2011 – The Year in Hobby Games, Part I: Boardgames

I’m going to break down my 2011 retrospective into 3 parts, the easier to fit in a blog and to deal with the three different market categories of hobby games: boardgames, RPGs, and wargames. On to boardgames …

In years past – in fact for as long as I’ve been writing about games, over 15 years – I’ve been generally upbeat about the state of hobby boardgaming. This year is the first time I have ever felt fundamental disquiet about the broad direction in which things are heading, at least from the point of view of the sorts of games I like. I think there are a few reasons.

First, obviously, is the slow exit of Reiner Knizia, Klaus Teuber, and Wolfgang Kramer from the scene. Knizia is still doing a few games, but I count only one hobbyist’s game in his 2011 releases, Star Trek: Expeditions (a typically excellent design butchered by the WizKids production). He’s doing some great work on iOS games, but that space hasn’t quite developed yet into an alternative platform for hobbyist games. Teuber is limiting himself to a small amount of Catan-related output, which is fine – the remake of Rivals of Catan was very good – but even I, an absolute die-hard Catanophile, am willing to say the franchise is getting tired. Kramer had only the good but unremarkable Artus. In a hobby dominated by a cult of amateurism, these three seasoned professionals have been the go-to guys for good games that push the state-of-the-art for almost 20 years, and nobody as yet is stepping up to fill their shoes.

Secondly is the apparent implosion of Fantasy Flight, the most significant publisher of hobby boardgames designed and sold in America (other major US publishers in our segment like Rio Grande have very large percentages of their catalog made either in Europe or by European expertise; on the other hand, for Wizards of the Coast, boardgames are just a sideline). Fantasy Flight has always been a frustrating company for me, as in the past they’ve been able to routinely come up with good ideas and then routinely drop the ball on basic execution, but I kept hoping they’d learn to execute. This year, I flipped from hoping to writing them off. Their output is of course rather large – 2011 releases fill two pages of search results on BoardGameGeek – but everything I played this year was completely derivative and dire, well beyond even my jaded expectations of mediocrity. The Lord of the Rings Card Game is just an unimaginative retread of every other LCG they’ve done, devoid of thematic material and with major packaging problems. Mansion of Madness is a soulless dungeon crawl with tedious gameplay and painfully un-fun scenarios. Elder Sign is a confusing mess (subsequently ported to iOS/Android and made – almost unbelievably – even more incoherent). Rune Age is just every deck-building idea available thrown into a blender without any sense of taste or artistry, with predictably ugly results. These are not near-misses, or good ideas poorly executed. This is the result of someone playing at owning a game company. I am really not looking forward to seeing them mangle the Star Wars license.

Thirdly is the maturation of Kickstarter. I don’t like or dislike Kickstarter; it’s certainly the direction that things are going in general, and will benefit many. It’s hard for me to see the explosive growth of boardgame projects being pitched and receiving funding there as anything but a bad thing though, and potentially dangerous for our niche of the hobby in ways that are under-appreciated. Kickstarter can fill an important role, mitigating the risk of publishing narrow-audience or avant-guard games or helping establish companies that have a clear but untested vision. But we are already a boutique market that I believe cannot afford the pressures of a thriving vanity segment – a segment that was probably already too large before Kickstarter. The stuff that Kickstarter has funded so far has not been novel or risky. To the contrary, it’s been entirely derivative, conservative, and well-served by existing publishers, a veritable cornucopia of vanity projects. To the extent that Kickstarter is used to fund endless new worker placement or deck-building games, its sole function will be to offload risk from publishers to customers, and the primary risk being offloaded is that the publisher won’t do its job properly. What company in their right mind wouldn’t go for that deal? But what customer should? The result of this significant shift in risk and reduction of publisher “skin in the game” for generic eurogame projects is going to be invariably bad for customers, bad for professionals trying to earn a living, and bad for overall quality. GAMA should prove its value to customers by mandating a “funded by Kickstarter” box logo.

Look, I’ve been down this route. I’ve been a loyal GMT customer for almost 15 years, and this is how they do business. I can’t count how many times over that period I’ve wanted to get in my car, go down to Hanford, and throttle someone for producing a transparently dysfunctional game for which GMT bore comparatively little downside risk. I live with it only because despite the significant moral hazard it presents, I still believe it’s the only way that a variety of small-time, riskier games that I really want to own will get made. If you think I’m going to subject myself to this for some lightly-themed worker-placement or deck-building game, you’re sadly mistaken.

That’s a lot of doom and gloom, and to my mind, 2011 produced a shocking number of mediocre games. However, there are clearly still publishers and serious designers doing good work, albeit with varying degrees of consistency: Friedmann Friese and Martin Wallace serve their niche audiences well, even if those niches do not generally include me; Matt Leacock (as many of you know, a good friend of ours) has reached a lot of gamers and near-gamers with Pandemic and Forbidden Island; Uwe Rosenberg has had a rebirth as the designer of meaty euros; Phil Eklund at Sierra Madre seems to be really hitting his stride with High Frontier and Bios: Megafauna; Tom Lehmann has done great work with Race for the Galaxy; and Rob Daviau’s Risk: Legacy is one of the most fascinating new games of the last few years.

What it all adds up to though, for me, is a missing middle. Niches with specific and clear tastes seem to be well-served (of course, they aren’t hard to design for). We have a fair number of highly-tactical, no-hidden-information, balance-is-for-suckers games for example, and RPG-crossovers who can supply their own narrative when the game fails to provide have a nice array of games to pick from. For those of us who like the traditional values of German games though, who want broadly accessible games of elegance and taste, and who value boardgames for their own unique expressive power and not just as an annex to some other art or as simply a vehicle to relive the joys of something else entirely, things seem to be getting squeezed.

At the end of the day, I have no pick for a hobbyist’s Game of the Year 2011. Sure, I could have picked something safe like Forbidden Island (robbed in the Spiel des Jahres, in my opinion: Qwirkle? Seriously?), Airlines: Europe or … um. I like Quarriors quite a bit and ended up playing it a lot. Gnomes of Zavendor was quite good. Nightfall is a surprisingly impressive design. Star Trek: Expeditions would have been an easy pick if the graphic design hadn’t been so completely incompetent. Bios: Megafauna is pretty cool, if not as cool as High Frontier (but what could be?), but I haven’t had a chance to play it very much yet. But realistically, all these games are either too safe, too flawed, or in the case of Forbidden Island, a game I’m too personally close to (sorry Matt).

With all that Sturm und Drang done with, there were still a number of high-quality games this year. Here are my favorites:

My most-played new game was Quarriors, which is good fun despite production issues (hard-to-read dice and cards). It’s fast, it’s pretty simple, and it’s got enough variability to have some staying power. The balance is clearly not right – big creatures are too important while cheap creatures are rarely worth buying, and even beyond that several high-end creatures seem badly unbalanced – but fast-playing and exciting covers a lot of other sins. The first expansion (Rise of the Demons) has terrifically entertaining packaging but suffers from what seems like the first-expansion-curse of not very inspiring gameplay.

I was somewhat surprised, when checking my BGG stats, to see that Nightfall was one of my most-played games in 2011. I really like Nightfall, and I tried to break it out whenever I could, but very few people I played with stuck around for game 2 or 3. I think it’s an extremely clever design, with the chaining rules adding a very interesting layer of playing off of your opponent’s decks. It also works well in masking how many wounds people have and thus who is winning, a key aspect of these designs that has to work. Plus, it’s the first (and still only) truly novel post-Dominion deck-builder. At the end of the day, though, this is a king-of-the-hill, eviscerate-your-friends game, and as the people I play with get older this sort of thing is appreciated less. Like Thunderstone, Nightfall also suffered from a very uneven first expansion (Martial Law). The second expansion (Blood Country) seems better, but it’s recent and I haven’t had a chance to play with it yet. Different numbers of players makes for a dramatically different game experiences here. Probably the best bet is 3 players. I like the chaotic, strung-out feel of 5, but I think it just takes too long if you’re not a committed fan.

Black Friday was a “gap” game, released (barely) in 2010 but getting a lot of play in 2011. It’s classic Friese – horrendous rules, fiddly setup, bad information communication, a lot of process, and if you screw up any of it even slightly the game easily goes off the rails in dire ways. Once you get it right though, this is a fun and flavorful game that is both an entertainingly cynical editorial and a good game of judging risks and timing markets. This idea has been tried so many times with so many unsatisfactory results, it’s cool to see it actually work. I think the game got hammered by bad early buzz due to its terrible rules, and I saw it being liquidated in various ways throughout the year which is a shame because this is one of Friese’s best offerings. He just desperately needs to outsource his rules-writing.

Bios: Megafuana was a late-year arrival that I’ve played a handful of times and only with 2 players, but I’ve been really impressed. It’s streamlined the somewhat ponderous American Megafauna down to a 1-2 hour game with almost no loss of detail at all. There are a lot of moving parts here, so it’ll be hard to say without a bit more play, but I’m very optimistic about this one.

Star Trek: Expeditions is a typically great Knizia cooperative game. As is so often the case, he gives us something that feels comfortable and yet is new in many ways, and also a game that nicely evokes the feel of the original series. There are two caveats, though. Firstly, the difficulty levels are not as well calibrated as they were in Lord of the Rings, to my mind. Cadet is really much too easy and will leave the game feeling flat. Captain is much better, but the tension will be over how well you score, not whether you succeed or not. Admiral level, on the other hand, is a very tight game which is hard to win and which I’ve enjoyed by far the most. The second and far more substantial caveat is that the graphic design and layout on this sucker is really hideous, worst I’ve seen in ages. Text is small, low-contrast, and unreadable, frequently making import decision-making information inaccessible. The clix are a bad solution to a non-problem and serve only to further obscure things. It’s actually kind of depressing. This is a very good game, one of my favorites of the year actually, but the presentation difficulties may be a backbreaker.

Ascension continues to grow on me with two excellent expansions, Return of the Fallen and Storm of Souls, aided and abetted by the best iOS implementation of a boardgame currently available.

51st State got a bunch of play and is another game that, while not without issues, has at its heart something interesting and novel. Much of the iconography is horribly confusing and the rules aren’t great, but the game still is very tight with Puerto Rico-like levels of early game tension as you try to get your fiefdom established and on the right side of the power curve. The choices between trade, conquest, and integration are always difficult. The game tension attenuates as the game goes on unfortunately, but still, this is a worthy addition to the San Juan/Glory to Rome/Race for the Galaxy family of games, if not exactly on par with those classics.

Gnomes of Zavandor is the latest addition to the Zavandor franchise, and while it doesn’t grab me quite as much as Mines of Zavandor did, this is still a tight, elegant, well-designed game that takes the core Zavandor ideas and presents them in a new light. I really disliked Outpost and was not that impressed by Scepter of Zavandor, but all of Phoenicia, Mines of Zavandor, and Gnomes of Zavandor have really hit the spot. If you want a traditional tightly-designed German game, this might be the best of the year.

Thunderstone continued on its roll, with several good expansion. The last one (Heart of Doom) was probably the best yet, but Dragonspire and Thornwood Siege were both great too. The base set and first expansion were, in retrospect, quite uneven but the game powered through for me by being novel and compelling in other ways. Fortunately things have tightened up, and new players should start with Dragonspire and skip the early expansions. There has recently been news that AEG intends to do something of a reboot of the franchise in early 2012, taking into account the things they’ve learned in the past 3 years, and I take that as a good sign for the future of the game. This is something Dominion is well past due for.

There isn’t a lot to say about Small World: Underground, other than it’s a worthy addition to the franchise. I’m continually surprised by Keyaert’s ability to add more interesting special powers to the game without too much duplication, given the huge number already out there. This is a little more fiddly than the classic game, and first-time players may find it more bewildering, but I quite liked it. The humor on the places and artifacts is a little tired and unthematic though.

Airlines: Europe is the latest iteration of Alan R. Moon’s Airlines/Union Pacific idea, and I think it’s substantially the best version. The added tension of managing cash makes the game more nuanced, and adds more incentives for incremental stock play which benefits the overall pacing and game tension. There are a few minor signs that the balance between the various conflicting forces might not quite be right, and like its ancestors it doesn’t scale all that well and really wants 5 players. Still, it’s one of my favorite of his designs. It hasn’t caught on much with people I’ve played it with though, and I’ll guess that it’s because Airlines: Europe is basically the same core idea and is the same game he’s been endlessly tweaking and re-tweaking since the original Airlines. That was in 1990.

Castle Ravenloft and Wrath of Ashardalon (Ravenloft actually being from 2010) surprised me by how much I liked them. Are they great games? No. They show Wizards’ traditional looseness with rules-writing which is almost tolerable in RPGs but not great in boardgames – thankfully these are cooperative. Despite a general lack of imagination in the designs, they usually play in an hour or so, capture the feel of cheesy dungeon crawling D&D nicely, and are well-paced. I think Wrath of Ashardalon is the better game as it closes some gaps and generally feels tighter with better-managed threat. Given the number of horrible train wrecks in this category – Descent, Mansion of Madness – it’s nice to have one that basically works. I’m off the train though; I have no real urge to own The Legend of Drizzt.

Kingdom Builder is Donald X. Vaccarino’s latest post-Dominion effort, and it succeeds in bringing Dominion’s spot-the-combo hook to a short tactical positioning game. I’ve definitely enjoyed the game. I think, though, that it has the same flaw as Dominion: it embraces game imbalance as a design element. In a lot of instances there is going to be a single “broken combo” or key scoring element that you have to grasp immediately or you will lose, and often games are decided before the actual play has had much chance to develop. I think this idea of identifying interesting and powerful interactions is fundamentally appealing, but you can’t just throw out the idea of design balance like this if you want your game to live on. Powers and abilities should combine to reliably produce interesting games in interesting ways, and if they don’t – especially if the game is entirely front-loaded as Dominion and Kingdom Builder are – there will be trouble. Don’t get me wrong, this is a fun, light-ish game which I am still rather enjoying, but there is nothing fundamentally new here and it’s just not in the same league design-wise as Ascension or Thunderstone. I expect I will be done with it by the middle of 2012.

Eclipse is a late-year arrival that I’ve played only once but about which I am very optimistic, so you’ll probably see more on it on the blog in early 2012. It plays cleanly, at a good pace, with plenty of action, and seems to actually understand the reasons most games in this computer-to-board genre fail. I enjoyed this and am quite hopeful, but more play will decide.

I’ll close out with a brief retrospective on my 2010 article.

My Game of the Year pick for 2010 was High Frontier, and 2011 has done nothing but reinforce that as the right choice for me. I’ve logged 16 plays between the base game and the expansion, which is amazing for a game of its size and scope. This is a terrific game which, while it’s going to appeal to a somewhat more hard-core audience than most, is still remarkable for how elegantly it tackles its subject matter, how accessible it makes a complex topic, and how well it stands as a design.

Ascension stands out as a game that I didn’t really consider as game-of-the-year material at the time, but which has gone on to be played more than a lot of the other games on the list combined, and which I now consider a standard in my gaming collection.

Of the actual new games that came out in 2010, only these two – High Frontier and Ascension – have broken out to get regular repeat play.

Of the rest, the games that I have maintained enthusiasm for are The Hobbit, Take it Higher!, Mines of Zavandor, and Homesteaders.

On the other hand, Macao, Master Builder, and Railroad Barons are all gone from my collection after having failed to live up to hopes. Neither Master Builder nor Railroad Barons turned out to be very solid as games, and Macao was just boring. None were great picks in retrospect.

7 Wonders tanked, somewhat predictably. It was a fine game, but for me it was never going to achieve long-term staying power due to its inherent tension-management problems (too many high-stakes decisions made too early with too little information, too much tension draining out as too many endgame plays become automatic). The 7 Wonders: Leaders expansion was as good as could be expected and revived it briefly, but I expect it’s about done now.

I mentioned a few games that I hadn’t gotten to yet (Merkator, Poseidon, and Luna), all of which I have now played, but none made much of an impact.

So what’s the takeaway here? There were a fair number of good games this year, but I have real uncertainty about whether an important core niche I care deeply about – elegant, artful, accessible, and envelope-expanding boardgames – is going to continue to be productive. While I like High Frontier, Thundersone, and 51st State, it’s games like Settlers of Catan, Lost Cities, El Grande, and Modern Art that have been the key drivers in moving sophisticated boardgames from a geeky niche to a much more broadly accepted hobby. Importantly, these were all games that were designed for the geeky market segment originally, but because of their outstanding artfulness and quality, and because they pushed boundaries and in their own way told interesting stories, they jumped rails and went mainstream. We need designs of this form for our hobby to continue to thrive as it has for almost 20 years. I’m not declaring the form to be dead yet – Forbidden Island is certainly a worthy successor to those classics – but for the first time I have significant doubts.

Fortunately, I think that the way we tend to group games into boardgames, RPGs, and wargames is completely artificial. I don’t believe any of these traditional categories (and perhaps more importantly, market segments) of games are different in any fundamental way, and for me there were some pretty exciting developments in those areas in 2011 which compensated for the weakness I perceived in boardgames. Stay tuned!

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