You’ve seen lists of movies that you need to watch before you die and lists of books that you absolutely must read sometime in your life, but now the Opinionated Gamers are here to bring you 138 games to play before you die. The concept started with an innocent question from Jonathan Franklin asking which older games should new gamers seek out. Jonathan came up with a list of a few games to get the ball rolling, and Ted Cheatham quickly concurred that they should play them all. Mark Jackson and Fraser McHarg began debating whether Tigris & Euphrates belonged in the dustbin of history or with pride of place on the mantle. And ultimately Jeffrey Allers recognized that a new OG project was born: 101 Games to Play Before You Die!
Coming up with the list was the tricky part as we all had different ideas about what would belong on just such a list. Some though it should be the most influential games, others favored games that would open your eyes to different facets of the hobby, and still others went for an eclectic set of gaming experiences. This being a democratic sort of place, we put it to a vote. Everyone submitted a list 10 games that they thought belonged on such a list.
All in all, 25 different people submitted games, and thus we’ve collectively developed a list of 138 must try games. There are some obvious games that collected double digit votes and then there are some obscure games with a lone supporter. You’ll see it all unfold over the next couple months as we debut five games per article, in chronological order of the games’ release. What good would a list be without some commentary on the reasoning behind the selections? So along with each game will be an entry from a supportive Opinionated Gamer, and in the spirit of our review style, some games may also have supplemental opinions from other folks. If you’re looking for a gaming bucket list then you’ve come to the right place. Here are the 138 games to check out while there’s still time.
- Go -
Matt Carlson: It’s over 4,000 years old, how much do I have to say? As in most good abstracts the rules are simple but the gameplay quickly becomes complex. Despite its worldwide popularity I suspect some modern board gamers may have overlooked or been intimidated by the game. I particularly like how well the game scales. It can be played on smaller sized boards for a faster, simpler game and has an excellent handicapping system – one of the best I’ve seen in abstracts. The weaker player simply gets a few extra stones on the board at the start of the game. You may have given the game a try or two, but if you haven’t you owe it to yourself to at least take a look at one of the oldest games around.
Tom Rosen: Go definitely intimidated me. It’s such an austere game. It has such a daunting reputation and lineage. But it’s definitely worth trying out at least a few times. It’s actually the only board game that I’ve ever read a book about, “Go for Beginners” by Kaoru Iwamoto, and it was well worth it. I’m certainly no expert, but the book gave me a real appreciation for this classic. The granddaddy of all board game classics I suppose. It’s true as others have said that Through the Desert is Knizia’s German-style take on Go and a great game at that, but go back to the original and you’ll see the concepts distilled. People throw around the term elegant a lot these days, but it’s hard to get much more elegant than the beautiful simplicity of Go. I’ll never be the kind of gamer that can devote myself to one game, as I constantly flit between shiny new things, but if I ever were to do so, Go would be one of the only worthwhile games to do so.
Brian Leet: Like my comrades, I am a slightly intimidated non-expert in Go. At the same time, there are some core concepts here which find descendents and interpretation in many other games. You don’t need to delve very deep into this classic to find illumination that will broaden your understanding and appreciation of a variety of mechanisms. For this reason alone, Go is a worthwhile investment of time for any gamer. Add to that the potential lifetime of study and mastery and there is no reason to question why this game is the original classic.
- Sheepshead -
Craig Massey: How does a largely regionalized card game make the list of 138 games to play before you die? Truth be told, it is largely due to nostalgia, but upon reflection the game has much to offer begging the question as to why is Sheepshead not better known and played more outside the upper Midwest. Sheepshead (or Schafkopf if you have older relatives from Germany) is a trick-taking game and part of the Skat family of games. The game is mostly played in Wisconsin due to the large German-American population that immigrated there during the 1800s. Growing up in Green Bay, attending college in Milwaukee, and having the German-American heritage gave me countless opportunities to play this fantastic game.
The game is played with a deck of 32 cards – sevens through aces in all four suits with 14 cards representing trumps (Queens, Jacks, Kings, and Diamonds). Each card has a point value assigned to it with the goal of the game to score more than half of the available points (120 in each hand). All cards are dealt with some going into the blinds. Starting to the left of the dealer, players have the option to pick or pass. Pick and you are bidding to score 61 or more points. Depending on the number of players and variants being played you may have a partner (often unknown at the start of play) to help you. Scoring is zero sum with the picker and possible partner receiving or paying out points depending on their level of success. The key to playing is finding a way to utilize your trump to capture the highest value scoring cards – a task that can often be extremely difficult. Modern trick taking games like Mu utilize similar systems with differing trump and scoring cards and changing partnerships.
The game provides the players scope for clever card play, deduction, and evaluation of hands. It has countless variations while scaling well from three to six. And like many traditional card games, it has a language all its own that adds to the richness of the game with terms like schnieder, leaster, mauering, and schmear. At any holiday or family gathering, there was always a game or two of Sheepshead going. Summer family reunions would see uncles and cousins playing out in the yard at picnic tables until late in the evening. Cards snapping and nickels, dimes, and quarters clinking back and forth across the table with each hand. Sheepshead kept me in quarters for laundry all through college as the game was the de facto study break for me and my roommates.
If you ever find yourself gathered with a group of Cheeseheads, ask about playing Sheepshead. If you do, I guarantee that eyes will light up and you will be playing some variation in minutes. And you will find a richness and depth in the game that are hard to find in any other trick-taking game outside of Bridge.
- Poker -
Patrick Korner: Why Poker? Because it offers a completely unique spin on games that mixes probability with psychology. Because it’s an object lesson in humility sometimes. Because it’s the only game I can think of where you can do the right thing and lose just as easily as doing the wrong thing and win. Because it’s a game that relies on money as a way of keeping score, and because you can view it as one life-long session that just happens to be broken up by the ‘real world’ sometimes. It’s utterly fascinating, has a massive worldwide following, and can be enjoyed for as little as a few bucks at the kitchen table. So yeah, I think it’s well worth playing at least once, if just to experience a game that is often at right angles to everything you think you knew about games.
Poker is a game of incomplete information, and relies on your ability to process a ton of conflicting data and ultimately make the most right decisions. Actually, that’s not entirely true. Poker is a game of making mistakes, so it’s not surprising that the Fundamental Theorem of Poker (yes, there is such a thing) boils down to: Whenever you make a mistake, your opponents win. Whenever your opponents make a mistake, you win. Your goal is to make your opponents make as many mistakes as possible while making as few as possible yourself. Simple concept, but a lifetime of practice, study, and experience can go into forming a truly world-class player.
- Crokinole -
Mary Prasad: Crokinole’s history is not clear-cut but it does seem to have been developed around the mid-1860s in Canada, with the first commercial boards developed in the US (first New York, then Pennsylvania) in 1880. Several games are credited as influencing its development, from an early version of Shuffleboard (Shovelboard) to Carrom (1820s). Carrom could easily have been justified in place of Crokinole but I chose Crokinole because of its popularity with board gamers, at least in the United States. Carrom has a big following in Asia, and there are some groups in the U.S., but I rarely see a board at a convention. Crokinole has been much more accessible. See the history of Crokinole as well as other FAQs and official rules at Mr. Crokinole.
I added Crokinole to the list as the representative of flicking games. Subbuteo, Carabande, Pitch Car, Elk Fest, Taktika, Catacombs, Ascending Empires, and even Sorry Sliders are all based on this simple mechanism. It was thought to be a Mennonite or Amish game by some, although there are no specific facts to support this. Indeed it has been popular amongst these groups due to its rather innocuous nature (as opposed to card playing and dancing, both of which are considered “works of the devil”). Crokinole is a classic and will be around for a long time to come.
Tom Rosen: I got a Hilinski brothers Crokinole board in 2006 without ever having played the game before. I’d read so much about it from various convention reports on BoardGameGeek and while I was skeptical that it could ever live up to what everyone was saying, I couldn’t resist. My skepticism quickly faded as I tried the game, and then again, and again and again. I’ve played it hundreds of times in the intervening years and it has proven to truly be a timeless classic. I’ve introduced it to many, many family members and friends with much success. The Hilinski boards really are works of art as well as an incredible game. What sets Crokinole apart among other dexterity games is the element of strategy that emerges once you’ve gained some level of flicking proficiency. Particularly in the team version where you have to work with a partner, there’s depth and replayability that emerges over time. Crokinole is a game that really opened my eyes to the scope of what’s possible in tabletop gaming and is something that needs to be experienced.
Brian Leet: In addition to all the good comments above, I note that Crokinole has many scoring and strategy similarities with curling, and the latter is a recognized Olympic sport. The potential for both strategy and skill here are formidable and the fact that the components of any quality set are a work of art is a bonus. Plus, it is the only game to have earned a cameo in one of the most popular Moxy Fruvous songs.
- Pit -
Joe Huber: While I wouldn’t argue that everyone should play all of the games I listed as The 50 most historically and culturally significant games published since 1800, I would suggest that everyone try Pit at least once. It shouldn’t be hard to do; the game has been in print for a century. And there’s a good reason why – the game provides the ideal turnless trading experience.
Edgar Cayce is credited with the design of Pit, though there were multiple closely related (if distinct) games released around the same time; Pit was simply the cleanest design, and as a result the one which has endured. Cayce is best known as a psychic; the story goes that he designed Pit because he was so good at reading other player’s cards that traditional card games didn’t interest him, while the noise and chaos of Pit sufficiently damped that ability to make the game interesting.
Noise & Chaos would actually be a good alternate title for the game; I do not believe I’ve played a game as consistently loud – or as hard to follow the progress of – as Pit. And that’s the experience that makes the game one I would suggest that everyone experience at least once.
Brian Leet: I have little to add to Joe’s wonderful summary besides the comment that for those who care about the distinction between simulation and game play I put Pit very high in the simulation category. The rush as you either see your plan come together, or switch commodities in desperation realizing that others are likely well ahead of you towards victory, is quite real and visceral.
To be continued…