Even though 2004 was a good year for eurogames, I can’t help but think of it as the Year of the Choke. It seems I played quite a few games this year that looked really good on the first play or two but subsequently hit a wall when it became apparent that inadequate playtesting or development had been done, and the game still contained significant imbalances that damped my enthusiasm. In the end though, the glass was at least half full – there seemed to be a general strength in the eurogame releases that we haven’t seen since maybe 2000.
Wargames were another matter. After last years impressive crop, I can’t even make a Top 10 list this year, because I don’t have enough titles, even when considering that two great games (Rommel in the Desert and DAK) were reprinted and I decided to include them since they’ve been so hard to obtain for so long. On the other hand, there were a couple games that I’m pretty confident in predicting will become long-term classics.
And the obligatory “worst of the year” section is at the end.
On with the lists ….
Special Mention – Reef Encounter – Reef Encounter is a very good game that I have really enjoyed. It’s interesting because it’s the first “retro” eurogame I’ve played, in that it feels like a throwback to the late 90s, and is something of a cousin (albeit a distant one) to Tigris and Euphrates. I’ve decided not to rank it simply because it’s unavailable at any reasonable price. Last I checked you could find it for something like $140, but there’s no way it’s worth that kind of premium – it’s good, but not an all-time classic. If it ever gets reprinted, though, pick up a copy. Some commentary is here, here and here.
10 – Memoir ’44 – This is a fun game that is both a qualified success and a significant choke. On the one hand, it’s a major improvement over Battle Cry, with better thematic flavor and more interesting play. The game is exciting with a lot of back-and-forth, and it’s not too complicated. On the other hand, the powerful artillery pieces dominate the game in any scenario in which they appear. Worse, though, is the extreme imbalance in too many scenarios. I can understand having a big battle like Omaha Beach that is really tough on one side (even though the Americans, who won the battle by any definition, seem mathematically incapable of winning the scenario), but the general lack of reasonable balance in many scenarios is indefensible. Overall, though, it’s a decent game.
9 – Maharaja – To say Phalanx’ track record has been spotty would be to give them the benefit of the doubt. Maharaja was their first foray out of low-complexity wargames and into eurogames, and they did it with a bang – mainly by acquiring the services of Kramer and Kiesling. It looks at first like a cash management game, and it is at least in part, but it’s also got special powers, area control, and the secret selection disks that are a Kramer signature (El Grande, Die Handler). The cleverest bit in my opinion is the role chits, which allow you trade off control for cool abilities. The weak abilities let you go first which mean you can plan. The powerful abilities go last, which means you have no idea what the board will look like by the time you come to execute your pre-dialed actions, or even if you will still have the role you started with.
8 – Mall World – Unique games always get a boost in my opinion if they were well-executed, and Andrea Meyer is always good for something unusual (her Schwartzarbeit made my list last year, and ad acta is another game I am fond of in large part because it’s so unlike anything else in my collection). Mall World has a steep learning curve and some rather questionable graphic design calls (unlike the crisp, clean graphics of ad acta), but once you get over that hump this is a clever game. Perhaps not one that will be played frequently, but one that is quite well put-together and provides a unique gaming experience. Just read the rulebook through a couple times before trying to play. Some capsule comments are here and here.
7 – Ticket to Ride – This ranks a bit lower on my list than on many critics because while Ticket to Ride is a very good and interesting game, it somehow lacks spark for me, that unique feature or interesting pull that gets a game off the shelf when you’re looking at options; Ticket to Ride is more of a lowest common denominator game, something we pull out when we can’t agree on anything else or when nothing else is grabbing us. This is no bad thing, and I’m happy to own it … but it’s not as high on my list as it is for others.
6 – Shadow of the Emperor – It may be the same box size as Saint Petersburg and Carcassone, but this is a game of much greater depth. It’s an area control game a la El Grande, but the Nobles you use to control the areas are interesting because they age out. Different provinces have different properties and special powers, and there is an election for Emperor, but it’s not a negotiation game. This was a late-year release that I haven’t played a whole lot yet, but it has shown a lot of depth and the system should be more or less free of the imbalances that plagued Saint Petersburg. Plus, the theme is very well done. Play with 4, though.
5 – Blue Moon – Classic Knizia … when you read the rules and play just once, you have no idea how or why the game works; but it does, and repeated games show that the play has a lot of depth. I love how very differently each of the decks plays, and yet each seems so finely balanced. I like how the game is just the right length, and the tension level is maintained throughout. It’s amazing how well he has managed to blend disparate card abilities into a unified whole that works seamlessly. And I haven’t even gotten into deck-building yet.
4 – Fifth Avenue – I cannot recall ever in my history as a gamer seeing such a good game being so widely, unfairly, unthinkingly, and unjustifiably maligned. No matter where I go, I run into people who know that Fifth Avenue is not very good; this is particularly infuriating because nobody has played it. Well, I have news for you: Fifth Avenue is good. It’s a classic alea game, with many different game elements interacting in interesting ways to produce a lot of tension; Fifth Avenue certainly wins the award for the best turn angst of the year. And the bidding system is quite clever. If you like challenging bidding games, or El Grande, you really ought to give this one a go. I have a review here.
3 – Einfach Genial (Ingenious) – Another wonderful Knizia game that causes you to ask “how can this possibly work?” on reading the simple rules, but of course it does. Each play you make scores you points, but it tends to set up the next player for even more points. The growth of the colors on the board has an interesting organic feel – some colors grow, while others are stunted at birth – and since your score is dictated by your lowest color, it pays to be able to sense these things. I’m still figuring this one out.
2 – Goa – Goa has gotten something of a bad reputation for having an unbalanced expedition track, but after the translation correction I am unconvinced. Maybe once you’ve analyzed the game to death it does, but for most of us this is not an issue. Anyway, this is a very meaty game that is, at its core, an auction game not dissimilar to Herr Dorn’s fantastic Traders of Genoa; most of the “board” activity simply sets up, or is driven by, the auctions, and the auctions are very clever. This is actually off the weight scale of most German-style games, being closer to Die Macher than Settlers of Catan, and I like having a nice, heavy game like this around – it’s a niche that is very thinly-occupied.
1 – San Juan – This game is right in the sweet spot with modest complexity and playing time, significant strategy, lots of player choice, and enough variability to make it highly replayable. In terms of number of plays, for me San Juan has easily surpassed every other new game this year. I keep hearing rumors of certain strategies being dominant, but I’ve played a lot and find all of it utterly unconvincing. Remember, we heard the same sort of thing about Puerto Rico, and it all went in cycles; I find both games to be exceptionally well-balanced.
Choke of the Year Award – St. Petersburg – The first time I played Saint Petersburg, I was rather taken with it. It didn’t fade immediately, but the first play was nevertheless the best, never a good sign. Five months and some 10-15 plays later, my opinion of the game had completely tanked when I realized that if a player got a Mistress of Ceremonies or a Judge on turn one, their chances of winning were virtually 100%. It also became clear that you had to buy a production card every chance you got, that you couldn’t buy buildings until very late if you wanted to win, you had to buy Aristocrats, and so on. Knizia would never have let a game riddled with so many imbalances and non-choices get out of his playtest group.
Other notable chokes: Power Grid, for its serious problems with mid-game power plants that are too expensive and the ridiculous end-of-game resource exhaustion problem; Oltremare (here and here) for its unbalanced special power chits, commodity prices, and for just not being able to take stuff out of the game.
Best Bang for the Buck – Geschenkt/No Thanks! – Not only is it cheap, it’s costs almost nothing to learn how to play, yet generates difficult choices and tension. Not as good as the classic For Sale in the filler category, but it’s close.
Best Theme of the Year – Garten-Zwerge e V – If this were a basically-abstract eurogame, it would be OK and probably not worthy of mention. But its amusing Garden Gnome breeding theme combined with a solid underlying game make this good fun, at least for a half-dozen games or so. Some comments are here and here.
Best Remake – Razzia! – It’s Ra, but a touch lighter. If Ra didn’t exist and Razzia! was an all-new game, it probably would be one of the top 3 – maybe even the top 1. This version plays in a little less time, is a little more portable, and has a couple fewer details. At the price, probably most game collections should have a copy. A capsule review is here.
Notable Expansions: Bohnaparte came out in English, and with much-upgraded production values. 1825 Module 3 now gives us a nice 2-player option for 18xx, and the whole 1825 system can now accommodate 2-6 players.
Most Promising Game I Haven’t Gotten to Play Yet – Candamir – It’s doubtful that Candamir will exceed Settlers or Starfarers, but it includes some of the good stuff from Settlers and Starship Catan, and combines it with some neat character/adventure stuff. I look forward to playing it, and it might make it into the Top Games of 2004 Retrospective article.
Award For Being the Only RPG I Bought in 2004 – Fireborn – This game has a very interesting setting, with play taking place mainly in a modern world to which magic is returning, but with flashbacks to an epic age in which the players are powerful dragons being used to provide background, information, and continuity. The system (Fantasy Flight is calling it “Dynamic d6”) is an interesting one which emphasizes managing your character’s energy rather than fiddly details. Find a review (not by me) here. Still trying to figure out how to get a game in.
First, a quick process note… last year two wargames, Europe Engulfed and Ardennes ’44, were released in the final weeks or days of the year, far too late to fairly judge them. I gave them a mention in last years article, but I’ve decided to bump them into this year so I can rate them. So in this spirit, the very promising Roads to Leningrad will be bumped into next years lot, as will the Doom boardgame.
7 – Sword of Rome – Certainly not a choke, but not an unqualified success either. The pros include a very cleanly-designed game system and card decks. The cons are the not-quite-there combat resolution system and the unduly long play time. The multi-player free-for-all wargame is a tough problem that hasn’t really been done well outside of Successors. I do enjoy this game but wish it were shorter. You can find some comments here.
6 – DAK2 – Funny that the two best games on the desert war – the low end Rommel in the Desert and the high end DAK – were both reprinted this year. I am a big fan of OCS, despite it’s recently reduced play time, and DAK is one of the better entries with quite a few smaller, playable scenarios and a very interesting situation. The downsides are the long playing time and the lack of concern for play balance in the scenarios. Still, for a meaty operational WWII game, this is about the best there is.
5 – Gettysburg: Badges of Courage – This is another game that I feel has been a bit unfairly maligned. I really enjoyed all of my serious plays of this game, a couple of which are here and here. There are some issues – artillery doesn’t quite work right and the hills don’t seem to provide as much cover as you’d expect – but it makes it back in a game that highly playable yet with a lot of depth, and captures a lot of the great resource management tension and uncertainty of EastFront in a smaller package. Columbia has recently released some provisional rules to fix some of the minor problems that have cropped up. It’s not perfect, but there is a heck of a lot to like, and the Gettysburg situation is a good one.
4 – Victoria Cross – This game shows some of the rough edges one would expect from a first outing from a small game company (tracking overall Zulu casualties is fiddly, the rules on firing ranges aren’t clean, and the map has a usability issue), but on balance it succeeds as an interesting game on a very tough gaming problem. It has an authentic feel as the British feel like they are in a shooting gallery for the first turn or two, but then things get more and more desperate as the Zulus overwhelm them. And it works as a game too, presenting the players with interesting, meaningful, and difficult choices – the British on where to allocate their inadequate forces and leaders and when to counterattack, and the Zulus on where to make their main effort and where to bluff. Probably a low-ceiling game in terms of replayability, but low-complexity wargames always have replayability issues, and for a short, simple game this has a lot going for it.
Because I couldn’t make up my mind, and because they are such different games, we have a tie for first:
1 – Rommel in the Desert – An all-time classic, finally rereleased and with better graphics and much improved rules (although the page count of 20 is much more daunting than the original’s 12). I have some writeups of this game here and here.
1 – Europe Engulfed – To call the European Theatre of WWII a hard gaming problem would be an understatement, but Europe Engulfed succeeds in finding a sweet spot. Not the unplayable monster of A World at War, neither is it the simplistic Hitler’s War or Axis & Allies. There is not a lot of strategic variability, but it makes it up with a large number of interesting operational-level decisions, and, conversely, by not getting bogged down into excessively tactical details. The rules are involved but the core system is simple and streamlined, and the production choices are very difficult. And finally, there is a range of good, playable scenarios. This one will be played for many years hence, I suspect. You can find some comments, session reports, and whatnot here, here, here, here … and probably in other places as well.
Choke of the Year Award – War of the Ring – After the initial modest disappointment with the weak theming and somewhat unwieldy rules given the lack of detail, early plays of this game were still fairly promising. But no, it turns out this is mostly a railroad job after all without anything in the way of either serious strategic options, interesting tactical detail, or player flexibility. A disappointment because the system of dice and cards is pretty reasonable, and the first few games are fun to play as you explore the options. But it seems once that exploration process is over, so is most of the enjoyment of the game.
Notable Expansion – ANZAC Attack – Lock & Load is probably the best game I rarely play, and the new rules for the ANZACs are flavorful and different. Fans of the base game will want this.
Most Promising Game I Never Got to Play – Downtown – This looks like a fascinating wargame on a interesting topic that has never been done well. The rules page-count is daunting, but the game isn’t as complex as all that. This tops the list of high-end wargames I haven’t played that I would like to.
Worst of the Year (all genres)
Picking the years bad games is always difficult, because I rarely play the truly awful at all; this is just the worst stuff I actually played. Regardless …
5 – Die Gärten der Alhambra – Not a terrible game, but an egregious attempt to resuscitate an older, fairly marginal game (Carat) by attaching it to the Alhambra franchise. They could have made some attempt to improve the original or tie it in to the Spiel des Jahres winner instead of just re-branding and re-themeing it and hoping the Alhambra name would sell.
4 – Betrayal at House on the Hill – I was undecided as to whether this was a massive choke or simply bad. I think it’s actually both – a fairly weak game that was further choked by bad development – so it gets a spot here. A capsule summary is here, and some commentary on the 20-page FAQ and 30 broken haunts is here.
3 – Wreckage – You don’t expect a lot from Fantasy Flight’s Silver Line of games, and for the most part you don’t get it. This was surprisingly derivative from Lunatix Loop, a small-press game that I rather like and is good for 6 (in the interests of full disclosure, Matt Leacock is a good friend of ours). Wreckage is completely mis-scaled, though, as once drivers pass each other it takes absolutely forever to turn around and take another pass; the vast majority of the game is spent trying to get back into the action – except for the one driver who is wiped out in the initial pass and sits out the remainder of the 2-hour game. And unlike Lunatix Loop’s gadgets, the gadgets in Wreckage are completely unbalanced.
2 – Heart of Africa – After the surge with Maharaja, Phalanx manages to deliver yet another badly underdeveloped game. After the Nero disaster I swore off Phalanx, but then Age of Napoleon brought me back a bit despite significant issues. But then we crash again with this game. Something is in serious need of change over there.
1 – Go Tell the Spartans – This game is a complete disaster. See my review of Against the Odds #2.2, of which this was a part, here. Obviously, we don’t expect a whole lot from magazine games, and this delivers not a lot in spades.