Occasionally, I'll have to take a short leave of absence, so we can justify all the "Ken B.'s Back!" jokes. Hey, what can I say--I'm like that dude in the movie Summer School who gets up for a piss break on the first day of class and isn't seen again until the final exam. Then he ACES it, baby. That's all I'm sayin'.
Ready for part 2 of my 2012 gaming review? If you're not by now, you never will be. Join us, won't you?
I do need to explain my criteria for dividing this list. Ordinarily I would not do a "Best Expansions" list, but there were so many of them this year I liked. Still, incorporating them into a main Best-Of list seemed problematic, as a lot of times you're giving an award to an excellent game that came before it, not just an expansion on its own merits. How do you compare that to the other releases for the year? You don't, so I split those out.
Then, the reprint/second edition list. I felt the same way about comparing rereleases to games that had come before. How fair was that? Generally, for a game to get a reprint or 2nd edition it had to be a good one in the first place, so how do you put that against other releases?
But then there was a catch...sometimes a reprint is altered significantly enough that it feels like a new thing rather than an extension of what came before. In that case, I was ok with ranking it with the rest of my Game of the Year candidates. It's shaky, hard to define logic, but it's mine and I'm sticking to it.
So let's get on with it!
BEST EXPANSIONS 2012
5. Rune Age: Oath and Anvil - My first pass with Rune Age was defintiely one that had me feeling it was adequate but not spectacular. I liked the scenario-based gameplay, but wasn't crazy about how few cards there were to purchase, making much of the gameplay feel a bit limited no matter what scenario you were playing.
(I remember that we have a very vocal Rune Age fan on our boards who would probably blast me at this point. Bear with me, I'm coming around.)
When I got a chance to play with Oath and Anvil included, I was amazed at how much it changed my opinion of the game. And strangely, the expansion itself isn't radical in terms of what it adds, other than more "stuff." Not only are there more neutral cards--amen!--but each faction gets new units, including new Mythic units that when killed go to your discard pile rather than back to their original stacks. They are all pricey, but extremely powerful game-changers.
Oh, and did I mention two new races, two new sceanrios including a nice slugfest PvP, and new cards for existing scenarios? Yep, all this in an extremely affordable package.
This is going to sound like faint praise, but with this the game actually feels much more complete. Maybe it was a mistake for them to release the "affordable" base game, but this is one of those must-have expansions that you simply don't play the game without.
4. Puzzle Strike: Shadows - Shadows introduces ten new characters to the Puzzle Strike universe, and since each character plays differently than another thanks to their own set of unique chips, this added a crazy amount of new matchups to explore and enjoy.
Seeking to counter-act the "purple is dominant" strategy, Shadows was developed alongside Third Edition and therefore includes the new Combine chip, which if played too much will cripple your economy. Also, as this set features many of the Fantasy Strike universe's villains, there is more of an emphasis on the red Attack chips that seek to take it to your opponent in new and exciting ways.
Best of all, Puzzle Strike: Shadows is a standalone expansion, which helps mitigate the edition problem for existing users as you'll get a full set of the new Combines, meaning you're free to play these chips with your second edition all you want to.
3. Alien Frontiers: Factions - To me, Alien Frontiers has always been head and shoulders above its would-be Euro dice brethren. While all of them, from To Court the King to Kingsburg to Stone Age struggle to find the right way to actually use dice correctly, Alien Frontiers just nails it.
I always find it funny to hear Euro fans decry dice and randomness in our games, but then fawn all over a game where you can be rewarded up to six times as much resources as someone else based on a single roll. But I digress.
I didn't think Alien Frontiers really needed an expansion...that is, until I played Factions. When I said the number of actually excellent expansions was very high this year, I wasn't kidding. Factions brought variable player powers, the capacity for a fifth player, new tech cards, and "secret missions" that can either be claimed during the game itself or as a nice surprise at the end, making the end game a little more tense if scores are close.
If you've soured on other crappy Euro dice games, I would suggest that you give Alien Frontiers a try if you haven't already. And if you like that, Factions takes a great game and makes it even better without adding tons of weight or baggage.
2. War of the Ring: Lords of Middle-Earth - Although I was thrilled for the second edition of War of the Ring to find its way to store shelves as its a fantastic game that deserves to be in as many gamer hands as possible, there's no denying that after spending time with the original and its expansion, you could feel the things that were missing. Battles of the Third Age was crazy in that so many people bought it only to use the expansion bits, which made it a ridiculously extremely expensive expansion in terms of actual bits used from it.
Ares corrected that by giving us the expansion itself without the extra Battles stuff in a nice, smaller affordable package. And understanding too that Battles sought to balance a Shadow-heavy game, with 2nd edition's tweaks there would have to be a different approach for this expansion as well.
It doesn't look like much when you take it out of the package, but what you're getting are the new Keepers and their dice (including Galadriel, who was far and away the MVP of Battles of the Third Age.) You have new cards for both sides. Alternate Fellowship characters that you can choose to use in different ways than their originals, giving you some wonderful choices and adding even more replayability. I'd wager that such a small expansion adds more in terms of strategy and depth than many other bloated, larger expansions for other games.
1. Core Worlds: Galactic Orders - I only had the chance to play this after 2012 had concluded, but I am certainly glad that I did. It is in my mind the best expansion that I had the chance to play from 2012.
Core Worlds was always a different style of game that defied the pure deckbuilder label. A cool theme with gameplay that put as much pressure on you to adequately muster your military might as fretting over which cards to add to your deck, it was one of the games that embodied the true evolution of the deckbuilding concept. The entire game you were pursuing your goals with an endgame in mind--which of the lucrative Core Worlds would you conquer and add to your new empire? And along the way, how would you get the forces you needed to do just that? Just an excellent game, through and through.
To those who played the original, those little icons on some of the cards were puzzling, and a teaser in the rules assured that they would be used in the expansion. And sure enough they were, in a move that gave you another dimension to think about when acquiring cards. Now, those icons, those factions matter, allowing you to play cards to eventually call on favors from the Galactic Orders...free cards, additional military strength, extra actions. Find yourself in league with these Galactic Orders and the sky was the limit. Even better is the choice of popping those tokens for extra abilities or holding onto them for fat endgame scoring if you could hold the majority.
Just so much to think about, it makes your decision of "which card do I buy?" in Dominion seem like such a small thing now.
At one time, I considered Core Worlds and Eminent Domain sort of cousins, and held them in fairly similar esteem. A couple of weeks after playing Galactic Orders, we went back to Eminent Domain and I was surprised at how constrained and plain it seemed by comparison. It's not fair to put a game and its expansion up against another that hasn't been expanded yet, but EmDo has a tall order if it's going to play catch-up here as Core Worlds (with expansion!) has established itself as the much better of the two.
Best Reprints or 2nd Editions of 2012
5. Descent: 2nd Edition - The coffin box era is officially on life support this year as both Descent and Runewars both saw second editions with the smaller, deeper boxes. And although Descent's new edition has far less plastic than what came with the original, that's just a sad reality of today where we frequently get $50-60 games with little to no plastic in it. Such is the breaks.
That shouldn't detract from Fantasy Flight's ability to refocus Descent, get rid of a lot of the chaff that the base game had been burdened with where a ton of stuff had been bolted on to a system that was straining to support it all. They cleaned up the rules, stripped down the combat system and reduced the playing time dramatically. Ordinarily these could be taken for negatives However, in this case we got to see a game that deserves more table time be repackaged into something cleaner and more accessible. It's still miles more complex than your standard "take three actions" Eurogame so don't mistake this for an effort to turn the game milquetoast.
A campaign system built right into the box was the last of the stuff that many players had been asking for, and FFG delivered. For those who adore 1st edition, it's still out there but rode out into the sunset this past year. I'm just glad we have a dungeon crawler of this caliber still in print and available to gamers everywhere.
4. Serenissima (second edition) - This may have been one of my biggest "out of nowhere" surprises from this past year. Serenissima was a game that was nowhere to be found on my radar at all and yet when Stefan at Asmodee forwarded me a copy of review, after diving into the rulebook I was eager to give it a spin.
After playing it, I remembered players having a lot of negative feedback about the game, and I was confused how that could be based on my experiences. Turns out, the game had been reworked considerably for second edition including addressing most if not all of the complaints that were originally levied against it.
Serenissima is a superb hybrid game that takes trading, territory control, and combat and puts it into a very well-produced package. The rules are a touch on the lighter side for a game of this length but it's perfect for those who would otherwise be overwhelmed by something like a Merchants & Marauders. In fact, this is a great lighter alternative in that it gives the same feel--you can sail the seas peacefully, find those needed goods and turn a profit...or you can tank up your ships, fortify your lands and declare war on the open seas, taking what you want by force. You don't get the cool "ARRRRRRR!" sounds, but I've found mileage varies on how much people enjoy that anyway.
Don't get me wrong, it's not going to *replace* a freaking insanely awesome game like Merchants & Marauders, but I think it's a good fit for a group that you're not sure will be able to handle that. It's light and tactical, and a Euro-style game with *gasp* a well-realized theme. Check this one out, I really like it.
3. War of the Ring (second edition) - I'm sure a lot of you are aware, but War of the Ring is one of my absolute favorite games, ever. The way that the game masterfully captures the narrative of the novels, but with a "what if?" twist...what if Aragorn had continued to lead the Fellowship while Gandalf rode to immediately answer the siege of Helm's Deep? What if Legolas and Gimli were able to rouse the Elven and Dwarven nations to war quickly? What if Sauron had overcome his paranoia about the ring and was able to concentrate all of his military might in a quick, fell stroke?
When Nexus went under, it seemed for a time that War of the Ring might be out of print, possibly for good, and prices skyrocketed. With the formation of Ares Games Tolkien fans were given a reprieve as a gorgeous new edition hit shelves this past year. Featuring an easier-to-read board, new Nazgul scuplts, larger cards, and new balance tweaks, this was not just a reprint but a way of taking an excellent game and making it even greater.
The only reason this doesn't top the list is because the game was already a homerun and while there are some definite tweaks to balance and gameplay, they are often very subtle for first-timers and for many, this will just feel like an awesome game is still in print (more than "hey, check out all the new stuff in 2nd edition!") The next two on the list I feel had larger improvements from their original editions to now. Truth be told? Buy all five of these games, they're freaking awesome. You're welcome.
2. Sentinels of the Multiverse: Enhanced Edition - What can be said about the co-operative superhero card game that went from "corner booth of the convention" to gamer favorite overnight? I played the original edition of Sentinels not long after Lord of the Rings LCG and it hit me like a ton of bricks that *this* was how co-operative card games were done, and LOTR was sent sailing into the east not long after that.
The storytelling in Sentinels is fantastic. Players get to choose their hero, complete with their own deck, and then a villain and environment is chosen. From there, players work together against the AI provided by the game to defeat the villain and his minions. It's pretty straightforward but it's amazing how many little storytelling details emerge from each and every game.
What worked against the 1st edition though was a symptom of Greater Than Games being a small company, and that was a couple of letdowns. 1st, the game didn't scale very well, and many players actually played the game incorrectly at first because they thought the game should take this into account. (We played our very first game by letting the villain act after every hero turn. We got totally massacred, unsurprisingly.) Whereas many designers get a fit of hubris over "their baby", when gamers complained a bit about the scaling issue, the designers developed the "H" symbol that would stand in for the nuymber of heroes in the game. Boom, a very simple fix, as now the bad guys hit harder and destroy more stuff just based on the number of players. They provided the errata free of charge on their website, and the new edition includes these new versions of certain cards.
Secondly though you couldn't forget that original box. In a feat more amazing than "how did they pack all that Heroscape into the Master Set box?!?", Sentinels came with 578 cards. Yeah, 578. But...they all came crammed into this teeeeeeny tiny thin box. Seriously, if you've never seen the box, it's great for a laugh to look at it and wonder how that many cards ever fit in there in the first place. There is no way in hell that you could put those cards back in with any sort of organization, and the first expansion only made it worse as it had a better insert, but nowehere to put all the base game cards.
Enhanced Edition though? A swank, supremely hardy box that is seriously nicer, sturdier and thicker than just about every other board game box I own. With dividers and plenty of space for the base game, expansions, and even more to come.
So the only possible complaints about this game were solved with Enhanced Edition, and there is zero reason for folks not to enjoy what I feel like is one of the finest superhero games ever produced. Unless you just hate co-ops and/or superheroes (and if you hate superheroes, you have no soul), please do yourself a favor and pick this up soon.
1. Wiz-War (eighth edition) - Let's face it, most of us thought that the reprint of Wiz-War would never see the light of day. Whispers and promises of a reprint have gone on for years, and Chessex continually teased gamers by showing "Undergoing Revisions" for what seemed like forever.
Then from out of nowhere, Fantasy Flight gets the rights, but we still didn't rest easy, did we? Were we going to see the beloved original mucked with and "tweaked" until it had lost all of its crazy fun? Would FFG break it down into a vanilla base game and then make us chase down overpriced expansions?
FFG put everyone's mind at ease and surprised me personally by producing "Wiz War: The Kit", for lack of a better description. A gorgeously produced package that allowed you to play Wiz-War whatever way you wanted. Cards were broken down into schools, and you could choose from among them however you liked, changing the game to be more offense based, or countermagic heavy, or combat-laden, or with just more sheer craziness and trickery, all depending on what you wanted. Some new rules were included that gave you points for killing opposing wizards and the player boards were redesigned, but guess what? The flip sides of those boards were the originals and the back of the rules told you exactly how to play by the original rules. They learned from their mistakes with Dungeonquest, and it really, really shows.
And who can forget that lavish FFG production? Finally, a game that was truly a pioneer (Richard Garfield took heavy influence from it for a little game called Magic: The Gathering) exists in a form that's worthy of its stature. No more thin business-card stock decks of flimsy cards, thin warping boards and cardboard cutouts. Now we have miniatures, thick tokens, and that high quality cardstock FFG uses for all of its board games. Upgrade!
Wiz-War is a landmark title that all die-hard AT fans should own, and now you can have it with all the bells and whistles. I'm hoping their custodianship of Wiz-War is as stellar as that of Cosmic Encounter, and am looking forward to future expansions. Bottom line, this is how reprints should be done, end of story.
Best Games of the Year, 2012
5. Lords of Waterdeep - How weird is it to hear the words "Dungeon and Dragons Worker Placement Game?" Yet that's exactly what we received this year in the form of Lords of Waterdeep. And surprise, surprise, give a game an appealing theme that has nothing to do with medieval trading or scouling kings, and watch the gaming populace at large eat it up.
How thematic is it? Only barely. Play the role of a nefarious lord using your agents (read: workers) to go about the streets of Waterdeep, recruiting adventurers (read: colored cubes) to complete quests (read: cube recipes.)
It sounds like I'm being negative as hell here, but the fascinating thing is, Lords of Waterdeep works, and the reason for this is entirely due to its theme. We talk a lot about games achieving their themes through mechanics, but we often lose sight of just how important having an appealing theme actually is. I don't need King Grumpy McGrumperson frowning at me from the cover, bidding me to impress him or else with my skills as a crafstman. But turn me loose as a shadowy figure, manipulating the other lords, and sending off teams of adventurers to do my work and acheive my goals? I am all for that, and then some. If I'm going to play a game with Euro mechanics, give me a coating of theme I can feel good about.
Toss in a nice production, a superb box insert, and gameplay that as of yet has not failed me for anyone I've introduced it to, and you've got a winner. I'm hoping the expansion adds more thematic elements, but Lords of Waterdeep is a solid choice for my fifth best game of the year.
4. Star Wars: X-Wing - Fantasy Flight announces they have Star Wars license. Fans rejoice. Fantasy Flight makes expandable tabletop miniatures game. Fans' wallets weep.
Ever wanted to control Luke in his X-Wing and Han in the Falcon against a giant squad of TIE Fighters? Of course you have. Star Wars: X-Wing makes this all possible. With stunning models, crisp gameplay, and a focus so far on the fan-favorite Original Trilogy, Fantasy Flight has a real winner here.
I'm not even generally a fan of 'move and measure' miniatures games partially due to the need to assemble and paint but also due to the 'imprecise precision' these games often have, where nudging a figure is tantamount to cheating and fractions of inches can cause heated disputes among players. Of course the pre-painted minis for X-Wing solve the first problem, and the movement templates go a long way toward minimizing the impact of the second. It just has a more casual feel in general, although I'm sure if I ever attended a tournament there's a chance I'd still run into the same hotheads, so who knows?
Looking forward to even more ships, and it will be interesting to see what FFG will do when they run out of OT ships. Dare they venture into Prequel territory? We'll just have to see about that one.
3. Star Wars: The Card Game - As a Star Wars fan I was ecstatic to see not one, but TWO great Star Wars games come out this year. I'll admit that I hadn't had a tremendous amount of success with LCGs until this year, as I ended up disliking Game of Thrones and absolutely hating Lord of the Rings LCG. When they demoed the first rev of this game over a year ago and it looked like a re-skinned LOTR in space, I had zero interest. Literally, none. Apparently I wasn't the only one as FFG went back to the drawing board and came back with a head-to-head battler that I have been playing the ever-lovin' hell out of since its release. It's a game of straight-up smashface but gives control and tempo players plenty of toys too.
There was some hullabaloo about the thematic disconnect of a Rancor punching an X-Wing, but let's be honest...CCGs and by extension LCGs have had thematic weirdness in them for years. I was a huge fan of Decipher's Star Wars CCG, and I'll admit it often did the whole space/ground divide "better", but then you had games where someone had a space fleet deck, another a ground battling deck, and it just became a direct damage race. So I'll concede some thematic oddities if it means more interaction, and that's exactly what's on offer here.
Is it as good as Decipher's old game? No, at least not yet. But I think back to the first Premiere set and how shallow that game was without all of its expansions, and I can't help but think with this solid, fun foundation that in the long run it just might give that old game a real run for its money.
With LOTR, I remember being annoyed when another chapter pack would come out--"Already?" But with Star Wars these damned things can't come out fast enough. This one's a keeper.
2. Android: Netrunner - In the duel of great LCGs from 2012, I had to give the nod to Android: Netrunner. To me, not only was this a tough choice in terms of which I actually liked a little better versus which was the better game, but also the decision to include this with the newer releases rather than the reprint category. I think of all the reprints and reboots of 2012, Netrunner blurs the line the most, and this was the side I ultimately fell on.
Netrunner was a cult favorite CCG from the 90s that was abandoned by Wizards of the Coast during the Great CCG Glut and Crash of 1996. So many publishers had greedily tried to throw their hat into the ring, where they saw the opportunity to make money hand over fist using the collectible model for games that were often half-baked and carried completely by whatever license they could affordably come by. Netrunner bucked the trend by not only being an original property but also being a damned good game. It was likely always more of a critical than financial success, and sometimes that's just how it goes.
Fantasy Flight brought this classic back from the grave with a lot of new tweaks, bells, and whistles. Gone was the degenerate play of constructed from the original where everyone ran 10x of the best cards in their deck. Also gone were the days of free-form "just include the best stuff in your deck." Instead, FFG re-skinned it to their to that point underused Android universe and introduced factions from that world. Now, the number of any particular card you could use were limited, and your faction would restrict just how many of other powerful out-of-affiliation cards you can use.
And what a difference it makes! I only ever enjoyed sealed deck Netrunner in the past with two untweaked decks. Now, with deck construction "fixed" and factions adding variety, flavor, and overall identity to each side, everything is smooth sailing.
I'll admit though that this decision was closer than it looks. To be honest, while Netrunner is amazing, no game that I play can be as frustrating as Netrunner. There are games where you never get off the ground, or where you run into poor matchups, or just make a 50/50 bad call and get completely hosed. There are times when you can't get Iced up fast enough and a lucky Maker's Eye hits two Agendas off the top of your deck. Plus no game that I have taxes the brain as much as Netrunner; there have been plenty of games where I'm mentally exhausted after just one game of it. I get angry with it moreso than any other game, I think.
But that's just it--it isn't a game that inspires apathy. It's a game that inspires emotion, taxes you to use your brain at every step, and be willing to submit to the vile wills of Lady Luck on occasion. The original design was brilliant, and I think this update takes it to a whole 'nother level. If a game can make you think, make you RAWR ANGRY, and yet you come back for more, you know you've got a winner on your hands.
1. Mage Wars - This is it, boys and girls, and again this decision was very, very tough. I could waffle on my top 3 for Game of the Year over and over again, but when the smoke cleared, Mage Wars came out on top.
What's most surprising to me about Mage Wars is how fresh it is, despite all expectations. It has the familiar theme of wizards dueling wizards, the same grid you've seen in other card battling games. In fact, you look at the board and you wonder how much action could possibly take place on such a relatively few number of spaces. This is a game that should be limiting, derivative, immediately forgotten, right?
That's until you play it.
Somehow once you've sat down to play it, all those comparisons start to dissolve as you dig your hands into the gameplay. The game feels nothing like Magic, or Wiz-War, or Summoner Wars, even with the surface similarities that generate those expectations in you. Each player brings with them a customized book of spells, and it's a "you take action, I take action" style game as you use those spells to summon creatures, set traps, and fling damaging spells at your opponent. But instead of drawing cards randomly, you get to hand-pick them from your book of spells. That's right, you can cast any spell you want, they're always at your disposal.
When I heard that, those preconceived notions kicked in. I mean, in a game like Magic, if you could handpick your cards, the game would be nothing but one-turn blowouts determined by a coin flip. But Mage Wars' resource system brilliantly manages the throttle as you must use accumulated mana to cast your spells. You can bring out more warriors for your cause, and each of them also get to act on your turn, giving you more options and more ways to bring the fight to your opponent. Some mages would rather bring equipment and weapons into play for themselves and wade into battle directly, dispensing pain on anything that opposes them. Other mages prefer to teleport around the battlefield, leaving exploding traps and deadly obstacles in their path while they let their ticking time bombs build up for ultimate destruction. It's all pretty incredible, and the first time you use the Beastmaster to flood the board with hungry wolves, closing in on your foe...then your opponent uses a magic blast to push one of them through a wall of fire, and a deadly angel descends to defend him from the hordes...it's a pretty awesome feeling.
It is unfortunately not a game for everyone, I think. You really need an opponent who will learn it at the same pace as you but will be dedicated enough to play it on at least a semi-regular basis. The first time you sit down with that spell book with 60+ spells and have to pick 2 for the very first turn...it's going to feel a little bit like stepping off the diving board into the deep end of the pool--and you haven't had any swimming lessons yet.
Stick with it if you give it a try--it's challenging, unique, thematic, and rewards good play and the ability to glean good combos from your pool of cards. It's definitely a game worthy of accolades and I anticipate playing this one for some time to come.
And there you have it, folks--the oft-delayed wind-up to 2012. Because there's nothing like waiting five months to finish talking about last year, am I right, folks? Anyway, thanks for reading, and I'll see ya again....soon.