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Ben
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Welcome, everyone to the first What You're Missing review of 2014. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with my (admittedly sporadic) work, this series of reviews is dedicated to highlighting particularly worthwhile games that have been overlooked, misunderstood, or simply under-appreciated by the BGG masses.

As always, this review was originally posted at The Opinionated Gamers, where I'm a contributor. You can find my entire catalogue of What You're Missing reviews here.

Without further ado…


What You're Missing: Wildcatters


(Credit: andrespil)

Wildcatters is a criminally under-the-radar title from a pair of first-time designers, Rolf Sagel and André Spil. The game pits players as the heads of competing multinational oil companies, drilling, transporting, and refining oil around the world. The key to the game is that players’ self-interested actions nevertheless tend to also help individual competitors. Players must position themselves to ride their opponents’ coattails (while being ever mindful of who is riding theirs).

Published by newcomer RASS Games, in partnership with Vendetta Games (probably best known for Steam Over Holland), Wildcatters brings above-average artwork and production values to pair with the highly interactive and relatively complex game in the box. This is no spartan small-publisher affair (thankfully so, given the expense to obtain a copy). Indeed, between the artwork and the gameplay, Wildcatters reminds me of some terrific titles from publishers like Treefrog/Warfrog and Spotter Spellen (this is very high praise in my world).

In a year that featured numerous bland, middleweight deckbuilding Eurogames, Wildcatters offers a fresh game experience to those seeking heavier, richer titles. Though the scoring system is not without some flaws, Wildcatters’ spatial board play is simply fascinating and justifies the table time all by itself. I heartily recommend it for players who, like me, seek to engage with their opponents’ decisionmaking in every facet of a competitive game.


Overview

The goal in all my reviews is to emphasize how and why a game’s particular mechanisms produce a worthwhile gameplay experience. In discussing Wildcatters, exploring that link is even more important because (1) most of you have never heard of this game, and (2) many first-time players seem completely bewildered by the game’s fundamental strategies. This is not a rules rehash, but I hope you’ll bear with me in some of the detail, as this is a game worth exploring.


(Credit: henk.rolleman)

At some level, Wildcatters consists of little more than 12 majority games. Players will score points for collecting shares of each of oil company, for their oil contributions to each of seven continents, and for the money they can generate (and, of course, hold on to) in the process. Like most majority games, the strategy space is rather wide open, since any given task is valuable only in relation to what your opponents do. A single barrel of oil can be worth many points or none, a single share can swing the fortunes of several players, sometimes drastically.

The beauty of Wildcatters, in my eyes at least, is that it combines this wide-open strategy space with several highly-limiting turn-by-turn constraints. Players can perform actions only in certain regions, often with extremely limited funds, and usually with collateral consequences. The result is a tenuous straddling of two well-known archetypes: the sandbox game and the obstacle course. Few games manage this balancing act so skillfully. Those that do rank among my favorite games of all time, and Wildcatters is as good of example as I have seen in recent years.


A New Map of the World


(Credit: andrespil)

One of Wildcatters’ fundamental constraints is the use of regions to limit player opportunities. The game board is divided into 8 oil-producing areas – 2 areas in each of 4 primary “continents” – North America, South America, Asia and Russia (I know Russia is not a continent, but that’s the game’s nomenclature and it works well enough). It also contains 3 secondary continents – Europe, Africa, and Australia – that can consume oil, but do not produce it.

In each of the game’s seven rounds, the players begin their turns by selecting an area card from a randomly populated card display. Nearly all of the actions for a player’s turn may be performed only in the area depicted on the chosen card, meaning that players must react tactically to the options available while being mindful of what cards are left for other players to take. The area card display is sufficiently large that most of the areas are available most of the time. But, of course, taking an area’s card on your turn makes it that much less likely that other players can perform any actions in that same area on their own turns. And since player actions tend to peripherally benefit other players, over-investing in a single area means not only leaving yourself at the mercy of the cards, but also isolating yourself from the rewards conferred by your opponents.

[imagieid=1793799 medium]
(Credit: andrespil)

A few new players have scoffed at the area card limitation. Admittedly, the wait for your preferred area to appear can feel like an eternity (and the price to flush the card display seems exorbitantly high). But I view the restrictions provided by the area cards as akin to the card-driven play of, say, Martin Wallace’s Brass. If you don’t have get the cards you want, you find ways to benefit from the cards you have. Players who find those kinds of tactical limitations too restricting would be advised to steer clear of Wildcatters as well.


Money Management

Once a player has chosen a region card, his or her turn typically consists of erecting drilling rigs, drilling for oil, and transporting oil to refineries via trains and tankers. All of these activities cost money, which is an incredibly scarce resource in Wildcatters. This may be viewed as the game’s second primary tactical constraint.


(Credit: andrespil)

With few exceptions, players receive a steady income of $10 per turn. By itself, that is not even enough to both drill for oil and transport the newly discovered oil in a single turn. So players must set up their grand plans over a series of turns that build upon one another – construction now, drilling later, transport somewhere down the line. For me, this is great - it gives other players a chance to read their opponents’ intentions, to intervene or interfere, and to potentially deny opponents access to the region cards needed to complete the strategic loop. Since the game is only 7 rounds long, managing your money so as to make the most of each opportunity that arises can be critical to winning the game.


Building Infrastructure

Early on, building infrastructure is the name of the game. Players need costly drilling rigs to eventually produce crude oil. They need trains and tankers to transport that oil to refineries. And they need (supremely expensive) refineries before any of this oil production becomes profitable.


(Credit: henk.rolleman)

But players should not merely be thinking of their own needs. Most of the infrastructure that players purchase can be used by other players (for price, naturally). This means that players need to consider whether to build infrastructure in a way that will be useful on their own subsequent turns, or in ways that help them profit on other players’ turns.

This aspect of the game is probably most comparable to the network building in Kramer & Kiesing’s underappreciated Maharaja. Without any trains, certain routes are impassable. The players who smartly lay the foundations for travel can earn a tidy profit. But both pieces and the opportunities to build them are limited, so having players use your infrastructure in one location may require you to return the favor elsewhere.


Texas Tea

As fun as it may be to develop networks and build infrastructure, the heart of the game is still oil – producing it, transporting it, and refining it. Once a region has at least four total drilling rigs (from all players), it has reached critical mass and players can begin turning those rigs into sweet, sweet oil. The first time a player decides to drill in a region, the active player must pay a whopping $8 (recall that each turns income is a paltry $10). This allows that player to convert exactly one drilling rig into a pumpjack containing 3 barrels of oil. Each other player can parasitically benefit from this action by paying 3 shares in their company to the actively player, and likewise converting a single drilling rig into a pumpjack.


(Credit: henk.rolleman)

A quick note on shares: Each player begins the game with 20 “shares” in his or her own company. Players pay each other these shares to benefit from particular actions (such as when a player drills for oil), and the only way to get new shares is to refine oil in one of your own refineries. Despite the nomenclature, “shares” do not alter control of the companies (we can think of them as non-voting stock). Indeed, it is not uncommon for each player to end the game with the fewest shares in his or her own color. Rather, shares largely stand as a measure of how much (and which) other players have utilized a given player’s infrastructure.

Immediately after a region is first drilled, all players who have some oil in the region can also participate in a “wildcatter” auction. Wildcatters are individual oil prospectors who buy small parcels of land in the hopes of finding oil. When they do hit oil, they then sell the land to large oil companies for tidy profits. In game terms, the players (oil companies) bid against each other for the rights to one or two single barrels of oil in the region (and an accompanying wildcatter token, which scores points at the end of the game).


Transport and Refining

Once a region has been drilled, the active player (on the same or a subsequent turn) can pay to convert further drilling rigs to pumpjacks. The active player can also pay to transport oil, moving one barrel from each pumpjack or wildcatter to the harbor, for eventual transport to refineries. You read that right – the active player pays, but the oil of every player can be transported. Once in the harbor, each player decides for themselves where to send the oil. Players can use rail lines and tankers (either their own or, by paying one share each, other players’) to eventually take the oil to a refinery of their choice.

Refineries pay to purchase players’ oil – for each barrel of oil players receive 2 shares from the refineries’ owner. Once a refinery is full (5 barrels of oil), it delivers its oil to the scoring box associated with the continent. For each barrel of oil belonging to an opponent, the refinery’s owner receives 4 shares in any color(s) from the bank in exchange for delivering the oil to the scoring box. For each barrel of his or her own oil, the refinery’s owner must choose whether to deliver the barrel of oil (for majority scoring purposes) or to discard the barrel to take 4 shares in any color(s) from the bank.


Judging from the empty continent boxes, these players have primarily been refining their own oil.
(Credit: Mouseketeer)


The choice of refineries produces subtle incentives that vary from game to game, and dictate much of each game’s unique narrative arc. Some players like to deliver oil to their own refineries, ensuring that they are able to acquire shares when they need them (i.e., without relying on other players). Other players prefer to deliver oil to opponents’ refineries. Doing so benefits the opponent (the refinery’s owner pays out 2 shares per oil barrel, but receives 4 from the bank), but it also benefits the player selling the oil relative to the other players at the table. It is a delicate balancing act, to be sure, and one that is often determined based on refinery location, refinery (and thus share) color, and by the existing competition in the scoring boxes.


Scoring

For all the complexity and subtlety in the game’s board play, the majority of points will come in two big waves – a small scoring at the end of the 5th round, and a larger scoring at the end of the game. During these scorings, players compare their share holdings in each company, their held money, and the oil barrels of their color in each continent. For each category, there are points for first, second, and (in the second scoring) third place. It is a fairly straightforward scoring system, and one that feels a little underdeveloped when compared to all the neat options available during the players’ turns. These points can also be quite chunky – a single barrel or share can cause dramatic swings, meaning that some player’s seemingly trivial decision during the game can often have quite serious and unintended consequences on the outcome.

Along these lines, players often debate whether to play with money and shares open or hidden. The designers have clarified that they intended for them to be hidden (though trackable) information. Some players dislike this. My preference is to have money open and shares in stacks by color (thus, you can get a rough sense of each player’s holding in each color, but not a precise count). Others have suggested keeping everything hidden until the first scoring and to have everything open thereafter (since the two scorings occur so close together, tracking the information is possible, though not an easy task). The primary downside to open shares is that the last player in the last round can optimize his or her final scoring with a precision not available to anyone else. That said, I’ve played a variety of ways, and I find that the game functions just fine in any configuration. It’s just a conversation you will need to have with your group before you begin.


A pair of proud designers.
(Credit: henk.rolleman)


Parting Thoughts

Like most of the games I love, Wildcatters provides players with converging or overlapping incentives, frequently leading to very interactive play. It then supplements these incentives with several game elements that allow players to directly benefit from the actions of their opponents. The downside to these elements is that the balance of the game is in the hands of the players – it is not uncommon to see inexperienced players handing victory over to an opponent without realizing the magnitude of the benefits they are conferring. With experienced players, however, that level of player interdependence can be a thing of beauty.

I strongly prefer interesting games with a few flaws to the polished-but-dull titles that seemed to dominate the prominent publishers at this year’s Essen fair. Wildcatters is not a perfect game, but it is a very good one that I highly recommend. It is rich, interesting, and player-driven in all the right ways. I love playing it, and I can’t think of any easy substitute for it. I therefore heartily recommend the game to any readers with tastes like my own. In the sea of 2013′s middling middle-weight Euros, Wildcatters is what you’ve been missing.

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Ubergeek
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Good review and sounds like a great game. The only obstacle I see is availability. I can only find it through their website for 60Euro + shipping which is pretty pricy to the US. Will there be other distribution channels in the future?
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Garry Rice
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Played it once and really enjoyed it...now if only it was available for purchase ...any plans for a reprint that anyone is aware of? ...and what Walt said...didn't realize it was available on their website!
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andre spil
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you can buy the game for 50 euro wenn it is delivered outside europe.
transport costs however are very high , because the game is to heavy.
36 euro.

buy 3 games, its sheaper sending to the US.

we are working on a US release but i dont now wenn its gone happen.

Andre
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Edward Uhler
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Walt Mulder wrote:
Good review and sounds like a great game. The only obstacle I see is availability. I can only find it through their website for 60Euro + shipping which is pretty pricy to the US. Will there be other distribution channels in the future?


The shipping cost is outrageous, for sure. They didn't say they had any plans for a US release, unfortunately.

Awesome, awesome writeup. I had seen your rating a month or two ago, Ben, and was wondering if/when you'd have a writeup for this game. CAN-NOT-WAIT to get it next week! thumbsup

eta: removed the bit about the auction
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Jimmy Okolica
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Quote:
I strongly prefer interesting games with a few flaws to the polished-but-dull titles that seemed to dominate the prominent publishers at this year’s Essen fair. Wildcatters is not a perfect game, but it is a very good one that I highly recommend.


When I read this, my first thought was Archipelago, another game you love. It's one I liked and it has a concept that I love in theory but continue to look for the ideal implementation. Wildcatters sounds interesting and it's one of the few I'm keeping my eye on, but I think I'll resist a little longer. Hopefully it'll see a US release at some point.

Quote:
In the sea of 2013′s middling middle-weight Euros, Wildcatters is what you’ve been missing.


Well, either that or the chance to play all of the other great games from previous years that haven't had enough attention. I'm actually excited that 2013 was so blah. I have lots of older games I'm hoping to catch up on in 2014.
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R. Eric Reuss
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Woo, new review!

How does Wildcatters feel in comparison to CO₂? Some of your descriptions of the constraints sound a bit reminiscent - most particularly that one player doesn't have the resources to run the game's main development arc start-to-finish in a single turn (but that players can work off the infrastructure of others).
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Great review Ben, Wildcatters is still well under my radar! Didn't get to play it yet!
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Good review of a title that was not on my radar.
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Butterfly0038 wrote:
When I read this, my first thought was Archipelago, another game you love. It's one I liked and it has a concept that I love in theory but continue to look for the ideal implementation.


Archipelago is certainly more conceptual and subversive than Wildcatters. Wildcatters is much closer to a traditional, meaty economic game. I suspect Wildcatters will primarily appeal to fans of train games (though it is not one), fans of Brass: Lancashire, and fans of certain Splotter titles (The Great Zimbabwe and Indonesia come to mind). I'm not promising love at first sight, but that's the sort of gamer I'd be inclined to introduce this title to.


Quote:
Well, either that or the chance to play all of the other great games from previous years that haven't had enough attention. I'm actually excited that 2013 was so blah. I have lots of older games I'm hoping to catch up on in 2014.


That's a fair point. This was my first year actually going to Essen and I probably acquired 30 or so games produced this year. I think I'm likely to keep 3 of them, Wildcatters being one. This year was actually bad enough that I reacquired a couple of games that I sold off last year (a year of abundance) because I found myself longing for that sort of quality again.
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darker wrote:
How does Wildcatters feel in comparison to CO₂? Some of your descriptions of the constraints sound a bit reminiscent - most particularly that one player doesn't have the resources to run the game's main development arc start-to-finish in a single turn (but that players can work off the infrastructure of others).


That's a great question. I rate both games similarly, and for similar reasons, but I elected not to mention CO₂ in my review because they are mechanically very dissimilar.

In fact, the key difference is probably the very thing you mentioned: in CO2, players should give up on the idea of personal ownership of projects. Instead, it is a game of communal short-term opportunities - I take the benefit of proposing a project, you take the benefit of installing it, a third player takes the benefit of constructing it. These are all largely independent except for the fact that one player's action determines the set of opportunities for the players to follow.

Wildcatters, by contrast, is very much a game of personal ownership. But it's one in which players must necessarily further their opponents' interests in the process of furthering their own. One player plays the cost to drill in an area and every other player who has invested in that area gets the opportunity to produce oil. One player pays the cost to transport oil and every other player gets to move their oil for free. One player chooses to send oil to a second player's refinery via a third player's trains, and everyone potentially benefits. Much of the game consists of owning the right things in the right places to benefit the most from other players' decisions. In that way, it is a game of manipulating incentives to motivate other players to further your own personal start-to-finish development cycle.

CO2 is also more of a contemporary Euro - there is some minor engine-building and resource conversion, there is little representative space on the board, and the benefits of actions are largely discreet and calculable (constructing plant X is always worth at least Y VP). In Wildcatters, things are far more fluid. Paying someone a share or refining a single barrel of oil could be hugely significant or entirely unimportant depending on the circumstances. You can start a plan and never benefit from it - some actions will be utter and complete wastes of time and money. If you play poorly, you can hand victory to a player who doesn't even understand how/why she's winning.
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Ben
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Oblivion wrote:
Great review Ben, Wildcatters is still well under my radar! Didn't get to play it yet!


Get it to the table already! This is definitely in your wheelhouse.
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chally wrote:

That's a fair point. This was my first year actually going to Essen and I probably acquired 30 or so games produced this year. I think I'm likely to keep 3 of them, Wildcatters being one. This year was actually bad enough that I reacquired a couple of games that I sold off last year (a year of abundance) because I found myself longing for that sort of quality again.


Not to derail the thread at all, but I am curious since you have fascinating takes on games I tend to enjoy. What are the other two games you think are worth the shelf-space?
 
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ContainerJones wrote:
Not to derail the thread at all, but I am curious since you have fascinating takes on games I tend to enjoy. What are the other two games you think are worth the shelf-space?


I don't think this derails at all. Of the games I've already acquired, Patchistory (review forthcoming), Wildcatters, and Machi Koro (w/ Machi Koro: Harbor) are my keepers. I'm also planning on acquiring One Night Ultimate Werewolf.

Obviously, these are all different games for different crowds, but they all have something special about them that speaks to me. Given your tastes, I would probably most strongly recommend Wildcatters to you.
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Thanks for the review as it's fun to read more in detail about this one. I do plan on picking it up eventually. Sounds like there's a groundswell of interest such that it will eventually come to the US. On that note, I do have to chuckle that it's a "what you're missing" game when it's not even possible to acquire. How can I overlook something that I can't see? This game is rigged!

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chally wrote:
ContainerJones wrote:
Not to derail the thread at all, but I am curious since you have fascinating takes on games I tend to enjoy. What are the other two games you think are worth the shelf-space?


I don't think this derails at all. Of the games I've already acquired, Patchistory (review forthcoming), Wildcatters, and Machi Koro (w/ Machi Koro: Harbor) are my keepers. I'm also planning on acquiring One Night Ultimate Werewolf.

Obviously, these are all different games for different crowds, but they all have something special about them that speaks to me. Given your tastes, I would probably most strongly recommend Wildcatters to you.



On that note, Ben, have you playedMadeira?
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enzo622 wrote:
On that note, I do have to chuckle that it's a "what you're missing" game when it's not even possible to acquire.

It's the most literal kind of What You're Missing review (perhaps second only to Key Market).
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eapeas wrote:
On that note, Ben, have you playedMadeira?


I have played Madeira. Unfortunately, it didn't work for me. Having just played The Castles of Burgundy the night prior, I couldn't help but think about the similarities. The game was simply too abstracted and mechanical - too Feldian - for my tastes. I also disliked that so much of the gameplay was simply done in service of a few narrowly focused scorings. The points distribution didn't seem to justify the sheer number of distinct mechanisms, options, and sub-options. In Wildcatters, even though much of the scoring is based on simple majority, the mechanics of the board play cohere well and constantly influence the scorings (though the expenditure of shares and money).
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Thanks for the review, Ben. I missed the game night when this got played, and since my friends were lukewarm on it the game never hit the table again. You've intrigued me enough to want to give it a try.

My game of 2013 so far is Expedition: Northwest Passage - highly original, wonderfully thematic and spatially interesting makes it a winner in my book.

Patchistory I thought had some interesting ideas but really flopped as an experience. Some of the issues could have been due to it being our first play (ridiculously long play time, runaway leader with an ostensibly degenerate strategy), so I'd like to give it another spin.
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Excellent review - thank you for your time and effort. This looks like the kind of game my gaming group would really enjoy!
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verandi wrote:
My game of 2013 so far is Expedition: Northwest Passage - highly original, wonderfully thematic and spatially interesting makes it a winner in my book.


I'll have to check it out. When you posted, I initially thought you were talking about Expedition: Congo River 1884, which seriously confused me.
 
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chally wrote:
A few new players have scoffed at the area card limitation. Admittedly, the wait for your preferred area to appear can feel like an eternity (and the price to flush the card display seems exorbitantly high). But I view the restrictions provided by the area cards as akin to the card-driven play of, say, Martin Wallace’s Brass. If you don’t have get the cards you want, you find ways to benefit from the cards you have. Players who find those kinds of tactical limitations too restricting would be advised to steer clear of Wildcatters as well.


Yeah, that immediately removed any interest I had in Wildcatters and Brass.
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I can't tell... but is the game board a paper map?
 
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BaBang wrote:
I can't tell... but is the game board a paper map?


No, it's a solid, "standard" board construction with gorgeous artwork. Really high quality components, although I do with the money and stocks were a tad thicker...but really, I'm seriously splitting hairs. thumbsup
 
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chally wrote:
Butterfly0038 wrote:
When I read this, my first thought was Archipelago, another game you love. It's one I liked and it has a concept that I love in theory but continue to look for the ideal implementation.


Archipelago is certainly more conceptual and subversive than Wildcatters. Wildcatters is much closer to a traditional, meaty economic game. I suspect Wildcatters will primarily appeal to fans of train games (though it is not one), fans of Brass: Lancashire, and fans of certain Splotter titles (The Great Zimbabwe and Indonesia come to mind). I'm not promising love at first sight, but that's the sort of gamer I'd be inclined to introduce this title to.


Quote:
Well, either that or the chance to play all of the other great games from previous years that haven't had enough attention. I'm actually excited that 2013 was so blah. I have lots of older games I'm hoping to catch up on in 2014.


That's a fair point. This was my first year actually going to Essen and I probably acquired 30 or so games produced this year. I think I'm likely to keep 3 of them, Wildcatters being one. This year was actually bad enough that I reacquired a couple of games that I sold off last year (a year of abundance) because I found myself longing for that sort of quality again.


Is it that the games were subpar or that your taste in games has changed? I find myself being more critical the more games I play...I used to love everything.
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