After swearing last year that I had played too much junk, too many games that weren’t worth playing once, much less twice, and that I’d put an end to it, I broke my previous record and played 100 New to Me Games in 2014. While I admit that towards the end I kind of leaned into that number, it’s a dubious achievement.
Now, part of that was that this year, in addition to Unity Games and Trashfest, I also attended ConnCon and Gen Con, and all of those upped my number, but still, the majority of the new to me stuff was from my regular old gaming.
Of those 100 new-to-me games, I played 37 of them more than once. This doesn’t necessarily imply they were the ones I liked, as there were some in there I didn’t care for. Of the remaining 63, there were ten that I’m really looking forward to playing again: Akrotiri, Battle for Souls, Cockroach Poker, Gang of Four, Ground Floor, Hyperborea, Origin, Rails of New England, Sail to India, Zeppelin Attack. More to the point, to those 37 new-to-me games I played more than once, you only need to add 12 more games played more than once that weren’t new to me. The majority of games I played total were only played once.
At one point last year I decided to give Kickstarter a whirl and backed some boardgames. I received them all this year, and of the seven, only two or three are keepers. For the record, I played (and bought) some games this year that started their lives as Kickstarters, and which I liked a bunch, but I played far more KS-originated games that I’m glad weren’t backed with my own money.
The upshot of this is that I’ll probably be doing less overall gaming in the upcoming year. I just don’t have an interest in the latest procedural drudgery simulation from Europe or the latest worker placement metal coins thing from Kickstarter. I’d rather my yearly total of games played were only 20 games I really enjoyed instead of 200 games I didn’t care about. I’d rather spend my time doing something else.
But enough of the downer stuff. Let’s talk about the high point, the things I discovered and really like. The 10 best new-to-me games of 2014. Oops, there are 12. Well that’s a good thing, right?
Imperial Settlers – One of my all-time favorite games is The New Era, but it’s a tough game to teach and it goes a little long, so it’s hard to get it played. When I heard that Imperial Settlers was essentially the New Era engine simplified and streamlined, I jumped at the chance. The game is a gem, playing much more quickly and easily than its ancestor, but also with a flavor of its own. And it has a charming, affable look to it that hides its often brutal nature. The only issue I have with it is that I’d still rather play The New Era. Imperial Settlers is a keeper for now, and I think expansions are going to really make it shine, but my heart still belongs to The New Era. I wrote about Imperial Settlers here.
Battle Merchants – Battle Merchants started its life as a Kickstarter, and it’s one of the few games I’m sorry I didn’t back, not for any exclusive stuff, but because it’s the kind of thing I’d love to be able to say I helped support. I discovered it at Gen Con, unfortunately after my bags were full, but I immediately placed an order for it upon my return. I love the theme, where a bunch of fantasy races are having a war and you don’t care who wins, so long as they buy your weapons. It’s not groundbreaking but it’s a great idea done well and I’ve enjoyed all my plays of it. It deserves more attention, and I wrote about it here
Kolejka – Kolejka is a marvel of form and function. It’s intended to simulate going shopping in Communist Poland, an activity that consisted largely of standing in lines, jostling for position in line, and hoping to god the store will actually open and have merchandise — any merchandise. The game’s look and feel drives this point home both in its artwork and components (and the rulebook, which also tells more about the conditions of the time). More than that, though, it’s a fun take-that game, and the emphasis on theme helps greatly. Boardgames that try to teach people about something other than famous battles seldom do a good job of either teaching or being enjoyable, but Kolejka is the rare exception that does both. I wrote about it here.
Marrying Mr. Darcy – This is the only game I backed on Kickstarter that made it on the list (though I also liked Coin Age and Pairs). Marrying Mr. Darcy is exactly what I want out of such a project: a fun, inexpensive game by a new designer with an unusual theme. And it is a hoot. Hardcore gamers will hate it; it’s incredibly random and luck-filled, and one of the heroines may be unbalanced. But if you don’t have fun slap-fighting and trash-talking your rivals with this then I don’t know why you play games in the first place. It’s what is often called derisively an “experience game” in which the play session is what you’re there for, not necessarily the game itself. But I play games for a fun experience; if I want to challenge my brain I can do a Kakuro puzzle. Marrying Mr. Darcy is everything I want more of in boardgames. I wrote about it here.
Pax Porfiriana – Phil Eklund makes heavy, meaty games that by god are going to use every inch of the research he did on the topic. I’ve only played a couple of them, and honestly the ones I’ve played haven’t grabbed me — except for this one. It’s about the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and the rule of the dictator Porfirio Díaz and honestly, I don’t know much more about it now than I did before I played the game. What I do know about it is that it’s a tight tableau-building game, and I like those a bunch. You are a rival to Díaz and are hoping to overthrow him with whatever resources you can tilt to your side. There are a ton of cards, but you only use some of them, so each game can have significant differences. It’s got a terrible rulebook and the design is hideous, but once you get past both this is a great game that unfortunately I think is nearly impossible to get one’s hands on.
Pandemic: The Cure – Pandemic was my Game of the Year in 2008 and it’s still a favorite, though it doesn’t get as much play as I’d like. This dice version of Pandemic takes all of the fun and tension of that game and translates it seamlessly into a different format, making it even more accessible and quick-playing than before, though with an added element of unpredictability (which can be mitigated through good play). I wasn’t sure I needed a dice version of Pandemic until I played it, and it immediately went on my wish list. I got a copy for Christmas and a bunch of casual game players played it over and over, determined to finally save the world. I still like the original, but this is a great alternative.
Thunder Alley – For as long as I’ve been playing boardgames, the champion of racing games has been Formula De. And I like it a bunch. However, I’ve hardly played it. It’s big, it’s super long, and there’s a lot of downtime. Thunder Alley is poised to take down the champion. It’s not only leaner and meaner, it also has more engaging play. Each player controls a team of cars, and the emphasis is on drafting and positioning instead of pure speed. It’s the opposite of a cooperative game, a parasitic one, where you’re trying to take advantage of what the other players are doing to help you out. It’s exciting and a lot of fun and I wish I’d played more of it last year.
Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island – Designer Ignacy Trzewiczek’s motto is “boardgames that tell stories” and Robinson Crusoe is a stellar example of that. It’s a cooperative game in which the players need to find food, build shelter, deal with various hazards, keep from losing hope, and, oh by the way, some other goal that must be attained. The game is tough, and every play is full of tension and hard decisions. It’s not quite the usual “whack-a-mole” of many co-ops, as it’s not always clear what needs to be addressed most. The narrative that develops is always interesting, and the number of different scenarios already (including a “campaign” expansion) is staggering. It’s one of the two games on this list I don’t have my own copy of, but I plan on doing something about that.
Nations – If you followed along, Nations took a winding path to this spot. I was very excited about it, then played a game of it that didn’t thrill me, and then a disastrous game that was one of the worst gaming experiences I’ve ever had. After discovering the misery of that session was due to an important missed rule, I tried it again and once I was playing correctly it shot up in my esteem. I still think it favors military too much, but I’ll always say that about civ games (because they usually do). Nations worked hard to earn this spot and I’m glad I gave it the chance to do so. I wrote about it here.
Theseus: The Dark Orbit – It’s been a long time since I played a game that made me say, “Wow, that is not like anything else I’ve played.” In an environment where people get excited about some slight modification to worker placement, a truly unique game is something to be appreciated. These us was like that for me, to the point where it’s hard to describe. It seems like a “dudes-on-a-map” type game, but it’s more puzzly than that, and yet it’s also too sloppy and vicious to be just a thinky beard-scratcher. What it is is a lot of fun. I’ve only played it with two and would like to at least see the chaos that three or four would cause. This one definitely needs to be explored more. I wrote about it here.
Valley of the Kings – This was the New to Me game that got the most plays this year. I was introduced to it by pal Jim and I immediately bought my own copy and taught it to everyone I knew, usually with good results. While another small deckbuilding game got more attention this year elsewhere, this is the one I thought was more interesting and had more staying power. It also puts a new spin on deckbuilding, as getting cards out of your deck is not only important, it’s necessary to win. Deciding when to entomb a valuable yet powerful card is agonizing, and you have to make that decision over and over. Add in the number of cards that screw with opponents and you have a great game that plays well at all player counts. I wrote about it here.
Impulse – In a year with a number of strong contenders, this was not a clear and obvious choice to me until I actually knuckled down and made it. Impulse was the game this year that really impressed me the most. What I liked about it seems to be exactly what other people don’t like about it, unfortunately for it. It looks like it’s going to be a drawn out space conquest game with a lot of long strategy and tug-of-war, but the game is called “Impulse”, people! It’s not that at all, it’s a fast-paced bloody-knuckled sprint. Its stripped-down components and design make for a lean, quick machine that has very little fluff bolted onto it. Every game has been taut and fun, and so far three seems to be the optimum number, but it works fine with two. I’d love to see the chaotic mosh pit that six would be, at least once. Impulse is getting passed over a lot because it’s not what people thought it was, but once you appreciate what it actually is, it’s a delight. I wrote about it here.
This space is usually for things I got to too late in the year to really give some time to and expect to get more play out of.
Hyperborea – An interesting variant on 4x/dudes-on-a-map/deck-building without really being any of those things. I’ve only played it once so far, and with only two players (it seems more suited for more) but what I saw was pretty intriguing and I’d love to play it more.
Akrotiri – This game looked very much like a lot of the same stuff I’m really tired of, and if it had been a four-player game it probably would be. But for some reason I can’t understand, limiting it to two players made it really shine, and I think it would be a good one to have in the two-player rotation.
Ruins – More cards for The New Era? Please and thank you! This small expansion gave us new production, new leaders, and, of course, new icons to figure out! A treat!
Dead of Winter, Firefly, Russian Railroads, Machi Koro, and Splendor are all things that are getting a lot of praise this year. I played them but was not wowed by any of them and actively disliked a few of them. I didn’t play Five Tribes, Abyss, Castles of Mad King Ludwig, A Study in Emerald, Camel Up, Tragedy Looper, or Panamax. My biggest disappointment was probably The Battle at Kemble’s Cascade, which I was so looking forward to and wanted to like so much but it just isn’t a good game.