2006 in Games

It seems that when the end of the year rolls around, each time I write up one of these things I do something different. Last year’s piece was perhaps one of my most inclusive ever, as I played so many new games (in part because I actually went to Essen). As you can tell from the lengthier section on lousy games last year, honestly that didn’t work out as well as one might hope.

As a result, this year I played fewer new games. Not only that, but while it seemed to me that the major, reliable players (Kosmos, Hans-im-Glück, alea, Columbia, MMP) seemed to be moving along at about their usual clip, the smaller and/or less-reliable companies (the likes of Warfrog, Fantasy Flight, daVinci, GMT, Phalanx, plus of course the legions of micro-presses) seemed to really ramp up, turning out large bunches of games. Or such was my impression. And my desire to keep up with all that stuff was waning; gaming time is simply too limited. As a result of all this, the games I played and could intelligently comment upon seemed to be a smaller slice of the market than ever before.

So, I’m not quite sure what to say as to whether 2006 was a good or bad year (one is usually supposed to make such a call at this point in this sort of article). I played a number of pretty good games. On the other hand, I didn’t play anything that really took my breath away the way Beowulf did last year (and continues to do this year – I just played again the other day and I still love that game). Even if we consider that bar to be pretty high, last year I easily played half a dozen games that I could give a top recommendation; this year, it’s more like two, maybe three.

Then again, 2006 didn’t plumb the same depths as 2005 either; I only played one game that was as bad as anything in my various “to avoid” categories from last year. Now, the operative phrase here may be “I didn’t play”, but still, I’ve been very happy to not have had to deal with nearly as many horrible clunkers as I did last year, at least on the euro end.
In the middle ground, the area of the disposable game that you play a few times and enjoy and then sell or trade away, 2006 was a good year. There were quite a few games worth playing.

One serious downside of 2006 however was that the escalating price of games, the downward movement of the US Dollar, and growing unevenness in quality finally combined to make the average game, in my opinion, seem expensive here in the US. Some companies have held the line on prices better than others (Kosmos, Hans-im-Glück), but with nice but disposable filler games now costing $30, big-box euros weighing in at $50, and wargames from GMT routinely hitting $60-$75, board games just are not the deal they once were, especially compared to other forms of entertainment like books or music. Part of this is clearly economic factors (exchange rates and cost of production), which is just life. But sometimes it seems less healthy. Twilight Struggle was $60, which seems rather excessive given the competition and the many production errors. Sometimes it seems like companies were trying to up-sell a small-box game by putting it in a big box and jacking up the price; the poster child here is Silk Road, but Cleopatra and the Society of Architects seemed overproduced to justify a higher price point, and Yspahan’s $50 price tag seems huge for a fairly average medium weight. Command & Colors: Ancients (and its expansion) seem somewhat gratuitously expensive as well.
At some level this is actually good news. It means there is probably a product vacuum and gamers seem willing to pay higher prices. It will turn into bad news if it doesn’t result in that vacuum being filled with higher quality products, however, especially if players keep paying current prices.

The other thing I’ll mention is that this year saw a bunch of really good expansions. From Power Grid and Command & Colors: Ancients to Dunwich Horror, from the Eye of Horus to the Buka Invasion, there were quite a few very good expansions to existing games which were more than just add-ons to sell a few more units. It’s hard to argue that this is a bad thing; good expansions to good games are few and far between, and much appreciated when they deliver the goods. On the other hand, when companies try to design franchises instead of games, there are big potential pitfalls both for players and for the companies themselves.

Top “German-style” Games

To continue the tradition from last year, I’m going to divide things up into “top” games (games with serious replayability that get my highest recommendation) and “good” games (games that are good and that I’ve enjoyed but I feel are ultimately disposable). Plus a few additional categories for the uncategorizable, and the obligatory rant about the games that wasted my time and money.

Chris’ top picks for 2006

5 – Khet: Eye of Horus: Usually I don’t put expansions on this list, but I’ll make an exception here. Deflexion made last year’s list as a “recommended” game, as a solid game with a terrific gimmick. But the gameplay itself was never quite tight enough for me to call it a classic; the pace of the game is a little slow. As soon as I had played with the Eye of Horus beam-splitter pieces, though, I was totally hooked. By multiplying the beams the tension escalates dramatically and makes the game far, far more dynamic.

4 – Fury of Dracula: Fury of Dracula is marred by one significant failing: it’s a bit on the long side, especially if Dracula plays too much of a delaying game (a game should go 3-4 hours, but it has the potential to be significantly longer, which is not good). So you have to bear that in mind; but otherwise, this is a tremendous game that has it all: bluffing, strategy, tactics, great tension and excitement, and a terrifically well-done theme. It’s pretty rare that playing a game will inspire me to read a book (usually it’s the other way around), but after playing Fury of Dracula a few times I decided to read Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Personally, I think the game is a lot better. I have a few comments here.

3 – Medici vs. Strozzi: Once again, Knizia manages to confound expectations. I honestly wasn’t sure a 2-player auction game could be done in a way that’s all that compelling, but I wanted to see what he came up with. Medici vs. Strozzi is a tough, challenging game despite the tiny rule book, one that blends challenging evaluation with interesting tactics, and it solves the key problems I had with the original Medici.

2 – Um Krone ind Kragen (To Court the King): Honestly, Um Krone und Kragen is not going to blow you away the first time through. It’s Yahtzee with special powers, and your first game or two can have some downtime as you figure out those powers. But nothing else this year has proven so appealing to such a wide variety of gamers. I have a review here. This should hit shelves in the US soon as To Crown a King, from Rio Grande.

1 – Blue Moon City: Reiner at his best. This is definitely my most-played medium weight game of 2006, and it’ll get played a bunch in the future as well. Here is my write-up.

Recommended Games

There was a good range of games this year that I liked, played a number of times, and then was more or less done with. Good games, just not ones I expect to be on my shelf next year. Either that, or games that are cool but their appeal is narrow enough that they’re hard to get onto the table and as such are never going to get a ton of play.

Taluva and Thurn and Taxis, both from Hans-im-Glück and Rio Grande, are the poster children for this sort of thing. Both are fine and interesting games, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed both. They’re great, accessible meadium-weights that are easy to get onto the table by virtue of the fact that they are attractive, simple, and engaging. But both also lack the variety of the far richer Blue Moon City, so they don’t make the “top” list.

Take it to the Limit, from Burley Games, is a great upgrade to Take it Easy. Take it Easy was a wonderful game, albeit one without a huge amount of range and so it petered out a bit for me. The new incarnation has a pair of larger boards, more and more interesting choices, and seems to have more strategy.

Leonardo DaVinci (from DaVinci Games and Mayfair) is another game trying to jump on the Caylus bandwagon, and is an interesting tactical placement/resource gathering game that in my opinion is a lot more interesting and engaging than Caylus. I actually don’t think the game quite works – the penalty for researching duplicate inventions is a little too arbitrary – but it’s fun to play and good for a number of games.

Blokus Trigon (Educational Insights) corrected the one significant flaw with the otherwise-classic Blokus: you could only play with exactly 4 players. That, and the outrageously large box. Blokus Trigon retains the appeal of the original while cleverly solving the scaling problem to work cleanly with 3 or 4. And the box size is reasonable.
Buccaneer (Queen): As fair warning, I’m virtually the only person I’ve played this with who has been taken with it. But I liked it a lot. It’s another Dorra filler, in the vein of For Sale, and it’s essentially a really twisty light auction game with tactical elements.

Cleopatra and the Society of Architects (from Days of Wonder) is a nice, very attractive game with enough interest to be engaging. The Ticket to Ride-style drafting heritage is a little bit too constraining for it ever to really take off for me personally, but I still enjoyed it. It is definitely over-priced as a result of over-production, however.

Rum and Pirates and Augsburg 1520 are both fine games from alea and Rio Grande. Rum and Pirates is a thematic game of rolling dice that seems like a Germanized version of a game Avalon Hill might have done in the early 90s. Play 4 rounds instead of 5. This game was actually a personal favorite this year, but it’s just not more than an occasional sort of thing. Augsburg 1520 is a clever bidding game that I may be under-rating; it’s a nice, St. Petersburg-esque “balance infrastructure development vs. victory points” game that seems well-developed, but it’s got a strange, inaccessible theme.

Factory Fun (Cwali) is another great example of a good disposable game; the puzzles of how to hook up and lay out your machines are fascinating and make this a great game for about 5 plays, after which things become a bit samey and the imbalances in the scoring start to weigh. Still a very fun game for a few plays, though.

Fantasy Flight Games reprinted/remade Britannia, a classic from the mid-80s that I think does a lot right as a game, but is realistically just too far on the wrong side of an acceptable playing time for me (figure 6 hours for new players, as long as everyone’s read the rules ahead of time and you aren’t slow). If this were comfortably four hours out of the box, instead of coming down to that time after repeated play, it would be easy to recommend; but it isn’t and it’s not. Still, the ebb and flow of history is fun to watch, the game is quite accessible, and if you’re in the mood for a simple multi-player wargame, this is about the best there is. As long as you’ve got the time.

Memoir ’44 (Days of Wonder) isn’t new, but with enough expansions now available (the Pacific Theater came out this year), the game finally has enough variety of play and enough good scenarios (a major problem from the outset) to make me happy.

Special Mention

Space Dealer: From a raw fun perspective, I don’t think anything beat Space Dealer in its first few games. I mean come on, the game has a soundtrack! How awesome is that? This would be a total no-brainer for one of the top picks if it had any replayability at all, but I think it’s clear that the game lacks the range to get it off the shelf with any consistency. There are also significant balance issues with anything other than the 4-player advanced game. And we play with a few house rules to patch it up. It’s still a wonderful game for a few plays, but honestly it just doesn’t quite work in a few fairly obvious ways, and as a result is not highly-replayable. I hope that Eggert-Spiele will do an expansion in the best of the Fantasy Flight “patch job” tradition. (2014 Update: Space Dealer was remade as Space & Time in 2013, finally delivering on this idea’s premise. Neither Space Dealer nor the All Zeit expansion ever quite worker correctly, but Space & Time is finally a game I can definitely recommend).

BattleLore: To say that I’m conflicted on BattleLore would be an understatement. I think it’s a fun, accessible game. The time and attention that have been lavished on it show through in many ways, despite a few too many production and presentation glitches. At this point in time, though, I think BattleLore is relying too much on the promise of expansions and not enough on what’s actually in the box. Too many of the small number of scenarios feel too samey. Not enough of them jump out at you and say “play me!” I think BattleLore has great potential. But right here, right now, today, I’m not sure that what’s inside the BattleLore box demonstrates enough range for the high retail price. (Another 2014 update: Fantasy Flight has also just made a BattleLore 2nd Edition, a much solider, easier to recommend product).

Emira: This game has wonderful, terrific theming. All the princesses in the game have personality, and the players are really torn between raising cash and personal improvement in very interesting ways. It’s a great union of theme and mechanics. Everything in the game works – except the pacing, which is significantly off. For a euro, this is too slow (the game takes too long to develop) and it just takes a touch too long (with the potential to be far too long) to play. Which is a shame – this is probably the best themed euro-type game of 2006 and is so, so close to being the total package. With just a couple minor tweaks, maybe it could become a classic. As it is, though, it’s tough to recommend.

New to Me

It’s pretty rare for me to discover much older games that I missed the first time (I have been playing these things for a while now), and rarer still to find one that I’d turn around and rate a 10 … but it happened this year when I played Sleuth for the first time.

I also missed out on Hey! That’s My Fish! last year because of my disillusionment with Phalanx, but it turned out to be an absolutely wonderful light game.

Barbarossa is an old Klaus Teuber game that I’ve avoided in the past because of my near-total lack of any sculpting ability. But I guess a few years of miniatures gaming have helped a little, and when I gave it a try this year I quite enjoyed it.

I passed on Antiquity when it first came out because I felt like Splotter had done a lot of consistently marginal (or worse) games since their very fine debut game, Roads & Boats. I was finally convinced to pick up the reprint, though, and I have to say I liked it a lot. I don’t think it has anything close to the replayability of Roads and Boats, but it’s also a fun and challenging game. The pressures of plague and pollution keep you feeling one step from the brink of disaster.

Back in Print

El Grande, one of my top-rated games of all time, came out in a new, deluxe edition. Rio Grande apparently had some teething problems as they move some of their production to China – there are some glitches on a small number of the cards – but even so the El Grande Decennial Edition represents absolutely tremendous value.

The classic game Ra also came back into print via Überplay, and also had some minor issues (the “keeper” tiles were given a small symbol, but it’s a red circle with a slash that would be far more appropriate as a “discard” symbol). Still, this is pretty minor, Ra is an essential piece of any well-rounded game library, and you no longer have to pay big bucks on eBay.

Royal Turf, a clever Knizia racing game that is good for 6 and never had a US version, came back into print as Winner’s Circle from Face 2 Face. At a $35 price point, though, this seems like another attempt to up-sell what is fundamentally a compact, small-box game. I’m glad to own Royal Turf.

Traumfabrik came back, also from Überplay, as Hollywood Blockbuster – albeit stripped of most of what made the original great, the beautiful production of historical films and personalities, replaced by cartoony art and marginally funny parody names.

The Low Points

I am happy and proud to say that I played a lot fewer lousy games this year. Part of that was just taking a harder line against playing random new games, part of that was not going to Essen and so not having a chance to play a lot of small-press games, and part of it was playing fewer games overall. If you’re a serious gamer it’s tough to find a good balance between trying new games just to get the “new game thrill” while still playing enough established games to keep the overall quality levels up. I was reasonably happy with where I was this year, although I could probably still afford to play fewer new games.

Regardless, though, there were still a number of bad games that stole hours of my life. Probably the most painful was War of the Ring: Battles of the Third Age. I have a different spin on this expansion than most, because I was primarily interested in the standalone battle games rather than the extensions for War of the Ring, but still, this was one of the most opaque and incomprehensible games I’ve ever played, and the execution was amazingly poor: the rules were a train wreck, and the physical design was even less functional than War of the Ring (!) in virtually every area.

Everybody seems to be doing “civilization” style games these days, searching for a take on Francis Tresham’s classic Civilization game that will somehow manage to capture all the important bits of that 6+-hour classic and compress it down to 45-90 minutes. Good luck on that. I haven’t played all of them, but I have played Tempus, and to me that just seemed like a case of slapping the “civilization game” label on a box and shovelling some units out the door. I might make the same comments about Gheos; unlike Tempus, Gheos at least tries to be something different, but the theming and gameplay are both so tepid that my copy was onto the BGG Marketplace within hours.

Wargames

Last year I commented that the slate of 2006 wargames looked like it was going to be thin; and for me, it was, although many readers may come to exactly the opposite opinion due to two new “crossover” games.

The first was Twilight Struggle, which has proven remarkably popular and sold out in record time. Here is my review. I enjoyed playing Twilight Struggle for a bit. But ultimately a lot of the fun of the game was more in the activity than in the game: following along with the story told by the event cards, pushing pieces around, and generally enjoying a flavorful and thematic experience. But Twilight Struggle just didn’t have a strong enough underlying game to really have legs for me. Too much time was spent in the ultimately unfulfilling pursuit of damage limitation rather than constructive activity, once you got past the fun of seeing what event cards were in the deck the theme didn’t seem very strongly tied to the actual game, and it was definitely a bit too long for what it was (it would have been much better kept at under 2 hours). Too many similar area control eurogames are too much better at what Twilight Struggle does. At its rather high $60 price point, Twilight Struggle needed more replayability for me to be happy with it.

The other was Commands & Colors: Ancients and its first critical expansion (Greeks & Eastern Kingdoms), also from GMT. I like the game; I own both the base game and the expansion, and find it the most historically textured and interesting of the Command & Colors games. But there are significant scenario issues, fiddly complexity issues, and pricing issues given the minimal replayability of most scenarios.

For me, the only stand-out all-new game that I played in 2006 was Shifting Sands. I like Mike Rinella’s style of taking established systems (in this case, Paths of Glory/Barbarossa to Berlin) and re-imagining them without adding complexity. Shifting Sands wasn’t a top-tier pick the way Roads to Leningrad was for me last year, never mind Europe Engulfed the year before, but it’s a fun and enjoyable game, and more playable than either of the games it derives from.

The only other new game of note that I played was Here I Stand. I think this a great game to play a couple times, as I had tremendous fun for my first and second outing with short scenarios. By the fourth play, though, the game had lost a lot of its lustre. There are a number of minor issues, one of the more interesting of which I address at some length here, but the real showstopper is, as it so often is, pacing. Here I Stand has too much downtime for too many players, and it simply takes too long to get anything done. This would have been a tremendous 5 hour game. At 12 hours for a game that goes the full 9 turns it leaves something to be desired. I’ll stick with Dune or Successors.

By far the biggest wargaming event this year for me personally was Columbia’s re-issue of the Front series of games, EastFront, WestFront, and EuroFront. While expensive, these still represent tremendous gaming value. Players of EastFront or WestFront alone won’t see big dividends from upgrading to the new edition, but throw in the new EuroFront, and you can add quite interesting peripheral theatres like Norway and Finland to straight EastFront and WestFront games, and the new EuroFront opens up substantially greater possibilities than the old MasterFront. While playing an entire EuroFront campaign is a major operation, playing individual seasons or years is quite managable with 3 or 4 players, and some of the unique campaigns that EuroFront opens up (the Spanish Civil War and the Winter War) are pretty interesting.

Oh yes. And Armies of Oblivion finally came out. Any ASL junkies amongst my readers (anyone? anyone?) should be well-pleased.

Like last year, I have a trio of promising games in my “to play” pile: GMT’s The Burning Blue, MMP’s A Victory Lost, and OSG’s Napoleon at the Crossroads. I have high hopes for all three, but The Burning Blue’s very high complexity level may keep it off the table.

Being a wargamer, even part-time, one never wants for clunkers. That Epic of the Peloponnesian War was completely unplayable was so obvious on detailed inspection that it didn’t even make it to play #1. The Conquerors: Alexander the Great fell into the same category, although in this case it was sloppy rules editing to the point that I lost all confidence that the game had actually been tested; a quick solitaire play-through seemed to confirm expectations. This game was by far my most aggravating purchase of the year, because it seemed promising and I had just come off playing Richard Berg’s very fine Carthage. A las Barricadas! is an intriguing new tactical game, but when a game with only about 6 pages of rules manages to contradict itself several times, one starts to lose hope. This one I’ll play because it’s fairly straightforward and looks short, but really, I don’t have much optimism.

My biggest disappointment, though, was Games Workshop’s Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring “Journey” sourcebook (actually from late 2005). We got some very nice new Fellowship models in plastic and metal (the Breaking of the Fellowship boxed set is my favorite mix of hero sculpts), but where on earth was the playtesting on these scenarios? They were an utter travesty. When the orders of battle are so vague on equipment that you’re just making stuff up, when the setup areas and victory conditions obviously don’t work on inspection, never mind after playing, this is bad, bad, bad. After years of solid improvements, this book is an embarrassment to the GW Lord of the Rings product line.

Looking Back

2005 in Retrospect

In general, I’m still happy with my picks from 2005. Beowulf still impresses the heck out of me after 20+ games, Elasund and Tower of Babel still see occasional play, and Palazzo has gotten a bit of a bump to see a fair amount of play this year, probably more than any of the other games except Beowulf. Hacienda tailed off, but only after cruising past 20 plays in the first few months (that game needs an expansion board or two). Revolution has hit the table several times this year, not bad for a 5 hour game. As for the rest … the Reef Encounter pick seems a little generous in retrospect, as does Candamir, although I still like both. Neither has been played more than once or twice this year however.

As for Caylus, if I never play that game again, I’ll be happy. My opinion of it kept taking significant hits each and every time it hit the table.

In the category of games I dinged, the only two I’ll make a follow-up comments on are Arkham Horror and Doom: The Boardgame, both of which got huge upgrades this year via expansions. Arkham Horror got the Dunwich Horror expansion; the game is still not as good as it by all rights should be, but the new expansion helps a ton and makes it a game I enjoy from time to time, which did not used to be the case (the Curse of the Dark Pharoah was rather good as well, especially played stand-alone). I still think the game breaks with more than 5 players, though. Doom: The Boardgame’s expansion also help immeasurably by providing a bunch of scenarios that are not completely dysfunctional (actually, they are pretty good). It’s irritating in both cases that you have to buy a big-box, expensive expansion to turn your original purchase of a big-box, expensive game into something workable, and far be it from me to say that Fantasy Flight is actually doing a good job by doing this … I actually have some optimism for their upcoming Tide of Iron, but I definitely won’t be the first on my block to take the plunge.

I ended up playing both Conquest of the Empire and Railroad Tycoon: The Boardgame. Conquest was the mediocre game I expected, but Railroad Tycoon worked out pretty well. There are still way too many rough edges for me to ever consider it a classic – it makes the good but slightly awkward Power Grid look like a masterwork – but it’s still a neat game which I enjoy from time to time.

On the wargame front, Lock ‘n Load: Band of Heroes has taken some body blows as I’ve played it more, and I’ve become more and more disenchanted by the poor quality of the scenario design. Too many scenarios have been unbalanced and/or uninteresting. I still like the system (I still think the original Forgotten Heroes: Vietnam was a fine game), but Band of Heroes is teetering towards losing its spot in my collection. I was definitely too generous in my ranking last year.

I managed to play all three of my “missed” wargames from 2005: Carthage, Crusader Rex, and Fire in the Sky. All three were good, but Carthage is probably a bit over-complicated for the payoff (I enjoyed it, but it was the only one of the three not to get repeat play), and Fire in the Sky is good but, again, probably too long for what you get out of it. But I enjoy it, and still want to play it more. Crusader Rex, on the other hand, is an improvement on the Hammer of the Scots system in my opinion. It’s not a game I’m ever going to play a ton, but it’s one I enjoy and finding the time and energy isn’t a chore.

Wrapup

So, that’s it. The timing of these things is always awkward, because I’m just getting my hands on a bunch of the Essen games and holiday releases: I’m sure there’s stuff that’s come out recently that I’ve missed, and a few games I’ve played may turn out better (Take it to the Limit, Augsburg 1520) or worse than expected under repeat play, so who knows.

I still remain frustrated by inconsistent quality in the wargame releases, and this has contributed to my declining time for new wargame releases over the last two years (most of my time was spent on classics and proven games like the Front games, Rommel in the Desert, Barbarossa to Berlin, Great Campaigns of the American Civil War, Downtown, and Roads to Leningrad). I see this trend continuing.

On the other hand, while 2006 seems, on first inspection, to not have had quite the same number of great games as 2005, I’m still getting plenty of good games to keep me happy, and from my vantage point anyway, the future of strategy boardgaming still looks bright.

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