Notable Games of 2009

Another “cool-down” year for me. I bought significantly fewer games and continue to brutally remove games from my shelves if they’re not getting played, no matter how neat I think they might be. Most notably, I sold my Magic cards after years of not doing anything with them. Magic is still probably the game I’ve had the most fun with in my lifetime, but if it’s not getting played it’s not getting played.

I also found myself not experiencing a lot of the new hotness. Current faves like At the Gates of Loyang, Carson City, Tobago, and so forth have not made it to the tables of anyone I game with, so I can’t say anything about them. There are a number of reasons for this. First, I think the people I game with, by and large, have become extremely wary of the new hotness in general. The games which in previous years have wowed hobby gamers have largely fallen flat with most of us. I think that, as a group, we’re all pretty tired of turning cubes into goods into victory points. It really seems like there’s a lot of same-old same-old out there, and I’m just not as eager to play the latest configuration of the same four or five mechanics to come out of Essen. There was a time when I would get excited if a new game was getting scads of good reviews, but I’ve realized that Old Maid would get glowing reviews if it was designed by Wolfgang Kramer and sold out within minutes at Essen.

That’s what has made my notable games even more notable, for me. They stood out above all the usual noise and fluff and hype and not only grabbed me once, they grabbed me several times.

Before I get to them, though, let’s look at last year’s notable games. The top one, Pandemic, continues to delight me, and the On the Brink expansion makes it into even more of a nail-biter. In the Year of the Dragon hasn’t gotten much more attention, sorry to say. And Sorry Sliders has barely left the box; it’s on the chopping block. The rest have continued to get play and I have no regrets on. Of the honorable mentions, only Brass got any further plays, and I kind of cooled on it. I’d still be up for more of the others, though.

So what new (to me, at least) games made the list this year?

Bottle Imp (Flaschenteufel) – One of the two games that really impressed me at Unity Games, Bottle Imp is a sinister little trick-taking game, in which the bottle is quite easy to “win” but very difficult to get rid of, and you don’t want it. It takes a few plays to get your head around it, but not because it’s hard to learn, just tough to “get”. And it even comes with a copy of the story by Robert Louis Stevenson on which it is based!

Steam – Age of Steam got a facelift and achieved what I didn’t think was possible: took a game I already loved and made it even better. I wrote more about it here.

Neuroshima Hex – The other game from Unity, this uniquely-themed strategy game is one I had heard a lot about and been dying to try. Matt, Al, and I played it and we each finished our first game wanting to buy it. Since then, it has not disappointed. More here.

New World: A Carcassonne Game – I’ll be the first to admit that this is kind of the weakest pick here. It’s a new Carcassonne variant, but unlike previous ones, it actually adds some new elements to the game: timing and push-your-luck. Apparently this is too much for fans, as many have called it one of the worst Carcs ever, whereas it’s the first one in a while that was significantly different enough for me to buy it, and I’ve really enjoyed it.

Ghost Stories – Last year’s game of the year was a cooperative game, a genre I had no great love for. Yet the previous clunky co-op games have been supplanted by truly exciting and fun ones such as this one. And like Pandemic, it’s one where you fight together until the last tense moment. If anything, it’s even harsher. And a lot of fun.

Ra: The Dice Game – Speaking of genres that weren’t wowing me, I love dice, but hadn’t yet found a dice game that was any more fun or interesting than Yahtzee. Both To Court the King and Roll Through the Ages involved one player rolling dice while the others watched. Each player’s actions had little to no effect on the others. Ra doesn’t change this too much, but there are some decisions to make that bring some level of interaction to the game. It’s a step in the right direction.

Chaos in the Old World – This is a very close second for game of the year. How to describe this? A combination European-Amertirash game with area control and combat, set in the weirdo Warhammer universe I don’t care anything about. You play the role of evil gods bent on destruction, carving a path of misery across a doomed world. Each god has his own goal and path to victory, and it seems like a big, stupid mess but the result is gloriously fun.

Dice Town – Early reports compared this to an old favorite, Liar’s Dice, and I grabbed it expecting a strong bluffing element. There’s not one. What there is, however, is a fun time with a lot of action, trash talk, and a surprising amount of strategy. Every group I’ve played this with seems to like it, and everyone’s eager to give it a try. A really well-done, fun, attractive game.

Endeavor – At first this appears to be every other Eurogame out there: colonizing, shipping, little tokens, and so forth. Cracking it open and seeing the usual beige-on-tan color palette, I wasn’t expecting a lot. But it’s actually an interaction-rich, nicely thematic game that’s been stripped down to its essence, and plays surprisingly fast…almost too fast. This is the game you always suspect is lying underneath levels of auctions, cube transformations, action points, worker placement, and other junk. Endeavor pulls all that away and gets at the heart of the game, and it’s a fun, interesting game.

GAME OF THE YEAR

Small World – There was no doubt for me that this was the year’s Best in Show. It’s just a top-rate design. Every detail works perfectly, and there are even small details that at first seem stupid and then later reveal incredible thought.

For example, there are mountain spaces on the board that are easy to see. There are also cardboard mountain tokens that go in them. What a stupid, useless waste, right? Well, the thing about mountains is that, unlike every other space, they require an extra unit to conquer. The mountain token allows you to explain the conquer rule in one sentence: it takes two units to conquer any territory, plus one extra unit for any tokens already in the region. The mountain tokens are an extra token, so the terrain cost is figured in. Easy peasy.

There was even thought about how well the game would scale, to the point where it comes with four different boards, one for each number of players from two to five. And it plays with two just as well as with five. It is easy to both teach and pick up, and there isn’t a huge amount of downtime, even with five players.

The game also just plain looks great. God knows I am sick to death of fantasy, but the theme here works perfectly, providing fun and whimsical combinations of races and abilities.

If all of that weren’t enough, there are also two inexpensive expansions that add more races and abilities that just increase the possible fun combos! I can’t imagine getting tired of this game any time soon.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

These are games that I found interesting, but haven’t played enough to really form an opinion on yet, so I’m looking forward to more plays. This is also the Matt corner, as all of these are his.

Mechanisburgo – This is one crazy-ass game full of some of the most wild stuff you can imagine, and I will talk about it in more detail after I’ve played some more.

Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas – A game about monks in an ever-changing library, looking to rescue books from primal fears. If the theme doesn’t bend your mind a little, the puzzle-like gameplay just might.

Wiz-War – Matt made a homebrew copy of this out of print game, and it’s been a hoot so far, full of all kinds of crazy randomness.

HEY YOU FORGOT

Le Havre and At the Gates of Loyang – Nope. Played the former and, while I like it more than Agricola, that’s like saying I like fleas more than ticks. I’d rather have neither. Nothing I heard about the latter makes me even interested in trying it.

AND FINALLY

You Can’t Check Me

Holy Shit, Auctions!

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