Cardboard time machine: My 2009 in life and board games

(If you want the story so far, please check out the 2008 post)

It’s fair to say 2009 was a pretty significant year. I moved back to Cambridge and started a new job in the first week of January. It was a friend’s small startup – which is now a fairly large (60 staff) digital marketing company. And i’m still working there today. I also bought my first flat and met a new girlfriend (who moved in later in the year).

Zoe was up for playing some games too; as were some old (and new) friends. Two of them (Carl and Andy) lived in the same shared house, so a weeknight game night was born. My Blokus and Ingenious were played alongside Carl’s Munchkin and Zombies!!! Until April, that is, when I purchased Race for the Galaxy. It’s fair to say that purchase changed everything…

The occasional meetup turned into a regular weekly session and in September I recorded 42 board game plays (across eight different games). I was happy to buy new games as long as these guys were happy to play them – while Zoe and I were enjoying plays of the lighter stuff at the flat too. Board Game Geek was becoming my most visited website and an interest was rapidly turning into a habit hobby.

My game plays in 2009

Even at the start of the year I was recording my plays religiously on Board Game Geek, and have done ever since. I’ve always loved stats and this site gave me so much in that department for so little input.

Over the year I recorded 163 plays covering 14 different games. Of these only Munchkin (12 plays) and Zombies!!! (5) were Carl’s. And as our tastes matured, they pretty quickly dropped out of the rotation. My 2008 purchases Ingenious (9 plays) and Blokus Duo (11) continued to be regulars on the table and I still own both today. The rest of the plays were of games I picked up during the year.

We recorded a staggering 74 plays of Race for the Galaxy that year – almost all of them three-player. We all totally fell in love with the game, regularly playing three or four games in a session (we play slow, so that would be the whole evening). But no, I never tried to teach it to poor Zoe! I also enjoyed 14 plays of Guillotine and seven of the original Carcassonne. I have good memories of both, but neither is still in my collection. The latter was replaced by Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers, which I still enjoy.

Other notable additions were Arkham Horror (7 plays), Ticket to Ride (6), Pandemic (6) and Mystery Rummy: Jekyll and Hyde (3). Ticket to Ride will figure large in later years; but it was the peak for Arkham and Pandemic. It was fascinating to explore how much variety there was in the hobby, but none of us really took to the euro co-op feel of Pandemic (great design though). While the great fun we had with Arkham was always tempered by the constant trips to the rulebook for fiddly exceptions.

My hindsight Top 10 Games of 2009

As I’ve gone into detail on in my Best games of 2009 post, for me this wasn’t a vintage year for releases. But I thought it would be fun to see, just two months on, if I picked the same games in the same order (it was very close):

  1. Egizia: Classic euro, coming back into print this year.
  2. Macao: Sometimes frustrating but always fun Feld game.
  3. Finca: An original and puzzley take on the rondel mechanism.
  4. Maori: A clever take on classic tile-laying.
  5. Endeavor: Worker placement, area control and clever scoring.
  6. Verflixxt! Kompakt: A daft roll-and-move that makes it work.
  7. Tales of the Arabian Nights: Pure storytelling nonsense.
  8. Campaign Manager 2008: Clever push-and-pull card play.
  9. Masters Gallery: Auctions auctions auctions.
  10. Jaipur: Quite a lot of two-player fun in a pretty small box.

I didn’t play any 2009 releases in the year itself – although I did pick up the Rebel vs Imperium expansion for Race for the Galaxy hot off the presses. One thing interesting to note is that Egizia, Finca and Endeavor have all enjoyed recent successful Kickstarter reissues – which means I must have a vague clue what I’m talking about!

Honourable mentions to Tobago (which I got recently but have only played two-player – not good – but still have high hopes for) and Cards Against Humanity (to which I’ve cried with laughter – and to which I’m sure I’ll turn to again in the right company).

The year’s end

Thankfully this time, 2009 ended with as much promise as it had begun. I was a year into the new job and all was going swimmingly. Zoe had moved in and all was grand, and a few flat disasters (including a Christmas burst pipe flooding fiasco) had done little to dampen (ho ho) my spirits. But my 40th was looming large in the next calendar year. Was a mid-life crisis just around the corner? See you in 2010…

Welcome To board game: A four-sided game review

Welcome to… board game* is a roll-and-write game (think Yahtzee) with a difference – the difference being, it uses cards instead of dice. Each game lasts less than 30 mins.

The box says 1-100 players, and while it can be played solo the realistic player range is more like 2-6 (although in a group setting you could probably double that).

In the small (eight-inch square) box you’ll find 110 cards, four player aids and a pack of 100 player sheets. There’s also an app link where you can instead have the player sheet on your phone. It has been met with mixed responses, but hey – it’s a free app so there’s no harm in seeing if it works for you.

The theme sees players planning and building housing estates during the 1950s baby boom. The art style reflects this perfectly, while the iconography is clear and the components high quality. For a game that costs around £20, I don’t think people will have any complaints about value for money.

Teaching Welcome to…

Players each take a score sheet (depicting three streets of houses, with 10/11/12 houses respectively) and the 81 construction cards are split into three even piles.

You also draw three (city plan) scoring cards from a set of 29, which give players a steer in terms of available bonuses. The first player to complete each gets a nice points boost, but all players can still complete each plan for a slightly smaller reward.

As the game begins, one of the construction cards from each pile is flipped over. Each card has a number on one side and an action on the other. You place the flipped cards next to their draw pile, giving you three number/action combos to choose from. Each player picks one of these combos, and marks off the appropriate parts of their sheet. Cards are numbered 1-15, with much higher numbers of the middling numbers (there are only three each of numbers 1&2 but nine number 8s, for example).

There are six different actions in Welcome To. ‘Surveyors’ allow you to draw fences, splitting your roads into estates that help score many of the planning cards (and end game points). The ‘agent’ allows you to score more for these estates (so you may use an estate card to increase the points you’ll get for two-house estates). Each road has a parks track and some houses with pools. The ‘landscaper’ allows you to mark off the next tree number, giving bonuses if you put enough in the same street, the ‘pool manufacturer’ pays if you build pools in the right homes.

The ‘temp agency’ and ‘bis’ actions are more like get-out-of-jail cards. The temp agency allows you to change its respective number card by 0,1 or 2 digits, helping you fill awkward spaces. Similarly, bis allows you to put the same number next to one already written (you usually have to make each road run from low left to high right, with gaps allowed but no duplication).

Eventually though, someone is likely to run out of options. Your second failure to write a number on your sheet loses you a few points and the third ends the game. Otherwise, the game ends when a player has completed all three roads. The ways you score are clearly marked out across the bottom of each player sheet. Simply add up your points and whoever managed to get the highest score is the winner.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: I’m cynical about roll-and-writes, as most fall flat for me, but this (and Ganz Schon Clever) really won me over. Using cards means you can play the odds, while they’ve done a great job of using the extra art space. As with most games of this style, Welcome To also works well solo. It works as in the expert variant (see below): draw three cards, use two in any combination and try to beat your high score.
  • The thinker: The advanced variant adds quite a bit too, giving trickier city plans to complete and another way to get out of trouble – but that costs you. The added expert rules see each player instead drawing three cards and using two (in any combination). You pass the remaining card to your neighbour, then draw two cards for a new hand of three. This gives something else to think about, pushing your decision space up a notch. Not a favourite, but a very solid filler.
  • The trasher: The ultimate in multiplayer solitaire – sorry, but there’s nothing for me here. In fairness the theme is nicely done and the game looks cute. But for me a game with literally no interaction isn’t much of a game. And no, I don’t think the expert version really counts as interaction. At least it is as short as the box suggests, so I guess it’s just about passable as a filler!
  • The dabbler: Loved it! From the incidental card details (some of the cards have dogs, cats etc on them) to the player aids (thematic adverts). There’s so much attention to detail. But it’s great fun to play too! A few of the actions can be a little tricky to remember at first, and the player aid is sadly lacking (it confused more than helped lol). But after you’ve played through once everyone will have the hang of it.

Key observations

Some complain Welcome To… takes a long time to teach and/or is difficult to explain. While it isn’t as simple as many roll-and-writes, I’d suggest the problem is the teachers. This is the kind of game you should play and teach, rather than explain for 30 minutes. Once players have done each action they should be fine – and they’ll do that by playing.

Complaints the game is tedious, with no interaction, are valid for certain types of player. If you have to have players at each other’s throats to have fun this is definitely not for you. And the same if you don’t like multiplayer solitaire games. Horses for courses.

One concern I do share is the lack of variety in scoring cards. I’d be surprised if anyone played just the basic game more than once (unless with non-gamers or children). And the advanced plans are limited in scope. What the lack of dice luck adds in strategy it of course takes away in tactical play, which could lead to people making very similar decisions. Thankfully a raft of score sheet/score card expansions are arriving in 2019 – from zombie outbreaks to ice cream trucks…

Conclusion: Welcome to… board game

I didn’t go into Welcome to… expecting too much, having been won over by the style rather than the mechanics. But boy was I wrong. The game is now up into the Top 20 family games on board Game Geek on merit. Simple, stylish and just thinky enough to engage a gamer. It’s one for the euro-style gamer, with lots of ways to score and less luck than normal. But also accommodates a wide number of players while only lasting half an hour. Great stuff.

For 150+ more like this, visit my board game reviews page.

* Thanks to Blue Cocker Games (via Asmodee UK) for providing a copy of the game for review.

My Top 50 game list stats for 2019

Dig board game stats? This post is for you! Well, it’s for me really. I just wanted to take a look at some stats around my annual Top 50 games list, going back through the six years of numbers. I found it fascinating. Buy your millage may vary…

Ins and outs

This year saw seven new entries into the Top 50, plus one re-entry – and only five were 2018 releases. That’s a little below average, but I didn’t think 2018 was a very good year for new releases (in genres I like). As I get longer in the tooth, it’s also less likely new games will impress. And the same goes for older ones I missed first time around.

Forty-one games have dropped out of my Top 50 (and not returned) since I started; about nine per year. But of those only 13 have left my collection – a testament to the fact a lot of games I still really like sit just off the list. Re-entry Basari is a good example: it made it back this year after a couple of great plays. Sometimes a game just needs plays to get back on the radar. So many great games, so little time!

Evergreens and reviews

A total of 20 of the Top 50 have been on the list every year since I started back in 2014: Brass and Copycat having fallen from that list this year. Four (Race, Ticket to Ride, Ra and Terra Mystica) have been in the top 10 the entire time, with four more being top 20 constants. At the other end of the scale, Archaeology, Macao, Decathlon and Maori have been in the top 50 for six years without ever making the top 20.

I’ve written reviews for 32 of the Top 50 – the highest percentage yet. Only one game sits unreviewed in the Top 10, with two more in the Top 20. I’ll do my best to rectify that in the coming months, which tend to be a little slower for releases. I’ve also promised myself to bring even less games home from Essen this year. I did pretty well last time, but was still reviewing games deep into this year I’d picked up in October 2018.

Years and designers

Two games from the 1980s and four from the 90s joined 18 from the the 2000s on the list – leaving just over half (26) coming from the twenty-teens. I recently posted about 2009 not being a veteran year for game releases – but 2008 is the earliest year not represented with a game on my list. 2012 (a great year for euro games) joined 2018 at the top with five releases; with 2016, 2007 and 2004 having four each.

In terms of designers Uwe Rosenberg, Vlada Chvatil, Dirk Henn, Gunter Burkhardt and Mac Gerdts all have two games in my Top 50. Just pipping them is Reiner Knizia with three, but out in front is Stefan Feld with four. I think most of the classic designers make it to the list: add to them Vaccarino, Cathala, Kiesling, Kramer, Dorra, Moon, Sackson, Wrede. It’s a pretty good list!

Getting them played

Adios Calavera was my most played game in the Top 50 over the last 18 months (since January 2018), with 24 plays. Six other games from my Top 20 have seen 10 or more plays in that time – with the most played from 21-50 being Gnomopolis, Kingdomino (both eight plays), Patchwork and Maori (both on seven). My all-time plays list is dominated by Race for the Galaxy and Ticket to Ride with over 400 plays between them. Ra and Ingenious (both also in the Top 20) are also beyond 50 plays each.

Everything in the Top 10 has been played at least twice since Jan ’18, but two of the Top 20 (Twilight Struggle and Through the Ages) haven’t been played at all. In terms of all-time plays, only three of my Top 20 (and none in the Top 10) have been played less than 10 times: Caverna, Twilight Struggle (both six plays) and Yokohama (five). Five other Top 50 games haven’t hit the table in the last 18 months – but I’m working on it!

My challenge for 2019

I started this in January but haven’t spoken about it on the blog – probably because I knew it was wholly unrealistic: I’m trying to play all the games in my collection this year. And I’ve been doing pretty well. I’m about halfway and it’s about half way through the year – but with more than 70 to go, and Essen looming large, I’m sure I won’t make it. But it has been a great exercise in getting some older games played again – and has led to a more than a few hitting the trade pile.

Whatever doesn’t get played in 2019 will be the shortlist for 2020. And who knows? Maybe some of them will follow in Basari’s footsteps and be back up into my Top 50 again this time next year.

Europe Divided: Walking a euro/war game design tightrope

Blending elements across genres is an interesting route to take when searching for originality. But it can be difficult to get the balance right. I thought I’d talk a little about what David Thompson and I ended up with in Europe Divided; our upcoming post-Cold War euro/war game, which is currently on Kickstarter.

David is a fan of both war and euro games. With Europe Divided, he brought me on board a way down the design line. He knew I was big into euro games, so hoped I could give a little insight from a non-war game perspective. Check out the design diary for the full skinny; I just want to talk about the process of blending two genres into a cohesive whole. And which will hopefully keep fans of both genres happy!

What makes a war game

History, theme and simulation are words you’ll come across a lot in the war game field. In general a degree of historical accuracy is a must, which brings the theme with it. And simulation is similarly common, with anything from a squad battle to dogfight to complete battle or even way being recreated to varying levels of detail.

This naturally creates asymmetry, as war gamers tend to enjoy pitting themselves against relatively accurate historical scenarios with clear objectives. So you may find to ‘win’, a player needs to hold a position for X turns. They wouldn’t go on to win in the traditional sense, but that’s not the point. By holding on for this long, they equalled or did better than the real-life forces from history.

What makes a euro game

The euro gamer is a different beast. They’re looking for balanced play (although asymmetry is welcomed), and multiple paths to victory (rather than a set scenario). For this reason, themes tend to be ‘pasted on’, with players trying to solve the puzzle the game confronts them with on even terms. And they often prefer indirect conflict (such as denial/blocking of actions or areas) with no player elimination.

For this reason, euro players tend to much prefer input, rather than output, randomness; while many war gamers seem happy with both. Input randomness is where a random event happens, them players work out the best way to deal with it via set game mechanisms. Output randomness is where players set themselves up to do something; and then whether they succeed is determined randomly.

Europe Divided: For the war gamer…

for the average war gamer, I think (and hope) Europe Divided ticks most of the preferred boxes. David has been working as a Department of Defence Analyst throughout most of the period the game is set: 1992 to the present day. All the cards in the game are based on actual events and include historical flavour text. Players are simulating the ebb and flow of political influence and troop movements throughout the period, meaning the game is full of theme and has the feel of a political simulation.

There’s also asymmetry, with an eye on historic simulation. The EU/NATO player starts cash rich, but juggling a lot of countries (a large starting deck of cards) – many of which aren’t members of both organisations. So some cards can’t be used for certain actions (you can’t use the Sweden card to do a NATO action, for example) – while some countries are weak, clogging up your hand. On the flip side, Russia has less income and a poorer starting position – but its cards represent parts of the nation’s machine (the president, oil industry, media etc). It has a smaller deck of well-balanced cards, that refreshes rapidly – meaning it is more likely to be able to act quickly to achieve its goals.

…and the euro player

But fans of euro games will be pleased to hear both players have the same goal (the most victory points); which is achieved in the same way: making historical events happen at the right time, and by maintaining dominance over Eastern European countries at key points in the timeline. At the end of around half the 20 turns in a game, events (chosen by the players) will be checked – and points awarded to the relevant player if the conditions have been met. For example, the Russia player will score a point for ‘Cyberwarfare Waged on Estonia’ if – when checked – they have more influence in The Baltics than their opponent.

We worked hard to make the two sides feel different to play, while keeping a balance between the them overall. The EU/NATO player starts out strong but will often start to struggle as they try to keep so many plates spinning; while the Russia player can stabilise their poor starting position and come on strong later in the game. It’s all part of that puzzle euro players love: is it better to maximise your points, or deny points to your opponent? Do you spend big and try to overwhelm with military strength; or flood the board with influence to prepare for later conflicts?

And don’t be put off by all those dice! Their used to mark influence, not roll for attacks. The only real luck in the game is in the card draw (which usually works out in a balanced way by the end), while there’s no actual combat. Units placed will simply cancel each other out in locations. Sure, it’s conflict – but as a euro fan it feels like the kind of conflict I’m used to (abstracted and predictable). Finally, raising influence to complete goals will end up giving you the card for that country. This deck-building element will be familiar – but here, these cards tend to weaken your deck rather than enhance it; giving more weight to the decisions you take.

Europe Divided on Kickstarter

If Europe Divided sounds like it might be of interest, please check the game out now on Kickstarter (the campaign runs until June 26). Publisher Phalanx has done a fantastic job in terms of components and development, so I’m super excited ab out the final product. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask them here.

Top 10 board games of all time 2019 (part 3 of the Top 50)

So here they are – my current Top 10 board games. After my 50-21 list, and the follow up 20-11, we’ve arrived at the big guns: Three Spiel des Jahres winners, 12 different designers, spanning four decades, with games lasting from 30 minutes to three hours. And for everyone from families to the dedicated hardcore gamers.

Links from the titles go direct to a full-length review elsewhere on my blog, if you want more details. And they should all be available from your local (or online) game store (such as Meeples’ Corner). I’ll follow up in the next couple of weeks with a geeky stats post, but for now here’s the Top 10. And no, I didn’t ‘forget’ your favourite game…

My Top 10 board games

10. Deus
(2-4 players, 90 minutes, Sebastien Dujardin, 2014)

Deus hits all the right euro buttons for me. It plays in 90 minutes You must pay close attention to your opponents, but without too much direct conflict. It’s a card game where hand management is key, but with luck cleverly mitigated. And it has card combos coming out the wazoo in a unique way (recently less cleverly, but more commercially viably, borrowed by Wingspan). There are multiple paths to victory, while the game can end in several different ways. While it can also end much quicker than you anticipate if you’re not paying attention. An expansion also gave it a new lease of life, making it a strong Top 10 contender.

9. Can’t Stop
(2-4 players, 30 minutes, Sid Sackson, 1980)

Can’t Stop is comfortably the oldest game on my list and from one of the hobby’s most revered designers (may he rest in peace). At heart it’s a simple probability-based push-your-luck dice exercise. But in practice it is so much more. It’s a game you can use to teach your children about maths – but equally you can play as a filler with any group of gamers. A new player can work out the rules by the time it is there turn, while it creates genuine stand-up moments of ‘ooohing’ and laughter. Will you risk rolling for the win and losing all your progress – or play it safe, knowing someone else may storm past to victory? Aah, the simple pleasures of games.

8. Terra Mystica
(2-5 players, 120-180 minutes, Drogemuller & Ostertag, 2012)

I’ve been told I’m going to love newer version Gaia Project. But for now, Terra Mystica is still a solid Top 10 game for me. My favourite heavier euro, the raft of asymmetric player races give it huge replayability. The action selection and board placement elements are standard but offer just enough interaction. While the upgrading of buildings and manipulation of magic for extra actions are a constantly enjoyable puzzle. While there’s a lot going on, the decision space doesn’t expand beyond what I can cope with. So pasted on fantasy theme aside, it’s one of the most satisfying kingdom building engine games out there.

7. Ra
(2-5 players, 60 minutes, Reiner Knizia, 1999)

For me, Ra is the king of auction games. The rules are extremely simple, as is the bidding: once around, bidding with a single bidding chip (each has a different value, so there an no draws). You can make small, safe gains or go for a bigger jackpot – game show style – where you risk getting nothing. And it is all bound up with a simple, elegant but brilliant scoring system. Which you’d expect from the master of such things, Reiner Knizia. The theme is meaningless but gives the components a nice style. It’s simple enough anyone can play, but it’s not about mastering it – it’s about working out what your friends are going to do. And how far you can push them, and your luck.

6. Azul
(2-4 players, 45 minutes, Michael Kiesling, 2017)

The newest game here, Azul already has a list of awards so long it’s embarrassing. And it thoroughly deserves them too. This beautifully produced abstract family game doesn’t really do anything new. But somehow, it’s so satisfying that it doesn’t need to. Would it have been such a hit if it hadn’t been so tactile and gorgeous? Who knows? But the game play sings too: choose tiles to create sets and score points – but just as importantly, be sure not to be left sets you can’t use. Like all great family games, the rules get out the way fast – but after a few plays, a second level of strategy and tactics begins to reveal itself. Recommended for all.

5. Ticket to Ride
(2-6 players, 60 minutes, Alan Moon, 2004)

This has fallen out of favour with many ‘gamers’, who often flick their nose at it. But for me, pound for pound, it is the best gateway game on the market. And it’s still my go-to game to introduce new people to the hobby. Simple card set collection is bolted onto a beautifully drawn route building train map. The theme is thin, but it works. And while the original map is probably the worst, the mass of expansions keeps the game fresh by taking it in lots of directions. Interaction comes via blocking, which is often accidental; which means even the best player can come unstuck against a rookie with some bad luck. And at around an hour, it’s just the right length for the family market.

4. Terraforming Mars
(1-5 players, 120-180 minutes, Jacob Fryxelius, 2016)

It’s hard to fathom how Terraforming Mars works at all. Its ridiculous stack of cards gives an infeasible number of combos, while the layers of competing engine currencies surely can’t be properly balanced. Can they? But somehow it all hangs together. The theme works too, as you compete to raise the red planet’s temperature while creating water and atmosphere. Needing to do all three to end the game gives a lovely ebb and flow, and you must keep eyes on your opponents (in an otherwise largely multiplayer solitaire game). Essentially it’s a longer version of a game higher on the list, but different enough to warrant being this high up on its own merits.

3. Thurn and Taxis
(2-4 players, 60 minutes, Karen & Andreas Seyfarth, 2006)

While Ticket to Ride holds my gateway game crown, Thurn and Taxis has risen to become my favourite family game. It’s a little beige and dry to win new fans to the genre. But has just enough extra depth in decisions to keep gamers on side; while having simple enough rules to teach newcomers. As with TtR you’re building routes (this time postal ones in renaissance Germany. Fun…). And there’s still a healthy slice of luck, which is fine in a one-hour game. Plus you have that mix of trying for a quick victory, versus going for big, but riskily slower points. And the twist? Trying to continue building a long route when you know you’ll lose the whole thing if the right cards don’t turn up. In a game with tight scoring, those extra few points for building a longer route can make all the difference.

2. Oracle of Delphi
(2-4 players, 90 minutes, Stefan Feld, 2016)

I surprised myself putting this so high on the list, but I love it. I’ve been a fan of Stefan Feld’s designs for many years, but for me they tend to stall on interaction: some go too far (Bruges), some not far enough (most of them lol). Delphi takes his usual euro efficiency tropes and puts them into a race format, which has a subtle yet brilliant effect on interaction. You all have to do the same things – but with the same, dwindling supply of resources. While the Greek god theme is pretty much pasted on it gives the game vibrancy and colour, as you race around the board trying to complete your tasks. And again, while you can be screwed by luck its short enough not to worry about it (especially the eight-task short version).

1. Race for the Galaxy
(2-4 players, 30-60 minutes, Tom Lehmann, 2007)

In a decision that will shock no one, Race for the Galaxy is still top of the pile. It has been since I started this in 2014 and, nearing 300 plays, has almost twice the table time of anything else. Race is a fast-playing space-themed card game where you build an engine/tableau of planets and technology in a race to score points. You’re at the mercy of random card draws and have to pay for most cards you want to add with others from your hand – creating deliciously tough choices. There are multiple routes to victory and several ways for the game to end, but it lacks a little in interaction. And its myriad card symbols make for a tough initial learning curve. But more than any other game, the time spent learning it is totally worth the effort. While I don’t play as much as I used to, I always enjoy my plays. And despite loving all the games in my Top 50, putting this at number one was the easiest choice of them all when putting everything in order.