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'Spiel des Josh' Award: 2009 Edition (a.k.a. 'Better Late Than Never' Edition)
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I never published a Spiel des Josh for last year because I had some health issues that had been keeping me from gaming or even visiting BGG for most of 2010. But it looks like those issues are behind me, and several people have been asking if I'm still going to do a 2009 list. So here you go . . . your very tardy but hopefully still interesting Spiel des Josh 2009

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

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

As always, the first ten games listed are the "official" 2009 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 2009 that I've enjoyed.
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1. Board Game: Mr. Jack in New York [Average Rating:7.40 Overall Rank:368]
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The Spiel des Josh winner for 2009 is Mr. Jack in New York, designed by Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc and published by Hurrican. This is the first Spiel des Josh win for all three parties. Their previous game Mr. Jack made the Spiel des Josh top ten in 2006. I think these are the first French designers to win the Spiel des Josh. Hurrican is the second Swiss publisher to win the award, with Fata Morgana having previously won for Tichu in 1991 and Cosmic Eidex in 1998.

Both of my top two picks for 2009 are revisions of earlier games. While I would usually prefer to award the Spiel des Josh to a completely new game, I really do feel that the two best games of 2009 are Mr. Jack in New York and Small World.

Mr. Jack is clearly a labor of love for Cathala and Maublanc. Cathala alone had already played over 1200(!) games of Mr. Jack and 400 games of Mr. Jack in New York by the end of 2009. The designers' insights have allowed them to turn an excellent game into a sublime masterpiece. I maintain that Mr. Jack in New York is Mr. Jack perfected.

All of the small flaws of the original Mr. Jack have been addressed. Too hard for Jack to escape if the inspector is careful? Now it's a very real threat. Balance slightly favors the inspector? Nope, now it's even. Goodley so powerful that you're almost forced to choose him first? There's no one like that in New York. Need to hide the alibi cards behind the box because the color is visible along the bottom? Not in this version. Board feels too static? Now you can create and change the terrain as you play.

The more open, more dynamic New York board allows for more creativity and trickery and outwitting. There is more opportunity to bluff and to try bold moves. The decision tree is broader in New York, which may sound like it would slow the game down too much. But I find that in New York, I'm less tempted to try to grind out all the logic of "if I choose this character and go here, then he can do this and then this." There's realistically no way I can anticipate all the possible moves in a reasonable amount of time, so I'm more willing to settle for a "yeah, I think think this might work out" type of move.

If you didn't like Mr. Jack, you are unlikely to like Mr. Jack in New York. The designers recommend that new players start with regular Mr. Jack, but I think savvy gamers who like deep thinking games could start with either one. I think I will continue to play both versions, even though I think this one is better overall. I haven't played very many games using the expansion for the original Mr. Jack, so there's still a lot for me to explore in both games.

Special Honors
Das "Ich und Du" - Best Two-Player Game of 2009
also considered: At the Gates of Loyang, Greed Incorporated

The Brain-Shaped Grenade - Best Puzzler or Brainburner of 2009
also considered: At the Gates of Loyang

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2. Board Game: Small World [Average Rating:7.43 Overall Rank:105] [Average Rating:7.43 Unranked]
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Small World is Philippe Keyaerts' fantasy world re-imagining of his 1999 game Vinci. Vinci was a game that I initially liked (not loved, but liked). I later grew tired of it and traded it away. But occasionally I would feel the urge to revisit it, so I traded again for another copy. (A very thematic fate for this game, no?) In other words, I had very mixed feelings about Vinci, and although I liked the game system, it lived on the margins of my collection.

Now the empire of Vinci copy #2 has crumbled away, while the empire of Small World rises. Small World is a centerpiece game in my collection, not a marginal one like its predecessor. There are a host of refinements and good design decisions that helped turn a sort-of-good game into a great one. But the main difference is this: Vinci feels kind of bland and generic and clinical, whereas Small World is extremely fun to play.

Analyzing the individual changes between the two games is beyond the scope of this list entry, but I will take the time to list some of the forces that combine into a hurricane of greatness. More evocative artwork and game materials. More interesting and more varied traits for the empires. Separation of the traits into races and special abilities (very important change). A defined number of game turns. Hidden victory points. Different game boards for each number of players. Less stereotyped board positions due to elimination of attack-from-mountain bonus. Addition of reinforcement die for more drama. Elimination of empire cohesion and declining empire adjacency rules.

In terms of rules, Small World is more streamlined than Vinci. But the gameplay is not "dumbed down" at all. I'd argue the opposite - that the Small World gameplay is amplified over Vinci. I find the newer game to be more interesting, more variable, and more tightly focused around the strengths of the system: choosing your empire, sprawling across the board as quickly as possible, smashing the other empires, and timing when to send your empire into decline and start the cycle again.

Most people reading this list will already know this game. But for those who don't, I'll say that Small World is probably the game on this year's list with the broadest audience. I think most people will like this game. But not everyone. Those who might not like it include (1) those who only like "heavy games" or "real wargames," (2) those who feel constrained by the predetermined combat results, (3) those who prefer to build a powerful, lasting empire rather than flowing between power and decline, and (4) those who don't like choosing an opponent to bash, or don't like being the one "unjustly" chosen as prey.

Special Honors
The Well-Tempered Kazoo - Best Light Strategy Game of 2009

The Yellow Toddler Stomp Boot - Best Game of Conquest, Trampling, and Smashing of 2009

The Baker's Pair - Best Three-Player Game of 2009
also considered: Macao, Hansa Teutonica
(The transience of the empires helps avoid some of the difficult traps of three-player conflict games.)

New Paint and Custom Rims - Best Remake or Spinoff of 2009
also considered: Mr. Jack in New York, Trader
(Why not Mr. Jack in New York? Because Small World is a more dramatic improvement over its predecessor.)

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3. Board Game: Greed Incorporated [Average Rating:7.00 Overall Rank:1082]
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At the time of writing, I've only been able to play Greed Incorporated twice (with 5 and 4 players). But I'm extremely impressed with this game. Blown away, even.

Players are cynical business executives who must figure out how to make as much profit as possible as quickly as possible for their corrupt companies. When a company's bubble bursts, its executives loot as much as they can from the company's treasury on their way out the door. In fact, the only way the individual players can make money is by getting fired when the investors start to question their company's falling profits. Players use their personal money to bid ridiculous sums on outlandish trophies like yachts, museums, expensive-looking women, and Splotter games*. After eight turns, the player with the best status symbols wins.

Greed is a very deep, very heavy economic and negotiation game with opaque, multifaceted strategies. All of these strategies end in looting cash-rich companies, but there are many ways to make that happen. The negotiation element succeeds brilliantly because (1) everyone is in bed with other players in the various companies, so players have mutual interests, (2) creative, coercive, and even corrupt deals are allowed and encouraged, and (3) the game's economy and cash flow is sufficiently complex to cloud the value of any deal.

Although I've described the game as "very heavy," this is a shockingly elegant game system with a very low rules overhead. The rules complexity is probably on par with games like Thebes or Vikings, and much lower than moderately complex games like Puerto Rico and Agricola. But be warned that there is a lot of number crunching and money counting and change making. Those who don't like demanding, hardcore economic games like 18xx or Indonesia are almost guaranteed to dislike this game. Those who don't like negotiation and sharp dealing should also stay away. What's left is a rather small target audience - even without considering the $100 price tag. But those remaining few are likely to love this game.

* examples of outlandish trophies may not be completely accurate. . .

Special Honors
The Massive and Imposing Granite Trophy - Best Gamer's Game of 2009
also considered: Hansa Teutonica, At the Gates of Loyang, Dungeon Lords, Mr. Jack in New York

The Cardboard Rabbit Hole - Most Effective Presentation of Theme and Setting in 2009
also considered: Dungeon Lords, Space Hulk 3rd Ed., Claustrophobia

The Harmony of the Wu Xing - Best Five-Player Game of 2009
also considered: Small World, Hansa Teutonica, Peloponnes

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4. Board Game: At the Gates of Loyang [Average Rating:7.38 Overall Rank:185]
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At the Gates of Loyang is what I call a mini-puzzle game. Each turn presents you with a tactical mini-puzzle that you must solve. This category would include games such as Antiquity, Factory Fun, Mr. Jack, RoboRally, Babel, and Jambo. You must efficiently chain several small actions in order to shuffle around vegetables and fields and money and cards. Money is extremely tight, and that's what makes the game work. There is a constant tension between earning immediate cash and investing for future turns. The reason for the tension is that you buy victory points at the end of each turn, and points purchased early in the game are much cheaper than points purchased late.

I like the game best by far with two players. Why bother keeping track of two or three other players when almost everything you do doesn't involve them at all? The four-player game is a little weird in that you pair off into two parallel two-player universes each turn, but does also allow a broader selection of cards to pass through the game - which is nice if you're looking for something in particular. I avoid playing with three because there is simply too much downtime.

There is very little interaction among the players in Loyang, Whether this is a bug or a feature depends on your tolerance/enjoyment of very solitaire-ish games. For example, it's significantly less interactive than Le Havre, Agricola, Race for the Galaxy, and Dungeon Lords, and a bit less interactive than most games of Dominion. I would rate it equal to Factory Fun or Galaxy Trucker in level of player interaction.

To me, Loyang does not feel similar to Agricola or Le Havre. Instead, it wouldn't be too crazy to think of Loyang as Antiquity: The Card Game. There's a very clear lineage from Antiquity which the designer makes explicit in his notes. It's most obvious in the harvest mechanism, but it goes beyond that to include the entire feel and style of the game.

I should mention that Loyang hasn't garnered much enthusiasm in my gaming circle. I've managed to get it to the table quite a few times, but I seem to be its only big supporter. For this reason, I have played a lot of the solo game, which is excellent. It features a different card allocation system that I actually prefer to the multiplayer method, because it allows for more forward planning. I also enjoy being able to crack out a solo game in 30 to 45 minutes - significantly faster than the multiplayer game.

Special Honors
The Diamond Solitaire - Best Solo Game of 2009
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5. Board Game: Hansa Teutonica [Average Rating:7.64 Overall Rank:72]
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I'll caution that I've only played Hansa Teutonica once so far, which is clearly not enough to assess this game fully.

That one play was at Great Lakes Games, which is a four-day game gathering that happens a week or two after Essen. This is always my first chance to try many of the new games. I was not expecting much out of Hansa Teutonica. Although the board is beautiful in its own way, the game had the aura of a lifeless, mechanical game for humorless German nerds. Well, yes, I did find it nerdy and very mechanical and very, very, very German. But not lifeless. What gives it life are the tense standoffs and move/countermove interactions among the players, along with the complex and intertwined strategic paths that open up as you begin to understand what is possible. This is a subtle, sophisticated strategy game in a plain brown paper wrapping.

I'll not attempt to analyze the game further after just one play. The ranking within this year's top ten is a bit of a guess at this point, but I'm reasonably confident that it does belong somewhere on the list. I think it could end up as high as #4 or as low as "just barely outside the top ten." Hansa Teutonica is a good game, but I don't yet know whether it is the game for me. I'm always wary of games with nothing random to "shake up" the setup or the gameplay. If a game starts to feel too same-y, that's usually when I lose interest. I don't think this will happen with Hansa Teutonica, but only time will tell.

[UPDATE] Yes, I'm still enjoying it, and it's not yet feeling too same-y (although I'm still only three plays in). Plus there's now an alternate board to help allay those concerns.

Special Honors
Sumo Westbank's G@mebox Cabinet of Friends - Best Middleweight "German School" Game of 2009
also considered: Macao, Shipyard, At the Gates of Loyang

Consolation Prize
Generic Unnamed Special Prize Awarded by Humorless German Nerds

 
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6. Board Game: Macao [Average Rating:7.46 Overall Rank:154]
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Macao is, in many respects, just your standard "build a little personal economic engine and then churn victory points" type of Euro. We've seen it all before a million times. Well, almost. Macao's one fascinating innovation is the numbered dial thingy that the rules call the "wind rose" but that I'm going to call the "Cube Chronometer."

Each turn someone rolls six standard dice, each a different color. The players can each choose to use two of these six dice, with no restrictions regarding the other players' choices (you always have full choice among the six). If I choose "red 1" and "black 5" I get one red cube and five black cubes. But not immediately. The cubes are placed beside the corresponding number of the Cube Chronometer, then the Cube Chronometer is rotated one position clockwise. The arrow now points to the cubes that I have available this turn. So the single red cube is available to me this turn, but I'll have to wait four more turns before using the five black cubes.

The cards you're trying to "build" require cubes in different numbers and color combinations, but - and this is very important - you're not allowed to store cubes between turns. Use them or lose them. So the game is a challenge of trying to get the right numbers of cubes in the right colors at the right times. The dice don't always cooperate, and so you're constantly having to evaluate the odds and create contingency plans and rejigger your strategies. The game requires a certain amount of planning, but the "perfect planner" type of player is likely to be frustrated here. Also, Macao is mostly a parallel solitaire type of game. There is some very important interaction, but most of the time you're playing in your own sandbox.

And that's what's keeping Macao from earning a higher rating from me. As the game progresses, I care less and less about what my opponents are doing in their sandboxes. They're messing about during their turn, doing a bunch of little micro-actions from their various card abilities. These little actions are hard for other players to keep track of, since they're written on tiny cards sitting in front of someone else. And honestly, the other players' little bags of tricks rarely affect me or matter to me. I usually just kind of tune them out and trust that they're doing it right. Playing with three players instead of four helps. So does playing with people who can execute their actions quickly.

I do also have some small complaints about a few of the cards*, but overall I really enjoy Macao and the strange type of inexact planning it requires. For me, this currently resides in the top tier of Stefan Feld's games, alongside In the Year of the Dragon.

* specifically, I think the cards that have more powerful effects in combination with another specifically-named card are a bad idea. The deck is huge, so there's a high probability that the desired card won't even enter the game. And there's no way to preview the cards in order to know whether the partner card will become available.

Special Honors
The Roll of a Lifetime - Best Use of Dice in 2009

Special Prize for Historical Climate Change Awareness
Few realize that Europe was almost completely flooded during an especially warm snap at the end of the 17th century. Only eight cities survived!
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7. Board Game: Peloponnes [Average Rating:7.20 Overall Rank:458]
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Peloponnes feels to me like a super-streamlined distillation of elements from the Outpost family of games (Outpost, Zepter von Zavandor, Phoenicia). It's almost like a streamlined Phoenicia, which was itself a streamlined Outpost. Phoenicia didn't work for me. It felt too lengthy and ponderous in comparison to its strategic depth. Peloponnes is a shorter and less serious game, and for me it's much more exciting. The bidding method is an ingenious twist on the Evo/Amun-Re system. A player who is outbid can move his entire bid to another item, but can never change the amount of the initial bid. This creates some interesting decisions of valuation and prediction, while keeping the pace nice and snappy.

Central to Peloponnes are the disasters, which are inevitable but difficult to forecast. They can be crippling if you are unprepared, or if you're wrong about when they're going to happen. Without these disasters, Peloponnes would be an uninteresting game. A game about building a very simple economic engine needs an element of anxiety, to keep it from becoming predictable, or even solvable.

So I'm liking Peloponnes so far, BUT I've only played it a couple times at the time of writing. Will the game still be interesting after 5 or 10 or 20 plays, or will it prove to be too simplistic? Frankly, I just don't know the answer to that question.

Special Honors
Amongst Our Trophies are Such Elements as the Unexpected Spanish Sixth Player (a.k.a. The Totally Renamed Six-Player Trophy) - Best Six-Player Game of 2009
...but you do need the expansion to play with six.

The Tro-lo-lo Trophy - Game That Most Exceeded My Expectations in 2009
also considered: Hansa Teutonica, Trader

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8. Board Game: Dungeon Lords [Average Rating:7.49 Overall Rank:113]
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This marks the fourth straight year that designer Vlaada Chvátil has placed at least one game in my yearly top ten. Dungeon Lords may not quite match the quality of Through the Ages or Galaxy Trucker, but it's a good game. It fits Chvátil's usual style, which is to say that it's actually quite un-usual, and creates an atmosphere of fun and humor despite being very detailed.

Dungeon Lords and Galaxy Trucker both have a similar two-phase structure. First, players piece together their thingamajig (dungeon or spaceship), then they watch as the bad guys try to tear it apart. Do this three times, and then see who did the best job. But I don't want to oversell the comparison, because the two games have a totally different feel. Galaxy Trucker is played in real time, while Dungeon Lords is more methodical. Personally, I enjoy the frantic real-time building of Galaxy Trucker more than the measured, procedural action selection of Dungeon Lords. However, the tear-down phase of Dungeon Lords is more fun, and involves a lot more decision making.

My main complaint about Dungeon Lords is that it's a formidable game to teach to new players. Going through every detail takes too long, but glossing over the finer points can lead to mass confusion. Then once you've explained how to play, you'll probably have to suffer one very slow and mistake-filled game while the new players learn the system and the basic strategies. Once everyone knows the game, it's a lot of fun. But getting to that point requires some patience. My current thinking is that the best approach is to give a very cursory overview of the game, then launch right into playing, with the clear understanding that the first play will be a kind of interactive tutorial, "but by the end, you'll understand how everything works."

After reading the rules, I thought Dungeon Lords would be strictly a four-player game. I was wrong. While four players is the best configuration, the three-player game is fine. The dummy player workaround is less of a kludge than I expected. I've never tried it with two, but the number of reports and photos of two-player games is promising.

Special Honors
The Amazing Male Uterus - Most Innovative or Original Game of 2009
also considered: Greed Incorporated, Last Train to Wensleydale, At the Gates of Loyang

The Slate and Clamshell - Best Art Design of 2009
Also considered (alphabetically): Claustrophobia, Cyclades, Endeavor, Mr. Jack in New York, Small World, Space Hulk 3rd ed., Tobago, World Without End

If I had an award for best box cover design, the list of nominees would be very different (alphabetically again): German edition of Dominion Seaside, Endeavor, EVE Conquests, Greed Incorporated, The Magic Labyrinth, Masters of Venice, Middle Earth Quest, Runebound Frozen Wastes, Shipyard, Small World, Stronghold, and Tales of the Arabian Nights. I'd probably go with Shipyard as the overall winner (or EVE Conquests but I've never actually seen that cover).

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9. Board Game: Trader [Average Rating:6.66 Overall Rank:2863]
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Trader is Combit (a.k.a. Ka-Ching!) re-done as a partnership game for four players. Playing in partnership adds an interesting additional level to the game - and this is a game that probably needed an additional level. You're much more restricted in what you can do, since (1) all sales must involve one of your cards and one of your partner's, and (2) there are now two people on your team that have to worry about running out of cash, since the person who sells can't share the proceeds with their partner.

The partnership version helps take away some of the zero-sum, stalemate-y feeling of the two-player version. Trader is also more attractively presented than previous editions. It also includes rules for two and for three players, but I've only played with four. The three player rules look promising.

The bottom line is that I traded away Combit with no reservations, but Trader currently sits at the top of my shopping list. However, I can't find anyone that stocks this edition in the U.S. There is a store in Montreal that has the game, but the cost with shipping is too expensive for such a small purchase.

Special Honors
The Extremely Thin Trophy - Best Card Game of 2009

The Sad Phantom - Overlooked or Undiscovered Game of 2009
At the time of writing, this is currently BGG's 140th ranked 2009 game.

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10. Board Game: Shipyard [Average Rating:7.35 Overall Rank:331]
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Shipyard is the second game on this year's list published by Czech Games Edition. But to me it feels like an Ystari game, where your task is to navigate through a densely interwoven set of mini-mechanisms in the most efficient way possible. Also like an Ystari game, there isn't much that separates the beginning from the middle or the end of the game.

I don't usually like this style of game, but Shipyard is better than most games in this style. The different ways to score points add a lot of drama which might otherwise be lacking. First, there are the government contracts: long-term goals that are worth enough points to make or break you. But you get to choose among several, allowing for many different strategies. Second, there are the canals, containing inspectors who evaluate specific aspects of your ship as it passes their station. Choosing the right canals (i.e. placing the proper inspectors in the path of your ship) can add a lot to the value of a sensibly built ship. The combination of the canals and the government contracts allows players to pursue highly specialized strategies if they wish.

The crowning glory of Shipyard is its brilliant action selection track, shown in the lower-right photo, above. The actions that players can select each turn are little tiles that snake together in a constantly changing queue. At the start of your turn, you take the tile sitting under your pawn (your previous turn's selection) and move it to the head of the line. You then move your pawn to the action you wish to select this turn. You can't select the action you just moved to the head of the line, and you can't select actions covered by other pawns. You gain 1 buck of income for every pawn that is positioned ahead of your selection. So you make money by selecting the trailing actions in the queue. The most popular actions will tend to bunch up near the head of the queue, since they're the ones that were selected last round. You may need to select a less powerful action just to get some needed cash - or to deny the other players cash by staying near the back of the pack. It all works together in a wonderful and agonizing way.

If, like me, you haven't enjoyed "rondel" games in the past, there's no need to be frightened by Shipyard. The four(!) rondels in this game don't govern your available actions as in other rondel games. They're simply a way to inject some volatility into the prices for the various commodities in the game. For example, see the inner green rondel in the photo above (second row, left image)? If I select the Hire Crew action, the rondel shows that I can get a soldier for free, a propeller for 1 buck (yes they're considered crew), a businessman for 2, or a captain for 3. If I really need a captain, I can grab him now at a premium, or select an entirely different action and hope that someone advances the rondel to make him cheaper. But that will involve waiting at least two turns for the Hire Crew action to become available again . . . unless I have 6 bucks to buy an additional action, which will allow me to select an action that's not currently available. So you see how the planning in this game can get a little tricky.

My biggest reservation about Shipyard is the Herculean task that is setup and teardown. There are a lot of annoying little tokens to organize and tiles to sort. A sensible storage solution is necessary. I use little lidded plastic tubs for the small pieces. Mine are like the first photo below, but more compact like the homemade boxes in the second and third photos.



Consolation Prize
Special Prize for Shrewd New Whiz-Bang Game Mechanism
For Shipyard's action selection queue, with apologies to (1) Macao's wind rose cube chronometer, (2) Loyang's succinct escalating VP-purchase scheme, and (3) Claustrophobia's row-canceling wound effects.
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Joshua Miller
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That's my top ten of 2009. The next entries are for the games that were good but not quite top ten material, along with my favorite game expansions of 2009.

There are always some games that I haven't had the chance to try, and that's especially the case for 2009 with the time I took away from gaming in the early months of 2010. There are a few 2009 games that I'm still interested in trying:





[UPDATE] I've played Egizia, which was reasonably good but nothing special. See the rapid fire section at the end of the list.

[UPDATE] Claustrophobia was . . . well, pretty awful. I played it a couple times to be sure. I guess I didn't realize quite how "basic" the game is. Rapid fire entry added.

[UPDATE] Bisikle was fun - and it's a very good value for the materials - but there are many dexterity games I like better. It also now appears in the rapid fire section.



I'm just one person, and there's no way for me to try every single 2009 game that gets good ratings here on BGG. Well, maybe I could do it, but it would come at the expense of actually playing the games I enjoy. Which is sort of the point, after all. So here's a very brief explanation for why I decided not to try that game that you just can't believe isn't on my list. These are not intended as criticisms, but only as insights into my thought process. . . .

The highly-ranked 2009 games that I haven't feel a need to try

Steam - I already adore Age of Steam.

Chaos in the Old World - Not my kind of game. Also, theme is unappealing.

Imperial 2030 - Found Imperial a bit awkward. Dislike Gerdts's rondel system.

Warhammer: Invasion - I'd rather play Magic or Dreamblade (and rarely do).

Vasco da Gama - Looks too linear and the randomly-priced actions terrify me.

Space Hulk (third edition) - Not a fan of original, nor of GW's stance toward BGG.

Cyclades - Eurogames and king-of-the-hill warfare don't combine well IME.

Carson City - The system of dueling for actions makes me very skeptical.

Middle-Earth Quest - Konieczka/Petersen's design style don't match my tastes.

Summoner Wars - Not interested in an expandable miniatures-type wargame.***

Stronghold - Looks like a lot of work, and theme doesn't interest me.*

Rise of Empires - I tend to dislike Wallace's empire-building semi-wargames.

Maria - Happy to ignore based on antipathy toward Friedrich.

World Without End - Reportedly not as good as Pillars, which was middling.

Campaign Manager 2008 - Looks a little too simple and patterned.

Finca - Doesn't appear to be anything interesting happening.**

* but after reading Tom Rosen's comments on selecting it as his Game of the Year, I may need to try this. . . .

** but several people have told me I'm wrong, so maybe I do need to try this.
[UPDATE] Nope, I had it right. See the pithy blurb section at the end of the list.

*** The Summoner Wars: Master Set made the top ten of my 2011 SdJosh list.
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12. Board Game: Last Train to Wensleydale [Average Rating:7.17 Overall Rank:788]
Joshua Miller
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Michigan
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Last Train to Wensleydale is a nicely layered game with some interesting nooks and crannies to explore. But I've only had a single play to explore them. I was quite intrigued, and the game seems promising, but still I hesitate because I find that most of these Treefrog games only get one or two plays before I feel like I've sufficiently explored them. The only exception so far has been After the Flood, which got four plays (but in retrospect, was "fully explored" after three). Maybe Wensleydale will be the second exception. I definitely would like to play again.

This was one of the games I considered for the #10 spot this year, along with Shipyard and FITS. I chose the one that has provided the most enjoyment so far, but it's possible that Wensleydale will overtake it after further investigation.

Consolation Prize
Special Prize for Most Disturbing Game Board Depiction of Unhealthy Human Liver and/or Lungs

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13. Board Game: FITS [Average Rating:6.64 Overall Rank:869]
Joshua Miller
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"Tetris" would have been a perfectly fitting name for Reiner Knizia's FITS. There are several Tetris games in the BGG database, but based on their ratings, this is the one that should have borne that name.

FITS is a geometric group solitaire game in the same vein as Take It Easy, Mosaix, and Ubongo. There's not a lot going on here, which is something of a criticism but also the source of its greatest strength. That strength is the game's immediacy and broad appeal. FITS works well with casual gamers and non-gamers because of its familiarity and ease of play. It has also seen quite a lot of play in certain segments of our gaming circle.

We've had a lot of fun with the table talk surrounding this game. The weirdest shaped piece is called "Asparagus" for reasons that are highly classified. The U-shaped piece is called "Comfy Chair" or more properly "Comfy Chair, Viewed From Above." The short T and the long T are called "Buffalo" and "Albany" but none of us can ever remember which is which. The cross is called "Wednesday" which is a reference to the forehead crosses worn by some Christians on Ash Wednesday. If we need that piece to come up next, we sometimes place it on our foreheads as a form of intercessory prayer. There are some other names, but those are the most interesting ones so far.

Special Honors
The Nondescript Cube - Best Abstract Strategy Game* of 2009
also considered: Mosaix (Hansa Teutonica might almost qualify)
* I use a broad definition of "abstract strategy game" that does not preclude multiplayer games or games with random or hidden elements. And as you can tell from these candidates, I am not the right player to discuss the best "serious" abstract strategy game of the year.

Special Prize for Most Handy-Dandy Tile Storage Solution That Will Completely Fail to Keep Your Pieces From Exploding All Over the Box If You Store The Game Vertically
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14. Board Game: Mosaix [Average Rating:6.62 Overall Rank:1879]
Joshua Miller
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Here's another one of those geometric group solitaire games I mentioned in the previous entry. The coolness of Mosaix is that the players have some control over the "tile" that everyone will be playing each round. The current player rolls the dice, then arranges the symbols into any tetromino configuration. Then everyone records that pattern of symbols, rotated in any of the four directions, on their personal grid.

You're trying, basically, to create as many groups of 5 connected same-type symbols as possible on your grid. Well, sort of. If you can bias those groups toward one or two of the symbols, you'll score better than players who are equally distributed among the three symbols. But isn't the mix of symbols determined by the luck of the dice? No, not completely. You're allowed to throw out unwanted or unusable symbols by extending a portion of the tetromino "off the grid."

If your group is filled with deep thinkers that are going to study their opponents' boards and then choose their dice configuration to screw with them, then you might consider a house rule of turning your board face down after each round. Otherwise, I doubt the game would be enjoyable at that pace.

There is a solitaire game on the back of the dry erase boards. It is exactly the same as the regular game, except that there is a limit to the number of times you may send symbols off the edges of the grid. I personally don't enjoy the solitaire game. The best part of Mosaix is trying to make use of the other players' poorly-fitting configurations. The game feels too easy if you're arranging every roll yourself.

Mosaix is designed for up to four players, but is easily playable with more. Purchase of a second copy expands the game to eight players, but all you really need is a pen and paper for the extra players.

Special Honors
The Dainty and Adorable Trophy - Best Quick Filler of 2009
also considered: Trader, Peloponnes (not really quick enough for the category)

The Thingamabob Doodad - Best Gaming Oddity of 2009
also considered: Dungeon Lords, Tobago, God's Playground

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15. Board Game: Atlantis [Average Rating:6.54 Overall Rank:1289]
Joshua Miller
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Michigan
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The best way I can describe this game is Atlantis = Cartagena: The Deep Thinker's Edition. Cartagena may actually have just as much strategic depth, but Atlantis is more difficult tactically. It's also much crazier, and can sometimes swing out of balance if one player gets his first Atlantean dude to shore well ahead of the other players. Atlantis also appears to be more susceptible to the luck of the draw, although I'm far from certain.

I enjoy both games. Right now, I'd rather play Atlantis than Cartagena, but mostly just because it's newer. Ask me again in several years, and I think I'm likely to tell you that I traded away Atlantis but still own Cartagena. Or maybe not. Can you tell I have mixed feelings?

Consolation Prize
Special Prize for Game I Had the Hardest Time Deciding Whether It Was Worth Buying
I did end up getting it, but I could have gone either way.

Games on this list that I don't own:

Hansa Teutonica (I might buy the new, cheaper edition)
Trader (I will definitely buy if I can ever find it domestically)
Peloponnes (won't buy unless price goes way down)
Last Train to Wensleydale (won't buy, but want to play again)
Automobile (won't buy)
Tobago (won't buy)
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16. Board Game: Abandon Ship [Average Rating:6.36 Overall Rank:1994]
Joshua Miller
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Holland
Michigan
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NEW ADDITION to the list, April 2011

When I first put this list together, I hadn't even heard of Abandon Ship. It seems to have flown completely under BGG's radar, which tells you something about how the Reiner Knizia brand name has eroded over the past few years.

But I was able to trade for a copy, and I'm very glad I did. Abandon Ship is a quick, lively, attractive game for families and children.

The basic game concept is similar to Royal Turf (Winner's Circle), but aimed younger. There are eight rats in different colors, trying to escape a sinking ship and maybe grabbing some cheese on the way. You will be rooting for three specific rats, but no one else knows which three they are. On your turn, you roll a pool of dice, choose one die, use it to move one of the rats, then remove that die from the pool. Each die is colored to match one of the rats, but unlike Royal Turf, it's not certain that each of the rats will move once per cycle. Each die has special faces that will allow you to move a rat of any color, or to move the normal rat but keep its die in the pool. Once the pool shrinks to a single die, the ship sinks a few spaces (possibly drowning a rat), and the dice pool is fully replenished.

There are some other clever touches. For example, the first rat to escape scores nothing, trampled to death by the rest of the pack. That's a great rule that allows for some subtle bluffing and jockeying.

The game has cheer, it has charm, it has nice components, and some enjoyable bluffing and light tactics. I like it even with adults, and I can't wait to play with my nephews when they're old enough.

Special Honors
The Lead-Free Trophy With No Sharp Edges - Best Childish Game for Adults of 2009

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17. Board Game: Word on the Street [Average Rating:6.72 Overall Rank:1047]
Joshua Miller
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NEW ADDITION to the list, October 2011

Word on the Street is a word/party game that's great for casual groups because of the easy rules, fast play, and chunky plastic resin tiles. The snappy 30-second timer is the perfect length for the game, giving your team enough time to come up with something, but not enough time to feel like you've got the best possible answer. Word on the Street is just the right length. Playing to 8 tiles means that there will always be at least three tiles to pursue, even when the game is tied 7 to 7. The designer has wisely excluded all the vowels (too easy) and the toughest consonants J, Q, X, and Z.

I do have a few criticisms, but each comes with an easy solution.

Issue #1: I think the number of categories supplied is too few. It will only take about a dozen plays to go through all of them. The publisher could have easily put four categories on each card instead of two. If you play the game often, you may feel that you've already thought of the optimal words for many of the categories. Solution: there will be an expansion with more categories. Really, though, it would be easy to get more categories from a thrifted copy of Scattergories, Facts in Five, Last Word, Outburst, etc.

Issue #2: there is a very strong first-team advantage. Solution: allow the second team to pull a certain number of tiles one space toward their side before starting. Three tiles seems to be the right number.

Issue #3: some players won't like the rule that allows the other team to taunt and distract the active team. Solution: play without this rule if it's a bad fit for your group.

Special Honors
The Award That Was Only Trying To Be Affable - Best Party or Social Game of 2009
also considered: Greed Incorporated (social, not party)
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18. Board Game: Tobago [Average Rating:7.13 Overall Rank:304]
Joshua Miller
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Michigan
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Tobago is a fun, friendly, attractive family-weight game that many thought would win the Spiel des Jahres winner - but it wasn't even nominated. Players play cards that gradually winnow possible locations for a number of different buried treasures. Every time a player plays one of these cards, they're contributing to the search for that treasure, and will be rewarded with one of the treasure cards that will be drawn when it is found. The player who drives to the location and physically finds the treasure will also get a card - likely the best one. The game generates a satisfying cooperative feeling. Players are not on the same team, but whenever a card is played they will work together to deduce the possible locations of a treasure and mark them with cubes on the board. This "thinking together" gives the game a friendly feeling that I think most players will enjoy, and creates a lot of pleasant social interaction.

Be warned: this is a very random game in ways that will frustrate players who are concerned with fairness and equitable game balance. It's very possible to end up with a hand of location cards that prevents you from doing anything useful. Treasures might pop up within the reach of your truck, or they might all be found on the other end of the board. There are heaps and heaps of randomness to the treasure chest cards, especially surrounding the two curse cards - which can really screw you even if you have the protection of an amulet. Honestly, this is the sort of game that is most enjoyable if players don't put too much thought into optimizing every play they make.

Those who have played Old Town will recognize some very similar concepts in Tobago. Although it's not as puzzly-thinky or difficult as Old Town, I think Tobago fits together better and is much more enjoyable. Even for someone like me who tends to go for the puzzly-thinky choice in most cases.

Consolation Prize
Special Prize for Discovery of Polynesian Art in the Caribbean
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19. Board Game: Automobile [Average Rating:7.42 Overall Rank:194]
Joshua Miller
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Automobile is a good game that I enjoyed trying, but I don't feel any particular desire to revisit it. I'm glad that Martin Wallace is moving away from the Treefrog paradigm, because I think he can do a lot more when he allows himself cards and tiles and stuff other than a bunch of chunks of wood. Most of the Treefrog games feel confining to me. It's as if I'm trapped in a small chamber with only a few different things I can do. Automobile feels that way to me. My choices are too constrained, sometimes even feeling scripted, and there's just not enough room for any creativity or cleverness or surprise. Some people can enjoy playing a game like that many times, but I am not one of those people.

So like I said, I do think Automobile is a solid game. But maybe not the game for me.

Consolation Prize
Special Prize for Well-Designed Game That Simply Is Not For Me
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20. Board Game: Age of Steam Expansion: The Zombie Apocalypse [Average Rating:7.88 Unranked] [Average Rating:7.88 Unranked]
Joshua Miller
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This is a dual entry for both of the AoS Team's 2009 Age of Steam expansion map packs. They are:

Age of Steam Expansion: The Zombie Apocalypse (Michael Webb)
Age of Steam Expansion: Holland / Madagascar (Alban Viard)

For those who like their Age of Steam to be punishing and mindbending, there has never been a finer set of maps than these.

The Zombie Apocalypse expansion includes two maps: Michigan for 3 players and Pennsylvania for 4-5 players. The Michigan map is especially brutal in a wonderful way, and Pennsylvania with 5 is also quite punishing. Zombies will slowly amble from their starting graveyard areas and ravage the landscape. They'll soon start destroying cities and goods, and halting rail building and shipments unless the owners are able to pay extra protection costs. Good luck. And yes, the Zombie minis in those photos are included.

The other masochistic map is Madagascar from the Holland/Madagascar pack (obviously). Remember all those great special bonuses you get to select like Locomotive and Urbanization and Engineer? Well, they've never heard of those in Madagascar. Instead, they have only special penalties. That's right, you're now bidding for the privilege of selecting the least horrible penalty. And some of them are pretty awful, so the player(s) selecting later in the round are really going to get screwed. Try this map with 5 players for a real meat grinder experience.

The second pack also includes Holland, which is a very nice map for 3-4 players with a more traditional disposition. The central lowland areas of the map are unavailable for the first several turns of the game. The mid-game land creation makes for a nice focal point, adding some nuance to the long-term planning. It also makes for a very tight early game, when passages are narrow and yellow cities are unavailable. Also, either Urbanization or Engineer is unavailable each turn in an alternating pattern, which helps tighten up the bidding for fewer players.

My favorite Age of Steam maps are the ones that cause you to completely rethink the game and its usual strategies and tactics. If you're the same way, then I heartily recommend these maps to you! Note that there is a small problem with the printing of the Holland/Madagascar maps. The blue and purple cities are very difficult to distinguish. We mark the purple cities with purple Agricola workers to ease the problem.

Special Honors
The Wreath and Crest - Best Game Expansion of 2009
also considered: Dominion: Intrigue, Dominion: Seaside, Pandemic: On the Brink, Kingsburg: To Forge a Realm
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21. Board Game: Dominion: Intrigue [Average Rating:7.86 Overall Rank:21] [Average Rating:7.86 Unranked]
Joshua Miller
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Another dual entry here, this one for both of 2009's Dominion expansions:

Dominion: Intrigue
Dominion: Seaside

These two expansions really helped take Dominion to some more interesting places. It was a good game with just the basic set, but felt a little . . . well, basic.

First, Intrigue. I don't like the extreme randomness of the Saboteur. If you want to buy a super-volatile card for yourself, that's fine. But when you're doing it to someone else's deck, it can take some of the fun out of the game for many players. Otherwise, this is a great set of cards that really fulfills the initial promise of Dominion. Basic Dominion was all about which cards to purchase, with very few other decisions to be made. With the addition of the Intrigue cards, players will often have interesting decisions to make during the actual card play. That makes the game more satisfying for me. Simply doubling the number of cards does a lot for Dominion, by creating a much broader array of novel and challenging card interactions.

My reaction to Seaside was a little more mixed, but still very positive. I hate the Pirate Ship, dislike the overly random "feast or famine" nature of the Treasure Map, and still haven't found a use for the Navigator. Otherwise, this is a very fun and creative set of cards.

I do have to criticize the unnecessary component sprawl of the tokens and mats. If Pirate Ship had been eliminated, the game would have needed just one mat per player (for Native Village, with Island removals placed beneath the mat) and no tokens (Embargo could use the actual Curse cards, which seems like a much simpler and better idea).

I won't be buying all of the Dominion expansions (I've already passed on Alchemy), but the first two were very welcome and very well executed.

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22. Board Game: Pandemic: On the Brink [Average Rating:8.13 Unranked] [Average Rating:8.13 Unranked] [Average Rating:8.13 Unranked]
Joshua Miller
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Pandemic was a very good game, but let's admit that the players' actions could sometimes feel a little forced or obvious after several plays. What it needed was some extra challenge and variety to keep it from going stale. And that's exactly what this expansion so beautifully provides. There are now more than twice as many roles and events, and the optional Virulent Strain and Mutation challenges both shake things up in very interesting ways. I haven't even tried the Bio-Terrorist challenge because I've been so happy with the other additions.

Special Honors
The Certificate of Participation - Best Cooperative, Team or Semi-Collaborative Game of 2009
also considered: Greed Incorporated, Trader
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23. Board Game: Runebound: The Frozen Wastes [Average Rating:7.61 Unranked] [Average Rating:7.61 Unranked]
Joshua Miller
United States
Holland
Michigan
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For those who enjoy Runebound and would like to add one of the big-box expansions, this is the one I recommend. It amplifies the best parts of Runebound: navigating across the board and getting cool equipment. I love the way that the quests (for the princess and for the artifacts) are sewn into the normal move-and-encounter flow of the turns. You don't have to spend entire turns doing boring tasks as you did in Sands of Al-Kalim.

I've played both multiplayer and solo. For solo rules, I use MrSkeletor's variant with the following additions. (1) You must find the princess AND also defeat Arshan in order to win. (2) Every time the threat level advances, discard the leftmost artifact and slide the other five to the left (placing a new one on the right). Randomize the order of the initial six artifacts. I played my first two solo games with a difficulty of 16, and was able to win both of them (with the threat level at 10).

I'm not clear what is intended for the pelts that say things like "activate to cancel 1 frost," but I play that only one pelt may be activated per survival step. This aligns with the general rules of only activating one item per step in the basic game, and I suspect it's what was intended.
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24. Board Game: Agricola: Farmers of the Moor [Average Rating:8.15 Unranked] [Average Rating:8.15 Unranked]
Joshua Miller
United States
Holland
Michigan
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There are three ways to play this, the first Agricola expansion.

The Level 2 version of this expansion provides a very nice change of pace from standard Agricola. It eliminates the Occupation cards, but adds a bunch of other tricky stuff to replace it. Even at this level, Farmers of the Moor is more complex than the full version of Agricola.

The Level 3 "just throw everything in the pot" version is also fun, but be prepared to run into some problems and weirdness with cards from the original game that are unbalanced by the expansion. You can probably find some suggestion here on BGG for handling those cases.

Overall, I'm happy with this expansion as long as my mates don't always demand that we use it. My preference would be to use it no more than half the time. Farmers of the Moor is not "Advanced Agricola," nor is it "New and Improved Agricola." It is an alternative game that is a variation on Agricola.

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25. Board Game: What's Missing? [Average Rating:4.58 Unranked]
Joshua Miller
United States
Holland
Michigan
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Hey, we're now at the end and it's time for my annual pithy dismissive blurbs.

Also Good . . . But There's No Room on the List



Masters Gallery NEW - Much better than I expected. It doesn't approach the greatness of Modern Art, but it's much closer to Trendy in weight and style ... and I'd choose this over Trendy every time. There is some dispute over the wording of an important rule. I play that at the end of the round, you may opt to add one additional card of each artist that you've played. I do think that's what Knizia intended, and makes for a better game than the more liberal interpretation.



Kingsburg: To Forge a Realm NEW - An excellent expansion that addresses all my reservations about Kingsburg, which were: (1) not enough variety from game to game, (2) game weight too light for the amount of analysis required, and (3) end-of-turn invaders are too random and not threatening enough. Turns a so-so game into a solid game.


Almost There . . . But Not Quite

Egizia NEW - Cool placement mechanism, but the rest of the game doesn't quite measure up.

Ghost Stories: White Moon NEW - Adds interesting logistics and nuance, but the board-clearing Mystic Barrier makes things too easy.

Gonzaga - Pretty good family game about plopping big ugly plastic pieces across Europe.

BasketBoss - Succinct auction and timing game with a good theme and ugly art.

God's Playground - Weird game about leveraging temporary alliances, but too much die rolling and cube processing.

Alea Iacta Est - Congenial but undistinguished dice game. Sharp Shooters for gamers? Handles five players well.

Thunderstone - Fun game but sloppy on the details. Will probably lack replay value for me.

Heartland - Similar to Hanging Gardens or Carcassonne, but I'd rather be playing those.

Race for the Galaxy: Rebel vs Imperium - Takeover element doesn't work for me, but the next expansion redeems this one.

Cardcassonne - Coloretto-ish game of timing and chicken. Nice but nothing special.


About Average . . . I'm Indifferent

D-Day Dice: Free Trial Version NEW - Clever but very mechanical solo dice game, with too much processing and bookkeeping. Also, it's too easy.

Triumvirate NEW - Still haven't managed to find a two-player trick-taking game that clicks for me.

Bisikle NEW - Approximately as good as Carabande/PitchCar, maybe a little better.

Revolution! NEW - Decent game of outguessing opponents' bids; I prefer Hoity Toity or Edel Stein & Reich.

Ad Astra - An attempt at a more strategic Catan. Feels like Catan with all the good stuff removed.

Baltimore & Ohio - An attempt at a streamlined 18xx. Feels like 18xx with all the good stuff removed.

Endeavor - Well-crafted but very bland efficiency game. Overbalanced and uninteresting.

Tales of the Arabian Nights - Wander around and see what happens. Mildly amusing. Probably needs booze.

Masters of Venice - Interesting ideas, but ultimately too much upkeep and fiddling with pegboards.

Bunny Bunny Moose Moose - Tried to make it work, but too convoluted for a goofy social game.

Roll Through the Ages: The Bronze Age - Super-fluffy, autopilot type of game. Feels like a solitaire exercise.

Maori - Not bad, but not as good as Kupferkessel Co.

Jaipur - Mostly obvious game that plays itself once you see the basic tactics.


Thanks . . . But I'll Pass

Ubongo 3D NEW - Do you and your friends get together in order to sit together in silent frustration? Me neither.

Claustrophobia NEW - Roll some dice. No real strategy or variability. Dumb game.

Finca NEW - Utterly random family game with nice bits. Better with two, maybe?

Power Grid: Factory Manager - Boring game that shouldn't have encouraged comparison to the awesome Power Grid.

Colonia - Outdated Euro with no story arc, just a lather, rinse, repeat cycle of cube shuffling.

Ra: The Dice Game - Eh, I actually bought this. Me = chump. RA without the good parts.

Bonnie and Clyde - The dregs of the Mystery Rummy brew. Simplistic, boring, bad graphic design.


What the @&%# Were They Thinking?

I'm happy to report that I have managed not to play any truly awful games from 2009! I'm sure they're out there lurking.

---

Thanks for reading! Please accept my apology for the extremely long delay this year. Thumbs or tips are appreciated if you enjoyed the list.
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