Monday, December 28, 2015

Gateway Games Roundup - If You Like _____, Try _____
(Part 1)

Board and tabletop games have been around for thousands of years.  The Egyptians buried their pharaohs with copies of Senet.  Chess and Go have been entertaining and puzzling great thinkers for centuries.  Archeologists are constantly finding ancient dice, game boards, and components.  Gaming has likely been a part of human culture for as long as there has been human culture.  Over time a number of games have risen in popularity while others have waned into obscurity.

Monopoly is a game everyone should play once.
And then try something better.
Today there are many classics that have survived the centuries, but there are also a handful of relatively modern games (from the last century or so) that are a part of our American and even global culture. These are the games you can find on the shelves of just about any big discount store, and many smaller ones, too.  Games like Monopoly, Sorry and Trouble (which are both based off of the ancient Indian game, Parcheesi), Scrabble, Risk, Life, and Yahtzee are the games many of us grew up playing with our families.  And many of them we still play, out of nostalgia and familiarity, as well as their market penetration and density.  But many of these games aren't very good when compared to modern designer games, or they are good games, but maybe you just want something a little different.  There are tons of newer games available that use many of the same concepts as the classics, but do so in a much more unique and entertaining way.  So if you're just getting tired of the same old games, try out some of these alternatives.

Disclaimer: This is one of the few posts in this series that will have a lot of games that I haven't personally played.  But I've researched all of these, watched reviews and playthrough videos, and feel confident in recommending every game on this list.  Games I haven't played will be named in italics.

Monopoly is one of the most popular, well known games of all time.  It's been around for over 80 years, has had hundreds of variants and rethemes, and has spawned a bunch of spin off games.  It's even given rise to at least two companies (USAopoly and Winning Moves) that manufacture tons of different themed versions of Monopoly.  It is, without question, the most popular board game of the modern world (post 1900).  Only timeless classics like Chess or Go can be considered in the same class.  But the reality is, Monopoly isn't a great game.  It purports to be a strategy game that uses selling, trading, and auctioning mechanics to represent economic principles, but all the strategy is hindered by a roll and move mechanic and player elimination that can devastate a player through no fault other than a bad roll.  But there are some things that Monopoly does well.  When it comes to buying and selling property, using abilities, and auctions Monopoly isn't too bad.  But there are games that are much more engaging, less reliant on luck, and more fun to play.  So if you've played Monopoly but want something more, try out a few of the games below.

Catan - resource management, trading, luck mitigation - I talked about Catan more in my Modern Classics post.  Catan sees players managing multiple resources and spending them to build roads, villages, and cities on a map.  Players can also trade resources between themselves.  The game improves on Monopoly because, although there is luck, there are ways to mitigate the luck (usually) and knowing the probability of the dice rolls is a strategic aspect of the game.

Machi Koro is mainly about working the odds.
Machi Koro - luck mitigation, property speculation, engine building - Machi Koro is a quick, simple game about playing the odds.  Each turn players roll one or two dice which activate properties the players own.  Each property corresponds to a value on the die and can be activated on the player's roll, an opponent's roll, or anyone's roll.  Some let you earn money from the bank, others let you take money from opponents.  After rolling the dice and activating everyone's properties the player has the opportunity to buy another building to add to their growing city.  This will increase their rewards and potential for earning.  The game improves on Monopoly's property purchasing while still including a high amount of luck, however understanding the odds and having the choice of rolling one or two dice lets players do a lot to mitigate the luck.  There are two expansions for Machi Koro currently (the Harbor and Millionaires' Row expansions) that add a lot to the game.  Both are available in Machi Koro Deluxe and are highly recommended over the base game.

Harbour - worker placement, fluctuating marketplace, resource management, engine building - I discuss Harbour more in the Family Favorites post.  Harbour also relies on resource management, but has a more economic aspect to it as players watch and try to predict a fluctuating market to decide the best times to sell their inventory without taking a loss.  Players then use their funds to purchase buildings that give them benefits and others can pay to use.  Harbour improves on Monopoly's purchasing of properties because each property bought gives a unique ability.  Also players choose what properties they move to and if they want to pay to use your property it is their choice.  The fluctuating marketplace is also a very interesting mechanic that means you have to pay attention to what your opponents are doing.

The Last Spike takes some familiar mechanics from Monopoly
and Acquire and creates a fun, strategic, easy family game!
The Last Spike - route building, land speculation, economics - I also mention The Last Spike in the Family Favorites post.  In The Last Spike players are speculating on property values.  Throughout the game players can purchase property in cities on the board.  When that city is connected to another city via a railroad rewards are earned for each property a player owns in the connected cities.  As more property is purchased from a city the property becomes more costly, and the potential payout increases, however each property purchased decreases the average payout per property.  This improves on Monopoly's mechanic of purchasing properties that you just happen to land on and then hoping someone else will land on that property so you can earn some cash.

Risk is many people's first introduction to combat based games.  And it's a great introduction, but there are a few flaws that the original game has.  It's another game, like Monopoly, that people love to hate.  Personally, I feel that Risk's two biggest problems are the reliance on dice rolling for combat and the length of the game, especially since it includes player elimination.  Now some people do enjoy a lot of dice rolling and love the excitement of letting the dice decide, or heavily influence the outcome of combat, but that's not for me.  The bigger issue though, is the length.  Risk is a game that can last 4-8 hours and the winner is pretty certain after the first 1-2 hours.  After that it's just a matter of time before everyone gets eliminated.  Modern combat games try to steer away from that and there are a few great gateway games that are worth checking out if you enjoy Risk.

Risk Godstorm has a secondary battle happening
in the Underworld as well as other mechanics
that set the game apart from traditional Risk.
Risk Variants - area control, secret objectives, multiple victory conditions - Since the original Risk was released there have been a number of official Risk variants.  There are themes for just about everything from Star Wars to Ancient Gods.  Many of these variants play pretty much the same as traditional Risk, but there are a number that offer up quite a few changes.  Many shorten the game by limiting the number of rounds or adding in multiple victory conditions.  There are also balancing mechanisms like secret objectives, handicapping mechanisms, etc.  Some variants even have alternate, side games that are played alongside the main game.  For example, in Risk Godstorm units that are defeated in combat are sent to the underworld where they can battle for control there, giving their players extra benefits.  This means that if you are defeated a lot in the main game you have an advantage in the underworld game.  Or in the new Star Wars Risk multiple players take on the role of various rebel factions and play against a single empire player with multiple battles happening all at once.  Risk: Plants vs Zombies pits two players against each other in a quick skirmish or slightly longer battle that both reflect the digital game pretty well.  There are plenty of other Risk variants that all include more than the original game.

Small World - area control, variable faction powers, deterministic combat, limited rounds - I've only played Small World on my Kindle, but the gameplay is identical to the board game.  In Small World players control a race of fantasy creatures (humans, wizards, elves, halflings, trolls, etc.) that expand across a map that is a bit too small for all the players.  They have a set number of those creatures and they'll have special abilities that are randomized each game.  Eventually the race's tokens will be spread too thin to effectively conquer new territory.  At that point the player will decide to send that race into decline (i.e. it can no longer conquer new territory) and choose a new race to begin conquering.  This adds a very interesting element to the decisions in the game since players have to decide when s the best time to switch to a new race.  Also, combat in Small World is deterministic, not based on chance.  In order to conquer an area you need two tokens, plus one for each opposing token already in the area.  Abilities can change this a bit (sometimes areas are easier to conquer if you have certain abilities).  Since the map is so small, combat doesn't rely on dice rolls, and tokens are very limited, the combat in Small World is intense and nearly immediate.  There's no time to slowly build up a huge army and there's no real chance of being vulnerable for too long.  And unlike Risk, there is no player elimination.  Players are in the game right to the end.  And the game is limited to 10 rounds, so it plays quickly and you won't have to wait an additional four hours after knowing who the winner will be for the game to be over.

Nexus Ops - area control, secret objectives, variable faction powers, chance based combat - Nexus Ops is another great alternative to Risk if you like the idea of chucking dice to determine combat outcomes.  That's not my preference, but I know a lot of people love it, including some of my gaming friends.  In Nexus Ops characters take on a science fiction themed humans or race of aliens.  Players have to not only expand to control areas, but manage resources to increase their military forces. Just like in Smallworld, the map is just a bit too small for everyone, so conflict is imminent.  Unlike in Smallworld, players keep their chosen faction throughout the game, combat is based on a combination of the military size, individual unit strengths, and dice rolls.  Players also have secret missions that they can accomplish throughout the game to give them additional benefits and can increase their units' abilities with Energize cards.  Unlike Risk, the game plays quickly and there is more strategy in deciding what types of units to deploy where, what areas are critical to defend or attack because of resources they provide, and terrain types to consider.  However, like Risk, bad luck with dice rolls can take a player out of the game or let an underdog come back and succeed.

The figures in Kemet are awesome,
especially the monster miniatures.
Kemet - area control, action selection, unit upgrades, strategic combat, variable turn order - I don't really recommend Kemet as a gateway game, but I have to include it here because it is one of my favorite area control combat games.  Kemet does a lot of very interesting things in a game that is very similar to Risk in some ways.  In Kemet players are trying to control temples in ancient Egypt with a limited number of military units.  The game combines action selection mechanics typical with Euro games and highly thematic combat that is typical of games like Risk.  As players progress throughout the game they are able to upgrade their military with unique abilities to develop and adapt an overall strategy.  Two of the most unique features of Kemet though are the game board and method of determining combat outcomes.  The Kemet game board can play with 2-5 players and regardless of where players choose as their home city, they are always equidistant from all temples and other players.  It's a really ingenious map layout that ensures balance.  The combat is also super interesting, probably my favorite combat method in all the combat games I've played.  After comparing units in the combat each player selects one military card from a set of six cards.  Each player has the same six options, so decisions are based on strategy, not luck.  Each military card adds various values to the attack strength, damage inflicted, and defense abilities.  It is quite possible to win a battle, but lose all your units, or to lose a battle, but do enough damage to your opponent that they are unable to advance.  If you are up for something that involves a much deeper strategy than Risk as well as more complex mechanics, Kemet is one of the best options out there, although I recommend trying out a few simpler games before jumping in to Kemet.

Scrabble, Upwords or Boggle
Scrabble is actually a great game.  I don't have anything bad to say about Scrabble.  But it's been around for a long time and people are comfortable with Scrabble because they are familiar with it.  Other games like Upwords, and in recent years online games like Words With Friends, have taken the Scrabble mechanic and really popularized it, but it's still the same take on a theme.  And other classics like Boggle really don't offer a whole lot of depth to the strategy. If you like Scrabble and other word games, but are wondering what other options are out there with similar theme and mechanics, here are a few to check out.

Paperback - deckbuilding, word creation, gameplay variants - I haven't played Paperback, but it is on my wishlist and one that I've watched a few videos about.  The game has gotten great reviews and really does look awesome.  In the game players use cards from their hand to spell words, which earn them money that can be used to purchase either more letters (so they can more easily make words) or paperback novels (which are worth points and act as wild cards in their hands).  The whole concept behind Paperback is very simple, yet offers a depth of strategy unavailable in games like Scrabble or Boggle.  Since you choose what letters your deck will be comprised of you can strategize and work to build your deck with letters and abilities you want to use.  And Paperback doesn't just appeal to people who like word games, it's been a hit with people who like all sorts of games.  Definitely check out Paperback if you get the chance, even if word games aren't your forte.  Another similar game that I've seen recently, but haven't looked into much is Dexicon.  It is also a deckbuilding word game, but with different scoring mechanisms than Paperback.

Wordwright allows you to play a number of
different games with one deck of cards.
Wordwright - word building, various game styles - Wordwright has just finished up its Kickstarter campaign and was well funded, over 500% funded!  Wordwright isn't a game, however.  Instead it's a game system.  Wordwright is a deck of cards that can be used to play a variety of games.  Each card has a word root, prefix, or suffix printed on it along with variations and the definition.  Using the cards players build words.  Different games that can be played competitively, cooperatively, and even solo.  This really throws a spin on traditional word games because you're working with parts of words rather than individual letters.  Wordwright might be a bit challenging to find now that the Kickstarter is over, but keep your eyes peeled, it'll hopefully be in retail stores soon.

Qwirkle - pattern matching, tile laying - I talked about Qwirkle more in my Family Favorites list.  Qwirkle isn't about words and letters.  Instead it's about shapes and colors.  However, just like in Scrabble, players place wooden tiles in a crossword like grid to create rows and columns of tiles with either the same symbol but different color, or same color but different symbol.  It's a great alternative to Scrabble when you're tired of looking up words in a dictionary.

The Game of Life or Candyland
The Game of Life and Candyland are more about the journey than they are about playing the game.  Both games give players very little (or no) control of what happens to them.  Life has a few more decisions, but Candyland is actually completely predetermined by the shuffling of the cards.  Candyland can be made a little better by giving players a hand of three cards and letting them choose which cards to play, or introducing variant rules that let players move other players backwards, but it's still a game that is mainly about the journey through the fantastic world made from candy.  If you like the idea of a game just happening, and seeing where the story takes you, here are a few good games that tell wonderfully fascinating stories.

The game board is a tool for telling a fantastic
story in Tales of the Arabian Nights.
Tales of the Arabian Nights - storytelling, character building, role playing - Tales of the Arabian Nights isn't really a game.  It's more of an interactive story.  Think of the Choose Your Own Adventure books you probably read as a kid, and expand that to several hundred pages.  Throw in some dice for slightly randomized outcomes and character skills and effects that can influence your decisions and you have the recipe for a night of adventure.  In Tales of the Arabian Nights each player is a character from the classic tale and they travel around the Old World having encounters with interesting characters and adventures in far off lands.  The end game criteria is more to put an end to the story than it is to declare a winner.  If you like stories and enjoy playing a game more for the journey than any critical decision making, try this one out.  You'll have some control and be able to make a number of decisions, but the outcome is sometimes just as unpredictable as real life, just a bit more fantastic.

Once Upon a Time - storytelling, creativity, player interaction - I haven't played Once Upon a Time, however it's one that I've heard good things about and look forward to playing someday soon.  Once Upon a Time is truly a storytelling game.  It is best played with 3-4 creative people in a casual environment.  It's not deeply strategic, but it does require paying attention to the story that is being crafted and being ready to jump in and take over at a moment's notice.  In Once Upon a Time all the players work together to create a single, coherent story.  Each player has a hand of cards as well as an ending to the story.  The goal is to play all of their cards and then end the story with their ending card.  In order to play cards the word on the card has to be used in the story.  There are opportunities for people to 'steal' the story from the current storyteller and then the new storyteller must continue the story, guiding it in such a way that they can use their own cards and hopefully play their ending.  If you like creating your own stories rather than letting stories happen to you this is an excellent game.

Tokaido - set collection, non-sequential turns, point to point movement - Tokaido is a quiet, peaceful game about travelling along the Tokaido road in Japan.  Each player is a traveller along the road enjoying the journey.  Along the way they'll encounter other people, stay at inns, enjoy beautiful vistas, make some money, buy some souvenirs, and even bathe in hot springs with macaque monkeys.  One of the most interesting features of Tokaido is that the player in last place on the journey is the player that takes a turn.  They can move their character as many spaces as they like, choosing to move ahead of other players or stay behind and visit more locations.  Eventually they'll have to pass another player (sometimes many other players if there are no more open spaces) and then the other players get to take turns.  It's an interesting mechanic that makes people decide between taking more turns or rushing to get to desired spaces.  The entire game is relaxing and embraces the theme of a zen vacation in Japan.

Who was the killer?  Was it Colonel Mustard in the Library with the Lead Pipe?  Or maybe Mrs. Peacock in the Kitchen with the Candlestick.  Clue has been a favorite for quite a while.  There was even a silly movie made based on the game in the '80s.  The idea of solving a mystery or completing a whodunit is still a compelling idea for a game, and there are a few that do a great job of requiring logic and deduction, but also incorporating the players as characters in the game.

Mysterium - deduction, social interaction, cooperative, GM player - The basic description of Mysterium sounds almost exactly like Clue: players find out clues throughout the game in an effort to determine a murder victim's killer, location, and weapon.  But how the players go about that is completely different.  In Mysterium one player takes on the role of the victim's ghost.  The other players are psychics attempting to deduce who the killer was based on very surreal clues provided by the ghost.  Over the course of seven rounds each psychic must figure out first, a suspect, then a location, and finally a weapon.  Each psychic has their own set of suspect, location, and weapon to determine, however the clues provided by the ghost are difficult to interpret.  You see, each possible suspect, location, and weapon is laid out on the table on a card with gorgeous artwork.  For example, the postman card has a picture of the postman surrounded by letters, stamps, and other 'tools of the trade'.  The location cards are peeks into interesting rooms, like a study with a bearskin rug, giant fish mounted on the wall over a fireplace, etc.  The ghost also has cards to use for clues, however these aren't quite as straightforward.  The ghost's cards are composed of surreal images, like a hours turning into dust with riderless penny-farthing bicycles riding through the clouds, or a dark forest with a wolf silhouette in the background, a hunting horn hanging from a tree, and a sword embedded in the grass nearby.  The ghost must choose images that give clues as to the suspects and hope the psychics are in tune with the ghost.  If all psychics correctly identify their set before the 7th round then all suspects are laid out with their location and weapon and the ghost gives three more clues for the psychics to try to determine who the actual culprit is.  The game looks incredible and is a fun, fascinating social experience with a theme very much like Clue, but unlike anything Clue could possibly be.

One Night Ultimate Werewolf - social deduction, hidden roles, bluffing, role playing, voting - One Night Ultimate Werewolf is a 3-10 player game I haven't personally played, but it is based on the popular Mafia and Werewolf genre of games, which I have played.  In these games one or more players are the bad guys (werewolves, or mafia members) and other players are townsfolk (some with special roles, like a doctor, or informant).  The goal is for the townspeople to discover who the villains are before the villains eliminate too many townspeople. The traditional game is played in a series of day/night phases where the villains eliminate one townsperson each night and then everyone discusses theories and votes to eliminate one more person (townsperson of villain) each day.  The traditional game is a lot of fun, but does take a long time, especially with a large number of players, and there is player elimination, so, while the game is fun to watch, it's not usually as much fun if you're not playing any more.  One Night Ultimate Werewolf attempts to change this a bit by having each game last only a single night and day.  There are still the social deduction and bluffing aspects as players try to determine who is playing each role, but the games are quick and fun and don't result in anyone sitting out for any time at all.  If you like the idea of trying to figure out which of your friends or family are good liars, then this is a very fun game to play.

Avalon sees the followers of Merlin and
Arthur battling the forces of Mordred.
The Resistance or The Resistance: Avalon - social deduction, hidden roles, bluffing, voting - The Resistance and The Resistance: Avalon are basically the same game, just with a different theme (Sci-fi Future, which I haven't played vs Arthurian, which I have played).  The Resistance: Avalon includes some additional roles in the game that are part of an expansion with The Resistance, however I believe the latest edition of The Resistance includes the expansion content.  In these games for 5-10 players, everyone takes on a role, either good or bad, and then through a series of rounds players elect several players to go on a 'quest'.  Bad players will know who is on their side, but good players won't.  Some roles have special abilities that provide the player with special information or other abilities.  Once players are selected to go on a quest those players secretly vote on if a quest succeeds or fails.  If enough quests fail within a set number of rounds then the bad guys win, but if the quests are successful then the good guys win.  This results in a lot of deduction trying to determine who the bad guys are so that they don't go on any quests.  But sometimes the bad guys will bluff and let quests succeed to keep their identity hidden.  It's a great social deduction game that has similarities to One Night Ultimate Werewolf, but it plays in several rounds and takes a bit longer. or

Citadels is one of the few hidden role games
that plays well with 2-8 players.
Citadels - drafting, set collection, hidden roles, city building, non-sequential turns - In Citadels players have a new secret role in each round.  Each round starts with a quick draft of all the roles available and each role has a special ability.  Then, starting with the lowest value role and working up, each player has a chance to enact their role's ability, earn some gold, and construct some buildings in their city.  The game gets interesting with the players trying to deduce what roles their opponents have chosen in an attempt to benefit their own cities.  There are layers of strategy in choosing which buildings to add to your city, how to manage your limited gold (which is used to purchase buildings), and watching your opponents.  Is it time to bluff and take the less advantageous role in order to avoid the imminent attack from an opponent, or do you think they're not going after you, so now you take on the better role.  Citadels is an interesting hidden role game that is one of the few that plays well with as little as 2 players and as many as 8.

Yahtzee is all about the dice.  There's a bit of strategy and a lot of press-your-luck.  I used to play Yahtzee solo for hours at a time while I monitored my dorm's office helpdesk for a job in college.  But for as much fun as Yahtzee can be, it does get repetitive after a while and there really isn't a whole lot of depth.  If you're looking for something else that has a lot of dice rolling, but more going on, check out these great games.

Who doesn't want to control a Meka Dragon
rampaging across Tokyo?
King of Tokyo - dice rolling, health management, player elimination, press your luck, luck mitigation, ability upgrades - Also mentioned in the Family Favorites list, King of Tokyo is very much like Yahtzee, but with theme, attitude, and monsters. This is a simple dice rolling game where players are giant monsters battling each other in Tokyo.  There is still a ton of luck in King of Tokyo, but how you work with the dice rolls you get is critical.  There are a number of decisions to make each turn, some dice rolls can be used to attack opponents, some can be used to heal your monster, and some to earn energy to gain mutant abilities.  This is a rollicking slugfest that plays fairly quickly and is very family friendly.  Although, like with any game that heavily relies on the luck of dice rolls, sometimes it's over quickly and sometimes it takes a while.  And there is player elimination, so occasionally someone will get eliminated fairly quickly and then have to watch.  Generally once one player is eliminated though, play progresses quickly and no one is sitting around for too long.  Also check out King of New York for slightly more complex strategy.

Zombie Dice - dice rolling, press your luck - this is a very simple game that I also mentioned on my Family Favorites list, which really only teaches one thing, press your luck, but it does it super well.  It plays 2 to 10 or more players and can be played casually at family gatherings, restaurants or pubs, etc. It plays relatively quickly and is super quick to teach.  Each player takes on the role of a zombie searching for brains.  They take turns rolling three dice.  They keep any brains and shotguns that come up and can reroll any footsteps (runners) with additional dice so they always roll three.  At any time a player can choose to stop rolling and collect the brains they've acquired, but if they roll a third shotgun they lose all the brains they've earned that turn.  The first player to earn 13 brains is the winner.  That's the entire game.  It's quick, casual, and still a lot of fun.  Games take about 5-10 minutes depending on the number of players and how lucky players are.

Everything about Tiny Epic Galaxies is awesome.
Even the box lid doubles for rolling dice.
Tiny Epic Galaxies - dice manipulation, action programming, worker placement, off turn activity - Tiny Epic Galaxies (also mentioned in Family Favorites) is a small box game by the same designer and Harbour, as well as the other Tiny Epic games mentioned on other posts (Scott Almes).  Players work to grow their galactic empire by colonizing various planets and using the planets’ abilities.  Depending on the size of the empire players will have more dice to roll giving them a variety of possible actions to take on their turn.  On an opponent’s turn a player can also spend a resource to copy the other player’s action.  Players are still hoping to roll specific combinations of dice, like in Yahtzee, but unlike Yahtzee, the dice can be used to perform additional in-game actions.  They're a tool to be used to increase your abilities and gain points.

FUSE - cooperation, puzzle solving, real time, simultaneous play, timed - FUSE is a new game that just came out this December (2015).  FUSE is a real-time, cooperative dice game that plays in just 10 minutes!  It's for 1-5 players and is a ton of fun.  The premise is that you and your friends are on a spaceship that has had 20+ bombs planted on the ship.  You must race to defuse all of them before time runs out.  Each bomb is a mini puzzle that must be solved before the next one can be moved on to.  Players work on two bombs at a time.  Each one requires a specific combination of dice numbers and colors.  Players take turns rolling a number of dice equal to the number of players, drawn randomly from a bag.  From the dice that are rolled each player chooses only one that will help them to defuse their bombs.  The result is a lot of cooperative puzzle solving, a bit of luck, and a lot of dice chucking fun.  And the best part is the game takes about 5 minutes to explain and only 10 minutes to play.  There is quite a bit of luck, but also a bit of strategy in deciding what bombs to work on next and a lot of strategy in figuring out the best way for everyone to work with the dice that are rolled.

Sorry or Trouble
Both Sorry and Trouble are based on the ancient Indian game of Parcheesi.  The concept is simple; race your opponents around the board and be the first to get your pieces into the safe home area.  There is a little bit of decision making and strategy, but the game is highly luck based.  But the idea of racing around the board being the first to make it to the end while messing with your opponents' progress is a great idea.  Fortunately there are some great games that have a similar feel, but add theme and more decisions to add to the fun.

Jamaica - racing, simultaneous action selection, resource management, hand management - ,While I haven't played Jamaica, it has been on my family games wishlist for a while now.  Jamaica is a game about pirates racing around the island of Jamaica.  Along the way players will have to manage resources that help them in their race, decide how fast and far to travel each turn, and occasionally attack their opponents.  Each round players will simultaneously select a card from their hand that allows them to take two actions, a day action and a night action.  Actions can be moving forward, backward, or loading resources.  The amount of each will depend on an initial die roll each round that applies to all players.  The game is pretty simple, but a whole lot of fun, especially for 3-6 players.  There is a decent amount of strategy, a fair amount of luck, but good opportunity to mitigate the luck through choices, and some fun player interaction.  Although it is a race game, it is possible to win the game without winning the race because the winner is the player with the most gold.  However you lose gold depending on how far away from the finish line you are when the game ends, so you really need to balance getting gold with keeping your ship in the lead.  If you like the racing and take-that aspects of Sorry and Trouble but want something a lot more thematic with a bit more strategy, check out Jamaica.  Plus, the component quality is simply amazing and will awe anyone who plays.

Tsuro is simple, fast, and fun for all ages!
Tsuro - tile laying, player elimination, hand management, abstract strategy - I talk about Tsuro more in the Family Favorites post.  Tsuro is a quick playing game where players are dragons flying through the clouds.  They must play tiles that lay out a path for their dragon that keeps them in the playing area.  If their path leaves the board they are eliminated and the last dragon remaining on the board is the winner.  Path tiles must be played to extend your own path, but as the board fills up played paths will also cause other players' dragons to move, so the game quickly becomes a game of strategically playing tiles that eliminate opponents while keeping your own dragon active.  It's a great game for 2-8 players and plays quickly for all player counts.  So even though there is player elimination, players are only out for a few minutes at most.  Tsuro includes the take-that aspect of Sorry and Trouble, but moves it to an abstract board without dice.  There is luck in what tiles you draw, but the game is mostly about strategy and just quick playing fun.

Camel Up - racing, dice rolling, betting/wagering, roll and move, press your luck - Camel Up is another game I've only played the digital version of.  It won the Spiel des Jarhes award in 2014 (Game of the Year), narrowly beating out my family favorite, Splendor.  In Camel Up (aka Camel Cup) players are betting on which camel will win a race around a pyramid.  The players aren't represented by any of the five camels, instead they take on the role of spectators cheering on their chosen camel in the race.  On each turn players can take any of several actions, including moving camels forward in the race by shaking up dice inside the pyramid, flipping the pyramid upside down, and releasing a single colored die with a value of 1-3.  That camel moves forward that number of spaces.  However when camels land on the same space as other camels they stack up and can carry other camels when they move.  This means camels can move even when their die doesn't come out of the pyramid.  Players also can place bets on which camel they think will be in the lead after each leg of the race (one entire game round), will win (or lose) the race overall, or place obstacle tiles.  There isn't a whole lot of strategy in the game (I've found it most strategic with about 4 players), but there's a lot of excitement and many moments when the underdog camel comes from behind for an amazing victory.  There is quite a bit of luck, and the betting is all in fun and based on speculation.  But the game plays quickly, has very little downtime whether playing with 2 or 8 players, and is a great family game.  If you're looking for a great game about racing, but where the players aren't the ones actually racing, Camel Up is a great alternative to the classic Sorry and Trouble staples.

Labyrinth is a great game for families.
The aMAZEing Labyrinth - tile laying, puzzle solving, moving game board - The aMAZEing Labyrinth (sometimes just called Labyrinth) is a game about sliding a tile into the game board in order to shift paths in a maze.  Players race around the maze trying to be the first to collect all of the items in their set of cards.  The shifting maze creates a new puzzle every time.  There's a bit of luck involved, but a surprising amount of strategy and puzzle solving required.  While there are plenty of times when your opponents will foil your plans, since goal items are secret there is no malintent, at least until the end when a player has collected all his items and is trying o return to his starting corner.  This is a great game for families with younger players, but keeps the interest of adults, too.  This is more in line with Tsuro where it's not really a race, but more of a puzzle of trying to get your character to go where you want it to go. But like Sorry and Trouble, The aMAZEing Labyrinth rewards the first person to complete their goal.

Well, there is the first half of my If You Like _____, Try _____ post.  Part 2 will include alternatives to such classics as Uno, Hearts, Spades, Rummy, Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary, Win, Lose, or Draw, Chess, Go, Checkers, Scattergories, Balderdash, Taboo, Apples to Apples, and Cards Against Humanity.

Happy gaming!

Gateway Game Roundup

Did you like this review?  Show your support by clicking the heart at Board Game Links , liking GJJ Games on Facebook , or following on Twitter .  And be sure to check out my games on  Tabletop Generation.

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.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Gateway Games Roundup - Family Favorites

Twice a month I host a Family Game Night at my FLGS (friendly local game store).  Plus I love playing games with my wife and sons.  We also get together regularly with other families that enjoy games.  So I get to play great family games quite often.  Here are 20 of my family's favorite gateway games that we love to use for introducing new players to modern board games.  They are great for family, new, and casual gamers.

Catan Junior – resource management – a very simple resource management game, best for younger players, under 7, but a great introduction to games beyond Snakes and Ladders and Candy Land.  This is the game that turned my family on to gaming.  After playing this my wife and I decided to try out 'adult' Catan and fell in love.  We haven't looked back since.

Splendor – engine building, resource management – a very fun engine building game where players collect gems that can be used to purchase gem mines, which in turn can be used to purchase gem traders, which can purchase gem merchants, which attract nobles.  More valuable cards are worth more points and the first to 15 points wins.

Takenoko looks great and the components
are very tactile and fun.
Takenoko – set collection, pattern matching, goal acquisition – this game has a great theme for families.  It is a simple tile laying, pattern matching game where players build a bamboo garden that a gardener tends to while a panda eats the bamboo.  Players score points by having the gardener grow bamboo, the panda eat bamboo, and constructing the garden to match certain patterns.

King of Tokyo – dice manipulation, player power enhancements, press your luck – a simple dice rolling game, with similarities to Yahtzee, where players are giant monsters battling each other in Tokyo.  This is one of the few games in this roundup that I don't own, however I've played it several times and it has an excellent reputation among kids and families.  Also check out King of New York for slightly more complex strategy.

Star Realms – deckbuilding, card based combat, faction abilities – this is a quick playing, small, deckbuilding game where players build fleets of space ships and bases in an attempt to attack an opponent while defending themselves.  The artwork is fantastic and combining the different ships abilities increases effectiveness as you have more of the same ship factions in your deck.  There are a few small expansions and a second version of the game that can be played stand alone or combined with the base game for more variety.

Survive! Escape from Atlantis is a game of carnage.
And it's a ton of fun!
Survive!  Escape from Atlantis – hidden information, movement distribution, take-that player interaction – this is an older game that still holds up well to modern board game standards.  Chaos ensues as each player tries to get a set of 10 survivos to escape a sinking island and avoid being eaten or destroyed by sharks, whales, and sea monsters before they arrive at a safe island.  Players are also trying to get sharks, whales, and sea monsters to eat their opponents’ survivors.

RoboRally – movement programming, simultaneous action resolution – another chaotically fun game where players program robots to navigate an obstacle course of conveyor belts, lasers, gears, walls, and pits to reach various goals.  Players program a series of movements for their robots in secret and then all movements are revealed, often resulting in robots colliding and causing programmed movements to do unexpected things.

Where could Mr. X be?  Scotland Yard is loads of fun.
Scotland Yard – hidden movement, semi-cooperative play – another classic that holds up well in today’s game market.  In Scotland Yard one player controls a hidden character on a map through secret movements while the other players try to track and capture the first player, all with limited information.

Nuns on the Run - hidden movement, competitive play, hidden goals - after mentioning Scotland Yard I had to include Nuns on the Run.  This takes the idea of Scotland Yard and flips it on its head.  Instead of everyone trying to find one player, in Nuns on the Run one player is trying to find everyone else.  Only one player's position is known and all the other players try to sneak around the abbey to accomplish their secret goals without getting caught.

Tsuro is fun for all ages!
Sheriff of Nottingham – bluffing, bargaining, social interaction – each round a player takes on the role of the sheriff while other players act as merchants trying to bring legal goods or contraband into the city.  They must bribe or bluff their way into the city, but if they are caught bringing contraband they have to pay a fine.  If they are caught telling the truth the sheriff pays them for their trouble.

Tsuro – tile laying, player elimination, abstract strategy – this game plays quickly (about 10 minutes) for 2 to 8 players.  Each player takes a turn playing a tile to a board.  The tile has paths drawn on it and the player’s pawn travels along the path laid out, however players must not crash or leave the board.  If they do they are out of the game. The last player remaining wins.  It’s a super simple concept that can be taught in five minutes and plays quickly with a wide range of player counts.

If you were a fisherman, would you rather have Lake Poison to
make your job a whole lot easier?  Or a Massage Pole to make
long hours of casting and reeling less stressful on your hands?
Snake Oil is full of tough choices!
Snake Oil – party style, social interaction, improvisation – most people are familiar with party games and Snake Oil is pretty generic in concept, but is one of the most fun to play.  In Snake Oil players create crazy products that they try to sell to another player, who is an equally crazy customer.

The Last Spike - route building, land speculation, economics - this is a light strategy game that plays quickly and is super easy to teach and learn.  Players work semi-cooperatively to build a railroad across the continental US, purchasing deeds to land in cities along the way.  As cities are connected to each other via tracks the land in those cities that players own pay out dividends.  The game takes the concepts of more complex games, like Acquire, and strips them down to their simplest form.

Tiny Epic Kingdoms – 4x, area control, variable player powers, resource management – a 4x game is a game about eXpanding, eXploring, eXploiting, and eXterminating.  In Tiny Epic Kingdoms players start with two meeples (pawns that look like little people) in one small area on a map.  Throughout the game the player manages resources collected to grow their population (eXpand), spread out to new areas (eXplore), collect resources from areas they control (eXploit), and battle opponents (eXterminate). (Currently unavailable, reprint is in process.)

Tiny Epic Galaxies – dice manipulation, action programming, worker placement, off turn activity – Tiny Epic Galaxies is another small box game by the same designer as Tiny Epic Kingdoms and Harbour (Scott Almes).  Players work to grow their galactic empire by colonizing various planets and using the planets’ abilities.  Depending on the size of the empire players will have more dice to roll giving them a variety of possible actions to take on their turn.  On an opponent’s turn a player can also spend a resource to copy the other player’s action.

Harbour is small enough to fit in a pocket, but packs a
ton of game in that small box.
Harbour – worker placement, fluctuating marketplace, resource management, engine building – Harbour is by the same designer as the Tiny Epic games(Scott Almes) and similarly packs a lot of game into a small box.  Players take turns moving their goblin worker to different buildings within a town to use the actions those buildings allow in an effort to purchase buildings for their own exclusive use, manage their resources, and sell resources for a profit.  Note that Stone Age and Lords of Waterdeep are also great introductions to Worker Placement mechanics, however I do not have those in my collection.

Zombie Dice – press your luck – this is a very simple game that really only teaches one thing, press your luck, but it does it super well.  It plays 2 to 10 or more players and can be played casually at family gatherings, restaurants or pubs, etc. It plays relatively quickly and is super quick to teach.

Bullfrogs – abstract strategy, area control – players are clashing tribes of frogs battling over sinking lily pads.  This straight forward strategy game plays great from two to four players, is simple to teach, has a lot of depth, a fun theme, great artwork, and plays fairly quickly.

Qwirkle creates gorgeous patterns!
Qwirkle – pattern matching, tile laying – a modern classic where players lie wooden tiles in a grid to create rows and columns of tiles with either the same symbol but different color, or same color but different symbol.  This is a great game for families that can be played almost anywhere there is a large enough table, including outside when it’s windy.

Five Tribes – puzzle solving, action selection, bidding – a little on the complex side, but still very accessible, Five Tribes lets players move pieces around the playing grid to select actions that will give them points, abilities, resources, or more.  The theme is fun and, while the mechanics appear a bit daunting at first, they are really simple once they are understood.

There are tons of other games that my family loves to play, and sometimes we'll pull out a more complex game at game night, but these get played a lot.  They're the games that we jump to when we want to show someone new to games one of our favorites.  You can't go wrong with any of these!

Happy gaming!

Gateway Game Roundup

Did you like this review?  Show your support by clicking the heart at Board Game Links , liking GJJ Games on Facebook , or following on Twitter .  And be sure to check out my games on  Tabletop Generation.

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.

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

Did you like this review?  Show your support by clicking the heart at Board Game Links , liking GJJ Games on Facebook , or following on Twitter .  And be sure to check out my games on  Tabletop Generation.

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.