Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Board Gaming 101: So you want to start a "game night"...

I just got a request from someone who is starting a game night with some friends and was wondering what games I would recommend for him.  (He described the desired category as "slightly harder than Settlers of Catan or simpler".)  I decided that my take on this might be useful to others, so I'm posting this on my sort-of-defunct blog for wider distribution.  This is directed at people who do not consider themselves board gamers.  

Those of you looking for a general introduction to the hobby would be well served by looking at the introductory episode of The Dice Tower podcast, which can be found by following the "New to the show?  Here's an introduction to the Dice Tower" link on their homepage (or directly, here).  For my specific recommendations, I approach the subject with the intent to showcase a wide variety of styles of board game.  My hope is that this will serve as a good starting point for building a collection out of (relatively) simple and popular board games, as well as introduce you to a lot of concepts and game mechanics that would serve you well if you wanted to delve deeper into the hobby.

I'll be mentioning retail prices, which is what you can expect to pay at a Barnes and Noble or a local game store. If you don't care to stay local, (and are ordering more than the $100 minimum to get free shipping) you can get them for around 30% less at CoolStuffInc or Miniature Market. And there's always Amazon, where prices are less predictable, but still almost always below retail.

I am also slightly tailoring this list to the particular group using the following assumptions:

(a) the target audience is largely men in their early/mid twenties
(b) there may be drinking involved, so we should avoid anything that requires supre long-term planning or complex strategy

With that in mind - the games!

Light Openers/Closers/Fillers

These are the prototypical beer-and-pretzels games: the ones that don't take too long and don't require too much concentration.  This makes them great to pull out when (a) tired at the end of the night, (b) intoxicated, or (c) just waiting for the rest of the gang to arrive.

1. Bohnanza

The classic game of bean-farming(?!), Bohnanza is an oldie-but-goodie.  This game focuses on hand management, set collection, and negotiation.  You have to plant bean cards from your hand in the order they were drawn, which makes many of them unwanted as each of your two fields can only hold a pile of a single type of bean.  This means that finding a way to (profitably!) unload the unwanted beans on your neighbors is of paramount importance.  This one takes 30-45 minutes, and can play anywhere from 3-7 players, which makes it great for almost any group.  And with an MSRP of around $20, it can fit in almost anyone's budget.

2. Sushi Go!

This recent release is one of my favorites.  Sushi Go is a card game revolving around a single mechanic: card drafting.  In Sushi Go, 2-5 players compete to assemble the tastiest sushi meal, with all players keeping a single card out of their hand each turn before passing it to their left (or right) and receiving a new hand from another player in turn.  Each food type is scored differently (sashimi is scored only in sets of three, dumplings are worth more the more of them you have, etc), and the player who assembles three meals (rounds) totaling the most points wins.  The cute art and simple play make this one particularly popular with non-gamers.  Sushi Go takes 20-30 minutes, and costs $10-$15.

3. King of Tokyo

If the previous two looked a little too cute and non-confrontational, King of Tokyo may be more your style.  This dice game is like Yahtzee with Kaiju monsters.  You and up to five others are competing to be the biggest, baddest monster in Tokyo.  The dice are rolled yahtzee-style (two rerolls, keeping what you want) and then resolved.  Different dice combinations can heal your monster, damage other monsters, collect energy which can be redeemed for power-ups, or even score points directly.  Additional points are scored by taking and holding Tokyo against all comers.  The winner will be the either the first player to 20 points, or the last off-brand Kaiju standing.  This one is simple enough for kids to play, but still features a lot of tough-but-simple decisions to be made.  King of Tokyo retails for around $40 and plays in 20-30 minutes.

There is also an expansion (which I recommend), and a sequel, King of New York (which I have heard is even better, but it was literally just released and is impossible to find, so I have yet to play it).

4. Escape: The Curse of the Temple

Remember the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark?  This game starts the moment Indy stole the idol.  This is another dice game, but with two twists.  First, it is cooperative; players must work together to beat the game itself rather than competing against each other.  Second, it is played entirely in REAL TIME.  The game will last ten minutes, and you had better all get out of the temple by the time it collapses!  Players must explore the temple (revealing new tiles as they go), place magic gems to weaken the curse sealing the entrance, and help each other battle the curses that keep locking up their dice.  Escape will play 1-5 players (cooperative games will play solo if desired, but why bother?), and is one of two games that will leave you frantic and out of breath at the end of it.  While it does require more focus than the others above, the fixed ten-minute game time keep it firmly in the opener/closer/filler category.  Escape: The Curse of the Temple retails for around $50.

Also, this video review is awesome:

Main Event Games

These are games with a little more meat on their bones.  These feature more strategy. more complex mechanisms, and longer play times.  I have restricted my recommendations to games with play times under two hours.  Longer games may be equally great, but they tend to be a bit intimidating to newer players.  Welcome to the main event!

5. Dominion

Dominion is the quintessential deckbuilding game; released in 2008, it introduced the mechanic.  Deckbuilding games have you start with a small deck of cards (composed mainly of "money" cards).  On your turn you draw a hand, play your cards, and then use the "money" you've played to purchase new cards from a common pool that go into your discard pile and will be shuffled back into your deck once you've run through it.  The purchased cards could give you better money, let you draw more cars, score points, damage opponents, etc.  In Dominion, the particular strategy must change from game to game (depending on which 10 of the 25 possible cards are available for purchase), but it generally involves building your purchasing power as much as possible, and then at some point pivoting to purchasing "victory point" (VP) cards.  The player with the most VP at the end of the game wins, but the VP cards themselves are dead weight in the deck, which do absolutely nothing.  This is a fantastic game that I have successfully taught to the many people, and only one has ever found it not to his liking.  Dominion plays 2-4 players in 30-60 minutes, and retails for about $45.

6. Flash Point: Fire Rescue

Flash Point is a full-length cooperative game where 1-6 players are trying to evacuate a family (and their pets) from a burning home while keeping it from falling down around their ears.  Each player has a fixed number of actions on each turn, which can be used to put out some flames, move your firefighter, carry a victim, knock a hole in the wall, or other things.  But you can't do them all, so do you try to douse the smoldering tiles so they can't reignite, or do you follow the cries of the victim from the next room?  Or do you cross to the other side of the house where you know another firefighter need a hand to keep the blaze suppressed?  There is no right answer, and the game really is out to get you.  Flash Point: Fire Rescue plays in 45-75 minutes and retails for around $40.

Runners up for cooperative game: Forbidden Island - I find the theme a bit less compelling and the game a bit too puzzly, but it's incredibly kid-friendly and it's tough to beat the $15 MSRP.  Forbidden Island's more grown-up sibling is Pandemic, which is probably the most popular coop game, I find has a less engaging theme than Flash Point, but it deserves at least a mention here.  It would be hard to go wrong with Pandemic in this slot.

7. Galaxy Trucker

Galaxy trucker is another game that is quite possibly more fun while intoxicated.  The game is played in three rounds.  Each round begins with a real-time session of tile-laying, where players are grabbing tiles and assembling a spaceship out of what they find.  Once it's assembled, you all get to watch hilarity ensue as the ships encounter slavers that steal your crew, pirates and meteor showers that destroy the ship out from under you, and planets that you can stop and trade at.  Once you get the end of the journey (a deck of 8-16 random events) you collect your money earned, grab a new and bigger ship board, and do it again.  The player with the most money at the end of 3 rounds wins.  There is little funnier than discovering that while you may have forgotten to grab the batteries to power your shields, your buddy built his ship so shoddily that if he loses a single tile half the ship will fall off - and then watching that all-important tile get taken out by a meteor!  Galaxy Trucker is for 2-4 players, lasts for 60-90 minutes, and retails for a (slightly steep) $75.

8. Stone Age/Lords of Waterdeep

You only need one of these, but I honestly couldn't decide which one.  Both Lords of Waterdeep and Stone Age are worker placement games.  Each player has a number of workers, each of which gets assigned to different tasks on the board each turn.  The more workers you have, the more you can get done.  Conflict in these games usually consists of crowding out other players (once a spot on the board is filled, other workers can't go there to do that task).  Workers are used to gather resources, which are then converted into points.  It sounds a bit dry in the abstract, but these are among my favorite games.

Stone Age has each player shepherding a tribe of cave men (and women) through pre-history.  Workers assigned to gather resources roll dice (one per worker) to see how many you get, and these resources can be used to get points by building huts or developing technologies.  Workers can also plant farms, create tools to modify dice rolls, or have kids (getting you more workers).  But you can't focus too much on point-scoring, because at the end of each round you've got to feed your tribe - and if you haven't hunted up one food per worker, you'll take a big score hit.  Stone Age plays 2-4 in about 60-90 minutes, and retails for $50.

Lords of Waterdeep works similarly.  Here players are shadowy guild leaders who are using their agents (workers) to recruit adventurers (resources) who will be sent out on quests once the appropriate adventuring party has been assembled.  Quest rewards include points, end-game bonuses, additional resources, or new player powers.  It is less random than Stone Age (no dice rolls), but features direct conflict through the Intrigue cards (e.g. pick a player to give you an adventurer of his choice, force a player to complete a crappy mandatory quest before he can do the ones he wants to, etc).  Lords of Waterdeep derives its tension from direct competition with the other players, unlike Stone Age, where the tension is more commonly centered on competing against the game itself to feed the tribe and the general need to keep up with the other players.  Lords of Waterdeep plays in 60-90 minutes and retails for $50.

9. Rampage

Also known as Terror in Meeple City (name change due to some idiots failing to secure the license), Rampage is my favorite of all dexterity games.  In Rampage, 2-4 players compete to score points by smashing buildings, eating meeples (small wooden people), and beating each other up.  All of this is accomplished by flicking discs around the board, flicking objects off the head of your avatar, blowing at buildings, dropping the monsters from shoulder height, and other physical mechanisms.  This one is simple to learn, has randomly assigned player powers to add variety, and requires almost no strategy beyond "HULK SMASH".  It's a hoot.  Rampage plays in 60-90 minutes and retails for $60.

10. Small World

Every comprehensive list needs a war game of sorts, and Small World nicely fits the bill.  Small World introduces two important concepts: hidden scoring and area control.  In Small World, players control a whimsical fantasy civilization composed of a "race" and a "power".  This random combination provides the civilization with two unique abilities (and a specific number of army markers).  Players are then tasked with taking and holding as much territory as possible for as long as possible, as at the end of their turn they score a point for each territory they control (plus and ability bonuses).  Eventually a player will have lost enough armies or be so spread out that they can't really make progress.  At that point, they can send their civilization into "decline", and start over with a new civilization one while continuing to score points for whatever their old one manages to hang on to.  The points collected each turn are public, but total scores are not, so you're never quite sure who has the lead.  (E.g. One player had a few really great turns, but another has been having consistently good turns...)  Play continues for a fixed number of rounds, and the player with the highest score at the end wins.  This is a war game that beats the pants off of Risk - the random abilities and combinations thereof add tons of replay value, and the fixed game-length, lack of player elimination, and the possibility of replacing your civilization if you have a bad turn mean that everyone can stay involved and nobody gets bored.  Small World plays 2-5 (I personally recommend 4-5), will last about 90 minutes, and retails for $50.

11. Ticket to Ride

No list of recommendations for inexperienced gamers would be complete without Ticket to Ride, which has sold over a million copies and won more awards than you can shake a stick at. This is the classic train game of set collection and route building, where players compete to score the most points by claiming routes on the board to connect the cities on their hidden tickets. On your turn you can draw train cards (either from the 5 face up ones or randomly from the deck), draw new tickets (draw 3, keep at least one), or claim routes. Routes are claimed by redeeming a set of train cards that match the color of the route. The game ends when a player runs out of the plastic trains used to mark their routes, and the player with the highest score wins!  It's simple, moves quickly, requires just enough strategy and planning to keep you thinking without overloading you. If you only get one game, this is the closest thing there is to a sure hit. Ticket to Ride plays in 60-90 minutes for 2-5 players, and retails for $50.

Party Games

These are the games you bust out when you have a crowd.  I'll admit that I'm not much of a fan of the genre, so my recommendations may be a bit off from those of others.

12. Dixit

Dixit is my go-to game for a smallish crowd when I don't know the tastes of the group. In Dixit, each player has a hand of unique full-art cards that feature scenes with the twisted whimsy of some modern-day Lewis Carroll. The active player will choose a card from their hand, place it face down on the table, and give a clue. This clue could be a word, a phrase, a grunt, anything. I actually whistled a tune once as the clue!  Each other player then submits a card (face down) that they think matches the clue. These cards are shuffled with the "true" card, and then placed face up. Players then simultaneously guess which one was submitted by the active player. If anyone guesses correctly, then they (and the active player) score points. But if everybody or nobody guesses correctly, everyone but the active player scores; ideally you want to then be giving clues that are obscure, but not too obscure.  Players also score by suckering others into voting for their submissions. First player to 30 points wins.  The base game plays 3-6, but it works very well in teams, and there is (or was) an expansion that allowed for 12 players. This one has universally been a hit when I pull it out. It takes around 45 minutes and retails for about $35.

13. Wits & Wagers

If you absolutely, positively, must have a trivia game, Wits and Wagers is the cream of the crop.  There are seven questions, each of which has a numerical answer.  Everyone submits an answer on a tiny white board, and they get arranged from highest to lowest.  Players must then bet on which answer is closest without going over - with answers farther from the middle yielding better odds!  The answer is given, bets paid out (and the person who submitted the winning answer gets 3 chips) and play proceeds to the next question.  The winner is the player with the most chips at the end.  This game is terrific because it can be won not just by knowing the answers, but also by knowing who else is likely to know the answers!  Wits and Wagers plays in 30-45 minutes and retails for $40.