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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.  :-)

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top 5 gateway games revisted

November 19, 2014 Leave a comment

A while back I wrote a post called Top Five Gateway Games.  In it, I argued that the top five gateway games should likely be Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Pandemic, and Blokus.  Turns out I was wrong.  Though I like Blokus, I no longer think it should be the fifth gateway game.

I think the answer, in retrospect, is pretty simple:  take a look at the five most popular family games on BGG, and voilà!  You have your answer.

top five

So now for the canonical list:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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. Not sure why this one didn’t make the cut the first time….

the stay-at-home vacation: a holiday from modern life

February 25, 2012 1 comment

What is a vacation?

Historically a vacation involved getting away, traveling to some different locale, seeing different sights, breaking out of one’s routine.  A vacation was an escape from the day-to-day, a time to get away from work, a time to take one’s family on a bit of new-to-you adventure.

And that’s still true today, in a way, but times have changed.

I think more generally a vacation is an escape, a conscious break in one’s routine, a deliberate choice to get out of one’s rut.  And in the modern, ultra-connected world, the best and most effective way to change one’s routine is to unplug, as it were, from the matrix.

Sure, you can still take the family to Yellowstone, but you’re not really escaping if you’re taking your mp3 player, your cell phone, your laptop, and your DVD player along.  You’re not changing your routine if you’re still surfing the web, texting, reading your email, and doing all the things you usually do at home.  You might not be working, but you haven’t really stepped out of your workaday reality.  You haven’t gotten out of your rut.

It’s different now.  Going physically to a new location isn’t a vacation anymore; shutting down the computer, unplugging the TV, and turning off your cell phone is.

====

A couple years ago the power went off for a couple hours one evening.  There was an ice storm, and a tree went down and took the power lines with it.

When it first happened, I remember being frustrated and disappointed that I couldn’t continue doing whatever it was I had been involved with — watching TV, maybe, or working on the computer.  I just sat there for a minute or two, waiting and wondering if the power was about to come back on.

It didn’t.

Eventually I got up, found the candles and the matches, and lit them.  Then I asked S, my wife, what she wanted to do.  “We could read out loud,” she said.  So we did.

We read P.G. Wodehouse, but I forget which one.  Maybe it was one of the ones with Jeeves, the butler, and his intellectually-challenged master, Bertie Wooster.  Or maybe it was one of the ones set in Blandings Castle.  Or maybe it was Uncle Fred Flits By.

Anyway, we took turns reading to one another for about an hour, and then we decided to make popcorn.  Our usual popcorn maker was an air-pop job, and that took electricity.  The microwave was out, too.  So we got a pot, put some oil in it, tossed some popcorn in, and set it on the stove.  To light the stove (we have a gas range), we turned the gas on and lit it with a match.  Simple.

To keep the popcorn from burning, we’d shake the pot every once in a while.  And when the corn stopped popping, we took the lid off (gotta have a lid!) and poured it into a bowl.  A little salt, and voilà!  It was delicious.

Better, in fact, than the popcorn we usually made. (We have since gotten rid of the air-pop job, and we only settle for popcorn in the microwave when we’re at work.)

But what to do while eating this delicious popcorn?  We decided to play a game, I think it was Ticket to Ride.  And it was lots of fun.

====

There were a couple of things we noticed when the power was off.

First, it was very quiet.  The furnace wasn’t running, the refrigerator wasn’t running, the lights weren’t humming, nothing was making noise.

Second, it was very relaxing.  Peaceful.  Gentle.  The candles helped with this, of course, but in general it felt very … nice.  It was soothing, in a way, a kind of throwback to a simpler time.

In the beginning, we kept hoping the lights would come back on so we could get back to whatever it was we were doing.  But as time passed, we started hoping that the lights wouldn’t come back on so we could keep enjoying the peace and quiet.  As I remember it, the power still hadn’t come on by the time we went to bed.  We went ’round the house and tried to make sure everything was turned off, since we didn’t want the TV to turn itself on at 3:00 in the morning.

It was one of the most pleasant evenings I can remember.

It was also one of the best vacations we’ve ever had, and we didn’t even leave the house.

====

I’m not suggesting that we all turn our clocks back to 1850 — instead, I’m suggesting that we occasionally take a break from modern life.  Maybe we leave the lights on but shut the computer off.  Maybe we leave our cell phones on but turn the TV off.  Maybe we put down Angry Birds and bring out a board game instead.

S and I periodically do this:  step away from our laptops, step back from all our technological gadgetry, step out of the modern world, and step into a quieter time.

We don’t turn our phones off, but we hardly ever use them, anyway.  We don’t shut the lights off, as they’re actually quite handy.  We don’t shut the TV off, since it’s hardly ever on.

We shut down our laptops, turn off the stereo, set down the newspaper, and breathe.

We don’t do chores, and we don’t run errands.  We might take a walk, or we might ride our bikes.  We don’t drive.

I might play guitar, S might knit, we might have folks over for dinner, we might bake bread or have a fire in the back yard.  We might read out loud, might take a nap, might pet our cats or play a game.

We do quiet things, physical things, things that don’t require power.  We disconnect from the web, and we connect instead with one another; we disconnect from the “news,” and we reconnect with our friends.

====

Why am I talking about all this in a blog about board games?

Board games are a great way to connect with family and friends in a physical, real, face-to-face kind of way.  Most games don’t require power, they don’t require batteries, they don’t involve glowing screens or blinking lights or annoying beeps and bangs and buzzes.  They’re delightfully, gloriously low-tech.

More importantly, though, they actively encourage people to interact with one another.  In an age where many families don’t even eat together anymore, setting aside an afternoon or an evening for playing board games together is a great way to both make time for and spend time with the people you love.

What could be better than that?

top 5 gateway games

December 5, 2011 7 comments

What is a gateway game?

A gateway game is a game that can be taught to newbies to bring them into the hobby. As such, it should be simple enough that it doesn’t scare them away, yet meaty enough to hold their interest.  It should be relatively easy to teach, yet it should offer interesting choices.  It should take long enough to warrant the effort required to learn it, but it shouldn’t outstay its welcome.

There appears to be a general consensus among the gaming community that the top 3 gateway games are Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, and Ticket to Ride.  But what about the fourth and fifth?

The quest.

In The Universally Agreed Upon Top 5 Gateway Games, BGG user oeste asked the community what the fourth and fifth universally-accepted gateway games are.  Not surprisingly, there was no consensus.  I think at one point I commented something to the effect that trying to get consensus on a question like this was like attempting to herd cats, and left it at that.

But it’s an interesting question, no?

If one were to wade through the 5 pages of responses, one would see that the games that came up most often were Stone Age, Dominion, Forbidden Island, Ingenious, Pandemic, Blokus, Citadels, 7 Wonders, Small World, Bohnanza, Lost Cities, and Dixit.

One would also find a link to a geeklist entitled Which game deserves a seat as the fourth Great Gateway Game: Settlers, TTR, Carc, and ?  78 games are proposed in this list, and folks have been voting with their thumbs:  127 votes for Dominion, 99 votes for Pandemic, 95 votes for Bohnanza.  But thumbs, for a variety of reasons, aren’t necessarily the best measure of a game’s suitability as a gateway game.

The poll.

And if one were to continue with this adventure, one would eventually come across a BGG poll:  [POLLS] The Best Gateway Games – Round 1.  You can, of course, go through the various stages of the polling experience yourself, or you can cut to the chase and skip to the final results:

1 Ticket to Ride
2 Carcassonne
3 Settlers of Catan
4 Pandemic
5 Ticket to Ride: Europe
6 For Sale
7 Diamant / Incan Gold
8 Coloretto
9 No Thanks!
10 Hey, Thats My Fish!
11 Forbidden Island
12 PitchCar
13 Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries
14 Category 5 / 6 Nimmt!
15 Bohnanza
16 Lost Cities
17 TransAmerica
18 Blokus
19 Liar’s Dice
20 Can’t Stop

The Dominion Dilemma.

The first question I’m sure some of my readers will ask is “what the !@#$% happened to Dominion?”

It got booted in round four:  as Tony Ackroyd (the pollster) put it, ‘In case people are interested, Dominion suffered ejection because despite the high number of “Best” votes, it also had 8% votes for “Not a Gateway”.  Wits & Wagers suffered similarly, with 7% of its votes being “Not a Gateway”.’

It could of course be argued that 8% of respondents voting “not a gateway” shouldn’t be sufficient to knock it out of contention, but as I happen to agree with that sentiment I’ll let it stand.  As Mark Salzwedel put it, “Way too many special ability cards, tough to predict the game end until you’ve played several times, and deck building is not a newbie skill. It is short game, true, but a new player is likely to finish the game wondering what happened.”

Hey, he said it, not me.  :-)

The Fourth Gateway Game.

Based on the top twenty listed above, I’m content to add Pandemic as the Fourth Gateway Game.  It’s got a reasonable heft to it (with a weight of 2.3, it comes in just below Settlers’ 2.4), it’s got decent components, it’s challenging without being too challenging, and it gives players the opportunity to play against the game itself.

Some, I know, have argued that Forbidden Island (a lighter co-op by the same author) is a more accessible game, but I just don’t see it catching on as well with adults.  It’s a fine game, but I don’t believe it has the same kind of staying power.

So … I, for one, am ready to add Pandemic to the canonical list and rename the “Big Three” the “Big Four.”

But what about the fifth?

I have a hard time, somehow, including two TtR variants in the top five, so that lets out both TtR: Europe and TtR: Nordic Countries.

For Sale, Incan Gold, Coloretto, No Thanks, Hey Thats My Fish, Forbidden Island, Category 5, Lost Cities, TransAmerica, Liar’s Dice, and Can’t Stop are all good games, but they all seem too light.  I mean, yes, they’re a definite step up from party games, but I’m not sure they have quite enough heft to pull people into the hobby.

Pitch Car is a dexterity game.  I have nothing against dexterity games, but somehow it would seem out of place on a list like this.

I frankly don’t understand Bohnanza.  It’s one of my failings, I know, but I just can’t get my head around the game.

And Blokus is an abstract, begging the question….

Gateway to what? 

Good question — let’s step back a bit.

When introducing new players to the hobby, we are necessarily introducing them to our hobby, not the hobby as a whole.  I’m not going to teach people how to play role-playing games for the simple reason that I myself don’t play them.  I’m also not that likely to teach anyone how to play Risk, because I’m not very interested in that game at the moment.

We can’t, in other words, take ourselves and our preferences out of the equation.

Likewise, we can’t take “the newbie” and their preferences out of the equation, either.  No one is really a newbie when it comes to games — everyone has a gaming history, and it’s our job, if we’re going to teach them a new game, to find out what that history is.  Have they played Clue?  Monopoly?  Chess?  Hearts?  Pinochle?  Gin Rummy?  Scrabble?

What games have they played, and how do they feel about those games?  If they’ve played Monopoly and loved it, I might teach them Power Grid; if they’ve played Chess and hated it, I certainly wouldn’t teach them Hive.

In order for a game to be a good gateway game, in other words, it needs to be (a) a decent gateway game, (b) a game we’re interested in, and (c) a game that our friend might be interested in, too.

Choosing a game to teach someone, especially someone who’s just getting into gaming, is more an art than a science.  One size, in other words, does not fit all.

That being said, however….

I still feel that lists like these have merit.  Sure, everyone could and possibly should come up with their own “top 5 gateway games,” but a list at least gives folks a place to start.  Some games are, after all, better than others to teach to newbies, and while everyone’s situation is different, lists like these do serve a purpose.

So, what have we got so far?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Do we even need a fifth?

Of course not, no. Absolutely not. (We don’t need 4, either.  Or, for that matter, 3.)  But I’d feel like a right proper git if I titled my post “top 5 gateway games” and then stopped at 4.

So what I’ll do is offer my own personal choice for the fifth game.

I doubt it’ll be a popular choice, but I’m going to go with Blokus.  Why?  It’s an abstract, and that makes it a little different from all the others.  And I like abstracts.  And I like Blokus.  And my friends like Blokus, too.

So no, it’s not as universal as the four listed above.  But it does have really cool, Tetris-shaped pieces, and it’s short, and it’s easy to explain, and it’s popular, and you can buy it at Target.

Without further ado, I therefore present:

  1. 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.

If Blokus ain’t your cup of tea, let me know what you’d suggest in the comments below.  :-)

gaming gift guide 2011

November 30, 2011 Leave a comment

So, there’s a gamer or potential gamer you want to buy a gift for, and you have no idea what to get her? This guide will certainly help get you started.

What I’ve done, here, is taken the gift guide I did for 2010 and updated it.  Some of the games are the same, and some are new.  I’m only going to recommend games that I own or have played repeatedly, because I couldn’t in good conscience do anything else.  What that means, though, is that some very good games may not be on the list.  Feel free to suggest them in the comments — I’m always looking for new games to try.  :-)

The games below are sorted by weight.  What’s weight?  Roughly, it’s a measure of how hard the game is, how much mental effort it takes to play.  Tic-tac-toe is light, while Chess is heavy.  Lighter games are at the top of the list; heavier games are at the bottom.

The real classics are listed in bold.  These are the games that belong in every gamer’s collection.  If the person you’re buying for is a serious gamer, though, they likely already have them….

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

Steam: 3-5 players, 120 minutes, ages 10 and up, 2008, weight of 3.5.
Players build track, connect resources to cities, and then make deliveries.  A tight and fun game, the logistics involved can be a real challenge to master.  Recommended for more serious and / or experienced gamers.


Conclusion

That’s it. 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).

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 had especially good luck with both Boards and Bits and CoolStuffInc. And finally, of course, there’s Amazon and Barnes and Noble, too. =^..^=

a lecture on board game design

November 7, 2011 1 comment

I recently had the opportunity to give a lecture at the university where I work about board games and board game design.  I basically just gave an overview of the modern gaming scene (with an emphasis on family strategy games) and talked for about twenty minutes about how one goes about designing a board game.  It was fairly well received, I think.  There were thirteen students in attendance.

After I introduced myself I asked how many people had played Settlers:  four.  Carcassonne:  one.  Ticket to Ride:  one.  Pandemic:  zero (though one person had heard of it).  Magic:  one.  Dungeons and Dragons:  one.  Risk:  three or four.  Monopoly:  thirteen.  Blokus:  two, followed by a discussion about the correct pronunciation of the name.  Dominion:  zero.  Puerto Rico:  zero.  Agricola:  zero.  Power Grid:  zero.

I wasn’t surprised, really — mainly I wanted to know roughly who my audience was before starting in.  One of them asked about Scrabble and Bananagrams and where those games fit in to all this, and I said Scrabble was very highly regarded but not quite the same kind of game.  Two people had played Bananagrams.

The students were very polite and fairly engaged.  They wanted to know where they could learn more about games like this, and I told them to check out BoardGameGeek.  They wanted to know where they could buy games like this, and I told them to check out Barnes and Noble, Amazon, or one of several different online vendors.

I described the top three gateway games in some depth, giving an overview of gameplay in Settlers, Carcassonne, and Ticket to Ride.  I had unfortunately only brought one game with me (Settlers), so the talk was definitely lacking in the visual aid department.  I should’ve brought TtR so I could show off its board.

They had quite a few questions about board game design, and they were interested to hear about some of the games I’ve come up with.

There were two neat / funny moments.  The first came at the beginning when I asked why they had chosen to theme their honors orientation class around boardgames.  Their reply?  “It was either that or duct tape.”  Fair enough.

The second came at the end when I told them I was thinking of teaching an honors seminar on board game design.  I asked if any of them might be interested in such a class, and about half of them said they thought it sounded fun.  One student appeared to wake up at that point just so he could express his enthusiasm for the idea.

He kind of reminded me of myself when I was younger — I would’ve given anything to take a class on game design when I was in college.

That, and the fact that I was always half asleep.  :-)

Protospiel post mortem: Lemuria, Coloronimoes, and RumRunners

July 19, 2011 Leave a comment

It’s been a while since I posted last, but we took a bit of a family vacation en route to Protospiel, then Protospiel itself (3 days of playtesting, 16 hours per day), then the trip home through Chicago, and finally getting back into the swing of things here at home.

The conference was amazing. I met a lot of very nice (and very talented) people, played a lot of fascinating games, got a lot of insightful feedback on the games I took, and generally had a wonderful time. I can’t wait to go back next year.

RumRunners hit the table once, and folks had some great ideas for both getting the game off to a fast start and ending it before it became tedious. I haven’t had a chance to implement their suggestions yet, but the changes will definitely make it a tighter, better, and more enjoyable game.

Coloronimoes hit the table three times, and playtesters helped me both streamline the money and straighten out the endgame scoring. The game is both leaner and meaner as a result of their suggestions, though I have yet to type up the new rules. I’m looking forward to trying out the new version with my game group.

Lemuria went over better than the other two. In general people liked the game and thought it was “solid,” though of course even good games can be improved. Suggestions included shortening the game by taking out three of the trading posts, opening up the trading, replacing or removing some of the cards, giving players a sure-fire way to make money (either by burning two cards or skipping their turn), including a playing mat, and tweaking the end-game scoring to award points for money.

I’ve incorporated all these changes into the game and have been playtesting it every chance I get. In general, the game seems tighter, shorter, and more focused; there’s more emphasis on trading; and the cards all seem to work better together. All in all, a much-improved experience! S and I have been playing it every chance we get, and our games tend to be both tense and enjoyable affairs.

My friend C had a great idea for a better and more streamlined way to pre-populate the board with bank-owned trading posts: put 2 dots on some of the boundaries, 3 dots on others, and 4 dots on yet others. Then, when setting the game up, players need only put trading posts on the boundaries indicated — if 4 are playing, put trading posts on all the boundaries with 4 dots; if 3 are playing, put trading posts on all the boundaries with 3 and 4 dots; and if 2 are playing, put trading posts on all the boundaries with 2, 3, and 4 dots. This way the two-player game will have 30 bank-owned trading posts, the three-player game will have 20, and the four-player game will have 10. This helps keep the board tight and competitive no matter how many players there are (and allows for the possibility of a future 5-6 player expansion). Initial tests of the new system have gone very well.

The game reminds me a bit of Ticket to Ride in some ways, as the board is fairly tight and players are always getting in each other’s way. You want to try to grab key connections early, but you don’t want to build so fast that you run yourself out of money. I beat S once yesterday because she got greedy in this way — she paid a lot to beat me to my intended route, overextended, and ran herself too low on cash. I managed to keep her poor (by failing to trade when she wanted to and failing to discard anything that would give her money), and I ended up beating her by just one point. She got back at me later in the evening, though, flashing out unexpectedly and catching me, so to speak, with my pants down. I think the score was 56 to 48.

Her last laugh was bright and cheerful, with just a hint of gloating. :-)