Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Year in Review: 2006

Another year has slipped through our fingers, and as 2006 comes to a close I've decided to write up another year in review, much as I did for 2005.

I wrote in 2005 that I thought the biggest change of that year was the growing bifurcation of the gaming industry, with older manufacturers starting to back off of the gamer's market while newer manufacturers were going for the more complex side of things.

I'm happy to say that, if 2006 is any judge, that was a short-term trend. Hans im Gluck, Alea, Kosmos, and others all put out more serious games this year, suggesting that either 2005 was an anomoly or else a misstep, and though German mainstream publishers will probably never again publish games like those seen at the height of 2000 or so, they've definitely returned to a level that will make many of us happy if Blue Moon City, Augsburg 1520, On the Underground, and others are any predictor of the future.

And for 2006, if I noted any general trend, it would be the growing importance of the American side of the gaming industry. Days of Wonder and Fantasy Flight Games together embody that strength and seem to both have done quite well, as I'll discuss more later. However we also saw smaller publishers like Atlas Games put out some very German games, and even Mattel gave it a shot. Only the bankruptcy of Eagle Games suggested any downward trend in the American rise of designer games, and I suspect that was an anomoly itself, the result of Eagle's investments in Poker, not board games.

Beyond those two elements, the gaming world continued pretty much as it had before in 2006, with more games from the same big designers and the same big companies.

The Companies in Review

Asmodee appeared on the American market in 2005, then in 2006 they proved that they were here to stay, with more Dungeon Twister, Mission: Red Planet, Iliad, and Ave Caesar. They continue to publish very French games, with more emphasis on theme and less emphasis on mechanics than is typical than the German games. These has resulted in a lot of fun offerings that I hope do really well on the American market. And, their games also continue to be entirely beautiful, which seems to be a unique trait of French production that they share with Days of Wonder (and a few French RPGs I've seen).

Atlas Games doesn't really put out enough games to regularly make this list, but I was impressed by their 2006 releases. Grand Tribunal and Recess weren't great games, but they were both interesting releases in the German style that I expect to play again while Pieces of 8 was an interesting coin game. Seismic was their best release of the year, as a somewhat derivative yet fun Carcassonne variant. More important than the individual games is their push in this new direction. I hope they sell well for them because more American-German games will just offer up new types of game design generally.

Days of Wonder spent part of the year retreading old glories with more Ticket to Ride and Memoir '44. Their one new release of the early year, Cleopatra and the Society of Architects, was a fine game that didn't light any fires. However I think the big story of 2006 for Days of Wonder is going to be Battlelore. Just as Ticket to Ride blew away the board game industry, I think Battlelore has every possibility to blow away the miniatures industry--which Games Workshop has proven is very, very big. If so, it'll be a very different direction for Days of Wonder. We'll see how things are going in a year.

Eagle Games went suddenly bankrupt in 2006 and their stock got picked up by Funagain. We'll see if they return in 2007.

Fantasy Flight Games continued to go to their core businesses in 2006. They produced a few German games, with Blue Moon City being the biggest, started distributing for Martin Wallace and Warfrog with Perikles, continued their partnership with Italian company Nexus through Marvel Heroes and of course continued to publish and expand their own big box games with new Arkham Horror and Runebound expansions filling the shelves. There was nothing particularly new in their business model, but they seem to have proven it quite well. (The big Fantasy Flight news from the year had nothing to do with board games; they announced they were making a movie based on Midnight, one of their RPG properties.)

Funagain has been lurking on the edges of the game field for a couple of years with their exclusive products arranged with companies like Sunriver and Rio Grande. It's always been a somewhat uncomfortable position because it makes them publishers who are at odds with brick & mortar stores, I think to the detriment of their publishees. In 2006 they continued pushing for their "exclusives", with the purchase of the entire Eagle Games stock being their biggest expansion, but then they introduced a new program which allows game stores to order from them direct. Suddenly Funagain is no longer cutting out the storefronts, but instead the industry distributors ... and more power to them if they can make that work. They also put out a new game or two of their own, but their overall publishing line is very uneven now, and doesn't really define itself.

Mayfair, for some reason, dropped almost entirely off my RADAR this year. I don't think I've played one of their new games since very early in the year. They seem to be continuing on with their partnerships with Catan GMBH and Phalanx, plus the new Amigo games that they arranged for last year, but other than the Catan games none of it seems to be making a big impact, at least in my gaming circles.

Rio Grande Games continued with their normal co-productions and produced another fine set of games this year. However watching them as a company I'm always most interested in the scant few productions they do on their own. There were two notable ones this year, the El Grande anniversary edition and Gloria Mundi. Sadly, I don't think either came out that well. El Grande had some notable production errors that RGG couldn't correct while Gloria Mundi wasn't developed as well as it could have been and had terrible, terrible iconography. As a jobber Rio Grande continues to do great, but as a publisher their record remains poor.

Uberplay is a company that I don't understand. After heavily retrenching in 2005, in 2006 they put out the much anticipated reprint of Ra, then disappeared off the face for most of the year, then reappeared late in the year with the much anticipated new edition of Traumfabrik, plus a handful of other games all released at the same time. I love their Knizia line and I like their Michael Schacht line which was expanded to include California this year. I hope the appearance of all those new games in the last month suggests that they've got Simply Fun off the ground and are working on new Uberplay games now, with adjustments made for the new world economy.

Z-Man Games surprised me by moving into the Euro-games scene in 2005, and they've continued that trend in 2006, both with their own releases and more co-productions. I think The Scepter of Zavandar and The End of the Triumvirate were their best co-productions, both complex games that I expect to see hitting the tables for years. Among their own games, Silk Road was OK, but I'm more exciting about some new stuff I haven't played yet like Gheos and Midgard.

The Games in Review

Seven games from 2006 made the top 100 on BoardGameGeek: Battlelore (#10), Commands & Colors: Ancients (#12), Ticket to Ride: Marklin (#34), Thurn and Taxis (#69), Lord of the Rings: Confrontation (Deluxe) (#78), Leonardo da Vinci (#84), and Fury of Dracula (#98). Blue Moon City (#104) just missed the cut.

It's worth comparing that to the 2005 games that are still hanging on a year later: Caylus (#3), Twilight Struggle (#11), Railroad Tycoon (#19), Twilight Imperium III (#27), Ticket to Ride Europe (#29), Louis XIV (#56), Antike (#58), Bonaparte at Merengo (#65), Shadows Over Camelot (#76), and Descent (#87)--for a total of 10.

It's tempting to suggest that 2006 was a down year from games from 2005, with 30% fewer top ten games and only two fully original releases (Thurn & Taxis and Leonardo) in that count, as opposed to seven in the previous year. I suspect that assessment is ultimately going to be correct, given that I struggled to figure out what great games came out this year. But, it must be said that we gamers like our sequels, and if that's what we buy, that's what's going to get published, and five sequels among the seven top games in 2006 will just push things in that direction.

I don't feel like there were any truly great gamer's games released in 2006, definitely nothing like Caylus and I don't think that Augsburg even managed to raise up to Louis' standards. There's only one game in 2006 that I expect to truly have legs.

Battlelore is another game that has the ability to truly create its own industry. It'll all have to do with how Days of Wonder expands it, and whether they can actually get to the demographic of people who are interested in this sort of game. (Initial interest over at my own RPGnet suggests yes.) Within a year we'll know if it's a phenomenon, or just another cool game.

And that's 2006 from my point of view: no truly amazing changes, but on the other hand, more of the same that we all like.

And that's it for me in 2006. I'll see you next year! I've got articles on Command & Colors, Carcassonne, and blind bidding all planned!


Anonymous said...

On the Uberplay issue, just see the Eagle Games listing above to see why Uberplay disappeared for a while. They got screwed over by them and had to retrench and basically start over.

Chris Farrell said...

Mayfair did have a bit of a sparse year, but Leonardo da Vinci was one of theirs in the US. They do a lot of Kosmos' games, but Kosmos didn't have a big release schedule last year either. But Phalanx seems to be getting better and more reliable (not that that makes them a reliable buy yet).

While I agree that American publishers are growing in importance, I continue to be frustrated and annoyed by many, if not virtually all, of the games they actually produce on their own in the "family strategy" category (so not counting stuff designed and developed in Europe). Seismic is a great example: wonderful conception, but the situation with the endcaps is really unbalanced to the point that the game just doesn't work without variants. Arkham Horror is another example: this is a game that really should have been great, but with no rules for scaling out of the box and serious pacing problems in many cases, it took errata and two expansions to really make it work. And that was for a remake! Gheos (Z-Man) is another - the game seems almost completely soulless and uninteresting.

the 2005 games that are still hanging on a year later: ... Twilight Struggle (#11)

Twilight Struggle did ship to pre-order customers in the last few days 2005, but it wasn't available for general purchase until 2006. To me, for all intents and purposes it was a 2006 release.

I've enjoyed BattleLore, and it'll make my year-end list, but as someone who plays both minis and boardgames, I'll believe it's going to take over the world when I see it happen. Right now, the game lacks the huge variety that is the hallmark of miniatures games. With armies that lack range, and with scenarios that are all meeting engagements with a very narrow range of victory conditions, BattleLore is going to need some expansions, possibly many expansions, before it has much hope on that count.

I haven't figured out my top 10 for 2006 yet, but it'll almost certainly include one game you didn't mention: To Crown a King (Um Krone und Kragen - although I realize you generally prefer to stick to games that have English releases). I'm glad I got it when it came out in German and didn't wait for the US version. I also think Space Dealer (English-language through JKLM) deserves a spot somewhere. Even though it clearly doesn't have legs, it such an arresting concept and it works so well for a few games.

ekted said...

Asmodee needs to step up in quality.

Days of Wonder has chosen a non-euro path for themselves, which will make them lots of money, but take them well off the radar of some.

Fantasy Flight is hit or miss for quality. FoD is good quality. LotR:TC Deluxe was a joke production. I haven't played it yet, so can't comment on the game play itself.

Rio Grande not fixing the El Grande cards was an unexpected slap in the face. They stil have better overall quality and service than most publishers, and I guess that's why the "washing my hands of the whole thing" attitude was so unexpected.

Z-Man is on a roll!

Gerald McD said...

Shannon -- Another outstanding post! Thanks for all the info, analysis, and thoughts. I don't study the industry as you do, or try out the latest games as they are published, but I do enjoy reading about what's happening.

Thanks for another year of excellence. I look forward to reading your posts in 2007. Have a great holiday season!!

huzonfirst said...

There was at least one truly great gamer's game that came out last year, Shannon: Through the Ages. But I can hardly fault you for not including it, since there's currently only 500 copies of it and you practically had to be at Essen to obtain one. Fortunately, I know someone who made the trek!

I think both Canal Mania and Tempus are either great or awfully close. Neither is up to the quality of Caylus or Louis, but they're both very good games. Leonardo is a bit behind in quality, but it's a gamer's game I'll gladly play. Same with Augsburg.

The middleweights do continue to dominate though, at least in numbers. And there were quite a few good ones: Marklin, Thurn and Taxis, Um Krone und Kragen (I'm in total agreement with Chris, an excellent and innovative game), Yspahan, Aton, Blue Moon City.

With one outstanding exception, 2006 has been pretty so-so to date. But I still have a bunch of Essen games I need to try out, so there's plenty of time for the year to shine. Here's hoping.