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The Obligatory 2019 End of Year Awards

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I have been informed that I am obligated, both legally and morally, to tell you all what the best games in 2019 were. This isn't something I relish doing but I must, lest my BGG membership be revoked and I'm exiled to board game Reddit or somewhere equally dangerous. However, there are no set rules for what a "Best Of 20XX" list needs to be or do. So I made my own!

Everything I played for the first time in 2019 is eligible. Is that fair to 2019? Nope! Too bad for 2019. The great thing about this format is that quality 2019 games that I didn't have the opportunity to play will get more chances in the future. Who are we to challenge time? I am no god.

I also make up these awards as I see fit. Sometimes a game deserves an award of its own because it did something really cool. Having preset categories each year never made sense to me; games are constantly evolving and presenting new ideas. Why should awards not do the same?

By this point I'm sure your anticipation is at an appropriate level, especially those of you who ended up here because I tagged a game you're subscribed to. Where will it land? Is it worst game of the year? Maybe. MAYBE. (it is not, these are all positive awards) Let's find out together!

The "I know what it means but what does it MEAN" Award for Best Party Game - Mr. Face

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You like appetizers? I've got an appetizer for you. It takes like 15 minutes and owns every single one of 'em. You're gonna love it.

Appropriately Mr. Face is a blank canvas for house rules. We use a couple:

- Successful lies earn a point each.

- Play 2 rounds. Round 1 everyone makes faces from cards drawn off the top of the deck. Round 2, facemakers get to choose a card from their hand.

These minor changes elevate Mr. Face from a good party game to the best among the picture interpretation subgenre. Yes that means it's better than Dixit. Smaller box, shorter rules, better cards, an all around improvement. The cards in particular are worthy of note; unlike most of these games they manage to inspire great results while being open enough to interpretation that you'll never see the same face twice. And incredibly, it manages to be genuinely funny every time. This one's a winner.

The "most painful decisions per card" Award for Best Small Box Game - Air, Land & Sea

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In a market full of games that mistake complexity and admin for actual decisions, it's nice to see a game that goes the exact opposite direction: few rules, fewer actions, and every single one of them is a game changer.

AL&S is a game of tactical concession, but more than that, it's a game of chicken on a foggy cliff and you can't quite tell how far the edge is. As Perry himself has said it's critical to know when to lose a battle in order to win the war. This plays out through a combination of adaptive hand management, clever cardplay, and just a smidgen of Sicilian logic "I know that they know that I know" for a touch of spice.

Most small box games, regrettably, lack replayability after a certain point. Not so with AL&S. Despite its main deck containing fewer cards than the Z-Man reprint of Love Letter it offers massive room in its play for combos, cunning, and if your opponent slips up, a coup de grace that lands you half of the VPs you needed in one blow. In early plays this is more likely to happen a couple times which is entertaining in its own right. But over time players turn cautious, conceding rounds after only playing a card or two, circling each other like fighters that are equal parts dangerous and painfully aware of their own mortality. When both of you decide to stay in a fight 'till the end you'll know it's for a reason, and it's incredibly satisfying.

In a post several months ago I said that AL&S punches far above its weight. "The Little Mac of board games" was the line. I was proud of that one, but in the back of my mind I was worried that it was more of a honeymoon moment for the game and it'd fade off over time. Now, having played it throughout the entire year, I can confidently say that this is a small box game that isn't going anywhere. Watch Perry's work, folks. The man knows how to make games.

The "I want all of these cards on my wall" Award for Best Art - Unmatched

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Not every release from Restoration Games has been a winner. For every solid reprint like Downforce or Conspiracy there's been a Fireball Island or Dinosaur Tea Party. But what they have nailed every single time without exception is their presentation, and Unmatched is the best example of this yet.

The artists over at Mondo treated every card like it had a chance of being the game's cover, and considering there's no shortage of different cards that's genuinely impressive. I'm stunned at how consistently gorgeous this game is. Rather than keep blathering on I'm just going to recommend that you click the tag at the bottom and look their work over yourself if you haven't already. Amazing effort from all involved.

The "it's like [VIDEO GAME] only I don't hate myself afterwards" Award for Best Adaptation - Battle for Biternia

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This one's for me. More so than the others.

I touched on my background in my review of this when I mentioned that I played MOBAs for about a solid decade. But I didn't just play them. I studied them. I wrote for an esports site that never got around to paying me. I bonded with great people over them; people that ended up becoming lifelong friends well after we all stopped playing LoL, DotA, whatever else. There's part of me that misses that experience. Then I remember why we all stopped - the games themselves were kind of miserable, all things considered. We were playing for the highlights and for each other's company, not the game itself.

When I first played BfB at an Unpub I was impressed. It was very MOBA-y! Minimal luck, team coordination, farming and ganking, the works. It needed some tweaks here and there but it was far and away my favorite game of the day. So when it finally came out and Stone Circle let me review the finished copy I was expecting a good time. What I got was good, obviously, but more importantly it was tuned perfectly. It took me back. It did more than appeal to nostalgia - it brought me something better to replace what I'd let go.

Played 2v2, Battle for Biternia is a better way to experience a MOBA than actually downloading one. All the tactics and communication remains intact with the added bonus of getting to stare the other team in the face while you do it. It's an incredibly strategic game, but uniquely, it's one where the social element is baked into the design. You MUST talk if you want to win. You MUST misdirect. You MUST cooperate. You MUST taunt the other team. It's all there, and it's all perfect. What Faulkenberry and company have built here gave me satisfaction that I never thought I'd have again, and I'm truly grateful for it.

The "it's not the game table, it's the Irish Gauge table" Award for Best Gateway Game - Irish Gauge

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This is a ridiculously loaded award and one that, if you're more familiar with my output than you should be, may come as a surprise. Suffice it to say I have a history with the phrase "gateway" game. However, in this instance, it quite literally applies.

I have watched Irish Gauge get its hooks into all kinds of people this year. People who play a lot of games, people who play virtually no games, and people in between. Its approachability, good looks, and short rules explanation lull them into a false sense of security. Then it's too late. Irish Gauge has them. It worms its way into their brains like an entertainment parasite and the infection spreads ever further as they look up prices for the game, ask what other games are like it, and...*shivers* ask for replays. I had to teach it, you don't understand. The worms have me too. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.

Irish Gauge is, in a way, deceptive. Its simple rules belie an incredibly replayable game that packs all the fun parts of a train game in just shy of an hour. Is it 18xx lite? Absolutely not, but it isn't trying to be. Instead it focuses on cash, board position, and shared incentives via stock to simultaneously keep its players at each other's sides and each other's throats. You'll lay track for a rail you share with your neighbor one turn just to undercut them the next with an auction that they can't beat you in, and you'll love every second of it.

There's just something about IG, and I'll be damned if I know what that is, that keeps new and experienced players alike engaged like few other games do. People I know who wouldn't even consider themselves game-people have bought it, for chrissake. If this is what Iron Rails has to offer consider me subscribed to their newsletter, because this box is some kind of magic.

The "how is this so good" Award for Best Boxification of a Folk Game - Medium

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Dammit, I should have used that magic line for this one. We'll say it's a segue. Yeah. Segue.

Medium is not a new game. Not really. I remember playing it on the school bus years ago. No scoring chips, no cards, no components at all actually. I'm not sure it even had a name. Maybe it was "the same word game"? Whatever. Point being, this is the result of people taking a children's game passed around for years and putting it in a box. Normally that's a recipe for disaster. I don't mean to damn it by faint praise, but Medium's greatest achievement is that it works at all.

The entire game can be summarized as follows: You stare at your partner. You play a card with a word on it. They stare at it, then you, then their cards, then you again. They then play their own card. You grimace. These words have absolutely nothing to do with each other. You think on it for a sec, then come up with a middle ground that's a bit of a stretch but will have to do. They nod. Someone else at the table counts down; 3 - 2 - 1. Then both of you say "platypus" and the entire table erupts into cheers as you high five your friend and explain how you got there, to the absolute astonishment of everyone else. You're mind-melded geniuses, both of you, and everyone knows it.

I can't oversell Medium because that's exactly what it delivers on. It's one of the rare group games that does exactly what it needs to do: facilitate a good time with your friends then get the hell out of the way. No overly rulesy explanation, no irritating point scoring, just a great activity that folks can come and go from easily and everyone will enjoy. I don't put it in the same category as Mr. Face for two reasons - you really want to play this game with people you know whereas Mr. Face is basically bulletproof regardless of who's playing, and because I think it's important to use Medium as an example of how turning a folk game into a product can be done right. I wouldn't pick Medium for just any party setting, but in a group of folks that I've known for years there's few better choices than this.

The "actually improved for having miniatures" Award for Best Use of Plastic - GKR: Heavy Hitters

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Award pretty much speaks for itself, dunnit?

GKR is the only game I've played in ages that was objectively, actually, emphatically improved by having miniatures. Most minis games are a sea of nigh-identical gray plastic. GKR isn't just bombastic and colorful - its use of scale makes it visually distinct. Facing on the heavies is instantly clear. Despite all the unique sculpts each unit is immediately identifiable when a standee would have had to be read. And of course, it looks gobsmackingly good on the table.

The game itself is a refined, focused take on the likes of Battletech. Your deck is your health as well as all of your systems. You tag buildings for destruction based on which side of the building you can touch. Combat is as simple as a hit roll and an armor save. And to emphasize, so much information is communicated with the minis themselves that it makes scanning the board almost instantaneous. It's very much a dice chucker and proud of it, but it should be. It's a damn fun one. As far as skirmish games go you'd be hard pressed to find a more reliably entertaining one than this.

The "why do I care so much about these anime boys" Award for Best Surprise Hit - Tanto Cuore: Winter Romance

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Tanto Cuore has a bit of a reputation among the more thematically sensitive. And looking over the previous games, I can see why. Some folks don't react well to anime tiddy. But TC: Winter Romance was my introduction to the system after my wife picked it up and I kind of sort of absolutely love it.

Winter Romance adds a lot to what was originally Dominion with maids. Butlers, for one. Friendship as a punishment card. But most importantly you can yank workers out of your opponents' decks via seduction, then marry them off so they'll be happy forever (and score you points). It's a romantic comedy, or drama depending on your perspective, in card game form. And I ADORE everything it does.

Every game of TC:WR we've played has left us with stories. That time someone built a harem in their private quarters with the head maid and the pool boy. That other time when I couldn't break up Kimberly and Benoit's relationship no matter how hard I tried. And the very first time I walked my anime son Shishido down the aisle to meet his husband at the altar. BE STILL MY HEART.

What I'm trying to say is that TC:WR is Wholesomeness: The Card Game. Even the thematically or artistically squeamish should give this version a shot. If it warmed my black heart it can probably do the same for them.

And now, my lovely readers, it's time for the two part grand finale!

Best 2019 Release - Unmatched

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Ha HA. Surprise! I never said games couldn't win multiple awards! MY AWARD SHOW, MY RULES.

Despite what the previous awards may have you believe I played a lot of 2019 releases. Most of them weren't worth talking about. But Unmatched? Unmatched is something special. And moreover, it's something that has the potential to get even better.

Despite its board and miniatures indicating otherwise Unmatched is actually a brutal dueling card game as opposed to a traditional skirmish; it just uses range and positioning to make its decisions ever more layered. It feels, incredibly, like a fighting game. More than even the likes of Yomi or BattleCON, Unmatched captures the character masteries and matchups while also retaining the focus on reading your opponent and spacing them out. A single mistake can doom you, just as a single unpredicted play can win you the game. It's incredibly satisfying to play and just as quick, leading to the "gimme a runback" sessions that make games like Street Fighter so much fun to play over and over.

The 7 characters we have thus far are already brilliantly varied. From what we've seen of the upcoming Jurassic Park and Cobble and Fog sets we've barely scratched the surface of what Restoration and Mondo have in store for this system. And my god, what a system. No deck construction between games, no picking up boosters or LCG-style updates mostly full of cards you don't care about but a few for the character you actually play, just complete characters added to the roster over time with a focus on learning matchups and mastering your main rather than making small meta optimizations.

This is another game that's done nothing but grow on me with every play. Much like the best fighting games, your first few matches may seem a bit random as you flail wildly at each other. But give it time, find a main, and I bet you'll start to see why this is the best game 2019 had to offer.

Game of the Year - Xia: Legends of a Drift System

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Well, here it is. The best game I played for the first time last year. But more than that, it's a game that captured my imagination like no other board game before it.

Xia is a space opera sandbox. Anything the game allows you to do you can reasonably find a way to do. Actually succeeding is another thing entirely, but that's where the brilliance of Xia begins to show itself: it's a game about how much fun failure is, and about creating stories.

Note I said "creating", not telling. Xia never holds your hand or makes you read a bunch of plot paragraphs telling you what you got up to. Sure there's bits of flavor text here and there, but barely. Instead it turns its fame-hungry players loose in uncharted space and just lets you go. And my god is it wonderful.

Each session of Xia is an honest to goodness adventure that you and your friends will be talking about long after it's done. The last time we played, our eventual winner was a repeat-offending space terrorist that kept setting off bombs on unsuspecting planets. When he finally ascended to fame and glory it was, appropriately, with one more explosion capped off with a fireworks show. He was a criminal, and openly so, but a beloved one.

In a previous adventure Cindy jumped into the cockpit of the Bitter Karma, a ship that's unique in its ability to harmlessly self-destruct and re-materialize in a random part of the system. And that's what she did, time and time again. In a bizarre Hitchhiker's Guide-esque series of events she managed to phase herself into the right place at the right time repeatedly, outspeeding everyone else through applied entropy. Fate saw her winning the people's favor that day, and how can you blame them? Incredible luck is a kind of skill.

I could tell stories about the time I was so inept at serial space crime that I couldn't even land a bounty on my head, or the time we were all chasing a merchant ship loaded with cash across the entire system to rob it only to have him die in an freak accident, or all the times we've managed to blind jump into complete and utter destruction, but I think the point is made. Xia is special. Games this quietly ambitious don't come along often. It's evocative, beautiful, and more fun than just about anything else out there. It's the best game I learned this year and has quickly become one of my all time favorites.


Welp, that's all folks.

2019 was a weird year. A lot of the new releases were just...fine? They were fine. But mostly not memorable. I straight up forgot about a lot of the ones I played, some of which I even owned. How embarrassing. But man, the winners we got? RIDICULOUSLY good.

As I mentioned in my previous post 2020 is going to be a weird year for game acquisition. It'll be difficult to do awards like this, I reckon. And I'm ok with that. If they take my BGG license I'll just operate illegally. What're they gonna do, have Octavian kick my door down? I'll fight 'em.

I hope your 2019 was great. If it wasn't, maybe playing some of these games would help kick 2020 off right. Thanks so much for reading my rambles! See you all in 14.
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