138 Games: From Through the Ages to Galaxy Trucker

This week the 138 Games series brings you five games from 2006 to 2007 that the Opinionated Gamers recommend everyone try at least once.  This entry is sandwiched with two preeminent designs by the esteemed Vlaada Chvatil.  Vlaada has designed an incredibly wide range of board games, but these two are some of the most widely respected and enjoyed of his games.  There’s plenty of other gaming goodness buried within as well, including Lehmann, Wallace, and the game that popularized the time track.  Next week we’ll return with one more 2007 game and will breeze through 2008 into 2009 before eventually wrapping up with a few surprisingly recent releases that some OG writers think may be destined for greatness.

– Through the Ages

Larry:  One of the holiest of Holy Grails in gaming is the Civ Lite game.  You know, a game with the sweep, depth, and epic nature of Tresham’s Civilization, all playable in 3 hours or so.  Through the Ages comes as close to that mythical goal as any game is likely to get.

But it’s much more than that. By eschewing a map and putting leaders, technologies, territories, and opportunities to wage war all on cards, Chvatil gives us a unique playing experience, all wonderfully interconnected and, most surprising of all, very thematic.  The game is remarkably innovative and totally engrossing.  Its roots are based in Euro games, but it’s no bloodless cube-pusher–there’s most certainly scope for direct attacks (Napoleon, anyone?), just on the game’s own appropriately limited terms. Simultaneously juggling the game’s many subsystems–economy, manpower, technology, military, etc.–is very challenging, but oh so rewarding.  And all of it plays out while you watch your civilization rise and fall, led by multiple leaders utilizing new technologies on every turn.  It’s magnificent.

It takes a lot to keep me engaged with one game for 3 or 4 hours, but Through the Ages does it for me every time.  It’s my favorite game of all time and one of the top rated games in our hobby.  If you have any tolerance for longer games and particularly if you like Civ games or epic designs in general, this is one game you must play before you meet your maker.  Anything less just wouldn’t be civilized.

Andrea “Liga” Ligabue:  Like TI3 is the reference for 4X games, TTA is the model for most of the modern Civ games.  One of the best game ever and the best Civ game ever, it has also been Vlaada’s real “business card.”  It is new, fresh, innovative, thematic, balanced, and fun.  All things gamers are looking in a game.  It is a game that can be played (and loved) both by Euro and American addicted players.

One of the first real deep boardgames using just cards, something that designers started to look into in the following years.

– Race for the Galaxy –

Jonathan Franklin:  I cannot believe this only got one vote.  This is a top five game for me because it offers combos, divergent strategies, lots of bells and whistles in the expansions, and has amazing replayability.  Race for the Galaxy is a tableau-building game where you start with a planet and take one of a few actions, explore to get more cards, develop new buildings, settle new planets, sell resources, and consume resources.  Cards are the buildings to develop, the planets to settle, the resources to sell, and the resources to produce.  This is awesome because, as in San Juan, a spiritual relative, cards come out of the deck without ever being seen, leading to uncertainty and play based on odds, rather than concrete knowledge.  In addition, lots of the art in the game is very good and evocative.  This is also the poster child for steep barrier to entry due to the icon system, but once you get past that, it is smooth sailing around the galaxy.

Nathan Beeler:  Having recently gone on a long trek through the southern hemisphere, I got to put the “desert island games” thought experiment to practical use.  Race for the Galaxy ended up being one of our five little games that made the journey with us, mostly because it offers a deep and rich board game playing experience in pretty much a deck of cards and some chits, but also because my partner and I love it.  During the time we traveled, we taught the game a number of times, mostly to people who were already gamers (we had other games for non-gamers, like Love Letter and Kakerlaken Poker). Having gone through that experience, I can safely say definitively that the learning curve for the iconography is a real issue, and that the game holds up to many repeated plays.  It is absolutely a game that would go with me on a real desert island trip, should the disaster strike my floating game library someday.

Andrea “Liga” Ligabue:  A real great card game with simple rules but a lot of interaction and replayability.  Something you have to play if you want to be a real gamer.  There is the nice mechanism of the roles/actions; there are planets to colonize and technologies to develop; planets also produce goods you can sell.  It is another example of how a deep and challanging boardgame can be devloped using just cards.

– Thebes –

Andrea “Liga” Ligabue:  A real nice and challenging Euro Game.  Also a great gateway game due to the easy rules, the nice setting, and the pick-from-the-bag mechanic.  Thebes is a perfect family game even though it was not a SdJ winner because in the same year other great family board games were released.

The turn mechanism (used in many other boardgames after, including the recent Antoine Bauza’s Tokaido) is great and innovative; the idea of simulating the excavations with a bag full of counters is also great.

Still one of my preferred family board games.

Jeff Allers:  I’m a sucker for archeology-themed games, and this one is very thematic. So thematic, in fact, that it is largely criticized because luck is naturally a factor when trying to dig up artifacts that have been buried for centuries. That obviously does not bother me as much, as there are other rewarding things to do (travel around Europe and give lectures, for example) that can earn points, and it’s all tied together beautifully by the time track mechanism.  Knizia may have innovated that mechanism earlier with Tutankhamun, but Prinz’s adaptation is what caught the attention of gamers in Essen for this first, self-published effort.  The souped-up Queen reprint is certainly worth a play before joining the pharaohs in their long slumber — unless, of course, you believe as they did that you can take it with you to the afterlife.

– Brass –

Larry:  Martin Wallace has always been known for his historically inspired games and they are indeed great.  But the Wallace designs that excite me the most are his economic ones, and Brass might be his best.  It features a different take on profitability, as industries don’t automatically make money simply by being built, but must be used (via the “flipping” action) in order to earn cash and VPs.  This is very innovative and (once you get your head around exactly what this represents) quite thematic.  Wallace’s rules for development of the industries are also innovative, as they cleverly insert a tech tree into the game with absolutely no bookkeeping. Gameplay is engrossing, very varied (thanks to the use of cards for building industries), and requires you to be at the top of your game in order to do well.  And the two-hour duration is welcome news to those who want to exerience top-flight Wallace in a reasonable time frame. Martin has created a ton of excellent games over the years, but to me, the titles at top of the food chain are Age of Steam and Brass.  Both are designs that any serious gamer needs to investigate in detail.

Rick Thornquist:  As Larry says, this is the top of the heap when it comes to Martin’s games.  Yes, the rules are not very good and there are some hilariously fiddly rules that are typically Martin, but the game is just great.  When it came out I played it endlessly and never tired of it.  Indeed, a game that every serious gamer should play.

– Galaxy Trucker –

Jeff Allers:  What is often most appealing of German-style designs is their building-up aspect, which often stands in sharp contrast to the conquer-and-eliminate gameplay most Americans grew up with. These new games instead leave us all with a sense of accomplishment: even if our point tallies are not enough in the end to earn the victory, at least we are able to create our own “engines” (civilizations, railroad networks, etc.).  Galaxy Trucker adopts the very puzzle-like engine-building feel-good aspect from these Eurogames… and then takes it on a smash-up derby race around the planets.  It is truly a unique gaming experience to see how quickly the collective grins on everyone’s faces at the end of the building rounds turn to frowns as enemy ships destroy shield generators and asteroids rip through their now-unprotected structures.  Surprisingly, despite all the Schadenfreude, the whole event is quite fun, probably because it is rare that anyone escapes unscathed.  It also helps that there are 3 different voyages allowing players to adjust to disaster–or remember that, when it finally strikes, that they were at least successful in an earlier round. The rules are admittedly a bit fiddly, but they are so comically written, it is a joy to re-read them. For best effect, taking the time  to create a special playlist as a soundtrack for the voyages is highly recommended to keep players from taking it all too seriously (examples include: Another One Bites the Dust, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, Don’t Worry Be Happy, Everybody Hurts, etc.).

Rick Thornquist:  I got a prototype of Galaxy Trucker from the Czech Games guys before Essen and I gotta admit, when I first read the rules I thought gamers would hate it. I just didn’t think gamers would think too much of having their carefully crafted ships being destroyed by huge amounts of luck.  Well, was I wrong and in a big way.  Every time I showed the game, gamers were delighted and wanted to play it again and again.  Chalk up the game’s success to Vlaada’s seemingly never-ending ability to come up with unique, interesting, and great games.

Tom Rosen:  I absolutely adore Galaxy Trucker and I think almost anyone who tries it will too.  There are plenty of games I personally like that I’d never recommend for a list like this, such as Die Macher or Antiquity.  But Galaxy Trucker has near universal appeal and I’ve seen countless people that I’ve taught it to break out in huge smiles when everyone’s carefully crafted ships start falling apart.  Galaxy Trucker is simply a joy to play because it provides a visceral thrill of racing your opponents to build a spaceship out of a common pool of components, and then immediately getting to test everyone’s contraptions out to see how they fare in a trial run.  Incredibly, it’s more fun the more that things go wrong in the test run.  To that end, I highly recommend the expansions once you’re experienced with the base game because they wonderfully add an extra challenge to the game.  While some suggest that there’s a lot of luck in the game, I actually think this is a game that rewards skill and experience much more than most, so much so that it can be tricky to play together with people of varying skill levels.  That’s alright though, I enjoyed when the designer wiped the floor with me; I just tried to keep an eye out for his tricks so I could learn a thing or two for the next spaceflight out.

To be continued…

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