Board Games 2 - Strategy Games

This is the second of three posts about board games. In this post, I'll go through twelve strategy games that we've enjoyed. As with the list of family games, this is not meant to be a list of the best strategy games, just the games that we have enjoyed.

Strategy games are a broad area, but roughly they're games where decisions and planning ahead are important aspects to playing, and the rules and game mechanics are typically more involved for these games. This results loosely in a more in-depth, richer gaming experience that has you balancing multiple considerations and needing to look out a few turns ahead - loosely in the sense that Chess is more in-depth than Checkers, or Civilization is more involved than FarmVille. A common aspect of strategy games is having less resources to hand on your turn than you would like, forcing you to make choices and weigh up your options. 

The downside is there's more to absorb when it comes to rules such that getting the hang of a game might need a few plays. Also, the games are typically more time consuming - with the exception of Android: Netrunner, which comes in around 30-45 minutes a game, no game in this list is going to take less than 90 minutes and some can take a few hours. 

I mentioned rules, and if I have a single major criticism of modern boardgames, it's that the quality of written rules is very hit and miss. There are some really good games that are let down by ambiguous and incomplete rules, sadly I've left a few off this list because of poor rules. 

 


Android: Netrunner 

Android: Netrunner is a two player card game where each player has their own specialised card deck. One player is a corporation, the other is a hacker trying to break into that corporations resources. Both players are trying to acquire points by scoring agenda cards, first to seven points wins - the hacker player can lose by being killed, the corporation player can lose by running out of cards. The corporation player scores agenda cards by paying their value, the hacker scores by breaking in to the corporation and stealing them.  

On their turn players draw cards from their deck into their hand. The corporation player will place a card face down, ostensibly the agenda point card they are trying to score, or maybe it's a trap that damages the hacker player when stolen. Protecting that card is a column of face down firewall cards the corporation player builds up turn by turn. The hacker player is building up a set of cards from their hand into a play area that will let them break through the firewall cards to steal the agenda cards. The hacker does this by launching attacks (called runs) on the firewall cards revealing them and handling their effects.

Once you get the hang of, Netrunner feels like Poker or Brag in terms of bluffing, misdirection, and needing to have your wits about you. Like all great card games there's psychological depth to Netrunner. Because each player has their own individual deck, which they can customize, the playing styles and rhythmns are very different. The hacker player is trying to stop the corporation player scoring cards while not getting killed, the corporation player is trying to not run out of cards, and usually wants to score earlier before their opponent builds up a set of strong cards. 

Android is what's called a Living Card Game, or LCG. This means new packs of cards are released very month or so that let you add to your starting deck to provide more variety. I've bought a few extension packs, but to be honest the base game has been more than enough. LCGs are a popular genre and have various themes ranging from Game of Thrones to Lord of the Rings to HP Lovecraft's Cthulhu. The customizable extensions plus fast head to head games has resulted in it becoming a widely played tournament game. 

My major criticism of the game is the rule book - it obfuscates a straightforward game - thankfully it only takes a few hands to pick things up, and there are plenty of short videos online that shows the game by example. As with traditional card games, you're very likely to play a few games one after another and it's a game that if you get into, will provide many hours of tense fast gameplay.  

Two players, 30-40 minutes.

 


Caverna: The Cave Farmers

Caverna is a game about dwarves cultivating farms and mining caves. Yep. Each player gets their own 6 x 4 board  to develop half of which is a forest and half a mountain. There is a central board that has action cards you can use and a set of tiles you can build your board up with. On the forest side you'll build meadows and fields to sow vegetables and manage livestock. On the mountain side you'll excavate, build tunnels and caverns and mining for ore and gems. You can also create weapons to send your dwarves on expeditions to gain bonus items and actions. At the end you score points for what you've built and the most developed home board wins.

The games is played over a number of rounds, each with five phases, First, add a new action to the main board which becomes available for players to use. Second replenish resources for the actions (some actions produce grain, livestock, etc, and these will accumulate until someone claims them). Third place your dwarves on an action to carry out that action - this is the main part of the game, each player places one dwarf, then the next player, until all players have used their dwarves or passed. The actions let you do things like obtaining animals, sowing vegetables,  adding more dwarves, improving your board's mountain/forest landscape, furnishing your home or mining, and going on expeditions. Fourth, you bring all your dwarves home. Fifth harvest your grain/vegetables, feed your family and breed livestock.

Caverna is a worker placement game, a popular genre where you use your workers to select from a set of available actions and options. The fun element in worker placement is usually not having enough workers to do everything you want, meaning you have to make choices, optimize, plan ahead, and, time when to use which actions. Caverna's quite generous here - there's usually a good action or at least one you can make do with on your turn, even if other players nab the actions you wanted. 

There are a slew of games somewhat similar to Caverna. notably Agricola, a very popular game by the same designer. Caverna and Agricola tend to get compared (Caverna's rules even mention Agricola). Before Caverna, we had a copy of Agricola, and while it's clearly an excellent, excellent game, it fell flat with us, I think probably because there's relatively speaking, more focus on upkeep and feeding your family, and it's easier to get cut off from good actions, making it a tougher game in some respects. Caverna on the other hand we love - it's one of the heavier games we have that we can play with our youngest, who is nine. 

You'll be thinking through your options, but you'll rarely be outright frustrated; if anything there's an abundance of choice. You'll want to grow your family but you can't grow them too fast because you need to feed them. There's a stepwise element to the game where you'll need to upgrade your board - to grow crops you have to clear land, to furnish a cave, you have to excavate and mine. There's also different ways to play the game - while you'll want to balance your board as you can lose points for not completing things, you can decide to optimise for mining, expeditions, farming and so on. 

Caverna's a beautifully produced game, with great rules. The art and components are fantastic and there's a ton of stuff in the box. Kids can play along by treating the game as a sandbox where they improve their home and just build stuff - not quite Dwarf Fortress or Minecraft, but you get the idea :)  The game will play up to seven people and in our experience takes about 30 minutes per person. Pretty good with Western and yodeler music in the background too.

1 - 7 players. 30m per player. Works with 2. 

 


Alchemists

Alchemists is a fascinating blend of worker placement and deduction. In the game, there are eight alchemical symbols and eight ingredients. An alchemical consists three circles, each of which have a positive or negative sign, each of which can be green (speed), red (health) or blue (sanity), and each of which is large or small. In Alchemists players will earn points by publishing their theories as to which ingredients produce which alchemical potions. 

At the start of the game, you'll use an Android/iOS app to randomly assign an ingredient to an an alchemical. For example, mushroom might be assigned to large positive green, small negative red and small positive blue. Pairs of alchemicals combine to produce a potion that can be sold or used to publish your theories. 

There are a number of actions you can do on each turn and the order actions are performed is significant - players choose one action each and continue until all their workers are placed. At the beginning on each players will vie for the placement order. Then they can forage for ingredients, transmute ingredients to gold, publish a theory, debunk a theory, sell potions, test on themselves, test on an assistant, or purchase an artefact.

During the game you'll collect ingredients and take a picture of two of them with the app. This will tell you the potion the pair makes, and you'll use those results to deduce which ingredients are bound to which elements. Some combinations are poisonous; a funny touch to the game is that you can test the combinations on yourself or an assistant to verify a theory. If you poison yourself you get sick and go hospital affecting things on your next turn. If you poison an assistant, they get upset such that the next test on them will cost more. 

Characters will turn up during the game looking to buy potions. When you decide to sell a potion there's a bidding element where you can offer a quality grade, from here's something in a bottle to 100% proof, and earn based on that. Theories are statements about which ingredients map to which alchemicals and you can publish a complete result or make a hedge. Despite the deduction element, you can publish nonsense theories or theories you're not completely sure about - it's up to someone else to call you out and debunk your theory. The app will tell you if the theory holds; if it doesn't you'll lose points. 

The game plays for six rounds and at the end the player with the most victory points and reputation wins. The deduction aspect of the game seems prominent initially but it won't be enough to win the game - you have to choose your actions carefully, sell potions, and publish results to gain valuable reputation. And it is really is publish or prerish - you can lose points for not publishing or for publishing the wrong thing (unless you hedged). Deduction builds up akin to Sudoku in that a mistake made earlier in the game can cause later theories to unravel. Along with all this is a sharp worker placement game, where you need to be canny about turn order and action selection. 

There's a lot going on in Alchemists. It's one of the most inventive and entertaining games we've played, with its unusual mix of deduction, worker placement, auctions and bluffing. The themes of alchemy and publishing work well with the game's elements and rules. The rules are involved, there's a lot of detail to pick up around publishing and potions, but they're well written, witty, and easy to look up during the game. The art and production quality in the game is by the way, fantastic. Finally, the inclusion of the app is a good idea and not just a gimmick; it replaces what would be tiresome bookkeeping with a couple of touches.

2-4 Players. 2 hours. Just about works with 2. 

 


Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game

Dead of Winter sees a group of survivors holed up in a frozen town where the world has been overrun by Zombies. The game is semi-cooperative - players are working together to achieve an overall goal, but also have their own private goals. To win the game you have to complete both goals. Sometimes, one of the players is a traitor, trying to undermine the colony.

The game starts with the main objective which will define the number of rounds, starting conditions and overall morale of the group (if morale drops to zero everyone loses, except the traitor, if there is a traitor). The players will pick two characters each. The characters have their own special abilities and skills. 

On each round a crisis card is drawn that the players have to deal with - for example the illness card means the players need to gather up medicine and if they fail each character takes a wound and the morale is dropped by one.

 


Players contribute cards to the crisis face down - you don't really know who is contributing what, and if you come up short but played enough cards to meet the goal, then maybe someone is a traitor. Maybe.  

During their turn players can move their characters around the town's buildings, search for supplies and weapons, attack zombies and barricade buildings or the main colony. Players don't show each other what they've found. Every time a player moves they roll for frostbite exposure which can wound them, or they can be wounded or outright killed attacking zombies. There's no player elimination - if a character dies from too many wounds, they along with the items they own are removed and replaced with a new character. 

Searching in Dead of Winter is clever. Each building in the town has its own of deck of cards with a different amount of items - the hospital is more like to have medicine, the grocery store more likely to have food, and so on. Players can keep searching but if they do, they make noise which is more likely to draw more Zombies to them. The colony also needs upkeep in the form of food, and new Zombies are added to the town at the beginning of every round. Buildings can be overrun.

On each player's turn the player that went before them draws a card called a crossroads card, in secret. This is a card that has an event, that might be triggered, or might not - it'll depend on the character and what the player does on their turn. For example a card might trigger if the player moves to the school, or makes a search in the library. If the card is triggered there are usually two options on the card the player can choose from. Some of the options make for brutal choices. 

If a player thinks they know who the traitor is, they can call for a vote to exile that player and remove them from the colony. The exiled player gets a new secret agenda card, showing their old card, and has to play in the town area from on. If two non-betrayer players are exiled the game ends.

The Zombie theme has been done to death in popular fiction and media, but thankfully Zombies are a backdrop in Dead of Winter. The real game is in the player interaction, and growing mistrust introduced by the potential traitor in the group.  The game is dripping in tension and atmosphere, sometimes regret. You called for an exile and persuaded everyone, but the exiled player was not a traitor, and they are not too happy with you. You can ask for help if you're desperate and be given cards - if someone doesn't give you a card but you're sure they have one, why is that? On the other hand why is someone asking you for a particular card right now? We needed 5 medicine with 7 for a bonus, and yes, 7 cards went in, but there were just four medicine when revealed - who shorted us? Why did someone just search for food when we really need fuel? Should you chip into the crisis this round or keep the cards for your own agenda and take a chance on lower morale? Some people's actions are starting to look shifty, a bit circumspect. Some people are starting to look at you oddly. One of the players keeps pushing for an exile. Are you being too paranoid? Or not enough? The game is full of questions and psychological moments like this. 

Dead of Winter has great components, excellent art and an engaging set of characters. It's generous in the number of characters, crisis and crossroad cards. The quality of writing on the cards, the character backstories, and in the rulebook is excellent. The rules themselves are very straightforward - thematic experiential games like this are prone to fiddly and incoherent rules, not so with Dead of Winter. Despite the horror theme, it's a game we don't find seasonal such that we only play it at Halloween. 

I have one criticism of the game, and it's that the turns can drag. As a result we play with a two minute per turn timer. Aside from mitigating the downtime, it adds urgency to the game - time is running out, zombies are encroaching, there's a mission to complete, things need to get done. 

2-5 players. 90-120m.

 


Imperial Settlers

In Imperial settlers you are one of four civilizations building an empire. The game is played over five rounds during which players take turns to build new buildings, acquire resources and attack enemies, to score victory points. Players do this by playing cards from their hand, drawn from a general deck and a deck specific to their civilization.

At the start of the turn players will take one card from their civilization deck, then each player will draw a set of general cards (one card for each player plus one extra), pick one and let the other players pick the rest in clockwise order. Then the next player does the same and all players have done this, they stock up on resources, and the action phase begins - each player on their turn can build a new building by paying the price indicated on the card, raze a card in their hand or in another player's civilization. The round continues until all players pass and the game ends after five rounds.

The action phase is the core of the game. Each player takes one action at a time until everyone pases. In it you will be paying resources to place cards onto the table in front of you to build your civilization. Cards in Imperial Settlers are multi-purpose - they can be razed to generate resources,used to build locations, and used as resources to build better buildings. There three kinds of cards. Production cards let you collect more resources at the beginning of a round. Feature cards have one or recurring benefits - for example a card might let you score every time another card of a particular type is built. Action cards let you pay to collect more resources or points.

Because cards can build on other cards, you'll want to play them in a good order to build an engine - for example if you're playing Roman you can play one feature card that will give you gold and point every time you build a Roman card, and another card that will give you the same every time you build a gray card - because gold is fungible and can act as any resource, this allows you to build, gather points and resources and build again, effectively extending the number of turns in your round. And every civilization has card combinations like this to be developed as well as optimizing for resources - for example Egyptians can use gold to score and Barbarians can score workers and land. There are so many ways to score and combine cards, leading to different play styles and making for a very replayable game.  

Over the five rounds the tempo of the game changes. Early rounds tend to be about setting up resources, the mid game allows you to expand and build, giving you more to do, with the end of the game focusing on leveraging what you've built to score.  As mentioned you can also attack other players locations and attacks can come at any time - this provides a real edge to a game that would otherwise be largely focused on your own civilization. Because you can (and sometimes must) attack, you'll be keeping an eye on the cards the other players have put out while they keep an eye on yours. I like this element to the game, but you can play with a rules variant that take it down a notch it if you wish.

The production quality is excellent. The detail in the card art and their iconography is fantastic, components are well made, and the rulebook is clear, witty and exemplary. The game plays for us about 25 minutes per player, quickly enough to play back to back games.

1-4 players, 25m per player. Works with 2.

 


Keyflower

Keyflower sees you building a village in the new world. The game is played over four seasons - on each turn a set of new tiles become available for your village that you can bid for. You start the game with a set of differently coloured workers hidden behind a screen and known only to you, a home tile for your village that everyone can see, and a number of winter tiles that you will use on the last round and which again, are known only to you. On the first round, Spring, a set of tiles are dealt out. This also happens for the Summer and Autumn rounds, and for winter the tiles that are used are selected by the players from their hidden set. On every round you will get more workers to use and the round ends when every player passes.

Once the round's tiles are dealt out, players can either bid for them using their workers or use them as an action by placing a worker on them. Each tile can be used three times, and once a player uses or bids on a tile, the next player to use or outbid must use the same coloured workers and place at least one more of them, that the previous player did - and this is why your workers are hidden as you won't know who has how many of each color. Apart from the tiles for the season, there are tiles for turn order and boats, which allow you to bid on the starting position and which block of workers you want to collect for the next round. If you are outbid on a tile you can add more of the same colour, or, you can move the workers you placed and try and win another tile. 

At the end of the round the tiles you won are added to your village and you lose the workers you used, but you gain any workers that were on the tile, which also means you lose workers for actions on tiles won by other players. Bids that you lost allow you to keep your workers. You'll collect new workers, change up the turn order and a new set of tiles will come out. Each tile added to your village can be upgraded up by paying for and moving resources onto the tile - the upgraded tile will have an improved action and often give you more victory points at the end of the game.

The bidding process and action selection for tiles, are ingenious. Games that involve auctions and bids don't always work as well with two players. Keyflower's bidding works wonderfully with two, being vaguely akin to trick taking in card games. The ability to move workers from lost bids to other tiles means you'll at least get some tiles for your village if not the ones you really wanted. Near the end of the game you might get a sense of what other players are trying to do and cut them off by denying them particular tiles or forcing them to pay more in a bid. Something I didn't mention is that you can use actions on other players villages and not just your own or the season tiles, but if you do so, you'll lose the workers you placed at the end of the round to the owner of the village. As well as a draft of ingenious mechanisms that work together very well, there's a wealth of details and variety in the tiles. Some tiles provide resources, some tiles only provide points, some tiles allow movement. The hidden winter tiles are a clever way for you decide which tiles you want to use or bid for over the game, and what colors of workers you want to collect. 

 

I have to say, I love this game. Despite the depth of decisions and options, the game is very simple to play - you're placing workers to win tiles or use tiles, and the tiles you're collecting are creating a village to score points. The game never drags, it's typically going to last an hour to an hour and a half. The rules are excellent, including a description of every tile. The art and component quality is great - Keyflower is well priced for what you get. 

2-6 Players. 60-90 minutes. Works with 2.

 


Power Grid

In Power Grid, each player runs a company powering a national grid by building power plants to supply cities on the board. The board is double-sided with the United States on one side and Germany on the other. The winners is the player who can power the most cities at the end of the game and the game stops once a player has bought a certain number of cities. The game plays over a number of rounds and each round has a set of phases - determining player order, auctions for power plants, buying fuel for the plants, paying to build and place plants on the board, then income, payments and restocking auction and fuel (charmingly called 'bureaucracy' in the game :).

The cost of fuel and auction process really does resemble supply and demand. Popular fuels cost more, and can even run out, and a well timed switch to an alternative energy source can benefit a canny player. The auction mechanism is clever, albeit it's much better with more than two players. Plants that are not in demand fall out of auction and the future market lets you see what's coming up in order to plan ahead - you might decide to pass on what's available because something better is coming out, but if you don't buy plants you can't power cities and if you can't power cities you can't collect income. Each plant in the auction has a minimum cost to buy, and when bought requires a certain amount of fuel to drive it - the fuel for a plant must be renewed, which means buying more resources that are becoming more expensive due to supply and demand.

As the game develops there are less spaces on the board to build on - each city can support up to three plants and placing plants becomes progressively more expensive. There's plenty of arithmetic in the game - you'll be calculating how much you can afford to pay at auction, when's a good time to switch fuels, how many cities you should pay, whether you should build up cash.

Managing turn order is very important to playing well - the player with the most cities on the board goes first. Players at the top of the turn get first bid on the auction, but straggling players get to buy fuel and place plants on the board first. The earlier and mid games are cat and mouse, a build up to a hawkish final phase where players need to time when they end the game very carefully. Games can be very very close and manipulating turn order is critical to winning. There are times in the game when it makes sense to go last, and definitely not first. 

One caveat I have about the game is that you'll need one person to go through and understand the rules and turn details thoroughly. The game relies on some careful exception-based mechanisms to stop players running away with the lead, evolving the cost of plants and how resource are stocked in various phases - they're ingenious, but getting these details wrong can badly impair the game. The rulebook is poor, easily the worst written on this list, but the game is so good it's worth the effort to get past it.

Power Grid's just over ten years old, but it's already a classic, an infinitely better economic game than Monopoly. It's a great way to teach older kids and early teens concepts like supply and demand, perceived value via the auction, basic cash flow, and to develop a sense of timing deals. A newer version called "Power Grid: Deluxe" was released in 2014 which we haven't played but I gather the game has been streamlined a bit, so it may be worth a look.

2 to 6 players, 2 hours. Works with two players, but better with 3 or more.  

 


Panamax

In Panamax each player is a manager of a company, obtaining contracts to ship goods through the Panama Canal. Players manage their own personal cash and company cash, and the player with the most cash at the end is the winner. The game plays over three rounds each with a number of turns, and during the game you'll be collecting contracts and shipping the cargo in those contracts through the narrow confines of the Panama Canal either from East to West, or West to East. Contracts are associated with trading blocks - China, US East, US West, and Europe - who can provide bonuses. As well as the main board, each player will have a board representing their company, some ships, company stock and cash. 

At the start of each round you'll roll a bunch of dice and place them into an action area based on their rolled values - this will define the actions, such as loading and ship movement, and the number of contracts available during the round. Actions get better as the round progresses - choosing a movement action earlier on will get you started but waiting until later will let you move a greater distance. As well as movement, loading and contracts, there are executive actions that allow you do things like buy stock. If the exact action you want isn't available you can pay extra cash to get it, but cash can be quite tight in the game.

If you choose a contract you get that contract and then will load its cargo containers from a warehouse onto ships - cargo containers and their value are represented with dice. It might take a few turns to load the contract. Each ship has a size that defines how much cargo it can carry, along with a minimum and maximum load, and ships can't start moving until the minimum load is reached. You don't have to use your own ships to move cargo - you can use other player's ships but they might pick a bonuses on completion. Contracts are double sided - one side requires you to use specific ships, associated with a trading block, the other allows you to use any ships. While all this is going on, you can also try and control the turn order for the next round by placing dice onto a rail track. 

Moving ships through the canal is tricky. The shipping lanes are divided into sections. The ships move out of port into the canal waterways and also through canal locks. Because the canal lanes are narrow, ships can get stuck behind each other and each section of the canal can only carry a fixed amount of ships. But here's the thing, ships can be organised into small fleets that can be moved as if they were a single unit and they enter and exit canal sections as a single unit. This allows you to shunt multiple ships through the canal for a single movement cost, and that will cascade all the way down the canal. Clever planning can let you move 5 or 6 ships for a much smaller cost. Once the ships reach their destination they are unloaded and the players receive the contract payment along with various bonuses. These can include a financial advisor card that will produce bonuses at the end of the game. 

One all the action dice are used the round is over. You'll pay fees for cargo you have still in transit or stuck in the loading dock - the company pays fees but if the company runs out the difference will come from your personal cash. You can take out a loan if needed, but they're expensive to pay back. Dividends are paid out for each companies stocks (and you can buy stock in other players' companies). At the end of the game the player with the most money, stock, and bonuses wins the game. 

Shipping goods through the Panama canal might sounds a bit dry, however the theme and gameplay are brilliantly integrated. The way ships move and get shunted through the actual canal is ingenious - you will have to negotiate with other players to ship goods, but you don't want to help them too much. You'll need to align your company with a particular trading block, who then will give you preferential benefits. How fee penalties and bonuses are doled out fits with the theme - failing a contract means a penalty, getting it done means a reward. The stock market model is well done and complements the game rather than dominates it - being able to buy other player's stock is a neat twist and doing well on the market is important to playing the game well.  The use of dice to decide how actions and contracts are distributed on each round is clever, providing just enough variety to manage and plan for. 

Because players have to interact and cooperate, you'll want to pay attention to what others are doing, especially when it comes to loading and shipping. Even though it's a 'money' game it's not overly mathy or arithmetically tedious. Instead it will challenge you and require you think financially and strategically - when to ship, when to use someone else's ships, when to drive the stock price up, manipulating the order, making sure you don't get caught with late fees, making sure the company has cash on hand, waiting for the better actions and contracts to come up, and seeing opportunities to move a lot of ships with just a few actions. The components are well done, except maybe for the plastic money. The board's representation of the canal deserves a special mention, it's fantastic. For a game with this amount of detail and mechanisms, the rulebook does a very good job of explaining the game, but you will definitely need to spend some time going through it before playing. Panamax is a heavy economic game and probably the longest playing on this list, but a hugely rewarding one once you get the hang of it. 

2-4 players, 2-3 hours, works with 2

  


Roll for the Galaxy

In Roll for the Galaxy you are building a space empire. Points are collected by building worlds, and developments, each represented with tiles, and the game ends when one player has build twelve tiles. Each player starts with a set of dice that they roll and organize behind a screen. Instead of numbers the dice have 5 different symbols representing actions they can take - explore, develop, settle, produce and ship, and a wildcard that can represent any action. The players pick one of their dice to choose as an action - that action is guaranteed to happen in the turn. The rest of the player's dice might be used, depending on which actions other players choose. At the same time the players reveal their choices and perform the actions that come up simultaneously - because there's no real player turn order, the game moves very quickly. The number of dice the player gets for each round depends on how much money they can spend on dice, and any dice not used in the last round can be reused. For example, if you put 3 dice under ship and the ship action didn't come up, you'll get to use those dice again, but if you put 3 develop dice onto a development tile, you won't get those dice until the development is finished and you pay for them again. In general a world or development is built, the dice used are put into the player's supply to be paid for in another turn - the dice in this game are literally workers and workers need to get paid :) 

Each tile has a cost to build, a point score, and might also provide a bonus. For example a world might cost 3 points to build, which means three dice have to be placed on it, using the 'settle' action. A development might cost 5 points, meaning 5 dice have to placed on it using the 'develop' action. Development tiles typically provide a bonus when completed and worlds typically provide more dice to be used when built, but worlds can also be used to generate more points or more money. To do this the player puts a die on the planet tile with the 'produce' action to then collect it later using the 'ship' action. 

If you build well you can create point scoring and money generation schemes because planets and dice can have their colours combined to produce more points or money. For example if you can build two yellow worlds and have two yellow dice you can use one world to produce at least two points every time you ship off it, and the other to produce six cash.  There are a lot of options and strategies when it comes to building these kind of point and income generation engines. Each player will begin  each game with a different world and development, there are nine each given 81 possible starting combinations, along with 55 tiles and 110 dice of 7 different colours, all of which provides great replayability and variety.

A game that has 110 dice might sound there's a lot of luck involved - there is certainly some but a neat feature of the game is that you can manipulate dice you get to mitigate bad rolls. This is done by using one dice to convert another dice to a different type - for example a player might use a ship action to convert a develop to an explore. Also because there's more than one thing to do, there's rarely a disastrous roll, and even if there is, it just means you'll get to use more dice next turn. It's a game that requires you to make the most of what you have each turn and have your wits about you. You'll need to balance money and production with dice - two many dice tied up in development or on worlds means less dice to roll and less income each round. Too many dice in your cup means a spread across multiple actions not all of which come up meaning ironically you might get to do less on your turn than you would with fewer dice. The distribution of symbols on each dice colour is different, and the number of each colour is different, meaning the probabilities vary, an element of the game that should appeal to players that like the counting aspect of card games.

The dice are very cool, and the quality of the cards and tiles in the game is excellent. The rules are well written, although it might take a couple pf passes to absorb the details of what can be done on each action, plus the combination of symbols and colours does take a bit of getting used to. But once you get the hang of it, and because each turn is organised around the 5 actions, not all of which will come up, rather than the number of players, it plays fast. Very fast. "Frantic" is maybe not the first world that comes to mind with a boardgame, but Roll for the Galaxy is close. It's probably the quickest moving game on this list - a turn in a three player game might be done in as many minutes, and let's face it, chucking loads of dice is fun :) 

2-5 players. 60-75 minutes. Works with 2. 

  


Suburbia

 

 Suburbia has players developing boroughs in a city. Players collect and place city tiles to grow their population. The tiles are available in a market to buy - each tile has a basic price and an additional cost based on its position in the market and tiles that are not picked up immediately become cheaper as they move down the market track. There are four kinds of city tiles - residential, civic, industrial, and commercial. There are also three basic tiles - parks, factories and suburbs. There are set of bonus goals available that players can aim for, and each player gets two private goals as well.

The game is about as simple as it gets. On your turn there you can either buy a tile and add it to your suburb, or you can place an investment marker on an existing tile in the suburb to replay its initial effect. You collect or pay money based on the income from your tiles and then you adjust your population. That's it.

Where the game shines is the interaction between the tiles in the city. Tiles you place have an effect depending on what they've been placed adjacent to and which tiles are already in play - for example if you place a fast food restaurant you get 3 population for every adjacent park area. Most tiles affect income, reputation or population and some others give you special abilities. Tiles have three kinds of impact. The first is an immediate impact, for example a tile might adjust your income when bought. The second is an interactive impact where they affect other tiles that have the same icon. Third they can have an ongoing impact, for example you might lose or gain income for tiles of the same type placed afterwards in the game. 

There's an ironic wit to the game, despite its utilitarian graphic design. Factories generate pollution, you get penalised for putting them beside green areas, but you want them to make money so maybe let's just move them to the edge of the borough and keep quiet about it all. This results in laying out your city, a bit like, well a real city. Schools probably won't end up beside landfills. Probably. As your borough grows, your population becomes more expensive to run and your reputation is affected by their reduced quality of life (!) - you want good reputation because it affects how fast your population grows, again affecting your economy, a bit like, well a real economy. Goals have the same kind of wit - you can be a socialist and have the fewest private business. Or build a fast food chain. Or build some ponds because you're out of ideas on this turn, plus ducks are nice. Or to hell with it, let's be libertarians. 

 

The game has maybe the best rules I've seen in a board game - two pages (TWO. PAGES). Tile combos are a lot of fun when you can put them together. Developing a city is fun, it's easy to play this game as a rewarding sandbox without worrying too much about what others are doing. It very nearly made the family list in part one, but the richness of the tile interactions and the goals mean there's actually a good bit going on. 

1-4 players, 60-90m. Works with 2. 

 


Terra Mystica

In Terra Mystica factions with different powers and abilities are competing for space on the board. During the game you'll be expanding your faction across the board, developing buildings and improving your abilities. As well as the main board every faction has their own player board. 

Each faction is coupled to a type of terrain that they can build on, such as forests, mountains and deserts, so to expand effectively they need to terraform the board. To terraform players acquire spades, which they can do using their workers or by using power tokens - spades and workers have an exchange rate that changes over the course of a game. Each terrain type has a distance to the other types which decided how much it costs to convert from on to the other - the relative costs are described on the player's faction board. For example, giants pay 2 to transform any type of terrain into their home terrain.  The dwellings you build can be upgraded during the game and better buildings increase your income. 

And if that wasn't enough, players can align with the four elements to further increase their income - this done by advancing priests on a track at the edge of the  the board. 

The game is played over six rounds and each round provides a different way to score extra points. For example one round might let you score by building dwellings, another round might let you score by terraforming. There are bonus cards that let you score on completion, you can score when you improve your shipping and terraforming ability, when building towns, and at the end of the game you score based on how well you've done on the main and on the elements' track.  In the game is that your acquire power by building near other factions, which further forces competition for space. Each player gets a starting amount of power tokens, and adjacent building allows them to spend those tokens to buy things such as spades. Power can be converted into extra workers, priests or money.

The power tokens need to be built up to certain amount before they can be used which means you need to plan ahead and time things. The element track earns points but only one faction can earn the most points on each element meaning you have to specialise and will be getting into a race with other players. There's an economic engine on your player mat as each building you place from the mat onto the board will reveal an option you can take. A major factor in the game will be how you spread your faction across the board, making sure you don't get cut off, but trying to curtail other's growth - the largest contiguous faction on the board gets the most points. 

Unlike other Euro style games where you're placing workers to do whatever it is workers do, and where isn't a huge amount of interaction between players, in Terra Mystica you're always competing - for space, for one-time actions, to get first past the post on the element track. There's very little randomness or luck to the game, but the starting positions, faction abilities, and terrain costs allow every game to vary. 

Terra Mystica is an ingenious, absorbing game. There's lots to consider on your turn; a need to plan ahead, puzzles to solve, picking which bonuses to target, where to build, whether to move up the element track. It's a bit bonkers just how much is going on the first time you play. That said, all the elements mesh together and the game play is simple, resulting in a deep, elegant game.  The game is a tree in a box - it comes with a ton of high quality stuff, including 14 factions that offer plenty of replay.

2-5 players. 2 hours. Works with 2, better with more.  

 


Twilight Struggle

Twilight Struggle is engaging, tense, and thematic. The game is played out over a number of rounds representing the Cold War era, where one player is the USA, the other is the USSR, looking to control and influence the board. The board is a map of the world representing various political regions - West and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Central and South America.  

One each round the players are dealt a hand of cards. The players play a card per turn in the round, and cards are used  either for 'operations points' to control and invade countries on the board, or played for their effect, representing a historical event of the Cold War. For example, one card is called 'Fidel' with the effect 'Remove all US influence from Cuba', another is called 'Tear Down this Wall' with the effect 'Add 3 US influence to East Germany.'

All cards are either US, USSR or neutral. The game introduces new cards progressively over three phases corresponding to the early, mid and late stages of the cold war. As well as card play, there are elements to consider such as DEFCON status, which affects which countries and regions can be invaded, and the Space Race which is a way to discard cards. 

The essence of the game is playing your hand as best you can and choosing where on the board pick your battles, while spending as much time reacting to your opponents cards as you do figuring out your next move. A clever twist is that a USA card, when used by the USSR player for points will trigger the card's effect in benefit to the USA (and vice versa). Turns play quickly once you get the hang of the rules. Speaking of rules, the rule book is well written and well organised. 

Twilight Struggle is best non-abstract two player game I've played and were it not just a two player only game, a candidate for the best board game ever. And for those that didn't grow up with the cold war, there's a section explaining the history of each card which is a lovely detailed touch. It's hard to fault a game that has a card called Willy Brandt.

2 players, 2 hours.  

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