Thursday, March 22, 2007

My Top Ten Board Games

My top 10 board games will not be your top 10 board games, and that's how it should be.

In my limited experience, no person has the exact same likes and dislikes as any other person. Likely this is due to a complicated inter-tangling of nature and nurture.

If you are interested in learning about good games, and you have no game history or only experience with "the classics", check out my Gift Guide for some good introductory games.

If you are looking for the best party games, best war games, best video games, best group activities, or any other such list, this isn't it. Try the Geeklists on Board Game Geek (for all but the video games).

Lastly, I excluded card games from this list; likely I will follow up with a post for those soon enough.

10 - Santiago (2003)

There are complex games with complex rules, and simple games with simple rules. Rarely do you find a complex game with simple rules.

Sometimes the rules of a game seem so beautiful they appear to have been discovered, rather than created. Such is the case with Claudia Hely and Roman Pelek's Santiago.

Tiles are flipped. You bid on them and place them. You bid on where the water goes. The unwatered ones dry up. At the end of the game, you score based on the number of workers you have on each area times the size of the area. A few other details, and that's it.

It just an elegant game. Every times I play it, I find myself saying that during the second or third round again. I've never had a bad experience with it.

Its only drawback is that some people feel the need to calculate and re-calculate each move, which can slow the game down.

09 - Princes of Florence (2000)

This game is much better than it has any right to be.

Designed by Wolfgang Kramer and Richard Ulrich, this is one of the quietest game experiences. Only seven rounds long, each player has only fourteen actions to choose for the entire game. Your success depends on using each action to its utmost efficiency.

In this game you play princes attempting to develop useful and pastoral areas in your municipality in order to attract scientists and artists to produce works. The better your success, the better the works are produced, earning you prestige. Some of this prestige you will need to trade for much needed cash, while the rest will apply to your final score.

Often as not, you will be hitting yourself on the head in round 5 for something you did in round 2 The only consolation you will have is that others may have done the same thing.

I honestly can't explain why it works so well, but it does.

The game works magnificently with 4 or 5 players, but with 5 players you need to remove the last Profession card and make it available only for recruiting, in order to ensure balance. With three players, you need to change the auctions slightly to maintain the tension experienced in the 4 and 5 player game.

08 - Anagrams (1800s)

Scrabble is a great game; it almost made this list.

However, Scrabble has a few serious drawbacks. Firstly, its rather rigid game play can be dull. Second, like Chess, the game has been taken over from a thinking man's game to a memorizing man's game. It's no fun to lose to someone who knows more two-letter words than you do.

(Third, it is long overdue for a reworking. Once upon a time when it was difficult to place the Q and Z, 10 points for them made sense. Nowadays, when they can be used to form two-letter words (QI and ZA), their high values no longer make sense.)

A game that I love much more is Anagrams. Anagrams also require a large vocabulary, but it more rewards fast and creative thinking and patter recognition.

In Anagrams, tiles are flipped over one by one. As soon as you see a three-letter word or more, you call it out and gain the tiles. Also, if you can combine any words or letter with words by rearranging the letters, you can call out the new word and steal other player's words.

The game is quick and challenging. You can play it with a box of Scrabble pieces. And it makes you a better Scrabble player, too.

07 - El Grande (1995)

Another entry by the great Wolfgang Kramer and Richard Ulrich, this is the definitive thematic area-control game.

Set in medieval Spain, you are grandes trying to use your cabilleros to curry favor with the king. You place your caballeros in the various areas around Spain or in the castillo. Points are awarded for the top three positions in each area after every three rounds.

El Grande is packed with brilliant mechanisms: the trackable but hidden scoring of the castillo, the movement of the king determining when you can place your caballeros, the trade-off between higher and lower power cards and higher and lower action cards, and the way fortunes all around can swing by simply moving a single caballero from one location to another.

The chaos of the last mechanism makes the game more of a tactical game than a long-term planning game, but the game is not wholly devoid of strategy, the main one being whether to concentrate on a few high valued areas or go for second place in a greater number of areas.

The rules are easy, and the game is a lot of fun.

The game works best with four or five players. With three it has less tension. The game can take a bit too long with some players. You may want to cut out a round or two in this case. And lastly, while players can plan around most of the randomness, just occasionally bad luck with a flipped action card can ruin your well made plans.

06 - Tigris and Euphrates (1997)

Reiner Knizia, possibly unheard of outside the gaming community, is the game community's mega-star.

Many of his games are light card games with dirt simple mechanics and very quick game play. Occasionally, however, he makes a medium weight board game.

Tigris and Euphrates (T&E) is Reiner's masterpiece medium weight board game. While some complain that it's light on theme, the theme actually fits nicely with the grand scale abstract nature of the mechanics.

In T&E, players play civilizations as they rise and fall in ancient Mesopotamia, vying for a stake in four spheres of control in ever-expanding, merging, and revolting kingdoms. Conflicts are political in nature. Rewards are given for each turns activity; your kingdom's size and position determines your stability, not your score. And you must score in all four regions equally to gain points, as your ultimate score is determined by whatever you have gained least.

The rules are not that complicated, but the implications of each play are often mind-reeling. A bit of luck adds spice to each round's activity.

The game has essentially two drawbacks. First, while you can work around bad luck draws, sometimes they really do a bit of damage. And second, a few poorly chosen conflicts initiated by one player can hand the game to another player despite all of your hard work.

05 - Pente (1978)

Pente is a simple abstract game very much derived from a whole genre of games played for thousands of years in the East. It was invented by Gary Gabrel.

In Pente, you simply have to get 5 stones in a row. However, you can also capture a pair of two stones in a row by placing your stones on either ends of these two stones. You also win if you make 5 such captures.

This is an intense and generally very quick game. While the first player appears to have somewhat of an advantage, I haven't seen this translated into any easy victories excepting when the second player makes some basic mistakes.

More often, it is a cat and mouse game of "sente", trying to gain control and force a winning position.

A more difficult version of the game, which I haven't yet played, is called "Keryo Pente", which allows capturing either two or three stones in a row, and requires you to either get five in a row or capture a total of fifteen stones.

What I love about it most is that I can challenge master Go players and beat them on the very same board they can destroy me in Go.

04 - Age of Steam (2002)

Train games are their own genre of games, and have a long history.

There's something pleasing about seeing a once naked board slowly and surely covered by a connecting series of rails and trains. And, whether the payoff is based on cities connected, efficient routes, or transport of goods, you know when you're done that you've accomplished something grand.

There are many trains games too light for me, and many too dull or too long for me. Created by Martin Wallace, Age of Steam is vicious and engrossing, combining not only track efficiency and good transportation, but clever role selection and money management. It all combines to make an intense enjoyable game, which feels shorter than its three hour length.

To be honest, Age of Steam isn't the perfect game. It has a strange leader balancing method which doesn't balance very much. And the randomness of where goods get produced can be a bit of a pain.

I've never played Union Pacific or any of the 18xx series. I enjoyed my own train game that I created to play on the Settlers of Catan board as much as Age of Steam. I suspect that I'm still waiting for the perfect train game.

More information about Age of Steam can be found here.

03 - Cosmic Encounter (1977)

Designed by Peter Olotka, Jack Kittredge, and Bill Eberle, many people consider this the grand-daddy of the modern board game movement and for good reason.

Possibly fifteen years before its time, Cosmic is a wild and fun game of diplomacy that is never the same twice. Not simply because alliances and battles rise and fall. But because each player plays with a random alien power that can break the rules of the game.

Not content with the chaos that causes, Cosmic provides dozens of types of special cards, cards that balance or complement the powers, the ability to play with multiple powers, an optional monetary system, and so on and so on.

The best you can hope for on any turn is for all the hidden cards and effects to somehow balance each other, so that when the dust settles, you may end up winning. But for all that, unlike games where looniness is the sole ingredient, the combination of strategy, diplomacy, and tactics will usually win the day.

Cosmic is one of the few games where joint wins are common; in fact, sometimes everyone wins!

Richard Garfield cites Cosmic as on of his sources of design inspiration for the card game Magic: the Gathering. My mantra is that all games are better the closer they are to Cosmic Encounter.

Cosmic has been produced by several publishers; the best versions of the game have 75 or more powers, support up to six players, and include the "Flare" cards - the EON and Mayfair versions. Unfortunately, you have to pay a pretty penny for these out of print versions on eBay.

More information about Cosmic Encounter can be found here.

02 - Puerto Rico (2002)

Puerto Rico is the number one game on Board Game Geek, the Internet Board Game list, and dozens of other sites, and has been since its release in 2002. Why? It's brilliant role mechanism system combined with limited buildings.

Unlike traditional games, where each player takes a turn and play then passes to the next player, or war games, where each element of the turn is executed in rigid order in turn by each player, Puerto Rico combines these in an unusual way.

One player picks any action he or she wants, and all players do this action. The next player picks any of the remaining actions and all payers do that action. And so on until all players have picked an action. Then the actions are returned and the first choice of actions passes to the left.

The result is a game where the steps of each turn are executed out of order each turn. Each step is beneficial, but the timing determines if the step is slightly more beneficial to one player than another.

Combining with the above mechanic are the limited buildings. Each building provides a limited bonus during a certain step. As the game goes on, each player is getting better or worse bonuses for the chosen steps.

The whole thing combines to make an extremely intricate and wide tactical space using very few actual mechanics. There's just a hint of randomness as the game goes on (the available plantations to develop), which just proves that a little randomness can have far-reaching long-term effects.

I've played it more than a thousand times, and every game is still a joy.

Puerto Rico was designed by Andreas Seyfarth.

01 - Go (-2000)

It's difficult to even know how to describe Go, which is so much more than a simple game.

At its most basic, you place pieces on the board trying to surround your opponent, or more territory than your opponent. That's it.

But on a sufficiently sized board, the game's one type of action, but hundreds of options, make for the deepest game known to man. Every level of experience you gain in the game reveals an entirely new game. First it's patterns, then it's strategies, then it's potentials, then it's I don't know what, because I'm nowhere near a high level, yet.

Go is one of the most ancient games, and is considered one of the four arts of the Chinese gentleman, along with calligraphy, painting, and playing the guqin. It hasn't lasted for 4000 years for nothing.

Entire TV channels are devoted to the game. Professional Go players are like American professional sports players. Many people actually consider the game itself, or its origin, to be divine.

As a game, it requires few components (though many people like to play on expensive and beautiful board) and has a built-in handicap system which make a game enjoyable between any two players, regardless of their experience level. And games can be fairly quick or deep and long, as you like.

Go's only drawback is that it is only a two player game.

Other Great Games

Chess and Scrabble would have made the list, except for the reasons I mentioned above. They tend now to be games of memory rather than creativity. XiangQi, or Chinese Chess, might indeed make the list, except that I haven't yet played it. Another classic which almost made the list is Boggle.

The two games Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne are both excellent games. If you haven't yet played them, go play them now!

But having played Settlers of Catan more than a thousand times, I find that I can now play it on automatic; it's still fun because of the trading. Carcassonne, while I haven't played it as much, and Settlers, too, are just a bit too much luck-dependent for me. I may change my mind about Carcassonne after playing some of the newer variants.

If it weren't my own game, I would add The Menorah Game, or It's Alive as it will be called when it's published, to the list. It's my favorite light auction game, beating out Knizia's three big auction titles Modern Art, Hollywood Blockbuster, and Ra.

Two other great games that I considered were Dvonn, the best game of the Gipf series of modern abstract games, and Tikal, an action point exploration game by Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling. Tikal is a beautiful and fun game, but doesn't quite captivate me the way the ones I listed do.

Other Games, Not So Great

You might be wondering what happened to some of your favorite games, such as Stratego, Clue, Monopoly, Othello, or Trivial Pursuit.

While these were good, or even great, games for their times, they simply don't hold up to the games I've listed, at least not for me. I'm sure there are people who love these games even after playing the newer games, but I kind of grew out of them.

By the time I was 8, I was already playing Stratego with a random setup because it was no longer interesting doing the setup myself. The game just didn't have enough depth.

Clue was the same. We played without using the crib sheets, and both my brother and I still always solved the game at the same time. As a result, the winner was whoever could roll his way to the room fast enough.

I never really liked Monopoly. Too much of the game is just doing what the board or the dice tell you to do.

Othello is a nice game, and I think it would probably be a great game on a much bigger board. I haven't had the opportunity to try this, yet.

And Trivial Pursuit kind of ends once the cards do. It's fun for a party game.

Yehuda Berlinger
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