Category Archives: Top 10 Board 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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Transamerica

transamerica box

For a while I was active on a real time board-gamer’s web site called Bretspielwelt (a great site, which I will discuss in a different post), and my favorite game to play there was Transamerica (Winning Moves, 2002). Transamerica is quick, it’s fun, and every round is loaded with anticipation.

The board is a map of the United states, separated into 5 geographically distinct zones and superimposed with a grid connecting major cities. Each round, each player draws a city card from each zone; a resulting hand might be Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Phoenix, and Seattle. The round consists of players placing short “rail” sections along the grids on the board in order to be the first to connect all five cities, but any rail that is placed may be used by the other players, so a player is constantly confronted with the decision of building a line that they will need versus waiting for another player to do it for them. By the end of each round, it is common for every player to be but one or two lines away from completion – at which point the winner of the round should run and hide until it’s safe.

transamerica layout

At the end of the round, each losing player counts up the minimum number of rails it would take to accomplish their goal, and that is the amount their score is deducted. As soon as a player reaches zero or fewer points, the game is over and the highest score wins.

This is a simple game with some surprising complexity. There is a definite tendency to blame the cards when one draws cities that are very distant from one another (try Boston, Seattle, San Diego, Houston, and Duluth), but in the end the winner is the one who can simply use the most tracks laid by other players. There is an advanced rule that allows you to lay three pieces of your own color rail down, which prevents others from using that section of track and build around it.

transamerica initial plays

I recommend this game for players 8 and up. It’s fine for two players, but the more the merrier!

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History of the World

History-World box, new

History of the World (Avalon Hill, 1991; aka A Brief History of the World, Ragnar Brothers, 2009) is my favorite strategy game. I love maps, I love history, and this game is a way to indulge both. But the game itself allows all players to be equally involved all the way through, and the game is rarely decided before the 7th epoch ends. It is my strategy game equivalent of a perfect Thanksgiving meal – it leaves me full and satisfied.

Important note: This game has been replaced on the market with a newer, “chopped down” version with 6 epochs, fewer lands, and different combat mechanics, and exceptionally reduced play time. The new version is A Brief History of the World. I haven’t played it yet, so I stand by my review of the older version, but early reviews on the new game are encouraging.

The game is played over the course of 7 epochs of world history; in each epoch, the player acts as one of 7 major world empires (ie.e, the Romans, the Persians, the Chang Dynasty, they Mayans, etc). During their turn they use whatever empire they have to expand or strengthen territory, or build monuments. the longer their territories and monuments (identified by color as belonging to that player) continue into the future, the more victory points are earned.

History-World board

Empires are of varying sizes, but each epoch a bidding process based on one’s position in the game allows a fair allocation of empires so that the same player will not end up with the best empires turn after turn. Event cards confer bonuses to players throughout the game, and allow them to incur natural disasters; these cards also help level the playing field.

This game is perfect for strategy game lovers, fans of euro-games, and anyone who likes Risk but might want more. It takes a few hours, so it’s a great rainy-day game for people who already enjoy each others company.