"He Wears Black and Has a Beard"

Recommended Reading: Board Games

Toby Roworth

Aug 20, 2018

This week I take a look at some board games. For several years myself and several friends mat every Wednesday evening to play some games. Since spreading ourselves around the country (now around the world thanks to someone), it's been harder to play regularly, but we still try when we can. I also play games with my Dad and brothers, with Christmases often becoming quite a competitive affair.
I'm not going into a long review on each - there are sites like Board Game Geek that have already done a much better job at this than I will. Many of the games below have also been played on Wil Wheaton's TableTop, should you wish to see Wesley Crusher crushed like a weasel on a weekly basis.

Carcassonne

Probably my favourite game for the longest time, Carcassonne involves placing tiles and playing followers to take over cities, roads, farms and cloisters.
The games normally go one of two ways - either all players will steadily build small-medium sized roads, cities, and farms, or a couple will start fighting over a massive city, which quickly becomes a sprawling mass that can only be finished by a single piece, lest it be near worthless at the end of the game. Inevitably, this piece will be overturned by one of the players not involved in the struggle, and they will waste it on their own piddling little city.
Whilst all this has been taking place, another player will have completed all the cloisters, and will have won all the points. That is if the big-shots haven't also been fighting over some ridiculous farms, which often swing the game.
Carcassonne will always have a special place in the gaming community, as it contains the archetypal meeple.
There are also a huge number of expansions to the game, each adding something different making for a different twist to the game. When I first saw the Catapult expansion I thought it was a joke, but then I saw it at the games shop, and exchanged money for what still seemed to be a joke. However, it actually plays surprisingly well.
I think the best expansion is The Princess and the Dragon, which adds a constant feeling of fear, and the tactical changes that come with the ability to eat other players with a large dragon meeple.
What doesn't work so well is playing with all the expansions. The last time I did this it was an all-day affair, and there have been some more expansions released since. It's something to try once, to say it's been done, but the increase in time doesn't correspond to the increase in fun - quite the opposite in my experience.
A nice variant we've tried is playing with a hand of tiles - you start with three or five tiles to choose from, and replenish at the end of your turn. This adds an extra tactical element to the game, somewhat reduces the effect of randomness, and can speed the game up, as you have a whole round to decide your next move.

Settlers of Catan


If there's one game that typifies the hobby better than any other, it's Catan. It seems everyone has played this game, and it's always the one the appears when people have "brought games with them". Unfortunately, they always bring the dreaded 5-6 player expansion with them, the harbinger of a several hour game inevitably ending in disappointment for all except the new player, who by some fluke managed to win.
I actually quite like the 5-6 player expansion, but only when used with 4 players! I find this frees up some space on the board so fewer players are climbing over each other - that's a top tip there.
Despite being somewhat overplayed, the game is a classic for a reason, and is often used an an infection vector to move people onto the harder stuff.

TransAmerica


Ticket To Ride is another classic infection vector, found on most gaming shelves. It plays well, and has many variants available. We've usually played Europe, but Pennsylvania and UK are both interesting in their own right. A couple of years back, at Christmas, we played all three in a day and, naturally, I won the lot.
However, I prefer TransAmerica, and it's slightly more challenging variant, TransEuropa. Like Ticket to Ride, the goal is to build railways across a continent, but the mechanics are much simpler in TransAmerica, with a simple rule of play two tracks every turn. The result is a fast-playing game but, due to several rounds being played, a disastrous game can still be recovered.
We once tried a variant where the cities to be travelled between were bid for, instead of selected randomly. This turned out to not work so well, as there are a few cities that are much easier than the others - bidding big on these paid off well, letting the player bid even more the next time, and so on, until that player whitewashes the game. Fortunately, this played was me...
Another game to mention with these two is Thurn & Taxis, which has a similar route-building component to Ticket to Ride, but the goal being to place houses in certain groups of towns. Given that a game of Thurn & Taxis, and a game of TransAmerica, can be played in a similar time frame to ticket to ride, I'd rather play the former two, as you get a similar set of mechanics, but split across two games.

Ivanhoe


A card game based on knightly tournaments, this game became a staple of our Wednesday evenings. The essence is just "who can play cards to the highest value", but the addition of the special action cards can turn the game on its head at any moment.
There are numerous strategic approaches to the game, thanks in part to a lack of cards-in-hand limit, but the game tends to remain quite even. Much like a real knightly tournament, fighting hard in one round tires you out for the next round, letting someone else take the advantage back.
Of all the games we've played, I think this is the one that has never felt tired after playing it regularly. Most games have a couple of killer strategies that, if they work out, can overpower a game, with the other players seeing the victory long before the game ends - think corn-hauling in Puerto Rico, but I think Ivanhoe is the most balanced game I've played.

7 Wonders: Duel


I've saved the best until last. Ivanhoe might be well balanced, but Duel goes even further. On its face it's a two-player card game version of 7 Wonders, but that significantly undersells it.
The game has three ways to win, but it's incredibly hard to pursue more than one at a time, and pursuing any one too hard will cripple you in the others. The game also uses both visible and hidden cards interspersed with one another, requiring both a good strategic overview and an amount of flexibility.
Over the last couple of years, me and my brothers have played this most times we've visited by Dad, which has lead to dozens of games being played. Enough, in fact, that we put together a spreadsheet detailing the scores and victory methods for every game. It was interesting to see how certain players favoured certain play styles, but that, overall, no one style of play is much more powerful than any other.
If I could recommend any one game to buy, it would be Duel. The downside is that it's limited to two players, but given how hard it can be to get people together to play games, that's not always such a bad thing.