Gaming Unplugged: 2011’s best of the best

December 31, 2011

Another year, another sense of amazement that I was able to turn out another twelve months of biweekly content (give or take an E3) for this column. And I’m certainly not going to stop any time soon; due to their recent releases, I haven’t even covered three of the games I’m about to list as my favorites for 2011!

January will also bring a new version of last year’s best game, Ascension, so my first couple of months of GU are pretty much already booked. I might be the only person on the planet happy that Ascension: Storm of Souls got pushed back due to some printing and shipping complications, since it was hard enough narrowing down 2011 to these next ten titles without that one getting in the way. But that’s 2012; here, finally, are my ten favorite new games from 2011:

10. Mondo
Mondo is one of those late entries I was just talking about. At its core a puzzle game, Mondo challenges up to four players to assemble an island of deserts, plains, and forests in a limited amount of time (ten minutes or less, depending on difficulty). Players are awarded points for using tiles depicting animals, completing terrain structures, and for meeting randomly-drawn challenges, but they lose points for missing tiles, improper borders, and active volcanoes. And it’s not just the time limit that will cause these to happen — all players are drawing tiles from the same central pool simultaneously! There are only so many combinations of terrains available, and volcanoes often appear on the most sought-after tiles and can accumulate without you even noticing them. A fast-paced, fun game, Mondo serves as a great opening act to game night.

9. Factory Fun
Another everyone-grab-from-the-middle puzzler, Factory Fun puts your color matching skills to work as players have to connect contraptions in such a way as to maximize outputs and inputs without costing too much cash for the piping necessary to accomplish this task. Bonus points are awarded for efficiently tying machines into an assembly line, but will they be enough to offset the hoops you have to jump through in order to achieve this? Factory Fun‘s stress… uh, challenge… comes not from a timer, as in Mondo, but rather from the fact that only a handful of machines are available each round and you’re stuck with the first one you grab, whether you can actually connect it or not! You have to think fast but also think carefully, as one wrong move could cost you dearly.

8. Kingdom Builder
You wouldn’t think a game where you only get to play one card a turn — from your hand of one — would be that engaging, but Kingdom Builder is all about working around your restrictions. Players have to place three of their buildings in the terrain type depicted on their card for the turn, but connecting to various structures on the modular board allows additional options such as placing extra buildings or even moving ones already placed. The catch is that all of your buildings have to be adjacent whenever possible; savvy players will see to it that this is not possible whenever they can, thus maximizing their placement options. Scoring is accomplished via three randomly-drawn cards per game, each indicating a different condition like “buildings adjacent to water” or “connecting two or more structures with a string of buildings”; being adjacent to certain board spaces is also worth points. Kingdom Builder might be quick-playing filler, but it is quality filler.

7. Ascension: Return of the Fallen
Another bonus to Storm of Souls not releasing this year is that I didn’t have to face the possibility of 20% of my list being taken up by one franchise. Return of the Fallen expands Chronicle of the Godslayer to accommodate up to six players, and is also playable as a two-player stand-alone. The “fate” mechanic keeps things moving, and a new mix of cards is always welcome in the deck-building world. Return of the Fallen proved that Ascension was here to stay, and there aren’t too many players complaining about that — unless maybe you’re not getting any work done thanks to the iOS app that was also released this year, with this expansion arriving on that just recently.

6. Eminent Domain
Speaking of deck-building games, Eminent Domain mixes things up in that ever-growing genre by taking a different approach. Not so much a deck-building game as it is a deck-tuning game, Eminent Domain also offers the brilliant “role/follower” mechanic that keeps all players active during everyone else’s turns. Even if you can’t capitalize on a role being taken, you can still draw an additional card to make your next turn that much better. Action outside of the deck itself is also present, as players settle or conquer new planets for their empire, which allows them to research new technologies and even further develop their strategy.

5. Letters from Whitechapel
The thrill of the chase — and of being chased — is what Letters from Whitechapel is all about. One player assumes the role of Jack the Ripper and moves around the board in secret, hoping to reach his hideout before the other players, as police, determine his location and apprehend him. Letters is a bare-bones game that does little more than pit cunning vs. deduction, and games are almost always intense on both sides of the screen. In a spot of good news that came out shortly after my column on it was submitted in October, Letters has since been picked up by Sir Chester Cobblepot and will see a revised reprint in 2012! Good hunting!

4. Discworld: Ankh-Morpork
This Martin Wallace take on Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels does everything I want as a fan of both the series and board gaming. Ankh-Morpork captures Pratchett’s fantastic adventures in an elegant manner, dealing out hidden victory conditions to players as they vie for control of the majestic (though fetid) city. It may not include the wider range of characters (or actual Pratchett text) of fellow 2011 Discworld game Guards! Guards!, but in my opinion Ankh-Morpork is by far the better game of the two, which is what matters here.

3. Belfort
If you were to take everything that is good about modern boardgaming and mix it together with a surprising amount of humorous flavor, you might — if you were very lucky — wind up with Belfort, which features worker placement, resource management, and even area control in one bizarrely fun package. There’s a lot going on here, obviously, but every aspect of it adds up to one of the best experiences I’ve had in gaming all year. Put your elves, dwarves, and gnomes to work (no trolls allowed!) and seek out this game as soon as possible.

2. 7 Wonders
7 Wonders sat atop my ever-changing Best of 2011 list for almost the entire calendar span, having been released in December 2010 after I had turned in my column for that year. I love how quick-playing this draft-style card game is, even when accommodating seven players at once. Only having to interact directly with your immediate neighbors really streamlines the process, and kept 7 Wonders returning to the table again and again. An expansion, Leaders, was also released this year but I haven’t had the chance to give it a try yet.

1. Ninjato
I fell in love with Ninjato after my first demo session shortly after Gen*Con, and waiting months for it to actually be released didn’t dull the sensation at all. The combination of mechanics and flavor works perfectly, and the push-your-luck element provides a great sense of fun and excitement. Plus: wooden shuriken player tokens! The game can be slightly marred when a bad mix of rumor and/or envoy cards come up, but even with that minor flaw Ninjato is hands-down my favorite game of 2011.

So that’s that. There were a lot of other excellent games this year that just couldn’t make it on to the list, most of which I covered in columns this year, like Alien Frontiers, Small World: Underground, Dixit Odyssey and others. If you have a local gaming shop, I’d highly recommend seeing if they have a regular board gaming night (and ask about starting one if they don’t!), as these last few years have been packed with quality new titles in addition to the long-standing classics like Puerto Rico and Agricola. Snackbar Games might be a video game review site first, but a good game is universal no matter what its format.