'Spiel des Josh' Award: 2008 Edition
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Hey everybody, the time has arrived for your friendly neighborhood Spiel des Josh awards ceremony. 2008 was not a very good year for new games, in my estimation. I'm happy with my #1 pick, but the rest of the top ten is not as strong as it has been in recent years.

If you don't know about the Spiel des Josh, it's just my little roundup of what I think are the best games of the year. It goes all the way back to 1980 and beyond. Here are links to all the other lists currently available:

2007 - 2006 - 2005 - 2004 - 2003 - 2002 - 2001 - 2000 - 1999 - 1998 - all prior years

As always, the first ten games listed are the "official" 2008 Spiel des Josh selections, ranked in order starting with the best. The entries following the first ten are for thoughts and discussion on other games from 2008 that I've enjoyed.
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1. Board Game: Say Anything [Average Rating:6.77 Overall Rank:955]
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The Spiel des Josh winner for 2008 is Say Anything, designed by Dominic Crapuchettes and Satish Pillalamarri and published by North Star Games. This is the first Spiel des Josh win for all involved. Their previous game Wits & Wagers made the Spiel des Josh top ten in 2005.

The 2007 award was a very difficult selection, with three games essentially tied at the top: Through the Ages, Agricola, and Race for the Galaxy (and Galaxy Trucker right behind). This year's pick was very easy, with only one game I judged to be outstanding.

This is the first time a party game has won the Spiel des Josh in twenty years (Taboo, 1989). I'm sure that some of you will be disappointed that I didn't pick a more gamer-ly game this year. But Say Anything is a very deserving winner. It's a nearly perfect game for casual social play with a diverse range of non-gamer friends. If you've only tried Say Anything within your regular gaming group, you haven't seen it in full bloom. Try it over a few beers with friends from work, and you'll see what I mean.

I've bought 36 copies of Say Anything so far. The game was such a hit with my co-workers that I gave each one of them a copy as a gift last July. There was no end to the glowing reports as they introduced the game to other friends and family. And I'm apparently now a rock star with some of the kids who've recently seen the game appear in stores. "Wow, Mom, we got that awesome game way before it was even in the store!"

Unless you absolutely cannot tolerate party games, there really is no reason not to buy Say Anything. It's cheap. It's short. It takes literally one minute to explain. It supports up to eight players. It works with pretty much any crowd, even the most game-a-phobic. The only criticism I have of the game is that you're likely to need replacement markers sooner rather than later. The ones that are included dry out very easily, although snapping the caps tightly does help. [EDIT: apparently this problem only pertains to the 1st print run. The game is now entering its 3rd print run.] Be warned that there's usually one question per card that can easily provoke "adult" content. This has never been a problem in the games I've played, since it's usually pretty clear whether bawdy answers would be considered appropriate for the current group or setting.

If you're unfamiliar with Say Anything, the description on its BGG page provides a great synopsis.

Special Honors
The Award That Was Only Trying To Be Affable - Best Party or Social Game of 2008
also considered: Climb!, Dixit, Pandemic

The "Damn, Here Comes Sam, Shall We Split Into Threes?" Award - Best Six-Player Game of 2008
also considered: Dixit
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2. Board Game: Le Havre [Average Rating:7.89 Overall Rank:42]
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Designer Uwe Rosenberg has never won the Spiel des Josh, but he's the runner up for the second year in a row and the third time in his career. In fact Rosenberg has made my top ten five times now:

Bohnanza - #2 in 1997
Schnäppchen Jagd - #7 in 1998
Babel - #4 in 2000
Agricola - #2 in 2007
Le Havre - #2 in 2008

Rosenberg's confident move from quirky card games to thinky gamer's games has been one of the more astonishing developments of the past couple years. I don't like Le Havre as much as Agricola, but it's a very good game nonetheless.

Le Havre probably shares more genes with Caylus than Agricola. The periodic harvest phases are very similar to Agricola, but the remainder of the game is much more like Caylus. There are a few starting buildings, then individual players build others. Anyone can use any empty building, but may have to offer a fee or kickback to the owner.

I thought Caylus was an average game at best. Le Havre, though, has won me over by addressing all of my major concerns about Caylus.

(1) Le Havre has a larger, more diverse, more flexible menu of options than Caylus. There is more to do, and a greater chance that you'll get to do it (since there's only one "worker" per player to block your action).

(2) Le Havre allows for more long-term strategy, whereas Caylus is mostly tactical. In Le Havre, you can plan more sophisticated chains of moves. You can grab a big pile of resources which will have lasting effects. You can build permanent ships that no one else can use.

(3) Unlike Caylus, Le Havre has a much better narrative "shape" from start to finish. You'll be doing very different things at the end of the game than you were doing in the beginning or the middle.

(4) Le Havre offers more variety from game to game than Caylus, due to the ordering of the building queues and the randomly selected special buildings.

(5) Le Havre's game flow is more elegant with no need for resolution phases or end of turn resets.

I think that last point is the game's greatest achievement. Le Havre has perfected the "microturn" to a degree that hardly seems possible for a game of this depth and complexity. Nearly everything that happens in the game is sewn simply and seamlessly into each individual bite-sized player turn: resource growth, changes to available actions, choice of action, effects of action. The only extra regulation happens in the painless harvest phase after every seven player turns. Pay a few food, maybe grab a cow or a wheat, flip a card, and you're immediately back into the player actions.

Special Honors
The Massive and Imposing Granite Trophy - Best Gamer's Game of 2008
also considered: After the Flood

The Baker's Pair - Best Three-Player Game of 2008
also considered: After the Flood, Dominion, Uruk

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3. Board Game: Dominion [Average Rating:7.64 Overall Rank:77] [Average Rating:7.64 Unranked]
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My history with Dominion has gone through three distinct stages.

Act I: Courtship
I first played the game at Great Lakes Games last fall, and immediately liked it. It wasn't the orgasmic gaming revolution that some had claimed, but it was very good. I was happy to snag one of the copies from the prize table, and it saw a lot of play in those early weeks.

Act II: Malaise
After a while I lost my desire to play the game. It suffered in comparison to Race for the Galaxy, which I can play endlessly without feeling like I've exhausted its depth. In comparison, Dominion was much less challenging and much less interactive. In Race for the Galaxy, I feel like I'm playing against the other players. In Dominion, I feel like I'm playing against the 10-card tableau for the round.

Act III: Reconciliation
I'm now playing Dominion again and enjoying it. The key for me has been to play it less often and with more realistic, mature expectations. Dominion is what it is. No, it doesn't have the depth of Race for the Galaxy, but it does have good depth in comparison to its ease of play. There's just enough depth there to keep me engaged rather than playing on autopilot. It has found its niche as a very light game that can and should be played very quickly. If it were easier to set up and tear down, I would play it more often.

[UPDATE] And now we have a fourth act . . .

Act IV: A Happy Marriage
The release of the expansions has opened up the game space. I now feel like there is something (slightly) new to explore in every game of Dominion. I guess the game just a greater variety of cards and ideas. I've bought most of the expansions, but even adding just one of the big boxes greatly increases the game's possibilities.

I'd also like to mention that Dominion is surprisingly great as a game for families and children - even young children. The game is a lot simpler than it looks, with the exception of the Throne Room card (which can easily be set aside if necessary).

Special Honors
The Extremely Thin Trophy - Best Card Game of 2008
also considered: Uruk

The Dainty and Adorable Trophy - Best Quick Filler of 2008
also considered: Climb!, Alice in Wonderland Parade

The Well-Tempered Kazoo - Best Light Strategy Game of 2008
also considered: Pandemic, Snow Tails, Powerboats, Hanging Gardens

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4. Board Game: Pandemic [Average Rating:7.63 Overall Rank:78]
Joshua Miller
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Anyone who follows the new releases surely noticed the glut of new cooperative games in 2008: Pandemic, Space Alert, Ghost Stories, A Touch of Evil, Red November, Witch of Salem. I was comfortable ignoring most of these, since the genre has failed to excite me outside of the exceptional Lord of the Rings. But I'm happy I didn't ignore Pandemic, which is now my second favorite cooperative game. It fills a useful niche in my collection as a short, approachable cooperative game.

Pandemic is an exceptionally well crafted game. Just sitting back and watching the game system work is part of the joy of playing. The masterstroke is the way the discard pile gets shuffled and stacked on top of the deck at somewhat unpredictable intervals. That simple rule generates an amazing amount of paranoia.

We usually play with 5 epidemic cards and the infection rate boosted to start on the second space.

Consolation Prize
Special Prize for Largest Pawn-to-Metropolis Ratio

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5. Board Game: Space Alert [Average Rating:7.46 Overall Rank:187]
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Space Alert was the other 2008 cooperative game that I couldn't ignore. The designer Vlaada Chvatil has racked up such an impressive string of hits that I preordered this one and had someone pick it up for me as Essen (along with Snow Tails and the Galaxy Trucker expansion).

I've played Space Alert a bunch of times now, and I still haven't completely decided what I think of it. I admire it. But I go back and forth on the question of whether I actually enjoy it. Mostly, I do enjoy it. However, it's a difficult, stressful, often frustrating game. I guess that's both its weakness and its strength.

I definitely don't enjoy teaching Space Alert to new players. There's a lot to explain, and it tends to befuddle new cadets. But with people who already know how to play, or have at least observed the game being played, it's a lot of fun.

I also find that the game is a hassle to set up and put away. That might seem like a dumb issue to raise, but it does keep me from suggesting it more often. There are a lot of little fiddly pieces and decks and tokens and markers and boards for such a short game.

Despite these issues, Space Alert is a captivating game that's unlike any other I've played. It's as much a sociology experiment as it is a game. In other cooperative games, there's the potential for one player to bully the others, trying to control all aspects of the game himself. This is simply not possible with Space Alert. The game is played in real time, and it won't be possible to execute a perfect plan. Each player will be scurrying around the ship trying to put out fires while trying to stay in communication with the rest of the team. Some coordination of effort is necessary, but there's not enough time to carefully map out everyone's moves. And inevitably, you'll screw something up or forget something or time your action incorrectly or run out of power or try to use a gravlift at the same time as someone else. Honestly, I think it's more fun to lose this game than to win.

So far, we've mostly played our cards face up on the action boards. Otherwise, it's too hard to keep track of what you're doing and where you are on the ship. As we get better, we might flip them upside down, but so far we prefer to keep them exposed.

Special Honors
The Amazing Male Uterus - Most Innovative or Original Game of 2008
also considered: Dominion, Climb!, Ghost Stories, Pandemic

The Cardboard Rabbit Hole - Most Effective Presentation of Theme and Setting in 2008
also considered: Pandemic, Ghost Stories

The Athletic Cup - Best Action or Dexterity Game of 2008
also considered: Climb!

The Certificate of Participation - Best Cooperative, Team or Semi-Collaborative Game of 2008
also considered: Pandemic, Ghost Stories

The Harmony of the Wu Xing - Best Five-Player Game of 2008
also considered: Snow Tails, Cosmic Encounter*
* I'd have given this to Cosmic Encounter if it had been a truly new game of 2008

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6. Board Game: Hab & Gut [Average Rating:7.07 Overall Rank:1115]
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New list item added May 9, 2012

When I read the initial descriptions of Hab & Gut, it looked like it would be a dull and unremarkable game. My friend Invisible Craig convinced me to try it in the fall of 2009, and I thank him for that. It's a very good game that I have enjoyed playing many times. I feel like Hab & Gut is the game that the old Knizia game Palmyra was trying to be, but failing.

Players buy or sell commodities, then play cards affecting the commodity prices. The cards are displayed on Scrabble-like racks between each of the players, so that each player can see two sets of cards. Players can control the order in which these cards are played, along with choosing whether they have full impact on the price or only half their advertised impact. Watching the other players buy and sell will give you some additional information about what to expect.

The added twist is that players may donate some of their commodities to charity. Those stocks are cashed in twice during the game, and whoever has been least generous will not be eligible to win. We've seen this before, in a slightly different form, in games like High Society, Cleopatra and the Society of Architects, and Himalaya. It works especially well here because unlike those games, the charity donations are done in secret and are not trackable. You know when someone donates a commodity, but you don't know how valuable of a commodity it was. You do get one update halfway through the game, which will help you decide how generous to be in the second half.

Special Honors
Sumo Westbank's G@mebox Cabinet of Friends - Best Middleweight "German School" Game of 2008
also considered: Pandemic, Tribune, Nefertiti, Snow Tails, Uruk, Tinners' Trail

The Tro-lo-lo Trophy - Game That Most Exceeded My Expectations in 2008
also considered: Say Anything, Uruk
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7. Board Game: Uruk: Wiege der Zivilisation [Average Rating:6.71 Overall Rank:2752]
Joshua Miller
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Uruk is a fascinating little short-but-meaty game that I just discovered this week. I'll caution that I've only played it twice at the time of posting this list, so it could easily move up or down.

In Uruk, you're collecting cards and then playing them in front of you as inventions. Each invention has a special power that can be activated once it is played. Many of these powers are ways to get goods cubes in four colors. The goods cubes can then be traded in for settlement disks, which are your primary way of scoring points. The disks are placed in front of an invention card and score points equal to the number at the top of the card. So the invention cards are useful both for their special abilities and for their ability to score points in combination with the disks.

Play is swift with just three actions per turn. There is a menu of actions to choose: draw a card, play an invention, activate an invention, buy a settlement disk, or trade cards in hand for cubes. You're very much working in your own sandbox here, except for an occasional auction or contest of strength when special disaster or god cards are drawn. There is also constant competition to get the cheapest settlement disks before they run out.

The game Uruk most reminds me of is Jambo. Both games are about pulling off little combo sequences in order to get goods or points or more combo machinery. With Jambo, the first plays were the most enjoyable and I eventually traded the game away (although I'd still gladly play if asked). Uruk could suffer the same fate, but so far I'm very impressed.

Special Honors
The Sad Phantom - Overlooked or Undiscovered Game of 2008
also considered: Climb!

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8. Board Game: Snow Tails [Average Rating:6.98 Overall Rank:677]
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I like to describe Snow Tails as Advanced Ave Caesar. Advanced Ave Caesar is a game I've always wished existed. Ausgebremst was supposed to be Advanced Ave Caesar, but it was more like Very Slightly Advanced But Also Ruinously Ugly Ave Caesar.

The killer twist in Snow Tails is that your dogsled's movement is controlled not by one card but by three. You have a left dog, a right dog, and a brake. Your movement is the sum of both dogs minus the brake. But you also have to consider your drift from left to right. Whenever one dog is stronger than the other, your sled is pulled in that direction a number of spaces equal to the difference in strength. These drifts are like enforced lane changes, and they're the only way to change lanes in this game. The values assigned to left dog, right dog, and brake will remain in effect until you're able to change them, and you're never able to change them as quickly as you'd like. What seems like a strong move this turn may end up sending your sled careening toward disaster the following turn.

Great stuff on the whole, although the turns sometimes feel too slow when people are having trouble planning their moves. The designers, the Fragor brothers, have anticipated this problem. The game comes with a "Big Paws" marker that can be slapped down in front of the offending slowpoke. The Big Paws doesn't actually do anything, but it's a cute idea and a helpful reminder to keep dogs moving.

Consolation Prize
Special Prize for Most Gratuitous Use of Pinwheel Technology
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9. Board Game: Powerboats [Average Rating:6.73 Overall Rank:1526]
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I haven't had a traditional racing game in the Spiel des Josh since Turfmaster in 1998, and here we go with two in a row this year. Strange. I actually enjoy Powerboats just as much if not more than Snow Tails, because of its faster pace. But I ranked Snow Tails higher because it's been a much bigger hit with others I've introduced to the game. They all like Snow Tails, and they don't all like Powerboats.

The only thing I don't like about Powerboats is the scoring system. I prefer to score all races equally, with ties broken according to order of finish in the final race. This makes the first race more meaningful, at the expense of a greater likelihood of someone being out of contention before the final race. I'm happy playing 1, 2, or 3 rounds depending on how much the players are enjoying the game.

I like the way the dice are used in Powerboats. You've got a pile of 3-sided dice. Each turn you can keep the same number of dice or add or subtract one die. In any case, you can keep some or all of your dice rolls from last round, and reroll the ones you don't like. This makes it possible to plan several turns ahead because you know you have certain numbers locked in. It also allows you to manage your risk based on how well positioned you are in the race. If things aren't going smoothly, you may want to re-roll a lot of dice or make risky moves.

Special Honors
The Roll of a Lifetime - Best Use of Dice in 2008

Special Prize for Blandest and Least Exciting Name You Could Possibly Give to Your Game
Although Cities and Diamonds Club gave it a real run for its money. . .

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10. Board Game: Tribune: Primus Inter Pares [Average Rating:7.23 Overall Rank:542]
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Tribune was actually released in 2007, but the English language edition didn't arrive until 2008. I'm considering it a 2008 game for purposes of this list.

Tribune is a very weird worker placement game. The board is like a little casino with each table offering a different way to get cards or money. The cards are used to wrestle for control of various factions, and each faction gives a one-time benefit when you gain control of it as well as an ongoing benefit if you keep control of it. The game has different scenarios you can play, and each of these allows each player to choose their own victory conditions from among several goals. For example, in the scenario "Pecunia non Olet" (with four players), everyone must get 30 bucks in order to contend for a win. You must also do three other things, chosen from a menu of: become tribune, gain the favor of the gods, raise 3 legions, get 10 laurels, or control 5 different factions during the game.

Tribune is a relatively light and random game, yet there are a surprising number of moving parts and mini-games within the game. It makes for an odd mix. But this designer, Karl-Heinz Schmiel, always makes odd games. I like that he does, and I like Tribune. It's not on par with his very best work (Was Sticht, Die Macher), but it's nice to see something new from a designer who has only published one other game in the past 12 years.

Be warned that the two scenarios requiring the tribune achievement can be unfairly balanced and frustrating - especially for new players. They're okay for veteran players, although I still prefer the more flexible scenarios. Four players seems best for Tribune, and five is also good. Choose something else if you have fewer than four.

[UPDATE] After several enjoyable plays, I felt satisfied and traded my copy of Tribune. Then I played someone else's copy with the expansion included. The expansion rekindled my interest in the game, and now it's back in my collection - and moves into the year's top ten, replacing Hanging Gardens.

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11. Board Game: Leftovers [Average Rating:6.01 Unranked]
Joshua Miller
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There's your top ten, ladies and gentlemen. No Spiel des Josh list would be complete, of course without mentioning some of the other games from 2008. The rest of the list is devoted to that end.

As the years go by, I'm doing a better job of cherry picking the games I'm most likely to enjoy, and not fretting about the others. This task has been made easier by the declining quality of the German manufacturers' catalogues.

Here are the most promising 2008 games that remain unplayed as this list goes live. Over time, I'll mark off the ones I get a chance to try.







[UPDATE] I've played most of these by now

Hab & Gut - Has been added to the year's top ten! See above
Climb! - Made the list! See below
Dixit - Made the list! See below
Parade - Made the list! See below
Jet Set - Pretty much hated it. See "Run Screaming" under item #25
Witch's Brew - It was okay. See "Borderline Games" under item #25
Witch of Salem - Decided I don't need to try it
Battlestar Galactica - Decided I don't need to try it

Regarding Battlestar Galactica: I know it's popular, but I just don't think there's much chance I would enjoy this game. I hated the TV show, I didn't like Shadows over Camelot, and I never seem to like Fantasy Flight's in-house designs. The first time I observed the game being played, it appeared that many of the players were just begging for the game to end. And it seemed like they were trapped at the table for a very long time.
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12. Board Game: Cosmic Encounter [Average Rating:7.55 Overall Rank:128]
Joshua Miller
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Cosmic Encounter isn't eligible for this year's top ten list since it already won the Spiel des Josh for the year "1970s" (a long year that was!). Had this been a new game, it definitely would have won this year's Spiel des Josh. It's one of the best games ever created, and Fantasy Flight has done a beautiful job with this new edition. I'm thrilled that they (1) included lots of powers, (2) returned to the Eon-style permanent flares, (3) supported a fifth player right out of the box, and (4) did a great job with the art and production.

Special Honors
New Paint and Custom Rims - Best Remake or Spinoff of 2008
also considered: none

The Yellow Toddler Stomp Boot - Best Game of Conquest, Trampling, and Smashing of 2008
also considered: After the Flood

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13. Board Game: Climb! [Average Rating:5.77 Overall Rank:11733]
Joshua Miller
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I think this little game is brilliant, although judging from the ratings, there are only a few BGGers who agree with me. Climb is a dexterity game in the truest sense of the word. You use the fingers of one hand to climb a mountain that's represented by a series of cards with punched-out holes of various shapes, sizes, and colors. The colors dictate which finger you must place in the hole. The more fingers you can properly position at one time, the more points you score. If you jostle one of the cards or perform any illegal move, your climb ends and you collect the points that you've earned up to that moment. It's much more difficult than it looks!

There really is nothing else in my collection like Climb. I get a lot of enjoyment out of playing it, and showing it to people. It's the kind of game that draws crowds of onlookers. The only problem is actually finding a copy. I had to mail-order mine through an outdoor apparel store.

Special Honors
The Thingamabob Doodad - Best Gaming Oddity of 2008
also considered: Space Alert

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14. Board Game: Dixit [Average Rating:7.28 Overall Rank:234] [Average Rating:7.28 Unranked]
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Dixit is kind of like a cross between Apples to Apples (meh) and Thingamajig (woot!), but the target you're trying to match is an image instead of a word.

The fantastical, childlike art is the key to the game's success. It stimulates the imagination, and is sufficiently ambiguous to offer several possible approaches for the sentence clues.

I bought this game for my sister and brother-in-law, and they keep telling me how huge a hit it has been with all their different groups of friends (some of which are avid game players, but not all). Personally, I've only played it once so far. I enjoyed the experience, and would like to play more.

Dixit has definite potential to move into this year's top ten. Over the years, Thingamajig has gone from a rating of 7 to 8 to 9 for me. We'll see whether Dixit can follow a similar trajectory. I do wonder whether the game becomes less fun once the players are overly familiar with the cards, and are able to reference past clues from past games. But there are already two expansions with new cards, and I'm guessing there are more on the way.

Special Honors
The Slate and Clamshell - Best Art Design of 2008
also considered: Cosmic Encounter, Ghost Stories, Tribune
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15. Board Game: After the Flood [Average Rating:6.89 Overall Rank:2007]
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After the Flood has gotten the least attention among the three Martin Wallace Treefrog games last year (Tinner's Trail, Steel Driver, After the Flood), but I've enjoyed it the most of the three. For me, it's probably his best game since Age of Steam. But I was never much of a fan of Brass or Struggle of Empires, so that's not as high of a bar for me as it might be for others.

My favorite Martin Wallace games have always been his "competitive cooperation" games: Liberte, Princes of the Renaissance, Pampas Railroads, and to a degree Age of Steam. After the Flood is not such a game. You're completely on your own here.

I enjoy After the Flood for two reasons. First of all, it's a game with real finesse. The timing and pacing decisions are interesting. Sometimes, you want to make every effort to be rush ahead with something before the window of opportunity closes. Other times, you'd rather play a game of chicken and wait as long as possible. The game is a series of little jockeying moves, setting up threats and counterthreats, and trying to stay mobile and flexible enough to respond to your opponents' moves. There's a lot going on all at once, all of it intertwined. You're competing to produce goods, to upgrade them at various board locations, to get the biggest and best army, to conquer territory, to build cities in safe and/or powerful areas, and to place a majority of workers in certain areas.

The second reason I enjoy After the Flood is the way that it handles the classic problems of a three player game of conflicts. The players do not have permanent military forces or borders in this game. Empires rise and fall quickly in different parts of the board, much like in History of the World or Britannia. You don't even necessarily know which empires will be controlled by which players. This fluid, chaotic structure makes it impossible for one player to get squeezed out of the game. You may be getting pounded this turn, but next turn you could just as easily be the one doing the pounding.

My one concern about After the Flood is replayability. I've played three times so far, and enjoyed each game. Will I still enjoy it after three more plays? I don't know, but I suspect I'll be tired of it by then. For all its subtlety, it's basically the same game each time. There is some variability with the attack die rolls, but I doubt that's enough to dramatically change the complexion from game to game. After the Flood relies on players trying different strategies for its replayability. I can easily see the same group of players getting in a rut if they played it repeatedly. My prediction is that After the Flood will be the type of game that gets played several times, then relegated to the shelf or the trade pile.

[UPDATE] That's exactly what happened. After four plays, I feel like I've explored everything here, and I've traded the game. I've dropped the game down several spots (had it at #4 initially) and lowered the rating by one point as a compromise between initial enjoyment and current desire to play.

Consolation Prize
Special Prize For Having All Information on Board Face the Same Direction
This new technology will be appreciated by Treefrog subscribers.
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16. Board Game: Ghost Stories [Average Rating:7.35 Overall Rank:231]
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NEW ADDITION to the list, October 2011

I played Ghost Stories two or three times when it first came out. I was disappointed by the game, because it was a solitaire game "pretending" to be a multiplayer cooperative game.

With other cooperative games, there is at least a modicum of concealment with players having hands of cards that cannot be displayed. Even if you're allowed to tell your teammates what cards you have, there is still the need to communicate and the need to involve everyone in the planning. In Ghost Stories, a player can just stare at the board and the chips in front of each player and come up with the "right" move. Someone else might have a better idea, or they might not, but in any case they're doing exactly the same analysis you're doing.

I eventually returned to the game, with the brilliant (by which I mean blatantly obvious) idea that since Ghost Stories is a solitaire game, I should play and re-evaluate it [i]as a solitaire game[/b]. And you know what? It's a damn good solitaire game! I play on Hell or Nightmare difficulty with all four Taoists, rather than using the included solitaire rules where you only control a single figure. It's tougher and more interesting with all the Taoists in play.

The game really reaches its full potential when you add the mini-expansion Ghost Stories: The Guardhouse Expansion. The Guardhouse location tile is nice because it allows you to plan ahead in a way that wasn't previously possible. More importantly, it replaces one of the standard locations, helping to shake up the strategies from game to game. Having to cope with the absence of one of the important tiles makes Ghost Stories more interesting. The ghosts included with the Guardhouse are perhaps a bit weak, but at least they add a little variety to the mix.

Special Honors
The Brain-Shaped Grenade - Best Puzzler or Brainburner of 2008
also considered: Ubongo: Das Duell, Duck Dealer

The Diamond Solitaire - Best Solo Game of 2008
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17. Board Game: The Hanging Gardens [Average Rating:6.78 Overall Rank:1361]
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Notice that there is not a single game in this year's top 10 from any of the traditional German publishers. [See update below] 2008 was the worst year in recent memory for the usual suspects like Hans im Glück, alea, Kosmos, Ravensburger, Abacus, Amigo, Queen, Goldsieber, Winning Moves, etc. Looking back at my past Spiel des Josh lists, I'd say it was the worst year since 1993 for the big German firms.

I think it's fair to ask whether the "German game" era has ended. I'm seeing more innovation these days from publishers in the U.S., the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, France, and the U.K. The mainstream German publishers have been offering us mostly reheated gruel for a few years now. In fact, The Hanging Gardens was the only game I liked in 2008 from any of those publishers I listed above, apart from the two-player edition of Ubongo (again - reheated).

Okay, back to The Hanging Gardens. It plays kind of like Flowerpower crossed with Alhambra crossed with Taluva. If you're bothered by capricious luck of the draw, then this is not the game for you. I enjoy the game because of the miniature tactical puzzles it presents - trying to figure out how to score regions while setting up for future opportunities. But there's no way to look ahead to future landscape cards, so planning ahead is an inexact science. Play the probabilities and keep your options open, and hope for the best.

[UPDATE] Hab & Gut from Winning Moves did in fact eventually make this year's top ten. Huzzah! My general comments on the state of the mainstream German game publishers still apply.

Special Honors
Das "Ich und Du" - Best Two-Player Game of 2008
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18. Board Game: Nefertiti [Average Rating:7.00 Overall Rank:1183]
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If you had told me that Reiner Knizia was the designer of this game, I'd have believed you. Well, actually I wouldn't, because I knew that wasn't . . . but you get the idea. It's just got that Knizia feel, even down to the Egyptian theme he seems to be so fond of.

Nefertiti is a set collection game with a series of fiendishly clever auctions at its core. The "auctions" are not the traditional type but rather an auction/worker placement hybrid. Players take turns placing workers on to the board until an auction is triggered in any area. But the "workers" are really nothing more than advance bids for these auctions. But the tricky part is that each worker can (with some restrictions) either buy something or just grab some cash and run. The order of the bids is very important in determining who profits the most from these auctions, but it can be difficult to predict how it will all go down. Good players will try to set up incentives for the next player to bid in a way that triggers an immediate auction, helping both players.

I think it's a cool little game. Kind of swing-y and capricious, but always enjoyable.

Consolation Prize
Special Prize for Greatest Number of Chickens With Cheese Graters on Their Heads

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19. Board Game: Tinners' Trail [Average Rating:7.29 Overall Rank:548]
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Tinners' Trail is a solid game with some interesting pacing and budgeting tradeoffs to evaluate. Yet I have an uneasy feeling about it. Is the whole game really just one giant gamble on the results of the dice for the copper market? Maybe. I'm not usually one to complain about randomness or chaos in games but here it seems that the dice will often (not always) overshadow my tactics and strategy. A copper market that swings unpredictably from £2 to £10 seems excessive for a game with just four turns.

I also wonder whether the overwrought VP investment phase is dead weight. I would prefer to see either real tradeoffs or a smoother, faster method.

Consolation Prize
Special Prize for Teaching Me That Pasties Are Consumed in Places Other Than Northern Michigan


* pasties not included
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20. Board Game: Yahtzee Free for All [Average Rating:6.28 Overall Rank:3927]
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Yup, Yahtzee Free for All. Did you know that this mass market game was designed by Richard Borg (BattleLore, Commands & Colors Ancients, Hera & Zeus, Liar's Dice)?

This is a faster, more interactive, more focused version of Yahtzee. It's very good, and very cheap. Grab one if you like dice games . . . or if you need an inexpensive gift. Or if you need to complete your "hexagonal game box" shelf, I guess.

Special Honors
The Lead-Free Trophy With No Sharp Edges - Best Childish Game for Adults of 2008

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21. Board Game: Parade [Average Rating:6.95 Overall Rank:728]
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NEW ADDITION to the list, April 2011

The first image is the box for the original 2008 Japanese release by Grimpeur. The other images are the 2010 Z-Man edition.

Most of these little Japanese card games that I've tried have quickly been dismissed as "clever mechanism, middling game." Alice in Wonderland Parade fits this mold, except the game is actually decent. I'd like to try it with two or three players, because I think the added tactical control might move my opinion from "decent" to "good." With a larger table, I'd play it but not suggest it. Parade reminds me of 6 nimmt, even though play is sequential not simultaneous. It has a similar feel to the scoring, the hand management, and the way that each card is strong or weak depending on the tableau situation.

It's always nice to have a few filler games available that can be taught in a couple minutes and played in maybe 20-30 minutes. If you need another game for those situations, Parade is worth a look.
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22. Board Game: Ubongo: Duel [Average Rating:6.88 Overall Rank:1861]
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This two-player-only version of Ubongo is much harder than the original version, with 4- and 5-piece puzzles instead of the original's 3 and 4. Das Duell also removes all the randomness from the game. Both players have the same puzzle to solve each round, and the winner always gets one point rather than a semi-random gemstone award. Regular Ubongo has a frantic pace, this one is slower and more thoughtful. I prefer these puzzles, but miss the multiplayer format of the original Ubongo.

At different times, I've owned Ubongo, Ubongo Das Duell, and Ubongo Extreme. I no longer own any of the three, but if I had chosen one of them to keep, it would have been Ubongo Das Duell.

Special Honors
The Nondescript Cube - Best Abstract Strategy Game of 2008*
also considered: Kamisado? The Climbers? Magnate? Haven't played any of these yet.
* I use a broad definition of "abstract strategy game" that does not preclude multiplayer games or games with random or hidden elements.
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23. Board Game: Aquaretto [Average Rating:7.00 Overall Rank:1031] [Average Rating:7.00 Unranked]
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So let's say you don't own Zooloretto or its spinoff Aquaretto, but were thinking of buying one or the other. Which one should you get? Here's my take.

I like the new spatial decisions that must be made in Aquaretto, and I like the increased menu of money actions. However, I'm concerned that going for lots of fish symbols seems to be awfully hard to beat. Also, I don't think it's wise to allow players to play five different types of animals when their parks are fully expanded. With three players, that's all but one type of animal - where's the pain? Finally, and this is important, I don't like how the game looks. Squares of water magically float in the middle of a grassy field.

On balance, I rate Aquaretto about the same as Zooloretto. If you were playing exclusively with gamers, I might give Aquaretto the slight edge. But is either one of these is a game you're going to buy to play with your hardcore gaming buddies? You're probably buying this as a game to play with kids and mixed groups and less ardent gamers, so go with Zooloretto.

Consolation Prize
Special Prize for Correctly Circling All Baby Animals with No Mistakes!


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24. Board Game: Galaxy Trucker: The Big Expansion [Average Rating:7.95 Unranked] [Average Rating:7.95 Unranked] [Average Rating:7.95 Unranked]
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Anyone who plays Galaxy Trucker a lot is going to want this expansion! There's all sorts of stuff in here that can be combined to add difficulty and/or variety to your games. I absolutely love what it does for an already great game. Expansions don't get much better than this.

Special Honors
The Wreath and Crest - Best Game Expansion of 2008
also considered: see below

I'll briefly discuss some of the other excellent expansions from 2008. There were several.





Some people complained about the small number of cards in Race for the Galaxy: The Gathering Storm, but look at all the other stuff besides the cards! Four new start worlds, new cards that help balance the strategies without adding new game mechanisms, optional goal tiles, components for a fifth player, and rules and components for an outstanding "man vs. robot" solitaire version. To me that represents great value.






Tribune really blossoms into a better game once you add the Tribune Expansion.

There are two modular expansions in the box. The Brutii module adds a player who pursues the same goals as the others, but uses different methods to achieve them. It expands the game to six players, but also can be played with fewer. I haven't tried this module, but it looks interesting.

The other module adds three new locations to the board, and adds a faction of slaves to the card deck. These new locations are VERY interesting, offering the players "special power" tiles and a couple new victory goals. Good stuff.





Agricola: Through the Seasons is a very cool, low maintenance mini-expansion that I often like to use. It's nothing essential, but adds a little variety.





Power Grid: China/Korea is the best of the Power Grid map expansions, because both of these maps force players to rethink their usual strategies. South Korea has two different resource markets (North Korea and South Korea), and a player may only buy from one or the other each turn. China produces very strange games, with the power plants coming out in strict numerical order.





Age of Steam Expansion: Washington DC and The Berlin Wall is a solid set of maps from Alban Viard. Washington DC is probably the ugliest Age of Steam map you'll ever see, but it provides a nice challenge with its slow, expensive track building and its chaotic, traffic-clogged highway that can move goods quickly from one corner of the map to another . . . sometimes. The Berlin Wall is a brutal map divided into two halves, with very limited shipping opportunities until the wall falls late in the game. Certain colors of cubes also act as army garrisons that halt any shipment passing through their city.
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25. Board Game: What's Missing? [Average Rating:5.29 Unranked]
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Now for a few brief thoughts on the some of games that I thought fell short.

BORDERLINE GAMES

Duck Dealer - Liked it initially but lacked replay value; a very taxing game to play.
Stone Age - Enjoyable but disposable game; workmanlike, sterotyped, lacking in nuance.
Steel Driver - Too simplistic when measured against something like Pampas Railroads.
Diamonds Club - Feels like a Lite Brite with a small number of holes and only 2 or 3 colors.
Keltis / Lost Cities BG - Decent, but the delicious tension of Lost Cites is lacking.
Via Romana - Pleasant but forgettable old school German family game.
Scripts & Scribes - Inoffensive drafting/auction filler that lacks a hook.
Witch's Brew - Decent light outguessing game; some tactics, but mostly chaos.
Gulf, Mobile & Ohio - One of the least annoying Winsome games. 100% tactics and opportunism.

NOT SO GOOD

Planet Steam - Market system is clever, but fails to generate an interesting game trajectory.
Manoeuvre - Too static, too little action, too vanilla, too boring.
Cities - I'm not sure why I'd ever want to return to this.
Sushizock im Gockelwok - Less interesting than Pickomino, which was itself not that interesting.
Sylla - Sift through a big pile of mechanisms searching for a few VPs here and there. No thanks.
Shanghaien - Typical Schachtian minimalist mechanism-disguised-as-a-game sort of thing.
Los Banditos - Unnecessary; its inspiration Schotten-Totten is a far better game.

RUN SCREAMING

Jet Set - Tedious, incremental pace + few meaningful choices = bored stiff.
Krakow 1325 AD - Overwrought, underdeveloped game that lacks interesting decisions.
Genji - Extremely mechanical game with little clarity or focus; poor card design.
Ticket to Ride: The Card Game - Way too taxing for such a light card game. Hated it.
Ticket to Ride: The Dice Expansion - Ticket to Ride without the strategy and balance.
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