Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Year in Review: 2005

Another year is behind us, and as January slowly dawns over the horizon of the twenty-first century, our ever-human instinct is to look back and reflect upon what the previous year brought.

It was, in general, a year of growth and change for the gaming industry. I'm not convinced that any true classics were produced last year. I think that Caylus will ultimately prove too long to support its continued rating as a top-10 game. However, there were a decent number of good, gamer's games which I'm happy to own and which will continue to occasionally hit tabletop for many years.

The biggest trend of the year seemed to be a bifurcation of the gaming market. More of the gamer's games tended to top the two-hour mark, with Caylus being just the most extreme example of the trend in the Euro market. In the Shadow of the Emperor, Parthenon, Alexander the Great, Conquest of the Empire, Railroad Tycoon, and many of Fantasy Flight's new big-box games matched the trend, and although part of this is due to an increased Anglo-American influence in the designer game market, some of the most notable true Eurogames followed the trend as well.

On the other hand some of the older manufacturers seem to be slowly backing off of the gamer's market. Here Alea is the most extreme example. Louis XIV felt like a good game in the old Alea mold, but Palazzo is definitely trending toward the lighter side and most people don't have much faith in their pirate game already announced for 2006. In general, a much higher percentage of games from Kosmos and Hans im Gluck, as well as from top designers like Reiner Knizia and Wolfgang Kramer seemed to be pretty light.

The other big trend of the year was the evolution of the Internet. Though we saw setbacks with the fall of GameWire and The Games Journal, I think that was met with growth thanks to the creation of BoardGameNews and an increased number of regular and/or group blogs, including Gathering of Engineers, and of course this one. I believe that boardgaming news is better off for its transition to a more freewheeling and freemarket site, while the fight between traditional columns like The Games Journal and more open blogs is a general problem facing the Internet right now; though we're not necessarily better off for the ascendency of blogs over articles currently, that's only because we're still transitioning. On the more upbeat side, BGG.con 1 showed the real power of the Internet as an organizational tool that stretches beyond its own electronic boundaries.

The growth of the Internet also offers up the potential for future problems in our industry, and I think that Funagain games epitomized this in 2005. They secured no less than three games as exclusives: Control Nut, Havoc: The Hundred Year's War, and most surprisingly Carcassonne: The Discovery. I'm sure that every one of those publishers felt like the exclusive was best for their company, and in some cases the game might not have been published without funagain. Likewise, funagain may be considering themselves patrons of the arts, helping out in the publication of otherwise unpublishable games. However, I think that seducing people into eletronic sales at the detriment of local game stores which better support the industry at the street level is ultimately a very dangerous trend, and as a result I'm very wary about what funagain is doing.

The other trends of the year tend to be more personal, either on a company, game, or designer basis.

The Companies in Review

Here's a rundown of the major American board game companies & distributors and what they've been up to in the last 365 days.

Asmodee, after many years of largely ignoring the U.S. market, suddenly burst onto it. I think that's a great sign for the growth of the industry in the United States, and I also suspect it'll work out well for Asmodee, due to the better theming of French games in general, as I discussed in the waning days of 2005. This year we saw Dungeon Twister, an expansion for the same, and Mall of Horror--which altogether doubled the size of Asmodee's U.S. catalog--while next year it looks like they might double the size of their U.S. catalog again, with more Dungeon Twister expansions and Mission: Red Planet already solicited. And thus far Asmodee's U.S. games look to be fun.

Days of Wonder seems to have generally proven and stayed with their model in 2005. They want to produce Evergreen games that are continually supported, continually sold, and continally played, so this year we saw a gamer's variant of Ticket to Ride, a computer version of Ticket to Ride, a micro-expansion for Mystery of the Abbey, and two and a half major expansions for Memoir '44. We only saw one utterly new game, Shadows over Camelot, and that was almost immediately supported with a miniatures expansion. Days of Wonder has already announced another Memoir '44 expansion and another Ticket to Ride variant in 2006, so clearly this is working for them.

Eagle Games also stayed the course for much of the year, putting out more big-box American style games, but toward the end of the year they introduced something new to their lineup: Martin Wallace. Eagle Games had gotten some flack for rules & playtesting before this, while Wallace's Warfrog had gotten flack for component issues and production mistakes. You put them together, and it's a match made in heaven. The two releases thus far, Conquest of the Empire and Railroad Tycoon, have each produced rules that are just as good as Martin's originals, if different, and vastly superior components. I hope those trend continues into next year.

Fantasy Flight Games really blew off the doors in 2005 by producing multiple huge games, starting with Twilight Imperium 3 and moving on to Descent, Worlds of Warcraft, and others. Although not quite as big, Arkham Horror and the new Runebound fit straight into the same trend. These are very American games, but have an increasing number of good, German-style mechanics. FFG also continued to really support Reiner Knizia in the U.S., including multiple Blue Moon expansions, a U.S. Ingenious, Beowulf: The Legend, and a new edition of Through the Desert.

Mayfair Games seems to also be in a period of real expansion. Their new distribution deal with daVinci Games appears to have worked out well for them, because they put out a huge number of co-productions in 2005, though most were very light. They've also started distributing all of Phalanx Game's titles, and I think that's great timing because Phalanx seems to be just coming into their own; the playability of their games really increased in 2005, with Alexander the Great and Trick, Trumps, Game both being standouts and the rumor mill saying similar things about the just-released Mesopotamia. Mayfair also seems to be returning to their successful roots with a vengeance. They published no less than three Klaus Teuber games--Candamir, Elasund and the new version of Barbarossa--as well as a new edition of Australian Rails, quickly following on the heels of last year's brand-new Russian Rails.

Out of the Box and Playroom Entertainment continued to follow curiously similar paths in 2005. They're each putting out fairly simple games designed for the mass market, but that includes some light Eurogames. So from OTB we saw Moon's 10 Days in Europe and Knizia's Tutankhamen and from Playroom we saw Knizia's Poison and King of the Beasts. Both companies continue to put out German games that can be nice fillers for more serious players.

Rio Grande Games continued to produce the mix of games that's their norm. Some good games, some family games, and some others. However, I fear that Rio Grande Games is losing notable ground in the current market. They continue to put out some great games because of their manufacturer agreements. The new Alea games, In the Shadow of the Emperor, and Caylus all came out from RGG, and were definitely some of the best of the year. In addition they've expanded their network a bit and are now publishing Queen Games and an increasing number of small-publisher games, such as the aforementioned Caylus, Ys, Oltre Mare, Mall World, and the FFF games. However, some of their self-publications weren't quite as sharp, with the new Bohnanza supplement rules riddled with errors and Carcassonne: The Discovery ending up exclusive over at funagain. I have no doubt that RGG will keep putting out great games for many years to come due to their partnerships, but I don't see how they can ultimately compete against American companies who are larger and really have the resources to do top-notch publications of their own--such as Days of Wonder, Fantasy Flight Games, Mayfair Games, Uberplay, and Z-Man Games. RGG ultimately needs to grow to survive.

Uberplay heavily retrenched in 2005. The declining American economy cut deeply into their German manufacturing deals and so Uberplay ended them after one last release, China. Since they've been going with their own productions, such as Buy Low, Sell High, For Sale, and Ra. I've always found Uberplay's own productions to be of singularly high-quality games (with occasional theming complaints), while their co-productions were more varied, running as they did from Hansa and Tongiaki on the good to Manga Manga and their other small-box Kosmos games on the bad, so I can't complain about their new trend. I'm a little less enthused about their rollout of Simply Fun Games, which revolves around Tupperware style parties that again cut out the local game stores, but they tend to be lighter, more family oriented games, and so are largely off my RADAR.

Z-Man Games really burst onto the scene this year. In the past they'd published some B-movie card games that I found way too random and some other games that just hadn't received much attention. This year, however, they started publishing Eurogames, and Zev somehow managed to pick out the best games that weren't yet in print in the United States. Three big-names games that people already knew about were Santiago, Ursuppe, and Reef Encounter, but he also brought over no-names Street Illegal and Saboteur which both turned out to be really good games and is now on the front line of some of the new games getting lots of attention like Il Principe and Siena. At the same time this has dovetailed nicely with his own releases, such as Parthenon, a very nice combination of American and German aesthetics in a trading game. I hope this new direction works out for them, because Zev's taste in coproductions seems to be selective and singularly good.

The Games in Review

BGG shows six of 2005's games in their Top 100 (excluding wargames): Caylus, Ticket to Ride Europe, Shadows Over Camelot, Louis XIV, Revolution, and Arkham Horror, plus a couple of first American publications: Dungeon Twister, Santiago, and Ingenious.

It's the same mix I mentioned earlier of very long games and lighter/family games. Only Louis XIV and the republications of Santiago and Ingenious really match previous years' trends toward short, yet elegant and deep Eurogames.

Caylus is clearly the top story of the year, and the one game which a lot of people seem to think is going to be a new touchstone for our hobby. I managed to get in one play before the end of the year, and I can now say that I think that once Caylus gets into wider circulation in this next month we're going to see the honeymoon period pretty abruptly end.

It's a good game, no doubt about that, but the sloppy mixture of tactical & strategic requirements is a bit offputting, and the ensuing chaos that results is pretty high. Even more, the 2-4 hour playtime is really going to put most people off. I paid real cash for my copy of Caylus; it wasn't a review copy. And, I'm happy with that purchase because it's a game that I think deserves to be in most serious gamers' collections, but it in no way has the polish and superb development work of a Puerto Rico or a Tigris & Euphrates, and most of the time I can't believe I'll get more enjoyment from it than the 2-4 other German games I could play in the same time period.

Dungeon Twister is the only other game of the year that I think deserves additional comment, and that's because it has legs. It's never going to be a top gameclub game because of its core 2-player sensibility, but 5 years from now it's going to be considered a genre classic, and it'll be worth good amounts on eBay if Asmodee is foolish enough to let is slip out of print. The great artwork, fun theming, and excellent tactical play all combine to make this a standout.

Personally, I rated ten games released this year as perfect 10s over at RPGnet: China, Conquest of the Empire II, Dungeon Twister, For Sale, Memoir '44: Eastern Front, Ra, Shadows over Camelot, Three-Dragon Ante, Ticket to Ride Europe, and Trump, Tricks, Game. In retrospective I'm a little less confident about the ratings for For Sale and Trump, Tricks, Game, but then I find card games somewhat hard to rate because there's only so much the genre can do.

Of the aforementioned BGG top games, I haven't reviewed Ingenious or Caylus and I haven't even played Revolution. I suspect Ingenious would get an 8 or a 9, and I don't know about Caylus, but I suspect it'd be trending toward an RPGnet 10, with notable caveats that many players won't want to play it due to length.

So, 2005. It was a fair year for games. More importantly, the American gaming industry really seems to be on the upswing.

Now let's see what 2006 brings.

PS: If you haven't already, please submit your nominations for our 2005 Board Game Internet Awards.


Pawnstar said...

I've played caylus twice, once with four and once with three. the first time I thought it had potential; then I played with five. I thought there were serious issues with this game; but perhaps I was playing it badly.

Tonight I am playing what may be my last game of Caylus, or if not it will be the first of many more. On the fence is putting it mildly; I want to be on the side favouring the game but the game doesn't want me to be. I hope to put my mind at rest later.

Anonymous said...

Regarding "I think that Caylus will ultimately prove too long to support its continued rating as a top-10 game": consider that there are already 4 other games in the top ten with playing times at least as long as Caylus (both in my experience and in rated times): Die Macher, Wallenstein, A Game of Thrones (A Clash of Kings), and Paths of Glory. Not to mention the next 4: Hannibal, AoS expansion #1, War of the Ring, Age of Steam. So I think that's a non-issue.

I am in the camp that believes in its staying power (not saying that it will stay at #2, but that it will stay in rotation in my groups, which is all I care about). Specifically, I like the fact that playing time is less than linear with # of players. I'm also in the camp that feel that the game is best with 4 or 5, not 3, as I have heard some people express. I actually won't play the game with less than 4 anymore. Then again, I'm not the biggest fan in the word of Puerto Rico, so take this with a grain of salt.

Shannon Appelcline said...

That's a good point on the other top games, however do note that a lot of them are wargames, which have notably different expectations (and I think allow for longer games because of the strategic changes in the gamefield as the game progresses).

I'd ask: would you play Puerto Rico if it were a three-hour game?

Mario said...

Excellent post.

Shannon, I must complement your work. You consistently put out the most thought provoking, entertainingly analytical, interesting posts. Your contribution to the gaming community is well received. I hope you never grow weary of cranking out so much thoughtful content.