First, Merry Christmas!
Secondly, we have all been there. A family Christmas turns toxic when someone suggest playing a board game, and Aunty drags Monopoly out of the cupboard. Now Monopoly can be a lot of fun I guess – but it is not for me. There are MUCH worse games on the market — but there are also some real gems out there, which deserve to be better know. I write games, design games, create games, and there are many that are like a special kind of Purgatory that can put you off the idea of board games for life. So today, hampered by a badly cut finger that makes typing really difficult, I thought I’d have a go at listing 12 games that you might actually enjoy playing this Christmas. I’ve played all of them, and missed an awful lot of favourites out, but seriously, these are all great games.
I’m not ranking them by quality, but by complexity and price, with family suitable and “people-who-don’t-play-games” games first. Some of these really require a serious effort just to learn, so try the lower numbered games before you rush out and drop fifty quid on Agricola unless you are already a hard core gamer. At the end I’ll list places you can get them from, as unless you have a local hobby retailer you might struggle.
So without further ado, on with the games!
Game 1: HANABI
Hanabi is ace. It’s a game about fireworks, and making them, but really it is a game about collecting cards in sets of five, and working together to match colours and numbers. At around a tenner, and playable with 2 to 5 players, age 8 and up, you can play a complete game in 20 to 30 minutes. The cards are boldly designed and pretty enough, but this game is sadly utterly unsuitable for the colour blind, as I have pretty good colour vision and under electric light struggles sometimes to tell green from blue, and white from yellow, so if you are red/green deficient you are really going to struggle. The rules are very short, and really it’s a sort of Patience card game where the players work together to try and complete 5 fireworks before they run out of cards or time or make too many mistakes. The catch is you can’t see what cards you are holding, holding your hand to face the other players. It is quite hard to explain, but for a simple fun family game, I would highly recommend it.
Game 2: SETTLERS OF CATAN
This is a modern classic, a fun game for those aged ten up, but also Becky’s favourite game of the moment. Perhaps the biggest drawback of this game is it only works with 3 or 4 players, and while it lasts an hour and a half that speeds by. An island is constructed of hexagon tiles, and players build roads and houses across it by collecting cards and playing them in sets. You can find this one in your local W.H.Smiths and prices are usually around £30 to £40, but honestly it’s worth it if you have two or three other people who you might play games with. I’ve been playing since 1995 and I’m not bored with it yet. My review can be found here on this blog, and you can find loads about the game on the internet.
Game 3: TICKET TO RIDE/TICKET TO RIDE EUROPE
The game that turned me in to a hard core board game player after years of not being keen on them. Even Settlers has begun to leave me unsatisfied after ten or more years of play, when I picked up this game to take to Becky’s one Christmas. We played it at least weekly for months, in fact maybe a year, before my Agricola passion took over. Ticket to Ride is the USA map, Ticket to Ride Europe covers –well, Europe! — and both are great games, which handle 2 to 5 players well, age ten and up I would say. Coloured cards are a feature but the pieces and cards have symbols on so if you have good eyesight colour blindness many to be such a big issue as in say Hanabi, where the symbols are hard to describe and differentiate at a distance. However the pieces and tracks on the board are small, so be cautious and check – don’t take my word for it. So what’s it about? Railways, and building tracks between cities! I review the game here on this blog and there is a good online version you can play free a few times to see if you like it. Expect to pay thirty to forty pounds for this one!
Game 4: LOVE LETTER
A ridiculously simple but clever game that uses a handful of cards and some little pink cubes for scoring. My copy came in a red velveteen bag that a friend said looked like it should contain some device from Anne Summers! Set in a court where the Princess has taken herself off to her her room after the Queen was arrested for treason, and various princes are trying to get the staff to smuggle love letters to her. You play one of the princes (or princesses I guess) trying to win the heart of the Princess, and you do this by playing special cards. For 2 to 4 players, aged ten and up this is a real gem worth seeking out. It only takes 15 to 20 minutes to play, the rules are a bit complex but once you get them elegant, and it costs under a tenner, indeed maybe £6 to £8 I think. Definitely recommended.
Game 5: PANDEMIC
The theme of this game is utterly grim. Viral pandemics have broken out across the globe, and you play the desperate attempt to contain them before they wipe out humanity. This is one of my favourite games, and a co-operative one – the players as in Hanabi work together to beat the game, not each other. The game supports 2 to 4 players, though you could adapt it to play it on your own I think if you really wanted. A clever game mechanic sees little wooden cubes spread across the map each turn as cards reveal where the diseases are flourishing, and you race around the game map sharing resources and ideas with other players trying to stop a cataclysm. If you work in a Path lab, or have friends with a love of medical drama, you must buy this. My only caveat is this – buy the Second Edition. I owned the First Edition, and the supplement On the Brink – and I have just bought the latest supplement for the game, but I then had to buy covers for all my cards as the second edition has new artwork, and so the In the Lab supplement is only really usable with second edition. Given how much I had already spent buying the first editions I was hacked off, though pleased when I found the company sell a set of cards to upgrade your old version to the new. Until that is I found out how much they cost, and that retailers don’t carry them so I’d be paying to have them shipped from Canada. Poor show, I probably won’t buy any more Pandemic stuff now, though I have covered my old cards with card protector sleeves so I can play In the Lab if I want to.
Game 6: CTHULHU 500
I don’t know much about motor racing, but I am a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror fiction. Unfortunately far too many games in my opinion try to involve elements of his Cthulhu Mythos, but in this case the bizarre mix of racing cars and eldritch tentacled horrors actually works. A fun card game for 3 to 8 players with fairly light mechanics, you will need a couple of ordinary six sided dice. Definitely worth a go, if you can find a copy! I’d say the complexity level was about that of the old Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks, so age 12+?
Game 7: KING OF TOKYO
Another game I reviewed on this blog, a homage to “Giant Monster ate my city” type movies. Designed by Richard Garfield who gave the world Magic: The Gathering, this is a great little family game for age 12+. with 2-6 players playing the part of Giant Monsters competing to trash a city. It’s great fun, and fiercely competitive, and while it has some small pieces and is a bit pricey at around £30 I think anyone could learn the rules if they read them carefully and the components and presentation are beautiful. Do get this one for a Christmas rampage! I have already reviewed it on this blog.
Game 8: DOMINION
A card game of considerable complexity and sophistication, we played this loads for a while. You need the table space you would use for a board game, and it is hard to explain except to say it is a bit like Magic the Gathering or a collectible card game, where all the players have access to the same cards. I enjoy this one, but do think it is less suitable as a first game unless you have played some card games like Magic first. 2-4 players aged 10+, maybe even 12+ as the strategies get mind-boggling pretty fast. So what’s it about? Well you collect cards and play them to get money to buy cards to acquire kingdom cards. Yes I know that leaves you little the wiser, but trust me it’s a good game! Twenty to Thirty minutes, probably around 30 pounds.
Game 9: 7 WONDERS
This one is quite complicated as well. Play through several periods of history building up your civilisation by acquiring technologies, monuments, armies and building your Wonder of the World! It’s again really a card game, but the hands of cards are swapped between players after each turn, and there are little game boards and coins as well, and some tokens used in scoring. A really fun game, the complexity is probably age 12+, and you need three to seven players. Takes a little while to understand and explain the rules, but once people understand the rules a good game can be played in 30 minutes. Prices seem to range from twenty five to forty pounds for this one.
Game 10: TWILIGHT STRUGGLE
NOT a family game. GMT Games produce serious wargames in the style of the old SPI/Avalon Hill Games ones, but this is not a hex based wargame – it’s a card and map driven simulation of the period 1946 to 1990, covering the whole of the Cold War. It’s for two players, one playing the Soviet Bloc, one playing the USA and allies, and I guess the subject matter is grim — the game can end in a loss if one player accidentally goes too far and causes a Nuclear Armageddon. However if you lived through some of those years, and have a good knowledge of 20th century history, this is about the finest three hour tense political and military game you can play I think. A lot of counters, well written and informative rules, it simulates the perceived reality of the Cold War from the perspective of the Soviets and Americans — a chilling game of brinkmanship, imperialism and real world horrors. Cards reflect actual events of the Cold War period, and doubtless some people would argue the game is in horrific taste, but it is certainly educational and makes you think. It is a also a beautifully constructed game, giving a balanced outcome — if the Soviet’s don’t win early though they face a serious struggle to hold off the US. The Space Race mechanic is great, and how many games give you the decision to boycott the Olympics or not, hey? 1989 dealing with the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe in that year is another game with similar mechanics and an equally perfect evocation of an era. If you are 30+, love modern history, and want a serious two player game, look no further. It’s a long way from Christmas jollity though!
Game 11: STAR WARS: X WING
Less a board game than a little wargame you can play on the kitchen table featuring painted models of Star Wars ships. For your thirty pounds you get everything you need to play, with one X wing and two TIE fighters. The introductory rules are absurdly simple, and suit age 9+ I’d say for 2 players, but there is a decent little wargame in here with a lot of complexity once you move to the main rule book, and the manoeuvre rules are really quite cool. The only drawback is you want more and more ships, and at about £12 a ship it could prove pricey, though I would say an additional fifty quid would give you enough ships to satisfy most folks, or you could just buy a second basic box set. I like this game, and it seems to appeal to the lads, but not as much to the ladies — though I am sure big Star Wars fans would love it! Definitely worth buying this Christmas, some branches of Waterstones have it in. A lot of fun with pretty model spaceships, and only 30 minutes or so to play a dogfight like you saw in the movies!
Game 12: AGRICOLA
If you know me you probably know that my current favourite game for the last couple of years has been Agricola. It works well with 2 to 5 players, though I think I play 3 player most, has difficult rules that take a lot of reading to understand, and takes an hour to two hours to play — but once you master the rules and complexity, it is a beautiful game. I have played it a LOT – a couple of hundred games now – and it is one of those rare games that I think is improved by a supplement, in this case Farmers of the Moor. However Agricola will set you back £50, and is definitely age 12+, though with the amount of play I have had from it it certainly has been worth every penny for me. I won’t describe it in detail here, as I have already reviewed it on this blog, but Agricola remains as of Christmas 2013 my all time favourite game, having replaced Diplomacy in my affections.
So Where Can I Buy These Games?
Firstly a warning. If you buy online, many of these games have supplements and expansions. If you know about the game you will recognise the difference, but there is no point in buying an expansion without the game itself. So check you are buying the game, not a supplement for it!
If you live in Cheltenham first try Proud Lion, your local game and comic shop shop on Albion Street, across the road from the back entrance to Debenham’s. Ben can advise you well, and he keeps a good selection of titles in stock upstairs. I would certainly recommend Green Knight Games, another local business (mail order) who have an excellent knowledge of the games and are always helpful and efficient.
If not, you can try ordering from the net. Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com stock many of these titles, Leisure Games in London stock pretty much everything too, are very helpful, and do mail order — and it is worth checking your local branch of Waterstones or WH.Smiths, where some of these games can be found. There are of course hobby shops up and down the country, and they vary greatly in customer service – sadly I can no longer recommend Wayland’s Forge, Birmingham, after a friend (Andy) gave the guy behind the till a sum of money when we entered the shop and said “this is for CJ’s birthday, let him just grab what he wants”, and then when I went to pay a couple of minutes later found the shop guy had converted it to Store Credit – so I could get no change, buy no second hand goods and the money Andy had given to me for my birthday had suddenly become tied to buying stuff there. Admittedly it was odd Andy gave him the money before I completed the purchase, but for refusal to backtrack or do anything about it I stopped shopping there, which must have cost the business rather a lot over the years. I’m still annoyed about it 7 or so years later! Of course the bloke in question may be long gone by now, so perhaps worth a try.
I do hope you will try a game this Christmas! This is by no means a definitive list, and many of my favourites do not appear, but do offer your suggestions in the comments section below, and advice on local stockists near you or games you have enjoyed.
I like boardgames, as many readers of this blog will know, and recently I reviewed the excellent Ticket to Ride: Europe, a game which has been taking up far too much of my time recently. On Saturday night I dug out an old favourite of mine to show Becky, one of the few games I would compare with Ticket to Ride in quality - Settlers of Catan. I picked up the game back in 1996: Polly and I played it for months, and most of my friends have played it a few times. I bought it in a little game shop in Cambridge now sadly closed, and it is a testimony to how good it is that the Bury St. Edmunds lads made their own sort of copy to play till the they got the one they ordered! (Trust me – that’s a lot of work, you are much better off buying it!) Tonight I played tow games against Kevin and Luke – and despite not playing for over ten years now, I won both. I’m looking forward to teaching Becky the game when she comes down on Friday, she will love it I think.
I noticed before Christmas that my local W.H.Smiths stock it in their game section, so it’s a game anyone can pick up. There is also a travel edition, but to be honest I’d buy the full size version – expect to pay anything between £25 and £35 for it (more in W.H.Sniths as I recall) but if you like games, and are bored with Monopoly, Risk, and Cluedo (I’m not a great fan) this is a fun and fairly simple game playable in an hour to an hour and a half. And it is a really good one, a real classic. Five out of five as far as I’m concerned! In fact I would say even if boardgames are not your thing, then like Ticket to Ride this is a game well worth buying anyway.
So what’s it about and how does it work?
Well I guess the back story is some settlers have arrived on the island of Catan, and are building little empires. No fighting in this game – you can build little towns, roads and cities, and trade with each other. The clever bit is how the game works – the island of Catan is made up of a number of hexagonal tiles, which bear one of six types of terrain (not counting the surrounding sea), and each (bar ) produce a resource. There are plains which produce grain, mountains which produce rock, forests which produce timber, hills that produce brick, and pastures which produce wool. There is also a single desert – that does not produce anything.
Each time you play you shuffle these tiles face down and lay them in a random order, so the map changes. Then you place counters on top, that bear the numbers 2, 3, 3, 4, 4, 5, 5, 6, 6, 8, 8, 9, 9, 10, 10, 11, 11, and 12. On your go each turn you roll two six sided dice, and the hexes with the corresponding numbers produce resources, assuming anyone has a city or town next to them. Yes anyone. So if I roll an 8 and Luke and Kev have a town each adjacent to a hex numbered 8, and that hex produces say wool, they both pick up a wool card and add it to their hands.
It’s really VERY simple; but an ingenious bit of game design. You don’t have to wait till your next go to get cards, and s the player whose turn it is can initiate trading at any time, well you have to be constantly involved – no time to dash off and check your email before your next go as with some games. The capacity to trade freely with other players and swap cards makes for a really interactive game.
So what do you do with the cards?
You build stuff. New towns, new roads, upgrade existing towns to cities, or buy Settlers of Catan special event cards which might give you a Monopoly on a resource for a turn, a Knight (explained later), Road building (add two bits of raod immediately) or a Breakthrough – a palace, tower, or some other architectural item which gives you a free Victory Point. The players with the most Knights (but at least three) gets two points for having the largest army, the player with the longest road gets 2 points, and each town is worth one point and city two points. As the game goes on and people build cities the rate at which resources are acquired speeds up (a city lets you draw two resources when a hex it is adjacent to is activated) and to my mind the game always seems to end suddenly, in an exciting last turn or two as suddenly a player gets to eight victory points and everyone tries to stop them.
Knights & Robbers
The observant will have noticed that when I listed the numbers above I missed out 7. That’s because when 7 comes up, the most frequent roll on 2 six sided dice summed (or 2d6 as gamers would say), the palyer who rolled it gets to move a big wooden token called The Robber. That player places the Robber in a hex adjacent to a nother player’s settlement, and steals one of their cards. More importantly that hex now does not produce ANY resources until the robber is moved – and that will only happen when someone rolls a seven again, or draws a Knight card from the Settlers of Catan cards, which allows them to move the robber. The robber is a real pain! While each settlement adjoins three hexes (settlements are built on hex junctions, roads along edges) and you can block each other by building raods and cities to stop your opponent getting a valuable resource, using the rober against them is a really effective tactic.
The problem with board games: and a solution – play Catan free now?
The problem with board games is simple; they are a social activity. That is of course also a huge strength – playing Settlers will require three to four of you with at leat an hour an a half free to sit around a table. It’s much easier to fire up the X-box and play some game, or even to play a game on the web. Of course I play Ticket to Ride on-line (see the review I wrote for details of how; but I did not think it was possible to play Settlers like this. I was wrong! If what you have read so far sounds interesting, why not give the game a go now? You will need to register, and download some software, but I have given it a go – and there is aversion you can play against robot opponents which is ideal for learning the game. However multicatan is very complicated even to an old hand like me, and i find the on-line version (which includes element sof the Seafarers of Catan expansion I have never played) quite confusing! Also unlike Ticket to Ride online, the online Settlers of Catan take place over a week, with you recieving email offers of trades from other playes. Well I have signed up fr a game (as cj.23 as normal) – and i’ll let you know how I fare!
Settlers of Catan: the video
Amazon offer this rather jolly little video that will teach you how to play the boardgame -have a look (includes sound!)
OK, so this year for Christmas I took a huge risk and bought Becky a boardgame Ticket To Ride Europe. I am happy to say this proved to be an excellent choice! If you enjoy games, whether a hard-core gamer, or are just someone who likes to play something with friends other than Chess or Bridge or Strip Poker from time to time, I’d seriously consider buying this game. Even if you normally don’t like games, give it a go! And do read the review – because I include details on how you can try it out from the comfort of your own pc for free…
How do you explain TTR? It’s a family boardgame, which anyone aged over twelve should be able to understand the rules of an play, and intelligent kids from ten up should handle it – hell I was playing Avalon Hill’s Diplomacy at that age! It is certainly not Snakes and Ladders, but actually I think it is much less complicated than say Monopoly, and to me many many times more absorbing. I’m not a fan of long drawn out boardgames, and I quite like the mission cards in Risk which let the game end earlier if you meet your objectives — and yes, this game is easier to learn and more enjoyable to my mind than Risk. In fact I think it may be my favourite boardgame ever — and an avid Diplomacy fan like me has to admit that I may even prefer it to that great game. I’ll come back to that at the end of the review. Well this game can be played with 2 to 5 players, with the 2 player game being as good as the 3, 4, or 5 – just faster – and all of thm can be played in under an hour once everyone knows the rules, and maybe less.
So how does it work?
Ticket to Ride Europe is an amazingly simple but elegant design. You start with a game board (fairly large, will fit on a coffee table though- normal boardgame size I guess) depicting a map of Europe in 1901 (Spring 1901 perhaps?). Place names are generally rendered in the local language – Vienna is Wien, and so on. The map is fairly geographically accurate, with a few places positions nudged a few miles to fit better on the board, but t will certainly teach you geography, and may actually be useful in that respect. The map is attractive, and covered in pretty coloured railway lines – well potential railway lines, waiting to be built.
These routes are then built on by the players taking it in turns to lay their little plastic train carriages, to connect cities. It sounds deadly dull, but it isn’t. It’s utterly fascinating! To build a line you have to play cards, and you on each turn can either take two cards, from a face up selection, or from the deck for a random choice, to add to your hand. Alternatively you can play cards from your hand in sets to build lines (there is a third and fourth option mentioned below). So from London to Edinburgh can be built by playing a set of four orange cards, you have collected, or four blacks. Once someone has built a line that’s it : the route is claimed, and other players can’t build there, with the exception of double tracks, which you can build anyway – like London to Edinburgh – if you have the other colour. In the two player game only one set of double tracks can be built on. Lines do not have to be contigous: you can build anywhere on the baord you have the cards to play. Grey routes are wild, any coloured set of the relevant size can be played to complete them, but having the longest track does give you extra points and aid greatly in winning.
As well as the pink, white, green, yellow, orange, red and black cards their are also locomotive cards which are wild and can be played anywhere. They can also prove useful for building tunnels: I won’t explain tunnels and ferries here, but the rules are simple and elegant. The full rules can be downloaded here if you are interested, but it’s much easier to understand them if you have the map and pieces in front of you: neither Becky nor I were very excited when we first read the rules before we tried to play. (In fact she said it looked like “a game for trainspotters”). Now we are both addicted to this game! New features over the original Ticket to Ride (itself avery fun game, set in the USA 1901) are Tunnels, Ferries and Stations which add a little complexity but are enjoyable.
Building lines earns you points: byut the game is far more than this, and there is a nother vital deck of cards I have not yet touched upon – the Tickets. Tickets are destinations, and come in to two types – long routes and other routes. There are only six long routes in the original game, and this is perhaps the only weakness of the game as sold – you soon (after the maybe forty odd games I have now played – I told you it was addictive) -get to know all the long routes off by heart. There is an expansion pack which gives morte destination cards including 9 more long routes, but we have not bought it yet, as the game is very playable without it. These Ticket cards are at the heart of the game: you start with one long route and three short routes, randomly drawn, and get points for connecting these cities. You cn reject a couple if you want, and take a risk and draw more in the game (drawing three of which you must keep one is the third play option on a turn.
The final option is building a station – these allow you to run a service along a short stretch of a rival’s line, say Essen to Kobenhavn (Copenhagen for the Danish impaired among you, and I mean the language not my friends!). This costs you four points at the end of the game, but can be well worth it. There is an excellent tutorial and guide here on the publisher’s website, with loads of photos, a fun video which will show you the basics, , and all kinds of other great stuff.
Winning the Game
The player with the most points at the end wins, and you gain points by laying “track” – for example 1 point for a one stretch, 7 points for a four piece track and 21 points for the 8 piece tunnel between Stockholm and Petrograd (presumably actually a mix of tunnels and ferries, doubt anyone would try and bridge or tunnel under the Baltic there in reality, probably a line through Finalmnd off the top of the map?). Completing tickets earns you more points, and your long route is worth 21 or 20 alone – but if you manage a route from Kobenhavn to Erzurzum in Turkey, Palermo to Moscow, Athens to Edinburgh or Brest to Petrograd to give just three possibilities then you deserve it! Actually these long routes nearly always get completed – if you don’t complete a route, you LOSE the points instead of adding them, so you will lose 40 or 42 points from what you would have had if you made it.
The final source of points if for the longest continual stretch of of track built: ten points. Final scores range from about 150 (by me) to the lowest score I have ever seen, 30, achieved by Ed, though I think Becky managed that on an USA 1901 online game last night!
Fast and absorbing, especially in the 2 player game. Even in the 5 player you are usually busy planning your next move till your turn comes round again, though if another player is absorbed in an interminable text message conversation with a girlfriend on their turn or are a bit slow of understanding owing to being absorbed in something else like say cooking, it can be annoying to have to prompt them – but it’s the same with anything, and such people should be banished from civilisation (to Buxton, I know Ed never reads my blog so he won’t notice this!) anyway.
There is a lot of room for tactics and a large degree of skill, but also with the drawing of cards plenty of room for dumb luck and of the best laid plan to fall through. Careful play can usually mitigate this: Becky still wins most games, but we have all won a few, and DC won his very first game, which may have been through skill. The game is however quite low on interaction: you don’t trade cards, and the only real interaction comes in blocking each other routes by building where someone else needs to go. Experienced players see opportunities to do this more: they know the routes and important bits of track — (hint: the two piece green routes from Frankfurt to Essen and Rostov to Kharkhov are usually worth grabbing fast) — but even if you realise that Bob is building from Athens to Edinburgh, it is not really worth trying to block him, except possibly in 2 player game. You only have 45 pieces of track — and you will need all of them. In online play deliberately blocking someone is considered unsporting by many players anyway: wasting track messing about with your opponents planned routes is rarely worth it anyway, as you are more likely to win by going for your own destinations. I tend to like highly interactive games like Diplomacy: I still love TTR.
How Can I Try It Out for Free?
Go to the publishers website, Days of Wonder. Make sure you have read the rules – I put the link above. If you register on the Days of Wonder site you can play online free, I think four free games, which usually take about twenty to thirty minutes each to complete – online play seems much faster. You should be able to work it out quite quickly, and so long as you understand tunnels and ferries and stations (to play a station online drag and drop a card over the city you want to build on, and hit ok when it asks you: to play track drag and drop card on the route, and to take tickets double click on the Ticket cards.) Look for a game called For Beginners – and remeber that Ticket to Ride USA is the easiest to learn and play (no tunnels stations or ferries to worry about) so start with that. If you like it you can buy the online versions – owning a Days of Wonder boardgame gives you a ten per cent discount, and buying from the US store in dollars it was less than a tenner to buy Ticket to Ride and Ticket to Ride Europe online versions. It might take you a little while to work out how to join a game etc, but the tutorials are excellent and you are made to play a solo game against robot players (bots) first to make sure you get the hang of it when you register. So why not try it? I’m registered as CJ23 on the site, so do add me to your buddies when you join and I’ll play you if we are online at the same time.
Fast, addictive, plenty of strategy and a lot of fun – go play trains!
If you enjoyed this review you may wish to read my review of Agricola here