Tuesday, October 6

Getting Board-Gamey with Board Games #1: Board Games!

I’ve gotten back on a board games kick in the past few weeks, and it looks like I have a few topics, so I can do another mini-series. This one won’t particularly help you lose weight, unless you run to the game store for board games and then run home after you’ve purchased some. I recommend this course of action.

We spent some time with the 2009 Spiel des Jahres winner, Dominion. It plays like a simple CCG (but no booster packs to buy… almost), with the innovative mechanic that you draft cards into your deck as you play. Since your score is based on the value of the treasure cards in your deck at the end of the game, but those treasure cards are deadweight in your hand when you draw them, there’s a tension as you balance the ratio of action cards with scoring cards. Fun with probability was had by all.

I enjoyed this a fair bit for its innovation and also in the “methadone for Magic: the Gathering” sense. The combos are for the most part simple but can be rewarding to pull off. Also, the Chapel deck. Cait was not particularly drawn in, however, and will tolerate but not request this one.

We gave Small World a few plays, since it had been sitting on the shelf since its Spring release. We both like conflict and territory games and, although Small World is not a wargame, it has some (at least surface) similarities: each player controls a fantasy race that occupies parts of the Small World map, and during your turn you conquer even more territory with your pieces. Small World’s differentiating mechanic is that you can chose to abandon a battered race to the fates and start over on your next turn with a new, fresh one.

Though the random pairings of races with bonus abilities is clever and lends a bit of replayability by making each game slightly different, we’ve been overall unsatisfied. Small World’s strategic choices seem limited and its conquest is far too sterile. Other than a single, last-chance die roll at the end of each turn, you conquer territory merely by committing the required number of units. If you have enough, you’ll win the space. Cait and I both prefer the suspense, surprise, and thrill of deciding battles based on dice rolls. A defender who holds off wave upon wave of attackers with luck alone adds excitement to the evening.

I convinced Cait to give Tigris and Euphrates — considered one of game design legend Reiner Knizia’s masterpieces — another go. We didn’t even make it through one game.

Whatever makes this game great does not seem come across with two players, at least not two players who have not played the larger game and don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing.

I think our problems with this are similar to the problems we had with Java: the game comes across as a series of mechanics, with no overall guidance on how to play it. Though I’m reasonably content to lay down tiles and see what happens, Cait doesn’t have as much fun if she can’t find at least some strategy to execute.

The surprise hit of the past few weeks has definitely been Ticket to Ride. We’ve had this for quite a while (it was an early purchase due to its place among the Three Gateway Games alongside Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne) but it’s gone though a bit of a Renaissance for us.

The key to an enjoyable two-player game has been to use the Big Cities variant from the USA 1910 expansion. Those tickets all start or end in one of seven large (for 1910) cities, which bestows two gameplay benefits:
  • Players are brought into conflict with each other around the seven endpoints. Though Cait and I aren’t particularly cutthroat with each other, knocking elbows keeps the game from feeling like multiplayer solitaire.
  • Taking late-game tickets is a more viable strategy, since there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll already have at least one endpoint covered. (Especially since you see four tickets in this variant, rather than three.)
Our past few games have all been down to the wire, with train counting and big ticket gambles that have both succeeded and failed. We’re also evenly matched, which is more fun. The last two nights that we played it we were enjoying ourselves so much that we went three games back-to-back, which is somewhat rare for us for a game of this length.

Check out my BoardGameGeek badge to the right to see what else we’ve been playing, and come back next time for some more capsule reviews.