2009 may have been a somewhat poor year for me in terms of video games, but my board gaming experiences were fairly solid throughout the year. I wanted to look back at all of the great new games I’ve played this year. Not all of them have been featured in this column yet, but I’ll see what I can do about correcting that in the coming months.
10. Tales of the Arabian Nights
Tales is a strange game. It’s a game of storytelling more than it is of competition, featuring an absolutely massive “Book of Tales” that contains various matrices and descriptive paragraphs that will guide players on wild quests much like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” novel. Since victory conditions are secret there isn’t a lot of direct competition, but there are still ample opportunities to mess with each other. All of the reading and cross-referencing usually results in a long play time, but it’s quite the experience to have every now and then.
This Steve Jackson-published title pits players against each other as they vie for control over a small city. Each player has a board featuring the twelve personalities over which they can exert three types of influence (force > blackmail > money), although certain personalities can’t be affected by force and/or blackmail. Players secretly place all of their influence tokens on up to five personalities, then all are revealed simultaneously. Whoever exerts the most effective (or the most, in the event of a tie) influence on a certain personality gains their favor, which usually involves some combination of support (victory points), influence for the next round, and/or control of a location on the board. When all of the board’s control spaces are filled, the game ends and whoever has the most support wins. The bulk of the play is outguessing your opponents’ actions, which can make for some fascinating feints and bluffs.
8. Ghost Stories: White Moon
An expansion to one of my favorite (if “love/hate”) games of 2008, White Moon inhabits the besieged village with 24 villagers, broken up into twelve families of various size. Players have to try and rescue the villagers while fending off the evil spirits. Succeed in rescuing an entire family and they will grant a powerful boon; however, each family member that falls inflicts a horrible curse (some more devastating than others), and if twelve of them die then the players lose. Additionally, the players can receive the aid of Su-Ling, a village girl who gave her life to imprison Wu Feng, as well as erect a powerful Mystic Barrier using Moon Crystals. The twists added to last year’s base game seem to make the game a bit less random, which is a huge plus.
Reiner Knizia’s post-apocalyptic scramble for survival bears a resemblance to Hey! That’s My Fish!, but adds varied scoring opportunities and a two-stage gameplay. After “the bomb” there will be more enemies out there, so plan accordingly!
Another Knizia design, this Tetris-like game is essentially a solo puzzle that can be experienced by up to four players simultaneously. While the way to gain points varies from board to board, the ways to lose them are always more numerous. Additional score boards can be downloaded for free if the four included aren’t evil enough for you and your group.
5. Roll Through the Ages: The Bronze Age
RTTA is an elegantly-designed dice game, with players collecting goods, food, and workers in order to build cities and monuments while developing cultural improvements. There are several strategies to try, although you are always at the mercy of how the dice land so you have to be flexible. I prefer the “print and play” expansion to the base rules, but both are equally fun for both group and solo play.
Like many games, Z-Man’s Endeavor covers the period of European colonization and exploration that dominated the middle of the last millennium. Players get seven turns to amass victory points by various means, using actions fueled by constructed buildings. Everything is controlled by four categories of development (industry, culture, commerce, and politics), which are increased by collecting tokens and/or cards along the way. The seven-round limit goes by quicker than you think, so careful planning is necessary to maximize effectiveness. Despite the potential for “analysis paralysis,” play is usually quick, as most of the steps each round are handled simultaneously, with the individual actions going around the table one at a time.
This beautifully-illustrated family game plays in a similar manner to the classic definition game Balderdash, with the dream-like artwork taking the place of strange words. Each round’s storyteller has to be careful to give clues that are neither too obscure nor too obvious, due to the quirks of the scoring. The same supports up to six players (or, in theory, teams), although games with less than five tend to lose some of their magic due to a lack of options when it comes to guessing which card was the storyteller’s.
2. Race for the Galaxy: Rebel vs Imperium
Race for the Galaxy was, without question, my favorite game of 2008, helped by the expansion The Gathering Storm. This year’s expansion, Revel vs. Imperium, adds cards for a 6th player, new goals, and “takeover” rules that allow players to steal worlds from each other with the help of certain development cards. The deck is getting a bit unwieldy to shuffle (especially if you’ve sleeved them), but RftG is still a quick-playing game that has seen ridiculously heavy play in my group; one guy has accumulated over a thousand plays!
1. Small World
I’ve already discussed Small World and its two mini-expansions at length, but I wanted to officially name it my Unplugged Game of the Year for 2009. I like the elegance of the territorial conquest, which uses no randomness until your very last move of the turn (if then). But what I really love are the hundreds of potential combinations of races and powers that give each session a unique feel. The two expansions only add to the possibilities and keep the game fresh.