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

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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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Basic Age of Steam Strategy, Part I: Locomotives and Laying Track

At its heart, Age of Steam is a fairly simple game. While the rules change from map to map, over 90% of the time the winning strategy is the same: set up your tracks and build up your engine such that you can start making 5- and 6-point deliveries as soon as possible.

Early on, it can be difficult to justify the expense of increasing your locomotive. Unless you can get the increase locomotive action (which requires spending money to get into the top two spots and passing on Urbanization), you have to give up a delivery just to up your loco by one. That’s between one and five income that you don’t get, as well as another dollar added to your expenses each turn. Additionally, at the start of the game you’re already in the red, so adding to your expenses just makes it that much harder to dig out.

However, try looking at it from the other direction. By increasing your locomotive early on, you’re giving up a point of income now, in exchange for potentially getting another one to two points of income every turn for the rest of the game! If anything, it gets harder to justify the increased locomotive once you’re up to three or four, as you’re now giving up more income and have less time to recover it. Even though it costs you money, bumping your locomotive every turn for the first few turns is pretty much a no-brainer; it’s sure to pay off later.

Provided, of course, that there are longer deliveries to be made! A common rookie mistake is to separate your track, putting pieces in various areas of the board; while that might let you grab more easy deliveries at first (and annoy your opponents), it means that you’ll be limited in how far you can ship goods without going over your opponents’ track.

One thing people may not realize it that increasing your loco by one doesn’t have to mean just one more point of income. It’s not uncommon that at the end of the game there will be deliveries that cannot be made in less than six links; having the one last point on your locomotive can mean the difference between getting that six and having to settle for a two on the last turn!

One tactic that I use on some maps is to build a large (say, 6-9 links) loop around the board. While a cube can never re-enter a city it’s already left, having a loop like this gives you multiple ways to make the delivery; for example, the loop might contain only one blue city, which is only 2 links away in one direction but a full six in the other. Chords (track that cuts across the loop) are also useful for avoiding cities you don’t want to enter (for example, a city might have a red city on each side of it in the loop; taking a chord allows you to move the red good from that city around the loop before delivering it).

Having multiple pieces of track coming out of a city can also help protect your cubes; each city has at most six ways into it, so the more of those you can block off, the harder it is for your opponents to get in and steal the cube you wanted to deliver (or deliver to that city). Practical example: on the Ireland map, which has two red/blue cities and no other way to deliver red or blue cubes, I once overspent – forcing myself to go down on the income track – in order to claim all paths to those cities. I more than made back the lost income as for the rest of the game, my opponents could only deliver red and blue cubes by moving over my track.

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That Train Game

I love train games. I’m not sure why, but I’ve never played a train game I didn’t enjoy, probably because the theme seems to mostly be applied to very strategic or tactical games that require a lot of thinking. My favorite!

Here I’ll be posting my thoughts, reviews, and strategies for various train games, particularly my favorite: Age of Steam.

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