THE MAGAZINE FOR CREATIVE MINDS AT PLAY

1991–2004 Games of the Year

2005 Games of the Year and Other Awards
(From the December 2004 issue of Games)

2006 Games of the Year and Other Awards
(From the December 2005 issue of Games)

2007 Games of the Year and Other Awards
(From the December 2006 issue of Games)

2008 Games of the Year and Other Awards
(From the December 2007 issue of Games)

2009 Games of the Year and Other Awards
(From the December 2008 issue of Games)

2010 Games of the Year and Other Awards
(From the December 2009 issue of Games)

2011 Games of the Year and Other Awards
(From the December 2010 issue of Games)

2012 Games of the Year and Other Awards
(From the December 2011 issue of Games)

2013 Games of the Year and Other Awards
(From the December 2012 issue of Games)

2014 Games of the Year and Other Awards
(From the December 2013 issue of Games)

 

2005

Traditional (Nonelectronic) Games

Game of the Year: BuyWord

(Face2Face Games; designer: former Games Contributing Editor Sid Sackson; a word game with an economics twist) Read review.

Abstract Game: Yinsh
(Rio Grande Games; designer: Kris Burm)

Advanced Strategy Game: Tahuantinsuyu: The Rise of the Inca Empire

(Hangman Games; designer: Alan Ernstein)

Family Game: Vanished Planet
(Vanished Planet Games; designers: Samuel Blanchard, Kelly Blanchard, Craig Oliver, and Jennifer Oliver)

Family Card Game: Victory & Honor
(Jolly Roger Games; designer: Talon Douds

Family Strategy Game: Alexandros
(Rio Grande Games; designer: Leo Colovini) 

Party/Trivia Game: Cranium Hoopla
(Cranium; designers: Richard Tait and Whit Alexander)

Word Game: Word Rich
(Faby Games; designer: George Yemec)

Historical Simulation: Memoir '44
(Days of Wonder; designer: Richard Borg) 

Electronic Games

Game of the Year: City of Heroes
(NC Soft; PC/Internet; a massively multiplayer online role-playing game) Read review.

Action Games: Far Cry
(UbiSoft; PC) 

Role-Playing and Adventure: Fable
(Microsoft; Xbox)

Strategy and Puzzle: Rome: Total War
(Activision; PC)

Handheld: Metroid Zero Mission
(Nintendo, Game Boy Advance) 

Sports/Racing: MVP Baseball 2004
(EA Sports; Xbox, PlayStation2, GameCube, PC)

BuyWord
Face2Face Games, 1-4P, $24.95
Designer: Sid Sackson

What greater compliment is there than to be described by Wolfgang Kramer as “the greatest game designer in the world”? Sid Sackson, a longtime GAMES contributor unequaled in his contribution to the development of modern board games, passed away in 2002. But the folks at Face2Face Games are ensuring that his great ideas will live on, and BuyWord is a worthy example.

Shuffled in the bag are 108 letter tiles, each valued from 1 to 4. Each player starts with several Wilds (value 1), and $200.

A die roll determines how many tiles (from two through five) each player draws. Two sides of the die (“Choice”) permit the active player to select between two and five tiles. Players in turn then either discard the tiles from play or hold them in reserve, after paying dollars equal to the square of their total value. Players may end rounds by forming one or more words, optionally using one Wild in each, and discarding the tiles to earn the square of their total value. Forming words, or discarding extra tiles, is compulsory if a player has more than eight tiles in reserve. Play ends when there are insufficient tiles for all contestants. Players then get a final opportunity to form words, and whoever has the most money wins. Try playing solitaire: Ending up with $800 is about average, while earning $1,000 is outstanding.

There are also several variants to the already impressive basic game. Our favorite is the Auction. Instead of discarding or buying tiles they have drawn, players may auction them: Starting at the owner’s left, players either bid or pass. The owner has the last opportunity to bid, and it’s a real challenge for the others to set their bids so that the owner doesn’t get the tiles too cheaply. The active player can, alternatively, draw tiles equal to the die roll multiplied by the number of players. Contestants then select one letter per turn.

In the Crossword variant, tiles forming words are not discarded, but are added to a crossword grid (using at least one letter of a previous word). Scoring includes the values of the reused letters.

You can also play by allowing trading (of tiles and/or money) between players.

In an age when most companies won’t even consider publishing new word games because of the dominance of Scrabble Crossword Game, we salute Face2Face for bringing BuyWord to us. It’s an eminently innovative game that languished unpublished in Sid Sackson’s archives for far too long, and we believe it is destined for classic stardom. Even if you think you don’t like word games, give this one a try.—John J. McCallion

City of Heroes
NCsoft, PC, $50 + $15 per month subscription

This year’s Game of the Year had stiff competition from major franchises like Halo, Half-Life, Doom, and Splinter Cell, all of which made respectable-to-superb appearances in 2004. Yet City of Heroes trumps them all because of its sheer audacity and enjoyability. It’s the superhero game that comic-book fans have long pined for. It’s also a massively multiplayer online RPG that drastically lowers the complexity level of previous MMORPGs, providing a welcome entry point for those new to the genre.

City of Heroes leaps online gaming phobia with a single bound, thanks to its streamlined interface, ridiculously engaging character-creation process, and expansive gameworld. This is not EverQuest. There is no need to pump countless hours into building up a character and managing the minutiae of skills and stats. Characters are shaped by a pair of factors (“origin” and “archetype”) that help define their powers. You can either build a hero from scratch or create a fair approximation of almost any existent character. A forthcoming expansion will create a City of Villains, but for now, all questing is team-based against computer-controlled enemies.

You begin with a series of training missions to help you get a grip on the controls, but after that you’re free to roam the world at will, jumping around its many cities and accepting missions ranging from exterminating monsters to hostage rescue or data retrieval. You choose new powers or enhancements as you level up, but the system remains fairly simple. At more advanced levels, you can choose to form or join a superhero group, fighting with your own version of the Justice League or the Avengers. All of the action takes place in a bright, diverse, and detailed gameworld with plenty of places to explore and challenges for every level of ability. Even if you’ve found massively multiplayer games daunting in the past, City of Heroes should make a believer out of you.—Thomas L. McDonald

2006

Traditional (Nonelectronic) Games

Game of the Year: Australia
(Rio Grande Games; designers: Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling) Read review.

Best New Abstract Strategy Game: Project Kells
(Tailten Games/Funagain; designer: Murray Heasman)

Best New Advanced Strategy Game: Louis XIV
(Rio Grande Games; designer: Rüdiger Dorn)

Best New Family Game: Der Untergang von Pompeji (Escape from Pompeii)
(Amigo/Funagain; designer: Klaus Jürgen-Wrede)

Best New Family Card Game: Die Weinhändler (The Wine Merchants)
(Amigo/Funagain; designer: Roman Pelek and Claudia Hely

Best New Family Strategy Game: Primordial Soup (a.k.a. Ursuppe)
(Z-Man Games; designers: Doris Matthäus and Frank Nestel) 

Best New Two-Player Game: Jambo
(Rio Grande Games; designer: Rüdiger Dorn)

Best New Party Game: Snorta!
(Out of the Box Games; designers: Chris Childs and Tony Richardson)

Best New Puzzle: Tipover
(ThinkFun; designer: James W. Stephens)

Best New Historical Simulation Game: Friedrich
(Simmons Games; designer: Richard Sivél) 

Electronic Games 

Game of the Year: Psychonauts
(Majesco; PC/Xbox) Read review.Best New Action Game: God of War
(SCEA; PlayStation2) Best New Role-Playing and Adventure Game: Jade Empire
(Microsoft; Xbox)Best New Strategy and Puzzle Game: Empire Earth II
(Sierra; PC)Best New Sports Game: Fight Night Round 2
(EA Sports; Xbox, PlayStation2, GameCube)Best New Driving Game: Forza Motorsport
(Microsoft; Xbox) Best New Handheld Game: Advance Wars Dual Strike
(Nintendo, DS) 

Australia
Rio Grande Games, 2-5P, $39.95
Designers: Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling

We have not had a German Game of the Year since Torres in 1999, by...Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling!A booming Australia invites players to its 24 regions, each of which has a Conservation tile and a random facedown Industrialization tile (valued from 4 to 9). Exploration camps border two or more regions. You begin with two cards and an airplane and Explorers in your color. Faceup are four decks of cards, each showing a provincial color and a combination of gold and Explorers.Each turn, choose two of three possible actions, in any order: (a) Fly your airplane to a region and reveal its Industrialization tile. (b) Discard a card matching the color of your airplane's region, or pay three gold to discard any color. Earn the card's gold. Place Explorers (up to the maximum the card permits) on one vacant adjacent camp or on one already containing your Explorers; alternatively, gain two points. End turns by replenishing cards. (c) Return to supply up to four Explorers adjacent to your airplane's region.Gain three points by occupying the last vacant camp bordering a region, and discard its Conservation tile. Everyone earns one or two points for each Explorer in the region's camps. Industrialization tiles similarly score when the number of Explorers on adjacent camps equals the Industrialization value-even if some camps are still vacant. Remember that Industrialization can also be triggered by the action of removing explorers!Beyond the usual Actions, you can spend four gold any number of times to move one Explorer to another camp. Using this ploy to occupy a vital camp often results in lucrative scoring in several regions simultaneously. Play ends when the cards are depleted and someone plays his last. Add a point for each remaining gold. Highest score triumphs.An Advanced Variant features a traveling Windmill, whose value increases as it moves. Discarding a card in the Windmill's region lets you allocate Explorers to a track where, several times during play, whoever has the most Explorers earns the Windmill's current value in points.

With volatile scoring leading to frequent changes of leadership, and its appeal to all levels of players, Down Under has deservedly soared to the top. (originally reviewed 9/05)—John J. McCallion 

Psychonauts
Majesco, PC/Xbox, $50

Psychonauts is an action/adventure game that is positively brimming with invention, clever dialogue, and genuine humor, some of it sly and mature, but none of it crass. The game centers on Razputin (Raz), a runaway circus boy who sneaks into a camp that trains gifted kids as psychic secret agents. Soon after he begins his training, Raz learns that someone is snatching the brains of the psychonauts, leaving them as TV-obsessed zombies. Psychonauts is so rich in character and plot that no summary can really do it justice. The camp is populated by a wild array of bizarre characters, and the story soon takes off in unexpected directions.Perhaps the most striking aspect of Psychonauts is its level design. The landscapes represent the minds of the subjects, each reflecting a unique character. No two people have the same mental landscape, and the result is a wild, constantly changing atmosphere. All of this is done with a very light touch, complete with funny dialogue, unusual enemies (such as the censors who help the mind control unwanted thoughts), and clever powers.Adding to the richness of the gameplay is the comically profuse variety of items you can collect, from arrowheads (used to buy things) to mental cobwebs (which can be vacuumed up and weaved into objects on a special loom). Elevating Psychonauts above the traditional platform adventure format is the broad selection of psychic powers available to Raz. As he proceeds through the game, he gains levels and proficiency and can acquire new skills, such as telekinesis or pyrokinesis. All of these must be used, at one time or another, to bypass an obstruction, solve a puzzle, or defeat a foe.

Psychonauts lays an amazing, funny, endlessly engaging world at the gamer's feet. There is a lot going on in this game, and some of it actually resonates more than you might expect. The tone rarely strays from the absurd, yet creator Tim Schafer and his team manage to create dimensional characters and offer some sharp observations on the mysteries of the human mind. That's not the point, of course, but like most lasting comedy, Psychonauts works on multiple levels and is deeper than it appears. (originally reviewed 11/05)—Thomas L. McDonald


2007

Traditional (Nonelectronic) Games

Game of the Year: Vegas Showdown
(Avalon Hill; designer: Henry Stern)
Read review.

Best New Abstract Strategy Game: Pünct
(Rio Grande Games; designer: Kris Burm)

Best New Advanced Strategy Game: Reef Encounter
(Z-Man Games; designer: Richard Breese)

Best New Family Game: Tricky Town
(Kelmar Games; designer: Fernando Diaz)

Best New Family Card Game: Trumps, Tricks, Game!
(Mayfair Games; designer: Günter Burkhardt

Best New Family Strategy Game: Hacienda
(Rio Grande Games; designer: Wolfgang Kramer)

Best New Party Game: Wits and Wagers
(North Star Games; designer: Dominic Crapuchettes)

Best New Puzzle: Gordian’s Knot
(ThinkFun; designer: Frans de Vreugd)

Best New Word Game: Parlay
(Real Deal Games; designers: Paul and Jennifer Sturgis)

Best New Historical Simulation Game: Silent War
(Compass Games; designer: Brien Miller)

Electronic Games 

Game of the Year: Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
(Bethesda Softworks; 360/PC; Rated: T)
Read review.

Best New Action Game: Splinter Cell: Double Agent
(Ubisoft; PC/360/PS2/PS3/Cube; Rated: M) 

Best New Role-Playing/Adventure Game: Kingdom Hearts 2
(Square Enix; PS2; Rated: E)

Best New Puzzle/Arcade Game: New Super Mario Bros.
(Nintendo; DS; Rated: E)

Best New Sports Game: Fight Night Round 3
(EA Sports; PC/Xbox/360/PS2/PS3/PSP; Rated: T)

Best New Strategy Game: Sid Meier’s Railroads!
(Firaxis; PC; Rated: E)

 

Vegas Showdown
Avalon Hill, 3-5P, $45
Designer: Henry Stern

Kudos to successful collectible card game designer Henry Stern for making it to the top with his first board game design. He invites you to create the hotel-casino complex that will garner the most customers, money, and Fame points.

Everyone has a personal 7x5 grid on which room tiles are placed. You start with money and initial levels of Revenue and Population. Restaurant, Lounge, and Slot tiles, with unchanging minimum bids, begin faceup on the bidding board. Shuffle facedown three stacks of Premier tiles of different sizes, reveal one from each stack to the bidding board, and mark its initial price on its bid track.

Each round, earn income equal to either your Revenue or Population levels—whichever is lower. Unclaimed Premier tiles decrease in price and disappear when they reach their lowest price. A random Event card determines a benefit or handicap applicable only to the current round, such as paying taxes or gaining Fame points for having specific rooms. The Event also illustrates the stack from which to replenish vanished Premier tiles.

Players in turn choose one of three actions: (a) Bid at least the starting value of a Tile, or outbid a competitor to force him to bid again or choose another action. Bidding ends when each bidder has bid on a different tile. Highest bidders pay to either place the tile immediately, or save it for later. Tiles placed increase your Fame, Revenue, and/or Population. Some tiles require others to have been placed during earlier turns. (b) Remove up to two tiles from your grid and replace them with up to two saved. (c) Gain a Fame point and optionally place one saved tile.

Play ends when one of the Premier stacks has been depleted, or when a player has filled his entire grid. Add Fame Points for Population and Revenue levels, remaining money, and various tile configurations. The player with the most Fame points wins.

The accessible mechanics and random Events will appeal to casual players seeking simplicity and an element of chance, but will not discourage serious strategists who relish money management challenges, complex auctions, and different placement tactics on the tense road to victory.

Alert: There’s a good chance this game will soon be out of print, so don’t delay if you want to get a copy.—(originally reviewed 5/06)—John J. McCallion 

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
Bethesda Softworks; PC/360, $50-$60; Rated: T

A strong, deep single-player RPG always flies to the top of our “must-play” list, and when that game is as good as Oblivion, it ends up on a very short list for Game of the Year. The appeal and promise of Oblivion are obvious from the outset, when you get to dig into an almost limitless character creation system that allows you to shape a very specific avatar for a particular style of play.

The Elder Scrolls series has developed a complex race, class, and skill system over the past decade—one with a direct impact on the game experience. The three core gameplay styles are fighter (action-based), thief (stealth-based), and wizard (magic-based). In character creation, these styles can be taken pure, or blended to create a wholly new hybrid class. This is a huge plus in a world so large and diverse.

The spine of the experience is a main quest involving an assassinated king and rising evil, but you’ll encounter other quests, large and small, along the way. There are at least five secondary quests that are almost as vast as the main story line, as well as countless free-form quests of different sizes, all of them optional. It seems inconceivable that a single gamer could go everywhere and do everything this game has to offer in less than 100 hours.

Fortunately, it’s such an appealing system and world that you may just want to spend that long inside it. Visually, it’s one of the most striking games on either Xbox 360 or PC, moving effortlessly from dark, colorless dungeons to bright, lush expanses of countryside. Oblivion is much more user-friendly than previous Elder Scrolls games, with a self-annotating map, faster travel, and a very accessible system that organizes the intimidating glut of player data, quest info, inventory items, and more.

Both versions of the game play well, so you really can’t go wrong. But the Xbox 360 version will look tremendously impressive on a widescreen HDTV. With either the PC or 360 versions, you can look forward to a game with an impressively long life, thanks to add-ons and expansions that can prolong the Oblivion experience indefinitely. (originally reviewed 8/06)—Thomas L. McDonald

2008

Traditional (Nonelectronic) Games

Game of the Year: Pillars of the Earth
(Mayfair Games; designers: Michael Rieneck and Stefan Stadler)
Read review.

Best New Abstract Strategy Game: Easter Island
(Twilight Creations; designers: Odet L’Homer and Roberto Fraga)

Best New Advanced Strategy Game: Khronos
(Rio Grande Games; designers: Arnaud Urbon and Ludovic Vialla)

Best New Family Game: If Wishes Were Fishes
(Rio Grande Games; designers: Peter Sarrett and Michael Adams)

Best New Family Card Game: Bull in a China Shop
(Playroom Entertainment; designer: Michael Schacht

Best New Family Strategy Game: Shear Panic
(Mayfair Games; designers: Fraser and Gordon Lamont)

Best New Party Game: GiftTrap
(GiftTrap Enterprises; designer: Nick Kellet)

Best New Puzzle: Sacred Myths and Legends Series
(Family Games; designers: Yvan David and Francois Vachon)

Best New Word Game: Unspeakable Words
(Playroom Entertainment; designers: James Ernest and Mike Selinker)

Best New Historical Simulation Game: Ran
(GMT Games; designers: Richard Berg and Mark Herman)
 

Electronic Games 

Game of the Year: Bioshock
(2K/Irrational; PC/360; Rated: M)
Read review.

Best New Action Game: Gears of War
(Microsoft; 360; Rated: M) 

Best New Role-Playing/Adventure Game: Lord of the Rings Online
(Turbine; PC; Rated: T)

Best New Puzzle/Arcade Game: Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords
(D3; DS/PSP; Rated: E)

Best New Sports Game: Mario Strikers Charged
(Nintendo; Wii; Rated: E)

Best New Strategy Game: Supreme Commander
(THQ; PC; Rated: E10+)

 

Pillars of the Earth
Mayfair Games, 2-4P, $49
Designers: Michael Rieneck and Stefan Stadler

Effortlessly reaching the top this year is a tale of cathedral construction. It blesses gamers of all levels with a tremendous number of choices, and it plays splendidly with any number of contestants.

Three builders in each color begin in the bag. You have 12 workmen, three primitive craftsmen cards, and initial gold. Start each round by revealing seven random resource cards and two craftsmen from their respective decks. Place two additional craftsmen and two privilege cards faceup on the board.
Players in turn purchase an available craftsman, or allocate workers (two to 10) to book the resources on a vacant card. This first phase ends after all players have withdrawn and added remaining workers to the board’s wool mill.

Next, the active player draws builders, one at a time, from the bag. The builder’s owner may pay to place it in an available area (accommodating one to four builders) on the board. Initial builders have more choices, but cost more—and gold is never abundant. Alternatively, send your builder to the “end of the line” and place it free after all builders have been drawn; sadly, by then, the best places are likely to be occupied.

After placing all builders, reveal a random event card, affecting everyone for good or ill. Next, resolve the board areas in order, including awarding gold for workers at the wool mill and collecting resources booked in the first phase. Occupying builders reap their area’s rewards. Rewards include: protection from a malevolent event card; victory points; immunity from taxes (determined by a die roll); a free craftsman; extra workers to use next round; and the right to buy and/or sell resources, to become the starting player next round, or to acquire a privilege card. Privileges enrich the already abundant possibilities by offering a plethora of enticing advantages.

Now, everyone optionally activates their craftsmen, which convert specified amounts of resources (discarded) to victory points or gold. The craftsmen deck is arranged semi-randomly, to ensure that increasingly efficient and remunerative craftsmen become available. The number of resources you can carry to future rounds is limited, and acquiring a craftsman beyond your maximum forces you to discard one. Tough decisions abound.

At the end of each round, a piece of the Cathedral is added. The player with the most victory points triumphs when the Cathedral is completed. (originally reviewed 7/07)—John J. McCallion and Robin H. King

Bioshock
2K/Irrational; PC/360, $50-$60; Rated: M

Sometimes a spoiler comes along just as we’re compiling the Electronic Games 100, dethrones our intended Electronic Game of the Year, and sucks up all of our time so that we miss deadlines. Bioshock is that spoiler. Until this heir to System Shock showed up, Lord of the Rings Online was leading the pack. It only took a few hours with Bioshock to know that couldn’t last.

System Shock is one of the landmarks in PC gaming history: a deep, first-person game that offers a vivid world and narrative, then lets you progress through combat, stealth, puzzles, or any combination of the three. Irrational Games, staffed by some of the original System Shock team, has called Bioshock a “spiritual heir” to that classic, and it’s easy to see why. Several of System Shock’s core elements have been carried forth into a new and even better game.

Bioshock is set in 1960, and begins with a plane crashing into the middle of the ocean. As the sole survivor, you swim through the wreckage, only to encounter a strange kind of lighthouse rising out of the deep. Inside, a bathysphere takes you into a city of wonder on the bottom of the Atlantic. Called Rapture, this city is the work of a megalomaniacal visionary named Andrew Ryan, a radical Objectivist millionaire who seeks to create an anarcho-capitalist utopia: Ayn Rand via Charles Foster Kane. As you’d expect from such a libertarian wonderland unfettered by morality or restraint, it doesn’t take long for Rapture to descend into utter chaos, leaving it overrun by genetic mutants as various factions fight for power. The story of Rapture’s collapse emerges piecemeal through messages and recordings collected in the course of exploration—a technique used to great effect in the original System Shock that works even better here.

From a pure gameplay perspective, Bioshock can be called a first-person shooter, but that would sell it short. The combat elements are handled elegantly, with many ways to approach each enemy. As you progress, you pick up Plasmids and Genetic Tonics, which can be loaded into a finite number of slots on your character. These genetic modifications add different kinds of attacks, but also enhance various physical, engineering, and combat skills. By using special stations, you can customize your character with very specific attacks and skills, enabling each player to create a unique character. The game also incorporates System Shock’s “hacking” mode, which allows users to solve puzzles (styled on the Water Works tile game) to bypass certain obstacles or gain bonuses.

There is much more in Bioshock than this. The world itself is a richly detailed art deco hell populated with a large cast of characters and creepy enemies. And I won’t even go into Big Brothers and Little Sisters, who are not only strange and wonderful, but key to the entire game. Indeed, the game forces you to make a very moral choice in dealing with the Little Sisters. It’s the kind of choice a radical Objectivist like Ryan would believe is irrelevant to society, but it has a central effect on how the game plays out, leaving us with a very clear message about right and wrong and the place of the individual in society. And just how often does that happen in a video game?—Thomas L. McDonald

 

2009

Traditional (Nonelectronic) Games

Game of the Year: Tzaar
(Rio Grande Games; designer: Kris Burm)
Read review.

Best New Abstract Strategy Game: Ponte del Diavolo
(Rio Grande Games; designer: Martin Ebel)

Best New Advanced Strategy Game: Key Harvest
(Rio Grande Games; designer: Richard Breese)

Best New Family Game: Pandemic
(Z-Man Games; designer: Matt Leacock)

Best New Family Card Game: Palast Geflüster (Palace Whisperings)
(Adlung Spiele/Funagain; designer: Michael Rieneck

Best New Family Strategy Game: Stone Age
(Rio Grande Games; designer: Michael Tummellhofer)

Best New Party Game: Go Nuts!
(Gamewright; designers: Garrett Donner, Michael Steer, and Brian Spence)

Best New Puzzle: Doris
(Kadon Enterprises; designer: Zdravko Zivkovic)

Best New Word Game: Jumbulaya
(Platypus Games; designers: Julie and Karl Archer)

Best New Historical Simulation Game: Pacific Typhoon
(GMT Games; designer: Ben Knight)
 

Electronic Games 

Game of the Year: Spore
(EA/Maxis; PC/Mac; Rated: E)
Read review.

Best New Action Game: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed
(LucasArts; 360/PS2/PS3/Wii/DS/PSP/iPhone; Rated: NR) 

Best New Role-Playing/Adventure Game: Mass Effect
(Microsoft/Bioware; 360/PC; Rated: M)

Best New Puzzle/Arcade Game: Braid
(Microsoft; Xbox Live; Rated: E)

Best New Sports Game: MLB ’08: The Show
(SCEA; PS2/PS3/PSP; Rated: E)

Best New Strategy Game: Civilization Revolution
(Tale 2/Firaxis; 360/PS3/DS; Rated: E)

 

Tzaar
Rio Grande Games, 2P, $32.95
Designer: Kris Burm

Belgian designer Kris Burm produces abstract strategy games that testify to his love for those timeless classics that began the history of board games. His Dvonn was our Game of the Year in December 2002, and he has once again triumphed with another masterpiece arising from simple rules.

Surrounding an impassable area in the lined board’s center are 60 intersections. White and Black each have three kinds of discs, all of which are equal in power and movement ability: six Tzaars, nine Tzaaras, and 15 Totts in each color. The game begins with all the discs placed randomly on different intersections, although beginners might prefer to use the suggested starting array. Experienced players may prefer the tournament version, in which contestants in turn add one of their pieces to the board until it is filled.

White begins by capturing an adjacent enemy by occupying its space and removing it. Further turns must start with a capture, followed by one of three possible actions: (a) capturing again, with the same or another unit; (b) placing a friendly disc or stack on top of another friendly disc or stack; or (c) passing. Stacking/capturing is executed on adjacent pieces, or by moving across contiguous vacant intersections to reach the first occupied intersection. A stack captures singletons or other stacks of equal height or less.

Win by depriving the opponent of a capture on the first part of his move, or by eliminating one of his kinds of discs. Only singletons or discs on top of stacks count. It’s supremely difficult to balance the creation of tall, strong stacks with capturing and weakening the opponent. Expect fascinating endgames that demand extremely accurate play as you strive to get the last capture while protecting your weaker discs. (originally reviewed 10/08)—John J. McCallion

Spore
EA/Maxis; PC/Mac, $50; Rated: E

Spore is Will Wright’s magnum opus. The creator of SimCity has spent 20 years creating “software toys” that simulate life. SimCity, SimEarth, SimLife, SimAnt, and The Sims were all leading to this: a game that takes life from a single-celled organism, through all the stages of evolution, and finally to the creation of civilization and into space.

The sheer scope of the thing is dazzling. Its working title was SimEverything, which pretty well captures what the designers have attempted and, largely, achieved. The gameplay itself shifts effortlessly among genres, beginning with the feel of a casual game, then building element upon element: creature creation, real-time strategy, design, life simulation, civilization, and galactic exploration and conquest, all of it delivered as the ultimate God game.

Each phase of the game is more complex than the last, creating a constantly shifting and evolving gameplay experience. You begin in the Cell phase as a single-celled creature, carnivorous or herbivorous, swimming around in a primordial soup. This has the feel of a casual game, as the creature fights against currents in the tidal pool, attacking and eating weaker creatures while avoiding being eaten by stronger creatures.

As it consumes different organisms, it grows and accumulates DNA points, which can be spent to modify the creature. By selecting items from a growing palette of body parts, you equip your evolving critter with different kinds of mouth, legs, arms, feet, hands, eyes, and other features. Creature creation is a major part of the game, since many of the body parts affect other areas of gameplay. As the game progresses, these different parts will increase elements like attack and defense, sound, motion, speed, and more.

Eventually, you’ll have the option to move onto land and enter the Creature phase. Now you need to seek out a mate, reproduce, and maintain a nest. The area is surrounded by creatures both hostile and benign. You continue to gather DNA points, but now you can do so either by eating creatures or by befriending them. The combat is simple point-and-click, but you draw from an array of attack types determined by your creature design. Design also determines social interactions, as you can equip your creature to perform a variety of poses and sounds that appeal (or not) to other creatures.

As you’re expanding your territory, the creature is continuing to evolve, and its brain is growing. Once it reaches a certain level, you move on to the Tribal phase. Your control over specific elements of creature design fades, and you begin to focus on how these creatures behave. At this point, Spore begins to feel more like an RTS game, as you assign different tasks to your creatures, barter with other tribes, and domesticate creatures for food. Each time you befriend or destroy another tribe, you get a piece of a totem pole.

When you have enough pieces, you move on to the Civilization phase. The tribal camp becomes a city, you get a building and vehicle editor, and you start spreading your influence through both propaganda and force. At this point, Spore becomes a kind of mini-Civilization. Once this civilization reaches a certain size and technology level, the game zooms out to view the world from space. You get a spaceship editor, and can start expanding to other planets. By exploring, terraforming, and colonizing these planets, your creatures spread their influence throughout the universe. They’ll eventually encounter other beings—many of them created by other users—some hostile, some friendly.

The cumulative effect is simply dazzling. The game is one long, slow zoom out from an extreme closeup to a vast wide angle, encompassing the entire sweep of life from the tiniest organism to the far reaches of space. There is even a significant online component, since the creatures/tribes/civilizations of other users are uploaded to a central site, and may appear randomly in any user’s game. Thus, the life forms you encounter can be incredibly diverse, and not limited to those packaged with the game.

It is a simply spectacular achievement in game design, the culmination of Will Wright’s lifetime of experience building life simulations. Many games throughout the years have been called “God games.” Spore is, at last, the real thing.—Thomas L. McDonald

 

2010

Traditional (Nonelectronic) Games

Game of the Year: Small World
(Days of Wonder; designer: Philippe Keyaerts)
Read review.

Best New Abstract Strategy Game: Blox
(Ravensburger Germany/Funagain; designers: Wolfgang Kramer, Hans Raggan, and Jürgen P.K. Grunau)

Best New Advanced Strategy Game: Le Havre
(Lookout Games/Funagain; designer: Uwe Rosenberg)

Best New Family Game: Roll Through the Ages: The Bronze Age
(Fred Distribution; designer: Matt Leacock)

Best New Family Card Game: Amerigo
(DaVinci/Funagain; designer: Din Li)

Best New Family Strategy Game: Dominion/Dominion Intrigue (Expansion)
(Rio Grande Games; designer: Donald X. Vaccarino)

Best New Party Game: Dixit
(Asmodée Edition; designer: Jean-Louis Roubira)

Best New Puzzle: La Ora Stelo
(Kadon Enterprises; designer: Jacques Ferroul)

Best New Historical Simulation Game: Fields of Fire
(GMT Games; designer: Ben Hull)
 

Electronic Games 

Game of the Year: Batman: Arkham Asylum
(Eidos, PC/360/PS3, Rated: T)
Read review.

Best New Action Game: Red Faction: Guerrilla
(THQ; PC/360/PS3; Rated: M) 

Best New Casual Game: Plants vs. Zombies
(PopCap games; PC/Mac; Rated: E10)

Best New Role-Playing/Adventure Game: Little King’s Story
(Marvelous Entertainment;Wii; Rated: E)

Best New Sports Game: Fight Night Round 4
(EA Sports; 360/PS3; Rated: T)

Best New Strategy Game: Demigod
(Gas-Powered Games/Stardock; PC; Rated: T)

 

Small World
Days of Wonder, 2-5P, $50
Designer: Philippe Keyaerts

We welcome Belgian designer Philippe Keyaerts to the top spot for the second time. His Evo was our Game of the Year in December 2001. You start with five coins to dominate a tiny, overcrowded island of provinces in five terrains. There is always a column of six random combinations on the menu. Each combination is a tribal strip (valued from 3 to 8) representing a race with a unique advantage, accompanied by a Special Power token (valued from 2 to 5).

On your initial turn, select a combination and replenish the column. The column’s first combination is free—otherwise place a coin on every combination above your selection and take any coins previously deposited on your choice. Take a number of matching warrior squares equal to the total value of your combination, and invade. Start at an edge province, and expand to provinces adjacent to those you occupy. Place two warriors in an empty province. Mountainous provinces and each enemy encountered costs an additional warrior. Vanquished opponents retrieve all but one warrior (discarded) from conquered provinces, and replace them in their provinces when your turn ends.

You may roll the special die on your last invasion after nominating a province you do not have enough remaining warriors to conquer. If the die roll plus remaining warriors at least equals the number of warriors required, your warriors occupy the province; otherwise, place them in any provinces you control. After optionally transferring warriors between regions you occupy to assist defense, earn one coin for each of your provinces.

On future turns, continue expansion by redeploying warriors in play. Alternatively, put your weakened tribe into Decline by removing from play all but one in each territory. Declining frees you to select a new combination to invade next turn. Declined warriors, although immobile and powerless, earn coins until removed by conquest or when you decline another tribe. Being aware of available combinations and considering declining even when relatively strong is essential on the road to winning this intensely tactical game by having the most coins after the final round.

Fascinatingly different games are guaranteed with the enticing plethora of random combinations that in clever, and often amusing, ways strengthen attack, enhance defense, or increase income. We see a big future for this Small World, and look forward to expansions.—John J. McCallion and Robin H. King

Batman: Arkham Asylum
Eidos, PC/360/PS3, Rated: T

Batman: Arkham Asylum was a true last-minute upset. The idea that a licensed superhero game might not only be outstanding, but qualify as the best game of the year, just wasn’t feasible. Sure, there have been a few good superhero titles: Marvel Ultimate Alliance, The Spider-Man and Hulk series, and…actually, that’s about it. None ever transcended their license to become a great games on their own. But, as we explored Arkham Asylum more deeply, all the gameplay elements began to evolve, and the locations and story line opened up. We started making shocking comparisons—not to other superhero games, but to certified masterpieces like Bioshock (arguably the finest game of the last decade).

Yes, Arkham Asylum is that good. The combination of three disparate elements—stealth action, plain old brawling, and even a bit of detective work—takes some time to gel, but once it does, the game becomes almost impossible to put down. The upgrade system and gradual introduction of new abilities are remarkably satisfying, and 240 “Riddler puzzles” (including riddles that involve careful examination of the environment) add a tremendous depth and flexibility to the gameplay. The production is topnotch, with performances by the stellar voice cast of Batman: The Animated Series (including Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the definitive Joker) and a terrific story and script by comic book writer and TV producer Paul Dini. The film is saturated with Batman lore and fan-service, and loaded to the gills with villains from the Dark Knight’s rogues’ gallery. It is, simply (and without any undue hyperbole), the best superhero game, ever.—Thomas L. McDonald

2011

Traditional (Nonelectronic) Games

Game of the Year: Jump Gate
(Matt Worden Games; designer: Matt Worden)
Read review.

Best New Abstract Strategy Game: Arimaa
(Z-Man Games; designer: Omar and Aamir Syed)

Best New Advanced Strategy Game: Egizia
(Rio Grande Games; designer: Acchittoca)

Best New Family Game: Burger Joint
(Rio Grande Games; designer: Joe Huber)

Best New Family Card Game: Jaipur
(Asmodée Editions; designer: Sébastien Pauchon)

Best New Family Strategy Game: Valdora
(Rio Grande Games; designer: Michael Schacht)

Best New Party Game: Telestrations
(USAOPOLY; designer: USAOPOLY)

Best New Puzzle: Anti-Virus
(Fundex; designer: Oskar van Deventer)

Best New Historical Simulation Game: Battles of Napoleon: The Eagle and the Lion
(Fantasy Flight Games; designers: Sergio Guerri and Ugo Di Meglio)
 

Electronic Games 

Game of the Year: Super Mario Galaxy 2
(Nintendo, Wii, Rated: E)
Read review.

Best New Action/Arcade Game: Red Dead Redemption
(Rockstar; 360/PS3; Rated: M) 

Best New Adventure/Role-Playing Game: Mass Effect 2
(EA/BioWare; PC/360/PS3; Rated: M)

Best New Sports/Driving Game: Split/Second
(Disney Interactive Studios; 360/PS3/PC; Rated: E10)

Best New Strategy Game: StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty
(Blizzard; PC; Rated: T)

Best New App: Carcassonne
(Apple store; iPhone)

 

Jump Gate
Matt Worden Games, 2-6P, $29.95
Designer: Matt Worden

This game of relatively humble appearance by a local independent designer tops the list, beating out higher-priced titles from well-known inventors. It is one of the cleanest designs we have seen, making it easy to learn quickly. Casual gamers will love it. It has the potential to attract your unconvinced friends to the hobby. Still, it packs enough tough decisions into a short playing time to satisfy experienced gamers. It also offers something different from such ubiquitous mechanics as worker placement and resource management

There are eight planet cards around the Jump Gate (where spaceships begin) and the Black Hole. Everyone has a faceup random resource and hand of five action cards. Deal the remaining resources among the planets, with only one faceup card at each. Planets illustrate numbers—one Jump number, one Scan number, and two Landing numbers. Each action card has numbers in two categories.

You execute two actions per turn, but will surely want more. Actions permitted by discarding are: (a) Fly to a planet matching the card’s Jump number. Add a marker in your color to the Jump Gate. Score by having the most markers there when play ends. (b) Reveal a facedown resource at your ship’s planet. The card’s Scan number must match the planet’s. Add a Scan marker (worth 1 point). (c) Discard two cards with Landing numbers matching those on the unclaimed planet occupied. Add a Claim marker (worth 5 points). Reveal all resources there and take one. Those with Scan markers there also earn a resource. (d) Use the card’s special power.

Non-card actions are: (1) Move to an adjacent planet. (2) Take a resource from an occupied claimed planet. (3) Replenish cards, after optionally discarding any held.

Tempting special powers are: (1) Exchange places with another ship. (2) Remove two resources from the claimed planet occupied, or one from elsewhere. (3) Return a non-Claim marker to supply. (4) Scan a planet elsewhere. (5) Teleport (ignoring the Jump Gate). (6) Use the card instead of one Landing number when claiming. (7) Replenish cards and take an extra action.

Some resources demand that you place a marker on the Black Hole when acquiring them. When it sufficiently fills, play ends, and players having the most markers there lose random resources. Play also ends when all planets are claimed and only Black Hole resources are available.

Score also for your resources. Water earns from 2 to 32 points for one to eight cards. Gems earn their quantity, multiplied by the most you have in one of the three colors. Unaccompanied light or dark energy earns 2 points, but 7 when paired. Famous finds earn 5 points.

Highest score, like this superb design, rockets to victory.—John J. McCallion

Super Mario Galaxy 2
Nintendo, Wii, Rated: E

The original Super Mario Galaxy was a victim of poor timing here at GAMES. First, it shipped at an awkward point in the year (November), which means we didn’t get it in time for the 2007 awards. Second, a little masterpiece called BioShock (one of the best games of all time), shipped a couple of weeks later, and shut out all contenders for the 2008 Game of the Year Award.

In 2010 we can rectify that oversight, and unequivocally state that Super Mario Galaxy 2 is not only superior to the original, but that it is in fact the best electronic game of the year.

This isn’t just a consolation prize awarded because we couldn’t do that for the original game three years ago. Super Mario Galaxy 2 has earned its place at the top of the heap by the sheer mastery of its design.

All of the best elements of the original have been carried forward in this sequel. It has the same engine, visual style, control scheme, and design elements that made Super Mario Galaxy such a breakthrough pleasure. The first game took Mario’s familiar platforming gameplay—the jumping, bouncing, spinning, and soaring traversal of puzzle-like levels—through a dazzling array of inventive landscapes in, on, and around planets and other celestial bodies.

The sequel smoothes over the rough spots, eliminates what didn’t work, and expands upon what did. Galaxy 2 begins in the 2D world familiar to players of Super Mario Bros. for Wii, then gradually introduces more complex controls and environments until the player finds himself traversing lavish 3D worlds with shifting gravity, or soaring through space from one planet to another.

To accomplish this, Mario has some new resources in Galaxy 2, such as a Cloud Suit that allows him to create fluffy, temporary platforms, or a Rock Suit that allows you to use him like a bowling ball. Yoshi is also drafted into the space program—he can use his tongue to grab objects or his glowing power to illuminate hidden platforms. Players can even have a friend help out, with a more fully developed co-op mode that allows another player to hop in and help grab stars.

This is just a pure delight, with nary a single element out of place. Thanks to the more gradual learning curve, an in-game helper, and co-op play, this is a good pick for the whole family, even younger gamers. There is joy in here, and families with a Wii shouldn’t pass this one up.—Thomas L. McDonald

2012 Games of the Year and Other Awards

Traditional (Nonelectronic) Games

Game of the Year: Tikal II: The Lost Temple
(Asmodée Editions; designers: Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling)
Read review.

Best New Abstract Strategy Game: Confusion: Espionage and Deception
in the Cold War
(Stronghold Games; designer: Robert Abbott)

Best New Advanced Strategy Game: Die Burgen von Burgund
(The Castles of Burgundy)
(Alea/Funagain; designer: Stefan Feld)

Best New Family Game: Lemming Mafia
(Mayfair Games; designer: Michael Rieneck)

Best New Card Game: Hey Waiter!
(R&R Games; designer: Anthony Rubbo)

Best New Strategy Game: Glen More
(Rio Grande Games; designer: Matthias Cramer)

Best New Party/Manual Dexterity Game: Funfair
(Eggertspiele/Funagain; designers: Inka and Markus Brand, Peter Eggert, Philipp El Alaoui, Friedmann Friese, Michael Rieneck, Martin Schlegel, Stefan Stadler, Tobias Stapelfeldt, and Birgit Stolte)

Best New Puzzle: IQ Twist
(Smart/Tangoes USA; designer: Raf Peeters)

Best New Word Game: Pathwords
(ThinkFun; designer: Derrick Niederman)

Best New Historical Simulation Game: Command and Colors: Napoleonics
(GMT Games; designer: Richard Borg)
 

Electronic Games 

Game of the Year: Portal 2
(Valve, Xbox/PS3/PC, Rated: E10)
Read review.

Best New Action/Arcade Game: L.A. Noire
(Rockstar; 360/PS3; Rated: M) 

Best New Adventure/Role-Playing Game: Deus Ex: Human Revolution
(Square-Enix; Xbox/PS3/PC; Rated: M)

Best New Sports/Driving Game: Dirt 3
(Codemasters; Xbox/PS3/PC; Rated: T)

Best New Strategy Game: Shogun 2: Total War
(Sega; PC; Rated: T)

Best New Mobile/Handheld Game: Cut the Rope Series
(Zeptolab; iOS/Android)

 

Tikal II: The Lost Temple
Asmodée Editions, 2-4P, $50
Designers: Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling

In 1999 and 2005, our Games of the Year were Torres and Australia, respectively. Superb design partners Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling have again found the key to success in a very competitive year. Their latest multi-choice masterpiece has that wide appeal we demand from our top selection.

Your archaeologist starts outside an emerging Temple with several outer hexagonal rooms already excavated. Incongruously, you need keys matching door colors to enter recently excavated rooms.

Seed the six sites along the board’s flanking river with facedown random tiles. Sail clockwise on the river. Collect a tile where you stop, and use it. Tile awards include: (a) Keys. Keep them to open doors, or permanently store them to earn end-of-round points for sets. You must discard any key to sail around the river’s toll corner. (b) A Secret Passage, which may be spent to enter a room you cannot otherwise access. (c) Examine the top three facedown room hexagons and add one to a vacant Temple space. (d) Choose one of the top three Treasure tiles. (e) Select one of the top three Special cards. These offer privileges or ways to score extra points. (f) Add the top faceup Sanctuary hexagon to a vacant space. These are accessible from adjacent rooms’ doors.

Continue turns by moving your archaeologist to a room and put your flag there, scoring extra points if no other flags are there. The doors in that room, plus doors of matching color elsewhere where you have a flag, earn points equal to their total. Placing a flag at a sanctuary’s vacant space earns the illustrated reward.

Temple placements often allow attentive puzzle-minded players many opportunities to reap benefits long before opponents. Optionally, sell Treasures for current points when you sail around either of two specially marked corners. Selling amends the point values of all Treasure categories. This patient, long-term stratagem can thrust seemingly lost players to victory in thrillingly close contests.

The first round ends with all tiles taken. Reseed them for a second and final round. Highest score is Excavator Extraordinaire.—John J. McCallion (originally reviewed in May 2011 GAMES)

Portal 2
Valve, Xbox/PS3/PC, Rated: E10

Portal started as a school project, and was published as added content for Valve’s Orange Box compilation. These humble origins belie the heights to which it eventually would rise, and the original is now considered one of the classics of game design. Every inch of Portal was meticulously crafted, from the levels and puzzles to the outstanding storyline and voice acting. Although the game could be finished in about two hours, they were two of the best hours in gaming history.

The premise was loaded with potential. As in most action games, you run around a threatening landscape carrying a gun in a first-person perspective. The gun, however, doesn’t shoot bullets—it shoots portals. The first shot opens an entry portal. The second shot opens an exit portal. You can then walk through the first portal and emerge from the second. This simple element, when combined with carefully constructed environments, sets up an astonishing array of puzzles.

Portal 2 builds upon all of these elements to create a far more elaborate set of challenges. There is a heavier emphasis on story and humor, with outstanding voice acting matched to terrific comedy writing. It’s a larger, longer game, with fresh ways to interact with the environment. The new features include “excursion tunnels” to transport objects on a kind of enclosed conveyor belt, “aerial faith plates” that bounce you around a level (they require a “leap of faith” because you’re never quite sure where they’ll leave you), and various gels to boost speed, add bounce, or create portal-friendly surfaces.

The designers had a tough act to follow in creating Portal 2, and they accomplished the task with wit, style, and imagination. The game is just different enough to make it more interesting and challenging, but the solutions are never overly complex. They require analysis of the environment and the goals, and then a logical application of the tools at hand.—Thomas L. McDonald

 

2013 Games of the Year and Other Awards

Traditional (Nonelectronic) Games

Game of the Year: Trajan
(Ammonit Spiele; designer: Stefan Feld)
Read review.

Best New Abstract Strategy Game: Matter
(SimplyFun; designer: Touko Tahkokallio)

Best New Advanced Strategy Game: Village
(Tasty Minstrel Games; designers: Inka and Markus Brand)

Best New Family Game: Takenoko
(Asmodée Editions; designer: Antoine Bauza)

Best New Card Game: Decktet/Decktet Book
(Decktet; designer: P.D. Magnus)

Best New Strategy Game: Zong Shi
(Gryphon Games; designer: Kevin G. Nunn)

Best New Party Game: Pluckin’ Pairs
(R&R Games; designer: Stephen Glenn)

Best New Puzzle: Cool Circuits
(ScienceWiz; designers: Harry L. Nelson, Hiroshi Yamamoto, Kevin Norman, and Penny Norman)

Best New Word Game: Kerflip!
(Creative Foundry Games; designer: Damon Tabb)

Electronic Games 

Game of the Year: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
(Bethesda, 360/PS3/PC, Rated: M)
Read review.

Best New Action/Arcade Game: Batman: Arkham City
(Warner Bros.; 360/PS3/PC; Rated: T) 

Best New Adventure/Role-Playing Game: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning
(Electronic Arts; 360/PS3/PC; Rated: M)

Best New Strategy and Puzzle Game: Quantum Conundrum
(Square-Enix; PC; Rated: E)

Best New Mobile/Handheld Game: Where’s My Water? Series
(Disney; iOS/Android)

 

Trajan
Ammonit Spiele, 2-4P, $55.99
Designer: Stefan Feld

In last year's Games 100, we honored designer Stefan Feld by naming two of his games as Best and Runner-Up in the Advanced Strategy category. We never expected him to surpass those wonderful designs so soon!

In top place this year is another masterpiece for keen and experienced gamers. An ingenious adaptation of the mechanism of Africa’s classic mancala games presents a gargantuan feast of possible actions and numerous strategies.

Your personal mancala board’s six cups each start with two random cubes. Cubes are in six colors. Trajan tiles (six faceup thematic stacks) each show two colors; three Trajans also occupy three of your cups. Start turns by “seeding” all the cubes in any cup: Place one in each space clockwise from where you start. Execute the action printed on the cup where the last cube arrives. You also discard a Trajan in the last cup reached if that cup includes at least one cube of each color illustrated on the tile. These Trajans award you points and/or an additional action. What a mechanism to master before gorging yourself on actions!

Actions on the Roman Empire board are: (a) Add a Trajan tile to a vacant cup. (b) Occupy a vacant Building in the random plot, keeping each pawn adjacent to friends. Buildings in five types award points. First of each type you take earns an immediate extra action, and matching Buildings score extra at the end. (c) Draw commodity cards, or display combinations for points. (d) Select an Improvement from those revealed when rounds start. These include those you discard to take the matching action twice when executing it. (e) Move your General to an adjacent province to earn its random Improvement, or shift a pawn to the General’s province to score illustrated points. (f) Earn Senate points, which determine which players earn the two random Bonus Tiles revealed when rounds start. These score extra for required combinations when play ceases.

The number of cubes seeded determines a round’s progress. Three times per round a random People’s Demand (Bread, Games, or Religion) is revealed. When rounds end, anyone unable to spend Improvements with matching icons loses points. After four rounds, win with highest score.—John J. McCallion

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Bethesda, 360/PS3/PC, Rated: M

Even the worst years have some really standout titles, and 2012 is no exception. A gaming landscape with Batman: Arkham Asylum, Dark Souls, Quantum Conundrum, Uncharted 3, and Where’s My Water is a good year, if not a particularly title-rich one.

No game, however, hooked as many people for as long as Skyrim, the latest title in Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series. With people logging well over 100 hours in-game, this was the great time-suck of 2012.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is vast. It is epic. It achieves moments of grandeur unlike anything we have ever encountered in role-playing games. Yes, it is flawed in places, but these are the flaws of a system that occasionally breaks down under the immense strain created by pushing current technology to its very limits.

Players familiar with its immediate predecessors from Bethesda Softworks—The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout 3—will see much that is familiar, on the surface. This is a still an open-world, action-oriented RPG, heavy on dialogue and filled with quests, places to go, and things to kill.

But everything is simply better this time around. The potential hinted at in Oblivion and developed further in Fallout 3 is now fully manifested in Skyrim. Bethesda has created a dynamic, highly developed fantasy world populated with an immensely diverse selection of characters and spread across the most fully realized landscape ever seen in an electronic game.

There is much to love in Skyrim, but the biggest star of the show isn’t the graphics, the story, the character, or even the gameplay, but Skyrim itself. This world just cries out for exploration, from its sunlit valleys to its frozen mountain peaks, from the depths of monster-haunted dungeons to the frozen plains where peaceful giants (deadly if provoked) act as shepherds for woolly mammoths. Farms, homesteads, fortresses, and ancient ruins dot the landscape, beckoning travelers. The different cities each have a unique character and even a socioeconomic profile, from grand imperial seats to squalid, poverty-blighted areas where thieves and cutthroats lurk in shadows. Never has a fantasy world been so thoroughly and appealingly realized in a video or computer game, not even World of Warcraft.

The combat mechanics are quite simple but provide for ample flexibility. Each of your character’s hands is bound to a button and can be assigned a weapon, shield, or spell. Favorite spells and gear can be called up while the game pauses, allowing you to cast a spell, switch to weapon and shield, and then switch back to a spell, with each hand acting independently. The spells themselves come in a wide array of categories, such as healing, summoning, attacks, traps, and more. The game also features an incredibly robust crafting element that allows you to make, improve, and sell all manner of items from armor to potions.

This is a masterpiece of worldbuilding and epic storytelling, rich in content and featuring an immense amount of gameplay. It’s impossible to say how long it would take to see and do everything in the game, but Bethesda has claimed 300 hours of potential gameplay. It’s easy to believe. This is a monster of a game, and a masterpiece of interactive art.—Thomas L. McDonald

 

2014 Games of the Year and Other Awards

Traditional (Nonelectronic) Games

Game of the Year: Garden Dice/The Card Expansion
(Meridae Games; designer: Doug Bass)
Read review.

Best New Abstract Strategy Game: Kulami
(FoxMind; designer: Andreas Kuhnekath)

Best New Advanced Strategy Game: Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar
(Rio Grande Games; designers: Daniele Tascini and Simone Luciani)

Best New Family Game: Via Appia
(Queen Games; designer: Michael Feldkötter)

Best New Card Game: Morels
(Two Lanterns Games; designer: Brent Povis)

Best New Strategy Game: Triassic Terror
(Gryphon Games; designer: Peter Hawes)

Best New Party Game: Homestretch: Race to the Finish
(R&R Games; designer: Frank DiLorenzo)

Best New Puzzle: Laser Maze
(ThinkFun; designer: Luke Hooper)

Electronic Games 

Game of the Year: BioShock Infinite
(2K/Irrational Games, 360/PS3/PC, Rated: M)
Read review.

Best New Action Game: The Last of Us
(SCEA/Naughty Dog; PS3, Rated: M) 

Best New Puzzle/Adventure Game: Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine
(Majesco/Pocketwatch; PC/Mac/XBLA; Rated: T)

Best New Role-Playing Game: Animal Crossing: New Leaf
(Nintendo; 3DS; Rated: E)

Best New Strategy Game: XCOM: Enemy Unknown
(Firaxis/2K; PC/Xbox/PS3; Rated: M)

 

Garden Dice/The Card Expansion
Meridae Games, 2-4P, $34.95/$14.95
Designer: Doug Bass

First-time designer Doug Bass thoroughly deserves our top spot for his immensely enjoyable dice game that offers plenty of scope to control your destiny.

You begin this battle on a 6x6 garden with a Sundial, Bird, and Sun, and roll four regular dice to spend each turn. Use one die to purchase a vegetable seed of equal or lower value, and add a marker to it. Use two dice as the coordinates of a vacant space to place a purchased seed, Bird, or Sundial. The very tempting Sundial lets you amend dice used for coordinates. One die also lets you water (flip to crop side) a seed in play at most equaling the roll, or similarly harvest (remove) a crop for its value in points. Watering and harvesting spread that effect to all adjacent tiles of lower value, regardless of ownership, with the active player earning 1 extra point for each enemy harvested. No wonder placing lower values adjacent to competitors’ higher values is an oft-used ploy!

Move your Bird across vacant spaces up to the value of one die, to stop on reaching an enemy seed. You may then add another marker to the Bird to remove the seed from play, or “spit it out” with another roll at least equaling the seed’s value and retain it to place in future. Spend a 6 to flip the Bird to a Rabbit (or vice versa). Rabbits similarly devour crops reached. Any Bird or Rabbit may be ejected with three dice: a 6 plus both the coordinates of the targeted piece. These beasts will delight younger players, but can be greedy and frightening pests when used by astute adults. A 6 also flips your Sundial to a Scarecrow, which earns your adjacent crops extra points when harvested and protects them from pests. Abandoning the Sundial for this is not easy, but adroit use of this ploy marks an experienced and clever player.

When the last seed is purchased, earn points for sets (one of each crop) and collections (similar crops) harvested. Deduct points for unplanted seeds, but add points if you retained your Sun without using it to amend one die roll or reroll all dice. Bask in the sunshine of victory with most points.

A variant includes a Gnome that lets you amend dice when purchasing, watering, or harvesting. Adding to already enormous replayability is the card expansion. You always have three action cards and may play one per turn for its privilege (free watering or harvesting, extra points when harvesting or having configurations in play, etc.). When replenishing your hand reveals an Event, it replaces the current Event and affects all players. Events, for instance, permit rerolling one die, or demand extra pips for watering).

We are eminently qualified to assure you that it also plays well with two. My wife insisted that I bring it each time I visited her during a lengthy hospital stay.—John J. McCallion (originally reviewed in May 2013 GAMES)

BioShock Infinite
2K/Irrational Games
360/PS3/PC, Rated: M

The original BioShock won the coveted Electronic Game of the Year Award (December 2007 GAMES), and now the first sequel produced by the original team is scooping up this year's GOTY.

BioShock is one of the best games in the history of the medium. Complex, entertaining, and occasionally profound, it showed what games can do in the hands of creative people with big ideas. It’s taken six years—and a rumored $100 million budget—to make a worthy follow-up to the original. Bioshock Infinite arrives to massive expectations for something that takes us beyond Rapture, Daddies, and Little Sisters.

Anyone expecting a retread of the damp, claustrophobic atmosphere and objectivist critique of the first game is in for a shock from the opening moments. The world of BS Infinite is gloriously bright and colorful. It’s grounded in familiar elements—early 20th century, World's Fair-inspired Americana—with the addition of equal parts steampunk and dystopia. Men in straw boaters, ladies in long dresses, carnival midways, and barbershop quartets—there is color and life everywhere, all seen through a nostalgic haze. In the midst of this, there are rumblings that something is different, from the mechanized men to the disturbing undercurrent of fanaticism and racism, and the very singular fact that the city is floating.

Buildings dock and separate, dirigibles dot the air, and skyway rails link locations. The city of Columbia lifted off from America, announced its independence, and disappeared into the clouds. Some things connect our world to this one. At one point, an air barge drifts by with a quartet singing "God Only Knows" by the Beach Boys. It's a wonderfully whimsical moment, but like everything in Columbia, it's tinged with darkness: You soon learn that their idea of God isn't quite ours, and that this idea drives much of the madness that ensues.

The game, which uses the Unreal engine, is not just gorgeous. That's to be expected in 2013. The wonderful thing is the staggering amount of visual style and invention on display. This is a dazzling act of world-building.

The gameplay is in the same mode as the original: narrative first-person action with conventional weapons, personal modifications, and special powers. Whereas the original Bioshock had plasmids, Infinite has “vigors,” which provide special attacks such as a rain of fireballs or a murder of crows that shoot from your hands. Enemies range from simple thugs to mechanized men to a giant mechanical guardian crow. As with other games in the series, you move through the world completing objectives, occasionally following subquests, collecting recordings that fill in the narrative, and killing enemies.

As the game goes on, the narrative becomes dizzyingly complex, drawing in parallel universes and bizarre time-space paradoxes. If people were worried that the team at Irrational couldn’t top the depth and imagination of the original game, they needn’t have worried: BS Infinite is brimming with ideas, people, and gameplay. It doesn’t always hold together, and it’s not as fresh as the original, but it’s a virtuoso performance that entertains as it challenges.—Thomas L. McDonald

Previous Game of the Year Awards

2004 (Traditional): New England (Überplay)
2004 (Electronic): The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (Nintendo)
2003 (Traditional): Dvonn (Rio Grande)
2003 (Electronic): Neverwinter Nights (Atari)
2002 (Traditional): Evo (Eurogames-Descartes USA)
2002 (Electronic): Black & White (Electronic Arts)
2001 (Traditional): Aladdin’s Dragons (Rio Grande)
2001 (Electronic): The Sims (Maxis/EA and Aspyr)
2000 (Traditional): Torres (Rio Grande)
2000 (ElectronicóComputer): Half-Life (Sierra Studios)
2000 (ElectronicóConsole): The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo)
1999 (Traditional): Fossil (Rio Grande)
1999 (Electronic): Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee (GT Interactive)
1998 (Traditional): Quoridor (Great American Trading Co.)
1998 (Electronic): Obsidian (SegaSoft/Rocket Science)
1997 (Traditional): 25 Words or Less (Winning Moves)
1997 (Electronic): Links LS (Access)

(Note: Beginning in December 1996, Games of the Year were designated with the date of the upcoming year. Thus, the 1995 Games of the Year appeared in December 1995 Games, but the 1997 Games of the Year appeared in December 1996 Games.)

1995 (Traditional): Sharp Shooters (Milton Bradley)
1995 (Electronic): Virtual Pool (Interplay)
1994: Myst (Broderbund)
1993: Inklings (Mattel)
1992: Pipeline (Playco Hawaii)
1991: Trumpet (International Games)

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