A few friends were talking about the last few years on New Year’s Eve. I think the smartest observation was that while 2021 was better than 2020 covid-wise, mentally it wasn’t. 2021 was super tough and random, so when we got a chance to do anything it felt like a treat. In comparison, 2021 was a long, tough drudge. While I agree, I think I probably bucked the trend a little. As I got myself to a couple of bigger events, while many played safe.
I got my covid jabs in March and May, and managed to visit my dad (for the first time in 18 months) in June. But during that time gaming was limited to very occasional local plays and online gaming. Barring one sneaky 25-play gaming weekend with LoBsterCon co-organiser Alex. Friends also managed various short visits during the summer for four great gaming weekends. While Sarah and me managed to escape for a couple of city breaks. Then it was Essen in October and LoBsterCon in November before covid kicked in once more.
Top 5 gaming experiences of 2021
- Essen: Going to the Essen Spiel board game convention was a massive gamble. It took a mountain of forms to get there and get in, could’ve gone kaput at any time, and I could’ve got stuck there. But there was a great sprit among those who attended for all of those reasons. It was quieter and more relaxed in the halls. While the evenings – masks aside – were just as fun as ever. I saw some amazing people I hadn’t seen for two or more years. And made great new friends and contacts too. I’m so glad I made the effort. Plus, I came home with a ridiculous amount of games – most of which have been great so far.
- LoBsterCon: For a number of reasons, LoBsterCon ended up being more stressful than Essen. We did everything right. We polled previous attendees to make sure they were game. We made a covid plan, sold less tickets and enforced vaccination or daily tests. The hotel had a covid scare the day before we arrived. And my co-organiser had to leave half way through due to an emergency at home. It felt like I got about five hours sleep over the weekend. But despite it all I managed to play some great games with great friends. And the outpouring of thanks from those attending made it all worthwhile.
- LoB – Home Edition: I met many of my gaming friends while living/working in London almost a decade ago. So it was great to join an on/off weekend online group with a bunch of them during the darker days of covid. We largely played light games in larger groups than I’m used to. But it was much more about catching up on video chat than the games themselves. Many weeks, that would have been largely solitary otherwise, were made bearable by this – and all my other – online board game meetups.
- PaulCon (not a con): All the chances to see old gaming friends were special. But I particularly enjoyed a long gaming weekend with old LoB friend Paul. He looked at my collection list and picked out a bunch of games he wanted to try. Which was perfect, because a lot of them were older or more obscure titles I don’t often get to the table. In just over 24 hours I taught him more than 10 games. And it was so nice to just totally get my geek on. Especially with a bunch of games I already knew were favourites.
- Thirsty Meeples, Bath: Sarah and me had a lovely weekend away in Bath. We stayed in a fabulous apartment right in the old town, had some great walks and ate some great food. But we also had two great evenings in the Thirsty Meeples board game café. It’s a little pricy. But it has a great selection of games, friendly and knowledgeable staff, plus great food and beer. I also managed to catch up with an old friend and teach him a game, which made it all the lovelier. If you’re heading that way, be sure to check it out. But do book a table in advance, as it was pretty busy the entire team we were there despite the pandemic.
Best individual plays: January to June 2021
January: Oracle of Delphi is one of Sarah and my favourite games. And this is the kind of play that shows why. I should never go last and have to roll the wounds die. So many sixes! Which is not a good thing in this case. We both missed a turn, so it evened out at least. And I won a long, tough, but fun game. Sarah would’ve finished on her very next action on her next turn, so it was super close too.
February: A lockdown play of Alhambra versus Alex, but it was a proper classic. It always feels dirty giving away tiles to the dummy player (“F*ck you Dirk!”), but here a timely donation paid dividends as it helped me scrape a super tight 129-128 win. It’s a great example of how you can make a game that’s better with more players (due to majorities scoring) sing with the addition of a few simple AI rules that barely get in the way.
March: My mate Vince is no gamer. But I’d introduced him to Ticket to Ride during lockdown as he was isolating, so getting very little social contact. He really took to it, but this was the first time we’d also played with Sarah. Even better, he won a close one on 112 with me on 107 and Sarah well off the pace. As I say, he’s not a gamer and probably never will be. But it’s great to get unlikely friends in on the fringes of the hobby.
April: Basari – Das Kartenspiel is one of those games that needs the right group so I don’t play it often. But if you get the right group, it’s such a blast. This time it was versus Alex and Sarah. Basari is a light bidding/negotiation game which is so much more tan the sum of its parts. Alex had a big lead going into last round – but crucially hardly any gems. And we both overtook him at the death, with me winning on 78.
May: Escape from the Hidden Castle (AKA Hugo) is a bit pants really. A complete luck fest family game which is, at best, silly fun – especially with lots of players. But this was a rare opportunity to link up with as big group of LoBsters on Zoom. So thanks to Ann, Martin, Paul, Teri, Gee, Martin and Donna this was lovely. But frankly, as with out other occasional meetups over lockdown, we could’ve played pretty much anything.
June: Covid had affected so many people more than it has me. My local group being a good example. We barely got any meetups together in 2021. But this play of excellent tile-layer Fertility stood out. Jonathan won on debut, but it was a tight close tactical game. Every play of this helps cement my love for it – a great little game which, while simple, has you constantly thinking in several directions.
Best individual plays: July to December 2021
I don’t think I’ve had this happen before – a draw in the excellent Castles of Burgundy. It ended 181 each versus Sarah. I went to to the rulebook and see if there’s a tiebreaker. And there is – least spaces left on your board wins. So I won, having eight left to her nine. A thrashing! Also notable were great games of both Uruk (in real life) and Nippon (online) versus Alex – both excellent games I probably don’t talk enough about on here.
I do love a board game café. And as mentioned, Thirsty Meeples in lovely Bath is a great one. And I also love Stone Age, which I used to own some years ago (and I’m sure will do again). So it was great to sit in a great café, with great beer, Sarah, and old friend Simon, for a game of it. City breaks really are part of my DNA and I’ve so missed being able to do them regularly. So this was a rare treat in a tough year.
I struggled to pick a single game highlight from old friend Paul’s aforementioned visit. After the trip, we compared ratings and both marked these as an eight or above: Crown of Emara, Downfall of Pompeii, Pharaon, Hamburgum and Oracle of Delphi. So as Hamburgum is the only one I haven’t reviewed here, I’ll pick that. It’s a lovely Matt Gerdts rondel game, probably overlooked due to the terrible box artwork and popularity of the similar Navegador.
While Essen was a brilliant experience, a lot of the game playing actually led to ruling games off of my ‘want’ list. An important part of the process, but not great for a ‘highlights’ post! But I did get to play purchase Journey to the Center of the Earth several times. It’s a game several people nbought after trying it out too, which is always nice. And it’s always a pleasure to be able to play with the Danish mob – including on this occasion Peter and Tine.
Playing ‘Journey’ was also a highlight of LoBsterCon in Eastbourne. So to avoid repeating myself, I’ll opt here for another Essen purchase that went down well with everyone I played with – Bad Company. Incredibly simple and easy to set up and teach. But a lot of fun, with some genuine decisions to be made. I also enjoyed learning Fury of Dracula and Nusfjord over the weekend. As well as a welcome return to the table for Magnastorm.
This was the easiest pick of all. I get very nervous at gatherings nowadays, so was mildly terrified by a NYE evening with three generations of Sarah’s female relatives (six in all). The pressure was on to entertain – and luckily Just One went down a storm. It’s at its best with seven players and everyone enjoyed it so much it was requested for an encore later in the evening. With everyone, including a teen and a pre-teen, joining in both times.
Links for online play
The following games (discussed above) can be played online:
- Alhambra is available on both Boit a Jeux and Board Game Arena.
- Castles of Burgundy is available on both Yucata (original) and Board Game Arena (slightly unbalanced, in my opinion, second edition).
- Downfall of Pompeii is at Yucata.
- Escape from the Hidden Castle can be played (as ‘Hugo’) at Board Game Arena.
- Oracle of Delphi is at Yucata.
- Stone Age is available on Yucata (the original) and Board Game Arena (the cool new winter edition).
- Ticket to Ride has a fantastic app that can be played on mobile (Apple and Android/Kindle) or via Steam. All the links are here.