'Spiel des Josh' Award - A Look at the History of Modern Games
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For all years 1998 and later, click on my profile to go to the individual list for that year. This "original" Spiel des Josh list is still being maintained and updated for previous years. Last update: August 2011.

The 'Spiel des Josh' award is gaining widespread recognition as the definitive measure of true excellence in game design.

Well, perhaps it's more accurate to say that this is my blatantly biased attempt to set the record straight, since none of the existing awards do a very good job of representing my opinions. I've come up with a ranking of the five or ten games from each year that I consider to be the most enjoyable and/or impressive. I'll begin with a broad overview of games from 1945-1959, 1960-1969, 1970-1979, and then go to a yearly format starting in 1980.

Games are listed according to their actual date of first publication/circulation, as near as I can tell. In cases where a game has been significantly redesigned (e.g. Elfenroads vs. Elfenland vs. Elfenland+gold), it will only be eligible once - generally the earliest design, unless the later edition is a huge improvement.
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1. Board Game: Scrabble [Average Rating:6.29 Overall Rank:1504]
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*1945-1959*
Previously, this Spiel des Josh list began with the games of the 1960s, which coincided nicely with the rise of Avalon Hill and the early games of Sid Sackson. I've since decided that the end of World War 2 is a better starting point. During this period, many Americans and Europeans suddenly found themselves with an excess of leisure time. Games were one way to fill that time.

1. SCRABBLE (1948) - Scrabble is not just a word game. Scrabble is the word game, worldwide. It has more ratings on this website than even Monopoly! Most of the games from the first half of the 20th century don't compare with the best games of recent years, but Scrabble remains a serious candidate for the best game in its category.

2. SUBBUTEO (1947) - I wish I would have known about Subbuteo when I was younger, because I would have loved it. Beats the hell out of that Tru-Action Electric Football game from my grandparents' attic.

3. PIRATENBILLARD (1959) - What do you get when you combine long wooden mallets, cheesecloth, and painted wooden balls? A lot of fun. Piratenbillard is a great social game for almost any group, guaranteed to bring lots of laughs and groans from kids, non-gamers, gamers, or whomever.

4. BALI (1954) - An enjoyable word game that seems to be derived from Klondike Solitaire. Interesting both as a solitaire game and as a game for two.

5. CAREERS (1955) - The best traditional family game of its era. If you've never played it, it's like a more sophisticated take on The Game of Life. Random, sexist, but fun.

6. ELEUSIS (1956) - If you've ever played Zendo, you were essentially playing Eleusis with Icehouse pyramids instead of standard playing cards.

7. DIPLOMACY (1959) - Although I don't enjoy Diplomacy, it makes the list as a very important game of the era. If someone wanted to pick one game that gave birth to modern hobby gaming (other than Monopoly and Totopoly from the 1930s), Diplomacy would be one of the few legitimate candidates. Other plausible candidates are Scrabble, APBA Baseball, Careers, Tactics II, Gettysburg, Risk, and Acquire.

8. RISK (1959) - Most of the games that people like to call "Ameritrash" have a clear point of origin here, way back in 1959. Risk was a great game for its time, although by today's standards it's too long, too cyclical, and too one-dimensional.

9. GETTYSBURG (1958) - The first modern consim. Tactics predates Gettysburg by a few years, but Gettysburg was the first wargame that attempted to model an actual historical battle. As such, I consider it to be the origin of the modern wargaming hobby. Although it's not a particularly good game, it's a very important one.

10. APBA BASEBALL (1951) - The granddaddy of the statistical sports simulations, APBA Baseball is apparently still being played today. I've actually never played it, but I used to love its successors Strat-O-Matic Baseball (1962) and Statis Pro Baseball (1971).
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2. Board Game: Acquire [Average Rating:7.36 Overall Rank:208]
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*1960-1969*
When I first published the Spiel des Josh awards, they began with this decade. I temporarily expanded the decade to include the latter half of the 1950s, then decided to split the years between World War 2 and 1960 into a separate item.

1. ACQUIRE (1962) - Sid Sackson's masterpiece is the first modern board game that would not look out of place alongside the top games from the 1990s and 2000s. Acquire is a delicately-textured counterpoint of many levels of strategy and tactics. Outrageous luck will occasionally rear its head, but most games will be won through skillful play. And despite the rather somber appearance of the old 3M editions, it's not an intimidating or brain-burning type of game.

2. PASSWORD (1962) - This clue-giving game is probably the best board/card game ever created based on a television show. It's also one of the best games to play in a long car ride! I still play this regularly.

3. NINETY-NINE (1968) - A standard-deck card game designed by David Parlett especially for three players. More than 40 years later, it's still the best game in that category. The innovation here is that you are allowed to set aside three cards from your starting hand, and the suits of those cards will be converted into a numerical bid for how many tricks you think you can win.

4. AFRIKA KORPS (1964) - Afrika Korps and the other games that were later branded as the "Avalon Hill Classics" were largely responsible for forming the hex-and-counter wargaming hobby. These games may not have been as historically accurate as later wargames, but they were fast-playing, accessible games of modest complexity and manageable numbers of counters. Afrika Korps is probably the best example of what these games were all about.

5. MIDWAY (1964) - Another of the "Avalon Hill Classics" that has aged reasonably well. I rank it lower on the list than Afrika Korps for historical reasons; Midway's hidden movement and ocean setting was less representative of the line as a whole. But if I had to play one of these games today, Midway would probably be my first choice.

6. SLEUTH (1967) - Sid Sackson's second game to make the list. Sleuth is a distillation and deepening of the best elements from Clue, and a game that set a high bar for future deduction games.

7. STRAT-O-MATIC BASEBALL (1962) - Although APBA Baseball was first (1951), Strat-o-Matic Baseball was the gold standard for statistical sports simulation board games. These games have faded away with the rise of computers of video games, but they once had a large following.

8. BAZAAR (1967) - Manipulate mathematical equations for fun and profit! Sid Sackson's third game on the list is a brain-bending puzzle game. It's an interesting game, but not an especially "fun" one, due to the dearth of player interaction and the difficulty of assimilating the arbitrary relationships among the various colors.

9. TRIPLE YAHTZEE (1962) - In 1956, Yahtzee improved upon the folk dice game Yacht by adding a scoring bonus for reaching a certain threshold of total points for the basic categories of 1s, 2s, 3s, etc. A few years later Triple Yahtzee was published, further improving the game by allowing players to roll three "columns" at once. The second and third columns score double and triple points, making the tactical decisions more difficult.

10. A GAMUT OF GAMES (1969 book) - I'm putting Sid Sackson's famous book of game rules and commentary at #10, because I don't really want to rank it among the "proper" games of the decade. But it's a treasure trove for any ludophile! I've used a version of Haggle as a very successful mixer event. I still play computerized versions of Solitaire Dice and Bowling Solitaire. The abstracts Lines of Action and Focus were first presented here. I could go on . . . .

Honorable Mention: TWIXT (1962) and LINES OF ACTION (1969) and BUGHOUSE CHESS (1960) - I'm not very interested in Abstract Strategy Games, but I want to mention these three, which are still highly respected. I've dabbled with Twixt and Lines of Action, but haven't invested enough time to "see" the positions and strategies.
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3. Board Game: Cosmic Encounter [Average Rating:6.93 Overall Rank:802]
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*1970-79*
Wargame design took a giant step forward in this decade, as the behemoth that was Avalon Hill experienced stiffer competition from companies like SPI. Meanwhile, the Dungeons & Dragons craze was beginning, and a quirky little company named EON gave us a couple true gems.

1. COSMIC ENCOUNTER + expansions (1977) - Loved by many and hated by others, count me among its enthusiastic fans. For such a simple game, Cosmic Encounter has a remarkably wide-open feel. It set new standards in replayability and customizability, and remains the king of the "special powers" games.

2. DUNGEONS & DRAGONS (1974) and AD&D (1978) - The first role playing game. Its effects on hobby gaming would be hard to overstate. It's certainly the most significant single game in my own gaming history. The Spiel des Josh is intended to be a board and card game award, so I've decided never to award the #1 spot to a RPG. But I've decided that RPGs are eligible to be included in the yearly lists.

3. SQUAD LEADER (1977) - Still one of the best tactical-level wargames, scoring high on atmosphere and replay value. Its modular design and learn-as-you-go rules made Squad Leader more approachable than most other rules-heavy wargames.

4. MAGIC REALM (1979) - Its chief virtue is that it's the most engrossing fantasy board game ever made. Its chief flaw? It's the most engrossing fantasy board game ever made. Try the Java version Realmspeak, and you may find that it's easier and less complicated than its reputation.

5. HOMAS TOUR (1979) - This Dutch game was later published under the more familiar name Um Reifenbreite. It's a zany bicycling game with a lot of randomness, but also interesting tactics and a convincing thematic feel.

6. DUNE (1979) - A groundbreaking design by EON of Cosmic Encounter fame. Like their earlier game, Dune incorporates the concept of special rule-breaking powers for each player. It would rate even higher if I were a fan of the Dune universe and personalities, which are richly presented here.

7. RAILWAY RIVALS (1973) - David Watts originally designed this game as a teaching tool for geography students. It became a popular play-by-mail game, and continued to evolve through the years, with various maps and several professional editions under the names Railway Rivals and Dampfross. Players build their railroad network by drawing their lines on hex maps, then race trains between randomly-determined locations. I still enjoy the game.

8. WAR OF 1812 (1973) - The block/step system was a marvelous innovation in wargame design. Almost 40 years after their arrival, these block games still have a devoted following. Of the three early block games (Quebec 1759, War of 1812, Napoleon), my favorite is War of 1812, a game of maneuver more than direct battle.

9. JAG UND SCHLAG (1973) - The original edition of the Kosmos 2-player game Tally Ho (aka Halali!). A vexing juxtaposition of tactical, chess-like positional moves with ridiculously chaotic random tile flips. Some find the combination awkward, but I enjoy the game in all its strangeness. This is the oldest German game that I still play.

10. HARE & TORTOISE (1973) - Looks like a children's game, but it's actually an overtly mathematical game that requires both tactics and lookahead, along with a good dose of groupthink/game theory.

Honorable Mention: HYLE (1979) - I've never played the original 5x5 version, but the 7x7 version (Hyle7 or Entropy) is still one of my favorite themeless two-player positional games - a category that often doesn't fit my tastes. I like the asymmetry, the variety from game to game, and the way that the random draw foils rehearsed strategies.

Honorable Mention: 1829 (1974) - I've never actually played 1829, but this is where the venerable 18xx system started. 1830 and its successors seem to be much more popular than 1829 (in the U.S., at least).

Honorable Mention: MY WORD! (1972) and MONTAGE (1973) and JARNAC (1977) and BIG BOGGLE (1979) - If you enjoy word games, these four from the 1970s are definitely worth exploring.
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4. Board Game: Empire Builder [Average Rating:6.93 Overall Rank:951]
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*1980*
I guess a nice round number like 1980 is as good a place as any to go to a year-by-year format.

1. EMPIRE BUILDER - I prefer some of the later games in the Mayfair crayon rails series: Eurorails, India Rails, and Iron Dragon. But Empire Builder was the original, and it's a very good game. Although it definitely appears to be influenced by 1973's Railway Rivals, Empire Builder went a step further by allowing players to pick up and deliver commodities (rather than simply race from point A to point B).

2. BAZAAR II (a.k.a. SAMARKAND) - A good relaxing family game of hand management and route plotting. Luck of the draw is immense, but the game accelerates to a quick finish before frustration can develop.

3. CAN'T STOP - Now considered one of the classic dice games. I like it as a two-player game, but the downtime gets too agonizing with more. The solo computer version "Roll or Don't" is a great time waster.

4. THE FANTASY TRIP (RPG) (In The Labyrinth + Advanced Melee + Advanced Wizard) - This collection is Steve Jackson's first attempt at a cohesive role playing game, using the framework of his earlier dueling games Melee and Wizard. The Fantasy Trip offers a more realistic, tactical style of combat than D&D, but does so in a much more streamlined and manageable way than the other second-wave simulationist RPGs (Runequest, Rolemaster/MERP, Champions, Top Secret, Traveller, and the later expansion of Jackson's same system - GURPS).

5. ACE OF ACES - The classic picture book dogfighting game that received several follow-up editions throughout the 1980s. It's really just a simple guessing game, but makes the list because of its innovative format.
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5. Board Game: Civilization [Average Rating:7.52 Overall Rank:225] [Average Rating:7.52 Unranked]
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*1981*

1. CIVILIZATION - A remarkably simple system, considering how much is going on here: trading, diplomacy, population expansion, city-building, taxation, technology, dealing with disasters, competition for living space, and warfare. It does take an age to play, and can start to feel scripted when played repeatedly by the same group. Still, a magnificent and tightly-designed game. [Tresham published Civilization himself in 1980. The Avalon Hill version followed in 1981.]

2. CALL OF CTHULHU (RPG) - I don't actually play Call of Cthulhu because the horror genre of role playing doesn't interest me. But it's hard to ignore a game that is still cranking out a dozen or more supplements annually, after 30 years of publication.

3. A HOUSE DIVIDED - Entry-level strategic-scale Civil War game that may appeal to those who don't normally like wargames. Brevity and simplicity are its chief virtues. Republished in a gorgeous edition by Phalanx in 2001.

4. SHERLOCK HOLMES CONSULTING DETECTIVE - A weird game that plays like an interactive mystery novel, or a game version of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. You actually scan newspaper articles and look up phone numbers in search of clues.

5. There is no number five.
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6. Board Game: Titan [Average Rating:6.95 Overall Rank:793]
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*1982*

1. TITAN - I originally had Titan slotted as the winner for 1980, which marked the publication of the original Gorgonstar edition. But that edition was quite different from the classic 1982 Avalon Hill edition. If I had continued listing games by decade rather than by year, Titan would have been the winner for the 1980s. It's is a brilliant, multi-faceted design with a variability and depth of strategy that rewards repeated play. And it doesn't take all day once players start to master the system and strategies.

2. ROMMEL IN THE DESERT - This was the original Spiel des Josh winner for 1982 before I decided to move Titan from 1980 to 1982. It's a game of supply and maneuver more than straight pounding, which really plays to the strength of the block system. [Box pictured is not the 1982 edition, but the more famous 1984 edition.]

3. SURVIVE! - Yeah, it's Parker Brothers, but it's better than you might think. A winning combination of unpredictability, light tactics, timing, cooperation and temporary alliances, playing the odds, and eating other players with sharks! Very Euro-ish in feel for a mainstream, early-'80s American family game. The hidden values assigned to the various people is a brilliant (though unscrupulous) addition that is sadly lacking in the international editions.

4. BORDERLANDS - The EON team bids farewell with another outstanding design. Borderlands is a clever and influential game of conquest, logistics and diplomacy that foreshadows many later European games (Settlers of Catan, A Game of Thrones, Roads & Boats and others).

5. GUNSLINGER - This is a thematically rich game that simulates wild west gunfights. Players program their moves and then act simultaneously, trying to outguess their opponents. The resulting chaos creates a great narrative, but the game is slow to play because it's saddled with too many simulationist minutiae.
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7. Board Game: Up Front [Average Rating:7.83 Overall Rank:374]
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*1983*

1. UP FRONT - An abstracted, boardless tactical combat wargame that works extremely well despite a notoriously impenetrable rulebook. I'm grateful to Courtney Allen for showing how cards can be used to great effect in a wargame, an idea that didn't really take hold until more than ten years later with great games like We The People, Hannibal, and Paths of Glory.

2. IPSWICH - A nearly forgotten Scrabble spinoff that in my estimation improves on the classic game (and I enjoy Scrabble). Among the improvements are simultaneous timed play, an emphasis on longer anagrams, and no memorization of obscure or imaginary 2- and 3-letter words.

3. TALISMAN - A game that engulfed many hours of my misspent youth. Good for what it is, if you like that sort of thing. (How's that for a totally noncomittal description?) I no longer like that sort of thing.

4. WIZ-WAR - A silly, chaotic game in which the players' enjoyment rises in proportion to their blood alcohol content. The various card combinations produce almost limitless new and interesting game situations (a la Cosmic Encounter).

5. SCOTLAND YARD - To me this game is a bit tedious, but I'm including it here because I think it's an "important" game of the 1980s. It was one of the few mass market games of its era that would have fit nicely alongside the German games of the early-to-mid-1990s.
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8. Board Game: Axis & Allies [Average Rating:6.55 Overall Rank:1186]
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*1984*

1. AXIS & ALLIES - A towering monument in the history of gaming, Axis & Allies was undoubtedly the gateway game for many current gamers. Its beauty, scope, simplicity, and market penetration helped bring some of the best elements of hobby games to a wide audience. Having said that, it's the only Spiel des Josh winner that I'm unlikely to ever play again.

2. UPWORDS - This initially feels like a "dumbed down" Scrabble because it places less emphasis on leveraging a robust vocabulary. But it poses its own challenges which are interestingly different than Scrabble. It's all about reading the board, recognizing the best scoring opportunities, and managing your tile rack.

3. METROPOLIS - A seminal city-building game with lots of wheeling and dealing. Later (and lesser, IMO) games such as Big City and Chinatown owe a tremendous debt to this Sid Sackson design.

4. JAMES BOND 007 (RPG) - This is the only role playing game that Avalon Hill (Victory Games) ever published, and they really nailed it. James Bond 007 was razor-focused on communicating the style and feeling of a Bond movie. The rule system was very innovative, far ahead of the curve for 1984 (okay, 1983 for the base rules, but the first adventures didn't appear until 1984). And you'll never see a better system for conducting chase scenes.

5. WIZARD - A very small tweaking of the traditional card game Oh Hell, adding eight special cards. The new cards heighten the drama and ability to bluff, but also heighten the luck of the draw. On balance, the changes accentuate the strengths of a game that was already all about "playing the players."
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9. Board Game: You're Bluffing! [Average Rating:6.63 Overall Rank:1251]
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*1985*

[Note: Wildlife Adventure would have been this year's winner were I not holding it in reserve for the 1996 release of Expedition, which I consider to be notably superior.]

1. KUHHANDEL - The first true "Euro" to win the Spiel des Josh, and the simplest and lightest winner so far. It's a two-phase bidding and outguessing game whose object is to collect matching sets of cards. Fun when played quickly; agony when played deliberately.

2. CODE 777 - An enjoyable deduction exercise, but not an especially good game since it affords players no control over the proceedings. It's pure computation, with no strategic or tactical choices to be made. Those with compatibly-wired brains may find that it's too easy to play perfectly. If you have more than one such player, the winner will be decided by pure lottery. Still, I do enjoy it.

3. PENDRAGON (RPG) - I believe this was the first role playing game to firmly weave the characters' personality traits and passions into its game rules. Pendragon had a truly epic feel, with players transitioning to descendants of their previous characters over the course of several generations. The Arthurian setting was beautifully evoked - an inseparable part of the game's fabric.

4. PICTIONARY - Yes, Pictionary. Extremely mainstream doesn't always mean bad. The best way to play this is with the scoring system from Squint. No teams, everyone guesses. One point each to the correct guesser and the artist.

5. SOLARQUEST - Monopoly in space, only better. Maybe not a whole lot better, but for me Solarquest is fun while Monopoly is not. But you can still expect a tedious endgame and an overall lack of control.

Honorable Mention: PAX BRITANNICA - A fascinating and original game that I'll mark down as a noble failure. Pax Britannica is a politically incorrect game of colonization, power politics, and trying to avoid World War I. But the cumbersome and poorly-applied rules are no match for the grand ideas. This could probably become a great game with a careful overhaul by a skilled developer.
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10. Board Game: 1830: Railways & Robber Barons [Average Rating:7.83 Overall Rank:164]
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*1986*

1. 1830 - When I first put this list together, I hadn't yet played 1830, or any 18xx games for that matter. The original winner for this year was Die Macher. But now that I've played 1830, it moves into the top spot for 1986. It's a very sophisticated and rewarding strategy game that allows multiple approaches to victory. It's long, but worth it.

2. SHOGUN (a.k.a. SAMURAI SWORDS) - This was always my favorite from the gloriously produced Milton Bradley Gamemaster series, and is the only one I still play today. The random starting locations make it more replayable than the others, even if it is just a souped up Risk. A truly beautiful game.

3. DIE MACHER - The German game industry had been trotting along, producing some nice family-style games while the American market tended to the hobby gamer. Then out of nowhere came this astonishing, detailed gamer's game from Karl-Heinz Schmiel and his small Moskito label. There's really nothing else like it that has come out of Germany, where games of this length (~4 hrs) and complexity are rarely published. On the heavy end of the Eurogame spectrum, but only moderate in compexity by American hobby game standards. I like the game quite a bit, although I've always been uneasy about the level of luck that permeates almost every phase of the game - a level that I perceive as disproportionate to the game's length and weight.

4. POLARITY - The rules are a mess, but once you figure out a sensible way of playing, you've got a compelling mix of dexterity, visualization, strategy, and weirdness with a very high "wow, look at that game" quotient.

5. THE KOREAN WAR - A wonderful operational simulation of the early stages of this rarely-gamed war. Operational wargames often strain my tolerance for length and complexity. The Korean War is long, but surprisingly manageable in terms of complexity.

Honorable Mention: BRITANNIA - A genre-busting game of epic sweep, reflecting the migrations and conflicts of various nations and tribes within the British Isles over the first millenium A.D. Tedious in some ways, but still fascinating.
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11. Board Game: Bausack [Average Rating:6.87 Overall Rank:822]
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*1987*

1. BAUSACK - A beautiful dexterity game with a strategic bidding element. A relaxing and enjoyable game as long as it moves at an andante tempo rather than an adagio. Milton Bradley released a very inferior U.S. version called "Bandu" a couple years later. There are several suggested ways of playing Bausack, so it may take some experimenting to find the one you like best.

2. BLACK VIENNA - Black Vienna is an enjoyable game of logical deduction . . . enjoyable as long as no one makes an error in placing the clue chips, which happens more often than you'd think. The game is long out of print and quite scarce, but it's not too hard to make your own copy.

3. SHARK - A lighter, more freewheeling riff on Acquire, with stock values rising and falling precipitously. Highly recommended with the caveat that you should look for the vastly superior 2001 Ravensburger/Rio Grande edition (be careful, there's also a 1991 Ravensburger edition).

4. LIAR'S DICE - The addition of the wild stars transforms this traditional bluffing game into something so much better. Although it's a dice game, those with a good grasp of probability will win more than their share of matches.

5. Well, yeah . . . I guess there is no number five. I liked the goofy but vacuous CHAOS MARAUDERS as a teen, but it honestly kind of sucks as a game. I've never played the original FURY OF DRACULA, but the 2006 remake drags on way too long and doesn't give the vampire hunters enough to do. I'm mildly curious about STAR TRADERS, but I've never played it.
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12. Board Game: Kremlin [Average Rating:6.98 Overall Rank:853]
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*1988*

1. KREMLIN - Kremlin is the first of three(!) Spiel des Josh winners for Swiss designer/publisher Urs Hostettler. Kremlin is a social strategy game of bluff and power plays and political machinations. It's a bit dated, but still a lot of fun with a humorous group that's willing to indulge the rich theme.

2. ARS MAGICA (RPG) - This is actually my favorite game of the year, but the Spiel des Josh is not really an award for role playing games. At the time, Ars Magica was the most brilliantly conceived RPG I had ever seen, and in many ways it still is. [Ars Magica was released at the very end of 1987, but was basically unknown until 1988 - and it fits better on this year's list.]

3. MERCHANT OF VENUS - Not particularly a favorite of mine, but it was good in its day. The whole space merchant concept appeals to me, but there are some big issues with the game (too long, movement too unpredictable, many no-brainer decisions, optional combat system is a dud).

4. McMULTI - A pleasant but very random game that quickly became a "grail game" for many due to its scarcity. Apparently McMulti is a remake of an even rarer 1974 American game called Crude, but I've never seen a copy of that edition.

5. SET - More like an IQ test than a game, but hey . . . I'm nerdy like that, bring on the IQ tests! Only suitable for people who won't grow frustrated if they're not among the fastest players.
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13. Board Game: Taboo [Average Rating:6.28 Overall Rank:1629]
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*1989*

1. TABOO - When I first played this I thought, "This is *so* much better than all the other party games." I still think this is the best of the "yelling" style party games, although its replay value is hurt badly by the lack of expansion cards. If that's an issue for you, be sure to get the electronic version.

2. CAFE INTERNATIONAL - This and Railway Rivals/Dampfross are the only two 1980s Spiel des Jahres winners that rank highly on my own list. Cafe International is attractive, plays quickly, has an easygoing feel, but reveals a surprising amount of tactical analysis and odds evaluation.

3. SHADOWRUN (RPG) - Shadowrun was important for a couple reasons. The first was its rich setting, which is basically William Gibson cyberpunk mashed up with wizardry and humanoid races. Also, I believe Shadowrun was the game that invented* the soon-to-be-ubiquitous "dice pool." Characters would roll a number of dice according to their skill level. Each die that met or exceeded a certain target number counted as a success, with the number of successful dice determining the degree of success.

4. AVE CAESAR - Okay, it's pretty fluffy - quick, straightforward, with a generous amount of luck. However, there is at least a small amount of tactical interest, and the game is absolutely gorgeous. It rates well, so long as it's judged for what it is: a quick, non-taxing filler that non-gamers can be talked into playing.

5. TRUE COLORS - This party game fills a very specialized niche in the game ecosystem, but in the right circumstances, it can really thrive. In the wrong circumstances, in can really bomb.

* there were a couple previous games with a more primitive type of dice pool, where all the dice were totaled in hopes of hitting a target number.
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14. Board Game: Hoity Toity [Average Rating:6.54 Overall Rank:1202]
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*1990*
The German game industry really started to hit its stride at about this time, after several years filled (mostly) with lighter-than-air offerings. Over the next few years we'll see a smattering of more engaging Euros, the type of games that hit the European market en masse beginning around 1995. A terrific year, especially in comparison to '88 and '89.

1. ADEL VERPFLICHTET - Adel Verpflichtet is the classic template for many later "outguessing" games, and it still has a place among the very best in that genre. Although Teuber is known chiefly for his Settlers series, I think this is his best game. I recommend the newer "Hoity Toity" edition because it supports six players, a huge boon since the game isn't worth playing with fewer than five players.

2. DAYTONA 500 - The best of several versions of Wolfgang Kramer's 'Niki Lauda's Formel 1' system. It's still my favorite of the lighter-style racing games, although it's not quite as light as it appears. I just wish that the bidding for car ownership was handled better.

3. REPUBLIC OF ROME - Impressive game simulating politics within the Roman Senate, and one of very few negotiation games that I enjoy. There are many strategic approaches available to the players, and the brilliant cooperative/competitive design gives a unique tension to the negotiations. Remarkable also in how well it conveys its theme.

4. AIRLINES - Alan Moon's first high-quality game, it would later be transformed into 1999's Union Pacific. In some ways the later design is better, although I miss the more restrictive, cutthroat (and relevant) board play of Airlines. This was in many ways a blueprint for Moon's later games, featuring such classic Moon-isms as the card draft, the scoring cards, the Acquire-like scoring, and the placing of routes onto the board.

5. TYRANNO EX - A clever and worthwhile game from Karl-Heinz Schmiel, although not the equal of masterpieces like the earlier Die Macher and the later Was Sticht.
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15. Board Game: Tichu [Average Rating:7.60 Overall Rank:119]
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*1991*
This year gave us a bunch of winners. Seems like a great place to expand my list to ten games per year!

1. TICHU - If I had to choose a "FAVORITE GAME OF ALL TIME!!!", I would probably choose Tichu. Don't be put off by the comparisons to Great Dalmuti, etc. Yes, they both use the same basic climbing mechanism, but the similarities end there. Dalmuti is a reasonable choice for lobotomized dipshits, whereas Tichu creates the most complex (and interesting) decision space of any card game I've played.

2. EASTFRONT - You can't ask for more than this in a mid-complexity wargame. Eastfront has a rather large volume of rules (by my standards), but it's not difficult to learn because all the rules make sense.

3. HISTORY OF THE WORLD - A terrific game, but also one that leaves individual players uninvolved for long stretches. This will be a game-killer for some groups, but History of the World is a great choice for those who like to chat while they play.

4. FORMULA DE - I always thought of Formula De as no more than an "above average" game until we played a season series with tweaked rules, point standings, three-lap races, and car construction. In that format, it's a blast - so long as you crack the whip to keep the pace moving.

5. BREAKING AWAY - Breaking Away is a game with no random elements, but it still manages to feel quite chaotic because of the degree of hidden information. It fascinates me that Breaking Away and Um Reifenbreite both have such an authentic cycling feel, yet their means of achieving that are radically divergent.

6. EXTRABLATT - This game hasn't aged particularly well, but be assured that it's still the best game about newspaper editors. Easily! An English language edition with appropriately absurd headlines might help bring back the fun I remember.

7. SILVERTON - I like Silverton, but it suffers from an awkward combination of extended length and capricious swings of luck. The boom-bust nature of the dice means that the game won't always be balanced, but if you don't mind that possibility it should always be enjoyable.

8. DRUNTER UND DRÜBER - Family style game that won the Spiel des Jahres. I find the artwork annoying, but otherwise this is a nice game of bluff, screw the other guy, and light tactics.

9. MASTER LABYRINTH - As published, too prone to stalemates and defensive play. But with a couple simple tweaks this makes a nice light game of lookahead and spatial juggling for two players. See my ratings comments for details.

10. TANTE TARANTEL - A children's game that is similar to the later game Finstere Flure. Personally, I'd rather play Tante Tarantel, although I don't think it's a game I've ever requested.
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16. Board Game: Modern Art [Average Rating:7.34 Overall Rank:226]
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*1992*
Knizia, Knizia, Knizia! The prolific designer makes an impressive debut, scoring two of the top three games this year. Also a terrific year for Alan Moon with two games among the top five.

1. MODERN ART - Reiner Knizia breaks onto the scene with one of the true classics of the auction genre. It's a game that initially appeared to me to be rather straightforward, but experience revealed an amazing amount of depth and subtlety (which I am still discovering even now). Knizia was already demonstrating his knack for designing games with simple rules and complex strategies. He was also already displaying his underrated ability to convey the correct thematic atmosphere within a sparse, abstract game design.

2. ELFENROADS - I actually think Elfenroads has been superseded by Elfenland with the Elfengold expansion, which plays in a more manageable time frame. But the legendary White Wind game is where the system started. Deserving of its acclaim, Elfenroads is a beautiful, engrossing, startlingly original game.

3. QUO VADIS? - A quick negotiation game with the a potentially disastrous combination: no hidden assets and the inability to accomplish anything significant without the help of an opponent. But Knizia somehow makes it work because of a number of good design choices. See my ratings comments for more details.

4. SANTA FE - One of Alan Moon's very best designs - good enough to support two different updated editions ten years later (Santa Fe Rails and Clippers). I've observed that this game is sometimes compared with Moon's own Union Pacific. That's understandable because of the similar theme and appearance, but in terms of mechanics and gameplay, a better comparison would be Wolfgang Kramer's Wildlife Adventure (or its successor Expedition).

5. FAST FOOD FRANCHISE - Monopoly, except good. Very random, yes, but it also has some tough decisions and real strategy.

6. NEW RULES FOR CLASSIC GAMES - This wonderful book by R. Wayne Schmittberger contains a wealth of game rules and variants. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in ludology or game design.

7. RAZZIA - A simple second-guessing game from Stefan Dorra that has been republished more recently as Hick Hack im Gackelwack (Pick Picknic). The reissue is better because this really wants to be a kid's game. And would you rather do birds and foxes with your kids, or mafia gambling dens?

8. TEXAS - Another one that's better known under its later title: Rosenkönig. Texas is a light game of timing and lookahead analysis for two players or four playing in partnerships. I recommend playing with one card face down (for each player), to avoid the "this game plays you" feeling that otherwise develops.

9. LOOPIN' LOUIE - Wheeeeeee!

10. TIME AGENT - I think I played this once, but I think I was a bit drunk and can't really remember whether I liked it. Some of the gamers in my group have played it recently and they liked it. So I'll trust their opinion until I get a chance to refresh my memory

Haven't tried: Confusion (Franjos)
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17. Board Game: Magic: The Gathering [Average Rating:7.45 Overall Rank:156] [Average Rating:7.45 Unranked]
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*1993*
By 1993, the roleplaying and wargaming hobbies had both been in decline for several years. Clearly, the time was ripe for a new gaming craze . . . .

1. MAGIC: THE GATHERING - Despised by some, obsessively pursued by others, Magic is a game that's tough to evaluate fairly because it quickly became so much more than a game - an entire subculture. It's difficult to separate the game itself from the "metagame" (a term in common parlance among the Magic geeks). But if you ask me, Magic is without question one of the most brilliant and compelling games ever designed. It seduces gamers with its variety, its customizability, its collectability, its sheer scope. Of course, that siren song is both its principal attraction and its fatal flaw. A fantastic game (particularly post-Ice Age), but not one that I would recommend to any of my friends.

2. TIMBUKTU - Exceedingly clever game of tactics, timing, odds, and fuzzy deduction. My appreciation for this game really accelerated once I tried it with note-taking (which the new Queen edition explicitly allows). I can only recommend this game with exactly five players.

3. FREIGHT TRAIN - One of several good majorities games from Alan Moon. In terms of game ergonomics, it might be Moon's fussiest design - zillions of tiny cards with lots of shuffling and flipping, requiring acres of table space. Nonetheless, this is a terrific, nuanced game, and well worth the fuss.

4. PICK TWO - Competitive real-time solo Scrabble, with no goal other than speed. Simply a terrific game, my favorite of the anagram/crossword genre.

5. STICHELN - If you like Hearts, try this. I think it's a much better game of screw-your-neighbor trick-taking goodness.

6. VERNISSAGE - The Eurogame cognoscenti have decreed that Löwenherz is Klaus Teuber's most underrated game. Nonsense. It's Vernissage, a goofy game that features some truly odd mechanisms. To me it feels a little like Modern Art crossed with Shark crossed with Titan: the Arena. And if that description makes any sense to you whatsoever, you need to schedule an appointment with your therapist right away.

7. TUTANCHAMUN - This is classic "early period" Reiner Knizia. The idea is so simple that it sounds banal, yet somehow a good, tense game emerges. Tutanchamun might rank higher if it eliminated, or at least concealed, the endgame kingmaking scenarios that sometimes arise.

8. EN GARDE - Another minimalist Knizia game. The thrust and parry and retreat does actually convey the feel of fencing, which is amazing considering it's just a bunch of cards with the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 printed on them.

9. SCHNAPP - Totally stupid kids' game where you catapult disks into the air and then jostle around trying to catch the right ones. Trust me, it's terrible. Anyone have one for trade?

10. AUSGEBREMST - Ave Caesar's smarter but less affable sister. Which one you prefer depends on what you're looking for in a game. Ausgebremst allows for more nuanced play, but I question whether a game of this weight is worth the extra fuss - especially considering the extreme wretched hideous impossible-to-overstate ugliness of the Ausgebremst edition.
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18. Board Game: RoboRally [Average Rating:7.12 Overall Rank:337]
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*1994*
When I first put this list together, I wrote that 1994 was "probably the weakest output of the 90's, with just one game that I would consider to be indispensable." I was wrong. The top five here are all still getting regular play fifteen years later. It's a strong year.

1. ROBORALLY - Score two in a row for Richard Garfield. Few designers have produced two games as good as Magic and Robo Rally. Interestingly, both are games that a lot of gamers strongly dislike. I enjoy the "programmed movement" mechanic, and Robo Rally is the best implementation of that mechanic. Just don't make the mistake of setting up a long, difficult course, leading to player fatigue.

2. WAS STICHT? - The first time or two I played this brain-mashing devil of a game, I was at a total loss. It just seemed way too difficult. Once I stopped trying to memorize what was in each of the other players' hands, the game started clicking. It's a fascinating game that requires careful concentration, but it usually feels a little too long; I prefer playing to four chits rather than five.

3. BIG BOSS - An enjoyable game with lovely components, a nice quick pace, and interesting decisions weighted toward the early game. Your fate is tied tightly to the cards you happen to draw, but you just have to accept that this is "that type of game," if you know what I mean. I have a terrific time playing even when I'm getting crushed, which is what usually seems to happen.

4. AUF HELLER UND PFENNIG - One of Reiner Knizia's most underrated designs, more recently rethemed and published as "Kingdoms." The game situations involve difficult tradeoffs and odds calculations, and the overall experience is much more interesting than the you might expect from reading the rules. If you're not big on math and numbers, stay away from this one.

5. 6 NIMMT! - Versatile cardgame that can be learned in two minutes, and can feel either very random or very skillful depending on how the players approach it (and also depending somewhat on the number of players). Satisfying for a broad range of groups and personalities, including strategy gamers, social/party gamers, and families.

6. WE THE PEOPLE - The much-imitated ancestor of one of my favorite wargames, Hannibal. The card system doesn't work as well here (particularly for combat), but this is a good game that was rich with new ideas.

7. IRON DRAGON - In some ways the most interesting and balanced of the Mayfair crayon rail games, and I've decided it's different enough from Empire Builder to merit its own entry. Unfortunately, it's a little too large in scope, so I end up playing Eurorails or India Rails more often that Iron Dragon. Recommended only for those who are able to play crayon rails at a brisk pace.

8. OLYMPIA 2000 - Largely silly Hol's der Geier relative with enough nuance to allow for a small amount of planning. Good for the occasional play (like once every four years in the Summer . . . ).

9. KOHLE, KIE$ & KNETE (aka I'm The Boss!) - The game critic in me wants to say that this is a rather pointless and arbitrary game, and it is both of those things if it's taken too seriously. But with the right group and the right attitude, KK&K is chaotic and freewheeling fun. (But it only works if players are unwilling or unable to track everyone's score.)

10. SHARP SHOOTERS - Reasonably good dice-chucking game to pass the time. Sit to the left of the chump.

Haven't tried: Intrigue, Knightmare Chess.

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19. Board Game: El Grande [Average Rating:7.79 Overall Rank:54]
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*1995*
Terrific year! This is the first year where I've wanted to pick more than ten games. Carabande was the odd man out.

1. EL GRANDE - El Grande is a marvelous game that inspired a lot of similar games from other designers over the next several years. It has aged very well, and is my favorite of the games that have won the "real" SdJ. The heart of El Grande is the tactical decision-making that goes into the bidding and the selection of the action cards. There's perhaps more opportunity for leader bashing than I typically enjoy, but the game system limits the bashing enough that front-running is a plausible strategy. Once you've played a few times, try the König & Intigant expansion!

2. FLASCHENTEUFEL - A fiendishly clever little trick-taking card game that is one of our favorite fillers for three players. It's also the only trick-taking game I've played that has an authentic-feeling story arc incorporated into the gameplay. The 3-handed and 4-handed versions require such different strategies that they feel like two distinct games.

3. KUNST STÜCKE - An original, engaging, skillfully-crafted game about artists collaborating on a project, each having their own opinion of how the final piece should look. Even the name is clever. It's hard to get played, though, because it's weird, it's abstract, and there's no real narrative behind the game.

4. STERNENHIMMEL - Very cool but overlooked influence allocation game with a strong psychological component. It makes a fine choice for gearing down after an intense or exhausting game.

5. MÜ & MEHR - A deck of card that allows you to play several different card games. The chief attraction is Mü, considered by many to be the best trick-taking game available for five players. I like it, and would probably like it even more if I could just get a better handle on the bidding. It seems like there's a lot of depth there, but I'll admit that most of it escapes me currently.

6. MEDICI - It's hard not to notice that Reiner Knizia has quite a knack for auction/bidding games. Medici is one of his most straightforward and analytical auction games. It's also probably his most versatile auction game, both in terms of the number of players and in terms of the breadth of its appeal to different groups. Avoid the early Rio Grande edition with its horrible graphic design.

7. SETTLERS OF CATAN - You probably already know what you think of this one. I think it's a reasonably good game but it never was among my favorites.

8. P.M.S. DAS MOTORSPORTSPIEL - Exciting auto racing game with timed turns. Players with a poor position in the starting grid have a tough time making up ground.

9. MIDDLE EARTH: THE WIZARDS - A collectible card game that does a terrific job of conveying the proper feel for its setting. The game emphasized characters, locations, and corruption in a way that really told a cohesive story - something that you don't often find in this genre. Deck construction was less interesting here than in some of the other CCGs I played, but the gameplay itself was terrific.

10. HIGH SOCIETY - A simple and quick auction game. Hard to find for many years, it's now available in an attractive English edition from Uberplay. Sometimes frustrating since the best you can usually do is to put yourself into a position where you are a candidate for the win. It's the order of the deck that determines which of the candidates wins.

Just missed: Carabande, Quack Shot.

Haven't tried: 1856, 2038, Billabong, Legend of the Five Rings, Shadowfist.
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20. Board Game: Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage [Average Rating:7.82 Overall Rank:134]
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*1996*
A great year for those who emphasize quality over quantity. In other words, four or five outstanding games but not a lot beyond that.

1. HANNIBAL: ROME vs. CARTHAGE - The game that rekindled my interest in wargames, and one of the best wargames I've ever played. Now that the 2nd edition rules have largely eliminated the errata that plagued the game for so long, I have no hesitation in recommending this magnificent game.

2. EXPEDITION - This is a redesigned and improved Wildlife Adventure, a Wolfgang Kramer game that would have won the Spiel des Josh in 1985 if I weren't saving it for this year. If you've tried Expedition (or Wildlife Adventure) and felt like it was too "random," then I would recommend giving it another chance with just two or three players, using the variant whereby an expedition can only be re-started from a point along the closed loop. Played this way, it's still a fairly light game, but also one with plenty of opportunity for skillful play. I'm happy to play with or without the disclosed destinations at the start of the game.

3. MARRACASH - At 30-45 minutes a pop, this remains one of the best "meaty fillers" available, featuring a fascinating interplay of cooperation and competition.

4. QUANDARY - This is almost the same game as Flinke Pinke (1994), but do you really want to play with cards and chips when you can have chunky tiles that clack when you stack them? Neither do I. A surprisingly good game for such a simple concept. Lots of agonizing decisions in just a few minutes.

5. NETRUNNER - An excellent CCG that shines when played in a "sealed deck" format. It's enjoyable with as little investment as one starter deck. Constructed deck play is much less engaging, eliminating most of the interesting decisions and much of the tension.

6. CHRONOLOGY - A simple, quick game that involves nothing more than trying to sequence various historical events, some of which are momentous and some of which are obscure or even trivial. But as far as one-trick pony games go, this one is pretty good.

7. ENTDECKER - I like the updated 2001 version better, but it would finish out of the running on that year's list. The original is not bad if played with the Manu variant or something similar.

8. MEMBERS ONLY - This is basically Liar's Dice played with cards. It's a pretty good game, but only seems to work well with exactly four players.

9. REIBACH & CO. aka GET THE GOODS - If you take Freight Train, Airlines, or Union Pacific and strip away all the elements that are not absolutely essential, then you'll get Reibach & Co. It's a distillation of the two or three core mechanics from those games, with a few minor changes. A clever game, but I'd rather play those others I mentioned.

10. SERENISSIMA - Beautiful game of maritime trading, controlling ports, and big attritional battles between ships. I played it a couple times, but could never really decide whether I was having a good time.
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21. Board Game: Tigris & Euphrates [Average Rating:7.71 Overall Rank:70]
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PLEASE NOTE: This year now has its own GeekList, which can be found here. This entry is no longer being maintained, and may be out of date.

*1997*
This year brought us an unprecedented number of first-rate games, including the game that gave me my Boardgamegeek avatar . . . .

1. EUPHRAT & TIGRIS - Even after many, many games, I haven't quite decided whether this is a game with a little bit of luck or a game with a lot of luck. Ultimately, I really don't care because it's so unbelievably fascinating and enjoyable to play, and because the scope for richly-textured strategic and tactical play is astounding. The feel of the game matches its theme almost perfectly. I love the way that the game forces you to constantly rethink your strategy as the landscape and power structure evolves. You may be living large off the fat of the land, but eventually you'll probably have to uproot and reinvent yourself. The most masterful of Reiner Knizia's many masterpieces.

2. BOHNANZA - Terrific trading game with broad appeal, and one of my top choices for introducing non-gamers to this hobby of ours (if I can get them to look past the game's oh-so-thrilling theme of bean farming).

3. TITAN: THE ARENA - This is still the best version of this game. Galaxy: The Dark Ages is almost as good. Colossal Arena is basically the same game as long as you use the TtA rules for ending the game (play the full five rounds even if the draw pile is depleted). For those of you who enjoy Winner's Circle (Royal Turf), I recommend this as a similar but superior game.

4. FRISCH FISCH - A game that I didn't have the opportunity to play until Plenary Games reprinted it. It's an astonishingly original design and a real mindbender, requiring non-obvious strategies and great attention to detail. Fresh Fish packs an expansive array of decisions and drama into about an hour's time.

5. FOR SALE - Hard to do better in just 10-15 minutes. I prefer the revised Uberplay bidding rules, where bids must be increased rather than matched. With the original rules, the game actually drags a little bit. However, I think it's best to use the original rules for rounding (always in a player's favor when reclaiming half of their bid).

6. SHOWMANAGER - I would probably rate this even higher if I hadn't played it forty bajillion times, since it is a favorite of one of my gaming partners. A nice set collecting game. It's somewhat fluffy, but does force you to weigh some nasty tradeoffs. My favorite way to play is the three-player version where you produce each show twice. Republished in an inferior edition as Atlantic Star.

7. VISIONARY - Try to tell a blindfolded teammate how to build a structure out of different shapes and sizes of wooden pieces. Dumb? Oh yes. But fun, loud, and often hilarious. People will stop and gather around to watch you play.

8. NJET! - A good trick taking game, although not one of the very best. The trick play itself is actually very light and straightforward, but the "Njet!" phase in which the rules are created is quite interesting.

9. URSUPPE - Amoebas drifting aimlessly in the primordial soup, eating each other's excrement and developing new genes to help get a "leg" up on the competition. If that's not the coolest theme for a game, then I don't know what is.

10. JUNGLE SPEED - Reaction and visual recognition game that's similar to Halli Galli, Snap, and Egyptian Ratscrew - but better than any of those. Works best in conjunction with alcohol, sleep deprivation, or children. Avoid playing against those with blood diseases.

Just missed: Twilight (Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde), Wise and Otherwise, Zopp.

Haven't tried: Volle Hütte, GIPF.
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22. Board Game: Cosmic Eidex [Average Rating:6.89 Overall Rank:2558]
Joshua Miller
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PLEASE NOTE: This year now has its own GeekList, which can be found here. This entry is no longer being maintained, and may be out of date.

*1998*
The top three games are in a dead heat this year. I originally gave the Spiel des Josh to El Caballero, but Cosmic Eidex has slowly but surely climbed into the top spot this year.

1. COSMIC EIDEX - Hard to do better for three-player trick taking. There is a *lot* to think about here. Although chaos abounds, the game never feels out of control, and there seems to be plenty of room for skillful play. The game manages to maintain a zany, lighthearted feel despite being something of a brain-burner.

2. EL CABALLERO - Carcassonne's older cousin is among the deepest and most thought-provoking German-style games. The rules are quite succinct, but both the mechanics and the strategies can be somewhat counterintuitive. The way the caballero tiles operate is just plain weird, and there a lot of little tricks to learn related to moving them on and off the board. If your first playing of this game leaves you confused, dismayed, and/or drained, don't worry - El Caballero is a game that rewards repeat play.

3. DURCH DIE WÜSTE - I strongly prefer games with at least a dollop of luck or randomness thrown in somewhere rather than luck-free games of pure strategy. I enjoy having to adjust to unpredictable game situations, and usually some random element is necessary to give me this feeling. Durch die Wüste gives me this feeling without containing any random elements beyond setting up the board and choosing a start player. The choices the game presents are so open and balanced that it's difficult to predict what my opponents will do in many cases. That player-created chaos provides the tension and uncertainty I love with no need for true randomness.

4. TURFMASTER - Other horse racing games tend to focus on the betting (Royal Turf, Win Place & Show, Jockey, The Really Nasty Horse Racing Game). But in TurfMaster, it's the maneuvering within the race itself that drives the game. It would rank higher if it were just a bit shorter.

5. MYSTERY RUMMY: JACK THE RIPPER - Mike Fitzgerald has given us some nice twists on the old classic Rummy with this game and its successors Murders in the Rue Morgue and Wyatt Earp. I prefer to play Jack the Ripper with two players, Wyatt Earp with three, and Rue Morgue with four - and that seems to align with the consensus opinion.

6. SCHNÄPPCHEN JAGD - A wonderfully original card game that works particularly well with three players. I think the mechanics surrounding the junk pile are brilliant, but I'm less enamored of the actual cardplay. There seem to be too many suits, resulting in very little control over the proceedings.

7. GIPF - I've only recently played GIPF for the first time, and I'm still not sure what to think of it. However, I feel like I should take note of the GIPF series on this list. GIPF has the reputation of being the deepest and most challenging of the series.

8. KATZENJAMMER BLUES - Yet another card game that's best with three players. I held off on trying this for a long time due to bad word of mouth, but it's a clever, quick, and bloody game of hand management, timing, and seizing initiative.

9. SAMARKAND - Nice relaxing family game that accelerates to a quick finish. I've only played with the Isfahan expansion, but I'd like to try it without for comparison.

10. HORNOCHSEN - The 6 nimmt system rejiggered for turn-based play. It works surprisingly well, mutating into more of a thinker's game that presents some devilish little dilemmas. The game can drag, though, if you're not careful.

Haven't tried: Tonga Bonga, Freibeuter, Honeybears, For the People.
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23. Board Game: Ra [Average Rating:7.47 Overall Rank:135]
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*1999*
Mamma Mia! An avalanche of simply stupendous games this year, although "Mamma Mia" doesn't make my list. Amazing, amazing year - especially for card games.

[Note: Union Pacific is ineligible because its amazingly-similar predecessor Airlines made the list in 1990. Had it been eligible, Union Pacific would have probably ranked in the neighborhood of #4 or #5 this year.]

1. RA - "Here's to the Sun God, he sure is a fun god, Ra Ra Ra!" Er, sorry. Probably my favorite auction/bidding game, and easily my favorite for three players. Those who want to get all the luck out of their games won't like Ra. But those who can tolerate the occasional vagaries of fate will find that there's a lot of room for skillful play.

2. TIKAL - Great ambience, gut-wrenching decisions, and a nice blend of tactical and strategic play. Good in its basic version, even better in its auction version - so long as the players don't cripple the pace with lengthy over-analysis.

3. SCHOTTEN TOTTEN - This game is often mentioned in the same breath as Lost Cities, since both are two-player cardgames with similar mechanisms that debuted in the same year. I give high marks to each, but prefer Schotten Totten. Schotten Totten is more thought provoking, whereas Lost Cities is lighter and quicker.

4. LOST CITIES - There is more skill involved than the game's critics claim. However, the difference between a very good player and a masterful player is probably quite small. Thus luck will tend to dominate in matches between two good players. A fine game nevertheless.

5. TA YÜ - It's nothing deep or profound - the random draws and the simple choices keep it on the easygoing, tactical level. But the simplicity is part of the attraction, along with the spectacular thick clacking tiles and the beauty of the board and the totally false feeling that I'm playing some kind of ancient Chinese game.

6. STEPHENSON'S ROCKET - Stephenson's Rocket initally didn't make my top ten, but it's a game that gets better the more you play it. One of the few zero-luck games that I enjoy. It would rank higher on this year's list if the commodity tokens were more worthwhile.

7. MONEY! - Great little filler that perhaps didn't get its due - it was roundly mocked for being nominated for the Spiel des Jahres over the other, meatier Knizia game Taj Mahal (a 2000 game, see below). But Money ranks among the best very short games out there. It's simple to teach, plays very quickly, scales well from 3 to 5, has a friendly feel, and goes over well with casual gamers.

8. MYSTERY RUMMY: MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE - Excellent fast-playing partnership game for four players, very lean and streamlined. The veiled communication between partners is well integrated, adding another whole layer to an otherwise simple game. Placing cards in the "orangutan" kitty is a nice twist that achieves several desirable goals with one simple mechanism.

9. TORRES - The two Kramer/Kiesling designs this year are both quite good, but Tikal comes off the shelf more than Torres. Torres is probably the deeper game, though drier and more abstract. I play the version where each player has his own deck, and chooses from three cards each time he draws.

10. DIE HÄNDLER - Never fully recovered from an overzealous initial negative buzz, fueled by a critical rules error by those who played it at The Gathering of Friends. The game shows some splitting at the joints, but it's a solid choice for those who enjoy games with many interrelated moving parts.

Just missed: Ricochet Robot, Klunker, Paths of Glory, Frank's Zoo, Mit List und Tucke, Button Men.
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24. Board Game: Carcassonne [Average Rating:7.43 Overall Rank:139] [Average Rating:7.43 Unranked]
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*2000*
If every coming year produces as many good games as we've seen in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004, then I'm going to have to find a very big house and a high-paying job to support my hobby!

1. CARCASSONNE - How boring of me to pick the hugely popular Carcassonne for this year's winner. Although there's a vocal segment of the gaming hobby that decries the randomness of this game, I find it to be one of the best light-middleweight German games available (right up there with games such as Ra, Expedition, Daytona 500, Bohnanza and Ticket to Ride). Among seasoned gamers, the game reveals a surprising level of depth.

2. TAJ MAHAL - I enjoy Taj Mahal immensely, although the lack of control to be frustrating at times. The game's best feature is that it supports a wide variety of paths to victory, both in terms of strategy and tactics. Playing Taj Mahal is a very tense experience, with the feeling that you're walking a tightrope and could tumble with the slightest breeze. Unfortunately though, and unusually for a Knizia game, it's only any good with exactly four players.

3. LA CITTA - One of those games where you feel like you desperately need to do two or three actions, but must choose just one. A terrific game of planning, resource management, and competition.

4. BABEL - I had always assumed that Bohnanza was Uwe Rosenberg's magnum opus. Until I tried Babel, that is. A joy for those who like complex tactical situations, and involves a nice mix of setting yourself up to take advantage of future opportunites and adjusting to unpredictable situations..

5. TRAUMFABRIK - Traumfabrik doesn't quite have the elegance of some of the other Knizia auction games like Modern Art, Medici, Ra, or High Society. However, it scores higher on theme than most of those (Modern Art is the possible exception), and scores well on the ubiquitous "fun factor." A darn good game that gives you a wide range of factors to consider when making your bid.

6. TIME'S UP - Delightful! If you have *any* interest in party games, this is one you'll want to own. The perfect party game for geeks. It's my favorite game from this year, but I didn't deem it award-worthy since it's basically a perfected folk game.

7. CARTAGENA - A clever little card-based race game reminiscent of Hare & Tortoise, but better. Not terribly deep, but deeper than it appears. I definitely prefer the Tortuga version (with the open cards), which emphasizes planning ahead and diminishes the importance of the card draw.

8. MEUTERER - I didn't try this one until 2005 because I really hated its ponderous predecessor Verräter. Meuterer, though, is really quite charming. As with several of the lighter games on this year's list, it crams a lot of tactical goodness into a small package (extremely small in this case!).

9. JAVA - A very challenging game, deeper and more cerebral than Tikal. Tikal could be described as strategic, whereas Java is very tactical and emphasizes finding the "clever move." Java is also much more chaotic because of the constantly changing board and the more mobile explorers.

10. WONGAR - A beautiful and fascinating game that was probably too weird to catch on. Botched badly by Goldsieber; the theming they chose makes no sense whatsoever, and the game shipped with very stupid default rules with the true game exiled to the "advanced" rules.

Just missed: Princes of Florence, Battle Cry, Hyle7, Blokus and Web of Power. Lord of the Rings will make its appearance next year, when the first expansion is released.

Haven't tried: Hera & Zeus, Dia de los Muertos.
 
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25. Board Game: Liberté [Average Rating:7.17 Overall Rank:698]
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*2001*
I took a hiatus from gaming during 2001, so I still haven't had a chance to play everything on my "must try" list. [Edit: it's now the end of 2004, and I've managed to play most of them, with a couple of notable exceptions, listed below.]

1. LIBERTÉ - Chaotic, but in a good way. Good because it fits the theme (after all, what's more chaotic than the French Revolution?) and also good because it makes for a dynamic, surprising, and fascinating game. The mechanics are very simple, but the game situations are convoluted and often unstable. I highly recommend playing with the variant listed at www.huzonfirstgames.com , which increases the worth of the one-block cards.

2. LORD OF THE RINGS: FRIENDS & FOES - My opinion of Reiner Knizia's ballyhooed Lord of the Rings game improved dramatically after playing it with the Friends & Foes expansion. Prior to the expansion I enjoyed the game, but didn't feel the need to play it more than a few times. The Friends & Foes expansion adds some needed variety, provides more strategic choices, and makes the game less solvable. The Sauron expansion, on the other hand, I can do without.

3. TITICACA - Although this is a quick-playing and relatively simple game, it seems to have struggled to find an audience. Why? I think it's because it's not very approachable, and it's coy about admitting its depth. Some of the rules initially seem arbitrary or counterintuitive, and it's hard to grasp the connections among the different parts of the game, making the game seem random or not worth the effort to first-time players. But give this one a chance; there's a terrific game in here that packs a real wallop into a 45 minute playing time.

4. TRADERS OF GENOA - A game I thought I would dislike, but I've been pleasantly surprised. It's almost completely a game of negotiation, but Traders gives you a lot more to think about than other games of that ilk.

5. PAMPAS RAILROADS - The excellent Prairie Railroads could have made the list in 1999, but Pampas Railroads is even better because of an improved action system that gives the players more control. It's a very calculational investment game motivated by a severe shortage of time as well as a devious tension between cooperation and competition. Two in the top five for Martin Wallace this year.

6. WYATT EARP - This may be my favorite lighthearted card game for three players. Although it's heavily luck based, there's some real depth here, along with a brilliant integration of the "Wild West" theme.

7. HIVE - I don't play too many abstract, positional two-player games, but I'm quite taken with Hive. I like the quirky insect theme, the quick play, the deep-but-not-too-deep feel, the importance of tempo, and the variety of pieces.

8. KUPFERKESSEL CO. - This quick two-player game of set collection and lookahead almost seems to play itself, yet I find it strangely addicting. Don't be scared off by the "memory game" descriptions, as I was. The memory element is not overly taxing, and not as critical as other skills such as planning ahead, estimation, and predicting your opponent's actions.

9. MEDINA - A gorgeous no-luck game of city building that starts slowly and innocently, but builds to an excruciating tension in the midgame.

10. STARSHIP CATAN - I think it's much, much better than the Settlers Card Game, although players with an overwhelming preference for strategic planning over tactical maneuvering may prefer the earlier game. Some criticisms of the Settlers Card Game could also apply here (rather long, solitaire feel, heavy memory element), but the mood and texture of the two games is quite different.

Just missed: Gnadenlos, San Marco, Royal Turf, X-Bugs and Flowerpower. Funkenschlag will make its appearance with the revised version in 2004.

Haven't tried: Knockabout, Das Amulett and Kanaloa 2001.
 
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