One the stats I like is how many games I play multiple times each year over the last 5 years. You could call them go-to games. To me it’s a sign of quality and longevity, even if it weights towards the lighter end of the gaming spectrum.
The games aiming to continue their go-to status (if they hit multiple plays again this year) currently include:
- Bluff – a common opener with the Thursday night group.
- Hanabi – a standard closer with the Sunday night group.
- Lord of the Rings: The Card Game – a long-term staple of the Wednesday group.
- Red7 – I like it at a lot for when a quick filler is needed.
- Scrabble: my go-to with Mum.
- Sentinels of the Multiverse – a long-term staple of the Wednesday group.
- Die Sieben Siegel – a common closer with the Thursday night group.
- Ticket To Ride – the go-to family game.
- Vikings – a popular dessert game on Thursday nights after the main dish is done.
Fwiw, I could see Sprawlopolis (see below) potentially joining this list if I ever I can get my hands on a copy. Meanwhile, in other new gaming recently …
BARENPARK: THE BAD NEWS BEARS (2019): Rank n/a, Rating n/a
I liked this expansion. Not enough to raise the base-game rating, but it does make it more interesting in the way if gives players more options to consider. Firstly, you now want to place your freebie tiles in such a way as to build a monorail on them (which looks very cool btw), from one tile to another and onwards. Secondly, you can trade in a freebie tile with a points tile to get a large grizzly tile and escalate the speed with which you complete your park. Commensurately, you now need to fill 5 boards. It doesn’t change the feel of the game, and even makes a little slower (if AP is a problem already, which it is a little for me in this game, this expansion doesn’t help), but if you have the expansion you wouldn’t play without it as it definitely provides a more satisfying feel.
BOSK (2019): Rank 4646, Rating 7.3
A game played in two phases. The first is spent planting trees on a roughly 12 x 12 grid, the aim being to have the highest points on as many lines as possible as each line is scored Pueblo style for majorities. In the second phase, we splay leaves out from each of our trees onto the grid spaces to get majority in as many of the 8 map areas as possible. Enter the analysis paralysis. Except that players have so many options to drop leaves how and where they want that any analysis is wasted, so some players end up playing by feel while others are counting and counting the majority numbers in each of the 8 areas to optimise their numbers … and then get smacked anyway. Any effort you put in seemed barely rewarded due to the standard issues of free-wheeling play-where-you-want area majority games and the result felt pretty meaningless accordingly. Thematically very nice looking though. A recent review which was a bit more positive here.
THE CAVE (2018): Rank 1937, Rating 6.6
An exploration game, spending 5 APs each turn to move out, lay tiles and pick up icons depending on what tiles you turn. The icons are all worth VPs roughly equivalent to the APs you spend to acquire them, so the game hinges on limiting travel APs, gaining majorities in icon types, and understanding well enough how the poorly written and non-thematic camp rules work to be able to take advantage of extended stays away from base rather than repeatedly cycling through the standard 3-4 turns moving out and 2 turns racing back to replenish your food before heading out again. This back-and-forth creates a seemingly unnecessary drag on progress and fun, but turns are fastish and it’s light enough for occasional play, largely because it feels nicely thematic.
CIRCLE THE WAGONS (2017): Rank 1624, Rating 7.3
Packs a surprising amount of oomph and angst into its 18 cards. Cards have four quadrants, each quadrant containing a terrain and an icon. Flip three cards to determine the unique scoring conditions for this game, and then take turns taking cards from the queue, arranging them Honshu-style to score your tableau as best you can, wanting to also get as big an area in each terrain as you can to provide your base score. This format works better as a 2p than the sister game Sprawlopolis did with more players – there’s just as much agonising about placement but less downtime. I particularly liked the mechanic where you can skip the queue and take a future card but the opponent gets all the skipped cards for free, making for hard decisions. It’s hard to get massive replay with an 18-card game, but this is a really good 20min 2p game with easy rules. The wallet-shape packaging is perfect for out-and-about gaming, and the rating represents quality in its niche.
EXPLORERS OF THE NORTH SEA (2016): Rank 2819, Rating 7.4
In essence a slimmed down version of Viking Fury (aka Viking Quartermaster as one wag in our group calls it). It’s straightforward – each turn you place a tile to expand the map and then spend 4 actions to load your ship, move from tile to tile, land enough Vikings to smack stuff, claim land, build buildings, gather different animal types and bring them back home and unload. Go back out again. There are lots of ways to score, but you’re mostly channelled into using the icons on the tiles that are available to you on your turn, hoping you can specialise in some forms of scoring, and being as efficient as possible with your APs. There’s not too much to think about strategically, just do the best you can with what the game presents you. It improves with the Rocks of Ruin expansion (more things to do, less need to go out and back repeatedly) and this rating incorporates that.
GENTES (2017): Rank 807, Rating 7.6
It’s not as rich as other games I’ve rated this highly, with fewer strategic approaches than I’d prefer, but it does what it does well and in a different-than-usual way. You want to build cards for VPs, but the means to do so is via your population mix (aka a welcome respite from resources). In essence, do actions to pick up cards, do actions to get different types of population to satisfy your card criteria, do actions to build cards, with a side-dish of actions to build cities for ongoing benefits and cube wibbles. Within each action, you can choose variations based on cost, strength of action, and time penalties, so the game is one of perennially choosing which action is most important to do next before other players steal it. Which sounds like worker placement, but your choice of time penalties and action strength gives it a different, more likable, feel. While each game will probably play much like the first, I found the continual decisions on the ideal action to use, the card selection process (looking for matches in symbols, population mix, and synergistic effects), and the constant race pressure, to be right up my alley. Another review here from Larry Levy.
GETAWAY DRIVER (2019): Rank 3003, Rating 7.2
It falls into that awkward and undesired 2-player crack where the rules are too long and have too many fiddlies to easily explain and play the game with a non-gamer, but the decisions are too lightweight to please the non-gamer once they’ve bothered learning everything. Additionally, it’s a poorly laid out rulebook which had me predisposed to irritation before even starting. I wanted it to work because it’s thematically hugely appealing, replicating any movie car chase you’ve seen. One player plays the police who lay tiles face-down in front of the driver. The other plays the getaway driver who decides whether to peek at a tile or not (for a cost) and then decides where to move next. If there’s a police car close, you’ll likely choose a hazard tile and make the police crash (spending a card so you don’t) and escape for a bit, otherwise choose a non-hazard tile and save your cards. Simple in concept. Too simple in play. All the wibbles are on what the police can do to close the net, generally adding hazards and more chasers. I don’t see lightweight games with this many rules hit the table frequently enough to justify collection.
MASTER OF THE GALAXY (2018): Rank 4136, Rating 6.9
It’s a neat idea, but the game-play promise bled out with too-quick finishes. You draw cubes from your bag to fulfil contracts. These may be to fill a space lane a la Ticket To Ride to get to the next planet (which will allow you to build more space bases), or to fill a card contract for benefit. Cubes you don’t use on a turn are returned to your bag, so there’s a balancing act of thinning your bag by getting cubes out onto the board and your cards so you can increase the odds of getting the cubes you really want, and getting them back in the bag to fulfil your next desired contract needing those colours. There’s a LOT of luck in the timing. Invariably it takes forever to get that last cube out in the right colour, which can hold you up for turns and decide your game fate. Then, suddenly, someone’s won. There’s seemingly all these neat card effect combination possibilities but the game is over before you get to that point because someone’s raced out 9 space bases, or raced to 5 symbols quickly. This is even with the hitty steal-cube powers in play, which don’t work anyway because all they’re doing is delaying your own advance while non-hit players charge on, making it king-makery. A promising concept, but non-satisfying in the end.
SPRAWLOPOLIS (2018): Rank 1206, Rating 7.5
It’s hard to rate a micro-game higher than a 7 because the replay provided by just 16 cards feels necessarily limited, but this gives it a darn good crack. Flip any three cards to their scoring rule sides to determine your unique scoring rules for this game. Then take turns playing a card (and passing the rest of the hand along) to make a common city using Honshu-style overlapping. Each turn provides a tough decision as there are lots of options, and some scoring combos require you to be quite careful in your placements. Others are more straightforward. It may be better suited to fewer players if you like having more directorial say in your co-ops, but it’s an excellent 15 minute thinky filler with easy rules. Like its sister game, Circle The Wagons, the wallet-shape is perfect for out-and-about gaming, and the rating represents quality in its niche.
SPOTLIGHT ON: TAJ MAHAL (2000): Rank 358, Rating 7.3
This is a game that was highly thought of at time of release because, compared to the competition, it was a “really good game”. I’ve always had a few issues with it though, and playing it recently highlighted to me that it’s a perfect example of a game that doesn’t stand up over the fullness of time and has been swamped by better games. I can recognise it as solidly designed but its main game feature – bale-out card wars – aggravates me. People get knocked out of game contention by getting sucked into a “Land War In Asia” which they can’t afford to lose, where both the winner and the loser are drained of all energy. Closer observance of cards picked up may allow you to avoid a commitment war, but usually not. The ensuing issue is that each game provides an inconsistent experience to each player – you can be winning some stuff easily and really enjoying the game with the leaders, or get knocked about early on in a key battle and find the rest of the game dull as you’re out of contention (there being no “get back into the game” mechanism – the points snowball with each round). These days I’ll only play to help out people who’ve expressed an interest in exploring Knizia’s design history.
Thoughts of other Opinionated Gamers:
Larry: Gentes is a good, but not great game, which may have some replayability issues. The time-based hourglass mechanism is clever and the selection of Action Tiles works well. The theme is very thin and the rules and production values aren’t the best (although better than most Spielworxx games). It’s a game I’d happily play again, but probably not one I’d suggest.
I have a higher opinion of Taj Mahal than Patrick does, probably because to me, the need to avoid the Land War in Asia (i.e., ruinous protracted auctions) is a feature, not a bug. Knowing when to go for lesser rewards, throwing an opponent a bone so that they’ll be satisfied with bowing out early, and basically, when to fold ‘em, are all valuable skills. If you can accept that, the rest of the game is fascinating and maybe one of Knizia’s (and Alea’s) most complex titles. Calling it multi-faceted is practically insufficient–there’s an awful lot going on here and it took me a long time to even become competent at it. It’s been a while since I’ve played, but I always enjoy it when it does come out and it’s a prime example of Reiner’s incredibly lush period from 1997-2000. One of my all-time top 50 games.
Mark Jackson: You are too generous, Patrick. I won’t even go that far with Taj Mahal. It is an actively irritating game that is designed to award the win to the person who manages to thread the needle and not get in a fight with anyone else. Life is too short to play it again… even for historical purposes.
Dale Yu: I am a huge fan of both Sprawlopolis and Circle the Wagons. I initially had the print and play versions, but as we played them so much, I thought it was worth it to pony up for the sleeved card versions from Button shy. There is quite a lot of game in the small 18 card sets, and they work well with both groups as well as solo times. I currently have Sprawlopolis in my travel backpack (in fact, until I wrote this, I actually wasn’t quite sure where it was…).
Taj Mahal is likely my favorite Knizia – at least with people who have played the game before and are aware of the “feature of the land war in asia”!
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