My best discoveries of 2010
Lori
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Durham
North Carolina
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I wrote this list 11 months ago, but apparently was too absent-minded to actually post it. So here it is now, because why not.

This list was inspired by Grimwold's excellent series of "best new game you've played this month" geeklists. Here's a highlight reel of my personal best finds of the past year.

Since this is in a best-of-each-month format, these won't necessarily be the same games as if I'd picked my 12 favorites from the whole year overall. Some months the competition was close and I played several new games that I really liked; other months I only played a single new game and it wins by default. But I think this method does result in a nice history of my month-by-month gaming discoveries. These are the winners I picked at the end of each month, though I'm commenting on them now from an end-of-the-year perspective and have played some of them additional times.

My past best-finds-of-the-year lists: 2009 | 2008 | 2007
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1. Board Game: Alhambra [Average Rating:7.05 Overall Rank:312]
Lori
United States
Durham
North Carolina
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January: Alhambra (2003)

The competition: Mutiny.

I played this at an anniversary event for one of my game groups. We were looking back to 2006 (the year the group started); this was a game that had gotten played a lot back then, but that somehow I’d missed out on ever getting to play. So I gave it a try and found Alhambra a pretty enjoyable tile-laying game. I like the mechanic of the money tableau, and the way you can either take money or buy things. But the dueling color schemes are a little confusing--this was the first game I thought I might've understood better if I were colorblind. I haven’t played again since, so my memory of the game is fading. But it’s in the "probably wouldn’t request, but don’t mind playing at any time" category for me. Although not an outstanding hit, Alhambra won this month because the only other new game I played was one I actively disliked.
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2. Board Game: Martian Rails [Average Rating:7.23 Overall Rank:1928]
Lori
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Durham
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February: Martian Rails (2009)

The competition: Witch of Salem.

Amazing that I only played two new games this month despite going to a gaming convention. I guess this just goes to show how Roborally-focused I am at Prezcon (now alternatively known to us as Robocon). The winning game was not even one I learned at the con; I went out and bought it as sort of a birthday present for myself, and played it with my mom. We are both huge fans of the crayon rail series, so there was no doubt we were going to love it, and we did. Though I still recall being mocked by my family when, after reading about the game before buying it, I excitedly reported that the board featured real Martian cities (they are taken from various SF literature about Mars).
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3. Board Game: Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization [Average Rating:8.21 Overall Rank:4]
Lori
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Durham
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March: Through the Ages (2006)

The competition: Goa, Jotto, Roll Through the Ages, Space Alert, Telepathy, Torres, Gloom: Unwelcome Guests.

This really blew me away. I played a LOT of the computer game Civilization back in the day, and was amazed at how similar this felt. I also really like the direction this takes the civilization-building genre. It has been rightly said that if you’re going to have a civ game that does not have an epic-length playtime, some element has to be sacrificed. In the case of Through the Ages, the element to go was the map. While I can understand how that might ruin everything for some civ-game fans, it suited me perfectly, because the Risk-y side of these games was the part I was a bit tired of anyway. This game is just a boxful of awesome.

At the end of the year, I was on the fence about which game to pick as my best new discovery of 2010, torn between Through the Ages and the one I ultimately did pick. By chance, those were also the first two games I played in 2011. One was my best experience ever with that game, and the other was the worst yet; after that, the decision was made. I didn’t downgrade Through the Ages just because I got crushed that one time, but rather because that experience brought out what I consider to be the weaknesses of the game. I don’t find everyone piling on to the player in last place to be a desirable game dynamic, but that’s what Through the Ages can encourage. Since it’s almost impossible to get back on your feet after a certain point, the only thing discouraging this vulture swarm is the prospect of honorable withdrawal. However, that takes it straight into metagame territory. I’m not a quitter and my gaming buddies know it. Even when it’s entirely within the rules, as here, I don’t fancy the idea. So they were able to pile on, knowing that I’d choose to spend four hours getting smacked with fresh aggressions every turn rather than quit. In some games, you may be a zillion points behind the leader, but you can still keep doing your thing. In TtA, if you’re trailing, your rivals are constantly plundering you and destroying your stuff, so it’s really like you’re down and can’t get up. Not an especially enjoyable experience.

But I don’t mean to sound all negative about what probably was my second favorite game of the year. I still like Through the Ages a lot, but I think the game is at its best when the military is played as cold war rather than hot. That is, more deterrence than actual combat. The balance of the game lies in keeping your military strong enough that you don’t become a target, while developing in other ways to make your civilization the greatest. There are many strategic possibilities, and the cards provide enough randomness to make each game different. The length is a factor in carving out time to play, but the game is too full of adventure to ever feel long. And its complexities are amazingly intuitive.

Honorable Mention: Although the epic awesomeness of Through the Ages made it my pick of the month, I have to say a word for Telepathy. This is an addictively delightful deduction game. I’ve played it 16 times this year, probably more than any other game on this list. A two-player game at heart, it works with three and very nicely with four. I never get tired of it.
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4. Board Game: Inkognito: The Card Game [Average Rating:5.41 Overall Rank:10031]
Lori
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Durham
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April: Inkognito (1997)

The competition: Ark of the Covenant, Goldland, Shear Panic.

I’m always interested in new deduction games, and got to learn this one from one of my gaming buddies who’s also a fan of the genre. Unfortunately it’s one of those games doomed to get played less because it’s for exactly 4 players only; I’ve played it one other time since. I like the Venetian setting, the interesting twists on deduction (partnership game where you have to figure out who your partner is; information exchange where you always tell one truth and one lie), and the thematic mechanics (you play location tiles to exchange info at secret rendezvous, but you won’t learn anything if no one shows up to meet you, or if you can’t talk freely because someone else is there observing you). This card game is a re-implementation of an Inkognito board game which I’ve never seen, but have heard is not as good as the card game version.
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5. Board Game: Himalaya [Average Rating:7.05 Overall Rank:580]
Lori
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Durham
North Carolina
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May: Himalaya (2002)

The competition: Factory Manager, Mystery Express, Dominion: Alchemy, Ticket to Ride: Europa 1912.

Himalaya is a game that has elements in common with many other games, and seems to frequently inspire comparisons. But it has a definite character of its own, and never feels like a derivative Frankengame cobbled together out of borrowed pieces. I find the whole idea of programmed yak movement pretty endearing, though I was sad to find that my yak didn’t have a laser. The cube mechanics are clever, and inspire interestingly thwarty interactions. All in all I just liked the look and feel of this game. If I had the choice to make over again, though, I’d be torn between Himalaya and Mystery Express for this month’s best game.
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6. Board Game: Macao [Average Rating:7.46 Overall Rank:158]
Lori
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Durham
North Carolina
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June: Macao (2009)

The competition: None.

Although Macao wins by default this month, it would’ve been a contender in any month. I really like the original use of dice in this game. The theme is pretty typical Euro fare, but the game has an interesting rhythm; it tends to seem really uphill at first, and then things start to blossom. I also like the way nothing is wasted; you can always use any extra cubes on the turn-order wall or to sail your ship. I’ve played four times now and enjoy it every time.
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7. Board Game: 10 Days in the Americas [Average Rating:6.72 Overall Rank:1947]
Lori
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Durham
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July: 10 Days in the Americas (2010)

The competition: Mexican Train, Plaplak, Scandaroon.

As in February and October, this month my choice was the latest entry in a known and loved series of games. 10 Days in the Americas is a fun little game, fully up to the standard of the 10 Days series. It also allowed us to expand the combination game to Around the World in 50 Days, which was seriously awesome.
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8. Board Game: Parade [Average Rating:6.89 Overall Rank:644]
Lori
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Durham
North Carolina
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August: Parade (2007)

The competition: Incan Gold, Puerto Rico, San Juan.

I was drawn to this game by the Alice in Wonderland theme/art, though admittedly it has no relevance to the gameplay. Still lovely, though. Parade plays quickly, comes in a small box, is easy to teach, and is flexible on number of players (though probably at its strategic best with 2)--all good filler game qualities. I like the way you use cards from your hand at the end of the game, to give it a final unexpected twist.
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9. Board Game: Shipyard [Average Rating:7.36 Overall Rank:326]
Lori
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Durham
North Carolina
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September: Shipyard (2009)

The competition: If Wishes Were Fishes, Innovation, Mutton, Ubongo Duel.

Dull theme, delightful game. There’s a lot going on here, which is one of the things I like about it. Another is the hybrid scoring; I like games where some things are scored as you go (so you have some idea of how you’re doing), but then others are secret until a burst of scoring at the end (so you can’t be sure how it’s going to turn out). I also like the way you have until halfway through the game before you have to commit to which contracts you’re choosing. This gives you the flexibility to plan, but also be ready to adapt to whatever happens.

I don’t like it when you end a game with a bunch of extra resources that you’ve sunk game energy into getting, but can’t use. So I like games that avoid this in different clever ways--like Macao, where there are actions that can be fueled by any cubes you’ve got; or Louis XIV, where practically everything you might have left can be traded in for something that gives victory points. Shipyard fits this category in a different way; everyone gets a final turn (in which you can take any action you want, even if someone else has taken it) and a final ship piece, so you get a chance to freely wrap up your final project, which is very satisfying.
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10. Board Game: Dominion: Prosperity [Average Rating:8.36 Unranked] [Average Rating:8.36 Unranked]
Lori
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Durham
North Carolina
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October: Dominion: Prosperity (2010)

The competition: Glory to Rome, Hera & Zeus, Last Night on Earth, Solaris.

I was impressed with Prosperity right away, and probably like it better than anything except maybe Seaside. Once again Vaccarino has managed to take the game in a new and exciting direction, this time by doing interesting things with treasure.
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11. Board Game: Merchant of Venus [Average Rating:7.20 Overall Rank:446]
Lori
United States
Durham
North Carolina
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November: Merchant of Venus (1988)

The competition: Condottière, Forbidden Island.

I consider it a strong indicator of awesomeness in a game when you find yourself still talking about it for some time afterward. Practically every game of Merchant of Venus we’ve played has inspired a lengthy postgame analysis/discussion. I’ve played seven times now in less than two months, which also says something about the impression this game has made on my circle.

This is a pickup-and-deliver game in space. There’s also a layer of exploration, because when the game starts, you have no idea where anyone or anything is. There are 14 intelligent races you can find and trade with, but their distribution about the universe is random and different every time. So you begin by going around discovering cultures and opening trade relations with them, and segue into trying to develop the most efficient trade routes, amassing wealth, and investing some of it in building things. There are also special gizmos strewn about that you can go find, so more exploration there. You can upgrade to different kinds of ships, and add different equipment to improve your ship.
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12. Board Game: Nuns on the Run [Average Rating:6.63 Overall Rank:899]
Lori
United States
Durham
North Carolina
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December: Nuns on the Run (2010)

The competition: Mines of Zavandor, Reef Encounter.

The silly, lighthearted theme of this game is a pleasant departure from the crime and espionage that are the usual setting for deduction games. It’s an all-against-one game, but unusual in that the one is the hunter and not the prey. Some of the mechanics reminded me of Scotland Yard and Mr. Jack, both of which I like. Since this was my December pick, I’ve only played it the one (unfinished) time, but it was a fun experience and I’m looking forward to more.
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13. Board Game: Game of the Year [Average Rating:4.56 Overall Rank:10774]
Lori
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Durham
North Carolina
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My best new discovery of 2010 was Merchant of Venus.
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