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Dominant Species

What do you get if you take all of your favorite game elements – area control, worker placement, variable player powers – and cram them into one game? If you’re designer Chad Jensen, you end up with Dominant Species: an area control game where each player controls one of the major animal classes (mammal, reptile, bird, amphibian, arachnid, or insect) and attempts to have that class grow and thrive, adapting to the available food sources and spinning out more species, while the threat of the oncoming ice age looms ever larger..

The game takes two to six players, although I’ve only played it with four or higher (and in fact, I suspect that four players is the sweet spot). At the start of the game, there are a half dozen hexes on the board, with various food sources spread out between them, and each animal has a handful of species in play. This is an area control game, but there are two types of area control. The first one is simple: if you have more species in a hex than anyone else, you’ll get the most points when that hex is scored. Animals higher up in the food chain win ties, so the mammals win all ties, the insects lose all ties, etc. (Turn order starts out in the reverse of the food chain order, so inserts move faster than everyone else…and they’d better, to not get eaten!) The second type of area control is dominance: each animal has a number of food markers (“elements”) on its display, and if you have at least one species in a hex and match more markers than anyone else, you’re dominant over that hex. For example, if you have two meat and one grass on your display, while the hex has two meat, a grass, and a water, your total dominance score is 2×2 (meat) plus 1×1 (water), so you beat anyone with less than five dominance. There’s no tiebreaker here, however; if there’s a tie for first, then nobody is dominant on this hex.

Why do you want to be dominant? One of the actions (remember, this is a worker placement game) that you can take is to score a hex; when this happens, points are awarded based on the number of species in the tile, then whoever has dominance gets to take one of the five cards that are available each turn. These cards can do all kinds of things, from awarding extra action pawns to killing everything in a hex, and fighting over them tends to be fierce!

So what are the other actions? You can gain initiative, which moves you up in the turn order. You can adapt, which adds another element to your display (to a maximum of six), making it easier for you to survive. You can add more elements to the board, and more hexes. You can add another glacier to the board, forcing species to flee the oncoming ice. You can add more species to the board, or move the ones that are already there. You can also kill off some of your opponent’s species, of course. Finally, there will be upcoming events that may be unpleasant for you (removing elements from your display or from the board) and you can use actions to prevent that.

As with all good worker placement games, there are always more places that you feel like you need to go than you have action pawns to actually play, and with a limited number of each action available, you never know if it’ll still be there when play comes back to you. Further, each species has a special power, so different actions tend to have different values; I find this to be one of the best features of the game. The mammals, for example, can keep one species from going extinct each turn (this normally happens if a species ends up in a hex with nothing it can eat), while the arachnids always compete (allowing them to kill other species without using an action pawn) and the birds can migrate several hexes rather than just one. The amphibians, which I had in my last game, have no special power…but they do start the game with more elements on their display than anyone else, allowing them to dominate more hexes early on.

This is definitely not a quick game, or a cheap one; it tends to run around four hours, and retails for $79. However, if you have a group where you can get it out, it’s totally worth it; especially with four players, you’re usually pretty involved so there’s not too much downtime. In the wrong group, however, I could easily see this getting very political (“I’ll leave you alone on that hex if you attack the spiders on this other hex”); fortunately, that’s not really how my group plays (and it could be that you enjoy that style of play, I just don’t care for negotiation games). Still, I was impressed enough after one play of this game to preorder the second printing (the first sold out very quickly); I don’t think it’s going to be my favorite game, but so far I’m really enjoying it. What I like about this game is that it feels really “meaty”; there’s a lot going on, with more actions you feel like you need to take than action points available to take them, and every decision has a direct impact on the game. Additionally, I enjoy the assymetric play, with each person needing to choose a different strategy based on his special ability and the other species on the board.

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Notre Dame….Rats!

Leaving aside the fun of going around yelling “rats!”, Notre Dame is a fun strategy game that doesn’t get enough attention. Set in Paris at the end of the 14th century, each player controls one family attempting to gain prestige. There are many paths to power, but beware…the black death is an ever-present threat! If you don’t take the effort to keep the rat population down, you may find your people dying of the plague..

Notre Dame is the 11th game in the Alea big box series, and was a 2007 Spiel des Jahres recommend.

Constructing the board takes only seconds; each player takes an identical mini-board representing his borough, each of which is placed adjacent to a center piece representing Notre Dame. There are three, four, and five sided cathedral pieces, making everything line up nicely; with two players, a modified four-player setup is used.

Each player has a deck of nine cards, which represent the actions he can take in the game; each one allows him to move one of his workers. He also starts with four workers, three coins, and his trusted friend. Each card sends a worker to a particular area, which allows you to take more workers, coins, or points, kill rats, or move your carriage around the board collecting messages (which are worth points and allow you to take workers, take coins, and kill rats). Finally, one card sends a person to donate to the cathedral (which scores you points based on how many coins you donate), and the trusted friend card lets you move him anywhere except to the cathedral.

The game is divided into three rounds; each round consists of three turns. Each turn, you draw three cards from your deck, choose one, and pass the other two to your left; you then keep one of the two cards you receive from the person on your right, and so on. Starting from the first player (marked with a hunchback figure), everyone plays one card; this happens twice. Thus, you’ll play two of the three cards you ended up with, discarding the third.

At the end of the turn, you have the opportunity to hire one of three people who can help you out. There are 15 person cards in the game; six come up in each of the three rounds, two per turn, while the other nine come up one time each. The Alea Treasure Chest expands this with another nine people who can be mixed up with the first nine. These people are always very helpful, and always worth hiring…but you do have to have one coin to hire someone, else you lose the opportunity..so be careful with your money!

After hiring, look to the bottom of the person cards and you’ll see between zero and four rats on each; you’ll need to move your rat marker up one spot for each rat. This rat marker keeps track of how many plague-infested rats inhabit your district; if it goes past 9, you suffer the black death (which in this case means you lose two points and a worker). Fortunately, for every worker you have in the hospital at the end of the turn, your rat marker goes down by one; this happens at the same time as you would take rats.

After the third turn, the cathedral is scored; it is worth some number of points (depending on the number of players), and that number is divided by the number of workers present, who each score accordingly before returning to your supply. The cards are then returned to their owners and reshuffled for the next round.

The nice thing about the game is that there are different ways to win. You can try to send lots of people to the residence, which gives you a point for every worker there whenever someone moves there, or you can go with the park, which for every two workers there gives you an extra point whenever you score points. Because the player on your right will see many of your available options before you do, which path you take will depend largely on what he does; should he choose a particular strategy, you should strongly consider a different one!

Overall, Notre Dame is an excellent game and is well worth picking up.

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Ticket to Ride: An Excellent Gateway Game

Ticket to Ride is probably one of the most popular gateway games, and for good reason; in fact, it was one of the first eurogames that I played. The same is simple, easy to learn, plays in around 45 minutes, and is fun for both gaming newbies and experienced gamers. It’s also one of my wife’s favorites, which is one of the main reasons I play it :=).

The eponymous first game in the Ticket to Ride series was first published in 2004, and won that year’s Spiel des Johres award. The game consists of a map of the United States with a number of cities (and the routes between them) marked, train tickets, route tickets, wood scoring markers, and a number of plastic trains. One thing I like about Days of Wonder is that they give you extra pieces in case you lose any; each player (the game takes two to five) needs exactly 45 trains, and there are two extras in each color.

Players start by taking their trains and randomly drawing some ticket cards, of which they must keep several. Each ticket shows two cities (fortunately, it shows where on the map they are as well as the names) and the point score for connecting them. As long as you can trace a path from one city to the other over your trains at the end of the game, you’ll score the points…but if you cannot, you’ll lose the same number of points! You also get several train cards, each of which shows one color of train car (or a locomotive, which is a wild card).

On each turn, you do one of three things: draw two more train cards, either randomly or from a set of face up cards (1 card if you choose a face up locomotive), draw another three tickets (and keep at least one of them), or claim a route. To claim a route, you choose a route between two cities, which will take between one and six cards of the same color (again, with locomotives being wild), play the cards required, and place your trains in that spot. Grey routes can be claimed with any color, but all of the cards still have to be the same color. If you don’t have enough trains to cover a route, you cannot claim it. Routes score based on their length, with one- and two- length routes being worth only one and two points, respectively, but a six length route being worth a whopping 15 points.

The game goes on until someone ends up with two or fewer trains left, at which point everyone (including that player) gets one more turn and the game ends. Everyone scores points for their tickets, and whoever has the longest continuous line of track scores additional points for the Longest Route card. Most points wins!


My main problem with the original game is that the train cards sucked; they were small and difficult to hold (and you accumulate a lot of them at some points in the game!) In 2006, Days of Wonder solved this problem with the Ticket to Ride 1910 expansion, which includes 35 new 1910 tickets, a bonus card for completing the most tickets, 4 tickets that originally appeared in the limited edition Mystery Train expansion, and a complete set of replacement cards that are a lot easier to handle. This is a fairly inexpensive (under $20) expansion that I consider a must-have; most of my games in the series are of the base game with the 1910 expansion.

It seems as if nearly every successful game begets a number of expansions, and TtR is no different. The first, in 2005, was Ticket to Ride: Europe; this is a complete game that features a European map and some new gameplay elements. Tunnels add a bit of risk, as you never know exactly how many cards will be required to complete a route until you try it, while water routes require locomotives to act as ferries (don’t ask me what the logic is, that’s just how it works!) It’s a lot easier to get blocked from cities you need to get to in this version, but there’s a way around that; each player gets three train stations, which can be played to let you use someone else’s route towards completing your tickets at the end of the game. Each one that you don’t play, however, gets you four bonus points.

In 2006, that was followed by Ticket to Ride: Marklin. Taking place in Germany, this set has a non-gameplay twist: each of the cards depicts a model train made by the Marklin model train company. Aside from completing tickets as in the other games, players also attempt to move passengers around, and collect more points for moving them on longer routes and being the first to move passengers to or through each city.

In 2007, we got two new versions, each made for 2-3 players (whereas each of the others could take up to five). Ticket to Ride: Switzerland comes with a board and tickets but requires the train pieces and cards from either Ticket to Ride or TtR: Europe (Marklin has a different card distribution) to play. In this game, locomotives can only be used for tunnels, and some tickets allow you to end your route in any of several countries. Nordic Countries is similar, covering Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland; however, it was a limited edition that was initially available only in the Nordic Countries, and then had a limited worldwide release in 2008. I found Switzerland to be too easy for my taste – a friend and I actually ran out of ticket cards, and completed all of the ones we drew! – but Nordic Countries is the hardest of the batch, and it’s very easy to get locked out. With experienced players, it’s probably my favorite of the set.

There are also some more expansions that don’t include boards. Europa 1912 is an expansion for Europe that adds new tickets, much as 1910 did for the original game, as well as a few new rules. Meanwhile, Alvin and Dexter makes the game a bit more surreal, adding a monster and an alien to foil player’s plans.

Another new set, TtR: The Dice Expansion, lets players roll dice rather than collect train cards, while still using the trains, tickets, and map from any of the other games. Finally, there is something called Ticket to Ride: the Card Game, which is actually a not very good memory game that doesn’t have much in common with the rest of the series.

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Clans and That’s My Fish: Two Light Area Control Games

When I first got into Eurogames about six years ago, Clans and Hey, That’s My Fish! were two of the first games I learned. Both are simple area control games where all of the randomness takes place before the game begins.

In clans, five different tribes are equally spaced around the board, which contains four types of land (as well as assorted lakes). The board is broken up into sections of five areas each, but these sections are used only for setup: each section gets one hut of each color. Each player also takes a tile which shows his hut color, which he keeps a secret.

Gameplay is very simple: on your turn, you move all huts on a space into an adjacent space, where the space you’re moving to must also have huts in it. A group with seven or more huts cannot be moved, except into a larger group.

If your move causes a group to become isolated (meaning every adjacent area is empty), that forms a village. You take a scoring token from the side of the board and score the space. Here’s the interesting part: you may not know until the end of the game exactly who benefits from the scoring, because you score the colors and you don’t know what colors your opponents are! To score, you add up all of the huts and each tribe involved scores that many points. For example, if there are three blue huts and one yellow hut, yellow and blue get four points each.

However, there are two exceptions. First, the scoring tokens (which also act as the game timer) modify how much a village is worth. When you take a token, the land type pictured to the left of the token shows that you get a bonus for villages on that land type, while villages on the land type to the right of the token score no points. In the picture below, for example, taking the topmost token would add three points to a village in grasslands, but a village in forest would score nothing. The last village of the game is worth a bonus five points no matter where it is.

The second exception has to do with the number of different tribes living in the village. One, two, three, or even four tribes can live together in harmony, but if you get all five tribes together when the village is scored, they start fighting! At that point, anybody who has only one hut in the village gets kicked out. For example, if green and red had two huts each in a new village, blue had three, and yellow and black each had one, then yellow and black would be kicked out and green, red, and blue would score seven points each (plus any bonuses).

When the game ends, you reveal your color and add a point for each scoring token you took during the game; high score wins. The trick, of course, is to arrange things such that your huts end up scoring a lot of points, while wasting your opponents’ huts – preferably by putting a bunch of them in an area where they’ll score no points!

Clans takes two to four players, although a new player can give an advantage to the person playing after him by failing to see where he can make a village, thus allowing the next person to get extra points.

In Hey, That’s My Fish!, you control between two and four penguins (depending on the number of players), who are trying to eat as many fish as possible. The board is made up of a number of hexagonal tiles, each of which contains one, two, or three fish. At the start of the game, each penguin is placed on a one-fish tile.

A move consists of picking up any of your penguins and moving him as far as you like in any direction, subject to two restrictions: you can’t enter a tile that another penguin is already on, and you can’t jump over a hole. After moving, you pick up the tile you just moved off of and add it to your stack.

As the game goes on, the board will get smaller and smaller. While some players will attempt to grab bunches of three-fish tiles, more experienced players will concentrate on sectioning off the board, leaving large areas with only their penguins while cutting off their opponents’ penguins on small pieces of ice. Once you can no longer move, you pick up your penguins (along with the tiles they’re standing on) and count up your stack. Most fish wins!

Hey, That’s My Fish also takes two to four players; I find it to be quite good with two but a bit chaotic with four. Although the colorful penguins and simple rules may make it an attractive game for children, it has enough tactical depth to also be quite enjoyable for adults.

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The Best Auction Game: Modern Art

Sometimes I think that Modern Art could have been called the Ebay game. Not really, but just like Ebay, the bidding can sometimes get a bit….odd. My brother and I, for example, like to start bidding prime numbers or the Fibonacci sequence..

There’s a lot of variety in auction games out there; the boardgamegeek database has about 2000 games tagged as auction/bidding, and I’ve played quite a few of them. In my opinion,Modern Art is the best of the lot (although many people prefer Knizia’s other big auction game, Ra). The game is based on the simple premise that art is worth whatever you can convince someone to pay for it. Over the course of four rounds, you’ll buy and sell paintings by five not very talented artists; if you’re lucky, you’ll strike it rich by investing in artists right before they become popular..

You start the game with a handful of paintings, and get more in the second and third rounds (the fourth round you just use whatever’s left over from the previous rounds); each one has a color denoting the artist and a symbol denoting the type of auction. There are four types, none of which are particularly esoteric. First off is the standard open auction: people keep bidding until all but one person drops you. There’s the sealed auction: everyone hides some auction chips in his hand and the high big wins. (Ties are broken from the seller’s left). In a once around, everyone starting from the seller’s left (and ending with the seller) gets one chance to bid. In a fixed price auction, the seller sets the price he wants…but if nobody takes it, he has to buy it! Finally, a double auction lets you auction off two paintings by the same artist, with the second painting determining the auction type. You can also put the double auction painting down by itself and let somebody else put down the second one, in which case you’ll split the profits; if nobody puts down a second, you just keep the double painting for free!

If you buy somebody else’s painting, you pay them; if you buy your own painting, you pay the bank (so you usually prefer not to buy your own paintings, as auctioning off a painting is the main way to get money). Paintings that you win at auction are placed in front of you until the end of the round, which happens when the 5th painting by the same artist is placed up for auction. That painting is discarded without being auctioned; every remaining painting by that artist is worth a whopping 30 grand. Whichever artist has the second most paintings out is worth $20k apiece, third most is $10k, and the others are not popular this season and are worth nothing. In future rounds, an artist that comes in fourth or fifth is still worth nothing, but if he places in the top three, you get to add up the sales prices…so if a painting comes in 2nd the first round, then doesn’t place in the 2nd, it’ll be worth nothing the second round…but if it comes in first in the third, each of those paintings will now be worth $50k! You sell off all of your paintings (tossing the worthless ones in the trash) and start the next round with no paintings in front of you.

After four rounds, whoever has the most money wins. Modern Art takes 3-5 players and retails for around $30.

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The Best Strategy Board Games, Part III: Light Games

Heavy, brain-burner games are great (and are my preference) but sometimes you just want something light, whether that be to play with non-gamers, to kill time until more people show up, or to recover from a heavier game. What are some great ways to fill the time?

Hey! That’s My Fish!

This simple tile-laying game takes two to four players, but becomes more chaotic as more players are added, Each player controls a set of penguins competing for fish trapped in the ice. The board consists of a number of hexagonal tiles, each of which shows one to three fish; each penguin starts on a one-fish tile. On your turn, you pick up one of your penguins and move it as far as you want in any direction, provided it does not move into another penguin or a hole in the ice; you then take the tile it started on. Play continues until nobody has any moves left, at which time you take the pieces your penguins were left standing on and add up your score; most fish wins.

While this is a quick, simple game, it’s a nice tactical exercise with two players, as each person attempts to block off large chunks of ice for his penguins and small chunks for his opponent’s penguins; with more players, planning ahead becomes much more difficult.

Clans

Clans is another game that takes two to four; with more than two, it helps for the players to be equally matched in strength, as otherwise a weak player has a good chance of inadvertently helping the player to his left.

The board consists of five types of regions and five colors of huts; each player (secretly) draws a tile telling him which color is his. On a player’s turn, he picks one group of one or more huts in a region and moves it into an adjacent region that also contains huts; if at any point a region with huts is completely isolated (has no adjacent regions with huts), it is scored. While you get a point marker for causing a scoring, the actual scoring during the game is done for the colors, so you may not know which color each person is trying to help! The type of region makes a difference in how many points are scored, so you’ll generally want to put your huts in the regions that will score better, but the regions that get bonuses change over time; additionally, since everyone who participates in a scoring gets the same number of points, you’ll want to cram as many of your opponent’s huts into the scoring as possible so that many of them are wasted.

Both Hey, That’s My Fish! and Clans have a semi-random setup and then no randomness for the rest of the game; any chaos is caused entirely by the players!

Felix: The Cat in the Sack

I’ll leave the backstory behind the title and theme of Felix to the rules, which are fun to read and explain, and skip right to the basic idea. This is a blind bidding game. Each player hasa hand full of cards, which include good cats (worth positive points), bad cats (worth negative points), dogs (which chase away cats), and a bunny (which is cute). Each turn, players secretly place a cat (or dogs, or bunnies) into the bag; the first card (put down by the starting player) is revealed, and players bid mice for the bag in a round robin auction. Anytime a player drops out, he takes some mice from the bag (the amount increases with each player, so waiting is more profitable but also more risky) and another card is turned over; when every player but one has dropped out, the last player must pay his bid and take the bag…whether he wants it or not! After all cards are auctioned, players add up their cats and mice and the high score wins.

Cartagena

Cartagena falls in the margins between light and medium games; it’s a card-driven game where you control a group of six pirates attempting to escape from a prison island. Each turn you get three actions, each of which can be one of two things: play a card (which contains one of six symbols) to move one of your pirates to the next open symbol of that type, or move a pirate backwards to the first space that contains either one or two other pirates (which don’t have to be yours) and draw that many cards.

This is resource management and set collection game: you want to avoid wasting actions drawing two many cards, but you need to get enough cards that you can set up a chain, blocking off a number of the same symbol so that a single card play can send one of your pirates the length of the island. While the game appears light, the play is a lot more strategic than many people give it credit for, and the players who plan ahead will usually win.

Want to read more? This article is part three 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 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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Metro

Metro is a tile-laying game from 1997 that depicts the construction of the French subway system; in 2009, it was re-implemented as Cable Car (published by Queen Games). This review will focus on the original uberplay version; the newer Queen edition, in addition to the new theme and artwork, offers an optional variant that brings stock holdings into the game. Metro is for two to six players and generally takes around a half hour to play.

The board consists of a rectangle with a number of train stations along each edge; some are named a bit anachronistically (for example, there is a station named after FDR, which seems a bit strange for a game set at the end of the 19th century!) Additionally, there is a smaller square in the center of the board.

On your turn, you either play the tile that is in your hand and then draw another tile to replace it, or you keep the tile you have and draw another tile that must be played. Tiles are played either against the edge of the board or orthogonally adjacent to an already-placed tile.

Each tile is a square that has two railroad tracks going off of each side, such that you can orient it in any direction and the tracks will always line up. When a track is completed, meaning that you can trace a continuous line from a train through to a station, the train runs along that track, scoring one point each time, it enters a tile, and then is removed from the board. There are no ties – if you would end up with the same score as another player, you instead score an extra point. Gameplay is a mixture of trying to make your trains follow long routes and closing off your opponents’ routes quickly! In the image above, for example, yellow will score three points. If the route ends at one of the center stations, however, the score is doubled; in the picture below, yellow will score ten points.

While Metro is not one of my favorite games, I’m glad to have it on the shelf; it’s a fairly light game that nonetheless offers some interesting decisions. On each turn, you have to weigh both whether you want to go for big points (at the risk of an opponent messing up your plans), take a smaller score while getting the sure thing, or ignore your track altogether in the interest of hurting your opponents. Of course, there’s also the problem of actually drawing what you need; often your play will be dictated by what you draw as much as by what you’re trying to do.

The game scales nicely with the number of players; each color comes with a card that shows which stations to start trains at for each number, which makes setup pretty easy. Naturally, scores drop dramatically with more players, as each person will be using fewer trains!

Overall, this game nicely fits into the “casual train game” niche along with Ticket to Ride.

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