A One Man Board Game Buyer’s Guide (Part I)

Settlers of Catan

Settlers is in an odd place nowadays. It was the game that first broke German-style gaming in America, and it has been successful enough to reach a certain level of critical mass. I have even began seeing Catan at the houses of friends who normally would only have Monopoly and Scrabble in their game closets and have certainly never heard of the term “German” gaming. Nonetheless, Settlers has a surprisingly low BGG ranking, and I have the sense that much of the hard-core crowd has moved on from Settlers to more complex games like Puerto Rico and Caylus. It may now be a victim of its own success, which is a shame because Settlers of Catan is a brilliant, brilliant game, superior to all but a handful of games on this list. Three elements of the design stick out in my mind. First, the pure simplicity of the mechanics, which almost anyone can grasp within a few minutes. No hidden modifiers exist that need to be remembered, and almost all the rules are spelled out on the board and cards in an intuitive way. Second, the embrace of randomness, both for the map layout and during the game itself. Having a random map greatly extends replayability, and random resource generation nicely avoids the “perfect information” problem from which many Germany games suffer. Finally, trading has always been a rich game mechanic, and Settlers is built for trading. Isolationists will almost never win, making SettlersΒ one of the most socially interactive German games. No game collection should be without it.
Grade: A (BGG: 7.73)

Carcassonne

The joy of playing Carcassonne is not altogether different from the joy of finishing a puzzle. Finding the perfect spot for your piece is a great game mechanic, not to mention an accessible one. However, Carcassonne does not have intuitive scoring rules. The danger is not the complexity – it’s that the game looks simpler than it actually is, which inevitably leads to a disappointing experience when a new player trips over the tricky farmer rules. Another game for every collection, but I wish the designers had pushed themselves harder to keep the scoring simpler.
Grade: B+ (BGG: 7.57)

Caylus

The last game of Caylus I played was six hours long, which was about five too many. Caylus is the worst example of a trend in German games to minimize hidden information and random elements. These traits are valued highly among the most hard-core of board gamers – the ones who would like to win 10 games out of 10 versus newbies based on their own superior skill. Unsurprisingly, Caylus is a popular game among this crowd. To me, it feels like slow-motion arm wrestling. Between two players, that dynamic is actually not so bad. Among bigger group, it’s a pretty painful slog.
Grade: C (BGG: 8.09)

Bang!

Bang! is a blast! Essentially a souped-up version of the old college dorm ice-breaker, Mafia, the game revolves around hidden identities. Play sessions tend to be lively and memorable – I’m still smarting from the game I came an inch away from winning as a Renegade by convincing the Sheriff I was the Deputy until I got killed by the Dynamite! Aaargh! As a deeply asymmetrical game, the balance is a little dubious, but Bang! certainly proves that pure fun is more important!
Grade: B+! (BGG: 6.92)

Bohnanza

If Settlers is a trading game, then Bohnanza is a trading game on steroids. Every rule in the game exists for the sole purpose of encouraging trading, and they work perfectly. So perfectly, in fact, that the rulebook has to specify that it is ok to refuse gifts! (Imagine needing a rule like this in Settlers…) The only downside to Bohnanza is that there is so much trading that there is an unfortunate potential for hurt feelings with regards to who trades the most with whom. If your game group is sensitive to these types of problems, the game may not be right for you.
Grade: B (BGG: 7.25)

Citadels

Quite a few games have the mechanic of I-know-that-you-want-to-choose-X, but since you-know-that-I-know-that-you-want-to-choose-X-you-won’t-choose-X, but as you-know-that-I-know-that-you-won’t-choose-X-then-maybe-you-will-choose-X-after-all, and so on. Citadels, however, is built entirely around this tension, via the secret selection of roles at the beginning of each turn. Of course, the tortured logic train never leads to a definite answer, so the guesses have to be based on pure personality, making Citadels a great game to be played among old friends. Who is the greediest? The sneakiest? The most aggressive? The most conservative? Well, it’s a lot more fun than the Myers-Brigg.
Grade: A- (BGG: 7.37)

Pandemic

Jonathan Blow, designer of Braid, gave an interesting talk this summer on the common disconnect between narrative and gameplay in video games. A good example is the choice made in Bioshock between harvesting and rescuing Little Sisters. The narrative tells the player that the choice matters, but gameplay tells the player it doesn’t matter. Board games also have a similar problem when the theme does not match the mechanics. Although theme can often be a secondary concern for board games – consider how similar the gameplay is between San Juan and Race for the Galaxy yet how completely different the setting is – the best games often find a way to pair the two. Pandemic is one such game. The players are disease specialists who work closely together to control outbreaks across the globe. More importantly, the players feel like they are racing to find creative, cooperative solutions to a challenge where the deck is literally stacked against them. (The innovative deck re-shuffling mechanic, in which previously drawn cards are placed on top, is especially worthy of note.) This pairing contrasts with another fun cooperative game, Shadows over Camelot, in which players are supposed to be Knights of the Round Table, but they feel more like they are playing whack-a-mole by assembling the best poker hands. The pairing of mechanics and theme is what makes Shadows just a good game and Pandemic a great one.
Grade: A (BGG: 7.92)

Ticket to Ride

I have written before on the bizarre “backstory” behind Ticket to Ride. Fortunately, the game itself is excellent. Further, Ticket to Ride is extremely easy to teach and also moves at a brisk pace, making an ideal introduction into the larger board gaming world for new players. Ticket to Ride is also at the vanguard of a trend which I believe will become increasingly dominant in the near future, what I will term “competitive solitaire”. The goal of the game is to build a network of tracks which connects a random selection of cities. Other players can occasionally affect your plans by grabbing a route you need, but overall, the feeling of the game is of trying to make as many of your own connections work as possible, not of trying to screw over your opponent. The big advantage of competitive solitaire is that when a player loses, they tend to blame their own play instead of their opponents’ decisions, which usually encourages players to try again to “get it right” the next time.
Grade: A- (BGG: 7.62)

Puerto Rico

The reigning BGG champion, Puerto Rico definitely sums up what is great and not so great about German gaming. Plenty of interesting strategic decisions combined with elegant mechanics – such as simply adding a gold coin every turn to unselected roles as a reward – earn the game much respect. However, the lack of hidden information and (almost) no random elements make the game difficult to enjoy when playing with optimizers, who tend to be the ones most drawn to deep board games in the first place. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, I don’t want to play Puerto Rico with anyone else who wants to play Puerto Rico.
Grade: C+ (BGG: 8.38)

Race for the Galaxy

Inspired by Puerto Rico (not to mention San Juan), the card game Race for the Galaxy centers on building up a collection of planets and developments for points or for production, which can later be converted to points via trade. The big difference between Race and Puerto Rico is that the players’ build options are hidden in their hands and that the action phases are played simultaneously. These distinctions make Race significantly more accessible because player have to make intuitive guesses, instead of over-analyzing the set turn order and complete information of Puerto Rico. Games of Race can be played very quickly, probably having the most interesting decisions per minute of any game, ever. Like Ticket to Ride, Race could also be described as competitive solitaire, which makes the game – despite its complexity – relatively accessible.
Grade: A (BGG: 8.05)

Set

Why do people walk tightropes? Why do they skydive? Why do they run marathons? For the same reason the play Set – to test their limits. More of a time-sensitive puzzle than a game, Set is not to be undertaken lightly. The challenge is to find specific three-card patterns before your opponents can, and the experience is nerve-racking. Many people will hate Set because the game can literally give you a headache, but if you want to push your brain as hard as you can, Set is the game for you.
Grade: B- (BGG: 6.53)

Lost Cities

One of the biggest advantages physical games have over digital games is that all one needs to become a game designer is a stack of cards, some stickers, a few markers, and maybe a die or two. In some cases, just a single deck will do. Lost Cities bears the obvious marks of deriving directly from a standard pack of playing cards. The game has five “suits”, with cards ranked from 2 to 10 and three face cards, er, I mean, investment cards. The gameplay itself uses a classic risk/reward mechanic that encourages multiple, early investments but penalizes players who cannot complete all their goals. The discard mechanic is interesting as well, putting game length squarely under player control. My only wish is that designer Reiner Knizia had pushed himself a little harder to simplify the scoring rules as they don’t match the simplicity of the rest of the game.
Grade: B (BGG: 7.34)

Mamma Mia!

An interesting memory game, Mamma Mia! is also nearly impossible to explain to players in words. Players submit pizza ingredients and orders into a collective stack, hoping that when the stack is replayed, the ingredients will match their orders to score points. The trick, however, is that ingredients are communal – if you remember that I submitted a bunch of mushrooms earlier, you can steal them for your own mushroom pizza order if you submit it before me. One game in, however, and most players are hooked. Most importantly, Mamma Mia! does an excellent job of keeping the amount a player needs to remember in that sweet spot between trivially easy and hopelessly difficult.
Grade: B+ (BGG: 6.62)

Age of Renaissance

Some games simply have gone a rule system too far. Ostensibly a sequel to the old classic Civilization, Age of Renaissance has an absolutely gorgeous map of Medieval Europe as well as a promising trade model which encourages monopolizing resources spread across the whole world. Nonetheless, the game is virtually unplayable because of the cumbersome technology system, encompassing 26 techs, all of which can be learned in a single game and each of which changes how the game plays for the owner. Keeping track of all those bonuses and special rules would be fairly trivial for a computer, but the experience is a slog for a human. Only cutting technologies (or, at least, taking away their unique bonuses) from Age of Renaissance could have saved this frustrating, yet enticing, game.
Grade: C (BGG: 7.17)

History of the World

As I discussed with Pandemic, theme is a tricky problem – especially as many board games can easily be converted from one theme to another without damaging the core play experience. Further, quite a few games that try to differentiate themselves on theme often do not actually deliver on that promise. How many world history games devolve into rich-get-richer scenarios which bear no resemblance to actual world events. (Indeed, I’m guilty as charged too! The Civ community calls this the Eternal China Syndrome.) History of the World is not one of these games. The designers solved this problem by building the fall of empires into the core gameplay – and not as some obscure option that players would learn to avoid. Each turn in HotW, players are forced to leave their old civilization behind and start a new one. The audacity with which the designers violated such a basic assumption – that players get to build off of their gains – is remarkable. That in doing so they built a game which looks like real world history and is also fun to play is an astonishing achievement. The scoring mechanism itself, which increases the total points available each turn to keep all players in the running, is worthy of note too. The game may certainly be a little long for some, but I can think of few other games that deliver on their theme’s promise as well.
Grade: A+ (BGG: 7.17)

Taj Mahal

I fell in love with Taj Mahal right away. The rules are so simple, yet so rich for multiplayer competition – indeed, Taj Mahal is one of the most cutthroat games I have ever played. The central strategy is knowing exactly when to push for victories and when to hold back as the rules naturally prevent rich-get-richer situations. Further, the penalty for overreaching is severe, perhaps too severe for more casual gamers. Nonetheless, Taj Mahal is a fascinating game, with some nice random elements and a scoring system (similar to History of the World) which encourages comebacks by giving out more points in the latter turns.
Grade: A- (BGG: 7.67)

27 thoughts on “A One Man Board Game Buyer’s Guide (Part I)

  1. Pingback: Soren Johnson’s Board Game Buying Guide

  2. Love the reviews.

    I own a lot of the games that you reviewed: Ticket to Ride, Bohnanza, Puerto Rico, Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne.

    My gaming group particularly likes these board games because
    1) No player is ever eliminated
    2) The turns go very quickly
    3) They also tend to be newbie friendly (except for Puerto Rico =P) and have a good level of both depth and ease of play.

    Another advantage of competitive solitaire, which is found in Ticket to Ride in particular, is each player has individual goals. Many times, in other games, when a player knows they are completely out of it, he/she get pretty frustrated and just wants the game to end. However, many of the players that play Ticket to Ride are happy even when very far behind because they managed to complete all of their routes. Most players end the game happy.

    Ticket to Ride: Europe I think is actually my favorite game so far of the Ticket to Ride series (I have Switzerland, America (with both expansions), Europe, and Marklin).

    P.S. I’m hoping Thurns and Taxis is on Part II. Also, Scotland Yard.

  3. “To paraphrase Groucho Marx, I don’t want to play Puerto Rico with anyone else who wants to play Puerto Rico.”

    Love it!

    That quote is one of the reasons I think game designers should ignore much of what “fans” claim is best about their games because those people inevitably want to make the game even more exclusive to their little club.

  4. Wow. Look who’s winding down on Spore and now has some time on his hands. πŸ˜‰

    Interesting list, Soren. I admit I haven’t done the whole board game thing since the 80’s… and have played none of these. I may have to go shopping.

  5. “Part II is probably a long way off… like maybe after my next project.”

    Are we talking Valve time here? Cause then we’re in trouble πŸ˜‰

    Do you actually own all of these games, or are they swiped from various friends?

  6. β€œTo paraphrase Groucho Marx, I don’t want to play Puerto Rico with anyone else who wants to play Puerto Rico.”

    I’m reminded of that scene from “WarGames” where WOPR cycles through that set of nuclear exchange scenarios and all of the calculated outcomes.

  7. I can’t help but notice you omitted one game from your review list. Your own “Civilization” card game! Are you ever going to make another board game or card game? πŸ˜‰

    P.S. Based on your review, I went to go get Pandemic at my local, neighborhood game store. /sigh, out of stock. I’m wondering if I should grab Race for the Galaxy, but the 20 different icons somewhat scares me.

  8. Don’t be afraid… the icons may encapsulate all the different game rules, but they are explained elsewhere. Not every game has rules which can be codified into a consistent set of icons – it’s a sign of internal consistency.

  9. Thanks for putting these up. I’ve always been interested in board games, but I’ve never really known where to go to get good advice on them.

    I especially that you included some ‘competitive solitare’ games, as the missus likes board games, but hates those that revolve around ‘screwing the other players over’ like Monopoly. We’re going out today to have a look and see if we can find a few of these.

  10. Hi Soren! I enjoyed reading your reviews and in most cases other than a few quibbles here and there (e.g. would have given Settlers an A+ instead of an A) I mostly agree with you.

    However I *HATE* History of the World! Maybe I’m just bitter because it once wasted 5 hours of a very-hard-to-arrange gaming weekend, BUT the principle sin I think it commits is directly relevant: it refuses to put players who are way behind out of their misery and let them go do something else. Most Eurogames these days have a decent 60-90 minute pacing, where even after you get way behind there’s a reasonable upper limit on how much time you can be forced by sportsmanship to keep slogging along in a hopeless/useless position; other games just flatly eliminate you and let you go wash some dishes; still others (e.g. Princes of Florence) combine plenty-to-do-even-when-behind with keeping the final results hidden enough that you’re often never really sure who’s ahead. History of the World does none of these things, it keeps giving you a brand new civilization each epoch, with only a modest bias even toward giving you a decent one if you’re behind. I recognize the game has its entertaining moments if you don’t get completely squatted on in the first two ages, but the downside is SO miserable that it would not only be my lowest ranked game on the list, it is the only one of the games listed I am certain I will never play again!

    One other comment… on games like Puerto Rico and Caylus: they’re definitely not the kind of game you want to play with dramatically mixed experience levels, but a game of either between 4 “noobs” or 4 “pro’s” is a hoot and a half.

    Finally, here are a few I’d love to see added to your review list… Princes of Florence, Transamerica, Power Grid, El Grande, Amun Re, Can’t Stop.

    Happy Gaming!

  11. Hi Brian…

    HotW certainly is not as tightly designed as most Eurogames, but I’ve had quite a few sessions in which players who are behind early end up actually winning. The fact that more and more points are available in each successive epoch helps a lot. Perhaps HotW does best with veterans, who know that half of the game is deciding who to attack to try to keep one player from running away with it. I am sure it’s always going to be a love-it-or-hate-it game, but I can’t help but admire a game which is fun to play and resembles actual history at the same time. (And let’s be frank – we both know Civ doesn’t match that criteria!)

  12. Thanks for writing this great article.

    Have you played the new game Agricola? I have heard it described as a “better Puerto Rico,” and it has a hidden hand of cards for each player. I’d be curious to hear what you have to say about it.

  13. Actually, I just played Agricola last week, and I enjoyed it much more than Puerto Rico and Caylus. Interestingly, it shares some similarities with the “competitive solitaire” games I mentioned above, which helps speed up play. The addition of random elements helps a lot as a big part of the game is making the best use of the cards you are dealt at the beginning of the game. Having alternate decks and an actual solitaire mode adds some great variety too. I found the scoring a little obtuse as the game pretty much assigns a victory point value to everything, so playing to win is a bit of a fuzzy experience. I’d give it a B right now, but the score could go up if I try it a couple more times.

  14. Soren,

    I just wanted to say thanks for both this list, and the feature/review you did on Ticket to Ride a few months back.

    I ordered Ticket to Ride Europe (I live in the UK) online, and had a friend over the night it came. The three of us (Friend, Missus and I) all enjoyed it immensly. We have played three times now, (with the missus winning all three games) and I don’t imagine we’ll be putting it away for quite some time.

    I’ve found myself thinking in my spare time about who else I could invite over to play!

    Thanks again for making me aware of a game that I’d otherwise never have heard of.

  15. Thanks for the list. I liked the trading element of Settlers a lot, so I will try to get my hands on Bohnanza in the future. I really do not play that many boardgames, but I very much enjoy playing Starcraft: The Boardgame; probably because I am obsessed with obscene amounts of well-crafted plastic figures.

  16. I find among my group that a trading mechanic doesn’t work particularly well. We’re mostly an agreeable bunch, so we don’t really drive hard bargains; if we do try to haggle, it tends to drag the game longer. Games without trading tend to be more streamlined and thus smoother for us to play.

    That said, we did have a memorable event in Cataan where someone traded a steak and cheese for a brick.

    P.S. Thanks to your glowing endorsement, I bought Pandemic off of eBay for around $50. I can’t wait until it gets here πŸ™‚

  17. Your two worst noted boardgames (Caylus & Puerto Rico) requires some plays to be able to really like them and see the depth in them. Also with experience you are able to play them fast, alleviating the problems you mentioned about optimizers type players.

    Also you should check Brettspielwelt (http://www.brettspielwelt.de/?nation=en) which enables to play a large collection of boardgames online. For instance a game of puerto rico can be done in 30 min.

  18. Not to put words in Soren’s mouth, but I don’t think it’s the pace of the game that’s his problem with Puerto Rico. Due to perfect information, less randomization, highly metagamed nature of the game, Puerto Rico requires a specific gaming group composition to be fun to play.

    Imagine two subsets of gamers (incoming simplification), you have the hardcore gamers and the casual gamers. Hardcore gamers are defined as gamers who like to win, wish to become better, and are willing to read the strategies on the boards to become better. Casual gamers are defined as gamers who are playing for mostly a good time and are unwilling to try to think as deeply and don’t place much emphasis on winning.

    Playing the game within the same type of gamers is fun. You’re after the same goals and will normally achieve the same goal of having fun. The problem is when you play with a mixed group. Because of the design of Puerto Rico, poor choices are going to impact the game heavily for all players. Hardcore players may start complaining that people are playing “the wrong way”, while casual players may be wondering why they have to study to make the game fun.

    I personally like Puerto Rico (I felt I was ‘this close’ to starting to get good at the game), but the rest of my gaming group felt differently.

  19. I agree with you on your assessment of a lot of these games — I own Puerto Rico and Caylus but can’t imagine playing them again for some of the reasons you explain. The whole “perfect information and no random elements” thing makes a game as dry as dust for me. Add to that in Puerto Rico where where you sit at the table has as much to do with your game as any strategy as you may think up (hint: sit so the weak player is on your right). I’ve played the game Agricola once and that seemed a little more interesting to me than PR or Caylus.

    I don’t care for Settlers because it has a problem relatively few “German” games have — once you start losing, you’re doomed. It’s so hard to make a comeback when you’re behind because the players that do well get more resources which allow you to get more stuff which allows you to get more resources…and so on. It’s that “the rich get richer” idea that makes it kind of boring.

  20. Great list. For what it’s worth, I think the lower-than-expected BGG rating for Settlers isn’t just game-snob fickleness, but rather reflects the game-snob opinion that vanilla Settlers doesn’t really support serious, high-level play. According to this view, once you understand the basic viable strategies, the initial city placement determines which one you’re going to pursue, and then pursuing it is almost completely automatic, with the outcome determined mostly by luck. Not saying I agree with this critique, just pointing out that I’ve heard it from several quarters.

  21. Big props to you Soren. My gaming group and more importantly, my wife, love Pandemic. It’s pretty simple to pick up, has some depth to it, and is a blast to play. I have a few minor nitpicks with the game, but it’s an awesome addition to my game collection.

  22. Double props to you Soren. Race for the Galaxy has been a big hit among the gaming group. It was a little bit daunting at the beginning and took us 2-3 playthroughs to get all the phases right. Now, we’re busy trying to figure out various strategies and playing styles (military seems the most straightforward now). The learning curve is definitely steep and it won’t be a game that I try to introduce to new people, but among a small group, it’s pretty nice.

  23. You have a strange definition of what a game is, to say that simply because there is perfect or near perfect information, it is a negative against it. How about chess? I think you better stick to Yahtzee my friend if you cant bother to get good at a game πŸ™‚

  24. Great list. Its really cool to have a an in-depth board game review from a key designer of my favorite computer game. I have played many euro games with friends over the years and until this post it has been a complete mystery which ones our wives will like and which they will hate. Your assessment of Puerto Rico is a great example. Competitive Solitaire is really what we are looking for, I think.

    One game I would highly recommend to any and all is San Marco. It has by far the most interesting deal making economic element I have ever seen in a board game, yet it is simplicity itself. My (reasonably) hardcore gaming friends and our wives both love it. Sadly no other game I have found (and I am looking hard) has used anything close to this mechanic. If you get a chance, I would love to hear your assessment of the game.

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