Time for the second in my series of years covering the decade I’ve been in the hobby! This time, we’re looking at 2008, which I believe was a pivotal year for the board game hobby. It was the year that launched deckbuilding games as a genre, and the year that cooperative games really caught on. And I really believe that this is the year that hobby board games took a turn from being a fringe hobby to something that was approaching the mainstream. It wasn’t quite there yet, but several of the games released in 2008 really got that ball rolling. So let’s take a look.
Battlestar Galactica was designed by Corey Konieczka and published by Fantasy Flight. The system was based on the popular Sci-Fi series of the same name that ran from 2004 to 2009. In BSG, a race of machines known as Cylons have all but wiped out humanity, and the Battlestar is charged with protecting those who are left. The difficult part is that Cylons have evolved to look exactly like humans, and no one knows who is and who is not a traitor. So humans basically need to stay alive for long enough to make it to Earth, a safe haven where the Cylons can’t get to them. But if their morale, fuel, food, or population runs out, they lose. Each player is dealt a loyalty card at the start of the game to determine who is a Cylon, and another halfway through. So maybe you thought you were on the side of humanity, but maybe you were a Cylon all along.
When Shadows over Camelot came out in 2005, it introduced the concept of a traitor mechanism in a cooperative game. BSG perfected this idea, and people have been trying to copy the concept with varying degrees of success ever since. I’m not a huge fan of traitors in co-ops, but here, it really works with the theme. In fact, this game is probably themed as well as any game I’ve ever played. I think it’s since been replaced for me by Dead of Winter, which I think does similar things in a better package, but BSG is still a great game and a titan of 2008.
Cosmic Encounter is a game that was first published in 1977, but it was the 2008 reprint that I first played. The game was designed by Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge, Bill Norton, and Peter Olotka, with Kevin Wilson working on the reprint for Fantasy Flight. In the game, you are an alien race who, though a series of encounters, tries to gain five new colonies around the galaxy. On your turn, you draw an opponent, then choose how many ships (1-4) you want to send to attack. Both sides have the opportunity to ask for allies in their fight, and other players can join or not. Both sides then play an encounter card which boosts their strength, and the winner earns rewards accordingly – a new colony for the attacker, a saved colony for the defender. Allies on the winning side also get rewards, but all losing ships are sent to the warp. The first player to five foreign colonies is the winner, and victories can be shared.
Cosmic Encounter is the game that almost got me into the hobby. Long before the 2008 reprint, I discovered Cosmic Encounter Online, and had I been able to find a physical copy, I would have been in a lot sooner than I ended up being. It was out of print, sadly, but I have gotten to play that Avalon Hill version that would have been the current one, and I am very glad that I waited for FFG. The game was very ahead of its time in 1977, with lots of asymmetric alien races and a ton of interaction. Even now, it doesn’t feel dated. Sure, there is quite a bit of randomness, but player interactions in various situations kind of balances out the luck factor. It’s a great game.
Dominion was Donald X. Vaccarino’s first, and most revolutionary design. Published by Rio Grande, this game ended up winning the Spiel des Jahres in 2009, and well deserved that award was. It is the first deckbuilding game, where deckbuilding is the central mechanism. In Dominion, which has a loose theme about building up your kingdom, players take turns doing a single action, a single buy, then discarding their cards and drawing more from a deck. Actions are defined on the cards that you play, and these could give you more actions, more buys, extra money to spend, more cards, or even attack your opponents. As you buy these cards, they go into your deck to be available for play later. You’ll eventually want to be buying victory points, because though they generally just clog up your hand, they are what will give you the win. The game ends when three piles of cards have been completely bought/removed from the buy area, or when the Provinces (the most costly and valuable VP cards) are gone.
Deckbuilding was not new with Dominion. Go ahead, ask any Magic player. But Dominion was the first game to build an entire game around the concept, where building your deck WAS the game, not just preparation for it. There have been scores of imitators since then, each trying to put their own spin on the genre. Dominion remains the most pure example of the mechanism that exists, and while other games might be better overall, it is still one of, if not THE most influential game of the last decade.
The Hanging Gardens is a 2-4 player game from designer Dan Li Tsan that was published jointly by Hans im Glück and Rio Grande Games. While it’s not as revolutionary or popular as some of the other games on this list, I really like it. Each round, players take turns drafting 1-2 garden cards. These cards each have six squares, and some of these squares feature different colored structures. If you successfully build a structure of at least three squares, you can claim it with a temple, then take a scoring tile from the 3 space, the 4 space, or the 5+ space. These spaces are available based on the size of your structure, and you can always take from a smaller space that your actual structure. Build a structure of at least 6, and you can take a blind tile as well as one from any space. Once the cards have run out, the player with the most points is the winner.
The Hanging Gardens is a really clever card placement game as you have to figure out how to overlay them in order to get the tiles you need. Scoring tiles give you more points if you have larger sets of them. The game has been compared to Alhambra, though other than a thematic connection, they’re not that similar. I think it’s a great two-player game because you get two chances to take a card in each round, which leads to bigger gardens and higher scores. The three- and four-player games always seem too condensed for me.
Le Havre is Uwe Rosenberg’s follow-up to Agricola, published by Lookout Games. If Agricola established Rosenberg’s reputation as a designer of quality heavier games, Le Havre solidified it. On a turn, the current player advances a ship, which then restocks some of the supply spaces. The active player may then clear out one of the supply piles, or to use an available building. This means that you place your one worker on a building, pay the cost of using it (if any), and taking the indicated action. You’re attempting to build up goods that can then be turned into food, cash, ships, and points. You can construct your own buildings, which other players can then use if they pay you. However, whenever someone occupies a building, you can’t use it again until they move, even if you own it. After every seven turns, there’s a harvest where you must feed your people (naturally). After a fixed number of harvests, the player with the most points wins.
I’m not a huge fan of Agricola. Le Havre is the only other heavy Rosenberg game I’ve played, and I think it’s much better. For one thing, I never feel blocked out of doing what I wanted to do. There’s always an option, even if it isn’t ideal. I like the economy of only having one worker – it works really well. I know Agricola has its fans, but I think Le Havre is the better design. Sadly, I’ve only gotten to play it once, but someday I’ll get back to it.
Metropolys is probably my favorite bidding game, which I know isn’t saying much since I tend to dislike them. Designed by Sébastien Pauchon and published by Ystari Games, Metropolys is a game about urban planning. One player places one of their buildings out on the board. This building has a numerical value, 1-13, and the next player must play a higher number in an adjacent space or pass. When all have passed, the highest number remains on the board, and all other players get their buildings back. When a player has placed all of their buildings, the game ends and players score points based on different scoring conditions that they have managed to meet. High score wins.
This game combines bidding with area control in a fascinating way. You’re not bidding with cash, but with property. You can start on one part of the board, but the bid can snake out to another area very quickly, so it’s difficult to know exactly where it will end and you have to plan accordingly. It’s a pretty brilliant game that I think doesn’t get a lot of notice because people hated the art so much. I have no problem with it, but I know a lot of people think the board is too murky. Nevertheless, it’s a great game.
If any game could challenge Dominion for the most influential game of 2008, that game would be Pandemic. Matt Leacock and Z-Man’s cooperative game was not the first of its kind, but it did start the ball rolling on getting co-ops accepted by many hobbyists. Players are trying to stop disease from wiping out humanity by racing around a map of the world. On your turn, you have four actions. These can be used to move, treat a disease by removing a cube from the board, cure a disease by turning in cards of the same color, build research stations where diseases can be cured, or giving cards to someone in their space. There are four deadly diseases, and you have to find a cure for all of them to win. If you run out of cards in the draw deck, or there are too many outbreaks, or if you run out of disease cubes in a color, everyone loses.
Back in the day, I remember hearing a podcaster say that he didn’t think there was much future in cooperative games because it would be very difficult for designers to come up with a compelling AI system to run those games. This was recorded before Pandemic came out, and I think he was talking in reference to Shadows over Camelot. That has always stuck with me because Pandemic HAD come out when I listened to it. What Matt Leacock managed to do was come up with a way for a game to run itself, without the need for a game master or (as was the case in Knizia’s Lord of the Rings game) a completely scripted experience. Whereas Dominion created a genre, Pandemic redefined one. The cooperative genre is still going strong lo these many years later, and Pandemic remains the king. Spinoffs continue to be produced, with the most successful of course being 2015’s Pandemic Legacy.
Say Anything is a party game by Dominic Crapuchettes and Satish Pillalamarri that was published by North Star Games. In this one, up to eight players try to figure out the best answer for each question about members of the group. On your turn, you draw a card and ask one of the five questions, which always starts with “In my opinion…” Other players then try to figure out what you would say. So if the question was “…what is the most overrated movie of all time?”, other players might write down Star Wars or Forrest Gump or Grease or The Godfather or something else. Then the judge would decide who had the closest to correct answer, and all players bet on which player they think had it right. You get points for having correct bets, for having people pick the correct answer, and for picking the correct answer. (For me, the answer would totally be Grease. And how dare you ever think it was The Godfather?)
As much as I don’t like auction and bidding games, I also don’t tend to like party games because they’re too heavy on the party and not enough on the game. North Star Games always does a good job emphasizing the game in a party setting. This one has a scoring system that makes sense and is not subjective, which already puts this game ahead of things like Apples to Apples. And it’s pretty funny. The only caveat is that, like all party games, you should only play it ONCE in a sitting. Anything beyond that, and it starts to get too forced.
Space Alert is Vlaada Chvátil’s entry into the cooperative genre, as published by Czech Games Edition. It’s a real-time game where you are piloting a spaceship into a sector, looking around for ten minutes, then zapping back out. What could happen in ten minutes? PAIN, that’s what. The first part of a game is the real-time portion, which lasts ten minutes. Players busily program their astronauts to run around the spaceship, fire weapons, power shields, and basically try to keep the ship from being a floating hunk of scrap. In the second half, you see what happened – it’s like you’re watching the tape (or, in most cases, watching the carnage as recorded by the black box). If you kept the ship intact, even if just barely, you win. If any one of the three sectors of the ship was destroyed, you lose.
Space Alert is really a masochist’s delight. BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN, AND THERE’S NOT A THING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT. It’s even more unforgiving than Galaxy Trucker. The programming aspect is incredibly difficult – you have to communicate extremely well with the other players, and still there may be nothing you can do but sit back and watch your ship get torn to shreds. It’s a beast to teach, but it’s a lot of fun, and has what remains as the funniest rule book of all time.
Stone Age is a game by Bernd Brunnhofer that was published in 2008 by Hans im Glück and Rio Grande Games (like all HiG games, it is now published by Z-Man). This is a worker placement game where players are trying to score points through resources, huts, and civilization cards. On each player’s turn, you will allocate some of your workers to different places on the board. Once all placements have occurred, you resolve each spot. You’ll roll for resources, spend resources for cards and huts, collect tools, make babies, and of course feed your people. When a stack of huts has been depleted, the game is over and the most points wins.
Stone Age is a really good introductory game for people. It’s pretty intuitive, though there’s a lot of math involved as you add up your points in the end. The actions all make sense, and the board is quite beautiful. This is a game that is still being played to this day, and it’s easy to see why.
Witch’s Brew is a game by Andreas Pelikan that was published by alea and Rio Grande Games. It’s a role selection game where players are trying to collect the right ingredients to make potions. In each round, players will choose five of their 12 roles (everyone has the same set). One player will then play a role, declaring himself to be the person shown (I am Herbie!). If no one else plays that cards (which you must if you have it), then the person who led it gets the full benefit. If another player does play the card, they must decide if they’re going to let the person who led have it and take a lesser benefit themselves; or declare the card for themselves, thus denying the leader any benefit (No, I am Herbie!). Ingredients are spent on point scoring potions. When enough ravens have been taken, the game ends and the player with the most points wins.
This is an extremely clever game that I’ve enjoyed every time I play. It has a very interesting twist on role selection, one of my favorite game mechanisms, and can be a lot of fun. It can also be pretty frustrating if you keep getting sniped. The system was later translated into the Kennerspiel des Jahres winning Broom Service, by Pellikan and Alexander Pfister.
I wanted to highlight a couple of games that I left off of this list. Dixit was released in 2008, but didn’t get a US release until 2009 (and won the Spiel des Jahres in 2010). I left it off because, even though it’s party game that ALSO succeeds as a game, I’m tired of it. Also, Ultimate Werewolf: Ultimate Edition was released in 2008, and while that game is still incredibly popular, I hate it. So there you go.
Thanks for joining me for this look back into the past! April will be the month of 2009, and stay tuned in the next few weeks for a really big contest we’re going to be running. Thanks for reading!