The Daily Worker Placement

Saturday, June 22, 2024

Bailey Brewer’s End of Year Extravaganza! Part One: What Even Counts?

by | published Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Hello one and all, and welcome to my end-of-year 2023 coverage! 

I pushed extra hard this year to play as many games as I could that I had about any interest in. Some had to be ignored due to inventory issues or weird release schedules, but I’m honestly quite happy with all that I was able to get played for this year, from this year.

I played 40 titles released this year. At the end of December, for my final article of the year, I’ll release my complete list of 2023 titles and where they fit in a ranking. Partially because that’s too many games to talk about in depth, and because there’s a good 30-35 of them that I just don’t have that much interest in talking about anyway.

So, this year, instead of one recap article, I’m filling out the month with a few different articles to discuss what this year was in gaming. I want to cover a myriad of topics, all with varying levels of relevancy to end-of-year discussions. I will take time to call out my top 5 of the year at some point, but as someone who has never been this in-depth with year-end wrap-up like this there’s a lot of thoughts to explore.

But let’s start with the toughest question of them all: what qualifies as a title that could qualify for my end-of-year list?

Before I start pointing out specific titles, I want to first discuss the criteria that covers 95% of games:

  • It must have a release year of 2023, according to BoardGameGeek.
  • It must be a full game. I do not rank expansions.
  • It must be a new, disparate game. Straight reprints do not qualify.

While this should be straightforward, the year listed on BGG can cause some issues. First, sometimes it’s simply not accurate. In my experience, titles from GMT Games are not listed accurately. Skies Above Britain arrived before Christmas 2022 (and I didn’t pre-order it, nor order it directly from GMT Games!) and yet it is listed as a 2023 game, so I decided to include it. Second, the release year is often the year in which a title is first released, in its country of origin. Woodcraft was technically released in 2022, but I wasn’t able to get a copy until late January 2023 here in the US. I’m not complaining, as this is the norm, and to be honest, I have no leg to stand on when it comes to complaining about release dates compared to our Canadian friends (hi David!).

What I’m really here to write about is which titles classify as “new and disparate”. This should be a simple task, but seldom do publishers do a simple reprint of a title anymore. This year, Renegade Game Studios finally reprinted Acquire, and thankfully they left it alone. It is as it has been since 1963, packaged with a fan-favorite variant that’s been around since 1999. This is a clear example of a reprint, and also a clear example of why I can’t include reprints here: it’s simply not fair. I’m quite fond of some titles that were released this year, but I doubt any of them will make my top 10 of all time. Acquire, however, easily has, and has remained there ever since I was a teenager. 

So, the crux of the question is this: what can change in a reprint in order for it to qualify? Let’s dissect:

The Collector’s Cache: Amun-Re: 20th Anniversary Edition

The newest edition of Amun-Re sought to accomplish three things:

  1. Collect and collate all new and previous expansion content and bring it all together into a simple package.
  2. Make it look like a game that could sell in today’s market with beautiful Vincent Dutrait artwork.
  3. Make minor changes to the base game that players have been utilizing since the game’s release twenty years ago.

I honestly believe that this release succeeded at those items. With small mark-ups and/or alternative cards, it’s possible to play the original edition of the game with no changes (except for the art of course). What this product gives you is a box full of stuff that no one will ever want to consistently play with, outside of the new player-count adjustment pieces. However, anyone that has played this game knows that it’s pretty much a 5-player game only, even with the improvements. It’s just not the same. 

Opinions aside, however, because of the lack of considerable changes to the game, this does not qualify for my 2023 list. Yes, there’s new expansion content in the game, but I don’t review or rank expansions for this.

Amun-Re: 20th Anniversary Edition: Disqualified

The New Release is Just Better: Zoo Vadis (a reimplementation of Quo Vadis?)

Bitewing Games has been on a roll recently, and any publisher that understands the importance of spamming Knizia’s titles is a publisher I care about. When they said they were redoing Knizia’s pure negotiation game and retooling it under his supervision, I was enthralled. Quo Vadis? is an elegant, simple game; however, its lack of theme and one-color graphic design ethos left much to be desired. But more importantly, a pure negotiation game can be straight-up ruined by someone who doesn’t want to play by the (social) rules. If there’s one stick in the mud who refuses to budge, then the game comes to halt. And with little to no leverage, the other players are stuck at their mercy, and the game becomes awful to play.

Zoo Vadis fixes these fundamental problems. First, it’s one of the nicest productions of the year, top to bottom. Beautiful zoo animal artwork by Kwanchai Moriya paired with the chunkiest wooden animal pieces make this game a joy to look at and to play. Instead of the setting being Roman… democracy?, Zoo Vadis takes place within a zoo. The “fight to become emperor” makes less sense when it’s a zoo full of animals that are… running for election? But, regardless, the game has some life to it outside of its gameplay. With that, though, the gameplay itself remains unchanged except for one crucial component: neutral pawns.

These neutral pawns are such a brilliant inclusion that they feel like they were always in the game. On a player’s turn they can move these pawns forward, costing them a precious action but helping them fill up a spot, and free up a spot. More brilliantly than that, though, players can bribe these neutral pawns for votes to move forward, thus preventing the stalemate that the original game could come to.

Is the game as dynamic and wild with its deal making? Maybe, maybe not. I may or may not talk about this game a few times this month, so hold onto that question. But, is this reimplementation unique enough to qualify to be its own title? Absolutely. Does it matter to me that the original game can be played in this box? No, because the publisher has made it very clear in the rulebook and in the forums on BoardGameGeek that this new way is the way it should be played now.

Zoo Vadis: Qualified

Old Game, New Systems: Zhanguo: The First Empire

Zoo Vadis is a pretty cut-and-dry case in my book when it comes to qualification status here: a small, short game gets a whole new system and action players can do on their turn, and the weight of this change is felt in every decision in the game. So, naturally, my next question was, “does it matter if one system was added into a much larger game?” Enter the reimplementation/reissue of Zhanguo.

The big picture differences between Zhanguo and Zhanguo: The First Empire are two-fold: a new worker type, and a new advancement track. Alchemists let players play special cards into their tableau. These cards are incredibly powerful, yet each player has the same set of cards at the start of the game to choose from. Think of this less as a power boost, and more as a power correction: these cards can help mitigate some of the meaner randomness the game can represent. The new advancement track is incredibly rules light: if you see that symbol on a card, move upwards on a track once and collect the macguffins shown.

Honestly these changes are not huge in and of themselves, but the effect this has on the game ripples into each fold of the experience. This is a comparison that will be used several times throughout the next couple of months, but comparing the original title to the 2023 release feels a lot like comparing Brass: Lancashire to Brass: Birmingham. Zhanguo is tight, punitive, and unforgiving to those who refuse to read what other players are doing; Zhanguo: The First Empire is more open and presents players with several opportunities to make up for their shortcomings in one area by being dominant in another.

Plus, the other major change to Zhanguo: The First Empire is the immense amount of variability. Almost every reward or goal players get or work towards is randomized at set-up. Paired with the randomness of the cards, and no player can enter the game with much of a head start. The new version creates this “Kickstarter Replayability” that everyone advertises, but nobody really cares about. Sure, the implementation of the variability is solid, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t feel THAT different to have Goal A on a Wall vs. have Goal A in a province. 

In the end, they do play quite similarly. This is my toughest call yet, but since the original cannot be played here, and since it is a case again where the original designers tweaked the game specifically to bring it up to 2023 standards, I feel ok saying it qualifies as a 2023 release.

Zhanguo: The First Empire: Qualified

The Sister Games: Great Western Trail: New Zealand & others

Sister/series games have always been a tough topic to tackle in my head. It feels like cheating, in a way. However, spoiler alert, I saw the depths of how frustrating these sister/series/spin-offs can be this year.

Let’s start simple. People Power is the 11th mainline COIN title from GMT Games. I have played each title in the series, to one extent or another. These games follow incredibly similar structures, but each one has its own level of chrome to it. This is what I think of when I think of a series where each title is 100% distinct. The reason that I am so confident in these feelings is because yes, the turn structure is the same, but outside of that, nearly every other aspect of the game varies from title to title. Even two of the titles that are similar on the surface start to feel more and more special as time marches forward. Both People Power and The British Way are easy qualifications to me.

Then there’s this darned Great Western Trail series. Great Western Trail: New Zealand is the third one in this series, and its similarities are strikingly close to the original title. Honestly, it is one or two subsystems away from being exactly Great Western Trail with the Rails to the North expansion. And I have really been struggling with how to classify this title. On the one hand, its similarities and differences put it just on the edge of qualifying for me. It feels like it could have been an expansion. It feels like a reskin. 

And yet.

The reason I feel I have to judge this title separately from the others in the series is that, frankly, I really don’t like it. This game epitomizes everything that I do not like about the hobby right now. It takes a medium-heavy, interactive Euro and retools it to be a heavy, solitaire Euro. So many games recently have been adding mechanisms to ensure that players do not ever interact or have to even acknowledge that there’s other people on the table. If I want to hurt another player’s progress in Great Western Trail: New Zealand, I have to do it in 1293876 places, because the game allows for so many different methods of progression to occur. And, what’s worse, is that in addition to these complexities increasing the weight and decreasing the player interaction, it makes the game worse upon repeat plays, as the inertia of the set-up and rules teach prevents it from getting played, and if it gets played, it feels like all actions can equally lead to victory.

So thankfully for me, this game qualifies, so I can rank it exactly where it deserves.

Great Western Trail: New Zealand: Qualified

So I hope that context provides some idea of what games I played, what games I didn’t, and which ones would even count for coverage. Next week, it’ll be time to actually start talking about some of the categories I want to explore this year.

But I want to hear from you! How are my calls here? Too harsh? Way off base? Rules lawyer me to death in the comments!


  • Bailey D

    Bailey is a long-time board gamer, short-time writer. She’s been playing board games all her life, “hobby” board games for a decade, and “crusty grognard cardboard war simulators” for the last two or three years. When she’s not obsessing over the next indie 18xx release, she can often be found refreshing online games stores and publishers’ sites for new releases. Her top games include Age of Steam, Power Grid, the COIN Series, and Camel Up.

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