So, this second bit is all about the actual stuff that we get to sit around a table and play with. Much as it’s lovely having something like Ticket to Ride or Ascension to pass the time with when you’re on the bus, it’s an entirely different experience when you’re pushing bits of plastic and cardboard around with mates. This is by no means a comprehensive “Best Of 2011” kind of post – for all those things you’ll have to wait for my opinions on The Dice Tower Awards Show in early January – but like with the post I made about iPhone games, I feel that these ones deserve a look.
Airlines Europe by Alan R. Moon is one of my favourite new releases for the year. When I first got my hands on it I was impressed at how much was in there – despite it being a very simple game to explain and play, there’s a level of depth that you won’t find in many more complicated releases. Sure, it helps that Airlines Europe has kind of been a Work In Progress for about twenty years, what with its roots in Airlines and Union Pacific, but this feels like a brilliant refinement of those two earlier games. Accessible enough for new players while still having enough challenge for those who are more experienced? Perfect. And I still reckon this should join the ranks of Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan as the latest gateway game.
Anyone who listens to the show will know that my favourite game is Power Grid. Again, it’s one of those “simple to explain but a bugger to play well” releases that I find so appealing, but there’s always been that issue of only being playable with three or more. 2011 saw Friedemann Friese come up with The Robots expansion which put paid to this problem by proving artificial intelligences to play against. It’s a brilliant idea that – while sounding bloody odd – actually works very well in practice. Building a robot at the start of the game from random pieces provides players with an opponent that will do well up until about two thirds of the way into play, then should in theory tail off leaving the human players to fight it out. I’ve heard tales of people actually coming in behind a Robot player, but thankfully I’ve not had that happen to me… yet. Power Grid: The Robots is a brilliant idea that has extended the life of an already excellent game even further.
A bit of a surprise to me was Vlaada Chvatil’s Dungeon Petz from CGE. I’ve only played his earlier game Dungeon Lords a few times and – to be honest – wasn’t totally enamoured with it. There was so much to keep track of most of the time, it boiled my tiny little mind. I’ve handled trickier games with no problem but for some reason I’ve never got on with Dungeon Lords. Thankfully, the spiritual follow-up is brilliant. Again, there’s a fair bit to follow, but something just clicked with this one – knowing what you have to plan for combined with trying to scupper your opponents, managing your very limited resources… it’s excellent. The game is also filled with humour and (of course) looks fantastic. If you’re looking for something that’s a bit heavier to play, Dungeon Petz is a winner.
Sentinels of the Multiverse‘s fantastic co-op gameplay really won me over this year too. The amount of work that the guys at Greater Than Games have put into their own comic book universe is incredible – not just with a great little game that is fun to play but also the almost ridiculous levels of backstory that have been created for those who want to go a little deeper. Yes, the box sucks – we all know that! – but it really is what’s inside that counts. With a bunch of mates who are willing to throw themselves into the game, Sentinels is an absolute gem, encouraging players to work together and support each other. Woe betide you if you fail to co-operate though… split the party and you’ll fail for sure!
For those times when I want to play something a little different, I’m thankful that I picked up a copy of Cranio Creations’ Dungeon Fighter at Essen. This odd little mix of dungeon crawl and dexterity game is great, especially when you’ve got a larger group. Working your way through the maps as a group, taking down monsters by chucking dice at an oversized target… it’s a lot of fun. It’s also not very easy – unlike most party games, it actually offers quite a challenge. It’s rare that you’ll actually reach the boss at the end of the level, but Dungeon Fighter is one of those games where winning really isn’t the be all and end all. It’s the journey that’s all important, those high-risk dice rolls that will either claim victory for everyone or condemn the group to defeat.
Urban Sprawl has been one of the most divisive games released in 2011, either leaving those who have played it delighted or enraged. The cause of this schism? The chaos provided by the cards that add an admittedly swingy element to the game. While many people dislike it, I was a big fan of this part of the game that can either be a great equaliser or stretch out a player’s lead even further – but hey, that’s life. I’ve never been one to complain about such a thing, but many gamers saw this as too big a deal to ignore. I like a bit of randomness in my games, but for people who insist that everything must be able to be anticipated and mitigated, Urban Sprawl will send them cracked. If you’re looking for a relatively heavy game that shouldn’t be taken too seriously though, I’d heartily recommend picking up a copy.
There’s been plenty of other great games too. Quarriors took deckbuilding in a whole new direction, Space Maze was a charming little puzzler and Eruption made lava flows fun. For those seeking heavier gaming experiences Pret-a-Porter was brilliant, as was the wonderful Belfort (which I’ve only played once but can’t wait to try again – it’s that good). Now, who’s ready for 2012? Stay tuned for Part Three…