Welcome to my first column of the year, and in time-honoured games website tradition I'll be using it to write a list of some sort. It will be a list, and it will be a list detailing my favourite games of 2011. I will even list them in order of preference, culminating in one itemised entry that I will declare the “winner”, in a sense. Indeed, I will call this column THE CARDBOARD CHILDREN GAME OF THE YEAR 2011, and invite you all read it.
I will invite you all to read it below.
INT. AWARDS CEREMONY THEATRE – NIGHT
A variety of big names in the board game industry walk up the red carpet.
We see REINER KNIZIA in a backless dress. He turns and smiles at the paparazzi, internally calculating the number of flashes from the cameras.
And there's PHIL EKLUND, over with the fans. He's on a fan's mobile phone, explaining the rules of High Frontier to the fan's baffled mother.
VO: And here is your host! The star of Ironclad and Solomon Kane, available on Blu-Ray NOW! It's JAMES PUREFOY!!
JAMES PUREFOY enters, goes to the podium.
JAMES PUREFOY: Haha! Jesus, they actually have awards for these things now? Unbelievable. I'm only here for the first few minutes, don't worry. I have some ridiculously attractive 33 year old blonde London-based actress women to make love to. And, well, frankly it stinks in here. So let me announce your sub-host, the sub-human God of Games – Robert Florence!!!
ROBERT FLORENCE enters.
“Hello everyone, my name's Robert Florence, and welcome to my Game of the Year 2011. Tonight we will celebrate a truly remarkable year in gaming. The quality level was about as high as Fantasy Flight staff must be when they write those rulebooks.”
“Seriously, Fantasy Flight's quality control really went downhill in 2011, huh? Can you believe that they released more apologetic press releases than they released expansions?”
“Also, this year we saw lots of board games make the move to a release on iPhone and iPad. I'm sure playing around with some appropriate touching made a change for all you fucking creepy paedo board game weirdos, huh?”
“Let's get on with the show!”
Two awards tonight, with the first one for EXPANSION of the year.
Chaos in the Old World: The Horned Rat
Dust Tactics: Core Set
AND THE WINNER IS....
This was an easy choice for me. First of all, it has to be said that The Horned Rat was a great expansion. It allowed a fifth player and introduced a new god without totally fucking up the balance of the game. But here's what I've found – I prefer Chaos with four. I think four is the sweet spot, and a fifth player makes the game just a bit TOO stressful. It's still a fine achievement as expansions go. Cosmic Conflict added more brilliant content to a game that might be the greatest game of all time. Just keep expanding, and I'll keep buying. Dust Tactics: Core Set is not REALLY an expansion, but kinda is. It's a new starting point for my favourite tabletop dice-chucking battle game. I've already spoken about how much I love Dust: Tactics, so there's no surprise in its nomination here.
But then there is our winner – CYCLADES: HADES
Wow. I love Cyclades. I've never had one bad game of Cyclades. It's always tight, always fun, and always fast. Hades came along and kicked things up a gear by adding magical items, new monsters and a new god who lets you send undead warriors alongside your troops. It's the perfect example of a great expansion – it adds more variety and more fun, without increasing the complexity of the game. Cyclades is a beautiful, modern design and Hades is the cherry on the cake.
ALL HAIL HADES!
GAME OF THE YEAR 2011 – THE RUNNERS-UP
5. STAR TREK: FLEET CAPTAINS
Wow. Who saw this coming? A big Star Trek themed space exploration game, full of combat and secret missions and dice-chucking and cards. Complaints about the quality of the components seem insignificant when you consider what you have on the table – a theme-rich Star Trek game done right. A head-to-head exploration game that feels very simple and very deep. I've already covered this game, so please look back if it tickles your fancy. Here's a game that seems to have been designed for all the right reasons. “Wouldn't it be cool if this happened? Wouldn't this be amazing?!” A game with a lot of heart.
4. MERCHANTS & MARAUDERS
This is your pirate game. No question. You want to be a pirate? This is your game. In M&M you take command of a ship and do whatever you want. Do you want to trade goods between islands, and advance yourself as a lawful merchant? Do it. Do you want to listen for rumours in the island taverns and sail around as some kind of seafaring hero? Do it. Do you want to fuck up the plans of everyone else at the table by sinking them and all their worldly possessions to the ocean floor? Do it. This game allows players at the same table to play the game they want to play. Are you more of a Eurogamer? Do you prefer trading and building? Fine, be a merchant, grow your ship, and trade to your hearts content. Do you like chucking dice and blowing holes through things? Fine, be a pirate so you can hunt and be hunted. It's a fun, medium complexity game that is perfect for three players, and maybe runs a little bit long at four. This is your pirate game. This is it.
Man, we love this game. Pret-A-Porter has you running your own fashion design business. It's a business game, an economy game, and those kind of games I usually avoid like the plague. But you all know that I love theme. If a game claims to have a certain theme, and I play that game and FEEL it, I'm going to give credit where it's due. Pret-A-Porter feels, don't laugh, exactly like running a fashion house.
You prepare collections for a number of fashion shows. At each show, different qualities will be most important. One might reward you for better PR, another might reward you for higher quality clothes, or another for being on trend. You have to build your business and your collections and choose which areas to focus on at which times. Want to court the journalists? Build a banquet hall so you can bribe them with food (Trust me- ask anyone at RPS – food works). Want to get more press coverage? Hire a superstar model. Do you need a short term contract with some TV channels? Fine, but you better have a negotiator to extend those contracts. Do you have all the materials you need to make that collection of evening wear? You better hire an accountant to balance the books before you see your credit advisor about an interest-free loan until after the next show. What? You don't HAVE a credit advisor? Oh dear.
This game is so sweet. It seems complex, but is really smooth once you have the rules down. The game has the same feel that something like Agricola has, where you can only do so much in a turn when you feel you need to do so much more. It's tense, exciting, brain-burning and it swings back and forth beautifully. In my last game, my girlfriend failed to bring a collection to the first show – a disaster. She ended up DESTROYING me by totally nailing the flow of the loan-repayment thing to develop her business into a self-manufacturing material house of DEATH.
Honestly, this game is being ignored because of the theme. The reason why we have so many trading, farming, fantasy and space games and so little variety of theme is because people shy away from games like this. Don't make that mistake.
2. ASCENDING EMPIRES
In a normal year, Ascending Empires would be the game of the year by a mile. But 2011 was no normal year. I've covered this space empire building and flicking game in an earlier column, but a few things need repeated. Ascending Empires gives you ALL the things you want from a space conquest game, and adds an extra layer that never fails with any player I've ever played with. “How do you move your ships? What? You flick them?!” And this game just moves at a ridiculous pace. Zero downtime, it flies around the table. Often you'll take your turn, take a sip of a drink and then someone will be nudging you to take your next turn. It's THAT fast. An unmissable, hilarious thing. A game that needs played at least once before you inevitably die.
1. KING OF TOKYO
This was tough. King of Tokyo was almost the game of the year. If the game of the year was measured by how many times a game has hit the table, KoT would be wearing the cardboard crown right now. This is another game I've covered before. It's a game that is perfect for any group, at any time, at any level of sobriety. It's Yahtzee with monsters and Cosmic Encounter style powers. There are very few games that you can recommend to everyone without any hesitation, but this is one of them. It's just a winner. Rolling big chunky green dice, storing energy and building up points, hitting your friends with a spray of acid from your throat. What else do you need from a game? This bad boy will be around for a loooooong time.
THE GAME OF THE YEAR 2011 – MAGE KNIGHT
Well. Here's a thing.
On any other website in the universe, Mage Knight might be a difficult game to explain. I'd probably be writing pages and pages, trying to explain how this game works and feels. But here, on RPS, it's easy. Mad easy.
Mage Knight is King's Bounty on a table.
I know you're probably ordering it already, but I'll keep typing anyway. In Mage Knight, you take a character on an adventure across the hexes of a modular map.
On this map you will find:-
- Keeps that you can conquer and control
- Monster Dens that you can “clean out”.
- Dungeons that you can explore.
- Mage Towers that you can conquer, to bend the wizards to your will.
- Villages where you can recruit help, or pillage like a bastard.
- Monasteries where you can learn new skills. Or you can burn them down like a bastard.
- Roaming bands of enemies you can defeat to increase your reputation
- Mines full of magical crystals.
- Cities you can assault and lead.
There's so much to do in this game. You won't even encounter all these things in every game, so every adventure takes a different shape. There are a number of scenarios for you to play through, each very different, and some of them co-operative. But what makes this game special is how you play it.
You do everything with cards. Each character has his own Deed Deck. It starts with 16 cards, and the cards allow you to do all the basic stuff your character needs. One card might give you 3 move points. One card might give you an attack of 2. From your hand of cards, you play a sequence of cards that let you carry out your plans for that turn. Every card can be played on its side for a basic value of 1. So, if you have no move cards in your hand, you can play an attack on its side for 1 movement. You can also use mana to power these cards, making the effects stronger. This mana comes from a central source everyone can use, or from crystals you've stored.
As your character develops, more cards will come into your deck. Here is where your mind will start to explode, and your leg will start to excitedly bounce. New skills come on cards. Spells come on cards. Artifacts you find are cards. And all of these come into your deck, and into your hand, and expand your options to a ridiculous extent. You can play a card to allow you to use extra magic from the source, which allows you to power another card which lets you turn magic of another colour into a crystal, which in turn lets you power an attack that can be charged by another card into an even STRONGER attack to defeat a FUCKING DRAGON.
Oh man. It IS hard to explain. I don't want you all thinking this is a deck-building game. It isn't. It takes the best aspects of deck-building games and adds it to an enormous fantasy adventure game. When you get hurt in Mage Knight, you take Wound cards. These get added to your deck. The more hurt you get, the greater the chance you'll draw a hand full of useless wound cards that let you do nothing. It's genius. Of course, there are abilities and powers that let you use Wounds too. There's everything in this game, a whole world in that box.
There's so much more to tell you. I want to tell you about the enemies that are fortified in those Keeps, and how the combat works. How you will play those cards to siege a castle wall, or play them in an amazing combo that turns an unassailable encounter into a cakewalk and you into a roaring fool. I want to tell you about the PvP battles, and how you can take an opponent's Keep from them. I want to tell you about how there's a Day/Night cycle that genuinely affects everything you do in the game. I want to tell you about how your character will level up, and how you will choose exactly how your character develops. I want to tell you about the troops you can command, and how they will die for you in battle with your enemies. And I want to tell you about how those same troops will refuse to help you burn down a monastery, because it's an evil act.
However much I've told you here, there is so much more in the box. I've probably forgotten all the cool stuff. Haha! Seriously! My God. Where do you start with this?
Mage Knight is a staggering game. It's one of those games you can only step back and admire as a thing of beauty, a work of art. The elegance of the card mechanics is matched only by the excitement they generate when you start to realise exactly how it all works. You are being given tools, and you are choosing how to use them. Many times you will play a hand of cards with a niggling feeling in the back of your head that you could have played them better, smarter. You're not rolling a dice and hoping you hit an enemy in this game, you're rolling ideas around your head and hoping they land the right way up. A die won't defeat your enemies. YOU will. It's all in your hands. It's a masterpiece. I can't believe how good it is. Haha! Seriously!
And one more thing. It's also the magic ticket. What do I mean by that? Well, every time I do these columns, someone says they would love to try these games but they have no-one to play with. Read this next sentence...
MAGE KNIGHT IS AS GOOD WITH ONE PLAYER AS IT IS WITH TWO, THREE OR FOUR.
No lie. No bullshit. So here it is. Here is your solitaire fantasy board game, if you want it. The Game of the Year 2011, with no excuses not to try it. You know what to do.
You won't believe how good it is. Haha!