Tag Archives: Deutscher Spiele Prize

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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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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Citadels

citadels box

Citadels (Fantasy Flight, 2007), like many other card games in the fantasy genre, takes some replay in order to understand strategy – but the investment is well worth it.

The game is played in rounds; during each round, each player takes on the role of one of nine characters (first picture, below). Different characters have very different roles, benefits, and effects. For example the Assassin simply prevents a character (not a player, but a character) of his or her choice from doing anything that round (since they have been assassinated); the player with the Bishop gets gold from “religious” districts they control and prevents the Warlord from destroying any; the Architect gets to draw two extra cards and build extra districts.

citadels character cards
There is a set of 9 "basic" characters, and another set of 9 "advanced"

Players use these characters throughout the game to amass a set of district cards (second picture below), which is their “citadel”; the player with the most valuable citadel, as determined by the total number of gold coins on all cards, is the winner at the end of the game. During each round, players will claim gold, draw more district cards into their hands, play out their character’s ability, and pay gold to build districts.

citadels building cards
4 of the 5 types of "districts," each with its own color dot

There are a few more, very important aspects that really make the game interesting:

A player has some control over the character they choose; whoever was King last turn chooses their new character first, and the remainder are chosen as the cards go around the table. Thus, each person has some idea of what their neighbors might have chosen, based on what they saw in the deck.

Each character card is numbered, and the number is the order of play each round. The Assassin goes first, so whichever character they choose to assassinate will not have a chance to play that round; The order of play has a definite impact on whether one might choose to take gold or cards (a mutually exclusive option), or to build, and, indeed, what to build.

citadels character card closeups
Whoever plays the Thief in a round will have the 2nd turn; the Warlord 8th

Certain districts actually confer a bonus to the player who has built them. The Library, for instance, allows a player to keep two cards instead of just one when they draw.

citadels building card closeups
The purple-dotted "domains" confer special advantages to their owners

There are enough rules and intricacies to make this game confusing at first, but the overall game is pretty straightforward, which becomes obvious after the first play. After about 3 plays, most people should be able to identify reasonable strategies and really enjoy the game.

citadels layout
A 6-player game, in progress

I recommend this game for any serious gamer – it is relatively affordable (or you can receive it as a gift, as I did!), it’s small enough to carry unobtrusively in a backpack or travel bag, and there is a large variety of pathways one can take to achieve victory. It is not for a typical first-time gamer, or even anyone who might simply have an interest in the theme, and I wouldn’t recommend trying to convince light-gamers to give it a chance. It isn’t fun to reluctantly try a new game that one can’t master a few rounds into it.

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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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