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2011 In Review: Part Four (“The Best”)

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
(Most Of) My Top 10 For 2011
I still have some games from 2011 to play (most notably Mob Ties, courtesy of the publisher, and Sekigahara, courtesy of my wallet) but at this point I feel comfortable determining what nine of my Top 10 games of 2011 are. I suspect that if Sekigahara and Mob Ties fail to meet my needs that Dungeon Petz will fill in the #10 spot, as my second play of it yesterday increased my appreciation of the game’s potential.

9. Eclipse
Board Game: Eclipse

Originally I intended for this post to be made up just of games that I rated an 8 or higher. Unfortunately, in the process of playing and reviewing Eclipse last week, I ended up deciding my actual rating for the game was a 7. It is probably the best of the games I rated a 7, though so it is perhaps not too out of place here.
Eclipse is a pretty good grand strategy game that does an excellent job of conveying the overall look and feel of a space 4X game in a pretty reasonable play time. The decisions are delightfully tough and the game does a lot of things right. I am concerned about both the implications of the available missile technology on the game and the fragility of initial exploration draws, but neither of these are sufficient to make me think the game itself is not worth playing, I intend to play it quite a bit and will probably get it on to the table again on Wednesday, simply that it is not as effective in fitting my grand strategic needs as Colonial, Space Empires 4X, and Warriors & Traders. If you want to read more I have a review here: A Total Eclipse of the Grand Strategy Genre?

8. MIL (1049)
Board Game: MIL (1049)

Though the rules overload on MIL (1049) is a bit high, once you can get past that MIL is quite a game. The game has two phases, in the first you perform mostly resource buildings actions that require the use of time counters to indicate the passing of time and its effects on your extended family; after a certain number of counters are added to the knight he dies and his heir, if any, takes over the family lands. As you do so it reveals access to more powerful actions in the “spheres of power” that allow you to convert your resources into victory points and directly interact with other players. The decisions involved in which “spheres of power” to select with your knights, and when to transition from the resource generation actions to the “sphere of power” actions are both fairly entertaining particularly with how the game simulates the vassal-lord relationship that was so important during this part of the middle ages. I have only played MIL (1049) once am looking forward to it getting a wider release so I can get a copy and explore this one in more detail.

7. Warriors & Traders
Board Game: Warriors & Traders

Warriors & Traders would not have been on the list if I had written it before today so, much like Dungeon Petz, its position is very tentative. Essentially Warriors & Traders is a very eurofied vision of the grand strategy genre, with no luck and plenty of resource management, but enough consideration for political control and the maintenance and movement of armies to still fit within the overall mold. The game is incredibly tight, with only 20-25 actions devoted to building one’s position in a typical game, and one of the primary goals of any player should be to get into a position where they can get as many additional actions as possible. One of the biggest ways to do this is to perform a country unification; each player starts controlling the capital of one of the major countries of the era and by seizing a core set of provinces of that country, and a few disputed ones on top of that, a player is able to get a number of bonus actions related to the final size of the country. Advancing along the tech trees also gives opportunities for bonus actions, but the difficulty in climbing is such that I remain uncertain how frequently and effective these actions are compared to other opportunities as the tech tree, in of itself, does not give victory points unless you are the farthest along it; the temptation seems great, particularly later in the game, to stop advancing in order to seize territory. The game also does a pretty good job of providing an effective array of strategic options. Gaining and holding territory will likely be the source of the bulk of player points, but eliminating enemy units, building fortresses, and converting gold into victory points are all options. Still the whole seemed to be pretty solid. I need to explore this one more to see how the various options really weigh against each other and if expressed concerns about the static turn order are legitimate, but I see a lot of promise for this one to provide a fast, interesting grand strategy experience.

6. Yomi
Board Game: Yomi

Yomi was both the first and the most played of the new games I tried out in 2011 and it is the only new complex card game that I encountered this year that will remain in my collection into 2012. I was never a huge fan of the fighting video games that Yomi emulates, but the game play is enjoyable enough to keep me coming back. The game has been compared to a glorified form of Paper, Rock, Scissors and that is not completely unfair, but the vagaries of hand management, special abilities, and the unique characteristics of each character are sufficient to give this one plenty of replay value. I bought a Complete Edition and do not regret it. At less than a dollar a play just for 2011, how could I?

5. Colonial: Europe's Empires Overseas
Board Game: Colonial: Europe's Empires Overseas

Colonial intoxicated me from the moment I first read its rulebook, providing the promise a game of colonization and exploration that more effectively included all of the essential elements than any of the other options currently on the market. It meets that promise fairly effectively too, with plenty of potential for alternative strategies based on exploration, conquest, colonization and development. The early experience of playing Colonial was such that I suspected that it might end up being my top game of 2011. That did not end up being the case for two reasons: 1) 2011 had not yet finished showing me all of the great games it had to offer and 2) the continuing fluctuation of the rules. I have not played Colonial since November because of the flux that the rules are currently in. Assuming things are settled with a definitive rules set in the near future, and that the final rules are good this game has the potential to rise on my final list. Until then, 5th for the year seems about right.

4. Space Empires: 4X
Board Game: Space Empires: 4X

When I first read about Space Empires 4X I admit that the news that you would use paper to track your purchases and technologies seemed so antiquitated that it was almost enough to stop me from purchasing the game. Fortunately I was able to overcome my initial biases because Space Empires itself ended up being a pretty cool wargame in space, taking a very minimalistic approach to the exploration and production aspects of the game in order to make it so the meat of the game, gigantic ship battles were particularly fun and engaging. Unfortunately the game suffers a bit from game length issues, and I think I have reached the point where I would generally prefer to play this only with two. If playing with more I would chose Eclipse even though I prefer Space Empire 4X’s design, Eclipse simply manages more players more effectively. You can read my review here: GMT's Foray Into Space 4X Games.

3. Vanuatu

Vanuatu is the most brutal new Euro I played this year, where players are in a constantly shifting dance to both ensure that the other players are unable to get what they want while also being in a position such that it is not in anyone else’s interest to counter you. Effortlessly moving through the game denying other people their goals while also effortlessly advancing your own is the ideal, but in practice you have those nasty and evil people known as the other players who are working just as hard to accomplish the same thing, making the game the sort of constant and brutal struggle for supremacy that makes for the best gamer’s games. I have not written a review of Vanuatu, but a lady in my group has and you can see her review here: A Review Vanuatu - a game of strategy and screw 'em over!

My Best Game of 2011
Board Game: Mage Knight Board Game

Normally I don’t have this much difficulty picking out what I see as the best game of a given year. In 2010 Dominant Species was an easy choice and in 2009 it was Hansa Teutonica. Earlier years are similarly obvious either because there was only one game released that year that I considered good or because there was simply one game that stood out compared to all other competitors. The only other year that this was an issue was 2007, where Agricola and Race For the Galaxy both vied for my affections. At various points one or the other has been my #1 game, currently it is Race For the Galaxy, and I suspect that their relative position will change again someday. I am stuck in a similar position in 2011 deciding between two outstanding but very different designs that are both exceptional games in an exceptional year: Mage Knight Board Game and Ora et Labora.

Mage Knight the Board Game is the more innovative of the two, combining deck building and fantasy adventure gaming, both of which I am normally indifferent to, into a game with incredible depth and replayability that is more than the sum of its parts. I have played it 25 times since late November, and while it is doubtless that rate will go down with time as familiarity and a desire to play all these other games pulls me away from Mage Knight, I have no doubt that it will continue to receive a good amount of plays in 2012. In fact, it was the first game I played in 2012. It is good enough that it has caused me to reevaluate my previous indifference to Vlaada Chavatil’s designs. Where I previously looked at most of his releases with a bit of calculated indifferences this and Dungeon Petz is sufficiently good that I will have to pay more attention to his releases in the future. If he can produce a masterpiece like Mage Knight, then it would be a mistake to ignore his future works.

Where Mage Knight the Board Game impressed me by its ability to push forward the boundaries of current game design, Ora et Labora impressed me with the mastery it represented. While it is well within the bounds of the design style displayed in Rosenberg’s previous great designs, Agricola, Farmer of the Moor, and Le Havre, it is clear that Rosenberg has taken what he has learned with these designs and pushed it even farther, producing an effortless blend that is quite possibly the best worker placement/resource conversion game produced to date. At the very least it has convinced me that nobody makes these games quite like him, and that will be very difficult for any other game of this style to compare any time in the near future. How can I be interested in the worker placement/resource conversion games of any other designer when Rosenberg does it so, so well?

So this is the dilemma that I currently am grappling with. Mage Knight and Ora et Labora, my third and fourth 10s, must be chosen between. I could buck responsibility and just declare a tie, but I will not and instead declare Ora et Labora my Top Game of 2011. My enjoyment of Ora et Labora and its decision space, suffused as it is with nostalgia for previous Rosenberg designs, is sufficient to push this one slightly over Mage Knight the Board Game. Congratulations Ora, you are an amazing game and you deserve every bit of praise that will be awarded to you with your impending release.

Board Game: Ora et Labora
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