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 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.
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!