Boardgaming Resurgence

Just over a year ago our group of friends was heavily into the deck building game Dominion. It was relatively new but had been out long enough to have three quick expansions and we really couldn’t get enough of it. Some days we would play game after game for hours on end. As should be expected, we eventually burned out from that pace. After that I found myself not playing tabletop board/card games much for the next several months with the exception of finally playing Race for the Galaxy for the first time and playing Castle Ravenloft many times after its release. Thankfully, over the last two months I have noticed an extreme increase in the amount of board games that my friends and I have been playing and I want to share a few of the stand out games we’ve been enjoying.

My Two Favorites

7 Wonders was a game that I fell in love with the very first time I set eyes on it. First off I’ve taken numerous ancient history classes related to architecture and so the flavor of the game including the Colossus of Rhodes and the Mausoleum of Halikarnassus immediately hooked me. Beyond that I really enjoy the game because it uses a card drafting mechanic but avoids many of the common deck building mechanics that have become incredibly popular since Dominion took off. Don’t take that to mean 7 Wonders is a deck building game, it is actually a game where you draft a collect cards in front of you around the wonder you’re playing as.

Depending on which structure/nation you’ve chosen you have different advancements you can choose from that allow you to excel at some of the specific focuses in the game. For instance, the Colossus of Rhodes can amass more military than other wonders and at a quicker pace, and as it was the first wonder I played the game with it was a tactic I could quickly latch on to and make good use of. If you haven’t tried this game yet and you enjoy tabletop card games (or board games with card-based mechanics) it is without a doubt my top recommendation. Another great advantage is that the game easily handles up to 7 players in one game and the play time is almost always between 30 and 45 minutes.

The next game is one that I think you are less likely to have heard of, Letters from Whitechapel. This game focuses on Jack the Ripper and his escape from police through four nights after committing a murder each night. Andrew and a few of our other friends playtested the game at GenCon last year and told us about it, but it wasn’t until its recent release that I had a chance to play it. Much like with 7 Wonders, I was almost immediately hooked on this game.

The game contains a very well designed board with a map of the Whitechapel district of London from the 1800’s on it where Jack moves between numbered circles while the police move on a separate system of interconnected spaces. One player plays Jack (and everyone knows who that player is, so this isn’t a hidden traitor kind of game that you might assume it would be) and chooses one numbered circle as his secret hideout at the beginning of the game. During the first night, Jack decides when and where he makes his kill, and then he sets off towards his hideout as the police are left to investigate the crime scene and hopefully follow Jack’s trail to either catch him or determine where his hideout might be.

Game play is not fast paced, but it is extremely tense as the Jack player has a secret pad of paper where he writes down his hideout and as the turns progress which spaces he has moved through. The police players move much faster then Jack, but with a collection of 4 or more possible locations that Jack could move to on each turn, if they don’t pick up his trail quickly the possibilities for where the killer has escaped to become extremely hard to track. What interests me so much about this game is that it plays like many of the recent traitor mechanic based games that have come out lately, but everyone knows who Jack is from the beginning and the hidden information is where exactly Jack is at the moment, where he’s been, and where he is heading. Some of our friends have even become very tense while playing Jack, because you know where your trail is and have to sit there and watch as the police players move all around you and deftly try to guess where you might be.

I’m also sharing Letters from Whitechapel because it seems to be a less well known game, 7 Wonders has over 5,000 ratings on Boardgamegeek Letters only has 345 ratings. The game easily takes up to two hours, especially as some players become obsessed with investigating every single possible option (with good reason, as I discovered in one game where we messed up and lost Jack’s trail), but one of the aspects I really enjoy is that it seems to be equally fulfilling to play both a policeman and Jack, whereas in most other games of this type I have found it much more fun to be one side or another depending on the game.

Late to the Game

Puerto Rico is the second highest rated game on Boardgamegeek, it was released in 2002, and I am pretty sure I played it for the first time in 2010. In much the same vein, Agricola is the third highest rated game (just behind Puerto Rico) and though it was released in 2007 I had not played it until last week. Both of these games feature farming style themes and what I can only think of as “fields and workers” type mechanics, but what really struck me about Agricola was the feeling of having a multitude of options open to you but a very limited amount of time to do them. The game also scores based on variety and quantity so while the primary strategies may not have been clear to start with the balance between specialization and diversity is something that I really enjoy in board games.

Another element that I really enjoyed about Agricola is that each player draws a hand of farm improvements and professions which give you a wide variety of different specializations, so depending on which cards you draw in each game your focuses may change. I personally enjoyed how the combinations of some of the improvements and professions could lead to interesting and very effective strategies that would not have been present without specific cards available to you. While I enjoyed the turn-to-turn card selection style of professions in Puerto Rico, I found that expanding your family in Agricola and having access to more actions each turn was a new and interesting style of play for me. The number of turns between harvests gets shorter as the game progresses but if you expand your house and family then the balance of turns and actions adds a lot of new factors that I really enjoyed.

If you favor yourself as a board game fan and you haven’t played Puerto Rico or Agricola, then I can assure you that their standings on Boardgamegeek are not an accident. As if you need me to tell you that when Puerto Rico has over 23,000 ratings and Agricola has just shy of 19,000 ratings. That many people are rarely wrong about things like this, especially when it comes to the BGG community.

Other Games on the Table

These are the games that really inspired me to write this post, not really a review post but more of an update on what I’m currently enjoying in tabletop gaming and hopefully I’ve introduced you to at least one new and great game that you will enjoy. Beyond those already mentioned I’m also getting back into constructing decks for Magic: The Gathering for the first time in roughly 10 years. We’ve also been playing the D&D board games Castle Ravenloft and Wrath of Ashardalon fairly regularly, and Power Grid is always a favorite that sees play as often as we can sit down for a longer game of it.

If you have some other recent board games (or top rated ones) that you’ve been enjoying, please share in the comments!

Comments

  1. Some good picks. I have to agree with your taste, though i’ve not played Power Grid. :/

    There’s another game similar to Letters from Whitechapel that I enjoyed a bit better and uses a slightly different movement system. Each player starts with a set number of tokens for different forms of transport: walk, cab, train. And as the players expend their tokens, they hand them to the “traitor” player to use (he discards them from the game on use). It makes for an interesting chase mechanic, where you can move across the entire map fairly quickly, but doing so allows the suspect to do the same. For the life of me I can’t recall it’s name; I keep wanting to say Scotland Yard, but I know that’s wrong.

    A few years back our group played A Game of Thrones religiously. It’s a good quality strategy game and well balanced. Our group didn’t care especially for the last expansion to it, but then we usually had a large group, so finding 6 players wasn’t a problem. In fact, we had so many playing, we created a 9-player variant and posted it on the web. You can still find it through google if interested, though I should maybe warn Mark in case the site crashes from exceeding bandwidth. We thoroughly tested it, and to our tastes it’s well-balanced. I’ve seen complaints that Tully (my favourite added house) is weak, but we’ve had games where Tully won in 5 turns or less. Of course, those were the games when a certain someone wasn’t playing Lannister (he always wins with Lannister).

    Other games I enjoy/adore include:

    Chaos in the Old World. This is a lot of fun all around and can be very competitive. I especially like that each player has different goals and means to win than the others, while still maintaining enough similarities to make things interesting. The only downside, in my opinion, is it’s a 4-player game and any other number really doesn’t work. I’ve played it with three, but it just wasn’t the same.

    Arkham Horror. I think it gets a lot of press already, so I won’t say much, but it’s a collaborative game in which you seek to stop Eldritch Abominations from destroying the world. Takes a good deal of set up time, and the turn-style play can really slow it down if you have 6+ players. Overall a good game with several expansions to boot.

    Carcassonne. A fairly simple German-style game that can be ruthless or simply fun, depending on the group’s play style. It also has several expansions, but the only one I would say is “must have” is the rivers one.

    For some roleplay inspired games that I enjoy:
    Cutthroat Caverns. Built on something of a dungeon crawling premise, your goal is to make it past several monsters with your party, oh, and to off the rest of the party along the way. This is a card-based game, so be aware.

    Red Dragon Inn. Your party has succeeded, you’ve vendored your latest pile of loot, and are settling into a good night of drinking and gambling in the local tavern. Now it’s your opportunity to drink your comrades under the table while stealing their share of the loot. While Cutthroat Caverns has a darker and grittier feel, this one is almost whimsical. It’s also a card game and each player chooses a different character (deck).

    Aye, Dark Overlord! This one is hit-or-miss depending on the group. It is heavily roleplay in content, and if the group doesn’t do well with improv and fast-talking or likes to play by the rules, then it may not live up to how much fun it really is. Alternatively, I can imagine it may be a great game for introducing someone to the concept of roleplay and getting into character, as well as improving improv skills.

    Anyway… I feel like I wrote my own blog entry now… sorry if it’s a bit long. >.>

  2. Svafa: Wow, thanks for sharing! Since it seems like you’re a board gamer, you and your friends absolutely have to try out Power Grid. It’s easily still in my top 5 and I’ve owned it it for 4 years now. We’ve also been playing a lot of Arkham Horror but I didn’t mention it because as you said a lot of people already know about it, and I saw Chaos in the Old World on the top BGG list too so I will be checking that out. Carcassonne I have played many times over the years and I’m still not a huge fan of it, probably mostly because the math and figuring things out for farming always seemed tough to me, however I have played it on X-Box Live where the game handles all of the math for you and I really enjoyed that!

  3. Heh, yeah, I almost included a note on Carcassonne that some games we spend more time tallying points than actually playing. On the upside, I’ve found a great way to simplify the math: remove farming. We started doing it to introduce new players to the game, but then realized how much faster and easier tallying points were at the end of the game, and now it’s always a question when we play: do we include farms or not?

    I feel sorta bad posting so long a comment, but I also felt bad just leaving it at a list of game titles, which was my initial intent. >.<

  4. No worries, long comments are always welcome!

  5. I am so not a board or card-gamer. I just can’t get into them. My group plays them regularly, at home and conventions, but I just can’t seem to get interested. My last board-game of choice was Stratego, and that was quite a while back. I think it’s two reasons: (1) If I’m going to get together with some gamer friends, I’d rather roleplay, and (2), I just can’t figure out those board-game rules!

    I’ve tried a few different games with them, and each time it’s simply an exercise in pain. I have no idea what I’m doing, and feel like I’m simply there for the other players to exploit. I WANT to play these games and have fun at the same time, but so far it’s been a bust.

    So My question is this: What board or card game can I suggest to my group that is easy to learn, and really fun?

  6. I’m totally into Carcassonne right now, using the iPad app. I can Quick Match a random online opponent while I’m doing something else, including playing asynchronous Carcassonne with my friends or doing something else completely unrelated.

    For one you might not have heard of, simply due to how difficult it can be to get a copy, I highly recommend Yomi. If you play fighting video games and board or card games, just buy Yomi. One of the best games I’ve played, ever, with excellent production values and more.

    I wrote a blog post on board games a little while ago; http://www.lvlofdetail.com/blog/2011/2/10/board-games-help-bored-gamers.html

    I’m hoping to make this a Summer of Board Games, and I really enjoyed your post on it. I’m very, very close to picking up both Agricola, as well as Through The Ages.

  7. For a reason I cannot fathom, I have yet to find anyone who likes playing Dominion. I constantly hear about people who “can’t get enough of it” and I want to find them because my decks just gather dust. Lately, Catan Knights and Cities and Smallworld are in the heavy rotation here. I’m excited about trying out Bang but it requires a large group and we’ve had too many events every weekend to pull this off.

  8. My good RPG buddy and I have started to recently branch out into board games. We started with Arkham Horror. Absolutely love everything about it, except it’s tough to find a group of people willing to devote 3-4 hours to a board game. We have since moved on to Dominion (no expansion packs yet, just the base game) and love the quick pace and strategy involved. I also convinced him to try out Settlers of Catan (classic must play for any board game fan). I’m still looking for more to try out. Are the D&D games that good?

    @Svafa: You were right. The game you described is called Scottland Yard and it’s been one of my favorites for as long as I can remember having it (15 or 20 years?) Really fun game (at least, I always enjoyed it).

  9. Tourq: Dominion would be one of my first suggestions, it’s pretty quick to pick up and combines some tabletop game elements with play that attracts TCG (Magic, etc) players also. Also check out Fluxx, Aquarius, Chrononauts, and many of the other games from Looney Labs.

    Jad: Thanks, I’ll check out Yomi and see what I think.

    Heather: Nowadays Dominion seems less popular, but hopefully you find some people to play it with soon! Bang can be a very fun and entertaining game for a larger group of people around the table. I think we stopped playing it because of a few balance and mechanic issues, but we have several game snobs in our group (myself included). 🙂

    Kevin: I actually haven’t enjoyed Settlers the last few times I’ve played it. It definitely brought people like me into a whole new world of board gaming, but now it’s decidedly less fun as many of the games that came after it (see, told you I was a game snob). The D&D games Castle Ravenloft and Wrath of Ashardalon are actually very good, they are along the same lines as the Descent board game or even Betrayal at the House on the Hill (without the traitor mechanic). One of the best achievements to me is that you can play them single player or with 2-5 players (and probably even more above that with both games) and it still runs very well.

    Kevin & Svafa: I believe the designer of Letters from Whitechapel did Scottland Yard also, and it looks like he did a game called Mister X as well, all of which are pretty similar but I hadn’t played any until Letters came out.

  10. Dave Neumann says:

    As someone who plays board/card games much, much more often than I’m actually able to roleplay anymore, I love to hear others getting into this side of gaming as well.

    7 Wonders, like you, has become a favorite of my group. The best part is that even if you don’t really have a winning strategy (which my 1 win in about 30 games would indicate), the game is quick and fun and addicting. We’ve never played one game of 7 Wonders and then put it away. A second (or third or fourth or….) game ALWAYS follows.

    Letters from Whitechapel hit the table at our last session and was a huge hit. Incredibly fun and the tension the game creates literally HURTS. I had a headache playing as Jack, but I didn’t care because it was a blast.

    You should give the game Cyclades a try. It is a really fun auction style game that involves the Greek gods, mythological creatures, conquering islands, etc. Plus how many games have awesome minis of Medusa, the Kraken, the Minotaur, and more?

    http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/54998/cyclades

    That has quickly become a favorite of my group…a group that enjoys Agricola, Le Havre, Puerto Rico and most of the others you mention. (Power Grid used to be a favorite, but now we all agree that it feels more like work than fun….need to try some of the new maps, I think).

    Jad: Through the Ages is the best of the best out there…if you want to try it out there is a great site called boardgaming-online.com that caters specifically to TtA. Love to play if anyone is interested!
    Dave

  11. Rob Naylor says:

    My RPG group started playing board games more after the main d&d group fell apart. There was only a couple of us less so we started playing Settlers of Catan, Power Grid, Factory manager, 7 wonders, Carcassone, & Munchkin. Usually with most of the expansions.(One of our players has lots of board games). We are thinking of trying to play d&d again but vary it with boardgames also.

  12. Ryan Gay says:

    We’ve been playing quite a bit of Dominion and Small World lately.

    Small world is, at its heart, a war game like Risk. Unlike Risk, its not as much about dice rolls, and the game has a finite amount of turns. It’s a wonderful little war game where the race you choose has more important effects to the outcome rather than places to attack. I love that it comes with a different board size depending on the size of the group.

    I agree that Bang may have a bit of balance issues, but the trick usually is to play on a points system rather than one game. If you play a few games in a row, the balance issues seem to get ironed out.

    I would argue, though, that the renegade is still the hardest character to be, and it should get an extra bullet like the sheriff does.

    I just bought Resident Evil: Deck Building Game, which I’ve read is a very similar game to Dominion, so I’ll report back on whether dominion fans should buy it.