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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