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2012 In Review: Part Five ("The Best")

Jesse Dean
United States
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
Microbadge: I have more previously owned games than owned gamesMicrobadge: Out for blood - I play without mercyMicrobadge: My Favorite Contribution to BGG
So after a year of new releases it is time for me to go ahead and put together a list of my Top 10 games of 2012. This is liable to change. There are still a few games I need to play and a few that I want to play more, but as of right now this is a pretty good luck at what games I consider to be the best of the last year.

10. Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar
Board Game: Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar

Tzolk’in is a visually stunning and effective worker placement that effectively uses its wheels to present the impending conflicts and difficulties inherent to the decisions presented in the game. Unfortunately, as a worker placement game it is entering a crowded market and it does not do quite enough to distinguish itself from the best of this genre. It is still an effective game though and compared to other releases from this year it does well. It is just not quite exceptional.

9. The Great Zimbabwe
Board Game: The Great Zimbabwe

Splotter’s latest release is innovative and interesting, with game play that squarely puts it in the same league as their best releases of the past, but it also shares some of the problems that have presented themselves in other Splotter games, particularly the tendency for later game states among experienced players to become extremely convoluted and painful, as players use the weapons presented to them to grind the game into an excruciating slog to the finish. Still, its innovation is to be lauded, and even if I do not find the entire game to be as engaging as I would like I still appreciate and admire quite a lot about it.

8. Coup
Board Game: Coup

Coup is a bluffing game that seeks to create an effective environment of deceit as players layer lie upon lie, hoping that this network of lies, and the threat of someone accusing them of lying and being wrong, is sufficient to push themselves to the finish line. Its success at this is why I appreciate it so much. After playing it I see little reason to play most other games of this style, including ones that are significantly more complicated than this one. Still, there are some risks in playing it, as there are some groups that it simply will not work with. However, in most groups it will work well, and in some groups it will be a truly outstanding experience. I am suitably impressed.

7. Mage Wars
Board Game: Mage Wars Arena

Mage Wars is a card-based miniatures game that revels in marvelous complexity. Mage Wars is exception-based and uses a series of keywords to differentiate individual spells and creatures, allowing for a suitably textured play experience around the more typical maneuvering and combat that are indicative of this genre. Differentiation is further granted by the funnel that is used to control access to cards. Players only have two potential cards they can play per round, but they are able to choose which cards are accessed from the larger selection that is available in their deck. I appreciate this complexity, but am still bothered by some of Mage Wars’ rough edges as well as the initial difficulty in picking up the game. New players have a lot of mechanics and keywords to wrap their minds around before they can play in anything close to a competent manner.

6. Android: Netrunner
Board Game: Android: Netrunner

While technically a remake of a collectible card game from the late 90’s, Android: Netrunner is different enough, and it has been long enough since the previous release that it is worth considering it on its own merits. And its merits are considerable, with an engaging bluffing dynamic and a solid enough mechanical framework that entertaining, interesting decisions are available both from a game play and a deck building perspective. Unfortunately, the strength of this deck building is the main reason why I have no real intent to explore Android: Netrunner further. Without an active an energetic community involved with the game, there is little opportunity to explore this deck building without making the game less fun for all involved.

5. Keyflower*
Board Game: Keyflower

I was wrong about Keyflower. Looking over its rulebook I was convinced it would be similar to what I ultimately decided Tzolk’in was; pleasant with an interesting core but not quite different enough to really stand out from the crowd. I was wrong. Instead Keyflower’s individuality is secure, as the combined auction/placement system reverberates throughout the system resulting in a network of decisions and options that creates an experience that is unique both in the universe of worker placement games and in Key games. This is the second excellent game in a row to come out of R&D games and I am now much more willing to give their future releases the benefit of a doubt both based on its quality and how wrong I was about it.

*My appreciation of Keyflower is based in part on the fact that I play it with a house rule.

4. 1989: Dawn of Freedom
Board Game: 1989: Dawn of Freedom

1989: Dawn of Freedom is a refinement and reimplementation of Twilight Struggle that may actually exceed the original. The designer, with the aid of one of the designers of Twilight Struggle, has created a game that is both more balanced and more significantly differentiated then the original. Does this make 1989 better? Well that depends on how much you value the rough edges of Twilight Struggle, and whether you think the balancing in 1989 goes too far. I suspect that 1989 will ultimately be determined to be the better of the two games, but I am not sure if I will ever play it enough to be able to really find out.

3. CO2
Board Game: CO₂

Vital Lacerda’s second game easily exceeds his first. Its entire structure is built to force players to think about how their moves are setting up the positions of other players and how they can make moves that induce other players to make moves that help them both. Every single secondary mechanical structure in the game is built to enable players to consider these decisions, as well as juggle a number of other plays in the process. It is fantastic and it makes the game very much worth exploring.

2. Terra Mystica
Board Game: Terra Mystica

In many others years (not 2011 though!) Terra Mystica would have been my top game. In fact, I would not be surprised if in six months I end up changing my mind like I did last year with Ora et Labora and Mage Knight. Terra Mystica is exceptional. It is a complex resource conversion and management game with a touch of snowball characteristics that are managed and redirected in clever and interesting ways. It combines interesting mechanical and thematic innovations (power and terraforming being the biggest) with tense and well balanced gameplay. In other word it is the full heavy game package and is something that I expect most fans of heavy, modern eurogames to enjoy.

Extensive play has convinced me that the factions are not completely balanced and this lack of complete balance is not actually all that important. For one, there are enough factions that are close enough together in power level that it is unlikely that you will end up completely screwed even if other people take the theoretically better factions. The other is that I like the potential for players to choose a potentially “tough” faction in order to use a self-imposed handicap or create new challenges.

My own remaining concern about Terra Mystica is the importance of initial faction and bonus selection and placement choices. I can frequently identify someone who has removed themselves from contention from the game based on their early placement and faction choice, and I am mildly concerned that I will eventually be able to identify which person is likely to win based on their faction choice. However, I am nowhere near that point now, with about 20 plays and, considering the amount of time most people play a particular game, this will unlikely to be a problem for most people who play Terra Mystica.

1. Dungeon Command
Board Game: Dungeon Command: Sting of Lolth

As a long-time miniature game player, with most of that experience being with Wizards of the Coast produced Collectible Miniatures Games, I actually was pretty skeptical about Dungeon Command. They killed Dreamblade quickly and D&D Miniatures has become a bit of a mess near the end, but two things convinced me to try out Dungeon Command. The first was the designers, I know both Peter Lee and Kevin Tatroe from my time playing the game, and I had some awareness of both of their design sensibilities thanks to discussion with Peter Lee and from actively working with Kevin Tatroe to redesign some miniatures for WoTC for the new version of the D&D Miniatures game. The second was some initial positive buzz I got from people with opinions I trust that played some earlier versions of the game.

So I acquired the initial sets and the result was fantastic. I have little problem stating that Dungeon Command is among the best tactical combat games that I have played, with the only real competition being Earth Reborn (note: I have not played Space Hulk) and Command & Colors: Ancients. The game combines depth of strategic and tactical decisions with portability, approachability, variability, and just enough luck to make things interesting without allowing it to overwhelm play decisions.

Unfortunately, the true strength of the game does not really come out in full until you can see more of the game then is really possible with just the two initial sets. Creature and order deck building pushes it into an entirely new level, and once you reach that point you have already put a significant investment into the game even if you only play with one copy of each of the different faction packs.

Still, if you are willing to get past that initial investment, then Dungeon Command is a hell of a game. Tense, fun, and full of possibilities, and I am glad that I overcame my initial skepticism and tried the game out. It has greatly reduced my desire to play most other tactical combat games, and I am really looking forward to seeing what possibilities are opened with expansions.
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