From Candyland to Caylus, from Gulo Gulo to Gloomhaven: A GeekList 13 years in the making
Back in 2008, I had a notion that I would play 100 different games and write up something about each one. My goal was for this to take one year. It seems to have taken a liiiiiiiiitle longer than expected! I’ve come back to it many times over the years, and now, at last, I have reached the century milestone.
What follows is a hodgepodge of mini-reviews, session reports, musings on games and game design in general, some personal anecdotes, and a running thread about being a board gaming parent. Many of the entries include (or assume knowledge of) the rules of the game in question, so I encourage you to skip bits you find boring or opaque.
In fact, there’s no rhyme or reason to what I’ve chosen to write about, and I’ve no idea if anyone will care to read it, but I’m posting it because I told myself I would, all those years ago. As you might imagine, older games are more frequent in the early numbers, while newer games are more prevalent as the list nears its end.
Note: This list was originally posted as a “GeekList” on the boardgamegeek.com website. If you see occasional references to Geeklists, “The Geek,” etc., that’s why. Also, my username there is “Sagiro,” which I use a couple of times. If you’d rather read this there than here, be my guest!
I hope it gives you minutes upon minutes of enjoyment!
1. THROUGH THE DESERT
I picked this game out and set it up thinking we’d have three players—the optimal number (in my opinion) of camel-wranglers. Then two more people wanted to join us at the last minute, so we played with five. I’d never played Through the Desert with more than four—dang, but things get crowded in a hurry!
About half way through the game, despite the fact that I was in last place on points and not in particularly good position on the board, my wife sweetly pointed out to all present that I might someday enclose a modest area with my blue camel chain, which would doubtless be a terrible tragedy for everyone else. She then proceeded to cut me off, at no great obvious advantage to herself, and the next player cut off the other end, so the end result was that my camels just kind of petered out into nothing.
I have a wonderful relationship with my wife, but in part that’s because we get all the arguing and backstabbing and betrayal out of our systems during board games. We love it! Alas that my bitter complaints weren’t really justified, as she nearly won the game, and would have had she played differently on her very last camel placement. Right now, at 1:00 in the morning, hours after the last camel hit the sand, I guarantee you she’s lying awake in bed cursing her decision there at the end. Excuse me while I try to muster up some sympathy.
Nope. Not happening.
Anyhow, next time I play I’ll be more rigorous about getting to those five-point palm trees, and spend less time slorking up watering holes. As it was, I tied for last with my step-father, who’s maybe played half a dozen Euros in his whole life.
Addendum: The pastel camels are certainly in the running for “bits in my collection most likely to be mistaken for candy if set out in a bowl on my dining room table.”
2. BLUE MOON CITY
When a game is new to all involved, I like to read the rules a day in advance, and maybe go through some turns solo so I can teach it with more efficiency and confidence. When I haven’t done that, I will often read the rules straight, out loud, to all present. Yeah, it’s time-consuming, but when you’re done, everyone has heard every rule, and there’s less going back to check stuff later. (Bonus: I’m insulated from light-hearted charges that I “conveniently” forgot a rule that turns out to benefit me.) I’m not convinced the whole experience, from box-opening to box-fart, takes that much longer my way, though I recently learned that I drive at least one of my friends nuts with this approach—oops!
My friend Jeff is one of the few people in my gaming group who’s even more rules-crazy than I am. He’s usually the explainer and teacher of any game he’s involved in. I enjoy playing with him in part because he makes me feel like less of a sticklery rules-freak. For our game of Blue Moon City, I explained the game (having pre-read the rules), but he read the rulebook concurrent with my sermon.
Was it a coincidence, then, that Jeff cleaned our clocks? It was 4-2-2-2 in a game that’s supposedly notorious for close finishes. In the post-mortem we decided that he had done a better job getting himself involved in more cities as a runner-up, and didn’t worry about monopolizing buildings as the rest of us had done. My last place finish (note to self: get less competent friends!) was also due to poor card management and waste.
We all liked it.
This was my 4th game of Blokus, but the first time playing with 3 players. Yeah, I know, not the game at its best. I introduced it to my friends Dan and Leigh, since it was late and they wanted something quick. The 4th player was my cat, Twizel (rhymes with “reprisal”) who traditionally plays any dummy seats at our house. (I seem to recall she’s kicked my ass at Alhambra in the past.) In the Blokus game she actually jumped up onto the table once, exactly when it was her turn.
I really like Blokus. It’s aesthetically pleasing, tactically interesting, and pretty short. Not that I mind long games, but—well, let’s just say that 5 years from now, I guarantee that Blokus will have hit the table more than Caylus and Power Grid (both of which I also like) combined. There’s real value in brevity for folks with busy lives.
In this game I actually scored a perfect 0 squares left, though I didn’t play the one-square piece last. I won pretty handily, which was strange, because Dan usually wins every game we play. I chalk it up to my previous plays, which had given me at least a rudimentary sense of strategy. I bet if we played 10 more games, Dan would win 7, his wife Leigh would win 2, and I would win 1. He’d deny it, of course, but it’s true.
4. TECHNO WITCHES
Techno Witches should bother me, but it doesn’t. Given my purist attitude toward accuracy and fairness (in all things, but games in particular), this game should be pushing all sorts of my buttons. Its very nature is imprecision and chaos. The placement of the board elements is arbitrary, and the placement of the STARTING locations, equally arbitrary, can have a huge impact on the game. Small bumps of the table or a tiny finger twitch can shift things by a couple of millimeters, and Techno Witches is a game where that actually matters. Maybe my subconscious mind figures all those things will even out over time, but I don’t think that’s really it. More likely, my subconscious just can’t get that worked up over a game with magical flying vacuum cleaners.
I find this game has 90% of what I like about RoboRally, with about 25% of the tedium.
We played this right on the heels of Techno Witches, and it provided a stark contrast in social dynamics. During Techno Witches we were talking and laughing and interacting the whole time. In Typo, the table was silent for long stretches while each of us racked our brains for words that started with “eor” or “noce.”
Now, in both games players need to concentrate for short stretches, but this pair of games demonstrated two starkly different forms of concentration – the kind where you can talk and concentrate at the same time, and the kind where you can’t. Maybe it was a spatial vs. language dichotomy – while you’re thinking about words, the language-oriented parts of your brain are already busy. Or maybe I’m over-thinking the whole thing. It wouldn’t be the first time.
I’m an English major with decent enough vocabulary and spelling, but I think this was the first time I’ve ever won a game of Typo in over half a dozen tries.
It was late, so my wife picked the light, quick Guillotine as a game before bed. This was the first time I had played it with two—usually it comes out in more party-game-ish situations. It turns out this was a bad choice for me personally, for two reasons:
First, I had a bad cough and I’m losing my voice. This discouraged me from speaking in an outrageous French accent, which is really the best reason to play this game. And my wife, bless her heart, was too busy whining to remember to talk funny.
Second, my wife utterly crushed me. Yes, I know, I just said she was whining. She was, for the first 2/3 of the game. Usually I’m the one to whine and whinge about crappy luck, but during the first two days I was doing pretty well – up 14-8 after one round, and 25-22 after two. I got an earful about how I was getting all the best Action Cards – blah blah blah. I remained stoic (read: didn’t gloat), and figured I had the game wrapped up, since I was holding a card that would make the game end immediately following my turn. All I needed was ONE turn where I was ahead, and that would be it. Sadly for me, a) Kate went first in the third year, b) she had a card that let her take two heads at once, and c) the first two people in line were worth a combined 7 points.
My luck just got worse from there. The final score, when the game mercifully ended, was 35-22. (Yes, I lost net points in the third year. Yeeesh.)
Played with two, this game becomes somewhat redeemed. With 4-6 players there’s no point in looking beyond your current turn. With 2, there’s actually some potential for short-range planning. It’s still a pretty shallow experience. Next time we’ll remember the French accents for sure!
Played this one with my wife and her brother and father. It was the first time playing for all of us.
Consensus: cute, but kind of dull. We played the base game, which has only the tiniest trace elements of player interaction. Also, the game is heavily luck-based; crappy letter tiles = you’re hosed, even more than in other Scrabblesque games I’ve played. This was a gift from a fellow BGG-er, who admittedly warned me that the game would play better with some of the variants. I’m sure he’s right.
My father-in-law won the game, prompting my wife to remark: “Wow… a word game you didn’t win.” I don’t know why she perpetuates this myth—my record in word games is average at best.
I’d never played Coloretto, so this game was entirely new to me. It brought to mind a game I had played years earlier—Klunker, I think was called—that, if memory serves, also involved making sets of things uninviting to other players. I played with my wife and father-in-law, and came in last by dint of ignoring the vendor carts.
Zooloretto is a big hit with my older daughter, who (at the time of this writing) is about to turn three years old. She doesn’t play the game properly, of course, but we “play” a simple variant were we each have our zoo, and take turns drawing tiles blindly from the bag and finding a place in our zoo for them. She loves the animals, and she’s learning the basic building-blocks of game playing: taking turns, drawing-without-looking, and simple board analysis (“I can’t place an animal where there’s already a different animal.”). Also, most importantly, I’ve taught her that when you’re done playing, you shake the other player’s hand and say “good game.” It’s going to be a hard thing to temper my natural reaction to the constant drubbings I get from my wife, at least when my kids are around. 🙂
Every so often—okay, I admit, it’s rare—I actually learn a lesson from past experience. Now, I’m not claiming that there’s a lot of room to become “good” at Diamant, but my general trend in playing it is:
- Push my luck too far.
Tonight, in a full 8-person game, I ran away with the win by playing it safe. Three times I was the only person to leave early, getting 4-6 gems each time, and then watched as everyone else died in a tragic cave collapse or ill-advised foray into a viper nest. To be fair about things, the number of early disasters was astounding. I don’t think a single round went more than 8 cards.
Last point(s): My favorite thing about Diamant is that 8 people can play together, laughing and groaning and socializing, while still having something interesting to think about every 30 seconds for the whole game. It gets strictly better as it reaches its player limit.
10. Louis XIV
I had played this one time before, years ago at a local gaming club—October of 2005, as I just discovered thanks to the games-played feature of the Geek. I enjoyed it immensely and put in on my X-mas list. I received it soon after from my in-laws, and I was eager to play it.
Fast forward to February 15th, 2008—my elder daughter’s 3rd birthday, by coincidence. I still had never managed to get King Louis to the table, despite about half a dozen near misses. My gaming group is about 2/3 light/social gamers and 1/3 heavy/strategy gamers, and I never seemed to be able to get the momentum going for a game. Tonight, though, I put my foot down—845 days between plays was enough!
I spent about 15 minutes reviewing the rules, and then another 15-20 explaining it to three friends. All the while, the light/social group, who had already finished a couple of games of Coyote and who were now chatting in the adjacent room, were giving me heaps of good-natured abuse about how much time I was spending not playing a game.
Hmph. Philistines! Next time I’ll pull out Power Grid and really give them something to make fun of!
The game was as good as I remembered—better, in fact. Playing Louis XIV feels like spinning a half-dozen plates in the air at once. There are tactical decisions, strategic decisions, opportunities to psych out opponents or lull them into false senses of security, and the aesthetic appeals to me greatly. Plus it took very little time for the game to settle into a smooth (if tense) rhythm. The scores were all reasonably close – I came in second, falling two points short with a strategy that went heavy on shields. Dan won, of course – see my earlier comment about Blokus. And, come to think of it, he won a game of Blokus tonight too. I need to drug him next time he comes over. Anyway, he won with a mission card blitz at the end, and even my handful of bonus shields couldn’t quite make up the deficit.
I convinced my wife to try a 2-player game of Yspahan, using Ystari’s official 2-player variant. My wife enjoys some strategy games, but hates games where board position can be taken away by mean opponents. (Likes: Settlers, Princes of Florence, Ticket to Ride. Dislikes: El Grande (and other area majority games), Lowenherz, Tigris & Euphrates.)
As with many two-player games I play with my wife, I jumped out to a substantial lead, heard complaints about how I was crushing her, and then watched in utter horror as she came roaring back for the win. I was ahead by about 25 points at the end of Week 2, but in Week 3 her caravan/card-drawing engine kicked in and I got steamrolled. She managed to build every building, and amass three extremely synergistic cards for the end game. (Get 3 Camels; Pay for a building using only camels; Turn gold into points.)
We both loved the game, and look forward to playing more. There are clearly lots of strategic possibilities, and plenty of the enjoyable frustration that comes from having more options than chances to try them. And while I’m not always the biggest fan of dice in strategy games, I enjoy Yspahan’s implementation.
And while I’m here: I adore Ystari. They’re the game publisher that (to me) most consistently matches high quality with a unique and instantly-recognizable aesthetic. Admittedly it helps that I dig that aesthetic; I’m sure not everyone does. But I’ve now played Ys, Caylus, Mykerinos and now Yspahan, and they’re all among my favorite Euros. If I get close enough to my goal of playing 100 different games, I’ll certainly treat myself to Amyitis!
Addendum: I did eventually play Amyitis, and liked that too, though not quite as much. Same with Metropolys. Go figure!
12. Mississippi Queen
This was my first time playing Mississippi Queen. I own the old Goldsieber version, which I picked up a couple of years ago at a charity auction.
I was struck by just how far game production has come in the years since Mississippi Queen was first published. The pieces themselves have the type of ergonomic problems that games from major publishers just don’t seem to have these days. The little wheels showing speed and coal don’t sit well in their wells, and so are prone to turn accidentally at the slightest bump. The stickers are peeling off the wheels themselves, giving the game a shoddy, half-assed look during play. And the size of the boats compared to the hexes on which they sit makes it easy for a boat’s facing to become ambiguous, should the table receive even a gentle nudge.
On top of that, MQ poked me right in my pettiest peeve: rules ambiguity. Now, granted, my version has a printout of the rules in English, so maybe it’s a translation problem, but we stumbled across two egregious rules issues while playing. Can you move and then change speeds, or only change speeds before moving? No way to tell from the rules, even though that’s a crucial difference. And as for using that measuring stick to figure out the turn order, we came up with three different possible ways to do that, all of which seemed reasonable, and all of which would yield different results. Oh, and the rules for pushing other boats is a little weird – it’s not clear from my translation if you can push two ships at once, or not.
It’s too bad, because the game itself is decent enough. It has a bit of Techno-witchy, RoboRally-ish spatial reasoning, mixed in with some jockeying for position. The tile placement has some luck, but it’s manageable luck that at least allows each player to twiddle their own risk/reward tolerance.
But I tell you: If I ever design a board game, as Ra is my witness I’m going to make damn well sure that the rules are as clear as Lucite on every point.
Perhaps I was subconsciously moved by my recent enjoyment of Yspahan, or maybe it was that I thought a c.60 minute game would do well as a meaty appetizer, but I picked Mykerinos as a starter game this evening. (The other table opened with “Who Stole Ed’s Pants” which I think should win an award for Game That Most Sounds Like It Should Be Fun But Really Isn’t.”)
My friend Paul somehow ended up with four of the Patron that gives you extra cubes pretty early on in this one, and he ran away with the game, burying us beneath an avalanche of cubes (and some very savvy play as well). Mykerinos is a nifty little game that packs a moderate number of interesting choices into an hour or so. (1 hour, 18 minutes this time, but it was new for my three friends, and my only play was back in November of 2006.) I wonder, though, if this particular game was fluky, or indicative of a runaway leader problem.
Playing Mykerinos brought to my mind a theory about why clever Euros – even “dry” ones – make me so happy. I think it’s because I have about 85% of the brain of a computer programmer. The other 15% rotted away when I forgot to put the jar in the refrigerator. No, no, wait…that’s something different! No, what I mean is that my brain is like that, which normally doesn’t do me much good, since the parts I lack—rigor, discipline, and about 15 points of I.Q.—are vital to the profession. But on top of things like social camaraderie and laughter and giving Dan a hard time when he keeps hosing me game after game, I also love order and symmetry and logic and calculations and discrete mathematics. Euros push all those buttons.
The one button they don’t seem to push very often is the “win” button. I guess that’s what comes of playing so often with actual programmers.
Hey, it’s not my fault that this turned into Ystari Night for me. Dan’s been jonesing for Caylus since we played a couple times about 18 months earlier.
Mmmmmm, delicious. So many cubes. Can I confess something here? I love cubes! There, I said it. The sight of multicolored piles of perfect cubes fills me with some kind of weird neurotic happiness. Is that so wrong?
Either way, it’s not a crime in Massachusetts.
I decided to try bludgeoning my way to victory by a) voraciously gathering cubes, b) blasting to the top of the Prestige Point favor track and staying there, c) pounding the castle, and d) racing the Provost ahead to shorten the game once I had a big mid-game lead. That last part worked out great – I did, in fact, have a big mid-game lead. And I had the game in my hands, if only I hadn’t done that one stupid thing that I wondered about even at the time. If only I had pitched all my gold but one to get myself to the top of the turn order, I could have been in the castle first on the last turn, and not essentially gotten shut out of the towers by Dan’s seven houses and thus robbed—ROBBED—of about 20 victory points at the end. It was a very close game: 93 to 87 to 86, with me, inevitably, at the bottom.
Dang, but I’m on a wicked non-winning streak. I’ve only won one game of the last TWELVE I’ve played, and that was Diamant! I’m glad my parents taught me it was fine to love something you’re not very good at. Sheesh.
15. For Sale
I still maintain that this is the perfect filler. Tonight’s game didn’t abuse me of that notion—short, sweet, and I’ll never stop getting a chuckle from the pictures of the particularly crappy dwellings. Sara, who had never played before, won the game while simultaneously wrangling a nine-month-old.
Odd thing about For Sale – if I go long enough without playing it, I start to get a creeping feeling that it must not really be as fun as I remember. There’s so little going on! Then, after the game, I remember it’s the Individually Wrapped Chocolate Truffle of games. You know, in the world of analogies where Caylus is a big steak dinner and Ra is world’s best pizza.
16. The Pillars of the Earth
Having already confessed to an irrational love of cubes, I’m prepared to go a step further: I especially love ice-blue cubes, so rare in my collection—the ones that represent metal in this game, and are one of the player colors in Blue Moon City. I could stare longingly at them for hours, or until my wife noticed, at which point I’d claim I was counting them or something.
The game itself was, I thought, quite pleasing. Yes, it’s just competing efficiency engines, but I enjoy that kind of thing. Plus it had the “you always really want to take one or two more actions than you’re allowed” vibe going, which I dig. And aesthetically it’s top notch. Everything about it makes me happy—especially the ice-blue cubes.
I fell behind early (3 player game) and got some pretty crappy bag-draws; every time I had decided that my next Builder would take the 2 VP, someone else’s was drawn first, and they took the Priory. I was something like 11 points behind going into the final turn, but my ace in the hole was that (thanks to my peek-at-events privilege) I was going to get three placed Builders to only two for my opponents. And I parlayed that into a monstrous, 19 VP final turn, which (alas) brought me still one point short of victory. Behind Dan, of course. And just as happened with Caylus, I think I made a small blunder near the end that cost me the game. Hey, I guess they really are similar!
This one is a regular favorite among my gaming group. For those who haven’t played it: it’s like Blind Man’s Bluff, and it’s like Liar’s Dice, and you wear headbands with your card tucked inside so that everyone can see it but you. It’s very silly, but it’s fast, social, and not too taxing.
Coyote is not for everyone, and I’m not talking folks who can’t abide silliness, though it’s not for them either. I mean, Coyote is fundamentally flawed. The best strategy, I’m reasonably certain, is to just raise by 1 in about 98% of all situations. And ordinarily I would have no patience for a game in which playing the best way is no fun, and playing the fun way is clearly sub-optimal. But in Coyote I just don’t care, and neither does anyone else in my group, and something like half of them were math majors back in the day.
This game is strong evidence that there really are all kinds of fun to be had in this world.
18. Can’t Stop
I’m a cautious person by nature. I’m extremely risk-averse, both in real life, and in game-playing.
So what the $#@! just got into me during Can’t Stop? Whatever it was, it didn’t work out very well. (Come to think of it, I usually have the same problem in Diamant. Maybe something about “push your luck” games triggers a deep-seated reckless instinct.)
After two of my opponents got extremely lucky snagging outlying numbers early, I had a great run on 6, 7 and 8. I had progressed to the point where I could have capped the 6, but I decided I wanted to run the other numbers up further first. And I had reached the point that – I swear! – I was going to stop after one more roll, no matter what it was. How could I fail to roll a 6, 7 or 8? Heck, I could roll the dice a thousand times, and each time the odds would be in my favor with those numbers.
Ok, the flaw in my reasoning is self-evident, but I will say this: Can’t Stop is a game where your own fundamental understanding of the Gambler’s Fallacy can work against you. It’s a loathsome temptress of the logical world. Either way, my next roll was an epic failure.
Because of my crazed stat-keeping nature, it was important that I know who came in 2nd, 3rd and 4th. So we played out the string, and as those who are familiar with the game know, that’s a pretty silly thing to be doing when there’s just two players left and only a single number left open. But what an epic battle! Dan and I, locked in a titanic clash of Who Can Roll More Tens, with the fate of third place vs. last place hanging in the balance
Apparently my ability to roll 10’s is just as crappy as my judgment. Sigh. But, hey I won Coyote, so now I’ve won 2 of my last 16 games. Fear me!
19. Settlers of Catan
I realized while playing Settlers today (Hey kids! Catan used to be called “Settlers of Catan!”) that complaining about my lousy luck with the dice is an integral part of my experience. I came to that realization when someone commented on the existence of a “dice deck” of cards, which includes six 7’s, five 8’s, four 9’s, etc. Using the deck would remove, over the course of 36 rolls, any variance from the expected numbers of each roll. In theory I should love that, but in practice, it would mean I couldn’t whine about how seven “4’s” had been rolled (giving me no resources) while only a single “8” had been rolled (on which I have a city and a settlement).
As it happens, my luck was awful in the early parts of the game: less likely numbers that benefited others came up disproportionately more often than common numbers that benefited me. But things turned around eventually, and I had a sheep engine that was producing prodigious numbers of wooly critters, which I then transmogrified into stone and wheat via the sheep port. The dice were kind to me near the end, and (perhaps more importantly) I wasn’t identified as the clear leader until it was too late to stop me. So, it was the best of both worlds: I got to whine and win. I’m sure my opponents thought that was great!
I love Ra. Just love it. I like auction games. I like math-y games. I like the finesse of the bidding. I also like the feel of the tiles, and I like saying “RA” more loudly than is strictly necessary when starting auctions.
Ra make me wonder at my inconsistent view of ‘theme.” The game’s reputation is well-earned; the theme really is weak. Someone in the room (not playing) remarked that he doesn’t like Ra for that reason: he said it feels more like a game show than anything Egyptian.
And in some cases I adore theme. The fiction of Primordial Soup makes me like that game much more than the plain mechanics would on their own. Look, my amoebas are eating your amoebas’ poop! And Pirates’ Cove is a mediocre game that I love because of all the pirate-y goodness. Aaaarrrrrr!*
So, why do I care about theme for some games and not others? Maybe it’s that theme can make me enjoy an inherently mediocre game, but lack of theme can’t spoil my enjoyment of a mechanically excellent game.
*Here’s a good pirate joke you may not have heard. First, ask your friend: “What’s a pirate’s favorite letter of the alphabet?” She’ll almost certainly say: “R!” Then ask: “What’s a pirate’s favorite country?” She’ll probably say “Arrrrrgentina!” Then ask: “What’s a pirate’s favorite kind of sock?” The answer will almost always be “Arrrrgyle!” Now, finally, ask: “What’s a pirate’s favorite felony?” 95% of the time you’ll hear either “Arrrrrrmed robbery!” or “Arrrrrrson!”
At which point you say: “No, you doofus. It’s piracy!”
21. Pick Picknic
I’ve introduced this game to plenty of (adult) people at this point, and no one has disliked it. It’s quick and easy, has bluffing and conflict, and is chock full o’ poultry – in other words, something for everyone!
Addendum: It is now a couple of years since I started this list, and Pick Picknic has become my (now 5-year-old) daughter’s absolute favorite. For one thing, she loves the artwork, and has picked up on little details like how some foxes wear bibs and others don’t. (“That fox is going to have messy fur!”) This game has taught her to count by 10’s, and also to second guess opponents. (“I knew you’d play a green bird with all those cubes, so I played a green fox!”) It’s immensely gratifying to watch my little girl become a thinking, scheming board-gamer.
22. Ticket to Ride
I can divide most of the games in my collection into two general categories:
- Games which I can teach in 5 minutes or less, confident that I have not forgotten a single rule or exception to a rule, even if I haven’t played them in over a year.
- Games which I cannot so teach.
I’m guessing maybe 5% of my collection falls into the first category, and there’s something very relaxing about bringing one of those games to the table. I stress about teaching rules to a table full of new players, because I know—I know—that if I don’t just recite the entire rulebook, the one rule I forget will somehow work to my advantage when I remember it 80 minutes into the session, and I’ll get lots of ribbing about it, and I’ll feel terrible about “cheating” even though there was no ill-intent, and I won’t feel good about the game’s results no matter how it turns out.
23. El Grande
It’s taken for granted these days that certain games serve best as “gateway games.” Ticket to Ride, Settlers of Catan, maybe Carcassonne are usually mentioned in that discussion. For me it was El Grande. I had been working at my first real job, for a video game company called Looking Glass Technologies, for about three years. A co-worker brought in El Grande, and I was convinced to join as the fifth player.
Holy Kramer! Understand that I was a typical undereducated American gamer at the time, with no exposure to games beyond the standard monopoly/risk/scrabble fare. But none of those had set my head on fire like El Grande – I can still remember the pride I felt at figuring out the 1-then-13 strategy of playing power cards, in order to lock down the King right before a scoring round. Nothing special by BGG standards of course, but the idea of mixing strategy and tactics like that in a board game of all things, was a complete revelation.
That was about 12 years ago. I work now at another video game company, and have been paying back my debt by hosting board game nights after work for my fellow game designers. This week I brought in El Grande, and treated four of my fellows to what I still consider the benchmark for area majority games. Reception was positive, though one co-worker admitted to feeling “way more stressed” than he had in the previous games I had bought in. Like Tigris & Euphrates, it demands a mindset where you divorce yourself of the instinctive desire to own anything. Your mind has to shift as the board shifts, and it helps if you understand that anything can be yours if you want it, but nothing will be yours for long if someone else wants it.
Man, did I get my ass kicked at this game—and I was the only one who had played before. So, instead of talking about my shame at the table, let me regale you with a related story about a wholly different kind of embarrassment.
Around five years ago—before I was graced with two delightful young daughters, with the unfortunate side-effect of losing most of my free time—I semi-regularly attended a couple of local board game gatherings. At some of these I was fortunate enough to run into Alan Moon, which was neat, though I’m not sure I succeeded in suppressing my fanboyish instincts. He probably doesn’t remember who I am, but if he does, it’s most likely as “that creepy guy.” At least I cottoned on to the fact that he and his sometime partner-in-design, Aaron Weissblum, had had some rocky patches in their professional relationship, and so managed not to put my foot in my mouth on that subject.
Anyway, at one local game day, I get invited to play Oasis with a bunch of guys, and I see Alan Moon’s name on the box. “Hey, neat!” I exclaimed. “I didn’t realize this was an Alan Moon game.” I completely neglected to mention Aaron Weissblum, whose name was also on the box.
And who, it turns out, was one of the guys I was playing with.
Mmmm, them feet sure are tasty! Fortunately for my ego, Aaron was gracious about my comment and even talked with me for a while after the game. Very nice guy.
Most of my game purchases only come after plenty of research on BGG, but I bought this one based on only about five minutes of reading user comments. I needed something to bring an on-line order into the free-shipping range, and this was it.
It’s cute. I played a two-player game with my wife, and it breezed along, engaging a few brain cells here and there while the garbage piled up. I ended up with three of the four “minus two” chits, but also grabbed some high-point chips near the end. My wife would have won anyway, but she was forced to do some illegal dumping on the second-to-last turn that cost her four points, and I squeaked a one-point victory.
I can see this occupying the same niche as For Sale. Nice little game.
26. Apples to Apples
I recently played Apples to Apples at a friend’s party, and the following round occurred. I swear to Hera and Zeus that I am not making this up.
The adjective was “American.” There were various grunts of satisfaction as several different players realized that they had this round locked up. Cards were offered to the Adjective Holder, face down. In this particular session, we were playing that the Adjective Holder would reveal the cards randomly one at a time, evaluating each and allowing (anonymous) comment.
The first card was something silly, but the next card seemed like a likely winner: “Fast Food.” But the next card trumped it: “Apple Pie.” Ok, that was clearly going to win, since few things are more traditionally American than apple pie.
But the next card was “the 4th of July!” Right, fine. That was the unluckiest play of “Apple Pie” that had ever existed; no one could argue that the 4th of July wasn’t pretty much the most American thing that exists. There was one more card, but we all knew the round was over. All of us, that is, except for the person who had played the final unrevealed card.
Which was “Americans.”
27. Hit or Miss
If you ask some of my friends, they’d readily tell you I’m a board game snob. They just want to play games and have fun, but I want to analyze them, poke at them, and often diss them. Part of my snobbery is a theoretical preference for crunchy Euros over party games.
The snobby part of my brain doesn’t want me to admit this, but I almost always enjoy party games. I enjoy Apples to Apples, and Thingamabob, and Wits & Wagers. I even enjoyed Quelf the one time I played it, for crying out loud. And I enjoyed Hit or Miss, which objectively isn’t much of a game, and has some odd corner cases and highly ambiguous rules.
The gist of the game is that a card is drawn with a category on it. Examples are “Well-known statues and monuments,” “New York _” and “Things you put in a basket.” Everyone has 30 seconds or so to list as many things as they can think of that fit the category. Then, one by one, players roll a die that can result in a “Hit” or “Miss.” If they roll “Hit,” they pick something from their own list that they think everyone else also has. If they roll “Miss,” they pick something they think no one else has.
In this particular game, someone drew a card that said “Blue _”
Someone else snorted with ribald laughter.
And because of that laughter, everyone ended up with “balls” on their list.
28. Wits & Wagers
I love numbers and statistics, so I love this game.
It also reminds me of how I wish more schools taught classes in critical, logical thinking, in addition to more specific subjects like geography and algebra. Kids should regularly be encouraged to think through mathematical puzzles, like “How many quarters would it take to make a pile as tall as your house?” or “How long would it take you to write every number between one and one million?”
So much of human irrationality is brought about by our inability to understand probability and statistics. It’s especially galling when such innumeracy informs our laws and societal norms – like parents insisting on driving kids a quarter-mile to school, because they’re worried that the kid will be abducted by a stranger if they walk, even though being killed in a car accident on the way to school is much more likely.
Of course, even though I pride myself on having a solid logical mind, I still couldn’t guess within two orders of magnitude how many pieces of Lego are defective off the assembly line. Oy.
I don’t know when I’m going to eventually post this geeklist, but right now, in September of 2009, this game is All The Rage(tm). It’s a nifty little game that plays quickly, and I do love my efficiency engines, but I’m troubled by the lack of player interaction. Most of the time I wasn’t paying any attention to anyone else (unless they played an attack action card), and still I managed to win the game.
As a recovering Magic: the Gathering player, this game did scratch my “watch my deck explode” itch, and in fact I won the game mostly because I built a card-drawing engine that allowed me, in one super-efficient late-game turn, to scoop up a whole mess o’ points.
Also, hooray for useful, organized box inserts.
Speaking of “all the rage,” I finally got around to playing this highest-ranked-of-all-games game. It turns out to be kind of like Puerto Rico, and kind of like Caylus, which is fine with me since I love both of those games.
It happens to be the case that I almost always lose at games the first time I play them. Also I was playing with three of my more game-savvy friends, one of whom had played once before. And if that weren’t enough, one of the other players was my friend Dan, who I’ve mentioned a few times now is the Perennial Scourge Who Always Wins.
I wish I was setting this up to be a surprise, but no, I got smoked. 32-32-29-25. That’s me on the end there, finishing the game with three people in my family, three clay rooms, and 5 empty board spaces in a 4-person game. Bleagh.
Still: huge fun. I want to play again.
While the four of us were playing this serious, brain-burning strategy game, my wife and three other friends were playing Bausack and drinking some kind of vodka-based beverage. Lemon drops, I think? It seems like you could make a pretty funny drinking game with that combination.
Addendum: With my head still abuzz with the possibilities, I coaxed my wife into a 2-player game of Agricola the following night. I thought she’d like it, since she prefers games where she can build up her own private empire without other players being able to steal her stuff. Alas, she found it incredibly stressful and un-fun. “Too many options,” was her main complaint. Her natural drive to optimize ran up against the harsh limitations of the game, and the bajllion possibilities filled her with a constant and ever-growing angst. She specifically compared it unfavorably with Princes of Florence, which is probably her favorite game.
It didn’t help, I’m sure, that I took all those sheep right after she built her first big pasture. I ended winning 46-29 despite never sowing a field or baking bread, and never having more than three actions in a turn.
31. The Princes of Florence
We hosted our first board game night in a while last night; the invite went out last-minute and only three folks showed up (plus me and the wife). We played my wife’s favorite game (and one of my favorites as well), Princes of Florence.
This is a tricky one for me, in terms of introducing it to new players. I’m no great game tactician, and I lose out to first-time players as often as not in a variety of board games. But as many of you know, Princes of Florence is a game where you need to understand the strategic arc of play; that you’ll only have 14 “turns” and that you need to plan these out somewhat in advance. Unlike many games, where I teach the rules (while refreshing myself) but offer only minimal “hints” on good play, I always feel honor bound to finish the rules explanation of PoF with some words on strategy.
I warn them about running out of turns too soon. I remind them that money is practically useless at the end of the game. I mention that those 3-point “best work” bonuses can really add up. I tell them it’s not unusual to recoup early works almost entirely in gold, with a steady ramp-down to the end where you’re taking them all in points. And I let them know that the bidding on Jesters will—and should—go higher than they might expect, especially in the early game.
Even so… I won the game (weird, I know!), and felt a bit guilty about it. Granted, it was close until the end, and my bacon was saved only by getting the only Prestige Card of real use. I was in last until the final round, when I completed a 29-point work (2 bonus cards!), and even then needed the 8 prestige points to squeak out a victory. Our three guests were savvy players for a trio of noobs, bidding sensibly and understanding the importance of recruitment/profession cards. I doubt I’d win if we all played again.
There was general agreement that the game is gorgeous, though some complained about the readability of the font.
I was expecting to play this game with my wife and her father; though it was getting late, it seemed like a short and fairly light-weight Euro. (I hadn’t played before, but had read the rules through the night before.)
My father-in-law’s lady-friend decided to join at the last minute, which was a mistake. She’s not a gamer, has certainly never played Euros, and was baffled and lost almost the whole time. She was good sport about it, but it made for an odd dynamic, and slowed the game down so much that we decided to trigger the endgame on the first castle-level being finished rather than the second. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve voluntarily cut a game short, but it was the right thing to do.
For all the weirdness of the metagame, the game itself was nifty. The wife and I are both eager to try it again, though Kate expressed some trepidation at trying it with just two players. “That would make it much more of a strategy game,” she said. “Where playing with more makes it about identifying short term targets of opportunity.” Evidently that’s something she does very well, as she ran away with the game. I’ve probably mentioned previously that she tends to win games the first time we play them.
Want to add: her father picks up games very quickly, for having little experience with Euro-style offerings. Tack-sharp, he is. It makes it easy to see why my wife is so smart.
Not a game I’d typically choose, since it’s pretty boring. But Uno is a game that my four-year-old daughter can play, and she loves playing it, and so I love playing it too. It teaches her turn order, the notion of having a hand of cards, and some other very basic elements of game strategy. (I was proud that, when we added Wild Cards to the deck, she figured out on her own to name the color that she had the most of in her hand.)
She loves to call “Uno!” when she’s down to one card, and giggles with delight when she gets dealt Wild Cards in her opening hand. I figure if I can nurture her love of games through simple ones like Uno and Travel Blokus, it’ll be no time at all before she’s beating me at Ys and Kingsburg.
34. Jenseits von Theben
A friend hosted a Big Father’s Day gaming/drinking/feasting party earlier this year, at which I played three new (to me) games. I couldn’t recall the last time I had played three new games in one day—but thanks to my Game Journal, I could look it up! It was on November 4, 2006—about 3.5 years before. I had played Top Secret Spies, Mykerinos, and the execrable Cat Attack at a local game convention called Lobster Trap.
I thought my first game of Thebes was pretty fun, and I even tied for first place. “Nifty” was a word that came to mind. But now, after another more recent game of it, I find myself of two minds about this game:
Mind 1: Hey, Thebes is pretty clever, don’t you think? I like that the turn order is loose; that whoever has effectively taken the fewest actions gets to go next. I also like the… hey, what’s the matter?
Mind 2: What’s the matter? WHAT’S THE %$#@! MATTER!? Weren’t you there at the table just now? We drew 5 blanks out of 6 from a full bag on our very first dig! We never recovered from that! And later in the game, on a bag that was still decent, we drew 6 blanks out of 8. What a crock of [expletive redacted]!
Mind 1: Well, yeah, true. But we kept it sort of close. The final scores were 56-46-46-45, and it’s not like we were the only ones to have bad luck. Mike got totally screwed by the draw there near the end…
Mind 2: And did you notice? We came in last, and Mike tied for 2nd/3rd in a 4-player game. The guy who won racked up 21 points of Congress cards, effectively mitigating the luck factor. Coincidence?
Mind 1: Get over it. Thebes is quick and engaging and thematic, and admit it: you like the tense moments of those blind draws. It’s the thrill of the lottery!
Mind 2: We don’t play the lottery. It’s a tax on the innumerate. It’s stupid.
Mind 1: You’re missing the point. Most of our favorite games combine skill and luck. Why does this one have your knickers in such a twist?
Mind 2: Because I like games that have manageable luck. I’m not sure that applies here. There are too few “moments of truth” where you’re either lucky or you’re not. We spent 90% of the game trying to increase our odds, but then we only got to apply those odds a very few times. And we got totally screwed. Screwed! Why are you taking this so well?
Mind 1: Because I’m the calm, rational one. It’s still a fun game. You’re the one getting all crazified about a light-to-middle-weight game that didn’t even take that long! And aren’t those wheel-things cool?
Mind 2: F**k the wheel things! We lost the game because we drew a bunch of $#@! blank tiles!
Mind 1: Calm down. Think. We really did put our eggs in too few baskets, don’t you think? We went for a small number of big digs, instead of a larger number of small ones.
Mind 2: That should have helped us, you dolt! When you draw 5 tiles from a single 50/50 bag, each blank makes future draws more likely to be something good. If you’re drawing 1 tile from each of 5 different 50/50 bags, there’s no negative feedback to smooth out the luck. Face it, we just got goosed by the Gods of Fate.
Mind 1: Are you always this bitter?
Mind 2: Shut up.
Mind 1: Fine. But I’m still rating this game a 7.5.
The second of my three-new-games-of-the-night was a two-player game of Vikings. The little jury that sits in my head is still out. I wasn’t grabbed. Poked, maybe.
I’m always suspicious when I win a game without really being sure HOW I did it. If a guy playing kind of randomly beats someone who’s played before (albeit only once), what does that say about the value of sound strategic thinking? Along those lines, this seemed a game much more about tactics and short-term advantage-taking than any kind of long-term planning.
Also… Vikings? I love Vikings, but I think they wasted the theme on this game. I want more blood and pillaging in a game about Vikings – something less nerdy than a decent tile-placement-optimization exercise, which is what Vikings is.
36. Race for the Galaxy
Oh, dear Og.
It was almost midnight when we started this one. My friend Nate, who’s already a good deal smarter than I am, and who has played this many times before, tried to teach me.
Emphasis on “tried.”
He did confess that RftG has a notoriously high learning curve, but in theory even someone of my modest intellect should be able to pick up on games by dint of years of general experience. And I’ve played the mechanically-similar San Juan before, and had no trouble at all picking THAT one up.
So what the heck happened? I could not get my head around the details of the produce vs. consume actions, and in particular the subtle differences between consuming and trading. Also, I must have stared at some of those fiddly little icons many dozens of times without really grokking their full meaning. Some cards I would stare at, be entirely unable to figure out what they did, and file them under “currency” based only on my confusion. I was pretty much a random-turn-taking machine for the duration of my inaugural match.
Nate, meanwhile, had built up some sort of monster card-drawing engine such that he received extra cards or victory points no matter what either of us did. If I blinked my eyes, he got to draw a card. If I took a sip of soda, he drew a card. You could have told me that he was allowed to draw cards every time he drew a card, and I would have believed you.
The margin of victory was not small.
Enough people whose opinions I respect hold this game in high regard, so I’ll try it again. I’ll hold out hope for the moment when all the fiddly little rules become magically internalized, and I can start concentrate on strategy instead of what all those $#@! icons mean.
Addendum, weeks later: I have now played several games of Race for the Galaxy. As promised, everything clicked, all at once, somewhere during the my second game. I’m still no expert, but now when I play, I at least feel like I’m doing everything on purpose, and with full cognizance of how badly I’m being outplayed.
This is a beautiful game. Happily, it also plays well. Tonight was my first time playing, and I came in 3rd out of 4, which, if you’ve been reading this list through to now, you’ll realize is the equivalent of a stunning victory for me.
I’ll use this game as an opportunity to bemoan one of my most common game blunders, which I perpetrated in the mid-game. I’m sure almost all of you have done this at some point or another, but I’ve made a depressing habit of it. Specifically: I think and plan and ponder and work through possibilities, and figure out exactly what I should do on my next turn. (Like, for instance, that I should take the market with blue cubes, because even though that gets me fewer cubes, I’m going to need the blue ones later in the turn.) Then some time passes – 2 or 3 minutes, typically – during which all the brain cells involved in that decision-making process die mysterious deaths. Then my turn comes up, and I make a snap-decision that fails to take into account any of the tactical nuances I was figuring out only minutes earlier. (Hey, I can maximize my cubes if I take all yellows and reds.) Then, later in the turn, it’s head-thumping-on-table time. (If only I had blue cubes, I’d be painting ass and taking names! Didn’t I work that out five minutes ago? %$#!)
38. Gulo Gulo
Today I was thumped in a game of Gulo Gulo by my younger daughter, age 2. In my defense, she’s almost 3. She also beat me in Candyland, for what it’s worth.
Joking aside, Gulo Gulo has an absolutely brilliant bit of design that legitimately gives a two-year-old an advantage over an adult. The core mechanic is teasing a wooden egg out of a bowl of eggs without disturbing a thin dowel jammed into the pile. Having tiny kid-sized fingers is hugely beneficial, especially when picking out the smallest eggs in the bowl.
I’ll say this, too: The shame of losing is well worth it for seeing my second daughter become, if anything, more of a game freak than my first. Note to self: try not to let them burn out!
39. Die Sieben Siegel
(Note: I see as I add this item that it’s been renamed to “Sluff Off,” but its original name was “Die Sieben Siegel”, which I think is German for “The Seven Seals.”)
What a strange thing… I won a trick-taking game! What makes this occurrence unusual is that of the four of us playing, I was the only one who cannot, even slightly, count cards.
“Die Steven Segal,” in my mind, rises above most trick-taking card games because there’s no inherent advantage to having a “powerful” hand. In fact, part of why I won was that my hands tended to be weak, and thus more predictable.
Another random thought about this game: it’s an exemplar of some need, either actual or imagined, that card games played with custom cards have to have some meaningless theme pasted on to them to make them palatable. (Cf. Lost Cities.) Seven seals? Is that fiction really necessary? I dunno… maybe it is. But no one thinks there needs to be a theme or story behind Hearts, or Spades, or Bridge, or Canasta. So why, really, does Die Sieben Siegel need some “mystic mumbo jumbo” fiction attached?
Ystari continues to impress. I played two games of Metropolys late last night against Jeff and Paul, two extremely game-savvy MIT/Cal Tech graduates. After the first game, all of us were eager to try again immediately, even though it was 11:30 P.M. The first game was exceedingly close; I tied Jeff for highest score, but he won on the tie-breaker.
I’m sure this happens to everyone here: a game ends in a tie, and only then do the players think to check what the tie-breaking formula is. It adds a “slot machine” feel to the end of the game – who will the game designers have decided is the winner? Usual answer: not me.
I was crushed in the second game; it turns out that arranging to place three buildings around a statue is extremely difficult, since you can end up semi-arbitrarily hosed by your opponents without them even meaning to thwart you. With no points earned from my “secret objective,” I came in a distant 3rd place.
Our thoughts on the infamous board: yeah, it’s visually busy, and we would have preferred something with less detail and more quick-glance clarity, but it didn’t really bother any of us that much.
Ursuppe—or “Primordial Soup” as it is now better known—was one of my very first Euros. (Thinking back, I think my first six games in the genre were El Grande, Settlers, Ursuppe, Silberzwerg, Ohne Furcht und Adel (Citadels) and Tikal.) I have fond memories of setting up the game on the floor of my apartment and playing through all sorts of mock scenarios, trying out different gene combinations, and getting a handle on how the resource scarcity would play out. I’ll always have a soft spot for this game.
Also, Ursuppe is one of the best games in my collection in terms of meshing theme with mechanics. I feel the ebb and flow, the struggle for improvement and evolution, the tragedy of radiation bombardment, and the driving need to eat the poop of other amoebas. The four of us playing – the other three for the first time – had a pretty jolly time doing some “lite role playing” on behalf of our little microscopic organisms.
And yet… and yet. Ursuppe is procedural in the extreme. It’s fiddly as all get out. Progress along the scoring track is slow, and there was very little change in the order of our scoring markers. I mean, I like the game and all. I wouldn’t mind playing it again. And yet.
I guess Ursuppe will always have a place in my heart, but my brain is interested in making room for other games.
This is just a solid, solid game. If I had to list 10 games in my collection that best exemplify the “high quality Euro,” Amun-Re would be on there, probably along with Puerto Rico, El Grande, Princes of Florence and Louis XIV, among others.
Like Ra, Amun-Re is a math-tastic Reiner Knizia offering set in Egypt, but in this case I find the theme is pasted on with a somewhat stronger glue.
We played with a typical trio of high-powered MIT-educated board gamers, along with my wife and me… and my wife (no slouch herself in the IQ department) absolutely crushed the field. I’m appalled.
No, wait, proud! I mean proud!
Also, here’s the obligatory link to the funniest thing ever written on boardgamegeek.com:
43. Blokus Trigon
Example #17 under “why you should read the rules at least once before you play, unless you’re EXTREMELY sure about everything”: Aaron, Nate and I played this after a game of Fresco. About 2/3 of the way through the game, we realized that all of us were going to easily play all of our pieces. Hm. That can’t be right, can it?
Turns out, no, no it can’t. With only three players, you can’t play on the outermost edge of the board. Played properly, Blokus Trigon is a pretty good game! I’m not sure I like it as much as Blokus, since it’s harder to block opponents and so seems a little more arbitrary, but it’s certainly a better option with only three players.
Wonder of wonders, I won the game, which probably speaks to its arbitrary nature.
44. Witch’s Brew
First, I’d just like to say that it’s a good thing I did my “Ticket to Ride” entry some time ago, because tonight I just suffered embarrassment of biblical proportions in a five player game. I kept 2 tickets at the start, never took another, and only completed one of them. In my panicky desperation to try to complete that second one, I ended up building lots of point-inefficient dinky little tracks all over the place. The final score was 113-112-110-59-47. I know that makes it seem like I almost came in a glorious 4th, but my wife was two turns away from turning that 59 into a 113, before the 112 player unexpectedly triggered the end game, leaving her one turn short. My prospects were not nearly as promising.
But enough about stupid train games! I actually won the game of Witch’s Brew, which fact I ascribe to my plaintive whinging throughout the early parts of the game, as nothing seemed to be going my way. But the fates rewarded my incessant whining with some lucky breaks with the Warlock, and I won mostly on those victory-point test tubes.
Witch’s Brew, the more I think about it, has very little substance. Oh, sure, it’s a pleasant way to spend the time. I’m glad I played it, and will happily play it again if someone wants to. But it’s one of those games without a tremendous breadth of tactical possibilities, and even if you plan cleverly, you also have to get lucky or it doesn’t matter.
Still, the core level-of-risk mechanism is kind of nifty, it’s aesthetically pleasing, the rules are simple, and there’s no down time to speak of.
45. Notre Dame
Here’s a little story about my whole life.
When I was in high school, I was a pretty smart kid, but I attended a posh private school full of really smart kids. And if you stacked my brains up against my closest friends, I’d have been down near the bottom.
When I was in college, at Wesleyan University, I was a decent student, but all of my friends were smarter.
When I got my first real job, I was a sharp employee, but compared to my co-workers, I had the brain of an eggplant. I worked for a video game company with a bunch of highly-educated programmers and absurdly smart designers, and also one guy who has since gone on to become a successful author. I was a liberal arts shlub who knew just enough to hang on.
Now that I’m 41, I find I’ve surrounded myself with a different hyper-intelligent peer group. Many are MIT graduates now working on software –related projects well beyond my ken. And my wife – sheesh! She took college classes at 14, got her degrees from Stanford and Cornell, and now works as a programmer and mathematician. She comes home from work and tries to tell me about the problems she’s working on, and it’s all so over my head I can’t see it for the clouds.
Basically, I’ve always been the slow one. So when I don’t win many board games, cut me some slack, okay? Please?
At least I’ve been coming in near the middle of the pack recently. Tonight I finished tied for 2nd out of 4 in Arkadia, and 3rd of 4 in Notre Dame. This was my first time playing the latter game, and I thought it was a neat little plate-spinning exercise.
Somewhere previous in this list, I mentioned that a lack of theme can’t spoil a mechanically-interesting game for me. Good thing, here, because the theme in Notre Dame is wafer thin. After it was over, and we were discussing this very fact, Tim challenged any of us to name the building type that earned Victory Points. None of us could do it. “Cube pusher” was a term someone in the group used, but for us that’s a term of near-affection.
Also: it took me until the third set of cards until I remembered I could only play two of the three cards I ended up with. But I took it in stride.
After all, I’ve always been the slow one.
Bausack is just a big bag of differently sized and shaped wooden pieces. The rules booklet outlines different play variants, but they all involve players taking turns building one or more towers out of those pieces.
What a nasty game of Bausack this was!
On one level, the table banter was nasty. This particular crowd delighted in crude humor, and it was considered acceptable strategy to make the active player laugh at some ribald joke just when they were delicately placing a piece on the tower.
On another level, the game itself was nasty. This was no friendly “let’s all collectively build a neat little tower” game. This was a “what single piece* can I place to make it nigh impossible for the next player to play” game. It’s a testament to the excellent variety of blocks that we managed to build some large and precarious towers, even with each player trying to make things maximally difficult.
*I think we did discover one piece which, if placed first, was effectively impossible to add to. It was the thin cigarette-shaped piece, placed on its side. I was surprised to find that the rules contain no limitations on the starting piece of a collective construction.
For this one, none of us had played before, but we each had skimmed the on-line rules earlier in the day. We had independently come to the same conclusion: Complex Game + Poorly Organized Rules = Fail.
The main problem here is that rules and components are introduced without enough context, so that in order to understand them, we had to constantly browse forward through the rulebook to make sense of things. In fact, what finally let us get our brains around the core concepts was skipping to the end, and more-or-less reading backward. And while I appreciate a “here’s how the game looks when you’ve set it up” picture, that, by itself, isn’t enough! For instance, it never says outright to stack the Banker, Palace etc. cards so that all the “1’s” are in one pile, then the “2’s”, etc. I had to infer that from the picture, and from other places in the rule book.
Given that I was therefore prejudiced against the game from the start (see previous comments about unclear rules being one of my worst bugaboos), I thought it was a decent enough game. The artwork on the board was pretty bland, with odd color choices and sad-looking gardens beneath the drab tiles, but the gameplay itself was varied, tactical, tense – all those good adjectives one tends to associate with Euros. And once we knew what we were doing, the complexity vanished and things progressed smoothly.
I ended up winning, despite being shut out of the victory point palaces. I did get the final Banker card fairly early, which earned me a ton of points, and I was the only player to have planted 5 gardens, earning me another windfall.
Warning: While I only have a single play as evidence, I think this is a game where incidental (and accidental) king-making could be a problem. I was able to win, in part, because the last-place player, sensibly trying to increase his score, irrigated a square that I then had the first chance to plant. That let me trigger the endgame before other players could grab the huge 10 point tile at the top of the garden.
48. Memoir ’44
Being the only guest at last night’s board game night, Tim was kind enough to teach me Memoir ’44. We played the intro “Pegasus Bridge” scenario, alternating sides as suggested.
Memoir ’44, like many games in my collection, had been sitting unplayed for years before its inaugural spin. The problem here is that my wife doesn’t like this sort of game very much, and my kids—3 and 5 at the time of this writing—aren’t old enough. (Thanks to my recent quest to play all my games, I’m down to only a handful of never-played games: Hansa, Leonardo da Vinci, Tichu, Lord of the Rings Monopoly, La Citta and Pente.)
As for the game itself: fun, though I was somewhat taken aback by how much luck there is. My decisions were driven almost entirely by cards, and the outcomes of those decisions were determined almost entirely by dice. I’m not tactical genius, but I beat a much more experienced player mostly because my dice were on fire, and his were not.
Still, I enjoyed playing with little army men like I did when I was a kid. I’d play it again.
49. San Juan
Tonight was another single-guest board game event, so Paul and I played two games: San Juan, and Race for the Galaxy. In theory that should have given me a clear sense of which I like more, but it didn’t.
San Juan is certainly the more distilled experience – simpler, faster, clearer. Race for the Galaxy adds complexity, but I’m not certain that it’s better. It doesn’t really matter, I suppose; they’re both fun.
Although I technically won both games, San Juan shouldn’t count. I played an early Library, and we missed the rule where I only get to use it once when I’m Governor. As a result I won decisively, even though Paul had a point-laden Guild Hall.
A last note on RtfG: both Paul and I have played a large handful of games against the AI written by Keldon Jones. We both have atrocious records, and neither of us can figure out exactly how it’s beating us so soundly. Is it just a matter of knowing exactly when to shift into double-VP mode? Or can it predict a human’s choices more reliably than another human can? How? HOW ARE YOU CRUSHING US?
50. Hera and Zeus
As with Ursuppe and Silberzwerg, I had fond memories of Hera and Zeus from the previous times I had played it, which were sometime back in the Triassic period, I think. And I still think it’s fun, though its flaws were more evident than I remembered.
For a game that seems very tactical when you’re actually taking your turns, our games of H&Z felt oddly arbitrary. There’s manageable luck and unmanageable luck, and we both felt the game featured more of the latter than the former. While we split the two games we played, my friend Aaron actually found his victory more frustrating, as he won suddenly by finding Argus hidden in my (purposefully large) hand. At that point I clearly had the advantage, with Io visible in the fourth position in one of his columns. I was biding my time, waiting for the cards that would allow me to rip through his column in one or two turns, when wham. Pegasus to the jugular, game over.
Nonetheless, there are still good things to say about Hera and Zeus. There’s lots of bluffing, and different strategies, and a decent play time, and a constant stream of interesting decisions. I’d happily play it again, but now I want to play Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation instead, to see if my other Stratego-like 2-player-game-that-I-haven’t-played-in-years also fails to hold up to my glossy recollection.
51. Small World
Ooooh, I love this game. I’m not in any sense a war-gamer, and I can see how if I was, I might be inclined to look down upon this offering, but as things stand it’s just my flavor of tea.
I particularly like the combinatorial variety of races and powers, such that every game there are new combos to consider and figure out how to optimize on the board. I also like the art style – goofy fantasy FTW! – and the table-talk wherein you try to convince players to attack someone else.
A couple of notes, one specifically related to the game, and one not.
We played four players, my wife and I and another couple. Now, it’s historically been the case that when my dearly beloved and I are playing together in a non-co-op game, neither of us wins, because something drives us to want to thwart each other just a bit more than the other players. This has been compounded over the years when we’ve played against a certain other couple, the husband of which often takes things easy on his wife. (Which, by the way, is not at all necessary. Both of the them are off-the-charts geniuses; she teaches particle physics at a prestigious university, and he’s – literally – a rocket scientist.) It drives me up the frikkin’ wall when his play obviously favors his wife, but this time he clearly wasn’t doing that. In fact, a couple of times he attacked his wife’s positions when I thought he should have done something else.
Of course, his wife won anyway, beating me by one point.
The second thing: while both I and my wife love Smallworld, I’ll never get her to play two-player again. We tried that only once; she went first, and on my first turn I attacked her mercilessly, devastated her population, and she never recovered. Sorry, dear!
52. Dungeons & Dragons: Castle Ravenloft Board Game
After playing each of the first two multiplayer adventures, I was prepared to say some nice things about this game. It uses way-scaled-down 4th Edition D&D mechanisms, and I’m a big fan of 4E. It’s got some clever stuff going on, like the constant tension between wanting to move slow (fewer monsters) and wanting to move fast (fewer Encounters). It plays quickly, it’s easy to learn and to teach, and the way it gets around the need for a human dungeon master is pretty slick.
Then, two days ago, a friend and I tried the 4th adventure in the book, and it was really driven home for us just how poorly written the rulebook is. I’ve mentioned earlier how much I detest rules ambiguities in games, and the rules for this one are filled with things that are implied but never stated. Ugh. And it’s not just me. Here’s a link that discusses the rulebook’s myriad problems:
Also, this 3rd game was the point where I started to wish for more varied content. For all the chits and minis and cards that come with the game, it really needs a bigger variety of basic monsters out of the box.
So, let me suggest that if you do play this game, skip adventure #4, and don’t expect too much from the game despite its size.
Oh, and one more thing: there does not exist a world in which it is appropriate for a “blazing skeleton” to have a translucent ice-blue mini. Just… no.
Love at first play.
This was an inaugural game for all three players, and all of us adored it. It’s kind of the quintessential Euro – full of little tactical decisions (where do I place my dice? Do I use my +2 chits? How can I best guard against the other players screwing me?) inside of a strategic arc (what buildings should I be planning for? Where are my victory points going to come from? How much risk am I willing to take when winter comes along?)
And it’s nice, when everyone at the table is equally clueless about a new game. None of us had any notion of what number-choices are generally considered strong or poor, or which buildings are worth buying, or – for that matter – what the distribution of monster values was in each of the five mini-decks. We were feeling our way around the game in a wonderfully exploratory and experimental fashion, and all ended up within 5 points of one another.
But in the subsequent 48 hours, I’ve been led to a weird sort of epiphany. I found that one can play Kingsburg on-line against AI opponents, and I’ve played through about 5 matches so far. It’s fun, but I fear that I’m dulling my experience of playing the game with too much knowledge learned in an anti-social setting. It would have been fun to play again in person with only as much wisdom as I had gleaned from my one “real” play, but now I feel I’ve gotten some mud on that path of discovery. Like I’ve cheated, somehow. I don’t know why that is, but I had a similar experience with Yspahan. I played it a couple of times with my wife, loved it, and then went on line and played so many hasty matches against the AI that my desire to play the real thing again lost just a bit of its edge. Ah well.
Also, between this and Yspahan, I’m starting to wonder if maybe I like dice more than I think.
54. No Thanks!
You could probably make good money by betting people you can show them a fun card game with only 2 rules.
Seriously, No Thanks!, for all that it’s a tiny little filler of a game, probably has the highest fun/complexity ratio in my collection. Everyone I’ve even taught to play has followed the same narrative arc, from curiosity, to skepticism, to angst, to delight.
55. Ticket to Ride: Marklin
Another day, another game when I get smoked.
I’m not certain about whether I like Marklin more or less than the original TTR. On the one hand, it has some clever innovations that turn TTR’s strategic assumptions upside-down. The passengers change the tempo to reward faster track-laying, for instance, and the higher-valued goods tend to be on the shorter tracks, meaning it’s no longer a no-brainer to simply go for the longest sections.
I don’t have much more to say about the game, beyond the facts that I like it, and came in a distant 3rd out of 4 in last night’s session, so instead I’ll lament the seeming evaporation of Genimuse.
You probably don’t know what that is, so I’ll tell you: Genimuse was a company that made game journals. My wife got me one for Christmas some years back, and I’ve been faithfully logging all of my plays in it. Last night we started with a game of Ra, the record of which used up the next-to-last page in my journal. (I’m saving the last page to photocopy.) As a result, I had to scrawl the log of our TTR: M session on a piece of scrap.
I’d love to get another journal, but as far as I can tell, Genimuse is defunct, and I cannot find any other similar product. That seems a terrible shame. Given the correlation between board gamers and an obsessive compulsion to keep stats, I’d have expected a thriving niche market selling these things to us crazies. Alas, no. I’ll probably end up taking that last precious blank page to Staples and see if they can make a new one.
56. Forbidden Island
I absolutely love this game, but probably not for the reason you think.
Oh, it’s pretty fun. I also like Pandemic, and this game really is Pandemic Light. The tiles are beautiful, the gameplay is sharply focused, and the “sinking island” is nicely realized by the mechanics. No, it’s not as good as Pandemic, and a bit too simplistic. It’s also too easy, I think, to get hosed by a Waters Rise! card early in the treasure pile. This game is probably a 6.5 or a 7 for me.
No, why I love this game is that my five-year-old daughter ADORES it, and wants to play it with me all the time. She loves to play the Pilot, flying around and scooping up treasures and hoping that the tile with the scary face actually sinks. She’d rate it a 10, no question. I have a kid who loves board games, and I’ll put up with a lot to keep that flame alive.
57. Candy Land
Speaking of which…
You might think that a completely random game like Candyland would have nothing to teach young gamers beyond turn-taking, color-recognition and sportsmanship. But here’s a surprising and wonderful thing that happened this evening, that shows another lesson Candyland can teach.
Sunday nights are “family game night” here in the Sagiro household, but our choices are quite limited because we like to include our 3-year-old along with our 5-year-old. Lately the game of choice has been Kids of Carcassonne, but my wife has cleaned up in the last two games.
“What would you like to play tonight?” I asked the 5-year-old. “Kids of Carcassonne again?”
“Mommy’s really good at that game,” she said. “Let’s play Candyland. It’s random, so I might win.”
Yes, my 5-year-old not only understands that there’s no skill in Candyland, but also has figured out that randomness removes skill disparity. I’m so proud!
58. Hansa Teutonica
Last night I finally got around to playing this highly-polarizing Euro. It was a three-player game, and all three of us were HT noobs. Some observations from our inaugural play:
- All of the criticism about HT being an ultra-generic example of the soulless cube-pusher genre are true…which must be why I liked it so much. Sure, it’s kind of a mishmash of lots of other Euros, with worker placement, Goa-like advancement tracks, and the ubiquitous Map Of Germany With Cities Connected by Routes. But to me that’s like saying: “Here, try this bowl of ice cream. It’s got one scoop each of every flavor you love.” It’s a fusion of Goa, Thurn & Taxis and Medieval Merchant, with a theme so flimsy it can float off the board if someone coughs, but that didn’t bother me a bit.
- It didn’t really occur to me until we were done that there’s no luck in this game. (Ok, there’s epsilon luck, since the bonus markers are randomized.) That means there are probably strategies by which an experienced player can provably beat a less-experienced player every time.
- Our scores were all within 1 point: 45 to 44 to 44. I thought I was losing pretty badly, and so was pleased to tie for 2nd by such a close margin. We all tried somewhat different strategies to win, so it speaks well of the game that the scores were so close.
- It’s weird to have a location-based board, where so much of the gameplay takes place on such a small percentage of the board’s locations.
- Not related to the game: before we played, I read the entire rulebook out loud to the other two players. I mentioned up-list that I madden some of my friends doing this, but this particular couple agrees with me that it’s the best way to learn a game that no one at the table has played. Yay for friends who are even bigger obsessive rules-freaks than me!
59. Sleeping Queens
This is all the rage among the 5-and-under set in the Sagiro household. My daughter has wanted to play it every waking moment since we bought it, and she’s taught several friends and relatives how to play to maximize her total play time. Her ability to quickly spot simple “math problems” (seeing that three number cards fit into an A + B = C pattern) has improved right before our eyes. It’s pretty simple fare, and there’s lots of luck, but it really is right in a 5-year-old’s wheelhouse.
Recently, though, my 3-year-old daughter has been even more crazy for this game. She wants to play it constantly, and for the most part she actually plays it. The only thing she needs help with is figuring out addition problems, and so she plays with her number cards face-up. If she can make a sum, I tell her, and she counts out the numbers herself. Besides that, she plays as solidly as I do. She knows that the “Chess King” is my favorite, and so gets very excited whenever either of us plays it.
What has made “Sleeping Queens” into even more of a phenomenon in our living room is my kids’ love of imaginary play. When not playing Sleeping Queens the card game, they want to play live-action Sleeping Queens, where (typically) I’m an evil knight, and the kids are dragons keeping me from stealing the Sleeping Queen, who might be imaginary, or possibly my wife if she’s around. I’m telling you, nothing is this world is funnier than threatening to steal my own wife, only to have a 3-year-old girl with a resolute expression jump between us and scold: “That doesn’t happen!” I love it around here.
60. 7 Wonders
At this moment – January 25th, 2011 – I cannot buy 7 Wonders for a reasonable price. It’s sold out everywhere. It’s the greatest thing since sliced Dominion. It will not only provide you an entertaining gaming experience, it will also cook you scrambled eggs, iron your shirts and bathe your kids. And it tastes like chocolate. No wonder it’s such a hot item!
Despite not having my own copy, I’ve played this a handful of times with friends. It’s quite a decent little game. It feels like there’s lots going on, even though the playtime is short. Card drafting is always fun. The variety of strategies is fine. But my theory as to the game’s astonishing success is that it plays so well with such a disparate number of players. The very fact that seven can play already gives it extra value. But I find that most games which accommodate large groups don’t play so well with small ones. (Dixit and Incan Gold, I’m looking at you! You too, Category 5.) 7 Wonders doesn’t have that problem, and so fills a much larger niche than most other games.
Hm. Not sure what to say about this one. It was okay, I guess. It has much in common with Hansa Teutonica, which I thought was great. Endeavor left me a little flat. Maybe this is evidence that even dry Eurogames need a sort of “divine spark,” some unknowable or indefinable “soul” that brings unexpected life to a bunch of chits, markers and scoring tracks? That successful cube-pushers contain in their deepest hearts an ineluctable joy that emerges like a flower out of a parched desert?
Or, maybe, I didn’t enjoy it as much because my ass was thoroughly and painfully stomped upon for the entire 75 minutes. It’s one of those.
Right there, on the box, it says “60-90 minutes.”
Now, I’ve learned through long experience that the time estimates on the boxes of European-style board games are often filthy lies. I figured that with all three of us playing for the first time, we were looking at two hours.
FOUR hours later, the game was over. We played about a month ago, so I’ve forgotten the myriad subtleties and stratagems, but I do remember this: that at different points in the game, all of us were convinced that each other player was about to win. First it was Paul, who seemed to have a unassailable position in terms of those cards that make it cheaper to bid. Then I was one turn away from a somewhat stealthy victory, and it came down to a 50/50 shot at it depending on which Gods were next upturned. It did not go in my favor. Then Aaron surged ahead, and for a turn or two seemed ready to eclipse Paul for the win. And then Paul won after all. So that was neat.
Still (and possibly this was because it was 1:00 AM by then and were all exhausted), I think we had mixed feelings about the game. It’s a weird hybrid – it looks and feels like a war game in many respects, but one in which only one person can attack, one time, every other turn, at most!
Bonus point in the game’s favor: the Kraken figure is pretty friggin’ sweet!
I’ve always considered Alhambra to be a mediocre game. I mean, there’s nothing really wrong with it, but there’s not much going on, and you’re not making that many decisions over the course of an hour. It’s a nice, light, somewhat flavorless game.
Ah, but now, now I will always hold it in particularly high regard. Why? For the same general reason I love Forbidden Island and Sleeping Queens. My five-year-old daughter was able to play it just fine. She loved it so much, she’s asked for it again, and I will never turn down a game with her. I thought, this being her first “grown up” game, that she might have some trouble with the mechanisms, but she was fine. She understood instinctively that she should always go for exact change when possible, and thanks to playing four thousand games of Sleeping Queens, she has no problem adding up numbers. And she loves putting together her Alhambra with a long outer wall. Her biggest hurdle now is understanding when to stop collecting tiles of a particular color.
I’d say Elanor’s favorite 10 games at this point, two months after her 6th birthday, are: Sleeping Queens, Forbidden Island, War (sob), Giro Galoppo, Dixit, Alhambra, Monopoly Junior, Circus Flohcati, Gulo Gulo and Kids of Carcassonne.
I just played Dixit last night – a four player game where one guy was being “assisted” by his four-year-old daughter. I think Dixit is a great game to spark a kid’s creativity, and my own six-year-old loves it, but it’s amusing how specific a kid’s description can be even when they think they’re being circumspect.
Some random comments about Dixit:
- I appreciate that the scoring-track-as-game-insert is somewhat clever, but it’s maddening how it doesn’t leave enough room in the box for the cards that come with Dixit 2. Ergonomic failure!
- The game features some of the most beautiful artwork in my game collection. Which in turn makes me think that would make a great Geeklist itself. Other games with great artwork off the top of my head: Lord of the Rings; Pillars of the Earth; Forbidden Island; Fresco.
- This game is more-or-less identical, in terms of its primary mechanism, as the game Thingamajig. Where Dixit uses pictures, Thingamajig uses words.
- Whenever I play this with four or fewer players, I always throw in an extra “random” card to the mix, to make the experience less potentially degenerate. It’s surprising how often the “phantom player’s” card gets chosen!
65. Roll Through the Ages: The Bronze Age
When I was a lad of eleven or so, a friend and I made up a game that was like an advanced fantasy-themed Battleship. We’d take pieces of graph paper and secretly make maps out of them, marking each grid square as “swamp,” or “mountains,” or “monsters,” or “treasure.” We’d then map out each other’s dungeons, trying to find the treasures before dying. I wish I could remember all the rules we came up with.
I mention this because Roll Through the Ages brought my mind back to those old games of graph-paper exploration. It’s only because you get to check off those little boxes on your sheet as you decide what to build, but that was enough to fill me with a kind of old-school nostalgia while I was playing. The game feels like something I would have made up and played with friends when I was eleven.
My friend Tim taught me to play, and I beat him by a single point, though to be fair I should mention that a) he gave me more than one point’s worth of advice as we played, and b) he was thumping me until I caught up on a fantastically lucky final roll at the end.
This is rapidly becoming one of my favorite games, and not only because it has fruit meeples. (Fruitles? Freeples? Whatever.)
Everything about this game’s aesthetics seems designed to soothe and to please. It has nice pastel windmill tiles, a bucolic game board, and pastoral fruit tiles, in addition to the fun wooden fruit bits themselves. Surely, a game of Finca is a friendly, casual affair filled with sunlight and laughter. Right?
Hell, no. Lurking behind the fruit trees is a tense game of opportunity-stealing, backstabbing and hidden gotchas. You’ll realize that you can actually kill someone with a fig, and that windmill blades can be planted right in someone’s back. Fig-uratively speaking, of course.
67. Giro Galoppo
If you’re looking for a good game to please kids in the 4 to 7-year-old range, you could do worse than this cute little horse-racing game. It’s basically a kids’ version of Ave Caesar, and right now it is a particular favorite of my 4-year-old daughter. (I swear she might be some sort of horse-racing savant, because the last time we played with the whole family, and with neither parent pulling any punches, she won both games quite handily.)
Another personal note about this game: after exhorting my sometimes-unintentionally-destructive kids to be very careful with the little wooden horse-riders, I accidentally snapped one of their legs off. As a result, this is now the only game in my collection where I don’t play green even though it’s technically an option.
First, I’d just like to say OW OW OW MY BRAIN STILL HURTS FROM BEING ON FIRE! But it’s a good kind of pain. This was the first game of Troyes for the three of us, and it was utterly Eurolicious. So much to think about, with all sorts of interesting tactical decisions, dice-stealing screwage abounding everywhere, and lots of head-slapping regret over lost opportunities.
Even more than with most games on this list, I’m going to talk about particulars, so if you don’t know or care about the specifics of Troyes gameplay, you should probably skip to the next entry.
I managed to pull out a rare win, especially given the weight of the game and the large brains of my opponents. It was 41-34-34, and I can chalk up my victory to two things:
- My hidden card was the “VP’s for Influence,” and the card came out that let you turn red dice into influence directly, so I hopped on that early. And for synergy’s sake, we also drew the card that turned Influence into cash at a 6-to-1 conversion rate, so I was able to have a nice little engine humming along.
- A specific combo: steal yellow dice for free + turn influence into cash + sculptor. This allowed me, for free, to dump sixteen yellow pips on the Sculptor at the start of the last round, netting 11 VPs for a 15 denier investment.
A few other notes:
- One of the others players methodically kicked the opposition out of buildings, to the point where for the final two turns, he was rolling 8 out of the 15-16 dice. And it helped him, but not enough to make up for the 2 income he was getting each turn, and the opportunities he was not taking with his meeples. I and the third player had many more points from playing meeples – excuse me, tradesmen – on the Action cards.
- I won despite several small things swinging against me at the end. An event card, about which I could do nothing, kicked my only third-level cube out of the cathedral, costing me two points. And I guessed wrong about the secret victory card one of my opponents held, causing me to give him money in order to kick him out of one of the buildings on the final round. Yeah – I thought he had the “guys in buildings” VP card, but in fact he had the “points for cash” VP card, and I ended up pushing him up one threshold and wasting my last die.
Finally, a small addendum to this session: first, I think this now the only game in my 150+ game collection with cubes AND meeples AND cards AND dice.
69. Lost Cities
I’ve recently taught this game to my 6-year-old daughter, who has grasped the strategies fairly well after 3 rounds. Today we played for the first time in several weeks, and so we played a reminder game where she played with her cards visible so I could offer her advice.
In fact, I was so busy giving her card-playing tips that I forget to pay attention to either my own tableau or the number of cards remaining. As a result, she won the round 62 to -2. Zeus, but I wish that was a typo. Note to self: when you play one of those handshake multipliers for a color, and you have the 10 card for that color, DON’T GET SO DISTRACTED BY YOUR DAUGHTER’S WINSOME SMILE THAT YOU FORGET TO PLAY THE FRIKKIN’ 10 BEFORE THE DECK RUNS OUT.
Note: though you, gentle reader, will have no idea, I am returning to this list after a hiatus of several years. It is 2015. My daughters are now 8 and 10. I am five years removed from leaving my employer, Irrational Games, and am now a stay-at-home dad with aspirations to someday soon publish fantasy novels. But enough about me!
I played Splendor with both of my girls and my step-father. Splendor is a simple and aesthetically pleasing game about gems. It is also an extremely basic build-an-economic-engine game. You take gems to buy cards, and the cards let you buy better cards, and eventually the even better cards have victory points on them, and when someone gets fifteen victory points, the game is over. It seems at first glance that the right strategy is to build up a strong engine early and ramp up to swift VP-acquisition late.
My younger daughter, Kira, one day shy of her 8th birthday, did not do that. She instead, most unwisely, could not take her eyes off those hard-to-get high-VP cards. Right from the start she eschewed all pretense of engine building, instead stockpiling single colors of gems, and going straight for the big early points. Meanwhile the rest of us diligently constructed our Mighty Engines of Efficiency. (My sharp step-father picked up on this from the get-go, and was, I thought, out in front.)
And then, suddenly, it was over. While my step-father and I each had ten or more cards, Kira had only three, but they added up to 10 points. And then, because no one was taking her seriously, she was able to reserve a 5-point card which she was only 2 gems shy of obtaining. All she had to do was reserve two more cards, cards she had no intention of ever fulfilling, in order to get the two wild-card chips she needed to win. There was no way of stopping her. While the rest of us had engines in various stages of construction, she had entirely forgone building one, instead simply loading herself into a giant rubber band and slinging herself all the way to the finish line.
Proud. And appalled. And proud. That’s me.
Want to make a game that naturally appeals to girls between the ages of 7 and 10? Make it center around a mischievous panda who keeps eating the bamboo planted by a be-frazzled gardener. It will not be lost on them, nor on their beleaguered father, that the game is an accurate metaphor for family life with children.
Also, I won by a handy margin. TAKE THAT, KIDS! I’M IN UR GARDEN, EATIN UR BAMBOOZ!
If ever there was a game that turned good people into evil, soulless monsters, it is this card game.
Just kidding about Hearts! I mean, yes, trick-taking games can transform people into malicious and sadistic miscreants, sure, but compared to Diplomacy, Hearts might as well be a contest to see who can deliver the most puppies to the most orphanages.
I have only played one game of Diplomacy in my life, so perhaps I am not fit to talk about it, but here is my experience. It was during my tenure as a game designer at Looking Glass, when one of my co-workers set up a full seven-player game of Diplomacy and invited me to join. As a noob, I was allowed to play England, considered by my friends to be one of the easier countries to play.
The rules were explained. It was pointed out specifically that in order to make any headway one had to ally with other players, but in order to win, one would have to ultimately stab one’s former allies in the back. The trick was in the timing: when to draw the knife.
Now, in real life, I’m a nice guy to a fault. I’m probably too nice. I could certainly never hack a career in business or politics. But faced with a game of Diplomacy, I realized that my reputation as a Nice Guy could be my ticket to victory if I used it wisely. So, I made a deal with the fellow playing France, and played up how I didn’t think I had it in me to backstab someone, and promised to go the distance with him toward a shared victory. A few turns later, I shoved him over a cliff. I felt awful, but I also found myself with more territory.
I proceeded to do the same thing to Germany. And Austria-Hungary. And Italy. In each case I presented my mild-mannered real-world nice-guy face, and no one seemed to be catching on to exactly how I was making so much progress. Keep in mind that we were doing one turn per day, so this was going on for weeks! In the end I wound up with a shared victory with (I think) Russia – the one player with whom I hadn’t yet come into direct conflict.
So, yay for me, I had won my first game of Diplomacy, but I had done so by playing on my overly-pleasant real-world personality. It felt uncomfortably meta. I felt dirty, and vowed never again to play the game with anyone I knew personally. That was probably about twenty years ago, and though I think Diplomacy is a perfectly good game, I have yet to break that promise.
74. Machi Koro
Here’s what Cynical Me thinks: “Hey, it’s all the luck-pulling-down-her-shorts-and-mooning-me frustration from Settlers of Catan, but without the mitigating factors of board position and the Robber!”
Here’s what Pangloss Me thinks: “Fun, light, quick, and everyone is engaged on other players’ turns. Wheeeee!”
Both me’s are right, but I think Cynical’s assessment is more relevant. Machi Koro is a game where you make lots of little choices that seem meaningful, but which quickly vanish into the shadow of the Luck of the Dice. And “hope your luck changes” is the only negative feedback* mechanism in the game; beyond that it’s a clear rich-get-richer game much like Settlers.
*I use the term “negative feedback” not as a denigration of games. Quite the opposite: it literally means a way in which leaders are reined in while others are given some advantage. Settlers of Catan has two significant negative feedback loops: the Robber tends to spend the game parked on the leader’s best tile, and players are less likely to trade with the player who seems most likely to win.
A good game, in my opinion, will have mechanisms like this, but of course these should not be enough to cancel out the positive feedback loops, or else there’d be no incentive to ever build up a strong position. All engine-building games are about who can construct the most robust positive feedback loop.
Revolution! is a neat and light-ish weight game that combines blind bidding and area majorities. At the table with me were four MIT/Cal Tech graduates of truly dizzying intellect, and as you might imagine I did not fare well. While I did decently enough in the bluffing/guessing portion of the game, I was completely outfoxed in the placement/majority part.
Note to anyone who plays this game: a 5-2 majority late in the game may seem safe, but not when there are mechanisms for both removing pieces AND swapping them between regions. I don’t think I can count as high as the number of points I finished behind the winner.
This is the first time I will comment on a game I have not yet played. Please forgive me.
At the moment I write this, I am 46 years old, and so I tend to value my time fairly highly. How highly? Let’s shoot for a ballpark estimate of $30/hour, which is less than my current contractor’s rate as a game designer, but more than my pay as a stay-at-home dad, which is technically zero, though I suppose you could say I am reimbursed daily by the snark of my 10-year-old and my 8-year-old’s inability to clean up after herself.
But I digress.
When I opened up Village to do my rules read-through before introducing it to the family, I discovered that first I would have to affix about a hundred tiny stickers to a hundred meeples. Er…okay? Then I started doing it, and discovered that it was a painstaking process requiring an absurd degree of accuracy, since the stickers barely fit on the pieces without extending over the edges. We’re talking maybe-a-millimeter margin for error. Each sticker required me to do that “old guy looks over his glasses” thing to see something close up. By the end I felt like Donald Pleasance from The Great Escape, gone blind from months spent producing high-quality forgeries to fool the Nazis.
I would conservatively estimate that it took me about 30 seconds per sticker to peel them off their sheet and stick them on their meeples. Do the math: that was 50 minutes of my life spent on this annoying task. Round up to an hour, since my efficiency was not perfect.
I confess an unfamiliarity with the production details of physical game pieces, but my question to the publishers of this game is: how much would it have cost you to produce meeples with numbers pre-printed on them? Because I would have spent an extra $5 or $10 on the game and still come out ahead in terms of how I value my time. And now, when I go to play your game, my anticipation is already polluted by annoyance and anger and the fact that I now probably need a stronger eyeglass prescription.
77. Sushi Go!
It’s not entirely wrong to call this “7 Wonders for Kids.” It’s a bit more accurate to call it “7 Wonders Lite That Plays in 15 Minutes.” It’s a cute little draft-n-pass set-collection game that rewards a good memory and one’s ability to outguess opponents.
It helps if you know your 8-year-old really loves maki rolls.
My kids both love Gubs, which is the second-most complex Gamewright Game we own (after Forbidden Island). I’ll play it with them, sure, but for all its different cards and effects and whatnot, it’s really just a giant game of card-based Musical Chairs. Round and round you go, but if you’re not standing next to an open chair when the music stops, there’s not much you can do about it.
Okay, that’s not quite fair. The endgame condition of Gubs is that three specific cards have been drawn from the deck, so you know when there’s only one left – you can hear the music slowing down. This lets you manage risk a bit, since you know when to switch from long-term to short-term goals. And there’s a little bit of tactical play to engage in, particularly as you become more and more familiar with the card set. But ultimately there’s so much randomness – your whole tableaux can be wiped out at any time, and often is – that it feels like the first 95% of the game might as well be a coin toss.
Now that I think upon it, there’s really one particular card (“Whoever drew this card, discard everything you’ve worked so hard to achieve since the game started.”) that really makes the problem severe. I should propose to the kids that we try removing that card and seeing what happens.
79. King of Tokyo
The one is a perennial family favorite, but today’s game was pretty lopsided.
It’s a matter of ongoing humor in our house, that when I play a game with my wife Kate, she spends more time making sure I lose than she does trying to win herself. Do I do the same to her? You can prove nothing.
This afternoon we played four player: me my wife, and my 8- and 10-year-old daughters. In the first go around, Kate and I managed to utterly savage one another, and unlike the kids, we could not roll any hearts. As such, we grown-ups found ourselves with alarmingly low health totals. More gruesomely for us, we hadn’t really taken into account the oft-passed-over card “Every player takes 3 damage.” All of a sudden my 8-year-old, while in Tokyo, rolls 3 claws and 3 energy cubes, and buys the 3-damage card. Bam! 6 damage to all other players!
I can only assume she went on to win, though I don’t know, because I was too busy hiding my head in shame in another room while the kids duked it out.
(Note: Another time jump has occurred. It is now over two years since I wrote my entry on King of Tokyo, during which time I have actually published two fantasy novels and am now working on a third. But as Zeus is my witness, I will get back to this list and finish it!)
Codenames is a game I will probably never turn down. It scales upward nearly infinitely from 4 players, you can drop and in out without disrupting anything, a round can be played in 15-20 minutes, and it can be a brain buster without giving you a headache.
The core gameplay is simple: a grid of 25 words (printed on cards) is arranged in a 5×5 grid. Each team chooses a leader, whose job it is to get their teammates to guess a specific 7 or 8 (or 8 or 9? I forget) words in the grid. (The teams have non-overlapping sets of words.) The trick is, the leader can only give one word clues, along with a number. So, she might, for example, say “Cardinal, 2.” That tells her teammates that she’s thinking of two words that relate to “Cardinal.” So maybe one of the words is “bird,” which is obvious. But what if there are also cards for “red,” “number” and “worm?” If you guess a word that’s part of the other team’s set, they get credit, and it’s a race to see which team guesses all their words first. (The number indicates how many guesses your team can make, though there are a few minor complications involved.)
In my most recent game, a clue-giver declared “Clooney, 5.” Five is a huge gambit in this game, but we stumbled onto the fact that he was thinking of words related to “Ocean’s Eleven” and actually guessed four of them.
Note: the clue-giver is not allowed to make any motion, expression, or other indication while their team is pondering their guesses. This can make it very difficult for kids to play as clue-givers.
Further addendum: I’m coming back to this entry in 2021 to report on an astounding guess I’m made in a game of this just yesterday. The clue was “sixty-seven.” From this, I deduced that the clue-giver had misremembered the number of varieties of Heinz products (which is fifty-seven) and thus correctly guessed the word “Ketchup.” Who do I contact as to where to send my trophy?
This is Dixit with extra bells and whistles, but honestly I’m not sure it’s worth it. I have friends who adore this game, but for me, if I want to play a game of using indirect clues to cause other players to identify beautiful pictures, I’d rather just play Dixit. (It’s similar to how I feel about Mystery of the Abbey, which is Clue with equally unnecessary dolling up.)
82. Pandemic Legacy: Season 1
This game enjoyed a long run as the top-rated game on boardgamegeek.com, and for good reason.
For the three of you out there unfamiliar with the “Legacy” concept: you take a board game (like Pandemic) and make physical, permanent changes to the board, cards and pieces between plays. You’ll add stickers, write on the board with indelible ink, and physically destroy components, which is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. Pandemic Legacy is played in a 12-24-session campaign, during which a plot unfolds, the rules are altered and expanded, and (most delightfully) you get to open secret boxes and “advent calendar” sleeves between sessions. You can lose games but still continue on with the campaign, and there are excellent feedback mechanisms that both help you when you’re having trouble, and make things harder on you when you’re having “too much” success.
I’ve been playing sporadically with my wife and older daughter, and we love it, though we’re only in May. (The game is played in months – you get two shots at each month, and then move on to the next even if you lost both times.)
Also: I am extremely fortunate to be friends with Rob Daviau, one of the game’s designers, and the one who came up with the “legacy” concept. You will seldom meet a nicer, more authentic, and more talented human being. So while you’re playing Pandemic Legacy and cursing up a blue streak that [OMG MASSIVE SPOILERS OH THE THINGS I WILL NOT SPEAK] remember that behind the twists and turns is one of the kindest people you are ever likely to meet.
Also also: Damn you, Rob. Damn you to hell.
83. Lords of Waterdeep
Lords of Waterdeep is something you can consider as My First Worker Placement Game. I used it to teach my kids the concept, and they had it figured out and mastered in about half an hour. Plopping down a worker on the space Dad obviously wanted is one of my children’s great joys. It’s a pretty solid game with a good Dungeons-and-Dragons-y theme that our family particularly enjoys. (In fact, just two days ago, the family was playing actual Dungeons and Dragons, using a module that had the party hired on with a caravan headed to Waterdeep. So, that was neat.)
Jaipur is a neat little two-player card and set-collection game. My kids love it.
Why do they love it? I mean, yeah, sure, it’s a good game, but what pushes it over the edge is that it has camels. For some reason, the presence of camels instantly raises the game up several echelons in my daughters’ esteem. When I taught them Oasis, they loved the camels so much, they made up a song about them, and then proceeded to sing it the entire time we played, driving their father close to behavior that would have gotten him arrested.
So far, no songs while playing Jaipur, thank goodness.
85. Heroes Welcome
Tonight the family played Heroes Welcome, a game where you play both side of the economic fence in the cycle of dungeon-delving and loot-pillaging. We loved the theme and the sense of humor; the kids giggled over just about every piece of loot. They were also impressed that we knew the designer; my wife and I worked with Marc LeBlanc many years ago at the video game company Looking Glass Studios.
Despite the conniving of my family, I managed to win the game, buoyed by a couple of extra-strong mid-game turns. Final scores were: 37-30-29-25
Lots of delicious choices, but not so overwhelming that there were long analysis-paralysis delays. Pacing felt good, as did the amount of player-hosing. (Taking an action you knew the next player wanted, swapping out Black Market loot you knew someone else wanted or closing shops just before they could use them with the “Gone Fishin’” Scam Card, etc.) Opponents could throw off your strategy, but it was still always possible to take meaningful turns.
My daughter E “defeated” Asmeowdeus with enough bonuses to score a whopping 20 points…but she still came in (a close) third, since that was only her second or third eager customer served. (And the existence of a boss monster named “Asmeowdeus” should give you an idea of the game’s tone.)
We found ourselves in a potion-spamming loop of sorts (which I’m guessing is intentional) where heroes would end up with lots of gold, and then one player would use the Herbalist to sell all five potions at once. The potions would bump up hero loot, leading to more gold the following turn, etc. During the last few turns, the heroes’ packs were bulging with loot!
Scam cards felt very useful, and were used often, even though the Merchants’ Guild wasn’t selected that much. I was a little worried going in that because the Eager Customer cards were of fixed order AND utility, the act of crafting would feel static or procedural, but that was not borne out. The vagaries of crafting bonuses and fluctuating loot stashes of the players more than made up for the rigid ordering of monsters.
86. Galaxy Trucker
Confession time: I don’t personally care for Vlaada Chvatil games, or at least the ones that require real-time thinking while a timer is running down. My genius friends love to get together and play Space Alert, for instance, but the one or two times I played that one were intensely stressful for me, plus I think caused our spaceship to be eaten by an alien because I forgot to jiggle the monitor or something.
Anyway, Galaxy Trucker is a game where you start by piecing together your spaceship, frantically grabbing pieces from a big pile of spaceship parts in the center of the table. There are rules for how pieces can connect, but if you’re savvy and can think under pressure, you can put together a serviceable agglomeration of thrusters, weaponry, cargo holds and whatnot. The idea is that once you’ve assembled a ship, the game takes players through a series of encounters that earn you points and/or knock pieces off your craft.
There’s one more rule. After that opening ship-building frenzy, the players examine all the ships (including their own) to make sure the ships are legally constructed. Sometimes a player will have accidentally connected two pieces in a disallowed configuration. If that happens, before the meat of the game even starts, such players must jettison pieces of their ship until what is left is a properly constructed vessel.
My recollection is that ships tend to consist of around twenty tiles at the start. But the last time I played, in my harried rush to grab tiles and build my ship, I made so many connectivity errors that my resulting ship had FOUR tiles remaining. I don’t think Mr. Chvatil had allowed for such incompetence; essentially I had disqualified myself from the remaining hour or so of gameplay, since I had no weapons. Or maybe it was no thrusters. Either way, my ship could provably not survive even the earliest and easiest of encounters.
87. Monopoly: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy Edition
This is what happens when one of your parents knows you love both board games and The Lord of the Rings, and assumes that you’ll think a bowl of perfect clam chowder topped with gourmet ice cream must be extra delicious, metaphorically speaking.
My kids did talk me into playing it one time, and being a good sport and a good father, I swallowed my pride and brought it to the table. I know you’ll be shocked to learn that it’s monopoly with a LotR paint job, and it’s exactly as fun as you think it is, however much that is.
I suppose I should mention that it held a bit of extra appeal for my wife, who loves horses, and was therefore delighted that the traditional Railroads are replaced by horses in this version. I swear she would have traded every “property” in the game for the chance to own Shadowfax.
88. The Quacks of Quedlinburg
(Note: Another time jump! I pick up this list in October of 2021. I am 52. My kids are 14 and 16. I have now published four fantasy novels and am nearly done drafting the fifth. My winning percentage across all games played has not noticeably improved since 2008.)
Our whole family likes this game quite a bit. If you read the earlier entry about Thebes, you’ll realize this makes me a huge hypocrite. After all, Quacks is pretty much nothing but blind draws out of a bag of tiles, hoping you don’t blow yourself up. So why don’t my complaints about Thebes apply here as well?
I couldn’t tell you. Sorry! Maybe it’s the even-lighter fantasy witchcraft theme and the even-breezier gameplay. Maybe it’s that I’ve played this one with the kids, and if they enjoy a game, it immediately ratchets my own enjoyment up a notch or two. Whichever. In the realm of clever push-your-luck games, this is probably my current favorite.
The colossus of board games—at least among my collection. It weighs about 20 pounds, took a full afternoon to punch and bag, and requires a custom solution of carefully labeled tackle boxes to store properly unless you want to shell out for a hugely expensive bespoke storage system.
Gloomhaven is a co-op legacy-style fantasy game centered on tactical battles fought with customized decks of cards. Our family has played many, many hours of this, and we all love it, though it’s hard to get to the table due to time constraints. In addition to 30+ minutes set-up time every time, the game does trigger severe analysis paralysis in my daughters. As such, we cannot play a session of this in under five hours. Now that my kids are in high school, the number of weekly five-hour blocks where everyone is free at the same time can be counted on the fingers of a snake’s hand.
As for the game itself—brilliant. Its designer, Isaac Childress, has achieved a miracle of game balance, given the number of scenarios, the order in which they can occur, the combinations of characters that might attempt them, and the variable power level of those characters. I’m not sure how many scenarios we’ve played, but it’s probably around twenty, and many of those were nail-biters that came down to a final decision or card draw.
In a burst of optimism, I Kickstarter-backed the sequel game, Frosthaven, though I should probably also look into forklift rentals so we can get it into the house when it arrives. I’m not as young as I used to be.
If someone set out to make the perfect game for my wife, they could hardly have done better than to design and produce Everdell. It’s in the “multi-player solitaire with light player interaction” genre of games. It features cute woodland animals and a literal tree as the centerpiece of the board. And for all that, it requires the same level of optimization and planning as any decent middle-weight Euro.
Everdell is a worker-placement game at its heart. Its unique twist is that while each player plays over four rounds, those rounds—seasons—are asynchronous with those of one’s opponents. I can advance my own play to summer, reclaiming my workers and earning a few bonuses, while another player still lingers in spring. It’s worth trying to guess when another player might progress to the next season, as that can free up a desirable space for your own workers.
The artwork is gorgeous and really, really cute. It feels like Brian Jacque’s Redwall series of children’s fantasy books come to life.
Maybe this is the perfect game for my wife. Although the game play is quite different, it shares the light-player-interaction and nature-riffic traits with Everdell. It’s a beautiful and relaxing game of resource balancing and engine building as one stocks one’s bird sanctuary with an astounding variety of birds.
The base game comes with 170 unique bird cards, each of whose game stats represent a remarkable fidelity toward the bird’s real-life attributes. Size, preferred habitat, favorite foods, and egg-laying proclivities are all mapped onto Wingspan’s core game mechanisms. The bird artwork is lovely, the pastel eggs are lovely – this is just a lovely game all around. If you want a soothing game with almost no “screw-you” factor, both Everdell and Wingspan have you covered.
92. Lost Ruins of Arnak
Sometimes a game is just too much for my little brain to handle. Lost Ruins of Arnak looks like that sort of game when it’s set up, with its dizzying array of cards and bits along with a complex and multi-faceted board. I was afraid this was going to be another Tzolk’in, a true brain-burner from the same publisher. I played that one some years ago and even at the end, when I finished near the middle of the pack, I had no idea what had just happened.
Happily, Lost Ruins of Arnak is not so intimidating once it gets going. It features a unique combination of worker placement, resource management, and—surprise!—deck building, but it’s all intuitive and the tactical implications of your actions make sense from the get-go. Plus it has an Indiana Jones-exploring-the-jungle vibe which I like.
By some miracle I nearly won, even though I was playing against three Smart Friends Who Had Played Before. Came in second by a hair. I’m eager to play again!
93. The Crew Mission Deep Sea
This is a game whose design makes you wonder, “Why didn’t anyone think of this before?” It’s a cooperative trick-taking game with a very clever implementation and infused with a silly sea-exploration theme to give some context.
On each “mission,” different players must take tricks under certain constraints. For example, one player may need to take a “6” in a trick where they themselves led a “6,” while another player may be obliged to take the first trick and ONLY the first trick. Other missions include things like “you must only take two tricks this round and they have to be consecutive,” or “you may not take any 8’s or 9’s,” or “you have to take more green cards than blue cards.” There’s an astounding variety of these, and it makes for some tense, brain-burning calculations.
Furthermore, there are hard constraints on how you can communicate the contents of your hand with other players. Specifically, you can’t—except that each player, once per round, can show one card they have, along with whether it’s the highest, lowest, or only card they have in that suit.
The game comes with a log-book and instructions that enforce an ever-escalating difficulty as you go. It’s one of those games where you can just keep playing as long as you want, and where players can drop in and out of hands without disruption.
Note: this is a new (and in my opinion much improved) version of “The Crew,” which makes a number of small improvements over the original.
94. Just One
Speaking of cooperative games where you can just keep playing in short, fun bursts until you get bored, I played a bunch of rounds of the brilliant “Just One” last night. This might be the cleverest, easiest-to-understand party game I’ve ever played, though you need a lot of people to make it work well.
The rules in brief: One player is the guesser. Everyone else looks at a word the guesser is going to guess (e.g. “FOREST”). Each clue-giver writes down a one word clue, some or all of which will be shown to the guesser. So, in this example, clues could be “TREES,” “MIRKWOOD,” “GUMP,” etc.
The kicker is, if more than one person chooses the same clue, the guesser doesn’t get to see those! So, do you pick a strong clue, but risk that one or more others will also offer it? Or do you pick an esoteric clue that’s less helpful, but also less likely to be wiped out? It’s a fascinating exercise in group psychology, but also a lot of fun.
Best moment in our game last night: All clues were wiped out except for two. One was the “sigma” symbol, used in mathematics to indicate a sum of multiple terms. The other clue was “POTTER.” Can you guess the word? Our guesser did! It was:
I own close to 200 board games, and if I had to pick the one I find most aesthetically pleasing, it would probably be Sagrada. A few years ago I stood in the actual Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and the game absolutely invokes the incredible kaleidoscopic splendor of the cathedral’s stained glass windows.
The gameplay is good and puzzle-y, though with minimal player interaction. It’s easy to teach, easy to understand, and it’s so nice to look at while one plays!
This game and Sagrada will always be linked in my mind. I played them both for the first time on the same day, and they’re both about constructing beautiful individual architectural tableaux.
Although Sagrada is slightly more pleasing aesthetically, I think Azul is the better game. There’s more interaction, the flow feels nicer, and the decisions you make feel more interesting. It’s also easy to teach and understand, though for something so simple, I can see analysis-paralysis-prone players taking a long time puzzling out all the possibilities.
Unlike many games whose possibilities generally expand over the course of a game, in Azul (as well as Sagrada, for that matter) one’s choices become more and more constricted, and by the end, it’s as much about figuring out how to mitigate losses from “illegal” plays as to realize gains.
As I write this in the fall of 2021, Azul is the #1 ranked BGG game in the “abstract” category.
If Wingspan and Everdell are games custom-made to appeal to my wife, Clank! was designed just for me. Deck building and dungeon crawling? HELL YES! Obviously this game has some commonalities with Thunderstone and (to a lesser extent) Dominion, but the fact that the cards feed into board movement through a dungeon makes this one really shine.
My only complaint is that some of the item cards feel a little overpowered, and so, like many deck-builders, it suffers from “Hope you go next after a particularly good card gets flipped over to fill a vacancy in the store.” But that’s a tiny blemish on a true jewel. Clank! is one of those games I will almost never turn down a chance to play.
98. Crazy Cat Lady
This game is light, quick-playing filler that is 100% better if you and your family really like cats.
Not much else to say about the game, but I’ll use this as an opportunity to rant about non-standard boxes. Our copy of Crazy Cat Lady, being the fancy “Premium Edition,” comes in one of those tins with a bubbled-out lid, AND the tin is shaped like a cat, thus making it maximally annoying to put on your shelf alongside other games. As such, I’m putting it in my “hard to shelf hall of shame” alongside Blokus Trigon, Spot It!, Love Letters and Bausack (both of which come in bags instead of boxes), and, if I’m being completely honest about this, Crokinole and Gloomhaven.
Ah, the fantasy board game of my youth! I’m including it here not because I’ve played it recently—it’s probably been 40 years—but because I did just acquire a pristine un-punched copy, and it’s filling me with nostalgia. You have to tear the cards from sheets of perforated card-stock!
I’ve re-read the rules, and I’m not convinced it’s anywhere near as fun as I remember it being, so I’m not entirely sure it’ll come to the table any time soon. Still, it reminds me of my gaming roots lo those many decades ago, and how I was captivated at such a young age by fantasy games of all sorts.
Perhaps I’ll play it with my kids before they go off to college—a day which, if you’ve read this list from the beginning, you’ll agree is coming along shockingly soon. They’ll probably treat it like they do so many things from my childhood. “I can’t believe how primitive things where when you were a kid.”
Strange that the last item on this list is also its only dexterity game. Nonetheless, I think it’s an excellent game with which to wrap up this marathon.
A few years ago we played this at a friend’s house, and the whole family was instantly hooked. A few weeks later I had somehow convinced my wife that we should spring for our own board, and it’s been a favorite among family and guests ever since. It’s the one game I don’t store along with all the others, since the only place we can effectively keep it is under our living room sofa.
For those unfamiliar with Crokinole, it’s a dexterity game played on a large round slick wooden board. You flick pieces around with your fingers, trying to occupy scoring regions while knocking your opponents’ pieces out of play. It’s shuffleboard-ish, is what I’m saying. It’s addictive, tons of fun, and will absolutely show you how well or poorly the people who built your house did with installing level floors.
Also, discovering this game finally made it clear what Moxy Fruvous was talking about in their song “King of Spain,” the lyrics of which include:
Royalty, lord it looked good on me
Buried in silk in the royal boudoir or going nuclear free
Or playing Crokinole with the Princess of Monaco
Telling my jokes to the OPEC leaders, getting it all on video
…and that’s it!
Time to start another one of these: “Thoughts on 100 More Games.” See you in 2034!