The Year In Games

I just added my 2010 stats to Mark Jackson’s annual Five & Dime list, and it got me thinking about the board games I played last year. (Yes, of course I keep track.)

The “Five & Dime” list is a count of all games that reached the threshold of either 5 or 10 plays in the past year. In my case, 2010 saw 10 games played 10 or more times, and 11 more played at least 5 times. If you’re looking at my gameplay statistics, that tells half the story. The other half is that I played 153 distinct games a total of 388 times.

My full Five & Dime list, along with what it tells me about the year, is below the cut.

Fives Dimes
Dominion 18 Macao 8
Dominion: Intrigue 18 Priests of Ra 8
Dominion: Seaside 18 Coloretto 7
The Resistance 13 Cyclades 7
Tichu 12 Egizia 7
Dominion: Prosperity 11 Claustrophobia 6
Dungeon Lords 11 Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation 6
Dominion: Alchemy 10 Small World 6
No Thanks! 10 Alea Iacta Est 5
Ra 10 Hansa Teutonica 5
Innovation 5

I feel pretty good about the list. I started logging my games early in 2009, and I was shocked at the end of the year to see that, other than a couple perennial favorites, the only games that got repeated plays were simple fillers. I resolved to do better in 2010. Of the 21 games that made the list this time, only 3 were filler-length. Of course, there were also only a few of major complexity; most fell around the middle. That seems like a good mix to me.

The other thing that strikes me about the list (other than the amount of space that the Dominion family takes up) is how many of those games are new. 12 of the 21 games were new to me in 2010, and the only ones I knew back in 2008 were Ra, Dominion, and two fillers (No Thanks! and Coloretto). That’s in line with my other statistics – 68 of the 153 distinct games I played were new to me last year. Still, it was surprising to see how many of my favorites from 2009 and earlier went virtually unplayed last year. Cult of the New, indeed…

So what themes of 2010 can we find in this list? Interestingly, these are very similar to the themes that I would have listed if I had this blog back when I was discussing 2009’s themes:

2010 was the year of Dominion, again.

Some people were resistant to my claims that Dominion was the game of the year in 2009, because it was actually released in late 2008. But since it wasn’t easy to find until the second printing came out in 2009, I had no trouble calling it a 2009 game. Even more importantly, 2009 was the year that its first two expansions were released. Dominion may have been a very original game, but after a few months of playing it, I was starting to feel that its replayability was wearing off. Intrigue and Seaside not only increased the variety exponentially, but added a lot of complexity that the base game had only hinted at. Even if Dominion was a 2008 game, 2009 was the year that its potential was realized.

This trend continued into 2010. Admittedly, the Alchemy expansion was a little disappointing, but only given the expectations that the earlier games had raised. It was still a good addition to the series, forging new ground for Dominion to explore. All concern from Alchemy was relieved by Prosperity, the best addition to the series yet. My 75 total plays were actually weighted towards the end of the year. Not bad at all for a game I’d been playing heavily for two years.

Compared to the wide variety of games I play, usually just once or twice per year, this level of focus on one game is surprising. The Dominion family certainly gives me a wide variety from game to game, and no other single game stays fresh for long when played weekly. On the other hand, it’s a little weird to list those as five of my ten “Dime” games. There is definitely less variety among those than there is among the other five games on the list.

It’s not just me: A lot of people are playing mainly Dominion or Race for the Galaxy (a game that you won’t find on my list) these days, and even more people are complaining about this trend. There’s a narrative circulating that Dominion and Race are stealing away players that should be trying new games instead. I don’t think that it’s really a problem. A few years ago, the gaming hobby was filled with people who almost exclusively played Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, and their spin-offs. Most of the modern Eurogame movement grew out of, not in spite of, the fascination those games created. If two new series are claiming devotees now, that isn’t going to hurt the industry. There are still many more people interested in new releases than there were back in the Catan-dominated days.

2010 was not a huge year for innovation.

This isn’t too obvious from my Five & Dime list, because the unique games tended to get the most plays from me. Still, a common complaint at the major conventions was that no games were setting the scene on fire.

I don’t think that this is due to a stagnation, though. The late 1990’s kick-started a ten-year explosion in “Euro-style” gaming, and since everything was new, of course it always felt fresh. In the past couple years, we’ve reached a point where most basic concepts have been explored. Now people are using those lessons to refine existing themes, or to remix them into things more complex than the 45-minute games that dominated the scene when most people were still relatively new. Anyone who thinks that 2010 was just a year of derivative games was missing some real gems. Game design now simply relies a little less on innovation and a little more on solid crafting.

Ameritrash is back!

For years, the Eurogame community turned its nose up at the “Ameritrash” alternative. Euros were simple and elegant, focused on logical rules that kept the game short and exciting for all players. Theme came second to making the game fair and elegant. “American” games, on the other hand, were based all around the theme. If your design grows from “Wouldn’t it be cool if aliens were fighting dinosaurs?!” then the resulting game is going to reflect that. The rules will end up with dozens of hard-to-remember special cases to keep the alien powers thorough and thematic, the methane-breathing aliens will happen to be more powerful than the oxygen-breathing ones, and it’s hard to predict whether each game will takes 30 minutes or 3 hours, since it depends on whether the dinosaurs reach well-defended positions on time. Admittedly, these theme-heavy games were more accessible if you play games rarely and just want something fun and crazy when you do. But Eurogamers tend to play games a lot, and issues like balance and fairness become more important when they come up frequently.

A funny thing happened a couple years ago, though. Now that the basic territory of Eurogames has been mapped out, designers looking for something new have turned back to the theme-heavy Ameritrash that they once scorned. The lessons that were learned from years of “elegant” game development let them avoid a lot of the flaws that troubled those games in the first place. The hardcore board gamers can’t resist a new thing, and they’re swarming to these games now that “Gather resource A to get resource B in historical period X” has become so common.

A few years ago, it would have been shocking for me to see three fantastical fighting games on my most-played list (Cyclades, Claustrophobia, and Small World). Today, I’m just surprised that there weren’t a few more. I think that the division between the two main categories of board gamers have fallen away, and that’s a good thing.

So despite some surface complaints, 2010 was a great year for gaming. I’m looking forward to 2011!

  1. January 26th, 2011

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