Continued from my previous post, here’s my Top 5!
5) Puerto Rico, by Andreas Seyfarth
This was the first new game I played after my ‘gateway game’, Settlers of Catan. The premise is simple enough: you’re building a bunch of plantations and buildings and designating colonists to run them.
Like Catan, various things you do earn you victory points, and you want the most victory points to win. There is also this neat mechanic of, each round, picking an available ‘role’ that enables you and all the other players to perform certain kinds of actions (but there’s always a super sweet bonus for being the one who initiated it).
I immediately loved this game. Why? No dice– therefore, very little chance. If you go into this game with a solid strategy, the only thing that can mess it up is the actions of the other players– not bad luck. What’s also nice is that the roles get incentivized every round they’re not played, so the game never gets too narrow.
Oh, and while on the surface the game seems pretty straightforward, each player is actually building their own separate San Juans… so I also like that fact that even though nothing about the game would suggest it, each player actually inhabits and alternate reality and are somehow competing with each other for resources and colonists through some kind of crazy space/time rift. Very sci-fi.
Hoo-rah! Superb variety of actions and therefore, strategies. The rewards/abilities from buildings are varied and fun. You never feel like you’re ‘losing’. Length is just right.
Blech… I wish players interacted more directly with each other. Heck, you’re not even supposed to trade things…
4) Innovation, by Carl Chudyk
The first time I played this game, I couldn’t believe it was entirely card-based. Card-based games are supposed to be simple, straightforward, quick, and all pretty similar. Suits and stuff, right? No overarching theme or complex strategy, right? Wrong.
I used to think ‘Wizard’ was about as complex and interesting as a card game could expect to get, but Innovation trumps it in a number of ways. Essentially, the game lives and breathes on its deceptively simple three-action system: draw a card, lay down a card, or play a card. When you draw, it’s from the highest pile that you’ve laid (melded) a card, and each pile (corresponding to an age of civilization) gives you progressively more powerful abilities when you choose to play them; it’s kind of like Wizard in that the stakes continue to get higher as the game progresses, and a player who did really well for the first two-thirds of the game can get destroyed in the last third.
But what I think is most brilliant here is the ‘splay system.’ What’s that?? Shh you. Let me explain: each card is defined by a certain symbol, but also carries various other symbols on it. These symbols are revealed by certain actions that allow you to ‘splay’ (spread slightly) your cards left, right, or up (‘left’ revealing the least symbols and ‘up’ revealing the most). If you play the actions of a card and another player has more of that card’s symbol than you do, they get to share in the action. Aggressive actions (‘I demand…’) can only be performed on players that have less of a symbol. Tough to describe, but trust me, it’s very cool and adds dimensions to this game, and potentially the entire field of card games if it starts to be used elsewhere.
Again, this game blew me away with its simple design but totally immersive experience– as I said, I just didn’t think card games could do that. To be fair though, I’ve recently started playing ‘Dominion’, so that might be on it’s way to being a favorite pure-card game of mine, but for now… Innovation is da best.
Oh yeah, and did you notice? This game is by Carl Chudyk who also designed ‘Rootword.’ He was one of the main reasons I checked out The Game Crafter in the first place!
Hoo-rah! Super portable. Mounting progression of in-game ‘abilities’ is awesome. Splay system is simple, unique, and excellent.
Blech… You really get a sense of the exponential growth of civilization… sometimes to a detriment. Those ’10’ cards can be INSANE!
3) Twilight Struggle, by Ananda Gupta & Jason Matthews
Now we’re in the territory of the truly epic. These are games that may take hours to complete, but the time spent is entirely worth it. Unlike traditional Risk or Monopoly that can leave you simply exhausted and drained after a full game, these final three games leave me feeling exhilarated and immensely satisfied after a win, or eager to jump right into another game and perfect my strategy if I lost.
So yes. Twilight Struggle.
Cold War. History. 2 players. 2 superpowers. World Domination. Intense. RISK can have an uncontrolled, chaotic quality to it. Twilight Struggle is focused. But this isn’t a game of battle and war, it’s a game of ideas and influence. Over the course of 10 turns that progress through the the time of The Cold War, the USA player and the USSR player alternate playing cards in a headline phase, then ‘action rounds’ that simulate real world events. With each card in the action round, you have two choices: play out the event, or use the ‘operations’ value to spread your influence across the globe. If you are the USA player, but have a card with a USSR-friendly event (say, The Cuban Missile Crisis), but want to use the operations points, the event still plays out. This creates a fascinating dynamic of players inadvertently helping each other out on the way to achieving their own ends. Along the way, there are coups, realignment rolls, mini-wars, military operations, a fluctuating DEFCON status, and a Space Race (great for trashing enemy cards in your hand you really don’t want played).
It’s truly epic, but rarely overwhelming. Yes, your abilities are limited to what you are able to do with your hand in a given round, but there’s nearly always a way to achieve your ends. Sometimes it requires a strategy readjustment– say, playing more defensively for a while, or focusing more on South America– but there’s always a path forward.
One of the fascinating elements in the game that mimics the real Cold War is a sense of ‘perceived importance.’ In addition to event cards, there are also also have scoring cards that allow players to score a particular region of the world at the moment it’s played. Points are given to both players for Presence, Domination, Control, Battleground Countries, and countries adjacent to the enemy’s country. Thus, players may spend a few rounds trying to build up their influence in a region before playing such a card. This, however, is likely to be countered by the other player who will notice the shift in focus. ‘Africa? He never cared about Africa… what’s going on? Ga! I’m putting 8 influence in Zaire!’
Yet, this also can work as a strategy to distract players. Maybe you have a scoring card for Asia, which you’re doing well in already, but want to make sure the other player leaves it alone, so you start playing most of your operation points in, say, South America, dropping the occasional one in Asia. Then, the opposing player is likely to spend their energy battling you in South America thinking you have a scoring card there, and will likely be surprised when you suddenly score Asia instead.
Of course, this can backfire terribly, but that’s all part of the fun. Early in the game, you’re really only focused on Europe, then as you reach Mid War and Late War (adding decks and therefore, more drastic events), Asia, Central America, Africa, and South America gain in importance. I really like this slowly widening range of focus, which allows for a much more finely-crafted strategy than in a game like Diplomacy or Risk where right from the start the entire world is of great import.
My only problem? A game can run upwards of 5 hours. If I can find a way to condense this into a 2 – 2.5 hour game without losing its sense of controlled epicness, it’ll be golden.
Hoo-rah! Early, Mid, and Late War Decks are excellent. The Space Race track and China Card help mitigate bad hands. The reactionary quality of the game allows for superb strategizing. World conquer has never felt so satisfying– and there aren’t even armies!
Blech… It can be difficult to come back if you’re doing very poorly. Game endings tend to be either too abrupt (some cards end the game instantly) or take too far too long.
2) Dominant Species, by Chad Jensen
Adapt. Populate. Compete. Migrate. Dominate. These aren’t just words–they’re the pillars of this game. And it isn’t an abstract game trying to add mnemonics by tacking on a theme– you are are simulating, in the most exciting fashion, the fight for the survival of a species.
Dominant Species comes off as dauntingly complex at first, but a true thrill once you get the hang of it. You play a species (e.g. insects, mammals, reptiles, etc.) and start with a unique ability and set of survival conditions. Then you have ‘action pawns’ that can be placed on about a dozen different actions, and then those actions are executed. These range from adapting/evolving your species to be able to survive with new elements, to eliminating species from competing hexes (the land tiles you populate). Ultimately, you’re trying to gain victory points by ‘dominating’ land tiles, which also allow you to draw cards that instantly enact some pretty cool stuff (give me that extra action pawn!). It stays spicy.
Interesting note: it doesn’t matter how MANY of your species are on a land tile when you score it during a domination round; all that matters is that your species is best adapted to it. And unless you’re the only species occupying that tile, other players will score too. This sets up one of many excellent strategy elements: that you constantly need to be balancing the quality of your species with its quantity, since there are a number of ways to eliminate opposing species in territories you want them out of. A little like RISK, but imagine that your the number of armies you had in a territory didn’t matter nearly as much as how well they were adapted to living there.
Another element I find fascinating is a semi-automated ice age in the game. Every turn, tundra, which starts in the middle, grows out to transform previously fertile land into something barely inhabitable. It will always grow, but a player who has placed their action pawn on the tundra gets to decide in which direction. And there’s a real sense of the slow, menacing quality of this growth: players can ‘line up’ to control the tundra up to 4 rounds in advance.
Finally, I love that there’s always a level of uncertainty about who is winning… I mean yes, you have a victory point track that’s giving you a relative idea of how everyone is doing, but there’s an enormous number of (well-deserved) bonus points awarded at the end of the game that keeps you scrambling. Whereas in many games you can just pick a narrow strategy and go for it, this game requires a supreme balancing act.
‘I need some guys over here… oh, but he’s going to score that tile so I should get in on that. Oh… I should populate these, but what if she goes there? I should really have a migration action just in case. Oh no! I’m not going to be able to survive there any more once the tundra hits and those jerk reptiles are definitely going to send it this way!!…etc. etc.’
There’s never a dull moment, and the focus provided by each action type occurring one at a time keeps analysis paralysis to a minimum.
Hoo-rah! Unique tundra element evolves the board. Special per-species abilities are neat. Action pawn juggling in lieu of traditional ‘buying things’ with resources means there’s always something productive to do– you just need to decide the order of importance.
Blech… Sometimes players see reason to gang up against you, and more than other games, that can really hurt you here.
1) Agricola, by Uwe Rosenberg
Is it a coincidence that my favorite game right now is one of the ones I’ve most recently been introduced to? Probably. But I am pretty confident Agricola will stay high on my list for many years to come. Put simply, it is a game tuned to absolute perfection.
To start, there’s just the right amount of chance: there’s no dice, and unlike most games where players are drawing ‘chance’ cards throughout, in this game you start with your chance cards, so you’re able to build a strategy around them with few traumatizing surprises along the way.
Also, like Puerto Rico, this is a truly additive game. That is to say, players aren’t taking things away from each other and you’re never getting set back a great deal– you’re building the whole time, and that act in itself is satisfying. You may lose the game, but still feel proud of what you were able to accomplish on your own terms.
On the ‘winning’ side, scoring is tallied at the very end in what I would call a supremely logical and balanced fashion. That being said, the scoring elements are difficult to keep track of during the game, so you’re never quiet sure who’s winning. Thus, unlike games where you know you’re lightyears behind and have lost all will to continue, there’s always a little voice in your head here that says you could do really well in those last few rounds, come back, and win. As a rule of thumb– it’s a good to have a little of everything.
What’s the premise?! You yell, confused by the last 4 paragraphs. Farming! I respond. But it’s so much more than that. Farming is the catalyst that allows for what is ultimately a brilliant set of mechanics that allow for a unique, balanced, addictive, and simply FUN game. I love that you start with cards all of the cards you’re going to have access to throughout the game. I love that as the game progresses, more and more actions become available to you, and they’re incentivized by collecting additional value each round they aren’t chosen. I love the increased speed of harvests that keep the pace of the game exactly where it should be. I love that growing your family allows you to perform more actions but also requires more food per-harvest to feed them. I love that renovating your house is an accomplishment in its own right, even though it serves no practical purpose in the game. Finally, I love how well the game is tailored to the number of players– both the board and the cards in the play change based on this. And there’s even a single player version!
Get it. Play it. Love it. Now.
Hoo-rah! Has the epic quality of a much longer game. Tons of cards give every play-through a unique flavor. Your situation is never hopeless, as thanks to the logical but difficult-to-track end-game scoring, you’re never certain who is winning.
Blech… As much as I love the frantic quality, there is always a slight twinge of dissatisfaction in feeling like you weren’t quite able to complete your strategy by the end. And like Puerto Rico, I wish there was ever-so-slightly more direct player interaction.
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