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2013: Best of Games

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Best Innovative Wargame

Polis: Fight for the Hegemony (2010)

I'm not sure where Polis came from.  Well, it came from Spain, given that the designer, playtesters, and publisher are all Spanish.  But mechanically, I don't see the genesis at all, which is truly incredible.  Most of the mechanics here are very new, with the ability to trade goods overseas with an interesting market mechanic, a taxing system that I've never seen before, and a prestige/VP track that is completely interwoven into the gameplay so that it doesn't feel like empty VPs, but rather a resource and non-arbitrary way of determining a winner.  The end result is a true Euro-wargame blend, one that feels uncomplicated and clean like the best euros, but feels thematic and has important positional play and direct conflict like a war game.  There have been other Euro-wargames before, but nothing that feels like this.

The gameplay is ruthlessly tight.  The setup is the same every time, and the randomness is very low, which makes planning out turns more like an abstract than the "react to what happens" of your typical wargame.  One mistake tends to have a ripple effect, so that by the time you're four turns down the road, you finally realize that you should have made a different decision four turns back.  I have some worries about the game becoming scripted, but the Boardgamegeek community hasn't figured it out yet, which means that I'll probably have a whole lot of time before I find anything approaching the optimal strategy.  I'm three games in, and every time I've looked forward to the next play.  This game really has some staying power.


Best Multiplayer Wargame

Pax Britannica (1985)

Negotiation, and crisp history, and a very different set of objectives for all seven different nations?  What's not to love?  There's no closer simulation I've found for the colonial era.  Lots of games have a theme of exploration and exploitation set in this time period, but few have the chutzpah to simulate it over the whole world, or over this length of time.  The different nations also are significantly differentiated, making the whole of the game divided quite sharply into haves and have-nots, a hallmark of the era.  Historical gameplay is not only a possibility, but is likely to develop simply because of the geography of the board.  The prestige and self-identity of these nations was so crucial to the philosophy and justification of colonial policy, and it too is shown here, in the form of heavy negotiation.  There's even the ever-increasing likelihood that World War I will be triggered every time a nation refuses to cooperate.  The game does so, so well at showing how the colonial era began, progressed, and finally reached its explosive endpoint. 

I do have some qualms about the politics of this game.  The theme of this game is already rather problematic, what with the great European powers all going off and claiming the rest of the worldas if there wasn't anybody there already.  Nonetheless, it happened, and trying to pretend that it didn't isn't going to fix anything, so I don't have a problem with the game's realistic depiction of events.  However, the designer's notes are of an old-guard colonialist sticking to his guns, and insisting that colonialism really wasn't that bad.  Well, it was that bad.  Anytime you have a culture taking away the basic freedoms of another culture, there's a moral wrong being committed.  There's no question that it led to the worldwide economy we have now, and ushered in an era of prosperity for a certain section of the world, but it was hardly a global good.  Still, it's my belief that the game can be enjoyed while acknowledging the evils that happened.  There's nothing inherent in the rules that forces an antiquated viewpoint, and it's very possible to play the game while coming to a greater understanding of why this era was so problematic.


Best Reimplementation of a Popular Franchise

Axis & Allies Europe 1940 (2010)
Axis & Allies Pacific 1940 (2009)

This is an absolutely incredible addition to a series that is well-known.  With these two games combined into the global war, Axis and Allies has finally delivered on its promise to simulate the whole war.  Sure, there are still a few questionable historical choices.  It's still a good strategy for Japan to invade Russia through Siberia, and the Italian navy is actually useful, presumably to give the Italian player something to do.  These make as little sense as they did in the previous editions, but most of the rest of the cheesy ahistorical gaminess is gone.  A little bit of chrome has been laid over the top of the system in the form of National Objectives and air- and naval-bases.  These have swung the game to focusing on the geographical chokepoints that the war revolved around historically.  It's a great example of how a judicious amount of extra rules can lead to a historical feel without making the game feel ponderously slow.

Even better than the improved history, however, there's no one-size-fits-all strategy here as there is in the previous editions (hint: buy infantry).  Each nation has a fundamental choice of several different approaches.  The strategic goals remain the same -- Germany still needs to hold off the Allies until it can defeat Russia, for instance.  But the fashion in which you reach those goals has a plethora of options.  In our Germany case, she can build air units and sea units to sink the Allied transports, or land units to wage a back-and-forth land battle and keep throwing the Allies back into the ocean.

Grizzled wargamers may turn their noses up at this, but it's worth playing.  It's the best simulation of the whole war that I know of.


Honorable Mentions

7 Ages (2004) - Goes down the rabbit hole that History of the World eschews.  What if we actually gave each empire the chance to keep growing unchecked?  It's an amazing scope of history game that manages to weave technology and emergent empires into a game that naturally sends the old empires into decline.   

Clash of Cultures (2012) - May very well be deserving of the best-of-year award, but I only got one play in, and I don't feel qualified to judge it based only on that one play.  Hits all the high points of Civilization design, including exploration, growth, conflict, and a great tech tree.

Scripts and Scribes (later released as Biblios) (2007) - The first filler I've enjoyed this much in quite some time.  Very fast, and full of decisions throughout the game.  Perfect example of what ruthlessly tight design can be.

Terra Mystica (2012) - Token Euro for this list.  Timing and growth decisions are interesting, and the variable player powers feel actually relevant, unlike most Euros.  Theme is a bit generic, and I'm not sure I'll still love it four plays from now, but it shows promise.


Trend: Thematic, warty games

For a long time, I've been migrating away from mechanics-driven Euros to theme-driven wargames, but this year had an especially large number of new games that were theme-first, gameplay second.  The games that take this approach are a bit more fragile -- sometimes they are group-dependent and sometimes the decisions are not satisfying.  Nevertheless, when one of these games works well, it provides an experience that can never be matched by cube crunchers.  Aside from the aforementioned Pax Britannia and 7 Ages above, I played a lot of these games this year: MIL (1049)CO₂Greed IncorporatedDinosaurs of the Lost WorldGumshoe, and Age of Renaissance all fit into this mold, and although a few were stinkers, I'm really glad I played every single one.



Chaos Marauders (1987, I played 2007 rerelease) and Dungeon Roll (2013) - These are two generic fantasy themed, game-plays-you kind of games.  One has cards, and one has dice.  In both, the luckiest person is going to win, every time. 

Card Football: Premiere Edition (2006) - Draw poker where you try to outguess your opponent and save hands for the best time.  The football part is distracting and nonsensical.

Pizza Box Football Expansion (2005) - One of the worst expansions to a game ever, simply because it changes almost nothing.  The extra playcalls were already in the base box, and the team ratings both barely make a difference and are only in a scale of 1-3, meaning that most of the 32 teams in the box are duplicates of each other.

Risk: Transformers (2007) - All the problems of regular Risk, but with a cheap gimmicky board and no connection to the theme.


Complete List of All New-to-me Games Played in 2013

Cards Against Humanity: Third Expansion
Age of Industry
MIL (1049)
10 Days in Asia
20th Century
7 Ages
Age of Industry Expansion #1: Japan and Minnesota
Chaos Marauders
Forbidden Island
Greed Incorporated
Leaping Lemmings
Ore: The Mining Game
Polis: Fight for the Hegemony
Ren Faire
World at War: Blood and Bridges
World of Warcraft Trading Card Game
Ad Astra
Age of Mythology: The Boardgame
Age of Renaissance
Alcatraz: The Scapegoat
Australian Rails
Axis & Allies Europe 1940
Axis & Allies Pacific 1940
Berserker Halflings from the Dungeon of Dragons
Black Gold
Blood Bowl (Third Edition)
Bushido: Der Weg des Kriegers
Card Football: Premiere Edition
Cards Against Humanity: Fourth Expansion
Cards Against Humanity: The Bigger, Blacker Box
The Castles of Burgundy
Clash of Cultures
Dinosaurs of the Lost World
Dominion: Dark Ages
Dungeon Dice
Dungeon Roll
Eminent Domain
España 1936
Gauntlet of Fools
Glenn Drover's Empires: The Age of Discovery - Builder Expansion
Joker Marbles
Kingdom Builder: Nomads
Kings & Things
Lost Cities: The Board Game
Micro Mutants: Evolution
NFL Rush Zone
Pandemic: In the Lab
Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords - Base Set
Pax Britannica
Penny Arcade: Paint The Line ECG: Red Tide
Perry Rhodan: The Cosmic League
Pizza Box Football Expansion
Risk: Transformers
Rum & Pirates
Runebound (Second Edition)
Runebound: Midnight
Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan
Sentinels of the Multiverse
Sewer Pirats
Sim City: The Card Game
Small World: Cursed!
Space Cadets
Terra Mystica
To Court the King
The Trial of Socrates
Wealth of Nations