We’ve got all the themes you could ever want covered in today’s 138 Games article. You could play a card game about recycling or a board game about superheroes. You could try to efficiently provide electricity to cities across the country or feed polyps to your parrot fish. And lastly you could connect cities with train routes. These are your 2003 and first batch of 2004 games that everyone needs to try sometime.
– R-Eco –
Nathan Beeler: Even though I generally agree with what they’re saying, games with a message usually send me running in the opposite direction. Save the real whales? Yes, sir. Sign me up. But save cardboard whales? Yawn. Can’t we race them across the pacific instead? Harvest them and trade their bones for untold riches? Or maybe just blow them up for the sheer spectacle? To me, games should exist to be fun, and that’s it. So I can be an uncaring and unfeeling bastard with regard to game themes. In fact, when I get a sense that a game was invented merely to preach a message, any kind of message, I believe it has to try that much harder to impress me. R-Eco, a little card game that rewards recycling litter that you collect, while allowing – but severely punishing – the dumping of that trash on the side of the road, seems pretty clearly to have a well intended agenda. And yet the game itself not only overcomes this handicap, by my way of thinking, but I think it rises to the “must play” heights of the other games on this list.
Mechanically, it’s a fairly simple game. I won’t bore you with all the details (this time), but for a short and easy to grok filler, there is still a lot to consider. On your turn you always pick one of the four types of recyclable material cards from your hand to deliver to its corresponding recycling center. With that limited decision you’ve basically got to weigh the short and long term rewards and penalties to your score, the potential for setting up others to score, the effects to your hand size, and the make-up of the cards you’ll have for the next turns. Those cards you get from each recycling center are face up and known in advance, so everyone can see what the possible implications will be to your future decisions, and can plan for that. Consequently, the game rewards paying attention to other players’ turns and somewhat tracking what they’ve taken. Another consideration is that you may choose to recycle some but not all of a type from your hand. Keeping cards back may help you score that type again later, but it’s dangerous because you also have strict hand limit of five cards. Going over the hand limit is possible, but overfilling your virtual collection truck comes with the aforementioned severe penalty. The question of whether to consume a pile of cards that makes you dump your load or not leads to a lot of strain (and a lot of hilarious potty humor in my circles).
Yes, it’s a card game. Yes, there is some luck. But like all great card games, players have more control than the cards do. R-Eco’s clean design and delicious agony make it an essential gaming experience, despite its feel good message.
Rick Thornquist: I first experienced R-Eco when I was given a pile of Japanese games at Essen. The other games were good, but R-Eco stood out. It’s one of those beautifully designed games that has very few mechanisms and that’s all it needs. There’s luck, there’s strategy, and there’s much moaning and groaning at twists of fate. One of the best light card games.
– Heroes Incorporated –
Matt Carlson: In the board game world, as in video games, it has historically been difficult to produce a superhero game that “get things right.” Heroes Incorporated is a fairly unknown little gem that managed to succeed at capturing the fun of being a superhero while maintaining a decent board game experience. In the game, players take on the role of a superhero, each with a unique power, and maneuver around a square grid representing the city (locations can have some effect on game play and the grid is generated for each game.) The game starts with crime tokens which wander the board (via die rolls at the end of each round.) The heroes must spend actions to move about the board, fight crime, or draw/play research cards. To fight crime, one must roll higher than the crime value on a particular city block. In a masterful move, fighting crime in one location commits a hero to that location and their die roll is saved. If another hero comes along and rolls better, they will be able to claim that location instead! Of course, the original hero can fight again or move somewhere else if they have enough actions left. Once all players have used up their actions, fought crime is “scored” for victory points and players who have successfully defeated crime may use the special power of that particular city space. (Note: Even if you’re playing without the expansion, be sure to implement the “justice token” rule which helps to even out poor die rolls.)
I include this game on the list as it is a very solid game based on what is otherwise a very rare genre. Despite, or perhaps because, the game has no brand-name heroes to worry about, each hero provided in the game feels and plays in a unique way. While not all of the heroes or research cards are quite as balanced as one might desire, there are few (if any) entirely broken ones and the game provides a good balance of skill/strategy and luck. Player interaction adds to the game through the use of supervillain cards (played just before an opponent’s combat) to hinder other players in addition to the contested crime spaces. True to its superhero roots, the game gives a semi-cooperative vibe as everyone tries to fight crime, but then everyone is also trying to take the most credit! Slightly heavier than a lightweight filler, the game can still be played within a family (think Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne) but successfully uses an otherwise uncommon theme that appeals to many more casual gamers. I have to admit that I am biased about the game, as I spent nearly an entire semester playing this game with my high school student aides several times a week. However, that can also serve as my endorsement.
– Power Grid –
Mary Prasad: Power Grid is an updated version of the 2001 crayon-based game Funkenschlag, also by Friedemann Friese. It was nominated for the International Gamers Award (general strategy/multiplayer) in 2004 and recommended for the Spiel des Jahres in 2005. It is a tight economic game with bidding for power plants and city expansion via routes on the game board. There are about a gazillion expansion maps (OK, maybe not a gazillion, but the list is long and I felt too lazy to count them), each with its own flavor. This is Friedemann’s crown jewel game and one that every serious board gamer should play at least once (if not once per board!) in her life.
Brian Leet: Mary is right on in calling this game Friedemann’s crown jewel, and I say that as someone who very much likes and appreciates most of Herr Friese’s work (see the Fresh Fish review previously). An economic game that takes the train-building genre and distills it down to a tightly wound competition for resources and plants, with just the right amount of randomness to keep it fresh and unpredictable. I also enjoyed the original Funkenschlag, and I intellectually understand the criticisms some have of this title, but for me those things all evaporate in the play. With many expansions, this solid power plant keeps pumping out the juice. Plug in.
Ben McJunkin: For many years, Power Grid has been my go-to “gateway” game to introduce new friends to the hobby that I love. In my view, it deserves a place on this list for that reason alone. I primarily play games with people I like to socialize with, and I primarily socialize with young professionals like myself. One of the largest obstacles in introducing new people to gaming is simply getting past the general stigma that games are either “childish” or “nerdy.” Oddly, the vast majority of games designated as “gateway” games by others only seem to reinforce these same ideas, better known for their colorful plastic bits or fanciful drawings of frolicking elves than their high quality of play. Power Grid takes the opposite approach: the box and theme resonate with a stoic gravitas, that seems to scream “This is a German game about efficiency!” and the game’s core requires ruthless calculation and profiteering. Yet the mechanics are readily understandable to nearly anyone who has been exposed to turn-based games (and as a practical matter, I find that professionals fare much better at number-crunching efficiency exercises than at more nuanced gaming exercises like area majority and role selection). When played by skilled players, the game takes on a new life (one which I quite adore), but to me its most redeeming quality is as a useful bridge to new players. If ever asked to pick a single game to demonstrate to an uninitiated coworker what my hobby stands for, Power Grid gets the call every time.
– Reef Encounter –
Matt Carlson: I started to get interested in Richard Breese’s work although I rarely had the chance to play his games since they seemed to be released in small quantities at Essen. I finally bit the bullet for Reef Encounter. How, as a high school science teacher, could I turn down a game based around vying to be the best coral reef? Sure, I had to shell out $100 to import the game from Germany (making it one of the most expensive games in my collection) but I still consider it worth it. The art, while a bit cartoony, is elegant and each piece is uniquely drawn – even the little colored reef tiles aren’t simply duplicated. Within this very different theme lies a very interesting game involving area and point value management. Rather than have many types of resources, a single resource (reef tokens) can be converted into several different possibilities. I must admit that this is a complex game, and most gamers will need to struggle to get a feel for the scoring potential in their first game. However, the mix of simple available resources usable for a multitude of possible actions combines with some nice art and theme to make an extremely memorable game. Who doesn’t like a game where the way to score is to get oneself eaten by a parrot fish?
Andrea “Liga” Ligabue: Probably the most innovative of Richard Breese’s designs and one of the most original games ever, both for the theme and for the mechanisms. After one to two games, when you get it, the game flows easily and it is a truly great experience. I really prefer the first edition with a softer color palette. Missing this game, I think, means missing something unique in the board game market.
– Ticket to Ride –
Andrea “Liga” Ligabue: Probably my preferred gateway game ever. If I have to test new friends/families about their games compatibility, Ticket to Ride is my first choice. In an interview Alan Moon said that the rules could easily be written on a train ticket and that’s true. Simple rules, nice materials and strategy. What more can you ask from a game ? I really like how Ticket to Ride could be enjoyed by really different kind of groups. Gamers can play it hard, but families and kids can really have a nice session without brain consuming. Probably the edition I like most is the Europe map (it could be since I’m from the old continent) because stations and tunnels offer some more challenge but also the base version is great. Ticket to Ride, like Coloretto, puts players turn after turn in front of a simple but crucial choice: play trains or take cards. And you need to watch what other players are doing because, without direct interaction, players can really strike each other hard. I think it really deserves the huge number of awards collected over the years.
To be continued…