Good evening ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the first annual Rumpies. Here we’ll hash out some of the fascinating developments in gaming during 2011, as well as dish out some choice (and not so choice) awards at the end. What were the big stories of 2011? What game will be crowned game of the year? And when will the awards statuettes ever get mailed? (Answer to the last one: never.)
Big Stories in 2011
I have read and heard a lot about how 2011 was a great year for games, and I can only assume its true, because I haven’t played a whole bunch of the games that have been getting press this year. Mage Knight and Eclipse in particular interest me, but I still haven’t gotten around to playing either one. In fact, there are a lot of 2011 games that I still haven’t played. So it’s hard for me to gauge the overall quality of 2011. But here are some trends that I noticed (as did many others) over last year.
The most noticeable movement over the past year was the adoption of Kickstarter as the key way to get new games off the ground. In 2010, Alien Frontiers was the Game that Kickstarter Built. Hoping to get a piece of gamers who spend money without considering the consequences, tons of indie publishers piled onto that bandwagon. In 2011, it seems like every game that wasn’t from an established publisher was funded through Kickstarter, and some established publishers even used it as a way to remove the risk of putting out a new game.
I’m of two minds about this movement. First of all, I liked Alien Frontiers a lot. It wasn’t exactly original, but what was there was very polished and fun. So I don’t blame people for hoping to get in on the ground floor of some new title. And the indie publishing movement has been very fruitful for video gaming, so I would love to see a similar movement of affordable creative board games become available. Kickstarter seems as good a way to do this as any. The problem is, most of the games on Kickstarter are anything BUT creative. More often, they are some warmed-over deckbuilding or worker placement game from some guy on BGG who fancies himself a designer. It’s proving to be a dumping ground for games that probably don’t deserve to see the light of day. And of course those who do not think about purchases crap away money to back those tired designs. It has the potential to be a cool movement, but it’s being choked by hobbyists who are willing to buy anything. I hope that I’m proven wrong going forward.
More than any other year, I noticed that 2011 felt like the year of the reprint. I don’t remember a year when so many old games were announced and published. Survive, Outpost, Wiz-War, Nexus Ops, Knizia’s Lord of the Rings, Through the Desert, War of the Ring, and many others all saw new affordable reprint announcements, and almost all of them are out already, with a couple on the boat right now. Leading the charge is Stronghold Games, who has made it their mission to snag rights to every game that hasn’t already been reprinted by Fantasy Flight, the other major publisher who has reprinted stuff like crazy. It’s becoming less and less rewarding to hold onto that old game because of its value, because very few old favorites remain that won’t see the light of day eventually. That’s a good thing. There are way too many classics out there that haven’t been around for several years or much longer.
Of course, that leads us to what has to be the weirdest news of the year, which is the Merchant of Venus reprint that was announced by BOTH Stronghold and FFG within the same day. Stronghold negotiated with the original designer, Richard Hamblen for the rights to his classic game, while FFG negotiated with Hasbro, who now owns Avalon Hill. But at no point did Hasbro or Hamblen ever speak to each other about their actions, and Stronghold and FFG were left holding the rope. At this point, it’s looking more likely that FFG’s version will make it to market. They have a lot more clout in the industry, and were apparently well on their way to printing and shipping the game (it should be available in March). I’m fine with that, since I like most of their reprints and I feel Merchant of Venus could use just a little streamlining. But it would have been cool to see what Stronghold would do with this classic title, and I would never complain about a reprint from them. The depressing part is that it still isn’t resolved. Fans of the original game like myself all hope dearly that at least one version gets published. The worst case scenario is a scorched-earth legal decision that leaves it out of print forever.
And now, without further ado…
THE 2011 RUMPIES
Best Old Game I Played for The First Time This Year (Card Game): Tichu
Look, let’s not waste any time here. If you (the reader) can find two more people, call me and I’ll come over to play. Seriously, Tichu is just that addictive, and as I said in my review this fall, all of the years I didn’t play it feel like youthful indiscretion at this point. I’ve dived into the game headfirst, but it’s an ocean that I could swim in for years. It’s the deepest best card game I’ve ever played, and there’s no excuse for not owning it. Seriously, go buy a deck. You’ll thank me later.
Best Old Game I Played for The First Time This Year (Board Game): Imperial
I avoided playing Imperial for a while because I thought it might be a super-intense brain-burner. Well, it kind of is, but I don’t mind a bit. In fact, if I’d known how interactive and cutthroat it was, I would have cleared time to play it much earlier. It’s easily one of the best heavy Eurogames ever published, and I have immensely enjoyed every game I’ve played. Word to other noobs though: start by just buying your own bonds instead of random distribution. It should be the only way to play.
Biggest Disappointment: The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game
Ahh yes, the game that I traded to actually get Imperial. Boy, was I excited for this. I am a minor-league Tolkienphile, and I like good strategic card games. And even though it was collectible, I thought I would still like to get into a game based on my favorite novel. The fact that it was cooperative? Even more compelling. Turns out it was a turgid frustrating exercise in mechanical futility. Okay, maybe it wasn’t that bad. But neither was it actually fun. Instead it was just hard and overwrought. What a letdown.
Best Expansion: Innovation – Echoes of the Past
Innovation was my favorite game of 2010, and I still play it a ton. But this expansion was a revelation to me. It somehow made Innovation feel even more wild and varied, but in my experience it actually evened out the lumpier parts of the original game. The echoes captured the idea of past technology so well. And the huge array of special achievements makes the game much more workable from other tactical angles. It does everything the original did, but much better. Basically, this is the advanced version of Innovation, and the base game now feels impossibly thin without it.
Best Game of 2011:
MERCHANTS & MARAUDERS
Alright, I haven’t reviewed this one yet. In fact, I only got it a little while ago. And it’s not precisely a 2011 game, coming out at the tail end of 2010. But most people played it in 2011, and it’s a terrific game. So good in fact, that I would call it the best “narrative” game since Battlestar Galactica. It’s the best pirate game that has ever been made, and I honestly cannot imagine a better one. Yes, it’s a complicated game. There are a lot of rules to digest up front, but it never feels overwhelming or burdensome. And yes, it’s challenging to find the balance in the game between being a Merchant or a Marauder. I wouldn’t be surprised if it actually isn’t that balanced to begin with. You know what though? I don’t care. Nothing about this game is boring or not fun. It somehow manages to make an adventure game that is also surprisingly strategic and nuanced. Very few games are as much fun in crushing defeat as this one. There is enormous satisfaction to be had by simply doing your own thing, and for that reason, Merchants & Marauders is my game of the year.
So there you have it, my own authoritative (*snicker*) guide to 2011 in gaming. What’s that you say? How can I write an article on the best games of 2011 if I haven’t played most of them? Because shut up, that’s why.