A hand of first edition "A Few Acres of Snow" cards. Image by Ivan Dostál used under Creative Commons license.

One of the best games of 2011 is about to get a better. That's more truth than hyperbole, as "A Few Acres of Snow" was named the #4 best game of 2011 here on MTV Geek, and one year later, the game is about to receive an improved second edition printing. There's also a switch at the publishing helm, with game designer Martin Wallace moving his business from Mayfair Games to Asmodée Editions.

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This past weekend, there was something very unexpected at the Chicago Toy & Game Fair. To say it's not very often that the worlds of hobby gaming and high fashion collide is an understatement (I'm still waiting for the "Project Runway" "Monopoly" board challenge), but as ChiTAG celebrated it's 10-year anniversary, the PlayCHIC fashion show provided some unique sights. The show featured "haute couture designs created by some of the city's top designers that are inspired by cool toy, game and entertainment brands like the UK sensation Moshi Monsters, the nerd-chic hit board game Settlers of Catan, and the vintage comic strip heroine Brenda Starr."

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Photo: Flickr user ginnerobot, used under Creative Commons license

Some people like to play a wide variety of games. Others like to focus on one game and play it as much as possible. The more you play, the better you get, and this weekend, 44 "Settlers of Catan" players will be traveling from around the world to prove they've put in their gaming hours.

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The Settlers of Catan is synonymous with modern strategy board gaming. The title seems to continuously pop up as an ambassador for the hobby, whether it be for play by the characters of television's Big Bang Theory or for parody in an episode of 30 Rock.

But in the nearly 20 years since Catan hit store shelves, the name has established itself as a brand, encompassing numerous expansions, spin-off games, and even a novelization. None of these other products have received the same attention as regular old Catan, though. With a new series of behind-the-scenes blog entries planned, designer Klaus Teuber is hoping to draw more eyes to The Rivals for Catan [MTV Geek review], a 2-player-only card game take on The Settlers of Catan.

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Back in 2011, Mayfair Games went a bit Catan-crazy, publishing a new version of the Catan dice game as well as two different card games, The Struggle for Catan and The Rivals for Catan. Although they all sport the Catan brand name, each contains a completely unique experience. Gamers have been burned in the past with popular franchises such as Carcassonne, which uses the sausage factory model for pushing out expansions and off-shoot games, so the surprise here was that all of the new Catan games were actually quite good.

Just the Facts:

Players: 2
Playing Time: 45-60 minutes
Age: 12+
Publisher: Mayfair Games
Game Designer: Klaus Teuber
MSRP: $15.00
Release: November 17th, 2011

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Back in January, Mayfair Games announced that Catan: Junior will be hitting North America, but there were few details on how the game would change from its original Kosmos-published German edition, Die Siedler von Catan Junior. At Toy Fair 2012, I caught up with Mayfair's Director of Sales & Marketing, Bob Carty, to see an early prototype of this new Catan Junior edition.

The changes in this new version run the gamut of gameplay to theme. For one, all of the cards have been replaced with tiles (the sheets of symbols you see on the table are un-punched tile art), which makes more sense since this junior version of Catan doesn't involve stealing resources. The American version of Catan: Junior also incorporates a trade market which you can see has been built right into the game's board.

Thematically, the resources have received a bit of tweaking. Most notably, kids won't be collecting rum anymore, as those barrels have been renamed as molasses. Jack Sparrow might be disappointed, but I'm willing to bet at least a few parents will appreciate Mayfair's change.

Board and card gamers are used to being a minority in the greater world of all things geek, but the situation is a bit of a catch-22. You can't just walk into a major retail outlet and pick up the hottest release, so hobby gaming as an industry has had to rely on small niche shops and word of mouth growth.

There's little doubt that board games are going mainstream, though. The breakthrough of Settlers of Catan into Silicon Valley is often cited, but you could just look at the raw sales data or attend any convention to see the hordes of freshly minted players.

Recently, the Barnes and Noble retail chain picked up on this trend and decided that hobby gaming was ready for the mass market. Yet when the local bookstore dives head first into your hobby and stocks a better selection than some dedicated comic and game shops, people start asking why. To answer these questions, I sat down with Kathleen Campisano (Vice President for Toys and Games) and Ellen Heaney Mizer (Lead Toy and Game Buyer).

 
 
MTV Geek: Let's lead off by getting right to the heart of the matter. What is B&N's history with the board game industry, and how has the company's expansion into this market played out?

Ellen Heaney Mizer: We started [carrying] games in 1999 with a simple endcap of Mensa award winners, and have been seeing double digit growth annually since inception that year. As we started to test the waters with other categories, it led to a generalized fixture of games and puzzles with no segmented categories. We started expanding with the core Catan game in 2007, but in 2009, we had the opportunity to test 65 of our stores with a segmentation strategy.

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If you haven't read any of the Discworld novels, the box art for this game is worth a thousand words in describing the series' tone.

Welcome to Ankh-Morpork, the largest, smelliest, and most ‘interesting’ city on Discworld. The city’s patrician, Lord Vetinari, has disappeared, and the citizens are calling out for firm leadership. Will one of the noble families take control of the city, or will the people welcome the return of the king to restore peace? Then again, Vetinari’s absence may have been temporary and his spies could be spreading around the city, ready to start pulling the levers of power for their master.

In the most unlikely of pairings, Discworld: Ankh-Morpork takes the off-beat satirical works of author Terry Pratchett and puts them in the hands of Euro-style board game designer Martin Wallace. For those not familiar with Wallace, know that he is most famous for economic games such as Automobile and London, deep-thinking strategic experiences that are not for the faint of heart.

Having those examples in mind, I was a bit skeptical when first looking at Discworld: Ankh-Morpork, but the game is actually fantastic. Read on for the full review to find out how Wallace pulled it off.

Just the Facts:

Players: 2-4
Playing Time: 60 minutes
Age: 11 and up
Publisher: Mayfair Games
MSRP: $49.00
Release: October 2011

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Unfortunately, Timmy didn't put the spyglass down in time to realize Mr. Squawkers was armed

I'm only a few words into this announcement and I've already thrown Candyland under the bus, but it's hard not to. If you look at games as either a test of skill or a series of interesting decision, most titles on toy store shelves fail to meet either of those criteria. Mayfair Games is aiming to change that with Catan: Junior. Inspired by the mega-hit board game The Settlers of Catan, Catan: Junior will be released this April as part of Mayfair's new Fun Fair line of children's games.

Sure, there was 2003's The Kids of Catan, but since that game wasn't particularly very good, we'll just forget about it. What game? I'm not sure what you're talking about. In any case, Catan: Junior actually looks quite good, and should be a perfect introduction to Euro-style board games. Before you know it, your kids will be pushing around wooden cubes with the best of them.

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Last time around, we rounded up games #10-6 on our list of the top 10 board games of 2011. With the new year upon us, it's time to look at what other top-of-the-class titles from last year should be hitting your table in 2012. Hopefully you've got a reliable gaming partner, as the one most noticeable trend in this top 5 is that 2011 was a fantastic year for 2-player games.

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With 2011 now firmly in our rear view mirror, it's time to look back on the year in board games. And what a year it was. The release schedule for 2011 was as crowded as ever, with most publishers upping their output to capitalize on surging board game popularity, and an army of indie developers trying their luck with Kickstarter projects. There's simply no way you could play them all, so now it's time to break down what titles you should be looking for as you game it up in 2012.

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For those geeks who consider board gaming their number one hobby, holiday gifts can be a minefield. Once someone is labeled as a hobby gamer, they become numb to the endless march of strange licensed Monopoly games thrown their way. But how can you blame the gift givers when the desirable games are so removed from mainstream consciousness? Strategy board games are a booming industry, but not one exactly at the peak of pop culture  they're not even stocked on the shelves at most stores.

If you're in the position of buying for a gamer friend (and you yourself are geeky enough to be reading MTV Geek) then you are that individuals's last hope to deliver the goods this holiday season. Read on, and I'll tell you exactly what is hot with the hardcore hobby gaming crowd this year.

Thematic Strategy Games:Game of Thrones andThe Walking Dead

Nothing is hotter than these two properties right now, making them both great themes for board games. It should be fairly easy to find out if your gamer friend is a fan, and If so, then these games will form the perfect intersection of geekdoms.

The Game of Thones board game is a timely choice, as the second edition just hit store shelves this week. In this new version, Fantasy Flight Games has completely re-done the graphic design as well as incorporating two existing expansions and some brand new content all in one box.

If your gift target is a big Walking Dead fan, then that poses a tough decision, albeit one that should not deter you. There are competing games published by Z-Man Games (based on the comic book, pictured above) and Cryptozoic Entertainment (based on the television show). Let your friend's preferred media format guide your choice.

Runners up: Discworld games (Ankh Morpork or Guards! Guards!), Penny Arcade the Card Game: Gamers vs. Evil

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As I mentioned in my previous gift guide about buying gifts for the veteran hobby gamer, it can be quite hard to hunt down something they actually want. Sometimes, gamers make this process even harder by already owning everything under the sun!

If you are still set on buying them a gaming-related gift, then a fat wallet can always help. For high-rolling gift givers prepared to pony up some cash, here are some tips on how to surprise those that are least expecting it.

A Place to Game: Geek Chic Tables

What It Will Set You Back: Approximately $3,000, give or take a grand.

The Geek Chic Emissary, with inlaid Axis & Allies board

The pinnacle of gaming opulence. I challenge you to find any gamer who wouldn't drool all over themselves at the thought of owning one of these tables. Geek Chic handcrafts all of their products from black walnut, maple, or cherry wood, and includes a laundry list of small touches that make their tables the best around. The following is just a small sample: drawers with fold out surfaces and privacy screens, multi-layer surfaces that can include blown-up versions of your favorite game maps, and a rail system that lets you snap in cup holders and other accessories wherever you want them.

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The Settlers of Catan, today's poster child for strategy board games, is no stranger to being used as a social tool. In Settlers, players actively gather, trade, and consume finite resources such as wood, sheep, brick, wheat, and ore, but now a sixth resource with a dangerous downside is being added to the mix: oil.

Releasing today as a .pdf download and later this year as a fully-printed expansion, Catan: Oilsprings will provide all of the new rules and components necessary to add in this sixth resource. Mayfair Games posted a short announcement on their website describing how the newly-expanded game will play:

Oil can increase resource yields and allow a settlement to grow much faster than normal. The bad news is that players need to monitor the damage their oil use does to the environment and will eventually have to contend with global climate devastation which can result inall players losing the game!

Oil tiles are added to the board in an early play test of Catan: Oilsprings

The addition of such a double-edged resource has some serious meta-game implications, though. When it comes to gaming, first place is the only winner. There is no trophy for second place, so how do you convince players not to make increasingly risky moves as they fall further from the lead? Causing an all-out loss will earn you few friends at the table, so Catan Oilsprings will have to add a stateful layer where players manage their reputation for resource abuse.

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There's been a lot of attention paid to the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War this summer, and Mayfair Games chose to commemorate the event with the release of Test of Fire: Bull Run 1861, designed by Martin Wallace. Wait, that Martin Wallace? Yes, Test of Fire's designer is a man well known for his European-style economic strategy games such as London and Automobile. Wallace represents one end of the "hardcore" gamer spectrum, with the other end consisting of American-style conflict simulations. So is Wallace turning over a new leaf, or has he played minister to an unexpected wedding of theme and mechanics? We put Test of Fire through its paces, so read on for the full review if you'd like to find out:

Just the Facts:

Players: 2
Playing Time: 45 minutes
Age:10 to adult
Publisher: Mayfair Games
MSRP: $30.00
Release: July 21st, 2011

The Gameplay:

Each player begins Test of Fire with a standard set of units arranged across pre-set locations on the map. The Union player gets 29 infantry, while the Confederate player gets only 24 infantry but holds the high ground. Both players each receive 2 artillery and 1 leader. The troops on the table are all that will ever enter the game, so the two sides must play to the finish with whatever strength is available to them.

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