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Settlers of Catan has introduced millions of people worldwide to the joys of quality board games. But eventually, even a near perfect board game runs its course, and now, addicted board gamers need to find a new game to play. For those who are new to board games, a simple trip to the game store can be overwhelming and confusing. Yesterday, I talked about three different ways to find out about board games, and before I move on to today’s topic, I need to cover one clear oversight on my part.
Among the online means of learning about board games, I did not mention the board game equivalent to Reddit — Boardgamegeek.com. Mea Culpa! This is a trove of board game information unlike any other on the internet. If it is information you need, then this is the place to go.
However, there are times in the age of the internet when we don’t actually need more information. What we need are fewer choices. So as promised, here is a list of games I like, plus a few others as well. It is neither comprehensive or complete, nor is it completely organized. Not all of them are classics either. Some of these are quite new, and I believe one may even be out of print. (Sorry about that! I couldn’t resist.)
The hope is to shrink the size of the game store and allow a person new to board games a place to start. After trying or purchasing a number of games on this list, you can develop your own tastes and start to have an idea of what you want when you walk in the doors of your local game shop.
A Short List of Games for the New Board Game Player:
One of the key board game concepts which Settlers introduced to the American board game scene was competition without player elimination and with minimal player attacks on each other. In Settlers, you build alongside each other, gathering scarce resources, headed to the same goal. The person who reaches the goal first wins the game. These games of competition for scarce resources with little means of attack have a name in the game industry. In game parlance, they are called Euro-games. Euro-games have done more to reinstate family game night as a quintessential American pastime than anything since the Depression. How many families give up on games after one too many times of the eight-year-old turning the board over when her older sister played yet another “Sorry” card? Euro-games like Settlers often allow a player to lose without feeling like either the game or the players around them were picking on them. That is quite a feat. Here are five other Euro-games which you can add to your collection.
Ticket to Ride: Europe
Ticket to Ride: Europe is the sequel to the classic Days of Wonder Game Ticket to Ride. The simple goal of this game is to collect different colored cards which help you complete routes between various cities. I like the game because once players understand it, it can be played in 30 minutes, turns are rapid, and its simplicity appeals to a wide range of ages. This is a great follow up game to Settlers which Settlers fanatics tend to like. Europe offers a slightly more complex board than the original game. The original game is simple enough that this complexity adds a bit of spice to an already great game.
Puerto Rico has the most complex game mechanics in this section, but don’t let that dissuade you. I debated putting it in the next category. Two things kept it here. When players understand the game, it can be played in just over an hour, and my 10-year-old is a wicked Puerto Rico player. If you give it a chance, it’s worth the effort. This game introduces role selection and worker placement. Both of these game mechanics are used in many other great games. What makes this game so great is that you can win in about ten different ways. A good player will vary their strategy based on what other players are doing and the resources they have available.
Belfort is a great new game in which players all compete to build the same city. The game is scored over a number of rounds and players earn top points for holding the most buildings in each city section. I like this game because it beat me twice. Here is an extended review from GeekDad Jonathan Liu. (Currently, Belfort is on back order due to a labor dispute with the gnomes. Tasty Minstrel expects to have them back to work making more games very shortly.)
Zooloretto makes the list because it is kid-friendly. This is a go-to game for our family. It is a press your luck game in which players much choose animals to add to their zoo, hopefully matching them to animals they already have chosen. Points are lost if you collect too many different types of animals, and points are won by completing collections of the same type. Simple game mechanics and good overall design make this a game worth considering. (Zooloretto Mini, recently reviewed here, is an excellent version of the game with slightly simpler mechanics.)
Lords of Waterdeep
Lords of Waterdeep is produced by Wizards of the Coast. It is Dungeons and Dragons meets worker-placement Euro-game. I have to confess that I have not yet played this game, but I keep hearing about it and how great it is. The buzz is enough by itself for it to make my list. Here is a full review by GeekDad Michael Harrison.
7 Wonders is a quick strategy game which is a hybrid between traditional Euro-games and a civilization-building game. Play takes three rounds, and scoring happens at the end of each round. The player with the greatest score at the end of three rounds wins. Players are scored in comparison to each other. Thus, you may choose to build something simply to deny points to a neighbor, much like a strategically placed road can change a Settlers game.
More Complex Strategy Games
There is another group of great Euro-style strategy games which all new board game fanatics should try at least once. But I have put these games in their own category because they require a longer time commitment, and they take strategy to a higher level than Settlers. If you thought that Settlers had just barely enough strategy to keep you interested, then these games are for you. Just make sure you don’t mind spending an evening playing a single game. They can sometimes run to 3 hours of playing time. There are actually many games in this category, but I have included only two of them here because only a portion of those who love Settlers will enjoy them.
If there is one game in this category that every game player must try it is Agricola. This game has been highly influential on many games which came after it. Its downfall is that it requires a high commitment of both time and concentration. However, it is well worth it. In this game, the worker placement mechanism which Puerto Rico introduced comes into its maturity. Players must build a farm, and the game does not provide enough time or resources to do so. This forces tough choices on each player. Again, this game excels because there are multiple paths to victory, and the wise player often takes the path less traveled.
I included Power grid because it is a game which continues to show up on top 100 lists everywhere. I have not played this one, but I hear very good things about it. It is a combination of a resource management game combined with a network building game like Ticket to Ride, except in this case, it is an electric grid instead of railroads. The downside: three hours and heavy math, but if you’re willing to put in the time, I hear it is a great game. Here is a review from Dice Tower, another great source for game reviews.
Tile-laying games actually have their roots in games like Dominoes, except modern tile laying games have pictures on the tiles and many of the pieces are square. These games also tend to be games in which players can affect the strategy of the player next door with a well placed game tile or piece. Most of them play fairly quickly.
Carcassonne is to tile laying games what Settlers was to euro-games in general. If there is one tile-laying game you must play and probably should buy, this is it. Each player randomly draws tiles which have either cities or roads or fields on them, or some combination thereof. Each player must place their tile on the board and then decide if they are going to occupy it with one of their meeples. Players try to occupy only the tiles which will score them the most points or deny other players points. We’ve written extensively about the iOS version of Carcassonne, as well as the board game itself.
Sunrise City is one of my favorite newer tile-laying games. In this game, you play developers who must acquire land and then build upon it. The trick is to acquire land which fits the tiles in your hand. This game plays in about an hour with an average amount of strategic heft. It feels comfortable, like the kind of game you might break out on a Friday night with or without the kids. Here is a review from Jonathan Liu.
Tsuro of the Seas
Tsuro of the Seas, currently on Kickstarter, is the followup to Tsuro. Tsuro definitely has player elimination. In fact, the last player standing at the end of the game wins. However, it plays in about 15 minutes, so there is no large investment of time if you lose. In the game, you must follow one of the winding paths laid out on the tile you have drawn at random. Your goal is to place that tile on the board in such a way that it keeps your piece from running off the board somewhere else when it follows the path laid out. As more pieces are placed, this becomes more difficult. Tsuro of the Seas improves on the concept by adding dragons which randomly remove tiles from the game, keeping possibilities alive or eliminating players before they leave the board. (A review of the original Tsuro is here.)
Tongiaki is one of my very favorite light strategy games. It is sort of a tile-laying game, although it could also have been put in the Euro-family category. In this game, you are Polynesian explorers setting out to find new islands. Survival depends upon how many different players you take with you on your journey. Points are scored at the end of the game for each island you occupy. This is one of those games in which you need other players and they need you, but you really don’t want to cooperate with each other. My favorite part about this game is that all your elaborate plans can be ruined by one player who can completely overturn the whole strategic situation of the board in one move. If you like turnabouts, back-stabs, and upheaval, especially late in the game, this is a perfect game for you.
Strategy Games With Direct Conflict
Sometimes the fun of a game is to take on the other players at the board directly. These games are typically considered American games. However, that name is a bit of misnomer. One of my favorites aggressive board games was made by a well known German designer. The trick with a good game of attack is to keep it short. There is nothing worse than losing badly for two and a half hours. That can quickly become tiresome. Here are a couple of games which will let you take your aggressions out on other players and have you licking your wounds, ready to try again, in short order.
Smallworld was recently featured on TableTop. This game is one in which points are scored every turn based upon the amount of territory you occupy, plus bonuses. The world is small, thus the name, and this forces you to eliminate opponents from the board in order to occupy their turf. It is a game that rewards aggressive play and, in general, punishes defensiveness with vigor.
Domaine is a game created by Klaus. Yep, that Klaus. It is a sign that I love a game when I play it over and over again, even though I usually get smoked when I play. In Domaine, you build fences to mark out the boundaries of your kingdom. The larger the boundary, the more points it scores, but beware, other players can move your fences, cut you off, and steal what was once yours. This is a game that rewards the sneak attack and the turnabout, as it doesn’t offer enough time to recover. Playable in about 45 minutes, it is short enough to keep players interested, even when they are getting trounced.
Deck-building games are one of the newer trends in Euro-style strategy games. If you haven’t played one, you need to. From a common pool of available cards, each player builds their own deck which they use to accomplish the tasks to win the game. Players play from their individual deck which will vary from what other players have in their deck, because each player tends to build their deck a little bit differently. Players who optimize their decks for the goals of the game have better odds of winning. Deck-building games tend to be short and fast paced, with player turns lasting under a minute each. This makes them great games for families, because there isn’t a whole lot of lag time between turns.
Dominion is the classic deck-building game. This is the game that created the genre. It should be a must play for any card game lover. Players in the game seek to build a deck of cards containing enough money to allow them to purchase points toward winning the game. However, the more points you collect in your deck the less likely you are to have the money necessary each turn to buy more. This causes players to buy special cards which allow them certain advantages each turn that give them enough money to purchase points. Once players understand the game, it lasts 40 minutes tops and sometimes can be complete in 20. Here is a review by GeekDad Jonathan Liu.
Thunderstone Advance is by far my favorite deck-builder in the genre. This is a game about going to the dungeon and fighting monsters. In order to do so, you need to have the people and weaponry in your hand to defeat the monster. These you purchase in the village. Monsters offer spoils if you beat them and curses if you lose. Where Dominion offers streamlined simplicity, Thunderstone offers just enough complexity to make it interesting without bogging down the swiftness of the deck-building genre. This is a truly great game. Here is a GeekDad review from Jonathan Liu.
Strategy-Based Card Games
Deck-building games are not the only Euro-style card games out there. In fact, there are several really good games which predate the deck-building craze. For whatever reason, many strategy-based card games also tend to be great two-player games. My wife and I will often play one of these three games when looking for something to do on a weeknight after the kids are in bed.
Citadels is a great quick card game. Players try to purchase and build twelve buildings in their city. They are rewarded points for the cost of each building and for gathering different types of buildings in their city. This game uses a role-based turn structure with each role giving the bearer strong advantages or allowing them to disadvantage others at the table. This is an excellent two person game, because each player gets to chose two roles, allowing for some interesting combinations. It also plays well as an eight-player game with strategy and backstabbing around the table.
San Juan is a card game related to Puerto Rico and, in play, similar to Citadels. Players use the cards in their hand to build a city in front of them. They also choose different roles which give them different advantages. The difference between San Juan and Citadels is, in San Juan, the cards in one’s hand are also used for money, forcing the player to decide which buildings they are going to keep and which they will spend. This game takes about 45 minutes.
Bohnanza is a true family favorite in my household. It has a very unique game mechanic in which every card in the game will be played somewhere at the table. This forces players to either discard cards they hoped to keep or to find a way to give unwanted cards to other players. This game is an ideal game for those Settlers players who loved the trading aspect of that game. Often this game is much more about what you give away than what you keep, and it is often the person who receives the most advantageous cards who wins the game. This means that card sharks, alpha players, and dominate voices are often defeated by unassuming, bumbling, and younger players. It is no wonder this is a favorite of my younger children. They tend to legitimately beat me often.
Sometimes it is nice to compete against the game, rather than the other players. In these games, cooperation is necessary to win and the game itself plays the enemy to be defeated. Interesting cooperative games are very hard to create. Those that work need to be recognized for the achievements they are. Cooperative games are also wonderful ways to teach children about teamwork and playing together. They make great family events.
Pandemic is the premier cooperative game on the market. It can be quite tough to win, which is the hallmark of a great cooperative game. In the game, you are fighting an outbreak of a deadly disease. Your job is to try and stop its spread before it destroys civilization as we know it. Sigh, this is yet another hole in my game resume which needs to be filled. Here is a Dice Tower review.
Flash Point Fire Rescue
Flash Point is a newer cooperative game which my family enjoys. The game can be quite hard to defeat until you get the hang of it. The first few times we played, the building quickly collapsed. However, with a little practice, you will be putting out hotspots and rescuing people with the best of them. This would make a great game for a family with young boys in love with fire engines and firemen. Here is a full review from GeekDad Jonathan Liu.
Castle Panic is a wonderful game of castle defense. Each player takes a turn attacking monsters advancing toward your castle walls. If enough of the monsters breach your walls, your castle is destroyed. The basic game is a bit easier to win than other cooperative games, making it suitable for younger children. But don’t let that fool you. It is still fun for adults as well. Here is a full review from GeekDad Jonathan Liu.
Casual and Party Games
Every game collection needs a supply of more casual games and games suitable to large groups. These games are often best played for humor and less for winning. Here are four of my favorites.
Apples to Apples
Even people who have never touched Settlers of Catan have played Apples to Apples. The game is quite simple: match the nouns in your hand with the descriptive word on the table. The winner is chosen by the leader of the round. Then the leader rotates, and it’s rinse, wash, and repeat. First person with five votes wins. Bluffing and ridiculous arguments are par for the course. (And, of course, the apples were drawn by John Kovalic of Dork Tower fame.)
Dixit is the new Apples to Apples, a voting game with similar mechanics. The round leader uses a few words or a phrase to describe a picture. Each person at the table picks the card in their hand which best matches the phrase. The round leader shuffles the pictures, lays them all out, and each person votes for the picture they believe to be the true match. Points are scored based on the votes. Jonathan Liu has a review of Dixit here.
Bang! is one of my favorite games to play with a large group of people. In Bang, you have a Sheriff, Deputies, Outlaws, and even a Renegade. The goals for each are different. The Outlaws win if they kill the Sheriff. The Sheriff and Deputies win by keeping the Sheriff alive. The Renegade wins if they are the last person standing. The dilemma is that no one knows what roles the other people in the game are playing at the start of the game except the Sheriff. Thus it all becomes a hilarious game of bluff and counter-bluff, with everyone claiming to be a deputy. All that changes once one person takes a pot shot at the sheriff. Then the gunfight starts. Cards in your hand either protect you or help you shoot at other players in the game. If I had one game I wish I could watch Wil Wheaton and other geek celebs play, it would be Bang! Clearly, Bang is the most fun you can have playing a card game if you have the right group of people. Bang! is also available as a cross-platform app, which Andy Robertson reviewed here.
Fluxx is probably the lightest game on this list. The neat thing about the game mechanic of Fluxx is that many of the cards change the rules of the game. Strategy is almost impossible, and humor is inevitable. A great game for an evening with friends or a warm up to something meatier. Jonathan Liu has reviewed a couple flavors of Fluxx.
I am not a huge abstract game player. I think that holds true for many lovers of Catan, otherwise we would all have been playing readily available games like Go, Checkers, or Chess. However, I recently played a brand new one I loved, so I had to include it here.
Dragon Face is a combination between Checkers and Chess, with a couple of really great twists just for fun. Instead of capturing pieces when you jump them and taking them off the board, you flip them over, and they become yours. However, the game offers enough possibilities that even if a few of your pieces are captured, you can quickly turn the tide back in your favor. It also plays quickly, typically in a half an hour. Here is a review from GeekDad Jonathan Liu.