Want to know what my top five games of 2011 are? Of course you do. If not, well, click anyway, or the ugly dog gets it. Capiche?
2011 has come and gone, and I share the opinion of a few other prominent game reviewers on the web when I say that this was one of the best years in gaming I can remember. At least since the incredible combo of 2004-2005, anyway.
I know that I have released more positive reviews this year than in year's past, and a great deal of that is due to there being quite simply more games coming out that I enjoy. Of course, back when I first started doing reviews it was only stuff I could afford or a few crumbs sent to me by a tiny handful of companies (my lukewarm to negative reviews of which got me kicked off their media lists fairly quickly.)
Now, with the Fortress being in its fifth year of operation--I know, I can't believe that our bunch of miscreants made it, either--now we have a lot of leeway in picking and choosing what we want to review. I know that I personally target games that I am already likely to enjoy, and do my research beforehand.
Is this the wrong way to go? I don't know. I realize that negative reviews are often more entertaining to read than positive ones. I also know that if you're not careful, you start to get the sheen of being a 'softshoe' or shill reviewer. Trust me when I say that if I give a game a positive review, it's because I genuinely enjoyed it. Maybe I do need to be more open to receiving pretty much anything for review, but no one wants to feel like an asshat by requesting product and then shitting all over it, especially if you had a bad feeling about it to begin with.
At any rate, I have noticed though that I spend a lot of my valuable gaming time "getting review stuff to the table" rather than playing my old favorites. Usually when I get a game for review, I try to get it played as quickly as possible; few companies want to send you stuff so that you will review it a year later. If it's a good game, it will generally hit the table several times rapidly over the span of a few weeks.
But then, sadly, even if a game is really, really good it gets shelved in order to make room to do the next set of reviews.
It's also lead me to something of a personal dilemma in terms of reviewing. I know that we as reviewers are to be offering an opinion that boils down to, "Is this worth buying?" Now, I have a walk-in closet completely FULL of games already. From that perspective, a game would not only have to be good, buy extraordinary to take the place of one of my all-time favorites.
Not all game buyers are in the same boat as I am, though. I've seen more than a few new faces on our forums, and these are folks who are just diving into the hobby, just starting to form collections, just starting to find the good stuff that they're going to enjoy. To them, a "buy" question has a much lower threshold than someone who already owns a few hundred of them.
When I review games, I distance myself somewhat from my "you already own a hell of a lot of games" perspective, and try to come at it as someone who maybe doesn't have a particular niche filled in their collection. From that standpoint, then I ask, "is this worth buying?"
I also know we have a lot of die-hards on our site who own as many games as I do, if not a hell of a lot more. I want my reviews to be useful to that crowd as well, but that's a much tougher set of criteria. How do I bridge that gap?
I do know that if I can keep the fresher perspective, I can avoid the jaded string of mediocre reviews that ultimately help no one.
Is it disingenuous? I certainly hope not. When I say that something is worth buying, I mean it, but often with that caveat that you're not already drowning in that genre of game already. It's seemingly impossible to offer a viewpoint that can accomodate both someone who owns no dungeon crawls and yet someone else who already owns a dozen of them.
Just know this; I enjoy reviewing games, I enjoy providing that service to our readers, and I'm always looking to improve my craft and increase the usefulness of my reviews. So stay tuned, but most of all, keep that feedback coming. You have no idea how much I appreciate it.
KEN B.'S TOP FIVE GAMES OF 2011
Picking the five best games I played this year wasn't easy. It seemed there was something new and exciting to play at every turn, and few games really and truly disappointed me. Even those that did, such as Elder Sign, weren't so much pure disappointments as much as exercises in wildly fluctuating variance and rules ambiguity.
Before I start the list, please note I haven't played the following notable games this year: Eclipse, Mage Knight: The Board Game, Gears of War, and Blood Bowl Team Manager. The first two came out late in the year and are tough to come by currently, and the last two I only acquired as Christmas gifts and haven't gotten them played just yet.
Oh, and I suppose that I have to cop to not playing De Burgen von Burgen von Burger von Burgendon. Nor Milch Und Gerkin: Das Kartenspiel.
All that being said, let's get this list under way!
5. Sentinels of the Multiverse
Here's the case of a game completely ambushing me, coming from out of nowhere from a smaller publisher. Sentinels of the Multiverse is a co-operative card game of comic book superheroes taking on a powerful villain and thwart their plans for world domination.
What was so brilliant about Sentinels of the Multiverse is the variety offered by the multiple decks. There are 575 (!) cards in that little box, and amongst them you have 10 different heroes, each with their own deck. Each character is obviously based on popular comic book archetypes, and their decks reflect those personalties and fighting styles. The Batman clone "The Wraith" therefore relies on trickery and gadgets, while the Iron Man-inspired "Bunker" is armed to the teeth with all sorts of advanced armor-based weaponry. Those heroes will need every trick at their disposal as they take on one of four possible villains, each with their own set of henchmen and diabolical plans. Mix in four different environment decks where all sorts of mayhem can take place as the battle rages, and you've got a recipe for delicious four-color destruction.
The game is great about telling stories, and the mixtures of cards, powers, and game events conspire to detail unique narratives.
I can say without hesitation that its one of the best superhero games of all time. The art on the cards is gorgeous, the gameplay is fast and fun, and with so many different options, it has tons of replayability. Yes, the game has scaling issues, is "just another co-op" to those who are burned out on them, and has a cool-looking box that is nearly useless for storing the game. All that aside, this is a fantastic game and my choice for fifth best of the year.
4. Summoner Wars: Master Set
This was a tough call--was Summoner Wars a "2011 release?" Fact is that the Master Set certainly is, and is worthy ofyear-end accolades in my book.
Summoner Wars is a game that is exceedingly easy to underrate. The rules are so simple, "Dudes on a Grid" exactly as you'd expect it to be. In fact, I could give you the basic framework of the game and you could very likely deduce thet basic rules for yourself, and be fairly close to correct.
That all changes though when you actually play the game. Summoner Wars has a dizzying array of races that play completely differently from one another. In fact, if you have a preference for style of play, most likely there's a Summoner Wars race to suit you--whether it's rushdown, pure aggro, control, range...it's all here. And just when I think they've covered everything, they put out another race that makes you realize just how much can go under the hood of a "basic" engine.
The rules stay neatly out of the way, and in their stead, they allow the cards themselves to sing.
Summoner Wars: Master Set would have been a product that most companies would have been all too happy to turn for a quick buck. Repackage some old starter sets, maybe toss in a new race or two so the older adapters have to buy-in too (they'd bitch but you know good and well they'd have bought it anyway.) Instead, Plaid Hat gave us a boxed set with six brand new races and a fully mounted board. Incredible.
This is a great product for a great game. Summoner Wars was one that had to grow on me after my initial play, but I am certainly glad I stuck with it. It takes everything I love about skirmish games and mixes in the best part of CCGs.
What's next for this line? I don't know, but I've come to expect great things here. The Summoner Wars: Master Set definitely did not disappoint.
Sometimes, it's difficult being a reviewer on the Fortress who's also a deckbuilding fan. From the moment Dominion's theme-light, frequently shuffled gameplay made its debut, I know that there have been more than a few folks who hate the genre with a passion and have written it off entirely.
The fact is though that 2011 was "the year of the deckbuilder." Dominion for all intents and purposes created a new type of game, and now companies are looking to explore that space. Yeah, we've gotten a lot of "me too" lazy imitators, and I have a strong feeling 2012 will be to deckbuilders what 1995 was to CCGs. Make no mistake, there will be a glut--and a culling. Personally, I have several deckbuilders that already completely replace Dominion.
One of them is my number three choice for Favorite Game of 2011, and that's Nightfall. Nightfall brought back to deckbuilders what was a staple of CCGs, and that's permanence. Instead of shuffling all your cards in every turn, you were building an army of minions to attack your enemies, as well as defend you from their onslaughts.
Nightfall's attack n' defend gameplay seems very meat and potatoes, and it overshadows some of the things that make the game really shine. First up is the chaining system. There is a tactical, admittedly gamey element to it, but it's great in how it gives cards in the pool more value based on what your opponents play. You really have to pay attention. Dominion banks are often dominated by a couple of cards that are the best regardless of anything else; the chaining system can make heroes out of almost any card.
Even better about chaining is how it solves the solitaire feel of many deckbuilders, where you draw what you can, play what you can, discard and redraw, then wait for your next turn. Because you can jump in to an opponent's chain even when it's not your turn, you're involved with each and every play, each and every turn.
Then there's the starting decks. Every one of these games come with starter decks that are full of useless cards that you want to go away, and soon. In fact, a key strategy of many of them is to "trash" your starting cards as quickly as possible. Nightfall's starter cards however are not only useful initially (Bad Smoke is one of the best cards in the game, protecting you from lots of damage) but they have the good sense to get rid of themselves after use. This lets players get to the meat of their strategies much more quickly without bogging down their best cards with the crap they started with. That is smart design.
The last complaint many have about deckbuilders is interaction, but it's interaction that defines Nightfall. Your minions *must* attack and are whisked off to the discard pile every turn, so there's no turtling, nor reward for doing so. You can attack any player you want, along with target them with card effects, so this truly is as interactive as games get.
Yes, this does introduce politics, something that gamers who lack interpersonal skills detest. They're not into the "attack him, not me" style of game, but for me, that's been my bread and butter since the glory days of Risk and even multi-player Magic: The Gathering. So bring it on.
The vampires vs. werewolves trope may be overplayed, but at least the gothic setting makes the theme palatable, and gives gamers a visceral combat-driven affair that rewards skillfull play and truly paying attention to what your opponents do.
Of all my games, this one saw the most table time this year, with frequent calls for "one more game" once the Nightfall train was rollin'.
There are parts of the game that are certainly evolutionary rather than innovative, and the theme is sometimes quite thin. Those two factors keep me from placing this higher, though I did debate the order of my top three. A lot.
Picking between my top 2 was even more difficult than my top 3.
Yomi came out at the beginning of 2011 from Sirlin Games, and was the product of six years of development and design. David Sirlin is a big name on the video game fighting circuit, and what he managed to do was translate the mind games of high-level play into card game form.
It's really hard to get folks past the realization that the core part of this game is "Rock, Paper, Scissors." You hear that, and any thoughts of skill go right out the window. However, you have to realize that while the core gameplay is indeed "Attack beats Throw beats Block/Dodge", there are many additional layers and condiderations that you have to account for. Imagine that you're playing Rock, Paper, Scissors, but if you win with Scissors you get five wins in a row, but you're against an opponent who tends to throw Rock. Or imagine you can win with Paper, but it might cost you the next win.
Even that doesn't sum it up very well. And that doesn't get into the fact that there are ten distinct characters in the games, each with their own decks, each with their own abilities, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. You've got Rook who has punishing, fast throws and can plow through your weak attacks, but can falter against a hard coboing striker. You've got Jaina who can burn her life energy to get cards back, and has a self-damaging card that let her change her combat choice after they're revealed, but has lower life and is more fragile to damaging hit strings, especially since she uses so much of her own energy to fuel her own tricks.
Yomi can feel daunting and random when you first sit down to play it. There is a metric ton of depth there that rewards multiple plays, getting to know each character, but more importantly, getting to know your opponent. That level of interaction, of learning what your character can do, what your opponent is likely to do, what his options are, and how you can best hamper those options are all things that come from frequent play. Games these days are often disposable one-trick ponies; Yomi challenges you to dig deeper and rewards you for your perseverance.
If there's a strike against the game, it's that the depth of play can be such a turn-off that finding similarly dedicated opponents can be extremely difficult. There's also the price issue; the full boxed set is $100 MSRP. With ten decks of unique characters and deep gameplay I certainly think it's worth it, but there's no doubt that this further limits the potential pool of opponents.
Yomi is a great game that is at least worth your time to take a look. It really manages to take simple mechanics and have them make thematic sense, to the point where it does feel exactly like a video game fighter in card form.
1. A Few Acres of Snow
If you'd told me at the beginning of 2011 that I'd be putting a Martin Wallace game as my Game of the Year, I'd have told you that you were certifiably insane. Especially if you'd told me this after I'd played Yomi for the first time. But, in this crazy, crazy world, in this year of pretty damned awesome games, here it is...Martin Wallace's evolution of the deckbuilding genre, A Few Acres of Snow.
AFoS covers the topic of the British and French struggle for dominance in North America and Canada. Players have settlements on the map that they attempt to expand upon, all the while attacking, laying siege to, and disrupting the locations settled by their enemies.
How does it to this? Why, deckbuilding, of course. Yes, A Few Acres of Snow took the deckbuilding mechanic and made it the part of a larger conflict-driven game. Now, these cards are tools, supplies, money, food, weaponry...the things you need to carry on your war effort, and turn the tide of battle.
A lot of games are content to ride the coattails of other, more successful games. However, what Wallace has done here has resulted in the blueprint for the next evolution of the genre; no longer is the betterment of the deck the sole purpose of the game unto itself; now you need to use drafting and purchasing cards in concert with your spatial positioning on the board. Want to siege? You'd better buy weapons. Want to set sail? You'll need boats. Need money? Better get to selling furs and mining the colonies for monetary benefits.
The entire game design is strikingly brilliant. Playing the game feels very much like being turned loose in a sandbox, with all the tools you need, and allowing you to play the game your way. It's a game about expansion, resource management, and conflict. As you expand, location cards are added to your deck, and many of them are multi-purposed, adding in more choices in how you want to proceed.
It's an extremely light wargame with an interesting historical topic, that to me has really shaken things up by combining two popular elements in gaming (card-driven wargames and deckbuilding) to create something entirely new.
Some may note that I criticized Nightfall for being evolutionary rather than innovative, and yet am giving a pass to AFoS. It's not that I'm giving this a pass, but moreso acknowledging the degrees of evolution. There is evolution that is slight, and there is evolution that is ultimately leading us to the next step. Folks, I have a strong feeling that this is the next step. Years from now, I don't know how many deckbuilders we'll be talking about, but I know for sure that we'll be talking about games that have adapted deckbuilding into just another part of their core gameplay.
Part of my choice for the game is admittedly more admiration of what it has accomplished than anything else. It's fun to play, but the rules can be obtuse and there are balancing issues. While I have played and undoubtedly will play both Yomi and Nightfall more often, A Few Acres of Snow is a design that should be applauded for everything that it has accomplished.
That's going to wrap things up for this "Best of 2011" column. I sincerely hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed writing it. The choices were tough, and I know that many won't agree with my selections. But I stand by 'em, and would relish the chance to discuss it further in the comments.
Thanks for another great year at the Fortress, and here's to 2012...may it bring us even half as many good games--and twice again as many awesome gamers and supporters as you guys and gals--as 2011 did.
Ken is a member of the Fortress: Ameritrash staff. When he's not knee deep in playing games for review, he's most likely opening the boxes and getting high off of the plastic vapours.