Archive for Jason White
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Episode 4 Link: Seven Questions Episode 4: Vlaada Chvatil and the Czech Republic
Show notes for Ep 4:
1.Sorry that this is out of order and so long in coming. I released this podcast on May 10, and, sadly, my mother passed away unexpectedly on May 17. I had not had a chance to write these show notes before the 17th, and, then, after the 17th, I was pretty darned busy, even up to the recording of Episode 5 (and 6). Rectifying that situation now!
2.This is the first in three blog posts that should be out in the next few days. Next will either be the Pseudocon AAR or the Episode 6 show notes. Episode 6 will also be released very soon, and Episode 7 has been recorded.
3.I allude to the fact that I was recovering from a high fever earlier in the week. I hadn’t been that sick in a while! I think it shows in that I’m not quite as crisp as normal and my voice is also clearly recovering from my congestion.
4.A couple of other struggles: I tried the “bonus winner question” for the first time, and kind of stumbled through. I think it’s smoother now. I also fear these game questions became somewhat formulaic and I’m not pleased about that. The next “Our favorite designers” segment will have to work that out. I’ll probably keep the questions at a few more open ended ones, then just interrupt to ask a trivia question. Not sure yet.
5.I mentioned a designer other than Vlaada for the new Through the Ages. Vlaada is actually credited with the design. The person I was thinking of was Paul Grogan, who was central in the redesign and was interviewed on Ludology 115.
6.Codenames Dixit and Codenames Mysterium sound like a great idea when you’re not sure what to play next. But I never seem to have that problem.
7.The design idea from this episode? Boardgame Codenames! I’m pretty sure this would be a Print and Play.
8.The voice in TJ’s head may sound like Rizzo the Rat, but I can find no record of Rizzo singing "Good King Wenceslas." So the voice in TJ's head exists independent of The Muppet Christmas Carol. I did find this bunny singing it, though: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xm1jbg5TVdc
9.Good thing Tom Grant won! I should have given him points for Good King Winceslas gathering firewood. It is one of the things he does to help the poor. He tells his servants (maybe the servants should have been sainted?), “Bring me flesh and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither.
Thou and I will see him dine
when we bear him thither.” So it’s food, drink and firewood. He won without the point, but I probably should have been generous.
10. Pictomania: Geek Edition? Color me intrigued. Wish we had mentioned this one on the podcast.
11. Just discovered that Bunny Bunny Moose Moose is available in the states. No further comment needed.
Look for Episode 6 and show notes to follow rapidly on the heels of this post, definitely in the next few days.
Here's the geek link: Seven Questions Episode 5: The GMT COIN Series
In this episode, Roger Leroux, a former Geek of the Week and writer of Roger's Reviews, joins me, along with Tom Grant of I've Been Diced and good friend and gamer, Tom "TJ" Jones, to discuss the GMT COIN Series.
1. Scott, my podcast partner on Point 2 Point, has recently come out of his gaming hibernation and frequently quips about the ubiquity of the COIN series.
2. This show was the second recorded in one evening, and TJ makes a mumbled remark about confusing Belgians with the Dutch. It will end up being a strange comment from "future TJ" after Episode 6 is released (hopefully in mid-July).
3. In my personal gaming group, especially when when Kevin was still with us, the COIN series did not get much play. I have since joined a second group, and that one includes -- wait for it -- Volko! I can pretty much play a COIN game (along with a few playtests of future COIN games) any week I would like, and I have grown to re-appreciate the games. I always appreciated the system, but the recent plays really make me re-appreciate Andean Abyss.
4. I really like to see new things in games, so I am really looking forward to seeing Colonial Twilight: The French-Algerian War, 1954-62 when it is released. I am not sure I got a chance enough to say this in the podcast.
5. I didn't comment enough on Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection. I wish I had more of a chance to play it. Any comments are based on a single playtest and any criticisms are more in relation to the series as a whole, rather than in relation to boardgames in general.
6. I like the diversity of responses here, especially in relation to our favorite games.
7. TJ mentioned how negative the "least favorite" question was. Maybe it was. I'm not sure. Might revisit that. I don't want to fall into a formula, question-wise.
8. This (and the next) set of trivia questions was difficult! For one, the tactics of insurgency and their link to terror (and Stalinism) make for some unsavory characters. Two exceptions I can quickly think of -- Nelson Mandela (I had a quote from him, but think it may have been lost in the shuffle of recording) and the American Insurgency/American Revolution. Maybe should have had more from them.
New Episode Released!
This episode is about the biggest 2.0 of all, World War II. In particular, this episode is about the war in Europe. This episode's panelists include Tom Grant of I've Been Diced, TJ, a recurring panelist on I've Been Diced, and JR Tracy, ASL tournament shark and all around gaming legend. The gaming discussion ranges from favorite games to an exciting preview of an upcoming game to the question, "Is putting Hitler in power a decision that is too large for a game?" This episode is a great discussion on one of the favorite gaming subjects.
For show notes, check out the Seven Questions Guild.
Sat Mar 26, 2016 11:00 am
Seven Questions Episode 2:
I had hoped that our February 2016 episode, our second, would be about the biggest 2.0 in history - World War II.
But then, tragically and unexpectedly, our friend and anticipated regular panelist, Kevin Sudy, died. This episode is dedicated to Kevin's memory.
I'll use this space (and probably the Seven Questions Guild) to share some memories of Kevin.
First up, he was one of the most generous people I have known. He was generous with his gaming time, always willing to teach someone, whether or not they were a "gamer," a new game. I am sure that one of his talents that he never admitted to was "pulling his punches" and keeping a game close when teaching one.
He was always up for a game. This past weekend, I attended Prezcon in Charlottesville, VA. I ate breakfast alone, where Kevin would have always been present for a recap of the night before and an analysis of strategies and design. Our gaming table was loud and raucous, but things were not quite as open or free as they were when Kevin was around. His empty chair haunted the entire weekend.
He was incredibly bright, designing a number of prototypes, but, more importantly, always encouraging his friends to design games of their own. He was a tough competitor who was cool and collected and good spirited when he won (most of the time) and those rare occasions when he lost.
I will miss him greatly, and I'm glad that I have these two episodes to remember him by.
I'll save the announcement until the end of the post.
This post is about my nickel and dimes for 2015. As with most Nickels and Dimes, my list is dominated by shorter games. I do have some longer ones that made the cut, which I'm very proud of, but, since so few of these games actually made it, I've decided that, after the nickels and dimes, I'll cover some other games of note for me in 2015.
Risk Star Wars – 5 plays
The first two Nickels on my list are pretty new and shiny. Let’s start with this one. This ain’t your daddy’s Risk! A recent article had the headline “Star Wars Risk is a Good Game. Also Not Risk.” Very true. This game has about as much in common with Risk as War of the Ring. You roll five dice for combat. That’s about it. A better description? A very quick playing (my son and I knock it out in about 45 minutes) card driven combat game. There are three areas on the board (which is shaped like Darth Vader’s TIE Fighter): a Endor track (the least interesting aspect of the game), a track for Vader and Luke’s lightsaber battle (and tracks for the Millenium Falcon and the Executor’s damage), and a larger central map where the battle for the Death Star II plays out. So far the Rebels are 5-0, which is a little concerning; that shield generator track is IMPORTANT and inexorable. But it prevents a quick, unbalanced challenge that we are currently loving.
Pax Pamir - 5 plays
This one is another that became a nickel in less than a month. It is basically Phil Eklund’s Pax Porfiriana transplanted to the Great Game era of Afghanistan. The artwork is a bit less thematic than Porfiriana, but it is still evocative, and the rules are definitely slimmed down and more appropriate for the setting. The game can play fast and many times ends up being a game of trying to set yourself up while preventing everyone else from winning (aren’t they all?). It’s a careful, brain-burning balancing act of keeping track of your spies and tribes while building both the influence of and your influence in one of the major powers in the region. A picture of me with my head in my hands, with a caption invoking the existential idea of “the agony of choice” floated on Facebook for a while. I’m not sure there’s ever been a more telling picture taken.
Triumph and Tragedy – 6 plays
I have written about this one recently, and my love has only grown. Craig Besinque’s game had some hype of its own, but it has been overshadowed by the buzz over the very original design, Churchill. For me, Triumph and Tragedy is THE design of 2015. It is an incredibly clean, streamlined design of a World War II block wargame, while expanding the war years back to 1936. Streamlined AND covering more of the war period? It seems impossible, but Besinque makes it work. I love it when history is emergent, rather than coded in rule after rule and exception after exception. Triumph and Tragedy creates and environment where war is, as Clausewitz implied, diplomacy by other means. Although the invasion of Poland doesn’t seem to transpire very often. If I had to predict, I would say that this will be a “dime” in a year’s time.
King of Tokyo – 6 plays
Bang! The Dice Game – 9 plays
I am not going to devote too much time to these quick games, other than to say that they are so simple and such go-tos for a quick start or finish to a game night, that I will probably have these appear year after year. I already have three plays of King of Tokyo for 2016. (Yes, I know there is King of New York, but it seems to get pushed aside by its simpler progenitor) It is also worth noting again that Bang! the Dice Game is a great improvement on Bang! And, also take note, Bang! the Dice Game with some franchise tacked on is still just Bang! the Dice Game. Don’t waste your money (like I did on Bang! The Walking Dead)
Splendor – 11 plays
Another great filler. It is not a game to create an entire game night around, but it is a very enjoyable experience. There are multiple ways to get to fifteen points, and you must be aware of what your opponents are taking if you do not want to get left behind. It is a very simple accumulation of mechanics where the sum is much greater than the whole. There is also a great iPad app.
Star Wars Imperial Assault– 13 plays
We played through the campaign on this one and look forward to playing through the expansion(s). A great and surprising improvement over Descent, Second Edition (more a simulation of a Roto-Rooter than a roleplaying game), this game is one that, again, will likely show up on next year’s list. If you play the imperial player, my advice is kill the Wookie first.
One Night Ultimate Werewolf – 15 plays
A very quick, fun exercise in secret identities, we played this one a lot. I’ve played with my game group, my son’s friends, and even my family. My 80 year old mother in law loves to watch it. Actually, now that I think of it, I love to watch it more than I like to play it. It is interesting knowing what the roles are and seeing how people play them, particularly roles like the suicidal tanner. This game also makes great use of a mobile app to guide you through your “one night.”
Codenames – 28 plays
Did I say King of Tokyo and Bang! The Dice Game were our go-to fillers? Not anymore. If we have four, this is the game we’re playing. Vlaada Chvatil is an incredible designer to have come up with something as rich and ornate as Through the Ages as well as something as simple and enjoyable as Codenames. Remember – Amidala is a clue for “Princess” and “Ninja” somehow, and “Genius” is a clue for “Evil” and “Penguin.” Yep, those are the ones that made the other players at the table say “what the?”
Other Games of Note
Space Alert- 4 plays
Did I mention that Vlaada Chivatl is a genius? This is more proof. This is a great implantation of a soundtrack barking out orders and situations while your group tries to cooperate and keep your spaceship flying. A little bit of Dragon Strike (thankfully not much) combines with a little bit of RoboRally (again, thankfully not much) and Pandemic to create a truly unique gaming experience. I know it’s not truly a “nickel,” but it was noteworthy.
Colt Express - 3 plays
This one seems to have some critics, but I really like it. It won the Spiel des Jahres, but that is not why I enjoy it. I enjoy the programmed movement here. It’s kind of like RoboRally in that, but the steps in the program play out one at a time, with only some of them initially hidden, so you are reacting to what your opponents are doing (or, more accurately, what you think they are doing). It gets crazy and engenders a great deal of laughter. Don’t take it too seriously, though, as your plans will go awry.
Cthulhu Wars - 3 plays
Another noteworthy game to reflect upon. This game reminds me a lot of Chaos in the Old World, which is a great game in itself. The game is ridiculously expensive and the figures are unnecessarily ornate. But each cult and Old One have unique personalities that really make the game a fascinating narrative. I love Cthulhu’s terrifying control over the sea, as well as the hordes of the King in Yellow’s zombies running across the board. A truly enjoyable game. If it didn’t require renting a U-Haul to move it from place to place, I’m sure it would have cracked the nickel list.
The Dice Must Flow - 2 plays
Not sure what I’m allowed to say here. I don’t know how this is able to be created, but I’m glad it was. We only played it one night, but I found the streamlining of the original Dune very interesting and quite a blast to play. Not sure how my group views it, as they don’t seem anxious to play it any more.
Crusade and Revolution - 2 plays
Noteworthy as a nice re-packaging of the Paths of Glory system in the Spanish Civil War. Fun, but challenging.
Battle of Five Armies - 2 plays
Fun, but not quite War of the Ring. Shorter, so it could possibly get to the table again.
War Stories: Liberty Road - 2 plays
A very interesting tactical game. So much going on here, from hidden objectives to a diceless, uniquely layered combat system. Good game. I wish I had the chance to play it more.
Devil’s Cauldron - 1 play
We only played a scenario, but it worked. It worked! The rules seems complex, but once you start playing, they become more and more intuitive. I hope to play a larger game of this someday.
ASL - 1(!) play
I only had ONE play of ASL this year? I need to rectify that in 2016! Resolution time!
And, an announcement...
Okay, now that my list is complete, it’s time for an announcement. I am jumping back into podcasting. I was pretty burned out when Point 2 Point ended. Scott was dipping into a malaise (that he is hopefully going to re-emerge from this year) and the phone interviews I could only do at times when I was already exhausted from coaching. The website went down and I felt more pressure to podcast than desire to podcast. So P2P ended.
But Tom Grant’s podcast and this blog have got me re-inspired. I also have been listening the excellent Ludology and Mark Johnson has continued his seminal work on Boardgames to Go. What strikes me about both of these is that they take unique slants on gaming. Mark’s inclusion of the “100 Great Games” on his podcast was a great contribution to both podcasting and the larger gaming community, particularly the critical community. And Ludology has really shown that the discussion of gaming can be seen within a larger critical and scientific (particularly social sciences) context.
I've also told Tom that he is filling a Dick Cavett-like niche in podcasting, while David Dockter is filling more of a Wolfman Jack role.
So, what would I like to hear? What would be something new? I’ve been thinking a lot about the lack of something that is more entertainment than scientific study, and something that is more structured than “audio-blog” (not that there’s anything wrong with that; I just think those niches are nicely filled). I also do not want to do a Dice Tower-like catchall.
I actually like quiz shows. And I like talking about games. So that is what my new podcast will be: a quiz show, where, between questions, we talk about gaming. It will have a panel of guests, most of these panelists will come from my gaming group (which luckily includes Tom Grant of I’ve Been Diced), but I hope to have guests on time to time. And it will be an hour long… ish. It might venture closer to 90 minutes on occasion, but I hope not to venture into the three hour territory that Point 2 Point was known to hit on occasion.
I’m calling it Seven Questions. I hope you like it:
I first heard of the Game Parlor when I was prepping for one of the first Pseudocons. My friend John had mentioned that there was a game store in Chantilly . John had spoken to the owner, and the had told him that (please forgive my guesswork – it’s been twenty years) he saw his game store as being a place where you could buy any game and you could play them IN THE STORE!
It was on the intriguingly named Metrotech Drive, a shortcut really from the congested Route 50 to the slightly-less-congested Centerville Road. It really had nothing to do with tech at all, being a long strip mall centered around a K-Mart. It took up one storefront, and was clean and bright and well-ordered. My wife loved it in comparison to the more niche Compleat Strategist near our home in Falls Church, which was cluttered and, at the time, well worn. The Game Parlor did seem to have everything. It had my beloved Hero System roleplaying game, and its many supplements. In my mind, I can still see the ASL module Gung Ho and the historical module Kampfgruppe Pfeifer II on its shelves (and I kick myself to this day for not buying them!). And it was the first place where I saw game tables in the back where patrons could play their games. It was conceived in an era of big stores. Want a book? Borders! Want a beverage? Total Beverage! Want anything else? Friggin’ PRICE CLUB! For gamers, the Game Parlor was all of these and more. It was heaven on earth.
As time passed, the Game Parlor grew, expanding like a Risk player who had just cashed in his army cards. It took over one adjacent store front, then a second, and its inclusive offerings began to be compartmentalized. Want wargames? That’s in the third storefront that had been annexed. Roleplaying? The second one. Dice? A glass counter contained hundreds of them. When the CCG craze hit, the Game Parlor had a wall full of card packs. It even had a dedicated card in the Sim City CCG (don’t ask me how or why, I just saw it pinned to their bulletin board). It got so powerful, it even colonized the crowded and congested Woodbridge, VA..
It expanded its table area, having a few extra large, custom-made tables where the surface was painted blue, I assume so that Fletcher Pratt-like naval miniatures could be played. It had an enclosed roleplaying room where, if you signed up, you could assume your character without distractions from the hoi polloi. It was a destination I made it to whenever I could sneak over from my somewhat nearby work place, Herndon High School (to Centerville Road, then a straight shot to Metrotech). Most of my purchases were roleplaying games and game supplements (I had yet to get back into boardgames), so I won’t list them here. But I spent time and money there, and I can remember a number of times where I brought my infant children in a carrier so that I could peruse this section or that one.
Then, gradually, things began to change. The Game Parlor had some strange practices. For one, it never lowered its prices or had a sale. Games that the gaming market had clearly condemned (I’m looking at YOU, Nero. You, too, Babylon 5 modular game system!) sat gathering dust on their shelves, taking up space that could be easily taken by one of the more recent releases. If you wanted that copy of Avalon Hill’s computer game, Cave Wars (in DOS), it sat on the shelf for years, waiting for you, at its full price of $49.99.
The internet did not help the Game Parlor. I remember one fall, looking at one of the games in the Down in Flames series (I believe the game was Zero!). GMT had it in discount mode, the price slowly and steadily falling until their warehouse was clear. It was down to about $25 on their website when I was thinking of buying it. I went to the Game Parlor, and there it was, full price. I grumbled under my breath and planned to buy it online. Then I stopped by my ever-beloved Compleat Strategist (I saw charms there that my wife missed) and there it sat, at the same price I had seen on GMT’s site. I bought the game, shook my head, and wondered about the future of the Game Parlor.
The Game Parlor began to sell comics. Again, it paid no attention to the market, and it began to accumulate worthless issues of lesser titles that took up valuable game space. I don’t know who bought a laminator at that store, but they began to encase everything in plastic. If I wanted to buy a GURPS supplement or a comic I had never heard of, I was going to have to buy it only with knowledge of the cover and the blurb on its back. And the crinkled edges of their cheap lamination did nothing for presentation. It became walls of crinkly, ugly plastic. How is this better than buying online again?
The Game Parlor did begin to embrace its electronic future, which seemed like a great idea at the time. A friend and I met there one day and played Starcraft on their pay-to-play LAN. It was great! But the hardware and software became dated very quickly, and the cubicle-esque computer desks they had set up began to look as abandoned as other sections of the store. As the economy entered its struggles, the Game Parlor even began to charge for its table time, which meant that it was just as easy and less expensive for my friends and I to meet at my house. Again, why bother? The low point for me came when I went in to post a flyer for Point 2 Point, and when I said it was something I did in my free time, an employee said to me “free time, must be nice to have that.” I bit my tongue but couldn’t help but wonder how a store where the entire premise was that people had free time to play games could have someone working there who felt that way.
In the past few years, the Game Parlor began to look like a forgotten store. Its accumulation of unwanted board games, computer games, and comics crowded out its newer offerings. It closed its Woodbridge location. I kept making the pilgrimage to Chantilly, but my perusal of the store consisted of checking out their “new releases” section (which was small), then looking at those same copies of those games I didn’t want again and again (in contrast, the Compleat Strategist seems to be forever young, with shelves overflowing with recent releases and intriguing older ones). I rarely bought anything there any more, even though I ventured out every month or so.
In the end, I heard about the retirement of the owners of the Game Parlor with a resigned sigh. I wasn’t surprised at all.
I hope that the owners retire happily. They brought years of joy to me and mine. They were a beacon of what was possible in the 90’s and I have a number of great memories of that store. When I was last there a few days ago, one of the owners pointed to a notebook where long time patrons were writing their memories of the store. She recognized me and encouraged me to come back and write something. I think I will. I’ll buy something on clearance(most likely dice), then I’ll write in the book. It will go something like this:
“Thanks, guys, for all of these great years. I’ve come here so many times I’ve lost count. Thanks for the gaming tables and for being there during the many phases of the gaming industry over these years. Thanks for the d20 materials, the CCGs, the Hero System, World in Flames, ASL, all the miniatures and all the dice. When I needed a place to take a breath and think about something other than work, your store was here. When I needed to know people were playing games in Northern Virginia, I could always come here on a Saturday and see the crowds back at the gaming tables. When my college friends and I met to celebrate a friend on the tenth anniversary of his death, the gaming tables at Game Parlor (Woodbridge) was where we met to play Star Fleet Battles. It was the only place that would ever be fitting for such an occasion. Thank you for giving us such a marvelous venue all of these years. I will miss your store greatly.”
It will be missed. I know, I’ve missed it for years.
In contemporary wargame design, a zeitgeist seems to have emerged, centering on World War II strategic games. I know, I know. This, along with East Front World War II and the Battle of Bulge, is one of the more prominent subjects in wargame design. But three games from this year take a new look at this much-trodden design path and, from what I see, will challenge any further entries in this category.
The first released of these three games was Columbia’s Victory in Europe. ViE is World War II in broad brushstrokes. Want to invade France in 1939? Go ahead! Want to start the war with Germany early as the Russians? Can do! But there is a lot of the war you end up not really caring about. The only incentive to take Cairo is that it must be held for a Sea Lion victory, making it a moderately unlikely scenario (In all honesty, it’s probably something we are too enamored with due to movies like Patton and cool pictures of things like the Long Range Desert Group and an egg frying on a panzer). Why invade Greece? Why get involved in Scandinavia? The breakneck speed at which the game unfolds means that there really is no time for these side campaigns. Initially, this was one of my criticisms (other than the ridiculously small map – that round map was a poorly chosen gimmick). I found the game playing almost too quickly. Most of Europe seemed never to be actually threatened. Instead, it became a “smash and grab” operation for the Germans, who then sit back and defend Berlin with all their might (criticism 2 – in order to win, you must take Berlin, meaning that the game really does become a “Berlin Uber Alles” scenario at the end). Kudos to Columbia for the insertion of some interesting, non-Hammer card options, and for the too random but intriguing diplomacy system, but shame on them for the woefully small map and a disappointing endgame. I am concerned, also, that Columbia seems to almost be developing a track record of losing a Besinque design to another company then rushing out a game (remember Athens and Sparta, a game rushed out to beat Hellenes to the market and so undercooked that playing it brought the risk of salmonella?). There’s a lot to like in Victory in Europe and it’s too bad that some poor production decisions cast a shadow over the design. But it still was the first sign that something new was happening.
In August, two truly innovative designs were released on the same day. The first I’ll examine is the hip and much anticipated Churchill by Mark Herman. This game all but removes war from the equation. World War II is re-examined in a series of turns that center around the conferences involving the eponymous Churchill, along with FDR and Stalin. The war in this game becomes a series of classic, pre-designer game ladders of spaces (Honestly, it looks like something out of the Game of Life, not something from a current game, especially a wargame), and conferences take up most of the space in an interesting wheel where three spokes mark the influence of the three nations at the conference. I have only played once (and I look to play again soon), but in our game, winning the war became secondary to winning the game. Victory points were gained in a number of different ways, and, while it was clear that winning the war would garner a huge pay-off, it was moderately easy for two nations to prevent the third from entering an Axis capital. The game was a remarkably unique look at the war (I could certainly see someone saying that it is not even a wargame), one that we have not seen before. There certainly are “gamey” elements, such as the ability to advance two spaces on the war track if you have earned an “autosuccess” in a battle and you roll a ten, and the “roll-a-die-and-hope-for-the-best” nature of using one of the big leaders in conference (Roosevelt could die, for goodness sake! Although I think Truman may be more effective late in the game. The next time I play, Roosevelt may be a bit…reckless).
But, for me, the gem of the three is the shockingly buzz-free Triumph and Tragedy. Let’s start with that buzz. The buzz for Churchill was deafening. Churchill certainly is a unique way of looking at the war, and much of the design is ingenious. Herman is a legend. But Besinque, while not as prolific, has some legendary designs of his own (East Front and Rommel in the Desert come to mind). Even when my friends and I talked about pre-orders last year, they were surpisingly unaware of Besinque’s T&T.
But the T&T's shockingly enjoyable gameplay has changed that. Here we see a much more developed diplomacy system involving cards and influence. Also on these cards are the values that determine your ability to carry on military campaigns, literally “diplomacy by other means.” The second deck in the game allows a player to expand his infrastructure through industry and technological breakthroughs. Oddly, the most interesting aspect of the game is that it starts in 1936, a time when no one is ready for war, and diplomacy is imperative. By the time the war starts, the Europe in which we play is unique. As a player, you may have goals other than take London and Moscow (or Cairo). You may be trying to develop the capacity for the bomb, or you may be trying to become economically dominant (very difficult once you’re involved in the war). The three players lead to shifting necessities that breed strange bedfellows. There are many strange, unofficial alliances that form. The West (a side that includes both the U. S. and Britain) and the Fascists may ally to stop a Communist powerhouse, and the Fascists may ally with the hated Communists in order to stop the West from winning an economic victory. Many times, late in the game, you are officially at war with your ally, having to cease hostilities in order to keep a certain player from winning. By the end of the war, in most of the games I have played, Europe is exhausted and skeleton armies fight those last battles out. It is close and exciting. I am not sure I have enjoyed a game this much since The Napoleonic Wars.
All that said, the most important aspect of these games is that they model history while not dooming players to repeat it. Victory in Europe and Triumph and Tragedy have diplomatic systems that subtly encourage historical webs of influence while not requiring them. Victory in Europe encourages a limited scope for the war and removes a number of “do this to remain historical” exceptions that are part and parcel for WW2 grand strategy. And Churchill has a game where winning the war is, at best, one option among many. Most World War II grand strategy encourages some speculative history (outdoing Hitler, Operation Sea Lion), but really tries to set up a situation where you are modeling history or you are losing. Check out the A World at War tables on their second day of play at WBC and you’ll see identical Europes: France has fallen, and Operation Barbarossa is under way.
Really, the early turns in most World War II grand strategy games are really just precursors to 1941, when the real war gets underway. The only real questions are whether to invade Britain or not, and, failing that, what will Europe look like when Barbarossa begins in 1941? It feels like, if I’m the Germans, I’m racing to do things that have no long term impact, and, if I’m the Allies, I’m controlling pointless neutrals until the real war starts. But not with these three games. Victory in Europe flies to Barbarossa and D-Day, with the shifting economy and power structures partially folded into the card play. Churchill starts with Britain, Russia, and the United States in 1943, where the question is not if the Axis powers will fall, but what will the world look like when they do. And, again, most interestingly, Triumph and Tragedy starts in 1936, where the canvas is almost blank and the landscape of Europe as the war starts may look familiar, but many times does not. The bar has been raised, designers, now we have quick-playing three player World War II games where every decision matters. And, while I’m not sure that it will be a quick play, I look forward to seeing what GMT’s Cataclysm, which also expands the perspective of the war from before Triumph and Tragedy in 1933, to the 1950 Europe that Churchill anticipates, will bring to the gaming table. I also hope to see Geoff Engelstein’s WW2 game (I think it's working title is Fog of War), which promises to focus on the intelligence aspect as a key to the war and is generating some whispered buzz that it might be something special. It’s no longer a question of “how do I make sure that I force there to be a Battle of the Atlantic?” Instead, we are seeing something new emerge.
In 2006’s Who Are You People?: A Personal Journey into the heart of Fanatical Passion in America, Shari Chaudron wrote a chapter about the World Boardgaming Championships that largely focused on A World at War and “doing better” than Hitler. What’s important with these new designs is that the roadmap is changed significantly. As a player, you are more concerned about the needs of your nation than outperforming a historical standard. And that is what makes these important. With designs like these, we’re no longer bound to an unescapable narrative. These games give us templates not to re-write history, but to write our own.
Well, it's been a long time since I started this list. I've played 454 games since starting this list, and our weekly game night has a huge influx of new (or new to me games) in a given month. So, my perspective has broadened a bit. More than I expected, actually. Some great new games have come out since then, and I've been exposed to some great old games. Also, some games that I had been playing have lost their luster. Others have grown into favorites. So, needless to say, my top 100 has changed a bit since I wrote it up more than two years ago. This post will correct that list (and I hope it gets as many reads!).
First up, a fond farewell to those who departed the top 100. As I mentioned above, I have played a LOT in the past couple of years. Even in the two weeks since I started this post, more games have come into consideration (although none have cracked this list. yet.) Games that I liked but did not love made the original list. Some of these are games which have been redone in sleeker versions. But, for whatever reason, the following games did not survive the past two years on my list:
Transamerica (100), High Society (99), Diamant (98), Empires of the Ancient World (96), Claustrophobia (95), Acquire (94), Dark Tower (93), The Resistance (92), Victoria Cross (91), Ace of Aces (89), Nexus Ops (88), Puerto Rico (87), Town of Horror (86), Samurai (85), Eclipse (84), Circus Maximus (83), Bohnanza (82), and Bang! (81), Arkham Horror (38). Whew! LOTS of change coming up, and, most likely, another monster post ahead. Brace yourselves…
So, let’s move on to the movers and shakers. These games all moved up significantly, with one of them fighting and clawing to stay on the list:
Coup (90 to 54) – This has become one of our go-to filler games. A great fifteen minutes each time we play. We’ve played cousins Love Letter and Mascarade. Coup is far and away the best for us. This game also wins for biggest "mover." It is incredible to me how much this has grown on me. I also think the comparatively lackluster microgame "cousins" help this one's position on the list. I come away thinking "that is clever," rather than thinking "that could use some more."
Liar's Dice (97 to 82) – Another great filler. This smallish move on this list is made more profound by all the new additions that are coming up. It is an exercise in probability, but, more importantly, an exercise in bluffing. Another short filler, this one leads to cheering and cursing and is one of the most fun ways to spend fifteen or so minutes. I need a copy of the Richard Borg original!
Andean Abyss (31 to 19) – This one is one of the few to crack the top twenty. When I first wrote the list, COIN was new and this was its sole representative. Now, this has become a game I would look to play almost any time I'm given the chance. I was souring on COIN in general recently and was given another chance to play this. It was a blast! I think that, while its balance does rely on player experience (the Cartels are fighting the government), it does not depend on player experience the way that something like Fire in the Lake does. Right now, AA is the best of the bunch, in my opinion.
Through the Ages (23 to 5) – Again, when I started the list, I had just started to play this one. What a gem. This game grows in my estimation every time I play it. Truly a masterpiece. Right now, I'm enjoying playing it online (http://en.boardgamearena.com/#!gamepanel?game=throughtheages), with my son while he is at college.
And, now, the newcomers:
As with the original list, it took a lot of consideration and thinking to figure out the 100th spot on this list. As I have said before, 100 and 1 are probably the two most significant spots. After 100, you just don’t get in. Dune makes the list for so many reasons. First up, it is one of the best diplomacy games around, period. The unbalanced powers make it clear what one side has to offer the other in an alliance. Clearly, two are stronger than one in Dune. Secondly, its combat system is shockingly unique. I would challenge you to find another system based on it. And, third, it does strike that nostalgic chord for me. As a kid, this is one of the ones (along with Civilization) that I would look at again and again on Games Magazine’s Games 100 each year. I wanted this and I wanted to play it. By the time I was able to reasonably spend my own money, it was out of print, and, by the time I knew how to find things on ebay, it was rare and other rarities (like Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage) had moved ahead of it on my list of desired games. Since I started this list, my group started playing this, and I have thoroughly enjoyed it.
This is one of a couple of games that almost fails to qualify as a boardgame. The board itself is a work of art, and every session we’ve played this has left us thinking aloud about other uses for it (in a roleplaying game where you have to use a limited pidgin language to communicate, for instance). I don’t worry about winning when playing this one (although some of our friends are very good at it!); the experience of communicating with pictograms and cubes makes it always a fascinating experience.
98: Terra Mystica
This is a very good fantasy civilization building game. It might be better called a fantasy improvement on Settlers of Catan. Lots of the same tensions: build up a network of resources, upgrade settlements and buildings, but the game adds the new resource representing magical power and a priest mechanic that you must balance with all of the other considerations. A very good game that, if it had more direct conflict, would likely be higher on this list.
97: Pax Porfiriana
This fascinating game might be higher if I owned it or got the chance to play it more. Its art is strikingly unpleasant, but the game itself is fascinating. It simulates a fascinating time and conflict in Mexican history, and its mechanics are odd yet clever. You have to worry about transportation types, military units, income and the national economy (depression BAD!). But the most important aspect of the game is the type of political influence that you wield. There are Loyalty, Outrage (which leads to U.S. Annexation), Command (leading to a Coup d’Etat), and Revolution (which leads to anarchy). When the "Topple" card is played, and you time things right, you win the game. And if the government is not toppled, the most gold wins (which doesn’t always work hand in hand with your “influence economy”). It is a fascinating and mind-boggling game. After you start to figure things out, it’s a great deal of fun.
96: Bang! The Dice Game
I liked Bang! I love the Dice Game. It’s the only way Bang! stays in the top 100 for me. Still has shooting, hidden roles, and special characters. Basically, it has all I want from Bang! without what I don’t want : to spend a lot of time playing it. I think I might try the Walking Dead version soon.
I’ve been discussing this one in my AAR posts. Really enjoy it. Pretty much a mechanic masquerading as a game, but I like the decisions made. And, as usual, the short time makes the simpler mechanics worthwhile. Also, for those of you who are concerned that my enjoyment of this game heralds some kind of major move in my opinions: it's only number 93!
This probably should have been on the list previously, but it only had one play, late at night at the WBC. A great game about politics in the French Revolution. One of the great designs by Martin Wallace (I think he’s one of my three favorite designers at this point). One of my great gaming excursions in the past few years was getting to go to the world headquarters of Miniatures Market in St. Louis, MO. It’s a small storefront connected to a large warehouse. Right there in the front was a discounted copy of the Valley Games edition. Glad I gambled on it (the gamble being “would my friends play such an old design?”). My son also enjoyed teaching it to some friends this summer.
87: Space Alert
Okay. This is it. Robo-what? This game is a great co-op AND a great programmed movement game. We had a blast seeing how the presence of a timer caused us to struggle in our defense of our ship.
86: 1775: Rebellion
Another one that should have been on the earlier list. I had played 1812, which I liked a good bit, but 1775, for me, was just so much better. I like the multiplayer team aspect of this and the microgame rules. I am very excited about the upcoming design on Vikings and the one on the French and Indian War. The limited cards (although the Vikings game will have more) makes this feel like a microgame, but there are so many things you have to do with so few cards!
85: A Distant Plain
Another in the COIN series. The conflict in Afghanistan is perfect for this series’ four uneasy allies nature.
66: Hansa Teutonica
A heavy euro. A great game. While it is no wargame, there are many interesting decisions to make and strategic positions to take to block your opponents. A fascinating game.
A great four player game that has really survived the test of time. The nature of the map and control of areas and cities is always fluid, and being on top of the world at one point doesn’t mean you won’t be wondering what happened to your army in a later turn. A great game about the unpredictable and always-changing nature of a civil war. I'm also thankful that this got a reprint or I might not have gotten to play it.
64: Imperial Assault
Fixed a number of problems with Descent, Second Edition, the most glaring being the inability to move through opponents, which led to halls clogged with flesh that the party had to cut through. I haven’t played the skirmish game, but the campaign game was a blast. Spoiler alert! This one is already a "dime" for 2015.
58: Nuclear War with Proliferation
Just a quick clarification. Played vanilla Nuclear War recently. Way too dry and frankly wasn’t very much fun. The addition of spies and the SuperVirus make all the difference on this one.
44: Eldritch Horror
Streamlines the enjoyable Arkham Horror, also taking the conflict with the Elder Gods to the world as a whole (which makes more sense to me, thematically). There is so much to like here.
What to say. This might also be its cousin, Kingdom, but I’m leaving it to Microscope until I have the chance to play Kingdom again. I find the idea of DM-less roleplaying fascinating (and problematic – probably a topic for a future blog post), especially as it related to collaborative storytelling. While I am forced into an incredibly restrictive system for this game, those restrictions force players to develop the ideas and build the world in a more logical fashion (although absurdity can definitely be a problem). I know this is a roleplaying game, but its rules, use of physical space (through the index cards), and limited actual roleplaying make this seem as much of a board game as, say, Dark Cults, in my opinion.
25: 7 Wonders
Rare to have a game that works for every number from three to seven. This one does. It also plays very quickly while having some decision making (my favorite being the decision to “build a stage of the wonder” by burying a card, keeping it from my opponents!), making it one of my favorite fillers.
20: It Never Snows
This really should be all the games in SCS, but It Never Snows, as what David Dockter calls “a big, dumb monster,” is brilliant. I feel like a number of real-world strategies are modeled by its simple design. Why did the paratroopers land where they did? Well, you can decide on your own drop zones. Odds are (other than the unrealistic ability to drop in Arnhem itself) you will find that the historical landing zones are probably the best. And, with the strategic movement rules, you had better get a hold on those crossroads. Afrika, Yom Kippur, Bastogne, they’re all great. But It Never Snows gets to hold the banner for the series on my list. (I should note that Day of Days is another possibility, but its comparatively high counter density makes it more of a challenge to play. Hoping to get it on my table with my son over Christmas).
13: A Study in Emerald
And a few of these games have pushed their way into my favorites. I love A Study in Emerald. I have read the story, and I am somewhat familiar with the mythos. But this game would be fascinating even if it were about its original theme (anarchists in the early twentieth century). The secret sides are interesting, although only a small part of the game. The idea that ,if anyone on your team is in last, points-wise, you lose, is fascinating. I love the deckbuilding and the odd permanent effects you can bid for as if it was a card you were adding to your hand. I love the fear of the zombies and vampires and, of course, Cthulhu. This is a game where every decision made is key and every play made ends up a battle. It’s not the easiest game to teach, but, once people get it, they see the many little battles occurring worldwide.
9:Triumph and Tragedy
And one very recent game has cracked my top ten. I have fallen in love with this game. At its core is the idea of “diplomacy by other means.” It is loosely a World War II game, starting in 1936 where the focus of the game is getting allies, building up your forces, and building your infrastructure. The game has very simple rules, but, at its core is that three way struggle among the West, the Communists, and the Fascists. It is easy to layer a narrative over the happenings, even when they veer from history (which they almost always do). I have seen the Fascists and the West have to tentatively ally to hold off a Russian juggernaut. I have seen a communist Spain (obviously, the Republicans won the civil war). I have seen the Fascists abandon Eastern Europe to an Iron Curtain in a strange negotiated deal that allowed them to try to fend off the West. I have seen the Germans take Moscow, the Russians take London, and the West take Baku. The game is a roller coaster ride where the three players are not tied to a script the same way they are in, say, Europe Engulfed, or A World at War. This game breaks into my top ten, but it could very well rise higher with more plays.
And a Change….
The last thing to note is a significant change at the top. I have decided that ASL is number one. It is nothing against the War of the Ring. I still love it. But it falls to number two. My son and I have got ASL down to a science, where we can set up a scenario quickly and break it down quickly. When I think of possible games to play, I always consider ASL as an option. And when I think of my favorite gaming experiences every year, ASL is always at the top of the list, whether it be a rousing four player session of Scenario C (available at the MMP website) or the simpler pleasures of a journal scenario, ASL is a game I am always willing to play.
Well, that’s it. After a long time and a shifting landscapes of games, I have finally finished discussing my top 100, both at the time I started the writing and at the time I finished it. If there are significant changes or additions, I may revisit this list, but it will probably be more in the form of a game added from time to time. While I’m glad I did I undertook this task years ago, I’m also glad I have finally finished it.
I hope to be back in two weeks, and I hope to delve into some issues in gaming.
Before I go, here is the list in full (with some faulty grammar and overly shortened titles - this is the working list):
2. War of the Ring
3. Paths of glory
4. Napoleonic wars
5. Through the Ages
6. Hammer of the Scots
8. FAB Bulge
9. Triumph and Tragedy
10. Struggle of Empires
12. Middle Earth Quest
13. A Study in Emerald
15. Asia Engulfed
16. Mage Knight
17. Wilderness War
18. We the People/Washington’s War
19. Andean Abyss
20. It Never Snows
21. Breakout Normandy
24. Command and Colors: Ancients
25. 7 Wonders
28. Summoner Wars
29. Battle line
30. Rune wars
31. A few acres of snow
33. Europe Engulfed
34. Victory in the Pacific
35. King of Tokyo
36. Ticket to Ride
37. Battlestar Galactica
38. Dungeon Lords
39. Age of Empires III
41. Times Up
42. Napoleons Triumph
44. Eldritch Horror
45. A Victory Lost
47. Hearts and Minds
48. FAB Sicily
49. Settlers of Catan
50. El Grande
51. Neuroshima hex
54. Richard III
55. Kingdom of Heaven
56. Panzer Leader
57. Pitch car
58. Nuclear War (with Proliferation)
60. Shadows over Camelot
61. Fighting formations
62. Russian campaign
64. Imperial Assault
66. Hansa Teutonica
69. Twilight imperium
71. Republic of Rome
74. Blood bowl team manager
76. Wiz war
77. War at Sea
78. Up front
79. Combat Commander
80. Castle Ravenloft
81. Liars Dice
82. Warriors of God
83. Crusader Rex
84. Rise and Fall
85. A Distant Plain
86. 1775: Rebellion
87. Space Alert
88. Shifting Sands
89. Cosmic Encounter
91. Stellar Conquest
92. Twilight Struggle
94. Last Night on Earth
95. Lost cities
96. Bang! The Dice Game
97. Pax Porfiriana
98. Terra Mystica
Thanks! And see you again in two weeks!
Top Ten Post
Well, this is it: the top ten. It’s been almost two and half years since I did what Tom Vaselrecommended years ago and created a top 100 (not sure it’s for everyone, though. At the point when I made this list, it seemed like I had more games that I had played that were on the list than were off it. That has since changed). I’ve learned to link to games in my post. I’ve become a part of a heck of a game night (including Tom Grant of the I’ve Been Diced podcast) and a periodic part of another (that includes Volko Ruhnke!). I’ve started to record all of my plays. I’ve found an iOS app (https://appsto.re/us/WWXm1.i) that is an incredible aide in recording plays. In short, it’s been a great couple of years.
So, what is this list? I think it reflects a number of my loves. It has wargames. It has hybrids, both hybrids of wargames and Euros and hybrids of boardgames and roleplaying games. It has games with multiple paths to victory. It has games where there are a both a multitude of options and situations where it seems like you to much to do. It has block games and card driven games. And of course, it has games from my top two designers: Rick Young and Martin Wallace (but watch out, guys, Vlaada Chvatilis coming on strong).
After seeing #11, then this entry, it’s easy to see that I love this system. The battle tactics are a little superior in Friedrich, in my opinion. The main reason for this is that there are key areas on the Maria map that you absolutely cannot take without a certain suit. This has led to one of my friends playing with each player having his own deck. That’s not for me for a variety of reasons, one of the key being the limited card counting that this takes away (“I have all the 13’s in spades; I’m going for it!”). But other factors give Maria the nod. First up, it is a three player game. This has become something of a moot point as other three player games are being released (Churchill and Triumph and Tragedy chief among them), but, at the time of this list, three player wargames with clever mechanics and/or unique themes were fairly rare. Secondly, there is the interesting political system. We generally keep the effects from becoming earth-shattering by careful card play, but there is always the potential of key events coming to pass because of those cards. And the third advantage that this game has is that, while it does have the dramatic game-state changes of Friedrich, these are not brought about by random card play, but instead by board game-state changes and player decisions. If the Prussians take these spaces, this happens and changes the game signficantly. When the French withdraw from Austria, this happens, again changing the game. Each game is fascinating and surprisingly unique. I don’t get to play it enough.
9. Struggle of Empires
This may qualify as a “nostalgia” ranking. I do love this game, but, if pressed, I would have to admit that some better games are lower on this list. But, it’s my list, so there. Anyway, this game has a few mechanics that really make it shine. The first is the alliance system which forced a 5 or 6 or 7 player game into two sides. This doesn’t eliminate kibitzing and it doesn’t eliminate stabbing an ally in the back (by just not following through on a promise to help – you can’t attack them directly), but it certainly limits both. Also, the game has the unique (for its time) mechanic of choosing and purchasing tiles that, over time, define your nation’s distinct characteristics. The differences between these abilities are subtle at times (trained native as opposed to militia comes to mind), but the accumulation of abilities over time lead to one nation being more of a “colonial” nation while others fight tooth and nail for the German States (oh, how many times until I learn…). Combat is also limited and crippling attacks can only occur as a series of nations committing to attack an adversary again and again, with only one power actually gaining the prized control marker. Try convincing your allies to help you out while they receive little or nothing. In the end, these types of attacks just don’t occur often. In short, great game, played many, many times. In my not-so-humble opinion, you can’t go wrong with this one.
8. FAB Bulge
Rick Young’s genius comes in recognizing what the games he loves do well and adding a wrinkle to it. I believe the heart of this game can be seen in Tigers in the Mist. But the game’s innovation comes in the Special Actions (evolved from the same mechanic in Europe Engulfed, adding meaning through complexity, rather than just rules exceptions) and the ability to lock units into an extended combat, rather than just rolling and one side dying. Each well-played game sees the emergence of the Bulge, then the dangerous possibility of breakthrough. The Allied player spends the first part of the game scrambling to plug holes, and the German player spends the entire game on the clock, trying to move as fast as possible while still being effective and not taking unnecessary risks (only necessary ones). A high-intensity, layered experience.
7. Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage
This game is probably on any wargamer’s top ten list. We the People worked, but Hannibal took that one extra step that changed everything. It added the choice between Ops points and the event text. Also, for whatever reason, the generals and combat system (combat cards) worked more effectively than in We the People. After listening to excellent The History of Rome podcast, I have also come to appreciate how the emergent behavior of the game reflects history. Early on, Rome does not want to directly engage Hannibal, so a Fabian (named after the consul Fabius, of course) strategy of waiting and pouncing whenever the opportunity presents itself emerges. I thought that the placement of influence markers was a bit “gamey,” but, according the podcast, much of the war ended up being Hannnibal going through an area, converting it to supporting him, and the Romans coming behind him and converting it back. And, of course, in the late game, Scipio and Hannibal go toe to toe. I can’t wait to get it to the table again.
6. Middle Earth Quest
This is by far my favorite of the character-driven adventure games that have come out recently. Middle Earth Quest has what I like to think of as “game opulence.” The clever mechanics are not driven by subtraction, but by addition. Each character has a unique deck that serves as a measure of endurance as well as the character’s hit points (when you move, play a card; when you fight, play a card, when you run out, you are exhausted). There are unique decks of encounters for each region. And the asymmetrical play of the two sides is fascinating. This is a licensed game that trades on the game, not the use of esoterica from the property. A brilliant game for a great license. I would love to see some kind of expansion or a re-theming of this game to another time in the Tolkien stories. Maybe Tom Bombadil Quest? Or Silmarillion Quest?
5. Hammer of the Scots
This is one of the most incredible design moments in history. It launched a whole new side of Columbia Games, a side that they have never really turned from. The 25 card deck, with 1’s, 2’s 3’s, and events both limited the playing space of the game to a few pieces at a time (something that seems key to me in game design these days) and allowed for a slightly more unpredictable and tense “fog of war.” Suddenly, whether or not my opponent had the “Truce” card that would prematurely end the turn became imperative, as did whether or not he had the “Herald” card that could give him one of my nobles for free. The game is almost chess-like in its discussions of key territories and possible opening moves. The dice and cards can also make an almost impossible turnaround possible. Jerry Taylor, the designer, once told me that he had seen “the Scots reduced to just a few soldiers hiding out in caves in the north” come back to victory. There aren’t many (well, maybe four) better than this one.
4. Napoleonic Wars
How is this not number one? Well, I guess you could say that about many titles in my top ten. Napoleonic Wars has been criticized for its flaws – buckets of dice combat (see Geoff Engelstein for a rebuttal please), the chaos of the cards, the victory die roll at the end of every turn. But I still love a great deal about this game. I love the “teaming up” of players against the French. The option is there to switch sides (again, super cool that it is an option), but, if you do, you are likely to be merely welcoming your new French overlords. I love the unique personalities of the different nationalities. I love the advantage and “game within a game” of trying to get that last move of the turn. And, now that it is clear that three players is the way to play Nappy Wars, it is already one of the best three player wargames out there (according to me, the best). I also have to admit that, when I discovered Napoleonic Wars, it was after years of playing almost exclusively role-playing and beer and pretzels games, followed by some dabbling in Euros. What Napoleonic Wars did for me was to bring me into the fold of the competitive players and to show me the nuances of the true “designer wargame.” From here, I jumped back into wargames. I branched out into other multiplayer games, other two player games, card driven wargames, and even online gaming. Heck, I even started a podcast. It was what turned me on to the new age of wargaming and made me fall even more in love with a hobby that I have loved for over thirty years.
3. Paths of Glory
While I played Napoleonic Wars better than I ever played Paths of Glory, I still rank Paths of Glory higher. Why? Because of the intricacy of play. Each card has so many options (replacements, ops, events, strategic redeploy, war status) that it makes each decision torturous. I always feel like I have so many things to do, both acting and reacting, and I can’t seem to make all of my options match up effectively. This game almost never plays out quite the same. You always have an idea of how things will play out, but the order of the cards have significant say in this. Many times, you are sweating out the timing of a Strategic Redeploy or the playing of a replacement card. Other times, Ops are so critical that, if you do not play them RIGHT NOW, you will lose the game. I have to balance the card options, the three (or more) fronts, all while watching my supply lines and the VP count. Brutal. And I love it.
2. Advanced Squad Leader
There are so many reasons why this game is one of my very favorite games. The best thing about this game is that it blends strategy with just enough unpredictability to make the game really sing as you are playing it. It is an exemplary “experience” game, where, at game’s end, what you remember are the stories (for instance, in the scenario I am playing at this writing, a lone German leader with a light machine gun has escaped a close combat by running up the stairs of a multi-story building. Now, part of the game is something of a sniper duel between him and the Russians in Stalingrad’s streets. Or there is the lone German leader who, through failed rolls of his allies, ended up attacking a tank by himself.) The overall strategy still plays out, and tactics are paramount as you maximize your possibilities and minimize your vulnerabilities. But units break at inopportune times. Sometimes, they become less effective for the rest of the game. Sometimes, under fire, they suddenly go berserk or one of them becomes a hero. And the endless stream of scenarios and maps give countless new challenges to the player. Also, the stereotypical 80’s wargamer would move all of his units, then go make a sandwich while his opponent made his move. ASL’s inclusion of opportunity fire, morale checks, rallies, and routing keeps you completely engaged during your opponent’s turn. I also have to say that a minor reason this game is at the top of my list is that it has such a large community of players. The stereotypical wargamer sits in his basement and moves cardboard around by himself. Not with ASL.
1. War of the Ring
What can I say? Number one. After a great deal of thought, this is the one that I would put on the table without hesitation and play again and again. I love wargames; I love Tolkien (not obsessively, mind). I know the issues with the board size (and still haven’t bought the latest version) and the problems with the miniatures. But I love the asymmetry of Shadow vs. Free People and the multiple paths to victory (sound familiar?). I love the unique play of the quest for the Ring. I love the simple political play as you decide who to bring in and when. And I love the breaking of the Fellowship. It’s a tough call between this and ASL, but I think that’s largely due to the respect I have for ASL as a franchise and a flagship for the wargaming industry. When it comes to playing a game and loving it, War of the Ring is it for me.
Well, that's it. The next post will try to adjust the list to account for all the playing I've done in the past few years. I was not surprised at all the change at the bottom of the list, but there are definitely some changes at the top. And I might be falling in love again. See you in a couple of weeks.
Well, the top twenty. This part of the list is pretty darned strong, in my opinion. These games are games that I have loved. Some are original to the point that they are genre-defining or -creating. Others should be. Still others are the best implementation of a particular system we have yet seen. Now, I must note that, as I write this, I am getting ahead on writing the blog (finally!), and am actually working on my list revision post (to be posted after the top ten). It has been fascinating seeing how much the entire list changed, but, while there will be many changes, there will be very little change in the top twenty. It's a difficult group to crack. So, enjoy this part of the list and look forward to seeing what has and has not changed in about a month.
20. Command and Colors: Ancients
Well, this is my favorite version of the Command and Colors system. I have to admit to not playing a few (Battle Cry, that samurai one, Napoleonics, Battlelore – although I hear there’s an app for that.). But I get so much from this game and there are so many expansions – why do I need another? I love the interesting cards (especially Line Command, which changes the entire nature of your strategy, forcing you to think long term in a way that Memoir does not). The addition of leaders is a fascinating wrinkle. The difficulty in getting commands to certain of your troops (“why don’t I have a ‘Command Units Center’ card?!?”) seems to me to be accurate historically. Also has that excellent wargameroom (http://wargameroom.com)
And the first is the best. While Summoner Wars is excellent and deserving of being in the top 30 (and its cousin, Mage Wars, may be in the correction post), this is the one that gets the higher ranking. Such an original design. The geomorphic maps and their method of selection are clever in themselves. And each army has its own flavor. But most of all, I love the simple card mechanics where cards have multiple uses with minimal text. The games are rarely blowouts, and people have correctly applied the term “chess-like” to the game. It’s a game I don’t play enough, honestly. And I really wish that I would see Distant Landsand the fantasy version, Fury, come out (although there is news - https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/1380624/any-news]news -on the latter!). Sigh. No accounting for taste sometimes.
Okay, I have played this so much now that I see it largely as a mechanic, but what an original mechanic. I see this as one of the classic “themeless Euros,” maybe the definitive one, but I do enjoy the deckbuilding. It’s a very mechanical enjoyment for me. There is a predominant strategy (the “Big Money” strategy), and a number of ways to outperform that strategy or circumvent it (the Dominion equivalent of a “Zerg rush,” for instance). There are also some powerful combos of cards. If the game were re-themed, there is a creative thrill there. The mechanic provided has also given us some great subsequent games:Mage Knight (a stretch, but I’m going for it!), A Few Acres of Snow (butMartin Wallace had evidently never “thinned his deck”), Blood Bowl Team Manager, the iOS app Ascension (wait, my producer is telling me that there is also a boardgame?), along with some other games that are less successful but still can be fun. Okay, and some pretty bad games (first sign – the words “Deck Building” in the title). Full disclosure: I still play the game vanilla (I know, shocking).
17. Mage Knight
I was a role-player in high school and college (and still am on occasion), but wargaming has always been at the heart of my gaming. Mage Knight combines these two very effectively. I get to play a unique character with a barely unique deck of cards that dictate actions (only one is actually unique to each character and is something of a variant on a standard card), and I quest around the board, accumulating power and adventuring. Okay, roleplaying itch scratched. I also have the ability to accumulate bands of fighting men, represented by cards, which become key as I eventually fight dragons and such and besiege cities. Also, due to the card-drafting, deck-building mechanics, the game gives me the opportunity to find uniquely powerful combos to use to defeat my enemies. It’s a bit hard to attack other players, kind of falling into the “multi-player solitaire” trap, but I find the interactions with other players interesting, both when we race to defeat that dragon and gain his hoard, and when we combine to attack that particularly tough city.
This game has Diplomacy at its core, but has overlain it with an investment and share-buying system where actual control of different countries moves from player to player. While control of a country is central in achieving victory, victory is only through how much money you make. Through warfare and expansion, a country’s “value” increases, as does the value of your shares. This game is also my first experience with a rondel, where you can skip up to two phases (even more for a price), adding an interesting ability to catch your opponents off guard in order to make an investment or an invasion or some such. I have played its sibling, Imperial 2030, and the problematic iPad app, but, for me, it’s all about the original, and all about face to face.
15. We the People/Washington’s War
And the first is (one of) the best. Washington’s War (or, as it was originally called, We the People) is the card driven wargame that all others trace back to (Rommel in the Desertuses cards in a different way, but seems like another ancestor to Card Driven Games to me.). This game combines the go-like placement of influence (even with a “leave space in the middle of the influence rule”) with simple card driven mechanic. This game has each card with an event OR a number of ops, which evolved very quickly (in Hannibal, I believe) into having both on the same card. The counter density is low (when it comes to units) and the game does a great job of simulating the Revolutionary War in my experiences. And it definitely rises on this list for inspiring so many games that I love. Honestly, the card-driven system is what brought me out of wargaming “retirement.”
14. Wilderness War
As I look back and write the entries for these games, I have to admit that sometimes I’m entertained. Here is a card driven game that is almost spitefully put ahead of its grandfather. But, for me, the placement is correct. Wilderness War would have been in my top ten a few years ago, maybe even in my top five. I love the easily-seen-therefore-difficult-to-master strategy for the Brits. As the French, you know what is likely to happen and you have to prepare for that. As the Brits, you know that your opponent knows what is likely to happen. So the French know that the Brits know…heck, you get the idea. There are a variety of ways to score points and a variety of key cards that may or may not emerge in game play. Some events seem to be key until you don’t have them, then you generally find that a new strategy can be worked out. I find the game fast-paced and engaging to the end. Please note, though, that I only play the tournament scenario with the “advanced” rules. That is the game in its best light, in my opinion. This also marks the first game I know of by the genius of COINand Labyrinth, Volko Ruhnke.
13. Breakout Normandy
This is my top rated area-impulse game (the game type starting with Storm Over Arnhem). It’s also one of the games Don Greenwood is most proud of (on David Dockter’s Guns, Dice, and Butter podcast, he actually called it a “perfect game”). The landings on D-Day have the historical gravitas to make them something I want to experience through gaming. The impulse system, while not lending itself to an accurate simulation of the weaponry and scale, does a great job of representing the land-then-pinned-down nature of the Normandy beaches. The game has that classic chess-like characteristic of having very simple rules where the execution of those rules on the game board result in an incredibly tense experience where every move matters and you want to take back as many as you execute. In short, I’m relieved that the enigmatic L4 re-released this a few years ago.
12. Asia Engulfed
Another incredibly chess-like game. As you may have noticed, one of my favorite things in a designer is to see a series of games where game play is significantly different from title to title. Rick Youngdefinitely falls into this category, and Asia Engulfed was the game where I really saw this come to fruition. I expected a port of the Europe Engulfed system to the Pacific theater. Of course, there was the question of how he would do fleets. And that is where this game moves from being good to being great. The rules are not as simple as Europe Engulfed, but the chrome added provides a fascinating learning experience about the Pacific war at sea. As Rick likes to do, he has pulled bits from his favorite games into a new recipe that outshines the sum of its parts. The China theater is interesting, but the influence of air units makes “Island Hopping” essential for the U.S. player, and really adds the “every move I make is SO important” feel to the game.
I also am a fan of hybrids, and this is one of the first I encountered (along with the underwhelmingly Euroish and not-appearing-on-this-list Shogun). The fog of war element is interesting here, as is the playing-card-driven combat system. The combat system seems, when you hear about it, almost clownishly simple. But try to take out an opponent. You must be very careful how you play your cards, or you end up with the ubiquitous “take one loss and retreat” result. This is also a four player game that is essentially three against one. Sure, you could fight with someone other than Prussia, but, after your fight was resolved, you would simply be welcoming your Prussian overlords. This game also features the interesting “clock cards” mechanic where the game evolves over time, with some powers actually dropping out of the game as time goes on (but the player plays on with a smaller force). Prussia’s strategy has to be to hold on to dear life. It’s actually a very well-developed narrative. That is, until I experienced another, very similar game (spoilers!).
So, in about two weeks, I'll post the top ten! Then will come a corrections post, then I should have the time to open things up a bit and write about some larger gaming issues. Looking forward to wrapping this up!
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