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The best game played in 2010, IGA shortlist - and a jury fantasy

On Wednesday evening i played the best game of the 200 odd i have played in 2010. It has everything you could want in modern Eurogame design ; multiple paths to victory, multiple game ending conditions, scarcity of time and resources, every action you take effects all the other players, the a seamless balance between strategy and tactics. We talk of ‘interlocking game mechanics’ as a hall mark of good game design , this game surpasses that ugly description and when playing i thought it was an Orrerry , so perfect did the mechanics fit together.

So what was this wonderful new game of 2010? Well I am being a bit misleading here, its only new in that I have not played it in 2010 (or 2009). First published in 2002 its ......Puerto Rico.

So having reminded myself of what the perfect Eurogame should look like i stated thinking about the shortlist for the International Gamers Awards and how these games matched up to the acme of modern boardgame design.

I think there are a lot of very good and worthy games on the list, but nothing that stands head and shoulders above its peers and none that should sit on the top shelf next to Puerto Rico. The awards are actually for games published in the year to June 2010 so there is some overlap with 2009 – though i think 2009/10 (for Eurogames) was consistently good but lacks the two or three stellar games that would make 2009/10 a great vintage, in bordeaux terms its a 1983 rather than a 1982. From the finalists (Last Train to Wensleydale, Egizia, Vasco Da Gama, Rise of Nations, Fresko, Age of Industry, Shipyard, Dungeon Lords, World Without End, Hansa Teutonica, Endeavor, Glen more) a case could be made for any of them to win. However if the three top games from the previous year were up for comparison (Le Havre, Automobile, Dominion) it would be no contest – each of these 2009 games would be a stand out, almost automatic pick, for best of year. And the same would apply if you were to introduce winners from previous years (Agricola, Through the Ages and Caylus). So the jurists have an interesting choice ahead of them and because they use a transferrable vote system there really could be any game winning the laurels (as St Petersburg did in 2004)

So on to my thoughts on the games - first i should qualify any negative comments by saying I own all of them (bar Shipyard which i traded) and would happily play all of them again many times (bar.....shipyard).

I have played all of the games on the shortlist at least three times. Indulging a fantasy that I am a jurist (and I had just played Puerto Rico before sitting down with my voting pencil) I would immediately strike two games from the voting ballot.

‘Shipyard’ (4 plays, Geek rating 5) great theme and mechanics can’t hide a game decided by unbalanced victory conditions – in the four games i have played the winner has, in every case, been the person who pulled the best combo of end game scoring bonuses.

‘Rise of Empires’ (5 Plays, Geek rating 5) is a poor implementation of a great idea. The ‘A/B’ turn mechanic is original; the rest of the game needed a lot more development to do the kernel mechanic justice

Two other games I’d find it difficult to vote for would be ‘Age of Industry’ and ‘Fresko’ – ‘Age of industry’ (5 plays, rating 8.5) because it’s a reworking of ‘Brass’ which got a stab at the award in 2008 and Fresko (4 plays, geek rating 8 ) because I am not sure what are you voting for ; the base or expanded game? Moreover whilst Fresko is a very good game it’s not a great one. The mechanics work with the theme better than any other game on the shortlist, but beyond that it’s not a stand out as a gamers game

Carrying on in reverse order the next two games I’d eliminate have great 'hooks' that it is a funky newish mechanic that engrosses me into the game, and I really enjoy playing both, but I think the games are beyond the hook fall just short of greatness. The first is Vasco Da Gama (5 plays, Geek raing 8) which is fun to play but after my fifth game i had not seen any variation in the way the games evolved. The action purchase mechanic though is great fun , however this is the whole challenge of the game and the roles selection, recruitment and ship movement lack the something that would move this game from ‘good’ to ‘great’.

The second is ‘Egizia’. ‘Egizia’s (3 plays) 'hook' is the Nile action selection mechanic. It’s great fun, full of the ubiquitous agonising choices. The rest of the game feels slightly Knizaesque with a splash of Stone Age. Unlike ‘Vasco’ there is multiple paths to winning this game. Unfortunately, like ‘Shipyard’ the difference between winning and losing can be decided by what end game bonus cards you draw and their synergy with previously drawn bonus cards.

The next to be struck off the list is ‘Glen More’ (3 plays) – it’s original and challenging, however with more than 3 players or with any players the slightest bit prone to AP it’s a write off. This game falls between two stalls, a fast paced tile laying game and a real brain burner. Because the luck of the tile draw can have a fairly big effect on the game then it should be a sort of gamers Carcassonne, instead it can outstay its welcome.

The last two games to be struck off are ones I love.

First up is ‘World without End’ (7 plays, geek rating 8.5) ; it’s a great experience game of the ‘bad things happening to you’ genre. However unlike, for example ‘In the year of the dragon’ the bad stuff can’t be planned for other than taking an efficient generalist approach. And you really need to know the events to avoid disaster. After seven plays of ‘World without End’ i can’t make my mind up if its a good game or not; i know I like playing it and maybe that should be enough.

‘Dungeon Lords’ (3 plays, rating 7) is as much fun as you can have playing a Euro. However, take the mechanics and imagine the theme, as say, castle building in 14th Italy to fight off Condottiere you’d have a run of the mill game which is just a little too fiddly. The theme and production make this game, I’m not sure it’s enough to be a game of the year.

So that leaves three games.

The two that don't quite make the pinnacle have a lot in common – they feel like ‘old school’ designs, b both are polished games that scale well, have multiple paths to victory and subtle player interaction.

‘Endeavor’ (11 plays, geek rating 9), with its feint echoes of Goa and Struggle of Empires ‘, is a pared down design that plays incredibly quickly.

‘Hansa Teutonica’ (5 plays, Geek rating 8) also has echoes of Goa, in Hansas’ case with a player ‘tech’ board, in Endeavor it is the buildings chose each round. ‘Hansa’ is a very simple idea but has multiple paths to victory and every game i have played has been quite distinct, with each strategy having an answer – almost a ‘rock, paper, scissors, stone Euro’, of these two I marginally prefer Endeavor. Why would these two great games not be my pick? Because though they are both wonderful they are clever remixes of older ideas

By process of elimination that leaves ‘Last Train to Wensleydale’ (3 plays, Geek rating 8) and of the games on the shortlist it’s the one I have played the least and the longest since I played it. I feel a little ambivalent towards ‘Wensleydale’ – in the games i played I thought some routes into the map were better than others, though that may be inexperience. On the other hand (i must qualify this by saying i am not much of a train gamer) it feels like a radically new approach to train game design.

Given my ability to predict awards and the transferrable voting system that ther IGA uses then don't be suprised to see shipyard win!

I can't think of any other games that meets the award criteria and that would be a winner here. If i had to pick 10 then i would sub in Chaos in the Old World (its a Euro!, but maybe not a Family strategy game...) for Shipyard and 'Imperial 2030' for 'Rise of Empires'.

In conclusion its a strong field full of games i am going to enjoy playing for years to come - but nothing as good as Puerto Rico.

Games that missed the shortlist that I think worthy of inclusion include Homesteaders and Assyria


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