My Favorite Board Games #5-#1

After my last post’s #10 – #6, here are my top board games, #5 – #1.  I was really hoping to find a new top 5 game at GenCon this year, and I didn’t even end up playing one that has cracked my top 10, at least not yet.

5. Shadow Hunters

Shadow Hunters is a survival board game set in a devil-filled forest in which three groups of characters – the Shadows, creatures of the night; the Hunters, humans who try to destroy supernatural creatures; and the Neutrals, civilians caught in the middle of this ancient battle – struggle against each other to survive.

You belong to one of these groups and must conceal your identity from others since you don’t know who you can trust – at least not initially. Over time, though, someone might decipher who you are through your actions or through Hermit cards, or you might even reveal yourself to use your special ability.

The key to victory is to identify your allies and enemies early because once your identity is revealed, your enemies will attack without impunity using their special abilities like Demolish, Teleport, and Suck Blood or equipment cards such as the Rusty Broad Ax or Fortune Brooch. This ancient battle comes to a head and only one group will stand victorious – or a civilian, in the right circumstances, might claim victory.

The 2011 edition of Shadow Hunters from Z-Man Games includes the Shadow Hunters Expansion Kit, a set of ten new characters previously sold separately.

This is the closest thing to a party game that’s going to go on my top-ten list.  It’s similar to The Resistance or Werewolf in that the players all have secret identities and secret powers, but the game plays well as an actual board game too with various tactical decisions along the way.  Like Battlestar Gallactica, this game is semi-collaborative, but unlike BSG, this game can handle up to 8 players pretty well.  There are two main factions: shadows and hunters.  There are also neutral players that can win the game prematurely if they can meet their secret agenda.

The rules of the game are simple enough to teach non-gamers quickly, and each turn is fast paced making the game play pretty quickly (usually about 45 minutes).  While not as tactical as many of the other games on the list, it certainly has more tactical decision making than a game like resistance of werewolf.  The game features bluffing and deduction, with players trying to identify their team members, trick their enemies into attacking the wrong side, and more.

Shadow Hunters is a more complex version of Bang!, although if you can’t get your friends to try a game of vampires and vampire hunters, Bang! is certainly a good alternative.

There are two issues with Shadow Hunters.  One is that some characters are significantly weaker or more powerful than others.  This is alleviated a little bit by the team aspect of the game as well as the short playtime.  This means I never take a game of Shadow Hunters too seriously, which I actually find as a benefit to the game as it becomes a nice filler between more intense tactical games.  The issue of varying degrees of power is especially true though of neutral characters, who have agendas that range to the near-impossible.

The second issue with shadow hunters is that, if you start playing as often as we play it, the characters start to get a little old (again, especially the neutral characters whose agendas become easier to spot).  You can find online fan-made cards which can really help add some variety to the game (I actually made shadow-hunter fan cards for each of my friends).  Of course, this problem only presents itself if you’ve found you really enjoy the game otherwise!

4. Smash Up

The “shufflebuilding” game Smash Up starts with a simple premise: Take the twenty-card decks of two factions, shuffle them into a forty-card deck, then compete to smash more Bases than your opponents! Each faction brings a different game mechanism into play – pirates move cards, zombies bring cards back from the discard pile, dinosaurs have huge power – and every combination of factions brings a different play experience.

During play, Base cards (each with their own difficulties and abilities) are in play. You attempt to have the most power on the Base from your minions when the Base is smashed. Sounds easy? How easy is it when an opponent’s Alien-Ninja decides to Beam Up your minions to other Bases – flat out Assassinate them? What about when the Pirate-Dinosaur player Full Sails in and releases King Rex to stomp your minions into the ground, or when the Wizard-Zombies use their Mystic Power to create an Outbreak, suddenly flooding minions onto the Base from the discard pile? Or what if you faced a Zombie-Dinosaur player instead and he created an Outbreak of massive beasts all at once?!?

When a Base is smashed, each player in first, second and third place scores points. Fourth place? Sorry, bro – try harder next time.

With eight different factions, Smash Up includes dozens of combinations to try. Pirate-Aliens play different than Ninja-Aliens, for instance. Which will you use to smash up your opponents?

And did we mention the dinosaurs have laser beams?

I have to admit that Smash Up surprised me.  I actually bought it as a cheap white elephant gift for a Christmas party.  My wife and I kept it, and I’m glad we did!  The game turns out to have amazing replay value because of the different combinations of factions, and how they synergize together in different ways.  This is one game where you really should get the first expansion as quickly as possible, because with the extra few factions (which are fantastic in the expansion) you get a very full compliment of varying strategies.

I recommend heavily that you don’t use the “drafting” rule after having played the game a few times, and this is because certain factions are going to have higher perceived (or real) power levels and are thus going to be selected every time.  After everyone gets familiar with the game, I recommend randomizing factions.  The downside of this is that you might end up with two factions that don’t seem to pair very well together, and lose because of a random draw at the beginning of the game.  The upside is that you’ll see tons of different pairings and have to problem solve your way through the game.  The game is short enough (45 minutes or so) and light enough that a single game with a disadvantage isn’t too disheartening as you can quickly play again.  Plus, with the ability of players to team up on a the leader a little bit, you can always have a chance even if your cards aren’t working perfectly together.  The art is fantastic, and the mechanics for each faction are elegant and brilliantly capture the flavor of that faction given the mechanics of the game.

The biggest downfall is that the game requires a lot of counting and re-counting, which can slow the game down significantly sometimes as players count and re-count strength on various bases trying to decide what to play.  This can lead some players to analysis paralysis and the game can grind.

3. Settlers of Catan: Cities & Knights

I don’t play Settlers very often anymore, but when my friends played it, we played the heck out of it.  This is a non-genre game that even non-gamers can appreciate.  It has an attractive board, simple mechanics, randomization, and several viable strategies to win.  It also relies on personal interactions with players, laying low, hiding your strength, joining forces, and making mutual beneficial sacrifices.

One of the reasons I don’t play anymore is because the interpersonal conflicts began to get a little bit too heated in our immediate group of friends – but even these emotional responses arise from a game with simple mechanics.  It’s an amazing blend of euro-style resource management with bluffing & trading.

This, to me, is the gateway board game for new gamers, bar none.  The game length of perfect to feel like a serious board game without requiring everyone to sacrifice their day to play it (hour and a half).

The one big downfall for Settlers to me is that the initial placement phase is so critically important.  It’s kind of like the initial draft in a fantasy football league.  Screw it up, and it’s going to be very, very difficult to recover.

2. 7 Wonders

You are the leader of one of the 7 great cities of the Ancient World. Gather resources, develop commercial routes and affirm your military supremacy. Build your city and erect an architectural wonder which will transcend future times.

7 Wonders lasts three ages. In each age, players receive seven cards from a particular deck, choose one of those cards, then pass the remainder to an adjacent player, as in Fairy Tale or a Magic: the Gathering booster draft. Players reveal their cards simultaneously, paying resources if needed or collecting resources or interacting with other players in various ways. (Players have individual boards with special powers on which to organize their cards, and the boards are double-sided as in Bauza’s Ghost Stories.) Each player then chooses another card from the deck they were passed, and the process repeats until players have six cards in play from that age. After three ages, the game ends.

In essence 7 Wonders is a card development game along the lines of Race for the Galaxy or Dominion. Some cards have immediate effects, while others provide bonuses or upgrades later in the game. Some cards provide discounts on future purchases. Some provide military strength to overpower your neighbors and others give nothing but victory points. Unlike Magic or Fairy Tale, however, each card is played immediately after being drafted, so you’ll know which cards your neighbor is receiving and how his choices might affect what you’ve already built up. Cards are passed left-right-left over the three ages, so you need to keep an eye on the neighbors in both directions.

7 wonders has been a huge favorite among our group of players.  It can accommodate 7 players, and since everyone plays simultaneously, the game doesn’t get too terribly long with extra players.  Also, it’s a quick game, clocking in at about 45 minutes for our group of friends (sometimes an hour if some players have analysis paralysis).

There are varying routes to victory, and the routes are well-balanced so that there’s not an obvious strategy to follow in any particular game, although some players tend to get comfortable with having success at a particular strategy, allowing you to meta-game some decisions around them.

The expansions to 7-wonders change the experience quite a bit, so I recommend playing the base game for awhile until you get bored with it.  While the base 7-wonders rewards players for being flexible throughout the game, the Leaders expansion rewards players who can plan ahead without giving away their strategy to gain bonuses from a drafted set of “goals” in the early game – or have the foresight to ignore those goals entirely to focus on a more rewarding strategy.

The one downfall for seven wonders is that, with 6-7 players, the strategic value of the game decreases a little bit.  With 3-5 players, you know you’re going to see some of the packs of cards you are drafting from again, and you can start planning ahead for what your opponents might buy and what might be coming back your way.  In 6-7 player games, this isn’t the case, which means you’re having to glean the same information by what everyone else is buying and guessing what cards might exist in the different packs.

1. Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game is a semi-cooperative game for 3-6 players ages 10 and up that can be played in 2-3 hours. Players choose from pilots, political leaders, military leaders, or engineers to crew Galactica. They are also dealt a loyalty card at the start of the game to determine if they are a human or Cylon along with an assortment of skill cards based on their characters abilities. Players then can move and take actions either on Galactica, on Colonial 1, or in a Viper. They need to collect skill cards, fend off Cylon ships, and keep Galactica and the fleet jumping. Each turn also brings a Crisis Card, various tasks that players must overcome. Players need to play matching skill cards to fend off the problems; skill cards that don’t match hinder the players success. Fate could be working against the crew, or there could be a traitorous Cylon! As players get closer and closer towards reaching their Earth, another round of loyalty cards are passed out and more Cylons may turn up. If players can keep their up their food stores, fuel levels, ship morale, and population, and they can keep Galactica in one piece long enough to make it to Earth, the Humans win the game. But if the Cylon players reveal themselves at the right moment and bring down Galactica, the Humans have lost.

I’m not sure there is a better board game out there than Battlestar Galactica, which is amazing considering it is a game based on a television show property.  The game is tactical from beginning to end.  The game induces a sense of palpable anxiety as the human players look around mistrusting at the others around the table who appear to be acting normal but you KNOW someone is out to get you.  As a cylon player, even after playing the game 100 times you still feel this little nervous jump as you look at your loyalty card and realize you’re going to have to bluff your way into some destruction.

We play with some of the expansion material, but we found some of it to be so powerful as to encourage cylon players to reveal instead of bluffing, which deflated the bluffing element which is central to the game.  We use all of the characters, most of the crisis, and the treachery deck along with Pegasus.

We play this game with 5 players only since a balanced game (in our experience, 5 players) is necessary for this game to feel rewarding for the amount of time you spend playing it (2 hours once you’ve got the rules down, 3 before that).   Since the game is semi-collaborative, it has the added benefit of guaranteeing that several players get to “win” each game session.

This game has resource management, great theme, bluffing, interaction, collaboration, and varying strategies.

The main downside with BSG is that the expansions add components to the game that I feel make the game worse (alternate New Caprica ending, etc).  We still use the Kobol objective and it helps keep the game time down.  The other downside is that it can be a fairly long game (2 hours or so) and sometimes, near the end, random crisis or runs of crisis can make the game feel a little out of the players control.

Still, it pretty easily takes my #1 spot over the field.

2 thoughts on “My Favorite Board Games #5-#1

    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      I thought about putting l5r on the list. I decided against including it for a few reasons:

      1) The game that I played (including the rules for it) are out of print. There’s a new version, and it’s probably similar, but I haven’t played it.
      2) It’s not a self-contained game that someone could easily buy (just ask Luke)
      3) I never get a chance to play it!


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