Gaming Year 2017

In 2016 I tried 133 new games. That, I felt, was too much, and in 2017, a move was made to correct that. 17% of my plays were spent trying new games, and it felt too much.

In 2017, I tried just 67 new games. The total number of plays was also slightly reduced, mostly as a function of playing less shorter children’s games. Overall I’m quite satisfied with the raw numbers.

I created another Top 100 list.

I also got together with a bunch of Finnish board game bloggers and created a new board game award called Pelaajien valinta, Players’ Choice. Our first winners were Flamme Rouge for the best family game of the year and Agricola for the best strategy game of the year. We also gave the award for the best board game good deed, which went to Taverna, the first Finnish board game cafe.

Our instant message group has also been a great thing and a constant source of good board game banter for the last half of the year, which has been great.

Moderation

I decided to go for moderation in my game acquisitions. That was a partial success. The first half of the year was very good; I bought just a few games. In September, things got a turn for worse, and I ended up spending over 1,000 euros in game purchases.

However, I also sold games for more than 1,000 euros, so the end result is not that bad. Also, the turnover is somewhat boosted by the three extra copies of Dawn of Peacemakers I had to back in order to make sure the campaign was a success. I was able to sell those games immediately, balancing it out.

All said and done, I ended up buying 35 titles and selling 71.

Kickstarter-wise, I backed a few projects. In 2016, I backed 19 projects, so there the reduction was successful. I participated in four campaigns: I got a bunch of Monikers expansions, the new edition of Brass (and I already have a buyer for my old copy), Root and Dawn of PeacemakersRoot is pretty much the only wild card: I knew what I was getting in Monikers and Brass, and got a preview copy of Dawn of Peacemakers to try out before making the decision.

I also avoided getting review copies of games and only asked for games I really wanted. Many reviews were made with the games available at the local board game cafe.

But moderation is difficult, when you’re faced with the barrage of interesting games. That is something I will continue practising in 2018.

As part of the process to focus on good old games, I started a fifty by fifty challenge, in which I attempt to play fifty games fifty times. Seven new titles made that list in 2017, compared to just one in 2016.

Good new games (2016–2017)

A Feast for Odin was a big one for me this year. It took some effort and some patience to get a copy, but I did get mine in May, and oh yes, it was worth the wait. It immediately shot to the top of my top 100 list. It is really very good, and I love the challenges of handling your workers, filling out your board with items and so on. I’ve only played it once multiplayer, and have mostly played two-player games with my son.

Yokohama I ended up backing due to Hisashi Hayashi‘s reputation and good buzz from people who had played earlier editions. I ponied up the money for the deluxified edition, which was a great idea: the game turned out to be very good and the deluxified edition looks splendid compared to the retail edition. I like this game a lot: it does lots of good things and is refreshing change from the usual worker placement fare.

Dawn of Peacemakers offered the thriller of the year. Not the game, though, but the Kickstarter campaign. 48 hours before the end it seemed unlikely to succeed, and in the end it was really close. For a moment I was in for seven copies, but managed to drop my pledge to just four copies before the campaign ended. I fortunately found buyers for the three extra copies pretty much immediately. Quite the thriller! And yeah, the game is good, too. My review sums up my feelings, and I’m really looking forward to August when we can play this for real.

Nusfjord is a new Uwe Rosenberg worker placement game with a cool Norwegian theme (outside the all male panel of the elders). This is a much simpler game than A Feast for Odin, somewhere on the same scale as Glass Road. That means the game is quite playable even with five players, which is great. The more I’ve played this game, the more I’ve enjoyed the challenge it provides.

Sidereal Confluence is a trading game in space, with highly asymmetrical player powers creating lots of opportunities to trade. The player count goes from four to nine, and since it’s all mostly simultaneous, it plays in two hours or less with all player counts. It’s a huge hog for table space with larger counts, though.  I’ve only played this once so far, but even based on that I’m ready to say it’s one of the best games of the year.

Escape rooms were a thing this year. I finally got around to try one, and was hooked on the first go (largely because we did so well, escaping in pretty much a record time). I also tried out couple of escape room board games: Unlock! is good and the free games are very much worth printing out. Escape the Room: Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor is a bit easy but well done. EXIT: The Game is my favourite series, though, these I like the best.

Good older games I haven’t played before

A Few Acres of Snow may be a flawed game, but it’s still good entertainment and a fresh take on deck-building. The rules updates should fix the broken parts anyway. I’ve played this couple of times, mostly against my son who isn’t really into the warfare part of the game yet, and I’ve love to give this one a go against an adult opponent.

Mombasa was something I had to check out after Great Western Trail, and once I’d played it, I had to buy it (so much for moderation). But it is a splendid, solid game, highly recommended for the fans of the heavy euro game.

Pax Pamir was part of my interest in the works of Cole Wehrle (my Cole Wehrle interview was by far the most-read article on this blog this year), sparked by John Company which hasn’t arrived yet. So far Pax Pamir is the best one: lots of really clever stuff in this game, with an interesting setting and lots of good ideas.

Children’s games

Here’s a list of games that we played at least five times. It’s interesting to see how the games change year after year.

Hero Realms was my son’s favourite game for the most of the year. We ended up playing more than 60 rounds. That’s pretty solid return on investment.

Santorini was also pretty solid: we played it a lot for couple of months, until it hit about 50 plays, and my interest in it waned.

Love Letter is still the most popular family game in our family. It just doesn’t get stale at all.

Coconuts was skipped in 2016, now I made some effort to play it again, and guess what? It’s still very addictive and very entertaining.

Fashion Show still got lots of plays. Those plays are super fast, so it’s something I can play with my daughter to keep her happy.

Afrikan tähti still gets played almost every time we visit the grandparents.

Innovation got on the rotation when I made the effort of translating it to Finnish. This got the attention from my son, and we played the game about ten times. Fun fact: he can win the game if he gets to spam Agriculture. Otherwise, it’s likely I’ll win.

Ty Beanie Boo’s Friends Game is a game for toddlers my daughter found at a library, loaned and then we played it ten times. Fortunately it was then returned to the library, never to be seen again.

Joylings is a terrible game, a combination of Top Trumps and roll-and-move, with cutesy horses. This is definitely something I only do for my daughter.

Klack! is a reaction test game, and mercifully short one.

Europa Tour used to be a thing with me and my son, but we haven’t played it in a while. My daughter has picked it up, though, and requests it occasionally. She still isn’t very good in it, though; this seems like such a random game, but I still win a lot.

The Mysteries of Peking is another game we play at the grandparents. It’s a harmless roll and move mystery, and I can clearly see why it captivates the kids so much. It’s pretty well done for what it is.

Da ist der Wurm drin is not really a game, just a roll-and-move raffle. But it’s pretty fun for something like that.

Super Rhino keeps entertaining, it’s such a fun little dexterity game. People have been hyping up the new Super Battle version, but I’m not sure if I’m interested in that.

The Magic Labyrinth still works, it’s one of the better memory games.

Tumbling Tower is a Jenga variant, and the kids played a ton of it while at a summer cabin that was somewhat low on entertainment.

Dungeon Rush is a speed game, and I’m a bit lukewarm on it. It’s pretty good in the genre, but the genre just isn’t doing much for me these days. This is somewhat problematic as a family game because of the skill differences.

Guess Who? was a Christmas gift for my daughter. I’m sure this will see lots of play. It’s not very painful, and the new edition is somewhat developed from the one I played as a kid: the characters are on a sheet which can be replaced. The sheets are double-sided, with animals on the other side, and you can print out new sheets to increase replay value.

Little Prince: Make Me a Planet is one of my daughter’s favourite games. We play two-player games only, so the meanness in the game doesn’t really come up. It might be a problem.

Games I’ve kept on enjoying

Tigris & Euphrates made a nice comeback. I got a copy from a math trade, as I wanted my son to be able to experience this classic. It was really fun to get back to this game after so many years. This is one of Reiner’s finest, no doubt about that.

Mechs vs Minions eventually got almost 20 plays. I’ve now played all the campaign scenarios and haven’t really returned to the game since. My son has played this a little, and I still have the game. It was well worth buying.

Terraforming Mars has turned out to be a fine game. I managed to buy a copy in March after long wait, and played it almost ten times. That’s pretty good, as the game hasn’t really sparked in my game group: there are some folks who just don’t like it. It’s a bit on the long side, I agree, which is why I rather like it as a two-player game and without the Corporate Era stuff. But the length is part of the charm: this is a tableau builder that doesn’t end too early.

South African Railroads was on a break for couple of years, but I played it couple of times this year. It’s a good one, one of the better Winsome games. Unfortunately it’s not available anymore. I did a new map for it, trying to learn a bit of graphic design.

The Great Zimbabwe made a comeback after many years of not playing the game. My son turned out to be a fan. It’s a curious two-player game, plays really really fast. I also played my second play of Duck Dealer: the first was one 2010 when the game was released. It’s still a good game.

The not-so-good, the disappointing and the plain bad

Near and Far was a pretty game, but we played it couple of times and decided to pass it along. It just isn’t very interesting, and I’ve learnt now that outside few exceptions, campaign games are not my thing.

Savage Planet: The Fate of the Fantos was on Kickstarter and was interesting enough that I made a print-n-play copy. After all, the game leaned heavily on Vampire: The Eternal Struggle, one of my favourite CCGs and had pretty cool art. Too bad it was awful, and none of my friends wanted to ever see it again.

Arkham Horror was a great math trade catch: I got a fine copy for two euros. We played it once, figured out the game is absolute garbage, and I sold it for 40 euros. So can’t say I’m disappointed, really, the game was pretty much as awful as I expected it to be.

Cat Tower looked like a fun thing, but wasn’t actually at all fun to play.

BONK also looks like it’s fun, but it was a bit too fast and furious.

Mountains of Madness has a really cool idea, but doesn’t really work as a game, I think. Too heavy for a party game, too bizarre for a strategy game. I’m glad I gave it a go, but no, there’s no need to revisit those mountains.

Where are they now

Pandemic Legacy Season 1. We’ve yet to finish the first season, and I’m pretty sure we never will. It just wasn’t all that interesting; I don’t like Pandemic and while I think the Legacy stuff is a nice added layer of interesting stuff on top of it, it still is Pandemic under all that.

The Colonists has failed to hit the table at all. It’s just too big, and I have so few opportunities for big, heavy two-player games.

Blue Moon fell out of fashion. Time will tell if that was a disturbance caused by Hero Realms, or a permanent change. Same happened to Burgle Bros., which I don’t really miss.

Fives and dimes

Dimes

  1. Hero Realms (66)
  2. Santorini (53)
  3. Love Letter (21)
  4. Coconuts (18)
  5. Mechs vs Minions (17)
  6. Fashion Show (15)
  7. Afrikan tähti (11)
  8. Joylings (10)
  9. Innovation (10)
  10. Ty Friends (10)

Fives

  1. Halli Klack (9)
  2. Kingdom Builder (8)
  3. Splendor (8)
  4. Terraforming Mars (8)
  5. Tzaar (8)
  6. Europa Tour (8)
  7. The Mysteries of Peking (8)
  8. Unlock! (7)
  9. Da ist der Wurm drin (7)
  10. Tumbling Tower (6)
  11. Super Rhino (6)
  12. Century: Spice Road (6)
  13. Dungeon Rush (6)
  14. Fugitive (6)
  15. Nusfjord (6)
  16. Dawn of Peacemakers (6)
  17. Majesty (6)
  18. Guess Who (6)
  19. The Magic Labyrinth (6)
  20. A Feast for Odin (5)
  21. Concordia (5)
  22. Little Prince: Build Me a Planet (5)
  23. Tokaido (5)
  24. Gnomi (5)
  25. Imagine (5)

Year metric

  1. Battle Line (Schotten-Totten) (16/17)
  2. San Juan (14/14)
  3. Attika (13/15)
  4. Dominion (10/10)
  5. Carcassonne (13/17)
  6. Ta Yü (12/15)
  7. Memory (9/9)
  8. Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation (12/16)
  9. Animal upon Animal (9/10)
  10. Samarkand: Routes to Riches (8/8)
  11. Innovation (8/8)
  12. Schildkrötenrennen (8/8)

First number is the years I’ve played the game, second is the number of years since the first time I played. So, I first played San Juan fourteen years ago and have played it every year since that. With Battle Line I’ve missed a year. I didn’t play games marked with an asterisk this year.

H-index

My H-index for this year is 10 (10 last year). My total H-index is 40, up three points from last year.

Cole Wehrle interview

Cole Wehrle is one of the more interesting game designers at the moment. After his debut design Pax Pamir (Sierra Madre Games) in 2015, he has published just few designs – he has a total of three published titles at the moment – but those are all very interesting.

While all his other games are based on historical themes, his latest work is Root, a fantastical and purely fictional game that takes the asymmetrical guerrilla warfare of the COIN games and distills it all into a more accessible package. This game is currently on Kickstarter collecting funding.

This interview has also been published in Finnish at Lautapeliopas.

Long-winded design process

I was interested in hearing about Cole’s design process. It seems to be a long process. There’s some proof on BGG: Heaven’s Mandate has been listed on BGG for six years, but it’s still a work in progress, and may remain so indefinitely. Getting John Company, his 2017 game for Sierra Madre Games, right also took many years.

So how does it all work out, Cole?

– When I was a young student, I often used games as a way to trick myself into learning about a specific topic, Cole tells me. – If I needed to learn about the American Civil War, I would start by digging up some old Avalon Hill game on the subject and trying to teach myself through the game. This often was not a great way to learn history or literature or science, but it worked for me, Cole says.

– As I got older, I didn’t have time to learn a whole game for each and every subject in school, so I found myself jotting down little games in the margins of my notebooks. Game design was a way that I tried to make sense of the world, Cole explains.

– Of course, none of these games were good in the traditional sense. I rarely bothered to write down rules. Mostly they were just tables and charts and maps and diagrams. I suppose I was making little models, though it would have never occurred to me at the time to describe them that way, Cole says.

As Cole got older, lessons at school got more complicated and so did the games. Once he started playing more games, he realized some of those ideas might make for interesting games to actually play, and might offer something already published games don’t:

– Mostly, as a player, I was just trying to build the games that explored the ideas that I wasn’t seeing out there, Cole says. – Years ago, when my dissertation advisor asked me why I decided to spend my extra month of fellowship time working on Pax Pamir rather than taking a vacation or (preferably!) publishing an academic article, I replied that I had the feeling that if I didn’t make a game on 1820’s Afghanistan, no one would, Cole tells.

But even if the pre-process can take a long time, his actual design process is pretty regular in length and effort.

An Infamous Traffic

A rich variety of themes

Cole’s games have interesting themes: 1820’s Afghanistan, Chinese Opium trade, the ups and downs of the East Indian Company. Is it easy to find interesting themes?

– My goodness, there is no shortage of interesting subjects for games, Cole exclaims. – I have more topics than I know what to do with at the moment. A lot of these themes I borrow from my own reading. If a topic is intriguing enough to deserve a good book, there’s probably some ideas worth considering.

However, not all theme ideas lend themselves to interesting games.

– My own process seems to contain two separate conversations. One is a big wheel of ideas, topics, and dissatisfactions with the kinds of stories folks tell. The second wheel contains formal dissatisfactions in how games are designed. When those two wheels line up I know I’ve got a game worth exploring, Cole says.

Sometimes it takes playing another game to get the spark for creating something new.

– So, for instance, with Pax Pamir, I was thinking a lot about the theme and sorting through mountains of good material. But, it wasn’t until I was seriously playing Splotter’s The Great Zimbabwe and having a lot of arguments in person and online about engine builder games that I had the mechanical frame that I could use to think about Afghanistan at that time, Cole explains.

For a designer focused on historical themes, jumping into a fictional theme may be a big leap. Is it liberating, not having to worry about historical details, or difficult?

– It allows me to be more philosophical. Without the messiness of history, I can cut off a lot of the complexity of the moment and focus on what I see as the abstract core of a particular problem, Cole says. – At the same time, that cleanness can be incredibly frustrating. Sometimes I wished I had a straight historical allegory so I could go back to it for guidance.

As for the games he plays, Cole prefers historical themes.

– Looking at my shelf now, I’d guess that about 70% of what I own is historical in some way or another. If a game is interesting and obtuse, I’m liable to want to explore it, regardless of theme. Both historical and fictional themes can suffer from the constraints of their theme: history games can become reenactments; fictional games get stuck in clichés, Cole explains.

Why Root?

Who should be interested in Root? What makes the game stand out from the flood of miniatures and mediocrities in Kickstarter?

Root is the kind of game that I wish I would have had growing up, Cole says. – And it’s the kind of game I wish I could have taken to college with me. It’s my attempt to offer something compelling to folks stuck with time constraints or with a group that don’t often explore interactive games. Make no mistake, it’s a tricky game with some sharp edges, but it’s also by far the most accessible game I’ve built.

– In short, if you want to explore interactive, asymmetric strategy games, Root is a great place to start, Cole summarizes.

Pax Pamir

Different approaches for different publishers

For his short career, Cole has worked with several publishers. He has published two games with Sierra Madre Games, one with Hollandspiele and now he’s employed at Leder Games. What kind of thinking goes into choosing a suitable publisher?

– So far the decisions have been quite easy. Usually I have a publisher in mind the moment I start a design. I suppose that’s an academic habit, Cole explains.

– While you don’t want to wholly become subject to a particular conversation or a particular publication, there comes a time when you need to communicate what you’ve done, and part of that “communication” means thinking about the different forms it could take and the venues where it might live. So, for Pamir, I had the argument and a lot of the ideas of the game pretty well set. Then I played Pax Porfiriana and instantly knew exactly where I should publish it, Cole explains.

– The story is a little different with Hollandspiele but that was only because they weren’t yet a company when Tom and Mary asked me to design An Infamous Traffic. Right now I’m working on a design for them (slowly), that I’m sure will be a good fit, Cole says.

There are many sides to having a game fit a publisher.

– First, I’m talking about the ethos and audience of the company. Phil has a unique customer base that will like certain games and hate others. That’s true of any publisher, Cole says.

– Second, I’m talking about production constraints or expectations. Every publisher from little Sierra Madre Games to Fantasy Flight Games has different production capabilities. Those limits are critical factors for a game design and I take them seriously when I think about pitching a game, Cole says.

– My work at Leder is similar in this way. Vast: the Crystal Caverns is the foundational title for Leder Games. It’s why the company exists. They’ve built a lovely audience around that title. For this reason, with Root, I am attempting to do a design in that style that I think advances their particular style of asymmetric games. I’m grateful that I happened to have ideas that fit well within that form, Cole says.

I’m pretty sure Phil Eklund is high on your list of designers you admire. But who else?

– I love Phil for his willingness to use games as a platform for thinking through complicated subjects, Cole explains. –He makes games you can argue with (and I often do argue with them!).

– I adore Tom Russell for his ability to create incredibly expressive games with very few rules. I love how Reiner Knizia explores the friction between different player positions (Tigris & Euphrates, Modern Art, and Stephenson’s Rocket are favorites). Lastly, I should also mention Nate Hayden who I admire for his deeply personal, uncompromising design ethos.

John Company box cover

A great eye for graphic design

Cole is not just a talented game designer, but he also has great eye for graphic design. His work on John Company got me attracted to the game in the first place: the cover is splendid and the first page of the rulebook pretty much sealed the deal for me. How important is the graphic design for game design?

– I spend a lot of time on the graphic design for my own games. In fact, I more-or-less learned graphic design by doing redraws for games. So, I owe a lot of my skills directly to this hobby, Cole says.

– During the design process, I tend to think through my problems with geometry, so I make a lot of shapes. Now, that isn’t to say things are “pretty” at the start. All of that comes later. But, I work through my design problems visually which means that by the time I get to the final game, I am pretty certain of how a particular game should look. I think An Infamous Traffic was uniquely successful in this regard. I’m very happy with the rules of John Company as well, Cole agrees.

– I think graphic design is very important, but it should always serve gameplay. Some of my favorite visual designs for games are things like Food Chain Magnate, Winsome Games, and GMT’s The US Civil War.

– I wish more companies had aesthetics half as bold or as thought through as Splotter, Cole says. – I think my favorite visual design of theirs is probably The Great Zimbabwe, but Cannes is a close second. I just love how that game looks like a film zine from the 1980’s. It’s perfect.

Side interests in Victorian literature

According to your BGG profile, your PhD was about “how the experience of empire altered the way British writers imagined distances of time and space during the early and mid 19th century.” Care to elaborate a bit? What did you find out?

– By training I’m a scholar specializing in Victorian literature. I look at books and the context that shaped them. Over the past few years I’ve been thinking a lot about time and space and the Empire, Cole explains.

– The short answer to your question is that a lot of the “space-collapsing” anxiety you seen in narrative in the early nineteenth century that is often associated with technologies like the railroad and the telegraph has a lot more to do with the British Empire’s imperial growth. Empires need to make the argument that they can project power across their domains and to do that they need to tell little lies about how closely things are connected, Cole says.

– Literature of the period provides a record of those lies. Long before the submarine cables stretched across the oceans, people were finding ways through storytelling to make the world seem smaller than it actually was, Cole says.

Your designer diaries suggest that you read a lot: all your games seem to be influenced by lots of literature. Any book suggestions?

– After I get home from work and after the kids go to bed, I get to reading. I don’t consider myself a particularly fast reader, but I do make time to read and am protective of that time, Cole says.

– For the past few years I always recommend two books: Philipp Meyer’s The Son and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora. The first is one of the best historical novels I’ve ever read. It’s a multi-generational yarn about the history of Texas that isn’t afraid to tackle some tough subjects. The second is an utterly compelling science fiction novel that reminded me how much I could love the genre after about a decade of not touching the stuff.

– Right now, I’m reading Ron Chernow’s Grant, a new biography of US Grant. It’s wonderful. I also just finished Dexter Palmer’s mind-bending Version Control, which is a very different kind of time travel narrative. On my shelf I’ve got Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend which I’ve been meaning to give a second read so that I can properly finish the sequence.

– I’m also about half way through a couple books on Minnesota state history (half the fun of moving to a new place is digging into local history!). And, each night I’ve been reading a few entries out of TH White’s England Have My Bones and then a poem or two from a collection of poems called the Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay. Okay, okay, I’ll stop there.

Kickstarting Root

Root is on Kickstarter now until 22.11.2017, and has already reached more than $170,000 of funding, surpassing the $24,000 goal many times. I’m a backer; I’ve found the game idea very intriguing.

Root – Woodland Might and Right