I know I promised this sooner, but we've had a lot of great user content over the past few weeks and I wanted to make sure that the good stuff got its due.
Join me for some ruminations on the gaming year that was, as well as my selection for 2008's Game of the Year.
SPOILER: This about sums it up
2008 was a year of disappointments
Sure, every year has a selection of games that are going to be disappointing. If every game was bliss we'd disappear up the asses of our own game collection in no time flat--not that this doesn't happen to us anyway, but still.
However, there was a general malaise for much of 2008 in terms of newer games I played. Some of this cannot be laid at the feet of 2008 as there were a few that were 2007 designs. 2007 was a year that was pretty terrible overall for me in terms of gaming, and I even suffered some pretty severe burnout at one point. Had it not been for my involvement with the Fortress, I may have even drifted out of the hobby.
At any rate, there were a lot of games I tried for the first time in 2008 that just flat out let me down:
- Tannhauser was so full of promise yet the story mode is thin and the characters--looking superhuman, every one of them--are actually Glass Joes and so fragile that it practically ruins the "Hellboy" mood the game is trying to set.
- Cold War: CIA vs. KGB seemed like a good idea but ended up being a boring combination of Illuminati Mad Libs Blackjack, and nobody wants that.
- Shazamm!: Usually you can count on Z-Man, but this game of double-blind guessing had an additional card-based double-blind guessing game. No thanks.
- World of Warcraft: The Adventure Game and Tomb seemed like *perfect* light adventure games with some meat on them, but both of them just missed the mark of being great games.
- Blackbeard...I don't even know where to start with that one. More on that one later.
- A lot of Euro stuff I played this year was just flat out awful. Diamant is another "press your luck" game where you can lose in two flips--some press your luck. Stone Age has a ridiculous relation to its theme and BAD use of dice. Kingsburg had the worst use of dice in a game I'd seen in a while...it's no wonder Euro fans hate Dice so much if this is their opinion of how they work.
- "Chilredn of the Hype" Race for the Galaxy and Agricola were hardly the second coming. Race was a San Juan clone with more complexity but the interaction stripped completely out, and Agricola is probably just a signpost of things to come for thematic Euros.
I think part of me was just jaded to these games for much of the year. Stuff I would've enjoyed or even simply forgiven for their flaws got little quarter from me this year. For example, I played Starcraft in Maryland early last year with Kingput, Dogmatix, and IguanaDitty and found the game just ended abruptly right when it was getting good. I've since read Skeletor's opinions on the game and I've vowed to give it a second shot, and have traded for a copy. So stay tuned on that one.
Some of these others though won't be so lucky, and I'm not particularly remorseful. I still own Wow:TAG and Tannhauser because I believe they show promise that can be expounded upon, but most of the rest of it ended up either on the trade pile or traded already.
I've heard it said that the refrain "This past year in gaming wasn't as good as Year X" happens pretty much every year....but for most of it, I can honestly say I hadn't been genuinely excited about a game that I'd tried since Fury of Dracula in 2006.
2008 was a year of late blooming
Of course, then the end of 2008 happened, and things did genuinely seem to turn around. Some of that was definitely my focus, of paying attention to where the real party was happening. But the last three months or so of 2008 genuinely saved the year from being an absolute disaster.
Fantasy Flight led that end of year charge. They relaunched Talsiman, did a fantastic reprint of Cosmic Encounter, and put out the ambitious Android. Oh, and a little game called Battlestar Galactica.
Really, the end of 2008 showed that seeds had been planted during the year that would finally come to fruition in 2009. 2007 seemed like the huffing and puffing last vestiges of a wave of good stuff that started coming out in earnest around 2004. 2008 was the beginning of something new, something different. But these things take time, and transitions are difficult.
2008 was the year that Fantasy Flight took over the world
Seriously...what pies do they NOT have their hands in? They brought us a proper version of Cosmic. They got their World of Warcraft Adventure Game into Target stores. They knocked us on our asses with Battlestar. And they still have the Dune reprint/retheme, expansions for all their majore games in the pipeline, the long-awaited Nexus offering Age of Conan, and they're doing Talisman RIGHT by giving the fans the expansions they've craved since Black Industries half-assed the Talisman relaunch.
They're evolving just like any other company, and in a lot of ways they're having to shake off some of the "old ways" of doing things. WoW:tAG was an attempt to bring a new spin on the light adventure game and bring us true Player versus Player action, but it still managed to just miss the mark...and part of that was due to the Runebound roots that showed through the design.
But Android is a game that people are still trying to make heads or tails of as they're still not certain what to make of its new approach to a storytelling game. And again...Battlestar Galactica.
2008 was the year Euros tried to finally find their theme
Many of us have been talking for a couple of years now about the upcoming "hybridization" of gaming, but a lot of that was mostly theory, how games *should* evolve, and how the different styles of games could continue to feed off of each other.
Ameritrash games owe a gigantic debt of gratitude to Euros. Of this there can be no doubt. Mired in static, uninspired and completely unoptimized designs, it took the Euro boom to show AT games how they could get their groove back. How they could clean themselves up a bit and not give up their soul in the process.
Now it's AT's turn to give something back, and it's working. Let's face it--Euros over the past 2 years or so have been pretty stagnant. Boring themes, abstracted play, toss in some auctions to keep things balanced, and hey, why not worker placement or whatever else seems 'hot' right now...of course, you're left with a game that has jack all to do with its theme.
Things are definitely changing, and for the better. You get games now that are trying to have their theme as an integral and fun part of the design. Galaxy Trucker and Space Alert are practically impossible to quantify as just one type of game. Dominion takes some old CCG chestnuts and delivers something new--even if the theme is never realized, some of the cards do try to strike thematic chords and launching big card combos carry some of the old CCG thrill to it. Pandemic has you saving the world from an epidemic of plagues and pestilence--something right out of a Michael Bay movie. "HE'S THE BEST DAMN RESEARCHER WE'VE GOT...and he's our only hope."
Even the Euros that are 'getting it wrong' are still trying new ways to do it. Stone Age really does use its dice badly but it's a way of jazzing up static resource gathering in a way that doesn't work, but it's something that might can be built upon. The expansion to Kingsburg (a Euro with Dragons, Zombies, Demons, and Goblins in it) looks to fix most of the issues I had with it by expanding the play and taking away the broken die-based King's reinforcement roll.
Hopefully impossibly dry stuff like Arkadia, Caylus, and others will fall by the wayside in favor of Euros that actually try to be fun. I'll keep my fingers crossed.
2008 was the year that my son and I found a classic
Nothing has been more joyous recently than my son's "discovery" of Talisman...and mine as well. I've long looked at Talisman as a game that technology had passed on by...but finding this game through my son's eyes made all the difference.
Sometimes we as adult gamers corrupt our hobby by slathering our "educated" opinions all over pretty much everything. And yet it takes something like this to make us remember that we were once kids, and we once "found" games we liked, and it made us gamers for life.
Talisman is just...it's storytelling that takes you along for the ride. I lambasted Blackbeard for being a game that just "happens to you", and Talisman is guilty of some of those sins. But things feel less modular with ol' Talisman, and for whatever reason it's easier to look past the nuts and bolts running the game and just...enjoy it.
I never "pushed" my son to play Talisman; I don't "push" him to play any games. I'm not in this to brag how my two-year old has solved the efficiency puzzle of Notre Dame. But one night, my son simply asked if we could try Talisman, as I'd once remarked while playing some Turtles boardgame how much that style of game owed to Talisman.
Now my son has stories, gaming stories of his own. He has stories of how his kung-fu monk kicked the ass of everyone around him, casually strolled up to the Crown of Command, and became King of the World. He has stories of how his party was making a frenetic leap across a chasm and the Princess...well...she didn't make it. He has stories of how he abandoned his friend the mystic at the keep of the vampire lord, just to save his own skin. He has stories of his father bashing his head against the Sentinel for what seemed like 10 turns or so, coming out the worse for wear every time.
In short, games are often classics because they are. And that's all there is to it.
2008 was a year of playing 'catch up' with other games I'd missed.
With many 2008 offerings being weak, I was able to catch up on playing a lot of games that I hadn't gotten around to in year's previous. I found a new "instant classic" in Wallenstein/Shogun, something my fellow F:AT associates don't agree with but I ain't backing down, that's good shit right there.
We played I'm The Boss and found a great free-form pure negotiation game that had room for being MEAN. I found out that Euros were indeed once "good" as I played Power Grid for the first time. I found other little gems I'd missed such as Roma and Fairy Tale.
The Cult of the New can infect anyone, as I can confirm. It felt really good to escape that and broaden the horizons again, a talent I'd lost over the past few years.
2008 was a year that the chaffe got cut.
I'll be honest--I got sick of seeing certain games on my shelf, games that I'd acquired because they were a $1 on a clearance table or I'd found a "good" trade for them or hey, the local store has it and I'm a crazy bastard with no impulse control who JUST BOUGHT THAT SHIT RIGHT NOW.
There's a deep psychology to 'unplayed' games, especially the longer they sit there. Worse still are the games you play once and realize are just now consuming space on your shelf.
Sometimes, the choices were easy. Trading things that were boring was a great relief. No tears were shed as games like Cold War: KGB vs CiA, Shazamm!, Race for the Galaxy, Mutiny!, and Stone Age left my company for good. Sometimes the choices weren't as 'easy' but the relief was the same, as I finally traded away my copy of Samurai Swords that had done nothing but sit pristine on my shelf for 12 years, too perfect to play and paralyzing to own.
I've managed to stop adding to the chaffe as well. It takes some willpower but I've passed on most things that were cheap just to buy them. Yeah, okay, I bought Barnes' X-Men game for eight bucks. But over the past year I passed over Barnes and Nobles sales, clearance bin CCGs (formerly a real pit for me), Wal-Mart red-tag specials, and pruned my list of "stuff to get" to things I knew would get played, and soon.
I'm still not there in terms of 100% "happiness" with my collection. But I'm getting there.
So, some ramblings on the year that was. Hope there were some nuggets of alleged wisdom in there worth chewing over, or talking about further.
I'd be remiss now to not award "Game of the Year, 2008", but the results are so non-shocking that it seems like a formality at this point.
2008 Game of the Year: Battlestar Galactica
Licensed games are generally not good. They're a lame attempt that companies make to swindle people of their money based on love for some television show or movie and leave the person with a really janky "game" in return.
So naturally, when Battlestar Galactica was announced, no one really expected it to change much of anything. Sure, it might be a fun game, and might capture the show well, but it would ultimately just be another licensed game.
If only we'd known better. Then again, we'd have ended up being like the Agricola "champions" who couldn't shut up about that game for ten months before it's US release and ended up pissing off a lot of people who were sick of hearing about it before they'd ever got a chance to try it. So in a way, I think we're lucky in flew in just under the radar.
It became clear we were in for something special when those first early reports started coming in. Reports of game sessions filled with high tension, mistrust, panic, misdirection, and betrayal. Reports about a game that captured the series' paranoia perfectly. In a universe where your enemy looks just like you...how do you know who to trust?
There are so many games that miss the mark in terms of finding a great balance between people and rules. Rules guide us, provide structure to the game, and enable things to "work." Sure, you get your pure rulesfest stuff like 18xx or whatever where robots can (and do) play them with satisfaction, but for a game to really be successful, it's got to be about the people.
Sadly, attempts at pulling people in as a critical game element can be dicey. Too often you get the "lazy road" of 'anything goes diplomacy'. Though MattDP will hate me, that's always been my main failing with Diplomacy--it's all people and so little mechanics and structure. But really, lots of multi-player conflict games can fail this test as they devolve into "let's be cool with each other, I won't attack you, you won't attack me" and that's as far as it goes.
Co-op games have it even tougher. Now, game structure is everything, even though you *want* the focus to be on the people. But the game, in the absence of a player to make its decisions, must present a structured yet somehow dynamic 'puzzle' for gamers to solve. The co-op game sees everyone meld into the hive-mind if the structure is too loose (most co-ops suffer from this), while if the structure is too rigid, it can turn the actual game into a grind.
Battlestar Galactica just nails it. It's a co-op game where you can't trust anyone. It's a game system where the "engine" runs in the background, but it's often the people feeding it the terrible decisions. The game casually and calmly presents the players with choices, choices they cannot make alone, and choices that will weigh differently on them based on their "true" identity.
It's notable just how quietly that engine purrs. Only the Raiders and Heavy Raiders have a programmed AI, otherwise it's just triggers on cards that cause the enemy to act. And yet act the enemy does, a cacophony of noise that almost drowns out the real chess battle taking place, between human and secret Cylon, or between what's left of the human fleet as the Cylons stand revealed, doing everything in their power to take the venerable Battlestar down.
It manages to take so many elements from games and just improve on them. It's Werewolf with actual actions that matter, instead of just lying and saying, "I'm not a werewolf." It's a game where you can mask evil intentions with what appear to be good choices, such as sending your Apollo on endless suicide runs against the enemy fleet, wasting time, wasting resources as the Crisis deck ticks and tocks.
It's a game that manages to catch the essence of the show's characters with just a handful of text. Adama's devotion to his crew, Boomer's 'true' nature, Baltar's slide into further deceipt and corruption...Starbuck's amazing piloting, Roslyn's visions, Tyrol's ability to fix anything...not represented with endless stats and text but with a power, a one-off power, and a drawback. It's lean and mean character design that grabs the theme without straitjacketing the players, and that's HUGE.
Truly, the first new game since 2006 that I felt comfortable adding to my list of classics, joining stuff like Game of Thrones, Queen's Gambit, War of the Ring, and other favorites that you would pry from my cold, dead fingers.
Game of the year. Easily head and shoulders above every other 2008 release I played, and a game that renewed my hope for what's to come. "This has all happened before, and will happen again." So say we all.
Thanks for reading, and here's to 2009.