Thursday, December 17, 2015

Gateway Games Roundup - Modern Classics

The modern board game revolution started with the release of Settlers of Catan (now just called Catan) back in 1995.  With it, America was introduced to a world of European style games that focused more on strategy and abstraction and less on luck and direct player interaction (e.g. combat).  Until that time most popular games in America were highly luck based (e.g. roll-and-move games like Monopoly or Life), high conflict (like Risk or Axis and Allies), thematic games (like Clue/Cluedo or Dungeon), party style games (like Pictionary or Scattergories), abstract strategy games (like Othello or Mastermind), or trivia/word games (like Trivial Pursuit or Scrabble).  There was also a culture built up around wargames, which had complex rule sets, often took a long time to play, and were more simulations of battles than casual games.  In the 1960s and '70s Avalon Hill and 3M came out with a series of strategy games that were more in line with modern games (like Acquire and Feudal), but they didn't catch on except in certain circles.
Despite being released in 1962, Acquire still has a lot of life
and is still in print.  I grew up listening to my parents rattling
plastic tiles in a coffee can many a Saturday night.
But when Catan was released something about it clicked.  It was easy to learn, social, strategic but not overly cerebral, and most important, fun!  In the years that followed more games with a similar European heritage became popular in America, giving rise to new mainstream popularity for board games.  And today games are combining the best of both traditional American style games (highly thematic, lots of player interaction) and European style games (deep strategy, lower luck) to create some really awesome games.
Star Trek Catan plays just like the original, but hey, it's Star Trek!
Today, platforms like Kickstarter that allow anyone with a dream to present it to millions with the goal to make the dream a reality, sites like Board Game Geek with its database of details on over 80,000 games, communities like Facebook that allow people from all over the world to share their love of games, tools like Board Game Arena or Tabletop Simulator that bring people from around the world together to play board games online, and popular culture like Geek and Sundry's Tabletop or the Dicetower Network bringing tabletop gaming to mainstream culture have ushered in what many are calling the Golden Age of Board Gaming.  Board, card, RPG (role playing game), and other tabletop games have never been more popular.  And with literally thousands of new games being released each year, the variety and selection has never been greater.  True, there are a lot of duds, but likewise there are a lot of gems and they keep setting the bar higher, year after year.

So, what are some of those modern classic games that ushered in this Golden Age of board games?  Well, Catan is the one that, for me, like many others, started me on the gaming path.  Below is a list of several others that I own and would consider classics, even though some have only been around a handful of years.  But these are games that were critical in making major breakthroughs mainstream.  They may not be the first to incorporate some of the features they introduce, and they may not necessarily be the best at it any more, but these were the first games to shine in their respective genres and they are still solid players that are great for families and new gamers alike.

The classic that started this crazy journey!
Catan – resource management, trading, luck mitigation – released in 1995, this is the game that started the modern board game revival back in the ‘90s.  It is a resource management game where players build towns, cities, and roads with resources they collect.  It shows its age when you compare it to other modern games, but is still an excellent introduction to modern board games (it’s what got me back into playing games).  There are a number of expansions to Catan that allow more players or provide new features, like ships, exploration, simple combat, etc.

Carcassonne – tile laying, area control, worker placement, end game scoring – from 2000, this is another modern classic game that is a great introduction to modern board games.  Players lie tiles into a shared grid and then claim different areas to score points.  As the areas grow the points scored increase.  There are lots of expansions to Carcassonne that add lots of variety to the game after you have grown accustomed to the base game.

Ticket to Ride – set collection, route building, goal acquisition – in this game from 2004, players collect sets of train cards to build train routes across a map.  Longer routes are worth more points and completing personal goal routes adds bonus scoring opportunities.  There are a number of different maps available and some expansions that introduce some new features.

For Father's Day my sons made me a board to
store cards while playing Dominion.
Dominion – deckbuilding, action sequencing – released in 2008, this is a deckbuilding game where all players start with the same deck of 10 cards and as the game progresses they ‘purchase’ new cards to add to their deck that give them additional abilities, potentially stringing together combinations of effects that can score lots of points.  There are lots of expansions to Dominion that add a ton of variety to an already very replayable base game.

Pandemic – cooperative play, set collection, puzzle solving – this 2008 game was also on my Cooperative Games list and it has become a modern classic in that genre.

7 Wonders – card drafting, simultaneous play, end game scoring – although it was released in 2011, 7 wonders has become a classic card drafting game.  Up to 7 players simultaneously choose (draft) one card to keep from a hand of seven before passing the hand to their neighbor.  Then players choose one card from the hand of six they were passed.  This repeats until all cards have been drafted and three rounds are played.  Players are trying to build the strongest civilization and biggest wonders.

Love Letter - microgame, deduction - the newest game on this list is Love Letter, from 2012.  Although it's only been around for a few years it is responsible for sparking a microgame craze.  Microgames are small, usually fast playing games that pack a significant punch for their small size.  Love Letter only has 16 cards plus a handful of small tokens (that aren't even necessary for the game).  Each player is trying to get their 'love letter' to the princess.  Each turn the players have one card in their hand, draw a second card from the draw deck, and then play one of the two, following the action described on the played card.  Through careful deduction and a bit of luck players try to guess what card their opponents have, thus eliminating them from the round, while trying not to be eliminated themselves and end the round with the highest value card.  There are a number of themed versions of the game with themes from Batman to Adventure Time to Lord of the Rings to Santa Claus, and more.

These games truly are classics, despite some being only a few years old.  And there will undoubtedly be more to add to this list in the future as well, as games prove their staying power.  I fully expect Splendor (from 2014) to become a modern classic for its simplicity, elegance, and handling of engine building mechanics.  Also worth mentioning is Magic the Gathering.  While not really a great gateway game, it has done wonders for the tabletop game hobby and was incredibly innovative in both its gameplay and marketing approach and still boasts an incredibly huge, dedicated community of players despite being older than many of those players! (MtG was first released in 1993 and releases updates quarterly.)

Happy gaming!

Gateway Game Roundup

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GJJG Game Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with my family and friends.  Some of these games I own, some are owned by friends, some are borrowed, and some are print and play versions of games.  Where applicable I will indicate if games have been played with kids or adults or a mix (Family Play).  I won't go into extensive detail about how to play the game (there are plenty of other sources for that information and I'll occasionally link to those other sources), but I will give my impressions of the game and how my friends and family reacted to the game.  Quick Reviews will only get a single rating of 1-10 (low-high) based on my first impressions of the game during my first few times playing.  Hopefully I'll get more chances to play the game and will be able to give it a full review soon.

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