[CARD.BOARD.BOX] #16: THE BEST OF 2012 – BOARD GAMES

Happy New Year!  So, just like in years past, here’s my rundown of the best board games of the year.  If you’re looking for the non-boardgame list for 2012, you can find it here. As always, these are my opinions, and not necessarily representative of the staff at G&S.  And yes, some of them may have actually come out at the tail end of 2011, but certainly too late to be taken into consideration for that year.  So what were your favorites?  I welcome all thoughts, discussion, disagreements and death threats.

Best Board Game Expansions:
RATTUS AFRICANUS &
KINGDOM BUILDER: NOMADS

The charm of both RATTUS and KINGDOM BUILDER lies in their variety.  The thing that makes the games so appealing is the modular, game-is-different-every-time variability of the pieces.  In KINGDOM BUILDER, it’s a matter of different board quadrants, special locations, and victory conditions which will steer the strategic direction of your settlements.  With RATTUS it’s the random pile of character cards that players will be relying on to help manage their piece attrition due to the black plague.  I enjoyed both of these games a lot, but I didn’t really love them.  With the release of these expansions, I do love them both.

KINGDOM BUILDER: NOMADS adds four new boards, pieces for a fifth player, and perhaps most interestingly, new victory condition cards that allow players to score points during the game instead of solely at the end.  Also, the new boards replace the castle spaces with “nomad camps” which provide randomized single-use powers similar to the familiar “location” abilities from the main game.

RATTUS AFRICANUS also enables a 5-6 player experience, largely by adding a new board extension which covers North Africa.  It also adds an entirely new sixth class of characters: “Islam”.  The expanded board area opens up new tactical decisions and breathes life into some previous character types that impacted movement in some way.  With this expansion, I daresay RATTUS may have entered my All Time Top Ten list.

Best New Edition(s) of a board game in 2012:

DESCENT: JOURNEYS IN THE DARK 2ND EDITION
Descent: Journeys in the Dark was a huge success upon its initial release, and it quickly vaulted itself into the hallowed halls of the very best of dungeon crawl board games.  But it took forever to set up and play, and a few design quirks made it feel more like playing Gauntlet in an arcade than an old school RPG-style board game.  All of this has been remedied.  I wrote up a full review when it released earlier in the year, in [Card.Board.Box.] #11.  Click hereto read it.  It’s the best dungeon crawl board game ever made, I promise you.  And the first expansion has already been released.

EVO

EVO, on the other hand, was an earlier design from Philippe Keyaerts, designer of SMALL WORLD.  (And fans of that game will find a lot to like here.)  Trouble was, the first edition, from 2001, was ugly.  Cartoon style dinosaurs with cutesy sight gags about parasols have been replaced with a Dinotopia-meets-feral-steampunk aesthetic that is much more to my liking, and simply put, very very pretty.  Streamlined rules combined with that gorgeous art make this a favorite that I return to again and again.  If you’re into SMALL WORLD, again, you really owe it to yourself to check this one out.  It’ll be very familiar to you, but a bit more elegant in its simplicity, and I think even a bit more cut-throat.

Honorable Mention: WIZ-WAR
This now legendary classic game has finally returned in a big box with high production values.  It was a crime that it was unavailable for so long, but now thankfully, Fantasy Flight Games has done as all a favor and made the preeminent version.  If you’re curious about this one, I wrote about the history and legacy of this game in my second column ever, back in June of 2011. [Card.Board.Box.] #2: How to Make Friends and Influence People.  With Fireballs.

So now… drumroll please…

Best Board Games of 2012:

AZTLAN

This game has been a long time coming.  It was originally supposed to be the second title in the Nexus Design Series and was announced two or three years ago, but then Nexus folded and the game went kapuf! Thankfully, when Nexus was reborn as Ares Games, they brought this one back onto the release schedule.  I’m a sucker for Meso-american themed games, and I loved AD*ASTRA the first of the Nexus Design games, so I had high hopes.

What designer Leo Colovini has succeeded in doing with AZTLAN is created that rare beast – a game with simple rules, learned in five minutes, but with enough strategic depth to keep you scratching your head for years to come.  On its surface, it’s a simple area control game, but with two twists.  One, the strength of each of your pieces varies from turn to turn, and is only revealed at turn’s end, though clever opponents can sleuth out the value.  Two, if you do have control of an area, you must decide to either completely destroy your opponents pieces in the space, OR allow them to live, gaining a powerful card for your magnanimous behavior, but allowing your opponent to count that area as part of his domain when he scores.  The game can be played “straight” at a fairly silent table, or if you’ve got the right group for it, table-talk and diplomacy will become the dominant feature and elevate an otherwise familiar game design to something special.

DIVINARE

A stack of cards, a handful of tokens, and four odd looking little boards.  These humble contents don’t begin to hint at a rich gameplay experience filled with bluffing, double-bluffing, and deduction, not to mention one of the most synergistic meldings of mechanic to theme seen in many years.  Each of the players is a medium, a fortune-teller, competing in the “First International Contest of Mediums” which encompasses the disciplines of chiromancy (palm-reading), tasseomancy (tea-leaf reading), crystallomancy (crystal ball scrying), and astromancy (astrology).  Each round consists of players passing cards to each other and playing cards upon boards representing each of the four disciplines, while betting on how many of each card will end up on each board at the end of the round (with a hidden selection of cards having been removed from play prior to the round’s start).

The mental gymnastics required to play well are fun and engaging rather than brain-hurting.  Just as you’ve started to figure it all out, you’ll realize that what you’re attempting to do is literally tell the future and accurately predict how many cards will end up on the table, and predict where your opponents will place their guesses.  A glorious, elegant design.

CLASH OF CULTURES
This game, by designer Christian Marcussen, sat at the top of my most-anticipated lists for many months.  Civilization building games are a favorite of mine, and I don’t think anybody had cracked the “holy grail” of a civ-building game that could be played in under four hours and yet still managed to scratch all the itches that I want a civ-building game to scratch.

Many people will point to SID MEIER’S CIVILIZATION from FFG.  Nope.  Too fiddly, and not thematic enough.  The cultural advances were just mechanics, ways to an end, and didn’t build any story of a culture in my mind.  Also, I hated the use of historical people and nations.  I wanted to build a culture, one without a roadmap.  I did really enjoy OLYMPOS, from Philippe Keyaerts, but it was too abstracted.  No genuine identity to the cultures.  A good game, but not one to truly rank as a civ-builder.  The high water mark for me remains ADVANCED CIVILIZATION from Avalon Hill, but I’ve played games of that that have lasted 14 hours (with two players)!

Could anybody actually pull of a satisfying medium weight civilization building game?  My thoughts were that Christian Marcussen, the guy that gave us the best pirate board game ever (MERCHANTS & MARAUDERS) might be the one to do it.

Ladies and Gentlemen, he did it.

Replacing the familiar card-driven tech trees or pyramids with a Player Board that lists all the available cultural advances, along with their mechanical bonuses and clearly defined links, CLASH OF CULTURES allows players to absorb at a glance what could only be deciphered after many plays of other civ games.  Cities, the lynchpin of the game design, develop in organic ways, and rarely are two cities alike, what with increases in size bringing along defined “buildings” like ports or temples.  My first three player, three hour game resulted in three VERY different cultures.  One player had focused on becoming a theocratic power-house, hoping to influence my culture through spiritual conversion.  Naturally, I responded with threats of violence, and was quick to develop steel weapons and a nationalistic mindset, although I was supporting my cities through the use of my vast fleet of trading vessels.  The third player, and ultimately the winner of the game, mostly kept to himself, and through the powers of democracy and free education for all, was able to develop a veritable continent sprawling empire of cities large and small.  He won the game, but it was a very near thing.

Christian Marcussen has pulled off the impossible in my mind.  He has created was is now, for me, the best civilization game available.  And this on the heels of finally creating a satisfying pirate game!  I eagerly await whatever he next attempts to do.
If this were any other year, CLASH OF CULTURES would be my GAME OF THE YEAR.  But for 2012, it will have to share the title with…

ARCHIPELAGO

This was barely on my rader when it was released.  But I had heard some rumblings from some friends at Asmodee that they couldn’t stop playing it.  It was certainly pretty enough to get my attention.  And when the first print run sold out so quickly, I sat up and took notice.  People seem to love this game or hate it.  There’s no middle ground.  As should be obvious, I’m firmly in the “love it” camp.

On it’s surface, ARCHIPELAGO is a worker placement game.  But much like LORDS OF WATERDEEP, ARCHIPELAGO takes the mechanic to new heights by giving it a liberal coating of theme.  Indeed, it succeeds at this in ways that Lords can barely begin to think about.

Each of the players in ARCHIPELAGO is an explorer and his or her crew representing a European nation at the height of the colonial age.  They discovered an archipelago somewhere in the new world, rich in resources and indigenous peoples.  The players must work to collect and sell resources, as well as build towns, markets, churches and ports to support the further expansion into the heart of the islands.  You may even hire some distinct characters or develop cultural or technological “progress” cards to help. The trick is, the players must do so in a way that will not anger the locals to tip the balance due to overpopulation and consumption.  For ARCHIPELAGO is truly a semi-cooperative game, one in which the native people (or white workers) may rise up in revolt and claim independence.  In which case, nobody wins.

There is one victory condition card revealed at the beginning of the game, but more importantly, each player also receives one hidden victory condition card.  The spin here is that those cards are not of the “you win if” variety, but are in fact similar to the visible card in that the player with the most “somethings” gets a certain amount of points, and the second most gets slightly less, etc.   So when the game ends, you will be scored not only on the common visible card, but also on the now revealed cards that each player had.  In order to play well, you must be able to guess at which cards your opponents are holding.  This, combined with free and open trading of resources and just about everything else, lends a serious negotiation element to the game.

Finally, since the threat of revolt is always just around the corner, those negotiations are often tense affairs as the players work together to make sure the islanders don’t rise up, spears in hand.  It is in this way, that ARCHIPELAGO feels like the best of the pure co-op games, wherein the players are on the brink of disaster most of the time.  Of course, what I haven’t mentioned is that there is always the possibility that one player may have the “separatist” victory card, which gives them the victory if the revolt occurs.

What makes this game truly sing is the variety of victory condition cards.  Indeed, there are three separate decks of the hidden player cards.  Three “levels” that allow you to decide game length before play.  And the theme really shines.  In our first game, we were constantly fighting against a pending revolt.  We discovered that we had flooded the export market with wood.  With so much money being made back in Europe, the islands were being flooded with laborers seeking work, but we had already maxed out our citizen count.  So unless we stopped the flow of lumber overseas, more and more workers would show up, only to find there was no work, adding to an overpopulation and unemployment problem that was becoming more and more likely to turn violent.

ARCHIPELAGO has a bit of a learning curve.  There’s a lot to take in.  But once you get your first game in you’ll immediately be wishing to play again.  I played over a half a dozen times in the first two weeks that I owned the thing.  Between this and CLASH OF CULTURES, my gaming table has hardly seen anything else.

I can’t remember that last time I was playing something over and over again like that.

-Paul Alexander Butler is the store manager of Games and Stuff, where among other things, he is the resident board game nerd and lover of all things Shadowrun.  His most eagerly anticipated game of 2013 is easily Shadowrun: Crossfire, the forthcoming Shadowrun deck-building game.  [Card.Board.Box.] is his kinda-sorta-monthly column about games and gaming.

 

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