Recently, I joined a discussion on Facebook (oops) and mentioned how much I’d enjoyed being the first written review of Splendor on BGG, just loving the game at first sight, and seeing that love confirmed by many others. Someone rightly called me out that other’s opinions shouldn’t validate mine, but what I meant was more that sharing the joy of that game with others gave me the warm fuzzies. I certainly don’t mind being the lone voice in the wilderness, and I’ve been that guy plenty of times, but slamming a game just isn’t that fun or that exciting to write. So, instead, here’s a list of games I think are fantastic, and seem to be quite underrated on BGG, criminally so. If I’m going to stand alone, I’m going to talk about some really great games while I’m doing it.
Wait, criminally? I’m not going to call the cops on anyone, but let’s quantify that. In my experience, most games are just mediocre – maybe around 6 to 6.5 on BGG. It seems that the good games manage more than a 7.0, and the great ones manage a 7.5 or higher. These games all score below a 7 on average at BGG, but I’d rate them as 9s or 10s (and have reviewed them on the MeepleTown scale as 4s or 5s). Over 2 points difference? That’s criminal! Each entry in the series will try to explain why a couple of games are so great, and give some conjectures as to why the BGG masses disagree. Here we go!
BGG rating: 6.91646
My rating: 9 (Our review)
Why It’s Awesome: “Remember the glory days, back when the Spiel des Jahres nominees were good?” What, you mean like, yesterday? Guys, they might not be ‘hardcore’ like they used to be, but they’re better than ever. In a different year, this might’ve won the award if not stuck against the innovative Hanabi. Yet Rise of Augustus is innovative in its own right, turning Bingo into an actual game – meaning instant accessibility, along with all the push-your-luck excitement present in Bingo (even more, in fact, since Bingo merely gives that illusion). Top it off with amazing artwork from Vincent Dutrait and super cool awesome card combos which is about my favorite thing ever, and this game is an instant classic. It’s a personal favorite; the only reason I rated it a 9 over a 10 is that I fear the Senator-rush is probably a dominant strategy. Where’s that expansion, people?
Why BGG Got It Wrong: I think this is entirely about perception. This is a (very) light family game, and could have been a big hit in chain stores with slightly simpler rules and a different theme (this one’s too… hobbyist). Instead, it’s got all the wrong marketing going against it. First, Paolo Mori’s last big game was the drab gamer’s game Vasco da Gama. Second, it’s got a gigantic box relative to the game; it’s a Ticket to Ride style box, yet the whole game fits in the cloth bag it comes with. Finally, despite only having a $40 MSRP, the tiny-contents-versus-box-size conundrum betrays the game and makes it feel like a bit of a ripoff, even though those 40 dollars are well-deserved after all the designing, playtesting, artistry and printing/distribution. A smaller box, fewer abilities/rules and more family-style theme, and this game would be selling like hotcakes. Instead, everyone’s missing out on one of the best games of 2013. I shed a tear every time I see this game on clearance.
BGG rating: 6.74576
My rating: 9 (Our review)
Why It’s Awesome: You can tell just by playing this game that Matthew Dunstan put a lot of thought into the mechanics of this game, just as he said in our interview. The general concept of an “emergent game” comes through – the game starts simple, but really escalates as the game progresses. 7 Wonders gives me a similar feeling with its structure, where you seem to be doing somewhat piddly things in Age I, but in Age III you’re building cards with these crazy costs. Here, instead of just picking crazy-looking cards, you’re pushing that feeling to the extreme by doing insane moves and combining a bunch of different special abilities in whatever way you can imagine. A rewarding byproduct of the escalating complexity of the game is that when big scoring turns happen (the “relic runs”), you feel extraordinarily clever for pulling them off, unable to avoid some humblebragging while you count up your points for the turn. Many games have you feeling like you’ve “lucked into” some big moves; even if that might occasionally be true in Relic Runners, every big score still feels like a well-earned accomplishment. While that’s my favorite aspect of the game, it’s got everything else you could want – a simple central mechanism surrounded by cool special powers (did I mention I like those?), reasonable playing time, gorgeous artwork and twenty holy-crap-amazing relic miniatures, and much more.
Why BGG Got It Wrong: It’s perception again. This is not a family game, despite Days of Wonder marketing it as such. It’s got too many rules, especially a few tiny, easily forgotten ones. But it’s not just that – this game is a brain-burner! Five Tribes, despite all its accolades, got some slack for just having too many dang options, although they dwindle as the game goes on. The options in Relic Runners grow instead of shrinking, but on any later turn, there are so many options across the tiles on the board, your abilities, your paths, your toolboxes… And the fact that your opponents’ options are somewhat possible to anticipate, just adds to the brain-burning, while Five Tribes is so overwhelming that you just play from your gut. The rules of the game also make it look like multiplayer solitaire, but it’s deeply interactive – if you’re not attentive to what others are doing, you’ll have your moves stolen right out from under you. Everyone who (wrongly) crapped on Kingdom Builder for its 1-terrain-card restriction and its lack of interaction should be playing this instead, but it’s like no one got the memo. Truly an amazing game – I might argue that this was Days of Wonder’s first gamer’s game, but, hey, what do I know?
What games do you find “criminally” underrated? Sound off in the comments or on Facebook!