, Jambo and Blue Moon, have a noticeable "collectible card game" feel to them.

Jambo is not collectible or expandable in any way, yet it definitely feels like a CCG. Why? It's primarily the sheer variety of cards and effects, and the way that the rules for the game are contained on the cards and in their interactions. Another CCG-like dynamic is the way players spend a lot of the game plowing through the deck, churning as many cards as possible and looking for the ones they need the most. Some cards are nearly always good, and others work well in conjunction with others. Players constantly have to readjust tactically to their present situations. The game can feel random at first because players are at the mercy of the cards they draw and because the game state can change so quickly. With more experience, they may discover that there are usually opportunities to make their own luck. I would especially recommend Jambo to anyone who enjoys the earlier Kosmos two-player game Babel.

Overall, Jambo is just plain fun even if it sometimes spins out of your control. It's a visually and thematically appealing game with lots of variety and plenty of opportunities for futzing around in canny ways.
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20. Board Game: BuyWord [Average Rating:6.35 Overall Rank:2072]
Joshua Miller
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Holland
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Buyword is not so much a "game" as it is a competitive solitaire exercise. In fact, it plays just as well with one as it does with more. There are variants in the rules to increase the player interaction, but I haven't felt the need to try them yet. The drafting variant looks like it would be a good choice who demand a more interactive experience; I hope to try it sometime soon. With the basic rules, Buyword is in the same category as games like Take It Easy and Ricochet Robot. It's an activity that everyone can do at the same time, with a method to find out who did the best job. There is actually a tiny bit of interaction in choosing how many tiles everyone should draw when you roll "choice." That only happens one time in three, and the decision is usually rather obvious.

So despite all this stuff about Buyword not being much of a game at all, I'm saying I think it's among the best games of 2004. Huh? Well, it's good for what it is. There's a place in the world for non-interactive games, especially word games, which already tend to lean toward puzzle-like activities. Buyword is a very good anagramming game, and I think the economic system of purchasing letters and selling words is brilliant. Buying the tiles offered to you is usually an automatic "yes" decision (although not in every case), so the purchase decisions are not that interesting. Selling words is a different matter altogether. The way words are valued according the square of the number of pips creates tough dilemmas, especially in conjunction with the hand-size limit. To succeed, it is not enough to be able to make anagrams Players must also understand the timing of the game and consider how to make best use of their limited resources.

Special Honors
The Diamond Solitaire - Best Solo Game of 2004
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21. Board Game: Linq [Average Rating:6.88 Overall Rank:1331]
Joshua Miller
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Linq is a party game that was unknown to me until late 2005. The concept of the game is very simple. One card is dealt to each player. Two of the cards contain the same word, something simple like "bluff" or "gang." The rest of the cards just have "???" printed on them. There are two rounds in which every player in turn gives a one-word clue. The two players who were dealt the word are partners, and are trying to identify one another. They score points only if they both figure it out. The rest of the players are also trying to decipher who the partners are, and anyone who guesses correctly will also score points.

What a surprise this was! Linq is a great social game for those who enjoy being creative within a framework of wordplay and puzzle-sleuthing. I particularly enjoy trying to set up a perfect bluff between two non-partners. We allow the ??? players an extra point if they correctly guess the word that was dealt to the partners. This adds to the fun, and aids those who aren't getting dealt the word cards; they have a much harder task than the active partners do. Also, don't allow partners to throw out nonsense clues in the second round if they're confident that they've already found one another. If you enjoy games like Thingamajig, Password or Montage, you should definitely give Linq a try.

Special Honors
The Certificate of Participation - Best Cooperative, Team or Semi-Collaborative Game of 2004
also considered: Cluzzle, Fifth Avenue, Ingenious (4p)

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22. Board Game: Oltre Mare [Average Rating:6.71 Overall Rank:816]
Joshua Miller
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OltreMare was the indie hit of Essen 2004, and it has been popular with almost everyone in my gaming group. It's a game ostensibly about Mediterranean maritime trade during the Italian Renaissance period. But what it really is, is Advanced Bohnanza. The two games are strikingly similar - although OltreMare is more complex and is aimed at serious gamers rather than casual players.

As with Bohnanza, players are primarily trying to form sets of various types of cards. In Bohnanza they're beans that are planted in your fields, in OltreMare they're trade goods that are loaded onto your ship. The goods form an ordered queue, and you want matching goods grouped together in order to maximize your profits. Also like Bohnanza, players are allowed and encouraged to trade cards (and in the case of OltreMare, currency) with one another. The trading is an important component of OltreMare, although it doesn't dominate the game as it does in Bohnanza. There are many other aspects to OltreMare, including traveling to new ports that award you with a special temporary bonus, avoiding pirates, securing a stream of income in terms of cash and goods cards, and managing your hand size and number of cards you're allowed to play each turn. All of these aspects are handled via the cards, which have symbols on them relating to the various tasks. It's really quite ingenious when you see it all working smoothly together. The crux of the game is hand management, conservation of resources, and trading. If that sounds like a game you'd enjoy, I highly recommend trying OltreMare, which is available in its second printing in North America at a reasonable cost.

In 2005, Rio Grande and Amigo produced a new, giant-sized version of OltreMare, as shown to the left and below.


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23. Board Game: Tahuantinsuyu [Average Rating:7.20 Overall Rank:1406]
Joshua Miller
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I've only played Tahuaninsuyu once, and my opinions on the game are not well formed. It should suffice to say that I enjoyed the game, and am eagerly awaiting a repeat appearance. I was a little skeptical about one of the cards, though. It's titled "Rural Unrest" and it destroys all roads that are fully or partially within unconquered territories. In our game, that card totally devastated the position of one of the players. In Tahuantinsuyu, cards are played in such a way that they only affect two of the four players. We wondered whether the Rural Unrest card should be adjusted so that it affects all players, or nerfed in some other way. I'll see how it goes the second time through before considering any changes.

In 2010, Tahuantinsuyu received a wide release from Queen Games. The new version has a separate listing on BGG: Inca Empire

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24. Board Game: Saint Petersburg [Average Rating:7.35 Overall Rank:153]
Joshua Miller
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Saint Petersburg is an enjoyable game of timing, staying flexible, and evaluating odds. Once everyone has learned the flow of the game and is able to avoid the common traps, the outcome will sometimes come down to luck of the draw. But in the meantime, interesting decisions present themselves, and there's much fun to be had. I'm puzzled that St. Petersburg is often described as "light," since it requires detailed calculation, and since mastering the pace of the game requires some sophistication. I'd say it's a fast-playing gamer's game with a fairly high luck quotient. I don't care for the four-handed version, but it's very good with two or three.

So yes, I like Saint Petersburg, but I traded my copy. I can play the freeware PC conversion in about 5 minutes (I play with three or four players because the AI stinks with two), eliminating the bookkeeping and condensing the interesting parts into a few critical decisions each game. For quite a while, it was my time-killer of choice, my Windows Solitaire if you will. Having played hundreds of times on my PC takes some of the fun out of the actual face-to-face game, but I don't mourn the loss since there are tons of great face-to-face games and relatively few time-killers that don't slowly drive me mad.
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25. Board Game: What's Missing? [Average Rating:4.58 Unranked]
Joshua Miller
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Here's where I offer some quick thoughts on the rest of the heap from 2005. If you want to know more than the quick hits here, my rating comments are more detailed in most cases.

25 items is an arbitrary cutoff, chosen to allow me to display this list on a single page. As a consequence of this limitation, several solid games were left off - games that I'm happy to own:



City and Guilds - Weird and tricky game where you have to evaluate many interconnects impacts of each tile placement. The game is a little mechanical, but I appreciate the complex decisions arising from simple rules.

Der Untergang von Pompeji - Really just a light family game, but its brisk pace, drama, hosage opportunities, and ease of play are enough to keep me smiling. Here's a good example of a mostly-random game done well. I'm very grateful for any game that I can play with young kids without my eyes glossing over, and this is one of the few.

Coda - Extremely simple deduction game that makes a great filler. It's completely unfair because there's incentive to keep picking on the same player, eliminating her from the game. And winning can often be the result of having the next turn at the moment when everything comes together. A test of skill? Not entirely, but who cares? The game is over in a few minutes, so lighten up and demand a rematch.

Die Weinhändler - Very reminiscent of Knizia's Money and equally as good, although slower. Interesting dilemmas of timing and psychology arise naturally from the bidding system, which sometimes feels more like betting than bidding.

Austin Poker - This game isn't rated well on BGG, but I really like it. If it were a bit shorter, it might even be a candidate for the year's top ten. Players compete simultaneously in multiple hands of stud poker. As they win hands, players receive super-buffed poker cards that generate income and victory points, provide special powers, and can be played as a part of future hands.

Jochen der Rochen - Manfred Ludwig and Zoch have finally given us the definitive undersea birthday party game! Rock out with Ray the Stingray, and keep those slamdancing sawfish away from the guest of honor. No I am not making this up.
Honors: The Athletic Cup - Best Action or Dexterity Game of 2004.

Submarine - The submarine game that's "dry and not too deep" (credit to Ward Batty, I think). It's a bizarre little game that doesn't look like it should work, but does. The game engine is right there in front of us with the hood open, as we've come to expect of Leo Colovini's games. It's a cunningly simple design, with few moving parts but a broad array of tactics available to the players. Success will be a result of tactical planning, good timing, riding coattails, and outguessing your opponents. Unfortunately, Submarine only hits its cruising speed with exactly four players. The cards and artifacts are too plentiful with three players (although this could probably be fixed), and the game state is too unpredictable with five.


BORDERLINE GAMES

Hansa - Mechanical, purely tactical game that appears to almost plays itself, yet is mildly pleasant.
Dawn Under - Extremely difficult memory game with stunning production values.
La Strada - Sucks with three, good but unbalanced with four.
Hispaniola - I saw some interesting stuff to explore in this trick-taker, but no one else around here likes it.
Goldbräu - Unforgiving of early mistakes, prone to runaway victories, and luck of cards is too great.
Ys - Decent, but not worth keeping around. If you like Aladdin's Dragons, you'll probably like Ys.
Typo - Decent word game that needs one more element, idea, or rule to make it thoroughly enjoyable.
Adam & Eva - Pacal-like game that sends your brain in weird directions.
Boomtown - Some nice elements with bidding, mayors, but it's not quite there.
Russian Rails - Middle-tier Empire Builder game that drags a bit.
Carcassonne: The City - The weakest Wrede-authored Carc game. See ratings comments.
SeaSim - Fascinating system, but not as compelling as a game.
Piranha - Good children's dexterity game, rates higher for that audience

NOT SO GOOD

Struggle of Empires - leader-bashing and randomness run amok. See my user comments for much more detail.
San Juan - Too predictable, not enough player interaction. See my comments.
Maharaja - Feels very static and uninspired. BGG top 40? Whuh?
Fairy Tale - Drafting is nice, but too simplistic and no sense of tension.
Neuland - Ugly, no strategic breadth, confining and "same-y"
Marco Polo Expedition - Uninteresting with few meaningful choices.
Niagara - Family game, can be broken by gamers. See my comments.
Dos Rios - Sisyphean game of climbing up a mountain to be pushed back down.
Easy Come, Easy Go - Fun for 3 at first, obsoleted by Um Krone und Kragen.
Old Town - Good logic puzzle, not such a good game. Better with two?
Das große Fressen - Why?

RUN SCREAMING

Tongiaki - Pointless. Horrible. So bad it's good. See my comments.
Mall World - A game engine in search of a game.
Betrayal at House on the Hill - "Experience game," poorly executed.
Saga - If Manga and Spy are worse, they must be atrocious!
Dancing Dice - Decisions are sparse and uninteresting.
Lost Valley - Tons of problems, needs more development. See comments.
Lightning: D-Day - Actual D-Day invasion may have been more fun.
Revolution: The Dutch Revolt - Opaque bookkeeping game with incoherent rules. See ratings comments.

Please remember that everything you've just read is merely one guy's take on things, and I'm not trying to convince others that they should arrive at the same conclusions. As with any form of art or entertainment, the worth of a game is a very personal judgment.

Thanks for reading!
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