Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Holiday Gift Guide 2009

I've been musing over the various blog entries and feeling like some summary or assessment is in order. Given that both Gift Trap and Wings of War received positive reviews, is one better than the other? What's been truly exciting in 2009?

There's no difficulty in deciding the Most Exciting Game of 2009. Race for the Galaxy is overflowing with great qualities. It's simple, its components are beautiful, it has terrific replay value and you can improve your play with each game. There are two supplements that are decent values and add to the experience but you can play happily with just the basic box set. Race for the Galaxy is a beautifully designed game and has been the source of a great deal of fun across 2009.

Dominion: Intrigue (D:I) comes in as a runner up for most exciting game. D:I has an elegant set of simple rules, great replay value, and gets better with each play. I do feel that it's a little too abstract to really excite me. In Race for the Galaxy you do have a sense that you're building a galactic civilization. With D:I the play is more along the lines of "how can I combine these cards in a clever way?" On the other hand, players who love abstract games may prefer D:I for just that reason.

On the other side of the coin we see Arkham Horror. This product boasts amazing production values and is not at all abstract. You march your adventurer across a board, collect equipment, and fight monsters. My wife prefers games with stories and for this reason Arkham Horror is a favorite of hers. Arkham Horror won't take top honors because while it is fun I don't feel it's as elegant a design as Race of D:I.

In terms of Best Game for Younger Players we're faced with a bit of a dilemma. Can you make a reasonable argument for spending fifty dollars on a eurogame for young children? I have my doubts and that's why I give the nod to Gamewright's Sleeping Queens. More of an activity than a game per se, it remains fun to play and pretty to look at. Plus it delivers good times at a very reasonable price.

In terms of the younger folks I'd have to mention Max, the game in which you get tiny forest animals past a mean old cat. Max is cooperative and simple but boasts a very modest production quality. Sadly I like my games glamorous like Sleeping Queens.

Blokus is a nice game for younger players. It's priced reasonably and has good replay value. I don't see it as being quite as exciting as the Queens though, so it remains runner up.

There are certain games that are Great Games for Larger Groups. Tops on this list is Bang! This game has been a consistent crowd pleaser with every group I've introduced it to. bang! is simple, fast, fun, and involves the entire group at almost all times. Unlike many of these games it's also priced affordably.

In terms of Miniature and Tactical Games the indisputable champion is Wings of War. This game simulates air combat in World War 1 with fair realism but uses simple rules and allows quick play. In addition the miniature aircraft are just stunning. For very little money you can lay down a dogfight of a half dozen colorful aircraft on your kitchen table. Wings of War is a fabulous marriage of great production value and beautiful game design.

I was very impressed with Federation Commander, the Amarillo Design Bureau's update of the venerable Starfleet Battles rules. Federation Commander does a great job of simulating Star Trek starship combat and keeps the rules to a minimum. Still, the "minimum" at this level remains more than many players will be comfortable with and the rules could be written more clearly. This game is ideal for the older player who really, really wants to fight Klingons. Y'all know who you are.

Finally we're left with Role Playing Game of the Year. I remain disappointed that the rpg publishers seem disinclined to produce introductory level games. One exception is the admirable The Zantabulous Zorcerer of Zo. This game delivers simple rules, a fun setting, good accessibility to younger players, and accompanies it with generous background material. It's a model for what an introductory game should be like, not to mention a game that more experienced players will enjoy as well.

I found Starblazer Adventures to be another game well suited to beginners. The rules are comprehensive and the product is an awesome value in terms of the content it delivers. The fact that it exists without a clear game universe (unlike, say, the Conan, Star Wars, or Ghostbusters role playing games) may create a slight challenge for the person running the game unless they are pretty familiar with science fiction concepts. Happily, there seem to be plenty of moms and dads who know the difference between Tardis and Star Destroyer and so for them Starblazer Adventures is a good option.

The majority of these games are available in local stores like Pandemonium Books, Hit or Miss Games in Lexington, or Complete Strategist in Boston. If not immediately available they can be easily ordered. I say keep the business local, most of these store owners care deeply about the hobby and are great resources if you have further questions.


  1. Interestingly, I felt Race for the Galaxy was more abstract than Dominion. All the options and phases of Race occupied my attention, keeping me from absorbing the thematic elements. With Dominion, once you get actions and buys down, it's all about the -- admittedly minimal -- theme.

  2. I think you could make a good case either way. One of our RftG players thinks of the game very much in terms of the civilization he's building. The other player sees it as a math equation and just racks up the points. My wife is bored by science fiction and gravitates more towards Dominion, so there may also be a question of which genre grabs the players more.