Gaming Unplugged: Janus

March 23, 2009

“The game has drawn criticism from some as being ‘multiplayer solitaire,’ but nobody in my group cares.”

No, I’m not reviewing an abstract strategy game that predates my own birth by a few years. I wanted to write a column that both covered all of my gaming experiences in 2008 as well as looking forward to what to expect from this space in 2009. Being the attentive student that I once was, I knew that Janus was a god in the Roman pantheon famous for having two faces, one looking forward and the other looking back (this is why the first month of the new year is January, in case you weren’t as attentive a student as I was).

A ton of incredible games came out last year, and I was able to play quite a few of them in addition to my other “unplugged” passion, playing and judging Magic: the Gathering. I hope to write reviews of most of them in the upcoming months, in addition to any new hotness (as well as old classics and forgotten/overlooked gems) that might cross my path, but I felt I should at least fire off a quick Top Ten list. You can expect to see reviews of just about all of these sometime in the near future, but for now a quick blurb will have to suffice.

Honorable Mention: Stone Age — For all of Stone Age’s quality and uniqueness, it cannot escape the shadow of Agricola (see below). Call it unfortunate timing, but two “feed your family” worker placement games in the same year have no choice but to be lumped together. Many gamers consider Stone Age to be “Agricola-lite,” which might actually make it better-suited for some groups.

10: Android — The only reason this game isn’t higher on my list is because I’ve yet to actually play a full session since owning it. Android is a cyber-noir detective game that has you juggling a murder investigation (but nothing like Clue’s “whodunit” objective), the conspiracy linked to that murder, and your character’s own personal problems over a two-week span of time. A number of mechanics all combine into an unique experience, but the complexity means a hefty time commitment; this is a game that (at least initially) demands the dedication of an entire evening, not just an hour or two.

9: Jamaica — One of two games technically published in (late) 2007 on this list, Jamaica is a pirate-themed race game that has you sailing around the titular Caribbean island while amassing treasure, feeding your crew, and fending off cannon assaults from your rivals. It plays quickly and is one of the best “pirate” games I’ve played, although sometimes random die rolls (especially combat) can sour the experience.

8: Ghost Stories — Speaking of games ruined by randomness, I’ve developed a love-hate relationship with Ghost Stories in the short time that I’ve owned it mostly due to its reliance on dice to accomplish your goals. Your task is to defeat the incarnation of Wu Feng as you defend the village from his ghostly minions searching for the urn containing his ashes; there is one way to win and several ways to lose in this cooperative nightmare. Solo play is much less hampered by randomness once you know what you’re doing, but cooperative play can be more fun as long as you and your friends don’t mind occasionally having your heads handed to you.

7: Pandemic — Another cooperative game out for your hide is Pandemic, except instead of haunting apparitions your enemies are viral infections that are threatening to spread all over the world. It will take cooperation, skill, and more than a little luck to prevail, but when you win you will have saved the world; it doesn’t get much more epic than that. (Although try not to think about what happens if you lose…)

6: Dominion — As an avid player of Magic: the Gathering, I have a soft spot for card-driven games. Dominion is nothing but cards… several hundred of them, in fact, although each session will only use a subset of them. Simple mechanics and nearly limitless replay value make Dominion a solid addition to any gamer’s shelf, but be sure that you and your friends are gentle when it comes to shuffling.

5: Cosmic Encounter — Ok, technically this game is a few months older than I am. And yes, it gets picked up by a new company and reprinted roughly once every decade (the latest of which and justification for listing it here is Fantasy Flight’s 2008 edition; I personally own the early-90s Mayfair version), but this game is so influential on modern gaming that it deserves a mention whenever possible. It is probably my favorite game of all time, and anyone who calls him/herself a gamer but hasn’t played it yet should correct this oversight immediately.

4: Witch’s Brew — Another card-oriented game, I really liked the “So be it…” twist on the classic role-selection strategy. Witch’s Brew is a fast-playing game that is easy to learn, which are always big plusses in my book, plus it has a cute theme.

3: Toledo — While Renaissance Italy is a recurring theme in many boardgames for some reason, Spanish swordsmithing doesn’t usually crop up that often. Turning steel bars and jewels into finely-crafted dueling implements as you race through the city is accomplished by placing your own “shops” on the board to make valid spaces, discarding cards of the same value to move your pawns from shop to shop (plus the occasional visit to the tavern). Your swords are only worth their full value if they have been delivered to the palace, but the game ends when one player has moved his third pawn to the “finish”, creating late-game tension.

2: Agricola
— If you are at all familiar with the hobby of (European-style) boardgaming, then you probably already know that Agricola was last year’s 800-pound gorilla (almost literally… this game’s densely-packed in more than one sense) and is currently the #1 rated game on BGG. At its core a simple worker-placement and resource-management game, this post-Plague farming simulation has remarkable depth and strategy. Three different decks and a cardless “family” version allow for variations in replayability, and solitaire rules just add to the value.

1: Race for the Galaxy/The Gathering Storm — While Race for the Galaxy was officially released late in 2007, it dominated my 2008 like no other game. Our group played over 100 sessions last year (and those were just the recorded ones!) of this “San Juan-in-space” card game and we show no signs of stopping this year. The first expansion was released late in 2008, with a second (and I believe final) on the way later this year. RftG’s only real drawback is a seemingly-overwhelming learning curve, but after a handful of sessions you’ll have overcome that particular hurdle; the fact that most games are completed in around 20 minutes will only accelerate your learning. The game has drawn criticism from some as being “multiplayer solitaire” (with actual solitaire rules appearing in the first expansion), but nobody in my group cares; this game is fun, fast, and compact (once you stop carrying around the player aids), making it ideal for almost every


Images by GamerChris