In my opinion, 2003 has been a very good year. While no single game stands out above all the rest, many of the new games this year I expect to continue to do well. I've played over 270 different games this year, and here are my picks for the best.
Top 10 New Games
Amun Re. This is probably not ever going to be in my overall top 10, but will be in the top 40. An outstanding game with some interesting strategic variety.
Attika. This is quite new, but seems to have enough going for it to last.
Finstere Flure. Some people don't go for the kind of chaos this game has, but with 4 or 3 players, it has enough control for my tastes.
Balloon Cup. While this isn't likely to usurp Battle Line or Lost Cities, this is a respectable "little brother" to these classics.
Europa Tour/10 Days in Africa. I like the 10 Days in Africa rule changes substantially better than Europa Tour, and I like that quite a bit.
Paris Paris. This seems to have fallen out of favor, but it's good enough and was a big enough hit this year that it earned this spot.
Coloretto. I'm awful at this, but I'll keep playing it in hope of eventually doing a bit better.
King Lui. Arguably the lightest on this list (though VisualEyes, below is close), but fun and easy to teach.
DieFugger. See my earlier comments
VisualEyes & New England (tie). I think VisualEyes is a clever and effective party game. New England didn't hit home with me as much as it did for some, but I am eager to play more.
Top 10 Old Games
Electronic Catchphrase. Just when I think this is falling out of favor, this becomes better and better.
Light Speed. This has surpassed Pico as my favorite 5 minute game.
Puerto Rico. This continues to be everything everyone says it is.
6 nimmt!. This is now the game of choice for 6 or more players.
Crokinole. We got one of these for our office and it continues to be enjoyed.
Can't Stop. This is essentially the game of choice for 3 players.
Fresh Fish. I still love this game.
Password. I hadn't played a lot of Password in the past, but it got a bunch of plays this year.
Princes of Florence. Another classic. Played with the G8GameTimer it is very interesting.
Filthy Rich. This OOP game is clever and fun, if random. Clever goes a long way with me.
Attika is a very good development game. It does seem to have one issue, however. Especially in the four player game, the "connect two shrines" win condition seems to occur too often, and when it does, it seems heavily luck driven. When the game is played to the other win condition (building all 30 buildings) it seems much more satisfying, and the luck factor seems substantially more manageable.
There have been claims that shrines becoming connected is simply an effect of the players being inexperienced. This seems reasonable, but it doesn't make it any more satisfying. While Attika will certainly get a great deal more play, it may often be with those who have not had a huge amount of experience with the game, and having the game end with a "sudden death" connection seems a shame, especially given how much more fun the game can be when played toward the 30 building goal. The connecting of shrines just feels disappointing as a win condition.
There seem two obvious fixes to this:
Eliminate the shrines altogether. Someone claimed this was way the game was originally. If so, it may be worth trying that way
Provide some other bonus for connecting shrines. My inclination would be to give a card bonus, such as "draw 4 cards" when you connect two shrines. This would encourage shrine connection, but a few lucky early draws wouldn't give someone the game.
I'll probably play Attika a few more times with the published rules before I try one of these variants, but they are appealing. I played again (with the official rules, withe 3 players) and two shrines got connected, after each player had built about 15 buildings. While I wouldn't say the win was undeserved, it is still substantially less satisfying. I think next time I play I'll try the "draw 5 cards" variant I describe above. I finally got around to playing with the the variant, with 4 cards as the "bonus". I like it better, but I think 4 cards may be an insufficient bonus. The problem with eliminating the shrin connection altogether (or too small of a bonus) is that it eliminates much of the motivation to pay attention to what other players are doing. When it's the win condition, it's absolutely essential to pay a lot of attention, and that's a nice feature. We did have a bit of play where players tried to connect shrines, and some of others trying to stop them, but the winner was one of the players who neither connected nor spent much resources blocking connections. I find the game much more satisfying when played to the 30 tile end condition, so I will definitely try this variant again, probably with a 6 card bonus. We'll see.
I finally got around to playing this game from Cwali which they were giving away free with any purchase at Essen. It exceeded my expectation for a free game. It's a quick little game of set collecting with several constraints. Very nice.
Highest 6 nimmt! winning score
I played a game of 6 nimmt! last night, and the winning score was 63. Wow.
Now that's it has been a month, I have some perspective on which games are the real hits. The two conspicuous standouts are Attika (see my comments/concerns though) and FinstereFlure, with DieFugger, Feurio and Pingvinas being pretty solid lighter games. I still haven't played PrincesOfTheRenaissance, which may well deserve a spot on the "hits" list, based on other comments I've heard.
There are a lot of Whist variants. By "Whist variant" I mean any game reasonably closely resembling the trick taking style of Whist. I don't include "climbing trick-taking" games like Dalmuti, Frank's Zoo or Tichu, but do include Whist, Bridge, Mu, Wizard, Sticheln, Die Sieben Siegel, Spades, Hearts, Hattrick, Foppen, Flaschenteufel, Twilight, Oh Hell, and any number of other similar games.
Broadly, I think of these games as falling into 3 categories: "like Spades", "Klaus Palesch-like" and "clever". Obviously, Spades is much newer than many so you could argue that Spades is "like Bridge", not the other way around. I don't care. I think Spades, while perhaps not the pinnacle of Whist-like games, is a good ruler to measure by. Klaus Palesch doesn't have a monopoly on the kind of game I'm giving his name, but he sure makes a lot of them (Sticheln, Mit List und Tucke, Hattrick), but there are others such as David & Goliath by Reinhard Staupe. Finally, "clever" is obviously a very subjective term and I'm setting the bar pretty low, but some of those in this category are very very clever. Perhaps "none of the above" would be a better category name.
My favorite variety tend to be the "clever" games, but I enjoy all three types. What I don't understand though is the surprising enthusiasm people seem to have for the various "like Spades" games that appear, that, to me, are all pretty similar. In particular, recently "Die Sieben Siegel" has gotten some very positive reviews. Come on, it's a fine game, but I get enough of that with Spades or Wizard.
So, rather than try to fully categorize everything, I'm going to list and put some comments here on ones I am especially fond of in the "clever" category:
"Clever" Whist like games
Twilight/Jeckyl & Hyde. One of the best, cleverest in the category!
Schnappchen Jagd. This one almost goes in one of the other two categories, but it's just different enough.
Was Sticht? This one probably belongs in the "like Spades" category, but the hand drafting is pretty clever