Guide to Modern Gaming

The gaming scene has changed dramatically since the ’80s – modern gamers aren’t playing your granddad’s Monopoly, your dad’s Risk, or even your older brother’s Trivial Pursuit anymore. There are games out there now that are way more fun, that are way more engaging, and that give you way more to think about while you play.

There’s a whole new genre of games called “family strategy games” (also known as “eurogames” or “german-style” games). Some of these eurogames are very complex, but some, the ones known as “gateway games,” can be played and enjoyed by just about everyone. These games are perfect for families wanting to spend a bit more time together, perfect for game nights with friends and neighbors, perfect for family gatherings, and perfect for couples – not surprisingly, they’re revolutionizing the gaming industry.

But where does one start? How does one learn about such games? Which games are the best for people just beginning to explore the modern gaming scene? Funny you should ask…. :-)

Listed below are la crème-de-la-crème, the best of the best, the surefire games that are (almost) guaranteed to be a hit.  They’re relatively easy to learn and to teach, most of them can be played in 90 minutes or less, and, most important of all, they’re fun.

I’ve sorted the games by weight, with lighter games (think tic-tac-toe) at the top of the list and heavier games (think chess) at the bottom.  The real classics are listed in bold.  These are the games that belong in every gamer’s collection….

Light games

Zombie Dice: 2-8 players, 10 minutes, ages 10 and up, 2010, weight of 1.1.
A fun push-your-luck filler where you try to eat as many brains as you can before getting hit with three shotgun blasts.  Some kids don’t like the artwork, but others are fine with it.

Incan Gold: 3-8 players, 20 minutes, ages 8 and up, 2006, weight of 1.1.
A push-your-luck party game with a temple-exploration theme. Players choose each turn whether they want to continue exploring (thus putting their treasures in jeopardy) or cut and run (thus keeping their treasures safe). You can also read my first impressions of the game.

Coloretto: 2-5 players, 30 minutes, ages 8 and up, 2003, weight of 1.3.
Players have a choice: either add another card to one of the available rows or claim a row and take it for themselves. Players then score points based on how many cards they have of a given color. A simple card game with lots of interesting choices, it gives you plenty to think about without hurting your brain. It’s very colorful, too.

For Sale: 3-6 players, 20 minutes, ages 8 and up, 1997, weight of 1.3.
A game of For Sale takes place over two rounds. In the first round, players bid cash for various properties (numbered from 1 to 30); in the second round, players auction their properties for cash (valued from $0 to $15,000). An outhouse you got for free in the first round can earn you lots of money in the second round if you play your cards right. Lots of fun, and just enough to think about to keep it interesting.

Lost Cities: 2 players, 30 minutes, ages 10 and up, 1999, weight of 1.5.
A card game for two where players are trying to lead the most successful expeditions. Players invest in more expeditions in order to give themselves more options, but if they invest in too many, then they can’t support them all.

Hey, That’s My Fish: 2-4 players, 20 minutes, ages 8 and up, 2003, weight of 1.5.
Move your penguins to try to get as many fish for yourself as you can — move to hex tiles with lots of fish, and try to block other players’ access to parts of the board.  Careful, though, or someone else will sneak into an area you thought you had locked down.  Good fun, and short, too.

Bananagrams: 1-8 players, 15 minutes, ages 7 and up, 2006, weight of 1.5.
Just imagine Scrabble where everyone is playing on their own tableau as fast as they can, and you have a rough idea what this game is all about.  Every player starts with a number of tiles and tries to fit them into a valid crossword pattern — when they succeed, they yell “peel” and everyone, including themselves, has to draw another tile.  A very fast-paced word game that comes in a cute banana-shaped pouch.

Light – Medium games

Lascaux: 3-5 players, 25 minutes, ages 6 and up, 2007, weight of 1.6.
A set-collecting game where players bid for cards with animals on them.  The thing is, you’re never quite sure what cards the other players are going for, so you never quite know how much to bid.  It’s been a big hit with all our gaming groups.  You can also read my review of the game.

Jaipur: 2 players, 30 minutes, ages 12 and up, 2009, weight of 1.6.
A fun trading game for two. On your turn, you can either take a good from the market, trade some goods and camels with the market, or sell goods for points.  When everything is going well, there’s a definite rhythm to the game — if you control the tempo, you’ll likely win.  You can also read my review of the game.

The Downfall of Pompeii: 2-4 players, 45 minutes, ages 10 and up, 2004, weight of 1.8.
The setup is a little fiddly, and the gameplay is a little predictable, but Pompeii is always a hit when we bring it out at game night. There’s just something fun about throwing your opponents’ meeples into the volcano….

Blokus: 1-4 players, 20 minutes, ages 5 and up, 2000, weight of 1.8.
An abstract strategy game with pieces that remind most people of Tetris. It’s a fun, lightweight introduction to abstracts, and it’s very colorful, too. Here’s a strategy tip: forget trying to block people out of your areas, and instead focus on flowing as smoothly as possible through their areas.

Ticket to Ride: 2-5 players, 45 minutes, ages 8 and up, 2004 weight of 1.9.
My favorite game to teach to newbies, this one is always a hit. It’s easy to teach and easy to learn, and with a playing time of under an hour, you really can’t go wrong. You can also read my overview of the game.

Battle Line: 2 players, 30 minutes, ages 12 and up, 2000, weight of 1.9.
Another card game for two by Knizia, the designer behind Lost Cities. Players try to win either 5 of the 9 flags or 3 flags in a row. S and I play without the optional Tactics cards, but some people swear by them.

Carcassonne: 2-5 players, 60 minutes, ages 8 and up, 2000, weight of 1.9.
A personal favorite, this game is extremely creative. You build a landscape by placing tiles, then inhabit that landscape by deploying your meeples. You can also read my overview of the game.

Carcassonne: Inns & Cathedrals: 2-6 players, 60 minutes, ages 8 and up, 2002, weight of 1.9.
One of the best expansions for Carcassonne. It doesn’t change the game much, but it gives you more tiles and allows you to play the game with up to 6 players (the base game only goes to 5). We never play without it.

Blokus Trigon: 1-4 players, 20 minutes, ages 5 and up, 2006, weight of 2.0.
Somehow a little less intuitive than the original Blokus (in part, I suspect, because the familiar Tetris-shaped pieces are absent), it’s still a lot of fun.  Start with Blokus, then get this if you really like the original.  One benefit is that this version plays much better with 3 players.

Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries: 2-3 players, 45 minutes, ages 8 and up, 2007, weight of 2.0.
A tighter and more cutthroat game than the original Ticket to Ride, TtR: Nordic is the perfect TtR for two players.  It works with three, too, but boy is that board tight.  Don’t get too ambitious when choosing which destination cards to keep, or you might just end up with a negative score!  You can also read a bit about the game and where it fits in the TtR universe.

Medium – Heavy games

Aquaretto: 2-5 players, 45 minutes, ages 10 and up, 2008, weight of 2.1.
A tile-laying game with a push-your-luck element where players get to manage their very own aquarium. I like to think of it as a cross between Coloretto and Alhambra, but the three are different enough to justify owning them all.

Alhambra: 2-6 players, 60 minutes, ages 8 and up, 2003, weight of 2.1.
A fun and interesting game themed around trying to build the most lavish palace. Players collect money of various denominations, buy tiles, and then add them to their palace.

7 Wonders: 2-7 players, 30 minutes, ages 10 and up, 2010, weight of 2.3.
A fun game that can be played with up to 7 players (always a plus), gives players multiple ways to win, and provides a nice introduction to card drafting.  As a bonus, there’s very little downtime, as all players are taking actions simultaneously.

Thurn & Taxis: 2-4 players, 60 minutes, ages 10 and up, 2006, weight of 2.3.
A game about the creation of the postal system in Germany. A little less intuitive than Ticket to Ride for some players, but my wife and I play it regularly. An overlooked classic.

Pandemic: 2-4 players, 60 minutes, ages 10 and up, 2008, weight of 2.3.
An excellent game where players play against the game itself to try to eradicate diseases.  It’s been a hit with everyone I’ve introduced it to, and it’s a great couples game, too.  Not an easy game to win, but very satisfying when you can pull it off.

Settlers of Catan: 3-4 players, 90 minutes, ages 10 and up, 1995, weight of 2.4.
The importance of Settlers to the modern gaming scene cannot be overstated: it single-handedly reinvented the industry. And with good reason — it’s tense, it’s fun, and it’s paced well, too.

Hive: 2 players, 20 minutes, ages 9 and up, 2001, weight of 2.4.
A very interesting abstract for just two players, themed around bugs.  It wasn’t a big hit with my wife, but I play with a friend of mine regularly.  Each player starts with 11 hexagonal insects (ants, grasshoppers, spiders, beetles, and a bee), and the goal is to completely surround your opponent’s bee.  The best part?  The tiles are made of a bakelite-like substance and are absolutely clacktastic!

Santiago: 3-5 players, 75 minutes, ages 10 and up, 2003, weight of 2.5.
A fun but fairly cutthroat game where players first bid for plantation tiles and then have to bid for the water to irrigate them.  A game where it’s possible to win every battle and still lose the war, it’s also an excellent example of coopetition.  You can also read my review of the game.

Stone Age: 2-4 players, 60 minutes, ages 10 and up, 2008, weight of 2.6.
While it hasn’t been around as long as some of the classics, it’s the up-and-comer of the family gaming world. Currently ranked #3 on BoardGameGeek’s list of family games, it’s also a great introduction to the whole “worker-placement” genre. What I like about it is how it’s various parts work so well together.

Fresco: 2-4 players, 60 minutes, ages 10 and up, 2010, weight of 2.6.
Players buy paints, paint parts of a mural for points, paint portraits for money, and mix paints together to get new colors, all in an effort to end up with the most points at the end of the game.  The game flows well, everything makes thematic sense, and there are a number of different ways to try to approach the game.  An interesting worker-placement game with nice art and a few unique twists, it’s fairly family-friendly and very color-ful.  The first 3 expansions are included with the base game.  Highly recommended.

Heavy games

Power Grid: 2-6 players, 120 minutes, ages 12 and up, 2004, weight of 3.3.
Power Grid is a brutal economic game where you buy power plants at auction, buy resources to power your plants, pay to expand your network of cities, and then get paid for supplying power to those cities. It’s the game Monopoly always wanted to be, with a twist: the player with the largest network goes last in most phases of the game, putting them at a distinct disadvantage. You can also read my review of the game.

Agricola:  1-5 players, 120 minutes, ages 12 and up, 2007, weight of 3.6.
You’ll never be able to do all that you want to do, but that’s part of the game’s charm.  Players start with a dirt farm and, through hard work and clever worker placement, advance to vegetables, sheep, and cows.  Oddly compelling, the game has a way of getting under your skin.

If you think I’ve left a game out that should be on this list, please post it in the comments. I’m always looking for new games to try. :-)

Of course no game is a guaranteed hit, but each of the games above are solid and dependable, appealing to a range of ages and abilities. Most have enough luck so that you can blame your losses on fate, but enough strategy that you can take credit for your victories.

If you want to take a look at some other lists of good games, I’d recommend either BGG’s gift guide or Funagain Games’ shopper’s guide. Wikipedia also has a list of all the Spiel des Jahres winners (a German award given to the best family game of the year).  For heavier games take a look at the list of Deutscher Spiele Preis winners.

If you want to know more about these games (and hundreds of others like them), don’t hesitate to delve into the wealth of information available at BoardGameGeek. You don’t have to be a member to search the forums, read game reviews and session reports, or see a listing of the most popular or highest-ranked games. Check it out!

If you’re wondering where to buy all these wonderful games, I’d suggest heading down to your Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS). There are lots of good online retailers, but I’ve personally had good luck with CoolStuffInc. And finally, of course, there’s Amazon and Barnes and Noble, too.

Happy gaming!  =^..^=

  1. January 2, 2011 at 9:00 pm

    Very nice introduction. My wife and I are both fans of Ticket to Ride and Carcassonne. We have also had good luck teaching people Guillotine.

    • January 4, 2011 at 11:20 pm

      Thanks for your comment. I’ve played Guillotine only once, but it seemed like a fun card game.

  2. June 22, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    My family has had success with Dominion as both a beginner’s game (carefully selecting Kingdom cards from the base set and Intrigue) and as a more intermediate game.

  3. Dr. JenkinSunts
    November 17, 2011 at 5:36 am

    Settlers of Catan was my gateway game and although I love it for that very reason, I don’t enjoy it as much as other games such as TTR fror the same reason as you – so much depends on where you put your first settlements.

  4. gaming
    November 17, 2011 at 9:53 pm

    I like Carcasonne. I really like Agricola, Settlers of Catan, and Power Grid, but my current favorite is Puerto Rico. More complexity but a whole lotta fun.

  5. December 4, 2011 at 10:16 am

    An fun economic gateway game that is also good for more experienced players is Airlines Europe, weight 2.4. I just found out about it after being into the ‘new’ gaming experience for nearly a year. I kept hearing of Power Grid, of course, but that sounded too dry for me. It’s by Alan Moon, the creator of the Ticket to Ride series and just as accessible. You are collecting airlines stocks and trying to drive up the price of those stocks by buying licenses and placing airplanes on routes on the board.

    Finca, weight 2.1, is a very light game of pick up and deliver employing the use of a rondel in a really fun way. It’s colorful (fruit bits) and easier to learn, IMO, than even Ticket to Ride. It’s also just been reprinted and the game I just received is gorgeous.

    • December 4, 2011 at 10:47 am

      I haven’t tried either of those, unfortunately. A friend of mine has Airlines Europe, though, and I’ve been wanting to get it to the table for a couple months, now.

      I noticed the other day that Finca had been reprinted, and I’ve been tempted to pick up a copy. I think it would go over really well at our game nights.

  6. December 7, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    I would agree with John and add Guillotine to the “Light Games” list. Great light game that is a lot of fun. The cartoony art style also makes it very approachable.

  7. December 7, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    I don’t own it, so I’ll have to see if I can’t get the fellow who does to bring it to our next game night….

    You’re right, though — it’s a fun game. Thanks for the reminder!

  1. November 17, 2011 at 5:25 am

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