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.

Con report: UK Games Expo 2018

This year I was at UK Games Expo for two hours, from 2pm on Sunday until it closed; and then all evening and the following morning, catching up with designers and publishers.

I’ll start by telling you why I was only at UKGE for two hours – and then I’ll tell you (spoiler alert) why I intend to be there a lot longer next year.

Month by month since the last Expo I slowly lost interest in going. As I mentioned in last year’s Con Report I’d been hugely unimpressed with the Hilton Metropole, where a large chunk of the convention happened. I’d also consistently looked at hotels near the NEC and all were ridiculously expensive, while options to travel by public transport in and out are really poor if you want to stay late into the evening (as trains stop early and taxis are extortionate).

To make things worse, on several occasions during last year’s event I had been unable to find a table to play games on – one of the fundamental reasons to go in the first place. Add to this ridiculous pricing and rude staff in the hotel (the Expo staff, by contrast, were great) and it just didn’t add up.

The final straw was, in a question to organisers about any possible solutions to the seating problems, I received a short (frankly rude) reply telling me UKGE had more open gaming than either Essen (irrelevant, as it isn’t an open gaming event) or SorCon (which has around a 10th of the attendance, so in essence had way more gaming space ‘per gamer’ – the important number). Well fuck them then, I thought. I won’t go.

So why did you turn up then, smart arse?

As Expo 2018 neared, it started to become apparent I had other reasons to be there.

After being told Pioneer Days wouldn’t be there, a late deal was struck to get it on demo table all weekend on a retailer’s stand. I was then told my most recent design, Witless Wizards, would be there to demo ahead of its late June Kickstarter campaign (until June 28 – all support appreciated!) – and that a meeting on a co-design with David Thompson, Europe Divided, was also scheduled. Oh my…

While all this was brilliant, I now had a ticket for Camden Rocks in London on the Saturday – and it wasn’t as if the hotel problems had gone away. But a quick Google showed that – surprise surprise – hotels for the Sunday night (after Expo had finished) were less than half the price of the night before. How do they make their money…? Anyway, a Sunday/Monday trip was born.

Which was great in theory. Unfortunately, getting trains across country (between East Anglia and the Midlands) just isn’t the done thing on a Sunday morning. If you want to travel before about midday you instead have to go via London – for twice (literally) the price. The earliest I was going to arrive was 1.15 – but with the inevitable delays that turned into 2pm. But hey, better late than never right?

My (brief) UK Games Expo 2018

What became immediately apparent was the area used inside the NEC had massively grown, while also being more practically laid out. This also meant less time had to be spent in the Hilton, so double bonus. I know people who didn’t go to the Hilton at all.

There had been a big jump in tier one publishers the previous year and while this didn’t seem to have gone up much, if at all, you could tell some of them were taking it more seriously. The main hall really felt like a proper, large, professional gaming con – it wouldn’t have been out of place at Essen.

While food and drink were a little expensive in the halls, that’s to be expected – and it wasn’t extortionate. Plus you could bring your own, so it’s your fault if you didn’t prepare (Unlike the Hilton, where you weren’t meant to bring your own stuff). Also, the likes of a Wetherspoons, a Subway (ick) and some other food places were a short walk away.

But most importantly for me, the open gaming areas were big enough. It’s the first year when the organisers seem to have looked two years ahead rather than one and not only made enough space, but had extra to spare too. I don’t know if this was due to a smaller rise in numbers this year, or deliberate planning, but the key was I didn’t hear a single complaint about not finding somewhere to game, even at its busiest.

Looking forward to UKGE 2019

Where previously views have been mixed, I couldn’t find anyone complaining about the show this year – which is quite remarkable, as I know some pretty miserable, sour individuals!

Open and family gaming areas were praised, as were staff, while the layout also met with approval. It looks as if next year they’ll be able to start planning from solid ground, rather than in the past always trying to play catch-up.

Personally, my saddest issue is not with the con itself but with UK gamers (sorry everyone!): as more of a euro gamer, you definitely get the feeling walking around that the majority of interest was in miniature games and CCGs. I guess its par for the course for us to go down the same route as the Americans, but I was hoping for once we might show our euro side (I blame Brexit. And Thatcher). But the event has definitely won me back over.

Hotels are still a problem, of course: I can’t see myself staying the full weekend unless I win the lottery. But we’ll see. One thing’s for sure though – I’ll see you at Expo next year.

Thurn and Taxis: A four-sided game review

Thurn and Taxis is a family board game for two to four players aged 10 and up, that takes around an hour to play. It cleverly combines hand management and route building, seeing it win the coveted Spiel de Jahres (German Game of the Year) Award in 2006.

This is very typical of games coming out of Germany at the time and thus often divides opinion: the game’s ‘theme’, which is very thinly pasted on, covers the establishment of German postal routes across Bavaria and beyond in the 17th Century – not one to get the heart racing!

The brown of the box continues inside, with many of the components sporting ‘the beige, with more beige’ colour scheme derided by some (particularly in the US); but if you can see past the colour scheme, the artwork and graphic design and clear and simple. In the box you’ll find a beautiful (if very beige) board, 86 small (Ticket to Ride sized) cards, 80 small wooden post offices, 20 cardboard chits and four cardboard player aids. You can still easily find the game for around £30 new (or £20 second hand), which is cheap by today’s standards.

Teaching

Thurn and Taxis is in the same family as Ticket to Ride, Catan and Carcassonne: classic German games you can pretty much teach anyone, as they have familiar and simple rules – but that also enough depth to hold the attention of more experienced gamers.

The board has 22 locations and each player starts with 20 post offices they will try and place on them (so you can’t complete them all). You’ll lose a point for each unplaced office at the end of the game, while each city falls into a region – and completing these regions will score you some bonus points (decreasing for players completing them after the first). There’s an additional bonus for placing in all the different coloured regions.

Each location has three identical city cards (so a 66-card deck). Six of these are visible at any time (think Ticket to Ride), or you can draw blind from the top of the stack. What really makes the game sing is the order in which a turn is structured: draw a card; play a card to your tableau to continue your route, then choose whether to complete your current route (by using all the cards in your tableau).

All the cities are linked to at least one other (up to seven) by roads. Any card you play into your tableau (after the first) must continue the route you start in either one direction or the other – but you can only add to the two ends. This means that, if you didn’t have a card in hand at the start of your turn you can add – and if you get unlucky with your card draws – you may have to discard your route and start again.

You can only lay a route once you have three cards in your tableau, but waiting longer gives you point bonuses (a seven-city route is very lucrative). When you turn in your route you can place an office in any towns you don’t yet have one, but you can only place either in one colour (so ,for example, four grey cities), or only of each colour (so a grey, a blue, a red etc). Regardless of the amount of cities you place, all the cards in your tableau are discarded and you’ll start a fresh route next turn.

When you complete your first three-card route, you receive a bonus carriage (worth two points). If you later complete a four-card route, it will be replaced with a three-point bonus and so on – right up to a 10 point bonus for completing a seven-city route (having also done a five and a six – you can’t skip these bonus levels). If someone claims their 10-point bonus, this also ends the game (as does someone placing all of their offices), so you have two routes to victory. Finish the round, most points wins.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: While many disagree, this is one of my favourite Spiel de Jahres winners (just behind Ticket to Ride). It’s a very simple game to teach, can be played by players of all abilities, and has enough luck in it to turn up some surprise results. But at the same time, an experienced player will begin to find more strategic and tactical depth that should, in the long run, give them an advantage over time. Despite being well over 10 years old now the game is still in print too – not something some of the other previous winners can claim. For me, that is for one simple reason: it has easily stood the test of time.
  • The thinker: While Thurn and Taxis ha a lot of luck in terms of the random draws, with a deck of just 66 cars it is quite easy for a player with good memory to follow certain cities and to know the chances of what you need coming out soon. You can also play safer by playing slower, but this of course opens you up to defeat by more reckless (and of course lucky!) players. The two ways to win can also make for interesting pacing, as a player rushing to victory via completing the bonus carriages can devastate those playing the long game – but not every time, as the slow player can collect some large bonuses too. A very good tactical game.
  • The trasher: Each turn you can use one of four officials as a bonus action: take two cards instead of one; play two cards into your tableau instead of one; refresh the six visible city cards, or get a bonus carriage even if you’re up to two cards short of the amount you need (when you complete it at the end of the turn). This makes every round really tactical, while also giving you a better chance of flying by the seat of your pants if you want to push your luck to get that exact card you need. But you can also clear the decks if there’s a card there you’re pretty sure the next player is going to need!
  • The dabbler: I wasn’t wowed by the beige and typically German box cover of Thurn and Taxis, but at least the lady on the front is smiling: a fair reflection of what turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable, if themeless and bland looking family game. You have to wonder a how a re-themed version in space, or a board that pops a little and some nice plastic pieces (a la Ticket to Ride) may liven things up a bit – but really, who cares? It’s a simple teach, easy set up and plays fast – yet every turn you have genuine decisions to make. Against the odds on first viewing, this is now right up there on my list of favourite games.

Key observations

Even Thurn and Taxis detractors don’t claim it is a bad design, but you see phrases such as ‘puzzle’, ‘optimising’, ‘themeless’, ‘abstract’ and ‘low/no interaction’ in the same sentences as those branding it ‘boring’. As I often say to this kind of criticism, you’re not judging the game, you’re judging your tastes.

No, it isn’t for everyone – only family gamers who like a thoughtful euro element need apply. And I do feel, more than any other game, it suffers for its similarities (and closeness of release) to the behemoth that is Ticket to Ride. Interestingly people almost equally describe it as both TtR+ and TtR Lite, which probably just proves that while the games share similar basic components they are actually very different beasts. Generally though, I would definitely suggest trying the other: but I find the experience they bring very different. They share a similar level of luck and planning, but TtR is much more combative and obviously interactive.

Speaking of luck, while Thurn and Taxis definitely has it, an experienced player who reads the deck will tell you that there’s much less luck here than in Ticket to Ride. I’ve had games of Ticket to Ride where I know I’ve lost due to a colour simply not coming my way, or because of accidental blocking; where in Thurn and Taxis it will be because I’ve taken a risk and it hasn’t paid off – or someone else has simply played better than me. Again, this is either going to appeal to your or not.

Finally, despite it having some seriously harsh detractors giving the game more than the average very low scores at Board Game Geek, the game is still ranked well inside the Top 100 family games and inside the top 350 games overall.

Conclusion

Thurn and Taxis could well be the most euro-ey euro of them all, while also being the more euro and worse looking cousin of one of the most celebrated games in the hobby (Ticket to Ride): neither of which enamour it to many modern gamers. But for thoughtful family and light euro gamers this is a genuine classic you should definitely try.

While I have quite deliberately not played it to death (once per month feels about right for the base game), this has become one of favourite family games. But it also has two expansions which add a little extra to the mix, so if it does become a favourite there are options to add a little variety too. Highly recommended.

A board game designing diary: Witless Wizards

I’ve always enjoyed the ‘I split, you choose’ board game mechanism: one player divides a group of items into smaller sets, but the other players then get to choose one of these sets first.

Its a fabulous and underused concept most famously employed in classic San Marco and more simply in New York Slice (formerly Piece ‘o Cake) – with games such as Coloretto, Isle of Sky, Castles of Man King Ludwig and Biblios using a take on the system in their mechanics.

Of these, I found Biblios most fascinating. One player takes as many cards as there are players (plus one) and allocates one to each player. They give one card to each player and one is put on an auction pile for later – but what makes the decision delicious is that you only see one card at a time, so have to allocate them as they come out – adding a big ‘push your luck’ element to the game (another mechanism I really like).

But while I enjoyed my first few plays of Biblios, this is only about half the game – and I didn’t find the other half very compelling. This drafting is followed by an auction phase which just doesn’t do it for me. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great and well respected game, but the overall package just wasn’t for me. So, as you do when you’re a budding game designer, I set out to try and make something that was.

The first draft (ho ho)

I made the first (absolutely beautiful) cards for the game in December 2013, with the intention of making a very small two-player micro game (hey – they were cool at the time!).

The basic mechanical ideas for the game were already in place and haven’t changed since: player 1 draws a card and either assigns it to themselves or their opponent. The next card will go to the other player – but on either pick the player could spend energy (generated by some cards at the end of each round) to draw one extra card, giving them more of a choice.

After drafting, the drafter would attack their opponent: wounds vs defence, plus a (1-3) dice roll. This would go back and forth, until one player had lost all of their 25 health – and the game was over. A simple use of the excellent Biblios mechanism in a smaller, faster, nastier and sillier little battle game.

For first testing I created a 14-card deck: it was to be a 16-card game for Brett Gilbert’s Good Little Games website, with the other two cards being scoring/health card. There were eight weapons and six armours. Each player could have one of each, and could never refuse a card drafted – any new card discarded the old one. Weapon strength ranged from 2-8, armour 1-6, to ensure players would always be going downhill health-wise – although energy could also be spent to heal at the end of your turn.

I dubbed the game War!Drobe (a title which, pretty unbelievably, would be taken by another game in the following years). The theme was simple: two wizards powering an automaton each, which they were manipulating through time and space into odd fighting machines. Half the cards were medieval, the other half sci-fi.

The first hurdles

Having damage and defence on every card was quickly dropped, as it was a pain to add up each time while offering nothing of real worth to the game. At the same time, two card slots and just 14 cards made for very little replayability – and every time I played, I was thinking of (and being given by opponents) great ideas for new cards.

I made the decision to go to three slots: one weapon, one armour, and one ‘enhancement’ – an idea I’d toyed with as an extra list of things you could do on your turn with energy, but which had proved unwieldy in practice. As cards though, it really helped to add loads of cool special powers.

I also abandoned the idea of this being a pure micro game: there were way too many fun ideas to play with, and ideas for extra sets of cards. But what about a micro game that came in two-set decks? The first could be Medieval and Sci-Fi, but you could also buy Ninjas and Buckaneers, or Crusaders and Magicians.

I moved to eight-card decks, each of which had three weapons, three armours and two enhancements – and each of which had mechanisms I tried to fit to theme (magicians gained and used more energy, sci-fi items did big damage, crusaders healed well etc).

Testing testing testing…

Other mechanical issues included game duration, deck size and card balance. Health dropped to 20 (or a 12-point short game) to stop it overstaying its welcome, while I settled on a three-deck (so 24-card) standard game, or two-deck tactical game where you’d have a much better idea of what was coming.

I also moved away from any thoughts of a micro game as the general gaming population quickly fell out of love with the format (as sales of Empire Engine will sadly testify!). This freed me up to add ‘concentration cubes’ (to replace an energy track), a custom dice for damage and player sheets to keep your cards on.

Card balance was an interesting one. In theory it didn’t matter at all, as it was a shared deck of cards. But many small issues developed in terms of decks clashing with each other in annoying ways. Some deck combinations would lead to way too many concentration cubes, or too few; some would see very slow damage, others ridiculously fast wins. It took a lot of combo plays to ensure they all fell into an acceptable (but still very random and fun) range of results over any given game.

The final big change to the system was to do with healing. It was slowing the game down a little to much and adding an extra decision point to every round that felt unnecessary in many situations. I solved this by making healing a last-gasp desperate act you could only call upon if you had five health or less left at the end of your turn. Having this as a late game decision added a bit of an extra arc to the game too.

The publisher problem

I took the game to Essen in 2015 to show it to publishers. While several found the concept intriguing and enjoyed their play, it soon became clear that the bigger publishers really weren’t looking for a two-player game – while its look wasn’t going to help win anyone over.

The look was perfectly playable, but it didn’t help convey the playful feel of the game. This hadn’t been an issue with other games I’d demoed as they were more ‘euro’, so especially the German publishers were used to seeing that kind of prototype. This time, though, I needed to up my game.

First, I went away and made rules for first a three and then a four-player variant. It was surprisingly easy to up the number of players – a good lesson for anyone who gets stuck in a rut of their idea of their game. Taking on other ideas while occasionally taking a big step back from your game can be hugely useful.

I thought about better ways to present the game, and came up with the idea of locking the cards together to make a picture of the automaton. I didn’t make the whole game into cards in this way, instead doing some example cards to show a publisher how it might look finished.

I hoped this would fire the imagination, without me having to spend an awful lot of time and energy, or money, creating a bunch of art that would probably never be used. I settled on making it of the actual wizard instead, simplifying the theme a little too.

I found some artwork online which luckily depicted a wizard, a ninja and a viking in exactly the same style – three of the themes I’d chosen for card decks. I feel they got the idea across image-wise, without me having to do too much extra. A talented graphic design friend at work (thanks Simos!) helped me with the layout and I was ready for round two of facing publishers, this time at UK Games Expo in 2016. (Sorry, I would have linked to these great images, but I can’t re-find them on Google :/).

War!Drobe finds a home – as Witless Wizards

Unfortunately UKGE wasn’t the best place to meet publishers. While many good companies had stands there, their decision makers were very rarely in attendance (with so notable exceptions). However, a really productive meeting with LudiCreations saw head honcho Iraklis suggest I contact his friends at Drawlabs.

We met up at Essen 2016 and the deal was done. After a frustrating 2017 (for both of us) when progress stalled due to reasons beyond our control, Drawlabs really got into top gear this year. Asterman Studio were brought on to do the art and have done a magnificent job.

Drawlabs also made some changes to the rules, simplifying a few things but largely keeping the original game intact. They also changed the theme slightly, for the better I think, while we worked together to add a lot of humour to the card titles. A close to finished version of the game was demoed at UK Games Expo 2018 and it hit Kickstarter a couple of weeks later: a five-year process that was so worth the wait.

And so the Kickstarter campaign begins…

If you’d like to back the game to help it become a reality, or just find out more, head over to the Witless Wizards Kickstarter campaign before June 28. Pledges start from just £14 for the game, which you’ll get later in the year.

You’ll find loads more artwork there, as well as a link to a rough copy of the rulebook – plus a link to a playable version of the game on Tabletopia. I’m finding the Kickstarter process incredibly stressful, at a time of my life when I’m incredibly stressed anyway, but it is at least a weirdly welcome distraction. But if it sees my first solo design become a reality, it will have been worth it.

So that’s that: how a design concept introduced by the excellent Steve Finn was adapted from a serious hand management auction game into a humorous take-that fighting fantasy game. Any questions, please ask away in the comments below.

My first solo design, Witless Wizards – now live on Kickstarter!

I’ve been designing games for a few years now, which has been a great experience, especially as all the games I’ve had published to date have been collaborations with friends. But this time, I’d really appreciate your help!

The other thing my previous games had in common is the publishers haven’t used Kickstarter to help fund the projects. For those who don’t know, Kickstarter is a crowd-funding platform where the public get to be part of the production process by paying for a copy in advance, backing the success of the game up front as individual investors.

You can guess the rest: yes, my first ‘all me’ designed game (terrifying enough) is also now my first crowdfunded game on Kickstarter. Gulp. And you can back it now!

The game is called Witless Wizards. It’s a light, humorous family card game for two to four players that only takes 10-20 minutes to play. It’s a battle game, where each of you plays a wizard trying to defeat the others in a competition. And it’s only about £20.

You draw cards and play them either on yourself or your opponents: the twist is, if you put the first card on yourself an opponent will get the next one (or vice versa) – but you won’t know what that will be until after you decide. There’s more strategy than that, but hopefully you get the rough idea. And there are multiple card sets used as the wizards travel through time to get an advantage – from sci-fi to crusaders to ninjas to pirates…

Anyway, I’d be pumped if any of you backed the Kickstarter and helped the game become a reality. Even if you don’t want, or can’t afford, to back it – I’d also be pumped if you could share the link. Anything like that will also be a big help. And if you have any questions at all that aren’t answered on the Witless Wizards Kickstarter page, please ask away. Cheers!

Ancient Terrible Things: Madness of McGuffin – MEM review

Welcome to my first ‘mini expansion mini review’ for this little £10 dice and card expansion for the excellent Cthulhu-meets-Yahtzee push your luck game Ancient Terrible Things.

Even as a fan of the game (which is in my Top 50 games), I found the original re-rolling mechanism a little frustrating. Most of the time you could only reroll individual dice (by spending tough-to-get tokens), rather than being able to ‘lock’ dice and reroll the rest – so if you already had a totally crap roll it cost a lot of tokens to try and make it a better.

Recognising the problem, they did release a downloadable ‘version 2.5’ rule update that changed this to allow you to spend tokens to reroll or lock dice, but it’s fair to say a lot of owners of the original game would never have seen it.

In the company’s recent release, Konja (which uses the same ‘dice quest’ dice system), the designers added two extra dice and some cards that dialled-up the reroll system a step further. These white dice are used to activate cards that let you either reroll or lock – but if you don’t need to use them, there’s a 50-50 chance per dice (three sides are blank) you’ll have rolled a symbol which will let you instead take much-needed bonus tokens. It’s a small change, but it works really well.

What Madness of McGuffin does (you guessed it…) is introduce this system to Ancient Terrible Things.

Each player starts with two extra cards that represent these two re-roll options: the lock option card doesn’t ‘exhaust’, so could be used twice in a round (with both white dice) – while the standard reroll card does.

Another nice twist is that the reroll card can alternatively, at any time, be ‘sold’ to give you two cash. Money is often hard to come by in the game (especially using scenario two), and some of the loot is super tempting, so this gives you the option of giving up a nice reroll ability to grab that swag item you’ve always dreamt of owning.

Eight cards for £10 would be a bit of rip off. But don’t worry – you also get a complete new set of 16 dice for the game, including the two new white dice and three purple ones (used with the Lost Charter expansion). Unfortunately these dice are a little smaller than the awesome ones in the original game, but frankly the little skull pips totally make up for that in terms of theme – and despite being a little smaller they’re still high quality.

Conclusion

If you’re a fan of Ancient Terrible Things, I think this is worth picking up. It certainly makes the reroll situation more interesting, while adding a little extra theme for those who want it. I think my only lingering problem with the game now is the swag cards, which seem so much fun but are generally hard to get. I think I’ might draft some $1 items at the start of the game, and perhaps allow players to trade in unwanted items for half their value when shopping at the store. Maybe I should go try that out…

The Ancient Terrible Things: Madness of McGuffin mini expansion is available direct from publisher Pleasant Company Games, which has a lot of great little add-ons for its games over at its online store. Thank you to them for providing a copy for review.

Konja: A four-sided game review

Konja* is a two-player only dice and card game from the same design/art team (Simon McGregor and Rob Van Zyl) that brought us Ancient Terrible Things and Snowblind. A game lasts 30-60 minutes and while the age on the box says 8+, that may be a little low (I’d probably guess 10+ unless they’re a full-on gamer child).

Players are duelling wizards; a popular theme, but as usual with Pleasant Company Games the art style makes it stand out from the rest. Also like the aforementioned games, this is a dice-chucking push-your-luck game with cards throwing in special abilities and one-off powers along the way.

In the box you’ll find 11 custom dice, 40 cards, five wooden idols, five thick cardboard tiles that make up the play area, and about 100 cardboard chits in various shapes and sizes. All the components are of the usual high standard: fair value at around £20-30. There’s also a handy card effects cheat sheet separate from the rulebook.

Teaching

Konja is a straight race to 21 points. Between the two players are five god tiles (inspired by African mythology, which makes a nice change), one of which the active player uses on their turn.

Once all five have been used, they’re reset and the players go through them again (and again, until the game ends). These powers grant a special one-off ability to the player choosing it, then another ability that both players benefit from.

Next the active player rolls five dice (plus any extras they may have accrued), using various cards/tokens to change or reroll the results until they’re happy – or out of options. Their opponent then gets a chance to mess with them by rolling a dice that can cancel one of these results. Finally, the active player ‘spends’ their roll on various benefits: end game points, tokens to help in future rolls, or both.

The meat of the decision making comes in what you spend your tokens on. Magic tokens help you cast spells (instant discarded effects that can do everything from steal from your opponent to make your rolls better); while money can buy/upgrade victory point tokens, or buy new and improved ancestors (each player starts with three of these, which may be activated for various dice rolling effects). Finally, power tokens are used to power (der) the ancestors.

When one player’s end game points hits 21 or more, the round is completed and the player with the most points is the winner.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: What makes this series of games stand out, Konja included, is the wealth of mitigation on hand for those pesky dice. This also has a nice blend of visible (ancestors) and hidden (spell cards), so you never quite know what your opponent may do. I think I’d mix it up even more, giving each player a replacement choice in round one for one of their starting ancestors. But, with all that in mind, it was a shame the player who won most times simply hoarded money for buying points, rather than buying ‘fun’ stuff like ancestors.
  • The thinker: While there are many interesting ways to mitigate your dice rolls, Konja still felt much like an exercise in futility. You can add as many bells, whistles, twists and turns as you like, but if one player rolls ‘well’ and the other badly – guess who is going to win? Sure, I’m not the target audience here and I certainly didn’t have a bad time playing – the game is short enough that the high level of luck is acceptable. But there doesn’t seem to be a viable, more strategic option available here. For me the best dice games have a ‘roll and hope’ model that may win you the game, plus a slow and steady one with less outliers.
  • The trasher: I’d really looked forward to Konja, as the thought of a straight push-your-luck dice battle always excites me – but I was a bit disappointed. There’s hardly any real interaction between players and it certainly doesn’t feel like the advertised ‘dice duel’. Sure, there are some spell cards that liven things up but beyond that – how is ‘roll dice, mitigate bad roll, repeat’ a duel?! A duel should be action packed! This game is ponderous, with a player’s turn feeling long and convoluted even after repeat plays. Not for me.
  • The dabbler: As always, I loved the artwork and effort put into the components. The little skulls on the dice are adorable, which sounds weird – you’ll have to check them out. We really didn’t like the red ‘screw you’ dice power, which lets you mess with the other player’s results. Luckily there is a variant included where, instead of removing a dice from the other player, the red dice is used to upgrade one of your own dice if you roll something better with it. We found this also sped the game up a little, rather than slowing it down and frustrating us. Played like this, I found plenty to love in the world of Konja.

Key observations

For a game that revolves around a one-on-one dice chucking mechanism, Konja is actually a slow and thoughtful game. This thematic break can be hard to overcome and feels like a misstep for some players. This is not King of Tokyo.

While the god abilities is a good mechanic, the five choices are so specialised that they rarely feel like choices. Normally one choice is the obvious one, no matter what style of play you choose – at least one tends to be pointless, for example, or one may clearly favour your opponent. It also feels like a very mechanical step that breaks game flow for what is often a very small payoff.

Some have said that the card powers are unbalanced, but I can’t say this is really something I noticed – and even if it is a bit of an issue, the game is short enough that it is unlikely to be much of an issue. spell cards are one-and-done, while players start with identical ancestors: those you buy later will only be used a few times each, so are unlikely to have a massive impact – especially when you’re rolling a load of dice, which are pretty random themselves…

Conclusion

When a design team decides to keep revisiting the same mechanism, as a punter you hope they’ll continue to refine – or adapt – to create a set of games that fans of the original will love. Mac Gerdts and Uwe Rosenberg are the obvious proponents of this design ideology, and who can argue (sensibly) with their results?

Pleasant Company are doing it with this ‘dice quest’ game system and while I loved the first two offerings (reviews linked above), for me Konja feels like a small misstep. But hey – you can’t win them all, right? And I’m sure some players will prefer this to the others – if you like puzzley, gorgeous push-your-luck dice games you should definitely seek it and give it a try, especially if you haven’t played anything in this series. But why wasn’t I sold on it?

For me, a great two-player experience means getting inside the head of your opponent. This can be done in the simplest to most complex games: I love anything from The Rose King to Race for the Galaxy two-player. I want to be worrying about what the other player will do next but here I didn’t feel that. Take other Yahtzee-style games, such as Heck Meck or Decathlon. These aren’t ‘two player’ games, but when played with two you need to think about what the other player is up to: can I steal their tile, do I need to go for it on this event etc. Konja feels too restrained, despite all the mitigation. I just didn’t feel as if there were any truly satisfying ‘Hail Mary’ moments.

I know the guys have another game in the works with the same dice mechanism. Titled ‘Grim Heroes’ and slated for a 2019 release, it takes this dice system into the co-op fantasy realm – where I have high expectations for it working wonderfully.

* I would like to thank Pleasant Company Games for providing the game for review.

My top 50 board and card games (2018 update)

Welcome to my fifth annual Top 50 board and card game list. As always, I hope it may inspire someone to take the plunge into this wonderful and revitalised hobby – or that one of the more obscure picks may pique an older gamer’s interests. This is a real mixture – there are loads of games here suitable for families, kids, couples, you name it.

My method for picking the games is a mash up of how much I like them, how much I play them, how great the design is, and who/how many groups they work with. You’ll find games taking from 15 minutes to four hours, from two players to 10, and from free to £50+. But you won’t find any games with minis. Maybe next time…

More than half of the games link to my in-depth reviews of them, so if you want more info simply click through. And if a game isn’t reviewed but you’d like some more information – or if your favourite game isn’t on the list and you demand to know why – head to the comments below and call me out.

My Top 20 board and card games 2018 (last year’s position in brackets)

  1. (1) Race for the Galaxy (2007)
    Despite just five plays in 2017, Race retains its top spot for the fifth year in a row. Once you get past the learning curve caused by an overindulgence in icons, you’ll find an engine/tableau building card game par excellence. There’s luck in the draw, but for a game lasting 30 minutes that’s fine with me – and this variety means it blows San Juan (which has similar mechanisms) out of the water: especially in terms of replayability. Hugely tactical, clever play can see you benefit from other players’ actions – so while there is little actual interaction, a good player wins by using their opponents.
  2. (30+) Terraforming Mars (2016)
    There used to be a game per year that troubled my Top 10, but it’s been a couple since a real top-level keeper came along – but boy is this a good one. I’d always wanted a longer version of Race for the Galaxy, with a board, and I guess I’m not the only one – because while very different, Terraforming Mars is a two-hour tableau/engine building card game with a board. It has the same massive stack of random cards too, although the longer game time and seeing more cards means it feels less random. And while player interaction is again limited, it makes up for it with fantastic timing and competitive end game mechanisms. A new classic.
  3. (3) Downfall of Pompeii (2004)
    I play a lot of family/lighter games, as many of my friends are less into the heavier side of the hobby than me – but Pompeii is one of those games that appeals to both audiences with aplomb. 2004 was a great year for family releases and I fear it was a little left behind in the Ticket to Ride buzz, but for me it is at least its equal: simple to learn, plays in an hour, and generates brilliant table talk. The clever switch in play style half way through is something I’m amazed we don’t see more of in gaming; you start by populating the city, then run like hell once the volcano starts erupting – sacrificing your opponents to the flames as you.
  4. (2) Ticket to Ride (2004)
    Still an absolute favourite, probably only falling behind Pompeii because I play it a lot more and enjoy it about the same. It’s the game I wish would replace Monopoly in every household, as it is simple to learn and fun to play, but is all over and done in an hour or so. There are also extra boards you can buy that spice things up a little when you get bored (ho ho) of the base game – with my current favourites being Legendary Asia (tight and fast) and Pennsylvania (adds stocks for a little extra depth). There’s also a great app if you want to try it on your phone first.
  5. (5) Ra (1999)
    Ra continues to ride high on my list despite a decreasing number of plays. One person in my most regular group doesn’t like it and the majority of my other gaming is now done two-player, ruling this classic Knizia 3-5 player auction game out for most occasions. However, while writing this, I’ve found a very popular two-player variant – so that’s my next game session sorted out then! And I can see it working fine with two: while it’s a bidding game, you only get one bid each time – it’s more about pushing your luck and evaluating the current value of the pot.
  6. (6) Terra Mystica (2012)
    Very few plays, again, but still an absolute favourite. This euro game is also on the heavier side in terms of complexity, but still plays in less than two hours. It has a pleasing amount of interaction despite not being an aggressive game, while you have many meaningful decisions to make each turn that really can swing your fortunes. While it is a ‘changing stuff into stuff’ game it does it in a way that means you always feel a sense of progression along an arc towards the game’s end. It’s just a really pleasing, if complex, experience.
  7. (4) Deus (2014)
    A lack of plays has seen a small drop for Deus, but the Egypt expansion (which I’ve only played once so far) has given the game a new lease of life. It’s the kind of modular expansion I love, where you can add as many of the elements (essentially a different set of cards for each type of building) as you like to spice things up and add variety. It’s still a great 60-90 minute euro game of finding the best card combos you can in a race for victory points – with the added bonus of two ways to win keeping everyone on their toes.
  8. (8) Concordia (2013)
    Did someone say one to two-hour euro game? There must be an echo in here… Clearly my genre of choice, this is one of my favourite examples of them: snappy turns, loads of important and meaningful decisions, and a great mix of tactics and strategy. Again the expansions that have come out have mixed things up nicely, adding different boards and a few extra rules you can throw in if you want a little bit more complexity. It also works brilliantly across all player counts, making it a great all-rounder to have on any gaming shelf.
  9. (12) Can’t Stop (1980)
    Another slow creep up the table despite all the odds, Can’t Stop is here to prove you don’t have to be young and cool to make this list. Now pushing 40, this classic Sid Sackson push-your-luck dice game is still a hoot every time I play it – whether it’s with experienced or novice gamers of any age. It’s amazing how fun Sid managed to make what is basically a maths puzzle – just don’t tell the kids they’re learning something! It plays in under an hour (and has a few variations that can speed it up) and is great two to four players (I bought extra pieces to add a fifth player – and you can go more).
  10. (9) Through the Ages (2006)
    While the recent app released for this is brilliant, it just went to give me another platform on which to be useless at this wonderfully complex civilisation building card game. Even with just two players you’ll be looking at two to three hours of brain burning – so add more players at your peril. But more players means more targets for your evil plans, so you loses nothing except hours in the day. The game’s biggest triumph is giving you that feeling of conflict, of scale and of progression through time without the need of a board.
  11. (16) Thurn and Taxis (2006)
    While Pompeii and Ticket to Ride have been my perennial family board game hits, others have come and gone. The likes of Carcassonne, New York 1901 and Survive had their moments but ultimately fell away – but with each play, I feel Thurn and Taxis is here to stay. Sure, it’s beige and boring to look at with a theme would send all but the most hardened Victorian era German postal service fan to sleep… but the game itself is an excellent mix of route building and card collection.
  12. (15) Ingenious (2004)
    I’ve now played 50 games of Ingenious, seeing it join a pretty exclusive club – and Sarah enjoyed it too, meaning it should good more plays in the coming months. It’s a classic Knizia abstract game with a clever scoring system that ensures that, somewhere after half way, play changes from simple score accumulation to either defending or breaking out from your board position. It was one of my first games when getting into the hobby and I’ve never looked back.
  13. (19) Notre Dame (2007)
    This now classic euro game continues to climb, I think largely due to its short game time and ease of teaching – while still containing the essence of a great Stefan Feld game. For me, this is card drafting done right: a hugely important component of the game that offers tough choices and restrictions – but that then gets out of the way and lets the other mechanisms take over. And at its heart there’s a mean optimisation engine ready to crash your plans at every misstep.
  14. (7) Oracle of Delphi (2016)
    Quite a drop for this fantastic Feld euro game, but only because the new game shine came off a little in the face of so many new games – meaning it has had precious few plays since last time. It’s games like this that have made me curb my ambitions for this year’s Essen – I’ve played so may mediocre games this year, while titles such as this sit unplayed. While it has a typical Feld ‘point salad’ feel, here it’s funnelled into a race against time that focuses the mind beautifully.
  15. (20) Codenames & Codenames Duet (2015/2017)
    Codenames is a game of finding associations between words set out in 25-word grid – but while you’re trying to get your team to guess some of the words, others need to be avoided. Codenames was slipping out of my Top 20 – but Codenames Duet gave it a new lease of life. It’s a game Sarah and me have played a lot, largely because it’s just so different to other games. We’re both into language, so get a real kick out of it – and there’s nowhere to hide in a two player game!
  16. (11) Bora Bora (2013)
    After a Feld-free Top 10, Bora Bora becomes the third of his designs to make my Top 20. There’s not much to say about a game that has become a ‘once a year’ one for me that I really enjoy. Loads of ways to score points; a clever and original worker placement mechanism (this time with dice); and the liberal sprinkling of luck and passive interaction. Some find the colours a little gaudy and of course the theme is pasted on, but I still prefer it to many of his more fashionable titles.
  17. (14) Snowdonia (2012)
    While my plays of Snowdonia are diminishing, my enjoyment of those plays is not. It’s a wonderfully tight worker placement euro game with one of the cleverest mechanisms you’ll find in terms of moving the game along – and surprising the players at the same time. The theme is both original and well realised, while the whimsical artwork also adds to the charm. You can build a strategy, but when the weather does what it feel like you’d better have your tactical brain ready!
  18. (17) Caverna (2013)
    Another member of the ‘once a year’ euro club, Caverna is now comfortably my favourite long Uwe Rosenberg game. Most of his games end up having two big of a decision space for me to enjoy in the latter stages, where Agricola and Caverna focus you on a plan which helps narrow that as you laser in ate game. And of the two I prefer Caverna, as I’m less keen on Agricola’s pre-game card draws that shapes things too much before you’ve even begun.
  19. (NEW) Azul (2017)
    This is the lowest ‘highest new entry’ since I started the Top 50 and it is more out of caution than anything else. If anything I’m more confident of Azul staying around than many of those I’ve placed higher in previous years, but just how high I’m not too sure. It’s a beautiful, simple, elegant abstract game that plays in 30 minutes and is great from two to four players: right in my wheel house. The only reason I don’t own it already is because I’m waiting for the improved third edition.
  20. (30+) Maori (2009)
    I didn’t introduce this to Sarah until August, but I’ve played it 10 times since (nine with her) – hence its clamber back up the chart. It’s a relatively cheap, relatively small box tile placement game with lovely, simple artwork and gameplay – but that has some really tough, really nasty elements once you get the hang of it! Despite a small number of components games play really differently, and quickly, giving it loads of replayability – with some great variants to ramp up the complexity.

21-30 (alphabetical)

  • NEW Adios Calavera (2017) The first of two new two-player abstract games in this section, but both ooze personality. This one revels in its pasted on ‘day of the dead’ theme, but it’s the clever design that makes it shine. Chess in race form, one player goes north-south and the other east-west – crossing in the middle to cause havoc.
  • Archaeology: The Card Game (2007) Despite having failed to pick up the improved 2016 reprint, I’m still really enjoying my original version of this clever little push-your-luck romp. It’s a simple set collection card game with just the right amount of twists and turns and it’s also super accessible to non-gamers.
  • Macao (2009) I’ve played this at least once every year since picking it up in 2010 and I’m still loving it – although I still never feel in control, or have any idea who is going to win. This dice-driven euro game really shouldn’t work, and the luck can be brutal, but it somehow has enough charm for me to forgive it. A Feld classic.
  • Merchant of Venus (1988) A big drop from the Top 10 this time, but I can’t see it dropping any further until a better pick-up-and-deliver game comes along. I still love the game, but it’s a little fiddly – which is made worse by my shonky old charity shop original. Please, gaming gods, give me a Firefly themed reprint!
  • Navegador (2010) A little dryness and player count problems saw Navegador drop out of my Top 20 this time, but on its day with the right two or (preferably) four players this is still one of the best euro game experiences on the market. I just love games with quick, snappy turns but where every decision counts.
  • NEW Patchwork (2014) I was reintroduced to this two-player abstract earlier this year and quickly fell in love – as did Sarah – so it is now at the top of my wish list. The gorgeous quilt-style artwork is so inviting, masking what is actually a thinky and cutthroat Tetris-style puzzle game.
  • Reiner Knizia’s Decathlon (2003) This is a simple family Yahtzee-style dice game, the rules of which you can download for free from Knizia’s website – all you need to play are eight regular six-sided dice and a pen and paper to play. Go go go!
  • Twilight Struggle (2005) The cold war in a box, with a clever mix of war game and euro-style card game to drive it along. It ramps up the tension and intrigue to match the game’s setting, while throwing in all the history a good war game needs, and is rightly considered one of the best games of all time by both euro and war game fans.
  • NEW Yokohama (2016) This Okazu Brand release totally passed me by in 2016, but luckily a TMG reprint lead many to it – and subsequently to me via friends Keef and Clare this year. It’s a really thinky point salad euro with a touch of Istanbul’s movement mechanic, but there is so much game here. I’ve ordered a copy.
  • Yspahan (2006) A very short drop in places, but only really due to a lack of play opportunities. with its slick euro style and simple dice selection mechanism, it would probably be all the rage if released today – but sadly it now seems largely overlooked and has slipped quietly out of print. But a great game nonetheless.

31-40 (alphabetical)

  • Copycat (2012) Another drop for Copycat, this time after my last few plays have fallen a little flat. I still enjoy the game a lot but it always felt as if it would need an expansion, but its lack of popularity meant it never came. It can also run a little long; but I still really enjoy its mix of Dominion and Agricola mechanisms.
  • Entdecker (1996) I’ve neglected this tile-layer a bit over the past year, but the memory of some super fun if swingy and daft games have seen it hold its position. As a tile-laying game it lacks a little finesse, but for me it makes up for that with the story it tells. And it’s just about short enough to get away with it too.
  • NEW Kingdomino (2016) The simplest ideas are often the best, and Kingdomino nailed it: take the classic idea of dominoes and take it up just a notch with area majority scoring, making it appeal to gamers while not scaring off casual players. A well-deserved Spiel de Jahres award followed, as did as Top 50 spot from me.
  • Manhattan Project (2012) After nearly dropping off the list last time, Manhattan Project has managed to move back up despite not getting a play since my last list. Last year it was a victim of too many euros – but now several of those have fallen out of favour – so up this classic gores again. I just need to play it some more!
  • Pizza Box Football (2005) If you want a dice-chucking NFL game this still reigns supreme, despite feeling even older mechanically than its 13-year age suggests. Rolling dice and checking tables shouldn’t be this much fun, but there you go. A slight drop in position, but still a must for American footy/spreadsheet fans.
  • The Rose King (1997) A hold for Rosenkonig, still one of the best two-player small box abstract games around. I need to bring this one home (it has been at work for ages for lunchtime plays that rarely happen now), as I’m intrigued to see what Sarah thinks after how much she has enjoyed Adios Calavera.
  • 6 Nimmt & X Nimmt (1994/2016) A slight drop for this great pair of light, quick and clever card games. My enjoyment of them hasn’t waned – they’ve just been eclipsed a little by a few new shiny games. But if I want an easy to teach card game for anywhere up to 10 players, I still know where to turn.
  • Thebes (2007) I’d definitely describe this one as a guilty pleasure – and it actually went up a section this year. Crazy randomness abounds in this light family board game and it’s anyone’s guess whether the best player will win – but it is fun enough for me not to really care, while having a really clever turn mechanisms.
  • Tumblin’ Dice (2004) I still haven’t managed to get hold of this brilliant dice dexterity game, but it’s only a matter of time. Flick dice down a wooden board – sounds a bit rubbish, but is totally compelling and one play is never enough. I just wish a big publisher would pick it up and then stick with it.
  • Tzolk’in (2012) Another year and another drop for this brilliant yet frustrating euro game. It’s clever and thinky with a brilliant cog mechanism, but I just find it frustrating that no matter how much I play I don’t feel I get any better at it – and the first half of the game can feel like you’re treading water. But I still love it lol.

41-50 (alphabetical)

  • Africana (2012) Another solid hold this year for Africana, largely because it has become one of Sarah’s favourites (we’ve had six plays since the last top 50). It’s a pick-up-and-deliver family game that plays in an hour that has just enough extra juice to keep more serious gamers engaged too.
  • RE Alhambra (2003) This one has snuck back onto the list, more due to others falling a little out of favour than any other reason. It’s a set collection and tile placement game that I’ll always enjoy, as it has a clever majorities scoring system and loads of replayability through its many expansions.
  • Brass (2007) Another year with no plays of this classic – but I still can’t bring myself to drop it from the 50! Despite a dry theme it has a brilliant balance of tactics and strategy, but the long play time and high complexity make it a pretty hard sell to the gaming groups I’m close to right now.
  • Divinare (2012) I doubt this will ever leave the list, as it’s a unique, beautiful and incredibly clever game design. The mix of guess/deduction work and light screwage make for a fun experience every time, despite every player always feeling they’re doing terribly and that the game hates them!
  • The Dwarves (2012) While I still always enjoy my plays of this clever fantasy co-operative game, it has dropped a little way down the rankings this year. I’m above 10 plays of it now and even with expansions it isn’t the most varied game in the world, so it’s stock is starting to fall – but it is still my go-to co-op game.
  • El Gaucho (2014) This has fallen a little due to lack of plays. I really need to introduce it to Sarah, as it certainly has some elements she may like: great artwork, a small rules overhead, set collection, and a one hour-ish play time. If she likes it, it may well rise again – or fall off the list next time around.
  • For Sale (1997) This is the third game in a row that has dropped back into this section from the one above since last year. But this cute, light and quick card and bidding game is still one of my favourite fillers, so will always have a place in my collection. And it’s great right up to six players.
  • NEW Ilos (2017) The last new release on my list is a sub-hour tile-laying and card/action selection game with a simple yet thought provoking market scoring system. It’s another rearranging of the design toolbox, but it does it elegantly in a stylish package that really sings.
  • RE Kingdom Builder (2011) This has been off of the list since 2015, but a couple of plays last year reminded me just how good (and unique) a game it is. I also have more expansions to try out now, which raises my enthusiasm levels again, while its simplicity and short play time make it highly accessible.
  • NEW Love Letter (2012) Despite being mentioned on loads of my blog posts, in everything from top 10s to best gaming experiences in several years, this is the first time in the 50. Fast and pocket-sized, anyone can play – and you can play anywhere. It’s a real Swiss army knife of a filler game that deserves a place here.

Out of the 50

This game that fell furthest in the list was Acquire (from the 20-30 section); while Ulm was the only one of last year’s new release entries to fall straight back out of the Top 50. I still like both, but other games are consistently chosen ahead of them.

It’s a similar story for The Boss, CV, Ancient Terrible Things, Blueprints, The Castles of Burgundy and Pickomino: all probably in my next 20 favourite games. The only one that has really fallen from grace is The Bloody Inn, which dropped a long way last year and further this. I’d like to try the expansion, but don’t have enough faith in it to pull the trigger. It’s simply too inconsistent an experience.

I’ve noticed that each year I pick a higher number of definites for the 50, with then a larger number of games scrapping for the minor positions. I quite easily picked 30+ I was confident of, then had to pick 20 more to join them from a very close gaggle of around 40 games I really like. There was the option to drop down to a 30 or 40, but I do like consistency. Or of course I could go up to a top 75. Or even a top 100…

As for other new releases from 2017/18, I’ve now played all the games I was given to review and with the possible exception of Agra, I can’t see any of them troubling the list. But you can guarantee at least one gem has slipped under my radar and I’m hoping to try a few more of the hot recent games over the next month or two, including Gloomhaven and Spirit Island.

Final thoughts and old Top 50 links

There were nine new entries this year, but just three of them were new releases – and of those Ilos was the only Essen pick I brought home: I was sent Adios Calavera before the show, while I managed to miss Azul until its third printing.

Looking back over the past five years’ releases it is a familiar tale: there are 11 games in my Top 50 released between 2013-2016, and three of those only arrived on the list this time around.

However, if you add in 2012’s nine entries on the list it means there are 20 games from the past five years – so along with this year’s releases, practically half the list. I still love a lot of games from the past, but it’s hard to argue with those that say, generally, board games have taken massive leaps forward over the past few years.

My final observation was a slightly embarrassing one: How many games are still in my Top 50 that I haven’t played since the last time I compiled this list? The sad truth is it was eight of them before I started this post, although none of those are in the Top 20 games. I’ve since knocked four of those off but still, it’s pretty ridiculous and another reason to curb my new release intake – especially seeing as I seem to lack the ability to spot a winner from the reams of Essen releases!

My top 50 games from 2017
My Top 50 games from 2016
My Top 50 games from 2015

My Top 50 games from 2014

Transatlantic: A four-sided game review

Transatlantic* is an economic card-driven euro game from designer Mac Gerdts. It plays two-to-four players and takes one to two hours (once you know the game), taking longer at higher player counts.

There’s quite a lot going on here, so the age suggested (12+) feels about right. But if your kids are younger and have player other Gerdts games, they’ll be equally at home playing this one.

Transatlantic sees players taking the roles of shipping companies in the age of steam, taking a historic journey from the earliest commercial steam ships (mid 1800s) through to the early 20th Century (yup, The Titanic is in here). You’ll buy modern ships and watch older ones become obsolete, but hopefully long after you’ve made a solid profit from them. The theme is fine, and there’s the usual PD Verlag history document in the box, but it’s as dry as it sounds.

The components are a mixed bag, which I’d have to conclude fall a little short of what we now call average. The main and player boards are dull if functional; the card stock fine but with some odd graphic design – and poor colour – choices; the paper money is thick and nicely designed, but it’s paper money; and the cardboard chits and wooden pieces are fine but uninspiring. Overall it doesn’t look great on the table but is perfectly serviceable; although using largely dark shades for the cards was a big misstep.

Teaching

If teaching to players used to playing previous Mac Gerdts games Concordia and Navegador, this will be a breeze. But even if not, Transatlantic has an easy to follow and well written rulebook – including a separate sheet for setup.

While setup is a little fiddly it does skip through what would be a boring couple of opening rounds, while setting all the players up competing in the various oceans of the world. This is a game with an underlying economic element built around area control, so forcing everyone to place their first two ships into different areas gets things off on the right foot.

After this you’ll be taking typically Gerdts short, snappy turns – as with Concordia, you’ll play a card and do its action: that’s it. One of your cards (you each start with the same hand of eight cards) allows you to pick up all your played cards back into your hand, so you can do those actions again.

When you do this you also get to take a new card from a public display, so as the game goes on reach player’s hand of cards start to deviate from the rest (you probably get slightly less extra cars than in Concordia, but there are several that feel more specialised and unique than in his previous release).

Standard actions see you buying and then deploying new ships; filling those ships with coal; or using the coal on ships to earn profit by transporting goods or passengers. You’ll also be buying trade houses, coal bunkers and business markers – which then help you score victory points as the game progresses. Trade houses encourage you to use your ships in the sea you place them; while the rest of the markers will increase the value of ships you have of a certain colour.

Whenever someone buys ships, one that hasn’t been bought goes into the ‘docks’; meaning ships of this colour will be worth one extra victory point later. This means ships in a colour no one is buying become more valuable – but of course there are less of them around. You can try to specialise or diversify, but as usual in Gerdts games the name of the game is efficiency: the player who best uses their tactical situations to feed their long term strategy is likely to come out on top.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: As a big Gerdts fan, and a lover of Concordia, I’d looked forward to Transatlantic with growing enthusiasm – especially after it was delayed a year to make sure it was just right. I also like how he takes a mechanism (such as the rondel) and runs with it for several games. Concordia kept just enough of his usual style but was an interesting take on deck-building – so another instalment was welcome. I even quite like the theme. It was easy to learn too, and despite some fiddliness easy to teach. But sadly, despite the pedigree, there just wasn’t a spark.
  • The thinker: This game is way more tactical even than Concordia, especially at higher player counts. Ships rocket past in the buying market and money margins are so tight (especially early on) you’re left with little to no control over what to buy. I’m sure that with practice this feeling may dissipate, but after several plays it still felt more random and fluctuating than i feel comfortable with. And while this is offset by the short-ish playing time, I’d rather player a game with more control that plays longer. Unfortunately, a disappointment.
  • The trasher: With a dull theme and look, I was surprised to find anything at all I liked in Transatlantic – but it definitely has some interesting interactions. Shipping decisions are often predicated by which ships have coal at what times, as sometimes you can ship a whole region – so timing can be crucial. Control of areas is also interactive, as you can’t beat pushing players’ ships out of areas they’ve spent money building trade houses in. And then there’s the Blue Riband – the only free victory point generator, but you can only get it by putting out the fastest ship into the North Atlantic.
  • The dabbler: I was quite surprised that I liked Concordia, but I really couldn’t warm to this one. It looks pretty ugly and without a main boar to move around it simply isn’t spatially appealing. I was moving things around and playing cards, but so many of the actions felt as if they were just variations on a theme. I certainly didn’t hate the game, and everything worked, but I never really felt engaged. And for me it wasn’t the theme – I like something a little different and it’s nice seeing the old style painting of all those classic ships. I just couldn’t really get into it.

Key observations

The more critical words players kept coming back to while playing Transatlantic were ‘abstract’ and ‘dry’ – which is odd, as several of my group (including me) really like dry, abstract games!

During play the games seems fiddly, but I think this is exacerbated by its repetitive nature: you’re son dong the same things over and over, in the same fiddly way, but the payoff doesn’t seem to improve with time. Sure, you’re getting more money per transaction and maybe a slightly better action from a new card – but these things don’t feel different.

While I didn’t have any issues with the rule book, it seems a lot of others did. Sure, its a bit of a dog’s breakfast in terms of layout – but personally I didn’t find it slowed me down. That said, it doesn’t flow well and I had the advantage of being familiar with Concordia – which works in a similar way. So do be aware mileage in this department may vary.

Finally, colour blindness issues with the cards really need a mention. One ship colour is white – but unfortunately the others are black, darkish blue, dark green and a deep maroon red. No, I have no idea what they were thinking – and to make it worse, there is no symbology to tell them apart (they all have the same shape flag on them with no pattern). This is pretty unforgettable in modern gaming, and it does feel a little as if some of the older, traditional German publishers are getting left behind.

Conclusion

I don’t own every Mac Gerdts/PD Verlag game, but have played and enjoyed all the ones I’ve come across – including this one. But Transatlantic is the first I’ve owned that won’t be staying in my collection. Perhaps if it had come along before Concordia, the card play would’ve been enough to keep me playing – but this very much feels like a backward step from that, rather than a forward one.

If you’re a Gerdts fan, like economic games, or if the theme appeals, I’d recommend seeking it out for a play. It is a solid design and mechanically there’s nothing wrong with it at all. But in comparison to his other recent titles, I found it a little lack lustre in terms of a hook, a spark, or a reason to keep coming back. Transatlantic is a solid 6.5, but I just didn’t find anything to love.

* I’d like to thank PD Verlag for providing a discounted copy of the game for review.

Board game Top 10: Two-player games

While there are thousands of board and card games that work well with two players, there’s often something a little bit special about games that specifically designed for two players to go head to head.

Below you’ll find my favourites, with a skew towards games for all: I’d be confident of teaching all but two these to pretty much anyone. Better still, almost all of them should cost you less than about £20.

Games are linked by the title where I’ve reviewed them elsewhere on the site – and pretty much all of them are easily found in stores and online. And, as always, if you have any questions or want more info – or have your own recommendations – just pop them in the ‘comments’ below.

(Gamers: I’ve avoided expandable card games completely, as well as miniatures games – and have only included one war game. I think the majority of people that might come looking for a post such as this will be relatively new to the hobby and be looking for the kind of game I’ve included here; but hopefully you’ll find something new to check out.)

The best two-player board and card games

10. Battle Line/Schotten Totten (1999)
20 minutes

Battle Line, from the master of abstract game design Reina Knizia, is a fantastic card game that’s been in print for almost 20 years. Essentially an area control game, the idea is to win either five of the nine areas – or three adjacent areas (picture nine flags across the centre of the table between the two players, with you each playing cards to your side of those flags).

Players take it in turns to play and then draw a card: either a numbered card (1-10 in six colours), or tactics card (they add complexity, but you can leave them out). To win a flag you need to have a three-card combo in front of it that beats your opponent – decided by a simple poker-style scoring system (runs, straights and flushes). You can even claim a flag early if you can prove – due to what has been played elsewhere – that your opponent can’t possibly beat it.

9. Blokus Duo/
Blokus To Go
 (2005)
15 minutes

This is a travel version of the popular board game Blokus from Mattel, with a smaller board and starting positions designed specifically for two players. It has many of the classic two-player abstract tropes: each player has an identical set of pieces, taking it in turns to place one, making it a totally even playing field – and you start with all pieces available, so there are no elements of luck involved. The game’s rules are simple enough for a six-year-old to grasp, but there’s plenty of tactical depth there for seasoned gamers too.

See also: Hive (a hugely popular Chess-like abstract game) and Little Big Fish (a draughts-style game with added bells and whistles, including a modular board and some board spaces that set off random effects).

8. Twilight Struggle (2005)
120-180 minutes

I’ve deliberately steered clear of war games on this list, as they’re an entire genre to themselves – but no game has done more to straddle the divide between war and board games than Twilight Struggle. The number one game on Board Game Geek for several years (and still number four at the time of writing), the game emulates the battle for political influence across the globe between the USA and the USSR during the Cold War. It’s a card-driven game, with each card depicting an actual historic event – and each allowing players to manipulate the influence its superpower has over a country or countries. It’s a truly epic experience, and takes some plays to get your head around, but is well worth the effort.

See also: Wir Sind das Volk! (a similar style game set in the aftermath of World War II, with East and West Germany in a battle to make its citizens the happiest). 

7. Lost Cities (1999)
30 minutes

The second Reina Knizia abstract on the list, Lost Cities shares several traits with Battle Line above: players face off on opposite sides placing cards either side of (this time five) central areas. This time there are five colours with numbers 1-10 in each, plus several extra cards in each colour that can multiply your score in it. The trick is you must play these multipliers before you play any number cards of the colour (so it’s often a gamble) – and you can only ever play a higher number of a colour than you’ve already played. You won’t score positively in a colour unless your cards add up to at least 20 – and negatives also multiply. You have a play a card every round – either discarded or to your area – and both players tend to end up feeling the game has got something against them. It’s very clever indeed, but incredibly simple in terms of rules.

6. Caverna: Cave vs Cave (2017)
30 minutes

While a bit more of a gamer’s game, Caverna: Cave vs Cave does a great job of simplifying and distilling designer Uwe Rosenberg’s classic euro game Caverna into a small box experience. Players collect resources (six types) by taking actions, with the aim of using them to furnish their caves with new rooms – that will in turn either score them points or make their gathering and other actions more efficient. Despite a relatively small amount of components there’s plenty of variety and denial can be an important part of play, so it isn’t just a ‘do your own thing’ game.

See also: Rosenberg has given the same treatment to two of his other euro games. Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small is the most popular, distilling Agricola down to animal collection; but Le Havre: Inland Port is a clever but ultimately uninspiring resource management game owing little to its predecessor. 

5. Hanamikoji (2013)
15 minutes

This clever and quick little card game has just 28 cards and 15 cardboard tokens – but packs a lot of game into a very small package. Much as in Lost Cities above, both players will find themselves making agonising decisions – but here it feels as if every one, even the first, is like this each round.

On each round you’ll both play the exact same four actions, but the order in which you do them and how they affect the cards in play is always changing. Again you’re trying to win control in the majority of seven areas in which you can play cards, but some hidden information spices things up – along with the fact you know all but one card is placed in every round (but you won’t know the missing card). A game can be over in as little as five minutes, a single round, but it always feels like you’ve strained your brain in the process.

4. Targi (2012)
60 minutes

While a little longer and slightly more complex than most games on this list, I still feel confident I could teach Targi to most non-gamers. It involves laying cards in a 5×5 grid before players take it in turns to claim a column or row (until they’ve claimed three different ones each). You place your three pieces on edge cards, but also claim the two central spots where your rows/column intersect (for a possible five spaces each). These cards then give you resources, or let you spend resources to buy cards that then go in front of you and give you either an ongoing or immediate bonus – as well as end game points. It clever combines set collection, worker placement and tableau building while adding that crucial competitive two-player edge to create a really great game.

3. The Rose King/
Rosenkonig
 (1992)
30 minutes

I started playing this one on Yucata back in 2011 and got my own copy in 2013; and it has been in my Top 50 games since I started writing one in 2014 – not bad for a 25 year-old abstract game. Played on a 9×9 grid, players take it in turns to either play or draw a card – placing a stone in their colour on the board if they play a card. Each player has a maximum of five cards, but they’re left face up on the table at all times – so while the draw is random, all information is open. Each card allows you to move a specific number of spaces (1-3) in a specific direction, but you can’t land on your own pieces – and only have four times may you land on your opponents piece, flipping it to our colour.  Points are gained for large connected areas of your colour and despite its simplicity it plays out in a really unique way.

2. Adios Calavera (2017)
20 minutes

I seem to have been talking about this game a lot since its release, with little to no success in raising its profile, but hey – I think there’s a little life in this flogged horse yet! What is, in essence, a simple rush across a 9×9 grid for your eight playing pieces is made unique by one of your going north-south and the other east-west. The amount a piece can move is dictated by how many pieces there are in its row – but of course, one player’s tow is the other’s column – so you need to think about the strength of movement you’re giving your opponent as well as yourself. Add in eight different special powers for the pieces, and several variants of how many to use them, and you also have huge replayability. It also looks great – so what are you waiting for?!

1. Patchwork (2014)
20 minutes

It was a close thing between my top three, and to be honest I think they’re all about even in terms of quality; but it is the proven crossover appeal of Patchwork that has put it to the top of my list.

Just outside the Top 50 on Board Game Geek, it has been a massive hit with gamers – but the gorgeous patchwork artwork on the cardboard pieces makes it a real head turner – and a game that’s very easy to get non-gamers to take a look at; especially spouses. Unfortunately, outside mainline Europe, board gaming is still seen as nerdy and blokey in many places – so it is always great to see a game taking a punt on an unusual and female dominated theme and making it work. Better still, it’s a brilliantly mean spatial puzzle of a game with a small rules overhead but loads of depth.

Honourable mentions

There are a couple of two-player games that used to be firm favourites, but have since left my collection. Jaipur  is a fun little game I’d happily recommend to new gamers, and that is hugely popular – but personally I got a little tired of it over time, as it seemed the game came down to luck in more plays than I was happy with. It was similar with Jambo, which was enjoyable until being blown out of the water for me when Targi came along.

I also feel I’ll get told off by someone if I don’t at least mention 7 Wonders Duel: a massive hit that is in the Top 10 games of all time on Board Game Geek at the time of writing. The scoring mechanisms have a strong resemblance to its sister game 7 Wonders, as you use cards to claim other cards as you strive for end game points – but the mechanism of the game underwhelmed me and it felt as if a lot of games ended up being a little ‘on rails’, out of your control. But other opinions are obviously available – it has been a huge and popular seller.