Monday, January 5, 2015

2014 Game of the Year

I believe if you have a blog that you write about games (even as infrequently as I have over the past couple months), you are obligated to make a list of the best games of the previous year once the new year rolls around.

Well, since I need to start writing here again, this is a fine way to start again.

My overall thoughts of 2014 for games was that it was a good year. It wasn't a great year and no single game or trend took the year by storm. However, there are a few stirring that I think will carry through into 2015.

Make no mistake, however. This is still the Golden Age of Board Games. I find myself playing fewer and fewer truly bad games. This is, in part, because I am more discriminating and the market gives me so many options now. However, I believe it is also because more games are good. Out of the worst games I've played this year, the majority of them failed because they were merely okay, but not because they were bad.

This is both a good and bad trend. It is good because there are (relatively) fewer truly terrible games being released, or at least marketed well. However, it is bad because through the extensive use of Kickstarter and start up game companies circumventing experienced publishers who could refine designs and make them better, we have a lot of games that missed the mark of being good or great.

And speaking of games that missed their mark, here is a list of some of 2014's biggest disappointments. And these are not necessarily the worst games of 2014, but just the ones that disappointed me the most:

I was not a Myth Kickstarter backer, so I didn't jump in with insane fervor or commitment. When I did finally approach the game, I was impressed at first--though not at the rulebook. The game is beautiful and the campaign system has some truly inventive and wonderful ideas behind it. A lot about the game made me excited. However, Myth is the classic example of what Kickstarter does to the hobby. The game is beautiful and pimped out to amazing levels. However, the rules are terrible, ambiguous, and sometimes flatly missing. But even when the rules are finally understood, too much is left to the player's hand for a purely cooperative game. It is too easy (and tempting) to game the system. Myth is an amazing framework that, unfortunately, needed an experienced publisher to flesh out fully.

Imperial Settlers actually makes the list of biggest disappointments as well, but I need to throw out a bunch of caveats and reasons why. First of all, Imperial Settlers is a good game and, for a number of people, it is their favorite game of the year. So why was it a disappointment to me? Well, my favorite designer is Ignacy Trzewiczek and I was eagerly awaiting this release. However, the mechanisms of the game are the same as his lesser known games 51st State and New Era, which I loved. But they are simpler and "cleaner". I loved the grit and dark and struggle of those games and Imperial Settlers just felt too much like a clean, happy version of them. Every time I play Imperial Settlers, I wished that I was playing the "deeper and darker" version of the game. I will still play Imperial Settlers, but every time I do, it makes me wish that more people played 51st State and New Era so I could be playing that instead.

Marvel Dice Masters: Avengers vs. X-Men also disappointed me. It wasn't because of the lack of availability or production slowdowns, but rather because I don't believe that the game lived up to its hype. I'm not a Quarriors fan to begin with and, at first, I really liked MDM. But, the more I played it, the less enthused and enthralled I was with it. The game is still a huge step up from Quarriors, but the system itself just doesn't hold the depth it needs to keep me enthused about it. Magic the Gathering is about deckbuilding and figuring out what works best with what, and it also relies on skill to know when and how to use the cards you drew. MDM's deckbuilding is not that deep--you are essentially just picking a half-dozen cards that provide you with your dice. Once you have a solid group, there is little reason to tweak it. Then the strategies of the game are lost in the randomness of the dice rolling. The game ultimately ends up as being solidly okay as a time passer. If not for the pictures of the superheroes, however, the game would be an instant pass.

Sentinels of the Multiverse: Vengeance was my last ditch effort to rekindle the flame I once had for the Sentinels of the Multiverse game. Part of my problem with the SotM games was that I played them too much. The games are not deckbuilders, and instead, each hero has a pre-constructed deck to use. This makes things more thematic, especially as the villains have their own decks. However, the more I played the game, the more I realized that the only game there is learning each hero's deck. Once I knew Ra or Legacy's deck well enough, my hand play was automatic. Choices were obvious and I wasn't playing the game anymore, but just letting it play itself. The same happened with repeat plays of villains. We knew their decks and how to beat them. The game's only meaningful decisions turned into deciding which combination of heroes would have the best chance of defeating each villain, then we start and go into autopilot mode to completion. Vengeance, offered a new way of playing: you can play against villain TEAMS. That's right, you can go up against five villains at once. Ultimately, however, the flaws are the same with this game. And to make matters worse, SotM is already unforgivably fiddly with counters, tokens, card effects effecting other cards and order of play. Vengeance multiplied that fiddliness by five.

Heroes Wanted is another superhero themed game that I really wanted to like. It seemed like it could be a fun and silly ride. However, all of the fun of the game is front-loaded. Once the heroes are created, the game turns into a static slog of planning out your moves to maximize your points. However, nothing on the board changes other than the position of the other players. You could plan out every move of yours for the entire game and, unless another player interfered, you would be fine. Overall, the game didn't know what it wanted to do. And while there is a solid (if boring) strategy game there, it is distracted from by having silly heroes and villains on the board and quirks played for cheap, forced laughs. And for those who were brought to the table with the idea of playing silly, quirky heroes that evoked a lot of laughs--well, they then had to sit through 90 minutes of a thick, non-dynamic game. And, honestly, the designers' attitude of praising those who liked the game as "getting it" while snarking those who do not with assumptions that they have not played it enough or don't understand instead of taking and moving forward with criticism to improve the game was a further turn off that moved me from wanting to follow the game's expansions to see if it improved to simply passing on future endeavors completely.

Next are a few surprises for 2014 that didn't make the final cut, but deserved a special mention.

One Night Ultimate Werewolf was on my 2013 list, but it really had its official release in 2014. This is probably my most played game in 2014. I love deduction games that involve bluffing. I can falter at straight deduction, but if I can bluff, I have a chance. The fact that this game has so many plays says something. However, the game really lives or dies on the merit of those playing it, which is a weaker design flaw. But the game offers enough for most groups to dig into and explore, it still works. I've yet to play with a group that truly did not work with the game. I've played with the expansion, but I'll write up a fuller review on that later.

Among the Stars wouldn't merit a spot in my top five best games. However, it replaces 7 Wonders, which means I'm pleased that I'll be playing that much less often. AtS is a good, solid game which, unfortunately, requires an expansion to move past a four player count. However, I find the theme and the narrative much more engaging than 7 Wonders. Also, the variant which lets you only play with the table space you have in front of you with a wonderfully devious way to play. But AtS fits that card drafting urge that the Wonders fans in my groups have and this has been a much welcomed option to throw out there over the other. I also really like the fact that you are placing tangible things next to one another. It adds so much more to the theme. 

Dead of Winter deservedly made a large splash and it is a good, solid game that offers a lot of player suspicion and interaction. It handles zombies like zombies should be handled--as a catalyst to provoke motive and distrust among the survivors. Zombie movies and media should be about the survivors and how you cope with a hopeless situation. Otherwise, you end up with Warm Bodies. And no one wants that. Anyhow, the only thing keeping Dead of Winter from the top of the list is that there is some fickleness to the game. Much of the traitor mechanism in the game succeeds or fails based on the group you are with. However, the game is dense emotionally and mentally and I can burn out after a play and have it sit on my shelf for a couple weeks before I want to see it on the table again. There is also a lot going on and a lot of distrust by design. This is good in some senses, but I miss the games of Battlestar Galactica where you would have a surprise Cylon reveal and everyone would be floored. Here, you never trusted anyone anyhow and the grand coup de grace move is generally to sit in the corner and eat a shit ton of food. The drama of the discovery just isn't as amazing.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig also made a huge splash with our various groups. Suburbia is a favorite with most of our groups and Castles plays like a lighter, but more player interactive Suburbia. The game really is about being the Master Builder and setting the prices. There is a decent amount of strategy in trying to figure out what people want and earning maximum profit from them. However, even for new players who don't know all of the hidden objective cards so they may not pick up on the patterns of other players' buildings, they will rarely be burned too badly by the prices they set for the others. So there is strategy, but it isn't really too necessary. Still, Castles is a lot of fun and definitely one of the best of the year and it really has made quite an impression on everyone that has played it in my groups so far.

Legendary Encounters:An Alien Deck Building Game has a solid chance to dethrone  DC Deck Building Game: Heroes United as most annoying series offering title whose name needs to always be referred to by a shorthand nickname. The Alien Deck Builder really caught me by surprise and was a very tough cut at my number six on best games of the year. I'm not a fan of the Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game (another bad name contender) and so I had humble expectations for the game being based off of that system. However, it modifies the mechanisms to the point where it is its own system and it shines at how well it puts everything together. Deck building games typically aren't very narrative in their gameplay (with the noted exception of Arctic Scavengers), however, the way each of the four movies are played out through the cards is amazingly thematic and surprisingly immersive. The game falters a bit with the traitor mechanism and really works best as a simple, pure co-op.  I highly recommend Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck Building Game to anyone who likes theme and narrative in a game just to see how impressively it can portray it with the mechanisms it has.

So now my list of my top five games of the year:

5. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies was a game that I was expecting to be solidly okay. However, the game is good. Really good. I had thought that it would have just been a dumbed down version of War of the Ring, but it isn't. It is a focused vision. There is no dual-story here. It is just the battle and it is great and engaging. It's even something that my wife has offered and suggested playing. There is very little that this game really gets wrong. It focuses the system of WotR, it condenses playtime, it reward strategic play while at the same time forcing players to be tactical based on their action dice rolls, and it tells a sensible narrative of the battle throughout the play. The condensed play time and the sensible narrative alone makes this game the anti-Peter Jackson version of the Battle of the Five Armies. The fact that Legolas was not shoehorned into the game and there is no superfluous love plot in it is just icing on the cake.

4. Tragedy Looper blew me away. First of all, I'm a sucker for time travel. However, the narrative arc in the game is a little muddied--the players don't know the full story as they go back and try to fix things. In fact, telling them the narrative would ruin the game. I'm also not a fan of the anime style artwork. However, once you start playing the game, any little flaws melt away and I am completely engrossed. So much amazes me in the game. The players start knowing nothing at all and the Mastermind knows and controls everything. But loop after loop, the players start to figure out more and more and, by the last loop or two, the Mastermind is suddenly the one on the defensive. This is a deduction game that goes too far for my wife. She loves deduction games, but this one burns her brain. And it is a heavy thinking game. Because of that, it doesn't reach the table as often as it should. But each time it is there laid out, it is special and wonderful and amazing.

I kept changing my mind on the next three games and it was really a struggle to declare my favorite. These three games are all amazing. Because it was so tight in my mind, my number two spot is a tie and my number one game barely hedged out the others.

2 (tie). Xia: Legends of a Drift System and Shadows of Brimstone both are engaging games that have a lot of randomness at their heart.

Xia: Legends of a Drift System is a sandbox style space adventure game. And when I say it is sandbox, I am not kidding. Players can get victory point by buying cargo at one planet and selling them at a planet that desires them, they can get points by exploring new systems, they can get points by upgrading their ships, buy points with cash, complete legal or illegal missions, destroy other ships, or collect bounties on other ships who have become outlaws. The game's exploration works by drawing tiles and placing them out at random when a player wishes to scan or move across the edge of tile that does not have an adjacent one already laid. There are hazards throughout the tiles and, with a bad roll of the die, they can be rather nasty. Every game that we've played so far has had all of the frontrunners within a point or two of the winner and each had taken a different strategy to win. Ultimately, however, it is the randomness that made me eliminate this from the number one spot. Dice rolls can have a huge effect on the game and a string of bad rolls can really set someone back. Dying isn't that bad, as you simply respawn. But it is this respawning that breaks the narrative arc a bit (and can make suicide a more appealing option than repairing your ship). However, the random tile placement could mean that a cluster of trade planets are all nearby one another meaning that trade routes may be the most viable path to victory in the game. For me, I don't mind the randomness. That is what has made each game exciting and new.

Shadows of Brimstone is campaign style western adventure game where you are fighting dark Cthulhu like forces and corruption. Though it is another randomfest. However, no board game has every brought me back to the feeling of old school roleplaying more than Shadows. It reminds me of playing old school Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. I am amazed at how free and open I feel in leveling my character--there are so many options. But it isn't just for show. Different abilities have you play your characters differently. And that's another thing that I love about the game; the characters play so differently. It is the game where I feel the most invested in my character and each play gives me stories that I could tell about the craziness that happened. Despite the massive amounts of fun I've had with this game in our campaign so far, what ultimately brought this down from my number one tie-break was the rough edges of the game. Like Xia, the randomness of this game can be unforgiving and turn some people off. However, the randomness has even more of an effect. Characters level up with experience points. You don't get XP as a group after each encounter, but rather each character has individual XP that they get from each of their kills, or heals, or a myriad of other things. This is, first of all, annoying on the bookkeeping end. But secondly, it can cause problems when randomness is factored in. A string of bad die rolls for your character means he doesn't get many kills. Everyone else gets a bunch and while they level and advance, you don't. Then, in the next adventure, they have new stronger powers and get more kills. Even though it is a fully cooperative game, it still has a rich get richer problem to it. It is still wickedly fun and memorable, but those rough edges keep it from my number one.

1. Hyperborea surprised me on many, many levels. It surprises me that it is my choice of top game of the year. I nearly passed it by, thinking that it would simply be too much of a Euro for me. However, most 4x games that we have are space and science fiction themed--a genre that usually does nothing for my wife. So, seeing that it was a fantasy setting, I decided to test it out thinking that maybe I could sucker her into a couple of games of it. However, we both have come to admire the game greatly. One of the key mechanics of the game is a deck building like mechanism where you place cubes in a bag. Different colored cubes can be used to activate different actions, so seeding your bag properly is very important. Because combinations of cubes are used to activate different abilities, it isn't like a straight deck-builder. The purchases of a deck building game are pretty straight forward--you get the card and then you can use the card. However, adding a cube to your bag means that you have to look at all of its possible uses. And once options are used, you will have no place to put extra cubes of a color. So there is a lot of thought in bag optimization. Beyond that, the game really just floods you with options and strategies. While Shadows of Brimstone and Xia: Legends of a Drift System both had a bit of randomness and roughness around their edges, Hyperborea really is a pared down brilliant system whose only flaw is downtime. However, with more experienced groups, turns start to fly by quickly, eliminating even this problem.

One of the things that surprised me most about this year was how much I liked a couple of games with obvious problems with randomness. However, despite the randomness, I've only had amazing times with those games so far. Also, earlier this year, my wife declared that she didn't really care for longer games anymore and was really into the shorter games. However, she's a fan of all of the games on my list (except Tragedy Looper) and all of them have longer play times. They're among her favorites and it goes to show the effectiveness of these games to bring her around.

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