Tag Archives: Spiel des Jahres Award

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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Bohnanza

What the heck kind of name is Bohnanza (Rio Grande Games, 1997)?? “Bohne” is german for “bean,” Bohnanza is a pun for “bean bonanza.” Glad we got that out of the way – on to the important stuff.

bohnanza box

This is perhaps one of the most interesting, and well-disguised, rummy games I have ever come across. At its most basic, players are simply trying to create the largest sets of cards they can, in order to then cash them in for coins. Whoever ends the game with the most coins wins the game…BUT… it isn’t that straightforward. The creators of Bohnanza deserve a lot of credit for keeping with the “bean” theme while allowing for a very unique and interactive game.

There are 11 types of bean cards – as opposed to the four suits in an ordinary deck of playing cards – and each bean type has a different number of cards (each card is labeled with the total number of its type): for example, there are 6 “Garden Beans” and 24 “Coffee Beans,” and each Garden Bean card is labeled with a 6, and each Coffee Bean card is labeled with a 24. Each card also has an amusing depiction of that type of bean, and at the bottom there is a range of coin values.

As players earn cards, they “plant” them (i.e., they play the cards in front of them), but they are initially limited to planting two fields only – so they may play only two types of bean in front of them. At some point a player must “harvest” a crop of beans they have planted. The number of cards in the harvest then earns them the number of coins listed on that card; 4 coffee beans earns a player one coin, while 10 of them earn three coins, and so on.

Interestingly from a design perspective, the game does not come with separate coins for scorekeeping; rather, coins are depicted on the card backs of each bean. This is important to the game play because as bean cards are harvested, most of them go to a discard pile that is recycled for continued play. However, the first few cards of that stack are turned over and become coins, owned by the harvesting player, and are thereby eliminated from the game.

bohnanza layout

Once players have started earning coins, they have the option of purchasing a third bean field for three coins – allowing them to plant, then harvest, a third type of bean. A third field comes in handy because the rules force players to make some tough decisions when it is their turn…

Players start with five cards. The cards MUST remain in the order in which they were received. Wow, that’s different; it also affects everything else about the game. Players can see their hands, and hold them so that others cannot, but they may not rearrange the hand. On a player’s turn, he or she MUST plant the top card, and may also plant the second. Then they draw two more cards and turn them face up; they have the option of donating, or trading these cards, or they can keep them for planting. Finally, the player must draw three cards, adding them one at a time to the back of their hands.

The trick here is to plant bean fields that might earn the most coins, and that determination is made by seeing what else is in one’s hand, and also what other players have planted and have negotiated for. Often a player is forced to harvest one field in order to plant another, even though the harvest yields little or nothing. Thus, during the draw phase, it is important for a player to initiate shrewd trades and gain the beans they have already planted. One must also be active in trading during other player turns, for the same reason.

There are a lot of nuances in a game like Bohnanza that I won’t go into here, but there are a great many fans of the game all over the world. In fact, there are at least 17 editions of Bohnanza, some incorporating new rules, and some with new cards or new themes. The Fan-Edition uses art work from players everywhere (see pic above).

It’s not hard to recommend Bohnanza to any gaming family, or any group of people who like games in general and card games in particular. It comes in a reasonably small box, and is as easy to travel with as any large deck of cards. It encourages interaction, risk-taking, probability, and planning, and would be great for any players aged 10 and up. It’s officially recommended for 12 and up, but I think a bright youngster can figure it out.

Now, go play!

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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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Scotland Yard

It takes nerves of steel to win as “Mr. X” at Scotland Yard (Ravensburger, 1983); if you take it seriously enough, you could die from over-anxiety.

One person plays “Mr. X” – a fugitive from the law. The other players (2, 3, 4, or 5 of them) play the part of five detectives trying to track him down. Mr. X must move throughout the map of London over the course of 24 turns. If Mr. X makes it to the final turn without being discovered by the detectives, he wins and they lose. But if one of the detectives manages to land on the same space as Mr. X, the game is over and Mr. X has lost.

A key element in Scotland Yard is the choice between modes of transportation. Detectives and Mr. X are allowed to use a taxi to move from a yellow hub to another yellow hub along a yellow line (for example, space 125-131 in pic below), a bus to move from a green hub to another green hub along a green line (154-156), or the underground to move from a red hub to another red hub along a red line (153-140). A player may not use a mode of transportation if they are simply on a line – they must be at the appropriate hub. A player on space 167, below, is on a bus line and an underground line, but not on a hub. Their only choice is to take a taxi.

Both Mr. X and the detectives, taking turns, move around on the map of London. But the moves of Mr. X are hidden, so detectives only get to see the mode of transportation taken by Mr. X. On the third turn and then at the end of every 5 turns, the location of Mr. X is revealed and the detectives can adjust their strategy accordingly. The player taking on the role of Mr. X records board locations (each with a unique number) on a special “Mr. X Movement Log” (see pic below). This log allows the detectives to see what mode of transportation was taken by Mr. X, and the spaces 3, 8, 13, 18, and 23 are marked to remind Mr. X to reveal his location after moving there.

To add a further wrinkle – and a much greater challenge – detectives have only 24 transportation “tickets” to start the game, and once used they can’t be replaced. There are only four underground tickets, Eight bus tickets, and twelve taxi tickets. This becomes important, especially late in the game, because if Mr. X manages to make it across the map and a detective is low on underground tickets, he or she would be a lot slower making it to the appropriate neighborhood.

Finally, Mr. X begins the game with only a few bus and underground tickets, but gains every ticket used by the detectives – making his options basically limitless. In addition, Mr. X has three extra tricks at his disposal. He has four black tickets, which serve as wild cards and are essentially modes of transportation unknown by the detectives. The black tickets also allow passage on the Thames River barge (for example, from space 157 on the first map, above). The third trick is his ability, twice during the game, to use the 2x ticket, which allows two consecutive moves.

This is a great collaborative game, for the detectives, and a very stressful game for Mr. X! More than a few times during most games, Mr. X will find himself right next to a detective. One lucky move (intentional or otherwise) and the game is over. From the collective perspective of the detective (couldn’t resist the rhyme, sorry!), there is a premium on deductive logic. In the beginning no one has any idea where Mr. X could be, so detectives have to fan out and be ready to be anywhere after the third turn, when Mr. X is revealed. After that, there is some idea where Mr. X is, as long as the detectives are effective at limiting X’s moves by protecting underground and bus hubs and preventing a long range move on the part of X. Even so, Mr. X has a wide array of possibilities, including a wild goose chase by taxi around some of the more complicated neighborhoods.

Scotland Yard is a tried-and-true game for people who like intellectual stimulation and a little drama. Veterans should be Mr. X! It’s a great game for bright children (10 and up), teens, and adults – and I have listed it as one of my top 10 family games.

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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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