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So you want to build a game collection….

October 22, 2015 1 comment

You’re just getting interested in modern board games and you want to buy some games but don’t know where to start?  This guide will give you some pointers.  You can also check out boardgamegeek, and I’d specifically recommend taking a look at their list of the most popular family games.  But sometimes, a curated list (like this one) is the way to go.

What games you’ll want to buy obviously depends on your situation and the types of games you’re wanting to play.  For the purposes of this guide, I’m going to assume that, since you’re just getting started, you’re looking for games that more casual gamers can enjoy.  I’m going to assume that you’re wanting to play games that don’t take forever, aren’t too hard to learn, don’t cost too much, and are easy to find.  I’ll give you a range of options so you can hopefully find something that suits your needs.

Ready?  Let’s go.  :-)

First, there are what I would call the big three:  Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, and Catan.  These are some of the most accessible games out there, the’ve been around for over 10 years (20 in the case of Catan), and they’ve proved their staying power.  They’re modern classics, and you can’t go wrong with any of them.

  • Ticket to Ride: 2-5 players, 45 minutes, ages 8 and up, $40 on Amazon.
    For me, it’s a toss up whether to start with Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne.  Ticket to Ride is my favorite game to teach (most people can learn it in under 5 minutes), whereas Carcassonne is the game that really got me into the hobby.  But I think I’ll start with Ticket to Ride because it’s relatively straightforward, it offers interesting choices, and it creates this amazing sense of tension.  Basically, you’ve got a map of America, a bunch of cards, and a bunch of little plastic trains.  The gist is that you start with some destination cards that each have two cities listed on them — Seattle to New York, for example, or Dallas to Atlanta — and you’re trying to connect them up with trains of your own color.  While the basic version of Ticket to Ride is best for 4-5 players, there’s a variant called Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries that works better for 2-3 ($36 on Amazon).
  • Carcassonne: 2-5 players, 60 minutes, ages 8 and up, $26 on Amazon.
    Carcassonne is a magical game.  Basically, you’re building this landscape with castles, roads, rivers, cloisters, and farms, and then you’re inhabiting this world with little figures called “meeples.”  More than any other modern board game, Carcassonne feels playful, and it reminds me of playing with little cars and legos as a kid.  You can claim features with your meeples, and then when those features are completed, you get your meeples back (and score some points).  The fun part is trying to figure out how to horn in on features that have already been claimed by other players….  If you like the game, there are plenty of expansions you can buy for it.
  • Catan: 3-4 players, 90 minutes, ages 10 and up, $39 on Amazon.
    The grandaddy of them all — when talking to non-gamers, Catan (or “Settlers of Catan” as it used to be known), is the one modern board game they may have heard of.  And with good reason — it’s tense, it’s fun, and it’s paced well, too.  The idea is that you’re building up a collection of villages and cities, all connected by roads.  But in order to build anything, you need resources.  And the only way you get resources is to have a village or a city adjacent to that resource when its number is rolled.  Yes, Catan uses dice, but that’s one of the things that makes it appealing to your average non-gamer:  everyone is familiar with dice, and most people are comfortable with them, too.

Start with those, and then you can start to branch out a bit.  If you’re looking for a few more “general-purpose” games, I’d take a look at Coloretto, San Juan, and Splendor.

  • Coloretto: 2-5 players, 30 minutes, ages 8 and up, $12 on Amazon.
    Coloretto is one of those games that just stuns you with its brilliance:  such a simple concept, and yet it has such interesting gameplay.  It’s essentially the same game as Zooloretto or Aquaretto, but honestly, those just add a bunch of bells and whistles that aren’t really necessary.  Players have a choice: either add another card to one of the available columns or claim a column and take it for themselves.  At the end of the game, players get points for the cards they have in their top three colors, and they lose points for the cards they have in the rest of their colors.  It’s a simple card game with lots of interesting choices, it gives you plenty to think about without hurting your brain, and it’s very colorful, too.
  • San Juan: 2-4 players, 60 minutes, ages 10 and up, $25 on Amazon.
    Better in my opinion than both Race for the Galaxy and Puerto Rico, San Juan doesn’t get the love it deserves.  Sure there’s a lot of luck, but that doesn’t bother me.  It’s fun, it’s relatively easy to teach, and it doesn’t outstay its welcome.  One downside is that it takes a game or two to get used to the cards, but that’s true of a lot of games.
  • Splendor: 2-4 players, 30 minutes, ages 10 and up, $27 on Amazon.
    A relatively recent discovery for me, Splendor is a tight game with interesting choices.  In the beginning, players are taking gems to buy cards and build up their engine; at the end, players are running those engines to buy cards and get points as fast as they can.  I’ve seen people win by switching early, and I’ve seen people win by switching late.  Not terribly heavy, it’s an easy game to teach to newbies and has really nice components.

The rest of these games are recommended depending on your specific taste or specific situation.  I.e., you’re looking for a card game, a 2-player game, an abstract strategy game, a dexterity game, a cooperative game, or a game that plays up to 8.

If you want a lightweight filler that takes less than 30 minutes, I’d take a look at For Sale and Incan Gold.

  • For Sale: 3-6 players, 20 minutes, ages 8 and up, $26 on Amazon.
    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.
  • Incan Gold: 3-8 players, 20 minutes, ages 8 and up, $23 on Amazon.
    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).

If you want an engaging abstract that won’t give you a headache, I’d check out Blokus, Blockers, Ingenious, and Hey That’s My Fish.

  • Blokus: 1-4 players, 20 minutes, ages 5 and up, $16 on Amazon.
    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.
  • Blockers: 2-5 players, 40 minutes, ages 8 and up, $18 on Amazon.
    Blockers is a kind of cross between Sudoku and … some game where you try to keep all your pieces linked together.  It’s very clever — players are given 28 tiles (1 for each of 9 columns, 1 for each of 9 rows, and 1 for each of 9 3×3 areas, plus 1 wild card), and they have to play 1 tile each turn.  The tile, unsurprisingly, has to go in that column, that row, or that 3×3 area.  Just make sure you play with this recommended wild tile variant.
  • Ingenious: 1-4 players, 45 minutes, ages 10 and up, $28 on Amazon.
    Ingenious is an abstract tile-laying game where you try to score as many points as possible in each of the six colors by placing your tiles next to similarly-colored tiles on the board.  In typical Knizia fashion, your final score is equal to your score in your weakest color.  Simple rules, simple gameplay, and some fairly interesting tactical decisions make this one a definite keeper.
  • Hey, That’s My Fish! 2-4 players, 20 minutes, ages 8 and up, $12 on Amazon.
    Very abstract, but lots of fun.  A quick game of positioning and area control.  Reminds me a bit of Amazons, but it’s lighter and more playful.

Looking for a two-player game?  Take a look at Lost Cities, Jaipur, Patchwork, Battle Line, and Morels.

  • Lost Cities: 2 players, 30 minutes, ages 10 and up, $16 on Amazon.
    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.
  • Jaipur: 2 players, 30 minutes, ages 12 and up, $19 on Amazon.
    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 can keep in sync with that, you’ll likely win.
  • Patchwork: 2 players, 30 minutes, ages 8 and up, $28 on Amazon.
    Patchwork is our latest acquisition, and it promises to be a favorite for years to come.  I like the puzzling aspect of the game, and the economy is interesting, too.  Basically, you’re buying pieces to put in your quilt, and you want them all to fit well together.  It sounds easier than it is.
  • Battle Line: 2 players, 30 minutes, ages 12 and up, $18 on Amazon.
    A tactical card game where 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.
  • Morels: 2 players, 30 minutes, ages 10 and up, $25 on Amazon.
    Not as well known as the other games in this group, it’s still an excellent game for two.

Looking for a cooperative game?  I’d start with Hanabi and Pandemic.

  • Hanabi: 2-5 players, 25 minutes, ages 8 and up, $10 on Amazon.
    A very clever and compelling cooperative game where players are trying to put on the best fireworks display they can.  The trick is that you can see everyone’s cards but your own….
  • Pandemic: 2-4 players, 45 minutes, ages 8 and up, $24 on Amazon.
    Players are working together to try to save the world from contagious 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.  If you want something by the same designer that’s a little lighter and more suitable for kids, I’d go with Forbidden Desert. It accommodates 5 players and sells for $21 on Amazon.

If you’re looking for a word game that plays more like a party game, I’d try Word on the Street.

  • Word on the Street: 2-8 players, 20 minutes, ages 12 and up, $20 on Amazon.
    Two teams take turns playing tug-of-war for the letters in the middle of the board.  When the clue is read, the team whose turn it is tries to come up with a word that uses a lot of the letters still remaining.  One of the players then spells the chosen word, moving each of its letters one step closer to their side of the board.  Capture 8 letters and your team wins.  Both challenging and fun, it really helps to (a) have a good vocabulary, (b) think flexibly and quickly (there’s a timer), and (c) spell well.

If you’re looking for a family strategy game that’ll accommodate up to 7 players, try 7 Wonders.

  • 7 Wonders: 2-7 players, 30 minutes, ages 10 and up, $32 on Amazon.
    A fun game that can be played with up to 7 players (always a plus), 7 Wonders 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 their actions simultaneously.

Looking for a quick game while waiting for the rest of your guests to arrive?  Check out Zombie Dice and Nada.

  • Zombie Dice: 2-8 players, 10 minutes, ages 10 and up, $10 on Amazon.
    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.
  • Nada: 2-4 players, 10 minutes, ages 7 and up, $10 on Amazon.
    A quick dice game requiring very fast thinking.  Simple and elegant, it’s a nice filler if you have somewhat manic friends.

Looking for a dexterity game?  Try Fastrack.

  • Fastrack: 2 players, 10 minutes, ages 5 and up, $15 on Amazon.
    An excellent, fast-paced, and highly-addictive dexterity game.  Basically, you’re trying to get all the little pucks through the hole and onto your opponent’s side of the board.  Unfortunately, they’re trying to do the same thing….

And finally, if you don’t mind tracking down some very good, but nonetheless out-of-print games, I’d recommend Lascaux, Santiago, and On the Underground.

  • Lascaux: 3-5 players, 25 minutes, ages 8 and up.
    No, this isn’t designed by Schacht, but the core bidding mechanic is his (from Mogul).  It’s brilliant.  My only complaint is that the cards can be hard to tell apart when they’re all the way across the table.  It’s been reimplemented as Boomerang, but sadly that’s out of print, too.
  • Santiago: 3-5 players, 75 minutes, ages 10 and up.
    A brilliant auction game with some very clever mechanics.  I definitely wish I had designed this one.
  • On the Underground: 2-5 players, 60 minutes, ages 7 and up.
    A great connection game with a lazy passenger.  The only problem is that some players have a hard time figuring out how the passenger will move.  A little fussy, in other words, but good.  One of my favorites.

That’s it!  I hope you find some good games, here.  Happy Gaming.  :-)