For New Year’s Eve, Adele’s family got together for dinner and fun. Attending were 13 adults and 8 kids ranging from 3 months to 11 years old. Most everybody enjoys gaming, but their experience with “designer games” is limited. I’ve tried a few times in the past to interest them in selections from my collection but with limited success. For whatever reason, the stars aligned this time and there was a common desire to see what I had in that big box I am rarely without at a family gathering.
I love introducing designer games to new audiences. There is almost always this sense of surprise at the sheer volume and variety of games available. Many people simply aren’t aware of games outside of what you find in WalMart or Toys-R-Us (usually limited to kids games, classics like backgammon, a quadrillion rebranded Monopoly games, and various party games). In North America, anyway, you often have to find a specialty shop to get the full selection. (In Calgary the place to be is Sentry Box.) I think board gaming is one of the greatest hobbies because it can be shared. If you enjoy gaming but haven’t had much exposure to designer games, do a little googling and find a specialty store in your area. You won’t regret it.
Over the past few years, most of my gaming time has been spent with kids about 15 years old and younger. I love spending time with the kids and getting them hooked early on good games, but obviously game selection is limited when playing with 8- and 10-year-olds. So grown-up game time has been rare and precious. Imagine my excitement when I realized there would be so many adults around! The oldest niece (11 years old) joined in and did quite well, but the other kids entertained themselves downstairs for most of the time.
As you can imagine, large family gatherings can be chaotic, and while gaming is fun, visiting with each other is even more important, so the group makeup changed over the night. We started with 7 players (with at least 2 more willing players sitting out) and spent most of the night with groups between 4 and 6 players. For designer games, the “sweet spot” is 2 to 4. There’s still a large selection for 5 players, but finding good games for groups bigger than that can be challenging. You need games that can keep a wide variety of people engaged, that move at a good pace, and ideally that give everybody a relatively equal chance of winning. You also need to take into account group dynamics. Some groups are very averse to games with strong competitive elements while others thrive on it. Some groups are more interested in socializing, and others are more interested in the intellectual challenge.
What I’ve learned from past gaming marathons is that you must have variety. You need to have the “gateway” games (by gateway I mean simpler, more transparent games that introduce new gamers to the hobby and lead them on to more complex games) to start with that warm people up and engage the largest number of people. Then, as the numbers dwindle to that core of really motivated gamers, you can pull out some more challenging games. But then as time wears on and people start to get tired, you need to have some finisher games that are still lots of fun but don’t require the highest levels of concentration or attention. While my collection is not huge, I make a conscious effort to diversify for just such occasions. Designer games are more expensive than games like Monopoly and Risk, so most people can’t just go out and buy everything. When building a collection, make heavy use of sites like BoardGameGeek (BGG) and take into account the number and personalities of the people you will likely play with the most often. Gaming is one of my favourite topics of conversation, so never hesitate to contact me directly if you have questions or need suggestions.
We ended up playing for about 10 hours straight on New Year’s Eve, until 6am. We got a few more hours in on the afternoon of New Year’s Day. I didn’t keep a detailed record of every aspect of every game, but I will do my best to at least discuss every game we played. I’m going to just put the games in alphabetical order instead of trying to reconstruct the timeline.
[BGG link] This is a much later addition to my collection, but I am very glad I bought it. We must have played it a half-dozen times over the two days. The game is not complex, but it does take a few play-throughs to get a handle on the iconography and strategy. I love how gracefully it scales. You only ever have access to (and therefore have to worry about) the players to your immediate left and right. You always have a limited number of choices each turn (fewer and fewer as the round progresses), so analysis paralysis isn’t too bad. Once everybody knows the iconography, you can get through a game pretty quickly. It’s not a purely tactical game, though. Players that understand how the scoring works can develop a number of winning strategies. Of course randomness plays a role, and your strategy is actually something you have to develop in that first round based on the cards you’re given, but a wide variety of strategies are indeed available, and a shrewd player will beat less-attentive ones almost every time.
I’m not sure the game works well with younger kids, though. I think that the particular interplay between tactics and strategy found in this game is beyond most kids younger than teenagers, even though the game box suggests 10 years old is a good time to start. Certainly 10- to 12-year-olds can participate, but usually they just end up randomly picking a card each turn. There are just so many options and paths you can take, and you have to be flexible enough to roll with whatever cards you’re given. You also need to be able to keep in your mind a fairly lengthy scoring system, consisting of at least 8 individual components. When playing with younger kids, I prefer games they can grasp as fully as possible. You want to challenge them, but if you overwhelm them, they can just shut down and resort to random choice.
This is a great intermediate game. It’s more intense than what I consider gateway games, but it’s more manageable than more opaque games like Agricola or Tigris and Euphrates. It gives teenagers a good workout and is very engaging even for more intense players. An experienced group can get through a whole game in under 30 minutes. My only complaint is that the cards are an odd size and difficult to sleeve. I worry about long-term wear. This is a great addition to any family game collection.
[BGG link] I’ve talked about this game before. I just cannot reiterate enough how essential this game is to any collection. It’s the one game that has never (and I mean never) failed me. When you first describe the game, people are sometimes nervous, but without fail even the skeptics want to play it again. I think this particular game session is the first time I haven’t played at least two consecutive rounds. Bohnanza is best for 3 to 5 players, but it does work with 7 (which is how many we had). This is my go-to game for either starting off a marathon or for introducing new gamers to designer gaming. It was an easy choice for first game of the night.
The core rules are dead simple. Even younger kids can just jump in and start. It’s the negotiation phase that makes this game what it is. There is no downtime at all. No matter whose turn it is, you will either be interested in a trade or enjoy watching (and perhaps interfering with) other people’s haggling.
The game can be as competitive or cooperative as you like. It all depends on the group. In a more cooperative setting, people advise others and are more liberal in their trades. A more competitive group will focus more on disrupting other people’s good trades and will be very aware of how much gold each player has and who owes whom a favour.
It’s the game’s incredible flexibility that makes this a must-own for any family.
[BGG link] This is another older game (like Bohnanza) but one that is still very much in print. The box you buy today also includes the “Dark City” expansion. This was the first time I was able to play with a full group. Up until now, I’ve only ever played it with 2 to 4 players. (Yes, it’s an excellent 2-player game.) It ended up being loads of fun. It’s more competitive and less interactive than Bohnanza, but it is still social and engaging. I consider this a gateway game, but it’s not an ideal game for all groups. If members of your play group can’t take a few pokes in the eye, maybe leave this one on the shelf.
The game is quite simple—collect gold in order to build various types of districts (merchant, noble, religious, military, and other) in your imaginary citadel. Once someone builds 8 districts, the game ends and is scored. Here’s where it gets interesting, though. There are 8 (up to 9 with the expansion) different character cards that each have a special power: the assassin can eliminate a character, the merchant gets extra gold, the warlord can destroy opposing districts, the architect can build more than one district on their turn, and so forth. Depending on the number of players, a certain number of role cards are taken out of the round—some face down and some face up. Then, starting with the king, each player in turn secretly selects the character they want to be for that round. Once everyone has selected, the characters are played in a fixed order. Powers are exercised, gold is earned, and districts are built. Then the character cards are shuffled and the process starts again. It’s a game of bluffing and second-guessing. The king gets his or her pick of the character cards, and knows for sure what cards were initially discarded, but the last player to select (who will always receive the two last character cards) will know for sure which one they discarded and is unavailable that round. And if you’re playing with a full complement of players, then no cards are thrown out at the beginning of the round. So the second player to select has the advantage of knowing exactly what card the king picked. And so it goes.
The success of this game is very dependent on the group dynamic. If people take too long to choose a role, or people get truly upset when they get assassinated, then the game will fall flat. This works best in a lively but cordial atmosphere and when not taken too seriously. This happened to be the second game we played that night since we had so many players. Because it works so well for such a wide number of players (2–8), and despite the potential pitfalls of playing with the wrong group, I recommend adding this to just about any collection.
[BGG link] This was the last game of our New Year’s Eve marathon. Unfortunately it fell sort of flat. I think people were tired and I had never played the game with the full 5 players before. Now that I have, I probably won’t again. Three or four players is ideal.
In this game, eight monsters with various powers are fighting it out. Over the course of the game (five rounds), players place bets on which three monsters they think will survive to the end of the game. Bets placed earlier in the game are worth more points. Players have a hand of cards. Each monster has 11 cards, numbered 0 through 10, and there are a number of special cards. In turn, each player places a card under a monster. Once all monsters have a card, and there is one monster with the single lowest number showing, that monster is eliminated and a new round is started.
This is another filler game, in that it plays relatively quickly. The luck of the draw matters, but tactical opportunities abound. Bluffing is a huge aspect, as is the exploitation of the monsters’ special powers. In the past I’ve had good success with this game, and I still think it’s an excellent choice in its category, but I recognize it’s not for everyone.
[BGG link] I’ve talked about this game before. We didn’t get to this game until New Year’s Day, and we only got through one game with 4 players, including the 11-year-old niece. I still think it’s a great game, but the learning curve was problematic this time ’round. There are just a lot of different card types and the rules are not always straightforward. The niece struggled for sure. It takes a good few minutes just to explain the basic effects of the various cards, and I find it still takes a few rounds for new players to wrap their head around everything. Once everyone is up to speed, though, it plays well.
What you’re doing is fighting for districts on a map of Italy. You want to claim either 3 adjacent territories or 5 territories in total. You play cards from your hand to build a battle line and hope to be the one with the strongest line when the last person passes. Various special cards allow you to feint and parry and psych out your opponents.
I classify this as a lighter game. No matter how well you play, if you’re dealt a bum hand, you’re out of contention. There is still lots of room for intelligent tactical play, though! There are good bluffing opportunities, lots of ways to manipulate timing and interfere with opponents, and good hand management can help salvage a bad hand. With the right group, this is a very enjoyable filler game. I won’t say it’s a must-own, though. If you don’t own Bohnanza yet, go buy it first—like right now.
Ticket to Ride: Europe
[BGG link] The Ticket to Ride series has been hugely popular, and there are many different standalone games and expansion maps available. I only own and have only ever played the Europe game, and I’m told it’s the most solid base game out there. While I don’t love the game personally, it has been a huge hit with just about everybody I’ve played it with. This is a great family game, but I personally don’t think it’s ideal for kids younger than teenagers, even though the box says you can start at age 8. Yes, the gameplay is relatively straightforward, but there are more than a few little rules that I find kids have a hard time keeping in mind. Certainly you could help younger kids, but then you’re not really playing. With kids I prefer games they can play relatively independently. It builds their confidence and gaming chops. Even the 11-year-old niece struggled. Part of the problem is just reading the map and finding the cities you need. Even grown-ups have a hard time with that. The youngest person I’ve successfully played this game with was 14.
Anyway, in the Ticket to Ride games, you have a stylized map of some continent or country dotted with cities and railway lines of various colours. You receive a number of destination tickets (kept secret) that require you to connect two given cities. The further away the cities are, the more points completing the ticket is worth. You then manage a hand of cards depicting trains of different colours. To claim a railway segment, you have to play a number of cards of the corresponding colour equal to the length of the segment. You also get points based on the length of the segment claimed. Once someone runs out of little plastic trains, the game ends and the destination tickets are scored. If you managed to claim a continuous chain of segments between the two cities on your ticket, you earn points. There are also various bonuses, like longest continuous route. The player with the most points wins.
There are lots of opportunities to “stick it” to your opponents, and believe me, when opponents start blocking your progress, blood can boil. While the game looks relatively benign, I find it very competitive. It’s also more strategic than tactical. You have little control over what cards you get during the game (though there are a number of face-up cards you can choose from, which blunts this somewhat). What wins the game is intelligently selecting your destination tickets, not telegraphing your intentions too early, and keeping a sharp eye on your opponents.
Adele’s brother and brother-in-law went ape for this game. We played it at least four times (not in a row, fortunately). My personal preferences aside, at least one Ticket to Ride game belongs in any collection. It’s good for older kids and adults alike.
Games I wish we had played, but couldn’t
[BGG link] This is one of the best cooperative games I have played. The mechanics are sound, the game is hard, and the theme is great. If you’ve never played a cooperative game, you really should. They make great additions to any family collection because you all work together. The common mechanic in cooperative games is that there’s only one or two ways to win but a dozen or so ways to lose. You are always working against the clock.
In Pandemic, you are researchers trying to stop a number of diseases from wiping us all out. Each player receives a character card that gives you a special power. You also collect cards depicting the various cities in different colours, along with some special action cards. Your goal is to get sets of cards of a given colour in the right player’s hands in the right place in order to develop a cure. Cure all the diseases, you win. I also own the expansion, On the Brink, that makes the game playable by 5 players and introduces a number of different variants for experienced players.
We played this with the family once before, so my brother-in-law requested it specifically. Unfortunately, we never got to it. When I pulled it out, the brother-in-law wanted to learn something new. They seemed pretty excited by the sheer number of games in my box. It will get played again.
If you have kids, a very popular cooperative game is Forbidden Island. I personally didn’t like it at all, but with the younger kids, it’s all the rage.
[BGG link] This may not be the greatest game ever created, but it has been one of the most played on my side of the family. My sisters just really don’t like gaming, but this is the one game they will play. Adele’s one sister, who hosted the festivities, is a Boggle master and loves word games. I wish we had been able to get this to the table.
This is basically word rummy. The cards have letters (sometimes a combination of two letters) and a point value. The game plays over multiple rounds. You start with three cards and work your way up to ten. Like rummy, you draw a card and discard a card. This continues until somebody “goes out,” at which point everybody gets one more turn and then the hand is scored. You go out by forming words with all your cards—no leftovers. You add up the point value of each card to determine your score for the round. If after your last turn you are stuck with leftover cards, those points are deducted.
There are two reasons this game rocks, especially for families:
- You are allowed to use a dictionary! I carry around an official Scrabble dictionary, but any one will work. We just declare that words must appear in the dictionary to be valid. When it’s not your turn, you are allowed to refer to the dictionary. This suddenly make the game appeal to kids and to people who normally shy away from word games. The one problem with this is that it can really slow things down. You have to be very strict about the only-allowed-to-refer-to-the-dictionary-when-it’s-not-your-turn rule. It helps to have multiple copies of the dictionary.
- At the end of each round, bonus points are awarded to the player who formed the most words and the player who formed the longest word. Again, this totally levels the playing field and allows kids to compete (and often beat) their parents. Sure, I will get a boat load of points for “quixotic”, but you get just as many points (even more depending on how the bonus plays out) for “to”, “at”, “on”, and “up”.
I think this is a great educational game and belongs in any family collection.
[BGG link] I somehow missed this game when putting together the box! If I had brought it, it definitely would have made it to the table. I really enjoy this game. It, too, is a cooperative game, but has a much lighter theme. You are gnomes in a damaged submarine trying simply to survive until help can arrive. The way the game handles time is ingenious and works so well. As time passes, various problems arise. Maybe a fire starts in the engine room. Maybe the electrical room gets flooded. Maybe the Kraken has found you! It’s just lots of fun! And the kicker is the victory conditions. There are two ways to win: either you all survive to the end and are rescued, or one gnome can gather certain objects, get to an airlock, and escape. That gnome wins, the others die horribly. Nobody I’ve played with has yet dared to abandon ship. I can’t guarantee the physical safety of one who does 🙂
Games I’m going to buy because of this experience
7 Wonders Expansions
There are two official expansions for 7 Wonders: Leaders and Cities. Both receive high marks on BGG. Given how well 7 Wonders went over this session, I’ve put these expansions at the top of my to-buy list.
Cosmic Encounter and Expansions
[BGG link] This is an absolute classic. It was first published in 1977 and has been reprinted and revised a number of times since then. The latest reprint, by Fantasy Flight Games, is widely acclaimed as the greatest version of the game ever. I remember playing it once many, many years ago. Given that it accommodates 2 to 8 players, including teams, and given how successful the social games were with this family group, something tells me that now is the time to add Cosmic Encounter to my collection.