Wednesday, October 16, 2013

10 Games To Get Into Each Other's Business

Since my post on interactivity, I've been thinking a lot about player boards. Don't get me wrong, I love player boards set out in front of every person. I don't mind "multiplayer solitaire" style gaming either.

But what I'm doing here now is calling out games on the other side of the fence. Games bucking the individual player board, games focused on keeping the action to a central chunk of the table all players have access to. No mats. No tableaus.

This isn't exactly a "best of" list, except to me. There's probably better out there, but I sure haven't played 'em! All of these titles I've played personally. And they are awesome.

10) Carcassonne

Sure enough, a lot of board games I'm going to go over are typically listed as "family games" or "gateway" games. No matter how much the elite may look down on these games, no one can argue they aren't interactive.

Gateway games get you into the hobby. And its been my experience the more veteran gamers slowly move their tastes away from the single board. The hardcore economic machines like Agricola and Puerto Rico all have highly defined player areas. I think as knowledge and skill grows, there also grows a subconscious desire to optimize your strategy, away from the fickle interference of your fellow players. To prove your raw superiority. And I can't argue that there is some luck and uncertainly surrounding the central board, as you try to maintain control while opponents fight among themselves like a pack of half-starved feral hogs.

Speaking of half-starved feral hogs, the rulebook for Carcassonne bizarrely recommends you talk over each tile placement with your fellow players to determine the optimal play that benefits everyone. Sort of a social activity develop your relationship with your fellow players. Huzzah, what fun!

But my fellow Carcassonne players are no modern band of merry philosophers. These creatures hit the game hungry. Their bellies are empty, they have lost their capacity to hunt. So they turn on their own.

You pull a tile out of the bag. You place the tile anywhere on the growing board where it can fit. Towns must match up to towns. Roads must match up to roads. 25% of the time you will get a tile and find a way to directly help your position. 75% you will draw a tile of doubtful utility to yourself, and the quest becomes finding the place to wreck your opponent's scoring, in as permanent a way as possible.

Because everyone is building on to the same board, you can easily block your opponents dreams with a little thinking. For instance, a partially completed city can so very easily be foiled with the placement of a tile extending out the border in an unnatural direction. And if you can plop a cathedral down, the usual scoring result for that city is most likely a zero.

9) Settlers of Catan

Like Carcassonne, Settlers of Catan started out as some sort of happy little family game.

But if adults are playing (and probably some kids) thinks will get vicious after the first few turns. All the action in this game happens on a tiny little hex board. Much too small to be developed by 3 people without getting in each other's way, let alone 4.

There are 5 different resources, and they are all necessary for pursuing all the different avenues of development. Much thought goes into figuring out a way to get a least some access to all 5 of these resources with the initial 2 settlement placements. Because if you are ever completely cut off from a single one of these raw materials it can mean disaster.

And then the robber comes out. Sometimes, if you get boxed in early in the game, the only option left is to buy development card after development card. Most development cards are knights. Resulting in you robbing people, over and over again. You rob them…pull a card out of their hand…then chuck it in disgust because its not the resource you wanted. Next turn you rob them again. You will never forget the experience, and neither will they.

In a non-conflict version of Settlers, everyone would be able to settle exactly where they wanted to. The focus would be just on creating the perfect economic engine, whereas with the shared board the planning must also take into account getting there FIRST.

8) Takenoko

I really wanted to find at least one game for this list I could describe as interactive, but non-competative. At least not cutthroat. I think Takenoko fits the bill. Each player has their own set of hidden objectives, and its hard to interfere with them for the most part. Unless its one of the really complicated ones, like the 4 stalks of 3 height bamboo which you aren't realistically going to grow at all unless the other players are for some reason concentrating the panda's attentions on the other side of the board.

You can also get shafted if someone puts a plot next to yours and stops you from making one of your plot objectives. But as long as you don't invest all your objective slots in plots you are probably going to be alright.

Maybe I just haven't played enough yet, but when Takenoko is over, you don't seem to really despise your opponents, even half-heartedly, and I think that fact is quite remarkable.

7) Rattus

Rattus has each player taking turns controlling the disease vector of a bubonic plague outbreak during the Black Death. People are getting a little worked up about Tomorrow, but Rattus does something very similar without the scary black future board.

All the action happens on a single map of Europe. Something like Risk, but with only civilian populations instead of armies. And then you murder those civilian populations.

You want to avoid taking too many roles (because you are more susceptible to the plague) while taking roles to grow your own population as fast as possible. Sometimes you can make the plague pawn land on a huge pile of your opponent's populations, and a huge slaughter begins. Other times, you will try to infect a smaller group of your own people, hoping the losses will be minimal which reducing the threat of future outbreaks.

Because of the shared board, you can use your opponents as part of your strategy. Big piles of your civilians aren't as tempting of a target when they are placed on the same countries as your opponents. And big losses on your side are ok as long as there is a nice juicy area next door ready for plague when your turn comes around.

The closest version to this without the map is probably the classic Nuclear War. A really fun game, with the best spinner ever created. But not a lot of tactics, other than mutually assured destruction.

6) Ticket to Ride

Another family game!

Much like Settlers, the Ticket to Ride board is really too crowded for all the players trying to build routes on it. So people are going to be blocked off, and being blocked off is TERRIBLE!

I have a confession. Until I played this game a bunch, I used to think the optimal strategy was to draw all your cards, and then start building your track only when you had every single route all lined up.

But this will only ever work if everyone else is working at a very sub-optimal level. This strategy can't even beat the "normal" A.I. on my Ticket to Ride phone app. And it certainly won't beat a skilled human.

Every time you choose to draw instead of play a route, you are giving your opponents one more chance to play exactly where you NEED your train to go. Because unlike Settlers for instance, a Ticket to Ride route can be placed ANYWHERE on the board, without warning, assuming you have the cards.

Playing a 6 length track out in the middle of nowhere is never a bad play even if it doesn't mess up your opponents. Heck, its worth 15 points. But you will probably mess them up, at least a little. You know what feels really bad? Spending 6 white trains on 3 two-train routes. The point difference is 6 vs. 15. And if you can prevent them from completing a ticket, the game is lost for sure.

Before you choose to take your next draw, make sure to contemplate the board thoroughly (although preferably on someone else's turn).

5) Rummikub

Invented by Ephraim Hertzano in Israel after WWII. Rummikub combines rummy with what looks slightly like Mahjong tiles. Most people associate Rummikub with games you only play with your grandmother. But believe it or not, this actually won the Spiel des Jares back in 1980.

Your grandmother is one smart lady.

Similar to other rummy games, in Rummikub you try to get rid of all your tiles by making sets. In this version, you can use other people's played tiles pretty much with impunity.

All the unwashed masses get so worked up about Texas Hold 'Em, when Rummikub does it even better. Every turn someone plays more tiles out on the board. These tiles are now basically your tiles, if you can find a way to use them.

Eventually, sufficient options are created and "going out" becomes possible. The last piece to the puzzle is played. The turn is passed. And you make all sorts of sputtering, squealing noises as you lay all your tiles out.

You might be tempted to hold on to your tiles as long as possible, so your opponent can't use any of them. But normally you are playing multiple "hands" of Rummikub, with the losers getting the "points" by adding up those remaining tiles.

And if your final play gets too complicated you might end up like me and forget exactly what you were doing in the first place. The penalty for leaving an unrecoverable game state is quite severe.

4) Belfort

In modern gaming parlance, Belfort is both a worker placement game and an area control game. You can purchase locations to use, and these locations are then represented on a central map. You can maximize your engine all you want, but at the end of the game you need to have the most buildings built in enough different areas to claim majorities and seal up the game.

At the beginning you might care about gardens or pubs because they give you more workers. Or banks/blacksmiths/other properties that give you more resources. But at the end you will care more about Guardhouses and Keeps, which give you more control over the big map.

This game is probably the closest in this list to the "modern euro". There is in fact a tableau of buildings you develop that only your guys can be placed on. Yet because these buildings also interact with the big map, securing you area in the town, I say it fits.

3) Troyes

A worker placement game with a difference. You play your workers in one of 3 districts: church, nobles or comercial. Your workers collect dice based on those districts. The dice, once rolled, are used to buy and affect other buildings you construct. Each player can buy into the different buildings. Buildings, districts, dice and NPC attackers are all on the central board.

Each player has to fight for space in the districts. You have to vie for position in the buildings, getting your guy in there before the opposition. And did I mention you can steal each other's dice? You have to buy them, but the "selling" player has no say in the matter and most often does not want to see them go.

2) Neuroshima Hex!

It has the exclamation mark right on the box. In Neuroshima Hex, players are trying to find strategic positions within a very tight hexagonal arena. When the arena fills up, or when someone plays a battle tile, the shooting and hacking starts. Machine guns. Snipers. Chainsaw warriors. It's a big dust-up. Then the shooting ends, the build up starts all over again.

Your brain has to think quite a few turns ahead, keeping all the pieces in careful initiative order. And all 4 races play very differently while also being very well balanced. There is some unfortunate consequences if you manage to draw some non-personnel tiles at the very beginning. But it all tends to balance out as the game goes on.

There's approx. a million expansions and new armies for this game, but the 4 that come in the original box are really all you need. A great game!

1) Mission: Red Planet

In the vein of El Grande, M:RP is an area control game. But instead of the bidding, each player has a series of role cards in their hand with powers similar to those in Citadels. Each player gets to move a few tokens around the large map of Mars, with majorities being scored at 3 different phases throughout the game.

Unlike El Grande, the powers are pretty simple. Each of the 9 abilities involves adding tokens, removing tokens or moving tokens on the board. One role, the Saboteur, actually explodes a ship killing any tokens on board. Another role, the Pilot redirects a batch of astronaughts to a completely new section of the board. Good for both offensive and defensive purposes! For some reason I can wrap my head around these powers way easier than the bizzare randomly bid-on powers of El Grande.

Secondly, you fight over territory TWO different ways. There's the area control on the planet surface, but then you also have to fight for space on the rocket ships to get there! Delay your turn too long, and all the space on the ships will be taken and you will be out on the action.

Thirdly, M:RP has a very satisfying intelligence-collecting element. The "frontier" sections of Mars begin the game unexplored. You can use the "scientist" role to look at the hidden attibute of that space. It might be extra-bountiful. It might be full of radiation, killing all the astronauts at the end of the game before final scoring takes place. Only the person who used the scientist knows (unless someone else uses their scientist on the same spot). This opens up the game to a certain amount of bluffing and second-guessing.

Finally, Mission: Red Planet is the only game on this list that will be somewhat difficult for you to find. Unfortunately this game started out as a sort of flop. Then it got popular again after being stuck in the clearance rack for a while. So no likely reprint, plus now its a bit of a collector item.

Would I spend big money for M:RP? Not ever. You see, there were a couple issues with the manufacture of this game. The original French version (Planet Rouge!) had a neat circular mars board. When the game was printed over here in the U.S.A. for some reason they used this big floppy square board instead. Mars is in the middle, but the whole thing does not fold very well and tends to warp upwards unless you put some weights on the corners. Ship board is the same way. They also didn't include enough victory point markers to score an entire game, so you almost always run out at the end. Weird manufacturing decisions!

If you don't have M:RP, I would suggest another game that just game out called Triassic Terror. I don't know if its at all close to what you want. But it looks very similar to El Grande, only it has dinosaurs. That's what I would do if I hadn't already snarfed up this copy of Red Planet.

End Game

So this list took a lot longer that I thought to make. I have more respect than ever for guys like Tom Vassel who can make a list of 100 titles with ease. And thanks to Tom for inventing lists of 10 things, a technique I of course cribbed for this entry.

Have a good one I missed? Put it in the comments or send me an email.

My next list might not be for a while, but I'm leaning towards games that don't use a victory point mechanism for determining the winner. I'm curious what ones I can come up with.

No comments:

Post a Comment