2003 was a good, but not great, year for games. The crop of eurogames was off a bit, and the wargame side didn’t have any standout new games (although it did make up for it with a quantity of very solid offerings). Still, there was some very good stuff all round (Domaine, Amun-Re, Shadow & Flame, Korea, Lock ‘n Load), and still more than I could actually play as much as I would have liked, so yet again I head into 2004 with a deficit of games to play.
So here you go … my picks for the best and worst in games for 2003. As usual, you can add comments througout if you wish.
Honorable Mention: Flaschenteufel – This was not published for the first time in 2003 but was re-released. An interesting trick-taking game with a high “discovery” factor – it’s so different from anything else it’ll take a while just to get a feel for the game. I like this kind of game, especially when it’s cheap and well-executed.
10 – Attika – A game with some neat stuff – the management of the various resources is interesting, as you attempt to get your buildings on the board cheaply by managing all the discounts, coping with the vagaries of the draw, and taking advantage of the cards in hand. Ultimately flawed by the Kill Dr. Lucky syndrome, but fun for a few (even a number of) plays. Find some comments here.
9 – Eiszeit – Another game that is not quite there as a whole, but is still successful in a lot of ways. Presents the players with lots of interesting choices, and the game has more subtlety than it appears on first inspection. The only real flaw is that it’s a bit too long for a comparatively control-light game, even one that does present such tough choices. Find my review here.
8 – Feurio! – A neat vaguely compete-for-areas game, but one with a clever scoring system and one that it is very faithful to its theme, in an abstract kind of a way. Plus, short and simple while still being reasonably challenging.
7 – Die Sieben Siegel – Do we really need another take on Oh Hell!? In this case, yes. The fact that everyone has the color of tricks they want to take in front of them gives the players another level of control, as you can lead into (or avoid) the (theoretical) strengths of other players to help set yourself up; and in the end, picking the colors of tricks you will take is not as insanely difficult as it sounds. Gives the game a significant and meaningful twist, and the “hoser” role is nice too. Only flaw is it only goes up to 5; it could easily have been for up to 6, the usual number at which the card games start coming out around here.
6 – Edel Stein & Reich – Basari is a great game; Edel Stein & Reich improves on it by taking it to 5 players. The cards are a touch fiddly, but they make the game more portable. The event cards add a very nice dramatic edge to the game, and also make it unique, complimentary to and worthy of owning in addition to Basari. Simple, challenging, fun, highly interactive – what more do you want?
5 – Lord of the Rings Trivia Game – Not to be confused in any with with Lord of the Rings (the Movie) Trivial Pursuit. Find my review here. While it’s true I may be biased as I am pretty knowledgeable on Lord of the Rings, I still have to like how they’ve added a touch of resource management to the game – you can’t win the game on resource management alone, but you can lose it. Some of the thematic stuff (working your way through Weathertop or Moria) is quite nice too. And the questions are generally of pretty consistantly moderate difficulty, which is nice; challenging but not frustrating, but tough enough to stump an expert on occasion (although probably not the truly obsessive). The multiple-choice format is nice for the less-knowledgeable also, as answers can be reasoned out to give better odds. All in all, an excellent trivia game. Still, don’t play if you don’t have at least a passing familiarity with the Lord of the Rings (the books, that is) and the Hobbit.
4 – Schwarzarbeit – For me, what makes the difference between a 4th rated game and, say, a 7th rated game is being fundamentally different. Schwarzarbeit is somthing that I haven’t played before, a probabilistic deduction game. That is to say, you’re playing not so much to ascertain three specific pieces of information, but to make good guesses. The memory aspect (you aren’t allowed to record information) makes the game more interesting too, not just plugging facts into some kind of a spreadsheet and coming up with the answer. Nobody can remember everything they’d like to, so you have to pick and choose what to try to remember – a game unto itself. Pretty simple, short, yet a compelling and quite challenging game – this would make it worthy in and of itself, but the fact that it is so unique in todays’ crowded gaming field is a big bonus too.
3 – Carcasonne: The Castle – The original Carcasonne was, for me, a game that wasn’t quite there. This game improves on the original (and even the Hunters & Gatherers edition) by having more flexible play (not having to match edges), more balanced scoring opprotunities, and more flavor through the bonus tiles. This brings the whole thing down to a playable, fun, fast game that is in a very nice zone – it’s simple but not unchallenging, thoughtful but not too taxing. Find some of my comments on the various Carcasonne games here.
2 – Amun-Re – See my review here and some more comments here. Classic Knizia big-box game, if not on par with his best. Lots of choices, a couple unusual auctions, and for a change you can understand the scoring before the end of your first game!
1 – Domaine – I’m finding it surprisingly hard to write a couple lines on Domaine, my favorite game of the year (although admittedly not by a huge margin). It’s a remake of the almost-but-not-quite classic Lowenherz, and a significant improvement in my mind. It streamlines the play substantially, taking down the playing time significantly without much loss. The result is a nice, highly-competitive game that actually doesn’t bog down into the usual whining and leader-bashing. The jockying for position and management of threats all result in very tough decisions, and like the all-time classic Settlers, it makes a virtue of being short. Like Settlers, it’s possible in Domaine for things to just go badly awry from an early point, but since the game only takes 45 minutes you can play again and learn from your mistakes. This is great because it allows for very dynamic play without the usual downside of player-elimination (or virtual elimination) that sometimes plagues more competitive games.
Expansions or completely derivative games are always tough to categorize, and to compare with other new games. So, here is my fairly arbitrary category for new expansions to old games released in 2003.
4 – Urland Expansion – A nice, low-budget and low-maintanence expansion for a very underrated game. Like the Ursuppe expansion, the genes are a bit of a mixed bag, but on the whole pretty good. Easily worth $3.
3 – Lunar Rails – Another crayon rails game. What can I say? If you like this sort of thing, you’ll like this new game with it’s “no edges” board and harsh terrain. I was surprised, KREEP ore really does exist, it isn’t just somthing they made up for the game! It sounded pretty bogus to me. Anyway, I really like the various crayon-rails game for 2 players (play with 2 trains/4 cards each), although I have little interest in playing with more.
2 – &cetera – More fascinating stuff for Roads & Boats. A little pricey – and do you seriously want to play this game with 5 or 6 players? – but so far I’ve really liked all the variants I’ve played with. Some of the stuff is a little thin (like the Planes), and some, like the MBAs, are only going to be useful with a larger number of players (I consider 2-3 optimal for Roads and Boats; each added player is more and more problematic), but all in all a lot to like. The Polder especially makes for a wonderful challenge.
1 – Bohnaparte/Dschingis Bohn – Do these expansions make Bohnanza any more a game of skill? Ah, no. In fact, they turn it into somthing more akin to Nulcear War. But, for me anyway, it’s fun and a unique experience. Sure, at the end of the day it’s just the usual empire-building thing with all its flaws from a game perspective, but you get to make a lot of interesting management choices getting to the end and the combination of trading and empire-building is inspired. And nobody gets nuked out of the game before it’s over. Some comments here.
As usual, the wargame companies have conspired to release a lot more wargames than I could find time to play in 2003 (and also released a couple too late in the year for me to fit in). So, I’ll give a couple honorable mentions to some really intruiging games I haven’t had a chance to play yet, but hope to find time for soon.
Honorable Mention – Rise of the Roman Republic – Typical Berg, a smorgasboard of stuff followed by plenty of eratta. You know, many game designers *are* able to design games and get it generally right on publication. Regardless, a hugely interesting topic (operational Ancients), and a fundamentally reasonably clean system at least for Berg with a great Roman command system that mirrors the historical mess without going overboard, marred by a selection of scenarios that is not inpsiring. Still near the top of my play list, but it hasn’t come out yet. That will certainly change if a more compelling set of scenarios from the Punic Wars comes out.
Honorable Mention – Ardennes ’44 – After rediscovering andbeing very impressed by Mark Simonitch’s Ukraine ’43 this year, I had to have Ardennes ’44. I’ve had good success with his games – fairly streamlined, low-eratta, focussed designs. Ardennes ’44 is a visually awesome game, and appears to be a cousin of Ukraine ’43 which I liked a lot. I look forward to playing this, and should be able to get a game in soon.
Honorable Mention – Europe Engulfed – As anyone who follows my various ramblings should know, I am a big fan of block games. I am also not generally a huge fan of strategic ETO games as there are a lot of fundamental issues. But my fondness for block games trumped in this case, and I’m happy it did. EE is a great, clean system considering how much it does, and I really like the special action chits. Yet to play (it came out only a couple weeks ago), but one of GMT’s most promising offerings in quite some time.
8 – Battlelines: The Stalingrad Campaign – Up Front is widely (and justifiably) recognized as one of the most critically successful wargames of all time, if not necessarily the best-selling or most popular. Many games have tried to copy the “chaotic serious simulation tactical card game” formula while toning down the complexity to somthing manageable, with generally very little success. This is the most recent attempt, the level having been kicked up to brigades. Neat game, lots of flavor, solid historical grounding (except in the truly abysmal card “flavor text”), planning & choices required … but a horrible rulebook. When will these smaller game companies learn? A great rulebook will not sell a game, but a terrible one can certainly kill it. In the end not quite as clean nor quite as many choices as I’d ideally like, but still a neat and fun game which crucially plays quickly. Stanlingrad is now complete, I hope they do at least one more battle (Kursk or Normandy would make great choices for the system).
7 – A Game of Thrones – See some extensive comments I have on my blog here. This game is oh, oh so close to being really great. Diplomacy is an awesome, legendary game, but it’s long, brutal, and can be perceived as a bit tactically simplistic (not that I’d say that’s accurate). A Game of Thrones fleshes out some tactical deals (but not too far), adds just the right amount of resource management, moderates the time required to play, and adds some nice thematic flavor. In general, it is by far the best attempt to retune Diplomacy that I’ve played, much better than Machiavelli, a well-liked title in some circles. Unfortunately, it’s flawed by somewhat excessive chaos in the event cards and a game time that is, ironcially, too short, and can lead to an end-of-the-world problem on the last turn. It is still great fun to play for people who like this sort of thing, though, and I think it’s only minor fiddles away from a classic game.
6 – Age of Napoleon – A very good, workmanlike game, a welcome antidote to the overwrought The Napoleonic Wars. A very solid 2-player game with some nice tension, and hand-management and tactical decisions, albeit without a huge strategy component. See some comments here.
5 – Liberty – Although not one of Columbia’s best games, that’s a pretty high bar. This one solves some of the problems I have with Hammer of the Scots, providing a more wide-open playing field, more strategic choices, a little better balance in the card deck, and fewer chrome rules. It gives some of this back, however, with some play balance issues – the Brits, at least in early games, are behind the 8-ball here. Further play will likely prove the balance to be at least a little closer to even, but things should ideally be a bit more balanced out of the box.
4 – Lock ‘n Load: Forgotten Heroes Vietnam – Tactical games have been in a bit of a decline since 1977, when Squad Leader first appeared. Not that the giant of tactical games in’t a great game, or that its successor (ASL) isn’t good enough to make its own gaming lifestyle, but there hasn’t been a lot of competition. MBT & IDF were both surprisngly good but niche games, Landships! was OK, TCS is great bug *big*, PanzerGrenedier is a very mixed bag … I can’t even think of anything else. Now along comes Lock n’ Load, a tactical combat game that promises to bring back the thrill of some 25 years ago when SL first came out … and largely succeeds. Sure, it borrows heavily from SL, but Mark Walker shows he knows when to copy and when to innovate, always the sign of someone who knows what he’s doing. The result is a playable, exciting game that is both classic and new.
3 – Shadow & Flame – Great figures. Great scenarios that are even close to balanced. Some interesting low-level magic users for the bad guys to give them some tactical options. Dwarves! Moria! What more could you ask for? Great new stuff which gives the wars of the Dwarves & Orcs a nice, distinct flavor, and of course some figures from the books (notably Glorfindel and Elrohir & Elladan) that open up some options for playing games a little truer to the original source. True to Tolkien, the name of the game here is subtlety – the new Dwarves and other figures are different and have interesting powers, but their impact is not overwhelming – no Fireballs and such – and so has a flavor true to the books. Worth mentioning, since we’re talking about Games Workshop here.
2 – Monty’s Gamble: Market Garden – Michael Rinella’s labor of love, this is Breakout: Normandy ported to Market-Garden. This game didn’t initally blow me away because I am such a big Breakout: Normandy fan and so Monty’s Gamble didn’t quite give me that “new game thrill”. But it grew on me with repeated play, and despite some issues with the rules (which should be taken care of in an electronic 2nd edition) this is a very skillfully-executed and satisfying adaptation of a great system. A tough balancing act for both players, this game is a fundamentally clean and playable system and a challenging and satisfying game that can be completed in a very reasonable amount of time (2-4 hours), which is a huge plus. I have a session report and some comments here.
1 – Korea: The Forgotten War – Given my fondness for the incredible depth and versatility of OCS, it’s probably not a huge surprise the Korea tops my list. All the strengths of OCS, and in a manageable, modest counter density package, with fairly playable campaign games with opportunities for both sides to play the attacker and defender, and lots of scenarios. See some more of my comments on this game here and here.
I am obviously not as well-versed in RPGs, or as plugged in to the RPG scene, as I am for boardgames. That having been said, here are the two RPGs that I am most intrigued by that were published this year, and that I am most likely to play in the future.
2 – Babylon 5 RPG – The lack of lethality in melee combat at higher character levels in D&D is a bit of a joke. Star Wars d20 and d20 Modern both improve on this a lot by making any character vulnerable to severe damage and even death in a firefight. You want leathal combat to encourage roleplaying, though, you’ve got to check out B5, where you get a hit point when you go up a level, not a hit die (well, sometimes more than one point in classes like the Soldier). That should encourage more roleplaying. Combine this with some good classes, good rules for Telepaths, some (generally) well-thought-out and flavorful prestige classes, excellent attention to detail in the setting (for rules, background notes, and GMs advice), and some really excellent sourcebooks, and this is a very nice new addition to the d20 stable of games. d20 is not without some issues, but the fact that you can go from D&D to B5 with virtually no effort at all is a great help.
1 – Arcana Unearthed – D&D has a lot of problems in the core classes and spell lists. Arcana Unearthed fixes these problems with a great set of core classes and an excellent magic system, all while staying very clearly within the d20/D&D framework (spells work in fundamentally the same way in Arcana Unearthed as in D&D, but the system has been tweaked in a number of very good ways). The main issue is that the setting will take some work to get used to, and it’s not quite current with some of the improvements in D&D 3.5. It’s not quite as familiar as the standard Elves, Dwarves, etc., but as a game it has a lot of improvements and a less generic background can potentially make things a little easier on GMs.
Worst Games of the Year
And now, the section I know you’ve all been waiting for – the most disappointing and/or worst games of the year. To quality for Chris’ list of the worst games, you have to actually try; so the likes of Cheapass are disqualified from consideration.
6 – Lord of the Rings Tabletop Battle Game: Return of the King – This would fall into the “disappointing” category, since this is still the same great game I enjoy so much, the rules are improved and streamlined in the new edition, and the sculpts on the figures are still generally great. This is on the list not for what’s in the box, but for what isn’t. Only a small handful of the actual Return of the King scenarios will be playable before the February/March time frame, as critical figures (Easterlings & Mordor Trolls) are the last to be released. No Southrons/Haradrim at all. Shelob is in a scenario, but nowhere to be found on the release schedule. No Witch-King riding a Fell Beast, even though it’s required in one scenario. No Minis Tirith siege stuff. All in all, the Return of the King is a much less rich package than The Two Towers, and the release schedule of many figures seems lost in a haze; the overall product gives something of a feel of disorganization. The War in Middle Earth section (the Literary Liscene section, as it were) is very good though, even if the Dain figure is just an obvious re-posing of Balin. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not unhappy with my purchase, but judged as a product line this falls short of The Two Towers set in quality in my opinion, and as such is modestly disappointing.
5 – Dwarven Dig! – See my review here. For a big-box, big-price, anticipated game, this was a big disappointment as it lacked any imagination and was just another rehashing of so many poor games to go before.
4 – D&D Player’s Handbook version 3.5 – Now, in fairness, the 3.5PHB did have a fair amount of good stuff to recommend it. The Ranger is now more playable and less subject to abuse, the Druid is more interesting (although possibly now overpowered), and some spells have been cleaned up. Really, though, for a whole new hardbound book, this is basically just tweaking. The Bard is still much too weak and too wierd. Too many spells are still too vaguely specified and/or abusive. The core classes are still far too restrictive; too many interesting character archetypes are impossible to do. Monks & Paladins still have far too few choices. Clerics still make no thematic sense. The character classes are still not well-balanced. Skill points are still to few for virtually every class to really flesh out the characters. The new weapon “sizes” thing is an abomination. This is not to say I don’t appreciate what they have changed; a very great deal has been improved, and it is appreciated. But this was a major missed opportunity; D&D 3.0 dragged the horribly antiquated AD&D much of the way to currency, but some non-trivial further effort is needed.
3 – Age of Mythology – I think I’ve figured out Eagle Games. They’re Avalon Hill reborn, with the focus on quality games shifted to quality components. While I’m not unsympathetic – sure, there’s a place in this world for fiddly, micro-management conflict games – I really wish the games were better, more thoroghly developed, and less omnipresent at the expense of game with an appeal beyond the young male demographic. As the Europeans have shown us, it’s tricky but really not that hard to make games that at least reliably function, somthing Eagle can’t really be accused of.
2 – D&D Miniatures – Please, someone explain to me what the point of this product is. Not only are the overpriced and unattractive, they succeed neither as a usable D&D accessory (the random packaging makes them far too expensive for any rational campaign) or as a standalone game (the D&D combat system on which it is based is designed as a part of an RPG, not as an interesting standaone game).
1 – Nero – My god, what a wretched game. This game works hard to earn not only the worst game of the year distinction, but quite possibly the most awful game of the last 5 years. Completely pointless, the game actively punishes players for taking any action whatsoever, with then entire system built around encouraging you to sit around doing nothing. See some comments on this wretched effort here.