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The Best Strategy Board Games, Part II: Medium Games

So what is a “medium” game, anyway? I’d define it to be a game that doesn’t make your brain hurt, like a heavy game, but does require more thought than a filler. I know, it’s not much of a definition! Generally medium games are the ones that occupy the 45-75 minutes time slot, although there are exceptions (one of which appears on this list). In most cases, any game that starts approaching an hour in length should be of at least medium weight, as a light game will usually have overstayed its welcome. Interestingly enough, several of the items on this list of great board games are actually card games.

Tichu

Tichu is an example of a climbing game, which is similar to a trick-taking game but allows you to play multiple cards at a time or pass. This is a team game, two against two, where the first team to 1000 points wins; while it generally takes one to two hours, it can be longer or shorter depending on how the cards come out.

The game is played with a standard deck of cards, plus four specials: the dragon, the phoenix, the mah-jong, and the dog. Whoever has the mah-jong (which counts as a 1, with no suit) gets to lead the first trick, after which whoever wins a trick leads the next one. When you lead, you play one of a modified set of poker hands: a single, a pair, three of a kind, consecutive pairs (and number of pairs in order, such as 4s, 5s, and 6s), a straight of five or more cards, or a full house. Straight flushes (of five or more cards) and four of a kind are special: these hands are called bombs, beat anything except higher bombs, and can be played at any time (even if it’s not your turn).

While the goal is to score points, it’s usually best accomplished by concentrating on going out as quickly as possible. When the third player goes out, the last player’s remaining hand goes to his opponents, and his stack (all the cards he’s taken) go to whoever went out first. Fives are worth five points, tens and kinds are ten points each (for 100 points total). The phoenix, which can be used as a single half a rank higher than the previously played card (playing it on a king, for example, makes it king-and-a-half) or as a wild card) is worth -25 points; the dragon (which is the highest single, beating even ace-and-a-half) is worth 25, but if you win a trick with it you have to give the trick to one of your opponents.

If both members of a team go out before either of their opponents, the cards are ignored and that teams scores 200 points. You can also bet 100 or 200 points that you will be the first person out, subject to certain restrictions.

The game isn’t perfect; while better players will win more often than not, the luck of the draw can easily determine who will do better in any given hand, and sometimes one team will get a run of good cards and end the game quickly, but thus is the nature of card games. Overall, this is a great game that gets a lot of play for a low price.

Thurn and Taxis

The first time I played Thurn and Taxis, I didn’t really care for it, but after getting pulled into a few more games it became one of my favorites. The game is based on the creation of the original German postal system (specifically the state of Bavaria); while it started out as a private enterprise, it was eventually nationalized and became the official postal system for the country.

This is a card-driven game played on a map of Bavaria (the expansions add additional maps you can play with). On your turn, you must draw a card (either one of six face-up cards or a random card from the deck) and then play a card; each card represents a city. You play cards in a line in front of you, representing a route; each city on your route must be adjacent to the cities on either side of it, and while you can play cards at either end, you can’t insert cards into the middle. If you’re not able to play a card onto your current route, you have to throw it out and start over! After you play your card, you may opt to score your route.

There are also four special powers, and you can choose one each turn; they give you the option of drawing two cards instead of one, playing two cards instead of one, discarding everything on the card display and replacing it, or scoring a route as a longer one.

Where does the strategy come in? Well, the board contains a number of bonuses for being first to accomplish certain things (such as building a 5-length route or placing a post office in every region), and carefully managing your available cards to claim as many bonuses as possible is the key to doing well in the game; it’s not uncommon for an experienced player to score three times as many points as someone playing his first game.

Modern Art

While Reiner Knizia has designed hundreds of games and is perhaps best known for Ra, his two best games (in my opinion) are Modern Art and Tigris and Euphrates (discussed next).

Modern Art is an auction game; in fact, the entire game is nothing but a series of auctions. On your turn, you choose a painting from your hand to auction off; each painting is done by one of five artists (none of whom are any good) and has a particular auction type (once around, open auction, blind bidding, fixed price, or two for one). If someone else buys your painting, they pay you; if you buy your own painting, you pay the bank. Each round, when the 5th painting by the same artist is placed up for auction, the round immediately ends and the last auction does not happen. Whichever painter caused the end of the round, the rest of his paintings are worth $30k apiece; whoever had the most paintings out after that is valued at $20k, then $10k for third. The other artists are worth nothing!

However, it pays to plan ahead…because in subsequent rounds (there are four), the three most popular artists not only score this round’s points, but they also get to add their score from the previous rounds…so if Karl Gitter, for example, got 2nd in the first round, 3rd in the second, didn’t place in the third, and won the final round, his paintings would be worth $60k apiece in that round. However, if he didn’t place in the final round, his paintings would be worth nothing! You also discard all of your paintings at the end of the round (you’re selling them off, either for a bundle or for absolutely nothing), so you sometimes have a tough decision between auctioning off a particular painting now or waiting for next round.

All in all, I would call this the best auction game I’ve ever played (although it has some competition from Felix: the Cat in the Sack, which will be discussed in part three).

Tigris & Euphrates

The other great Knizia game, Tigris and Euphrates (also known as T&E) is a tile-placing, civilization-building game. Each player has four leaders, one in each color, with a common symbol. On your turn, you can either place or move a leader (leaders must be next to temples, which are the red tiles), play a city tile (which gives a point to the leader of the same color in that city), play a disaster, or discard tiles from your hand to draw new ones.

The game is often confusing to new players because of the conflict rules. There can never be two leaders of the same color in one city; if that ever happens, there is conflict. An internal conflict, when a leader is already present and another leader of the same color is played to the same city, is political, and is thus fought using only red tiles. An external conflict, on the other hand, occurs when two cities are joined, in which case every pair of leaders of the same color fights it out using their color until only one leader of each type remains (or the cities are no longer connected).

This being a Knizia game, the goal is to collect sets of cubes, where your score is the number of sets you have at the end of the game (or, equivalently, whichever color you have the least of). Since scores are hidden, however, you may not be quite sure exactly where you stand! While the box lists this as a 3-4 player game, it works equally well with two players.

Notre Dame

How would you like to spend your days gathering influence for your family, while avoiding the black death? Notre Dame is a drafting game; which means you are competing with the other players for the cards you need. Each player has the same set of nine cards; every turn, you draw three, keep one of them, and pass the others to your left. After three turns, you have gone through your entire deck and reshuffle; the game lasts for nine turns (three rounds).

Once you have your three cards, you’ll play two of them, discarding the last one. Each card lets you play one of your workers, which will do things like getting you more workers or money, scoring points, killing rats, and so on. At the end of every turn, more rats show up; if you haven’t killed enough of them (either during the turn or at the end of the turn by having people working in the hospital) you may get the black death; this happens when you have more than nine rats. Your rat marker goes back to nine, you lose two points, and a worker from your most populous region is killed (goes back to the supply).

The nice thing about this game is that there are multiple legitimate paths to victory, which means that players may or may not be going after the same cards, and you have to adapt to what those around you are doing while pursuing your strategy. You also need to think ahead, so you don’t run out of money, which is used at the end of the turn to hire people who can do nice things for you (as well as to donate for the construction of Notre Dame). Rats!

Want to read more? This article is part two of a series:
Part I: The Best Heavy Strategy Board Games
Part II: The Best Medium Strategy Board Games
Part II: The Best Light Strategy Board Games

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The Best Strategy Board Games, Part I: Heavy Games

So I’ve already talked about the best train games, but what are the best board games period, regardless of genre? I’ve played so many great games that I’ve decided to break it down by weight. Up first, we have the heavy games, which I define to be those that require a lot of brainpower to play well. If you like games that make your head hurt, you’ve found the right list!

Roads and Boats
When I first started bringing Roads and Boats to game night, it took a while to get it played as it looks somewhat intimidating; it comes in a big box and has a lot of bits. This is one of the Splotter “big three” games, and in my opinion is the best of the three. It tends to go in and out of print; Boards and Bits sells it for around $85 when they have it, but when it’s been out of print for a while it can fetch quite a bit more.
Roads and Boats box
Roads and Boats is all about logistics. While you’re still building up a civilization as you do in many games – putting up buildings that let you make the things you need to get other buildings – you own only your transporters (donkeys, trucks, boats, planes) and whatever you’re carrying on them. Your mine just produced gold? There’s nothing stopping someone else from picking it up and walking off with it if you don’t get there first! While the rules aren’t particularly complicated, there is a lot going on and it’s hard to feel as if you’re playing correctly.

While the box lists a playing time of four hours, I don’t believe I’ve ever had a game that that long (and many of the games I’ve played were with people who’d never played before). Most of the time play is simultaneous, which means there’s very little downtime; each player does one phase of the game at the same time, then waits for anyone who’s behind to catch up. Towards the end of the game it does slow down slightly as turn order may become important, meaning you might want to wait and see what someone else does, but you have plenty of planning to do anyway.

Roads and Boats plays from one to four players, or up to six with the &cetera expansion.

Brass

Often considered one of Martin Wallace’s best games, Brass is an economic engine game set during the British industrial revolution. Brass is a card-driven game: each action requires a card play, so your available actions are limited by what you have in your hand but not so much that the game is likely to be decided by a lucky draw. Rather, you need to adapt your strategy to the available actions. You get two actions per turn and can combine them to take an action that you don’t have the card for, although with careful planning this can usually be avoided (at least until the end of the game).

The game is divided into two segments, the canal phase and the rail phase, each of which ends with a scoring. Conceptually, at the end of the canal phase technology is improving (so you can no longer play low-level buildings) and the canals have reached capacity (they’re still there, they’re just no longer on the board because they can’t handle any more shipments, so you need to build rail if you want to move any more goods).

There are two types of cards in the game: location cards and industry cards. Industry cards let you play one of the pictured industry tiles anywhere on the board that you connect to (subject to certain restrictions) while location cards let you put any legal building in the pictured city regardless of whether you connect to it. (In the re-implementation, Age of Industry, city cards are replaced by area cards that are good in multiple cities; however, while the two games share most of the same mechanics, they play very differently). You can also discard any card to take a loan (which never needs to be paid back but permanently reduces your income), to develop (which lets you skip past lower level industries to get to the more valuable ones), or to ship cotton from your cotton mills to your ports (or a distant market).

The goal of Brass is to make the most of your actions, of which there are only a limited number. Each phase, everyone draws two cards at the end of each turn (replacing the ones played) until the deck runs out; once all cards from hand are played, that phase is over. Careful play is required in order to avoid either running out of actions or letting your opponents beat you to that spot on the board you particularly need..

Age of Steam

The other of Martin Wallace’s two best games, Age of Steam (and its reimplementation, Steam) is actually a game system. The base game gives you a set of rules and a map (two maps for Steam), but the real meat of the game comes from the expansions. Expansions are additional maps that usually tweak the rules in some way; these range from changes to the costs of track to entirely new actions.

The flow of the game is fairly simple: each turn players begin by issuing shares; a share gives you $5, but obligates you to pay $1 to your shareholders at the end of every turn for the rest of the game. After that, there is an auction for turn order, which can eat up a fair amount of the money you just borrowed! In turn order, players get to choose one of a number of actions that let you break the rules in some way.

In turn order, each player builds up to three pieces of track, then each player ships one good, then a second good. In order to ship, you have to have track from where the good is to a city of the same color as the good; additionally, your locomotive (which starts at one) must be as powerful as the number of links between the two cities. Delivering gets you an income for each link between two cities that you shipped over. You can ship over other people’s track, but then they get the income for that link!

As mentioned, the real fun of the game comes from trying to be the one to figure out how to best take advantage of the unique attributes of each map. One of my favorite maps sticks very closely to the original rules, but has two cities that are both red and blue and no other cities of that color; I’ve won games by blocking off the two cities so that any shipments of those colors had to go over my track. My other favorite, the moon, has a low gravity action that lets you treat one link of someone else’s track as yours for one shipment, and (non-realistically but entertainingly) each turn alternating halves of the map are denoted as the dark side of the moon, making every city on that side a black city rather than its original color. Fortunately, the moon is a sphere, so your track can wrap around the edges..

None of these are extremely long games – generally Roads and Boats lasts around three hours and the other two are around two hours, less with experienced players – but they do provide a mental workout. If you enjoy games that challenge your brain, you just might want to give them a try!

Want to read more? This article is part one of a series:
Part I: The Best Heavy Strategy Board Games
Part II: The Best Medium Strategy Board Games
Part II: The Best Light Strategy Board Games

See author on Google+

The Best Train Games

Given that I have a site specifically about train games, I must have an opinion on which ones are the best, no? I’m so glad you asked! Here are my choices for some of the best train games I’ve played so far. I expect this list to grow once I find some opponents for the assorted train games in the Winsome Essen packs I’ve been collecting, so check back for updates.

18XX

The 18XX series tends to have very little to no luck, depending on the game, and thus to reward good play. There are dozens of variants, allowing you to choose the one that best matches your style of play, while generally being able to move between various games in the system with little difficulty. On the downside, it can take a long time to play a game (the longer ones in the series may need to be split up over several sessions) and new players may feel a bit overwhelmed for their first few games. It also tends to have a lot of downtime, particularly as you add more players, due to the need to calculate the best move.

That said, it’s a strong system that a lot of people enjoy. I’ve only played a few of the games in the series, myself; so far my favorite is 2038, which actually has a little more randomness than many of the others and is set in space. The 18XX games are stock market games as much as they are train games, and some of them allow quite a bit of nastiness; the CEO of each company (the person with the most stock) has very few checks on his power, so buying too much stock in a company you don’t control can really mess you up when the CEO sells all of its assets to another one of his companies for a dollar and then dumps all of his stock, leaving you in control of a company saddled with debt..

Chicago Express

Chicago Express is a remake of Winsome’s Wabash Cannonball with Queen’s usual high quality production values; the games are identical except for one change to the stats for Chicago. This is a no-luck, no randomness game; everything is completely deterministic from before you take the game out of the box. At the start of the game, four shares of stock are auctioned off, one for each train company available; each of these companies are starting on the east side of the board and racing to reach Chicago; connecting to Chicago causes a bonus to be paid out to all stockholders. Once the first line reaches Chicago, the Wabash Cannonball (a 5th train company) also comes into play.

Each turn, you choose one of three options: play up to three trains for one company (paid for out of that company’s treasury), develop a tile (which increases its value to the companies connecting to it), or auction off another share of stock; each action can be taken only a limited number of times each round, and when two actions are maxed out, the round is over. As you may have guessed already, the game is largely about manipulating the stock market, although to a much lower extent than with the 18XX series; while you need to auction off stock to get more money into the treasuries of companies you control, more often you’ll be doing so to dilute the value of other people’s stock, particularly right before dividends are paid out.

Age of Steam

I have to admit, the first time I played Age of Steam, it was a six-player game and I didn’t particularly care for it. The second time I actually understood what was going on, and I was hooked. AoS is a game system; while the base game comes with one map (two in the remake), players are free to make and publish their own maps, and there are multiple designers who publish a new map every year. As a result, new maps tend to come out faster than I can even play them, which is nice because one of the strengths of the game is in the variety: there is a set of base rules, and each map tweaks the rules to better fit the area that it’s designed for. These can be small, realistic tweaks, such as increasing building costs for maps set on difficult terrain, or more ambitious changes, such as the maps that involve volcanoes and zombies..

Each turn, there is an auction to determine roles, then each player has the opportunity to build track and then ship up to two goods. For every length of track shipped over, the owner of that track gets an additional dollar of income every turn for the rest of the game. Of course, building track requires money, which means issuing shares, and your shareholders are an impatient lot..

The rules for Age of Steam are fairly easy to understand, but it often takes a couple of games for people to get a handle on the strategy. The base game was difficult to find for several years, but was remade in 2009 under the name Steam; the new version has most of the same rules, but simplifies the end of game scoring and removes the dice that are used to determine the flow of new goods in Age of Steam, making it completely deterministic after the board is fully set up. There was also a 3rd edition released, which is exactly the same as the older version rules-wise but uses plastic trains rather than the nicer wooden components in the other versions.

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