10 Great Sid Sackson Games (Article by Erik Arneson)

This article is part of our “10 Great” series that features 10 great games in a given subcategory. We pick a mechanic, theme, publisher, etc. — in this case, games designed by Sid Sackson. The Opinionated Gamers then vote behind the scenes to create a list of 10 great games.

About Sid Sackson

Sid Sackson, by any measure, is one of the most significant and well-respected game designers of the 20th century. His games have influenced several generations of players and designers alike — and continue to do so today.

Born in 1920, Sackson was most active as a game designer in the 1960s through the 1980s. (According to BoardGameGeek, Sackson’s earliest published game is the card game Poke from 1946.) He focused primarily on designing strategy board games for adults at a time when others seemed to be more interested in other areas of tabletop gaming such as children’s games, roleplaying games, and party games.

One of his greatest contributions to the world of gaming is the 1969 book A Gamut of Games, which continues to be widely available.

Sackson was also a collector of games. After his death in 2002, his collection of more than 10,000 tabletop games was sold off at two auctions. I attended both and picked up several boxes of the games he once owned. Many of those I’ve passed on to friends, but I have a French edition of Can’t Stop that isn’t going anywhere.

(The auctions were big news in the gaming world at the time. You can read more about them in this article by Matthew Horn for The Games Journal, this article by Michael Barnes at WorthPoint, this article by Drew Davidson at BoardGameGeek, and this article by Blake Eskin in The New Yorker. I also wrote about the auctions: this article covers the first auction, and this article covers the second.)

Sackson was inducted into the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts & Design’s Hall of Fame in 2011. (The Academy is a division of the Game Manufacturers Association.) To learn more about Sackson’s life and games, I recommend this article by Nick Sauer and Herb Levy at Gamers Alliance, this article by Bruce Whitehill at The Big Game Hunter, and this 85-page document from the Sid Sackson Collection at the Strong National Museum of Play.

The Methodology

The Opinionated Gamers were asked to vote for their favorite Sid Sackson games. Each OG could vote for up to 10 games, awarding their top game 15 points, their second-ranked game 14 points, and so on all the way down to giving their 10th-ranked game six points. The votes were entered into a spreadsheet (that did the math I would have surely messed up) and the top 10 were revealed.

We had 19 Opinionated Gamers vote; 24 different games received at least one vote.

Below you’ll see designations for gold, silver, and bronze. Those represent the number of voters who ranked a given game as #1, #2, and #3, respectively.

Honorable Mentions

15: Executive Decision (22 points)
14: Das Superblatt (25 points)
13: Gold Connection (42 points, 2 bronze)
12: Venture (43 points)
11: Monad (53 points)

10: Focus / Domination (58 points, 1 gold, 1 bronze)

This colorful abstract strategy game won the 1981 Spiel des Jahres (Sackon’s only SdJ). It was also included in A Gamut of Games.

9: Metropolis (63 points, 1 gold, 2 bronze)

A city-building negotiation game that features three-dimensional plastic buildings that are placed on a city map, Metropolis was published in 1984 and was one of the games recommended by the SdJ jury that year.

8: BuyWord (67 points, 1 bronze)

Published posthumously, BuyWord won the Games Magazine Game of the Year award in 2005. This is a unique take on the word game genre, as players use cash to buy letters in the hope that they’ll be able to make a profit by selling words.

7: Can’t Stop Express / Extra! / Choice / Solitaire Dice (99 points, 2 bronze)

A Gamut of Games included the game Solitaire Dice, which was later released as a separate game known as Choice (in German and English editions) and Einstein (in a French edition). That game was re-released as Can’t Stop Express in 2017. In 2011, a related game with some modifications — Extra! — was published by Schmidt Spiele. No matter what it’s called, it’s fantastic.

6: Bazaar (124 points, 1 silver, 2 bronze)

Originally released as part of the classic 3M Bookshelf Series, Bazaar has a superficial theme but it’s really all about obtaining gems and then exchanging them in various combinations, set by rate cards which are randomly drawn at the start of the game, to earn points. This game packs a lot of brain-burning into about 20 minutes.

5: I’m the Boss! / Kohle, Kies & Knete (149 points, 1 gold, 3 silver)

This terrific negotiation game is great fun — as long as you’re playing with people who will still be your friends when it’s over. The board has spaces dedicated to various deals that can be made, each of which requires certain players to be involved. Play nice, and everyone can make money. But if you get greedy, other players can use influence cards to completely cut you out. (There’s also a card game version of I’m the Boss, which I quite enjoy, although it failed to earn any votes.) In 2018, a new edition with some rules modifications was published in South Korea as Gaus Company.

4: Samarkand (156 points, 3 silver, 3 bronze)

Solidly in the family game range of complexity, Samarkand is a trading game in which players do not trade with each other. Instead, the board features a number of nomad camps where you can trade commodities.

3: Sleuth (176 points, 3 silver, 1 bronze)

Sackson’s best take on the deduction genre is terrific. Players compete to identify the missing gem, using cards to question other players and gain bits of information that help narrow the possibilities. (Sleuth is essentially a streamlined version of Sackson’s The Case of the Elusive Assassin.)

2: Acquire (184 points, 4 gold, 3 silver, 2 bronze)

Another game originally published in the 3M Bookshelf Series, Acquire — an economic game focused on growth, mergers, and stocks — is a true classic. With its plastic board and pieces (and a hotel chain named after the designer), the 1999 Avalon Hill edition is viewed by many as the best version of Acquire. The 2016 AH edition changed the layout from a 12×9 grid to a 10×10 grid. I’m a little surprised by how few points separated Acquire from Sleuth, but that probably just means that I need to play Sleuth again.

1: Can’t Stop (276 points, 12 gold, 5 silver, 2 bronze)

One of the greatest press-your-luck games ever published, Can’t Stop is the clear overall favorite of the Opinionated Gamers. Not only did it receive the most points, but it’s the only game on the list that received a vote from everyone. And nobody ranked it lower than #3! Can’t Stop is elegant in its simplicity: four dice, three markers per player, and a game board. I’ve played it hundreds of times (thanks, BoardGameArena!) and will happily play it thousands more.

Thoughts from Opinionated Gamers:

Larry: Do you think it’s finally okay to suggest that maybe, just maybe, the brilliant Sid Sackson’s masterpiece could be Can’t Stop? If you want to insist it’s Acquire, that’s fine with me, but just look at how we voted. That’s a landslide victory for a quick, simple little dice game. But it’s so good — easy to learn, easy to play, but there’s real decision-making and strategy in every turn. As far as I’m concerned, it’s easily the best push-your-luck game of all time and might be the best dice game as well — it’s certainly in the running. I’m not sure Acquire has aged that well, but Can’t Stop seems as fresh and inviting today as it was 40 years ago. It was an easy pick for my favorite Sackson game.

My ratings were reasonably in sync with the rest of the group. My top five were Can’t Stop, I’m the Boss!, Extra!, Venture, and Monad; Bazaar, Samarkand, and Sleuth also made my top 10. I’ve played Acquire in five different decades and it’s never particularly appealed to me. Just not enough control and a bit too much luck for my tastes, even as a youngster. But the Sackson achievement that will always be tops for me is his amazing book A Gamut of Games. In addition to exposing me to a huge number of new titles, it showed me that games were actually designed by people and not faceless corporate publishers and that this was the sort of thing I might even be able to do someday. I can’t tell you how important that book was in developing my love of games. Thanks, Sid.

Joe, mostly responding to Larry:

“Do you think it’s finally okay to suggest that maybe, just maybe, the brilliant Sid Sackson’s masterpiece could be Can’t Stop?”

Sure, you can suggest that. You’d be wrong, but you’re most welcome to suggest it.

“If you want to insist it’s Acquire, that’s fine with me, but just look at how we voted.”

And then consider the source, and make your own call.

“That’s a landslide victory for a quick, simple little dice game.”

Huh — a quick, simple little dice game wins a popularity contest. Who ever would have thought…

“I’m not sure Acquire has aged that well, but Can’t Stop seems as fresh and inviting today as it was 40 years ago. It was an easy pick for my favorite Sackson game.”

I am certain that Acquire has aged well. Not many of the games I played when I was twelve still hit the table at all; Acquire does, and is still a delight. And is clearly, for me, Sackson’s masterpiece.

Which isn’t to say Can’t Stop isn’t an enjoyable game, or worthwhile; I very much enjoy the game. But I’m not entirely certain that Can’t Stop, not Extra!, is Sackson’s best dice game…

Craig (interjecting as a third party to the conversation between Joe & Larry): I’m inclined to agree with Joe that Acquire remains the gold standard for Sackson’s catalog, but I’ll put Can’t Stop right up there with it. Both have been in print over a long span of time, but it seems that Acquire has been consistently in print since the early ’60s in a variety of languages. Can’t Stop didn’t hit the market until 1980 with the first Parker Brothers edition and didn’t see another multilingual edition until 2007. So while we collectively voted for Can’t Stop for the top spot, we might have sold Acquire short.

If I could have voted for a book, A Gamut of Games would have been my top choice above them all.

Mitchell: I missed out on the voting. This is a great list. I think Sid’s finest contribution to gaming is his book A Gamut of Games. At the time it was the most unique, thoughtful, and thorough curation of interesting games, both the games in the book, and the annotated list at the end. I first discovered the book in the earliest days of my gaming enthusiasm. My wife and I played every two-player game in the book, both Sid’s designs, of course, and those of his friends and colleagues. The card games were especially interesting and a wonderful introduction to the many possibilities of the genre. We enjoyed some of the fine abstract games, too — Focus, Lines of Action (Claude Soucie), and Crossings (which eventually became Robert Abbott’s Epaminondas), and the Domino Bead Game. And I enjoyed Choice, an original roll and write that has been republished in many iterations. It’s worth a shout out to also mention Sid’s paperback game books — Beyond Tic Tac Toe, Beyond Solitaire, and Beyond Words. Beyond Tic Tac Toe was republished as Games of Art. There are some good games in those books and they are worth returning to if you can track down copies. I’m reminded that Beyond Solitaire has a pinball simulation. I look forward to playing that again given the arrival of Super Skill Pinball. I’m not sure any of these games (except Focus and the Domino Bead Game) belong in the all-time top ten, but there’s a lot to explore here and well worth the time for serious gamers and/or game designers.

Fraser: This list shows me that I need to hunt out more Sid Sackson games. There’s a couple that I have only played once, due to them being owned by someone else. There are only two I have played multiple times, Acquire and Can’t Stop. I really like Acquire, but I struggle to find people to get it to the table with even pre-pandemic. Can’t Stop has become one of my favourite games on BoardGameArena — it is quick and easy to play, very suitable to turn-based play. I have a repeat game going on with a mate in Sydney and another one in New Zealand, just roll the dice and look at the board and then start making decisions.

Dan: I agree with Mitchell that A Gamut of Games is Sackson’s most influential publication overall. As for the games — it depends on what criteria you’re using to rank them. On the basis of influence, Acquire is the clear winner. On the other hand, if rating by influence I’d have to vote for some games such as Venture which haven’t held up nearly as well. I voted primarily on the basis of how much I actually enjoy the games now, which definitely sold some of Sackson’s output short, and helped to rob Acquire of the top spot, but I’d rather play Can’t Stop. Overall I think the list is pretty good, but I think Metropolis has not aged that well and I wouldn’t recommend it to people. (Probably not a big deal since it’s not very easy to find anyway.) The only Sackson game I rate highly which didn’t make the list is Chain Reaction; hardly anyone has rated it, so I am not surprised.

More Articles in the 10 Great Series:
10 Great 2-Player Games
10 Great Animal Games
10 Great Card Games
10 Great Deduction Games
10 Great Games of the 2010s
10 Great Reiner Knizia Games
10 Great Roll & Writes
10 Great Ticket to Ride Maps
10 Great Tile Placement Games
10 Great Trick-Taking Games
10 Great Worker Placement Games

About Erik Arneson

Author of HOW TO HOST A GAME NIGHT (Tiller Press, Oct. 2020), 17 GAMES YOU CAN PLAY RIGHT NOW!, and the crime fiction short story collection THE THROES OF CRIME. Find me at erikarneson.com.
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