The 2010s in Review: My Favorite Games

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The past ten years have been a big decade for gaming and for me as a gamer. I launched this blog (which I haven’t posted to in more than two years). I became president of Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY, NYC’s oldest continuously active gaming group, now in its fourth decade. And, I played a lot of games.

So, here’s my oddball list of 16 games I deem as my favorite of the 2010s. My list isn’t necessarily the most innovative games of the past ten years (although some are) and many are not widely popular (again, some are). These are the games that got back to the table over and over again as other new games came and went.

First up are a few games that capture my love of Marvel comic books and Star Wars from my 1970s childhood. Fantasy Flight Games has really exploded with Star Wars games over the past decade, and while I’ve played most of them, Rebellion and Imperial Assault are my standouts for capturing the story of Star Wars at the epic interplanetary level and as a sci-fi adventure campaign. Both games have incredible design, artwork and plastic miniatures which really speak to the toy nerd in me. The deck-builder Marvel Legendary also captures the teamwork which is the hallmark of Marvel heroes and villains. All three games take me deep into the real storytelling feel of being in the pages of a comic book or a movie.

My other childhood obsession was Dungeons & Dragons. Lords of Waterdeep captures the flavor of D&D within one its most fabled campaign settings dropped into a boardgame that feels like an adventure quest. Back to the classic RPG style of play, the D&D 5th Edition Starter Set brought me back to the table for the first time in years with a slimmed down all-in-one boxed rule set that felt akin to the fast-moving games of my childhood.

From superheroes, science fiction and fantasy, my love swings to American history. The American War of Independence plays out n my two favorite games of that period — Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection and 1775: Rebellion. In 1775, a simple block, card and dice mechanic allows play of the entire war in about 90-minutes and serves as a fantastic entry into the period and wargaming. With LOD, GMT’s COIN (counterinsurgency) mechanic of asymmetric conflict breathes new and nuanced complexity of the often-simplified formative American story.

From the American Revolution, my interest stepped back to the French and Indian War. This was the period that really fired my imagination the past few years with a dive into dozens of books and several long trips visiting historic sites of the era in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and New York. A Few Acres of Snow was my first game of the period and remains one of hands-down favorites with its two player asymmetric, deck building that still challenges over multiple plays as the French and British. My miniatures wargaming interest also swung heavily to the FIW with Muskets & Tomahawks. The quick-playing, card-driven mechanics of the game really captures the clash of British, Indian, French and Canadian forces, and I’ve spent countless hours researching and writing historic scenarios for significant engagements of the period which I’ve run at multiple miniatures gaming conventions as well as my club. A new version of the long out-of-print rules is due in 2020, so I’m very much looking forward to what the game brings next.

Two other historical games I’ve loved deal with two difficult subjects that have significantly shaped American history. Freedom: The Underground Railroad tackles slavery and the fight of abolitionists to bring it to its end through exceedingly challenging gameplay that involves often heartbreaking choices of who does and doesn’t make it to freedom in Canada. Fast-forwarding to the 21st-century, Labyrinth: The War On Terror covers the endless war of the US and coalition forces in the Middle East. As the wars continue, the game has received updated expansions bringing the game’s events and mechanics right up to the current news of the day from the 9/11 attacks to the Arab Spring to today. Both games show the power of games as tools to model and understand history ways few others do.

With time at a premium, there were a few games that filled the gap for 30-minute or less time slots at the beginning or end of a long evening’s game session or when a quick game just fits the bill. The patterned tile placement in a Azul is great for my non-gamer friends as well as experienced players, plus, it has my favorite mechanic of pulling the very satisfying heavy tiles out of a bag. Fuse also has a tactile angle with fast rolls of dice placed into patterned puzzles to be solved against a nerve-wracking countdown app. Finally, The Mind takes a super simple deck of 100 chronologically numbered cards and turns it into a really interesting exercise in how we play collaboratively with others without the benefit of verbal communication.

I play a lot of the above games and others with my family, and one we’ve returned to repeatedly is Five Tribes. The game, set in a fantasy sultanate, scratches all the Eurogame itches of colorful wooden meeples, a modular board, beautiful card artwork and some easy to grasp but hard to master strategies. We’ve taken this game on the road more than just about any game in my collection.

Finally, I wasn’t alone in my obsession with the wildly-popular Root. The game combines so many things I love about games — fantasy, adventure, great art — in an asymmetric clash of woodland animals. With what it presents simply on the surface, the game taps into a wargaming feel that bridges all the games I’ve enjoyed so much over the past ten years.

Aside from all the games above I’ve enjoyed, I have to also celebrate the 2010s coming to a close on a personal gaming note. After some fours decades as a gamer, I was thrilled to co-found Campaign Games and launch a successful Kickstarter in the late summer of 2019 for Forts & Frontiers: The Feast of the Dead Deluxe. Combining the mechanics of D&D 5th Edition with my love for the story of 17th-century European-Indian history in North America, the game was well-received during Free RPG Day 2019 and continues to playtest well at conventions. To end the year and decade on the other side of the table as a game creator is a thrill I’ll watch unfold over the coming year and into the 2020s.

New Game Weekend: Legendary

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I’ve been a Marvel Comics collector and fan since the 1970s, but my gaming experience with my favorite super heroes has always been a less than satisfying experience. TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes Role-Playing Game never really played like the feel of a comic book back in the 1980s, and my brief experience with the Heroclix system in the past few years has also left me flat even with some great looking toys. And so, I was thrilled when I recently got into Legendary, a game that finally placed me directly in the midst of the wide Marvel Universe of heroes and villains.

Legendary Expansions

Fantastic Four, Paint The Town Red and Guardians of The Galaxy expansions

Released by collectibles giant Upper Deck in 2012, Legendary is a deck-building card game in which players take on the roles of super heroes doing battle with super villains in a near endless combination of scenarios and team-ups. Legendary is gloriously illustrated with all-original artwork with a hefty base game box containing heroes and foes primarily drawn from the Avengers, X-Men and Spider Man storylines. Additional expansion sets pull players into the cosmic worlds of the Fantastic Four and Guardians of the Galaxy, as well as the streets of New York populated by Daredevil, Elektra, Black Cat and Spider Woman.

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Sample X-Men and Spider Man cards

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Sample Fantastic Four and Guardians of the Galaxy cards

Each hero is presented in a series of 14 cards of progressively higher value and ability. Team affiliations are depicted with small icons and values for recruiting other heroes and attacks are found at the bottom of the card. Special abilities and bonuses through interaction with other cards are listed along with colorful flavor text under the hero’s illustration. And so, each hero’s range of abilities is represented over the set of cards, allowing each character to grow in strength and use different powers or abilities throughout the game.

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Sample Mastermind, Henchmen and Villain cards

Evil doers in Legendary are divided into three categories. Mastermind cards depict the powerful, lead villian like Doctor Doom, Magneto or Galactus within a given game and are represented with a stack of five cards. Henchmen are a group of identical cards of lower level bad guys such as Doombots and Hand Ninjas with limited abilities. Villain cards feature characters from teams of arch enemies from groups like the Sinister Six, Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, Hydra or Skrulls, each with varying abilities, effects and strength. Like the super hero cards, Villains, Masterminds

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The Legendary game board

A game of Legendary is played on two levels. The players work collaboratively as a group of heroes to beat the game itself represented by the villains. If the players collectively win the game, points are tallied with each player based on the number of villains each player has defeated. The player with the most points wins. The mix of individual competition and teamwork is just one of the ways Legendary really feels like a comic book story as super heroes team up to achieve a unified goal while also performing heroic feats as individuals.

Legendary begins with the selection of a Scheme (ie scenario) which gives the conditions of victory for the heroes and villains. A Mastermind is chosen to represent the lead baddie in the game, and then Henchmen and Villain cards are selected. A Villain deck is created by shuffling in all Villains and Henchmen along with Scheme cards and Masterstrike cards which allow for attacks by the Mastermind. Depending on the number of players, a set of Hero cards are also shuffled together into a Hero deck. Choosing the mix of Heroes and Villains are sometimes dictated by the Scheme, can be done randomly or may be done by making specific selections. Part of the fun of Legendary is in the combinations of cards used to create the numerous combinations of Hero and Villain decks

Each player is given a starter deck of identical twelve S.H.I.E.L.D. Hero cards and all other decks are placed on the Legendary game board. Six cards are drawn by each player from their shuffled starter decks. Five Hero cards are drawn from the top and laid out face up in the S.H.I.E.L.D “HQ” area and made available in turn to each player to “recruit” into their deck each turn based on recruitment points on their six cards in hand. Players may also play cards from their hand to fight Villains drawn each turn from the Villain deck and placed face up in the “City” area on the board. As each new Villain is turned up, other Villains shift down the City row and may be fought be players playing attack points on their available hand of cards. Played Hero cards also contain a variety of abilities, often used in combination with other cards to greater effect. Hero abilities can allow for extra cards to be drawn or discarded, stronger attacks, automatic defeat of Villains, extra recruitment value and numerous other special effects. Defeated Villains provide positive and negative effects on players and are then scored in a victory point pile for each player. Villains who move down the City track escape, causing negative impacts to the players. Scheme cards drawn from the Villain deck likewise cause bad things to happen. At the end of a player’s turn, a new hand is drawn back to six cards and play passes to the next player.

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One of my many recent games of Legendary

Legendary thus plays over a variety of turns as more Heroes are recruited into a player’s available deck, Masterminds and Villains are defeated, Bystanders are rescued and progress is made in defeating the Scheme before the bad guys win. Hero cards from the same or aligned teams combine to powerful effect, and certain Villain and Hero cards also interact in different ways. Getting the right number and combination of hero cards moving through a deck is key as the game progresses.

There are so many things I love about Legendary. Primarily, the game just “feels” like a comic book. Teams, like the Fantastic Four, X-Men or Avengers, work best together, combining skills and abilities to powerful effect against Villains. Individual Hero abilities each play with the superpowers known from the comic book canon. For example, Rogue from the X-Men is able to siphon abilities off other Heroes and Hulk rages and sometimes causes damage to Villains and Heroes alike.

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The big Dark City expansion for Legendary

I got into Legendary in a big way over the 2014 holiday season with the base game and Fantastic Four, Paint The Town Red, Guardians of The Galaxy and Dark City expansions. With hundreds of Mastermind, Villain, Henchmen, Hero and Scheme cards available, each game plays in a nearly endless variety. With the modern Marvel Universe dating back to 1961 and re-invigorated with a constant flow of hit blockbuster movies since 2000, Legendary draws richly on the complex intersecting storylines from a half century of comic book popular culture.

Legendary has started me off in 2015 with a new game favorite and one my entire family has enjoyed playing together. As a lifelong fan and gamer, Legendary has finally given me the chance to team up with my favorite heroes from the Marvel Universe.

Retro Gaming The 70s & 80s: Marvel Super Heroes Role-Playing Game

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Way back in the late 1970s, well before we had summers filled with superhero movies, I was a comic book collector. Those were the days when my younger brother and I bought our weekly fix of Marvel and DC superheroes off a squeaky rotating rack in a corner store, all for under a dollar each. Eventually our collecting graduated to visiting comic book shops, flea markets, yard sales and small regional comic book conventions in Western New York. As our collection grew into thousands of books by the mid-1980s, my brother and I were receiving weekly warehouse wholesale shipments and were bidding on lots of older books through auctions by mail. Both of us sold-off the majority of our collections in the late 1980s and early 1990s before the market became glutted, eBay arrived on the scene and CCG-graded comics became the new collecting norm.

timetrapI still have a significant, albeit more scaled-down, interest in comic books to this day. Yet as I recall those peak collecting years in the early 80s, my mind eventually takes me to memories of 1984 and TSR’s release of Marvel Super Heroes: The Heroic Roleplaying Game. The game arrived during big expansion years for TSR as the popularity of their flagship Dungeons & Dragons franchise continued to grow in player fandom and pop culture infamy. Winning the Marvel license allowed TSR to launch a new game with a built-in base of players which had a lot of cross-over interest in comic books and gaming (like myself). Despite the promise of the total package of the Marvel Universe delivered in a RPG by the makers of D&D, the Marvel Super Heroes game never really delivered.

murderworldThe core box came with a quick start “Battle Book” and a more detailed “Campaign Book.” Also included was an introductory scenario, “Day of the Octopus,” plus a fold-out map, character reference cards and some rudimentary markers. TSR quickly expanded the game with a number of accessories including a couple sets of poor quality metal miniatures and quite a number of game adventures following the module model which had proven so successful with D&D. An eager collector, I snapped up a bunch of adventure books, including “Time Trap” featuring the Avengers and “Murderworld!” starring the Fantastic Four. Expansions also included a number of adventures which featured “adventure fold-up figures.” Unable to help myself, I happily bought the Hydra-themed “Pit of the Viper” edition along with a few others.

pitofviperDrawing on the stable of established Marvel characters, the game looked great. Mechanics borrowed broadly from D&D with “Attributes” establishing the primary strengths of a super hero on a scale of 1-100. “Superpowers” defined unique abilities while “Talents” were a set of skills a character could draw upon. A system of “Karma” (similar to D&D Experience) allowed for character upgrades. The problem I quickly found with the game was that you played characters within an established set of backgrounds and relationships. Spider-Man, Thor or The Human Torch carried enormous backstories, robbing players of the opportunity to create and grow a character from the ground up like in the more pure RPG realm of D&D. Eventually, I was buying the expansions simply to read the text and assemble the little cardboard figures and terrain pieces.

Despite the mediocre quality of the game overall, TSR went on the release a revised version of the game in the late 1990s. More than anything else, the second edition of the game was probably an effort to retain the license from Marvel. Even so, Marvel and TSR eventually parted ways by the early 2000s.

So much of my generation was defined by the first modern wave of toy licensing with Star Wars that I can hardly fault TSR for jumping on the brand-extending bandwagon with Marvel. It’s amazing to me the game lasted so long given my memory of its lack of interesting play. This is one game I can’t foresee ever returning to. Its true superpower lay in how deep the marketing of those characters was a part of me then and stays with me today.

Collector’s Note: Most probably owing to the low quality of the game, the original TSR  Marvel Super Heroes game starter box set and most expansions can be found on eBay for under $20 each.