Other than my favorite gaming community ending its run, fall was a great season for gaming. I got to play several very new games, and many of them were very good. As usual this list is games that are new to me, no matter how long ago they were published, and as usual this is a rating of the games solely as I enjoy them, as a medium-weight eurogamer.
The Great (“I Would Buy This”)
Altiplano (2017). This new game by Reiner Stockhausen is very much a sequel to Orléans (2014). It’s another bag-building game where you draw colored disks, which can be used to power various actions. The difference is that where Orléans felt like a rather unique action-selection game, where you had to formulaically enable actions through the combination of specific “workers”, Altiplano instead feels like a resource-management game, where you’re pushing up through the supply chain, transforming lesser goods into greater goods. What a difference a bit of theming makes (and this also reminds me how wide the world of action selection is!).
Overall, Altiplano is a very tough and thinky game. You’re constantly trying to figure out the optimal use of scarce resources and which rewards you want to purchase from the board. Constraints are piled atop each other, but there’s also a lot of opportunity for careful, directed play. It’s not just that there are a lot of paths to victory (there are), but there’s also the opportunity to build a meaningful engine, allowing you to make better use of your resource-disks and also overcome the locale-based constraints of the game.
I don’t think this is a better game than Orléans, but it’s impressively different for a game that uses the same core bagbuilding and formulaic-action-construction mechanics, and so fans of the one might also want the other in their collection. (I’ve now got both in mine.)
Dragon Castle (2017). Keep in mind: I love creatively building stuff. In this Mahjong Solitaire inspired game (which also reminds me of Web of Power: The Card Game), you pull Mahjong tiles off of a stack, either singularly or in pairs, then you play them to your own board. When you create sets of four or more tiles, you score, and can also build temples atop those tiles for more points. Afterward, you can build not just on your board’s foundation, but also atop those scored tiles.
That alone would have created an interesting game worth a few plays, but Dragon Castle goes to the next level with special victory conditions that vary from game to game. They reward you for building your tiles into certain shapes or with certain relations. They create an orthogonal strategy where you’re trying to do two things at once, and that becomes tricky and intriguing. It’s what brings this game up to a Great. Even better, since these special goals vary from game to game, there’s a huge amount of variability.
A Feast for Odin (2016). Uwe Rosenberg really found his grove when he began working with resource-based worker-placement games, starting with Agricola (2007); A Feast for Odin is a fine (somewhat) new entrant in that field. In fact, it has an amazingly large worker-placement board, with dozens of actions spread across several categories. They’re helpfully organized, which is great for a game with this many options. It’s also got one somewhat unusual element for worker placement: actions can cost 1, 2, 3, or 4 workers.
However, the real innovation in the game comes from its tessellation of tiles. You see, the games all about collecting stuff, whether it be food or goods. These objects come in different sized tiles, which are laid out in the feasting table (for food) or in a huge grid of squares that’s the heart of your personal board. The Tetris-like tessellation forms a whole subgame, where you’re simultaneously trying to cover appropriate spaces to earn income, gain bonus goods, and earn points. It’s a nice new element for worker placement, probably inherited from Rosenberg’s own Patchwork (2014), and as I understand it, Rosenberg has continued to develop it in Cottage Garden (2016) and Indian Summer (2017).
Overall, A Feast for Odin is a dense, complex worker-placement game with a fun puzzle element and tons of paths to victory. It can be a little intimidating at first, but it’s definitely a worthy addition to the line of games that Rosenberg began with Agricola.
The Very Good (“I Would Keep This”)
Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig (2018). Take the basic Between Two Cities mechanic, where each player is simultaneously drafting tiles that he uses to build cities (castles) with the players to his left and right. Add in Castles of Mad King Ludwig scoring, where there’s a lot of scoring for what’s adjacent to each tile, and also add in the more freeform placement of Castles.
The result of this mashup works well. It’s really a joy to see how differently the different castles develop, and I think there’s more depth and more variety of play than appeared in Between Two Cities, both from the more varied scoring, and the fact that players get bonuses when they build three or five of the same tile type. Mind you, Between Two Castles is also more intimidating and more of a bear to explain, but the iconography of the tiles helps that all come together. (And I found it easier to explain after I’d played through it once, and better understood that I could just point players toward the tiles.)
This is definitely something that belongs in a collection that already contains Between Two Cities (and it might even fire the previous game if you solely prefer the more complex gameplay).
AuZtralia (2018). This new Martin Wallace game combines Cthulhoid menace with resource management and a sort of light civ building. You gather resources that you use to build train tracks and army units (while also building farms). The army units are important because Cthulhu has already seeded AuZtralia with monstrosities. (Hence the Z? I guess?) And there’s a challenge system where these monstrosities will wake up over time and start rampaging toward players’ farms and ports, destroying everything that they encounter. The resource-management is simple, yet it leaves you scrambling for what you need to build, and the Cthulhoid challenge system can actually be quite dangerous, leaving players afraid to expose themselves … and sometimes even losing to Cthulhu.
This is all linked together with a simple time-based action system, like the one originated in Thebes (2007) where the players who has taken the least expensive action gets to go next. Wallace had previously used a similar system in Tinner’s Trail (2008). As always, the system works well because you have to calculate when your opponents are going to get to actions before you do. But it integrates even better with the Cthulhoid challenge system, because suddenly you have to figure out how many times the monsters are going to rampage before you go again.
As with Wallace’s A Study in Emerald (2013), the Crthulhoid theming is a bit unusual. But overall, this is a thoughtful and colorful game, with the active Lovecraftian menaces being what really puts it over the top.
Aquaretto (2008). I’ve played Zooloretto (2007) a total of twice. It takes the brilliant core mechanic of Coloretto (2003), where you create lots and pick lots and changes that from a filler into a light game. In Zooloretto you had limited enclosures, which give you same ‘ole dilemma of trying to collect a limited number of sets, while the ability to spend coins to expand a zoo and/or move or purchase animals, gave it a little more depth than Coloretto. The question for me was: did Zooloretto actually add enough to make it more worthwhile than the filler Coloretto?
Obviously, there was still room for more complexity, and that’s what the sequel, Aquaretto, offers. It’s a ten-year old game, but I never got around to playing it before this winter. The placement of animals and the expansion of your zoo is now much more freeform, giving more room for creativity (and cleverness). There are also some new orthogonal ways to score, using meeples, which gives the game more tactical depth and also more thoughtfulness when players are selecting tiles. Overall, I think Aquaretto does a great job of showing how to add tactical depth to a simple and successful game without muddying the waters. Compare it to Queendomino (2017) which I think slowed down Kingdomino (2016) too much; here instead, you have a game that I think it is obviously superior to its predecessor.
(And is it more worthwhile than Coloretto now? Probably, but I still think it’s got limited long-term gameplay in it.)
The Good (“I Would Enjoy Playing Your Copy of This”)
Crusaders (2018). This new game by Seth Jaffee shares some characteristics with his classic, Eminent Domain (2011), as both allow players to power up actions with matching icons. However, it’s more similar to Stefan Feld’s Trajan (2011) as they both use a mancala-like mechanic, but in opposite ways.
In both games, players have a circular set of six trays/tiles with markers on them. They pick up the markers from a tray, then drop them down one per tray in a clockwise direction. But in Trajan, the player got to take the action of the tray he landed in, meaning that it was always a game of getting the precise number of markers into a tray to take an action that was desired somewhere clockwise of it (and meanwhile, set collection in the trays kept things interesting), whereas in Crusaders plaers are instead trying to gather as many markers as possible in a tray, because they take that action when they move the markers out, and it’s more powerful when there are more markers.
Of course, this is just the front-end action selection. On the back-end there’s a whole system of moving knights around Europe, killing enemies, and building various structures. There’s a good amount of depth, but the mancala-selection is the clever and interesting bit. And surprisingly, it plays extremely quickly.
Space Base (2018). It’s Machi Koro in space-ace-ace…. Sort of. Space Base is definitely a dice-rolling resource-production game where you can earn money (and victory points and basic income) both on your turn and other players’ turns, but there are some clever nuances that in many ways make this a better polished game than Machi Koro (albeit, with less depth).
A player starts off with a set of rockets labeled 1-12. Each one earns them either money or basic income (e.g., what money gets reset to whenever it’s spent). You roll two dice, you either read them singly or together, and you earn what rockets are at those one or two dice. Afterward, you buy a ship, clearly getting better ships the more money you spend. The clever bit is that when you buy a ship, it displaces your previous ship for that number, turning it into a ship that instead earns money or victory points or basic income on the other players turns (and sometimes in slightly different amounts; you flip the ship over for the other value). Oh, and some ships have special powers that you have to charge up.
Advantages over Machi Koro: you always earn something on your turn, so there’s no frustration; and you can always start earning on other players turns by buying new rockets, which removes another source of frustration. Disadvantages: there are none of those clever interactions that you find between different cards in Machi Koro, though it’d be easy to add that in a supplement.
Just One (2018). Yet-another word-guessing game. This time around, everyone is working as a team to help the last player guess a word. But, the clue-givers only have one word each to do so, and if two players write the same word-clue, they’re thrown out. This is a nice co-op because it gives players so much agency and responsibility, but it’s just a mild variation of a pretty well-explored category of play.
Betrayal Legacy (2018). Rob Daviau’s newest Legacy game takes the core gameplay of Betrayal at House on the Hill (2004) and adapts it for Legacy play; the result doesn’t feel like it’s very different from its predecessor, at least not in the first few games. That means you get all the good elements of Betrayal at House on the Hill: a fun, evocative, and pseudo-scary setting that you get to explore, that then introduces a storyline which the players play out. It’s definitely one of the more narrative games out there, and close to the roleplaying origins of the adventure-game genre. And, you get the bad elements of Betrayal at House on the Hill too: a high level of randomness that can cause some players to do pretty much nothing over the course of the game, and some storylines that feel like they’re real railroads, running right over the players. If you’ve played the original Betrayal you’ll know where you fall on the love/hate spectrum for that gameplay.
As for the Legacy elements: early on, at least, they’re pretty weak. For the most part, it’s just a growing familiarity with the House, its environs, and its artifacts, and a memory of what these elements did in past games. There can be some minor changes to the house, but nothing like the scope of a SeaFall (2016) or Pandemic Legacy Season 2 (2017); it also looks like we’re going to see future events and other elements added into the game based on the outcome of previous games, which is nice, but also tends more toward the narrative element. Generally, it feels like the Legacy of Betrayal Legacy just makes it more like Betrayal: an evocative story-focused game. And, you again already know where the fall on the love/hate spectrum for that gameplay.
The OK (“I Am Willing to Play This if You Ask”)
Pocket Imperium (2013). A 4X space game in an hour or less (or maybe more on a first game). This is a simple game where you select your X (expand, explore, or exterminate) then either add pieces, move ships, or attack ships. It’s a simultaneous-selection action pick, and there’s a little bit of punishment for choosing at the same time as others, which is pretty typical for that genre. Unlike much of the genre, the selection is a little less important, because each round you’re taking all three actions, but it certainly matters from time to time.
Unfortunately, the action gameplay shades over from simple to simplistic. There’s not a lot of opportunity for cleverness, and there’s not actually enough incentive to attack. Otherwise it plays fine, and so if you’re looking for a short little 4X game, it might hit the spot.
Khan of Khans (2016). This Reiner Knizia game is set in one of my favorite worlds, Greg Stafford’s Glorantha, developed primarily for his RuneQuest and HeroQuest games. It’s a simple and simplistic game: you draw cards from piles and hope to get good cards of “herds” without getting bad cards that could wipe them out. There’s a lot of luck there, but it creates tension, and there’s some skill in both take-that play and memory of what’s in each pile of cards. It’s not bad for a light filler game.
The real joy will probably come for fans of Greg Stafford’s Glorantha, because it’s a beautifully produced game with great art depicting a lot of the people of Prax and Dragon Pass, including the various animal riders, the Mostali, the Sun Dome Templars, and the ducks.
As a gamer, I found it shallow. As a Glorantha fan, I really enjoyed it, and it’ll stay in my collection as something that might get play occasionally from roleplaying friends.
The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples