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Cracked LCD- Barnes’ Best 2014

barnesbest

 

Unlike 2013, where I found myself locked in an introspective debate over what game was the best of 2013 and arriving at a Triple Crown choice of three, I knew what 2014’s Game of the Year was almost literally as soon as I held the box. But we’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s rhapsodize about the year that was and roll out the Barnes’ Best shortlist.

2014 was, in hindsight, a pretty disappointing year for hobby gaming. Too much disposable product, too much redundancy, too much Kickstarter. Few releases seemed to have any kind of staying power, even really strong serial titles like Warhammer: Diskwars popped up and receded without much fanfare. Dice Masters felt like it was going to be the Next Big Thing, but it seemed to fizzle due mainly to Wizkids’ inability to put product into the hands of consumers. On Boardgamegeek, the conversation (and “hot list”) seemed to be dominated by crowdfunded titles- many of which are still not even physically available and many of which haven’t met expectations for one reason or another. Probably the biggest release of the year, Fantasy Flight’s Imperial Assault, landed right at the end of the year but it turned out to be not a whole lot more than Descent in Stormtrooper drag.

I spent a large part of 2014 in retreat from the mainstream, going back to the kinds of games I was playing 10, 15 and even 20 years ago. I found more satisfaction in revisiting classic Knizia titles and the German games of the 1990s than pretty much anything new I played. With that said, I did appreciate that in some quarters there seemed to be a return to the kinds of simpler, more direct designs that games like Agricola pushed into the peripheral. Titles like Splendor, Camel Up, Lords of Xidit and diverse others almost seemed to be pointing to a “new Eurogames” movement that was really more like the old German games paradigm. And of course, the microgames thing proliferated with smaller boxes, easier rules, fewer components and lower price points standing in contrast to the $300 Kickstarters laden with components and badly developed rules.

But let’s not forget, there were some really good ones that came out this year. Lords of Xidit was great. Galaxy Defenders was far better than I expected it would be. Cathala’s Five Tribes was a terrific example of the new Eurogame, as was Abyss. Sun Tzu is one of the better two player games in recent memory. My First Carcassonne was one of the best kid’s games I’ve ever played. And then there was Hearthstone, which may not exist in cardboard, but it was totally a tabletop game and one well worth playing. It may turn out to be the most culturally significant tabletop design of 2014- more people have likely played it than every game on my list combined.

Who knows what 2015 will bring, but I hope that we’ll see more spirited, unique and innovative titles like the following four games. With that segue, I give you the Barnes’ Best Shortlist for 2014.

Hyperborea

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This game wasn’t really on my radar to begin with because it looked too expensive and redundant with other fantasy Dudes on a Map games. And I wasn’t sure about this whole “bag building” mechanic, that seemed like it was cobbled together from bits of Quarriors, Dominion and old timey chit-pull systems. But of course, when Asmodee offered a copy for a review I jumped on it. I’m glad that I did, because Hyperborea was one of the slickest and sleekest games of 2014, despite its size and depth. It is effectively a streamlined 4x game that pares away tons of fat to arrive at a core of medium complexity but maximum fun. It’s a game that feels evolved from a couple of recent trends- obviously the whole deckbuilding concept is there, but there are also traces of Nexus Ops, Runewars, Matagot titles such as Cyclades and Kemet, and Clash of Cultures. Fans of any of those games will likely find that Hyperborea’s relatively high retail price is actually justified, because this was the best game in its class this year.

Theseus: The Dark Orbit

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I am a big fan of singular designs that have no discernable antecedents, games that come seemingly out of nowhere. Neuroshima Hex was a game like that, and the designer of that classic Polish title came back in 2014 with this bizarre design featuring four rival factions battling it out on a rotating space station. The mechanics for movement are descended from traditional Mancala-style games, but the science fiction setting and conflict-heavy gameplay give it all a whole new context. I love introducing this game to people because there is always a kind of “WTF” moment- it simply exists outside of the usual design-by-numbers strategy of taking existing ideas and reshuffling them. But once it settles in to place, Theseus emerges as one of the most compelling designs of 2014, a game I’m looking forward to playing more in 2015.

Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem

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It wouldn’t be a Barnes’ Best end-of-year review without a Gale Force 9 title, and here it is. Sons of Anarchy was a brilliant crime game first, a licensed product with tons of fan appeal second. I know next to nothing about the television program this design is based on, but I totally understand the themes of intimidation, rivalry, illegal moneymaking, and rising through the ranks of a crime organization. Sons of Anarchy, like GF9’s Spartacus and Firefly, is a game designed explicitly to give players exactly what they want from a game bearing a popular IP. But the genius is that it works for everybody, and this hybrid Dudes on a Map/worker placement game with a heavy dose of potentially nasty player interaction gives everyone something to do. Kudos as well for the great production, which includes tiny plastic 9mm pistols and duffle bags of “contraband” (read: drugs and porn).

Thunder Alley (Carla and Jeff Horger, GMT Games)

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2014’s fastest game alive was undoubtedly Thunder Alley, arguably the best racing game ever made. If not the best, it is definitely one of the most thematic, completely capturing the essence of NASCAR-style stock car racing. Players control teams of cars, which ensures that even games with low player counts have a full track, but more importantly this design decision brings to the fore seriously strategic concepts like drafting, pushing, breaking away and choosing when to push a driver/car to its limit. The level of abstraction is actually quite high, particularly in regard to compressing races to exponentially shorter lap counts, but this is one of those designs that feels like exactly the right elements were preserved. Often seat-of-your-pants thrilling, sometimes surprisingly cereberal but always fun, Thunder Alley is a great game even if you never thought you’d have any interest in the whole “Rubbin’ is racin’” thing.

And now….I give you…

Barnes’ Best Game of the Year- The Mushroom Eaters (Nate Hayden, Blast City Games)

mushroom eaters cover

 

Above, I said that I knew that this singular, almost impossibly daring board game was going to be Game of the Year as soon as I held the box. But really, I had a feeling it would be when I first read about the game and its concept. I also had high hopes because it was designed by Nate Hayden, who gave us the shortlisted black metal dungeonbrawl Cave Evil a couple of years ago. Yes, this game is about eating psychedelic mushrooms. But it is also about the shamanic experience, the spiritual and psychological journey precipitated by ingesting psilocybin. All of that alone is enough to put off many shrewish game players who would be more comfortable trading for oregano, shooting Nazis or using a +1 sword to stab an orc. But Mushroom Eaters reaches for something completely different than most games would ever even try to attempt. Its themes are far richer, its message much deeper. I found the game tremendously moving, inspirational and thought-provoking. There is literally nothing else like it in gaming, very few games approach the medium as an artistic tool for expression as this amazing design does..

But was it fun? I don’t know if it needed to be, in the same way that a great film doesn’t necessarily have to evoke positive feelings of enjoyment and pleasure. The gameplay design is absolutely sound, and the methods by which Mr. Hayden communicates many of the particulars of the psychedelic experience- its rhythms, its crises, its revelations- are, to be it quite bluntly, a master class in how to express real theme and meaning through game mechanics and rules. This game describes things I have never seen attempted in a set of rules before. There is cooperation, as all players are in the experience together, but there are opportunities for self-discovery along the way. What other game has a player board that tracks the status of your nervous system?

Visually, the game may look crude and amateurish to those expecting Larry Elmore-quality artwork on every game. But the graphic design is better described as raw or anarchic than beautiful. When I first looked through the cards, I knew this game was special, something closer to art than anything published by FFG or Z-Man. The majors would never illustrate a card with a crude sketch drawn on notebook paper. Nor would they produce a stunning fold-out board that evolves as the players progress through the game. Oh, and it’s also in 3D. You’ve got to wear the glasses.

The Mushroom Eaters was never going to be anything less than Game of the Year. The only qualm I had about selecting it was that it is the kind of thing where I think that most people actually shouldn’t play it. It is not accessible or “pop” in any way. It is challenging, unique and really quite demanding. It is also a hard game to come by- my copy was actually hand-assembled, and I believe there are less than 1000 copies in the world. So most people won’t get to play it anyway. But if you have a chance and you are an adventurous game player that wants something more out of the medium than another miniatures skirmishes or worker placement games, do not pass it up. It is one of the most impactful, groundbreaking and resonant games I have played in my entire life.

Thrower’s Tallies: Games of the Year 2014

2014-goty-silly

Another year, another end of year wrap piece. Time to reflect on the past 365 days as you force down another sweetmeat and another glass of cheap sherry and then to wonder what the future holds.

This has not been the best gaming year for me, personally. Not just in terms of titles released but in terms of finding opportunities to play. For one reason and another, I just haven’t spent the time at the gaming table I’d have liked.

That makes me sad. Real life is important, of course, but you only get one shot at it, a thing I’ve become increasingly aware of as the years slip past. Since gaming is one of my favourite things to do, I ought to be able to find more space for it. Other things just always seem to intervene.

So I look at my collection, much of which is gathering dust in the attic, and wonder if I’ll ever play most of them as many times as they deserve. Or that one day I might look back and regrest not making more time for my favourite things, which so often get lost in the push and shove of family life.

I guess that’s a game in and of itself.

Anyway, enough of the melodrama. This long preamble is setting up the point that a lot of the games I’ve played this year just haven’t lasted beyond the required review plays. Not because they’re bad games, just because they weren’t quite good enough to elbow their way in to a very crowded itenerary.

But when I looked back on what I’d played this year, I conveniently found that there were exactly three games that had broken that trend. Three games that had forced themselves back onto the table after I thought I was done with them by virtue of their brilliance. I was also exceptionally surprised by what they were. Can you guess?

Before I reveal all, I wanted to mention something that’s been bothering me more and more in recent years. I’m just not seeing as much fun in new titles as I used to. I still want to game as much as I ever do, but that itch of excitement when you read a preview or tear the shrinkwrap has gone.

The problem, I think, is that game design has become a process of iterative improvement rather than fizzing creativity. When I got back into board gaming at the turn of the millenium, the design community was still buzzing with the influx of ideas from Germany. Over the next few years, recombining this new paradigm with the traditional American model of gaming proved a fertile furrow.

Now, those ideas seem to have run dry. Genre-breaking games seem to be few and far between. I think this is because, with the market glutted by kickstarter titles, we’re near the limits of what can be done with mere card, wood and plastic. Newer titles are, for the most part, still a step up on older ones. But the improvements are so small, it’s not worth the money or the effort to acquire and learn them over existing games.

We’re done with the misery. On to the awards.

2014-goty-daft

#3 Band of Brothers: Ghost Panzer

Don’t judge games by their boxes. I was put off the original game in this series, Screaming Eagles, by the small publisher and the bad art. Then, while it had its supporters, it didn’t seem to gain much fan traction either, so I wrote it off.

That was a serious mistake. I enjoyed its perfect blend of realism, accessibility, tactics and excitement so much that I played it solo, something I never do. I enjoyed it so much that I went right out and bought Screaming Eagles second hand in case it never got reprinted. The components still suck, but these may be the best tactical wargame rules ever made.

#2 Splendor

This was the real shocker. In many respects, Splendor represents a lot of what I dislike about modern game design. But it keeps coming off the shelf, again and again. And it keeps finding its way into friends collections, again and again. It’s a keeper and, on reflection, one of the best Eurogames I’ve played.

While everyone was mistakenly raving about the way Five Tribes had cross-hobby appeal, Splendor was quietly doing just that in the background. It has one page of rules, can be played competently by my 8-year old, yet is challenging to win at consistently. It’s got gorgeous pieces, a smidgen of interaction and can be completed in 30 minutes. When you step back, what’s not to love?

#1 Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition

Ok, so I’m cheating slightly. But in terms of table time, this is the undoubted winner this year. I thought I was done with role-playing games. I thought over-heavy rules and anti-social players had ruined the genre for me forever. Then fifth edition came along and reminded me of just how amazing, how limitless and soaring, role-playing can be when it gets things right.

I have never seen a rules system which achieves so much with so little. Yes, there’s still lots of spells and magic items and stats to remember. But the actual play mechanics are lean and mean, yet manage to cover almost any situation, allowing groups to mine whatever rich seam of fantasy they choose. I’m so looking forward to where this system is going to go next year. More so than any board game in the pipeline.

Well, except XCOM, perhaps.

Speaking of which, I guess I spend enough time iOS gaming nowadays to make a best of year list for that platform too. I have an odd love-hate relationship with my iPad. Part of me longs for the hours and hours of total engrossment that only a AAA PC or console game can provide. On the other hand, in a busy life I’m grateful that I can now enjoy such excellent bite sized gaming.

It feels like 2014 is the year mobile gaming came of age with meaty franchises and big studios finding their way to the app store. But these are the top of the pile for me, staying installed long after their peers have been deleted.

#3 Hoplite

I’m a big fan of rogue-like games but the classic model doesn’t tend to port well to tablets. It’s too involved, too stat-heavy. Hoplite hit the nail on the head by reducing the genre to a kind of puzzle game, with role-playing elements. It sounds dull, but isn’t, because the procedural generation ensures every puzzle is unique.

#2 FTL

FTL may be the most perfect game in the most perfect genre ever devised, an endless story generator with strategy and role playing thrown in for free. I’ve yet to beat it, even after about twenty hours of play time. And I’m still trying, even after about twenty hours of plat time. This might be number one, were it not marginally better on PC than tablet.

#1 Hearthstone

FATtie Erik Twice has asked me several times why I complain about it all the time on social media, when I profess to love it. The answer is simple: it’s the same reason drug addicts complain about crack. Addiction is a terrible thing, but it doesn’t make the high point of the trip any the less sweet.