I've been dreading doing this one, but I'm going to go ahead and get to it.
Best Game is an easy category. Best Game is tough as hell. Both statements are true.
I'm sure that I said Best Game came easily to me at some point along the way, and I meant it at the time, but in retrospect that is a dirty, rotten lie.
I love games. Game systems are perhaps my absolute favorite thing to read, and so most of these entries went right to the top of the list. That made it easy. What made it hard was finalizing the choices.
As a rule most games do things their own way. It makes them interesting to read, but can make them hard to judge against one another. How do you measure the extreme coolness of something like Spirit of the Century against the fabulousness of Burning Empires? How do you measure the high-flying wuxia of Qin against the two-fisted action of Hollow Earth? I'll let you know if I figure it out.
So, failing any kind of objective measure, you go with your gut. Best Game is about the whole package, but focusing more on game play than the little details, that's what Production Values and the Art categories are for. It's easy because, honestly, who doesn't have one or two favorite systems? It's hard because there is just so much that it takes to make a game tick. This is the category where I did by far most of my playtesting, and I still felt like I needed to give things a bit more of a go before I was done. It's... complex.
How complex? Half way through the process I decided I hated a game that I had been advocating for weeks. I still owe the other judges an apology. Every time I played it I fell a little bit more out of love.
Week by week my top list changed. I liked this game, but that game over there has this really cool mechanic... Here's a little secret. See how all the categories have an Honorable Mention? Look at Best Game. It has two. That's right. We simply couldn't narrow it down any further. The only other category allowed two is Product of the Year, and that's only because it represents such a wide assortment of products. Best Game has two because there was no way one more would drop in any kind of timely fashion.
In the end I managed to take a deep breath, compare my notes, and lget down to business. The final list I came up with was strong, and though it was missing some of my favorites, everything on there was a credit to the hobby.
Here's where we get to the dread part, and I know this'll cost me some of the kudos I've gotten from a long time reader, but I feel like I'm partially responsible for Spirit of the Century not quite gaining a nomination. Don't get me wrong, I gave it a much-deserved vote, but I never really backed it the way I should have. It's a great game, brilliant even, but to be honest, I liked Don't Rest Your Head better. It simply fit my personal style more, and I concentrated on it more early on instead of backing the horse with better legs.
I mentioned once before that Paul Tevis made me fall in love with a game. That game was Don't Rest Your Head. I read it the first time at the end of a long night, and thought, "Cool, a game about insomniacs with interesting powers." Then I set it aside. A few weeks later, while working on the Podcast category, I heard Paul talk about a game he participated in, and it sounded incredible. So I sat down and read the whole thing again. I was hooked.
Publishers, never doubt the power of the podcasting community. Have Games, Will travel has sold me an RPG and two board games (and I'm not a board gamer). Godzilla sold me on two more RPGs, and Gamer the Podcasting sold me one. By sold I mean I literally ran out and bought the books as soon as possible. It would probably have been more, but I have a very extensive collection already, and let's face it, I had just gotten 239 of the best products the industry has to offer sent to me.
Ok, so tangent aside, here are my thoughts on a few of my favorite picks that didn't make it. I don't have my books or notes with me, so bear with me if I forget something you want to hear about. Let me know, and I'll be glad to discuss it.
I'll start with Cold City because it was the only game I published a review on with a perfect score. I absolutely loved this book, but it just didn't garner enough support. If you care about my thoughts though, feel free to read my review here. I'd link it, but I can't access my blog at work.
Next, I'll briefly mention Don't Rest Your Head. I already went over my unnatural love of this book, so I won't hit this in any kind of great detail, but it is so much more than I can convey with any kind of simple description. I'm a sucker for neat mechanics, and the system here is simple, but subtly powerful. Tough player choices result in a steady descent toward disaster. Players buy their own doom in the best tension-building mechanic I've ever seen. If you really want something badly enough you have these great little exhaustion dice to give you just the boost you need, but as the number of dice grows you have to wonder, "Is it worth it?" Ok, enough. Great setting, great system, crazy judge, you get the point.
Finally I'm going to touch on Burning Empires. There were a number of really great games entered that didn't get the nod, but this one stands out for so many reasons that I'm just going to take the easy way out and point out the the winner of the Origins award for this category didn't get a nomination from us. That doesn't mean we didn't like it. Far from it really. It was, after all, nominated in two categories, and it received votes in several more. This is one loss that surprised me as much as anyone else. It's a fantastic book, and I think it mostly just suffered at the hands of the other strong competition. I think that, with this being the most competitive category, it got lost as everyone tried to shore up support for their own favorite products. Perhaps more than in any other category this one felt to me like we all had a game or two that we really wanted to succeed, and anything that wasn't someone's absolute favorite just couldn't find room in the top 5. I'll likely touch on this subject again when I go over the Products of the Year, but this is a book very worthy of an award, it just couldn't get in among all the other worthy competition.