Christmas shopping? Some games to think about:
Progenitor of the ‘deckbuilder’ genre and, like designer Donald Vaccarino’s even more abstract followup Kingdom Builder, essentially a kind of dynamic multiplayer puzzle. Players begin each with a barebones deck of cards, mostly providing money, and use that money to buy from an always-available common pool of more interesting ‘kingdom cards’ — which in turn grant additional money, actions (card plays), and buys per turn. Purchased cards go into the discard pile; when your draw pile is empty, your discard pile gets shuffled and replaces it. At some point you start buying victory points, which clot the deck but are the only way to win.
Yes, it can be ‘simultaneous solitaire’ at times, but that mostly manifests in groups of uneven skill.
Dominion‘s basic rules are quite simple, but each spread of ten kingdom cards presents a variety of strategic possibilities, and if you include even a couple of the many expansions, the range of kingdom spreads is for all practical purposes inexhaustible. (The expansions range from pitch-perfect to game- and mind-breaking, but every single one is worth getting.) Vaccarino’s core design takes the epochal innovation of Magic: The Gathering — streamlined tactical card play using custom decks built away from the table — and essentially ‘gamifies’ deckbuilding, making a 30-minute competitive game out of that away-from-table activity.
Dominion is a work of genius; everyone who’s ever had to sit through a game of Monopoly must try it.
Settlers of Catan
The game that kicked off the ‘eurogame’ craze and today’s boardgame renaissance is secretly a brilliant do-over of Monopoly with considerably greater strategic depth, more meaningful p2p trading, and (as a result of the trading and resource-generation mechanics) no downtime. Dead simple to learn — as with Carcassonne, the core game is streamlined enough that the kids’ version is unnecessary — it’s still one of the friendliest introductions to modern boardgames, but the random/asymmetrical setup and steadily ratcheting tension give it plenty of replay value for any but the most pedantically analytical gamers. Its ‘kingmaker’ problem, and the high likelihood of untutored players shooting themselves in the foot with a bad opening play, now mark Settlers as an imperfect game, and among boardgame nerds it gets less play than it used to. But ignore jaded gamers who say it’s no good. It deserves its reputation.
Greedy Greedy Goblins
Generally fast-paced simultaneous tile-placement for humans 6 and up, recommended for families who enjoy cartoonishly stressful play situations.
Designer Richard Garfield’s basic idea is clever: each goblin (player) draws one facedown tile at a time from a common pool, looks at it, then adds it (still facedown) to one of several mines. Repeat, as impulsively or carefully as she likes. At some point in this process, she uses coloured discs to claim up to three mines, which then no longer receive tiles. With all mines claimed, they’re scored: points for every gem tile in the mine, double points for gems matching your goblin’s colour; some tiles give special power cards to use while scoring; one stick-of-dynamite tile doubles point value of mine, two sticks triples it…and the third blows up the mine, yielding a total of -5 points. First goblin to 100 points wins.
So we’ve got bluffing, a mildly harrowing push-your-luck mechanic with incomplete information for all, some quick mental calculations to do in a rapidly changing environment… Some rounds GGG is a slow-moving game of careful moves and countermoves, sometimes it’s a frenzied free-for-all. You’ll have much more fun if you enjoy seeing plans (fail to) survive contact with the interfering dunderheads around you (cf. Space Alert, below), and you’ll do better if you keep your head a little, but there’s something to be said for bringing a little anarchy into the other goblins’ lives by spreading your tiles willy-nilly throughout everyone’s mines.
Garfield’s recent career turn has been interesting — King of Tokyo and King of New York are consistently fun little lightweight/flyweight games, respectively, aimed at kids but rewarding for adults. GGG is in the same class as King of Tokyo, but the realtime simultaneous-action approach opens it up to players with less taste for strategy while specifically testing everyone’s sang-froid during an ongoing crisis — and their visual information-processing speed.
A fun sort of customizable chess++ game with short playing time and a gorgeous core mechanic.
You’re trying to capture your opponent’s Summoner, a powerful back-row piece (card, actually), by summoning fighters to the gridded board; the fighters hit or shoot, and have special effects and hit points. Ho hum, but summoning cards takes magic, which you generate in one of two ways: killing the other guy’s cards, or discarding from your hand…which means every single turn of the game presents you with interesting, tense choices, and the more you strategize, the better you’ll get. The summoning mechanic is the game’s heart (it’s right there in the title) and the source of its reputation.
Combat is simple — roll Nd6 where N’s the unit’s attack value, each die ≥3 is a hit, run out of hit points and you’re dead — but because you can only move and attack with three units a turn (you might have six or eight on the board at once), the nearly abstract gameplay does generate some pleasant tension. And because each player’s deck is small, there’s always the looming threat of simply running out of reinforcements and needing to, say, kill your own soldiers to generate that final burst of magic.
Fans of Summoner Wars insist that the deckbuilding aspect is part of the game’s appeal, but I gotta say, I’ve never felt the slightest urge to customize my army.
My 7-year-old son and I get a kick out of this one — we were both surprised last time by how quickly it played — but Summoner Wars isn’t a top-shelf game in our household despite its streamlined elegance. On one hand, the entire ruleset fits on an index card(!); on the other, there’s a lot of pointless theme slathered on top of what’s basically an elegant abstract strategy game, setting up quite the wrong expectations. It’s not a wargame! The existence of Mage Wars, a thematically similar but totally mechanically distinct customizable card/board game, further confuses the issue, as searching online for this game will turn up unhelpful comparisons.
Best enjoyed as a featherweight abstract game with oddly representational art rather than any kind of tactical combat thing — and if you come to it with the right expectations, Summoner Wars holds some lovely surprises. This might just be a great game.
N.B. You have several ways in to Summoner Wars: starter sets, the Master Set, the Alliances edition. If you’re dipping your toe in, grab a starter set. If you like it, pick up one of the two big boxes, and some ‘second summoner’ expansions on clearance. You should be able to find secondhand copies of most of the cards online.
Magic: The Gathering
Certainly the most important and quite likely the best tabletop game idea anyone’s had since Dungeons & Dragons — dead-simple card play using homebuilt custom decks, where each card breaks the rules in ever-more-complex ways — and after a quarter-century its worldwide playerbase is still growing(!!) as the design continues to evolve healthily. At its best, Richard Garfield’s first collectible card game offers the definitive CCG experience: an all-time classic game that’s also a license to print money.
About that money, though…
…at high levels, paper/rock/scissors deck matchups and the publisher’s exploitative random-blind-boosters economic model wash away the simple pleasures of beginner play. In this age of gaming plenty, it seems to me that marketing M:TG to teenagers (kids) is unethical. And incredibly, M:TG isn’t even Garfield’s best card game — his sophomore effort Netrunner, in its ‘limited’ incarnation Android: Netrunner, is the deeper, more interesting game, even with its comparatively limited cardpool. Everyone should play Magic: The Gathering at some point, the same way everyone should hear the Rolling Stones. But I can’t in good conscience recommend that anyone invest real money in it. There’s a reason they call it a ‘lifestyle game,’ after all. If you like human beings, you’re better off getting good at chess. Or Netrunner, come to that.
Another classic eurogame that serves as a fine introduction to the field. Very very simple: add square tiles orthogonally to a map; add meeples (‘guys’) from your limited pool if possible to claim features like roads and castles; retrieve meeples and score when features are completed. The larger the map feature, the more you score, but the longer it takes — and unfinished features (castles left open, cloisters never surrounded by fields) are penalized at scoring time.
It’s not the deepest game, indeed it’s suitable for bright 5-year-olds, but there’s a strategic angle: knowing which features to commit to, which to steal (by joining separate castle regions, say), whether/when to pursue short-run plans or make risky longterm investments in the ‘farm stakes.’ Strong players will outclass beginners nearly every time, but there’s enough luck to keep everyone interested; our family’s games tend to be close-fought affairs. The many expansions aren’t all equally essential, and some (e.g. Princess/Dragon) destructively or chaotically alter the elegant core game.
If you’re looking for a first ‘German-style’ board game for your family, this is an evergreen choice.
Difficult to describe, absolutely maddening to play, Space Alert has provided some of my best gaming experiences of the last several years. It’s an extremely hectic multiplayer cooperative simultaneous role-selection puzzle which delivers randomized realtime challenges by way of sound recordings, and…
Your best bet might be to watch a video, frankly, though your actual best bet is just to buy the game (it’s wonderful) and play it without knowing what you’re doing.
Space Alert is secretly quite a short game. You place your worker in one of six rooms laid out in a rectangle, representing the compartments of a spaceship. In each room is a task to be done — a valve to periodically turn, a key to regularly punch, lasers to shoot if aliens come near. You’re dealt a set of cards with actions on them, and using those cards, you choose in advance what you’ll do during each of 12 turns: walk east or west, take the elevator up or down, perform a task in your room. A certain number of routine tasks need to be accomplished in those 12 turns.
The entire game is just this — planning 12 actions. It takes about seven minutes.
Meanwhile, your teammates are doing the same, just calmly laying out their day.
Well, not calmly. During those seven minutes, an mp3 is playing. Sometimes it plays static, during which no talking is aloud. Sometimes a voice announces that at turn X, aliens will arrive, and someone will need to shoot them, and each turn they’ll press in and damage the ship if they’re not immediately dealt with. Sometimes the voice announces a malfunction to be fixed, an infection onboard ship, a new batch of cards to be dealt to each player… And even as you plan you see your carefully laid plans unravel, slowly at first, then with a kind of nightmarish inevitability, as the web of things-to-do grows and tangles and ends up a glorious mess.
But that’s only half the game — the playing bit.
Then, when the mp3 stops playing, you execute the 12 steps you’ve laid out, and you and your friends get to see how you’ve failed — slowly, clearly, the specific moments at which your plans were undone are revealed to you. And at this point there’s nothing you can do about it.
In other words, it’s realtime Pandemic, the perfect gamification of crisis-management, and if your group has a healthy social dynamic and one natural leader you’ll be just fine…
I can’t recommend Space Alert highly enough.
A superb little $15 deckdbuilder from the local boys at White Wizard Games, emphasizing constant player interaction (combat!) and clever card synergies. Instead of Dominion‘s ten piles of cards, there’s a row of six singletons, replenished after each purchase from a deck of 120. (This was Vaccarino’s original idea for Dominion, actually, and is the core mechanic of designer Rob Dougherty’s earlier, uglier Ascension deckbuilder.)
We have two kinds of card: ships and bases. Cards generate money or combat, thin out your deck, alter the pool of available buys, or give you additional hit points; ships produce an effect and then get discarded, while bases stick around to block attacks until destroyed. Many cards can be scrapped (removed from game) for additional effects, and crucially, each ship and base has a faction (suit), which generates ‘ally effects’ when two or more cards of a faction are played. Each faction has a distinct personality and implied playstyle; knowing whether and how to mix and match is an important skill element.
You can learn Star Realms in five minutes or less, but it’ll take months to tease out its subtleties. I’ve now played close to a thousand games, mostly online, and consider it one of the most reliably fun games I’ve ever played.
The expansions — sold on the ‘limited card game’ model at $4/pack — are almost uniformly excellent. Better yet, the Colony Wars game offers a replacement core set at $15 MSRP, adding a single mechanic and generally dialing the intensity of the game up a notch. You can easily mix the two sets, along with any combination of expansions, and no two games will be exactly alike. The original is the place to start, though: perfectly balanced, an instant-buy for anyone looking for a quick filler game.