This was a year when I finally reached my limit on a lot of boardgames. It had been coming for some time, but I finally just got to the point where I got really tired of playing the same game over and over, just with a different name or some extra element tacked on. Most of these games weren’t bad, in that they were certainly playable and, had I encountered them at a different time, I might have had high praise for them. But I got to the point where, for example, big plastic wheels moving workers around wasn’t enough to offset the fact that those workers were just turning bricks into buildings to move up on the God track or whatever and man, how many different ways do we need to do that? I own a lot of games I love, and I don’t understand anymore why I’m playing whatever cloth-on-a-boat thing is heating up the ratings and my copy of Tikal hasn’t been touched in ages. That’s wrong. It didn’t help that on top of the same old stuff coming out of the usual suspects, Kickstarter has also meant that we get even more games out there that have no reason to exist in the first place.
I tracked all the new-to-me games I played this year here, and there were 67 of them. That’s too damn many, and in 2014 I would like to play fewer of them. That’s hard because I play with others and they want to try out new stuff, so I don’t know how or if I will accomplish this and still play with my friends.
It also doesn’t help that, while there were certainly new-to-me games that I liked, there were few that really stood out for me, My Game of the Year earns its spot, but this year the competition was not quite as fierce. Still, these are ones that I would like to play more of. Here you go, my 10 best new-to-me games of 2013.
Mage Wars – The most incredible thing about Mage Wars is that it’s such a great idea, you wonder how on Earth it didn’t happen sooner. In Magic: the Gathering, the players are wizards casting spells, summoning creatures, and doing battle to defeat each other, but they’re odd sorts of wizards who access their spells randomly. Mage Wars gives you your entire spellbook: a fully-customizable actual book with cards representing spells, and each turn you can cast whatever you damn well please out of it, assuming you have the power to do so. Mage Wars also takes the battle down to an arena where your creatures move around. Despite a clunky rulebook, the whole thing works extremely well, and is a blast to play. That said, the customizable aspect it where it falls down for me. That’s just not something I’m going to spend much time doing these days, even though it isn’t that complicated. But give me a spellbook already made and I am up for a game.
Kemet – This was the only new game I played at Trashfest NE, and it was the perfect place to play it. It’s a messy, pile-on-the-leader-pick-off-the-weak slugfest but it works. It also does what it does at a surprisingly quick pace, which is nice. The rules kind of get out of the way and let you do what you want, which is beat up other people with giant dung beetles. I used to say I don’t have much of a head for “dudes on a map” games like this one, but I held my own in it pretty well, considering it was my first time playing. This is one I’ve thought about picking up, but I’m not sure how popular it would be with my gaming groups.
Sid Meier’s Civilization – One of two civ-builder games that made the list, this is the one that feels most like a traditional civilization game. While I am hapless in the computer versions of this game, the boardgame slices up the turns enough that I can keep track of it all. I’ve done well in it — I won all three games I’ve played so far — but more importantly, I won them in different ways, and I appreciate that in a game (although the culture victory really needs the expansion to make it viable). I’m not sure this one unseats Through the Ages, my current favorite in this genre, but it’s a strong and more “pure” contender, as Through the Ages does a lot more abstraction.
Nightfall – Nightfall came out in the 2011 rush to capitalize on the new idea of deckbuilding games and, no pun intended, got lost in the shuffle. Yet it somehow got developed into an iPad game. I got that game and found it impentrable, even with the tutorial, so I picked up a cheap copy of the physical game in an effort to learn it. Man, I’m glad I did, because this one is great. It’s completely different from other deckbuilders in that you’re not just improving an engine trying to amass VPs, you are just slamming a chair into the face of your opponent, over and over. Once you get the rules down, and they’re pretty neat, it’s a fast-paced, bloodthirsty monster of a game. It’s messy with three and I wouldn’t play with more, but with two it’s great. I’ve since picked up a few of the expansions and I can’t wait to dig into them. As a side note, another deckbuilder I really enjoyed this year was Core Worlds, but ultimately Nightfall beat that out out for this slot. I wrote about Nightfall here.
Guildhall – Never before have I seen a game that so wanted to present itself as the most bland, uninteresting thing imaginable. The boring name. The make-do “theme”. The awful, awful cover. Given how I felt this year about turning the same old wheat into cloth to impress the royal bellmaker, I was not looking forward to this one. Surprisingly, it’s not the usual junk but a vicious take-that card game of constantly screwing with your opponents. You’re trying to stack your guildhall with professions because not only do they get more powerful the more you have, but if you get a full set of them, you can buy victory points. Most of their abilities, however, involve swiping folks from other players, so it’s not as simple as that. Probably takes a little longer than it should, and it’s not for everyone, but I really dig it. I mean come on, I invited that goddamn cover onto my shelf. I wrote about it here.
The Great Zimbabwe – This is a great example of what I want more of. In the hands of another company, this game would be about building palaces to impress the Duke of Naples or something. Instead it’s got an African theme and great, evocative art, and that in itself is enough to make me view it differently. The gameplay is odd, and it takes a bit to get one’s head around, but it’s essentially a transportation network type game in which nothing really physically moves. Also has a neat idea in that cards you take may give you better powers, but will then make it harder for you to win. I like this one a lot and I’m looking forward to revisiting it again.
Clash of Cultures – The other civ game on my list this year, though I don’t really see Clash of Cultures as a competitor to Sid Meier’s Civilization. Both are of course somewhat similar, but I think they’re ultimately trying to do different things. As its name implies, this game, though including exploration, conquest, resources, and such, focuses more on culture. That is, you are more encouraged to develop technologies and ideas. While you can certainly send the troops to sack a neighbor’s city, the resulting conquered people will be grumpy and unhelpful. If your city is smart enough, you can take over chunks of the opponent’s cities much easier. It’s an interesting approach, and I’m eager to try it more and with more players, as I’ve only played with two so far.
Ginkgopolis – I guess I heard about this before Unity Games because I wanted to try it there. I did, and I liked it a bunch (I ordered my own copy) but haven’t heard it mentioned since. It’s a hard game to describe as you’re ultimately trying to build territory so that you control a majority, but there are a bunch of other things going on as well. I love the look of it, and it’s one of the few games I’ve tried out this year that seems to be pretty well liked by the folks I’ve introduced it to. It’s a shame it dropped off everyone’s radar. An expansion was released for it at Essen, but I looked at that and it seems like it would take away more from the game than it would add.
Pathfinder Adventure Card Game – Let’s be perfectly clear: this is not a fantastic game. It’s pretty repetitive, there’s no real “story” that happens, and it’s possibly too easy. What it is, though, is a lot of fun. Played solo, as I’ve been doing, it’s like playing a videogame. You go in, you fight stuff, you get loot, and you beat the boss. If you don’t, you start the level again. You can grind a boss over and over to build up before taking out a bigger threat. In that sense, it’s a hoot, and if it was on the iPad where it would take care of all the cards an such I would spend so much time on it. I played better games this year, but I’ve had a ton of fun with this one. I wrote about it here.
Love Letter – Just sixteen cards and it’s rife with bluffing, deduction, luck, and skill. A fun, fast, easy to learn game that fits in your pocket. Love Letter is a clever design that also happens to be a fun game. I think everyone I played it with was surprised at how much was there in such a small, innocent-looking package. This is one I can definitely see playing again and again.
Freedom: The Underground Railroad – A really cool execution of a good idea for a game; helping slaves escape the US South. It’s a dark, brutal theme, which is somewhat abstracted, but still resonant. Best of all, the design of the game isn’t the usual whack-a-mole that co-op games often are. Only played once, and co-ops don’t get a lot of love in my groups, but it’s worthwhile.
Star Wars: The Card Game — I liked this LCG a lot, and I wrote about it here. A good design that I felt was only hampered by the specific Star Warsian elements (I’m looking at you, Force Battle). Loved it a bunch, bought some expansions, and now it’s on the trade pile. Why? As I said in the Mage Wars entry, I will never customize this customizable card game. I just have no desire to do that anymore. It won’t happen, and I’m not going to pretend it will.
Scoundrels of Skullport – A great expansion to a great game, this one pulled off the job of adding to the game without taking away what made it great.
Remember when I said Planet Steam deserved a more sane reprint? Behold!
The ones not here that I think people might expect are Terra Mystica, Eclipse, and the Star Wars X-Wing Miniatures Game. Terra Mystica I got kind of excited about after I played it, and I even preordered a copy. When those orders were allocated I missed out, but by then I was kind of okay with that. It’s an alright game, but ultimately not anything to get worked up over. Eclipse I wanted to like a lot more than I did, but both times I played it just fizzled out. The Star Wars X-Wing thing seems like a very good game of that type, but it’s a type I have zero aptitude with or interest in.