138 Games Finale: From January to September

Last week we reached the final regular entry in the Opinionated Gamers series on 138 Games to Play Before You Die.  We started the series back in January working chronologically forward from Go and finished last week with the slightly more recent Love Letter.  Over the past nine months, Dave H. on BoardGameGeek has done a nice job capturing the entire list of recommended games.  But along the way we skipped a few games here and there to keep things moving, so here in this coda we are posting the 23 games that were previously skipped.  With these 23 games and the 115 games previously covered, we give you the 138 games that at least one of us here at the OG thinks you’ve just got to try.

1) Snifty Snakes

2) Titan

  • Andrea “Liga” Ligabue:  Years ago when I started taking the first steps into the board game world there were not so many publishers as nowadays and just one lighthouse: Avalon Hill.  Among many WWII titles, Titan was shining for it theme, complexity, and playing experience.  I don’t think nowadays it can hold out against many other modern titles, but back in the ‘80s it was a milestone.  A Titan session was a real demanding experience thanks to the fact that all the combats were played on a small map involving just 2 players: endless minutes to wait before your next move.  Luckily the designers’ skill improved from 1980, but anyway Titan really deserves its nomination in this list of 138 Games to Play Before You Die.

3) Up Front

  • Andrea “Liga” Ligabue:  Close (I hope) to the release of the new edition, it’s nice to talk about this great classic, one of the milestones in the board game world.  More than 30 years ago a real board game made just out of cards.  In the year where huge maps and endless counters were dominating the scene, Up Front was a real surprise.  Nowadays it’s common to have board games made just of cards, but that was not so common in the ‘80s.  A skirmish fighting in the theatre of WWII.  Soldiers vs. soldiers in the basic game; tanks and heavy weapons later.  Every soldier has its own card with all the details.  No dice (you just use other cards), no tables (are all included in the cards). Terrains are just other cards.  A great mechanic and great replayability.  Probably one of the greatest WWII skirmish games ever.

4) Die Macher

  • Rick Thornquist: “The Mother of all German Games” comes by its nickname honestly. Four hours long, with lots of interlocking mechanics and tons of strategy – well, let’s just say it’s not for the faint of heart.  Those who can handle it, though, are rewarded with a game that is tough, tense, and awesome to play.

What makes it so good?  It’s all in the mechanics.  Very rarely have I seen a game where the mechanics are so well woven into each other and, to boot, actually follow the theme quite well, thank you very much.  The phases of the game are fairly quick and most of them involve all of the players at the same time, making the game move at a good clip with barely any downtime. I’ve played the game many, many times and am always amazed how, after four hours of playing, the time has just flown by.

Lots of strategy, superb mechanics (except maybe the poll cards, I’ll give you that one), and fast play – it doesn’t get much better than this.  Die Macher is Karl-Heinz Schmiel’s masterwork and is easily one of the best games of all time.

5) Metric Mile

6) Midnight Party

  • Mark Jackson:  This “kid’s game” can be enjoyed by 2-8 players (the more the merrier) of any age or background.  It’s a wondrous combination of push-your-luck and cut off your opponents as you run from Hugo the Ghost.  There’s just recently been another printing of this delightful family game in Europe.

7) Adel Verpflichtet

8) Expedition

  • Jonathan Franklin:  Both Wildlife Adventure and Expedition are worthy of being on this list.  While some prefer one or the other, they are important for the mechanism of expandable routes not owned by players.  The players have communal access to long plastic arrows in three colors.  Everyone can extend any of the three expeditions by placing arrows of that expedition’s color.  The trick is that all the players have different sites they are trying to get to.  Sometimes someone else extends an expedition within one space of where you are trying to go.  This can be frustrating, but also provides drama.  Although we see the idea of routes not owned by any player in train games, the idea of having sites on the network as goals makes Expedition worth playing.

  • Mark Jackson:  I don’t know of any other games that are quite like these two. I prefer Expedition personally, but both are excellent games.

9) Tigris & Euphrates

  • Jonathan Franklin:  I stink at this game and likely always will.  It takes amazing board vision and some good luck to do well at Tigris, which is an elegant area control game.  Of all the games on this list, Tigris & Euphrates is one of the most strategic, in that the choices you are making are not to score the most this round or work toward some point salad end game, but to set yourself up for victories on turn that might be several turns down the line.  As a T&E patzer, I’ll leave it for others to expound on this amazing and sometimes brutal game.

  • Larry:  T&E is as close to a “classic” strategy game (something comparable to games like Go and Chess) that Germany is likely to produce.  I once wrote an article speculating which current games might still be widely played 100 years from today and Tigris was my top choice.  Its appealing depth makes it the kind of game built for the long haul and it wouldn’t surprise me to see it last long after many of its brethren fall out of favor.

10) Mystery Rummy

  • Larry:  Most game designers seem to want to create titles that are completely new, as they start from scratch with each new effort.  It takes a particular kind of talent, and a certain amount of courage, to take a well established game as your starting point and work from there.  In the Mystery Rummy series, Mike Fitzgerald began with humble old Rummy and tweaked it just enough to give us a series of interesting and entertaining games.  Best of all, there’s a different kind of game for every taste.  Jack the Ripper is an involved and challenging game for 2.  Murders in the Rue Morgue works best with partners.  Jekyll & Hyde is an excellent gateway game.  Al Capone is Fitzgerald’s take on Canasta.  And Bonnie and Clyde explores the timing aspect in gameplay.  There’s even an honorary Mystery Rummy game:  Wyatt Earp, co-designed with Richard Borg, contains many of the MR concepts, while adding new challenges as the players attempt to capture some of the most notorious outlaws from the Wild West.  Even though each title includes its own innovations, all of the games are still recognizably Rummy.  The combination of the new and the pleasantly familiar makes this a wonderful series which every serious gamer, and particularly lovers of card games, should check out.

  • Mark Jackson:  Each game in the series has thematic elements that make the really great game design choices even more enjoyable. A key addition to the rummy “base” are gavel cards – they have some kind of special power (drawing cards, asking for cards, passing cards, etc.) and you can only use one of them per turn, thus complicating “getting out” to close the hand.

11) Through the Desert

  • Jonathan Franklin:  Do you like Kingdom Builder?  Do you like abstract games like Hex?  If the answer to either of those was Yes, you owe it to yourself to play Through the Desert.  This game is available dirt cheap through the FFG Silver Line and has a great number of decisions per unit of time ratio.  The game is quite quick and involves turns of placing two camels.  That is your entire turn.  It includes area enclosure, connectivity, and some nail biting choices.  I prefer it with an even number of players, because if two players start duking it out in one area of the board, the third player almost always seems to win.

12) Stephensons Rocket

  • Larry:  Stephenson’s, in many ways, is the perfect game for this list.  It is not widely played, since it was first released amidst a plethora of other great Knizia designs, by a publisher not known at the time for boardgames.  And yet, it is an absolutely brilliant title, easily Knizia’s best design, in my opinion, and at one time Reiner was my favorite designer.  There’s a good chance many of you have never played Stephensons, or even heard of it, and if that’s the case, you really owe it to yourself to seek it out, particularly if you’re a fan of deep strategic games.

It’s a simple game at its heart, with only three straightforward actions available.  Of course, the scoring is a bit involved, although it hardly requires an advanced degree in math to figure out.  But those basic options produce a wonderful no luck game of perfect information that plays out in fascinating and often unpredictable ways.  It also includes one of my favorite mechanisms in gaming, the building veto rule.  It’s a simple rule that gives the game terrific player interaction and makes every action count.  The game plays equally well for 2, 3, or 4 players.  Finally, the fidelity to its theme is actually pretty strong for a Knizia game.  It’s a great package and it really is a crime that this game isn’t better known. But now you know about it, dear reader, so make a point of seeking it out, so you can experience one of the greatest Eurogames ever devised.  Yeah, it’s that good!

13) Battle Line

  • Jonathan Franklin:  Looking for a great game for two players?  Already played Lost Cities, Jaipur, and others to death?  Have a look at Battle Line.  It is classic Knizia two-player game.  Nine stones are placed in a line between the two players.  Each player plays on her side of one of the nine stones.  Your goal is to win a majority of the stones or three adjacent ones.  You win a stone by having a higher three-card poker hand on your side than the other player could have on the other side.  There are lots of elegant moves and it has great tension.  Definitely worth playing if you like exciting two-player games.

  • Rick Thornquist:  Another great two-player game from Knizia that, like Lost Cities, has simple rules but lots of gameplay.  The thing I like best about it is the tension – every card you play is important and there are many times when the choices are agonizing.  If you play two-player games at all, this is a no-brainer – get Battle Line.

  • Larry:  I agree with both Jonathan and Rick.  I’ve always preferred Battle Line to Lost Cities.  The only thing I’ll add is that I like the original game, Schotten Totten, much more than its spinoff Battle Line.  But that’s no problem, as you can easily use the Battle Line components to play Schotten Totten.  Either way, this is a game that fans of elegant two-player games should definitely check out.

14) Royal Turf

  • Rick Thornquist:  I’ve played a lot of horse racing games and too often they are luckfests that go on forever.  Reiner Knizia jumped into the horse racing genre with Royal Turf and, in my opinion, did it right.  This is a light game with simple mechanics and just a touch of strategy, and gets to the heart of the theme very well with players betting on short and fast races.  There’s lots of cheering for your favorite horse (or maybe it isn’t your favorite, with secret bets you may be bluffing) and booing of your competitor’s steeds.  It’s fun, fast, and one of the best light games around.

  • Mark Jackson:  Knizia is at his best when the math-y nature of his designs are underpinnings to communicate a theme rather than puzzles to be figured out… and Royal Turf is a perfect example of that.

15) Vom Kap bis Kairo

  • Mark Jackson: A bidding/building/race game contained in a single deck of cards… the concepts are oddball enough that it takes a game or two to wrap your head around but it packs a lot of game into that tiny box and thirty minutes of playing time.

16) Akaba

  • Mark Jackson:  You move your pieces (flying carpets) around the board using a puffing device while another player quickly rolls the dice to try and end your turn.  Frenetic fun with (no surprise from Haba) beautiful components.  THE BLACK PIRATE went on to win the Kinderspiel using the same basic mechanic but without the real-time element.

17) Antiquity

18) Goa

  • Jonathan Franklin:  We just played Goa the other night and it is just a fantastic auction game.  The grand structure is eight rounds of auctions for tiles that you then use to gain goods, upgrade your tech tree, and in the end score points in about 5 different ways. There are two things that make Goa special.  First, the auctions are once around, starting with the player to the left of the player who put the tile up for bid.  The final bidder can either accept the high bid, taking the money, or buy the tile him or herself and pay that money to the bank.  There are two version of Goa with slightly different rules about how the tile is bought by the person who put it up for auction.  The second great feature is that the tiles get better.  The first four rounds are with one set of tiles and second four rounds are with another set of more powerful tiles.  This might seem minor, but when combined with the tech trees, gives the game an excellent arc.

  • Larry:  Goa is one of the all-time greats.  Planning how you will manage to advance your technologies is a very enjoyable challenge, one that should delight even the most ardent hater of “cube pushers.”  But this is hardly multi-player solitaire, as the auctions are equally important and very interactive (how many games do you know of where your decision of what to auction away affects the next player’s choice of what she can choose from?).  It all fits together marvelously well.  This still gets steady play from us almost a decade after its release and represents Rüdiger Dorn’s crowning design achievement.  With its recent re-release, there’s no excuse not to check out this terrific game.

19) Combat Commander: Europe

20) Dominion

21) Hanabi

  • Jonathan Franklin:  I love Hanabi, but acknowledge that I know plenty of people who don’t.  It is  one of the few games where you cannot see your own cards.  You can only see the cards of the other players because everyone holds them face out.  On your turn, you only have three options — play a card, discard a card, or give a clue.  The first two are not done casually because you need to play the cards in numerical order.  For instance, you cannot play the red 2 until someone has played the red 1.  It is a stressful game where there is some luck in how the cards come out, but there is a joy in giving the perfect clue at the perfect time that is not found in many other games.  It is an ‘aha’ moment like few others.  For the amazingly inexpensive cost of entry, Hanabi is worth your time.

  • Larry:  I am not a fan of cooperative games.  In fact, there are only two I’m willing to play:  Space Alert, because the real-time aspect overcomes most of the issues I have with co-ops (and makes for a hilarious game); and Hanabi, because it’s so damn clever. Producing a game where everyone except you knows the contents of your hand is a wonderful idea and the group experience of trying to communicate how to solve the puzzle this creates is terrific.  This is a thinking man’s co-op, although it adjusts itself well to any skill level you wish to apply to it.  Even though it fit none of the usual “requirements” for the SdJ (big box, family oriented, easily expandable), the game is so good that the Jury felt they had to award it with gaming’s most significant honor. Guess what, guys:  the SdJ’s got it right this time!  Grab a few fans of brain-burning games and give this one a try as soon as you can!

22) Eclipse

  • Andrea “Liga” Ligabue:  Endless reviews have been made about this 4X boardgame able to climb up the BGG ranks to the 6th position, more than 20 games better than Twilight Imperium 3ed, the basis for comparison of all 4X games.  What made Eclipse a huge success?  First some really nice ideas and mechanics, like using off-map tokens in a personal map to show levels/abilities (something nicely revisited also in Terra Mystica).  Second the ratio between experience/complexity and the playing time. Eclipse floats, for many reasons, in the border between deep and long simulation games and typical Euros: a dangerous place inhabited by great success products and terrific ones.  Eclipse’s great success is in the ability to talk with property to both Euro lovers and American fans.

Far from perfect (some excessive randomness, something still to fix), Eclipse is actually the best game for people looking for a real and deep one-night 4X experience: exploration, technologies, alien races, starship combat, strategy, and not too much luck and randomness.  A game that has to have a place in all gamers’ libraries!

23) Town Center

  • Jonathan Franklin:  Town Center is a 3-D puzzle game with some nice drafting aspects. Imagine a tic-tac-toe board where you place cubes on top of other cubes.  Each cube below the bottom level is adjacent to up to six other cubes – those above and below it as well as those to the north, south, east, and west.  These adjacencies create scoring relationships, so if I have a red cube adjacent to a blue cube, it means some number of points because one is residential and another is shopping, for example.  You draw cubes from a bag, draft pairs of them, then place each simultaneously.  After doing this a certain number of times, you score your district.  It is the 3-D spatial aspect that makes this game fun and sometimes frustrating.

*                    *                    *

So there you have it, the final 23 games that the Opinionated Gamers think you’ve just got to try.  But never ones to settle for a mere 138 games — since we compiled the last nine months ago, Jonathan Franklin has come up with just one more game that he wanted to append to the list as a bonus entry.  After all these months and all these entries, we’ll leave you with just one more game recommendation.

Bonus Entry — Android: Netrunner

  • Jonathan Franklin: I have not played a new game this extraordinary in years, so I feel compelled to add #139.  This is a 2-player 45-minute deck building game, in the Magic: The Gathering sense of the word.  One player plays a hacker trying to break into a dsytopian corporation’s computer system.  The other player plays the corporation.  The rules for the two sides are completely different.  One side is playing cards face down and putting in ice, which are barriers between the corporate servers and the hacker, called the runner.  As my sensei has told me, “The runner’s job is to run.”  The runner cannot be passive, but cannot be too impetuous, as the corporation’s network can be laced with traps that hurt the runner.

Amazingly, the goals for the two sides are the same, get seven agenda points.  The corporation starts with all the agendas, but the runner can steal them from the corporation.  This leads to a wonderful cat and mouse game that plays out quickly, but can be the sole game of the night.  The rules are quite clear, but it really would make more sense to try to get an experienced player to teach you.

For the $25-$40 price of entry, it is a very good deal, even though the materials, cards and tokens, are minimal  The core game comes with seven decks and the cards in that core can be combined in a fair number of ways.  This is a Fantasy Flight Living Card Game (LCG), so it has monthly non-random expansions.

  • Matt Carlson: I thoroughly enjoyed the original (still have a few decks around somewhere).  In the heyday of collectible card gaming, Netrunner was one of the first to have significant differences from the granddaddy Magic: The Gathering.   The fact that it was created by the same man just adds to its impressiveness.  Netrunner still stands as one of the better examples of what can be designed when asymmetric gameplay is the goal.  Two players have an entirely different “feel” to the game when playing each side.

The End

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