Friday, December 27, 2019

The 11 Best New-To-Me Games of 2019

The 11 Best New-To-Me Games of 2019
Plus 18 honorable mentions (and 1 disappointment).
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Here we are at the end of another year.  It's been a super busy year for me.  My sons are getting older and involved in more and more extracurricular activities, meaning I have less and less time for games.  I still managed to get in quite a few new games though.  I played 70 new-to-me games this year, down from 95 last year and over 100 in previous years.  This is a result of both less time spent playing games (unfortunately - my interest hasn't declined, just my free time) and the fact that every year I've already played more of the classics and modern gems that were new to me when my immersion into hobby gaming was much newer.

Of those 70 games, however, there have been some incredible standouts.  I actually didn't have too much difficulty picking out a top 11 this year - there were very few games on that border for me, but it was difficult choosing the honorable mentions.  I played a lot of really good games this year and though my favorites were easy to pick, almost everything else I played I really enjoyed.  Except for one game in particular.  It was a much hyped, new game for 2019 that I was super excited to play, but it fell very flat for me.  If it wasn't such a popular title it wouldn't have made it anywhere near my list for 2019, but I felt obliged to include it in this year's overview to explain where I think it fell flat.  Maybe you've guessed it already, but I'll list it after the honorable mentions.

As usual, this list only contains published games that I've played for the first time this year (although a couple I played previously in their prototype form).  So, without further ado, here are my Top 11 New-To-Me Games for 2019, including 18 honorable mentions (and 1 Disappointment), so that's 29 excellent games for 2019!

Also, check out my lists for 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, and 2014 as well as The Best Kickstarter Previews & Prototype Games of 2019.

Honorable Mentions in Alphabetical Order:

5 Minute Dungeon (2017) - I'm not usually a fan of speed games, but I played 5 Minute Dungeon at my 24 Hour Gaming Marathon for Extra Life and had quite a bit of fun.  I liked that it's cooperative, so even though it's a speed game your teammates can help make up for the slowness of newer players.

The Adventurers: The Pyramid of Horus (2011) - This was an interesting press-your-luck adventure game with a fun theme.  I definitely wouldn't turn down a game of this.

A Feast for Odin (2016) - This is a favorite amongst several members of my game group.  It's among the heavier games we played this year, and while I really did enjoy it, I felt it just crossed the line of being more complex than fun.  There were so many choices that it was very hard to see and determine any kind of strategy, especially for a first time player.  I'd gladly play again, but feel there are more elegant games that scratch the same itch without taking three hours.

Arboretum (2015) - This card game has some interesting bluffing and deduction elements combined with clever hand and tableau management.  I really enjoyed the two player game I played, but when I played with four players we were so focused on not playing cards that would help opponents that the game became too take-that (and it's not supposed to be a take-that game) and scores were super low.

Cosmic Encounter (2008,1977) - This is a classic that I was happy to finally get a chance to play.  Unfortunately it fell a bit short of my expectations.  I think this is a love it or hate it type of game and my group prefers more logical strategy than social alliances and manipulation in games of this size and weight.

Evolution (2014) - Here's another modern classic that I finally had a chance to play this year.  I quite enjoyed the aspects of building a species and want to try this again.  I felt like there was quite a bit of luck, but I'm not sure that's a bad thing in a game about the evolution of lift.

Forbidden Sky (2018) - I only managed to get this to the table once this year and really want to try again now that I have a little more familiarity with the game, but have't managed to convince my game group to give it a shot yet.  Out of the Forbidden series though, I liked this least and also found it the most challenging.  Building the circuits and laying the tiles adds an additional level of complexity that I thought was maybe just a bit much, but I'm hoping to give it another try.

Gem Rush (2013) - Gem Rush felt like the name sounds.  It was hectic and crazy and fun.  It relied heavily on luck, but in a way that made the game light and energetic.  There's not a whole lot of strategy, but there are plenty of choices, and the mechanic of digging through a deck to find gems was a lot of fun.  I liked how sometimes you'd dig right past gems that an opponent needed and it was all publicly visible information.  So the disappointment of not getting the gems you needed was tempered by the fact that you're blowing right past all the gems your opponent(s) needed!

Harbour w/High Tide expansion (2019) - Harbour is one of my favorite small box games.  I really like the market mechanics.  The High Tide expansion adds some fun new elements to the game, including the ships for hire and some interesting new buildings.  You can read my review of the expansion here.

Kobayakawa (2013) - This is a game I had on my shelf for a few years before I finally sold it because I couldn't ever get it to the table.  Then I had a chance to play it at Gen Con this summer and found it quite interesting.  I really liked the way a simple collection of cards and a hand of one card is used for a very interesting bidding and bluffing mechanic.

La Viña (2019) - I picked up La Viña to review, so that'll be coming soon, but in the meantime I'll let you know that I enjoyed the game's theme and mechanics, however I felt there were a few bits that were unbalanced.  I think a few minor tweaks to the game could make it more balanced, but there are other games (including one of my top games this year) that do similar things better.

Startups (2017) - I picked up Startups for just a few bucks in our Charity Auction Fundraiser to support Extra Life this November, so I haven't had a chance to play it much, but I enjoyed my first play.  I think it'll be better with a few more players though (we played with 4).  It was fast and pretty simple, but had some interesting interplay between players.

Steampunk Rally (2015) - I've been interested in Steampunk Rally since it first came out in 2015 and I finally had a chance to play it this year.  I definitely enjoyed it, but it didn't quite live up to my expectations.  I think the machines we built were a bit more abstract than I had hoped.  There were interesting dice allocation mechanics though that I did enjoy.

Tesla vs Edison: War of Currents (2015) - I backed this on Kickstarter a long time ago and it had sat on my shelf until this year.  I'm glad I finally got a chance to play.  It's a solid stock manipulation game with a theme that I love.  There seemed to be just a few minor balance issues, but I'd love to play again.  I've heard the expansion brings the game up another notch, so I'd love to play with the expansion some time.

This Belongs in a Museum (2017) - The Drawn and Quartered series from Rather Dashing Games is one I love to introduce to new gamers.  It's fast, fun, and pretty simple.  This Belongs in a Museum is probably the most complex of the three games, but I found it enjoyable, even if we did have a few rules wrong for the first half of the game.  I'll definitely be playing more of this one.

Twice as Clever (2019) - I had heard great things about That's So Clever and Twice as Clever, two newer roll and write games, so I picked up Twice as Clever at the beginning of the summer.  I really like Qwixx and thought Twice as Clever would be a great roll and write game a step up in complexity from Qwixx.  And it definitely is, maybe a bigger step up than I expected.  I like it enough, but I'm not sure how you can play a game in the 30 minutes stated on the box.  The games I played went much longer than 30 minutes.  If it played quicker it probably would have made the top games list.

Unbroken (2018) - This may be the most controversial game on this list.  Not because it's a bad game, quite the contrary, but because of the way its Kickstarter campaign has been handled and the things that were uncovered as a result of this game's popularity.  Unbroken is a pretty good solo game about delving through a dungeon, having encounters, fighting monsters, and leveling up your character.  Mechanically and thematically I think the game is incredible.  I've felt it relies a little too much on luck in some cases, but for a pretty fast, solo dungeon crawl, it works very well.  Unfortunately it's connection to Golden Bell Studios has severely tainted its reputation in the board game world.  If you are one of the lucky few who have actually received their Kickstarter pledge, however, don't toss this one aside because of a shady company.  Give it a few plays and experience a pretty fun game!

Villagers (2019) - I played this once and enjoyed it, though it seemed like it had a limited amount of strategic variety and relied pretty heavily on getting the right cards at the right time.  I've heard that there's an expansion coming out to add a bit more variety and strategic choices, so I'd love to play it again with the expansion someday.

One Disappointment

Tapestry (2019) - I wasn't going to mention Tapestry at first, but it was such a hyped up game this year that I felt obliged to mention why it didn't make my top games list, or even my honorable mentions list, even though it seems like it would be right up my alley.  First, let me preface this by saying that Tapestry is a good game and there are some out there that love it, but for me it fell way short of what I wanted and expected from it, so much so that I have no intention of playing it again.

I love civilization themed games, euro games, and thematic games, and Tapestry purports to be all of those with beautiful, overproduced components.  I love Scythe (it's still one of my favorite games) and I was really looking forward to a civilization game from Stonemaier Games.  Then I had the opportunity to play Tapestry and was incredibly disappointed.

Let me talk first about the things that I did like.  It really is a gorgeous game, mostly.  The pre-painted miniatures are beautiful, the component quality is wonderful, and the artwork is, for the most part, great.  I also love the idea behind this game.  Building a civilization from antiquity to the near future is a theme I really love.  Combine that with some area control and exploration mechanics on a central map shared by everyone and I thought this was going to be a game that I would love.

Unfortunately the rest of the game disappointed me immensely.  Art on some of the components was great, but the board art and graphic design were very lackluster.  I found the theme to be very superficial (why is it possible to develop time travel or radio before a granary or nails?) and the civilizations to be unbalanced.  The mechanics of the game worked well, but the random bits felt unbalanced and everything felt disconnected with the theme and experience that I had expected.  In the one game I played I got dealt a lousy starting combination of cards and civilizations, as did one other player, and we were never able to dig ourselves out of the hole we started in.  One player started with a great combination of cards and no one could even come close to catching him.  I don't think it's the way we played (this was the first time playing for everyone), since no one could see any obvious mistakes (in rules or strategy), it was just an uphill battle the whole way.  I don't mind getting trounced in a game (I've only won Scythe twice in all my plays), but I like to feel like I have a chance and I never felt like I was in the game from the very first turn of Tapestry.  I don't feel like if I played again that I'd be able to do something better, other than hope for better card combinations, better dice rolls, and just better luck overall.  Bad luck in Tapestry seems to have a snowball effect with little to be done to mitigate it.

Then there was the asymmetrical game end.  I'm not wild about games where the end for one player can come significantly before the end for other players.  This happens in player elimination games, like Risk, where it's expected, but Tapestry isn't a player elimination game.  In Tapestry, one player can finish their game quite a while before other players.  This is essentially the same as player elimination, but not due to combat or even poor strategy due to the luck factors mentioned above.  In the game I played, I was finished more than 20 minutes before the game officially wrapped up.  I ended up leaving the game night to get home and then found out that the game went on for another 25 minutes or so after I left, ending with two players with more than 100 points more than me.  I have a problem with the asymmetrical ending in Everdell, too, but it made my top list anyway because of awesome gameplay and a great, thematic experience, things Tapestry lacked.

Maybe a future expansion will address some of these issues - I've seen plenty of other people raise similar concerns.  I'm not sure even an expansion will make me want to play again though.  There was too much I felt was missing from the game that it would have to be a completely new game to overcome those faults.  I had such high hopes for Tapestry, but I guess I'll have to look elsewhere for my next civilization game fix.

And Now for the Top 11 New-To-Me Games of 2019

* Indicates I played first as a prototype and then a completed, published version in 2018.

11. Everdell (2018) - Starling Games - Like Tapestry, I wasn't thrilled with the asymmetrical endings in Everdell.  However, the rest of the game was great, and working your engine so that you can keep playing long after others have run out of things to do is oddly satisfying.  I felt bad for the other players, but didn't want to stop my engine before it was ready to quit!  I really enjoy the combination of worker placement and resource management with tableau and engine building.  There is a bit of luck, but there are so many strategic choices that you have plenty of ways to mitigate the card you want not coming up.  On top of that, the artwork and theme are wonderful.  That three dimensional tree construct may be a bit gimmicky, but it makes for incredible table presence and the rest of the components are really top notch, especially those in the collector's edition.  I'm glad I got to play this a few times this year, even if it does run a bit longer than expected sometimes.

10. Ubongo! Fun-Size Edition (2018) - Kosmos - I won Ubongo! Fun-Size Edition in a giveaway earlier this year and figured I'd give it a try.  It looked simple and fast to play, so I played my wife when we had a few minutes.  I was pleasantly surprised by the game and it's become a favorite to bring out on camping trips or when I need a fast filler game.  It's not for everyone since it's heavily reliant on spatial puzzles, but my family really likes it.  I understand it's a little different from standard Ubongo, but I like its simplicity.

9. Sunset Over Water (2018) - Pencil First Games - I have to admit, at the time of writing this I've only had a chance to play this as a two player game, but I quite liked it.  The theme and artwork are wonderful and the gameplay is fast and simple, but, as my wife put it, also very frustrating (but in a great way).  Each turn is a puzzle of trying to maximize your ability to collect the paintings you need, but also to do that before other players get what you want or need.  The game can be a little swingy, but there are plenty of options and ways to mitigate that sometimes.  It's fast enough to squeeze into just a few minutes (20-30 minutes) and has enough puzzle and strategy to make it feel like you've accomplished something in that time.  Kudos to Steve Finn for knocking out another excellent filler!

8. Heroes Welcome (2019) - Monkey Jump Games/Pencil First Games - Here's another game in my review queue that you'll be seeing on my site soon.  This is a worker placement game with a couple of unique twists.  Mechanically, it's worker placement, however everyone controls the same worker!  Thematically, it's a great twist on a traditional dungeon crawler.  I've seen tons of games where you are the hero fighting monsters to collect treasure, quite a few where you're monsters fighting off the heroes, and even a few where you're the heroes bragging about your adventures.  But in Heroes Welcome you are the merchants in the town, buying and trading for the treasures the heroes bring back from their adventures, selling them new supplies, and crafting magical weapons that you'll supply the dungeon dwelling monsters with!  Yup, you're working both sides of the war.  The only problem I had with the game was at the very end.  After the last item is crafted for the boss monster there's very little you can do to gain any more points, even though you may still have a couple of actions left.  This makes the last round or two of turns a little anti-climactic.  It's a very fun game though, so I'm willing to forgive this slight hiccup at the end.

7. SHŌBU (2019) - Smirk & Laughter Games - SHŌBU is a game in my review queue, so I won't go into a whole lot of detail here, but suffice to say it's a wonderful two-player abstract strategy game.  It's brand new, but has the feel of a game that's been around for a thousand years.  The wood, rope, and stone components are perfect for that ancient aesthetic.  This is another game that I love to keep in my game bag for when I need a quick two-player game, although, like most two player abstract strategy games, the length of the game really depends on the comparative strategic skill of the players.  Most of my games have been 15-20 minutes, but I had one that went almost 40 minutes!

6. Reef (2018) - Next Move - Reef is an incredible game!  It's fast, simple, and elegant.  You can teach it in about 5 minutes, even to newbie gamers.  Turns are fast and simple, with only two options, but the strategy is pretty deep.  There's not a whole lot of player interaction beyond drafting the cards, but, like Azul or Sagrada, the joy comes from using the big, chunky pieces to solve your own, personal puzzles.  This is a game I don't see myself ever getting tired of!

5. Rurik: Dawn of Kiev * (2019) - Piecekeeper Games - This is the first of two games on my list designed by Stan Kordonskiy.  I was part of the playtest team for Rurik, although I only got a handful of plays in.  The game was pretty solid the first time I played, but went through some balancing and minor mechanical changes over the year from when I first played until its current iteration and over that time every single minor issue I had with the game was resolved and turned a good game into a great game.  Add to that incredible art and wonderful components and now you have an incredible game.  The auction programming mechanic is very unique and adds a lot of player interaction.  The miniatures are gorgeous even though this isn't really a minis game (they're more like the minis in Scythe or Hyperborea where they're more for thematic immersion than essential to the gameplay).  So, while Rurik looks like a dudes-on-a-map game, it's really an intriguing euro.

4. Lockup: A Roll Player Tale * (2019) - Thunderworks Games - Lockup is another game designed by Stan Kordonskiy, the second on this list and two on my Top Prototypes of 2019 list (including an expansion for Lockup).  The man is on fire!  When I first played a prototype of Lockup last year I was only mildly impressed.  It was good, but my reaction was just meh.  Then I found out we had a couple of rules just a bit off.  This summer I had the opportunity to demo the game at Gen Con and it really grew on me.  I love the combination of worker placement with bluffing, deduction, and area control.  As I've played both this and Rurik I've realized that they both have some similarities in how worker placement and area control are used to determine rewards for players, but both games area also very different and play great.

3. Crypt (2018) - Road to Infamy Games - I first played Crypt in January and it quickly jumped to the top of my favorite games list.  For a long time I thought it would stay at the top of my new-to-me list for 2019 since nothing else I played saw as much table time as Crypt.  I love how simple the game is, yet how much player interaction there is.  The mechanic for exerting workers is so simple it's genius.  I've played Crypt with both gamers and non-gamers and everyone both gets it quickly and loves it.  This is one I don't think I'll ever get tired of playing!

2. Parks (2019) - Keymaster Games - I included La Viña in my honorable mentions, and said I had another game on the list that used a similar mechanic better.  Parks is that game.  Both games have a path that you can move your pieces along as far as you like, but not backward, completing an action based on where you stop and a different action when your pieces reach the end of the path.  La Viña had a few balance issues, but Parks plays wonderfully.  I think Parks is a tiny bit more complex than La Viña, but it's still a relatively simple game, mechanically.  There is a depth to Parks though, that La Viña lacks.  On top of the wonderful gameplay, Parks has absolutely stunning artwork.  Showcased is artwork featuring scenery from each of the United States National Parks.  Both of my parents were teachers, so we spent summers traveling about the country when I was a kid.  I love looking through all the beautiful artwork, remembering when I was at many of the locations.  I get nostalgic for those days and hope that someday I can show my own kids even some of the stuff I saw as a kid.  On top of great gameplay, and incredible artwork, the component quality in Parks is amazing.  From the perfectly designed Game Trayz to hold everything snug, to the gorgeous metal first player token, to the wooden resources with twelve unique wild animal pieces, this game looks amazing on the table.  The price is a tiny bit on the high end for the type of game, but the components are definitely worth the premium price.

1. Cartographers: A Roll Player Tale (2019) - Thunderworks Games - I can't express just how much I have fallen in love with Cartographers.  It's an absolutely incredible game that I love, love, love!  For years now, Scythe has been my favorite game of all.  There are games that I temporarily enjoy more than Scythe, but I kept coming back to Scythe as my all time favorite.  I think Cartographers has changed that though.  I can't see myself ever getting tired of the game.  Even though I'm not playing it as often as I did the first few weeks after I first played it, it's still with me at every game night and a game that I'll pull out any chance I get.  I'd be happy playing it over and over, but I'm trying to pace myself and make sure to get other games some table time, too.  So what do I love about the game so much?  How about a bullet list:
  • It plays quickly - about 30 minutes, maybe an hour or so for new players.
  • It's easy to teach - I taught a family how to play a few weeks ago and their previous gaming experience was with Uno and Life.  They loved Cartographers!
  • It's tactile - drawing your own maps with your own pencils feels great.  I blinged out my copy with enough colored pencils for up to 12 players.
  • It's puzzly - figuring out how to fit the different terrains into your map to score the most points is sometimes a head scratcher, especially toward the end of the game.
  • Everyone plays simultaneously - it doesn't matter how many players you have, the game plays the same with 2 or 200 players and doesn't even take any more time!
  • Player interaction - there's just enough player interaction with the minion attacks that you don't feel like you're just playing a multiplayer solo game.
  • Solo mode - the solo mode plays great, almost exactly like a multiplayer game.
  • Souvenirs - the maps you create at the end of your game make fun souvenirs of your game.  They're fun little works of art and a reminder of the great land you helped survey.
I could go on and on about all the awesomeness that is Cartographers, but I do have to get this list posted someday.  Besides, the longer I take to write this up, the longer it'll be before I can play Cartographers again!

P.S. Here's a bit of Cartographers trivia.  In an earlier draft of the cover art there was an elf ranger standing where the fire is now.  So maybe that's not a campfire, but a smoking blaster crater (R.I.P. elf ranger).  A bit of sci-fi in this fantasy world?!

Image may contain: people sitting

Well, that's it for 2019!  I may not have played as many games this year as in the past, but man, there were some great ones!  I have a number of games that I know are great on my shelf of shame, like Terraforming Mars, The Manhattan Project, TMP: Energy Empire, Castles of Burgundy, Agricola, and more.  I got a few of my shelf of shame games to the table this year and I hope in 2020 I can manage to knock a few more out.  It's hard to do with so many awesome games coming out every year, limited time to play, and my own designs that I'm working on.  Here's to another great year of games in 2020 though!  

Let me know your thoughts in the comments.  Are there any games you can't believe I put where they are?  I want to  hear!

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GJJG Game Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with my family and friends. Some of these games I own, some are owned by friends, some are borrowed, and some are print and play versions of games. Where applicable I will indicate if games have been played with kids or adults or a mix (Family Play). I won't go into extensive detail about how to play the game (there are plenty of other sources for that information and I'll occasionally link to those other sources), but I will give my impressions of the game and how my friends and family reacted to the game. Quick Reviews will only get a single rating of 1-10 (low-high) based on my first impressions of the game during my first few times playing. Hopefully I'll get more chances to play the game and will be able to give it a full review soon.

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