Sinister Sevens: Designer Board Games

BoardGamesSevens

I admit it; I’m a desperate, ravenous tabletop board gamer. This frenzy has been sweeping over me for many years now, but it’s only within the last 3-4 that it’s truly taken over every sense and synapse, and led to full-on obsession.

Since I’ve been a kid, I’ve absorbed myself in games: both console and tabletop. Whilst most of my intervening years have been dominated by video games, the recent resurgence of family-based, tabletop strategy board games in the last decade has led to Euro-style physical games falling evermore into the mainstream and many games store being drowned in an avalanche of high-quality wooden pieces and plastic/linen cards; and, consequently, my living room.

In tribute to this passion, then, I’m going to run down my favourite seven games on the market and detail a little bit about why they mean so much to me. Perhaps, through my amateurish words, I can inspire yet more people to absorb themselves in my rampaging hobby. Let’s go for it.

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1. Carcassonne (Klaus-Jürgen Wrede, 2000; published by Hans in Glück)

In almost every respect, Carcassonne is my favourite tabletop game of all time, and that will likely never change. Dismissed by some as simply a gateway game offering passage to more complex titles, one should not confuse simplicity and elegance with adolescence. A tale of tiles, Carcassonne revolves around drawing land pieces at random, placing them on an ever-expanding ‘board’, and assigning miniature wooden people (“meeples”) to be knights, farmers, robbers and priests to score points for your growing empire. However, other players are aiming to do the same, and will interfere with your progress; either by trying to steal cities, roads and farms from your possession, or placing tiles inconveniently to block your developments.

Whilst the main game mechanic opens up a significant of luck (coming down to the tile you draw on your turn), you rarely feel completely at the mercy of misfortune and there is still plenty of opportunity for backstabbing and hindering of other players, even if you continually draw unhelpful tiles. Despite the compactness of the base version of Carcassonne, there’s also a supreme amount of expansion available to elaborate on the vanilla game if you so wish, with new features and expansion sets still regularly being released.

It may be passé to claim adoration of such a simple or ‘plain’ game in a world of complex titles but, to be honest, I’m having so much fun that I couldn’t care less.

Carcassonne

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2. Takenoko (Antoine Bauza, 2011; Asmodee)

A modern classic (ish) by Antoine Bauza, Takenoko, to me, is known by only one name: Pandas.

Pandas is…a difficult game to describe: it has elements of tile-placement, hidden goals and random interference, yet fits ideally into none of these formats. The primary success of Pandas, though, lies in it daring to be different. From theme to mechanics to player engagement, it feels fresh; unburdened by restrictive gaming customs, and bringing something genuinely ‘new’ to the table (pun intended). Players build an expanding bamboo field, tended by a moving gardener and devoured by a roaming panda, aiming to complete ‘goal’ cards that are based on varying conditions. Complete seven goal cards, and it’s the end of the game.

The game is superb for player interaction, with an expanding playing area upon which bamboo pieces grow on on irrigated field tiles, and the unhelpful movements and culinary habits of the eponymous panda can destroy your finely-honed bamboo field whilst benefitting someone else. A further bonus to the main mechanics are the wonderful design strokes and charming artwork: delightfully colourful playing pieces, tiles bamboo pieces being lovely to both sight and touch, and cartoon-like miniatures representing the roving panda and gardener. Takenoko is a triumph, and one that I would introduce to any gaming environment; an entertaining romp for both newbies and seasoned gamers alike. Pandas!

Takenoko

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3. Agricola (Uwe Rosenberg, 2007; Lookout Games)

Agricola is a behemoth in the tabletop world; both in influence/acclaim and its actual, physical bulk. A game about the driest of the dry (farming in the 17th Century), it’s a heavy worker-placement game played over thirteen turns where you can do never do everything you’d like to, and compromise is the order of the day. Since its release, it’s been acclaimed as one of the greatest modern designer board games, routinely holding position near the summit of BoardGameGeek’s top 100 games. However, it’s totally an experience that takes time to drink in and appreciate; perhaps one reason why it never won Spiel des Jahres upon its release, but instead was given a special prize as “Best Complex Game”. Certainly, I don’t feel that I’ve spent enough time with Agricola to come anywhere near truly mastering its art but, one day, I will and that will be a glorious epiphany.

There’s an outstanding amount of range and variability that can be present between successive plays, thanks to huge decks of cards that dictate what occupations can be taken on and what farm improvements can be built – make no bones about it, this is a delightfully complex game that rewards those who explore every aspect, think logically and react to changing circumstances. It can be mightily brutal though, too: making sure you can feed your family, when there are a bunch of other things that you’d like to do too, can be a heartbreaking decision.

In Misery Farm, everyone dies.

Agricola

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4. 7 Wonders (Antoine Bauza, 2010; Repos Production)

As is probably becoming clear from my selections for this list, I totally have a soft spot for games designed by Antoine Bauza. To date, 7 Wonders is probably his most acclaimed game title, winning the Kennerspiel award at Spiel des Jahres 2011 for “best complex game”, and there’s a valid reason for that. It’s wonderfully put-together and crafted, with simple (concurrent) turn mechanics, fast & engaging player interactions and lovely artwork; making each player’s (of which there may be up to seven, or eight with the ‘Cities’ expansion) process of building a Wonder of the ancient world an absolute pleasure.

It’s rapidly quick; the concurrent turn order keeping things active and away from tedious Analysis Paralysis (AP); and the points salad options for points-scoring means that there’s plenty to think about in each turn/round/game. Spread over three Ages, in each one players begin with a hand of (n + 1) cards; taking one and playing it, then passing the hand to their neighbour, whereby the process continues until all cards are played. Players must build up resources, use them to construct cities with marketplaces, cultural focal points, commerce, military strength and, of course, their individual Wonder.

It’s elegant in every conceivable way, short in terms but not in terms of complexity, and with a heap of replayability that makes it a great choice for a medium-weight ‘filler’ game that makes city-building an absolute delight.

7 Wonders

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5. Tokaido (Antoine Bauza, 2012; Funforge)

Tokaido is, categorically, the prettiest designer board game ever designed (FYI: the Kickstarter collector’s edition is even more a delight), for which we have Xavier Gueniffey Durin to thank. Yes, it’s yet another Antoine Bauza title in this seven-strong list, but it accurately typifies his penchant for deriving completely novel themes and abstract (yet sensible) game mechanics, as players take on the role of Dynasty-era travellers migrating up the eponymous Tokaido Road on Japan’s coast; visiting picturesque view, hot springs and teahouses, and meeting a swathe of friendly characters and merchants.

In essence, it’s a ‘race’ game, but one which is full of charm and quirks – players cannot occupy the same ‘spot’ and the rearmost player always moves, therefore compromise must be made as to whether to jump ahead to guarantee visit to special locations, or to maximise visits by moving to the next available space. Points are awarded based on a variety of goals, with a ‘Points Salad’ approach allowing players to tackle different strategies (focussing, perhaps, on visiting particular locations or collecting certain souvenirs) and to react to other players’ circumstances. The fact that this is wrapped up in the most aesthetically-pleasing artwork is, admittedly, a bonus; but one which simply adds to the overall feel and gives the genuine feel of players going on a scenic, rewarding journey over the course of the game.

Tokaido is, at heart, a delight. Wonderful.

Tokaido

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6. Love Letter (Seiji Kanai, 2011; AEG)

Elegance is the only word that can be used to adequately describe Seiji Kanai’s microgame, Love Letter. Mechanics, artwork, components; it’s all simple, streamlined and with solid pick-up-and-playability. Formed of only sixteen cards, a beautiful velvet bag and a handful of cubes representing ‘tokens of affection’ from the Princess Annette, players must play cards until the deck runs out, attempting to draw favours from a range of colourful characters in order to deliver a letter of love to the Princess at the end of the day. The winner of the round is the player holding the highest-valued character card once there a no more cards to draw, and in the face of other players attempting to eliminate and backstab one another out of contention.

In a grand best-of-thirteen, the first player to accumulate 7/5/4 tokens of affection (for 2/3/4 players) secures the Princess’ heart and wins the game. It’s wonderfully simple and compact, and takes only minutes to pick up before players are guessing, bluffing and socially-engineering their way to the royal heart. It’s quick, easy to teach, simple to master and yet open to a wide range of strategies and opportunities for bluffing. I love it, so hard.

Love Letter

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7. Rampage [aka Terror in Meeple City] (Antoine Bauza & Ludovic Maublanc, 2013; Repos Production)

For my final choice, what remains to be selected but yet another Antoine Bauza game? Furthermore, one that is about as far removed from a traditional modern designer board game as it is possible to get, whilst still retaining a board, power cards, and wooden meeples.

Unlike all of the other titles on this list which require strategy and brainwork, Rampage is all about dexterity. Taking on the role of city-smashing monsters, (up to) four players must systematically destroy the buildings and towers of Meeple City, topple all of the resident meeples and gobble them up, using a choice of four different actions: moving your monster (by ‘flicking’ its feet across the board), smashing a building (by dropping the wooden monster pawn onto a building), breathing toxic fumes (by resting chin on monster pawn and blowing buildings down) and by lobbing vehicles (by placing a wooden vehicle on top of the monster’s head and ‘flicking’ it into buildings or other monsters).

It’s a dazzlingly physical game, and the natural antidote to the tedious end of the cube-shunting Euro game genre. In Rampage, Bauza and Maublanc have created the ideal bridge between hardcore tabletop action and the family, party game. You can’t help but be engaged by Rampage, and get sucked into the sheer fun and lunacy of a very interactive, hands-on game that’s in full flight. The snobs may dismiss it as merely a sideshow, but once you’ve played it it’ll change your mind about how tabletop games can truly bring people together in laughter.

Rampage

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So, there we have it. My top seven tabletop board games ever (or, at least, until some other awesome get released and bump some of these out of the charts). Mention should also go to some other games, which I list here for the sake of completeness:

Alhambra – Dirk Henn, 2003; Queen Games.

Thurn und Taxis  – Andreas & Karen Seyfarth, 2006; Hans im Glück.

Coloretto – Michael Schacht, 2003; Abacus Spiele.

Le Petit Prince: Fabrique-moi une Planète (The Little Prince: Make Me a Planet) – Antoine Bauza & Bruno Cathala, 2003; Ludonaute.

Splendor – Marc André, 2014; Space Cowboys.

Revolution! – Phillip duBarry, 2009; Steve Jackson Games.

[Zinar7]

 

Images from BoardGameGeek: (Carcassonne – Robert Hawkins; Takenoko – Johnathon Er; Agricola – Will McDonald; 7 Wonders – Babis Tsimoris; Tokaido – Henk Rolleman; Love Letter – Casey Lynn; Rampage – Henk Rolleman).

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