Game design: Variety does not equal replayability

As a semi-active game designer, I’ve play-tested my fair share of games. I’ve also spent a lot of time pitching them to publishers, speaking to other designers and industry decision makers, and had lengthy debates on processes to do with developing games.

A recurring myth/mantra is that replayability, especially in family and euro games, requires a mass of different setup options or unique characteristics; that a game is only worth its salt if you can make the board modular, give the players individual traits and make the game artificially different every time. But conversely ‘the cult of the new’ dictates most gamers play a game a few times then move on.

I’d suggest this extra design time and effort is often a waste of time. While the percentage of published games is increasing exponentially, the amount staying in print is rising at a much slower rate. Designers and developers are flogging themselves to death creating variants which can be set up ‘X’ different ways for games which will likely sell a maximum of 5,000 copies and be played once or twice by each purchaser.

History: We’ve never needed variety

If you look at the games that have stood the test of time, they haven’t needed this kind of variety to make their reputation. Poker, Chess and Go – or modern classics Pandemic, Ticket to Ride and Carcassonne – couldn’t be simpler on setup and components. They rely on simplicity, randomness and interaction rather than powers, variable setups or asymmetry. Even Catan, with variable setup, uses everything in the box. Classic modern war and board games that have been in print for decades are usually similarly unburdened. Most games don’t need it to be successful.

Modern gamers: The cult of the new

When I got into the hobby, the focus for many was on getting good at a game; increasing your skill, trying new strategies and taking pleasure in beating regular opponents. Now many players seem to spend more time reading a rulebook than they subsequently spend playing the game. This makes sense for reviewers (for comparisons – and who often get games free, or cheaply), maybe for designers (for breadth of knowledge) and of course collectors (who have a different hobby), but for your average punter? It’s a strange phenomenon and change of focus.

Expansions: We can already bolster big games

We have a perfectly good system in place to add content to games that need them. People tiring of vanilla Catan, Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne can buy any number of expansions to keep the games fresh – but they waited for them to be popular before spending the extra design and development time. And look at recent SdJ winners that are still selling well: Azul, Kingdomino, Codenames, Hanabi, Qwirkle. None rely on complex setups, asymmetry, player powers etc, but many have seen expansions designed later to extend replayability. This seems perfectly sensible, surely?

Too many games, not enough gaming?

Many modern gamers look ravenously for a regular fix of new: we’ve created a monster. There are so many games, and so many ‘cult of the new’ players, that fresh titles get a tiny release window after which games are traded for an endless supply of other ‘new’ experiences. ‘Legacy’ games were the natural conclusion, but we’re already seeing this is a desperately creaking design idea. Beyond Pandemic and Risk Legacy, others have been tepidly received. And those first two games were, ironically, built on sound ideas with few moving parts; those classic design ideals we discussed earlier.

What’s to blame: Kickstarter, journalists, publishers or gamers?

For me Kickstarter has been, overall, detrimental to the industry. It has created a pre-sale culture rewarding perceived value over actual game play; and a consumer that accepts weight of box while hoping for a good game. Journalists fall over themselves to do paid previews, as its one of very few ways to earn money, while being ‘first’ gets viewers: the quality of coverage is by-the-by. Backers inflate BGG ratings and non-KS releases receive less coverage, giving mediocre games high rankings. Meanwhile traditional publishers, with built-in fail-safes and experience to help make better games, are being gazumped by small companies often flying on the seat of their pants – largely because traditional publishers aren’t being savvy to the new ways of operating.

Conclusions

Designing a game is already a huge challenge – and getting one published even more so. Do we need to artificially extend this process by adding so much variety to every euro and family game when most of them won’t make the cut when they hit retail?

While you may think it adds to its chances, the examples of the many simpler games that make it suggests otherwise: perceived ‘replayability’ options often simply muddy the water and increase production time and costs, while moving the focus of the reviewer/punter away from the game’s core elements. That’s what expansions are for.

I’m of course not saying asymmetry, player powers and variable setup aren’t fantastic tools for any designer and many games rely on them to work at all – from Cosmic Encounter through Marco Polo to Terra Mystica: they’re valuable tools of the trade. What I’m saying is there seems to be an obsession from journalists and publishers – and, following that now, many players – to call for something they really don’t need, or even really use, in the majority of (especially euro) games.

I also want to note Ameritrash and RPG crossovers need this kind of content: the likes of Gloomhaven, Zombicide and Imperial Assault rely on it to exist. But it seems the bleed from these into more traditional titles has reached epidemic proportions. What I’m really asking is, are the many hours of extra development seeing real value? Should we be adding masses of extra content, and price, to games which may only sell a few thousand copies and be played a couple of times per player – when we could instead support these games later, as we’ll do anyway, if they take a hold in the market?

Please consider this a jumble of thoughts, not as me looking for a row or crying for help: if you read anything like that into the language, I promise you’re mistaken. I design as a hobby and love the process, but as a reviewer I now open many games seemingly focused on the wrong elements; confusing the core game experience. I realise I probably haven’t put these thoughts together in the best possible way, but I’d love to hear your opinions on what I think is an interesting topic that merits discussion.

Board game Top 10: Essen Spiel 2018 wishlist

So, with Essen less than two months away I’ve been frantically reading rulebooks and watching preview videos of all the coming games.

There have been more than 600 new releases announced for the show so far, and the fantastic Tabletop Together Tool (using Board Game Geek information) has once again been a brilliant way to check them out – it even has ‘friend’ capabilities now, so you can see all the rubbish your ill-informed buddies are going to buy and scoff at them dismissively (ping me a message to get my code!).

But no, I haven’t read 600 rulebooks: there’s an awful lot of games that get written off before I get that far. The tool has loads of useful filters, which are super useful for narrowing things down.

Delete! Delete!

First, I automatically write-off most expansions (I don’t own most games…) and anything marked as ‘demo only’ (I’m patient – there are plenty of other games and I don’t really do/care about ‘previews’).

Next on the ‘delete’ pile are certain categories I simply know won’t inspire games to make it to the final list Some of them may be excellent, but I have limited space and budget – and I know I’ll be introduced to the best ones down the line. So en masse we say goodbye to: dexterity, children’s, humour, memory, miniatures, party, real-time, trivia and war games.

After categories, it’s mechanisms; so it’s ba-bye to acting, co-operative, partnerships, player elimination, singing (?!) and take-that. Next goes anything that needs more than two players, that last less than 20 minutes, anything for players under eight-years-old, and anything unavailable in English.

Next up is a cursory scroll down the remaining games list to get rid of anything that just looks or sounds terrible. I’m sorry, but Big Pharma and Smartphone Inc may be great, but really…? There are original themes, then there’s shitty themes. Scantily clad nonsense goes too, as do stupid looking ‘dark’ (read ‘teenage boy’) sci-fi or fantasy (not all of it, just the dark and earnest looking stuff).

My Top 6 Essen 2018 new releases (so far)

After all that, I reckon I had a good 100 left to plough through. And yeah, I love it. In truth, there are about 20 games still on my list at this point – and I’m still determined to only bring home five to review (OK – let’s say ‘less than 10’…). From here it will be about emailing publishers, or getting demos at the show. But here’s six ‘most likely to’ (in no particular order) – with links to their Board Game Geek pages (Warning: Board Game Geek is currently updating its servers and is experiencing a lot of downtime this week, so you may want to bookmark this and come back later for looking at the links):

  1. Tales of Glory
    (2-5 players, 45 mins)
    I always need to scratch that euro combo itch with a new game, and this looks the best of the bunch (on paper). The game theme is generic fantasy, but nicely implemented: you’ll be drafting tiles and adding them to your legacy (tableau), to create a history of your deeds. Tableau building, drafting, a bit of point salad – I’m totally in. It has a real puzzley element, as you need to put the tiles together in ways to maximise your opportunities. Plus its bright, colourful, chunky and plays in under an hour. I’ve also got my eye on A Thief’s Fortune, which seems to cover similar ground, but with cards.
  2. The Estates
    (2-5 players, 60 mins)
    I love a good abstract auction/bidding game, but don’t own many. This is a reprint of well-loved but niche and hard to find game Neue Heimat. It looks cutthroat and has the added bonus of a closed economy (there is a set amount of money in the game, which is all held by players), which helps keep things tight and tense. While the game will be different every time due to pulling an initial game setup of tiles from a bag, after that you’re playing with fully open information – so the only randomness comes from the moves of your opponents.
  3. Showtime
    (2-4 players, 30 mins)
    While not being a big fan of aggressive take-that games, I do often like them when they come in shorter, smaller packages. I also like to come home with at least one new small box card game each year and this is looking most likely right now: a nice light theme (going to the cinema), a varied set up and plenty of ways to screw with each other as you try and get your cinema goers into the best seats. It’s basically a great theme that anyone can relate to – you don’t want to be behind the tall guy, in front of the person who puts their feet on the seats, or anywhere near the chatty person or the munchy popcorn guy!
  4. Prehistory
    (2-4 players, 90 mins)
    One of the things I have very mixed rewards at is trying to pick a heavier euro, but again I always try and come home with one. I’ve had little luck picking a winner in the last few years, but this looks very interesting. I always like a prehistoric theme, while mechanically this is worker placement and resource management – two of my favourite things, when done in an interesting way. I’m also tempted by Teotihuacan: City of Gods, which has a bit of a rondel going on and is by one of the Tzolk’in designers; but looks like it could be both a little dry and a bit too similar to the original.
  5. Welcome To…
    (1-100 players, 30 mins)
    This is a ‘roll and write’ game without any rolling. Each player has a sheet and a pen (think Yahtzee), but instead of taking turns to roll dice and choose a result, you instead flip a set of communal cards and each player decides which to choose and use (so you can potentially do the exact same thing as another player). Thematically you’re creating a housing estate (again lol), filling in house numbers and using actions to tick off bonus opportunities: thrilling! But it has been almost universally well received since its summer release and looks like a winner.
  6. Newton and Coimbra
    (1-4 and 2-4, 90 mins)
    While you may thing its bit cheaty naming two, there’s method to my madness: I fully expect to end up with one of these, but definitely not both. I’m again scratching the euro itch, but this time the slightly different ‘pasted on theme classic mechanical euro’ one. Well, we are going to Germany: the place we’ve been picking this type of game up from for two decades. It would be rude not to! Both these games see players taking generic looking things to manipulate generic looking tracks in olden times – but what can I say, I love this stuff. I intend to give both a try and grab the best of the two.

Others on the list include Tsukiji, Fertility, Ceylon, Orbis… I’m going to be busy. And I can’t wait! I’m sure I’ve missed things though – or you may be surprised I picked ‘X’ over ‘Y’ from the list. Please feel free to fill me in on the error of my ways.

Plus 4 things I need at Essen Spiel…

Finally, here’s a few things that made it onto my ‘need’ list. You can personalise the Tabletop Together list in loads of ways, adding notes and printing maps showing where your games will be in the halls. There’s even a new friends list, so you can mock your mates for their terrible taste in new releases.

But the most important part is grading/judging all the games across five categories: ‘ignore’, maybe’, ‘like’, ‘want’ and, of course, ‘need‘. Only a few things have made that hallowed list for me so far, and they’re not the shiny things you’ll find on most Essen lists (Gloomhaven this and Scythe that, blah blah blah):

  • Old stuff: While Essen is largely about the new releases, there’s plenty of older games available too. There’s a thriving secondhand market, for example, while there are always some bargains to be had if you’re patient enough to wade through the bargain bins from both publishers and the larger German retailers. I’ve got several games on my wishlist that are old and German, so finger’s crossed!
  • Adios Calavera: This is one of my Top 50 games, so I’m excited about three mini expansions being released for it at Essen. They’re listed as two ‘character expansions’ (both players can move these pieces, which sounds fun) and a ‘three-player expansion’ (which adds a hexagonal board and slightly edited rules). I love this game, so anything that adds variety is a bonus.
  • Dice Fishing: This one is a gift for a friend who likes games but loves fishing. I was taught it recently by GoPlayListen contributor Chris Fenton (it was at UK Games Expo) and really enjoyed it: fast, silly randomness/push-your-luck but with just enough decisions and the right time frame (about 20-30 mins).
  • Witless Wizards: Well it would be stupid to miss a small self-promotion possibility, right? It’s looking likely my first solo design (after the three co-designs) should make the show, so it’ll my fifth Essen in a row supporting the release of one of my games (if you include the German release of Empire Engine). Exciting!

Agra: A four-sided game review

Agra* is a heavy euro game for two-to-four players that takes a good two/three hours (or more with a slower and/or larger group) to play. It’s listed as 12+ for age range, but this is pretty generous: you’ll need a bright kid with strong concentration levels to keep up with this one.

The game is gorgeous (art by Michael Menzel) in a traditional euro game way, with its sized box being packed to the gunnels with bits: a huge game board and extra side board, 24 cards, 150+ wooden pieces, 100+ cardboard pieces, four player boards, four cloth bags and one lonely dice. Hard to believe I’m saying it, but in tonnage alone it’s probably worth its £60 price tag.

The theme (which is pasted on in glorious euro fashion) sees you cultivating your little piece of India to meet the desires of rich aristocrats, and ultimately the whims of birthday boy Akbar the Great. What this means in real terms is an awful lot of action selection with which you’ll turn lots of stuff into better stuff to fulfil orders in a solidly euro fashion – but with a hell of a lot of bells and whistles added for good measure. If that sounds like your bag, read on.

Teaching

I’m not going to go deep into the rules of Agra here, as summing up a 28-page rulebook in a few pithy paragraphs would be ridiculous (it is rated 4.33/5 on complexity at board Game Geek). This is just a light overview to give you an idea of the mechanisms on display.

The largest area of the huge game board displays where you can make – then evolve – the four ‘basic’ goods of the game: sandstone, wood, turmeric and cotton.

Each of these can be upgraded through two levels of ‘processed’ goods, right up to being ‘luxury’ goods – but the orders you need to fulfil to gain points may require any combination of these (so one order may require, for example, a sandstone (basic) and clothes (luxury).

Most of the rest of the main board shows the River Ganges, which is lined with notables – while a separate ‘imperial’ board shows Akbar himself, alongside a number of guild tracks. Akbar, the guilds and the notables all have orders to fulfil (needing 1-3 different goods), each of which will reward you with either ongoing bonuses or victory points.

The final section of the main board contains five additional action spaces (each of the 16 goods is an action space too), while each player also has their own board which has a few more action spaces for good measure. It also shows how good you are at collecting each of the basic resources: something that can be manipulated as the game goes on and your priorities change.

A player’s turn sounds simple: you have an optional ‘meditation’ phase (here you do a bonus action, if able), an action phase (where you do, you guessed it, a standard action) and the order phase – where you deliver what you’ve been making – plus there are three types of additional action you can do once each on your turn, at any time, if you are able (by the end of the game you can do a lot of actions in a single turn). That’s it. So far, so standard euro.

What makes the game stand out is how many ways there are to do the same things – and it is working out how to do them most efficiently (and so turning the most points/profit) that will sort the winner from the losers. Once a player has reached the end of a guild influence track, fulfilled all of a guild’s orders, or picked up a notable from the last section of the Ganges, the game is over.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Unfortunately, the scope of Agra thematically doesn’t live up to the level of effort required to do anything. Having lots of ways to do essentially the same thing isn’t much fun, when in fact they’re all leading towards the same end. Rather than being a point salad, this is more a mechanism salad leading to a largely simple scoring system. There are several clever ideas on display, but one of the first (and most repeated) things I’ve been told about game design is that introducing one new concept per game is enough – you don’t want to overload the players with new concepts. That has not been adhered to here and I was left wondering why it hadn’t been more streamlined.
  • The thinker: I really admire what Michael Keller has achieved here: a deeply complex web of actions and sub-actions that still forces players to compete over a shared set of specific rewards. You’re rewarded for engine building (via extra actions for being able to make luxury goods), but also for being astute in terms of the current game state. However, this makes every turn deeply thoughtful – which gets ‘worse’ as the game goes on; with the additional caveat that every player’s turn will again change the board state, so forward planning is of limited benefit. Two hours? No chance. You will need a couple of dedicated heavy gamers with a good afternoon free to get this to the table. But it’s worth it.
  • The trasher: While this isn’t a confrontational game, it is a very tactical as well as strategic one. When a player converts a good to an improved version as their action, there is a window for anyone else with the same good to get a free upgrade too – so predicting your opponents’ moves can be crucial to success. Also, you need to anticipate what they’re trying to achieve: orders have very specific requirements, so if you get gazumped on the way to completing something it can put your plans back in a hugely frustrating way. You can’t just sit back and do your own thing – you have to pay attention to what everyone else is doing. But do you care enough to think that hard about it? I know I didn’t.
  • The dabbler: The game is beautiful. The board looks amazing, the raised side board looks great and the oversized pieces really pop on the table. But just, no. I started to lose the will to live in an early rules explanation and haven’t looked back. Definitely, definitely not for me. Pretty simply isn’t enough this time!

Key observations

A big problem Agra has, whether you like the game or not, is style over substance. While beautiful, the main board is a mess of detail – making a game that already has a high level of entry even worse. In addition, some of the wooden pieces are too big, the cardboard ones too small, and the Akbar board an angled accident waiting to happen.

The rulebook doesn’t help either. The layout isn’t conducive to finding the many small details you’ll find yourself having to reference as the game goes on; and many edge cases that could’ve been covered in pictorial examples have been overlooked. Which brings us on to iconography, which is unfortunately not the best. If you weren’t already dipping in and out of the rulebook for rule clarifications, you will be for icon ones.

The mass of choices available right off the bat get in the way of learning the basics, making this is a game purely for heavy gamers. And it feels wilful – almost as if this has been deliberately made to be impossible to access unless you’re part of the ‘heavy club’: it’s like the gaming equivalent of free form jazz. This isn’t a game that tries to avoid ‘analysis paralysis’ – if you don’t get AP playing Agra, you’re not doing it right.

But, despite all that, this is a very highly rated game. It appeals to its crowd, pressing the right buttons for a certain type of heavy gamer – so why shouldn’t Agra (and Quined Games) be applauded for that? Every niche needs its champion and with more than 500 8+ rating on Board Game Geek, this game has found its niche and then some.

Conclusion

Agra was a miss for me – and that’s a shame, which feels like an opportunity missed. I’d love to see a lighter version of the game that keeps many if its cleverer elements but gets rid of the wilfully complex. I can’t help thinking there is a glorious one-hour euro hidden in here, where the tactical challenge isn’t so hampered by an overly diffuse set of mechanisms and sub-mechanisms.

But as already mentioned, there is a heavy gamer crowd out there that needs new games – where, on the other hand, does the world really need another one-hour euro game? Hopefully a designer will take a few of the great concepts hidden in here and apply them to something more up my street in future: but until then, I’ll leave this one for my heavier brethren.

* Thanks to Quined Games for providing a reduced-price copy of the game for review.

Board game Top 10: The best board game podcasts

Taking a look back at my original gaming podcasts post, I was surprised at just how much has changed. I considered updating that post again, but decided it would simply be too much work: so instead, here’s a new Top 10.

I realise I have a tendency to turn Top 10s into top fifteens, or twenties (or sometimes more…), but this time I’ve managed to keep it to a solid 10. However, to make sure I continue to break from tradition, this isn’t in order from favourite down: rather, it is a spread of podcasts I think – between them – should appeal to a large range of gamers.

As an ignorant Englishman that only speaks his native tongue, these are all in English. I also find them all well produced and at least reasonably well edited, and none of them are advert heavy. I’ve marked the ones I consider could cause offence (but none are that bad). And as always, I’m sure you’ll have your own recommendations: I’ll list a few obvious exceptions at the end, and there are more I no longer listen to on the links above, but please suggest others I may have missed.

My Top 10 gaming podcasts

General gaming

  • The Dice Tower
    Probably the most popular board game podcast, The Dice Tower now heads its own mini empire of podcasts and video content. Its level of output is second to none, with only the Board Game Geek website beating it in terms of new release coverage. This weekly podcast itself has four hosts on rotation, two male and two female, and each hour-long episode starts with talking about what they’ve recently played before moving onto a topic. Topics are often top 10 lists, but can include everything from live shows from cons to listener questions and topic discussions. Unfortunately one of the four presenters is a good few levels lower than the others in terms of quality, so I find myself skipping some episodes, but its definitely a great place to start your exploration.
  • The Game Pit
    The UK’s leading gaming podcast and part of the Dice Tower Network, The Game Pit hosts Sean and Ronan give a refreshingly British spin to the world of board games. While a little more random in terms of release schedule, with more than 100 episodes under their belts they’re clearly here to stay. The long shows (usually two-plus hours) are purely topic driven, with regular features including Treasure Hunt (listing upcoming games and saying if they think they’ll be traps or treasures); Picking Over the Bones (lots of mini reviews of games) and Battle Reports (convention talk, often from during the con itself). Their family level banter (the guys are cousins) make it stand out, while regular guest spots from everyone from their kids/spouses to gaming friends (including me…) keep things fresh.
  • Cube Love
    Who hasn’t thought about just sitting down with your best mate and shooting the breeze while recording it and putting it out as a podcast? (Just me then?) But you get the feeling that’s what co-hosts Mark and Nathan decided – and I’m glad they did. The show can be random and rambling, and the quality is hit and miss, but overall I love the honesty and the banter – and they’re clearly very experienced gamers. It’s also irregular at best, with roughly one per month landing (if you’re lucky), but it does tend to weight in at two hours per podcast. Episodes are always split into sections, but these are hugely varied – from con reports or long reviews to discussions on anything from a designer to a mechanism to a gamer quirk – or one of them picking on the other about something. (Warning: A little sweary)
  • Board Games to Go
    The original, and for me still the best board game podcast. Hosted by Mark Johnson, it has been going since 2005 and is regularly quoted by many (including The Dice Tower) as being the inspiration behind starting their own shows. The majority of episodes used to be Mark on his own, but more often than not he now has guests helping him out (again, including me…). Mark’s tastes lean more towards family games, but euros do get some coverage. Episodes tend to come in under the hour and are thoughtful conversations or thoughts on topics including award speculation and convention play reports, ranging through to one-off topics on all kinds of things gaming related. For me, it’s the ‘up all night’ quiet time podcast in a see of louder, brasher offerings – and is all the better for it.
  • Mile High Game Guys
    This is another show you can describe as ‘just some friends having a laugh’ – and be warned: it can be quite a while before they remember they’re a gaming podcast and stop talking about sport, or some other random topics. But the banter is fun to listen to and they’re clearly knowledgeable about gaming in general. You can expect two shows each week, with a random/what we’ve been playing show followed later in the week by a more in-depth review or topic. Shows run long (usually two hours-ish) and if I have one criticism the three co-hosts can often repeat each other’s points. But generally it’s an interesting listen from three guys who have differing tastes in games, covering everything from light to heavier board and card games. (Warning: A little sweary)

Heavier gaming

  • Heavy Cardboard
    Host Edward, and previous co-hosts Tony and Amanda, have been building an amazing heavy gamer community since the podcast began in 2014. It’s been an emotional roller-coaster, with the hosts always wearing their hearts on their sleeves, but the real focus has always been on heavy, heavy games. If you want to learn about games in the 3+ on the BGG weight scale, this is the place for you. Shows usually cover games on their radar, followed by an in-depth review of a game – but you’ll also find con reports and interviews with notable designers of heavier games. They also do their own heavy game award each year, arrange meet-ups at cons and even have a world map of heavy gamers. This is a proper community (‘The Herd’) and all the better for it.
  • So Very Wrong About Games
    There’s been a gap in the market for a new podcast concentrating on heavier games, and co-hosts Mike and Mark are doing a great job of filling it in. When I say heavy, I don’t mean heavy – for that, see the above entry. But these guys concentrate on games for those who have come through family and gateway games and are looking for the next step up in complexity. The hour-long bi-weekly episodes always include a ‘what we’ve played recently section (of all game weights) followed by a long-ish review and a topic. The reviews tend to lean towards sci-fi/fantasy games with lots of theme but also slightly meatier mechanics, such as Gaia Project or Mage Knight. But the approach is conversational and the guys come across as likeable and knowledgeable.

Comedy panel show gaming…

  • This Game is Broken
    Billed as ‘the comedy board game panel show’, this podcast does exactly what it says on the tin. Every fortnight, four panellists in two teams (and their host) tackle a series of daft challenges and questions based around board games: expect a great mix of genuine gamer knowledge and stupidity, from guessing the retail price of games to ad-libbing escaping from a game, Jumanji style: there’s even the occasional kazoo. Regular panellists include The Brothers Murph, while occasional guests (including Tony Boydell and Christina Aimerito) keep things fresh. No, not every skit is hilarious – but they hit way more often than missing and it’s great to have a board gaming podcast that’s breaking the familiar mould.

Game design podcasts

  • Ludology
    The original and best podcast about board game design, Ludology has been co-presented by Geoff Engelstein since 2011. I still miss original co-host Ryan Sturm, who was a great foil to Geoff for the first 100 episodes; and card game design legend Mike Fitzgerald who stepped in until episode 150. Since then, current co-host Gil Hova and Geoff seem to have moved more away from the science into their own design experiences which feels detrimental to the show’s original concept – but I guess it’s natural, as both now have plenty of games published (although nothing of note. If I hear “When I was designing The Networks blah blah blah” one more time…). That aside, it’s still the best place to genuinely get your game design brain thinking in new and interesting directions.
  • The Game Design Round Table
    A close rival to Ludology’s crown, the only real thing holding the Round Table back from being my favourite design podcast is its mix of computer and tabletop design. This can be fascinating, and many of the lessons learned can be applied to both camps in interesting ways; but it does mean some episodes feel totally irrelevant to me. That said, the great ones really do make you think. Regular co-host Dirk Knemeyer used to have the Gil Hova problem (see Ludology above) but has since become a fantastic pilot of the show; while regular co-hosts David Heron (Star Trek Timelines), Harrison Pink (Blizzard) and Rob Daviau (Hasbro, ‘Legacy’ games) lend some genuine design heft to proceedings.

Big podcast names that didn’t make the list

Rahdo Talks Through is the podcast from hugely popular Rahdo Runs Through presenter, erm, Rahdo. If you like Rahdo then you’ll like this. Personally, I don’t tend to agree with his opinions on games and tend to find he is overly popular about most titles: if you want to reduce the games you might want to find out about in a sea of mediocrity, this is not the podcast for you! That said, he’s clearly a nice guy and if you want a couple of hours of positivity every few weeks it could be for you.

The Secret Cabal Podcast is possibly the second most popular podcast behind The Dice Tower: I can’t stand it. It’s well produced but the depth of knowledge is frighteningly thin and they clearly don’t play each game very often. In truth, I’ve probably just listed the reasons why it’s so popular: a lack of depth in plays and being new-ish to the hobby means you’re going to find a massive audience right now, in a rapidly expanding hobby driven by the ‘cult of the new’ – especially in the US where they’re from.

The D6 Generation used to be on my list, and is still hugely popular, but there was just too much in episode that I didn’t care about. There’s a lot on here about miniatures gaming (such as Warhammer 40k) and RPGs, as well as non-tabletop gaming topics such as film and computer games – and the podcasts tend to go very long (often pushing towards three hours). There just wasn’t room in my listening schedule – but if your gaming tends to cover the whole spectrum, this could well be one for you.

Take the Kingdom: A four-sided game review

Take the Kingdom* is a 2-4 player filler card game that takes about 30 minutes to play. It had a limited self-published release in 2017 but is currently going through a small overhaul to iron out some production issues with the first version.

For me, it feels like it should be pitched squarely at the family market. Children as young as six will be able to grasp the game very quickly, and its length isn’t prohibitive to this age group – in fact, they’ll be able to learn more as they play.

Thematically, you each control a medieval kingdom and are trying to finish the game with the strongest lands, or defeat your opponents before the deck of cards runs out – whichever comes first. Be under no illusions – this is very much a take-that game, with as many attacking cards as there are defensive ones.

The game’s Kickstarter campaign is now live and runs until September 21, with a copy of the game available there for £19. You can also keep an eye on its Board Game Geek page for updates.

Teaching Take the Kingdom

Each player starts with several cards on the table: a fort and several land cards, representing their kingdom. You’ll also have a couple of random cards in hand, drawn from the main deck of cards.

On a turn, a player draws three cards into their hand (hand limit of six) and then plays up to three cards. Cards come in three flavours – defence, attack and action. Defence cards are mainly added to your lands to add strength to them (they’ll have a number from 1 to 5), while attack cards are played on your opponents’ lands to destroy those defences. Action cards do all kinds of things: everything from stealing opponents’ lands to blocking incoming attacks to taking an extra turn.

You have to destroy a land’s defences before you can destroy the land – and once all of a player’s land is gone, you can attack their fort’s defences before you destroy the fort. Once a player loses their fort, they’re out of the game. If the deck of cards runs out while more than one player remains, those left count the points on their remaining defensive cards – highest score wins.

The four sides

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

  • The father: A small box, light game with a sub one-hour play time will always get play time in our household. The game is easy to teach and quick to learn; while playing with two players limits some of the issues when playing a take-that style game with younger children. The theme and art capture the imagination and provide the hook needed to engage younger players. However, the game’s footprint can be surprisingly large; depending on the cards you draw it can expand rapidly.
  • The son (aged 6): This game is really interesting, having recently learned about different types of castles at school. The numbers on the cards are clear and the rules are easy to understand. Having two rounds to only play defence cards means you don’t find yourself immediately under attack. The more complicated elements [fortune and mercy cards] are not too difficult to understand and use in play. However, some of the more text heavy cards are still too much at this point; particularly the action cards which can counteract certain attacks. A wider use of iconography would have made this easier to understand.
  • The thinker: There isn’t much here for the more advanced gamer. Too much of the game is on rails, with there being a fair chance you’ll have no meaningful decisions to make on some of your turns. There’s also too much luck, with some cards simply being better than others: if you happen to draw the couple of +5 cards you’ve got a clear advantage on the other players. And connected to this, once you know the deck, the strategy becomes one-dimensional: save your own big cards and wait for the other big cards and deal with them, or bash whoever got the lucky draws. Not for me.
  • The dabbler: As a light filler game, this works. Everyone is quickly up to speed on the rules and the play is relatively quick, even with the most AP prone players at the table. Uncharacteristically for a take-that style game the attacking was fairly balanced, with people preferring to attack the player in the strongest position as opposed to eliminating players. The end game dragged slightly as players withheld cards on the off chance they could be used to repel attacks or gain last minute points. But a good starter game for an evening or ‘between games’ game.

Key observations

For me, Take the Kingdom is a light family or children’s game. For these games to work they need to be as simple as possible and give their players as much help as they can. This is a simple game, but it can do a little more in the help department.

There is currently an awful lot of text on the cards – almost all of which could be replaced with icons. As an example, “Used against structural defences. Remove all Hills, Walls, Moats and Battlements from a single Land or Fort card.” Half that text could be replaced with one icon. Similarly, every attack card says “cause 1 point of damage to an enemy fort, land or defence”. This is 100% superfluous and will simply put off the many players who don’t like ‘cards with words’ games. Making the cards simple is key to making this game appeal to its core audience.

Another concern when dealing with younger gamers is the way take-that elements work. Take the Kingdom very much allows for players to choose a target and pick on them mercilessly until they are defeated (which they will be). Some people will find this hilarious, some won’t do it all, but you really need to know your fellow players: played meanly, there really is nowhere to hide here, despite the opening few rounds allowing you to build up your defences (if you draw any – but that’s another point entirely…).

My final concern is outlying cards, and luck of the draw. Take the Kingdom’s strength lies in its simplicity, but you need to gauge your audience. An example is the game’s three penalty cards. The player who draws one cannot play a certain type of card that round (action, attack or defence, depending on the penalty). If one player draws all three, they’ll feel unfairly unlucky (and rightly so): and certain people don’t deal with that well. Another game would have said that, when one of these is drawn, it affects all players for that round for fairness. This is not one of those games.

Conclusion

While the designer ensures me gamers have loved Take the Kingdom, that certainly wasn’t the case with my friends – or with me.

While we liked its simplicity and stripped back nature, and everything clicks nicely in design terms, there aren’t many choices – and some cards (all randomly drawn) are too much better than others.

However, having given it to a friend (who helped out with chunks of this review – thanks Chris Fenton and family!) with a largely non-gaming wife and enthusiastic gamer son, it was nice to see it appreciated by a younger and less gamery audience. But even then, the text came back to haunt it. As sis understandable with smaller publishers, it seems the game hasn’t been tested with enough people who are part of the industry.

I’d recommend Take the Kingdom for families setting out on their journey into ‘proper’ games; and that would turn into a strong recommendation if the publisher sorts out the problem of having way too much text on cards that could easily be replaced with icons.

* I would like to thank Walnut Games for providing a copy of the game for review.

Queendomino: A four-sided game review

Queendomino is a family board game for two-to-four players that takes around 30-40 minutes to play.

It is essentially a slightly more complex version of Kingdomino, sharing the faux-medieval theme and dominoes-inspired set collection game play – but with a few twists that raise it to being more like ages 10+.

The artwork is also very similar to its award-winning predecessor, whilst again you’ll get 48 tiles, four little cardboard castles and eight wooden kings. But this time they’re joined by 32 town tiles and a town board you buy them from; a bunch of cardboard coins; wooden towers (15) and knights (22); a handy colour score pad, plus cute wooden queen and dragon pieces.

The box is quite a bit bigger than the original, but the overall production quality throughout is again very high – making it very good value for the price tag, which is around £20. In fact, it makes a mockery of many other games in its price bracket.

Teaching Queendomino

The basic rules of Queendomino are identical to those in Kingdomino (including basic scoring and number of rounds), so I won’t go into depth on them here (please click on the link above to my review of that game if you need to).

Essentially you still do the same basic phases: add your new domino to your kingdom, then choose a new domino by placing your queen on it. What’s new are three optional phases in between them: use knights, construct a building and bribe the dragon (done in that order).

Knights can be placed on the tile you just added (so you can use two on your turn if you have them, one on each side of your new tile) and earn money – one coin per square in its area. Money is used to construct a building (one per turn, built on the only new terrain type, towns), which then give various benefits. Finally, if you don’t currently have the queen in your territory, you may bribe the dragon to remove a building from those currently available (there are six to choose from).

Town spaces appear on 20 of the 96 squares that make up the 48 dominoes in Queendomino; but they’re basically dead tiles until you build on them. Many buildings give you points or new ways to score points (including crowns, as with basic tiles); others give you bonuses when you use your knights to get taxes; plus, some also give you knights and/or towers.

The first player to claim a tower also takes the queen into their kingdom – but don’t get used to her being around. As soon as another player has an equal (or higher) number of towers, the queen will move to their kingdom. The queen gives you a one-coin discount when constructing buildings and counts as an extra crown in your largest area if you have her at the end of the game. On the downside, you can’t bribe the dragon.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: The addition of the 20 town tile spaces reduces your chance to create large scoring areas, but many buildings let you score for having lots of small areas in a colour, rather than big ones. This reverse scoring adds an interesting extra tactical level that was needed and works well. However, it means towns can’t be ignored: it’s not as if you can choose a completely different way to try and win the game. However, as a gateway game, it now comes with a few light euro game elements that will be a good way to take your non-gamer friends to the next level.
  • The thinker: I’m still happy to play Kingdomino as a light filler, as it has surprisingly interesting decisions in a short time span. But the extra play time, setup time and fiddliness introduced with Queendomino seem to muddy the waters rather than expand them clearly. More isn’t always a good thing and for every new potentially strategic element here another random one seems to have been added that balances it out, meaning it doesn’t feel any more controllable. I had high hopes, but surprisingly I think I still prefer the original.
  • The trasher: The dragon adds a nice tactical element to the interactive part of this series, but can only be utilised by one player once per turn – so is better with less players (otherwise you may rarely get to use it). Its similar for scrapping over most towers, or most knights – if a couple of you go for it, it’s likely to simply benefit the other players as you’re watering down your own benefits and clearing undesirable tiles for your opponents. That said, the core element of choosing turn order still works well and its fun to put both games together to make bigger grids.
  • The dabbler: I still love Kingdomino and was looking forward to this – especially after seeing the cute new pieces (some of the things the sheep are getting up to on the new tiles is hilarious). But unfortunately I was disappointed: the game just seems to add complexity for complexity’s sake without adding any extra fun. You definitely wouldn’t want to play with younger children – especially as the little wooden knights are ridiculously small (and, frankly, the wooden towers are too big – you can barely see what is on other players’ tiles if they have one on – and if its two or three, forget it!). The addition of score sheets was very welcome though.

Key observations

It may seem as if I’ve given Queendomino a rough ride, so I feel the need to point out here that in the wider community the jury is definitely out on which game is ‘better’ – in fact, at the time of writing, both games ranked a very impressive 7.4 on Board Game Geek.

Those who love it appreciate the extra play time, see it as having deeper planning than the original, while adding the elements they thought were lacking. Those who don’t (like me), amusingly, simply say the opposite: the extra play time feels unnecessary, while the extra bits are over-complicated and weaken the game’s fantastic core. Is it deeper – or overblown? I’m afraid that’s simply a matter of opinion.

The ability to combine Queendomino with the original is great if you like both games and has been very well conceived. I do enjoy making a 7×7 grid (rather than 5×5) when playing the original two-player and having both games means you can do this all the way up to four players. Also, this waters down the town tiles sufficiently to make them have a little less impact, bringing the original scoring methods more to the fore.

When combining both games, in fact, quite a lot of things seem better balanced. When playing just Queendomino, the town tiles seem to have been given a bit too much weight in terms of the numbering – but this makes sense when playing the bigger game: town tiles are rarer, so feel more desirable. Unfortunately though, if playing two-player, this combining of the games is only an option if you go for a player-created variant that makes 10×10 grids – quite the undertaking!

Conclusion

I was happy to see Kingdomino win the Spiel de Jahres award and over a year on from my review of the game I’m still very much enjoying it. I looked forward to Queendomino and was still excited about it as I was getting it out of the box.

But I won’t be keeping it in my collection. I am definitely in the “it’s over-complicated” camp and, with its extended setup and play time, I have many family weight light euro games I’d rather reach for (both my recently reviewed Thurn and Taxis and Maori spring to mind).

But this shouldn’t be seen as me giving Queendomino a ‘bad’ review. It’s high average ratings and scores of fans are genuine, while the production quality is high. The game is well designed and also works/flows beautifully; it simply isn’t for me. If you love the original, I suggest you try this one out – and if you thought the original was simply too light, again, this is worth a look. Just be aware of its Marmite nature going in.

* I would like to thank Coiledspring Games for providing a copy of the game for review.

Caverna: A four-sided game review

Caverna: The Cave Farmers, to give its slightly pointless full name, is a one-to-seven player worker placement euro game. Game length very much changes due to player count, but tends to work out at around 30 minutes per player. I’d tend to agree with the 12+ age range too, as the game’s choices mushroom as the game goes on.

The game was released in 2013 and is still easily available for around £55. This may sound quite expensive, but you get a mass of wood and cardboard in the box: 16 game boards, 30 cards, 60+ plastic pieces, 300+ wooden pieces and 400+ cardboard pieces. Yes, really.

Caverna is very much the spiritual successor to designer Uwe Rosenberg’s award-winning classic Agricola, and I’ll talk about the comparisons later. In terms of theme though, Caverna is still a farming game but adds a slight fantasy theme. You’ll be building a cave rather than a house, while also mining in caves alongside raising cattle and planting crops – all in the name of victory points.

Teaching Caverna

Anyone who has played Agricola will find learning Caverna a breeze, as it has the same turn flow and structure. A game is usually played over 12 rounds, with each player starting with two workers (or ‘dwarves’, theme fans) and being able to increase that to a maximum of five before the end of the game (each worker you have gets to do an action each round).

There a number of worker placement spaces available on the central boards (varying due to player count) and each space can be occupied by a single worker, including a space that lets you become start player. Each round a new worker placement space is revealed, opening up stronger actions as the game moves towards its conclusion.

Each player has their own board, depicting a mountain ready to be dug into to create caves and a forest ready to be flattened to graze cattle or plant crops. Cave spaces can be turned into dwellings (to house more workers), rooms (giving various benefits) or mines (giving resources). Everything from gathering/trading resources; furnishing rooms or clearing areas; planting crops; gaining animals or extra workers, and going on expeditions is achieved by using your workers.

On a round, the start player places one of their workers on an available space and does the associated action. The player to their left then does the same with one of their workers, continuing clockwise until all workers have been used (if a player has more workers than everyone else, they may end up placing several workers in a row at the end of the round). Once this is completed, the round is over: all players retrieve their workers from the board, the next worker space is revealed, and the next round begins.

Between rounds, the main board will tell you whether there will be a harvest. If there is, all players get to gain food and additional animals if they have crops planted or pairs of particular animals. Certain buildings will also give you bonus resources each round. But it’s not all good news, because those workers need to eat. Harvests also mean you need to feed your workers, so you need to ensure you’ve left aside enough money/food/resources to keep them happy – or pay a hefty victory point consequence.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: The addition of adventuring spaces in Caverna is a clever one. When you send a dwarf adventuring, they can gather a certain number of resources (one to three) depending on the action space used – and these are chosen from a list that is adventuring level dependent. Each time you adventure with the same dwarf they improve by a level, giving them better options to choose from next time – so ultimately letting you bypass popular worker spaces by adventuring instead.
  • The thinker: Personally I’ll happily play Caverna, but prefer Agricola. Caverna is a more tactical game, allowing you to easily switch paths turn-by-turn with many ways to achieve your goals. In Agricola you live and die by those early decisions to keep certain cards, also allowing a certain level of mystery as players slowly play more powerful cards into their tableau as the game goes on. I find this much more satisfying, but this is still a very enjoyable if more chaotic game.
  • The trasher: I really didn’t click with Agricola: there was too much going on all at once, the theme was boring (farming? Yay!) and I’d often feel like I’d lost 10 minutes into a three hour game. Here the theme is slightly better, the adventuring is fun, it feels generally less punishing and also more cohesive somehow. There’s not much interaction, but taking spots at the right times can make a big difference. Overall still not really for me, but I’ll play it on occasion.
  • The dabbler: While I didn’t struggle as much with this as I did with Agricola, there’s still too much going on for me. I actually think the game looks nice, especially with the wooden animals and individual building art, but there’s just so much to remember and take into consideration. It’s a pleasant enough experience, but it’s the kind of game I’m pretty sure I’ll never win – so wouldn’t choose it.

Key observations

While rather ambitiously listed as a one-to-seven player game, for me it is a two-to-four player game – potentially raising to five if you’re all happy to play a game with quite a lot of downtime that will probably last at least three hours. I’ll talk about the solo game below, but with more the game just becomes unpleasantly and pointlessly long.

The game does play in a very similar way to Agricola, and I think only Rosenberg’s biggest fans will find the need to own both games. That said, I do think it is different enough to merit its existence and I don’t feel, as some do, that this was the designer ‘phoning in’ a new version to make extra cash. I’ll talk about which is my preference below, but I don’t feel the need to have both (despite both being great games).

Criticisms of the game being overwhelming are a fair warning to the feint of euro heart, and only the hardier of gamers should apply. Yes there’s an awful lot going on here, but I still find Rosenberg’s ‘Le Havre’ a more taxing game (the decision space by the end of that baffles me). But I don’t buy it as being bloated or convoluted: quite the opposite, in fact. The things you do make sense and the game runs long enough to get any of the various strategies going in a satisfying way.

Is the game multi-player solitaire? I suppose that depends on how you interpret what really constitutes the game here.

While it’s fair to say you can’t mess with other people’s player boards, that’s only half the battle: the real interaction is in gaining, or denying, particular worker spaces at the right moments to perfectly execute your strategy. I know I have lost games because someone has spotted what I needed to do, jumped in before me quite deliberately, and beaten me long term. That for me is not a solitaire game.

And I suppose I should address the people who played it and didn’t like it who didn’t do their homework (sigh). Yes, it’s a resource gathering game where you turn some things into other things to get points. Thing is, giving it 1 out of 10 for being exactly what it sets out to be is childish. Caverna is a great example of this genre – so it’s your fault for playing a game in a genre you don’t like, not the game’s.

Caverna: Solo play

Sadly I can’t recommend Caverna as a solo experience – but it might work for you. Here, I think Agricola is king because of the random card set up at the start. Each time you play Agricola solo you have a unique set of cards to try and combine to get a great score. This makes each game different and its own challenge.

In Caverna, all the rooms are available to build in every game, taking that random element away. Some players I’m sure will be able to work out a way of doing this to limit themselves in some way, or just try to get the best score without using certain types of building etc. But having to fudge things in like this isn’t at all appealing to me.

Caverna vs Agricola: My opinion

I just wanted to tough on what I see as the key differences between the two games. Each of these I see as Caverna pluses over Agricola, but for other players this is very much the other way around – so don’t take my opinion as gospel!

In Agricola, you start the game with a number of cards you can later play that give your player tableau a unique feel. This front-loads a lot of difficult decisions and can make it feel like you’ve lost before you’ve even begun if you get a poor blend of cards – while often forcing you down a particular path for that game.

Caverna takes the functions of these card and puts them on buildings that are available for all players to buy. This means you can choose to add them as they begin to support your strategy, spreading the decision space further through the game – while also allowing competition for them to add a little more player interaction and tension.

‘Feeding your people’ is a common bugbear for Agricola haters, and with some good reason. While there are a couple of ways to do it, getting a food engine going early in Agricola is pretty much essential. While Caverna also has the need to feed, it is far less punishing in both what you can feed them (dwarves clearly have stronger stomachs than those puny humans) and how easy it is to gather resources. Feeding still feels like a burden, in a good way, but there’s a far wider range of ways to get it done.

Finally, the biggest addition in Caverna is adventuring. While just an alternative way to gather resources, it adds a very different path to victory while also creating some extra challenges in terms of your worker placement (your adventurers are marked and have to be placed last – leaving other players the chance to take the good adventuring spots before you do). It’s a small addition in terms of rules and game space, but adds some genuinely interesting decisions to an already thinky game.

Conclusion

While I can’t go into a game lightly, meaning I don’t end up playing it that often, I always thoroughly enjoy my plays if Caverna. It sits alongside Through the Ages and Terra Mystica as my favourite heavier euro games and I can’t ever see it leaving my collection.

Every game feels like a fun, puzzley challenge and while the decision space opens up a little each round in literal terms, it never feels as if it gets out of hand. For me, it is a true classic of euro games from one of modern gaming’s finest designers.

Board game Top 10: The best set collection games

Set collection is a classic and one of the most commonly utilised game mechanisms.  Thousands of games use in one version or another, from classic card (Rummy, Poker) and dice (Yahtzee, Poker Dice) games through to complex euro games.

Their origin dates back to Mahjong in the 18th or 19th Century. By the end of the 19th Century it had translated to card games, arriving in the west as Rummy; and growing and morphing incredibly since then.

As games have become more complex, so have their designers’ usage of set collection. Where once it was the core of games, now it often sits alongside other mechanisms as a means to facilitate a more complex structure. But however it is utilised, you can guarantee hundreds of new games will incorporate it every year.

I could’ve done a simple Top 10 below, but I didn’t think that would do such a venerable mechanism justice. So instead I’ve broken things down into four sections (card, family, euro and ‘other’ games), before doing my actual Top 10 taken from all those below. Yeah, I do like to go on a bit… but hopefully this will be more useful to different types of gamers (such as those just coming into the hobby).

(Note: Any links in the text are to in-depth game reviews elsewhere on this site)

My Top 5 set collection card games

Here’s five cheap and accessible simple card games (in no particular order) that are a great first step for someone who enjoys a simple set collection game. They’re all easy on theme and light on rules, so should be suitable for just about anyone.

  • Red7
    (2014, 2-4 player, 5-30 mins)
    An incredibly clever little game that messes with your brain for he first few plays, but once you ‘get’ it becomes addictive. The idea is to be winning by the end of your turn – and if you’re not, you’re out. You do this by playing one or two cards from your hand in front of you, either to obtain the current win condition or to change the condition so you are winning (or both). Each card has a number and a colour, with the colour dictating the win condition. A hand can take five minutes, so play as long as you like.
  • Battle Line (AKA Schotten Totten)
    (2000, 2 players, 30 mins)
    This classic Reina Knizia design sees two players pitched against each other, competing to win the majority of nine battles (five total, or three adjacent). Players play cards to these ‘battles’ and win them with a slight variation on brag hands (largely runs and sets) – but you can win a battle early if you can prove your opponent can’t possibly win it (as any card they’d need has already been played). This, plus some interesting action cards, elevate it beyond the typical luck/gambling games such as poker, without making it complex to learn.
  • Coloretto
    (2003, 2-5 players, 30 mins)
    This simple game has a great drafting mechanic: add a card to a row (one row per player) or take a row – so take a single card, or risk waiting for up to three. The twist: you only score in three of the seven colours, so the longer you wait the more chance your opponents have to make card sets useless to you. You can teach it in five minutes and there’s lots of luck, but it has been in print for 15 years for good reason.
  • Lost Cities
    (1999, 2 players, 30 minutes)
    This is another two-player only Knizia classic, but it plays incredibly differently to Battle Line (above). Here you’re trying to score points in 1-5 colours (your choice), but you can only lay cards of each colour in sequential order – starting with bonus cards that will multiply that score. The twist is you each colour you decide to start begins at -20 points, so you need to score at least 21 to get anything (numbers are just 1-10) – and those bonuses double your negatives if you screw up. Both players usually end up feeling the game hates them – but in a good way, honest!
  • Archaeology: The Card Game
    (2007, 2-4 players, 30 mins)
    Archaeology brings a big dose of push-your-luck to the set collection card game, thanks to a clever hand management element. The basics are simple: collect sets of cards and lay them in front of you for points. However, the more of a set you get the more it is worth, so you want to keep cards in your hand – but there is the constant threat of ‘storm’ cards that force all players to discard half of their hand cards. There’s also ‘thief’ cards to add more interaction (without overdoing it), while the 2016 reprint (The New Expedition) added a little more card variety.

My Top 5 set collection family games

For many (particularly in the US and UK), family board games have been limited to Monopoly, Risk and Cluedo for decades. Thankfully, since the 1990s, there has been a growing number of games that have fixed the issues these dated titles have: here are five of the best ones that include set collection.

  • Ticket to Ride
    (2004, 2-5 players, 60 mins)
    I’m sure regular visitors to this site are sick of me talking-up Ticket to Ride, but the fact it has sold millions of copies and is still beloved of thousands of ‘serious’ gamers tells you all you need to know: this is a modern classic and a brilliant gateway into the wider world of modern gaming. The set collection couldn’t be simpler: getting sets of coloured (not numbered) cards to be able to lay your trains on routes on the board. But you’re doing so to complete route cards in your hand your opponents can’t see – and there are limited routes to claim to get from city to city.
  • Alhambra
    (2003, 2-6 players, 60 minutes)
    Here you’ll find two types of set collection. First, you need to collect sets of four types of currency with which to buy building tiles to create your Alhambra (palace). But these buildings are also coloured; and having the largest set of a colour earns you points. Add to this a fascinating puzzle of how you put your palace tiles together and you have a cleverly thinky game which is at the same time accessible, as all of the elements are in their own way simple to grasp.
  • Ra
    (1999, 2-5 players, 60 mins)
    Knizia’s third game on the list (he does love a twist on a classic mechanism), Ra is largely an auction game in terms of in-play mechanisms – but the scoring is all about set collection. Players jostle and bid for tiles to add to their tableau throughout the game, most of which score in sets either during or at the end of the game. Everything works simply, making it simple to learn, but it’s the interaction between players and in particular knowing when to call ‘ra’ (to start an auction) that really makes the game sing.
  • Azul
    (2017, 2-4 players, 45 mins)
    In case you were thinking I’d been in a deep sleep since the early 2000s, here’s a properly ‘new’ title that has managed to find a fantastic original take on the concept of set collection. Players take it in turns to take a particular colour of tile from one of the sets available, placing the other coloured tiles from that set into the middle of the table (making a leftovers set, which you can also take from). The tiles you take must be added to your player board on one of five lines (which have 1-5 spaces in them), and each line can only contain a single colour. This can lead to massive nastiness as options diminish, but it’s an awful lot of fun.
  • Blueprints
    (2013, 2-4 players, 45 mins)
    This one flew a little under the radar, but has been a big hit with most people I’ve played with. Players take it in turns to draft dice which they put behind their screen to build up their blueprint. You can follow the pattern on this blueprint to gain points, or ignore it and go your own way – instead focusing on anything from taking lots of one colour (or number) of dice, a run of numbers, or clever ways to stack them on your blueprint to score extra points. The fun comes in trying to guess the motives of your opponents and scupper them, while also trying to fulfil your own plans: and laughing together as you all fail miserably to do either.

My Top 5 set collection euro games

This was difficult to narrow down to five, so if you’re looking in this category and want more suggestions try Castles of Burgundy (a fiddly tile-laying Feld design where everything scores points), Endeavor (sail the seas, collect tokens, control areas) and El Gaucho (collect cows to score points, with a simple gateway euro twist).

  • Terraforming Mars
    (2016, 1-5 players, 120-180 mins)
    This sprawling euro game blends almost every mechanism you can think of, but collecting cards in sets that synergise – and sets of resources to spend to terraform the planet – are two of the keys to success. This has been one of the real breakout hits of recent years and for good reason: a massive stack of unique cards make each game feel different as you each build your own tableau/engine, but the simple core of collecting drives the experience and makes the basics very easy to learn.
  • Thurn and Taxis
    (2006, 2-4 players, 60 mins)
    This could just as easily have been popped into the family section, but I feel it has a little more going on than the likes of Ticket to Ride – although it is very much powered by a simple set collection concept. You draw town cards to build routes across the map; but must add a card to your route every turn before deciding whether to lay that route on the board, adding both a push-your-luck and tactical scoring element to decisions. The game is criticised by numpties for being a bit beige, but those with the basic intelligence to see past this will find a clever and engaging game that’s way more than the sum of its parts.
  • Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar
    (2012, 2-4 players, 120 mins)
    While most obviously a worker placement game, the winner will most likely be the player who most successfully collects sets of resources with which to buy scoring and bonus tiles. But the worker placement element really makes the game stand out, as the game’s turning worker cogs make it both visually and mechanically unique. And it should be noted this is a punishing game of minimal gains that is not for the weak of heart!
  • Saint Petersburg
    (2004, 2-4 players, 60 minutes)
    This classic euro game enjoyed a timely revival with a 10th anniversary second edition in 2014, but seems to have sunk without a trace once again – but needs to make it onto this list (it is still readily available second-hand and can be played online at sites such as Yucata.de). Players collect sets of nobles, craftsmen and aristocrats to gain either money (to buy more cards), points or both; and it is mastering how to walk the tightrope between balancing the two that makes the game sing. Again, some are put off by the oldy-worly artwork that is, admittedly, dry as a witch’s tit: but trust me, the gameplay comfortably overcomes it.
  • Finca
    (2009, 2-4 players, 60 mins)
    Unfortunately Finca shares many traits with Saint Petersburgh: a classic and well-loved German euro game from publisher Hans Im Gluck that fell out of print. However, a successful 2018 Kickstarter should see it back in the shops (at least for a while) later this year (and again, you can play it on Yucata if you want to give it a go). What makes the game stand out is its central rondel that each player’s pieces move around in a mancala-type fashion. But you’re doing this to collect sets of fruit which are in turn used to deliver sets for victory points. I’ve only played online, but am looking forward to it being back in print.

Other great set collection games

I had several other games I didn’t want to leave out, so here they are…

  • Forbidden Desert/Forbidden Island/ Pandemic
    (2008-2013, 2-4 players, 30-60 mins)
    I’m not mad keen on co-operative games, where players win collectively rather than individually, but they’re hugely popular – and set collection is often a key part of the mechanics. Easily the most popular series (and for good reason) are these three games from designer Matt Leacock – with Pandemic having seen its own slew of newer versions. But across them all, the premise is the same: collect sets of cards to stop disasters happening, while at the same time holding back the triggers which will set off those disasters. Forbidden Island is probably the easiest starting point, with children as young as eight usually able to take part.
  • Onirim
    (2010, 1 player, 30 mins)
    Another area I rarely talk about is solo gaming – another rich area for set collection games. Onirim is a great example, being a small box fast playing card game that pits a single player against the game (there is a co-op two-player version, but I wouldn’t bother). You need to collect and play three cards of the same type in a row to obtain door cards, but you’re constantly coming up against nightmares that force you to burn cards from the deck, reducing your chance of success. The game has a unique and strangely compelling art style and universe and has become one of the most popular solo games on the market. (Note: Both Terraforming Mars (above) and Ex Libris (below) have good solo variants.)
  • Sushi Go!
    (2013, 2-5 players, 15-30 mins)
    to make it three in a row, another area I’m a bit crap on is children’s games – but Sushi go has been a huge hit in both the family and children’s games markets. Its card drafting taken to its most basic level, as you draft cards to make sets that score points in various ways. It’s super simple and a great way to teach kids or new gamers the various ways more complex games reward you with points, while playing fast – and the super cute artwork is a big help too.
  • Monopoly Deal
    (2008, 2-5 players, 15-30 minutes)
    It’s hard to believe I’m listing a Monopoly game here, but here it is. I like this because it distils what made Monopoly a potentially great game (set collection, luck, plus loads of take that and screwage) while reducing it into a game that takes a fraction of the time – and is set up with the simple shuffle of the card deck. It is also easily available and less than £10, so it can be a great way to help your non-gamer friends save themselves from playing its dreadful big brother. Trust me, they’ll thank you and who knows – maybe they’ll come back to you for some recommendations for other games…
  • Ex Libris
    (2017, 1-4 players, 60 mins)
    I’ve only played this one once, so didn’t feel it had enough to muscle onto one of the earlier lists – but its little original twists made it impossible to leave out. From the beautifully realised fantasy library theme to the gorgeous artwork, it’s a joy to look at. But the gameplay is clever too: you’re collecting sets of books to score points, but the cards you’re adding to your shelves have several books on each (so you may be getting colours you don’t want too) – but worse, you have to order them alphabetically by book title. This puzzley element really makes it shine, while a small worker placement/special powers element also ensures replayability – but it always remains simple to teach.

My actual Top 10 set collection games…

I may order these differently in a different list, but here I’m putting the most stock into their set collection elements and how much they make the game greater than its other parts.

  1. Thurn and Taxis: The combination of route building and set collection in real terms is magnificent, while the game is the perfect length (an hour) and has multiple routes to victory in what is a very tight package.
  2. Archaeology – The Card Game: This would be a rather ‘meh’ set collection game if you took out those sandstorms, but the tension they add transform it into a brilliant push-your-luck card game in a small box.
  3. Azul: This may be new game hotness speaking, but my few plays of this to date have shown a depth of both strategy and tactics that re rare in any game – and especially a set collection abstract one. Mean and clever, but simple and elegant.
  4. Alhambra: This sits higher than it might on the list by mixing two types of set collection in one game, each of which could make its own game. The currency collection is ingenious; and the tile laying and scoring equally so.
  5. Coloretto: Everything here is about the set collection – and this simple core makes the choice of whether to take cards or add one to a set all the more delicious. There’s no distractions here, just tough decisions in a simple rule set.
  6. Finca: Mancalas and rondels make any game better in my eyes, so to combine the two is to play directly into my heart. There’s enough to think about there, so a good game designer leaves the rest simple – and set collection ticks that box.
  7. Ticket to Ride: The king of family games, the king of gateway games, and a great set collection game – but not the best. Here it’s a very simple means to a brilliant end for a game that hinges on blocking and secret route building.
  8. Ra: Much as with Ticket to Ride, the real game here is the wonderful auction system and its push-your-luck elements – wit the set collection being the best way to tie those together with an effective scoring system.
  9. Monopoly Deal: Every time I play – win or lose – this makes me laugh. Sure, it’s more likely to be luck than good play that decides the outcome. But in a short filler you can teach anyone, play and pack up all in 30 minutes, who cares?
  10. Blueprints: Dice drafting is a great mechanism, hidden tableaus create great table dynamics, and multiple ways to score the sets you’re creating add extra intrigue. Packaged and themed differently, this could’ve been a huge hit.

Cardboard time machine: My 2008 in life and board games

Ten years ago, in the summer of 2008, I started to get back into gaming. So what better reason to start an annual post looking back over my years in the hobby?

I’d loved the usual stuff in my youth (cards, Cluedo etc), had a nerdy phase in my teens (D&D, Warhammer 40K, Blood Bowl), then dabbled with the Magic and Wyvern TCGs in the mid 90s – but 2008 was definitely the real turning point.

The year turned out to be a crazy one. I was working for a small magazine publisher in Farringdon while starting to have discussions about moving in with my then girlfriend of two years. We decided on Watford and the planning began. We had music in common (we were mad keen gig goers), but what else did we have in common? I was creative, she was a numbers person. Our TV habits differed. What were we going to do with all this new ‘us’ time?

Two of her most prized possessions were lovely old wooden versions of Mancala and Nine Men’s Morris. We’d played both a few times (she thrashed me), but they hadn’t quite scratched my gaming itch – but it did mean we both liked games, in theory. Maybe there were some other games out there that were abstract, so she’d like them, but a bit more modern so that I might better get into them too…

My game plays in 2008

I didn’t discover Board Game Geek until around October time, while I introduced my two new purchases to our new home in November. I certainly wasn’t an expert in BGG Fu at that stage, but I did log my plays.

In the last couple of months of the year we managed a very healthy 10 plays of Ingenious (2004) and four of Blokus Duo (2005). They were high street games at the time (I got them both in John Lewis) and they wen’t down really well.

Maybe it’s because they were the first games that got me back into the hobby, or maybe they’re simply great games (the latter mainly, I think), but both are still in my collection and have easily stood the test of time. My current girlfriend also loves both games, while Blokus Duo has become a favourite for one of her daughters too. Blokus is a less regular choice for me (I have 28 total plays over the 10 years), but Ingenious is still a favourite (53 plays and counting).

My hindsight Top 10 Games of 2008

Unbeknownst to me at the time, 2008 shaped up to be a pretty good year in board gaming for new releases: five BGG Top 100 games amongst a slew of still popular titles. But my top 10 would be:

  1. Dominion: The original and still best deck-builder.
  2. Dixit: Unique imagination and word game with beautiful art.
  3. Nefertiti: Clever tactical push-your-luck dice game.
  4. Stone Age: A great euro game for new players in the hobby.
  5. Pandemic: The classic and clever co-operative game.
  6. Uruk: Fantastic civ-building card game in a small box.
  7. Metropolys: A clever and thinky abstract game.
  8. The Climbers: A great competitive puzzle using gorgeous wooden pieces.
  9. Fauna: A general knowledge game done right.
  10. Crossboule: A fun outdoor dexterity game played with hacky sacks.

Honourable mentions go to thoroughly enjoyable racing game Formula D, and the quick, fun, take-that card game Monopoly Deal. Of this list though, only Dominion, Dixit, Nefertiti and Uruk are in my collection (along with Monopoly Deal). Stone Age and Pandemic were once but played themselves out, while the rest I’d always be happy to play but they’ve never entered my collection.

The year’s end

Much like Blokus and Ingenious, I’m happy to say that girlfriend is still a treasured old friend and we still regularly stay in touch. But December 2008 was when all the crazy happened. Much like a classic blues song I lost my girl, my house and my job (through redundancy) all at once – but a new chapter of my life started just a few weeks later in a different city, with a new job and (not too long afterwards) a new young lady friend. See you in 2009…

Maori: A four-sided game review

Maori is a tile-laying family game which can be lazily grouped with its more famous cousin Carcassonne – but in truth Günter Burkhardt’s design is quite a different beast. A game only takes about 45 minutes and it works well at all of its player counts, from 2-5 players.

Released in 2009 the game is (at time of writing) currently out of print, but easily available – usually reasonably priced at below £30 – on the secondhand market. It’s a relatively light game in terms of rules, suitable for ages 8+, but a host of variants (included in the rules) create a more challenging experience for hardened players.

While you shouldn’t expect a thematic experience (this is very much an abstract game, in a similar way to Carcassonne, but set in Polynesia) you can expect lovely art from Harald Lieske and Michael Menzel that make the game look great on the table (it has 97 quality cardboard tiles, five double-sided player boards and 36 wooden pieces).

Teaching Maori

In a basic game of Maori, each player has a board with 16 spaces for tiles. Once one player has filled their board, the round ends and the game is scored.

In the centre of the table is a 4×4 grid of face up, randomly drawn tiles. A boat piece is placed on the edge of the grid next to one of tiles.

On a player’s turn they move the boat a number of spaces and then (usually) take a tile, placing it on their player board. The maximum amount of spaces you can move is dictated by the number of ships on your board (you start with two), but this number can be boosted by spending shells (you start with five). You take the tile you finish next to – or you can also spend shells to take a tile further into the grid from your position.

The tile you take needs to match exactly when you place it on your board; and unlike a game such as Carcassonne, most of the more useful tiles (that will give you points or shells) need to be placed the right way up (any shells are taken immediately). In the latter stages of the game you may come unstuck, being unable to use the tiles you can get to. In this case you still have to move the boat, but can do a less efficient action such as placing a tile in your reserve for later use, or ditch one already on your board.

At the end of the game, any unfinished islands on your board are removed – and you then lose one point per empty space on your board. Completed islands score one point per tree on them, or two per tree if they also include a hut. Completed leis (the flower circles) score 10 points (these are the only things in the game that don’t need to match up when placing tiles), while there are bonus points for the players who have the most shells left and the most boats on their tiles.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Maori was part of a golden era for lighter euro games, but sadly for many newer gamers it and many others have been lost in time. There’s real design elegance here, and loads of interesting choices, in a game that lasts well under an hour. Simple to teach, easy to pick up and good to look at, but with layers of hidden depth to challenge even the smartest gamer. A true classic that, for me, blows Carcassonne out of the water by being tighter and more interesting.
  • The thinker: I soon tired of the base game, but that is just the beginning of what Maori has to offer. Each player can optionally take another ship, this time used on their player board. After they place their first tile this ship is put on it, and subsequent tiles laid must be in a square adjacent to it. There are two options: the player can move the ship as they choose at the end of their turn, or for a harder option they have to place it on the tile just taken. Both offer a much stiffer challenge, while really opening up opportunities for other players to leave you in bad positions for tile selection. The player boards are also double-sided, with a more challenging larger board on the reverse.
  • The trasher: While Maori may look like an innocent euro, much like Carcassonne there are some key ways to screw with your opponents. Especially with two players you can try to control the board, limiting your opponent’s ability to get the pieces they need – or starving them of shells and ships. There are also several volcano tiles, which you can’t use shells to take tiles beyond. If these come out (you can of course make sure you have them in the initial set up, if you want to) they add an extra wrinkle, and tactical element, in terms of the main tile grid.
  • The dabbler: While I prefer the simplest version of the game (the others fry my brain!), I do love the look, simplicity and length of Maori: the colours are so vibrant. I tend to play it quite friendly, not worrying too much about what the next player is going to pick up. Especially with four players, it feels hard to really plan ahead as the boat will have moved so far before your next go – but if the player to your right is mean, you can have a really rough time playing this one! As always, you just need to play with the right people.

Key observations

With a Board Game Geek rating of 6.6 and a ranking of 1,665 (at the time of writing), it’s clear not everyone is as excited about Maori as I am – but I think it’s fair to say average scores have become more generous in recent years (so older games, ranked earlier, suffer).

Some have listed luck as being a problem with the game, some even saying it is worse than Carcassonne in this respect. I can only imagine the majority of these opinions were made after a single play, as a good player will beat a poor one in almost every game of Maori – that’s not luck. As in all good games, here you very much make your own. Sure, sometimes you’ll have a bad game and someone else a lucky one, but this is a 30 minute tile-layer. Surely that’s par for the course?

Some also bemoan the limited variety in tiles, and the lack of flexibility in what you can do with them. While I guess this is a valid complaint from those who like a million options, it is missing the beauty here: the constraints are all part of what is a clever puzzle of a game. You only want so much to think about – it’s not an engine-builder.

Finally, there are several complaints about a poor set of tiles in the 4×4 grid leading to boring decisions and, consequently, a poor experience. I can honestly say I haven’t seen this happen often, and when it does it tends to be a phase of the game – not for the whole thing. And while yes, it can be frustrating, it’s just a different problem to deal with: I’d be surprised if, over several games, many saw this as a deal-breaker – and it’s sad if, on a one-ff play, this had put some people off playing it further.

Conclusion

I first learnt to play Maori back in 2011 and have been enjoying the game (both on the table and online at Yucata) ever since. I always find it a solid hit with more casual gamers, while several of my most gamery friends also list in their favourites lists.

It proved to be one of the first games my partner Sarah fell for, giving it a new lease of life on our table last year, but it has been on my Top 5 games lists since I started them in 2014: so I figured I should get around to giving it the love it deserves. It’s one of those simple, smart games I can never see myself getting rid of and that I’m always happy to play if requested – while often turning to it for newer gamers as well.