Category Archives: Top 10 Tabletop Games

Forbidden Island

Forbidden Island (Gamewright, 2010) just won the widely respected Mensa Select Seal, and I’m happy to say that it received my number one vote there (Mensa Select Seals are awarded annually at Mensa Mind Games, which was held in San Diego last weekend; go to my other blog at for a description of the top five winners).

Forbidden Island is a cooperative game, so instead of players trying to outdo each other, they are working together to “beat the game.”  Players compose a team of adventurers, racing against time to retrieve four treasures from a sinking island, and then escape before the water rises. If they escape with all four treasures, they have won.

Each player takes on a different role (Pilot, Engineer, Navigator, Messenger, Diver, or Adventurer), each having a special – but not outrageously powerful – ability, which aids in the three main tasks – getting around the island, “shoring up” the island (undoing the effects of rising water), and moving or claiming treasure. The island itself consists of tiles laid out randomly  in a cross-shaped grid. Some tiles are labeled as places to claim treasure, and some are labeled with pawns, and serve as starting places for that player (pawn colors correspond to the identity and special ability of that player). There are six roles to choose from, but a maximum of four players results in the absence of at least two specialists.

Players alternate turns, performing three actions per turn, from this list: Move to an adjacent tile, Shore up a tile that has been flooded (i.e., unflood it), Give a treasure card to another player, or Claim a treasure. After the actions are taken, players draw two treasure cards – one of which might actually be one of three “Waters Rise” cards in the deck, but many of which represent one of the four treasures to be claimed. It takes four treasure cards to physically claim a treasure. When a “Waters Rise” card is chosen from the treasure deck, “Flood Cards” are drawn from a different deck. Each Flood Card represents one tile, thus revealing which tiles will be flooded. Those tiles are physically inverted, or, if they had already been inverted, they are removed from the game, along with their flood card. Yikes! As the game progresses, water levels only get higher…so more cards are drawn…thus more tiles flood when the Waters Rise cards are drawn. To make matters worse, when the Waters Rise cards is drawn, all the flood cards previously drawn are reshuffled and placed on top of the draw pile, so they are the first to be drawn again.

Forbidden Island is exciting to play. Your fate is bound to the fate of your colleagues, so each player has a stake in what the other players do. The bulk of the time is spent deciding, as a group, how to spend each of the three activities a player gets. In my first game we were literally one card away from being overtaken by the flood waters, and it was surprisingly simple to imagine ourselves on the rapidly disappearing island, trying to make it safely to the helicopter pad (“Fools’ Landing”).

For me, one very reliable sign of a good game is how easily immersed you are into its world, and Forbidden Island did that within two turns, and maintained it. It’s recommended for ages 10 and up, which is probably fair because one must really consider possible future problems and contingencies to win, but an 8 year old could enjoy the game with a little help. If you want to try something new for just a few people, give this game a shot!

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There is a long list of word-tile games, the most well-known being Scrabble, and it seems like every year another one or two or seven come out. Bananagrams (Bananagrams, 2006), in terms of how it’s played, is not really unique – you use the tiles to spell words and try to be the first player to run out of tiles once the main draw pile is exhausted. But, in addition to the game play, they did this word game right in every way.

Most people, gamers or not, have noticed the packaging by now from browsing through a Barnes and Noble, Borders, or Target; the packaging, a heavy cloth banana-shaped bag,  is cute. No, not cute, clever. Wait, clever doesn’t really sum it up – the packaging is brilliant in its simplicity and the banana-anagram pun is genius. It’s a gimmick, but it works. The fact that the game inside that gimmicky packaging works well really just secures its position as an excellent game. The tiles are heavy and feel good in your hand, and the entire package itself costs $14.95. You get a time-tested and easy to understand game, made with quality material that feels good in your hands, in a conversation-piece of a package that appeals to all ages, and you can travel with it.

All the word tile games that are out there involve drawing and discarding tiles and spelling words, usually in a crossword-type fashion, and so does Bananagrams. Each player starts with a certain number of tiles, and begins making words in front of them; all players play on their own word grid simultaneously. Players may (actually, must) rearrange their words as they go in an attempt to fit in all of the tiles they have drawn. Once they have used up all of their tiles, they draw another (and forcing other players to also draw another). If they can’t use a tile, they may cash it in in exchange for two more. The game continues until the draw pile is exhausted and one player has used all of his or her own tiles to make legal words.

The rules are simple enough for youngsters (my 5-year old can play), but the universal appeal of crosswords makes the game truly suitable for any age. It even comes with rules for a solitaire game. I recommend Bananagrams for just about any household – and not just word lovers! This is a great game – as mentioned earlier – for traveling, and just like a pack of playing cards different rules can be introduced to make it easier or more difficult. At $14.95 it’s hard to imagine a better value.

Note: Double-Bananagrams is now available, as well as a companion game – appletters.

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Wits & Wagers

So…you have about 20 people over and it’s kind of boring, no one’s really talking about anything interesting and people aren’t too familiar with one another. What do you do? You break out Wits & Wagers (North Star Games, 2005), that’s what!

Billed (accurately) as “The trivia game for people who don’t know stuff,” Wits & Wagers is a trivia game in the sense that you have to answer questions – but rewards don’t come from knowing the answers, they come from placing bets on the players who do know the right answers.

Now in its second edition, the game includes a 28-inch-long felt betting mat, poker chips, trivia cards, player betting markers (2 each in 7 different colors),7 dry-erase pens and mini-boards, and a sand timer. Up to 21 people can play, forming as many as seven teams (individuals may play alone as well).

The goal of the game is to finish with the most points after seven rounds. On each round, a “question reader” reads the appropriate question on the card – the first question for the first round, and so on – and each player or team comes up with their best guess at the answer. The questions always have a numerical answer, typically one that very few people will know outright (see below). Teams have 30 seconds to record their answers, after which the answers are revealed and placed in order of magnitude (lowest to highest) on the large betting mat.

Players then have 30 seconds to place up to two bets on any of the answers, hoping to win one of 4 payoffs (2:1, 3:1, 4:1, or 5:1). Players may also bid on an eighth space, for a 6:1 payoff, labelled: “The correct answer is smaller than all given answers.” Players then identify their bids by placing their colored betting markers on their bets, and then the answer is revealed. The answer that comes closest to correct without going over is considered correct, and all players who bet on this answer receive the corresponding payoff. The player whose answer was chosen also gets 10 bonus points. If all answers went over, there is no bonus given, and only players who bet all answers were too high wins a payoff.

When I first played Wits & Wagers, we had a group of over 20 people (at a board-gaming event), and more were attracted by the laughing and fun. Since then it has not failed to please.

I recommend Wits & Wagers for any family or group that is likely to get larger than, say, 8 people. The more the merrier with this game, but it is still plenty of fun for 6 or more. It is intellectually stimulating, but, as advertised, one need not know anything about trivia to enjoy or even win the game. It is sufficient to know the right people to bet on from turn to turn.

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Facts in Five

The game “Scattergories” hit the shelves in 1988, and quickly became one of the most popular family and party games in America. I liked it, but having already been a fan of Facts in Five (3M, 1967; Avalon Hill, 1976; University Games, 2008), I knew there was a superior version of the same game. In fact, Facts in Five is on my top ten list for all time. I owned the Avalon Hill product, but it was first published by 3M in 1967 (example above), and is now available through University Games (see below).

The concept is simple enough. Draw five letter tiles and record those letters in the left-hand column of the answer sheet; draw 5 categories and record them along the top row of the answer sheet. Turn the 5-minute sand timer over and fill in as many examples within each category, starting with each of the drawn letters, as you can. Scattergories is laid out differently – especially since you are focusing on examples from many categories for just a single letter – but it is still basically the same concept. In fact, they both derive from a classic parlor game that as far as I can tell was never boxed. But why, then do I consider Facts in Five to be better than Scattergories? Because of the categories.

Categories in the Scattergories game are everyday things that just about anyone should know, such as “Things in the refrigerator” or “Boy’s names.” Facts in Five, on the other hand, has far more detailed categories, with many options for narrowing a category. In the example below, a player must choose a category and can choose as broadly as “Military Figures” or as narrowly as “Military Figures during World War II.” This feature allows the players to specify the level of knowledge required for their own game, and stimulates thinking about and memory of actual knowledge. Facts in Five is far more intellectually challenging, and therefore more intellectually stimulating and rewarding.

The newest University Games version of the game has been changed to make the categories more accessible, but still are far more interesting than the more mundane categories of Scattergories (see below). The general knowledge required to play is on par with other intellectual pastimes such as Crossword Puzzles, or Trivia.

Another important and very interesting aspect of Facts in Five is the scoring system. Correct answers are indicated on the answer sheet, and final tallies are made in the scoring table on the right – except they are collapsed upwards. That is, if in the first category a player correctly listed three things, then the player would get three tallies in the corresponding column of the scoring table, and regardless of which of the five in the first column were correct, the three tallies are placed in the top three sections of the first column of the scoring table, and then so on for each column. When each column is totaled, that number is squared and placed in the box. The same is done across each row – correct answers are tallied, but regardless of where the answers existed on the regular grid, since they collapse upward the first rows will get higher scores. Once all squared numbers are entered, they are summed up for a final score for that round.

This kind of scoring yields slight differences between itself and simple counting of answers. For example, high numbers in the columns indicate a strong specific knowledge of a given category. High numbers in the rows indicate general knowledge. Overall, however, the effect of general versus specific knowledge are made moot once the answers are added back together for a final score for that round.

Scores, once they are obtained, are moved to another scoresheet (below). It also has a space for specific and general scores, but they are not crucial to the game. After five rounds of play, final scores are tallied and listed here.

It may have been the time in my life where I was just discovering how much I loved trivia, coupled with my great memories of my two brothers and I naming things from different categories as we went through the alphabet. Whatever it was, however, I have loved this game ever since I was little.

I therefore recommend Facts in Five to any person or group who you know to be more intellectually driven – again, someone who would feel comfortable working the crossword puzzle. I find it an exhilarating exercise for the brain, and I think that most who play would feel the same about it.

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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 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


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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