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2011 in Review: Part Three (“The Rest”)

Jesse Dean
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I have said this before, and I am almost certain I will say it again but 2011 was a pretty good year for board games. It exceeds precious years in average game ratings, and exceeds all previous years except for 2007 in number of games that I consider to be “great” (9) or better and all years but 2010 in games that I consider to be “very good” (8) or better.

The number of different new games I played from 2011 (25) is down from 2010 (42), and even though I know that there are a number of further 2011 releases that I will still be trying out, I doubt I will hit 42 different games again. This is probably for the best, as after I played the vast number of new games that I tried in late 2010 I went through a period of pretty intense burn-out in early 2011 that ended up lasting into the summer. That will not happen in 2012.

For my next two “2011 in Review” blog posts I will be explaining my thoughts on every game I played that was originally published in 2011. This first one will be focused on the less impressive games of 2011 while in the second I will discuss the best games of the year.

2: Very poor game. I refuse to play this.

A Few Acres of Snow
There is a lot to like about A Few Acres of Snow, and on the whole I think it is both a pretty good design and one that it, along with Mage Knight the Board Game, is an important step in the overall progression of deck-building games. The way each individual location has an associated card that you add to your deck upon claiming is especially interesting as it forces you to add potentially sub-optimal cards to your deck in order to get victory points and progress across the board. I enjoyed my play of it, yet I rate it a 2. Why?

Namely it is the so-called “Halifax Hammer” strategy that has apparently broken the game. I can stand games needing minor house rules or clarifications, but a broken strategy pretty easily puts a game into the “very poor game, I refuse to play this” category. At the point that a fix is discovered I will revise my rating (probably a 7), and probably will return to my exploration of the game. Until that point it keeps that 2.

3: Poor game. Will strongly resist playing.

Martian Dice
I am not in the target audience for Martian Dice. In fact I doubt I would have ever played it if I had not received it as my door prize and had some time to kill with a friend while we were waiting for our plane after BGG.Con.

It has the typical three rolls, keep a subset of dice and reroll the rest set-up that seems to be the standard for dice games, with the twist that you have to as many “death lasers” as your opponent’s “tanks” otherwise you do not score for the round. You get points for each human, chicken, or cow you kidnap with bonus points being awarded if you get a set.

After the handful of plays we had at the airport I was done with it. The single item that separates it out from previous dice games was insufficient to make me want to play it again and if I ever had a desire to play this sort of simple dice game again I would just play Sushizock im Gockelwock.

4: Below average game. I avoid playing and would need to be persuaded.

Barons
When I first heard about this I was pretty excited about the idea of a combo-building card game with an area element to it. It was pretty interesting for the first few plays too, as I got a hang for the system and figured out how the system worked and what decisions were important. Unfortunately, this enthusiasm been to drag once I hit 5 plays, and with my 6th play I realized I was done.
When it came down to it, I simply expect more out of my complex card games then Baron provides. While there is some subtlety and interesting decisions involved, it did not provide me with the same level of mental gamer candy that I have come to expect in my complex card games. I really liked some of the interaction between land placement and the knights, but that was not enough to overcome the tedium that defines the rest of the game. It just did not work for me.

Quarriors!
Quarriors takes the super-trendy deck-building mechanic and replaces the cards with dice. While in theory this could be an interesting sort of game, and I can appreciate the design on a general level, it is essentially just a reimplementation of the general “Lets Make a Game! About Dice!” idea that generally fails to work for me.

Really though, this is probably just another game that was not designed for me. I am not a fan of fillers in general, and dice games in particular. The main reason I ended up trying it out was it was new, short, and hot enough that it seemed like it was worth trying a few times. It ultimately was, but I saw enough in those three games that I know this game is not for me.

5: Average game. I'm indifferent, but may be willing to play.

Belfort
I suspect that a couple of years ago, when I was slightly less discriminating in my tastes, I would have been pretty excited about Belfort. It has a fairly novel combination of worker placement and majority building, with scoring being based entirely on getting majorities in the game’s five districts and three types of workers. There are both shared and individual action spots where you can place your workers, to get bonuses and the ones that are available have a reasonably large impact on resource scarcity and just how much you can impact your opponent’s relative positions.

So if it has these relatively interesting qualities, why am I rating it a 5? Essentially I find the design to be just a little bit too clean, a bit too milquetoast for my tastes. There are too few sharp edges, too few opportunities to put your opponents into tough situations where they are forced to either choose between two equally bad decisions or make them take decisions that help you as much as them. The game just did not give me enough of a reason to care about the decisions being provided beyond the general sense that I should be trying to win. As it is, if I want to play a majorities-focused worker placement game I think I would probably pull out Dominant Species.


Helvetia
Helvetia is a perfectly competent little logistics game. I played it once and found it to be enjoyable enough for that one play, but see no reason to ever play it again. Any questions I had about the game were answered in that game, and all that would be left in future plays would be to see how successful you can be in managing the action selection mechanism and other player’s tableaus. While that is enough to make it so I would not actively oppose another play, it is not enough to make me want to play.

The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game
My indifference to Lord of the Rings: The Card Game comes not from any deep-held criticism for the design or game play but from a far simpler source: I am not really that much of a fan of cooperative games. I would much rather be involved in an experience that involves me grinding my opponents under my feet in an epic battle of wits, or being ground down by them, then having to be involved with something where everyone wins or loses. I found the mechanics to be entertaining enough that I would not be opposed to playing it again, but I would really rather just play something competitive.

Tournay
My complaints about Tournay are similar to my ones about Barons; while there are some interesting ideas involved in it, the game is simply just not dense enough in meaningful decisions and to work for me as a complex card game. There are the sorts of things that I normally like in games, combos to build and meaningful spatial elements, but neither the combos or the spatial elements were engaging enough for me to want to play the game again.

As a caveat, I will note that my single play of this game had a fairly large rules error, and that playing it again with that rules issue again may prove to raise my rating. However, even with that error in mind, I doubt this one would go much higher than a 6 for me. There just is not enough going on for it to be something I am going to purposefully seek out plays.



6: OK game. Some fun or challenge at least. Enjoyable in the right circumstances.

Colorado Midland
My interest in Winsome-style games has declined a bit over the last year and my rating of this one may be a reflection of that. Manipulating the queue of incoming cards, and the incentive structure from shared ownership of particular mines was entertaining. Unfortunately, the game lacked enough interplay variability and depth to allow for me to maintain a strong interest in it after four plays. Now that it has been almost six months since I last played the game, I suspect I would be more inclined to dive into it again, but only after a bit of a graphics design overhaul. As it is I found the components actively detracted from the game play, which is in sharp contrast to other popular Winsome designs.


Eminent Domain
I’ve written about my current thoughts on Eminent Domain before here, and they have not really changed all that much since then, so I won’t go into great detail on my thoughts about Eminent Domain. Essentially, while I appreciate the uniqueness of its particular deck-building mechanic, the lack of crazy and amazing things hold this one back from being a game I really truly enjoy. The decisions about how to shape your deck are interesting and worth exploring, but were simply not interesting and worth exploring enough for it to really compare in my mind to games like Race For the Galaxy, Innovation, Yomi, or Glory to Rome. I think the lack of variable start-up feeds into this. While you can try slightly different things from game to game, and your card draw does matter, the game eventually starts to feel a bit samey after a while. I have played Eminent Domain 11 times this year, but I suspect that it will get at most one or two plays next year. Everyone in my store seems to have moved on, and those that were previously pushing it have discovered the joys of Race For the Galaxy and Innovation both of which I am much more pleased to play.

Kingdom Builder
As far as fillers go, Kingdom Builder is not bad. The placement rules and variable victory conditions do provide some measure of interplay variability and tension, and it is interesting determining what the risk/rewards are for making certain placement choices. That being said, I like to have the opportunity for a very large number of plays in my filler games, and after about 20 plays you will see most everything that this game has to offer. Granted, there are a large number of possible combinations between cards and player boards, but these are not going to add new decisions to consider, and thus is not enough for me to want to play this further.

Urban Sprawl
I’ve written a review and several different blog posts on Urban Sprawl and I have even less new to say about it then I do Eminent Domain. What it comes down to is simply that Urban Sprawl, while structurally very exciting simply has way too much systematic chaos for me to properly enjoy it. It seems that the chaos level is quite acceptable for other people, and I respect that, but it does not quite work for me.

7: Good game. Usually willing to play. I might even request or recommend it.

Ascending Empires
I bought Ascending Empires on a whim, and much like peanut butter and chocolate it turns out that 4X games and flicking games actually go pretty damn well together. Structurally Ascending Empires is a pretty straightforward game. Each time you take a turn you get one of a menu of actions, ensuring fairly brisk and smooth play. Each of these corresponds with the sort of things you would expect to do in a 4X game; exploring planets, establishing infrastructure, and researching technologies. The movement system is where this game gets really innovative. Rather than simply moving your ships around the board the game borrows from games like Crokinole in that you use flicking for determining where, exactly, your ships end up. Regardless of your skill level, this typically ends up being intense, with lots of opportunities for both drama and hijinks. If I have one complaint about it, it’s that the game can sometimes get bogged down if most of the players end up in mutually destructive antics that push the play time way past the point where I can maintain my interest in it. It is great if it last 90 minutes or less. More than that and I start wondering why I am not playing a game that has the heft that is worth that level of play time. For a while this was a staple on my table, but I have to admit its frequency of play has gone down a bit as the Essen crop has arrived, but I suspect that is just a temporary lull. Ascending Empires will be back.

Dungeon Petz
I am fairly hesitant to include Dungeon Petz here because I am uncertain as to what my final opinion of it will be. I played it once at BGG.Con and quite enjoyed it, but it failed to really excite me like some of the other designs at the show did. Functionally it is another in the “Lets Put On A Show!” genre, where players prepare a presentation just in time for the big show to score victory points (other noteworthy games in the genre include Drum Roll, Pret-a-Porter, and Vinhos). As far the genre goes it is pretty good, on the same general level as Vinhos and a bit better than either Drum Roll or Pret-a-Porter. The theme is cute and the mechanics are pretty interesting. The worker placement/blind bidding hybrid is rather unique and appeals to me despite my normal aversion for blind bidding and the hand management/set collection involved in the generation and meeting of needs also results in plenty of tensely interesting decisions. I don’t see any flaws per se in the design and I expect that even though it lacks the ability to hold my attention like Agricola, Caylus, or Ora et Labora it will still sit as a solid second-tier worker placement game that warrants occasional play if not obsessive attention.

Singapore
I am even more hesitant to rate Singapore than I am Dungeon Petz, simply because at this point I have difficult separating the game from the wonderful experience I had playing it late night at BGG.Con 2011. In many ways this game seems to be yet another cube pushing efficiency exercise, but there is enough interesting things going on, with the area movement part of the game, the forced tile placement, and the overall element of strategic planning involved in trying to account for logistical chains for multiple turns. Of course, there may be enough chaotic elements due reduce this capability but I am not yet sure how significant it is.

Upon a Salty Ocean
Upon A Salty Ocean is a tense and tight game of market manipulation, which while similar to other games in this genre is distinct, and approachable, enough that I think it is worth owning if you either particularly enjoy the genre are looking for a good entry point. Because the cost of individual actions is based on how frequently other players have taken the same action, the game greatly rewards performing actions that others are not, and setting yourself up to be in a position where you can beneficially do so is helpful to winning the game. I’ve greatly enjoyed both of my plays of this and look forward to exploring it more in 2012, once I feel like branching out from games that are my favorites from the 2011

So that is it for the games I rate a 7 or lower that were originally released this year. Next time we will touch on my favorite games this year and my current choice for “Best Game of 2011.”
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Tue Dec 27, 2011 6:02 pm
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2011 in Review: Part 2 (BGG's Top Games of 2011)

Jesse Dean
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As 2011 comes to a close I find myself fairly interested in how the most-well regarded games of 2011 reflect on the year as a whole. Since 2011’s Essen games are only just now making an impact on the board game world, I’ve gone ahead and included two charts reflecting BGG’s consensus on 2011 games, the Top 10 of 2011 by Ranking and the Top 11 of 2011 by Average Rating.





There are several interesting bits of information in here, particularly for those who are looking for overall board game trends.

The first thing is that, for 2011 at least, Thematic games have won. Looking at these two lists, I see a wave of highly thematic games with a scattering of games (The Castles of Burgundy, Letters from Whitechapel, Ora et Labora, Trajan, and Dungeon Petz) that could be considered Euros. Those Euros that have done well are also generally from well-established designers; Chavatil, Feld, and Rosenberg dominate this list, with the only other one being by Mari and Santopietro, which is unlikely to make it into the Top 100. Looking simply at the Top 10 highest average, which is likely to be a bigger determinant of the eventual Top 10 of 2011 then current rankings, we have a higher relative number of thematic games compared to the Top 10 highest ranked of previous years. Thematic games have generally been on the rise for the last five years, taking an increasing number of slots in the Top 200 every year, and while I suspect that we will still a few highly regarded “pure Euro” releases per year, it would not surprise me for thematic games to continue their current dominance. The population of BGG has changed, and the types of games that are well-received have changed with it.

The overall play time of games is well within the average compared to previous years. 2010 was a particularly long year for new games (110 minutes average) and 2008 was particularly short (80 minutes average), and while 2011 is a little bit longer than 2009 and 2007 the difference is not particularly large, with around 90 minutes being the average game length for the most regarded games. I can’t say I am too upset with this. While I definitely like longer games, I appreciate that there is an overall mix of game lengths that are doing well critically, and as long as we see at least a few longer games do well we will continue to see publishers produce these kinds of games.

Only half of my own personal Top 10 for 2011 overlaps with these games, though that may simply be due to lack of contact. I have only played 7 of these 16 games, and of the remainder I am interested in trying out Star Trek: Fleet Captains, Trajan, The Castles of Burgundy, and Letters from Whitechapel. I think that there is a reasonable chance that at least one of these will eventually make it on to my Top 10 list, and at the very least I expect I will like at least some of them. Also, none of the top games are ones that I have played and actively dislike, which is better than previous years. The fact that I have gotten better at recognizing and avoiding games that fit that category might be a contributing factor.

These games fit a rather wide number of categories beyond the Euro and Thematic labels. If there is any particularly noteworthy trend for 2011 it is the emergence of deck-building games that feature a board and cards that are related to your interactions with the board. The fact these are the first deck-building games that have been released by well-established designers is probably not a coincidence, with Chavatil and Wallace showing off their designing capabilities quite well. I imagine that this push that these games (plus Eminent Domain) have made will probably result in a continued flowering of the deck building genre over the next few years, and considering my appreciation for Mage Knight and respect for the other two, I am looking forward to it.

2007 through 2010 currently have an average of 9 games in the Top 100. 2011 currently has 4, with 3 more (Eclipse, Mage Knight, Ora et Labora) almost certain to reach it and several others (Star Trek: Fleet Captains, Trajan, Yomi, and Dungeon Petz) having reasonable shots. This will probably end up being an average year for Top 100 impact, though it won’t take much for it to be exceptional. It will be exciting to see how things end up.
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Mon Dec 19, 2011 10:07 pm
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2011 in Review: Part 1 (My Games Played)

Jesse Dean
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While it is a bit early to be looking at the games I’ve played in 2011, I think on the whole it is fairly safe to do so now. I expect that I will play no new games in December, and most of my effort will be expended in further exploration of the new games rolling in: Eclipse, Mage Knight, Ora et Labora, Upon A Salty Ocean, and Singapore (The last two just arrived last night!). Here is the list: 2011 Plays


Games Played by Quantity - 2011


Games Played by Rating - 2011
*This is A Few Acres of Snow, whose rating I will raise once its issue is resolved.

So on the whole, I am pretty happy with my gaming in 2011. The total number of plays (even when accounting for an expected 40-50 plays in December) is definitely lower than in previous years, which is unfortunate, but can be accounted for by a combination of gaming burn-out in the Spring, an increased focus on 18XX games during the same period, and the frequent non-meeting of my Sunday group. So even when I was gaming I wasn’t gaming nearly as much. This has turned around since summer hit, and I’ve been able to maintain a pretty steady rate since then.

The bulk of the games I have played I have been able to get more than one play out of, which I think is another promising item. While I suppose this has reduced the variety of games I’ve played, particularly in comparison with previous years, I am much happier being able to explore a smaller group of games in greater detail. I suspect a major part of this increased concentration is that I have largely completed my exploration of older games that I am interested in seeing and have a better idea of the sorts of games that are coming out that might interest me. Thus I am much less likely to find a game that I am going to only want to play once, and most of my single plays were either revisitations of older games that I like but only got to play once this year (such as 1830, Age of Steam, Battlestar Galactica, Brass, Clippers Inca Empire, and Kaivai) are ones that are very new and I have not yet had a chance to explore in more detail (such as Dungeon Petz, Eclipse, The Manhattan Project, MIL (1049), Singapore, and Upon A Salty Ocean). Since most of the items in the second category are expected to hit this month (and the second two arrived last night), I imagine that all of them will have second plays by the time the month is over with.
I have also been able to mostly play games that I like quite well, though the fact that the bulk of my plays were rated 8 rather than 9 or 10 is sad, but mostly unavoidable; the bulk of the fast games that I like are rated 8. Race For the Galaxy has seen a new resurgence locally as a few newer players have grown interested in it, so I hope that it will end up taking a larger number of my total game plays next year. I expect Innovation to still be pretty strong, but Yomi, which was my most play game in 2011, will probably decline in the face of the alternative of Summoner Wars as a fast two-player game.

The amount of play of some of my longer favorites will depend a lot on the preferences of my gaming partners. I have some influence over what games get to the table, but both Twilight Struggle and Command & Colors: Ancients will only get as many plays as my two-player gaming opportunities allow, and my declining interest in 18XX may keep 1848: Australia off the table as well. I expect that I will have no problem keeping the total number of plays of Agricola, Colonial, Dominant Species, and Imperial 2030 strong. Hansa Teutonica has fallen a bit out of favor locally though, and the amount of play Ora et Labora and Mage Knight get will depend a lot on how people like them initially so I intend to perform a lot of work ensuring that the initial impression from these is a favorable one.

Of course much of my hope for even more gaming in 2012 could be dashed by my planned move in August. Currently I live in Orlando, FL but at the behest of my lovely girlfriend we are going to be moving an hour away from the city in order to be closer to work. I do not think this will affect my Wednesday Coolstuff gaming, but it might reduce my weekend opportunities unless I can convince someone else to take over hosting duties. It might increase my two-player opportunities however, as said girlfriend has indicated that she will be more willing to play two-player games with me when we have an extra hour and a half a day with no driving. So we will see what happens. Hopefully, this will mean I am getting in even more gaming, with more two-player opportunities, Wednesday night, and a weekend session. However, I might just end up gaming on Wednesday, which will dramatically decrease my gaming options. Alas, woe, etc.
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Fri Dec 2, 2011 5:45 pm
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