Monday, February 03, 2020

Unheralded Games of the Last Decade

I'm honored to be a part of the writing team at the Opinionated Gamers website... and this last month we've been blogging about the games that seemed to go "below the radar" of the gaming community in the last decade and needed a little OG love.

What follows are my entries (which I've expanded on for my wonderful readership)... if you'd like to read the whole thing, go to the Opinionated Gamers website. (But make sure you come back here and read my stuff!)

2010 - Fresco
BGG Board Game Rank: 284

Well, here’s how NOT to start off a list of unheralded games… with one that’s ranked above 300 on BGG. I know this got a big box edition and a ton of expansion modules (I own all of the ones that are currently released)... but I never hear anyone talk about playing it! (And, due to my regular crew of gamers and their complete lack of taste, I never get to play it.) So, unheralded. Right?

Note: getting a Queen big box edition is not a mark of overwhelming game design success… seriously, both Lancaster and Alhambra got big boxes. (Don’t get me started on how much Alhambra messes up a perfectly good game - $timmt $o… I don’t care that it won the Spiel des Jahres.)

My lack of play is a crying shame, as this is a personal favorite in the worker placement genre… dripping with theme that melds perfectly with game mechanics. And the plethora of expansion modules means you can craft the level of depth to fit the situation.
Here's my take on the expansions…
  • In the original box (1-3):
    • The portrait cards & paint mixing tiles are great ideas & should be used from the start with gamers
    • The extra paint colors add some interesting tactical decisions but add to the length of the game.
  • First large expansion box (4-6)
    • The gold leaf a nice touch that increases the score, but I think it works best when coupled with the glaziers to offer different scoring pathways to pursue.
    • The wishing well is pretty random & non-essential.
  • Second large expansion box (8-10)
    • The second set of expansions (the bell, the "plague", etc.) are not necessary - but do give the game some variety if you're playing it a lot... which, sadly, I am not.
  • Stand-alone expansions (7 & Queenie 1)
    • There are two other small expansions published - a small giveaway called The Bishop's Favor (which I like) and an incredibly over-priced set of "secret" bonuses called The Scrolls (which would like better if it wasn't so expensive).
  • Fresco Mega Box expansions
    • These don’t physically exist yet… but were part of the Fresco Mega Box Gold Edition. The only one that sounds like something I really want is The Dome… but the cost of the expansion pack was too high even with my deep love for this game. Of course, I wouldn't say "no" if someone gave it to me. :-)

Also considered for my 2010 pick: Famiglia (BGG Board Game Rank: 1751)
& Die Siedler von Catan: Der Schokoladenmarkt (Ritter Sport-themed expansion for Catan)

2011 - Core Worlds
BGG Board Game Rank: 638

I get that there are reasons that Core Worlds didn’t become the hit it should have been:
  • The more players you have at the table, the harder it is to see your options… and, conversely, the more options you have
  • The game is exponentially more interesting and involving when you add the Galactic Orders expansion… which wasn’t released in tandem with the base game
  • It’s a game that rewards multiple plays… in a climate that is making that more and more difficult with the avalanche of games that appear every year
  • It’s not a short game… we played last night (Jan. 2, 2020) and a two player game with experienced players ran an hour and 45 minutes
But take all of that and ignore it, because this continues to be a favorite gaming experience each and every time it hits the table. I wouldn’t recommend learning this deckbuilding/tableau building hybrid with more than 3 players… and I believe Galactic Orders is an ESSENTIAL expansion… but given those limits, hunt this one down and give it a try. (You can read my glowing review of both Core Worlds expansions on the OG.)

It’s important to manage your expectations – there are SO many directions you can go in this game, but you can’t do all of them. You have to prioritize your energy and actions throughout the game but especially near the end to be able to bring in victory points.

Also considered for my 2011 pick: Ascending Empires (BGG Board Game Rank: 974)

2012 - Septikon: Uranium Wars
BGG Board Game Rank: 7983

I originally reviewed this in 2013 (when Russian copies began reaching the U.S.) - you can read my review right here - and was pleased when the Kickstarter enabled English copies to exist. Sadly, it never got the attention it deserved as an one-of-a-kind design.

Here’s what I said back then:
Some of you are barely hanging on now – your “but I don’t like wargames!” reflex alarm is blaring. Maybe it would help you to think of Septikon – Uranium Wars as a resource & opportunity management game… albeit with a whole lot of damage & destruction. Or maybe you could think of it as a worker placement game – if your workers were loyal & mindlessly obedient clones whose entire mission was to pummel the opposing space station into submission. OK, it’s a war game.

A recent play was the first time the game has gone over an hour… typically, we finish this in about 45 minutes as one player is pummeled into submission. There’s nothing quite like this game out on the market (that I’m aware of)… and it’s a very interesting two-player adventure in trading punches combat.

Also considered for my 2012 pick: Wurfel Bohnanza (BGG Board Game Rank: 1679)

2013 - Quantum
BGG Board Game Rank: 434

This fast-moving game of space conquest works like a charm with 2, 3, or 4 players, thanks to the modular boards. It’s also possible to create a wide variety of powerful “combos” by pairing technology cards with inherent ship powers (and each other!) to create wild new ways to mess with your opponents and/or out-race them to the win. The cards seem overpowered at first glance - but since every card is at that level, it balances out well and keeps the game humming along at a lightning pace.

There are a number of suggested board layouts – we’ve found that all of them work well. When you add The Void (a one tile expansion), you have even more varied board layouts and strategies.

And it’s a really good looking game, too. Even with dice as spaceships.

Also considered for my 2013 pick: Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends (BGG Board Game Rank: 514)

2014 - The Battle At Kemble’s Cascade
BGG Board Game Rank: 1886

Those of us who spent some portion of our youth frittering away (“frittering away our noontime, suppertime, chore time too!) on video arcade machines remember fondly games like Defender & Stargate (aka Defender II)... and the Tyrland brothers obliged by creating a side scrolling board game, complete with 8-bit graphics, clunky firing mechanics (you can’t fire diagonally - of course), and a nifty tray system that keeps the game moving towards you. (Nice touch - the trays can change size to better make the game work at various player numbers.)

And while Defender was a solo game, this is definitely a multiplayer experience – not only do you attack the incoming enemy ships, you can open fire on your “friends”. Thankfully, you don’t have to put a quarter in the box when your ship goes down… you simply warp back into Kemble’s Cascade and open fire on those who caused your premature demise.

It’s not a perfect game - it can be fiddly and some of the awards & cards are more powerful than others… but it captures the arcade experience perfectly. I can’t ask for much more than that.

Matt Carlson reviewed The Battle at Kemble’s Cascade on the OG site back in the day.

2015 - Baseball Highlights 2045
BGG Board Game Rank: 423

Let’s start with a key fact - I’m not a fan of actual baseball… but I tend to like baseball board games. Baseball on television is only slightly more exciting than golf on television - and thanks to ESPN and about 50 other cable sports channels, if I’m that bored, I can watch axe throwing, competitive cornhole, and/or esports. (On the positive side, I would have missed out on ice cross downhill and freeride mountain biking if not for those oddball sports channels.)

But I digress. A lot.

We’re talking about baseball games - and in the case of Baseball Highlights 2045, we’re talking about a heavily abstracted baseball game with a future version of baseball that involved cybernetically enhanced pitchers and robot batting machines with wheels. And yet… it gets the “feel” of baseball right. More importantly, it involves really great gameplay as your team changes via deck-building and you work to get the right players in the lineup to slow down/stop or out-score your opponent.

Almost every game I’ve played has been wonderful… including a couple of times playing a 4 player tournament version (which runs a little long but works like a charm). Mike Fitzgerald designed a real beauty here.

Three sad notes:

  1. Football Highlights 2052 is not as good as Baseball Highlights 2045… it’s fine, but it doesn’t feel like you have nearly as much control of the game coupled with a higher cognitive load due to the complexity of the cards. (And I say that as a big actual football fan.)
  2. The rules are organized in what can only be called an arcane fashion - this is not unusual for the publisher in question. It makes learning the game much more difficult than necessary.
  3. No surprise, really… but the three-player mode doesn’t work nearly as well as head-to-head or 4 player tournament.
2016 – Armageddon
BGG Board Game Rank: 3588

This was one of those “surprise!” games at Essen 2016 - not a lot of fanfare, relatively unknown designers, etc. - but it continues to be one of my favorite auction-ish games for 3-4 players.

Imagine a three-way collision between the Mad Max films, an auction game and a worker-placement city-building game. Throw in a little Notre Dame-ish fend off the invaders (marauders instead of rats). Workers can be used as currency for auctions (sending them out to build buildings and scavenge resources) or placed on your personal compound to defend against marauders and accomplish other tasks.

The artwork is evocative without leaning too hard into the dystopian grimness… and the iconography is very clear once you get the hang of it. I’ve found that it takes players 2-3 rounds (roughly half a game) to get acclimated and then they’re ready to defend their very tiny barb-wire encrusted empire.

I’ve been working on a review of this for nearly 3 years… if and when I ever get it done, it’ll be a work of art. (I’ve actually written fiction sections connecting the game mechanics to the story of a lone outpost after the Catastrophe.) But don’t let my inability to get my magnum opus review finished keep you from trying this wonderful game. (And it’s still available at pretty decent prices from Amazon and/or Walmart!)

Also considered for my 2016 pick: Hit Z Road (BGG Board Game Rank: 1270)

2017 - Escape from 100 Million B.C.
BGG Board Game Rank: 2981

So, something went wrong… and we’re stuck in 100 Million B.C. We’ve got to work together to find all the parts to the time machine before our actions and the various wormholes that the accident created mess up the timeline so bad we don’t exist.

Kevin Wilson’s game of time travel has much of the normal “quests” of a cooperative game - find missing stuff, explore the area, avoid bad things (in this case, dinos), and beat the timer. The nifty twists are the wormholes that spit out figures from the past (or future) - like young Abe Lincoln or Amelia Earhart or a spaceman with a laser gun - that you have to corral and send back through time… and the problem that each dino you kill adds paradox and increases the chance of a virtual time meltdown. Worse yet, you can’t let Abe go after dinos with his ax... or have the dinos eat an unsuspecting caveperson – it just creates more paradox.

Escape runs a little long with the full complement of players - but we enjoy it a lot with 3-4. We’ve never winked out of existence… but Elvis was president in one of the timelines we returned to. (Nice design touch – each finishing score has a “what happened” paragraph in the rule book.)

Also noticed by us... a bit of work and this could be re-themed as Toejam & Earl: The Funkadelic Board Game. (Note: I consider this a positive.)

Also considered for my 2017 pick: Nemo’s War (BGG Board Game Rank: 339)

2018 - NEOM 
BGG Board Game Rank: 1452

My initial rules read of NEOM (prior to seeing the game) made me think it would be an interesting but difficult to play 7 Wonders knock-off. I’m happy to say that the first day I taught/played (a few weeks after Essen 2018), I was proven wrong… and ended up playing it 3 times in one day. As soon as it became easily available in the U.S., I jumped on a copy… and it’s now in regular rotation here at Chez Jackson.

I’m a huge fan of both 7 Wonders and Suburbia – enough so that I own every expansion for both games and plunked down a C note in order to get the Collector’s Edition of Suburbia. So, when a game can easily be described as combining some of the best bits from both of those games, I’m in.

And that’s the way I introduce NEOM to gamers – the drafting is similar to 7 Wonders and the tile-laying feels like Suburbia. But that misses some of the innovations that make Neom more than just another chip off the old blocks:

  • Using a “bomb” draft item (Flood, Fire, Crime Wave) in each era that hurts others but denies you a turn
  • The initial “seeding” draft of cornerstone tiles – they do more to set strategy than the similar Leaders expansion in 7 Wonders
  • The simplified resource system – including the creation of trade routes and the ability to buy resources from someone farther away at a slightly higher cost
Most important is the reality after 15+ games that there are multiple ways to win:
  • Focus on your cornerstone tiles
  • Build a suburb (lots of residences)
  • Be the resource king (and the $ that go with it)
  • Build a balanced city
Also nice – it plays well with 2 players (using a similar system to Fields of Green), balances nicely with 3-5 players, and even has a decent solo mode

Also considered for my 2018 pick: Wildlands (BGG Board Game Rank: 918)

2019 - Kauchuk 
BGG Board Game Rank: 7849

Using rubber bands & a peg board for area control (in a stunning variety of modes) is genius. I want to clarify a rule (how big an area can you surround with completed areas and claim?) and I’m not in love with the cardboard scoring track – but I’d be more than happy to play again. This doesn’t work quite like anything you’ve played before… and it is well worth seeking out.

Also considered for my 2019 pick: Coloma (BGG Board Game Rank: 1994)

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