2009 was a bit of a mixed bag for me and gaming. My play totals for the year were down again to 368 plays of 119 different games, which continues a downward trend over the last two years. Obviously, family obligations have done a lot to reduce my opportunities for gaming, but I still feel that I’ve had plenty of chances to play this past year.
Game night with the Hypermind BoardGamers is still the highlight of my week, and we’ve got a very solid core group of gamers that participate regularly. I’ll talk a lot more about them soon, though, since our 3rd Anniversary is next week!
Overall, however, I’m a little disappointed in the games that came out in 2009. As I’ve been looking over all my lists and trying to make some decisions about what I think the “best” games are, I’ve found it very difficult to limit myself to games released last year. Only 8 games from my nickel and dime lists come from 2009, and few of those are ones I’d consider to be “award worthy” in any way. And as you’ll see shortly, only one of the games of my top five was actually original (as in not being revisions of older games or released previously) in 2009. So while I had a lot of fun playing games in 2009, not many of the games were actually from 2009.
Quarters & Dimes
Ticket to Ride
Tribune: Primus Inter Pares
As you’d probably expect if you’re a regular of my blog, Pandemic was my most-played game in 2009. Ticket to Ride and Doodle Dice are favorites for Gwen and me to play together, while Ghost Stories is my favorite solo game. Which leaves Tribune as my only other dime, gaining that distinciton by being a favorite at game night and even the Game of the Month! for November.
Speaking of Games of the Month!, here’s the complete rundown of how many times I played each of them: Cosmic Encounter – 5, Ghost Stories – 14, Thebes – 1, Age of Empires III – 4, Small World – 8, Acquire – 5, Stone Age – 4, Steam – 5, Toledo – 4, Witch’s Brew – 6, Tribune – 10, Roll Through the Ages – 6. Alumni from the GotM! list tend not to see a lot of play after their tenure because many players sort of get burned out on them. While that definitely happened to me on a few of them, there are several that I have been able to get back to the table (Tribune, Small World, Ghost Stories, Witch’s Brew) and others that I’d really like to play more (Cosmic Encounter, Acquire, and Steam). In general, my opinion of these games only improved through repeated play, with the possible exceptions of Thebes, Toledo, and maybe Age of Empires III.
Other games that I expected to see on my “Five & Dime” list included Bang! (which we seem to play at the end of almost every game night these days), Metropolys, the “10 Days” games, Chicago Express, Dominion, and Top Race. But I was a little surprised to see things like Magic: The Gathering, Taluva (an old favorite), FITS, and the hottest game of my holiday, Tobago, in my lists.
I’ll briefly mention that I also got in 5 games of Race for the Galaxy in 2009, which seems like a respectable number for most any other game, but is a mere pittance when compared to the 1,000+ (all face-to-face) games posted by my friend Alton over the last two years. In fact, I think that the fanactical devotion to the game by so many of our regular group has turned me against the game somewhat, and I really don’t care to play it much anymore. While I’m not crazy about the stuff the expansions add, I don’t really think that it’s any problem with the game itself. So whether it’s because I have to keep track of all those hundreds of plays in the records I keep for the group, or just that they’re always skipping other games to slip in a game or 5 of it every Tuesday, I’ve definitely soured on it a lot since I ranked it in my top 5 for 2008.
But now I want to talk about some of the “superlatives” that stand out to me from 2009. As is my tradition, I’ll break it up into a few handy-dandy categories:
Carrom – I had been interested in Crokinole and other flicking games for a while, and had heard about Carrom itself on one or more of the podcasts I listen to from GenCon. But I was really blown away with this game when I got to try it out in person at MACE. And even on the crappy board that I picked up at the auction there, I’ve had a great time with it already. It’s something that I show almost everyone who visits my game room, and it’s always a hit. If you go to MACE or any other convention where Billy Stevens has his setup, you really owe it to yourself to sit down and try out this classic eastern dexterity game!
Wealth of Nations – This was a hard category for me. Not a lot really disappointed me, I was just left feeling pretty “meh” by a lot of the games I played. In the end, though, I think that I’m naming Wealth of Nations as my biggest disappointment both because I’d hoped it would be better, and because it seems like it really could be better with some streamlining or redesign.
Z-Man small box card games – This is a bit of a cheat, but I’ve just had so much fun over the last year with many of these games, such as No Thanks! (probably the best), Escalation!, Archaeology: The Card Game, Saboteur, and Fairy Tale. If you watch my game night reports, you’ll often see one or more of them filling in spaces before and between other games, and always having a really good response.
Favorite Abstract Strategy Game
FITS – Once again, I didn’t have a lot of exposure to many abstract games in 2009, so FITS wins sort of by default. However, it is a really solid little game that is very approachable to almost anyone. Plus, it’s nice to have an abstract game with a healthy dose of luck and that can be played with more than 2 people.
Favorite Party Game
Dixit – I would really like to have/make more opportunities to play party games, but Dixit is so good that we even play it with some regularity at our “hardcore-gamer” game nights. But it still has all the appeal and approachability of most other party games, and has been requested for repeat play with some of my non-gamer friends as well.
Favorite Gateway Game
Tobago – Well, I played this 7 times in the 7 days I owned it in 2009. While I haven’t quite been able to keep up that pace since, it’s still one of the most original ga
mes I’ve played in a long time. And with it’s attractive look and intuitive play, it seems to be a nice candidate for a gateway game as well.
Most Thematic Game
Bang! – Before this year, Bang! had only ever seen a handful of plays at our game nights. For some reason, though, the stars aligned and it has been blowing us away (heh, heh… get it?) for months. Despite the many, many rough spots it has in gameplay, few experiences can rival the fun you have with this game when everybody at the table is in “feelin’ it”.
Favorite Game of the Year
And now, let’s take a look at what I consider to be the best games of 2009. In addition to the “top 5” listed below, some of the other “keepers” include: Pandemic: On the Brink, Roll Through the Ages, FITS, Masters Gallery, Space Alert, Castle Panic, Tales of the Arabian Nights, and Revolution!. But now on to the “winners”!
5. Space Hulk (3rd Edition) – I’ve only got to play it twice, but Space Hulk left one of the strongest impressions on me of all the games I played in 2009. In addition to absolutely gorgeous miniatures and other components, the game is an absolute blast! I know that a lot of people played the heck out of the earlier versions years ago, but it’s completely new to me. And despite how old its design is, I still feel like it plays very smoothly and holds up well in the modern hobby, especially when compared to other Ameritrashy games.
4. Endeavor – It’s got the theme of Age of Empires III with the mechanical elegance of Puerto Rico. Endeavor is the current Game of the Month! for my group, and I’m still finding new things that I like about it. It feels heavier and more significant than it’s play time and complexity would suggest, and it strikes a pretty amazing balance between being an engine-building, economic game and a highly-interactive, light wargame. I’m still exploring different strategies and having a lot of fun with it, and I see that continuing well into the foreseeable future.
3. Small World – Small World is one game that continues to see play well after it was a Game of the Month! It’s a great medium-weight game of conflict and social interaction, and I’ve had a lot of fun with it already. And now I want to play it even more with all the new expansions I’ve picked up, though. I won’t say much more here, because you can also check out my review of it for my full opinion.
2. Steam – Sometimes, a game (or game system) really is as good as you’ve always heard. While I’ve never had the chance to play Age of Steam before, I pulled the trigger early on to pick up this latest revision of Martin Wallace’s pinacle train-game line. And through the month it spent as our Game of the Month!, I came to truly appreciate the depth and elegance of the system. It clicked with me in a way that only some of my absolute favorite games do, and probably my biggest gaming regret from 2009 is that I wasn’t able to play it more often. So to my friends… please play Steam with me!
Leaving only my Favorite Game of 2009, which is…
Tribune: Primus Inter Pares! Okay, it’s a bit of a cheat. Technically, Tribune came out in 2007, but it didn’t have an English release until November of 2008, and I barely played it before this year. However, it was definitely one of the “go to” games for the Hypermind Boardgamers in 2009. In fact, before it had its own time in the spotlight, there were a couple of months when it was played about as much as the official GotM! And after a dozen plays, I’m still excited to pull it out and see how well I can navigate the political labyrinth of ancient Rome with a few of my best friends.
It’s hard to put my finger on it, but I think that what makes it special for me is how dynamic the game is. Every decision you make must take into account all the other players, and their value varies from turn to turn and from game to game. And between the many, many ways to get victory conditions/points and the multiple choices in victory condition cards, every game plays out differently. It moves quickly but never lacks depth; is thought-provoking and challenging, but never ceases to be fun. I just love the game, and it’s spot as #5 on my list of all-time favorite boardgames was well earned.