On Gamer's Games

Wherein I Discuss Those Games Described As Gamer's Games
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2011 in Review: Part Three (“The Rest”)

Jesse Dean
United States
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
Microbadge: I have more previously owned games than owned gamesMicrobadge: Out for blood - I play without mercyMicrobadge: My Favorite Contribution to BGG
I have said this before, and I am almost certain I will say it again but 2011 was a pretty good year for board games. It exceeds precious years in average game ratings, and exceeds all previous years except for 2007 in number of games that I consider to be “great” (9) or better and all years but 2010 in games that I consider to be “very good” (8) or better.

The number of different new games I played from 2011 (25) is down from 2010 (42), and even though I know that there are a number of further 2011 releases that I will still be trying out, I doubt I will hit 42 different games again. This is probably for the best, as after I played the vast number of new games that I tried in late 2010 I went through a period of pretty intense burn-out in early 2011 that ended up lasting into the summer. That will not happen in 2012.

For my next two “2011 in Review” blog posts I will be explaining my thoughts on every game I played that was originally published in 2011. This first one will be focused on the less impressive games of 2011 while in the second I will discuss the best games of the year.

2: Very poor game. I refuse to play this.

A Few Acres of Snow
There is a lot to like about A Few Acres of Snow, and on the whole I think it is both a pretty good design and one that it, along with Mage Knight the Board Game, is an important step in the overall progression of deck-building games. The way each individual location has an associated card that you add to your deck upon claiming is especially interesting as it forces you to add potentially sub-optimal cards to your deck in order to get victory points and progress across the board. I enjoyed my play of it, yet I rate it a 2. Why?

Namely it is the so-called “Halifax Hammer” strategy that has apparently broken the game. I can stand games needing minor house rules or clarifications, but a broken strategy pretty easily puts a game into the “very poor game, I refuse to play this” category. At the point that a fix is discovered I will revise my rating (probably a 7), and probably will return to my exploration of the game. Until that point it keeps that 2.

3: Poor game. Will strongly resist playing.

Martian Dice
I am not in the target audience for Martian Dice. In fact I doubt I would have ever played it if I had not received it as my door prize and had some time to kill with a friend while we were waiting for our plane after BGG.Con.

It has the typical three rolls, keep a subset of dice and reroll the rest set-up that seems to be the standard for dice games, with the twist that you have to as many “death lasers” as your opponent’s “tanks” otherwise you do not score for the round. You get points for each human, chicken, or cow you kidnap with bonus points being awarded if you get a set.

After the handful of plays we had at the airport I was done with it. The single item that separates it out from previous dice games was insufficient to make me want to play it again and if I ever had a desire to play this sort of simple dice game again I would just play Sushizock im Gockelwock.

4: Below average game. I avoid playing and would need to be persuaded.

When I first heard about this I was pretty excited about the idea of a combo-building card game with an area element to it. It was pretty interesting for the first few plays too, as I got a hang for the system and figured out how the system worked and what decisions were important. Unfortunately, this enthusiasm been to drag once I hit 5 plays, and with my 6th play I realized I was done.
When it came down to it, I simply expect more out of my complex card games then Baron provides. While there is some subtlety and interesting decisions involved, it did not provide me with the same level of mental gamer candy that I have come to expect in my complex card games. I really liked some of the interaction between land placement and the knights, but that was not enough to overcome the tedium that defines the rest of the game. It just did not work for me.

Quarriors takes the super-trendy deck-building mechanic and replaces the cards with dice. While in theory this could be an interesting sort of game, and I can appreciate the design on a general level, it is essentially just a reimplementation of the general “Lets Make a Game! About Dice!” idea that generally fails to work for me.

Really though, this is probably just another game that was not designed for me. I am not a fan of fillers in general, and dice games in particular. The main reason I ended up trying it out was it was new, short, and hot enough that it seemed like it was worth trying a few times. It ultimately was, but I saw enough in those three games that I know this game is not for me.

5: Average game. I'm indifferent, but may be willing to play.

I suspect that a couple of years ago, when I was slightly less discriminating in my tastes, I would have been pretty excited about Belfort. It has a fairly novel combination of worker placement and majority building, with scoring being based entirely on getting majorities in the game’s five districts and three types of workers. There are both shared and individual action spots where you can place your workers, to get bonuses and the ones that are available have a reasonably large impact on resource scarcity and just how much you can impact your opponent’s relative positions.

So if it has these relatively interesting qualities, why am I rating it a 5? Essentially I find the design to be just a little bit too clean, a bit too milquetoast for my tastes. There are too few sharp edges, too few opportunities to put your opponents into tough situations where they are forced to either choose between two equally bad decisions or make them take decisions that help you as much as them. The game just did not give me enough of a reason to care about the decisions being provided beyond the general sense that I should be trying to win. As it is, if I want to play a majorities-focused worker placement game I think I would probably pull out Dominant Species.

Helvetia is a perfectly competent little logistics game. I played it once and found it to be enjoyable enough for that one play, but see no reason to ever play it again. Any questions I had about the game were answered in that game, and all that would be left in future plays would be to see how successful you can be in managing the action selection mechanism and other player’s tableaus. While that is enough to make it so I would not actively oppose another play, it is not enough to make me want to play.

The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game
My indifference to Lord of the Rings: The Card Game comes not from any deep-held criticism for the design or game play but from a far simpler source: I am not really that much of a fan of cooperative games. I would much rather be involved in an experience that involves me grinding my opponents under my feet in an epic battle of wits, or being ground down by them, then having to be involved with something where everyone wins or loses. I found the mechanics to be entertaining enough that I would not be opposed to playing it again, but I would really rather just play something competitive.

My complaints about Tournay are similar to my ones about Barons; while there are some interesting ideas involved in it, the game is simply just not dense enough in meaningful decisions and to work for me as a complex card game. There are the sorts of things that I normally like in games, combos to build and meaningful spatial elements, but neither the combos or the spatial elements were engaging enough for me to want to play the game again.

As a caveat, I will note that my single play of this game had a fairly large rules error, and that playing it again with that rules issue again may prove to raise my rating. However, even with that error in mind, I doubt this one would go much higher than a 6 for me. There just is not enough going on for it to be something I am going to purposefully seek out plays.

6: OK game. Some fun or challenge at least. Enjoyable in the right circumstances.

Colorado Midland
My interest in Winsome-style games has declined a bit over the last year and my rating of this one may be a reflection of that. Manipulating the queue of incoming cards, and the incentive structure from shared ownership of particular mines was entertaining. Unfortunately, the game lacked enough interplay variability and depth to allow for me to maintain a strong interest in it after four plays. Now that it has been almost six months since I last played the game, I suspect I would be more inclined to dive into it again, but only after a bit of a graphics design overhaul. As it is I found the components actively detracted from the game play, which is in sharp contrast to other popular Winsome designs.

Eminent Domain
I’ve written about my current thoughts on Eminent Domain before here, and they have not really changed all that much since then, so I won’t go into great detail on my thoughts about Eminent Domain. Essentially, while I appreciate the uniqueness of its particular deck-building mechanic, the lack of crazy and amazing things hold this one back from being a game I really truly enjoy. The decisions about how to shape your deck are interesting and worth exploring, but were simply not interesting and worth exploring enough for it to really compare in my mind to games like Race For the Galaxy, Innovation, Yomi, or Glory to Rome. I think the lack of variable start-up feeds into this. While you can try slightly different things from game to game, and your card draw does matter, the game eventually starts to feel a bit samey after a while. I have played Eminent Domain 11 times this year, but I suspect that it will get at most one or two plays next year. Everyone in my store seems to have moved on, and those that were previously pushing it have discovered the joys of Race For the Galaxy and Innovation both of which I am much more pleased to play.

Kingdom Builder
As far as fillers go, Kingdom Builder is not bad. The placement rules and variable victory conditions do provide some measure of interplay variability and tension, and it is interesting determining what the risk/rewards are for making certain placement choices. That being said, I like to have the opportunity for a very large number of plays in my filler games, and after about 20 plays you will see most everything that this game has to offer. Granted, there are a large number of possible combinations between cards and player boards, but these are not going to add new decisions to consider, and thus is not enough for me to want to play this further.

Urban Sprawl
I’ve written a review and several different blog posts on Urban Sprawl and I have even less new to say about it then I do Eminent Domain. What it comes down to is simply that Urban Sprawl, while structurally very exciting simply has way too much systematic chaos for me to properly enjoy it. It seems that the chaos level is quite acceptable for other people, and I respect that, but it does not quite work for me.

7: Good game. Usually willing to play. I might even request or recommend it.

Ascending Empires
I bought Ascending Empires on a whim, and much like peanut butter and chocolate it turns out that 4X games and flicking games actually go pretty damn well together. Structurally Ascending Empires is a pretty straightforward game. Each time you take a turn you get one of a menu of actions, ensuring fairly brisk and smooth play. Each of these corresponds with the sort of things you would expect to do in a 4X game; exploring planets, establishing infrastructure, and researching technologies. The movement system is where this game gets really innovative. Rather than simply moving your ships around the board the game borrows from games like Crokinole in that you use flicking for determining where, exactly, your ships end up. Regardless of your skill level, this typically ends up being intense, with lots of opportunities for both drama and hijinks. If I have one complaint about it, it’s that the game can sometimes get bogged down if most of the players end up in mutually destructive antics that push the play time way past the point where I can maintain my interest in it. It is great if it last 90 minutes or less. More than that and I start wondering why I am not playing a game that has the heft that is worth that level of play time. For a while this was a staple on my table, but I have to admit its frequency of play has gone down a bit as the Essen crop has arrived, but I suspect that is just a temporary lull. Ascending Empires will be back.

Dungeon Petz
I am fairly hesitant to include Dungeon Petz here because I am uncertain as to what my final opinion of it will be. I played it once at BGG.Con and quite enjoyed it, but it failed to really excite me like some of the other designs at the show did. Functionally it is another in the “Lets Put On A Show!” genre, where players prepare a presentation just in time for the big show to score victory points (other noteworthy games in the genre include Drum Roll, Pret-a-Porter, and Vinhos). As far the genre goes it is pretty good, on the same general level as Vinhos and a bit better than either Drum Roll or Pret-a-Porter. The theme is cute and the mechanics are pretty interesting. The worker placement/blind bidding hybrid is rather unique and appeals to me despite my normal aversion for blind bidding and the hand management/set collection involved in the generation and meeting of needs also results in plenty of tensely interesting decisions. I don’t see any flaws per se in the design and I expect that even though it lacks the ability to hold my attention like Agricola, Caylus, or Ora et Labora it will still sit as a solid second-tier worker placement game that warrants occasional play if not obsessive attention.

I am even more hesitant to rate Singapore than I am Dungeon Petz, simply because at this point I have difficult separating the game from the wonderful experience I had playing it late night at BGG.Con 2011. In many ways this game seems to be yet another cube pushing efficiency exercise, but there is enough interesting things going on, with the area movement part of the game, the forced tile placement, and the overall element of strategic planning involved in trying to account for logistical chains for multiple turns. Of course, there may be enough chaotic elements due reduce this capability but I am not yet sure how significant it is.

Upon a Salty Ocean
Upon A Salty Ocean is a tense and tight game of market manipulation, which while similar to other games in this genre is distinct, and approachable, enough that I think it is worth owning if you either particularly enjoy the genre are looking for a good entry point. Because the cost of individual actions is based on how frequently other players have taken the same action, the game greatly rewards performing actions that others are not, and setting yourself up to be in a position where you can beneficially do so is helpful to winning the game. I’ve greatly enjoyed both of my plays of this and look forward to exploring it more in 2012, once I feel like branching out from games that are my favorites from the 2011

So that is it for the games I rate a 7 or lower that were originally released this year. Next time we will touch on my favorite games this year and my current choice for “Best Game of 2011.”
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