Monday, December 29, 2008

2008 Thoughts

I consider 2008 to be an excellent year in new and "new to us" games.

New games:

Race for the Galaxy, Glory to Rome, Agricola, In the Year of the Dragon, Pandemic, Perikles, Phoenicia, Battlestar Galactica, Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear!, Thebes.

New to Us games:

Imperial, Hollywood Blockbuster, I'm the Boss!, In the Shadow of the Emperor, Pillars of the Earth, Wings of War, Atlantic Star, Medici.

New to my collection, but unplayed at WAGS

Red November, Space Alert

With the exception of Phoenicia, I would consider them all good to very good (well, Atlantic Star was a little bland, but it certainly wasn't bad). That's a pretty good success rate!

The first few years for me at WAGS were about catching up to the backlog of great german style games already released (the Alea line, Knizia's catalogue, the top 10 at BGG, etc). Last year was mostly about finding good/ great games that filled in niches that were kind of lacking (Last Night on Earth = horror, Jungle Speed = filler, Blue Moon City = casual strrategy, Dungeon Twister= well themed abstract, Nexus Ops = a better Risk). This year, I felt a little more in tune with the cult of the new at BGG, because I had caught up with most of what I wanted to try, and my game collection covered most of the bases I wanted it to (well, I'm still looking for a great civ type game, and a great negotiation game).

This is my take on the trends in this year's crop of new games:

1) Space seems to be the new renaissance Italy for game settings.
2) Cooperative games have become all the rage, and/or games that play well solo (often the same, but not always).
3) Pure German type games are starting to be a hard sell. Games that are mainly exercises in manipulating clever mechanics for victory points are starting to feel a bit "samey". I have already played a number of these, I already own a number of these, and although I still *love* them... I don't feel a burning desire to discover more. This year, the only successful new game that fits the classic mold is In the Year of the Dragon. Agricola sort of fits, but to me it feels like something different... which brings me to my next point:
4) The most significant change I've noticed this year is the gradual takeover of cards as the driving mechanic for game design. From Agricola to Dominion, Race for the Galaxy to Space Alert, the main innovation this year seems to be that strategy games are meeting card games in the middle. This happened in wargames with the introduction of CDGs (card driven wargames) and ameritrash games have used this tactic for quite some time. Did the trend in other types of games coincide with the rise of Magic the Gathering? I can't really say, but the impact is starting to cross-over to german games. The advantages of cards are obvious: base mechanics can be simple while the card powers can add chrome. Theme becomes much easier to convey through the use of imagery/ flavour text/multiple specific events or actions on the cards. The downside, however, is that cards bring their own share of issues: randomness, lack of balance between the cards, over-reliance on the cards to make the game interesting, etc. and some of these run in direct contradiction to what german games were all about.

For me, Agricola is the poster boy for this shift. Since Agricola has been such a big deal this year, I'll dwell on this one for a bit.

At it's core, Agricola is akin to being asked to make the tallest possible pile from a bunch of random objects. Your goal is to efficiently use what is at your disposal to make that tall tower. In the game, you are just picking from the vast selection of actions available, and trying to make those points add up to as many points as possible. The only thing Agricola brings to the table of game design is an enormous pile of cards. This takes an otherwise perfect information game and gives each player a different set of additional things to consider (or, to get back to the previous analogy, their personal pile of random objects to use to build their tower). Don't get me wrong, I like Agricola. The process of efficiently ordering what is in front of you can be enjoyable, but that doesn't change the fact that there is very little in the way of clever game mechanics underneath it all... which was previously the hallmark of german games (well, that and brevity, which is also AWOL here). Still, the immediacy of the theme combined with potentially endless combinations of cards has come together to make a game popular enough to unseat Puerto Rico as the #1 game on BGG... unbalanced cards and all. I can't help but think that Agricola is a sign of things to come, but that ultimately a better game will come that combines cards and great and interesting game mechanics will soon do it better.

So, crossover games, wargames and card games have been more interesting to me this year. With the exception of Perikles, none of the following games would have been possible without cards as the central mechanic.

Perikles is primarily a euro, but there are some definite elements of wargames in the design. When I played it earlier this year, Ireally enjoyed how the various elements came together, and I felt that the players had enough influence in the game that the die based combat was fun rather than frustrating.

Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear! is a wargame that integrates an action point system and a quest for brevity, simplicity and economy that feels heavily influenced by euro design principles. I've played this mostly outside of WAGS, but I really like it. The action point system it uses, particularly the concept of Command Points vs Action Points, is brilliant.

Race for the Galaxy and Glory to Rome have used the same basic system as San Juan/ Puerto Rico to make a card game that almost feels like a boardgame. Although there is an issue with the "multiplayer solitaire" nature of the gameplay in RftG, I still quite enjoy playing it. I like that the expansion to RftG allows for solo play, but I haven't had a chance to test it out very often. I personally find playing Glory to Rome more fun, but I do like both. RftG does a really remarkable job of minimizing the inherent problems with card games, particularly the card balance and randomness issues. Glory to Rome, as much fun as it is, doesn't even try.

Battlestar Galactica takes primarily from the ameritrash side (long, lots of chrome, huge swings of luck resulting from the order cards come out, etc), but the result has clearly been polished by some euro sensibilities (much like Fury of Dracula, also by FFG). The traitor mechanic and the way players are forced to deal with a growing number of emergencies over the course of the game is very similar in theory to Shadows over Camelot, but the implementation is significantly more successful. The game system breeds suspicion and yet provides many means to keep the traitor's identity secret. Based on my single play, it seems like a winner. I do wish it was shorter, though.

Pandemic is a great, quick, euro style cooperative game. The way the deck reshuffles to amplify the danger is simple but very clever.

Space Alert captured my imagination with the promise of a cooperative version of Robo-Rally that plays in just 10 minutes. I played the intro scenario solo and I'm not quite sure what to make of it yet. I suspect we will be screwing up very badly because there is a lot to take in, and not a lot of time to take it in with... hopefully it will at least be funny! There are only 10 or so soundtracks that come with the game, but since the soundtrack primarily tells you when to draw from a deck of cards and what to do with them, the game should stay fresh and variable.

I currently have the new edition of Cosmic Encounter (the grand daddy of games where a basic system meets a deck of powers) in my sights. II suppose it's possible Magic the Gathering was inspired in part by this game. Regardless, it looks like a really fun negotiation/ war game. I'd also love to try Chinatown, since I'm still looking for a great deal-making game (though I'm the Boss! was quite a lot of fun a few weeks ago).

Ticket to Ride continues to be the most popular game to play with friends and family outside of WAGS, but Hollywood Blockbuster, Wings of War and Nexus Ops gave it a good run for it's money this year. Occasional wargaming with Kozure has been a great deal of fun and a nice change of pace.

I can only hope that 2009 is as good a year as 2008 was.

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