My Favorite Board Games #10-#6

I actually play about as many board games as I do RPGs.  After my GenCon experience, I wanted to sit back and think about how I’d rank my top 10 games:

10. Citadels

In Citadels, players take on new roles each round to represent characters they hire in order to help them acquire gold and erect buildings. The game ends at the close of a round in which a player erects her eighth building. Players then tally their points, and the player with the highest score wins.

Players start with a number of building cards in their hand; buildings come in five colors, with the purple buildings typically having a special ability and the other colored buildings providing a benefit when you play particular characters. At the start of each round, the player who was king the previous round discards one of the eight character cards at random, chooses one, then passes the cards to the next player, etc. until each player has secretly chosen a character. Each character has a special ability, and the usefulness of any character depends upon your situation, and that of your opponents. The characters then carry out their actions in numerical order: the assassin eliminating another character for the round, the thief stealing all gold from another character, the wizard swapping building cards with another player, the warlord optionally destroys a building in play, and so on.

On a turn, a player earns two or more gold (or draws two building cards then discards one), then optionally constructs one building (or up to three if playing the architect this round). Buildings cost gold equal to the number of symbols on them, and each building is worth a certain number of points. In addition to points from buildings, at the end of the game a player scores bonus points for having eight buildings or buildings of all five colors.

The expansion Citadels: The Dark City was initially released as a separate item, but the second edition of the game from Hans im Glück (packaged in a tin box) and the third edition from Fantasy Flight Games included this expansion. With Dark CityCitadels supports a maximum of eight players.

Citadels is a rare breed of game that can support up to 8 players, but is still good with 4.  The game plays quickly, although not as quickly as you’d think from the small box, clocking in at about an hour or 90 minutes depending on the number of players.  This is another game with a bluffing mechanic, as each player drafts a role card from a pack of roles.  Some role card are very powerful and can put you ahead if selected without being kept in check, but other role cards strike early both slowing down other players and preventing you from being attacked.

As the game progresses, certain cards will end up being good for different players at different times, and those players will have to continuously decide whether to chose a predictable card for themselves, pick a card that prevents someone else from achieving a goal, or taking something unexpected to avoid being attacked.  Even so, you might find yourself in the crossfire as players try to take each other down without being fully sure what role the other has taken.

Citadels is light enough to be a party game, but something about it doesn’t quite give off that party game vibe like Bang! or Shadow Hunters.  Still, the game is relatively genre-light which is a plus for a lighter party game, but it’s meaty enough to still take an hour or 90 minutes to finish.  There’s just enough strategy to keep the game interesting to more serious gamers.  There are various bonus point objectives including having a diverse set of structures in your city as well as being the first to complete the city.  There are advantages to buying expensive buildings (harder to mess with you) and advantages to buying cheaper buildings (quicker to finish).  There are also special city district buildings which introduce special rules into the game, but smartly, these special rules are only on about 20% of the cards.

The fun of the game really comes in the bluffing, and trying to figure out which player is using which roles.  Since all of the roles are useful to varying degrees and in varying circumstances, the game stays lively throughout.  Also, some games get annoying for good players because they tend to just become balanced by the other players ganging up on them.  Citadels gives players some ability to gang up, but that ability is quite limited, meaning good players aren’t quite as stymied by players ganging up on them.  I think this balance of players being able to gang up only indirectly as a nice outcome of the mechanics of the game.

My main issue in the game is that each player takes their turn in order, and sometime turns can take awhile.  When you have 7 players or so, there is a lot of downtime while you wait for the other six to take their turns.  This is made worse by the fact that the game just isn’t that strategic compared to deeper less-party type games, so when it is your turn, you may not have that much to really do.   Also, if you happen to be losing at a given time and you start getting caught in the random cross-fire of the assassin and the thief, the game can become start feeling random and un-winnable.

Still, if the players are fast-paced, the game moves just quick enough and has just enough bluffing and tactics to be a solid all-around game that just about anyone can enjoy.

9. Puerto Rico

The players are plantation owners in Puerto Rico in the days when ships had sails. Growing up to five different kind of crops—corn, indigo, sugar, tobacco, and coffee—they must try to run their business more efficiently than their close competitors: growing crops and storing them efficiently, developing San Juan with useful buildings, deploying their colonists to best effect, selling crops at the right time, and, most importantly, shipping their goods back to Europe for maximum benefit.

The game system lets players choose the order of the phases in each turn by allowing each player to choose a role from those remaining when it is their turn. No role can be selected twice in the same round. The player who selects the best roles to advance their position during the game will win.

Puerto Rico is definitely a gamers-game.  It’s a quality game of resource management, timing, and planning.  It has a great system of converting early production through an economic engine into a late-game point system.  This is a classic euro-style game with very little random elements and a lot of strategy.

Puerto Rico also plays pretty quickly for being a complex and well-balanced euro-game, usually coming in around 90 minutes to 2 hours.  There is a lot going on in this game, and there are quite a few different strategies.  This is one of those games that the more you play it, the more strategies become viable through experience, rather than less.  Even so, the rules are straightforward and while new gamers are going to feel that the game is complicated at first, it becomes pretty straightforward on subsequent plays.  This replay value and the complexity of various strategies is really what makes this one of the top euro-style games out there.

Another benefit of Puerto Rico is that there is very little direct conflict with other players, but the roles you pick immediately impact everyone else, allowing players to do some blocking and working together on the leader to help balance the game.

I’m sure a lot of serious gamers reading my top ten would be shocked to find puerto rico so low on the list, but as the rest of the list will prove out, I’m not a huge euro-style board game fan.  Puerto Rico though strikes a nice balance in complexity, analysis, and speed to crack the top 10.

The biggest downside to me of Puerto Rico is that games don’t feel all that different from one another.  I don’t think I could play Puerto Rico all day like I could other games with more random elements and more personal interaction.  Another top contender for this list was also a euro-style game in Power Grid, and at least power grid has bidding against your opponents built into the game.  There is still some ability to effect each other by taking a role someone wanted, loading a ship they needed, or selling something to the bank they wanted, so for a euro-game that’s a healthy amount of interaction, but some of the games higher on my list are definitely more interactive.  In the end, I think that this is going to be a difficult game for new players, especially as players begin to master some of the strategy – but you can play this game for some time before those strategies really begin to crystallize. It’s a game that’s in some ways is similar to Chess – a bit dry and lacking in theme and “fun” factor, but has lots of depth.

8. A Game of Thrones

In the second edition of A Game of Thrones: The Board Game, three to six players take on the roles of the great Houses of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, as they vie for control of the Iron Throne through the use of diplomacy and warfare. Based on the best-selling A Song of Ice and Fire series of fantasy novels by George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones is an epic board game in which it will take more than military might to win. Will you take power through force, use honeyed words to coerce your way onto the throne, or rally the townsfolk to your side? Through strategic planning, masterful diplomacy, and clever card play, spread your influence over Westeros!

To begin the game, each player receives an army of Footman, Knight, Siege Engine, and Ship units, as well as a set of Order tokens and other necessary components. Each player also receives a deck of unique House Cards, which are used as leaders in battles against rival Houses.

Each round in the game is made up of three phases: the Westeros Phase, the Planning Phase, and the Action Phase. The Westeros Phase represents special events and day-to-day activities in Westeros. There are three different Westeros Decks, and each denotes a different global action, potentially affecting all players.

The Planning Phase is perhaps the most important. Here you secretly assign orders to all of your units by placing one order token face down on each area you control that contains at least one unit (Knight, Footman, Ship, or Siege Engine). This portion of the game emphasizes diplomacy and deduction. Can you trust the alliance that you made? Will you betray your ally and march upon him? Players may make promises to each other (for aid or peace, for example), but these promises are never binding. The result is tense and compelling negotiations, often ending in backstabbing worthy of Westeros!

During the Action Phase, the orders are resolved and battle is entered! When armies meet in combat, they secretly choose one of their House cards to add strength to the battle. Finally, the Houses can consolidate their power in the areas they control and use that power in future turns to influence their position in the court of the Iron Throne and to stand against the wildling Hordes.

In addition to featuring updated graphics and a clarified ruleset, this second edition of A Game of Thrones includes elements from the A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords expansions, including ports, garrisons, Wildling cards, and Siege engines, while introducing welcome new innovations like player screens and Tides of Battle cards.

Tides of Battle cards are an optional mechanism that brings an element of unpredictability to combat, representing erratic shifts in the momentum of war due to factors such as weather, morale, and tactical opportunity. During each combat, both players draw one Tides of Battle card from a communal deck, and its value modifies the strength of his chosen House card. What’s more, such a card may also contain icons that can affect the outcome of the battle…all of which delivers a new level of intensity to your military engagements.

The is a traditional war game with several elements that elevate it above most of the competition. The game is beautiful, and captures the land of Westeros in a way that many genre games fail to do for their subject.  The game can support up to six players, and does so without straining the system.  In fact, 5-6 players is a preferred number of players for this game in our group.

The game features secret bidding for titles that are useful in different phases of the game, and can become more or less useful to you as the game progresses.  In order to acquire power to bid in the resource bids, you have to use your units to acquire it instead of using them to defend and attack – and units that are trying to gain power for you can be raided, inadvertently giving power to your opponents.

The game board in this game is cramped, meaning there are likely to be conflicts within the first two turns of the game.  By the midway point, battles are raging everywhere.  This is not a game you can win by playing passive, and the cramped board and constant pressure of attack from multiple fronts can make this a stressful experience for some players.

One of the most inventive features of the game is the order system.  Everyone places order token on the game board face-down at the beginning of the turn, and the turns them up simultaneously.  This means that you never know if your opponent is going to turn over an attack order in a neighboring region, or if they’re going to flip a defend order, or even a raid to try and catch you acquiring resources.

There’s also very little randomization.  In fact, until the 2nd edition there was no randomization, and the randomization cards in the new edition are an optional rule (that many in my group like to use to keep combats more interesting and to give hope to players that are losing).  This means that winning the game is very much about tactics, bluffing, maneuvering, and timing.

The game system also has a process for tracking supply and limiting army size by the amount of supplies you can muster.  This forces players to decide whether to aim for regions that provide supplies, influence, or keeps that can provide additional units.

Now to the problems with the game.  The first, and the biggest reason we don’t play it all that often in our group, is that the game is stressful.  You’re under attack from round 1 or 2 until the end of the game.  You can’t see what your opponents plan to do on any given turn until you’ve already committed your orders, so this lends to the level of stress as well.  Sometimes, one big mistake can pretty much cost you the game and lead to being overrun, which makes you a bit of a kingmaker for the rest of the game, basically just deciding who to attack so that someone else wins the game.

Another issue with the game is the mechanic for mustering more units of acquiring supply.  These things happen randomly, so a player who extends to acquire a new keep near the enemy might be rewarded with immediately gaining new units at that keep, or they might have left themselves exposed if units don’t muster that turn.  The same is true for acquiring additional supplies.  In fact, our group played a game where units did not muster until the very last turn of the game, meaning early deaths to units essentially eliminated those players.

7. Dominion

“You are a monarch, like your parents before you, a ruler of a small pleasant kingdom of rivers and evergreens. Unlike your parents, however, you have hopes and dreams! You want a bigger and more pleasant kingdom, with more rivers and a wider variety of trees. You want a Dominion! In all directions lie fiefs, freeholds, and feodums. All are small bits of land, controlled by petty lords and verging on anarchy. You will bring civilization to these people, uniting them under your banner.

But wait! It must be something in the air; several other monarchs have had the exact same idea. You must race to get as much of the unclaimed land as possible, fending them off along the way. To do this you will hire minions, construct buildings, spruce up your castle, and fill the coffers of your treasury. Your parents wouldn’t be proud, but your grandparents, on your mother’s side, would be delighted.”

In Dominion, each player starts with an identical, very small deck of cards. In the center of the table is a selection of other cards the players can “buy” as they can afford them. Through their selection of cards to buy, and how they play their hands as they draw them, the players construct their deck on the fly, striving for the most efficient path to the precious victory points by game end.

Dominion is not a CCG, but the play of the game is similar to the construction and play of a CCG deck. The game comes with 500 cards. You select 10 of the 25 Kingdom card types to include in any given play—leading to immense variety.

Dominion sure started a trend!  There are dozens of deck-building games out on the market now, but Dominion was really the first, and it accomplishes exactly what it tries to set out to accomplish, and that is simulating the feel of drafting a card-game deck, and turning the draft into a real-time game of its own.  And clocking in at about 45 minutes, the game is worth the time you invest in playing it.

You can play with the base game for awhile, but it’s going to quickly get stale with only 25 different kingdom cards.  You’re going to find that certain cards seem to play significantly better than others in almost all cases, and with only 25 different possible cards, there aren’t enough interactions.  These grow exponentially though as you start adding expansions, and expansions are something Dominion has no shortage of (at least 7).  I strongly recommend Intrigue as the first expansion you get, as the cards are still in-line with the mechanics and power of the base set without adding too many strange new rules.  I also recommend Hinterlands for similar reasons (although the cards in Hinterlands certainly get weirder and can have a larger impact on the game).

The game also has a nice mechanic of helping those behind catch-up by having cards that are worth points not actually contribute to your deck.  This means the more “point” cards you obtain, the weaker your deck becomes.  It’s a slight difference, but can start to add up if someone gets significantly ahead.  So it never feels like the game is out to get the leader, but the players losing also never feel bad for the player who draws a hand full of victory cards either.

A few downsides of dominion.  One, which I don’t really experience much because I don’t use them, is that some of the expansion cards (Prosperity) seem substantially more powerful than the base set.  Also, some of the expansions (Alchemy, Seaside) introduce wonky mechanics that I think distract from the elegance of the core game.  Admittedly, I have only a little experience playing with these expansions, but the reason was I didn’t enjoy them and decided not to purchase them after trying them out.

Second, some early bad luck can really cost you.  Someone getting the scratch together for a gold early game is going to reap the rewards of that card over and over; while someone who keeps just missing the cost of the better cards each turn is going to get punished for it over and over.  Often times, this sort-of evens out as the game progresses, but sometimes it doesn’t and everyone can tell who is going to win after 20 minutes of play.

Lastly, while the rules are simple (draw to five, one action, one buy with the coins in your hand, discard), having an ever-changing table of 10 kingdom cards means there is a lot of text to read and remember, and new players can get overwhelmed by all of the rules modifications on the cards.

6. Runewars

Runewars is an epic board game of conquest, adventure, and fantasy empires for two to four players. Runewars pits players against each other in a strategic game of battles and area control, where they must gather resources, raise armies, and lay siege to heavily fortified cities.

Runewars takes place in the same popular fantasy universe as the board games RuneboundDescent: Journeys in the Dark and Rune Age, and dozens of fan-favorite heroes and monsters play their part. The wars for the dragon runes are beginning, and only one faction will emerge victorious.

I have never read or played anything (to my knowledge) related to the world of Runebound, so my ranking of this game are on its merits alone.  This is the first war game on my list, and it edges out other war games partly because it’s not just a war game.  The path to victory is acquiring dragon runes, but a player can acquire them by bidding influence, questing with heroes, or forcibly taking them from other players.

This is not a light game.  There are tons of fiddly bits and pieces, and lots of little decks of cards, but in the end, this is one of the most complete board games I’ve played.  You have resource management, build choices, multiple tracks to victory, thematic armies that play differently from each other, game-board that changes from one game to another, drafting, bidding, and gambling.

This game takes every bit of three hours to play, which is actually kind of impressive given all the mechanics that it packs into one game.  Thankfully, the game is set to end after six years of war, which means that sometimes you’re trying to decide whether to extend yourself for extra runes or consolidate what you have.  Our group found the expansion underwhelming, but there are some nice extra tactics cards, heroes, and treasures in there.  The best part of the expansion is probably the extra unit models and the variant unit types for each army.

The game is very tactical.  Even when I win, I feel like I made multiple blunders throughout the game.  Of course, some of that is hindsight because there are multiple decisions all of the players are making in secret and then reveal.  How much influence to save or bid, whether to launch an attack in spring or wait until fall, how many people to leave behind, whether to forgo building army’s to consolidate influence, heroes, or title cards.  It’s game that’s difficult to master but the parts all seem to fit together by the end.

I have a few issues with the game though.  One is that some of the unit types are so weak they are never purchased, regardless of what strategy the player is pursuing.  Another is that the game is quite long, so you’re looking at a pretty heavy investment to play it.  It only accommodates 3 or 4 players.  And new players, especially those that haven’t played many war games before, are likely going to feel overwhelmed by all of the different moving parts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s