Monday, January 6, 2014

2013 Games of the Year

I have a blog about games. That means that I am contractually required to make a list of my top games of the year. Sure, I probably should have gotten this done in the end of December, but there was a lot of holiday running around and seeing friends and family, so this is a little late.

2013 was a good game for years. It wasn't as great as 2012, however. I'm still trying to track down some of 2012's games that still burn brightly. However, 2013's collection of games has proven that we are still in the Golden Age of board games. Tons of great games are being produced still. New mechanisms and ways of storytelling are still being discovered. Thanks in part to Kickstarter, there is probably more chaff than wheat being produced, but even that trend has reduced from 2012.

Let me start with my 2013 disappointments:

Police Precinct, on paper, had everything going for it to make it an amazing game for my group. It is a cooperative game with an interesting and underused theme and it had every opportunity to create an amazing narrative. Plus, it had a hidden traitor mechanic! For a group that played the hell out of Battlestar Galactica, this seemed like an easy win. However, the design is amateurish (it was a Kickstarter funded game) and the narrative is interesting, except on the macro-level. The officers are investigating a killer and must find him before he flees town. In the meantime, every manner of crime pops up that must be taken care of. Both the individual crimes create interesting narrative, from gangs forming to traffic accidents, and the serial killer investigation is interesting as well as you flip through cards at crime scenes looking for clues. But together, they create a disjointed narrative. Why do I care about a single killer when the donut shop is being held up with a man with a shotgun, there is a bomb in the diner and someone wielding an axe is running through the pawn shop? Top it off with the least inspired traitor mechanic in any game that gives no reason for the corrupt cop to work for the killer and really only plays marginally worse than the other players and it quickly becomes a boring time.

Star Wars: The Card Game should have been another win. Following the LCG release style and coming from the same company that just put out Netrunner in 2012, I was stoked. The ease of deck building made it something that I was more likely to get to play with my wife, since she doesn't really care for building decks. I was excited with my first plays and played with a couple of other players. However, the more I played the game, the more I realized that it just doesn't allow for long-term strategy. Your hand refreshes every turn. I could be on the ropes with the Empire about to destroy everything I hold dear and then, by luck of the draw, get and be able to suddenly play Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and a bunch of other powerful cards and suddenly turn around and massacre the Empire. Being able to swing in a game isn't a turn off, but long term planning is moot since it is so swingy. In fact, the game starts to autoplay since the long term strategy is particularly weak. The artwork is original and beautiful in the game, but the system is tactical rather than strategic. More involved deckbuilding could make it strategic, but the deck building is so basic and easy that there is little decision making there as well. The game is tactical to its base--play simply what you drew that round.

Coup was one that was suggested to me by a number of people. We love hidden role and bluffing games and something so short seemed like it would be a perfect match for my group. However, it isn't. Perhaps I need more plays to find out where the bluff is in the game, but honestly, instead of the hidden roles and lying about what I am as in Mascarade or  One Night Ultimate Werewolf, it really is just more of a mathy game. There is a bit of tension there, but calling someone's bluff is less reliant upon looking for tells or seeing through their lies, but rather card counting and determining where the revealed and known Dukes are and doing the math to figure out the chances that a remaining one could be in their hand. I'd much rather a game where the bluff is more important than the math of card counting. Perhaps with a few more plays, the game would redeem itself and I would find the fun and bluff in it, but the game has left such a bad taste in my mouth, I don't know when I would muster up the enthusiasm to do so. And for a game that plays in fifteen minutes, that's saying a lot.

Eldritch Horror isn't a bad game, but it was a disappointment to me. In fact, the game fixes every issue that I had with Arkham Horror, but somewhere along the line, it left out the heart. The mechanisms of the game are crisp and clean, but the focus on the characters' narratives is removed. It could have been released as "Arkham Horror: the Euro". There is little investment in the characters and the experience suffers from that. I wanted an adventure game where my character ran through a crazy rollercoaster and a tried desperately not to die because I had so much stuff and buffs invested in my character. The problem with Arkham's wild rollercoaster was that it too often ran so wild, it flew off the tracks and the game wasn't consistent. Eldritch is consistent, but in the way that a drive through the country is. And that isn't any phrase that I should ever use when describing a game where your life and sanity are on the line as you battle a manifestation of Great Cthulhu himself.

Pathfinder: Adventure Card Game was a rollercoaster for me. My excitement and anticipation for the potential in the game was my going up the hill and my first couple of games were thrilling and exciting as we rushed down that first giant hill. But everything since is just smaller hills. Sure, the speed and enthusiasm of that first hill propels me, but everything else is really just smaller bumps when looked at. Alright, that's enough of trying to shoehorn that metaphor. My problem with Pathfinder is that each session is essentially the same. Wipe away the flavor text and a difficulty 11 ogre is exactly the same as a difficulty 11 bandit. I roll a die. My damage spells do the same damage, but one has a trigger word of "fire". The most interesting part of the game is the deckbuilding after each session where you trade and build up your deck and figure out what to include and how to maximize your deck. But then you play again and... everything is the same again, but now you have a longsword instead of a short sword in your deck. It doesn't simulate roleplaying at all. If anything, the real game of Pathfinder is trying to figure out how to squeeze two more cards that you like into your deck.

Next are a few of my surprises of 2013. These games weren't quite good enough to make it to my games of the year, but they are worthy of a mention.

Duel of Ages II surprised me. It is not the kind of game that I really like, but I absolutely adore DoA 2. It is the wild ride that Arkham Horror was. The game can be completely unbalanced and lean heavily toward one team. However, I don't care. The narrative that is created by this game is far too interesting and fun. I have consistently laughed at the amazing absurdity in the game so many times. I play competitively, but I don't care if I win or lose, as long as I get some amazing stories from the play. And so far, in every play, I have. I wouldn't consider it among the best games of the year, however, because of how wildly unbalanced it could be. I have to admit that this is a design flaw from a gamer's perspective. But, I love it for its imperfections. In fact, I root for my team being underpowered. I get a much better thrill over being the child-like Princess throwing lawn darts at Genghis Khan than I do over being Genghis Khan and turning around and mowing down a cute little girl with my machine gun because she threw lawn darts at my head.

Ladies and Gentlemen shouldn't be on this list. It isn't much of a game. Each element of it is so simple and so silly that it should be shrugged off and inconsequential. However, when everything is put together and you play it with the right mindset, it is one of the most amazingly fun games I have played in 2013. We have our "ladies' wear tiaras and our "gentlemen" hold cigars. We talk in character and it makes this simple little design explode with laughter and fun. In the wrong group, however, this game would be terrible. But I am very thankful for my group and this surprisingly fun game. I think that my group makes it to be a better game than it is, but if nothing else, that shows the potential in this box. We are just lucky enough to have found it.

Mascarade is a brilliant hidden role game and it is always with me now. The game is a hidden role game and involves a lot of bluffing, but, more often than not in the game, your own role is unknown to you. So you need to bluff with confidence that you are the King even though you have no idea of what it before you. But what I like most about it is its accessibility. I play a lot of games and this often means when I play with novice gamers, I have a bit of an advantage. However, I can have all of the experience in the world and I could have won hundreds of tournaments, but the moment someone takes my card and possibly switches it underneath the table and hands one back to me, I am on the exact same footing as everyone else. However, even with my group of experienced gamers, we all laugh and enjoy the experience equally. This says something for the game and how well it manages a broad appeal.

Forbidden Desert is another surprise. I sought it out as something to play with my daughter. She has Forbidden Island and I simply thought that it would be something simplistic on that level. However, what we found was that it is a game we can easily play with her, but also one we grab and play with our gaming groups. It is a challenging little cooperative game that really surprised me with its depth. 

Now, for my top five Games of the Year:

5. One Night Ultimate Werewolf has quickly become a favorite in all of my gaming groups. My first play was difficult as it is a game that you need to learn how to bluff in. Perfect information exists in that game if everyone comes forward openly. But with more plays, we've all learned how to lie and bluff and the game has become a subtle masterpiece. I don't think I would ever turn down a game of this. The design is so simple, that it can be argued that the game stands on the merits of its players. That may be so, but I have yet to play it with any group that has spoiled the experience for me. It is quickly becoming one of my most played games and I don't see that trend ending as the variety and possibilities make it so incredible engaging with every group that I played it with.

4. Firefly was a big surprise to me. The game is, at its mechanics core, a simple pick up and deliver game. Most pick up and deliver games are dry and dull. However, Firefly has created a narrative arc with each player's ship. The focus isn't on pimping out your ship, but having a good crew, but more importantly, a crew that works well together. You become better suited for certain types of missions. The Alliance and the Reavers are nasty, but they can be mitigated against with proper preparation. And even without the preparation, they are essentially a press-your-luck mechanic and could be easily avoided--if not for the fact that you are racing against your opponents. The game offers a lot in the box and it has easily replaced the dry Merchant of Venus as my go to pick up and deliver game. The substance of the game would survive without the license as well. If I never picked up a character from the show and still had to manage crew and make those choices between legal and illegal runs, I would be thrilled.

3. Nations is best described as Through the Ages lite. I love the depth and decision making in the game and I am intrigued at all of the choices to be made throughout. There are lots of paths the victory (though military seems strong) and it is completely possible to change tracks partway through a game and not be completely lost. Though I am not much of a solo-gamer, the solo game is fairly engaging as well. As much as I love TtA, it rarely hits the table because of both length of time and complexity (after you haven't played in a while, there are lots of little things to try to remember and the rulebook is terrible to search through). Nations has a much more likely chance to find the table during a game night with me. It scratches that itch and it does it in a shorter time frame.

2. Clash of Cultures technically came out at the very end of 2012, but didn't hit larger distribution until 2013, so I'm including it here. It got a lot of play from one of my groups. It streamlines the 4x games in such an innovative way that does not reduce the fun or engagement from it. It is a sandbox civ building game and, while every player begins identically, it is amazing to see how much they differ by the end of the game. The sandbox building style may be intimidating to new players, but experienced players will find that it is actually very refreshing at not being handheld and lead along a singular path to victory. The game is simple in mechanics, but very complex in depth and weight of decisions. This game has replaced Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game as the go to medium weight civilization building game, beating it in both length of time and depth and openness of play without feeling unwieldy or bloated with unnecessary rules or math. Clash of Cultures truly is a genius, streamlined civilization building game that feels complete and full with a shorter playtime.

1. Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island did everything right to win me over. It is a game that tells a story and builds a narrative, but it does so in such a compelling and interesting way. It is without a doubt, the best cooperative game that I have played. Unlike many cooperative games, it does not feel like a puzzle, nor do you feel like the actions required are dictated by the events before you. There are valid arguments at any time for any number of different routes to take to get what is needed or what must be done. The narrative is immersive and everything happens for a reason, which is an amazing thing in a cooperative game. Most cooperative games either have a choppy AI or you have to turn a blind eye to mechanisms that don't make sense, but are there to simply increase challenge. But in Crusoe, things happen for a reason and the mechanisms are hidden well in a compelling story of these survivors that is told. After each game I find myself thinking about what we could have done better. This is exactly what I want in a game: one that immerses me while I am playing it and one that makes me think about what I did afterward.

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