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'Spiel des Josh' Award: 2011 Edition
Joshua Miller
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Holland
Michigan
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The Spiel des Josh is my annual roundup of what I think are the best games of the year. It's a living award, and I continue to update and adjust past lists whenever I discover an overlooked game, or whenever my assessment of a game takes a major shift.

Here are links to all the other Spiel des Josh lists currently available:

2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003 2002 2001 2000 1999 1998 1997 all prior years

As always, the first ten games listed are the "official" 2011 Spiel des Josh selections, ranked in order starting with the best. The entries following the first ten are for thoughts and discussion on other games from 2011 that I've enjoyed (and some that I didn't especially enjoy).

Discussion is highly encouraged for any of these items!
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1. Board Game: Mage Knight Board Game [Average Rating:8.15 Overall Rank:8]
Joshua Miller
United States
Holland
Michigan
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The Spiel des Josh winner for 2011 is Mage Knight Board Game, designed by Vlaada Chvátil and published by WizKids. This is the second Spiel des Josh win for Vlaada Chvátil. He won the Spiel des Josh for Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization in 2007. He has placed an impressive seven games in the Spiel des Josh top ten since 2006 (Prophecy, Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization, Galaxy Trucker, Space Alert, Dungeon Lords, Dungeon Petz and Mage Knight Board Game). This is the first Spiel des Josh win (or even mention) for WizKids.

Mage Knight Board Game (hereafter MKBG) is currently my favorite board game. In the roughly four months I've owned the game, I've played more than 35 times. About half of those are solo plays. Of the multiplayer games, I've played with two players the most and with four players the least (just one Face-to-Face intro scenario and two Play-by-Forum Blitz Conquest scenarios). Most of my games have been the Full Conquest scenario, with several Blitz Conquests and a few of the other scenarios mixed in.

MKBG is an extremely multifaceted game. The core is a deck-building card game, and everything else is arranged around that core. But it is totally unlike all the other deck-building card games on the market in two ways:

(1) The tactics and decisions involved in playing your hand are extremely rich, challenging, and flexible.

Most deck-builders focus more on choosing the cards you'd like to draw later, and less on figuring out the best way to actually play your hand. The tactics of card play in MKBG are very complex. Every card can be used in at least six ways, two primary and four secondary. There is the card's standard effect, an advanced effect that requires you to spend mana, and four generic wild-card effects that are shared by all cards. And even once you've chosen which cards to play for which effects, there are further decisions about how to apply those effects. Where do you move? What battles will you fight? How will you assign your blocking, wounds, attacks, etc.? How will you get the mana you need? Which cards should you conserve for next round? Are you willing to blow a bunch of these cards for weaker wild-card effects just to get to the cards you need? Or should you just rest and do some discarding so that your hand is stronger next turn?

(2) There is so much more to MKBG than just the card play.

There is an entire map to explore. Where you travel and where you are positioned are extremely important, because they determine your current and future opportunities. Each location has different challenges, different benefits. There are units to recruit into your army. The units don't go into your deck. They stay on the table, and can provide a variety of services at crucial moments. There is a constantly-changing shared mana pool, with dice showing different colors of mana. There are mana crystals, which allow you to store mana of a specific color until you need it. There are Tactics cards that you draft, which also don't go into your deck. Those determine turn order and usually give you a special power for the round. As you gain fame, you will benefit from special skill tiles, increased resistance to wounds, a larger hand size, and the ability to command more units. There is also your reputation to consider, which affects the way you interact with many of the board locations.

The cards you draw will often prevent you from doing what you would like to do in the way you would like to do it. But with experience, you learn that there's always a way to work around this. There is a great deal of power in planning ahead in MKBG. Novice players probably will approach the game one turn at a time, and may not see the more strategic elements. But the best players are always thinking about their next turn, and the turn after that, and the rest of the round, and the rest of the game. You want to have a plan for what you're doing over the next several hands, but you need to stay flexible and willing to re-order things or develop contingency plans.

I tend to enjoy games that rate high in both skill and randomness. These are not inversely related concepts, as many people believe. In many games, randomness produces a larger skill element because it forces you have to employ multi-level, creative, complex thinking rather than following rehearsed strategies. MKBG is a great example of a high skill, high randomness game. If you don't believe that it's high skill, I'll give you some evidence. I play the Solo Conquest scenario with both cities set to the maximum level of 11, and I can beat it literally every time. Sometimes I win in round 5 of 6, and once I even beat that setup in round 4. I usually score around 250 to 260. (If the cities are set to levels 5 and 8 as prescribed, the score will be lower like 210 to 230.)

If there's a more brilliantly-designed game in existence than MKBG, then I haven't played it. It gets my highest possible recommendation for anyone who likes highly variable, mentally challenging games with a puzzle-solving element. The exception I would make is for those who don't want to play long games. MKBG generally runs from about 2 to 5 hours, depending on player count, scenario, gaming style, and experience level. The interaction level is very high if you allow player-vs-player combat, and moderate if you don't. You will definitely want sleeves for the cards, even if you don't normally sleeve. They are absolute junk without sleeves. Also, you need to know that the brown enemies printed on the city bases are supposed to represent the tan dungeon enemies, not the reddish-brown dragon enemies (they are much closer in color to the latter, unfortunately). Which means, hilariously, that the single completely useless aspect of the game is the "clix" concept that is WizKids' signature gimmick.


Special Honors
The Massive and Imposing Granite Trophy - Best Gamer's Game of 2011
also considered: Ora et Labora, Trajan, Dungeon Petz, Cave Evil, Strike of the Eagle

The Amazing Male Uterus - Most Innovative or Original Game of 2011
also considered: Dungeon Petz, Dungeon Fighter, Sekigahara: Unification of Japan

The Brain-Shaped Grenade - Best Puzzler or Brainburner of 2011
also considered: Dungeon Petz, Trajan, Ora et Labora

The Diamond Solitaire - Best Solo Game of 2011
also considered: Friday, Inspector Moss 2: House Arrest

Das "Ich und Du" - Best Two-Player Game of 2011
also considered: Champions 2020, Summoner Wars, Cave Evil, Strike of the Eagle, The Castles of Burgundy, Sekigahara: Unification of Japan


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2. Board Game: Dungeon Fighter [Average Rating:6.92 Overall Rank:625]
Joshua Miller
United States
Holland
Michigan
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Dungeon Fighter is a cooperative dexterity game in which your party must ... are you ready for this ... Fight through a Dungeon. You fight in the usual technique, like all the other dungeon crawl games, which is to bounce dice off the table and onto a big bullseye target. Naturally. Sometimes you must perform odd throws like behind the back, under the leg, spin shots, rebound shots, rolling the dice off your nose, or using your neighbor's hand to throw the dice. Hitting the target is good. Hitting close to the center is very good. Having your die land with the special symbol showing is very very good. Missing the target altogether is bad. Taking too long to kill the monster is very bad. Running completely out of time or having everyone die in the same fight is very very bad. Unless you weren't enjoying the game, because that would mean it has ended.

I first played Dungeon Fighter at Great Lakes Games right after Essen 2011, and immediately loved it. I played it eight times that weekend, and every single one was a supernova of fun and laughter. People around the room notice you playing this game, because they wish they were having as good a time as you are having. I even passed up some of the Essen games I had intended to try (Trajan, Vanuatu) in order to play more Dungeon Fighter. The game is made of pure awesometanium, which is apparently very difficult to manufacture, because I'm still impatiently waiting for the U.S. edition (soon, we're told!).

I think a lot of the awesome comes from how damn hard Dungeon Fighter is. My eight games were all played at the medium difficulty level. Even at that level, the farthest we made it was to the room before the boss monster. And that was just once. Another time we died in the second room! Yes, sometimes you might get slaughtered in the second room by a wimpy skeleton. But that sort of thing just makes me want to play more. I guess maybe we should have started with the easy difficulty level. But any time I see a game with three difficulty levels, I immediately assume that the easy level is the one for losers and small children. Champions of Gaming do not play on the easy level!



Special Honors
The Athletic Cup - Best Action or Dexterity Game of 2011

The Award That Was Only Trying To Be Affable - Best Party or Social Game of 2011
also considered: Flash Point: Fire Rescue, King of Tokyo

The Certificate of Participation - Best Cooperative, Team or Semi-Collaborative Game of 2011
also considered: Flash Point: Fire Rescue, Ticket to Ride: Asia

The Lead-Free Trophy With No Sharp Edges - Best Childish Game for Adults of 2011
also considered: King of Tokyo

The Thingamabob Doodad - Best Gaming Oddity of 2011
also considered: Cave Evil, Dungeon Petz

The Roll of a Lifetime - Best Use of Dice of 2011
also considered: The Castles of Burgundy, RoboDerby: Express, King of Tokyo, Mage Knight Board Game, Champions 2020

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3. Board Game: Summoner Wars: Master Set [Average Rating:7.77 Overall Rank:56] [Average Rating:7.77 Unranked]
Joshua Miller
United States
Holland
Michigan
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Summoner Wars was first released in 2009 with two starter sets, Summoner Wars: Guild Dwarves vs Cave Goblins and Summoner Wars: Phoenix Elves vs Tundra Orcs. I saw the horrible, disorganized mess that was the box art and immediately dismissed the game. The "board" was a nasty piece of paper that was folded approximately 50 times in order to cram it into the tiny box. Everything about the game's appearance screamed, "This is a game produced by hopeless amateurs who are oblivious to good design concepts, and it is not worth your time."



The Summoner Wars Master Set was released in 2011, and it's a much better introduction to the game than the original starter sets. The presentation is much more professional, with better art and a hard-mounted game board. Where the original starter decks included just two factions (one possible matchup), the Master Set includes six (15 possible matchups) - all of which are new factions. It's also a very good gaming value at less than twice the price of one of the starter sets.

(The Majestic Tale of) An Idiot With a Box
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Kalamazoo
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I'd like to thank my friend cold_fuzion for introducing me last fall to a game I otherwise may not have tried. Our first game together was a dramatic battle that came down to a final roll of the dice. My Cave Goblins (which are not one of the factions included in the Master Set) swarmed him early, nearly achieving victory, but his Benders eventually regained control of the battlefield through cold_fuzion's smart use of his armies' special abilities. I was able to get a copy of the Master Set later that day, and I've since purchased all of the other Summoner Wars faction decks. There are currently 16 factions available, as well as several reinforcement decks for those who would like to tweak their decks. The reinforcement decks have a fixed card distribution, so you won't have to buy multiples to get the cards you need. I haven't explored the customizable aspect of the game, and I probably never will. The standard faction decks already contain a well-balanced, rigorously tested mix of cards.

Summoner Wars is primarily a two-player game. You can play with four players on two boards, but by most reports it's not as enjoyable as with two. The goal of the game is to defeat your opponent's Summoner, the powerful wizard who commands his army. The rules are extremely simple and can be learned in about ten minutes.

Within this simple framework, Summoner Wars allows a surprisingly high level of tactical and strategic play. The players are constantly presented with non-obvious choices about when and where and how to play their cards, how quickly to speed through their decks (you don't get to reshuffle!), how aggressively to play, and how best to maneuver and strike on the game board. Some claim the game has a chess-like feel. I think that's an exaggeration, but the fact that people would even make that comparison shows that there's a great deal of sophistication to the positioning and maneuvering of your forces.

Most of the cards in your deck are either units that are placed onto the board or events that give you some sort of bonus or special power for the turn. The units themselves each have a special power (or sometimes a disability) that breaks the normal rules of the game. All of these cards, whether units or events, can either be played in the usual way or can be added to your Magic Pile. Defeated enemy units also are added to your Magic Pile.

In order to summon most units onto the battlefield, you must pay magic by removing one or more cards from your Magic Pile. You will not earn enough magic simply by defeating enemy units. You'll need to play some of the cards in your hand to your Magic Pile in order to field an effective army. It's always a difficult decision, because you'll never be able to play the cards you sacrifice to your Magic Pile.

If you're interested in Summoner Wars, it's very likely that there are active players near you. The game has become very popular, and seems to have many fans that mostly just play Summoner Wars and little else. But if you're buying without having tried the game, I would go ahead and get the slightly more expensive Master Set rather than one of the recently re-released starter sets. The six different factions and a decent board will truly show what the game has to offer. Save the Swamp Orcs and the Deep Dwarves until you've played a few times. Start with any of the other four factions.

Special Honors
The Extremely Thin Trophy - Best Card Game of 2011
also considered: Blood Bowl: Team Manager

New Paint and Custom Rims - Best Remake or Spinoff of 2011
also considered: Roboderby: Express

The Tro-lo-lo Trophy - Game That Most Exceeded My Expectations in 2011
also considered: King of Tokyo, Cave Evil, Trajan

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4. Board Game: Ora et Labora [Average Rating:7.82 Overall Rank:45]
Joshua Miller
United States
Holland
Michigan
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After playing Ora et Labora a few times, I sold my copy of Le Havre. And Le Havre is really good. It was my #2 game of 2008, and the best gamer's game from that year. I don't usually subscribe to the philosophy that one game replaces another, but in this case, Ora et Labora really does feel like "Improved Le Havre" to me. It has a superior technology for allocating the available resources. It has an enjoyable spatial element that is missing in Le Havre. It has more interesting timing decisions because of the three pawns, and because of the need to clear land. And finally and most importantly, it has a broader array of strategies and tactics to pursue.

When playing Le Havre, there are a variety of ways to approach the early game. But by the latter half of the game, they all will have evolved into a nearly identical endgame. Get ships, get coke, get steel, and ship stuff for big points. There are some supplemental moves, of course, but everyone is more or less trying to do the same thing. I love Le Havre for about two-thirds of the game, but the endgame often just feels like grinding out a bunch of tiring calculations.

Ora et Labora gives the players many more options than Le Havre, and this remains true all the way to the end of the game. For this reason, Ora et Labora seems to offer more variety from game to game. You would think it should offer less variety, since the setup is exactly the same every time, while Le Havre features some minor but important randomness in the setup. But that hasn't been my experience. The wealth of viable options in Ora et Labora creates different patterns and different challenges each time. 18xx players will know exactly what I mean.

Almost all of my games of Ora et Labora have been played with three players. I really like that configuration. The two-player version behaves a bit differently, but I don't have enough experience to judge it fairly. The way that you keep playing until you've built all the buildings seems odd to me, but I guess it does present a different challenge than the multiplayer version. Perhaps that is the point, or perhaps not. I'd be interested to hear anyone's theories on why Rosenberg structured the two-player game this way.

I like that there are two scenarios with different buildings, and I expect we will see more in the future. I'm far from mastering either one of them although I've played Ireland more than France. It didn't take very many plays of Le Havre before I felt like an expert. I've reached that number of plays with Ora et Labora, but I still feel like a novice. It's much harder to find the best moves in Ora et Labora, which is another reason I prefer it.

One possible negative for some gamers is that Ora et Labora has a more abstract, less thematic feel than Le Havre. In Le Havre, it's easy to identify what the different building do. You can read the name of the building and have a pretty good idea of what it does. Many of the buildings in Ora et Labora are like this, but some of the weirder ones are hard to grok thematically. Until you learn what those buildings do, there may be a lot of leaning over the table and squinting at tiny text.

Some BGGers have been vocally displeased with the game materials supplied with Ora et Labora, so I'll offer my opinions on the issue. The player boards are very thin. This has no effect on my enjoyment of the game, and in fact I think it was a good decision to go with these because they are less prone to warping. The cards are small, but I don't think they could be much bigger or the game would simply take up too much space on the table. Many of my counters were very hard to punch out, and some of them ripped at the corners. That bothered me a lot at the time, but now I find that I don't notice it at all. I have never come close to using all my counters, so I could just set aside all the bad ones if I wanted. But it's still annoying. The resource wheels should have been constructed so that you didn't have to unfasten the pointer when your game requires the wheel that's printed on the other side. The solution is pretty simple, though - don't put the top cap on the fastener. The player aids should have been printed on thicker, sturdier card stock. They're magazine paper, which is bizarre, but only a very minor issue.

Special Honors
The Baker's Pair - Best Three-Player Game of 2011
also considered: Mage Knight Board Game, Dungeon Fighter, Trajan

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5. Board Game: Champions 2020 [Average Rating:7.29 Overall Rank:4196]
Joshua Miller
United States
Holland
Michigan
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Given the reasonable popularity of designer Corné van Moorsel's previous game StreetSoccer, I am very surprised that his new soccer game Champions 2020 has garnered only 38 ratings in the six months since it was released. StreetSoccer was a simple, Euro-ish game. Champions 2020 truly attempts to simulate international 11-on-11 soccer matches. Perhaps there just aren't too many BGGers who are interested in what Champions 2020 is trying to achieve, because the game is simply marvelous!

If you've played StreetSoccer, then you already know the basic game mechanism of Champions 2020. Roll a six-sided die, choose a player, and move him the number of pips showing on the die. If he moves in to the space where the ball is located, he can shoot or pass. In either case, the player stops moving and the remaining die pips are transferred to the ball. Every time one of your players touches the ball, that space is a "free" space that does not use up a pip. In this way, chains of passes are possible. Players move orthogonally only. The ball can move in any of the eight directions, and can bend 45 degrees once at any point during each pass or shot.

So far, exactly like StreetSoccer. But Champions 2020 adds a number of options and features that make the game more exciting, more realistic, more variable, and more thought-provoking. First of all, you've now got a full-sized field with 11 players to control. That alone adds excitement and realism and scope. You can now move a second player on many of your turns, so long as he didn't play the ball that turn, and so long as his move of one or two spaces makes him the closest friendly player to the ball. He's making a run to move to the pass. Attempting to intercept passes is now possible. But it's dangerous, because if you successfully intercept, your opponent (whose just took his turn) will get the next turn - unless he re-intercepts. Sometimes you will attempt to intercept just to re-position your player closer to the ball. Scoring is no longer deterministic, and is now governed by a die roll modified by the remaining speed of the ball and the positioning of the goalkeeper. There are now fouls, injuries, corner kicks, throw-ins, offsides rules, and all the other details you would expect from a game that is more of a sports fan's soccer game and less of a Eurogamer's soccer game. But the brilliance and simplicity of the basic movement rules keeps play smooth and snappy. The amazing achievement is that the final game really does feel like a simulation of a professional soccer match.

There is a downside to all the added detail, and here is where many Eurogamers will prefer the more elegant StreetSoccer. Every different set piece has its own rules and procedures. All of them are simple, but there are so many of them that you'll need to keep the rulebook close at hand, even after several plays.

On the other end of the spectrum, those looking for a highly-detailed statistical sports simulation may find the game lacking. Every player on your team has identical abilities. There are no star players or weak players or specialists. The only differences among the four sides included in the game (Netherlands, Germany, Brazil, Argentina) are in appearance. Champions 2020 is a strategy game that realistically simulates the feel and flow of a soccer match. It is not like the old-school American sports sims that focused on the specific abilities of individual players or teams.

Special Honors
The Sad Phantom - Most Overlooked or Undiscovered Game of 2011
also considered: Cave Evil


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6. Board Game: Cave Evil [Average Rating:7.86 Overall Rank:1739]
Joshua Miller
United States
Holland
Michigan
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Cave Evil is a small-run indie board game that looks like it was co-designed in 1983 by Gary Gygax, the band Hellhammer, and that kid from your high school who had to spend a year at the mental health clinic. It's the kind of game that might result if Titan and Wiz-War had gotten together for an awesome session of 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Wiz-War insisted on playing a highly unusual Magic-User/Assassin character, and Titan agreed to it as long as his friend Baal could be the Dungeon Master. (Titan played a Fighter/Magic-User/Thief.) They needed another couple players, so Titan called his new friend Dreamblade and Wiz-War brought along his big brother Cosmic Encounter.

Cave Evil offers a game experience that is unlike anything else I've played. I will attempt broadly to summarize the three qualities that make this game special.

(1) The richness and consistency of the game's theme and atmosphere. Every single piece of artwork and every game component communicates the proper feeling and setting. There are over 300 cards in this game, each with its own grotesque illustration.

(2) The sheer variety of game experiences Cave Evil can offer. There is a surprise around every corner in this game. The basic rules framework is not very complex, but every card you bring into play changes the complexion of the game. Just one card can often propel the game in a completely unexpected direction.

(3) The opportunities for smart and creative play. The game mechanisms allow for a lot of interesting decisions, both tactical and strategic. Seemingly small decisions can lead to dramatic turning points. Minor oversights can lead to major catastrophes.

Cave Evil is the kind of game where you will sometimes need to make rule adjudications while you're playing. The special abilities of the different units can interact in all sorts of weird ways that are not explicitly covered in the rules. If you played Cosmic Encounter back in the Eon days, you'll know what I mean. More precise wordings on the cards would have helped, but it doesn't bother me. This is a game of craziness and surprising situations, not a finely-tuned Eurogame that has been "balanced" to within an inch of its life.

The physical game components are generally good with the exception of the map that serves as the playing surface. It's a substandard folded poster. The folds don't want to lay flat on the table, and the surface is slick enough that the pieces don't want to stay in place. I recommend either covering the board with a sheet of Plexiglas or mounting the map onto an actual board of some sort.

The sheer amount of cards sprawling across the table, each with its own text and numeric ratings, may be a problem for some players. It can be difficult to see the details of your opponents' creatures from across the table - and tracking those details is important.

Those interested in learning more about Cave Evil should read this excellent review by Jesse Dean. Be warned that the game is currently out of print, and is unlikely to see another edition before 2013.

Special Honors
The Yellow Toddler Stomp Boot - Best Game of Conquest, Trampling, and Smashing of 2011
also considered: King of Tokyo, Summoner Wars

The Carboard Rabbit Hole - Most Effective Presentation of Theme and Setting of 2011
also considered: Flash Point: Fire Rescue, Champions 2020, King of Tokyo

The Slate and Clamshell - Best Art Design of 2011
also considered: Colonial: Europe's Empires Overseas, King of Tokyo, The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, Sekigahara: Unification of Japan


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7. Board Game: Kingdom Builder [Average Rating:7.06 Overall Rank:329]
Joshua Miller
United States
Holland
Michigan
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Donald X. Vaccarino's Kingdom Builder is a game that I think has been greatly underestimated by many gamers. It has very few rules, but it's not as simple as it looks. The luck of the draw is obviously important, but has a lot less impact than it initially appears. There are nuances that may not reveal themselves right away. This is a game of limited but subtle choices. You have to figure out ways to accomplish what you can this turn, while creating acceptable options for future turns.

I am adamantly opposed to variants that tweak the opening card draws or offer additional card choices. Kingdom Builder is a game about managing bad card draws and setting yourself up to overcome very limited options. If that goes away, you pretty much lose the entire point of the game.

I can definitely tell that Kingdom Builder comes from the same mind as Dominion. Both are fast-playing, mechanically simple, highly variable from one play to the next, and addictive. Both are "lighter" games that are playable as family games, but offer an extra level of skill that will appeal to hobby gamers. In both games, luck of the draw plays a huge role, but good play usually prevails. Both require players to assess the opening setup and get off to a wise start - or else find themselves locked into a losing position.

I'd like to emphasize that last point. A good Kingdom Builder player will be thinking strategically from the very beginning, not just tactically. They'll look at the scoring cards, and then develop a plan about which location tiles they want to employ and which areas of the board they want to occupy.

Special Honors
The Well-Tempered Kazoo - Best Light Strategy Game of 2011
also considered: Summoner Wars

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8. Board Game: Trajan [Average Rating:7.84 Overall Rank:38]
Joshua Miller
United States
Holland
Michigan
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[UPDATE 17 November 2012] Played it a couple more times recently, and I'm ready to apply the "excellent" label that I discussed below. For me, this is definitely Stefan Feld's best game.

At the time of publishing this list, I have played Trajan just once. So it's a bit hard to rank it against these other games in the top 10, all of which I have played many times. My initial hypothesis is that Trajan is Stefan Feld's best game.

I would not describe myself as a Stefan Feld fan. His games are always very clever, but usually feel disjointed, overly mechanical, and not interactive enough. None of Feld's games are particular favorites of mine, although I do enjoy approximately half of his designs: The Castles of Burgundy, Macao, In the Year of the Dragon, Rum & Pirates, and now Trajan.

Trajan has a chance to become the first Stefan Feld game that I would label as excellent rather than merely good or satisfactory. But I'm guessing it won't quite make it to that level. Why? Because it displays all of the typical Feld features that feel to me like flaws: disjointed, overly mechanical, not interactive enough.

Despite those observations, I really loved my first play of Trajan. The mancala-like action wheel does a great job of creating interesting multi-dimensional decisions for the players. Those who, like me, enjoy puzzle-like qualities in games will appreciate this new mechanism. Matching the colors of the beads in order to earn Trajan tiles adds that delicious extra layer that makes the game so challenging.

The rest of the game is less important, but seems to provide the necessary level of balance and variety, and perhaps just enough interconnectedness to keep Trajan from feeling hodgepodge. As with several of Feld's games (especially Rum & Pirates) Trajan feels like walking through a carnival moving from one mini-game to another. Each mini-game has a little bit of urgency attached to it at different times in the game, such that the specific sequence of performing the actions is important. Setting up these efficient sequences on the mancala wheel is nerdy fun.

Special Honors
Sumo Westbank's G@mebox Cabinet of Friends - Best Middleweight "German School" Game of 2011
also considered: Ora et Labora, The Castles of Burgundy

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9. Board Game: King of Tokyo [Average Rating:7.43 Overall Rank:113]
Joshua Miller
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Once upon a time, there was a very talented game designer named Richard Garfield. He won the Spiel des Josh in back-to-back years in 1993 and 1994 for Magic: The Gathering and RoboRally, and placed in the top ten in 1996 for Netrunner. That is the year that the original Richard Garfield was trapped in a space-time anomaly, and replaced by the imposter Richrad Garflied from the planet Rickroll-96. Richrad Garflied was more than happy to share with us some of his "awesome" game designs such as Rocketville, Pecking Order, and Star Wars: Trading Card Game.

When I saw King of Tokyo and read the simplistic-sounding early descriptions of play, I assumed that this would be yet another Richrad Garflied game. Imagine my surprise and my delight when I discovered that this game was designed by the original Richard Garfield!

King of Tokyo is indeed a simple game, but it is not a simplistic one. There is real beauty in the way that the simple rules allow multiple approaches and generate interesting patterns of play. Players can win either by earning 20,000 Twitter followers*, or by knocking out all of the other monsters. The balance between these goals is perfect. King of Tokyo almost always ends in a photo finish. Upon seeing the mathematical elegance of this game, it is rumored that Reiner Knizia has abandoned his similar prototype about ancient Mesopotamian flower gardens.

If you're going for the win via Twitter followers, it is highly recommended that you announce your Tweets and/or Facebook updates. Also, when choosing monsters you will definitely want to get your hands on "The King," since he has already named himself King of Tokyo and your victory is assured. The only other viable possibility is to make a Chuck Norris standup, and smuggle him into game night.



Special Honors
The Dainty and Adorable Trophy - Best Quick Filler of 2011
also considered: Summoner Wars

The Harmony of the Wu Xing - Best Five-Player Game of 2011
also considered: Vanuatu, Colonial: Europe's Empires Overseas, Flash Point: Fire Rescue

* or in the game's lexicon, earning "20 stars." But I am pretty sure that these stars represent a certain number of either Twitter followers or Facebook friends. Or maybe blog hits.

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10. Board Game: Dungeon Petz [Average Rating:7.64 Overall Rank:88]
Joshua Miller
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This year's top ten is the strongest I've seen in any year. I can't believe an awesome game like Dungeon Petz was in danger of missing the cut. I like Dungeon Petz significantly more than its predecessor Dungeon Lords - a fun but very rules-heavy game that was an easy selection for my top ten in 2009.

The two games are connected in many ways, and not just by graphics and theme. Dungeon Petz and Dungeon Lords are designer Vlaada Chvátil's two subversive takes on the worker placement genre. In both cases, workers are committed in secret, without knowledge of what opponents' workers are doing. And in both games, the worker placement and resource collection is only a prelude to the brain-twisting "puzzle phase" where you must figure out how to effectively use those resources.

My preference for Dungeon Petz can be broken down into four elements.

(1) The worker placement method of Dungeon Petz produces fiercer competition and a greater feeling of tension.

(2) Dungeon Petz allows for more planning ahead, and that planning is more demanding and more interesting.

(3) Dungeon Petz is an easier game to teach because the "puzzle phase" has less rules overhead.

(4) For me at least, the theme of Dungeon Petz is more fun and more colorful. One of your clients, for example, hopes to see as many colors of poop as possible when he visits your store.

Overall, I submit that Dungeon Petz is more of a gamer's game than Dungeon Lords, requiring a greater degree of finesse and more intense competition. At the same time it has a cleaner design, with fewer and more sensible rules.

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11. Board Game: What's Missing? [Average Rating:4.58 Unranked]
Joshua Miller
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The games ranked 1 through 10 on this list are the official 2011 Spiel des Josh selections. I continue to update all my yearly lists as I play. Games can and will move in and out of the top ten over time. Last year, for example, Hanabi & Ikebana and Safranito moved into my top ten after I initially published the list.

This year, there are really only two 2011 games that I still hope to try. Pictomania is a high-priority item for me, but is currently unavailable. Depending on how long we have to wait for an English print run, I may consider it for the 2012 awards. Risk Legacy is a low-priority item. I don't plan to buy the game, but I would like to see how some of the game's unique concepts play out.



Other 2011 games that I may eventually try (but won't seek out) include:

BITS - pale shadow of FITS, see blurb in final item of list.
Fighting Formations: Grossdeutschland Motorized Infantry Division
Hawaii - solid but fiddly, briefly discussed in final list item.
Kart sur Glace
Last Will
Meltdown 2020 - pretty much sucks, see blurb in final list item.
Pala (oops, this didn't actually get released until 2012)
Village - better than expected, see blurb at end of list.

I am sure some of you are wondering where Eclipse is. It is of course getting outstanding ratings on this site, but it just doesn't appeal to me at all. If I get talked into a game of it at some point, I'll offer my thoughts.
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12. Board Game: The Castles of Burgundy [Average Rating:8.07 Overall Rank:10]
Joshua Miller
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Here's another example of how strong this year's top ten is. I like The Castles of Burgundy (hereafter TCoB) better than Stefan Feld's previous games Macao and In the Year of the Dragon. Those games both made the Spiel des Josh top ten (Macao at #6 in 2009, In the Year of the Dragon at #9 in 2007), but TCoB did not place in the top ten due to the stronger competition this year. I wish I had the room to include it.

I think I'd even say that TCoB is the strongest game alea has published since at least 2005's Louis XIV, if not earlier. As with most of Feld's games it's not especially interactive. But the game flow is simpler, smoother, and more cohesive than most of his other game designs. And like its predecessor Macao, TCoB's central concept involves using dice to limit the players' choices.

The dice-as-actions system here is excellent. There are sufficient options that you're not at the mercy of the dice, but not so many that you won't be frustrated by what you roll. (Good luck decoding that sentence.) The balance feels just right. Much like I described with Kingdom Builder, you need to make your own luck by preparing for as many scenarios as possible. Smart players will not have as many "bad" rolls because they will have positioned themselves so that fewer rolls would be considered "bad."

I strongly prefer to play TCoB as a two-player game. You get exactly the same experience as the four-player game in a much faster and more exciting format. The choices are perhaps a bit tougher with two players because there are fewer tile choices. In general, I like tougher choices.
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13. Board Game: Strike of the Eagle [Average Rating:7.73 Overall Rank:842]
Joshua Miller
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Strike of the Eagle is the first game in the very promising Fog of War series from Academy Games. The topic here is the 1920 war between Poland and Soviet Russia/Ukraine. It has shorter scenarios for 2 and 4 players, as well as a longer campaign game (which I haven't played). It is a mostly card-driven block wargame whose central feature is the placement of hidden orders.

These hidden orders are unquestionably the highlight of the game, both because of the psychological element they add and because of their scarcity. The orders are represented by circular counters that are placed face down onto the different areas of the point-to-point map. Some of the common orders include: move blocks into this location, move blocks out of this location, forced march in/out (giving a longer range of movement but halved combat strength), defend this location, withdraw from combat in this location, etc. One of your orders each turn must be a "recon" order. The recon order allows you to take a peek at all units at that location, but is better used as a bluff, so that your opponent will not know which of your orders are important and which one is basically a "do nothing" order.

Each operations phase, you may give just two orders, one of which must be a recon order. That's not enough to do very much, so you will usually want to play one of your cards to add an additional 2, 3, or 4 orders to your allotment. The problem is that you only have 6 cards each turn, and there are 5 operations phases in a turn. So are you really willing to burn up 5 of your 6 cards, when the cards can also be used to enact historical events, to add to your battle firepower, to trigger powerful battle events, or to gain needed reinforcements? You will usually want to save some of your cards for these other uses, which means that some of your operations phases will be played with just the paltry two orders. You will feel very vulnerable during those turns.

As you and your opponent take turns placing your hidden orders, you will begin to feel the magic of the game system. What unfolds is a web of feints and thrusts and outflanks and parries and counters. Where will the important action occur this turn? What does my opponent expect me to do, and can I exploit that expectation? Are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy's? It's a battle of wits on a level that you just don't find in most wargames.

I really would have liked to place Strike of the Eagle in my top ten this year. But I cannot ignore the game's massive flaw. The rules are, quite frankly, a steaming pile of excrement. The rulebook doesn't tell you how to apply victory point gains and losses. There is an example relating to forced marches which implies additional rules not contained in the rulebook. Those additional rules were confirmed by the designer online, then later reversed in the FAQ (which is horribly incomplete at this time). The designer's current rules on retreats bear no resemblance to the rules that are printed in, you know, the rulebook. Out of the blue, there is now apparently some sort of vague "only one order per unit" restriction which massively undermines and contradicts the whole system of order-placing as presented in the rulebook. The designer keeps coming up with new rules, which seem to be the way things were supposed to work all along - except they neglected to put them in the rulebook. Which is massively infuriating.

If you're thinking of buying this game, you've been warned. My advice is wait until you see a full 2.0 rules re-write.

Special Honors
The Quarter-Inch Steel Plated Trophy - Best Consim of 2011
also considered: Sekigahara: Unification of Japan
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14. Board Game: Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan [Average Rating:8.04 Overall Rank:145]
Joshua Miller
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I have only played Sekigahara once so far. I want to play one or two more times before offering my thoughts. For now, let me just say that it seems to be a game worth exploring.

I will update this section when I have something more to say. Its ranking on this list is highly subject to change. Once you get past the year's top ten, the order that I've listed games is not especially meaningful (although I do attempt a rough ranking, except for expansions which are always placed at the end of the list).

 
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15. Board Game: Flash Point: Fire Rescue [Average Rating:7.37 Overall Rank:168]
Joshua Miller
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Flash Point: Fire Rescue is a cooperative game about fighting house fires for up to 6 players. This is a game where the theme is everything. It really does get an A+ for theme. None of the rules detract from the realism of the game's setting, characters, and plot. (Well, okay, maybe the firefighter knockout rule is the one exception.)

The most obvious comparison for Flash Point is the game Pandemic. The two games are very similar in style, weight, and length. My experience has been that the decisions and tactics are much easier and more straightforward in Flash Point. For this reason, I prefer Pandemic, although I would recommend either game to fans of cooperative play. Those who prefer a game with a very concrete, realistic approach to its theme may favor Flash Point. Pandemic definitely feels more abstract and game-y.

The other element that leads me to prefer Pandemic over Flash Point has to do with the way that the two games handle randomness. Pandemic uses cards, which gives it two advantages over the dice that are used in Flash Point. First of all, the card-based system of Pandemic allows for the diseases to strike the same locations repeatedly. The epidemic cards are so deadly because of the way that they stack the top of the deck. That just wouldn't be possible with dice. Secondly, all of the dice rolling in Flash Point gets to be a nuisance. The turn-to-turn upkeep is more fatiguing, and a lot of that has to do with the dice.

Finally, I really really really really hate the graphic design of Flash Point. The character cards are nicely done, but everything else looks like it was designed by a colorblind person. The board is way too busy and the colors are way too saturated.

I participated in the Kickstarter drive for Flash Point, and I don't regret doing so. It's a good game from a publisher that I trusted based on their previous games Haggis and The Resistance. The Kickstarter bonuses are awesome, especially the hard-mounted Urban Structures board that provides two new buildings posing unique challenges. After playing a number of times, I ended up giving my copy to a gamer friend whose family would get more mileage out of it than I would.
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16. Board Game: Friday [Average Rating:7.30 Overall Rank:242]
Joshua Miller
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Friday is a very well-crafted solitaire card game from Friedemann Friese. It comes in a cute and cheery little box with some pleasantly nerdy-looking art. I've enjoyed it more than any of Friese's games since Power Grid. I got about 10 or 12 enjoyable plays out of it, then traded it on to another gamer. It's well worth the low cost if you have any interest in solitaire games.

The game works so well because it presents you with multiple goals that are often incompatible.

Your deck starts off being absolutely terrible. Most of the cards have zero or negative values. In order to get rid of those cards, you actually need to lose fights. Losing fights drains your life points and brings you closer to death, but it also allows you to learn from the experience and trash one or more of the cards you played that turn. But in order to get better cards into your deck, you need to win fights. Just knowing whether you're trying to win or lose a fight is not always easy.

Another tension involves the deck cycling. On one hand, you want to cycle your deck quickly because you are constantly improving it. On the other hand, you must add an "aging" card to your deck every time it runs out - and these are terrible, nasty cards.

Friday does an outstanding job of conveying its plot and setting, which is especially impressive for a small, mechanically-slick card game like this. At the start of the game, our "hero" Robinson Crusoe is a bumbling fool who doesn't have the skills and knowledge to survive in the wild. As he decides what risks he is willing to take, you can guide him in learning new skills and eliminating the worst of his mistakes. By the end of the game, he is haggard and worn, but also cunning and deadly. Where the balance lies will determine whether you survive the expedition.

Those who don't want some mild strategy spoilers should skip the next paragraph. You can see my scores below, in case you're interested in comparing how you're doing.

Spoiler (click to reveal)
Mentally keeping track of what's left in your deck is very important. I suggest fanning your discards to help with this task. Be smart about which challenges to face early. You'll want to cycle your deck quickly so that you have as much power as possible by the time you reach the yellow challenges. This means tackling many of the harder challenges right from the very start, just to cycle your deck and pay to dispose of most of your bad cards.



Journal of Friday's Expeditions:

Level 1: dead, 115

Level 2: 54, 159

Level 3: (skipped)

Level 4: dead, 63, 82, 113, dead, dead, 78


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17. Board Game: RoboDerby: Express [Average Rating:7.23 Overall Rank:2761]
Joshua Miller
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The first image shows the designer's original graphics. The other images show the graphically enhanced version. The basic two-player game requires just the components shown to the immediate left.

RoboDerby: Express is a print-and-play game designed by Clint Herron. A number of other BGG users have contributed various add-ons, expansions, and graphical updates.

RoboDerby: Express is an attempt at making a streamlined and fast-playing version of RoboRally. My comments here will assume some familiarity with RoboRally. The original RoboDerby: Express design was for two players only, but I like it best with the addition of a third player. I haven't tried playing with four (I don't have components for a fourth player), but it seems like the small board tiles would get too crowded with that number.

Instead of RoboRally's cards, RoboDerby: Express uses dice. The dice faces show the same sorts of commands you would see in RoboRally. During the programming phase you are allowed to re-roll your dice as many times as you wish, provided you first lock at least one die into the next available register(s) in your program.

Two of the dice have special "hack" commands on one of their faces. Playing a hack in one of your registers can cancel or even reverse the commands that the other robots are trying to perform during the execution of that register. These hacks add back in the interaction that you would otherwise lose when scaling a chaotic game like RoboRally down to two or three players.

For anyone who enjoys print-and-play games, I highly recommend RoboRally: Express. It's one of the very best examples of the genre, and is not difficult to construct. The game is also available through Print & Play Productions if you prefer to have someone else do the work.

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18. Board Game: Inspector Moss: House Arrest [Average Rating:7.23 Overall Rank:4256]
Joshua Miller
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Immediately following the solitaire game and the print-and-play game, we now come to ... the solitaire print-and-play game! I actually have never played a printed copy of Inspector Moss 2: House Arrest. There is an excellent Vassal module for the game (upper right image), which the version I have used. The printed tiles look like they'd use up a lot of ink (although there appears to be a low-ink version without the graphics). Plus, I'm lazy. But if you enjoy either print-and-play games or Vassal versions of games, I highly recommend this one.

Inspector Moss 2 is a solitaire dice game. You play the role of a detective who hurries around a mansion where a murder has taken place, collecting evidence, eliminating suspects, and ultimately trying to identify and arrest the murderer before your injunction expires. It's a light game, but the logistics of exploring the mansion present some interesting challenges.

The dice are rolled up to three times, Yahtzee style. One of the dice is a different color, and is special. You can use the special die just like any of the others, but you really really really want it to roll low, because you spend one minute of time for every pip on that die. Sixes are wild, but every six you choose to use also costs a minute.

Once you are happy (or unhappy) with your roll for the turn, you use the dice to perform your actions. The room tiles are numbered, and you must spend a die showing that number to move into the room, or two dice if the door is locked. Rooms each have a suspect or an evidence tile or a piece of helpful gear that allows you to break the normal rules. Gear can be gathered with any roll of three-of-a-kind. Evidence is revealed with a four-die straight. Suspects are left alone until you've identified the culprit, in which case you need five-of-a-kind to take the murderer into custody. The evidence tiles are those round markers. Many of them have arrows that can be positioned smartly to eliminate all suspects along that row/column/diagonal. There is a bit more to the game, but that's the basic idea.

My first several games of Inspector Moss 2 were played on the medium difficulty level, which gives you 45 minutes to solve the case, detain the murderer, and get him/her to the police car. I usually won at that level, but at that point it was hard to see how anyone could possibly finish within the 30 minute limit of the expert level without getting extremely lucky. But I've gotten better at the game, to the point where I can now beat the expert level more than half the time. So there's definitely a large skill element to the game in addition to the multiple layers of randomness of the dice, hidden room tiles, and hidden evidence tiles.
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19. Board Game: Vanuatu [Average Rating:7.33 Overall Rank:405]
 
Joshua Miller
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My friend Mary Tomaszewski summarized Vanuatu perfectly in her brief ratings comment:

"I felt like every turn was the last turn of a game where you have nothing good left to do."

This extremely sparse game landscape is Vanuatu's weakness, or its strength, depending on your gaming preferences. For me, it's a bit of both. I had heard that this was a brutal, unforgiving, tight game. That's actually what drew my attention, because I tend to enjoy games of that description. But after two plays of Vanuatu, I decided to trade it away. No one appeared to be especially fond of the game, and there were a couple of interrelated aspects of the game that bothered me:

(1) As Mary wrote, there really is not enough to do in Vanuatu. It seems like everything happens too slowly, in tiny chunks that feel unsatisfying. Each turn, even the players who get the good stuff, don't do much. The players who don't get the good stuff, well, they do even less....

(2) Sometimes who gets the good stuff and who doesn't get the good stuff seems to have little to do with who played well. The clever action selection/bidding system is perhaps a bit too clever. It's extremely fragile. Most of the players may have everything planned out perfectly, but then that one person who didn't think things through makes a boneheaded move, and it ends up totally wrecking some players' turns and handing an undeserved bounty to other players. This kind of thing doesn't usually bother me in other games, but it can completely ruin a game of Vanuatu because the action selection structure is like a house of cards.

If you swim with sharks who love highly analytical games, you might want to give Vanuatu a try. But for me it didn't make the cut. It was a modest success in the shark-ish analytical group. The middleweight Euro-ish group was lukewarm, and felt that the game overstayed its welcome.

 
 
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20. Board Game: Blood Bowl: Team Manager – The Card Game [Average Rating:7.42 Overall Rank:167]
Joshua Miller
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I will admit that I am a hater of everything related to Games Workshop, and of most things related to Fantasy Flight Games.* But when a friend of mine described Blood Bowl Team Manager as "multiplayer Battle Line,"** I decided I should check it out. As it turns out, I don't think BBTM feels very much like Battle Line, but I do think it's a pretty good game. I didn't end up keeping it in my collection, but I did get several enjoyable plays out of the game.

BBTM is a card game with a very smooth Euro-like core, plus a generous helping of the sort of aggression and thematic color you'd expect from its FFG and GW pedigree. Each player chooses a team such as Dwarves, Elves, Skaven, etc. Each team has its own unique deck of player cards, and also a unique set of upgrades that can be added between matches. Powerful "Star Player" cards can also be added to the deck, although I wouldn't principally describe BBTM as a deck-building game.

The goal of BBTM is to earn the most fans for your team by the end of the game. Fans can be earned by making cool/illegal plays, meeting goals set by some of your upgrade cards, and most importantly, by entering (and hopefully winning) matches and tournaments. Most matches involve only two teams, and you do have some choice over who you will be playing against. The tournaments are multi-team brawls.

The basic game flow consists of taking turns committing player cards to one of the two or three matches your team is playing that round. The players each have a basic strength value, along with one or more special powers and/or action icons. The special powers could be just about anything. The action icons include cheating, tackling other players, gaining possession of the ball, and drawing more cards from your deck. Tackles involve rolling dice in an attempt to reduce an opposing player's effectiveness (and maybe make him lose control of the ball). Cheating involves drawing an unseen token which may give you the cheating player extra strength or extra fans, or may disqualify him. The winner of each match is decided by the total strength of cards on each side, modified by cheating and possession of the ball.

BBTM is fun if played at a reasonably fast pace. It's not so fun if players are spending too much time analyzing your options. This is a light, chaotic, theme-heavy game. It works best when played as such. Even when played at the proper pace, I feel like the game lasts one round too long if you have the full complement of four players.



* I do like Runebound, their work on the new Cosmic Encounter, and many of their imports from Europe. But I tend to strongly dislike the Petersen / Konieczka / Wilson / Lang designs that are the core of their catalog.

** The predecessor of Battle Line, Schotten-Totten, is probably my all-time favorite quick two-player game.
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21. Board Game: Urban Sprawl [Average Rating:6.84 Overall Rank:796]
Joshua Miller
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Holland
Michigan
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In the run-up to Essen 2011, there were five games that I was highly anticipating: Mage Knight Board Game, Dungeon Fighter, Ora et Labora, Champions 2020, and Urban Sprawl. The first four all ended up in my top five for the year. Urban Sprawl was a disappointment. After the magnificence of 2010's Spiel des Josh winner Dominant Species, my expectations may have been too high for Chad Jensen's next game.

Why was I disappointed?

(1) For a game about urban planning, it seems odd that Urban Sprawl has very little ability to plan ahead. The queue of building contracts cycles so quickly that you can't look ahead and see what cards might be available to you next turn. Nearly every aspect of the game is highly chaotic, unstable, and tactical rather than strategic.

(2) The constant barrage of randomly-timed events is tiresome. You will sometimes draw four or five events in a row before you get to an actual contract card. That seems a little silly and unnecessary to me. And you can't very effectively plan for the events, since you'll only use about half the cards in each of the three decks.

(3) Small amounts of money are constantly flowing in and out of players' hands. That's frustrating, both in terms of the amount of upkeep required and in the way that it undermines your ability to plan. We immediately switched to poker chips after the first few turns of the first game.

(4) The theme just doesn't really come through in the way it does in Jensen's other games like Dominant Species and Combat Commander. I don't feel like we're building a city. I feel like we're moving cubes and tokens and money and victory points around. Why do I want to have the majority of buildings in a given street or avenue? Do I even care?

I've played Urban Sprawl three times, each time with three players. I suspect that it might work better as a two-player game. You would then have some ability to preview coming attractions, and defensive play would be more richly rewarded.

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22. Board Game: Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 1 – Team Asia & Legendary Asia [Average Rating:7.77 Unranked] [Average Rating:7.77 Unranked]
Joshua Miller
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The two images on the left show the Team Asia map. The two on the right show the Legendary Asia map.

I love partnership games, so I was very excited to see what Alan Moon could do with a partnership version of Ticket to Ride. I'm happy to report that the results are excellent! Trying to figure out what your partner is doing adds another whole level to the gameplay. Sharing half of your train cards with your partner also adds a new wrinkle. In short, I love what this does for the game.

The partnership map can be played with four or six players. The board play is most interesting with six. But if you play with six, you'll want to make sure that you have players that are able to play quickly. Otherwise, stick to four players.

In addition to the "Team Asia" map, this expansion includes the "Legendary Asia" map designed by François Valentyne. It is also very good. The big change on the Legendary Asia map is that whenever you build a mountain route, you set aside one of the trains from your supply. Each of these trains earns two points at the end of the game. This tends to change the game in two ways. First, it accelerates the end of the game, making this map a good choice when you want a quick game. Secondly, the extra two points for the set-aside trains makes the short mountain routes more attractive. It's nice to see a Ticket to Ride map where players are encouraged to fight over some of the shortest routes on the board, rather than go for the long routes.

Special Honors
The Wreath and Crest - Best Game Expansion of 2011
also considered: Power Grid: The Robots, 7 Wonders: Leaders

Amongst Our Trophies are Such Elements as the Unexpected Spanish Sixth Player - Best Six-Player Game of 2011

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23. Board Game: Power Grid: The Robots [Average Rating:7.23 Unranked] [Average Rating:7.23 Unranked]
Joshua Miller
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Here are some of the other game expansions from 2011 that I have enjoyed.



Power Grid: The Robots is the best Power Grid expansion to buy if you often find yourself with two or even three players. With two players, I would consider a robot or two to be essential. Previously, I didn't think Power Grid was worth playing with two.

Manipulating and exploiting the robots adds a delicious extra layer of analysis and planning. Power Grid: The Robots is an excellent addition to the game, especially considering the very low price.





7 Wonders: Leaders is a fun expansion that helps add variety to your 7 Wonders games. The leaders available to you can provide an interesting long-term focus for your civilization. At the same time, your neighbors' leaders can sometimes undermine your plans.

I also appreciate the way that the new rules fold smoothly into the style and patterns of the original game.





Dominion: Hinterlands is yet another good Dominion expansion. The profusion of "when-gained" abilities shakes up the game and its strategies and patterns. I love subversive cards that cause you to think of the game in a different way, and Hinterlands has quite a few.

Dominion: Cornucopia is not as essential. Nothing in Cornucopia detracts from the game (unlike the other small-box expansion, Alchemy), but it also doesn't add a whole lot other than more variety. More variety is always welcome if you play Dominion a lot. A minor but worthwhile expansion. Buy it if you have all the big boxes and still want more. I did buy it, but only because I wanted to buy a couple things to support my FLGS that day.





Cosmic Encounter: Cosmic Conflict was an automatic buy for me, simply because I liked the new batch of aliens that were included. It also has black ships, which look cool, although I don't ever see a situation where I'd want to play with seven players. I haven't tried the Hazard variant, but even if it sucks, I won't regret buying this expansion. I don't think I'll be buying Cosmic Encounter: Cosmic Alliance in 2012, though.





[UPDATE May 9, 2012]

Just got my set of Alban Viard's latest Age of Steam maps, Age of Steam Expansion: Greece and Cyclades. I consider Alban and his partner Michael Webb to be the best Age of Steam expansion designers. Excited to try these maps soon!





On a whim, I recently traded for Ticket to Ride: Alvin & Dexter. I still haven't tried it, and I have no real intuition about whether I'll like it.
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Joshua Miller
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As always the final list entry is what I call my pithy dismissive blurbs. These are the 2011 games that didn't ring my bell. Many of these are probably fine games that simply were not a match for my tastes.



Also Good . . . But I Limit the List to One Page

Village (added 17 November 2012) - Village is a pleasant and well-constructed game of light tactics, sequencing moves, and a bit of medium-length planning. It has that classic old-school German feeling where you see a bunch of attractive moves, but you'll only have time to do a few of them. I no longer go out of my way to try these middleweight German games, but Village was better than I expected.

Hawaii (added 11 November 2012) - I enjoy the tactical decisions in Hawaii, but the game really needs a little gremlin in the box who will sort and set up the seventeen million little pieces. My annoyance at the nuisance level exceeded my desire to play, and I passed the game on to a friend who loves it. A good choice for online play, if you fancy such things.

Guild (added 7 May 2012) - Guild is probably the best Japanese game I've played (but note that I haven't yet played this designer's more famous game Kaigan/Inotaizu). I'm unsure about the replay value, but our first game was very enjoyable. The game is very low on interaction. However, it does present you with a lot of interesting choices relating to pace, budgeting, and engine synchronicity. I would buy an inexpensive U.S. edition, if one were issued, but would not pay import prices for it.



Close . . . But No Cigar

Feudality (added 13 June 2012) - Typical Tom Wham: an utterly random ride with a degree of whimsical charm.

Volle Scholle (added 7 May 2012) - Almost there, but needs a way to force/tempt players to collect excess penguins.

23 (added 7 May 2012) - Not bad, but I'd rather play its close relatives Geschenkt or 6 nimmt.

Colonial: Europe's Empires Overseas - A good core, but the state of the rules is an embarrassment. Also, the exploitative theme bothers me.

Eminent Domain - Good, but not as good as its close relatives Race for the Galaxy, Glory to Rome, and Dominion. Feels generic, flavorless, and unambitious.

Pelican Cove - I like it better than any of the Ubongo games, but it's still just a timed puzzle.

Panic Station - See my detailed ratings comments. Many good ideas, but the execution is lacking. Another game where the rules are an embarrassment.

Quarriors! - Visually and viscerally attractive, but it could and should have been better. Okay every once in a while.

A Fistful of Penguins - Great components, but it plays too long for a simple dice game, and it's too one-dimensional with last-turn kangaroos dominating all other approaches.



Thanks . . . But No Thanks

Nightfall (added 18 November 2012) - The color chaining is too arcane and inaccessible, so it's too difficult to see how to set up the all-important combos unless you're very familiar with the cards.

Meltdown 2020 (added 1 June 2012) - Quite terrible, well below Cwali's usual strong standards. Extremely random, simplistic tactics, and ugly as sin.

BITS (added 1 June 2012) - Far less fun than FITS. The pieces are all the same boring rectangles, and there's just no spark to the game.

Airlines Europe - See ratings comments. Hugely disappointing. Removes the essential tension that makes Airlines and Union Pacific tick.

Innovation: Echoes of the Past - Goes several steps too far, turning the game into a big sloppy mess. Turns one of my favorite games into a game I'd rather not play.

Skull - A super-extreme-minimalist bluffing game. It's tolerable, but why not play Liar's Dice, The Resistance, or Hoity Toity?

Star Trek: Expeditions - Or "Star Trek: Equations" as I call it. Overly simple, flavorless game of adding up stacks of numbers. Bad in multiple ways. See ratings comments.

Deadfellas - A lot like Munchkin, but shorter and less interesting. There's just not enough to do.

A Few Acres of Snow - I'd rather not start a flame war, so I won't elaborate.

Santiago de Cuba - A very simple, damped Euro with limited scope and tiny, incremental (and uninteresting) actions and scoring. There are already way too many of those around.

The City - It's Race for the Galaxy without the strategy, tactics, psychology, and player interaction. And with a bunch of extra upkeep.

City Tycoon - Hated it. See ratings comments.




Thanks for reading! Any comments, discussion, thumbs, or tips are greatly appreciated.
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