2013 Year in Review


As I’ve done for the past 6 years, it’s now time for me to look back over the year just gone by and evaluate both how much I’ve been playing and which games have risen to the top.  And if you’re looking for perhaps a little more detail about each of the games listed below, you can also check out my recent podcast (Episode 20, Exploring 2013) as well.      

Quantity
 
Unfortunately, 2013 wasn’t a great year for me as far as how many plays I got in.  Overall, I had 323 plays of 143 different games.  Just for reference, I got in a total of 332 plays of 132 different games in 2012 (which was pretty similar), and 401 plays of 131 different games in 2011 (which was obviously a lot more).  So I do not like my trend at all. 

I played 69 “new to me” games this past year, which is exactly the same as in 2012, so that’s good at least.  But especially with the death of the Game of the Month program in my game group, I’m finding it harder and harder get games back to the table for repeated play.  I know that getting distracted by the new shiny all the time doesn’t help, but even when I really want to play a game more and bring it to game night, it’s harder than ever to get people on board (especially with games that are more on the euro end of the spectrum).  

So with all of that said, my Nickels and Dimes (for published games, anyway) of 2013 were:
  Pandemic – 13
Hanabi – 8
Friday – 7
Salmon Run – 7
Forbidden Desert – 6
Spot It! – 6
Toc Toc Woodman – 5
Go Away Monster! – 5
Shadows Over Camelot: The Card Game – 5
Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures – 5
Suburbia – 5

I also got in several plays of unpublished prototypes (mostly Acute Care, of course).  But again, it seems like the only games I get played several times are fillers, solo games, and games that I play with my kids.

I love my game group, but its continuing evolution has definitely contributed to this difficulty in getting games back to the table.  In a lot of ways, it’s almost like we have 3 or 4 different groups that occasionally intermingle, but are often separated by things like arrival (and departure) time, game tastes, and gaming backgrounds.  While the Game of the Month program was originally started very early on in our group’s existence, it ultimately failed because near the end, we rarely found games that most of us could agree to commit to.  But now, that leaves us in a place where getting a game played multiple times depends either on coercion or happy circumstance, which isn’t working well at all for me and a lot of the games I most enjoy. 

Quality

Before I get started with my favorite games from the past year, let me be clear once about which games were eligible for consideration.  This is intended to be a list of “new” games, basically that came out in 2013.  However, I am totally unconcerned with the “official” release date of a game (and even less what’s listed on its BGG entry), particularly when that tied to a foreign-language release or even just wasn’t widely available in the United States at that time. 

But enough of the disclaimer and on with the
awards
!   

Biggest Surprise

Freedom: The Underground Railroad
– I was looking forward to Freedom, but with its controversial historical theme and in coming from Academy Games, I figured it would be a solid game but probably nothing to get too excited about.  When I finally got the chance to play it at MACE, though, I was totally blown away.  As a cooperative game, it was tense and challenging and interesting mechanically.  And then on top of that, I was totally unprepared for how it hit me emotionally.  It strikes an amazing balance between treating the subject matter respectfully and abstractly enough that it never glorifies or offends, while also keeping the reality of slavery in your face enough that you feel the weight and importance of what you’re trying to do.  With only that one play in 2013, I’m not going to consider it for anything else right now, but the impact of that one play makes it something that I can’t ignore.   

Also considered: Trains, Firefly: The Game, Mice and Mystics
 


Biggest Disappointment

Bruges
– I’ve talked and written a lot about Bruges, so I’ll try to keep this brief.  But basically, it’s a game from a designer I love that is filled with cool mechanics that have a lot of potential to work well together, but that’s ultimately ruined by the huge and unmitigated swath of luck running through it.      

Also considered: Love Letter, Tokaido, Space Cadets, Gunship: First Strike 

Favorite Filler
 

Hanabi
– Hanabi was my second-most played game in 2013, and I wish I had played it a heck of a lot more.  It’s such an elemental cooperative game that strips away any pretense of theme or complexity to get right down to the core of what it means to work together.  This simplicity allows it to become what almost any group wants to get from it, whether that’s a light family challenge or a heavily-thoughtful logic exercise.  It broke all the molds in winning the Spiel des Jahres award, and it certainly has a place on my list of the best from 2013. 

Also considered: Coup, Spot It!, Fastrack,
 
Favorite Party Game

Tapple
  –  Sometimes it’s really hard to pick a best party game, because most party games are either horrible or blatant knock-offs of other games.  But Tapple takes the core of a listing game like Outburst and combines it with a really cool little gadget that really ramps up the excitement.  Basically, teams just take turns listing items in a category, but each time, you tap the button with the first letter of what you say, and you can’t say something starting with a letter that’s already been used.  On top of that, you also have to hit a big red button within 10 seconds or a buzzer goes off and the other team gets the point, so it’s all about time pressure as well.  For me, it’s fun and exciting in a very similar way as CatchPhrase, which is one of my all-time favorite party games.   

Also considered: WordAround, Two Rooms and a Boom

Favorite Children’s Game

Spot It!
–  I know that the base game of Spot It is not new at all, but we also have two brand new versions that just came out in 2013 (Alphabet and Numbers and Shapes), so I’m including it here seeing as it’s definitely my family’s favorite game right now.  And while it’s great to play as a family or even with other adults, it’s also simple enough that my little girls (ages 5 and 3) can even pull it out and play by themselves as well.  I really can’t say enough good things about Spot It, other than I think it’s the sort of game that every family should own.

Also considered: Fastrack, Walter Wick’s Do You See What I See Game


   
Favorite Family/Casual/Gateway Game

Salmon Run – I like just about everything about Salmon Run.  It’s got a cool theme that really lends itself to a light-hearted race game, it uses the “deck-building” mechanic in a new and interesting way, and it’s very modular to fit whatever time and complexity level you want from it.  Plus, I think it’s absolutely gorgeous just to look at or have set up on a table.  So all that together makes it, for me, the best and most attractive family/casual/gateway-ish game over the last year.

Also considered: Crokinole, Forbidden Desert, Indigo 

Most Thematic Game


Firefly: The Game – I’ve been a big fan of Firefly since it was actually on TV.  And when Firefly: The Game actually turned out to be a good game, and to deliver on the theme, I was thrilled!  Even though I’ve only played it a couple of times (one of my biggest regrets of 2013), and I was eaten by Reavers in both games, I still think it’s a great game.  Yes, this is certainly an “experience” game, but at the same time, the actual game play is still solid enough, and tied directly back to that theme, that I’m very satisfied with it and hope to have many more “experiences” with it in the future.   

Also considered: Robinson Crusoe, Mice and Mystics



Best “Older” Game of the Year
  
Friday – I talked about Friday some on my Exploring Solitude podcast, but I wanted to be clear about just how much I like it.  Even though solo gaming is a relatively small part of my hobby, I’m naming Friday the best new game to me that was released before 2013.  It’s elegant and quick, but every choice you make is meaningful and difficult, and there’s still lots of room for cool, tactical card play in how you draw and use the cards in different ways.  Plus, it does all this in 20-30 minutes, which is just an amazing and efficient little gaming package.  

Also considered: Merchant of Venus, Crokinole, Taj Mahal, Nemo’s War

Favorite Games of the Year


So here they are, my favorite games of 2013:

Honorable Mentions: Compounded, Hanabi, Salmon Run, Ginkgopolis, CO2, Rialto, Terra Mystica, Spyrium

5) Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar – At first glance, it might be easy to assume that the whole gear/cog thing in Tzolk’in is a great big gimmick.  But once I got into actually playing the game, I discovered that it is ultimately a solid, middle-weight worker-placement game that actually uses the “clock” mechanism extremely well to track time and investment of your workers.  Managing timing and tempo in games is something that I enjoy a lot, and I find that having such a concrete object representing and managing the progress of time is a brilliant game and component design achievement.  Again, as it appears to be the theme of 2013, I just wish I had the opportunity to play it even more.        

4) Firefly: The Game – Not much more to say, other than putting it at #4 shows how much I’ve enjoyed my limited plays of Firefly so far.   

3) The Great Heartland Hauling Co. – The Great Heartland Hauling Co is a bit of an odd bird.  It’s so small and quick that I’m tempted to lump it in with filler games.  But the actual play experience is much deeper and more interesting than the filler label would indicate.  You’ve got this spatial movement from area to area and some pick-up-and-deliver economic mechanics that are both controlled by the hand-management of deciding how to use and draft different cards.  And above all that, many times the most important thing for you to keep track of is the movement of the other players since you can block each other from entering spaces.  So again, GHHC is a game that transcends its form and length, much in the same way that China does.  


 

2) Mice and Mystics – It I was going to name a Game of the Year for my game group, Mice and Mystics would be it.  Because of all the games I’ve brought and played there, M&M seems to cross over all of those barriers I mentioned earlier and appeal to a lot of different people better than anything else.  It’s ostensibly a light, family-weight cooperative adventure game.  But what’s cool is that the story is so strong, and the tactical combat and movement mechanics are still enough to be interesting, that it works on so many levels.  As a dungeon-crawler/adventure game, Mice and Mystics packs in a lot of what I’m looking for, and does it in a fraction of the time of some of the bigger and meatier games in the genre.     

Leaving only my Favorite Game of 2013, which is…
 
1) Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island – I’ve been a big fan of cooperative games ever since I first played Pandemic.  So after hearing all sorts of good things about Robinson Crusoe from Essen 2012, I jumped at the chance to pick it up when it first hit the shelves at my FLGS.  And obviously, I believe that the hype surrounding it (still, even) is definitely all true.

I think that what sets Robinson Crusoe apart from many other coop games is how strongly thematic it is.  Every element of the game is rooted in the theme, and every decision you have to make is at least parallel to what “real” castaways (at least in a literary sense) would be facing as well.  And then on top of the basic deserted island theme, there are also 6 distinctive scenarios that both add on rules and change the way you have to approach play.



But Robinson Crusoe is so much more than just another thematic “experience” game, because it’s mechanical guts are also really cool.  At its core, it’s a worker-placement, resource-management game, with the big twist that it’s also cooperative.  And in addition to just needing to choose which resources and priorities you need to make each turn, the really brilliant mechanic in the game is the added choice of whether you want to use 2 workers to guarantee success, or if you want to risk it by just using 1 worker and rolling the three dice, which may result in failure, injury, and/or having an “adventure” (which is a nice way of saying, “something that smacks you in the face and makes fun of you”). 

Like all really good cooperative games need to be, Robinson Crusoe is very difficult.  But even though you’re going to lose, a lot, you still get that cool eurogame “I’m building something” feeling of accomplishment most of the time (at least, right up until a hurricane comes and blows it away, or a puma gnaws your leg off or something like that).  And win or lose, the theme is always right there to let you walk away with a cool story about how your adventurer either succeeded brilliantly or failed miserably.

So, again, other than playing it a lot more, there’s nothing else I could ask of the GamerChris Game of the Year for 2013, Robinson Crusoe


Well, that’s what I think.  But did I get it right?  What do y’all think?  Was 2013 a good year for boardgaming?  What would be on your top 5 list?

You can also check out the tags below for more about each game mentioned here, and you can take a look at my previous Year in Review articles as well: 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 20082007

3 Comments

  1. Jacbo

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate these kinds of lists because I would have missed Freedom completely had I not seen Joel Eddy’s “best of” list which had Freedom at number one. It is a great game that made me feel something I’ve never experienced in a board game before: sadness. It takes something special to make you feel heavy at the loss of a wooden cube but this game did it. Ironically, I didn’t like the fact we won on our first try. I was hoping it would be hard enough that we’d lose in our first attempt.
    Where we disagree is Compounded. I would name it my biggest disappointment of the year, but I can’t part with it until I play it a third time. I can’t call The Great Heartland a huge disappointment because I wasn’t expecting much and I didn’t pay much for it, but I’m not happy with it either.
    My five favourite games of 2013 in no order are:
    Suburbia
    Francis Drake
    New Amsterdam
    Lords of Waterdeep
    Legendary

    I don’t know if they’re all 2013, but that’s when I played them.

  2. Jacbo

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate these kinds of lists because I would have missed Freedom completely had I not seen Joel Eddy’s “best of” list which had Freedom at number one. It is a great game that made me feel something I’ve never experienced in a board game before: sadness. It takes something special to make you feel heavy at the loss of a wooden cube but this game did it. Ironically, I didn’t like the fact we won on our first try. I was hoping it would be hard enough that we’d lose in our first attempt.
    Where we disagree is Compounded. I would name it my biggest disappointment of the year, but I can’t part with it until I play it a third time. I can’t call The Great Heartland a huge disappointment because I wasn’t expecting much and I didn’t pay much for it, but I’m not happy with it either.
    My five favourite games of 2013 in no order are:
    Suburbia
    Francis Drake
    New Amsterdam
    Lords of Waterdeep
    Legendary

    I don’t know if they’re all 2013, but that’s when I played them.

  3. Chris Norwood

    It’s hard for me to say exactly what I feel when I play Freedom: The Underground Railroad.  Sadness may be a part of it, but it’s more about feeling the gravity and seriousness of the struggle.  And of course, respect and empathy for what it must have been like both for the slaves and those along the railroad risking their own lives to help others.  

    Both times I’ve played so far, there’s been this unspoken pressure around the table to keep any slaves from getting lost, but then there’s also been a point when we all realize that some will have to be lost in order to achieve the greater good of abolishing slavery.  In the last game, in fact, we actually moved a slave backwards into Boston in order to make some more money that we needed to buy off the last Support token.

    As for Compounded, what’s wrong with you?  What is so disappointing about it?  I and pretty much everyone I’ve played it with have really enjoyed it.  And TGHHC is just amazing.  I’d really like to hear your issues with both.  

    I’d like to comment more about your list, but I haven’t had the chance to play Francis Drake, New Amsterdam, or Legendary yet (even though I’d really like to try out at least 2 of them).  Lords of Waterdeep is really solid, of course, and I’ve had sort of a love/hate (okay, more of a like/meh) relationship with Suburbia.
        

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