I love lists. Lists about what I need to do, there’s a certain sense of accomplishment I get, not from completing a task, but from striking the task from the list. I also love lists that rank items. Top ten, top five, worst this, best that- there are lists for everything, and I love knowing how different people rank different things, and more importantly why X is better than Y.
People often ask me what my favourite game is, and the only way I can ever answer this properly, is by having some form of list, ranking all the games I’ve played. Great, I love lists. Then they ask why, and my mouth begins to go a little dry, because even though I have an idea, I’ve never really thought out the full reasoning behind the list. With that in mind, and with a new found focus to start writing about something I am passionate about, I thought a good place to start would be by trying to qualify my favourite games. If no one ever reads this, then at least I will have used the exercise as a reason to consider why these games are so dear to me.
It’s only right and proper to start the list with a caveat, so please allow me this one. The trouble with creating any form of top 10, is that it is only as valid as your opinion at that moment it time. Now on any single day, my favourite game could change, depending on so many external factors, none of which need be influenced or assigned blame to the game itself. So just because I mention one game today, it doesn’t mean that come tomorrow, I will feel the same way about it. However at this moment in time, these three games are the ones I consider my favourite games. I could probably create a pretty solid top 5, but for now, three it is.
Back in the mid-1990s, during the heyday of the collectable card game, Richard Garfield released a couple of games. One was a collectable card game called Magic: The Gathering, a game of duelling mages. Another of these CCGs was the futuristic Netrunner. Magic took off, and has earned its place in the card gaming hall of fame, propelling Garfield into the role of father of the CCG. The other game garnered a cult following, and a regular if not loyal fan-base built up. However when the oversaturated CCG started to self-implode, and companies started to cull titles, Netrunner was one of the victims.
It was about that time, that I started to look for a game with a cyberpunk theme. I wasn’t after anything more, just something that fit into that genre. Everywhere I looked, the name Netrunner popped up, but it was always the same, the game was out of print, or a club in Belgium still played regularly. As intrigued by the idea of the game as I was, I wasn’t prepared to sink money into the secondary (eBay) market, to invest in a game that the manufacturer no longer believed in enough to support. The name stuck with me though.
Then in 2012, Fantasy Flight Games (one of the publishers on my list of favourite publishers) announced that they were releasing Android: Netrunner. Basically they were taking the original Netrunner, tweaking it, and basing it in their two-game-strong Android universe. Whilst I hadn’t played the original Android game, I owned and had played Infiltration, the other game set in that universe. I liked it, I liked the universe, and I was still after that elusive Cyberpunk fix.
The other thing that Fantasy Flight announced they were implementing with this reborn version of the game, was that they would do away with the collectable element of the game, and instead launch the game as part of their line of “Living” card games.
Now, anyone who knows CCGs knows that they are a bit of a money drain. A constant release of new cards, in sealed booster packs, where there is no guarantee as to the content, and an additional three or four tiered level of rarity. Well that was fine and dandy back then, but now I’ve grown into a responsible family man, with a mortgage to pay, kids to feed, and a wife to keep happy. That simply isn’t cost effective anymore, so this idea of a living game, where a base set contains everything that you need to play, and IF you decide you could always add expansions that a) contained all common cards, and b) were always the same cards, is a lot more appealing. Now the cynics will point out that the current success of the LCG model has made the game equally if not more expensive due to the number of released expansions…. Well, it need not be, you still don’t HAVE to buy every expansion, and if you do, at least you aren’t trying to chase down Johnny Ultra-rare.
I liked this model of the living card game. Yes, this was a game I must own.
Well it took its pretty time coming out over here, but when it did I… I had to learn it, and wow this game was NOT easy to learn, yes, it was a card game, with many similarities to other card games but well, firstly there’s the fact that the game is asymmetrical. One player is playing as the evil corporation, and the other as the Runner (hacker) trying to bring down the Corp, by stealing their agendas. And both sides play very, very differently. So one game with two sets of rules. No problem, concentrate on one side, then learn the other, but it’s not quite that simple, as you really need to know at least the basics of what each other side can and can’t do, in order to be able to know what is best for you to do.
Then there’s the fact that this game has taken theme, and then added a side of theme, and poured gravy theme all over it. So instead of having a hand of cards, the Runner has a Grip, the Corp has Headquarters, there isn’t a draw pile or a discard deck, there are Research and Development, and Archives, Stack, and Heap. It’s kind of logical, when you think about it, but there are just so many new things that you have to learn with this game, that to the newcomer, it just becomes information overload, and most people want to jack out before they have even given the game fair chance.
But for those that don’t, for those that continue their run with the game. What an experience you begin to immerse yourself into. A cyberpunk world, where armed guards will stop you from infiltrating buildings, and hackers download viruses using hardware to decode and break subroutines of firewalls (ice), in order to infiltrate various servers, and try to locate these so called agenda files, whilst the corporation send feedback loops that could end up giving you brain damage, and it’s all so thematic and easy to lose yourself into. And I love it.
There are so many choices customising your decks as to how each of the four corporations or three runners will approach their task. Your deck design will ultimately lead you to approach each game from a number of different angles, from simple bluffing to trying to eliminate cards from the hand of the other player. Even though you have customised your “deck” to 40-50 cards, and you have a relatively normal “hand” size, the options you have each turn, the knowledge you have, the choices you can make, and the plans you try to unfold or destroy, it’s all just so covered in gravy, and lovely.
Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island.
I was trying to recall the first time I heard about Robinson Crusoe, but for the life of me, I can’t. I do remember months before the games’ release at Essen 2012 watching Ignacy Trzewiczek’s infectious designer diary videos for the game. They were very intriguing. I knew very little about the game, except for the details that Ignacy leaked during this weekly drip of information. One thing was for sure, each week I wanted this game more and more. I don’t recall anyone in my gaming group being particularly upbeat about it, but for me there was something there, and by the time Essen 2012 rolled around, it was THE game that I MUST get at the fare.
I remember a few things that I liked hearing about the game; it was cooperative, it could also be played solo, it appeared to be modular, and it had a tonne of cards. The sheer number of cards led me to believe that the game must have a pretty high degree of replayability. I suppose it’s fair to say that the title of the game also provided me with a hint as to the theme, although at the time, the theme wasn’t the reason for my interest.
Anyone who asks me what types of games I like to play will more often than not be told a few key features that will get me interested in a game. One of the most important of those for me is that I want to be able to tell a story. It doesn’t have to be a direct, read out loud story, but something I can piece together, and recount to, or with, fellow gamers. I’ll be honest, and say that right now, I don’t recall if I knew to what extent the story element of Robinson Crusoe played in my interest in the game. I wanted to play the game at Essen. I wanted to buy the game at Essen, and I wanted to meet the intriguing Pole from those videos.
When I eventually got to the Portal booth, I was unable to get to play a game of Robinson, their booth was heaving, in fact I don’t quite recall how late in the day I got there, or even which day I went to pick up my copy, but I WAS able to get my copy of the game, and I met Merry, but Ignacy was nowhere… wait, there he was hiding behind the counter, eating an apple, and drinking some water. The poor man was exhausted. I interrupted his one moment of solitude, and asked him to sign my box, and then pose for a photo with it, which he kindly and diligently did.
When I got back to the hotel, I remember watching two Danes struggle through the rule book, spending 2 hours punching and reading, and getting prepared to play, and then giving up. I was nervous about the game, and I put it to one side. It sounded like this one would have to wait until I got home.
It’s a well-documented fact that the first English rulebook wasn’t the easiest to follow, and I am certain that I took a couple of solo play-throughs, and messages on BoardGameGeek to find answers to all the questions I had, but the game had me intrigued. 6 Scenarios meant there was plenty to try out. So my attitude was very much: ok I’ll play the first one then, once I’ve beaten that, I’ll move to the next, and so on. Well, I lost the first game, and the second, and the third, and on, and on, and on- and yet the puzzle kept calling me back. I HAD to beat it. And yet how could I, when every time I played the game the cards, the oh-so many cards, were different. Every. Single. Time. It was amazing, so much variety in just one scenario that was so tough to beat. And every time a different story played out, and each time I would concoct a different plan of attack, based on my experiences from the previous attempt, becoming my own Alpha player.
Eventually I did beat the first scenario, and then I introduced it to other players, starting over with the first scenario again. Being a cooperative game I was very wary of the fact that I would have to teach them how to play the game, but not show any signs of Alpha player. Yet here we were, I told them, I really couldn’t help because now we were three players instead of just one, and I hadn’t seen all the cards yet, so I couldn’t tell them how to react to whatever happened. Needless to say the game beat us into submission once again.
Again and again, I return to this game, for the story it tells, each time with different scenarios, and different cards, and this bad thing happens, and that bad thing happens, and just when you don’t think it can get any worse for your poor character, it does. So we play again.
I have since been lucky enough to play a part in the play testing and development of the expansion for Robinson Crusoe, Voyage of the Beagle, and during that process, I learnt a lot more about Ignacy, a lot more about game design, and I learnt that anyone who thinks Robinson Crusoe is a tough game, should try and play one of Ignacy’s prototypes. They are brutal to the extreme! And yet I love it.
It’s the puzzle to beat, it’s the brilliant AI system, the unique way that events occur one day at a time, and when you go gathering berries, and hear a noise in the jungle, unless you do something about it, it will come back later to haunt you, or if you don’t pay attention to your tools they may break, and you need to make sure you have enough resources, and food to survive. Survive one. More. Day. Because in this game, there are so many things you will want to do, and so many things that you need to do, but there are only so many hours in the day, and only so many people that can help you achieve those things, and who knows what storm the weather might bring, or what evils lurk on the cursed Island. Most of all it is the stories that this game keeps on giving that keeps me coming back for more.
As an adult reflecting on my childhood, many memories I have are of playing “war” or “soldiers”, be it dressing up running around with guns, or playing with plastic toy soldiers, it all seem very innocent indeed. Things got slightly more seriously as a teenager being part of the cadet corps. There has also always been an interest for war films, with my particular focus drawn mainly towards the Vietnam War, or slightly closer to home with World War II. I can’t explain the appeal of such tragic events, and yet there must be something deeply rooted in the human psyche, because the appeal of playing games, using cardboard, cards, dice and miniatures, without any physical harm coming to one-self, is very strong in me.
Recreating battles, but with very different outcomes is fascinating, although when I am playing, I’m not linking the events on the table with the casualties of reality. I’m simply chucking dice, and having – dare I say it, fun.
Memoir ’44 a two player game from Days of Wonder uses designer Richard Borg’s Commands and Colors System. For those that don’t know this system, basically the play area is divided into three sections a left flank, a right flank, and a central section. Players draw command cards, which will allow them to assign actions and movement to a number of units within the nominated flanks (left, centre, right). It’s very simple, yet gives the player a fair bit to think about. One of the criticisms of the system, is that players can feel frustratingly screwed over by the hand of command cards that they draw, it is an excuse I myself have used, but at the end of the day, it was exactly that, and excuse for bad planning and hand management.
Combat is equally simplistic, roll a certain number of dice, based on the unit firing, add modifiers based on distance and terrain, and act upon the result. It’s gloriously simplistic, and as such a game that I was able to introduce to my children very early on. They too “enjoy” the theme, the fact that they are recreating battles based on historic events (although to my detriment, we don’t often talk about the actual events as they occurred, and who actually won each battle).
A number of expansions have been made available for Memoir ’44, allowing for different theatres of war, the Overlord system introduced even more maps, allowing the number of players to increase from 2 to 2 teams of up to 4 players, and the oversized Breakthrough kit. The addition of so many expansions may have made certain unit statistics slightly harder to recall, but with the aid of unit card and terrain reminders, everything is at hand.
For me, the biggest criticism of Memoir’44 is the time it takes to setup the game play area. The hexagonal terrain tiles, and the individual units can take up to 20 minutes to lay out, added to the fact that normally you will want to play the game twice, once as the axis player, and once as the allies, it does dampen the desire to play somewhat, and is probably the single biggest factor that prohibits me from placing this as my favourite game.
This year sees Memoir ’44 celebrating its 10th anniversary. Coincidentally it is the 75th anniversary of the D-day landings, on the beaches of Normandy, and as such, Days of Wonder are releasing a commemorative edition of D-Day Landing maps, that can be played individually, or by lining up the 6 maps side-by-side into a massive playing area (good luck finding a table big enough for that- imagine the setup time!).
Days of Wonder have for one reason or another, in my opinion, had a bit of a weird publication record with Memoir ’44. Expansions seem to have come and gone in fits and starts, some of them they continue to reprint, and others they have decided not to reprint. As a completest, this would annoy me immensely, if it wasn’t for the fact that I am lucky enough to own everything that they have published for this game (to date). Because of that, and the fact that at least three of the officially published expansions are no longer available, it is probably my most treasured game in my collection.
All in all Memoir ’44s simplistic design fits my niche for a game based on a genre of historical warfare that interests me. Whilst it can seem frustrating at times, because of setup time, because of drawing cards I can’t use as all my troops are in a different sector, or simply because the dice roll badly for me, there’s something about the little plastic components, the modular hex tiles, and the multitude of scenarios that keeps me coming back for more. I guess at the end of the day, It is simply because I have a fun time playing it.
So there we have it, the three games that are currently my three favourite games to play. There are a number of common elements that run through each of these choices, and through most of the games that would appear in a top ten list. These three all play well with two players. They are very thematic. They all allow me to tell a story as I play the game, all the time whilst keeping one hand on fun. They also all have a degree of puzzle to the game play, and that is something I have noticed emerge more and more recently in games that I like.
A combination of storytelling and puzzle solving. Solving a mystery. A mystery like why I like these games so much.
all photographs on this page are copyright the author, unless otherwise noted.