Two weeks shy of a year ago, I wrote a review here of Uwe Rosenberg’s Caverna, an update, more or less, of his earlier and generally popular game, Agricola. Just yesterday, I posted a review of Rosenberg’s Patchwork, a two-player, puzzle game with some quirky ‘notes’ to it. In between those two offerings, I reviewed 19 other games, and filed a report about the World Boardgaming Championships’ planned move to a resort near Pittsburgh in 2016.
Looking back over the list, with an eye toward selecting what I think are the top five games among the 21 I’ve reviewed, I’m acutely aware that this is by no means a “Top Five Games of 2014” list. The BoardGameGeek Web site features 48 pages of games published in 2014. Each page has about 100 entries. I haven’t actually counted, but I’ve never even heard of most of them, let alone played them.
I’ve got a day or two left, and I’d really like to get a game of Murano under my belt. Designed by Inka and Markus Brand, whose Castle for All Seasons and Village were reviewed here by me, Murano is a city-building game, set in islands near Venice, known by tourists for its glass-making. It’s an elaborate scheme, whereby you move gondolas around canals, establishing shops, creating income and at the end, scoring lots of Victory Points. Been through the rules a few times since Mayfair was kind enough to drop off a Christmas copy for me (along with Patchwork). Not quite to the point where I can explain it easily or report on its actual game play, but I’m hoping to make it first up in 2015. I strongly suspect that it would have made this year’s list if I’d gotten to it in time.
Now, back to the list. . .
The one that stands out as I look at the 21 titles is the oldest – Alhambra. Not really an appropriate addition to any 2014 “Top Five” list because it was first published in 2003. Probably made a lot of “Top Five” lists back then. Won Germany’s Spiel des Jahres award that year. Over the past few months, I’ve played it live numerous times, teaching it to a few groups of people; old friends in one case, fellow travelers on a cruise, visiting relatives. And then, I downloaded it onto an Ipad and have been battling AIs, unsuccessfully, ever since. It is certainly my most-played game in 2014, to include competing at it during the World Boardgaming Championships this past summer.
But it’s old news, and to be fair, we’ll disqualify the oldie but goodie, and stick to the new stuff. And we’ll start with an elimination process. Karnickel (Mayfair, 2013), reviewed here in April, is really a kid’s game, and while it’s entertaining for adults, when played with kids, it’s not something the older folks are going to pull down off the shelf when the gamer crowd is over. I’m going to remove Gamewright’s Pyramix and Qwixx from contention (both reviewed in June). They’re light-hearted offerings from Gamewright, which might be able to compete in a list with similar games, but in this year’s batch of 21, they’re just not competitive enough. Though a decent two-player game, Patchwork doesn’t make the grade, either.
Rio Grande’s game Myrmes comes off the list, because of my opinion that it’s just too much of a brain burner (a judgment that very serious gamers might debate). Like Pyramix and Qwixx, for their reasons, Myrmes might make it onto a top five list of brain burners. Also from Rio Grande, The Doge Ship and El Caballero fall off the favored list, because while both are solid games, they fail to ring a sort of “Oh Boy!” bell that brings one back to a game for repeated play. I hesitate to use the word “boring,” because that is so many things to so many different people. All three of these Rio Grande Games were reviewed here in July, as I was preparing for my work as a Rio Grande rep at the World Boardgaming Championships.
Down to 14, and now, it gets tricky, because so many of the remaining games have elements that make them attractive, and worthy of a Top Five list. I’ll knock five more off, labeling them as ‘alternates.’ If the five I choose, fail to show up to accept the award, these five will take their place – Evolution (April review), Relic Runners (March), Forbidden Desert (February), Johari (September), and Sansoucci (October). Just to be complete, the games that remain, beyond my chosen Top Five are La Isla, Renaissance Man, and Hot Tin Roofs.
Drum roll, please, as I trot out the Top Five, in descending order, toward my vote for Best of the Year. Parentheses at the end indicates BoardGameGeek (BGG) rank, number of ratings, and average rating.
5) Sushi Go – from Gamewright, this tasty little morsel of a game is about as light as you can get without slipping into weightlessness, which in board game geek terminology means “not worth playing.” It’s basically a set collection card game, which comes in a typical, Gamewright metal box. Best played with three or more, each player gets a starting hand from a deck, selects a card they want to keep and display, and passes the rest of the hand to the player on the left. This continues until all players run out of cards to play. Each display is assessed for point value and after three rounds of play, player with the most points wins. Some compelling decision-making to be found in this game, which elevates it above a “just for kids” level. (BGG – 388, 2,605, 7.15)
4) Caverna – From Mayfair, Lookout Games and a host of other publishers, it was the first game I reviewed in 2014, and I approached it with certain reservations, based on my experience with Uwe Rosenberg’s Agricola, which I didn’t really like all that much. They are essentially the same game, but somehow, Rosenberg managed to increase the complexity, while reducing the angst of Agricola, which always made me feel like I was under pressure that I couldn’t alleviate. By adding extra components and added possibilities at every turn, Rosenberg created a game that has all that one enjoys about Agricola, without the stuff that drove people crazy about Agricola. As you will note from stats that follow, it’s a big hit with the BGG crowd (BGG – 6, 5,904, 8.35)
3) Boxcars – Originally published in 1974, when Avalon Hill purchased the rights from the designers, it was scaled down to fit in a smaller box, called Rail Baron and released in 1977. Now, 37 years later, Rio Grande has reprinted it, tweaking the Rail Baron rules in ways that have upset die-hard Rail Baron players, who prefer to hang on to their well-cared-for, 30 year old copies of Rail Baron, than go for a component/board upgrade and a few rule changes. Having played this game off and on since the year it was published, I didn’t find the rule changes to be all that drastic and while the die-hard Rail Baron folks were right in their assessment that the monochrome color scheme, separating regions on the board was somewhat difficult, visually, I believed when I reviewed it that most of their concerns wouldn’t bother newcomers to the game. It’s the same game, in a new box, introducing it to a second/third generation of gamers. (BGG – 4632, 82, 6.63)
2) Bremerhaven – As I mentioned in my review of this Lookout Games offering in March, if UPS were playing this game, nobody else would stand a chance. It is all about logistics. Thematically, it’s about being a harbormaster, and running a shipyard, to include traffic issues with inbound and outbound ships, contracts with land shipping companies, the amount of space you have in your harbor/warehouse and the timing of what comes in and what goes out when. There are three central boards and everybody has their own. The boards are numbered to facilitate your memory of the play order; do this first, this second, this third, etc. Very helpful, and overall, a very engaging game process, which, if you’re into logistics, should scratch that itch. Reminder to self: Play this more (BGG – Board Game Rank of 2,427; Strategy Game Rank of 886, 255, 6.65).
1) Concordia – It became the most-requested learning experience during my time as Rio Grande’s representative at the World Boardgaming Championships, even though I was instructed to concentrate on some of the other offerings. Rio Grande’s president, Jay Tummelson, knew that the popularity of this game had already been established and there was no need to ‘hype’ it as a demo at the WBC. There was a trial tournament, attended by 47 players, which whittled down to a final with three players, and was eventually won by Canada’s Duncan McGregor. While there are those who’d add Concordia to a list, under the heading of “Just Another Soulless Euro” (JASE), it rose quickly in the BGG ratings, to be among the top 100 in overall and strategy rankings. One of its primal charms is its ability to be taught quickly. I was fond of telling people who expressed interest at the WBC that I could teach it in five minutes. Learning to win it, of course, is another matter. It does have a certain multi-player solitaire aspect to it, in that you tend not to worry too much about what others are doing, unless and until an opponent picks up a card you wanted, or doubles your cost of placing a house in a city by getting there ahead of you. That said, the game has a ‘sweet spot’ of four players. With five, its maximum, there’s a little too much downtime for the player who’s just finished his/her turn. I noted in my August review here that it “blends conceptual simplicity with just enough complexity to make it challenging.” This one keeps making it onto the gaming tables around here very frequently. Pretty much everyone seems up to a game of Concordia when it’s suggested. (BGG – Board Game Rank of 74; Strategy Game Rank of 40, 3,008, 7.83).
So, there you have them. The Top Five games from my 2014. Games you can head right out and purchase from your FNGS (friendly neighborhood game store; always a best, first choice), or on-line with any number of retailers. Thanks, all, for your support with this game reviewing endeavor here on Examiner. Whether it be by subscription, or you just head out here once in a while to pick up on a random review, your views of these pages, have earned me enough money to retire and live comfortably in a villa, just off the coast of Greece. Well, maybe not that much, but every little bit helps, so thanks. . again, and again. .
#2 – Bremerhaven
A game about the logistics of running a shipyard. Came close to the #1 spot, but just missed. It’s a game you might want to find a particular group of gamer friends for; a group with whom you could play this several times over the course of a few months, to get a proper feel for its idiosyncracies.
#3 – Boxcars
A game about trains, which was optioned by Avalon Hill in 1974 and released as Rail Baron in 1977. Now re-released by Rio Grande Games with a few rule tweaks, new look, and original name.
#4 – Caverna
Essentially, it’s a game called Agricola, by Uwe Rosenberg, with refinements; an earlier thematic time frame, and more things to think about. Those added ‘things to think about’ take a lot of pressure off of the original Agricola experience and turn it into something a little more pleasant to play.
#5 – Sushi Go
A game about Sushi, which, in typical Gamewright fashion, manages to be a game that can be played by children, while being enjoyed by adults. A set collection card game that can be educational for children, while thought-provoking for adults.