Play the game tonight ’16

Remember this number? "Play The Game Tonight"? Kansas from 1982? No? Heck, I liked it.
Remember this number? “Play The Game Tonight”? Kansas from 1982? No? Heck, I liked it.

Croquet is satisfying, and video games are addictive, and political scheming has its time and place. But the older I get, the more fun I require, and the more fiercely I cling to my first love: boardgames. Not just any board games, either, but meticulously designed and beautifully illustrated ones that have been coming at us in waves from across the North Atlantic for the past two decades or so. This has been a golden age for boardgaming fans, and those of us who like to play them have had an embarrassment of options. For instance, a cousin of mine recently told me he has 500 boardgames of recent vintage in his basement. He lives in semi-rural Mercer County, so he’s got the room to indulge his fixation. Our narrow little place in Downtown Jersey City can’t accommodate any more than the 30 or so games we have, but all 30 hit the table pretty regularly, and I’m always angling to appropriate another closet and expand our collection. Who needs shoes anyway?

The games we like over here are called Euros to differentiate them from the faster-paced, more aggressive American style of design. There are hundreds of Euros of various length and complexity representing different themes and tailored to gratify different playing styles, but these games have a few elements in common. Where American-style boardgames are generally representational — they’ll often let you play with tiny replicas of boats and spaceships and army men or whatever the game’s base commodity happens to be — Euros are a little more abstract. They emphasize balanced game mechanics that are so fine-tuned and mathematically precise that it’s tough for experienced players to fall too far behind the leader. Nobody gets knocked out early and relegated to the sofa. Also, the design of Eurostyle games tends to discourage direct conflict: you and your playmate will often be competing for resources in an economy of scarcity, but the game usually won’t give you tools to demolish what she’s already built. You might be tempted to outpace her by taking the stuff she wants or by blocking her moves, but most of the time, you’ll be so absorbed in plotting your own meticulous strategy that you won’t even bother.

Because of this, fans of the American style boardgames accuse the Euro designers of encouraging multiplayer solitaire. They prefer the clash of armies and big battles to farming or castle construction or village building. Me, I’m not a competitive person, so the peaceable vibe of the Euros suits me just fine. Since I really don’t like beating other players into oblivion, wargaming has never exactly been my thing. I play to win because it’s more dramatic that way, but I never mind losing, especially if I’ve managed to overcome obstacles, slip into the designer’s logic, and make something gratifying happen. When I’m in the middle of a great Euro like Terra Mystica, I’m barely even keeping track of the score: each turn is a puzzle with a set of challenges, imposed by the game, to overcome through clever placement. By the end of the game, I expect to have built a city on the board that’s pretty enough to photograph, and I’m more than hoping that my opponents have done the same.

Because I like to keep track of things, I counted every boardgame we played in 2016.  Here’s the Top Ten list, in ascending order.

#10 Tzolk’in.  This is a Mayan-themed civilization-building game, the currency is represented by tiny disks with illustrations of corn on them, and the play area is decorated with pictures of ancient temples.  All of that looks sharp. But the first thing you’ll notice about Tzolk’in is the large interlocking plastic gears on the gameboard. Each turn, the players load the wheels with cylindrical pawns (there are circular grooves on the wheels that allow your little guys to ride around) and twist the whole apparatus to the right. The longer you’re able to keep your pawns on the gears, the bigger the payoff when you remove them. Like many Euros, Tzolk’in is a “worker placement” game; i.e., there are spaces on the board that are activated when you put a pawn on them. The presence of the gears in Tzolk’in means that the value and significance of those placements keeps changing. That probably sounds confusing, and it *can* be: this isn’t a light game, and it can sometimes feel like you’re riding the cogs to nowhere. But it’s not quite as long or as complex as it seems like it’s going to be, and the tactile pleasure of fitting the wooden pegs into the slots and turning the gears is hard for me to resist.

#9 Castles Of Burgundy.  Hilary’s favorite game. Stefan Feld, its designer, frustrates some purist fans of Eurogames because of his love of dice. Many of the best-known Euros — Puerto Rico, Caylus, Power Grid — barely have any random elements at all, which is supposed to make a game a true contest of skill and inventiveness rather than a chance-fest. But eliminate all the luck from a game and you’re left with something like chess, or Hive, or an idealized Eurosocialist state. I don’t like the feeling that there’s a right answer: I want to hold out the possibility that a newcomer, or just a bad player, or an American, could blunder into a win. Anyway, Castles Of Burgundy isn’t like that at all; dice there are, but they’re mostly there to limit the player’s options and force her to improvise. Each round, tiles are laid out in a common area, and the numbers thrown determine which tiles can be taken by the player and added to her little principality. Some tiles allow her to take other tiles, or place down other tiles next to them, and once you get going, those placements often prompt clever chain reactions that are incredibly satisfying to trigger. This game draws some flak because of the flimsiness of its components and the dull-brownness of its art, and I kind of understand where the criticism comes from. But it doesn’t stop us from playing it all the time.

#8 Ora Et Labora.  Though we didn’t play it very much in 2016, one of my absolute favorite games is a medieval farming simulation called Agricola. I use “simulation” loosely; I don’t think anything about Agricola is historically or botanically accurate. But it *does* force the player to feel some of the crazed desperation of the pre-industrial farmer on the heath: is there any time to build improvements to my meager, drafty house? Are my neighbors going to take all of the goods? Do I own enough land to do any of the things I want to do? If I have a baby, will we all starve? How the hell am I supposed to feed my family, anyway? Even by the notoriously tense standard of Eurogames, Agricola is a stressful experience, which is why we frazzled characters over here love it so much. Last Christmas, Hilary went and bought a bunch of other games by Uwe Rosenberg, the designer of Agricola. Ora Et Labora is one of them. Superficially, it’s a lot like Agricola (it’s even more like Le Havre, another Rosenberg game), but the economy is totally different: instead of having very few good paths and many ways to go wrong, the player is presented with a multiplicity of useful options. It’s still medieval-themed, but instead of running a farm, you’re in charge of a monastery. On your turn, you’ll usually be confronted by a choice between adding a building to your diocese or enjoying the benefits of a building you’ve already built. Those buildings produce a wide variety of different goods, and since almost everything you do generates points, the little world you’re creating feels beautifully open-ended and maybe even relaxing. As in just about every other Rosenberg games, you *will* end up feeling that you wanted another few turns to bring  your plan to fruition, but there are so many turns in Ora Et Labora that it’s downright greedy to ask for any more. This is a loooong game; a rainy day game; longer than anything else on this list. Uwe Rosenberg believes you’ve got nothing better to do than to play his games. Maybe he’s right.

#7 Robinson Crusoe: Adventures On The Cursed Island.  This one is a co-op, which means that all the players take on different roles and team up to defeat a threat established by the designer. Everybody wins or everybody loses; there’s no in-between. We don’t have any other co-ops — I think Hilary was only compelled to get this one because of the 18c literary theme. That’s her biz. I’m glad she did: even though this isn’t really my style, it’s a heck of a lot of fun in a Kobayashi-Maru no-win scenario kind of way. If I remember my Defoe correctly, though, Crusoe was on the island by himself — in this game, you and your friends are a team of Crusoes, racing against time and fighting the elements to get rescued or save a damsel or achieve the victory conditions of some other shipwreck scenario. Only you won’t, because this game is hell-bent on humiliating you. Thanks to a truly evil deck of event cards and dice that are effectively loaded against the shooter, any step you take on the island is liable to get you injured or killed outright or invite killer bees into your camp or otherwise destroy your survivalist ambitions. Even if you’re inches from your goal, one bad break (and it’ll come) will wash away everything you’ve built on the island. There’s a sick, masochistic sort of satisfaction I take in watching the master plan undermined by cruel fate: the oncoming storm that’ll surely wreck the flimsy shelter, the food resources drying up, the wild animal that comes and eats all your reserves, you name it. We played Robinson Crusoe more than a few times, and I still don’t think I’ve begun to exhaust the many techniques this game uses to screw you utterly. I’m not sure we’ll return to it too often in the future, but it’s a nicely wicked addition to a games collection, especially if you’re a fan of TV Survivor or hard-luck stories.

#6 Settlers Of Catan.  Of all the games on this list, Settlers Of Catan is the one that you’ve probably heard of and perhaps even tried. It’ll be there at any mall board game kiosk during the holidays, right next to Pictionary and Monopoly. Dedicated fans of Euros consider Settlers a gateway game — something designed to introduce newcomers to the style — and tend to talk down on it. It was our first Eurogame, too, but we’ve never outgrown it; on the contrary, we continue to consider it one of the best games on our shelf. Settlers Of Catan gets knocked because the basic mechanic isn’t too sophisticated and the outcome is influenced highly by the constant dice-throws. Here’s another game that is almost entirely dice-dependent: craps. Now, before I had a board game collection, I was a crapshooter, and I recognize the logic of craps beneath the vague theme of colonization. During a game of Settlers, there’ll be lots of talk of laying roads and gathering resources to build cities, but what you’ll really be doing won’t be all that different from what you do at a craps table: you’ll be placing numbers on a board and hoping they hit before the seven comes up. Because all players are in on every roll and trading happens after every turn, there’s not a lot of downtime, and the action is often very tense and exciting, and the game often comes down to a final climactic roll. That’s unusual in Eurogames, many of which end, like a soccer match, with the players standing around and wondering if time’s up. Inevitably the outcome is affected by the fabled perversity of dice. But who among you is above a little perversion?   

#5 Caverna.  This is Uwe Rosenberg’s ruby-mining remix of Agricola: similar mechanics and rules, but with expanded capabilities for the player and a very different theme. No more are you a medieval farmer; now you’re a Tolkeinesque dwarf living in a cave. You can still develop a plot of land, but you can also tunnel into the mountain for ore and gems. And that’s the best way to sum up the difference between Caverna and its older sibling — here, you’re awash in precious stones with amazing game-altering abilities; there, you’re lucky if you’ve got a stick to dig potatoes with. Caverna is different enough (particularly in feel) that it does seem like a separate experience, but I admit I miss the precariousness and sheer high anxiety of Agricola.  Also, I was never drawn to dwarves in Dungeons & Dragons — the elves didn’t really get on with them, and I am always eager to ratify elven choices.

#4 Keyflower.  My favorite game, at least for now. Keyflower contains modified versions of many of the elements that are standard across different Eurogames: there’s an auction phase in which players bid on buildings to add to their New World colony, a worker-placement phase for gathering resources, a tile-laying segment that doubles as an exercise in town construction, and one (or more) hidden objectives revealed only during the home stretch. Any one of these could be — and in many cases, has been — the core of a really good Eurogame. Keyflower manages to stitch it all together seamlessly, which is an impressive feat. Never will you fail to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, or why the designers chose the metaphors they did. But what I really dig about Keyflower is the same thing I love about many of my favorite restaurants: seasonality. The action happens over a single year, and options constrict, quite realistically, I think, as the calendar pages turn. In spring, you haven’t got much but hope and a bunch of enthusiastic colonists, but the field is wide open and it seems like things are ready to grow; in summer, there’s a bounty of options, boats sail in to the harbor, and it’s easy to get lulled into the misapprehension that everything about your little town is ideal. Then the chill wind starts to blow in autumn, and players are forced to make preparation for winter, a time of scarcity when everything can fall apart on you fast if you haven’t planned properly. There’s some pretty pastel art — cartoon style, but not too whimsical — that reinforces the theme, and a vague, thrilling sense of impending doom that undergirds the whole experience. It can be chew-your-hand-off tense. But it’s never less than amazing.

#3 Concordia.  It’s very difficult to explain the appeal of this game. Everything about it seems old hat; dull and Euro-pro-forma: house-shaped tokens go down on a map/board representing the various regions of the Roman Empire and entitle the player to resources which are then used to facilitate the placement of more house-shaped tokens. If a Euro-hater wanted to create a parody of dry Euro conventions, I’ll bet it would look a lot like Concordia. That the map/board is beautiful in a staid, social studies-y kind of way only reinforces the problem. Yet in action, Concordia is fantastic fun; in fact, it might offer the most enjoyable playing experience of any boardgame, in any style, that I’ve ever played.  Not at all is this a history teacher’s classroom aid: anything you might happen to pick up about the Rome during a run-through of Concordia will be purely accidental. That’s because the real action doesn’t take place on the board — it’s driven by a small deck of cards that you’re given at the beginning of the game and which you’ll add to as you go. The cards both affect and exploit the layout of the board, and the sequence in which you play them will determine how well you do. The game requires you to collect sets of cards in various suits (there’s a conceit that each color is dedicated to a different Roman god or goddess, but trust me, in practice, it’s an abstract element of an abstract game) and because play goes so quickly and the cards need to be used fast it can be tough to tell how you’re doing. And that’s part of the beautiful bewilderment of Concordia — nobody has any idea who is winning until the very end.  The final scoring feels like a revelation, and players will be on edge as the points are tallied up. This addresses my own biggest gripe with Euros, and one I alluded to in the Settlers comment: too many of these games end on a flat note. Often there’ll be a final round that’s insufficiently distinguished from prior rounds, and/or one token will be so far ahead on a victory point track that the tally barely seems necessary. I’m math-minded enough to respond well to the accountability and measurability of Eurogaming, but I do require some drama, randomness and surprise, too. That’s the ugly American in me, and it’s not budging.

#2 Bora Bora.  Games about settlement and colonization — or, for that matter, city-building — do not tend to lead with cultural sensitivity. If my old anthropology professors ever caught me playing Bora Bora, I think they’d probably rescind my degree. Half-naked primitives recruit men and women to their tribes, get ritual tattoos for status, collect shells for currency, dedicate fire ceremonies to mysterious totem-gods who intervene in the game restrictions, and… yeah, I can feel that retrospective F coming. I’d repudiate Bora Bora, and Stefan Feld too, if this wasn’t such a hoot. Ironically, the theme of this game is actually stronger than that of many of the more anodyne concepts above: Feld really seems to have gotten into South Pacific life, or his weird conception of it, anyway. Any game that allows me to work my way up a temple hierarchy (Tzolk’in and Terra Mystica have this element, too) will always draw interest from this wannabe vicar over here.

#1 Jaipur.  This straightforward, Indian-themed cards ‘n’ chips game was highly recommended in a column by the baseball writer Keith Law. Like many baseball obsessors, Law also likes boardgames a lot — I think his favorite is Carcassonne, but I could be wrong. Anyway, he described Jaipur as a fast, portable, and extremely enjoyable two-player experience, and he was absolutely correct about all of that. Once we got our copy, we took it on trips with us; we even played it in light turbulence on an airplane and managed to prevent most of the chips from becoming lethal projectiles. It’s easy to keep Jaipur compact because all you’re ever doing is swapping goods, represented by cards in several suits, from a souk of five face-up n the middle of the table. Once you’ve got a set, you trade it in for points in chips — usually the bigger the set, the higher the score, but the player who strikes first can often outscore an opponent who waits. If we’re quick about it, we can usually complete a game in twenty minutes. Setup, too, is a total breeze. So: not the best game of all, but the easiest to make happen, and perfect for short stretches of time that demand to be filled with something engaging, and would otherwise just sit there forlorn, begging to be played with. I can’t handle that — I get too guilty. Come on over here, time. We’ll do something fun.