Last year, I breathlessly compiled some of my favorite games from my collection and presented them to the blogosphere in a post I uncreatively titled, “A Bunch of Board Games You Should Play.” Well, my gaming obsession has continued to grow (to put it mildly), and now I’m back with another avalanche of games to try, buy, or at least consider. With Black Friday around the corner, this is the least I can do to assist those most in need of retail therapy.
Now, to be fair, this is not a definitive list of the best games of all time. Rather, it’s a casual stroll through my collection — like the nerd version of Cribz. All that’s missing is Mariah Carey luxuriating in a bubble bath somewhere. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t be a good blogger if I didn’t pontificate about the things I’m most passionate about, and for now, that means babbling about games. Check out the list, and be sure to weigh in with your opinions…
51st STATE: COMPLETE MASTER SET
I honestly don’t really know why I bought this game. It’s not like I was drawn to its post-apocalyptic theme (which really isn’t my first pick for themes). Maybe I just had Mad Max on the mind. It happens more often than not. Either way, 51st State: Compete Master Set has turned out to be a pretty fun game. In many ways it’s an elaborate card game: players receive cards, play cards, agonize over cards, cry into their cards. You get the point. From round to round, you’ll build an tableau of cards which produce increasingly large numbers of resources that can then be utilized to spectacular effect. Therein lies the fun. It’s all about stringing together combos that make your engine hum. My only complaint: it always seems to end just when my engine is reaching full power. Boo! UPDATE: I just played again the other day, and my engine was totes awesome. Turns out *I* was the problem, not the game. Who would have thunk it?
One of the most stressful games I own.
If you ever want your brain to melt while staring at beautiful artwork of trees, Arboretum is the game for you. This seemingly benign card game has players “planting” trees to create bucolic paths that score points at the end of the game. Oh, but you don’t get to score those paths unless you have certain trees in your hand too. I won’t get into what that all means, but suffice it to say: Arboretum is a devilish mix of hand-management, deduction, and very, very tough decisions.
BASEBALL HIGHLIGHTS: 2045
Someone please play this with me 🙁
I’m just going to put this out there: I’m not a huge baseball fan. Give me football all day long, but baseball… it just doesn’t do much for me. With that being said, Baseball Highlights: 2045 is an absolute blast, despite my tepid feelings for the sport. Players basically duel off, throwing down cards that may earn them a single, a home run, a double play, or a stolen base (just to name a few). The challenge is knowing when to play which card. I may want to lead off with a home run, but then chances are my opponent will negate the play with one of his (or her — hi Caty!) strong defensive cards. Conversely, I could hold off on that homer for the end of the game, but by then, it may be more important for me to play a strong fielder than a powerhouse slugger.
This hand management leads to an exciting and dramatic gameplay that indeed echoes the ebb and flow of baseball. And that’s just the half of it. There’s a whole deck-building aspect to Baseball Highlights: 2045, which allows players to customize their team in fun and unique ways. Plus, the game structure allows for small “seasons” between four players, and perhaps more intriguingly, full scale tournaments with as many as sixteen (or more) participants. Oh, and as dorky as this sounds, it’s actually a really fun game to play by yourself. Baseball Highlights: 2045 has been a major surprise for me. No prior love of baseball needed (although, I’m sure it makes it all the sweeter!). Now I just need to find more people willing to give this game a chance!
THE BLOODY INN
Recent visitors to the Bloody Inn. I’m not sure how that casket will affect the TripAdvisor rating…
While board games love to tackle monsters, zombies, and various other horror movie denizens, very few actually embrace the macabre. Enter The Bloody Inn, which has players assuming the role of nefarious innkeepers with a penchant for murder, bribery, and other questionable forms of hospitality. As the corpses pile up, so does the pressure — especially when a police officer (or four) inevitably arrive in the hotel lobby. Do you hide the bodies? Pay off the cops? Or simply add that nosy detective to the pile of dead bodies? The game genuinely feels like a classic black comedy, thanks in part to the storytelling it inspires. The Bloody Inn pretty quick, occasionally punishing, and always a fun option in between larger games. I’d love to see an expansion with more characters — particularly some female ones, who are sorely under-represented. Still, super fun game. The more I write about it, the more I want to stop and play it right now!
Just your classic homicidal-bean-with-a-ho game.
This card game is a modern classic that has players trading, negotiating, and occasionally cursing their bad luck — all while planting beans. Anyone who enjoys the interactivity and table-talk of Catan will like surely embrace Bohnanza. Best of all: the game accommodates seven people, which makes it perfect for larger groups. Don’t be turned off by the silly, ’90s-era artwork. This is a highly entertaining option that may even qualify as collection essential.
BRING YOUR OWN BOOK
Great party game for people who want something a bit more high-minded. And for people who want to make Emily Brontë sound LEWD. Check out the full review here.
THE CASTLES OF BURGUNDY
Speaking of collection essentials, they don’t get more essential-y than Castles of Burgundy, a fantastic euro game that everyone should own. Players duke it out to develop an “estate” in Medieval France, which ultimately involves building churches, raising chickens, selling goods, and occasionally visiting the black market. Truthfully, the theme is very pasted-on. This is essentially a game that has players vying for tiles to place on their own personal tableaus, with each action resulting in either points or greater power. It’s tense, exciting, and super fun. The only downside: underwhelming artwork. It’s hardly a problem, but man, I can only imagine how much more engaging the storytelling could be with more evocative art. Nevertheless, the gameplay is perfection, and it can lead to incredibly intense moments, such as the time I grabbed some pigs for my estate, causing my friend Sly to turn red with anger. Do not mention the pigs in her presence.
CASTLES OF MAD KING LUDWIG
I always say the best place for a panic room is right off the foyer.
Hey, it’s another “castles” game, but this one is totally different from Burgundy. King Ludwig has players building bizarre, counterintuitive castle floorplans from various tiles such as a kitchen, a drawing room, or a lilac cabinet. Bonus cards, scoring criteria, and a clever pricing mechanic add fun challenges to the game, but the real draw comes from the sprawling castles that put the Winchester Mystery House to shame. You’ll find yourself doting on a heinous structure that sees guests walking through a subterranean dungeon in order to reach the master bedroom, which in turn borders a meat locker. Enough said.
CHAMPIONS OF MIDGARD
Vikings! Midgard isn’t an amazing game, but it’s fun, and the artwork is excellent. The combination of building up a small army of warriors and then sending them off to battle engenders quite a bit of storytelling, which if you can’t tell, leads to a highly social experience. Check out my full review here.
I reviewed this game earlier this year, and I’ll reiterate what I said: City Hall is a great, underappreciated game. This is excellent for the consumer because now copies of it can be found from anywhere between $12 and $20. So cheap! Grab a copy before they’re all gone (probably for good!).
Here’s a clever, little game that has taken the world by storm. Codenames arrived in retailers in 2015 and has already sold millions — for good reason. Teams attempt to identify a handful of words from a grid of twenty-five options, with only terse clues to guide them. Sounds simple, but Password, this is not. The gameplay is shockingly deep and serves as a fascinating meditation on language, meaning, and association. Ferdinand de Saussure would basically have a wet dream over this game. Codenames plays just as well with four people as it does thirty. Collection essential. (Oh, and now there’s Codenames Pictures, which is essentially the same game but with a grid of pictures instead of words)
My friend Guy bought me this game for my birthday last year, and after eleven months, I finally managed to get it to the table. Why so long? Well, the game comes with a thicket of rules plagued with exceptions and tricky special cases. Every time I sat down to learn this game, it just seemed like a massive undertaking. The good news is that when I finally did get to play Dungeon Lords, the rules turned out to be not so difficult after all. And the even better news was that the game proved to be very fun, if totally unforgiving (one bad round, and you’re essentially done for the game). Players all lord over their personal dungeons (hence, Dungeon Lords), outfitting them with traps and monsters in an effort to stave off various conquer-happy Medieval heroes. This takes place over two stages: a planning phase that has players engaging in some tricky (but highly entertaining) action selection; then a battle phase wherein your monsters and traps clash with various human invaders. Also, there’s a paladin, and he’s the worst. Turns out the act of building a dungeon and attacking those who dare to enter is so fun that the actual game of it all — a.k.a. earning points to win — feels secondary. Dungeon Lords makes you work hard to love it (endless rules, punishing gameplay), but for those who put in the time to learn the game, they’ll be rewarded. Can’t wait to build my next dungeon.
FIELDS OF ARLE
After reading some raves about this game online, I decided to take a gamble and buy it when I saw it marked down at a store (normally, the game retails for a hefty $80). I knew it would be a risk as Fields of Arle only supports two players, but the rapturous response of its cult following won me over. The game has oodles of charm: little sheep and cows and horses to play with, wagons and wheelbarrows to commandeer, and scads of parks and stables and titular fields to gaze upon. Oh, and swamps. Lots of swamps.
An ideal husbandry.
One thing Arle doesn’t have much of is variety, and in this modern age of gaming, it feels downright strange to not have a hugely variable setup for every game. But fear not: each new session does feature subtle differences in setup, and one might argue that Fields of Arle isn’t concerned with variety of gameplay. Instead, it wants players to optimize their strategy in a largely constant environment — focusing on being more efficient, more productive, and more creative each go around. New players will certainly be overwhelmed by the sheer number of actions available — about thirty or so (although, half of them are unavailable every round… sort of). The best plan is to just jump in and start doing something — anything — and let the game guide you from there. It’s a weird, open-ended approach, but it works. With so many actions on the board, you’ll be surprised by how many times you and your opponent get in each other’s way.
So far, I’m enjoying Fields of Arle. I’m not sure it lives up to the hype, but I’ve liked every playthrough more than the last, and I get the sense that the more I explore in this game, the more depth it reveals.
I wouldn’t classify myself as a role playing game sort of person, but Fiasco is a fantastic way to spend an evening with friends. With the help of some dice, a few index cards, and some pens, players will create their own version of a crime saga (or horror movie or romcom) that will be alternately hilarious, ludicrous, awesome, and unforgettable. This is a game that has nearly brought me to tears of laughter and has provided me with some of my fondest gaming memories ever. Imagination is a must — and so is booze. Just be warned: Fiasco is not a physical game in the traditional sense (no dice, cards, board, etc.). This is a storytelling game where there are no real winners or losers: just your friends hanging out spinning an amazing yarn. Most recently, my friends and I concocted a vivid tale of three researchers in Antarctica trying to smuggle a zombified seal to Argentina. To get a taste of it, check out the guys at Beer & Boardgames here.
Everyone needs a good party game, and Funemployed is a solid, often hilarious variation on the Apples to Apples model. One person is an “employer.” Everyone else is a job applicant, and they must briefly come up with a spiel about themselves in order to get hired. But the twist is that they must incorporate various personality traits into their pitches, and those traits are determined by random card draws. So, good luck explaining how being a passive-aggressive, X-Ray vision having, bearded person makes you the perfect fit for that child actor position. Super funny stuff here. One warning: if you’re not someone who enjoys performative games (ie. making stuff up on the spot), this may not be for you.
GRAND AUSTRIA HOTEL
We all deserve a game with a butler.
This is a fun one. At last: a game about serving coffee and streusel in early 1900s Austria. Players all run Viennese hotels (my dream) and welcome a variety of guests into their premises — first serving them food and beverages, then preparing their rooms, and finally, bidding them a good night’s sleep. I’m telling you: this game is actually excellent. I love it. The only drawback is a much discussed player order system that can leave a four player game feeling tedious to many (I was fine with it). Don’t be scared off though: Grand Austria Hotel is super fun with two or three players instead.
GREAT WESTERN TRAIL
WHO GREENLIT THIS COVER???
Here’s what you need to know about Great Western Trail: it’s phenomenal. Here’s something else you need to know: it has super bizarre box art. I mean, how do you have a game called Great Western Trail and not show a gorgeous illustration of the American West? But I digress. Let’s get back to that whole “phenomenal” thing. I thought this game would be fun, but man did it exceed my expectations tenfold. In GWT — which I’ve suddenly decided to call it — players endeavor to herd cattle from Texas to Kansas city, all in the pursuit of money and victory points. This involves cowboys, engineers, craftsmen, local Native American populations, locomotives, and the occasional Holstein cow. I mean, people should get this game for the cows alone.
Have a cow, man.
Ah, but there’s so much more than just cows in this game. There’s deck-building, there’s a tech tree, there’s an evolving rondel. If you don’t know what any of those things are, don’t worry: just dive in. Truthfully, I can’t do justice to all the different moving parts in this game, but suffice it to say, they work together in a strange brew of awesomeness. Designer Alexander Pfister has become the go-to guy for fascinating, clever gameplay, and this may be his best work yet. (Pfister also designed Port Royal and Mombasa, below, and Isle of Skye, which I wrote about last year. Oh, and also Broom Service, which I do enjoy greatly, even if I didn’t write about it).
One caveat: Great Western Trail hasn’t actually hit stores yet (I snagged a pre-order copy), but don’t worry: it will be on shelves soon, and once it does, I believe this is one game that will probably be around for a very long time.
Congratulations: you’re looking at one of the best games EVAAAARRRRR.
It’s dry, it’s unthematic, and it’s virtually the same game setup every single time… but this unsexy Eurogame is AWESOME. Players jockey for position on a map by placing cubes and discs on roads, all in an effort to create trade networks and open offices (supposedly capturing the essence of the Hanseatic League of Medieval Germany. Thrilling).
You gotta love a game that gives players their own little credenza.
The most amazing part about this peculiar game is the way its static game board produces fascinatingly different experiences every playthrough – unlike Fields of Arle, which can feel same-y (by design). Strategy is highly dynamic in Hansa Teutonica, and with streamlined mechanics and virtually no luck, this is one elegant little beast. It’s the sort of game you want to take to a woodsy retreat and play all weekend long. Does that make sense? Maybe not. Nevertheless, don’t be put off by the stodgy art direction. This is an in-your-face Battle Royale that deserves way more attention than it receives.
If you haven’t read my glowing review of this game, you should. Because it’s one of my favorites. I would hug this box if it were socially acceptable.
LEGENDARY ENCOUNTERS: AN ALIEN DECKBUILDING GAME
Gory art and multiple Ripleys, believe it or not.
I don’t know much about the Alien canon. I’ve seen the first movie, but I’ve never ventured into the sequels — despite the allure of Bill Paxton and Paul Reiser on screen together. That being said, this cooperative game is super, super fun. And hard. Oh boy is it hard. But that’s the whole point. You can’t have an easy cooperative game. Legendary Encounters sees players staving off a seemingly endless barrage of deadly aliens — most often in vain. Ambitious plans usually devolve into death by gashes, impalement, or worse (beware of “chestbursters”). This game is gory, dark, stressful, and a total blast. One moment you’ll be cheering in triumph, the next moaning in defeat. And throughout it all, you’ll probably be yelling in panic. It’s great. Also, four versions of Sigourney Weaver. Need I say more?
KANBAN: AUTOMOTIVE REVOLUTION
Craziest board of all time.
Workplace: the board game. That’s what Kanban could have been called. This remains my only entry that incorporates an overbearing supervisor, weekly meetings, and micromanaging (an actual action to take) as part of the gameplay. Essentially, players are newbies at a giant automotive corporation trying to learn the ropes, all while avoiding the wrath of Sandra, your merciless boss. Seriously, you have a boss named Sandra in this game, and she is one of the scariest figures in all of gaming (unless she’s in a good mood, but that’s no fun — and yes, she has moods). Players must design cars, order parts, oversee the assembly lines, test new models, and brag about their accomplishments at the occasional staff meeting. So much is happening in this game, and it’s all interconnected in a brilliant, amazing way. It’s also deeply thematic: you really do feel like you’re working in a car factory. There’s only one drawback to Kanban, and it’s a biggie: the rules. There are so many that it takes about 45 minutes to an hour to explain them all, which means that this crunchy game rarely gets played. Oh, and then there’s that board — the most cluttered, busy board of all time. If you can find people who aren’t immediately scared away by the board and are patient enough to learn the rules, then you better get this game to the table STAT.
Speaking of cars, here’s a lighter take on automotive manufacturing: Kraftwagen (not to be confused with electropop pioneers Kraftwerk). Not much ink has been spilled about this game, but I had read enough warm reviews about it that I felt emboldened to add Krafwagen to a recent Amazon cart (with an ulterior motive to expedite the delivery of some dental floss — we’ve all been there). I’m glad that I did. Not only did my package arrive that night (yaaassss same-day delivery), but the game has proven to be excellent.
Players assume the role of would-be tycoons in Germany’s burgeoning, early 20th century automotive industry. Over the course of the game, players research technology, build bigger and better cars, race their models on a Grand Prix track, and most importantly, sell their wares to a fickle marketplace. It’s that last part that makes this game sing. Manipulating the market demand, churning out product to meet it, and undercutting your opponents is the heart of Kraftwagen. It’s so fun, so streamlined, and so clever that I can’t wait to dive in for more plays. This may be the next game I give a full review to, if only to help spread the word. But be warned: should your friends conspire to keep you out of the car market, the effect can be moderately soul-crushing. Trust me: I know from personal experience. Be sure you are mentally fit for the sharks of Kraftwagen.
Some say this is one of the heaviest games out there. Some say it’s also one of the best. Madeira is all about colonizing the eponymous island, and if you can emerge without your brain melting into a puddle of goo, you’ve won half the battle. Every decision rides on a wave of fifteen different sub-decisions that can be both debilitating and (somehow) thrilling. I can’t even really describe the sequencing your brain must do to effectively play this game. Trust me: you will be working many, many steps ahead at any given time. If this sounds like a good time to you, then by all means, track down this game. Otherwise, you may want to head toward something lighter. Personally, I love the puzzle that Madeira presents. It’s a great, cerebral challenge, and making it to the end of the game feels like a victory in and of itself.
THE MANHATTAN PROJECT
Atomic age goodness.
This game is the bomb. [pauses for strained laughter] In a gaming landscape dominated by sci-fi, fantasy, farming, shipping, or zombies, it’s so refreshing to have a big, colorful take on the Cold War. Players are tasked with launching a nuclear weapons program, specifically involving uranium and plutonium. This requires legions of workers, universities, mines, fighter jets, bombers, money, and my favorite resource of all time, Yellow Cake. All this combines to create an exciting, occasionally hilarious game full of dramatic moments (espionage!) and thrilling outcomes (potential world destruction!!). Fantastic.
MARRYING MR. DARCY
At last, the Jane Austen role-playing card game we’ve all been waiting for. In Marrying Mr. Darcy, players take on a female character from Pride and Prejudice and do their best to marry an appropriate gent. For Elizabeth Bennett, that means trying to nab hunky Mr. Darcy; for Kitty Bennet, well, Mr. Denny is a nice option (at least in the game). Of course, you could wind up an old maid instead, and NO ONE wants that!
As far as gameplay goes, Marrying Mr. Darcy is nothing to crow about. In fact, it’s pretty unspectacular. However, the real fun comes in the table talk as players attend balls, engage in terrible piano concertos, and occasionally bring scandal upon each other. I wish the cards were more interactive, and I wish there was slightly more to do in the game, but ultimately, as long as everyone’s drinking and using fake British accents, there’s plenty of laughter to be had.
Here’s a theme to make you feel uncomfortable: capitalists ravaging Africa for diamonds and riches. Yikes. Mombasa could have been a tone deaf contribution to the annals of board gaming, but luckily, this game isn’t really about human exploitation and the dark consequences of colonialism. Instead, the emphasis is on economic growth and exploration. Mombasa is a fascinating game that twists my brain into a pretzel. And then melts it. This is a tense, tricky game with lots of player interaction and a glut of mechanical systems: hand management, worker placement, deck building, area control, and stock markets. It’s crazy and worth a try.
This is an intense, nerve-wracking game. It’s not for everyone: some people find it overwhelming. But I think it’s great. Take my word for it (or read my review).
Not every game in my collection is an epic brain burner. No Thanks is a simple card game with a clever auction and a few tricks up its sleeve. Accessible for nearly everyone, large enough to accommodate big groups, and quick enough to merit multiple plays, this is probably the best tiny game I have. Don’t believe me? Just wait until your palms begin sweating as you clutch desperately onto your dwindling fortune of red chips. It’s that good.
Who doesn’t love pirates? Maybe seafarers trying to mind their own business, but that’s neither here nor there. This game has players pushing their luck to gain money and influence, culminating in a race for victory points. It’s light, enjoyable, and a lovely card game for those seeking the glory of the high seas without all that scurvy nonsense.
This game has so much UTILITY.
Ever dreamed of launching your own Con-Edison empire? Do you imagine what your life would be like as the CEO of a major utility? Have you ever priced oil commodities for fun? Then Power Grid is for you. Players bid on power plants (or the occasional windmill), purchase fuel, and then power up cities across a map, earning income that can then be funneled into the next auction. Sound dry? Because it is. But it’s a good dry! You know, like a California summer. Full disclosure: I’ve only played this game twice, and both times with just two other people (the game goes up to six). But guess what? It was super fun. At a full suite of players, Power Grid is supposed to be long but excellent. I’m down with that.
RAILWAYS OF THE WORLD
The Railways of Europe expansion.
Probably a top three game for me. All I want to do is play this game. I’m not even joking. Review here.
A surprise hit with my friends, this game has players flicking discs across the board, trying to land them in bowls of beautifully illustrated spices: cinnamon, garlic, cumin, etc.. The number of discs that land in each bowl determines the price for the spices, and then it’s up to the players to buy and sell until they can fulfill three orders of spices. So, yes, this is a mashup of dexterity, economics, and seasoning. What could go wrong? Nothing. Everyone loves this one (EDIT: except my friend Derya because she’s really bad at throwing chips).
Box o’ fun / fascism.
Secret what? Hitler? Oh dear. Someone made a party game about Hitler. This can’t be good. Actually, it’s effing FANTASTIC. Secret Hitler, brought to us by the people behind Cards Against Humanity, is a brilliant social deduction game that takes the classic formulas of Mafia, Werewolf, and The Resistance, and elevates them to a vicious, hilarious, and fantastic new place. Everyone around the table is ostensibly a liberal, but quietly amongst the group are a few fascists — one of whom is Hitler, the bastard. Over the course of the game, the players will be establishing a government and passing laws. If the liberals can pass five liberal policies, they win. If the fascists can pass six fascist policies, THEY win. Oh, but there’s more. The liberals can also win if they find Hitler and assassinate him. But they can only assassinate him if a certain number of fascist policies have already been passed. And the problem is that once three fascist policies have passed, then if Hitler is elected to Chancellor, the fascists win immediately.
This may sound dry as hell — policies? governments? — but trust me, it works phenomenally. The amount of deception and mind games at play is unparalleled. As a liberal, the feeling of paranoia and distrust is shocking. As a fascist, the fear of accidentally revealing yourself is terrifying. It’s amazing. I’m not even going to go into the excitement and theatricality that comes with every policy that passes.
But wait — Hitler? Isn’t it kind of messed up that some players at the table are actively rooting for Hitler, one of the worst despots of all time? A man who spearheaded the deaths of millions and millions of people across Europe during his reign? Well, yes, that is messed up. But the game goes to great lengths to abstract Hitler — focusing more on his rise to power than his anti-Semitic ideology (for what it’s worth, Secret Hitler also comes with a surprisingly effective graphic novel that details the rise of Adolf Hitler). There are no swastikas in the game, and Hitler is portrayed as a nasty reptile (as are the other fascists). The point is that yes, this is difficult subject matter, but similarly, once the laughter dies down, the game proves to be a sobering reminder of how bad people can rise to power. It’s not just cheap provocation. Dare I say it: the game makes you think? But even if you don’t want to get all deep and academic, Secret Hitler is an excellent game, and it’s by far the best social deduction game out there.
PS. I have to give a major thanks and shout out to my podcast listeners Chelsee and Karlee for sending me my copy of the game! THANK YOU.
I’M THE KING OF THE WORLD!!
I actually haven’t played this game. It arrived two days ago. I’m just excited that I can build my own 19th century ships!
UPDATE: I played this afternoon, and it was super fun. Also, agonizing — people kept taking the actions I needed. But that was half the fun of it. The other fun part? Sending a ship off to sail. Deeply satisfying…
Sleds and fir trees!
This is another game that lands firmly in the “spontaneous purchase” department. I was in a game shop in Oakland, CA, and for some reason I decided that dogsledding would be my next gaming focus. Maybe it was the cute huskies on the cover or the ability to place adorable fir trees on the race track, but I plopped down some money and never looked back. So far, I’ve only been able to play Snow Tails twice, and both times have been lovely.
One of the best parts of the game: designing your own tracks from the modular pieces.
Snow Tails definitely plays better at higher counts, and I can’t help but feel that the game gets more exciting once every player has wrapped their heads around the rules (which are simple and yet somehow mystifying for certain people). I’m looking forward to getting Snow Tails to the table more often, perhaps as a double feature with Thunder Alley (see below).
Unlike most of the games on this list, Star Realms is super cheap — costing about $10 at a local game shop (less online). It’s a quick but fun deck building game that has players facing off against each other in a galactic setting. Basically, you’re trying to destroy the other person. As your fleet grows and expands, your powers will increase, and a dramatic tug of war will ensue. It’s a small game, but surprisingly very fun with dramatic swings of power. Better yet: the iOS implementation is great, and a perfect (free!) way to try before you buy. But seriously, you should just buy it.
When it comes to card-driven, engine-building games, Terraforming Mars is the new hotness. This epic beast of a game has players using cards to turn a blank map of the Red Planet into a lush and beautiful(ish) habitat full of greenery, oceans, and cities. In short: it’s super fun. Whereas the similar engine game 51st State sometimes feels like it’s over just when you’ve gotten your sea legs, Terraforming Mars gives you time to build your tableau and then some. Like, a lot of time. So far, the average play time has been about four hours. That’s a long chunk of time, but I’m down with it. Why? Well, not only is the game fun, but it has an arc to it: the first act sees players just trying to get themselves established, earn some income, and reach some milestones. The second act finds everyone leaning into their engines and producing large sums of money or plants or titanium. The third act is a race to the finish line as players cover the main board with tiles representing forests and oceans and urban centers, among other things. By the end, Mars has fully transformed, let alone terraformed, and while it may have taken several hours, the sense of accomplishment (similar to that felt with Railways of the World) is palpable.
A few caveats though: don’t bother with the Beginner Corporations, and be sure to skip right to the Corporate Era variant. It makes all the difference between a neat game and an awesome game. When the game is over, I find myself almost immediately ready to play again — if only to try out new combos and strategies. The more I play it, the more I like it, and I already like it A LOT. Wait, let me terraform that sentiment: I don’t just like it. I love it!
NASCAR isn’t quite my thing, but I impulsively purchased this racing game anyway because it had rave reviews, and guess what? It’s really fun! I mean, I think all my games are fun, but this one really is a good time. Players lord over a team of cars, all vying to cross the checkered flag first. The twist in this game, however, is that it’s not just about the individual racer but the team as a whole; so your first place finish means nothing if all your other cars are at the back of the pack. Adding spice to the endeavor are innovative movement rules that have cascading, rippling effects on the racers around you. Suddenly, cars are shifting and moving in unexpected ways, and the whole thing winds up feeling like a real, honest-to-God race! Sewwwwwww coooool. Two words of warning: first, some people just can’t get past the NASCAR theme. You know, snobbery and all. As a result, this could be hard to get to the table. Second, those innovative movement rules are the best part of the game, but it’s shocking how certain players are simply incapable of wrapping their heads around them. Be ready to calm their frustrations.
If you’re in the mood to break your brain (a common theme with this list), Troyes is a great option. It’s not a complicated game, per se, but some of the actions (which involve adding, dividing, and then multiplying) can be a bit much for some people. The good news is that once you’ve “grokked” it, you’re in store for a lovely dice-driven game that has players making a name for themselves in Medieval France. Between fending off marauders, building a cathedral, influencing various tradespeople, and employing the occasional archer, you’ll have much to do with your time… but not much time to do it all.
Dice were a very important part of Medieval life.
Troyes is definitely the sort of game that reveals its layers and nuances with repeated plays. I wish I could get it to the table more, but it isn’t always the most attractive option to new players (again, all that math). Oh well. Maybe I’ll dust it off this weekend. It deserves it. FYI: Troyes has been out of print for some time now, but a re-issue is coming down the pike soon(ish).
Bar none, the best dexterity game out there. Whether you’re a gamer or not, you’ll be sucked into this rowdy dice-chucking game. It’s sort of like bocce, but with dice (and a multi-tiered playing surface). The concept is simple: roll your die across a board and collect points for whatever pip value you land on. Should you roll your dice particularly well, they may wind up in a 2x, 3x, or even 4x multiplier zone. But it’s not that easy: the terraced board causes dice to tumble and accelerate in unexpected ways — especially if you get fancy and add in a twelve or twenty-sided die. Then it just becomes madness. Next thing you know, your dice are careening off the board, earning you a big fat zero. You don’t want that.
Tumblin’ Dice is a blast. Perfect for serious competition, but between you and me, it’s even better as a drinking game.
VOYAGES OF MARCO POLO
This is what board games are all about. Marco Polo has camels, chunky dice, a colorful board, and little bags of spice. Did I mention the camels? Players must trek across Asia, stopping at various cities to acquire goods (and camels, natch), all while trying to gain precious, precious money. A tricky dice mechanic makes the entire endeavor extremely challenging, but thankfully, every player gets their own character who comes with a very unique — and strong — power. Half the fun of the game is watching your opponents grimace while you break the rules in your own special way. Of course, turnabout is fair play, and soon you’ll be the one scowling while your friend travels from city to city with so much ease you’ll want to vomit. (Just to clarify: this is a good thing). I recently played a two-person game of Marco Polo, and it was exceptionally fun. Our final scores were separated by one point, which is a testament to how well balanced this game is. Wowwweeee.
WINGS FOR THE BARON
I have grown to have great fondness for this game. It’s fiddly as hell, the components are crappy, and the theme is a bit dry, but I’ve always had so much fun playing it. There’s something inherently silly about a game that has you cheering loudly about inflation rates or government contracts. Wings looks like a really serious, imposing game, but it’s a romp. Check out my full review here.
Obsessed. OBBBBsessedaaah. Okay, I’ve only played this game twice, but I am newly obsessed. ZhanGuo came out a few years ago and may even be out of print, but it never really caught on, which means there are copies of it all over the Internet. I got mine for about $29, which is cray cray. I am astonished that this game doesn’t get more love because it is great (again, I’ve only played it twice, but I digress). The heart of ZhanGuo is a supremely clever and simple design: players either play a card to their personal player board or to the central game board. If they do the former, the cards will build up their special powers, for lack of a better phrase. If they do the latter (aka play to the central game board), players get to execute an action, perhaps even earning a bonus in the process. Notably, that bonus is dictated by the cards they have previously played to their player board (special powers, remember?). Unfortunately, there are only so many turns in the game, which means every time you decide to bolster your bonus powers, that’s time that you’re not taking essential actions. And every time you take an action, that’s time that you’re not powering up your board for stronger bonuses. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Craziness. So simple, so deep, so awesome.
But importantly — and this is important — the act of playing ZhanGuo is FUN. This is a brain-burner for sure, but while you’re knee-deep in mental gymnastics, you’re also really enjoying yourself. It’s hard not to chuckle gleefully when you activate your bonus powers and receive a windfall of actions and resources. I’d rank ZhanGuo, Kraftwagen, and City Hall as three great dark horses that people ought to seek out.
If you’re interested in buying any of these games, this may help (games in italics are on last year’s Games You Should Buy list):
COLLECTION ESSENTIALS: Bohnanza, Catan, Castles of Burgundy, Codenames, Concordia, Dead of Winter, Pandemic, Railways of the World, Survive: Escape from Atlantis
WORTH SEEKING OUT: Iki, Zhanguo, Railways of the World, Tumblin’ Dice. Also: Secret Hitler, Terraforming Mars & Great Western Trail (hard to find now, but all three will be widely available very soon)
PARTY GAMES: Codenames, Secret Hitler, Funemployed, Bring Your Own Book, A Fake Artist Goes to New York
BEST VALUE: Hansa Teutonica, City Hall, No Thanks, Star Realms, Castles of Burgundy (if you can find it below $30, which you often can).
EVERYONE LOVES IT: No Thanks, Secret Hitler, Safranito, Survive: Escape from Atlantis, Tumblin’ Dice
IF YOU HAD TO BUY JUST ONE: Railways of the World