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My Highlights of the 2010s: Innovation, The Mind, Abluxxen, Strike, Battle Sheep, and More

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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From gallery of W Eric Martin
With the year of Steinbeisser upon us, I thought I'd do something unusual by doing something completely normal, namely highlighting my top-ish ten games of the past decade.

I don't normally make top 10 lists, and I tend not to rate games until after months or years of experience with them, so I don't have a list of anything other than my top two games of all time — but I do have a record of my games played in the 2010s. My memory isn't great, but I find that I'm able to look at a record of games played on a certain date and reconstruct who was playing and what the gaming session was like, which is one reason I keep such records.

I scanned that list to find the ten games that (1) I had played the most and that (2) I had the best memories of or (3) most want to play again. After all, the idea of a "top 10" list as anything other than a celebration of the lister's personal tastes seems absurd. I'm not judging in the abstract which games I think are best, only which games are best for me.

As I looked over the list, I realized that one thing my favorite games tend to have in common is that they play out v. differently depending on who the other players are. Sure, all playings of Codenames or The Mind are similar on the surface, but my experience with them is far different when playing them with my wife or with experienced gamers or with kids at my son's school or with people I've just met at a party. These games are a mirror of the players' personalities. As much as I like, say, Agricola or 7 Wonders, those games feel like they largely play out the same way no matter who's at the table, so they don't resonate with me as much as other designs.

In any case, let's start with a cheat:

Board Game: Pandemic Legacy: Season 1
Board Game: T.I.M.E Stories
Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 / T.I.M.E Stories

These two releases from 2015 fall into the same bucket for me: highly thematic, disposable games that I played with people whom I love playing games with. One of the reasons that I think Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 shot to #1 on the BGG charts is that people going into it knew that they were committing to playing 12-24 games with the same group, so they made sure to play with a group that they enjoyed — which meant that they were already primed to love the game. (The second element that ensured that love is that anyone who hated Pandemic would never try it in the first place, so their potential low scores would never be registered.) I was also able to preview the game in March 2015 with co-designer Rob Daviau, so that was special, too.

I've played only four T.I.M.E Stories scenarios, one each year at SPIEL from 2012 (when I first previewed the game) to 2015 with mostly the same group in playtest sessions with publisher Game Works / Space Cowboys, and I couldn't imagine playing it with other people, so I didn't. That said, the game series is being rebooted with the "blue cycle" of scenarios in 2020, and that sounds new enough that I plan to explore T.I.M.E Stories again once I get the chance.

Board Game: Azul

In my position as BGG News Editor, I get a chance to preview many games prior to them being released, which is handy for a write-up like this one since I can point to my first impressions of Azul from August 2017 after having played the game twice at a press event ahead of Gen Con 2017.

Azul is the title on this list that most violates the "different players play differently" rule, but I've still experienced a range of playing styles, mostly in the two-player game, which is how I prefer to play. When you have only one opponent, you know that the other player is getting every tile you don't, and you have more of a say over how those tiles will be distributed — and sometimes you can hammer someone with a huge penalty because you saw just a little further ahead on the choice tree than they did, which is always a nice bonus.

Board Game: Codenames

I've talked about the magic of Codenames in my preview of Codenames Duet, namely that the gameplay at the heart of the design can be applied to almost any subject matter. Codenames succeeds because it allows players to be creative and clever, with their efforts making the game something unique to them at this moment with this specific combination of things being guessed.

Out of all the titles on this list, Codenames is my top choice for game that will still be on the market in 2120.

Board Game: Battle Sheep
Board Game: Battle Sheep
Splits / Battle Sheep

This design might seem the most out of place on this list, but I love non-random abstract strategy games, and this is my chance to represent them.

Francesco Rotta's Splits was first published in 2010 by French publisher Jactalea as a two-player-only game. The idea of the game is simple, as is common with most abstract strategy games: First, lay out the tiles to set up the playing area. Second, each player places their stack of pieces on a border space. Third, players take turns by splitting one of their stacks and moving part of that stack as far as possible in one direction. Eventually no one can move any longer, and whoever has occupied the most spaces wins.

I played Splits more than a dozen times and loved it — then as often happens I put it aside and forgot about it since I'm writing about new games all the time. Blue Orange Games, the European branch of which had been born from Jactalea, then licensed the design and released it as Battle Sheep, which could be played by up to four players at once. (You adjust the number of landscape tiles based on the number of players, so the available space per player remains the same as in Splits.)

I've played Battle Sheep a number of times and like it as much as the original game, but beyond that I took it to my son's school as part of the game club I ran and taught it to tons of kids. The candy coating of colorful sheep made the game more attractive to those young players, and they all seemed to have a blast. I know that some claim that graphics don't matter in a game design since the strength of the design is all that matters in the end, but for most people that claim doesn't hold up. Aesthetics make a difference in whether people want to play something or not. The thinkiness of Battle Sheep is still there if you want to look for it, but you can also play it more lightly instead of as a serious affair.

Board Game: Strike
Strike / Impact: Battle of Elements

Dieter Nüßle's Strike from Ravensburger seems like a nothing game: Drop dice in a box, maybe match symbols with dice already in the box, and try not to run out of dice to win.

Even so, I've brought Strike to multiple outings (picnics, student gatherings) where people have played it over and over and over again. Things get personal around the dice arena! I enjoy watching the variety of how people approach this simple game, with some gambling each throw until they claim back dice or bust, others plopping one die onto the bottom of the arena and never risking a collision with any other dice, content to do as little as possible and hoping to survive that way.

Strike returned to market in 2018 as Impact: Battle of Elements, and the special powers included in the game as a nice touch, but the shape of the arena doesn't allow for the more dynamic dice impacts you find in Strike. Perhaps Ravensburger will change its box sizes again in a few years, and we'll see the game return in yet another form...

Board Game: The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine
The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine

I've already written up Thomas Sing's The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine from KOSMOS twice — once from BGG.CON 2019 where I had just fallen in love with the game, and again with a video overview after I had played the game nearly sixty times in a week. Perhaps the shine will come off this co-operative trick-taking game in time, but we'll always have November 2019 as that special week in our lives together.

Board Game: Linko!
Abluxxen, a.k.a. Linko!

Abluxxen, a hand-shedding, point-collecting game from Michael Kiesling, Wolfgang Kramer, and Ravensburger, is another title that I fell hard for, played dozens of times, then haven't touched since the year of its release. Part of the problem is that I cut the box down to one-third its size to make it more portable, then apparently shoved it in something while quickly getting things out of our garage when we converted it to a game room, then...I couldn't find it again. I just need to buy another copy instead of letting this remain a personal missing grail game.

Board Game: The Game
Board Game: The Game: Extreme
Board Game: The Game: Face to Face
Board Game: The Game: Quick & Easy

The Game / The Game: Extreme / The Game: Face to Face / The Game: Quick & Easy

I wrote a few thousand words about mortality and the first three versions of Steffen Benndorf's The Game in January 2018, and I'm not sure what else I have to add to that, other than to note that in that essay I expand on the idea above of people making a game their own through play, of connecting with people through play.

I'll have more to say about The Game: Quick & Easy, which I've already played 22 times on a pre-production copy from NSV, on January 13, 2020 once the review embargo ends.

Board Game: The Mind
Board Game: The Mind Extreme
The Mind / The Mind Extreme

I've also written a few thousand words about Wolfgang Warsch's The Mind from NSV. This bit from that essay still stands out to me:
The Mind invites you to participate in the performance of a magic trick. You become both audience and performer, playing a trick on your fellow players while amazing yourself in the process. That's the hope anyway...
I still get this feeling from playing The Mind, and now from playing The Mind Extreme. What's more, my thoughts on games themselves have changed since playing that design. I now find myself paying more attention to the emotions generated by a game design, to the sensation of what it's like to play the game.

You might notice that aside from the first two titles listed, all of these games have bare-bones rules. After learning of my game preferences recently, someone asked me whether I have a short attention span since I don't care for longer, more involved games. That might indeed be the case, but I think a more likely explanation is that I prefer not to have to think about rules while playing. Yes, a game consists of its rules, but I don't want to have to think about this rule detail or that while playing, instead immersing myself in the game as a whole. I want the details of the rules to fade into the background of the room that they create, leaving me to perform in that room without being distracted by the pattern of the wallpaper or the texture of the stucco. Simple rules make it possible for me to focus on the actions of my fellow players instead of the environment around us.

Board Game: Innovation

In April 2012, as part of a "Voice of Experience" challenge that asked people to review games that they've played at least a hundred times, I compiled my writings on Carl Chudyk's Innovation from Asmadi Games, which at that point I had played 168 times.

As I noted in that post, "My Innovation play rate took a steep drop after I moved out of New Hampshire in June 2011". That fact hasn't changed as I only recently hit play #200, even though my love for the game hasn't abated over the years. I should hardly complain about my job, given how privileged I am in doing what I love — writing about games — for a living, but it does get in the way of me playing my favorite games as opposed to playing the newest games. Ah, well, small complaints. If you're a fan of Innovation and we happen to be in the Raleigh/Durham area of North Carolina, buzz me on Geekmail and force me to set up a time to play. I'll thank you for it.

I'll close by pointing out that as much as this post focused on games released in the 2010s, it was also a collection of my writing highlights of the 2010s. Typically I'm focused on day-to-day game announcements, database updates, and hundreds of other odds-and-ends, but every so often I make time to dive into something deeper, and when I look back on those essays months later, I'm surprised by what I find, curious to discover part of myself that was exposed by games. Thank you for your time, and I wish you well now and in the future...

Board Game: Innovation Deluxe
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