Now that 2014 is over and we continue rolling on into 2015 (see what I did there), let's take the time to look over what the Vault crew obsessed over last year.
How well do you bluff? How well do you know you friends? Can they see right through you? Are you lucky enough to gain the affection of the Princess? These are all the questions you ask yourself while playing Love Letter. It’s a game of bluffing as well as skill but it has that little dose of luck in it that I love in games like this. One of the high points when trying out a new game or coming back to a game is whether I can make a comeback even I think I’m out of the game for good. Games that deal with a lot of luck are very good with this. It obviously helps if you apply some skill, however when dice rolling or shuffling are involved I’m immediately much more excited in playing the game. Love Letter’s goal is to gain the required number of tokens of affection to gain the favour of the Princess. You do this through a series of rounds, at the end of each round a player will gain a token. If you get 4 tokens, (in a 4 player game), you win the game. During a round, you play a series of cards which each have a value and a power specific to that card. The round ends either if you are the last person with a card who has not been eliminated or your card has the highest value. The fun is in playing cards to try and trick your friends. Or, if you’ve played the game a lot with them, picking their strategies from the get-go and making your ‘guesses’ more educated.
Throughout this year, I have made many new friends while playing and enjoying tabletop games, however a stand out moment was about halfway through the year while playing a game of Love Letter. I sat down with two guys who I had seen often at the fortnightly Board Games and Burgers meet-ups at Grill’d but hadn’t actually played many games with. I usually saw them playing together, so just assumed they were friends. When queried, they said they weren’t friends, they just started coming to the meet-ups around the same time. I wasn't satisfied with this, and soon declared them best friends, despite having only known each other a couple of months. It seemed to stick though, and I’ve played many a game of Love Letter with the two of them, who (while not necessarily BFFs) are now very good friends. Love letter: The game that brings people together. My #1 pick for 2014.
For me 2014 was a year full of gaming, like never before. Many games grabbed my attention due to their magnificent art or the immersive theme they conveyed, usually one going in hand with the other. Even though these games were published pre-2014 I only got to try them this year.
There were two games that I was completely wrapped around. On the cooperative style my choice is Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords, and later on Skulls & Shackles. This game was for me the ultimate role-playing experience without crossing to actual RPG territory. I didn't get to play it as much as I wanted to, but played it whenever the opportunity arose, and even played it solo a couple of times (actually playing Seelah and Ezren at the same time). The game has so much to offer and I haven't even touched custom scenarios yet. The amazing art guides the imagination and the result is unparalleled immersion. The stories you can spin up from each adventure can be hilarious, like Valeros failing an acrobatics check and falling into a pit, quite amusing; or just managing to beat the big ogre villain while having no health left, a heroic feat. Later on, Skulls & Shackles came out and I was just simply blown out of the water by it. The improved storyline, the complex characters, the fact that you have your own ship and fight other ships; it all makes S&S even more immersive than RotR. There is, however one big and important caveat to consider when playing PACG: Your party has to like it, to enjoy playing it. I know this is true for any game, but a bad party player can ruin the group experience very quickly, and turns the game into a chore instead of the amazing adventure it can deliver. It is such a good game, though, that it shouldn’t be difficult to find players that love the game. I can’t wait till the next time I play it.
On the competitive side, my favourite game was Android: Netrunner. Created originally by the legendary Richard Garfield, who is more widely known for Magic: The Gathering, the Fantasy Flight reimplementation of the game is just simply amazing. The art is one of the best I’ve seen for any futuristic game. It captures the feeling of this dystopian cyberpunk world that is governed by megacorporations, where each of us is just a number, but a few of us decide to make a difference, by messing with these giants. The asymmetric game style is very unique and basically conveys the feeling of two games in one. If you are the Corp then your game is to create a puzzle made of traps, bluffs and formidable defenses to protect your secrets. If you are the Runner, your game is to decipher that puzzle using your tools of the trade and a lot of risk assessment. But that is not the best yet. Once again: immersion. You actually feel like a Runner hacking through the security systems of a massive Corp and when you get one of its secrets, wow, what a rush. When you see your corporate defenses being broken one by one only to see the reckless runner fall into a deadly trap, you chuckle evilly enough to make heads turn. And even when you don’t win, you realize that you had an awesome time. Never have I felt so satisfied about a game when I bite the dust. Bonus points for being a card game where your enjoyment of it does not correlate on how much your wallet bleeds for it.
This year has been my first as a tabletop fan. My first ‘grown up board game’ was Diplomacy, which I adored when I was introduced to it and still do, though no-one will ever play it with me, because of the time requirement. I wouldn’t call diplomacy my ‘gateway game’ though, because nothing really followed from that. What really brought me into the gaming fold was finding friends who played, firstly through the Brisbane Geek Group Meetup, and then through LXG and, ultimately, Dylan’s Boardgames and Burgers, which he’d been running for a year or so before Vault Games was even an idea. It’s been an amazing year full of friends and fun, and I’m really glad we decided to take it to the next level and start dealing… ah, I mean selling… board games to our friends, and, let’s face it, ourselves. (We are our best customers.) Anyway, my point is that the games I’ve enjoyed most this year are not necessarily new this year, but they are the ones I will remember when I think back on 2014. So, without further ado:
My first favourite is an American style, fantasy themed game, with 2-5 players, and takes about an hour and a half. It is Small World, which is ironically becoming quite a large game with all of its expansions. What I love about it is the replay value which comes from having almost infinite combinations of races and abilities. Who knows how Aquatic Amazons will go against Hill Gnomes (until you play it)? Then there is the temporal and financial aspect of the game. If your Cursed Humans are getting owned by your opponent’s Flying Sorcerers, it’s not the end of the world. They probably paid a lot more for theirs (in fact, you probably gained money) and you can always just put them into decline next turn and get the best choice on your second or third race. Finally, somewhat like a good game of D&D, it makes for epic stories.
My other favourite is a Euro, albeit with a Sci-fi skin, which is 3-4 player and slightly shorter: Star Trek Catan! Catan is a tabletop classic, and the Star Trek version is just as simple and fun, with a couple of added bonuses. First, you can point the little ships at each other and say “Pew pew!” which never gets old, and secondly, you get to have a crew member from the original series to help you build your galactic empire (or republic). Technically this is a re-skin of Catan Scenarios – Helpers of Catan, so if you prefer the original theme, I’m sure that would be a lot of fun too, but for me the only possible improvement would be to add the crew from Star Trek: Next Generation.
So apart from the ridiculous growth of my Magic: The Gathering itch, there were 2 games that absolutely stood out for me in 2014. The first one I played this time last year and since then, it has been a staple of my gaming nights throughout the year. It was Firefly: The Game. I see this game get flack every now and then for having its broken design elements ignored because of the rabid fanbase's need to consume all material associated with the show but to those detractors I say "You don't enjoy your games any more do you?" because this game is just pure fun. If it wasn't for the story cards that denote the win conditions, I could easily spend 3 or 4 hours just travelling around the 'verse, completing jobs and paying my crew. To me, it feels like a role-playing game that has other players active in the universe... kind of like EVE: Online but in board game form. You don't have to interact with any of the other players to keep the game moving forward but it can be fun when you do. When you add in the Pirates & Bounty Hunters expansion, the other players' wanted crew-members become both your targets and your paychecks. Throw in the Blue Sun expansion and a new piece of the board is added along with 2 new contacts, a new shopping planet and 200% more reavers. Things get hectic in the 'verse, but the game's simple two-action turn makes it easy to plan out your strategy in short simple steps and for me, any game that you can walk away from with a story, is a game worth having around.
The second game on my 'too great for 2014' list is Machi Koro. I got introduced to this game really late last year (like December) but it has left a lasting memory and an addiction to keep playing. It's a simple premise - build a town. Each player rolls a dice on their turn to determine which purchased properties are triggered, and then buy a property from the center if they have enough gold. The game keeps going until someone flips over 4 of their specialist properties. The game has a well-timed progression and can be tought in less than a minute. If you're new to games, or want to introduce more people to gaming, this is one you should definitely have in your library.
About half way through 2014 I played Splendor. Now as a mainly euro gamer this might seem on the surface a too basic game to interest me. But there is something to this gem token collecting game that had me hooked (even losing quite a few times before winning my first game). To win you must be the first to 15 victory points. You get victory points by paying the correct amount of colour gems to buy various cards with points on them throughout the game. Sounds simple right? However with limitations of how many and what colour combination gems you can pick up in a turn in order to accumulate enough to buy a certain card before your opponent does provides a fun thinking game that is quite addictive - or maybe I just like shiny things?
As I said before, I like euro-style games, which brings me to my other favourite game: Viticulture - a strategic game of winemaking. You build your vineyard to plant grapes which you harvest to make into wine and fill wine orders. There are a few mechanics in this game that I really enjoy. Turn order is based on making a choice of which bonus you want but in doing so, sacrificing a chance to go first. In a worker placement game this provides an extra layer of thought behind what actions you want to take. Worker placement is done during two phases of the year (a round is a year) but with a limited number of workers you can choose to use them all in summer or save some for the winter actions. Then there is the added complexity of deciding whether to produce white or red wines or mixing them to make blush or sparkling. Despite not being a wine drinker, I thoroughly enjoy this game and cannot wait for the expansion: Tuscanny.