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Adam B

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Go to the Dominion page


77 out of 84 gamers thought this was helpful

Two to four players, plays well with any number.

Half-an-hour to play with experience.

Dominion is a modern classic. Easy to explain, elegant mechanics, and practically infinite replay value make it the game to play with two to four.

The mechanic here is a draft. Each turn you have one action and one “buy,” which you use to add a card to your deck. Treasure cards in your hand (copper for 1, silver 2, gold 3) limit your purchase, but you can increase your income by acquiring more treasure.

Your goal: have the most VPs at the end of the game. However, VP cards generally just sit in your deck wasting space otherwise: they aren’t usually actions, and they don’t generally have a treasure value, so they’re a dead draw. This provides the main source of tension in the game.

The game ends when either three piles are gone (you start with ten randomly assorted piles of ten, three victory point piles, three treasure piles, and a curse pile), or when the Province pile is empty (the most efficient VP card). As the clock ticks down towards the end, you need to determine when to shift into acquiring VP cards — too early, and you’ve got a bunch of dead hands. Too late, and you don’t have enough to pull out the win.

Dominion isn’t a CCG. While it shares some aspects (especially that of multiple expansions and customizable “decks”), it’s much more like Fantasy Flight’s new line of “Living Card Games,” where the purchase of a set gives you all the cards in it. This means that it avoids being a temptation of a money sink (because buying duplicates of a set makes no sense), but still can release loads of expansions.

You start with seven copper and three estates. This hammers home the “VPs are worthless ’til the end” point right at the beginning of the game. Gold costs six, and since you start with copper (only worth one), no actions, and draw a hand of five, you won’t be able to purchase gold until the third turn (two turns and a shuffle to get new cards into your deck). These combine to make the opening of Dominion an interesting affair: deciding what deck to build with the cards available, how to defend against any potential attack cards, how fast the game will move in general, and so forth.

Dominion’s story arc is actually very well-defined. The opening pulls your deck in a particular direction, and gives you a chance to see what other people will be going for. The midgame either sees your deck increase to the point where you can actually shuffle it, or decrease (with cards like the Chapel) to an efficient purchasing machine. The endgame has everyone rushing for VPs in their own deck-specific way.

The interaction in Dominion is limited, but fun. The main form of interaction is indirect: Will my opponent take the last Village? How fast is that deck going to move? Do I need to shift my own into VP gear? The other form of interaction is the “Attack” card type. These generally touch all your opponents, with the Bureaucrat forcing them to discard and waste a draw, the Thief giving you your opponents’ treasures, and the Witch giving your opponents negative VPs.

The base game is simple. Low-key and easy to understand most strategies, it’s a good introduction to the game. While you can randomly determine a set of ten cards to use in your game, it comes with several predetermined sets you should probably use for your first few games. After these, you can shuffle the 25 cards in the base game for 3,268,760 different combinations (25 choose 10).

Dominion’s a great light game, better with expansions (Seaside is my favorite so far). My wife brought it out of the closet just last week after the game churn in our household pushed it out of my working memory. It hasn’t gotten put back yet.

Go to the Race for the Galaxy page
83 out of 90 gamers thought this was helpful

Two to four players, one to six with the expansions.

About an hour to play, less with experience.

Race is a machine-building game, my favorite kind. You build inertia by the cards you play until your unstoppable juggernaut slams into the immovable force of your wife’s luck.

Each turn you secretly choose a phase to play. These are revealed simultaneously and occur in phase order (somewhat like Citadels). Each phase you perform all the actions on your cards that match that phase. They generally give the person who chose them a minor benefit (somewhat like Puerto Rico, it’s spiritual parent). Over the course of the game you’ll be playing cards (colonies and developments) which give you VPs, and acquiring and using resources for more cards or VPs.

Strategies in Race are legion, but mainly fall into two categories. One approach is to drop colonies and developments as quickly as possible to end the game before anyone else can get started. The other approach is to take your time building up a machine that generates victory points in piles, and end the game at your leisure.

The former strategy (quick) is supported by several mechanics. The only real resources in Race are cards themselves. You discard cards to colonize or build developments and you use cards to represent resources ready to be used. This places a very real limit on the number of cards you can actually play over the game. However, there are several ways to “cheat” cards into play. First, the military. Taking a colony by force requires only military strength, with no discarding. With the right starting planet (these often form a major part of your strategy), you can play a colony per turn and just ride off the other players’ need for card draw. Second, some cards grant discounts for playing colonies and developments. This has a chicken-and-egg problem, but if you see the right cards, works rather well.

The latter strategy (slow) also provides major benefits. The Consume phase is your best friend: generating both cards and victory points (often both at the same time), you can use this phase to keep your engine running and lock out the usually resource-starved military player across from you. Since the number of cards you can play is limited, you’ll need to make good decisions as to what abilities you need, but this is a great strategy if well-executed.

My favorite thing about this combination of strategies is that it creates a great tension, even when your only real influence on the other players is your choice of phase. Each turn, the quick players are wondering if they’ll be able to finish the game before the slow players really start to get going, and the slow players need to decide if they should play that acceleration card or the one with better Consume abilities.

Immediately upon breaking this game out, everyone is struck by the symbols (somewhat like Bang!). The entire game is predicated upon evaluating these symbols, often several on a card. While some can’t handle it (I have to learn another language?), I’m a big fan. These symbols are both easy to read (after the first few rounds) and precise. What do I do this phase? Read across my cards to immediately find out. How many cards have Consume: Trade abilities? Instantly visible. How many cards do I draw in the Explore phase? Count across. While not for the faint of heart, good player aids and graphic design should make this a non-problem for most groups.

A brain-burner with simultaneous action, straightforward effects that are complex in combination, good for any number supported: Race is one of my favorite thinking games. Shame I can’t make my Dad understand it.

Go to the Tales of the Arabian Nights page
62 out of 69 gamers thought this was helpful

One to six players, best with three or four.

About two hours to play, longer if you do the voices.

Arabian Nights is the Choose Your Own Adventure board game.

Each turn, you get a random encounter, choose a reaction, and see what happens to your poor character. The game comes with a gigantic encounters book and a reaction sheet, which reference each other in a combinatorial explosion of story snippets. Oh, I met a Disguised Prince on the road? I’m going to Rob him! Uh oh, he’s actually the prince of the land, and has his bodyguards throw me in the dungeon, eh? I guess I’m Imprisoned now. Next turn.

To win, you need two types of VPs: Story and Destiny points. At the beginning of the game, you choose a number of each (summing to twenty) that will be your goal. You can reduce the total points for a shorter game, but I wouldn’t recommend increasing it. Ten of each is pretty standard. As you go through encounters, you get points based on what happens to you. For anyone attempting to game this system, though, don’t bother. Encounters give out practically random assortments of points, so much so that “winning” might as well be a roll of the die itself. The crazy thing: you probably won’t care.

This game isn’t about the win. It’s about the insanity that happens along the way. Encounters are wide and varied, and drop long-term status effects on characters, such as ***-changed or married. Reactions vaguely cover most anything you might want to do, and some things you’d never consider had they not been on there. Encounters themselves feel like they’re pulled straight from the old tales.

My wife was annoyed that the game didn’t have much continuity between turns (encounters are disconnected and episodic, with your character being the only constant), but that doesn’t take much away from the game. Your character does grow and change over time, with skills (which alter the available encounter paths), status effects (which change your options each turn), quests (which provide VPs or treasure for completing a goal), and treasure. However, these just add to the story, rather than present a strategy. Even your quest, ostensibly the means with which you pick up your winning VPs, is impossible to be deliberative about. Often, the best you can do is wander until a random encounter gives you what you need.

In all, this is a great low-key game. Like Fluxx, if you get frustrated over losing (or winning) for no good reason, it might not be worth picking up. However, if you want to laugh over whether a ***-change changes your married status, you might give it a try.

Go to the Neuroshima Hex! page

Neuroshima Hex!

120 out of 129 gamers thought this was helpful

Two to four players, best with two, good with any amount.

About half an hour to play, longer with more players.

A hex-based, tile-laying, post-apocalyptic strategy game. How much better can it get? It plays well with two, uses variable player powers (think Starcraft’s Zerg, Terran, and Protoss, and you’re halfway there), and has a hand-management mechanic that gets the brain burning. For more casual strategy gamers I’ll pull out Small World, but if someone wants a challenge, out comes The Hex.

Neuroshima Hex is actually based on a Polish RPG (Neuroshima) set in a story-ridden post-apocalyptic world of robots and mutants. The Hex itself reeks of background, with fully half of the player aids devoted to the place your team holds in the RPG. Fortunately the game plays just as well without that background, and it just serves for some light flavoring.

Each turn, the active player draws some hexes from their deck, discards at least one hex, and plays some hexes. Some of your hexes are units, which you play by positioning them on an empty space on the board, where direction matters. Other hexes are actions, which you play by acting, then discarding the hex. Note that there is no combat phase.

To battle, you must draw and play a battle hex; timing is everything. Since you win by destroying other headquarters (or by scoring VPs by damaging them in my preferred variant), you need to wait until positions are favorable. However, the hex takes space in your hand (max size: two!), so you shouldn’t wait too long after drawing it. You have a limited number of battles in your deck, so discarding it is a difficult decision to make, but occasionally necessary. Fortunately for your brain, battles are completely predictable. You can look at the board and determine exactly what will happen if you play that hex. The ramifications of that might not be immediately apparent, though…

Everything in Neuroshima revolves around the battle, and this cycle of build-up and destroy. The first few rounds, few tiles are on the board, and battles will have little to no effect. As the game builds up, the board gets more and more crowded (pieces don’t often move, and the field is snug), until a battle is practically necessary to clear it. Once the battle happens, lots of pieces leave the board, since most have only a single hit point. The build-up happens again, the battle tears everything down again. “War never changes.”

Hex is big on positioning. Your board position is often very static (though some races change that a bit), meaning that the decision of how to rotate a piece can make or break the game. Pieces have triangles on them to notate the direction and strength of attacks — one short triangle points in the direction of a melee attack that does one damage, while three long triangles point in the direction of a three-damage ranged attack. Different races have different units available, including brawlers that do melee damage to three adjacent sides, and net fighters that disable a unit on one side of them. The board state can quickly get complicated when you have four players.

You play until you run out of tiles or until someone hits 20 damage/VPs (which rarely happens in my games), making a built-in time limit that keeps things short and play tense. The tile pile has other effects on the game, as well — the number of each tile in your deck is public information, and everyone knows what you’ve seen, what you’ve discarded, and what’s in your hand. If you’ve gone through all five battle tiles in your deck, they know that you can’t initiate another. If you’ve used your single sniper tile, people no longer need to play around it. If both players in a two-player game have gone through all their battle tiles, the rest of the game can be rather boring. Fortunately, you get one last battle when the game ends, ensuring that things get a final shake-up.

Play with three or four people has interesting issues — if you play for HQ damage, you get player elimination, which can be generally unhappy. The game’s time limit mitigates that problem somewhat, though. If you play with damage-as-VPs, one player’s HQ could end up out in the open, basically just acting as a VP farm and a degenerate strategy for the other players. With four players, playing on teams mitigates this quite a bit.

In all, recommended for anyone looking for an interesting strategy game to add to the collection. Neuroshima Hex plays well with two, putting it into an elite group, and can be played in under an hour, making it more unique still. It’s a tile-placement hex game to boot, and the different races give each game a different feel. Give it a shot with your Chess or Go buddy, and let me know what you think.

Go to the Small World page

Small World

55 out of 62 gamers thought this was helpful

Two to five players, well-balanced for all.

About an hour-and-a-half to play, depending on the number of people (more people, more time).

I’m always looking around for good strategy games. I love to play them, but I’m terrible at them, so I’m trying to find one that I don’t always lose. I also play most of my games with only a single other person, whether my wife or a friend over for the evening. Strategy games almost always need a third player to hold the game’s triangular shape, which makes it complicated. Risk, for example, places neutral pieces on the board if you’re playing with two.

Small World fills my constraints wonderfully. There are multiple boards for rebalancing from two to five players. There’s a huge amount of replay value in the mix of races and classes you can choose for your armies. There’s an automatic neutral army mechanic that allows two players to play an interesting game. There’s an ingenious catch-up mechanic based on dwindling resources that makes for interesting decisions throughout the game, as well. I’m slightly ahead of myself, though.

The game plays like Risk, with several major differences.

First, attacking is a simple comparison, with at most one die roll. As in Diplomacy, whoever has the most units wins, but Small World also allows you to roll a die to add a random number of units to your attack. (EDIT: Most of the time, you can only roll this die on your last attack, and then only if you don’t have enough units to succeed without it.) This means that each turn moves fast, as most of the time is spent deciding where to send your units, and not resolving a dozen die rolls over a single attack.

Second, your army has a race and a class, which you get to choose. Races (like Elves or Humans) are paired with classes (which they call “special powers,” like Heroic, or Seafaring) randomly each game, and shuffled when you run out. Some combinations are downright broken (Commando Amazons? Good night!), but they come up so infrequently as to not be a problem, and can only last a few rounds before dying out anyway. The queue of upcoming pairs is visible on the side of the board, in order. You can choose the next pair in the queue for free, but must pay one VP for each pair you choose to skip. This balances the more powerful pairs, and also provides compensation (you get all coins paid for skipping your pair) for the person who eventually chooses the underpowered pair.

The most important difference is that you don’t get reinforcements. When you get your army initially, you have a limited number of units to use for attacking. You need at least one unit occupying an area to control it, and you get VPs based on the number of areas you control, which creates a difficult decision. See, at any time you can choose to put your existing army “in decline,” which allows you to choose a new army. However, once an army has gone into decline, they only maintain a single unit in each area, you can no longer attack with them, and you lose your next turn. This means that the choice as to when you go into decline has a huge effect on the game.

If you go into decline too early, you lose out on VPs you could have gotten by expanding farther, because any extra units you’re using for defense go away. If you go into decline too late, you might miss a great race/class pair that just appeared in the queue. Too early, and the ratio of active turns (where you’re gaining territory) and inactive turns (where you can’t attack) starts to get low. Too late, and the amount of territory you can gain each turn diminishes to uselessness: since you don’t gain any more units to attack, there comes a point where you cannot gain more territory — diminishing returns.

The final major difference is two-fold: semi-hidden victory points and a turn limit. Recent versions of Risk have a turn limit, but the “victory points” are purely determined by the number of countries controlled, which is public information. Small World’s victory points are semi-hidden, by which I mean that you have a stack of them on the table, so people can generally tell whether you’re doing amazing or not with a glance. However, you’re allowed to hide the exact number of VPs you have, and are not required to answer any questions about how many are in front of you. This means that quite a few games end with loads of tension while people count (Dominion does this very well).

If you’re looking for a quick, lighter strategy game, Small World definitely fits the bill. I’ve never had a game last more than two hours (even when teaching it), and most are much faster than that. You can play it quick-and-dirty, just attacking where you feel, but the choice of when to drop into decline makes skill and thought a major factor in victory. Expansions provide new race/class pairs to shuffle into your set, but the base game provides enough variety to keep it interesting for a long time.

Go to the Dixit page


40 out of 45 gamers thought this was helpful

EDIT: Apologies for those who caught the first version, it was a mis-paste. 😛

Three to six players, the more the better.

About half an hour to play, but very flexible. Normally it lasts as long as the players are interested.

Think Apples to Apples crossed with Balderdash, and you’ve got a handle on Dixit. It’s a game for talking to friends, for making friends, for learning about friends. The base mechanics of the game only really require the (beautifully illustrated) cards, a way to number the ones on the table from one to however many players you have, and a way to secretly vote on one of the chosen cards; if you have more than six, I believe it would work with up to eight, but I’ve only played it with four at most.

Dixit is a game of inside jokes and references. Everyone has a hand of uniquely illustrated cards. The active player chooses one from their hand, places it face-down on the table, and gives a short description to the other players. The others must then choose a card from their hands and place it face-down with the first. The chosen cards get shuffled and flipped over, and everyone but the active player must secretly vote on one card. After everyone has voted, the active player reveals which one they chose.

The scoring system is where Dixit shines. If everyone chooses the active player’s card, they all get two points and the active player gets nothing. This ensures that your description won’t be overly precise. If nobody chooses the active player’s card, they all get two points and the active player gets nothing. This ensures that your description won’t be overly vague. Between these two situations, the active player gets three points as an award for an interesting description, everyone that guesses correctly gets three points as an award for knowing the active player, and each non-active player also gets a point for each vote their card got.

Because of this system, you’re rewarded for sharing some background with the other players. For example, I once gave the clue “my mom” at a game with my wife. The cards were flipped to reveal a few interesting things, including a ladybug, my mom’s favorite animal. My wife knew exactly which one to vote for, and the other people at the table were at a loss. However, if you only have one person at the table that you share this kind of knowledge with, you’re at a disadvantage: remember, they’ll also get three points, as well as any points other players give them through their vote. Therefore, you must rotate who you choose when making your reference.

Dixit is loads of casual, friendly fun, and lots of conversation comes out of why people chose the cards that they did. If you play with the same people long enough, it gets more and more difficult to come up with a good clue, too — I can never use my mom’s ladybug fanhood again with my friends from Oregon, for example. Points are tracked on a VP track, but could just as easily be written, allowing you to play to a particular time (when the brownies come out) or score, or until the cards run out (recommended). An expansion pack of cards is also readily available (and worth it), but it doesn’t fit well in the original box.

Recommended for a casual group of good friends, as an after dinner snack of a game.

Go to the Cosmic Encounter page

Cosmic Encounter

87 out of 94 gamers thought this was helpful

3 – 5 players, 6 with expansion, the more the better.

About an hour to play, five minutes to teach, can be played casual, but is very strategic.

First printed in 1977, Cosmic Encounter is a classic (it even influenced the creation of Magic: The Gathering) that only gets better with time. While the mechanics are simple (a “destiny” deck randomly determines your opponent for the turn, you choose one of their planets to attack, the player with the most ships wins the encounter), the game has several components to make it infinitely replayable.

First, each player has a race. Race cards each break the rules in different ways — one might let you stack the destiny deck, another might allow you to cheat your way into an encounter, another might let you multiply as a disease to spread over multiple planets. There are 50 of these cards in the base game, and the expansion (which also gives you a 6th player) provides 20 more. Since each player only chooses one race per game, you easily have billions of different combinations you could play with.

Second, each player chooses their race between two cards they see at the beginning of the game. These are the “flare” cards, which will end up in the deck before the game starts. For example, I might have the choice between the Grudge and the Humans (mostly harmless), but no matter which I pick, both of those flares will end up in the deck. Each player will have a hand of cards from the deck that they use for different things — from adding ships to their encounter, to zapping another player’s power, to recovering ships from the Warp. Most of these cards are discarded when played, but if you have a Flare in your hand, you can play it and still keep it around for another pass. Flares double the number of race-related powers you see each game.

Third, the game includes a Tech deck, providing cards you can research over time to give yourself Real Ultimate Power(TM), like destroying a planet. Each player only sees one Tech card per game.

EDIT: As noted in the comments, you get to choose Tech cards like starting races — draw several, choose one. Also, if you succeed in your first encounter, you can either take a second encounter or a Tech card; of course, a second encounter is extremely powerful in a game that only goes to five “VPs” (foreign colonies), so I’d expect that you’d still see very few Tech cards. Thanks to the commenters!

With all this madness, each game is significantly different. Some races seem flat-out bad, until you realize you can use their powers in very interesting ways. My dad played as the Philanthropist one game, who is allowed to give encounter cards (that add or remove ships to an encounter, or attempt to negotiate) to a player in an encounter. He couldn’t figure out how to make this help him until halfway through the game, when he started unloading terrible encounter cards (-10 ships? take it, go ahead) to his opponents. Since you must play an encounter card each turn, and you can’t reload your hand ’til you run out of encounter cards, all of these terrible cards would need to be used by his … beneficiaries.

One race allows you to join an encounter even if the main players (the offense, whose turn it is, and the defense, whose card was drawn from the destiny deck) didn’t ask you to do so. Normally, players must ask for allies, because an ally on the offense gets a colony if the offense wins, and five foreign colonies wins the game. In the endgame, people will often choose their allies very carefully, depending on who’s close to winning. This race can tag along for the win.

Cosmic Encounter is the highest-rated game in my collection, and I’ll always suggest it when I have an hour and a few friends around. Highly recommended for players interested in political, strategic games. If you buy it, get the recent Fantasy Flight printing and expansion, it’s the best printing yet.

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