We recently dropped the Best Games of 2019 podcast, and while it’s always fun to try to play a bunch of new games and deem a “game of the year”, it all rings a hair bit hollow to me. I never play all the games I want to play before making such a determination. Indeed it would be nearly impossible to do so, and it would require sacrifices I’m not willing to make. I also don’t care as much as other game outlets about covering what’s new. It’s personally exhausting and I think too many people rush around hopping from game to game breathlessly, never slowing down to appreciate what they’re playing.
From the very beginning The Thoughtful Gamer was not going to be a website where we try to play all the new games. I want to go back and discover what I’ve missed, and I want to hunt down the truly excellent experiences out there, no matter when they were created. So while we’ll appreciate what was released last year, I want to go back further. What were the best games of 5, 10, 20 years ago? What may you have missed in the hustle and bustle? Here are my favorites, and a gentle reminder that great games can be “old”.
Favorite Games From 1999
Looking at the most notable games of 1999 I find a number of games securely fastened in my mental list of Games I Should Play. Alas, that’s for a later time. The games I have played feature a trio of Knizia delights that boggle the mind. If someone in their career designed games as good as Stephenson’s Rocket, Lost Cities, and Schotten-Totten we’d consider them a great designer. Knizia did it in one year. Oh, and Ra also came out in 99 and while I haven’t yet played it by all accounts it’s one of his best.
One criticism you could levy towards Knizia is that he reuses the same ideas too frequently, and I suppose his “lesser” games might prove that to be accurate, but Lost Cities and Schotten-Totten demonstrate how much he can do with variations on a theme. Even though both are two player card games where you’re creating columns of cards on your side of a center row, they feel completely different.
Lost Cities has this push your luck tension where you want to commit to as little as possible until you know you can score from it, but delaying can force you into worse binds as you choose between handing good cards over to your opponent or committing to something you’re uncertain about. The first few turns can be feeble; hesitant. But once the action comes it comes swiftly and ferociously.
Schotten-Totten is slower and more analytical. Where Lost Cities has the free-wheeling nature of Craps, S-T is poker. Cards are a precious resource, but even more precious are time and knowledge. Each turn is a mathematical puzzle of deduction and probability. Still, to the outside observer the games look similar.
I’ve already waxed poetic about Stephenson’s Rocket in my review, so I won’t say much here other than to say it’s a remarkable design that manages to combine the cost benefit analysis of a eurogame with the tense tempo-feeling of an abstract. Is Reiner Knizia’s 1999 the best year for a board game designer ever?
Favorite Games From 2009
The list of notable games I haven’t played in 2009 isn’t quite as compelling, though there’s really no way to know without playing them, of course. But even extremely popular games like Jaipur and Small World I find a bit underwhelming. That said, The Resistance is a clear standout, a masterpiece, and a game that, if there is any goodness in the world, will still be played 100 years from now.
Dungeon Lords is another standout from this year. The pseudo-sequel Dungeon Petz is often touted as the superior game, but I couldn’t disagree more. Dungeon Petz is possibly the safest major game Vlaada ever designed. Lords has teeth. Nasty, painful teeth nipping at your heels all the way through. It straps you in a resource-starved economy to build upon a plot of land, Agricola-style, and then tells you that people are coming to destroy everything you’ve built. Also there are random events that mess everything up. And you need to be a fortune teller, predicting what everyone else is going to do. I rarely get to play because half of my game group hates it.
The final 2009 standout I’d like to highlight is Martin Wallace’s Automobile. It looks like a much older game, but don’t let that put you off. It has the kind of clearly outlined mechanisms that quickly allow you to move past the understanding phase and into comprehension. Soon in your second or third game you’ll be counting precisely how much you can afford to spend here or there. In a predicament? You’ll find it’s simpler here than in most games to start rewinding the decisions you’ve made until you find the key mistake. Automobile is calculable, though not in a dull way. Lots of games shed their skins after a while and expose math underneath. The trick is that everyone’s calculating at the same time, and the fact of that changes the calculations themselves. They’re amorphous, shifting shape the more you look at them.
Favorite Games From 2014
Finally we get to the 5 year look-back, and my options are expanded. By 2014 I was seriously digging into the world of boardgaming. I’d played 10 or so games in the two prior categories, but about 30 here. Enough to make a top 5 list.
For awhile I thought that Vlaada Chvatil designed Alchemists. I mean, it’s published by CGE, shares a similar art style to the Dungeon games, and is filled to the brim with obtuse, thematic rules that rarely make it out of development because they’re obtuse (but of course are part of the charm and enjoyment). That’s straight up Vlaada. Instead poor Maltus Kotry just has everyone thinking someone else made his game.
Alchemists smashes together complex worker placement with a complex deduction puzzle and it somehow works. It’s also a genuine satire–quite the novelty in our medium. I adore the freedom it gives you to pursue different avenues of figuring out what all of the potion ingredients do. Even though actions and resources feel fairly scarce there are different methods by which one can deal with it. I also love the deduction, the finest I’ve yet seen, as it combines hard information with soft inferences one can gather from player actions and decisions, assuming that player is acting rationally, of course.
4. Irish Gauge
Train games don’t have to be complex. That’s the main takeaway from Irish Gauge, from quirky designer Tom Russell (creator of Irish Gauge). Though like with many games of its ilk important decisions are frontloaded to the start of game auction, they’re not quite as frontloaded here. There’s plenty more to do and decide as the game progresses, and it moves by so quickly even if you miscalculate the opening auctions you can hop straight into a second play without much fuss. The new Capstone edition looks beautiful.
3. Roll for the Galaxy
I’ve had the fortune to play some online RftG in recent days, and it’s proven just how compact and biting this dice-fest really is. I’m telling you, I’m getting trounced by these online people. Are they robots, trained to bring forth my demise? I suspect so. Regardless, this may seem like a friendly game, what with all of those dice, but make one mistake and the digital experts out there will start lapping your score. It’s short enough to be truly and honestly strategic, though the dice do sometimes muck up the works and require some improvisation. A tasty gaming treat.
2. Three Kingdoms Redux
Capstone Games appears again with this odd worker placement game. Two highlights: you need three players, no more, no less. Also every worker is different. We’ve seen variations on the latter here and there but TKR is one of the best implementations. Don’t let the three player limitation get you down–the dynamics at this count are so ripe for fascinating and challenging dynamics, and TKR delivers. The ways in which it pivots the two weaker players against the strongest are brilliant. I’ve played a lot of games by this point and I can safely say that Three Kingdoms stands out among the truly unique.
1. Fire in the Lake
I’ve almost got all of the COIN games played (but for the pandemic…) and I keep going back to Fire in the Lake as my favorite. I’ve got no stake in any of the historical periods as I’m not really a history buff, so take this as a somewhat impartial perspective: FitL contains the most exciting inter-faction dynamics of the series (or at least the first seven). The stories I could tell! And while historical wargames are valuable for their perspective on the history they cover, I’m mostly interested in the experience of the game itself. Fire in the Lake is king.
Hopefully this gives you a reason to look back on some older games and perhaps find a new favorite. What are your favorites from these years? Has any designer ever had a better year than Knizia in 99? Let me know in the comments below.