Yesterday, I began talking about board games. Although I had friends who were avid players of “Settlers of Catan” prior to meeting the future Dear Wife, and although I had the desire to give the game a try, I never actually played until Dear Wife-to-be came along. Dear Wife was then and is now a very skilled player of Settlers. I’ve kept stats in the past; she beats me at it roughly 3 times out of 4. (This roughly corresponds to her win-rate at other, non-Settlers games as well, considered collectively. There are some we have which I quite literally never win, and some where I actually have the advantage, but as a rule she wins most of our games. I am slowly coming to peace with this.)
Settlers, for the uninitiated, is a game where you attempt to exploit the natural resources of a small island in order to build towns and cities. You gain points for each town or city built. The rules are fairly complex, but once you get the hang of it, the handy reference card that comes with the game is all you’ll need to stay refreshed on what it costs to build this or that. The game board is a series of hexagonal tiles laid out at random in the shape of an island. Each tile represents a different kind of terrain, which generates a different resource. Chips placed on each tile indicate which die roll, on a roll of two six-sided dice, will cause that tile to produce a resource. Statistically, numbers closer to seven will come up on a “2d6” roll more frequently, so tiles with these numbers are considered more valuable (but the actual value of seven is reserved for a different effect, so that when a player rolls 7, no tiles produce a resource). Each turn, the active player rolls 2d6, and every player that has a city or town adjacent to a terrain tile that produces a resource on that turn collects some of the resource produced. Cities and towns are placed at the vertices of the the hexagonal tiles, so each city or town borders on three different terrain tiles. After collecting resources, the active player can build cities, town, roads, and other things, or trade resources with other players or the bank.
Because the game board is laid out randomly with each game (the number of tiles doesn’t change, but their placement in relation to each other, and which tiles are associated with which die rolls does), the strategic complexity varies with each play. The strategy that is most effective in one game may not generate the same results in the next game, because of the dramatic differences brought about by the board layout. This gives Settlers a lot of replayability. As the gateway drug for strategic board games, Settlers also introduced many of us to the idea of “expansions” for board games. In the image above, for instance, the game is set up with the “Cities & Knights” expansion, which adds Viking raiders, knights for defense, and a secondary group of resources called “Commodities”. There are several other types of expansions, including expansions for number of players (increasing the base game designed for 3 to 4 players to a larger board that can have 5 or 6 players), and multiple other variant rule-changes.
For Dear Wife, Settlers was only the first of several new games she learned in the years before we met, and she owned copies of several of these games, games like Carcasonne, Ticket to Ride, Fluxx and Guillotine. (Of those, besides Settlers, Ticket to Ride has been our next favorite.) Since meeting, however, we’ve added to our game collection, and now I’m pretty proud of the number of games we own! One of the first additions to our game collection was a simple card game called “Take the Train” and the high-speed Scrabble-like game “Bananagrams“, and “Bohnanza“. All are fun enough, but the really cool additions have been “Qwirkle“, “Colosseum“, “Shadows Over Camelot“, and our most recent addition, “Smallworld“.
In “Ticket to Ride” players are attempting to build a railway network connecting the cities on a map. Each player has a list of routes they are attempting to complete, and must collect different-colored train cards that correspond to the colored routes on the game board. “Bananagrams” is basically Scrabble without turns or points: the winner is the first person to build a crossword and go out once all the tiles have been drawn. “Bohnanza” is a fun card game where you are trying to make money by harvesting “beans” (Bohn is apparently German for “Bean”). Each of the cards is a whimsical type of bean (“Soy Beans” are dressed like yuppies, “Chili Beans” are fiery southwestern types, “Green Beans” look sick to their stomachs). You try to collect matching beans, because the more of the same type of bean you plant in your field, the more you make when you harvest. The trick: you have to plant in the same order that you draw the cards, you only have couple of fields, and you can only plant one type of bean in a field at a time. “Qwirkle” is a tile game that’s a bit like Scrabble, but with shapes and colors. You score as you make rows and columns of tiles where the colors and shapes each either all match or are all different.
“Colosseum” is another game that, like Settlers, is pretty complex. There are a lot of different little bits and pieces to the game, and there’s a lot going on. But at it’s core, it’s pretty simple. You’re putting on exhibitional and gladiatorial shows at the Colosseum. You need certain resources to put on these shows – like actors, gladiators, lions, chariots, and set-pieces – which the players bid on. Then you try to put on a show using the resources you have: bigger more extravagant shows draw bigger crowds and earn more money, which you can use to buy more resources and other things to help draw bigger crowds, attract the attention of the Emperor, Consuls, or Senators and put on bigger shows. After a set number of turns, the player who’s put on the single greatest spectacle wins.
“Shadows over Camelot” has become another favorite. Of the list here, it’s the only one that’s a non-competitive game. In other words, it’s cooperative. In this game, the players are each one of the mythical Knights of the Round Table, each is endowed with a special power, and all are trying to stave off the dark forces intent on destroying Camelot. In the game, there are several “Quests” to which the Knights can lend their effort, such as the “Quest for the Grail” or the “Quest for Excalibur” or staving off one of the various barbarian bands laying seige to Camelot. Each quest has a risk of failure, because at the start of each turn, players have to draw and play a card that causes an evil effect before the player can do anything to try to advance one of the quests by playing good cards. And even though the players are cooperating, they can’t share information about what they have in their hand. The game can become really intense (especially if you use the advanced rule that allows for one player to be a “traitor” secretly working for the enemies of Camelot) as the forces of evil progress closer and closer to victory, and the final fate of Camelot comes to hinge on the outcome of a single action.
Last, but not least, we recently had a chance to play (and add to our collection) the game “Smallworld”. Smallworld is an irreverent strategy game of world domination fought between stereotyped fantasy races, like Elves, Dwarves, Wizards, and Zombies. In this game, players represent one of any number of archetypal fantasy races and attempts to control the map of the small world in which the game takes place. Eventually, the player’s race will become overextended and will go into decline, and the player will abandon that race to champion a new race. Players accumulate points by holding more territory and earning gold from their possessions. After a pre-determined number of turns, the game ends, and the player having earned the most gold wins. Again, it’s a game with a lot of moving parts (there are around a dozen fantasy races, and even more combinations of special powers, and several more bits and pieces), but the game play is fundamentally simple and yet ingeniously complex in execution. One neat feature of this game is that a player may have to change strides in mid-game and adjust his strategy when he abandons his old race to start over with a new one. Each race and power combination will play a little differently.
When possible, Dear Wife and I don’t like to let too many weeks go by without playing a game or two. We don’t get cable TV, and we don’t go out to the movies much, so this is one of the most important forms of entertainment in our home. While the purchase of a single board game may cost us more than a night at the movies, we know it’s an investment in hours of fun that we’ll return to time and again.
And it doesn’t stop there. Both of us have a bit of a creative side (I suppose that goes without saying, in my case, since I fancy myself a writer), and some time ago we started batting around ideas for a board game of our own design. That’s a hobby that’s been on the back burner since my school ramped up in intensity, but it’s one we’re sure to return to in the future. If and when we do, you can be sure I’ll blog about it, here!