It’s time. We’re all here for it, so let’s break it out: my year-end ranking. From the bottom all the way to the top. All the hits and all the misses in one place.
One caveat before we get into this obnoxiously long list: I need to start with another list. I want to make note of some titles that I believe could make a significant placing on my list for the year, were I able to play them. Those titles include:
Some of these titles, like Earthborne Rangers, Kutna Hora, and Evacuation, are simply because of availability. The others are due to player count issues. As much as I absolutely adore Terra Mystica (it is my #3 favorite game of all time, after all) I did not want to give Age of Innovation a chance without either A.) a digital adaptation, or B.) a consistent face-to-face group of four I could explore the title with.
Now, all caveats out of the way, let’s dive into my year end rankings.
Taking one of the most well-known drafting games and removing nearly all of the drafting and choice from the game is one of the most baffling choices I’ve seen in game design. This game makes the butchering of 7 Wonders by 7 Wonders: Architects look like a masterwork in comparison. I cannot believe this is a real product.
A lifeless distillation of what eurogaming is all about, without any precision or passion. The game refuses to ever let anyone feel a bad emotion, such as not drawing a certain type of card needed to get an engine running. While others may see this as a fun puzzle, I find this to be a test of patience, as it feels like nothing the players do matter in the end. Not an inherently broken game, just not for me.
38.) Skies Above Britain
Another game just not for me. Jeremy White and Gina Willis have been absolutely killing it lately with their releases. It’s just I don’t think air combat war games are for me.
Speaking of games that aren’t for me comes this lovely title. I acquired this title thinking that I had the energy to talk about “playing” war, the military industrial complex, etc., but at the end of the day I just don’t find traditional hex-and-counter wargames engaging. I’ve tried all scales and scopes, several different time periods, and I simply cannot find them enjoyable. Unlike Skies Above Britain, I am reluctant to recommend this game to anyone, as I still find the morality of the gamification of military training extremely abhorrent.
36.) Dawn of Ulos
This game was pitched to me as an Acquire clone, and that it is. The hotels are armies, and the shares are still shares, except they are also action cards and cards that can be used to affect battles (aka mergers). Being able to sacrifice shares in an army/hotel in order to get it to “win” a fight/merger absolutely delights me, but the rest of the design actually spits in the face of this idea. I’m planning on trying that rule as a house rule for Acquire, but as its own game, Dawn of Ulos just flattens out the Acquire experience.
35.) Aegean Sea
A Carl Chudyk game that’s harder to learn than Mottainai, that is more random that Innovation, and that has less decision space than Glory to Rome. I’m sure this game will find an audience, but it will not be me.
34.) Darwin’s Journey
Check out my thoughts on this title in one of my earlier end of year wrap-ups.
First, let me start with some positives. The “make your insert” collection of cardboard that came in the box filled me with immense amounts of joy. Being able to make a sensible insert instead of dealing with… whatever their insert design is is a smart way to go about it. Second, this theme is brilliant. It fulfills what Scythe only suggested. Third, this game’s mere existence caused people to have a more nuanced conversation about what the word “complex” means, which I always love to see.
What Nucleum does, for me, is it invokes the greats without actually doing anything with it. Let’s talk specifically about Brass first. Like in Brass, players will build buildings in restrictive areas, make profits when the building is “fulfilled” and flips over, and players build a transport network to make deliveries and expand their reach. However, unlike Brass, the clunky action tiles get in the way of the tactical play that makes Brass the game it is. And sure, you aren’t constrained to the cards in your hand for your building locations, but there are plenty of other restrictions that exist in Nucleum to slow down any construction. And, unlike Brass, there’s no loans. What’s a game without loans?!
Another game Nucleum is oft-compared to is Barrage. I honestly do not understand this direct comparison as much. Some have mentioned aspects as tiny as player powers, which, uh, have you played a game from the last five years? Chess pieces even have individual player powers now! But one area that these two games differ wildly is how their maps feel to play in. Barrage is an incredibly open map, until the first piece is placed and your entire world crumbles around you. Nucleum, though, I just never felt the foreboding presence of others, even when playing with incredibly aggressive people.
Overall, I think Nucleum shares more DNA with mediocre complex titles of recent years than it does the greats. It shares a similar space with Feudum, Imperial Steam, Voidfall (by all accounts), and the bloatiest Lacerdas like Weather Machine. There’s just too many systems, and yet too little decisions. The game is complex, and yet constraining. I really wanted to like this game, and I do believe its hype did a number on me. But from my first attempt at reading the rules, to the final turn of my third game, I was just dejected, withdrawn, and wishing I was in Lancashire or Birmingham instead.
32.) Mr. President
My dislike for this game is a matter of taste, and lack of understanding of what the end product was going to be. I was hoping for the experience of an American president more in the flavor of 1960: The Making of the President: Not so much in its scope, as I knew the game would be about the entirety of the presidency, but I expected social issues and public perception to matter more. I understand that the president is the “Commander-in-Chief”, but for me, this game’s focus on international conflicts was just the most uninteresting thing in the world to me.
I fully expected this game to be higher on my list, simply because it’s a fine experience. However, the more I thought about it and started to move games around, the more I realized that, while I didn’t hate my plays, I feel like I’d be dragging my feet to ever play it again, whereas games above it I wouldn’t put up much of a fight. Either way, check out my Publisher of the Year article for more Devir titles way better than this.
I am not a huge fan of 1 vs. 1 dice-chucking beat-’em-ups. However, because I could use this content with its sister solo title, I made the purchase. Since I had it all anyway, I took a chance and played it a few times. It was enjoyable, mostly because the movement rules were quite simple, but it’s still not the genre for me. So far, though, if I had to keep one of these titles, this would probably win that pity prize.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned about myself this year is that I don’t think I enjoy solo gaming. I will play games by myself multi-handed, but I do not want to play a solo mode. This is the type of experience that convinced me of that. Endlessly repeatable, yet flat. Completely driven by cards, and it feels often accidental when a thought has to take place. The only reason this game isn’t any lower is that its many “expansions” (aka alternate play modes) can add a bit of variety, if they don’t feel like temporary band-aids on a sinking ship.
28.) Bot Factory
As much as I complain about Lacerda’s ever-increasing love for convolution, I do love and respect a lot of his titles. I seem to be the only human being on the planet that actively enjoys Escape Plan. But just over the edge of the complexity barrier for me is Kanban EV, a game whose action selection mechanic is genius, and yet the spaces you interact with are clunky and frustrating. Bot Factory came along and promised to make the game simpler. While it definitely did that, it also removed all the bite from the actions, as well as made the action selection more boring. Unless you’re a glutton for mediocre light-medium euros, save the ridiculous amount of money this game costs.
This game makes such little sense to me as a design that I feel like I played the game wrong. The beginning of the game is an absolute slog, and by the time that you can take exciting turns, the game is over. To me the entire arc of the game needs to be shifted in such a way that the beginning is removed, and the game has a longer tail. As a sequel to Scythe, I feel the game does not deserve to live in its shadow. If this game was not a Stonemaier release, and was not tied to Scythe in any way, this game would have gotten zero coverage or attention.
I have not played this game to its fullest extent, and I fully understand that. This game at two players is, technically, a game, but certainly not one I’d recommend and not one I want to come back to any time soon. It seems much more promising at four, but I can’t move it any higher without playing it myself. At the end of the day, the system design at play here is some of the best in the hobby, and the theme being governance instead of war is the real highlight to me. Check this game out, but only if you have exactly four people at the table. Otherwise, stay home.
25.) Horseless Carriage
I am not one to state that certain games should only exist digitally. I know that most people in the hobby have some games that they refuse to play on a physical table, and for me, those games are about half of Splotter’s catalog. This game is an absolute slog and pain in the rear to play on a tabletop. But, outside of its usability, it’s an alright game. If a brand new publisher had made this, I’m sure I’d be shouting about it from the rooftops, but from the Splotter team, this feels like a step back. Certainly one of their weaker titles for me.
1 vs. 1 card dueling games, in the vein of Magic: The Gathering, are a dime a dozen. Worldbreakers attempts, and largely succeeds, at stepping into that field with a unique perspective. Its decision to make each deck play and score differently really adds a new layer to this stale subgenre, and I can appreciate it for that. However, for me and my taste, this felt like me and my partner were always playing different games from one another, even when our interactions were violent. Again, I don’t believe that the game is bad, but that the way it plays out just isn’t for me.
Ryan Courtney and his iterative pipe-laying mechanisms is something I’ve written about previously. Trailblazers is his most recent game featuring his pipe-laying, and overall I did enjoy the game. The pipes felt secondary in Pipeline, and felt like a frustrating mountain to climb in Curious Cargo, but in Trailblazers, the pipe-laying takes center stage, and yet remains as frustrating as ever. Honestly, and this is a bit unfair I know, this game’s release and many different SKUs and gameplay modes is what drove me up a wall here. There’s so many options to play, and so many versions of the game to buy, that it was frustrating how long I had to research which options were best for me. With that said, though, even if I was handed a copy and told to just play it, I still think it’d be ranked around here. It’s fun, but a bit too simple for me to want to bring out often.
22.) Ancient Knowledge
Age of Civilization is a game that, despite the lack of love from others, I have held a deep fondness for since I first played it. A small, condensed worker-placement game with draftable player powers that can be played in 30 minutes is definitely my jam. When Ancient Knowledge popped up onto my radar, I knew I’d be at least a bit interested. It takes up 8x the table space with each player’s multi-layered tableau, and takes about 90 minutes. Its engine running and adding/removing cards from the tableau adds chronic fiddliness to the game, so much so that I don’t think I’ll ever play it in person again. While an overall enjoyable title, I’ll just keep it as a simple enjoyment on Board Game Arena.
While this may be the lowest rated Devir title that I actually enjoyed, don’t think that Bamboo is a bad game. Its relaxing and easy-going theme extends to its gameplay flow, making it buttery-smooth to understand, internalize, and play. My lack of overall interest is simply from that resistance-free experience: I personally like more combative games, games that hate the table and push back. Again, if I was still at a place in my board gaming career where I was introducing new people to the hobby, Bamboo might be my go-to “second game” to introduce to people. Please don’t sleep on this title.
20.) The White Castle
Speaking of Devir, here is the title I’ve already seen many larger gaming outlets give Game of the Year: The White Castle. As I discussed in my send-up of Devir, The White Castle just isn’t for me. It rides a thin line for me, being both action-efficient but not interweaving (read as: complex) enough for me to want to dive into. If I’m going to be this tight with my actions, I’d rather be playing a Suchy or Lacerda title. But again, do not take my words as disparages against the game: Please do check this one out.
19.) Oranienburger Kanal
Speaking of iteration, let’s now move onto Glass Road meets Ora et Labora. Oranienburger Kanal, much like Darwin’s Journey, feels like a game I would have enjoyed earlier in my board gaming journey. It’s a game that generates rich and deep strategy, while also still being satisfying without burning you out. My only issue with the game is that it’s a spatial puzzle, and this is something I’ve just grown tired of. The layout of the cards on your board simply takes away from the other parts of the game I enjoy. Rosenberg fans should absolutely check this one out.
In case you haven’t noticed, I have a deep love and appreciation for GMT’s COIN Series. Robotech: Reconstruction takes a similar stance to its faction design, as well as to its continually changing alliances. However, what makes it stand out from current COIN titles is its card play. Instead of players getting to act off of a communal deck, here players will play a card from their hand, and the faction whose symbol is listed on it will get a full turn of regular actions. The key to making this system as dynamic as it is is that when a player plays a card with their faction listed on it, they get a set of limited options instead of the full list. COIN veterans will love this game, but I find it to be more of a negotiation game than traditional titles, so be aware of that.
17.) Union Stockyards
This is the worst, best game I’ve played this year. From afar, this game should not work. And in many ways, it doesn’t. The worker placement spaces to create your meat-packing empire feel lifeless; the events are boring or too swingy; the promised spatial puzzle is severely underutilized. And yet, despite its obvious shortcomings, the game’s straightforward approach to supply and demand really punched this game up. Even when I played it at two, the fluidity of the market and impact it can have on the player’s was exciting. The only reason that it’s this low is because through the third playthrough I could feel enjoyment waning, and I feel it will continue to decrease overtime, simply because the game doesn’t have enough moving parts to keep it feeling fresh.
If you’ve never played Zhanguo before, you should consider playing this new version. If you’ve played and liked the original version, consider if you’re looking for a more open, optimized, and customized version of it. If so, Zhanguo: The First Empire is one of the nicest retail productions of the year for one of the most tested eurogames on the market.
The original Twilight Struggle is a flawless masterwork. However, its length and intensity fill me with legitimate anxiety. Having a smaller, shorter version of one of the best games ever made certainly helps get me playing that system more. The only downside here is that it’s too short for me. This being 40-60 minutes doesn’t come close to instilling the sense of dread the full game can. I feel a 2 hour version would be the sweet spot here.
As I stated in my first article this year, I did not like this game. However, I was being a bit dramatic, as the original Great Western Trail is in my top 10, and this game is… well, not. But, I will say this: Even a bad GWT is better than no GWT.
I know that’s all a lot, but those are the bad and the mediocre titles from this year. Check back in a couple days to see what I think are the good and great titles from this year!