Play board games online for free: Top 10 games on Yucata

There are loads of ways to play board games online, but the one I use most is Yucata. It looks primitive, but don’t let that fool you. It’s a great place to play board games online. Yes, others are available and I plan to talk about them in the coming weeks. But this has been my go-to for years.

Creating an account is as simple as you’d expect for an online portal. You can dig into more advanced features (listing favourites, adding friends etc) but none of those are necessary. However, each player joining in will need their own account and to be playing from their own screen. I’d also say this is largely a laptop/computer platform. It doesn’t translate well to touchscreens, being better controlled with a mouse/keyboard.

It is also turn-based, with email prompts being sent to the next player if they’re not online. There are no time limits between turns, so no pressure. But it does mean the best way to play together is to have everyone arranging to be online at once. And I only has simple text chat within each game. But simply get together on the chat platform of your choice (Skype, Messenger etc) for that critical tabletop banter. Can it be a little frustrating? Sure. But it’s better than no games at all!

Getting a game going

Go to the ‘games’ drop-down menu and select ‘game information’. Here you’ll see the full list of 150+ games. Click the game you want to check out, then from its page click ‘create invitation’. Once on the create invitation page, to play with friends, remember to click ‘personal invitation’. Then add each player by their account name.

While playing, the game will open up in a new browser window. Each game has a menu to access chat, game info and the instructions (including changes with the online version). However, remember this is a largely primitive platform: don’t expect AI players, or any kind of tutorial. This is also not the ideal place to learn new games, so try and pick ones you’re all familiar with. Or at least the simpler ones if not! That said, I learned many of the games below on Yucata – and now own them.

The games I’ve chosen are picked on how much I love playing the games here, as well as offline. Some games do lend themselves more to this kind of play than others. You don’t want to be remembering a huge amount of information between turns. Or take loads of tiny actions that rely on reactions from other players. But all the games below I’ve loved playing on Yucata.

Play board games online: My Yucata Top 10

  1. Oracle of Delphi (2-4 players). A fantastic implementation of one of my favourite euro games. It includes several variants, such as simple/advanced map setups and number of Zeus tiles used. Nice touches include showing where things need to be delivered etc by hovering over them.
  2. Pompeii (2-4 players). In ‘real life’, the only thing I don’t like about this brilliant family game is the setup. Thankfully all that fiddliness is taken away here as the computer sets the deck of cards up for you. Slightly mean, but hey – everyone is being mean to everyone so it feels OK!
  3. Can’t Stop (2-4 players). This version uses the cute rock climbing art, which is cuter than the stop sign board I have. It also includes the full array of variants for the classic Sid Sackson dice push-your-luck dice game. Choose between 3-5 columns to win, and between the original, jumping or forced-play versions.
  4. Egizia (2-4 players). Only the original version is available, but that’s fine by me. You have the option to tick off (play without) two cards some people think are overpowered. Nile card ‘draw 2 sphinx cards’ and sphinx card ‘score 1 extra point for each 10 points scored’.
  5. The Rose King (2 players). A brilliant two player abstract game, with just enough random elements to keep me interested. Not much in the way of options, which isn’t a surprise. But you can opt to be able to see what’s left in the draw deck. And it keeps the score as you go along, which is nice in a tight game.
  6. Thurn and Taxis (2-4 players). This includes expansions, including the option to play a standard game on the Power and Glory map. You can add Princess Messenger and/or Offices of Honor too. Which pretty much covers everything you can get for this fantastic family board and card game.
  7. Stone Age (2-4 players). The first game on the list I don’t own. But I used to and still love to play it. No options or expansions available, just the vanilla original. But everything works smoothly and clearly and there’s no room for ‘accidental’ cheating! It’s also nice to have the computer working out those big old scores.
  8. Balloon Cup (2 players). This is such a fiendish little two player card and cubes game. You’re trying to claim trophies, but it;s so hard to balance which cards to play when. I enjoyed it so much I tracked down a secondhand copy while on holiday in Germany, as it was so hard to find elsewhere.
  9. Campaign Manager 2008 (2 players). The only one here I’ve never owned. Relive Obama becoming president – does that sound worth doing right now! Battle over key states, gaining influence to swing things your way. You can choose or randomise sides and decide whether to draft or have set campaign decks.
  10. Yspahan (2-4 players). A fantastic dice-for-actions game in classic euro form. You can opt to skip the caravan veto (pay a camel to avoid having goods sent to the caravan), but I don’t know why you would choose that. It may speed up the game a little, but taking it away could really spoil someone’s game.

I could easily do a Top 20. Founding Fathers, Richelieu, Finca, Snowdonia, Navegador, Targi, Maori, Ulm, Macao, Vikings. Easy. And that’s without mentioning Terra Mystica, which I haven’t played on there yet. Even beyond that, the list goes on and on. Do yourself a favour and dive into this fantastic free resource. And if you fancy a game of any of the above, ping me an invite (user: HairyArsenal).

Books wot I red: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Merson’s autobiography & Strange Tide

It’s been eight months since my last book post. That’s actually pretty fast-going for me, but in fairness it should’ve been a lot quicker. I fairly (for me) raced through the first two, with things slowing right down in the last couple of months. Odd, seeing as that was while reading the latest from my favourite author. You’ll find out why below.

It’s actually handy I just finished a book though. I’ve been feeling off for a while and a planned extravaganza of gaming at Airecon last weekend turned into a bit of a damp squib. I got one solid day in, but many of those I was looking forward to seeing didn’t make it due to Coronavirus. My illness is unrelated, but it has still slowed me down in terms of posting – largely as I don’t have the energy to do much more than the day-to-day (work, eat, sleep). Hopefully normal service will resume soon…

Not so long back (well, Christmas 2017…) I bought my better half the Hitch Hiker’s collection. She recently started the third instalment, having loved the first two – and talking/thinking about it was enough to force my hand. So off the shelf for a reread came my battered old copy of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

I rarely reread books. There are so many and I read so few, it seems a wasted opportunity. But having lent this to Sarah, and knowing how much she’d enjoyed and talked about it, I couldn’t resist. I wasn’t disappointed. Much like classic sitcoms Fawlty Towers and Police Squad, you forget how short Hitchhiker’s is. And how little actually happens. It’s more a chapter than a novel. But on the flip side, not a word is wasted: something lost on the meandering authors of overblown sci-fi and fantasy that bloat the shelves of bookstores today.

Hitchhiker’s is a book everyone should read. While set in a sci-fi setting, and with large doses of humour, there’s much more to it. Like most good authors, Adams simply uses these as a backdrop to delve into the human condition while creating some truly memorable characters and set pieces. I’m thoroughly pleased I dipped my toe back into this particular galaxy and will no doubt go right back through the series. Before also heading back to the equally enjoyable Dirk Gently novels.

I continued the light reading with a gift from Sarah: How Not to be a Professional Footballer by Paul Merson. I’m not really a fan of biographies, but do have a soft spot for wayward footballers from back when I cared – especially if they happen to be members of the infamous ’89/’90 Arsenal squad. The books by Tony Adams and Steve Claridge, for example. Both were poor, but had some fascinating sections that made them well worth reading.

Sadly Merson’s book doesn’t hit those heights. While you get the fantastical stories of drinking/gambling, its a very laddy retelling. There’s no depth of feeling: it’s more like he’s sitting in the pub telling tales of his past. Even the more shocking ones (throwing Perry Groves over a 20-foot wall into the sea by accident) are passed off as things that just kind of happened, you know? There’s no emotion coming through. It’s clearly the publisher/ghost writer’s fault, as they’ve decided to try and make it a ‘funny’ book without really thinking about the content. For me, that was an error.

But I’ll never tire of reading about that ’89-’90 league winning season. And the insights into how poorly they were paid, and how George Graham ran the club back then, are fascinating. Plus the fact he’s from Northolt, a mile or so from where I grew up at the same time he did, also added to my enjoyment. So while overall it was a shallow reading experience, there was more than enough to keep this old north-west Londoner happy. Right up until the obligatory ‘world’s best 11’ section. Seriously – who cares?

Last up this time is Strange Tide by Christopher Fowler. I’d feared, after the last, there wouldn’t be a 15th Bryant and May novel – at least in the normal timeline. With the main protagonists getting ever older, would we be returning to their history to look into older case files? Not yet, it seems. For now, the pensionable detectives are continuing to fight crime – which seems to be a mixed blessing.

Fowler, for me, is still one of the best writers around right now. Every sentence is beautiful, while his insights into London are a joy to read. As someone born there, but now living away, its a fascinating look into the darker side of the city. But in a gentle, historical way rather than the gangster thuggery we’re used to from slick Tarantino-esque films. This shines a light over a complex city, constantly changing and surprising even those who’ve been there for decades.

But even as a fan, the lack of progression from the series’ main – and lesser – characters is becoming problematic. While the plot was clever and intriguing and the one-liners funny, it doesn’t quite paper over the cracks anymore. This one even had a nice little background plot twist – but it still didn’t feel quite enough. The police unit is always a step from being shut down, while the staff never really move on in terms of character development. Fifteen books in a series is a genuine achievement – but it’s about time the background elements the fans love to came more to the fore.

What’s next on the list?

Only Hitch Hiker’s is off the list since last time. I really should be stricter with what I grab off the shelves! And the new entry slotting in at number one probably isn’t helping the cause of the other entries. I’ve already started one of the regulars below though, so who knows – maybe i’ll make it a clean sweep off the list next time…

  1. Book of Dust #1 by Philip Pullman. New entry! Picked this up because the first three books in the universe were brilliant – and the new (slightly crap, sadly) TV series has reignited my interest in these old characters.
  2. Rules of Prey by John Sandford. Fourth time on the list. A New York Times bestselling author; a thriller said to be packed full of suspense; and a lead character who is cop as well as a game designer? Take my money! Bound to be a disappointment.
  3. Dice Games Properly Explained by Reiner Knizia. Also fourth time on the list. I bought this (now ages ago) on recommendation, and my game design mojo has been somewhat invigorated of late, so it’s about time I got around to reading it.
  4. The Communist Manifesto by Marx & Engels. Third time on the list. Hard to believe I’ve never actually read this, despite it sitting on my shelves for years – and me having done a degree covering sociology! While I understand what Marxism and communism are, it’s time I read the true source material.
  5. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. Second time on the list. I heard loads of good things about this, and found it in a charity shop cheap as chips, so finger’s crossed it will live up to the hype.

Pharaon board game: A four-sided review

The Pharaon board game is an action selection/worker placement style game for one to five players. It takes around an hour to play (a little more with more people) and is suitable for gamers aged 10+.

While lightly themed at best, this largely abstract game sees players as the children of the pharaoh as they go through life. Yup, you’re preparing for your journey to the afterlife – and perhaps becoming pharaoh – largely by turning little cardboard chits into victory points.

I’m a sucker for an Egyptian themed game and this one is gorgeous to look at. In the box you’ll find two game boards, about 200 cardboard tokens, 50+ small cards, 40 wooden pieces and a drawstring bag. While the board is typical Egyptian beige, the rest of the components are pleasingly bright and nicely made. And with the exception of the few wooden markers, all the coloured components also have images (which helps those with colour issues). At around £40, it feels like solid value.

Teaching the Pharaon board game

Despite the Pharaon board game having a lot of moving parts, it’s remarkably easy to teach to gamers. Yes, you have to explain everything up front because you can do any of the five actions from the start. But anyone having played an action selection game will immediately feel comfortable with the mechanisms.

On your turn, you’ll decide whether to take an action or pass (more on passing later). Turns are snappy, making it a euro game that’s completely fine with five players. Each of the boards five areas has its own related action. There’s a limit to how many times each area can be used and there are only five rounds in the game (eg, four times in a four/five player game). So you have a feeling of time pressure from the start.

The game has five resource colours, with each corresponding to one action area each round. So far so standard. The twist is the colour that triggers it changes each round, as the board rotates one click each round. And as the board is also modular, these sections can be in a different configuration each time you play.

This allows you to hold some resources back for when they’ll be good for another area. This is particularly strong as the resource you pay to do an action can also be used as a discount for it. So if an area needs ‘three of any colour’ to activate, and you need a red to activate the area, you’ll only need three reds to do the action. Otherwise, you’d need a red and three blues (for example).

The actions

Three action areas let you trade resources for a combination of other resources and/or points. All work slightly differently. The key is choosing to get as many/more resources back than you paid; just points; or a combination of the two. Various factors affect how you choose (not just its resource colour), making it more interesting than it sounds! How many more times can it be used this round? Or will it affect end game scoring?

One area is pure points – pay resources and move up a track. It feels horrible, as you get shorter turns. But reaching the top of the track bags 60 points. Pretty good, in a game where 120 can win it. The fifth track is also expensive, but gives a Noble card. These are your traditional euro way of giving rule-breaking abilities and ways to ramp up endgame scoring – or give you strong one-off benefits.

Passing early has its advantages. It makes you first player next round. You’ll also choose your resource jar first (there’s one per player per round). Each has three resources on it, so you can set yourself up better for the next round. Potentially better still, if someone stay in the round after you pass, when it comes back to you you’ll get another freebie. So a very early pass can potentially give the start player four bonuses.

Alongside points scored in-game, you can score five gods: another clever element of the game benefiting from the board’s five-section random set up. Each section relates its end game scoring to its in-game action. But is coupled to those either side of it, meaning you have to have completed both sides to get the bonus. This adds an extra decision space, as you try to choose your actions to maximise these opportunities.

Solo play

Solo player AI has come on leaps and bounds in recent years and Pharaon doesn’t disappoint. The player’s actions and goals don’t change at all, which I like. But each play will be different, thanks to a random setup of five boards that control your AI opponent’s actions. You can also flip some to their harder side to control the difficulty.

During setup you can see how many actions the AI will take each round (3-5). While a little scripted, this does mean passing is still an interesting decision for you. You flip over a jar on the AIs turn and use its three depicted resources to cover action spaces or fill in spaces on its boards (each board is set to a resource colour at the start of play). Again, this keeps up the tension of not knowing what action spaces will be left. But also gives you interesting decisions, as you can see what actions it may have coming up.

Overall, I found it a really engaging experience. A game only last 30-45 minute, which is great for having to operate an AI too. And it wasn’t that fiddly, especially as you sometimes have decisions to make in terms of what to get the AI to do. I’m no solo game expert, but personally this is one of the better ones I’ve played.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: It’s the little things that make Pharaon stand out. A good example is the pharaoh bonus. Each player starts with one Noble card. The first player to pick up another Noble card, while also being on step two of the burial track, gets to become pharaoh. For this you get seven victory points, and the pharaoh token. It’s a little thing really, but you can see people compete over it – and it’s usually gone in the second or third round. But it adds a nice little subplot to the game.
  • The thinker: The game’s BGG complexity rating of close to three surprises me. The rules are incredibly simple to pick up and the strategies soon present themselves – although admittedly it takes one end-game scoring to really see the full scope. It is also more tactical than I would usually like, as available actions soon begin to diminish. But the game offers a really solid mental workout, especially considering the playtime. Thumbs up from me.
  • The trasher: Resource management doesn’t exactly get me going. But the way limitations work here kept me engaged throughout. You can try and suss out your opponents by regarding the resources they have left. But then an action may see them trade three resources and gain a few points – plus a completely different set of three resources! Constantly shifting sands like this keep me interested. So while it wouldn’t be a pick for me, I’d happily play Pharaon some more.
  • The dabbler: I was sceptical when I saw this hit the table. A million components plus a 12-page rulebook equals alarm bells! But it looked great and I liked the theme – and the actual rules were only four pages, including a bunch of pictures. Most of the rules are things such as setup and clear explanations of all the cards and symbols, making it a great gateway game too. Play is quite tense, thanks to short turns and pressure to get the actions you want. But I really like it!

Key observations

There are some complaints that the game is your typical point salad conversion game. I think I’ve already addressed this: yes, it is – but it’s a damned good one. But no, originality isn’t a strong suit for Pharaon.

A few players complain you can’t build up enough resources for satisfying turns. I don’t get this at all. Only one action in the game costs five resources, while many give you back as many/more than you start the action with. It’s easy to have four or so actions in a round and have plenty of resources left over. In fact, unless you play very poorly or go for a high spend/low action total tactic, you’re more likely to be worried about all the useful action spots being taken up.

Others call the game bland and that it lacks immersion, seemingly due to the theme-less nature and lack of interaction. I guess these people – who crop up time and again – are entitled to their opinion. But why criticise a game for not being something it never claimed to be? It’s like getting angry with an over for failing to keep your food cold. Get a grip people… It’s just a stupid criticism.

Conclusion: Pharaon board game

I often bemoan the fact games lack originality and consequently feel a bit of a hypocrite praising Pharaon. There’s nothing new here under that bright Egyptian sun. As I read the rules I was sure it would be a disappointment, which is probably why it ended up at the bottom of my Essen game review pile. But what can I say? It won me over on my first play and I’ve enjoyed every game since.

What Pharaon does so well is create tension, making it feel like a race. The short play time helps, as well as only having five rounds to complete your goals. And I’m a sucker for any game that really encourages you to look at what you think your opponents are about to do. It’s a definite keeper and may well turn out to be my favourite new release from the (admittedly rather average) Essen 2019 crop. Especially when you add in the thoroughly enjoyable solo mode and the fact it works fine right up to five players.

Top 10 board games of 2010

Welcome to my Top 10 board games of 2010. It was my first proper year back in the hobby. I started my collection in 2009, but really got into my stride the year after. In the second half of 2010 I recorded around 200 plays on Board Game Geek – a level I’m still happy if I hit today. But in hindsight, how was it for releases?

I wasn’t up on the hotness or going to Essen back then, so only played a few of the hot releases as they came out. I bought Rattus (but have since sold it on), you’ll see Fresco below, while big hit 7 Wonders just wasn’t for me. It is still a BGG top 50 title, but I tired of it after a few plays. Since then though, I’ve played and enjoyed a a lot more.

But today I only own four 2010 games, all of which feature below (I could make a 10 if I included ‘previously owned’ titles). That suggests it wasn’t a classic year, but there were some big genre hits. Clever co-op card game and SdJ winner Hanabi, popular deck-builder Ascension, top-selling family co-op Forbidden Island (which almost made my list) and Eklund’s sci-fi nerd-a-thon High Frontier.

My Top 10 board games of 2010

1. Navegador
2-5 players, 90+ mins

I was introduced to the wonderful world of Mac Gerdts rondel games when Hamburgum randomly hit The Works bargain bins in 2012. But it’s Navegador, that I picked up in 2014, that stands above the rest for me (although I own both). I’m not usually fussy about player count, but this really does work best with four players (so the two obvious routes to victory are usually equally contested). Which has kept my lay count down. But its blend of exploring, building and trading is always compelling.

2. Onirim
1-2 player, 15-30 mins

I’m not big on solo games, but Onirim is fantastic. A simple small box card game that’s low on rules, but high on tension. And the weird, abstract artwork is gorgeous. It’s not a game I play often and the two-player version can be ignored. But I’d highly recommend it for anyone looking for a 30-minute solo card game experience that is perfect for popping in your bag for a work trip etc. Also a big shout out to Utopia Engine, another solo 2010 release. It’s a free print-and-play solo dice game that works incredibly well.

3. Fresco
2-4 players, 60-90 mins

If I did a top 10 ‘I can’t believe I don’t own this’ list, Fresco would be in top spot. It’s a fun and cleverly thematic (for a euro) game with a lot of things I love: action selection, set collection and lots of ways to score. I’ve really enjoyed my plays. And the kicker – I released a game with its publisher, which gave me brief access to its catalogue. I took a couple of things, but not Fresco. What was I thinking…?

4. Lords of Vegas
2-4 players, 90 mins

I’m never sure if the luck/judgement ratio is just right or miles off with this one, but it’s always fun to play regardless. It walks a strange tightrope between euro game and family game mechanics, cleverly integrating its Vegas theme all the while. Get handed random area tiles, start to try and join them up, make risky takeover dice roles and hope for the best. Excellent fun. And it has a super clever scoring system I’m surprised I haven’t seen emulated more in other titles.

5. De Vulgari Eloquentia
2-5 players, 2 hours

This was on my radar for years and I finally traded for a copy in 2018. I’ve not played it much as I’ve got the original, which does its best to make playing as hard as possible. The recent reprint, which I look on jealously, has solved those problems. But either way it’s a clever, thoughtful but largely heads-down euro game which employs common ideas in clever ways. And the theme is unique: creating a common language across Europe in the Middle Ages.

6. Dominant Species
2-6 players, 2-4 hours

I try not to put ‘played once’ games on these lists, but I couldn’t help it with this one. It’s long, complex and interactive. I played it, loved it, and put it on my wish list in 2011. But somehow, I’ve never picked it up or ended up in another play. It has a nice mix of euro and war game mechanisms, mixing fighting/area control with action selection and a great theme. Each player takes mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians etc in a ‘survival of the fittest’ battle. A bona fide classic and for good reason.

7. Firenze
2-4 players, 60 mins

Next up, a game I’ve never played ‘in real life’, only on Yucata (link below). It has that classic ‘one-hour German euro’ feel. Beige, abstracted and gentle looking – but with super tricky decisions, a bit of push your luck, and loads of room to be a total dick. This all works thanks to a great push-your-luck element reminiscent of Thurn and Taxis. You decide at the end of your turn whether to complete or continue a structure. But if you try and continue, but can’t on your next turn, you lose them. Delicious.

8. Troyes
2-4 players, 90-120 mins

This proved to be quite the Marmite game, which surprised me. I picked it up in 2011 and really enjoyed it as a clever worker/dice placement game, but most of my euro loving buddies didn’t take to it – so I moved it on to a happier home in 2013. It’s quite dry and beige, I guess, but I loved the medieval art style and tricky decisions. I often wonder, now we’re more used to heavier games, if this would prove more popular today with my then largely fledgling gamer friends.

9. Earth Reborn
2-4 players, 2+ hours

This was a gift from a very generous BGG Secret Santa back in 2011. It was at a time when I was building my collection and thought I needed a minis game. Turned out I didn’t! But that’s not to take away from what is a great game in its genre; a scenario-based post-apocalyptic battle. I just don’t have the patience for the setup and the right friends to play it often enough to do it justice. So it becomes the second game in a row on this list to be on the ‘really good but formerly owned’ list. Maybe when I retire, I’ll buy it back for myself and my nursing home buddies…

10. The Boss
2-4 players, 30-60 mins

I owned this one until a few week ago, when I sold it to some friends for a couple of quid. It’s a great little game but appeals only to a certain type of masochistic player. I don’t know many, so its great to know it found a good home – where I can still play it! You need to like a game where you’re forced to act each turn, but usually don’t want to (because anything you do gives away information). It’s all about bluff and reading your opponents – and comes in a little box, with simple rules and just a few components.

Other notable titles that didn’t make it

So, what else didn’t make my Top 10 board games of 2010 cut? I haven’t played C&C: Napoleonics, Labyrinth, Runewars and Vinhos, all of which are in the BGG top 500 games. I enjoyed both Sid Meier’s Civilization and Expedition: North West passage – but have only played each game once. I’d certainly like to play them more in the future, but I never see them hit the table anymore.

It was a great year for games making it to free online gaming portal Yucata. Alongside Navegador and Firenze I’ve had fun playing Dragonheart, Founding Fathers, Glen More, Luna, Rattus, Sobek and The Speicherstadt there – all 2010 releases. And The Speicherstadt would probably have been my number 12.

Other notables I didn’t enjoy from 2010 include Alien Frontiers (hated the end game condition and it’s a bit slow), Merchants and Marauders (halfway to a great game) and Innovation (Chudyk at his most swingy). And finally, a shout out to Adventure of D – ranked 7,685 on BGG and still owned by me, it was probably my number 11. And I was delighted to see it recently had a successful Kickstarter for a second edition. It’ll be great to see more people playing this clever indie fantasy adventure card game.

Like this post? Check out my Top 10 board games of 2009.

A Fistful of Meeples game: A four-sided review

The Fistful of Meeples game is a mancala-style family game for two-to-four players. It plays in around 30 minutes and should be suitable for gamers aged 8+.

Mancala games can be traced to Africa and the Middle East in the second century AD. They have a ‘board’ of holes/pits containing beads/stones, with players removing all the stones from one pit and spreading them evenly into adjacent ones, usually trying to claim opponent pieces.

Here, the pits are buildings in a Western-themed town and the stones a variety of coloured meeples. The theme holds up surprisingly well despite it being a largely abstract game. And the art and components are nicely done. In the box you’ll find a small board, 100+ wooden pieces, 36 cardboard chits, two dice and a cloth bag. The only shortfall are the crappy plastic dice. But they’re cheaply and easily replaceable for the aesthetically challenged.

Teaching A fistful of Meeples game

the game sticks to the basic mancala principle. Take everything from one pot and distribute what you take evenly between the next X spaces (with X being the number of meeples picked up. But it cleverly changes things up enough to make it into a light and fast playing euro game.

Meeples come in five colours, each having an ability. These invariably involve taking cubes from a bag, If the space they’re placed in meets their requirement. A (red) robber meeple will get two bag picks for every miner in its building. A (blue) deputy sends any robbers in the building to jail, getting two picks per villain for his trouble. The (purple) madame gets one pick for every builder – and sends them all off to the saloon. If their location has no meeples of the right colour, they don’t give you any advantage.

These cubes you’re picking from the bag are either gold or stone. Once you’ve got a few, the builders can step up. Simply have a builder go into an unclaimed building, have the right three cubes in front of you, and it’s yours for life (you place a little marquee (signpost) marker on it). Later when a miner gores into that building, you’ll get picks from the bag. And these will be your picks, even if the miner goes in on someone else’s turn.

The good, the bad and the meeple

As well as the 14 available buildings, you’ll find gunfight spaces at each end of the street. If a gunfight space is empty in the row of spaces you’re placing into, you must put a meeple on it (and mark it with your player colour). Once both ends have a meeple, its high noon. The losing meeple goes to the graveyard, the winner to the saloon. And the controlling player gets picks from the bag (1-4) based on how tough the loser was.

There are four more locations not on the main (mancala) street: the graveyard (with room for six gunfight victims), saloon, jail and bank. A player can take all the meeples from either of these locations and play their turn as usual, except they get to choose a building on the mancala to start their placement from. However if they bust the robbers out of jail, they use one of the three dynamite cubes to do so – which is placed in the gold/stone bag. If you draw a dynamite cube, boom! The dynamite is removed from the game, but you lose half your iron.

At the end of your turn, if you have enough gold you must trade it in for a gold bar from the bank. You have to do this, but why would you mind? You only trade in 6-8 gold for a bar worth 10 victory points (the earlier you do it, the better the value). Once either six gold bars are taken, three dynamite has been pulled from the bag, or the graveyard is full of gunfight victims, the game’s over. Most points wins.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: I’m impressed, if not in love with, A Fistful of Meeples. I think the mancala is strangely underused in modern gaming. And this shows how a sprinkling of modern mechanisms can enliven a classic game. Everything slots together nicely, it all makes sense, and is fun and fast to play. So why am I not quite feeling it? For me, it’s just lacking that special sauce; that ‘X’ factor. But a good game all the same.
  • The thinker: While In can admire the craft here, there isn’t enough strategy on offer for me to pick this off the shelf. Feld’s Trajan did a great job of taking the essence of the mancala and introducing it to a complex game. Here, it still relies on the fully tactical play of the original concept. I guess you can try to group your buildings, or not. But your luck-picked mix of gold and iron largely dictate your ‘decisions’, so you’re at the whim of the dice bag gods. Not for me.
  • The trasher: I quite enjoy the A Fistful of Meeples board game. Sure, there’s no direct conflict – even the gunfights have a winner and a not-winner, rather than a loser. But you do have to think about what you’re setting up for the next player. Put too many of the same meeple in one building and boom, big points are on the horizon. This can be a big issue in the classic ‘rubbish player to my right meant I won’ way. But you just need to manage that, being the good Samaritan and ‘reminding; your fellow players the move they’re about to make is going to leave the next player open to a big score. Unless that next player is you, of course…
  • The dabbler: Love it! It oozes western theme, especially for such a small box game. Who doesn’t love cute little cowboy meeples? And the nice artwork/simple graphic design don’t get in the way of keeping the game easy to learn. The rules are simple, with a nice reminder on the back page of the rulebook (although there are some annoying typos). While you don’t have to think between turns, meaning you can keep things light and airy while you play. It’s also accessible with a theme and style I can sell to non-gamers. All of which has seen A Fistful of Meeples rise into my top 20 games already.

Key observations

A typical negative reaction to A Fistful of Meeples is that it’s too tactical, with a small decision space. While these are true, they’re not really a criticism – it’s a small box filler tactical game. So, if that’s not going to be your bag you best look elsewhere.

A fairer criticism is that games seem to end up mechanically close each time, as things are a little scripted. You must buy gold bars, for example, while the perils of dynamite discourage iron hoarding. There is no alternate path to victory. Again, this is a short tactical filler game so you shouldn’t expect a smorgasbord of choices. But it can feel a little prescriptive at times.

Due to its tactical nature, player count is also a recurring theme in criticisms. I have found a better reaction to the game when played with two, and four does seem a little too many in terms of downtime. There really is nothing to do between turns. Unless, you know, you maybe talk to each other…?

And finally, the choice to use identically shaped brown and red meeples can be very problematic for the colour blind. It’s amazing we’re still having to have this discussion, although it is a small and relatively new publisher. But a little extra thought would go an awfully long way.

Conclusion: A Fistful of Meeples game

I enjoy A Fistful of Meeples and my better half really likes it. As a filler it ticks a lot of boxes. The game is light and airy but with a good bit of thought being needed to make the best decision each turn. Is it a little on rails? Yes. And it could’ve benefited greatly from an alternative set of buildings with some more interesting and game-breaking special abilities. But as an opener or closer, and simple to pack travel game, it will be staying in my collection for the foreseeable future.