Board Games 1: Family Games

 I occasionally get asked to recommend a board game. Herein the first of a few posts about some games I've played and enjoyed with my family. 

The Golden Age of Boardgames

I started playing board games with my family about four years ago as a way for us spend time together. From Twitter at the time, I knew folks were playing and recommending games such as Dominion, Puerto Rico, Ticket to Ride - we had picked up a copy of Klaus Teuber's Settlers of Catan from a few years earlier that we liked and was engaging, but was maybe a little bit too much for the kids then. I also was lucky enough way back as a teenager to have played some fondly remembered but non-mainstream games, such as Arkham Horror, Shogun, Ogre, Colditz, Sherlock Holmes, and Fury of Dracula. To that extent, I was aware of board games beyond the usual suspects such as Risk, Cluedo and Monopoly.

What I didn't know, near the end of 2010, was that board games had entered a Golden Age

The range and quality of modern board games is staggering. There are now hundreds and hundreds of outstanding games that didn't exist ten, never mind twenty, years ago.  There are games with no luck. That have 100 dice. That do not eliminate players. That let you take your turns simultaneously. That give everyone their own board. That let you play collaboratively. That have traitors. That are played as a series. That take just 20 mins.  That play in real time. That have a memory of past plays. That can be modded. That can play with ten people, or forty. Card games that get extended every month. That have tournaments. That begin on Kickstarter.

It's simply extraordinary. Today, the shared experience, design, narrative arc, and quality of modern boardgames is on a par with anything movies, television and video games have to offer. 

 

Family, Strategy, and Party Games

It's tricky to classify modern games, but for this series of posts I'm going use these three buckets -

  • Family games. These are the games to pull out instead of Monopoly, Cluedo and Risk and work with kids and adults. Pretty much any of the games on this list are a safe bet and a good way to discover what modern board games offer compared to the usual suspects. The main caveat is that for the most part they tend work best with 3 or more players rather than 2. 
  • Strategy Games. The rules and game mechanics are more involved for these games. This results in a more in-depth, richer gaming experience that has you balancing multiple considerations and typically needing to look out a few turns ahead. The games are more time consuming taking 90 minutes up to a few hours. 
  • Filler and Party Games. These are the games to pull out when you have a gang over or want to play something quickly. They're simple, social and don't take much time or investment to play.

Here, I'll go through twelve family games that we've enjoyed. This is by no means an attempt at a canonical list of best family games  - there are highly regarded games that people love, that either didn't happen to make it here - Pandemic7 Wonders and Smallword come to mind, or that we haven't played such as Forbidden DesertCosmic Encounter and Galaxy Trucker.

 

Ticket to Ride Europe

Ticket to Ride is a modern classic, and I fully expect it'll still be played 50 years from now.  Players are scoring points by building a railway network across Europe, and are given a set of secret route cards to complete at the beginning of the game. Cities are linked by colored tracks on the board with players collecting colored train cards from a deck, and trying to build a set of cards to match the routes on the board in order to place their trains and score points. You can see what everyone else is building but you dont know what routes they are trying to complete.

There is a family of these games, and they're all good, but Europe is the one we like as it has some nice additions such as tunnels, and ferries. It also has the ability to use other players train routes to complete their own; this makes the game a bit less cut-throat than the original North American themed Ticket to Ride. There's also a small expansion called Europa 1912 that's well worth picking up.  

2-5 players, 60 minutes.

 

Dominion

Dominion, like Ticket to Ride has been a modern breakout and is hugely popular. You start each game with money (treasure) cards and use those to buy more money, action cards and victory cards, with only victory cards counting towards points at the end of the game. There is a central supply of cards that you can buy - the game recommends some starting combinations but you can use any, which makes for a lot of replayability - our experience is that games of Dominion can feel very different and varied depending on the cards put out. During your turn you draw cards from your deck into your hand and play cards from your hand as actions, which can trigger other actions, then you can buy more cards to add to your deck, then you clean up your played and bought cards into a discard pile. You'll be shuffling and cycling the cards from your deck into your hand into your discard pile and back into your deck.

This is a good choice for people that like tradtional card games. Once you get into the flow of the game, it's addictive, especially figuring which set of cards you want to use to gather up points and play combinations of actions. It plays fast, very fast, and works well with all player numbers  - you'll be looking around the table and at your hand figuring out what combination to play next, maybe thinning out your deck to make sure not you're waiting too long for your favourite cards to come round again. Maybe you'll play a curse action to harm someone else's deck. As a result of being a popular card game that encourages combination play, it has plenty of expansions that add to the 500 cards you get in the main game; our favorites have been Prosperity and Intrigue.

2 to 4 players, 20-30 minutes. Works with 2.

 

Splendor

Splendor is an elegant, simple game that plays quickly, and does a great job of balancing fun with competitive play. The game starts with three decks of cards , with four cards dealt out for each level, making a marketplace of 12 cards that you can buy from. On your turn you can take some gems (there are five kinds) or gold from the supply, and then buy or reserve a card from the 12 in the market. Cards that are bought are replaced with new cards. Each card has a cost, but it also has a value - for example a card might have a value of one ruby meaning it can be used to pay for other cards instead of a gem.  Some cards you buy also have a point value. The first player to reach 15 points ends the game on that turn, and the player with the most points overall is the winner.

You'll be spending your time trying to build up sets of cards to let you buy the more valuable cards as well as hoarding gems to get those cards. Part of the fun and cleverness of Splendor is figuring out what other players are doing and making sure they don't kibosh your plans - but they will, because they're figuring out what you're doing to make sure you don't kibosh their plans. The game is of a race to get to cards first and you'll be cursing other players when they beat you to the one you really wanted, making you change your plans mid-flight.

2-4 players, 30-45 minutes.

 

Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective

This is more of an atmospheric puzzle than a game and a different experience to anything else on this list. It's also by far the oldest game on this list, which I remember playing as a teenager and has been out of print until recently. The game comes with 10 case files, best described as well written short stories. Each case has an introduction that sets the scene... and you're off, travelling around London visiting places, interviewing suspects and looking for clues. Places and people you visit will reveal more information from the case file and it's up to you to put the pieces together. There are no real rules to speak of other than the mechanics of visiting a place/person and looking up the corresponding section in the case file, and it's entirely up to you how long you want to play for - you might finish a case in an hour or play over a couple of nights.

When you call time, you'll be asked a series of questions which you score points for, and you lose points depending on how many places and people you visited compared to Holmes. That's right, you don't know in advance what you're going to be asked but the real fun of the game is in the hunt and not scoring. When we play it we're absorbed in the whodunnit, taking notes, drawning connections between suspects on post-its on the wall, reading and re-reading the newspapers for clues (yes, the game has newspapers), trying to decide who did what. If you're a reader, and especially if you like the detective/crime genre, it's well worth a look.

1-8 players, 90 minutes and up per case. Works with 2.

 

Sheriff of Nottingham

You are a merchant bringing goods to market - and sometimes a bit of contraband too. But you have to get your goods past the city gate under the watchful, corrupt eye of the Sheriff of Nottingham. On each turn players put one to five cards from their hand into their felt bag and declare the goods and their number to the Sheriff. The Sherrif, played by a different player on each turn, can decide to believe them and let them through or inspect what's in the bag. There are green cards, which are goods and red cards, which are contraband and naturally contraband scores higher.

Deals, bluffs, threats and bribes can be made, and this is heart of the game. "Five bread" you say impassively, knowing it's 4 bread - and a crossbow. "Doesn't feel like bread" says the Sheriff weighing the bag, "but maybe it is". Then someone says "I'll pay you five gold to open that bag, and another five to let me through".

If the Sheriff opens the bag and is wrong, they pay the merchant, but if the merchant is lying they pay a fine and lose cards. The winner is the player with the most points according to the cards they get through.  Sheriff of Nottingham is round after round of hilarious bluffing for young and old.  

3-5 players, 30-45 minutes.

 

Mystery of the Abbey 

There's been a murder in the Templar's Abbey and the players are trying to deduce which one of 24 suspect monks is the killer. Over a series of rounds, players can move from room to room in the abbey (up to to two spaces per turn, there's no dice rolling) and each room allows the player to perform an action, such as taking a card from another player, drawing suspects from the deck, or taking action cards. Players can question other players to try and eliminate suspects by meeting in the same room. At the end of each turn players pass cards to each other. The suspects can be identified based on their characteristics (such as thin or bearded) and their order (such as Franciscan or Benedictine). Players score points for guessing the suspect's characteristics and outright guessing who the suspect is.

This replaces Cluedo for my family as a far less ponderous deduction game. It's light hearted fun with a good sense of humor (there's even a card that requires the players to hymn for a turn).

3-6 players, 60 to 90m.

 

Mice and Mystics

The King has been imprisoned and players take on the role of those loyal to the King and who have been turned into Mice. The players cooperate in an adventure to travel through the castle to save the Kingdom. The game is broken into chapters, each of which you must win. Each chapter in the story has a set-up and a goal to be reached, such as recruiting help, battling an evil cat, and rescuing the king. The players start with specific abilities and items and develop those over the course of the game, which can be ideally played as series of campaigns, chapter by chapter. The game comes with a rule book and a story book broken into chapters.

The board, artwork and components are wonderful. The story could easily been a book and there are a couple of story expansions to let you keep playing. This is a great game to play with young children. The rules don't always hang together, but that's not why your playing - instead it's a game that can be magical in the way movies and books can be.

1-4 players, 90-120 minutes per chapter. Works with 2.

 

Lords of Vegas 

In Lords of Vegas you take ownership of areas in the strip in Las Vegas, to build casinos - the bigger the better. Every casino you build has a color,  and at the end of each round a particular color scored - good for you if your color comes up, bad if it doesn't. After 5 rounds the player with the most points wins.  Players earn money every turn (real money, everything is in millions in this game). Players can buy into other casinos to share income. They can trade. They can remodel the casinos to improve their score. They can take try and over other players' casinos. They can even gamble in other players casinos.

This is probably the closest thing to a direct Monopoly alternative I've played in recent year- a much better game that plays in a fraction of the time, with no player elimination, none of the tedium. It's a blast. There is luck involved but it fits really well with the theme.

2-4 players, 45-60 minutes.

 

Libertalia

In Libertalia each player is vying for the most treasure. All players receive the same deck of cards, each card representing a pirate character. The cards all having a number value and an effect. On every turn there is a set of treasures of different values you can win. During the turn each player secretly picks the role card they want to play and the players show their card at the same time. From highest to lowest value, each card's action is applied - this can be anything from removing another player's card to reordering the cards. Then from lowest to highest, each player picks the treasure item they want - treasures are usually great but some result in penalties. When all that's done, the played cards from their hand are placed in the players den, where they can be used to drive more actions and scoring. The game lasts three rounds of six turns each. The players with the most treasure points win the game and treasure items can be combined for a higher score (for example, collecting three treasures, or five maps).  

Central to the game are the cards and their effects (for example, the French Officer gains a player 5 doubloons if they have less than 9 doubloons), and timing is everything - you want to play the right card on the right turn and play your cards in the right order over the round.

The essence of the game is bluffing and second-guessing which cards other players are going to play. For such a clever and engrossing game, the rules are very simple; the complexity is really in understanding what the card actions can do and how best to combine them. The pirate theme is well done, more Treasure Island than Pirates of the Carribean. 2-6 players 60 - 70 m.

 

Chinatown 

In Chinatown players are building businesses with tiles on a city grid to collect money - the tiles for a business have to be adjacent, and the more space the business occupies the greater the income. The game plays over six turns and the player with the most money at the end of the game wins.

On each turn players draw cards to see which city spaces they're allocated and pull shop tiles from a bag. And then the game really starts - everyone can trade tiles and money before placing tiles on the board and collecting their income.  Because the city spaces and tiles are randomly dealt out, you have to trade to place your tiles beside each other and grow your businesses. 

Trading and negotiation are at the heart of this game -in fact they are the game. Want to sell two antique tiles for $10,000 and take a 10% cut of the antique shop's income for the next two rounds? If you can close that deal, great. Even better, trading happens simultaneously between all players - you could be working two deals at once, or trying to broker a deal between three or more players.

Chinatown is great fun with very simple rules, a very social game with a lot of player interaction - things get loud and intense real fast.  There are some similarities to Lords of Vegas, and you may prefer that game if the free form negotiation aspect of Chinatown sounds too hectic.  

3-5 players, 45-60 minutes.

 

Castles of Mad King Ludwig

This game has each player building a castle from different shaped room tiles and scoring points based on how the rooms connect. You also score points from private bonus cards that you can collect and a set of public bonuses (for example having the most round rooms, most rooms of a certain size, or most dining rooms). Each turn a player is nominated the master builder, their job is draw room tiles for the turn and decide the price of each room. The other players pay the builder for the room they want on that turn or take money from the bank. Each room tile has a type (for example, activity room, or a garden) and a number of doors and when a room's doors are all connected to other rooms the player receives a reward based on the room type (for example take a extra turn, bonus card, or more money)

Released in 2014, this has been a hit game. It's fun, absorbing, has easy to understand rules and a quick playtime. For me, there are three great elements to the game. First, the master builder by deciding the price of the rooms for the turn, is trying to ensure people buy rooms such that they pay the builder the most amount, but also pricing the tile they want as cheaply as possible. Second is the spatial puzzle of creating the castle to score the most points - there are bonuses and penalties for placing certain rooms beside each other. Third, the game looks great as each player builds their own crazy castle - you can play just to build a castle making the game good for all ages.

2-4 players, 60 minutes. Works with 2.

 

Airlines Europe

By the same designer as Ticket to Ride and probably a slightly better game, albeit less well known. In Airlines Europe, you don't own any specific colour or airline - instead you invest in airline stocks and drive up the value of stock by connecting flight routes on a map of Europe with aeroplanes instead of trains. Over a series of rounds, players will vie for the majority ownerships in airline stocks to get points and dividends, players than don't and have enough stock in a particular airline won't score for it. 

It's a very engaging and absorbing game - fun to play with a nice amount of depth - you'll want to diversify your stocks, but at the same time making sure you've a majority in some to pick up points at the end of each round. This means you'll be keeping an eye on what the other players are doing. Airlines Europe it a great alternative to Monopoly, that plays faster, is more fun, and doesn't eliminate players.   2-5 players, 60-90 minutes.

 

Honorable mentions

Metropolys. 

Sadly, this one's out of print. In Metropolys each player uses a set of builds of different heights (the taller the building the higher the value) to bid for spaces on the board, representing a 1920's Art Deco styled city - Bioshock's Rapture before it sank. To outbid, the players place buildings in an adjacent space (or can pass), with the last bid winning the last space. The losing bidders reclaim their building pieces and a new turn starts. The game ends when all the pieces are on the board and players score points for occupying spaces and combinations of spaces as well as bonuses for hidden goals (such as building near a bridge). The rules are as simple as can be but the gameplay is emergent - because the space where the auction starts can be different to the space that is won, players need to be clever in how they bid (and pass) to force other players into less optimal spaces while making sure they achieve their own goals.

2-5 players, 30-45m.  

 

 

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