Board game Top 10: My favourite low ranked board games

After a discussion with fellow blogger (and top man) Peter over at Tabletop Together, this idea popped into my head. We were talking about ridiculous BGG rankings, and how people are handing out 10s like sweets. What it got me thinking about was: what are the low ranked board games in my collection?

I used the ‘average’ (not ‘Geek’) rating, to ignore the bias of having few/many reviews. And I left out weird/promo games and anything on my ‘for sale/trade’ list. So all the games below are ones I want to keep and want to play. In fact I’ve played most of them recently. While only two are in my current Top 50, I’ll never turn down a game of any of them.

It was no surprise to find most of the games were smaller box fillers. These tend to get lower rankings, just by dint of not being as visually exciting, epic etc. They do exactly what they’re meant to and can be great fun – but just not as much as a big box experience, in terms of giving them a number.

My Top 10 Low ranked board games

  • Wyvern (5.2 rating: 1994, 2 players, 30 minutes)
    This Mike Fitzgerald-designed CCG enjoyed brief popularity in the post-Magic boom, and I still really like it. The dragon art is lovely, the game play simple and it has a great tactics-to-strategy ratio.
  • Empire Engine (5.8: 2013, 2-4 players, 20 minutes)
    Haha! Yes! One of mine! I think a rating under 6 is harsh, but it was sold as some kind of sequel to Love Letter – and despite having just 18 cards, it’s a very different beast. I’m still really proud of it, you heathens!
  • Romans Go Home (6.0: 2013, 2-4 players, 30 minutes)
    I do like a bit of programmed card action, and this game does it well. It’s a slightly later and more complex version of BraveRats (see below), where instead of just fighting you’re trying to collect towers for points.
  • Im Auftrag des Konigs (6.1: 2004, 2-4 players, 30 minutes)
    I got this little Adlung-Spiele game at my first Essen and still enjoy it a lot. A clever little euro-style game in a very small box, where you collect sets and draft cards to go on quests and battle at tournaments.
  • Sarkophag (AKA Little Devils) (6.1: 2012, 3-6 players, 15 minutes)
    Incredibly simple little trick-taker. There’s just one suite. The second player chooses whether to go higher or lower than the trick-starter, and the rest must try to follow. Most cards have points – and you don’t want points (like 6Nimmt).

Knizia, Kramer, Kiesling…

  • Reiner Knizia’s Decathlon (6.2: 2003, 1-4 players, 45 minutes)
    Free dice-chucker from one of the world’s leading designer. Play each event to get the highest score, with clever mechanisms that do just enough to mimic runs and throws. And did I mention it’s free (click link to download the rules)?
  • Monopoly Deal Card Game (6.2: 2008, 2-5 players, 15 minutes)
    I know! But this is fast and silly fun. It keeps all the meanness of the original, but distils all the crap out. Ridiculously luck based, but at 15 minutes long that doesn’t matter at all. A great little filler you can always find super cheap.
  • Artus (6.2: 2011, 2-4 players, 45 minutes)
    Brilliant, unique little thinky abstract from little-known design duo Kiesling & Kramer and obscure publishers Alea and Ravensburger. Just goes to show they can’t all be hits, no matter how successful you are…
  • Pizza Box Football (6.3: 2005, 1-2 players, 60 minutes)
    This will never win over the purists, and it looks a bit shonky. But if love your NFL and some daft die-chucking antics, this is a real winner. Bluff and counter bluff your way to glorious victories (or in my case, dreadful defeats).
  • Game of Trains (6.3: 2015, 2-4 players, 15 minutes)
    This is a gloriously clever little maths puzzler with super cute artwork. Use special powers to put your numbered cards in order, while trying to stop your opponents doing the same. Better with more players.

Also on 6.3 were Lembitu and Dice Heist. Entdecker, Plato 3000 and BraveRats (AKA R) are all on 6.4 – while everything else I own is at 6.5 or above.

But what about you? Which of your games fly in the face of popular taste? I’d love to explore some more Top 10s on the topic. Let’s give these ‘lesser’ games some love!

Thebes board game: A four-sided review

Thebes is a light family board game for two to four players that takes around an hour to play. It was released in 2007 but is still in print and easy enough to find.

In the box you get the main game board, 100 small (Ticket to Ride sized) cards, more than 100 cardboard tokens, 10 wood pieces, five cloth bags and four cardboard time wheels (think of those typical FFG hit point counters).

The art style is right on theme: Indiana Jones-era archaeological adventuring. Right down to the player pieces having little Indy hats on (sadly we’re still waiting for the zombie/nazi expansion). Everything is well laid out and perfectly functional without knocking it out of the park. Making it good value if you can pick it up for around £30. Age is listed at eight-plus, which feels about right.

Teaching the Thebes board game

While in essence a simple set collection game, Thebes has just enough bells and whistles to make it stand out from the crowd. But teaching it is easy, as the trickier/cleverer bits can be worked through as you get to them.

Players largely take it in turns moving to European locations to collect cards. Most cards (some are wild, or special items) will colour match a more exotic location (Egypt, Greece, Crete etc), giving that player knowledge of that particular dig site. Once a player thinks they have enough knowledge to visit a site, they move to it and try their luck at plundering these ancient monuments.

The story unfolds using a clever timing system. When a player moves/collects a card, they add the amount of spaces (locations) moved to a research number on the card they collect. This combination of travel distance and research is the time it took in weeks. You move that far along the 52-week time track (the game lasts several ‘years’, depending on player count), then see who is now further back on that track. If it is still you, you go again – in a similar way to much more recent hit Patchwork.

‘It belongs in a museum!’

Hunting for treasure works in a similar way. You move to the location, then grab your time wheel. Turn the outside to the amount of knowledge you have, revealing how many ‘picks’ you’ll get for the amount of weeks you want to spend there (one to 12). Add the amount of weeks it took you to get there, and advance along the time track. Then, you can go hunting for the Grail (or whatnot).

And here is where we lose the ‘serious’ gamer. Each dig location has a bag filled with 30 cardboard tokens. Just under half of these (14/30) have something useful printed on them. The rest are worthless debris/dirt. so you simply grab the right bag and ‘pick’ the right amount of tokens from the bag. The good ones go into your score pile, while the dirt goes back in the bag to be sifted once more by the next player visiting the location.

While items you find have a base victory point value, they can also be used to fulfil exhibitions. These are cards which crop up and put down the side of the main board, each needing a number of items to be met by a player. For example, you may need one treasure from Greece and two from Mesopotamia. At the end of the game you add these points together, plus a few from other areas (some basic majorities scoring), and the winner gets to be Han Solo (or something).

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Thebes is a wonderfully daft and evocative family board game. The luck of the draw can totally hose you, meaning it’s anyone’s guess who’s going to win. But the processes are fun enough that it doesn’t really matter. After all, this is very much a family game. Which should mean anyone in the family (whether eight or an adult) has a chance of winning.
  • The thinker: In theory, it should be possible to mitigate the luck. The more knowledge you acquire, the better chances you have, right? Not necessarily. Because the law of diminishing returns from the bags can make this a moot point. It’s all well and good collecting lots of knowledge for later digs – but if someone lucks out on the big treasures early, you’re left with scraps to rummage for. This is actually a clever balancing act in terms of game design, but sadly leaves little to play for if you’re a strategy fan. Not a game I’d choose to play.
  • The trasher: Thebes is just fun – but there are definitely significant tactical considerations to make on every turn. Sure, the random may still scupper you – but you have to give yourself the best chance, right? If you boil it down, there’s a lot to think about every turn. Who has the majorities of knowledge for end game scoring? Can you squeeze in a sneaky extra turn? Which dig sites have the most left to take? There’s no direct interaction, but plenty that can swing things in your favour through clever play. I like it, despite myself.
  • The dabbler: “Dirt, dirt, dirt!” If a game gets everyone chanting around the table as you pick treasures from the bag, it’s doing something right! While the components are pretty basic, it gets the important things right. The fedora wearing meeples, the airship and rumour cards invoke movies and underhand tactics. And the dig bags perfectly reflect the randomness of an archaeological dig. Even with a tonne of knowledge, you may come up empty handed. But a bit of luck could uncover the secrets of the ancient kings… Brilliant!

Key observations

Thebes is rated in the Top 500 games on Board Game Geek, and the Top 100 for family games. It has been around for over a decade and remains popular to this day. And it does so by beautifully blending theme into its mechanics, despite them being a little at odds with modern gaming conventions.

Predictable low ratings come from those who don’t like the luck. One particularly funny one also accused the game of being “incredibly mathy”. If you’ve recognised the high luck factor, but are still AP-ing for hours, you may be the problem… I also don’t think the game “wants to be strategic”, as another detractor claims. In fact it couldn’t be much more tactical. But the amount of luck really bothers some people.

I think what they’re getting at is this. Do the amount of decisions you make add up to the amount of control they give you? Especially over a game that last an hour (or more if people are taking it too seriously). In truth, probably not for those players. I can see that the illusion of control through popular euro mechanics can be misleading. But hopefully the majority of players see the game for what it is early, and adjust their ‘serious’ gaming expectations accordingly. As with many more thematic ‘experience games, the enjoyment comes largely from the taking part.

It’s also worth noting the game comes with an info sheet naming all the artefacts from each of the dig sites, along with the year they were found. It doesn’t go into details, but is a nice touch and means you can easily head to the internet to discover more if you’re so inclined – another nice family/educational feature.

Conclusion: Thebes board game

Thebes is fast and fun to play while being easy to teach. For the right group. Right off the bat, tell people they shouldn’t worry about winning. Then do your best to ramp up the atmosphere (the evocative game components should help with that no end). Do all this, my friend, and I very much expect you’ll have an awful lot of fun. And as you’re pulling those dirt tokens from the bag remember X never, ever marks the spot…

* Looking for more games? Check out 150+ more board and card game reviews.

Self-promotion and anxiety: Uncomfortable bedfellows

for me, self-promotion and anxiety don’t mix. I’m chatty. Opinionated. Sometimes loud. If you met me you’d possibly think I was super confident. But by then the difficult bit has happened: we’ve met.

It’s hard for some to grasp there’s a big difference between having the confidence to dominate conversation, and the initial hump of meeting new people. Or even thinking about meeting them. Or thinking about the fact you might have to meet some people in a few day’s time.

Recently I went to HandyCon, a board game convention just outside London. I hadn’t been before, but new it was a few hundred people – not too big. So I thought I’d take along some of my published designs, just in case people wanted to take a look. Just the recent ones. So I could have them on the table, just in case. Or maybe in my bag. Or I could just leave them in the hotel room, and bring them the next day if anyone asked…

The day before it starts, I get asked to help judge a competition at the con. Someone has dropped out – can I stand in? It’ll only be an hour. Sure, why not? It’s nice to be asked. And it’s only an hour. An hour I have no control over, in a few days time, where I don’t really know what is going to happen or with who. Will it be on a stage? Is my name going to be read out? Will people be staring at me? Why on earth did I agree to this…

Increased heart rate. Difficulty breathing. Headaches and hot flushes. Dry mouth and feeling sick. Why not have a few drinks? I’ll feel like I’ve got a hangover either way.

Then and now

What’s really annoying is knowing how much I would’ve taken this in my stride 10 years ago. I was brash, confident; loved being the centre of attention. As a youngster I had a mohican, crazy clothes. I did national radio interviews as part of my job. Now I can’t sleep for three days before running a course for a few colleagues I already know. Even going to the office and staying all day can be hard sometimes.

I’m OK walking into most cons (see previous cons and anxiety post). The anonymity works in my favour. They’re largely filled with people who know each other; who just like the idea of getting together to game. Most don’t aim to play with strangers. They’re happy to just meet a few more people, relax, and nerd out. And that means you can stroll around relatively ignored. But at the same time, you know these are your people.

But that all goes away if you make your face a target. Luckily, game designers are largely ignored unless they seek attention. It’s the YouTubers who get all the attention, with panels packed with v-loggers hunting for views and likes while the designers tend to skulk around awkwardly in the halls smiling nervously. But yeah, I’m a blogger too. So surely I should be doing all this self promotion stuff in double time. Gawd.

Self-promotion and anxiety sucks…

So things start OK. I send a few messages out, a few Tweets, saying I’ll be at HandyCon. Reply to a few things about the event, mention I’ll be there with a few games. But the closer we get to the con the less I message, until the social stream becomes a trickle and dries up altogether.

Others talk about demoing games, maybe hiring a table. Sitting at a table, for hours, smiling at people hoping they’ll sit down. And then hoping they like your game. And deep down, I know it would be fine. They’d be nice, polite, even if they didn’t like it. Who knows, some might even become friends or pick up a copy. But i’m getting a dry throat and shortness of breath just typing this, so it was never, ever going to happen.

I took my games to HandyCon. Day one they were on the table, day two in a friend’s room, and day three on a chair next to me, safely away from prying eyes. One even got played, with friends who had played it before. I played pretty much everything else I brought except my own games.

Thankfully the judging was low key, my name was never mentioned and it went without a hitch. A skinful the night before meant I did get some sleep. It was either booze or tablets; and a few beers has a more desired effect.

…but it’s really fun to make stuff

One mental faculty I still have intact is a thick skin. You need it as a journalist, and others deserve to give what I’ve been giving my whole life. If you don’t like my game, and give it a shitty review because you hated it, that’s your right. I’ll walk away. Yeah, sure – it might rile me for a few minutes. Especially if the negatives are based on arguments I find ridiculous. But 99 times in 100 I’ll quickly get over it and move on.

And it’s brilliant to meet people that like your games. Or that just want to talk design. Or that have enjoyed something I wrote here – or want to argue with me about something. If you’ve ever loved/enjoyed/been perplexed by/disagreed with anything I’ve done, I’d love to have a chat with you at a con. I just probably won’t radiate it much. If at all.

Because all these things make it worthwhile. But they don’t make it easy.

HandyCon 6 2019: List and proud

My trip to HandyCon 6 was my first: a three-day board game convention held biannually at The Holiday Inn, just outside Maidenhead.

Unfortunately, we booked too late to get to stay at the main hotel, instead staying at a Premier Inn nearer the town centre – a 20-30 minute walk from the venue.

This was a weird one for me in terms of games played – in a good way. I got a lot of games to the table I like but don’t play often; or liked on a single play and hadn’t played since. I managed to play 20 different games over the weekend, most of which get a mention below. Then I’ll talk a little about the con itself.

Top HandyCon 6 game experiences

The reason for going, of course, is to sit in a room with friends old and new and play games. So these are the games, also old and new, I most enjoyed at the con.

  1. The Gallerist: My first Lacerda, and I feared the worst as we waded through the umpteenth rule (thanks Alex!) – but wow. It’s worker placement with only eight different actions. The complexity comes from managing resources and playing the market, increasing the value of your gallery’s investments. While thinky it largely makes thematic sense – and is gorgeous too. But I’ll need to play again before I forget everything – which, with luck, may be soon!
  2. Caylus: There was a new version at the con, but I couldn’t bring myself to look at it. I’m happy with the original, thanks – still one of the best worker placement games around. It was new-ish to Alex and Tom, which made for a weird game. Neither made many buildings that gave extra cubes, so we were resource poor throughout. But it was close, tense and as fascinating as ever.
  3. Yokohama: Another worker placement game. Sensing a pattern? Played with Keith and Clare (as, it seems, always) and Tom – who hadn’t played and was very last. I tried, as usual, to rush the end game – but got found out and slipped into a close third about 10 behind the winner. I love how it’s a genuine mix of strategy and tactics: Istanbul on steroids, if steroids were a good thing.
  4. Whistle Stop: My second play of this didn’t disappoint. It’s what happens when you cross a train game with a route-building tile-placement game such as Tsuro. Place tiles, collect resources, deliver them, get shares etc. But within a clever tile placement system that can affect many of the 10-16 trains in play. I got gazumped in all four share majorities so ended up coming last – but it was still great fun. We all tried something a bit different, but it was still very close at the end.
  5. Rome – City of Marble: This game had totally passed me by, but I’m glad Tom brought and taught it to us. It has a real classic German euro feel: largely abstract, light on rules/components but high on consequences – especially in terms of what you leave other players. Think Five Tribes interaction, but with way less going on. But the decision-making space has just as much consequence. In fact having played both over the weekend, I enjoyed this far more.

Other games of note (or not)

The two new-to-me games that didn’t make the list were Architects of the West Kingdom and Colors of Kasane.

Architects… suffers from a game trait I hate: where a ‘take that’ mechanism targets the player who has the most of something arbitrary you want, not the person doing best/you want revenge on. For me, that’s just bad design.

Colors… is a pretty Japanese card game, but there isn’t enough control to make it anything other than a bit of a pointless luck fest. There simply weren’t many real decisions to make, unless we were playing it wrong (the rulebook was really awful).

I also want to mention For Sale, Sarkophag, Parade, 5 Colors and Just One – all fantastic filler game experiences enjoyed over the weekend. It’s rarely a filler game’s lot to make this kind of list. But whenever we had too many people/not enough time there were some fantastic little card games we could turn to. And we also had a good game of Pioneer Days, in which Alex looked hosed right up until he sped ahead and won because we didn’t tank his rather fragile engine. Noobs…

Top HandyCon 6 things

HandyCon 6 was really well run. The check-in process was smooth (and digital – ooh, get them!).

And there were loads of friendly, easy-to-spot, orange-shirted volunteers around if you needed anything all weekend.

The con also went the extra mile in terms of inclusion, with gender neutral toilets and a ‘preferred pronoun’ section on the name badges; plus a few ‘accessibility priority’ tables near doorways in the main room.

There were soft drink and beer vouchers available (making beer just £3 a pint, which is pretty good ‘down south’ in a hotel) – and the beer was good. There was also a con food menu with table service. Plus, the usual extras such as demo/prototype games, staffed bring-and-buy and competitions/tournaments. I even got to do some judging in the game design tournament, which was a fun (if nerve-wracking) experience.

HandyCon 6: Top things to improve

I really enjoyed my weekend at HandyCon. But while I know no con is perfect, these issues really stood out. And while two are on a similar theme, they’re key to what makes a con work. Namely, sitting down and playing some games.

  1. Go eco: The level of waste was bad. Many I spoke to were upset with the paper and plastic wasted throughout the weekend. There was a sea (pun intended) of plastic cups apparently just for the con. I asked if I could have a glass in the main bar, but was told they were “trying to get rid of” the non-reusable plastics by the end of the weekend. Food was often brought to tables in plastic boxes, which were sometimes in paper bags – not on, you know, a plate?
  2. Spacing/isles: While I understand wanting to get as many in as possible, the main room was uncomfortably cramped. I lost count of the times someone backed their chair into me, or clocked me with a bag. The overcrowding often meant no room for bags under tables, so they ended up in aisles – creating trip hazards for some and direct issues for anyone with physical accessibility issues. I really felt for Aj from Able Table Gaming, for example, who had to ask a lot of people to move bags so she could get by.
  3. Chairs: Presumably as a direct consequence, or a perceived need to have a chair for everyone attending, there was a big excess of chairs. To cram in as many spaces as possible, they’d pushed (four-to-six?) tables together in each row. With inadequate room to get between rows anyway, and nowhere to put bags, people spread out. Spare chairs became game shelves/side tables, or just got in the way. I doubt any row was ever fully seated. So they could’ve just taken a table/four chairs out of every row and given us some breathing room.

HandyCon-clusions (ho ho)

I know this is ending things on a down note, but please scroll back up and read all the positive stuff too. In the main, HandyCon is friendly, good fun and well run. It is only on its sixth event, and has grown fast. So I’m sure my misgivings will be addressed by the management team. And perhaps the hotel is at fault, rather than the con.

I certainly hope to go back to HandyCon another time – especially if these issues are addressed (or if I’m invited/can get in the hotel proper). But for now, HandyCon will be on my reserve list for weekends away, rather than the ‘definitely’ list alongside Essen, AireCon, SorCon and of course LoBsterCon (sorry Tom!). Speaking of which, I’d better get going on that Essen wishlist…

Board game Top 10: Genuinely important releases since 2015

According to Board Game Geek’s game rating algorithm, 15 of the best games ever have been released since 2015. This is obviously nonsense and has a lot more to do with factors outside the algorithms control (time for an overhaul, me thinks). But it did get me thinking – which releases in the past five years have been genuinely important?

For me, a game can do one (or more) of several things to meet this criteria. But most importantly, in some way, it should move the hobby forward. I feel the games below have done that, so deserve a pat on the back. I’m not saying they all reinvented the wheel. Or are even things I want to play. While some simultaneously arrived with similar offerings. But these feel like they rose to the top in their particular pool.

But to get 10, I had to go well beyond the Top 15. In fact I had to burrow as far as the top 500 or so. They’re in order or their Board Game Geek rankings – nothing else. And while I’m sure I’ll get push back on a few, I think it’s a solid (if at times personal) list. And before people start throwing things, I’m not saying it’s exhaustive. Please feel free to point out the games I’ve missed in the comments below – or why I’m wrong/crazy etc for including certain games over others (just remember – 2015 cut-off).

Top 10 important board games

  • Gloomhaven (BGG Rank: 1)
    More than any other, Gloomhaven has crossed the boundary between a board game and traditional RPG experience. It has a rich, detailed world; evolving characters; and an ongoing story. But also complex card play, involving teamwork, strategy and tactics. Number one game evs? No. But still important.
  • Azul (38)
    Abstracts had been very much overlooked for years before a sudden resurgence in 2017 led by Azul (or arguably the reissue of Santorini the year before). It paved the way for a string of dedicated abstract games to make a real dent in the market, thanks to simple rules being backed by great game play and components.
  • Root (46)
    War games as a genre has a lot to offer the wider gaming community. Root took many of these ideas – asymmetric powers, changing alliances, area control, point-to-point movement – and added a cutesy woodland them. Without taking away any of the nastiness. Flawed, yes – but a massive crossover success.
  • Codenames (62)
    Word and quiz games were in a pretty sad place until Codenames came along in 2015 (Paperback had arrived in 2014, but was a minor release – and probably helped by Codenames since). Loads of great games have followed it, reopening these genres to genuine creative thinking.
  • TIME Stories (73)
    Finally, someone got travel right. A co-operative narrative game, where you rerun the game several times to ‘solve’ the puzzle. But it was one-and-done – play through, then sell it and buy the next adventure using the same base mechanics. A risky sales pitch for a publisher, but successful – and much copied since.

Those outside the Top 100

  • Welcome to… (156)
    Roll-and-write games have exploded in recent years, but aren’t often critically acclaimed. Welcome To… did away with dice, replacing them with cards – changing the dynamic just enough while limiting the luck. It’s now the highest ranked roll-and-write game on BGG, and for me deservedly so.
  • Exit: The Game (179)
    TIME Stories proved one-and-one games were viable – so what better territory to explore than the growing world of escape rooms? This time it was even riskier, as components had to be torn or folded – often losing any resale value. An even bigger risk, but again gamers bought into it because the game was good enough.
  • The Grizzled (324)
    Through simple co-operative card play The Grizzled conjured troubling feelings of the despair of trench warfare in players; evoking history much as Freedom: The Undergrounds Railroad did back in 2012. This was only amplified by the death of the game’s artist, Tignous, in the Charlie Hebdo tragedy.
  • The Mind (531)
    Is it even a game? A topic for another day, perhaps – but its release was certainly a phenomenon. A co-operative game where you play numbered cards in order, simply guessing when to lay based on how long the pauses are between plays. Real tension, real theatre – with real-time deduction. Fascinating, if not for me.
  • XCOM: The Board Game (569)
    If anyone was going to release a game with genuine use of a phone app it was going to be Fantasy Flight – alongside a licence of some sort. While pretty badly flawed, this is certainly proof of concept: a tense, real time co-op game with asymmetric roles creating a real movie feel.

Conclusions

Many highly rated games of this period have been thoroughly enjoyable – but I didn’t feel they brought enough to the party to figure. Even if I like them more.

Others seemed they should be on the list. Pandemic Legacy, for example. But it was 2011’s Risk Legacy that introduced ‘legacy’ to the hobby. But however you view the list, I think these games are worth taking a look at.

And look at the themes here. There’s lots of exploration in the co-operative game field, while also reaching outside of traditional gaming into theatre – exploring emotions through tension, or timing, or asymmetry, or the imagination. And there are still so many avenues to explore. What do you want to see next? I just hope it’s more interesting games – rather than pretty rehashes of old ideas cashing in on this wave of new players.