Category Archives: Top 10 Strategy Games

Tikal

Tikal!! (Rio Grande Games, 1999) What a great game! Players “build” the board as they go, trying to give themselves an advantage, or providing their opponents the opposite. Players can hope for lucky draws, but still have a lot of flexibility in deciding what to do with whatever they end up drawing. This is a great blend of luck and strategy.

In Tikal, players are archaeologists, digging through the jungles of the Mayan ruins of Tikal. Players earn points by uncovering treasure tokens and by controlling dig sites (temples). But to get to the treasures or the temples, one must get through the jungle, and that’s where the fun begins.

The picture above shows a game after only a few turns. In the beginning, there are only two hex tiles that are not jungle; one is the sandy-colored base camp, where player pawns are introduced, and the other is a grassy spot with no structures. The first part of each player’s turn is to draw a new hex tile and place it in the location of his or her choice, following one simple rule: it must be immediately accessible. As turns continue, more of the board becomes defined, and newly opened jungle spaces will be empty, have treasure rings on them, or else have temples on them. Each hex has several borders with stones on them representing pathways to the adjacent hex. If neither one of two neighboring hexes has stones, then there is no path between them – these stones are what determine what hexes are accessible from where.

The most important strategic element in Tikal is the use of “action points.” Each turn, a player may use up to ten action points, which allow movement of pawns, “working” on a temple (which “uncovers” more temple and makes it more valuable; see the different values on the temples in the pic below), “digging” for treasure (uncovering one piece of treasure from a treasure hex), or some other more complicated things. The use of these action points is critical because they are limited; there is not enough to do everything a player might want to do in one or two turns, so each player must decide how to budget his or her action points.

The final strategic element in Tikal is the unpredictable but ever-looming volcano hex, which, when drawn, initiates the beginning of a scoring round. Since the volcano hex is mixed in with the regular tiles, it (there are several, actually, one for each of several stages of the game) can be drawn at any time, more or less. That means that, if a player does not have his men in the correct positions, he will not benefit from the scoring round. This results in something analogous to musical chairs, in which players are constantly moving but ever ready to settle into a better “point-scoring” position.

For example, a player who is in control of a temple (by having more men on that hex) when the volcano hex is turned up, will end up winning whatever value the temple is worth (see pic below: white player wins the level 3 temple). A player who is able to retrieve the most matching treasure items will get points from them – more points for more matching treasures (pictured further below). But if a player can’t manage to outnumber an opponent on a temple, or beat an opponent to a treasure spot, they will not win those points.

As volcanoes are turned over throughout the several stages of the game, scoring rounds occur in which players get one more turn and then have to count the number of points they have on the board at that time. Points are kept on the scoring track of the perimeter, and whoever has the most points at the end, wins the game.

I like Tikal so much because it’s unpredictable, but the player has a lot of control. Draw a tile you can’t use to your advantage? Stick your opponent with it! Tile placement is such a simple thing, but clever layouts could make the difference between winning and losing where just a few victory points are concerned. One other excellent feature of the game is that even most losers have a chance to win because, since treasures are being uncovered and temples are being added to, there are far more points to be had at the end, thus allowing those far behind to make a last minute run.

This game is complex at first to most casual gamers, but I have been able to teach kids as young as 7 the basics. Having said that, though, the age recommendation is 12 and up, and I agree that younger kids won’t get most nuances, and could lose interest. But it’s a perfect game for adult and teen gamers who like this satisfying combination of luck and action-points-budgeting. Three thumbs up!!

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Ticket to Ride

Railroad games are just plain fun. There have been a number of them published, and some have enjoyed a cult-like status for a number of years (see my review of Empire Builder, for example). But none have been as popular as Ticket to Ride (Days of Wonder, 2004), which has been on the short list of best games since it came out. It is considered one of a few “gateway” games – that is, a mildly complex game that is so very fun and addictive that “new” gamers will want to try other, more complex games.

The Ticket to Ride board is a map (the original version is the USA, but there are a number of other versions available) denoting major cities, interconnected with train routes of various colors. There are two stacks of cards: Destination cards depict two cities (which players would need to connect with a continuous train route) as well as a point value for connecting them (see below); Ticket cards depict a train car of a certain color, which corresponds to certain routes on the map board – or they might be multi-color “wild” cards (farther below!).

Players each have a stack of 45 trains in their own color,and they start the game with five ticket cards. They draw three destination cards and can keep either two or three of them – but the ones they keep are routes that they must complete with continuous tracks of their own color. If the routes are completed, the player gets the points; if they are not completed by the end of the game, the player loses those points.

The game consists of players taking turns drawing new tickets, drawing new destinations, or placing train routes. In order to place a train route, a player must have enough of the correctly colored tickets, and turn them in. A multi-color wild card is good for any color ticket. Each route is a certain color, or gray, and a certain number of train links long. For example, El Paso to Houston is six links long, and green, so a player would have to accumulate a combination of six green or wild cards and then turn them in – then he or she would be able to put six of their own color trains on those six links. Note that some routes are double wide, so two different players can occupy parallel tracks between the same destinations.

Points are scored throughout the game by placing routes – and the value of the routes increases non-linearly, so that one track piece earns you one point, but 6 track pieces earns you 20 points. Points are also awarded at the end of the game. Players who achieved their destination goals are awarded the corresponding number of points (more points for longer tracks), and those who failed to do so are penalized the same number of points.

During a game of Ticket to Ride, 5 cards available to be drawn are kept face up, and on a turn a player may draw two of the visible cards, unless it is a wild card, in which case it is the only card that can be drawn. If there are no colors the player wants, he or she can draw from a face-down pile once or twice (they can also draw one card here, and the next from the face up stack, again with the exception of the wild card. A player might also draw more Destination cards in an effort to bulk up their score. This mechanism of a constantly changing card availability makes the game more exciting than if they had been face down, plus it gives the alert player information about the plans of his or her opponents.

While it is “another train game,” this is one train game that has gotten a lot of people hooked. It’s complex enough to be rewarding, but simple enough to learn in 5 minutes. I recommend it for any map or train game enthusiast, of for any gamer who wants to expand their social gaming circle. It is good for families, groups, and just a bunch of friends. But be ready to accommodate more hungry zombies….

: )

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Empire Builder

Another in my long list of favorite games, Empire Builder (Mayfair Games, 1980) is in its 4th edition. I have not played the game in its Empire Builder form, oddly enough, because I own and have played the original version – North American Rails. There is very little difference in game play, but the original came in a tube with a rolled-up, laminated map, as opposed to the six interlocking boards that comprise the more current editions. I also own the tube versions of Nippon Rails and British Rails, and there are at least 4 others out there.

Whatever version you get your hands on, however, Empire Builder is an absolutely great game if you like a lot of planning and a solidly realistic experience. The game consists of a map of North America (Canada/US/Mexico) divided into a series of regularly spaced “mileposts,” crayons with which to build railroads, “load chips” that represent the materials being shipped, 3 types of cards, and money. Players are basically competing to build a rail system across the continent with which to pick up and deliver loads, in order to earn a payout. The first player to $250 million wins.

Players begin the game in the city of their choice (decided by their initial goals, to be discussed shortly); on every turn they will have a budget of $20 million to build rails from one milepost to the next. Many mileposts are simply black dots, and cost $1 million to build into – but others are more expensive. To build into a mountain milepost (black triangles on the map) costs $2 million, into a small or medium-sized city (red dots and squares) costs $3 million, into a major city costs $5 million, and over a river adds $2 million.

The demand cards are a key element in Empire Builder (see example below). Each player has three demand cards, each of which lists a destination city, a demand for a particular load, and the payout for that load. In order to acquire a given payout, a player must use their train to pick up the load from one of a few cities where it is available (there is a very handy list of these cities, and they are shown on the map as well), and deliver it via their own rail system to the city that demands it. The loads and payouts vary quite a bit, but in general the farther a city is from the load it is requesting, the higher they payout. For example, the card below shows that Los Angeles will pay $31 million for tourists, but in the game the only place to pick up tourists is Chicago or New York City – which would cost about $50 million to build in the first place. Note that it would take a lot less rail to pick up cars in Detroit and deliver them to Cincinnatti, but the payout is correspondingly lower.

At the beginning of each turn a player has the option of moving his or her train as far along the rails they have created as they deem appropriate. Each player starts the game with a regular train, which can carry two loads and move 9 mileposts each turn, but during the game any player may, at their own discretion, spend their $20 million budget on a trian upgrade instead of building rails. The upgrades include increased speed (from 9 to 12 mileposts per turn) and increased capacity (from two to three loads), and, after one upgrade is completed, the second may also be purchased for a “Super Freight” train that moves 12 and carries 3 loads.

The initial building is critical to the game because a player only has $50 million to start with, and must use it to build a rail system that will allow them to fulfill a demand that will in turn earn them enough money to continue to build rails and earn payouts. This early dynamic makes for a slow build up, as players are establishing a continental rail system, mostly driven by the suite of demand cards they draw (this is the only random element in the game). But once a player has built an east-west or north-south corridor, they are able to work on multiple, more lucrative demands without having to pay for much more in the way of rails. This helps determine which demands they are able to accomplish on any given card. They can also eventually afford the train upgrades.

In order to win the game a player must have connected his or her railway to at least 6 of the 7 major cities, which prevents someone from simply building a strong regional railway and repeatedly using it. There are a few other features which make the game more interesting. One is that there are event cards. Once a load is dropped off in a city and the payout is taken, a new card is drawn. An event card might turn up instead of a demand card, and it is to be accomplished immediately. Events range from natural disasters to rail-workers strikes, and have localized events that will affect every player in that vicinity. For example, a tornado might prevent any building or moving within 8 mileposts of Oklahoma City, or a wildcat strike may prevent any activity at all within 4 mileposts of the east coast.

One further feature is a building limit into cities. All players have to have access to each major city, so one player is not allowed to build rails into every hub of a major city to prevent access. Small and medium cities, however, do have a limit, so it can be important for a player to extend a rail line into such a city in order to claim it for the future. A player does have the option of using another player’s rail lines, but for every portion of a turn they are on that other player’s lines, they must pay that player $4 million – not usually a great way to spend one’s money, but usually unavoidable.

Empire Builder is a long game that builds up slowly but always ends up as a race to the finish. If you enjoy map games, plotting courses, and spatial organization in general, you will like this game. I find it perfect for a rainy afternoon with 3-5 people, but there is also a solitaire version of the rules available online. I recommend it for anyone who likes involved strategy games, any rail enthusiast, or anyone else who has a planner alter-ego dying to get out.

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Acquire

If you had wanted me, as a teenager, to play a board game about corporate real-estate speculation, I would have laughed out loud and said no, thanks. But, somehow, someone managed to get me to play Acquire (Avalon Hill, 1962). I wish I could remember how – it was probably my brother, pulling it out of the closet on a rainy day.

Acquire has had such staying power because it embodies everything fun, and nothing boring or dry, about corporate real estate. How does it do that, you say? By keeping it simple. It consists of a regular grid running from columns A-I and rows 1-12 (for a total of 108 squares). Players take turns placing grid tiles onto corresponding spaces. When these tiles are placed adjacently, one of seven corporations is formed. Once a corporation exists, players can buy stock in the companies in the hope that more tiles will be added, increasing the worth of the corporation’s stocks.

That’s Acquire in a nutshell. The key piece is the info card (below), which shows the price of one stock certificate for a corporation of a given size, and the final payout for stock owned once the corporation expires. Each player uses this payoff chart to determine what to buy, and when, and how much. Beyond buying stock and eventually selling it, each players helps control the board by placing a single, randomly-drawn tile. Thus each player has an idea of what corporations might grow, depending on which four tiles they have drawn, and in which order they are played.

Consider the two players below, relative to the game board shown. The player on the left has a tile (8C) that will allow him or her to grow Hydra, plus other nearby tiles. As the majority holder (the one with the most stock – 4 cards in this example) there is reason to be optimistic about Hydra’s growth. Player 1 has also purchased one piece of stock in Quantum; when two corporations meet, the smaller one goes away, and the stock is sold off according to the payoff chart, to the majority and minority holders. Player 1 would be smart to buy some Quantum stock, because either Hydra or Quantum are likely to take over the other sooner or later in the game. Player 2 actually has similar options, so in this game we would expect players 1 and 2 to get into tile-positioning and stock buying wars, each trying to grow the corporations they are better represented in, while buying more of the other stock to ensure a good position if they can’t manage to get the right tiles.

The game continues much the same way, and with several players each playing for their own territories, each tile played may have an impact on any number of other players. There are 25 stock certificates for each corporation, so players find themselves paying close attention to what and how many stocks other players are buying. If a player has the most stock certificates, even by one, the payoff difference is huge. If a player is third in line, there is no payoff – their stock is worthless, and represents a lost investment.

One very important detail regarding corporation size, is that more than 11 tiles constitutes a “safe” corporation. Until then, a corporation that is linked to a larger one dissolves, and the majority and minority holders get their payoff. Once the corporation size reaches 11, they cannot be linked, and the tiles that would have linked two such corporations are no longer playable, and are discarded. By the end of the game, the board consists of, usually, several safe corporations interspersed with dead spaces. The majority and minority holders of the remaining safe corporations at the end of the game are paid off at that point. The winner is simply the player with the most money!

As I said, the theme is in no way appealing to me, but this is one of my tried and true greatest games. I don’t break it out all the time – there is still a good crowd for it – but it has yet to disappoint. There is a reason that Hasbro, once they picked up Avalon Hill about 10 years ago, decided to move forward with Acquire as one of the few Avalon Hill games. It’s a relatively under-appreciated classic, but any strategy game fan would love it.

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Dominion

dominion box

If you know someone who is a die-hard board game fan, ask them about Dominion (2008, Rio Grande Games). There is a good chance they’ll have it, and a great chance that if they don’t have it, they will want it. But don’t think that it is only for the hardcore gamer; once you’ve played you are likely to understand how much fun it is, and thirst for more.

Dominion is probably the hottest property on the American game market as I write this – it (along with its expansions, “Intrigue” and “Seaside”) has garnered one of the highest ratings on boardgamegeek.com, and there isn’t a board game fan that I know who doesn’t love it. It has made a huge splash since its release in 2008, and quickly earned some of the most coveted games awards out there (Spiel des Jahres, Origins, Mensa Select).

Despite its apparent novelty and the huge success Dominion is enjoying, it is not too far removed from another game that was revolutionary at the time: Magic, The Gathering. It’s similar in the sense that players build decks of cards that have different sorts of abilities, which then work together to achieve the final goal. It’s different in that players are largely not affecting one another, at least not directly, and the game itself is self-contained in its own box. Another very important difference is that in dominion, all players choose from the same pool of cards to build their decks, not a personal stockpile as in Magic. One very nice feature is the card storage system in the box – each card type has a clearly labeled slot, making it easy to browse and choose card types.

dominion inside box

Players start with a small deck of cards, some representing income, and some representing victory points (see pic below) – the ultimate goal of the game is to obtain the most victory points via these cards. Players use the income cards (which vary in amount) to purchase “dominion” cards, and this is where the fun starts. There are nearly 30 types of dominion cards, each with multiple copies, but only 10 of these types are used in each game. Thus, consecutive games can be slightly different from one another, if just one or two card types are changed, or they can be very different from one another if many more card types are changed.

dominion gold vp cards

Players begin each turn with a hand of 5 cards drawn from their original 10. Each turn consists of three phases: Action, buying, and cleanup. On any turn a player can use one action, and then make one purchase – UNLESS they are able to play cards that modify the number of actions and/or purchases. Playing cards in way that maximizes one’s advantage is the key mechanic in the game. Dominion cards come in many variations, and may allow a player to pick up more cards, play more action cards, convert cards into other cards, or increase buying power.

dominion village card

dominion spy card

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

During the buying phase, Income cards may be used to purchase other cards (card costs are on the lower left of each card); purchases may include more income, victory points, and other dominion cards from the common supply. The final phase of a turn is cleanup, in which a player discards all of the played cards as well as the cards remaining in his or her hand, and then draws the next five in their personal deck. All of the “discarded” cards are actually recycled, so cards are usually never lost (there is a “trash” card for those that are).

Game play is straightforward in the sense that all a player has to do is what is written on the cards, but it’s complicated by the range of options. A player’s strategy is truly dependent on his or her opponents and the choice of ten card types to choose from.

The game is over when either the highest value victory point cards (The Provinces) have all been claimed, or else when the limited supply of 3 separate dominion card types have been exhausted. The player at that point with the most victory points is the winner.

So many game players are so excited about this game and its expansions, and many include the excitement of their non-boardgaming friends and family members, that it is worth at least some investigation. If you aren’t sure, then find out who is playing it (someone you know, of course), and try it on for size. After playing with a set of 10 card types, you’ll find yourself curious about 10 other card types…and so on, and so on, and so on…

I recommend Dominion to any game lover; it is easy to learn, but not easy to pick up and play out of the box without a lot of patience. But game lovers can and will introduce it to others. The rules are easy, but the possibilities are endless.

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Settlers of Catan

settlers box

The European invasion’s “shot heard ’round the world” – or at least the shot heard ‘cross the Atlantic – was in 1995, with the publication of Settlers of Catan (Mayfair Games, 1995). Strategy games in the US had been restricted to kid-friendly games, usually based on a licensed property, and games that only hardcore gamers knew about by companies like Avalon Hill and Wizards of the Coast. Most households owned a single strategy game – Risk. American game closets were filled with party games like Pictionary, Taboo, and Scattergories, and the big box stores had only Trivial Pursuit to satisfy consumers with more intellectual tastes.

But with Settlers of Catan, the game industry changed – and it is still changing. Companies like Mayfair Games, Rio Grande, and Ravensburger started importing adult games that were intellectually demanding, more complex, and of a higher production quality. Within a few years, entire families were hooked on Settlers of Catan, and asking for more. Since then, Settlers has spawned an entire family of games – 35 expansions and spin-offs (17 of them english only).

The not-so-secret success of “Settlers” is the tile layout that can change with every play of the game (see pic below).

settlers layout

There is a basic setup for beginning players that assures different tiles and numbered discs will be equally distributed; once players understand the game mechanics they are free to follow other suggested setups, or implement their own.

The goal of the game is to claim real estate (or the equivalent of real estate in the form of cards), which is accomplished by building, which is accomplished by harvesting resources, which is what the different tile represent. Players initially place two small “cities” on any 3-part hub on the board, and build out from there. A player rolls the two dice on his or her turn, and the correspondingly numbered tile “produces” for that turn. There are six tile types, one of which is a solitary desert tile, and the other five, which each produce a resource, also in the form of a card, as follows (as pictured below): Meadows produce wool, Mountains produce ore, Fields produce wheat, Hills produce brick, and Forests produce wood. A player gains that resource if they have a building on any hub of that particular tile.

settlers resource cards

After collecting resources players may trade with the player whose turn it is, or the turn-taker may trade in 4 of any one resource for 1 other, or if they have a city on one of the ports they may take advantage of that port’s trade ratio.

After trading, a player may build a structure or buy a “development card.” The building cost card dictates the price for various items. For example, it takes one brick, one wood, one wheat, and one wool to build a settlement. There are a few simple rules regarding the placement of settlements, cities, and roads. Development cards are purchased sight unseen, and can be cashed in at the end of the game for victory points (see below: examples are the University of Catan, Market, etc.), or used to modify game play (for example, Road Building allows a player to place extra roads for free). Soldier cards are accumulated in the hope of having the “Largest Army” at the end of the game, which is also good for 2 victory points.

settlers cost card

settlers cards

The winner of the game is the first player to reveal, on their turn, that they have 10 victory points.

Some other elements make the game even more interesting. One further way to gain 2 victory points is to have the longest road by game’s end. The “Robber” piece, represented by a black pawn that initially occupies the desert (which does not receive a number throughout the game) moves to the tile of a player’s choice when that player rolls a 7 on the dice. Note that there is not a number 7 disc, so on a 7 there is no production. The player who moves the robber can choose a resource card from any player with property on the robber’s new location. During trading, any player may initiate a trade as long as the trade involves the person whose turn it is, and talk is open. If it’s obvious to one player that another player will overly benefit from a trade, it’s fair for them to point it out to the would be tradee. This introduces a very social and interactive element to the game that enhances the “fun” element.

Settlers of Catan expansions include 5 and 6 players, and can also involve city defense and further trade (Cities and Knights of Catan), seagoing exploration and trade (Seafarers of Catan), and more. There are numerous other spinoffs as well, the most popular being Starfarers of Catan.

What this game brought back in 1995 is exactly what was needed, and what is still relevant today: a board game that involves people on social and intellectual levels. After playing once or twice to learn the game, you’ll have a decent enough grasp to play with different strategies – but just like any really good game, there is no best strategy until you know your opponent. This game changes along with the people who play it, but it’s always fun and rewarding.

Buy Settlers of Catan for yourself or any body like you if you want to immerse yourself in a game experience. But prepare to make room for it in your schedule every so often, because if you don’t, you’ll miss it.

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Carcassonne

carcassonne box

I once asked the President of Rio Grande games what his favorite game was, in terms of game play, and he said it was Carcassonne (Rio Grande Games, 2000). That was when the game was brand new, and I hadn’t gotten a chance to play it yet (I had heard good things about it, though). When I finally gave it a try, I understood why he liked it so much.

Carcassonne was the second big hit – after Settlers of Catan – to come to America from the prolific European board game market (referred to as “eurogames”), and it pretty much solidified the genre and ushered in a new era of board gaming in North America.

So what’s so special about Carcassonne? It appeals to young and old, male and female, and has become a household favorite practically everywhere. The rules are easy to understand, the game is attractive and durable, most players are in the game right up until the end, and there is a satisfying blend of strategy and luck. Players take turns laying tiles onto an increasingly complex, ever-expanding playing field, and then have the option of placing their game pieces, little wooden men known as “Meeples,” on the tile they just placed. Points are awarded throughout the game, including a large portion at the end of the game when the final tile has been placed (see pic below).

carcassonne board

meeple

Points are awarded based on the size of the real estate parcel controlled by a player’s meeples.  The various types of real estate that can be claimed are cities, roads, fields, and cloisters (certain isolated buildings). Once a meeple occupies a portion of real estate, it has been claimed and no other meeples may be placed on any contiguous part of that real estate. However – and this is a critical element of the game – two noncontiguous parcels that have already been claimed might be joined by a certain tile placement. Thus, a player might have successfully claimed a city and added to it, making it worth more and more points, only to eventually see it merge with a far smaller city owned by someone else who then shares the points. The same can happen with roads and fields as well.

Players have a limited number of meeples to use, so they can’t simply lay them out every turn. When cities and roads are completed, the player scores immediately and the meeples return to his or her hand. When a cloister is played, the player must claim it immediately, and it scores points only after it has been surrounded by 8 other tiles, at which point that meeple is returned as well. Meeples placed in fields, called farmers, are different – they remain until the end of the game, and score points according to how many cities are adjacent to (and thus “served” by) that farmer’s field. Since the board is ever expanding, a farmer placed early might get more and more points throughout the game, or else might end up being boxed in by roads and cities and contribute very little.

Carcassonne has quite a few expansions and spin-offs – the Rio Grande Games website lists 22 stand-alone and expansion packs available! The expansions allow extra players and more variations on real estate. For example, Inns and Cathedrals (Rio Grande Games, 2002; $17.50) provides an extra set of men to allow a 6th player, extra land tiles (including inns and Cathedrals, of course, for more means of gaining points), plus six ‘Mega-meeples,” who are larger than regular meeples and count as two instead of one. Mega-meeple come in handy when a player anticipates a conflict over property, and wins the property over a player with just a regular meeple.

carcassonne inns and cathedralscarcassone kids box

I haven’t played all of the expansions or stand alones; the stand-alone games will be reviewed separately, but expansions will be treated along with the appropriate stand-alone. One spin-off that deserves mentioning is new from Rio Grande Games for 2009, The Kids of Carcassonne ($29.95), which is getting excellent reviews and is a less complex variation on the adult version, but still as nice and engaging.

I heartily recommend this to any person even remotely fond of games. If Monopoly, or Risk, or Pictionary, or Taboo, or Trivial Pursuit, or any of the other game night games were part of a family’s past and they have not yet discovered eurogames, Carcassonne is precisely what they need.

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