Sunday, January 3, 2016

Ten Games After 2015

In late 2014 I was prompted by a good friend's article to determine which ten games I would keep if I were forced to get rid of the rest of my collection. It sparked one of the longest episodes of The Nerd Nighters in our show's 130+ episode history (and one of my favorites), and has provided a new lens through which I consider new game acquisitions.

My original list was as follows (click here to read the 2014 article):

Betrayal at House on the Hill
Race for the Galaxy 
Lords of Waterdeep
Ticket to Ride
Summoner Wars
7 Wonders
Disc Duelers
BattleLore (2nd Edition)

This list assumes that each game comes with all its expansions (past and future), and that have enough friends in this apocalyptic scenario to play each game at whatever player count I want. It also assumes that my MtG cube makes the cut as game #11, so it's not considered here.

This year will see some big changes to this list, so let's begin!

Removed from the list:

Race for the Galaxy
Disc Duelers
BattleLore (2nd) Edition
Lords of Waterdeep

Each of these is a good game, and deserved a spot on my last list. Since I compiled this list in 2014 I've played about 400 new games (I keep track on the BG Stats app for iPhone), and as a result I've got a broader perspective on gaming, and I've developed a more selective palate, if you'll pardon an analogy.

Of these, the hardest cut is Race for the Galaxy, a game I truly enjoy and that provides incredible replayability due to the number of expansions and the nature of the card drawing in the game. Race may make it back on the list some day, if I find that I come back to it after a new expansion, or as a result of getting tired of a new game.

I've simply grown tired of Coup, and only played it 8 times in 2015. I haven't enjoyed the game at all in those plays, and didn't enjoy the additional randomness that Coup: Reformation or the other expansions brought to the game. Perhaps I'll fall in love with it again later - for now, I'm content enough to let 7 Wonders fill the "high player count" slot in my collection (along with a new entrant to the list, which I'll discuss later).

Medici is a bidding game that provides no additional depth or interest, so the experience is limited by the savvy of your opponents. I still love the game, but with so many other good games to choose from, it's hard to keep such a one-dimensional game on the list. If this list was for 30 games rather than 10 Medici would make the cut.

Disc Duelers, unfortunately, is the victim of circumstance: as I've grown more selective in the games that I play, I've become less interested in dexterity games and more interested in strategy games. I can always go play basketball, or throw a football around, or just play Loopin' Chewie... though I do enjoy Disc Duelers and would happy to get it to the table again.

BattleLore (2nd) Edition was added to the previous list before I'd even played it, based on my love for Memoir '44 and my assumption that a fantasy-themed version of the Command & Colors mechanics would be even better. After a lot of time spent playing Fantasy Flight's iPad app for the game, I learned that I was wrong, and the historical significance in Memoir, combined with my family's history of military service, was an integral part of my appreciation for the game.

Last, Lords of Waterdeep is a tough cut. I really enjoy this game, and after more than a hundred plays I still find myself interested in its machinations at any player count and in most situations. It's light, easy to teach and learn, and looks great on the table. Unfortunately, it doesn't have the kind of depth I'm looking for in a game that I'd (presumably) have to play over and over again for the rest of my life. Lords will be directly replaced by another, kind-of-similar game, and I'll get to that in a moment.

When I compiled my original list in November, 2014 I'd been playing tabletop games (besides Magic) for about 2.5 years. Most of my experience was in gateway games and popular deeper games, and many of my more experienced gamer friends mentioned that my list seemed a little bland, more like Amazon's "Customers who bought X also like..." list than a list of great games. I worked to expand my knowledge of the hobby in 2015, and I think my new list will reflect that.

Staying from the 2014 list:

1) Betrayal at House on the Hill

Betrayal has been my favorite board game for a long time. Through thick and thin, for better or for worse, I've loved every flipped tile and traitor scenario. There's no other game that gives me the narrative arc that Betrayal does. Sure, it lacks consistency, and yeah, sometimes the scenarios are so imbalanced as to feel unwinnable for one side. Still, I contend that if you're playing Betrayal to win, you're doing it wrong. Let the inside jokes and funny stories commence and last as long as a traitor who puts a dragon in the Mystical Elevator.

2) Ticket to Ride

It's very tempting to replace Ticket to Ride with Railways of the World, for which there are ample expansions and table-devouring maps. Sadly, Railways struggles with a runaway leader, and Ticket to Ride does not. It's got plenty of depth for what it is, and so many extra maps and rules sets that I find it continuously fascinating. In my collection of train games dominated by Martin Wallace, Alan Moon still reigns supreme.

I'll mention here that I suppose I'm including all mobile apps for each of these games, since Ticket to Ride and Summoner Wars are two of my favorite apps of all time, and they take up no additional space in the box.

3) Summoner Wars

This is the sole two-player-primarily game on my list, after BattleLore was ousted and Memoir '44 didn't replace it. I've fallen in and out of love with this game so many times as to make my heart spin, and yet, whenever I get in a game I find myself drawn to the simplicity and tactical pleasure of chasing summoners, hoarding magic, and dominating Itharia. It's a better experience on the iPad, but the tabletop version is good enough on its own to warrant its position on my list.

4) 7 Wonders

Maybe I'm biased because I just re-boxed 7 Wonders and all its expansions in the Broken Token insert. Something about new storage or a new expansion for an old game can make it feel new again. The base game of 7 Wonders remains one of my favorite games, particularly for 5-7 players. Antoine Bauza has done awesome work with the expansions, adding new and interesting features that allow for team play, additional scoring types, etc. I'm counting 7 Wonders Duel as an expansion, I suppose, though even without it I'm convinced I'll want to play this game for years.

New this year:

5) Battlestar Galactica

BSG was my hardest cut last year, and I rationalized it by saying that Coup could handle the six-player niche and the hidden information/deduction niche. I was wrong. Battlestar, please come back into my life. This year I'm trending towards longer, more involved games (just wait until you see #'s 9 and 10 on this list) and BSG is a part of that. Dark Moon was released in 2015 and purported to give the same experience in a shorter play time, but I found that I wanted the long, dramatic tension of BSG. The "reveal" of being a Cylon feels better when it's been precipitated by an hour or more of lying.

I haven't ventured much into BSG's expansions, though I've heard from many fans that the game is best with all the bells and whistles. In my experience, the base game is just fine for delivering what I want, but since I get to add them all without expanding the list, I'll take them.

6) Concordia

Mac Gerts' take on the popular "trading in the Mediterranean" theme is my favorite pure "Euro". This is my replacement for Lords of Waterdeep on this list, as I prefer Concordia's elegant mix of action selection and scoring in its cards to Lords' more random (and less interesting) quests. Despite having a VP track, Concordia does a great job of obfuscating the score of the game, leaving players to focus on choices outside the context of pulling back the leader. Given my friends' tendency to punish me in games (the plight of every alpha gamer), perhaps the near-total lack of denial in Concordia makes me feel safe to pursue any strategy I'd like.

Concordia could be subtitled "One Coin Short" for all the times that I and other players have been just short of pulling off some amazing sequence of actions, and that kind of pressure leads to interesting analysis and decisions packed with tension. As a bonus, Concordia is one of the easier Euros to teach, despite its depth, due to the relative simplicity of components and the nature of action selection as a mechanic. "On your turn, play a card and do what it says" is not particularly difficult to convey.

7) Codenames

My #2 game of the year in 2015, and my favorite "party" game of all time. Vlaada Chvatil's triumphant offering exists outside of the scope of his meatier games like Mage Knight and Galaxy Trucker, but contains the same brilliance in design. It's easy to pass Codenames off as "Taboo" or "Mastermind" or something in between, but it's got a soul of its own and it's among the most accessible "thinky" game I've ever introduced to my family.

For a light game made of only cards and words, Codenames can possess intimate moments of strategic thought, and definitely elicits moments of "pop" from players surprised by the results of their guesses. The honeymoon has to end sometime, but for now I feel like I could play this game forever, and the nature of the cards and mechanics all but guarantees that I'll be able to. Plus, there may be expansions soon!

8) Scythe

Unlike last year's inclusion of BattleLore, this year's inclusion of Scythe comes with foreknowledge that I'll love the game. I've played Scythe, albeit a prototype review copy, and this game is among the best I've ever tried. It's "modern" in the sense that downtime is reduced to almost nothing with respect to the scope of the game, and though it's not a true "4x", it's got enough of each element to scratch that itch.

True to its Kickstarter origins, it has beautiful mechs and other miniatures, and the metal coins and resin resources mean the tactile pleasure will match the tactical joy of play. Jamey Stegmaier's master stroke in game design will be on my shelf for a long, long time.

If I were more of a fan of space as a genre, I might have included Eclipse and its expansions instead, but given its position somewhere between Scythe and Twilight Imperium it seems unnecessary.

9) Twilight Imperium (3rd Edition)

Hoo boy, now I get to the grand, operatic adventures. Twilight Imperium III and its expansions create an 8-12 hour game experience, replete with strategic planning, tactical execution, and diplomatic intrigue. It wasn't until I played TI:3 this year that I started to appreciate why long games are so fun. The anticipation around scheduling an all-day event, the tension drawn out over hours and hours of play, and the time and space (pun intended) to see long-term plans come to fruition all come together to make for an outstanding experience.

If nothing else, 2015 saw me move from a gateway gamer to a more experienced member of the hobby. I'm now finding that when I have time to game, I want most to get my big, grand games to the table. I suppose it's a very meta type of discovery that mirrors what happens in games while I play.

10) Mega Civilization

If TI:3 wasn't a large enough game, Mega Civilization lets 18 players play a 12-15 hour game of stone age strategy. This game is so big that scheduling a session takes longer than most other games, and the space required trumps anything else I've seen on a table (or six, as it so happens). Mega Civilization is a developed re-imagining of Advanced Civilization, and does exactly what you'd hope a game 40 years in the making would do. Check out my recap of a recent session to get a sense for how grand this game really is.

For a cartographile like myself, simply starting at a 2 foot by 7 foot map of the ancient world is fascinating, and then to start moving those tokens around the board induces indescribable joy. It's going to take more plays before I'm willing to replace Betrayal at House on the Hill as my favorite game, but Mega Civ is the game that will eventually do it.

Honorable Mentions:

Railways of the World, BattleCON, Xia: Legends of a Drift System, Chaosmos, Cosmic Encounter, Viticulture/Tuscany

A special note about Pandemic Legacy:

Pandemic Legacy was my game of the year in 2015. It's delightful and warrants a full review of its own, so I'll just say that the combination of expansion mechanics, theme, storyline, and the integration of Legacy elements took a game I was solidly "meh" about and turned it into one of the greatest gaming experiences of my life. Sadly, like a pinata or a snapchat pic, it can only be truly appreciated once. I'm sure multiple plays would yield a higher score, and perhaps some more intriguing decisions, but the one-and-done nature of the game means it can't be on my "forever" list.

What about you? What games do you love the most, or could you not be without? Post your "ten games" in the comments, or let me know what you think of mine!

JR Honeycutt is a full-time husband and game-player, and co-host of The Nerd Nighters. You can find him on Twitter at @JayAhre or at a Friendly Local Game Store in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas. 

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