I really like board games, as those of you who have been reading for a while will know. While I’m perhaps not quite as “hardcore” into the hobby as some on the Internet — largely due to not getting to play quite as often as I’d like — I do firmly count myself in that contingent of geeks who enjoy shuffling cards, fiddling with cardboard chits and moving wooden and/or plastic pieces around on a table. There’s something inherently fun about it as a physical activity, and the social side of things shouldn’t be understated, either — it’s a great thing to do with friends if you don’t feel like going out, and is an activity that can easily be “scaled” according to how many people you have and how much time you have available.
Next weekend, I’m taking a short trip away with some friends of mine to make merry and play a ton of board and card games. I’m really looking forward to it, since it will be some uninterrupted time to enjoy ourselves without having to worry about being home on time or anything like that. (I will add at this juncture that Andie is enormously understanding and patient regarding my geeky hobbies, and that I appreciate it enormously — especially when she joins in!)
Anyway, in preparation for said weekend, I catalogued the games I have available, and it seems I have amassed quite a sizeable collection over the last few years. I am happy about this, and I like displaying them as a talking point. (If you come over to our place and you see anything exciting-looking that you’d like to play on my shelf, just say the word and I’ll be more than happy to bust it out.)
For those less familiar with the hobby, it’s difficult to know where to start. So I thought today I’d spend a moment going over some of my favourites from “The Davison Collection” and why they’re worth a look. Not all of these games hit the table regularly in our gaming group due to our varying tastes, but I enjoy all of them for various reasons.
Ticket to Ride
If you’re just getting into board gaming — and by that I mean “ready to step beyond Monopoly and Scrabble” — there are few games I can recommend more than Alan R. Moon’s classic Ticket to Ride. It’s as simple as that.
Ticket to Ride’s theme is that you are claiming train routes across North America, circa 1920. (Alternatively, in one of the many other versions of the game, you might be traversing Europe, Scandinavia or all manner of other places — each alternative version also features slightly-modified rules for variety.)
This isn’t a dry, complicated business simulation, though; quite the opposite. Ticket to Ride is actually a relatively simple game of set collection. You’re dealt a hand of coloured cards at the outset of the game, and on each of your turns you can do one of three things: draw two more cards, either from the selection of five face-up cards on the table, or from the face-down draw pile; claim a route by playing the corresponding number of like-coloured cards to the discard pile and scoring points for it; or drawing new “route tickets” that provide long-term challenges to be scored at the end of the game. That’s essentially everything you need to know to get started — there are a couple of extra rules involving when you can and can’t draw rainbow-coloured “locomotive” wild cards, but essentially those three actions are all you need to know to start playing Ticket to Ride.
Once you’ve got the rules down, a game of Ticket to Ride is done and dusted in maybe 30-45 minutes, depending on how many players you’ve got. It’s a great game to introduce “non-gamers” to the hobby, and a good “start of evening” game to get everybody warmed up.
Staying with the theme of “easy to understand, hard to master” games, we have Klaus-Jürgen Wrede’s Carcassonne, a deceptively simple yet enormously competitive game that is as fun with two players as it is with five.
There are very few rules to learn in Carcassonne. On your turn, you draw a square tile from a face-down stack, then place it somewhere on the table in such a manner that it connects to something else. Pretty much every tile connects to something, so I believe it’s impossible to get into a situation where you can’t play anything at all — though clever play by your opponents may mean that you might not be able to play exactly where you want to.
Points are scored in Carcassonne by completing “features” on the map. These include cities, roads and cloisters. Each of these is claimed by placing one of your little wooden “meeples” on the tile you just placed to mark your ownership of the feature, then completing it. Cities must have a complete wall; roads must terminate at junctions, cities or cloisters; cloisters must have the eight tiles surrounding them filled. You don’t get your meeple back until you complete the feature, so one strategy is to make it as hard as possible for your opponents to finish their features, thereby depriving them of further point-scoring opportunities in the later game. You also can’t “share” a feature with another player unless you claim an unconnected part of it and later join it up. You can add more than one meeple to a feature to defend it more strongly in the same way — you can’t, however, simply add multiple meeples to connected tiles of the same feature.
Carcassonne’s “long game” comes in its “farming” mechanic, the exact implementation of which depends on how old the edition you’re playing is. In most current editions of the game, farms are claimed by lying a meeple down on its side in the grasslands between roads and cities. This meeple can never be reclaimed, and scores no points at the end of the game. When the game ends, each field enclosed by cities and/or roads is calculated separately — the player with the most meeples in that field scores three points per city. Again, you can’t add meeples to a farm that has already been claimed except by claiming an unconnected area and later joining it up — a process which can often be quite tricky to complete.
Carcassonne has extremely simple mechanics that belie a huge amount of tactical depth. It’s quick and easy to play, yet has the potential to get enormously competitive — in other words, it’s a great game for board game newbies to cut their teeth on, and one that remains relevant even as you get deeper into the hobby.
Pandemic is a cooperative board game in which players take on the role of disease control specialists attempting to cure four viruses that are spreading across the world. Each player has unique special abilities, and a significant amount of collaboration is required to beat the challenges the game provides.
Like the other games on this list, Pandemic’s mechanics are fairly simple. To cure a disease, all you have to do is collect a set of like-coloured cards, then ensure you’re in a research station to discard the cards and discover a cure. The twist is that it’s a bit fiddly to trade these cards between hands, and all the while you’re faffing around collecting cards, the disease is continuing to spread across the world, meaning you occasionally have to prioritise charging off on an aid mission to stop the viruses spreading unchecked.
Pandemic is a challenging game. There are several ways to lose: running out of cards to draw; running out of coloured cubes to represent a disease; or allowing the number of “outbreaks” — occasions where an already heavily-infected city causes nearby cities to be struck down also — to reach its maximum. It is fairly likely that the players will lose the game, particularly when playing on the harder difficulty levels — but it is still fun despite its challenge factor.
Pandemic is a good game to encourage cooperation, communication and collaboration, and it’s great for those who aren’t good with super-competitive games or direct conflict. It’s strictly the players against the game — unless you’re playing the “bio-terrorist” mode that comes with the “On the Brink” expansion set — and thus either everyone wins together… or more likely, everyone loses together.
Whack a Catgirl
I’m not going to pretend this is the best game in the world, but it is silly and enjoyable — and not only that, it plays super-quickly, too.
In Whack a Catgirl, you are attempting to pelt an irritatingly cute anime-style catgirl with a variety of amusing objects. The basic mechanics of the game consist of drawing cards from a central face-up pool and either playing them immediately if they are an action card, or putting them in your “arsenal” in front of you if they are item cards. Once you have at least two “hearts” worth of items in front of you, you can lure Neko-chan the catgirl over to you with them — discarding them in the process — and then batter her over the head with another one or two of your items, depending on how many “hearts” you expended to lure her. Flinging items at Neko-chan allows you to discard them into your face-down score pile, which is totted up at the end of the game.
That’s basically it. The game mechanics are super-simple, but the fun in Whack a Catgirl comes from the silly cards and the theme. It’s fair to say that the humour and references on the cards are probably best suited to anime fans or at least those familiar with Japanese popular entertainment, but anyone can get a kick out of the amusing artwork and inherent ridiculousness of the theme.
Fun fact: this was one of the first games from Asmadi Games, who have come to somewhat greater prominence recently through their chaotic card game We Didn’t Playtest This At All.
This is basically Logo: The Game, a reference which was totally lost on everyone I last mentioned it to. Come on! PEN DOWN, FORWARD 100, RIGHT 90? No? I’ll be over here, being an old fart.
In Robo Rally, you take on the role of one of several amusingly-named robots and must proceed through a series of checkpoints before the other robots do. Simple as that. Except it’s not quite that simple — the courses are extremely hazardous, the other robots have a habit of shooting at you if you’re in their firing line, and the amount of control you have over your robot can occasionally be inconveniently unpredictable.
A single turn in Robo Rally consists of drawing cards, then using them to “program” your robot’s actions for the turn. Cards allow robots to move forward and backwards and turn left and right. Once everyone has programmed their robots, everyone resolves their moves one step at a time. If a robot ends a move facing another robot, it fires at it and causes damage. If a robot moves into another robot, it pushes it along — something which can seriously fuck up a carefully-laid plan.
As a robot gets more damaged, more of its cards become “locked”, which means that the robot must perform that same fixed action on its turn. As you can probably imagine, this can be enormously inconvenient, particularly if it’s a “move forward” card that carries a significant risk of throwing you down a pit. Further complications are added by environmental hazards such as conveyor belts, lasers, walls and all manner of other problems. What initially appears to be a simple task quickly becomes very challenging — particularly with the chaos of the other players thrown into the mix.
Robo Rally is simple to pick up but hard to master. It’s a lot of fun, particularly for those who enjoy thinking about things logically, but be warned, it’s pretty rare you’ll be able to pull off the “perfect” plan every time!
This is a “deckbuilding” game — a game where you start with a fixed deck of cards, shuffled randomly, and then gradually acquire more and more cards as the game progresses. These cards fall into two main categories — cards which help you buy things, and cards which help you fight things. Your points largely come around from fighting things by playing a high enough value of “fight” cards on the table — but in order to acquire said fight cards you will, of course, have to spend some time acquiring some cards that help you buy things.
Ascension’s mechanics are easy to pick up and games flow quite quickly, even with four players. The deckbuilding mechanic is a lot of fun and helps ensure that games are never quite the same, and it’s just thematic enough to keep fans of fighting fantasy monsters happy, while providing enough strategy for beard-scratching tactical fans to have things to think about.
Talking of deckbuilding…
Dominion is an interesting game that has a lot of potential variations. Each time you play, you pick a random selection of card decks to use, meaning that each game has a different combination of special abilities available to you. Thematically, you’re building a kingdom by purchasing territory and constructing facilities, but in practice you’re collecting cards that work well together and allow you to do more with your turn than you can at the outset of the game. The basic mechanics are relatively simple, but the tactical possibilities provided by the cards mean that the game grows gradually in complexity as you collect more cards for your deck.
Dominion perhaps isn’t quite as accessible as Ascension is, but it’s probably the deeper game. Once you get your head around the rules and become familiar with the cards, games can flow pretty quickly — until then, however, be prepared to spend a bit of “thinking time” determining how the various cards can benefit you.
Honourable Mention: Agricola
I feel honour-bound to mention Agricola because my gaming group is such a big fan of it, but I honestly don’t enjoy it all that much when it does come out. This is largely due to the fact that I’m not very good at it, which I appreciate is a somewhat shallow reason to dislike it, but there you are.
Actually, the thing I dislike more than anything about Agricola is not that I always lose at it, but it’s that I don’t really understand why I lose, or how I can do any better. And looking up potential strategies online doesn’t really seem to help either. It’s just something I need to become more familiar with, I guess. I can certainly appreciate the interesting, complex but accessible mechanics at work in the game — I just have no idea how to do any better than I already do.
Time to practice, I guess.