Valeria: Card Kingdoms.

Valeria: Card Kingdoms came out in 2015 from Daily Magic Games and has been steadily expanded ever since, including the latest release, this summer’s Flames & Frost, which is also the largest Valeria expansion to date. The game combines some great elements of other games, including the extensibility of Dominion, but more than anything else it takes the core mechanic of Machi Koro and improves on it dramatically. The theme is different, and there are other major variations, but this really is Better Machi Koro, to the point that I can’t imagine pulling MK out again now that we have Valeria on the shelves.

Valeria will at least start out as familiar to Machi Koro players: Each player starts with two cards, a Peasant (with the number 5 on it) and a Knight (number 6), and on every turn, the active player rolls the two dice to ‘activate’ certain cards. In Valeria, three cards are typically activated with each dice roll – the number on each individual die and the total of the two. (If they’re equal, some cards will thus be activated twice.) If you are the active player and you have any cards with those numbers on them, you get a specific reward in gold, magic, or strength tokens; if you’re not the active player, you also get a reward, but it’s usually smaller than what the active player gets.

On each turn, you get two actions, and can do one of four things. One is to just take a single gold, magic, or strength token, which is especially useful at the beginning of the game, but isn’t exactly why you’re here. The second action is to buy a Citizen card from the table. Citizens are numbered from 1 through 8, plus a 9/10 card and an 11/12 card. Citizens with higher-probability dice rolls on their cards cost more to buy, and, unlike in Machi Koro, you pay more to buy multiple copies of the same card – face value plus one more gold coin for each copy of the card you already have.

The third action is to buy a Domain card, which range from 5 coins to at least 12 coins, and give you end-game victory points as well as some recurring extra abilities or bonuses during the remainder of the game, such as reducing some card costs or allowing you to steal tokens from other players every turn. The fourth is to ‘defeat’ a Monster card on the table; there are five stacks of Monsters, sorted by type (a symbol in the upper left), and they get increasingly difficult to defeat as you move down the stack. You defeat Monsters with strength tokens and sometimes with magic tokens as well, earning an immediate reward (usually gold and/or other tokens, sometimes a free Citizen card instead) and end-game victory points.

There’s one other avenue to points that is unique to each player. At the start of the game, you’re dealt two Duke cards that detail specific game-end bonuses that are tied to the symbols found in the upper right of all cards (Domains, Monsters, and Citizens, especially the first two), or just to the number of Domains you bought or Monsters you defeated, and something for the leftover tokens you have. Add the points from your Duke to the points on your Domains and Monsters and any extra points you picked up during the game (some Citizens let you take a victory point rather than, say, two gold) and you get your total. The game begins with twenty card stacks in total, and when the number of Exhausted (depleted) stacks reaches twice the number of players, the game ends.

Here Be Monsters.
Here be Monsters.

The expansions mostly add twists with new Citizens, Monsters, Domains, and Dukes, varying the possible ways to score and altering how you might combine cards, while also giving the game the Dominion-like aspect of allowing you to mix and match cards so the game has functionally infinite replayability. The Flames and Frost expansion is larger than the previous ones, large enough that you can play a complete game using only cards from the new box other than the starter Knight and Peasant cards and the Exhausted cards from the base game. Several expansions introduce Event cards as well, which are shuffled into the Exhaustion deck; if you draw an Event card when a pile is exhausted, something happens to all players, usually something not good.

Game play takes about 30 minutes for 2 to 4 players – we haven’t tried it with five – not including setup time, which can get longer if you want to craft your own custom set of Citizens for that particular game. My daughter and her friend, both 11, had no trouble understanding the rules, and my daughter even tied me in our first two-player match. The iconography within the game, which limits its reliance on English (for the global market), can be a little confusing at first, but we kept the rules handy as a reference to walk us through it. If you liked the main idea of Machi Koro but found the game somewhat broken, especially given the way players could monopolize certain dice rolls, then I give Valeria my very strong recommendation.

Jaipur app.

Jaipur has long been my go-to recommendation for a pure two-player game, whether it’s as a “couples’ game” or just something light and quick to play with a friend or your kid. The mechanics are simple, the game moves very quickly, yet most turns involve tough decisions around what’s best for you now and setting yourself up for future moves while also avoiding helping your opponent. Asmodee Digital, who have quickly become the top publisher of app version of popular boardgames, released an app version of Jaipurearlier this summer, and it’s excellent across the board, including four levels of AI difficulty that provide me with a real challenge. (It’s possible I’m also just not very good at this game.)

I reviewed the physical version of Jaipur back in 2011, so I’ll just give a quick overview of the game this time around before focusing on the app. In Jaipur, players try to collect sets of cards, depicting six different goods or gems, to exchange for points. You may hold up to seven goods cards in your hand at any time. Trading in cards first nets you more points, as the point values decline for most goods as more of them are redeemed. The three gems – diamonds, gold, and silver – can only be redeemed if you have at least two cards of that type; you can trade in the other three goods with just one card, which can be a strategic move to grab the highest-point token first before your opponent trades in a big set. There are also bonuses for trading in sets of three, four, or five goods of a kind, the last ones ranging 8-10 points and kept secret until the end of the round.

Players acquire cards from a central market of five, which can include goods cards and camel cards; there’s an end-of-round bonus of 5 points for whoever has the most camel cards. On your turn, you can take one goods card from the market, take all camel cards there (not just one), or exchange camel and goods cards for two to five cards from the market. There’s a tactic here of trying to rig the market so your opponent gets a market of five camels and has no choice but to take them all, which will give you five new cards from which to choose on your next turn. A round ends when the deck is exhausted or when all of the tokens in three different types have been redeemed.

The Asmodee app is just about perfect, other than the lack of an undo/confirmation function in case you tap the wrong thing. The original graphics are bright and easy to see on any screen. The actions are easy – everything is a tap, rather than swiping or moving goods from one spot to another. When you tap on a goods card in your hand, the app automatically assumes you want to sell all of those, which is always the correct move, rather than making you tap all such cards. Animations make sense – you can see what your opponent sold, you can see which bonus token your opponent got – and I suppose you could write down what’s happening to track your opponent’s points. The app offers pass and play as well as online modes, the latter requiring an Asmodee Digital account (which you should have if you like playing boardgame apps at all).

The AI comes with four difficulty settings, and even level 3 is reasonably challenging. The AI is clearly keeping track of the cards you take, and also employs the strategy of exhausting the deck faster if it’s winning and the cards are almost gone. It’ll sell one good of a type you’re collecting to try to grab the highest-point token before you do. It’s particularly good at setting up that tactic I mentioned earlier, trying to force your opponent to take all five camel cards from the market, so you have to change your strategy in turn to avoid it. I haven’t even tried level 4 because level 3 is about an even match for me so far, although, again, I may just be really bad at Jaipur.

The app also includes a ‘campaign mode,’ which presents you with a number of variations on the game’s base rules, like changing the hand limit from 7 to 5, or changing goods values so that they don’t decline as more goods of any type are traded/redeemed. You earn rupees for your points in each game in the campaign, and then can spend those to open up new areas on the campaign map, each of which has a new rules tweak or gives you a harder opponent. There’s a light story in here, but it’s really just another way to play the game, forcing you to try some new strategies and changing up the base game if you get tired of playing the AI (or if you’re just better at it than I am).


Onirim is a solitaire card game app from Asmodee Digital, based on a solo or cooperative card game previously published by Z-Man (now part of Asmodee’s growing empire). It’s simple to learn and very quick to play, but calibrated to be reasonably challenging through several plays, especially with the Glyphs expansion. It’s available for free on iTunes and Android with in-app purchases of expansions for $0.99 apiece.

Onirim is played with a single deck of cards that, in the base game, contains cards of in four different colors with three shapes apiece on those colors (sun, moon, key), as well as eight door cards (two in each of the colors) and ten “nightmare” cards. Your goal is to unlock the eight doors before the deck runs out of cards, working with five cards in your hand at any given time. Every time you play or discard a card, you replenish your hand by drawing from the top of the deck.

You can unlock a door by playing three consecutive cards with the same color but different symbols – sun-moon-sun is fine, but sun-sun-moon is not – or by playing the correct color of key card from your hand when that color door appears from the deck. You can also choose to discard a key card to look at the next five cards in the deck, rearranging any four of them and restoring them to the top of the deck while trashing the remaining card. When the next card you draw to refill your hand is a nightmare card, however, the trouble begins, and you can dispense with it in one of four ways:

* You can discard all remaining cards in your hand.
* You can discard the next five cards from the top of the deck. Nightmare and door cards are ‘recycled’ rather than discarded, but color cards of any shape are gone from the game.
* You can discard a key from your hand.
* You can recycle a door card that you’ve already unlocked.

When you unlock a door, the remainder of the deck is reshuffled, so if you played a key and knew what was coming, well, now you odn’t.

The game is balanced enough that I could win comfortably more than half of the time, but rarely won by much (going by the number of cards remaining in the deck, which is one of the ways the app determines your score). Onirim requires sacrifices; it gives you enough ways to unlock doors that you can plan around the nightmares, but have to make tough choices, often discarding cards you were about to use because a nightmare appeared. There are more sun cards than moon cards, and more moon cards than key cards, so you’ll probably find yourself ditching sun cards to get something better in your hand, or playing a moon card just to ‘reset’ the board, since the last card you played in the preceding triple (to unlock a door) still factors into the rule that you can’t play two consecutive cards of the same shape.

So far I have only tried the Glyphs expansion, which adds a fourth shape, glyphs, to the deck, but also requires you to unlock twelve doors rather than eight. You can use a glyph as you might any other shape card, but you can also discard a glyph card to reveal the next five cards in the deck. If one of them is a door, you can unlock it immediately, regardless of color. All non-door cards then go to the bottom of the deck, which can be good (nightmares!) or bad (that moon card you were waiting for!). Unlike the rules for doors unlocked with keys or card triplets, the deck isn’t reshuffled after you open a door with a glyph. Playing a key card and then a glyph can be powerful if the key shows you a door in the next few cards, but doing so knocks out two cards that might otherwise have been useful in completing sets of three. The expansion makes the game a few minutes longer, but I think it’s better; there are more decisions to make and the challenge of completing that many doors is harder, while recycling an unlocked door becomes a much more reasonable choice than it is in the base game.

There aren’t many good solitaire boardgames out there, and only a few I know – Friday is another, and I’ll review that soon – so Onirim would be an easy recommendation even if it weren’t free for the base game. The screen layout is different on the iPhone vs iPad, but both work – the iPhone makes good use of the space and I preferred having the doors laid out along the topic so they were always in sight. The publisher really could get away with charging a buck or two for this given the amount of time I’ve already spent playing it.

Top 100 boardgames.

This is now the ninth iteration of my own personal boardgame rankings, a list that’s now up to 100 titles, up twenty this time from last year’s list. It’s not intended to be a critic’s list or an analytical take on the games; it’s about 80% based on how much we enjoy the games, with everything else – packaging and design, simplicity of rules, and in one case, the game’s importance within its niche – making up the rest. I think I’ll probably hold the list at an even 100 going forward as it’s a monster to update each year.

I don’t mind a complex game, but I prefer games that offer more with less – there is an elegance in simple rules or mechanics that lead to a fun, competitive game. Don’t expect this to line up with the rankings at BoardGameGeek, where there’s something of a bias toward more complex games, which is fine but doesn’t line up perfectly with my own tastes.

I’ve expanded the list to include several games I have only played via iOS app implementations, rather than physical copies. As always, clicking on the game title takes you to; if I have a full review posted here or on Paste magazine’s site, the link to that will follow immediately. I’ve linked to app reviews where appropriate too. I’ve got many of these games in my aStore on amazon as well, unless they’re totally out of print.

I’ve added a few titles at the end that I own but haven’t played, or have not played enough to offer a review of them or rank them. Many of those will appear on a future list once I get to play them more.

I’ve put a complexity grade to the end of each review, low/medium/high, to make it easier for you to jump around and see what games might appeal to you. I don’t think there’s better or worse complexity, just different levels for different kinds of players. My wife prefers medium; I’m somewhere between medium and high. This isn’t like ordering a filet and asking for it well done, which I believe violates one of the Ten Commandments.

[Read more…]


My ranking of the top 100 prospects in this year’s draft class is up for Insiders. I’ll chat about it on Wednesday.

The interactive card game Coup is part of the Resistance universe of games, but unlike the game that heads up that family, it doesn’t require five or more players, playing very well with as few as three. (The game plays two, but I’ve found it isn’t a great experience.) In Coup, each player gets two cards randomly drawn from a deck of just fifteen, containing three apiece of five different types, and can take any of the actions prescribed by those card types … but players aren’t required to show their cards when they make moves, so they can flat-out lie about what they have. That introduces the challenge system: If you think someone else is lying, you challenge him/her; if you’re right, s/he loses a card, and if not, you lose a card. The last player with at least one card remaining in his/her hand wins.

The play system in Coup is simple, as there are only seven actions available, five of which are defined by the cards. A player may take one coin as Income, which requires no card and cannot be challenged. Any other move requires a card and is subject to challenge from another player. The Duke allows the player to draw three coins as Tax. The Captain allows the player to steal two coins from another player, or to block another steal attempt. The Ambassador allows the player to exchange one or both cards with two cards from the deck, or to block a steal attempt. The Assassin charges three coins to take out one card from another player. The Contessa can block an assassination attempt. The sixth move is the Coup: For seven coins, a player can force another player to reveal a card, with no block or challenge possible. When a player begins a turn with at least ten coins, s/he must make a Coup against another player.

(The physical game includes an eighth action, drawing “foreign aid,” where the player draws two coins of income rather than one, but can be blocked by the Duke. This isn’t in the app version, which I’ll discuss below.)

The challenge system is what makes the game run, however. If you think another player is trying to make a move using a card s/he doesn’t have, you challenge it. There’s significant risk, since you only have two cards, and if you’re wrong, you lose one of them (and if you’re already down a card, a failed challenge knocks you out of the game). Of course, you can employ a little math, because you know what two cards you have, what other cards have been revealed, and perhaps what cards you’ve put back into the deck via the Ambassador, but the odds are rarely fully in your favor. If another player tries to use the Assassin’s power against you, and you challenge him unsuccessfully, you will be knocked out of the game: you lose one card for the unsuccessful challenge and another to the Assassin. On the flip side, you have nothing to lose by challenging an assassination attempt when you’re already down to your last card. If you make a move, are challenged, but weren’t bluffing, you still lose the card in question, gaining a randomly drawn replacement from the deck.

I’m reviewing Coup now because there’s a free iOS app version available, one with some in-app purchases, fresh graphics, no AI players (that’s coming, I’m told, but I don’t think it’s necessary), and the options to play friends or to participate in ‘ranked’ matches that cost you ‘reputation’ points, with the chance to win points and increase your reputation if you win the match. Aside from some small server glitches such as push notifications not arriving on time or having to submit a move twice, I’ve had a very smooth gameplay experience with the app so far. The server usually responds quickly enough to keep games moving, with moves in ranked matches limited to two minutes, with players getting the boot if they don’t respond quickly enough. (This can screw one of the remaining players, however, if you’ve built a strategy around having that booted player around for a little longer.)

The Coup app impressed most in how seamless it makes the gameplay despite the high interactive component and necessity of having constant communication back and forth to the server. In timed games, each player has two minutes to submit a move, and if it can be challenged, the next player gets a two-minute timer to Challenge or Allow it. (Any other player can challenge before that next player hits either button.) If a player sends the Captain or Assassin after another player, the target gets two minutes to decide to challenge, allow, or respond by claiming to have a counter card in hand. The two-minute limits mean games move quickly, sometimes too quickly for me – a few times when my iPad screen timed out, I couldn’t get back into the game fast enough to submit a move.

I did not win this game.

There’s a limited chat feature that allows players to say some stock phrases, with four expansion chat packs available, two free as well as two for $0.99 each (including a set of taunts, which I don’t think is a particularly sharp idea). You can pay $2.99 to remove any ads from the game (although I’ve barely noticed any), $4.99 for a “spies expansion” that gives you detailed information on your opponents’ tactical patterns, and $3.99 if you want to use alternate graphics, including the images from the physical game. It’s certainly worth the $2.99 price to remove ads and support the development effort, but I’d have a hard time justifying paying for more reputation points – it’s a little too close to the days when I’d lose a whole roll of quarters playing Gauntlet. I’ve played Coup against random opponents in over 50 games so far, which speaks to how addictive it can be and how quickly you can rip through a few games in one sitting.

Love Letter.

Happy New Year to all of you. I’ll be scarce over the next few days, as my grandmother’s funeral is this weekend. My piece on the Marlon Byrd trade is up for Insiders.

Love Letter is probably the best $7 you’ll spend on a game, and the most surprising too – the entire game is a 16-card deck, and the theme looks silly, but the gameplay itself is fun and fast as long as you have more than two players.

In Love Letter, players take on the roles of suitors for a princess who’s about to inherit her country’s throne, and must compete to earn tokens of her affection – little red cubes that come with the game to keep track of scoring. Each round ends with one player winning a cube, and the first player to get four cubes (in a four-player game) wins the game and the princess’ heart. (The threshold is five cubes in a three-player game and seven cubes in a two-player game, but I don’t recommend Love Letter for two players.)

Each round begins with one card removed from the deck and a card dealt to each player. There are eight card types in the deck, each with a special ability or rule printed on it:

On your turn, you draw the top card from the face-down deck and must decide whether to discard your hand card or the new card, although you may be forced to discard one of them based on the combination of cards you’re holding. The card you discard is the one you play – you take the action printed on the card, if there is one, usually directed at an opposing player. Five of the sixteen cards in the deck are Guards, which allow you to point at an opponent and guess what card s/he is holding; if you guess correctly, that player is out of the round. If you discard a Prince card, you can force an opponent to discard his hand card and draw a new one – and if he was holding the Princess card, he’s out of the round. You can try to knock another player out with the Baron, but if she has a higher card than you do, then you’re out of the round. The winner at the end of the round is either the last player standing after all others have been knocked out or the player with the highest-valued card of players still remaining. The game can’t go more than thirteen rounds, regardless of the number of players, and takes maybe 20 minutes once everyone understands the rules.

There isn’t a ton of strategy involved in Love Letter, because so much of what happens is either random or dictated by other players (e.g., if someone uses the Priest to see your hand card, you probably have to swap it out on your next turn or s/he could use a Guard to knock you out). Those same factors make it a terrible two-player game – it’s almost paint-by-numbers at that point – and in some ways it’s more like a family-party game than a family-strategy game, albeit one that won’t insult anyone’s intelligence while delivering a lot of laughs. It’s a very easy game for people to act silly and start taunting other players, and you have to be okay with getting knocked out occasionally before you even get to draw your first card.

If you don’t love the theme, two rethemed versions are due in 2015 – one a licensed tie-in with the Hobbit films that adds a new card to the deck, and one a Batman-themed game set in Arkham Asylum that appears to be the same as the original Love Letter deck. The theme didn’t bother us at all – it’s just artwork, really – and there’s enough replay value to get more than your seven bucks’ worth out of it.

Star Realms.

My Insider pieces on the Andrew Miller signing by the Yanks and the three-team Yanks/Tigers/Dbacks trade are up for Insiders.

The runaway success of Dominion, which appears twice in the top ten of my boardgame rankings (once for the original game, another for the standalone Intrigue expansion), has spurred a huge boom in deckbuilding games of all stripes, many hybrids that incorporate other game types, but some that just take the basic Dominion formula and tweak it with new themes and slight changes to mechanics. I haven’t seen any takeoffs quite as faithful to Donald Vaccarino’s original game as Star Realms, a Kickstartered two-player deckbuilder that borrows liberally from Dominion, with the primary difference the change in goal from victory points to direct combat.

In Star Realms, each player begins the game with ten cards, seven coin cards worth one monetary unit apiece and three combat cards worth one damage point apiece. On a turn, a player draws a hand of five cards and – stop me if you’ve heard this before – resolves them by making purchases and using action cards. Neither buys nor actions are limited in Star Realms, and action cards come in four different categories (colors) that have some interactive effects if played during the same turn. Each player begins the game with 50 authority points, and the goal is to reduce your opponent’s authority total to zero via attacks.

Each action card has one or more features that can be used any time it’s played, including monetary value, attack points, authority points (like a healing spell), or the ability to scrap (trash) a card from your hand or discard pile (think Chapel strategy if you’re a Dominion fan). Cards may also have a one-time ability that comes from trashing the card, again things like damage or added purchasing power. The interactions between cards allow for rapid gains in powers as the game progresses, and produces a slight benefit to focusing your card purchases in, say, two of the four categories/colors, although in my experience playing dozens of games in the app, you’re better off purchasing the best card available than taking a weaker card just to stay within a preferred color.

Those interactions are particularly useful when you play one or more bases, cards that remain on the table for future turns. Such a move gives you a better chance of one of those interactions the next time around, which can mean doubling your attack points or your cash, or getting the ability to draw another card or trash one. These bases also have their own point values for defense if your opponent chooses to attack one of them and remove the special ability it grants you. Some bases are Outposts, which also prevent your opponent from hitting your main base of authority points until s/he destroys the Outpost too. Unfortunately, once the attack points values start reaching 8-10 regularly by any game’s midpoint, no Outpost is going to survive another turn, which I find one of the game’s biggest flaws – if I play a card to the table intending to use it next turn, but there’s basically no chance it survives that long, then it hasn’t done me much more good than a typical card I’d play and move to my discard pile.


The iPhone/iPad itself is free, but better AIs are in-app purchases and well worth the cost – the free app is just a tutorial, in essence, but the hard AI was good for forcing me to learn some strategy. The campaign in the app is very entertaining because it changes the ground rules and/or starts your opponent with different configurations of cards and points, so the game itself gets a lot of variation. Without that, however, the game would have become stale for me; it’s too much like Dominion, and while the combat angle provides an element of direct competition that the base Dominion game lacks, it’s not like there’s a whole lot you can do to stop your opponent, either, so it’s more a matter of hoping the lumps you take are less than the ones you dish out.

By far the best thing about the physical game is its price: For $12, you get a real game with plenty of replay value that would fit in someone’s stocking. Try putting Power Grid or Agricola in an oversized sock hanging by the chimney and see if you don’t pull the whole mantle down in the process. There are also some expansions (called Crisis, coming in little packets like old-school baseball card packs) coming soon that I expect will address some of the weaknesses in the main game – the minimal utility of bases and the too-strong resemblance to Dominion. Until then, it’s a good game for the price, but more of a trifle than a staple like its ancestor.

Top 60 boardgames.

This is now the seventh iteration of my own personal boardgame rankings, a list that’s now up to 60 titles, up ten once again from the previous year’s list. It’s not intended to be a critic’s list or an analytical take on the games; it’s about 80% based on how much we enjoy the games, with everything else – packaging and design, simplicity of rules, and in one case, the game’s importance within its niche – making up the rest.

I don’t mind a complex game, but I prefer games that offer more with less – there is an elegance in simple rules or mechanics that lead to a fun, competitive game. Don’t expect this to line up with the rankings at BoardGameGeek, where there’s something of a bias toward more complex games, which is fine but doesn’t line up perfectly with my own tastes.

I’ve expanded the list to include several games I have only played via iOS app implementations, rather than physical copies. As always, clicking on the game title takes you to; if I have a full review posted on the site, the link to that will follow immediately. I’ve linked to app reviews where appropriate too. I’ve got most of these games in my aStore on amazon and am gradually adding the rest.

I’ve added a list of titles at the end that I have played at least once but not enough to offer a review of them or rank them. Many of those will appear on a future list once I get to play them more – I might update this list in a few weeks as we keep playing, as I’ve got a pretty long list of games to try out.

Finally, as with last year’s list, you’ll find a complexity grade to the end of each review, low/medium/high, to make it easier for you to jump around and see what games might appeal to you. I don’t think there’s better or worse complexity, just different levels for different kinds of players. My wife prefers medium; I’m somewhere between medium and high. This isn’t like ordering a filet and asking for it well done.

60. Hacienda. I’ve only played the app version (review), but it’s a solid tile-placement game with a strange scoring twist – the game comprises two phases, and the score from the short first phase is doubled and added to the score from the second phase for the final tally. Players compete to form chains of tiles on a board with various terrain hexes, racking up points for connecting to markets, creating larger herds of animals, and placing hacienda tokens on large chains. Through the Desert does this theme one better but Hacienda has more variable play as well as a huge set of user-generated maps available online. Complexity: Medium.

59. Hey, That’s My Fish! The rare kids’ boardgame (just $12!) that is still a fun play for adults, where players compete to score points by placing and moving their penguins across a board of hexagonal ice tiles … but the hitch is that the tile you leave then drops into the ocean, so the board changes as you go and you can even trap an opponent’s penguin if you plan it right. The app version, the only way I’ve played this game, includes some great animations, and you can unlock a number of alternate boards via achievements, most of which are low-hanging fruit. This and Blokus are the two best games specifically aimed at younger players that we’ve tried. Complexity: Low.

58. Maori: A light two- to four-player game, relatively high in the luck department for this list, with more opportunities to screw your opponent in a two player game, whereas with four players you’re focusing more on your own strategy and less on others’. In the game, players compete to fill out their own boards of 16 spaces by drawing island tiles from a central 4×4 grid, where the available selections depend on the movement of a boat token that travels around that grid’s perimeter. Players must form completed islands to receive points, and lose points for open spaces. Currently out of print, but amazon has plenty of new copies through marketplace sellers. Complexity: Low.

57. Oregon. I need to play this some more, but it does have promise as a 2-4 player game that actually works with two players. Each player competes to place meeples and buildings on a rectangular grid by playing cards that match the row and/or column in which he’s placing the pieces. Points increase when players form larger groups of farmers on adjacent squares, place buildings next to farmers already on the board, or accumulate coal and gold tokens by building mines. It’s pretty simple and quick to play, but not that deep strategically. Complexity: Low.

56. Navegador. Full review. I love this game’s theme and better implementation of the explore-build-trade combination than Yspahan has, but it doesn’t work well at all with two players and really needs at least four to create enough competition on the board to make it more than just a few players playing solitaire at the same table. Players begin in Portugal with two ships apiece and have to sail to South America, around Africa, and eventually to Japan, opening up new areas, establishing colonies, building factories and shipyards, and buying and selling goods from their colonies according to fluctuating market prices. With enough players, it’s tightly competitive without feeling work-like, and the replayability comes from the interactions among players, since the game has only a miniscule amount of randomness. If you tend to game with four or five players, this would probably rank higher for you than it does for me, but I slid it down about ten spots this year because we usually play with two or three. Complexity: Medium.

55. Star Realms. Another deckbuilder, this one just for two players, playing very much like Dominion but with a space-exploration/combat theme. Each player starts with 50 points and must knock the other player down to zero to win. Players begin with ten cards, seven worth 1 coin each, three worth 1 combat point each, and on each turn can buy cards and/or attack at will. Scrapping cards (i.e., the Chapel strategy) is pretty easy, however, so the main twist is that players can build a wall of “bases” to protect himself – but those bases are pretty easily destroyed after the first few rounds because players can easily get to 6-8 attack points per turn. It’s a solid design but replay value was limited. The app looks great but the AI was a little light. Complexity: Medium-low.

54. Race For The Galaxy: Full review. I’ve played this game a few more times using a freeware version I found online with very strong AI players, but that’s only served to underscore for me how much this game resembles work. It’s a deck-based game where players must know the cards in the deck well to be able to execute a strategy, and are more or less told by their initial card what strategy they must pursue. I don’t game to add to my stress levels, but this game requires such intensity of purpose that, despite a good theme and precisely designed mechanics, it feels like a responsibility rather than like fun. Android: Netrunner, a top ten overall game on BGG, suffers from a similar problem – you have to know the game intimately before you can play it well. Complexity: High.

53. Spyrium. Full review. The steampunk theme didn’t do much for me, but there’s a decent game underneath it of very long-term planning – what you build in phase one really determines how much you’ll be able to accomplish in phase three. From the designer of Caylus (#15 this year), Spyrium requires players to collect the fictional energy-dense crystal of that name (dilithium much?) to build factories that produce more of it or convert it into cash. The real key to the game are the technologies available early in the game that can lead to lower costs later on; skip those, or buy the wrong ones, and you’re sunk. Complexity: Medium-high.

52. Asara. Full review. Light strategy game that feels to us like a simpler, cleaner implementation of Alhambra’s theme and even some of its mechanics, without the elegance of the best family-strategy games like Stone Age or Small World. Players compete to build towers in five different colors, earning points for building the tallest ones or building the most, while dealing with a moderate element of randomness in acquiring tower parts. It’s also among the best-looking games we own, if that’s your thing. Complexity: Low.

51. Alhambra: Full review. After playing it a few more times, I do like it more than I did the first time around, but the method used to acquire money is an awful mechanic that really screws the game up (for me) with more than two players. One of the cooler-looking games in our collection. Complexity: Medium.

50. Zooloretto: Full review. A fun game, but a bit of a trifle compared to the others further up this list. You’re a zookeeper trying to fill his zoo’s three enclosures (expandable to four) with animals that arrive each turn on trucks available to all players, but each enclosure can only hold one type of animal at a time. There’s a cost to switching animals around, and there’s a penalty for picking up animals you can’t house, with points coming for filling an enclosure or filling all spots but one. I’m a little surprised this won the Spiel des Jahres, as it lacks the elegance of most winners of that award, and the two-player variant rules included in the game don’t work at all. I have played a simplified version of the game with my daughter, who loves the animal tokens and the well-drawn zoo boards. It’s a good starter game in the German-style genre, but not the best. Complexity: Low.

49. Valley of The Kings. Full review. One of many Dominion-inspired deckbuilders, VotK has a shifting central market from which players can acquire cards, where more powerful and valuable cards aren’t available till later in the game. Players acquire points by “entombing” cards, removing them from their active decks and trying to build collections of cards in certain colors for bonuses that rise exponentially. Complexity: Medium-low.

48. Acquire. Monopoly for grown-ups, and one of the oldest games on the list. Build hotel chains up from scratch, gain a majority of the shares, merge them, and try to outearn all your opponents. The game hinges heavily on its one random element – the draw of tiles from the pool each turn – but the decisions on buying stock in existing chains and how to sell them after a merger give the player far more control over his fate than he’d have in Monopoly. There’s a two-player variant that works OK, but it’s best with at least three people. The game looks a lot nicer now; I have a copy from the mid-1980s that still has the 1960s artwork and color scheme. Complexity: Low.

47. The Battle for Hill 218. A simple-not-that-simple two-player card game with a high degree of blowing-stuff-up-ness. Two players compete to take control of the hill of the game’s title by placing cards representing different military units that have specific attack and defense skills – some merely attacking an adjacent card, some able to attack deep behind enemy lines. Currently out of print, but the Kickstarter was successful and a new print run is on its way. I’ve played and liked the iOS app version. Complexity: Medium-low.

46. Forbidden Desert. Full review. A medium-weight cooperative game from the designer of Pandemic (a top ten game for me, and the best coop game I’ve played), Forbidden Desert has players trying to escape a sandstorm on a board that changes every game, on which a sandstorm threatens to kill them all if dehydration doesn’t get them first. It’s more luck-driven than Pandemic, which doesn’t suit my particular tastes, but overall isn’t as difficult to learn or play. Complexity: Medium.

45. Lords of Waterdeep. I just reviewed the app version of this game, and it apparently hews very closely to the physical version. Despite the grafted-on Dungeons and Dragons theme, it’s just a worker-placement game where players compete across eight rounds to acquire scarce resources, build buildings worth victory points, and occasionally sabotage other players. Agricola has similar mechanics and constraints, but its greater complexity makes for a more interesting game; Lords is better if you don’t want to spend an hour and a half playing one session. Complexity: Medium.

44. San Juan: Full review. The card game version of Puerto Rico, but far, far simpler, and very portable. I like this as a light game that lets you play a half-dozen times in an evening, but all it really shares with Puerto Rico is a theme and the concept of players taking different roles in each turn. It plays well with two players but also works with three or four. I get that saying this is a better game than Race for the Galaxy (they were developed in tandem before RftG split off) is anathema to most serious boardgamers, but the fact that you can pick this game up so much more easily is a major advantage in my mind, more than enough to balance out the significant loss of complexity; after two or three plays, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how to at least compete. The app version is very strong, with competent AI players and superb graphics. Complexity: Low.

43. Yspahan. Full review. I should love this moderate-strategy game that combines worker-placement, building, and trading/shipping into one fairly quick-moving game, but the need to choose and play a tight strategy from the start detracts a little from the fun value. Players compete to place goods in clusters of buildings called souks on the brightly colored game board, with completed souks worth points at the end of each of the game’s three “weeks.” Players also earn points and privileges by building up to six special buildings, and can accumulate points quickly by sending goods to the caravan – or can ship other players’ goods from souks to the caravan to screw them up. Requires at least three players. Complexity: Medium.

42. Diplomacy. Risk for grown-ups, with absolutely zero random chance – it’s all about negotiating. I wrote about the history of Diplomacy (and seven other games) for mental_floss in 2010, concluding with: “One of a handful of games (with Risk) in both the GAMES Magazine and Origin Awards Halls of Fame, Diplomacy is an excellent choice if you enjoy knife fights with your friends and holding grudges that last well beyond the final move.” I think that sums it up perfectly. I haven’t played this in a few years, unfortunately, although that’s no one’s fault but my own. Complexity: Medium.

41. Jambo. Full review. A two-player card game where the deck is virtually everything, meaning that there’s a high element of chance based on what cards you draw; if you don’t draw enough of the cards that allow you to sell and purchase wares, it’ll be hard for you to win. Each player is an African merchant dealing in six goods and must try to buy and sell them enough times to go from 20 gold at the game’s start to 60 or more at the end. We played this wrong a few times, then played it the right way and found it a little slow, as the deck includes a lot of cards of dubious value. I’ve moved this up a few spots this year after some replays, as it’s one of the best pure two-player games out there. It’s also among my favorite themes, maybe because it makes me think of the Animal Kingdom Lodge at Disneyworld. Complexity: Low.

40. Le Havre. Full review, including app. It’s a great game, one of the most complex I’ve tried, based on Agricola and Caylus (both further up this list), but my God, the setup is a bear if you’re playing the physical game, and a full game can take a few hours. I do like the game a lot on an intellectual level, but I can fully understand anyone who looks at the size and scope and says “no way.” The app version, on the other hand, removes the biggest obstacle to the game and the AI players are solid, even able to execute some niche strategies that require knowledge of the special buildings in the deck. That said, multiple plays of this (in the app version) against the two games that inspired it have shifted my opinion, to where now Le Havre seems to trade enjoyment for complexity, not an exchange I’m usually willing to make. If you think Caylus is for kids and Agricola too airy, Le Havre is the game for you. Complexity: High.

39. Flash Point: Fire Rescue Full review. A new cooperative boardgame that borrows very heavily from Pandemic but shifts to a new setting – a burning building with victims to be rescued – and includes different constraints and tools for fighting the common foe. I think Pandemic does this better, not just because Matt Leacock invented this subgenre but because the play itself, especially the way the foe (viruses) spreads across the board, so Flash Point is better if you love Pandemic and want more of the same but on a different board. Complexity: Medium.

38. Targi. Full review. Moderately complex two-player game with a clever mechanic for placing meeples on a grid – you don’t place meeples on the grid itself, but on the row/column headers, so you end up blocking out a whole row or column for your opponent. Players gather salt, pepper, dates, and the relatively scarce gold to enable them to buy “tribe cards” that are worth points by themselves and in combinations with other cards. Some tribe cards also confer benefits later in the game. Two-player games often tend to be too simple, or feel like weak variants of games designed for more players. Targi isn’t either of those things – it’s a smart game that feels like it was built for exactly two people. (I got it for under $20 last December, but as of this writing it’s selling for over $50 on amazon because it’s about to go out of stock.) Complexity: Medium.

37. Goa. Goa had been out of print for at least five years, but there was enough of a clamor for a reprint that Z-Man Games reissued it entirely, with a small expansion included. It’s similar to two other games higher on the list, Bora Bora and Castles of Burgundy, in that players work off both a central board and individual player cards, taking resources from the central space and using them to advance tokens or development in their own play area. In Goa, the central board has a 5×5 area of tiles for players to acquire via a convoluted auction process, but after that the process is more straightforward: You’re a Portuguese spice merchant, using spices, ships, and colonists to try to build plantations and settle colonies while also increasing your production power across five separate categories on your Progress card. It offers a lot of decisions despite using just three core resources, and once you know the rules game play moves much faster. The artwork could use some help; my wife says the drawing of the merchant/colonist “looks like he wants to oppress me.” Complexity: Medium.

36. Tobago. Full review. Solid family-strategy game with a kid-friendly theme of island exploration, hidden treasures, and puzzle-solving, without a lot of depth but high replay value through a variable board. Players place clue cards in columns that seek to narrow the possible locations of four treasures on the island, with each player placing a card earning a shot at the coins in that treasure – but a small chance the treasure, like the frogurt, will be cursed. The deductive element might be the game’s best attribute. The theme is similar to that of Relic Runners but the game plays more smoothly. Complexity: Low.

35. Machi Koro. Full review. A deckbuilder where the “deck” is actually all open, with all of a player’s cards laid out in front of him/her at all times. Each player rolls one or both dice and may collect coins depending on the result and on which cards s/he has on the table, then using coins to buy more cards and try to rack up bigger bonuses on future dice rolls. The first player to build four special buildings (requiring a lot of coins) wins the game. It might be a little too simple for adults to play alone, but we loved it as a family game where the dice keep the playing field fairly level. Complexity: Low.

34. Seasons. Full review. A hybrid game of deckbuilding and point accumulation, where the decks are very small, so understanding the available cards and the interactions between them (some of which create exponentially better effects) is key to playing the game well. Players play wizards who start the game with nine spell cards to play, divided into three groups of three, and use them to gain energy tokens and crystals that can eventually be converted into points. The seasons change according to a time wheel on the board, and each of the four energy types has a season in which it’s scarce and two in which it’s plentiful. Seasons has a very dedicated fan base and two popular expansions, and I agree with that in that once you get up the steep learning curve it’s a great game due to the number of possibilities for each move and differences from game to game. Complexity: Medium-high.

33. Scotland Yard. App review. One of the few old-school games on the board, and one I’ve only played in app form. One player plays the criminal mastermind (I don’t know if he’s really a mastermind, but doesn’t he have to be for the narrative to work?) trying to escape the other players, playing detectives, by using London’s transportation network of cabs, buses, the Tube, and occasionally a boat along the Thames. It’s recommended for ages 10 and up but there’s nothing on here a clever six- or seven-year-old couldn’t handle if playing alongside an adult, and like Tobago has a strong deductive-reasoning component that makes it a little bit educational as well as fun. Complexity: Low.

32. Power Grid: Full review. This might be the Acquire for the German-style set, as the best business- or economics-oriented game I’ve found. Each player tries to build a power grid on the board, bidding on plants at auction, placing stations in cities, and buying resources to fire them. Those resources become scarce and the game’s structure puts limits on expansion in the first two “phases.” It’s not a simple game to learn and a few rules are less than intuitive, but I’m not sure I’ve seen a game that does a better job of turning resource constraints into something fun. I’d love to see this turned into an app, although the real-time auction process would make async multi-player a tough sell. Disclaimer: My wife doesn’t like this game because she says the board and cards look “depressing.” Complexity: High (or medium-high).

31. Elder Sign. Full review. Another cooperative game, this one set in the Cthulhu realm of H.P. Lovecraft’s works, Elder Sign takes a different tack on teamwork by emphasizing individual actions within the larger rubric of coordinating actions to reach a common goal. Players represent detectives seeking to rid a haunted mansion of its evil spirits, room by room, earning certain rewards while incurring risks to their health and sanity, all to take out the big foozle before he returns to life and threatens to devour them all. Player actions take place via dice rolls, but players can use their unique skills as well as various cards to alter rolled dice or reroll them entirely to try to achieve the results necessary to clear a room. There’s still a heavy luck component and you’ll probably swear at some point that Cthulhu himself has possessed the dice, but that just makes killing your supernatural enemy all the more satisfying. Complexity: Medium-low.

30. Glen More: Full review. Build your Scottish settlement, grow wheat, make whiskey. Sure, you can do other stuff, like acquire special tiles (including Loch Ness!) or acquire the most chieftains or earn victory points by trading other resources, but really, whiskey, people. The tile selection mechanic is the biggest selling point, as players move on a track around the edge of the central board and may choose to skip one or more future turns by jumping further back to acquire a better tile. It’s been in and out of print a few times already, and is probably the game on this list that gets the least press relative to its quality and fun factor. Complexity: Medium.

29. Lost Cities: Full review. This was the best two-person game we’d found, from the prolific designer Reiner Knizia, and the most portable game as well, since it can be played with nothing but the game cards. We’ve since moved on to some more complex two-player games, but for simplicity (without becoming dumb) this one is hard to top. The deck comprises 12 cards in each of five colors, including cards numbered 2 through 10 and three “investment” cards to double, triple, or quadruple the profit or loss the player earns in that color. Players take turns drawing from the deck but may only place cards in increasing order, so if you draw a green 5 after you played the 6, tough luck. You can knock out a game in 15 minutes or less, so it’s one to play multiple times in a sitting. The iOS app is very slick and plays really quickly – a great one for killing a minute while you’re waiting in line. Complexity: Low.

28. Camel Up. Full review. Winner of the Spiel des Jahres award this year, Camel Up revolves around the “Camel Cup,” a race around the board involving … well, camels, yes, but camel meeples that stack, so when one lands on a space occupied by one or more camels already, they form a pile that moves as one. Players get to place little bets on each round of the race and on the ultimate winner and loser. Strategy is light, and it works for up to 8 players – the more the merrier in our experience, because it just gets sillier (in a good way). Complexity: Low.

27.Puerto Rico: Full review. It’s grown on me, especially since I got to try it out a few times online via Tropic Euro, although I’ve had friends and readers tell me it can become monotonous after a lot of games. You’re attempting to populate and build your own island, bringing in colonists, raising plantations, developing your town, and shipping goods back to the mother country. Very low luck factor, and just the right amount of screw-your-neighbor (while helping yourself, the ultimate defense). Unfortunately, the corn-and-ship strategy is really tough to beat, reducing the game’s replay value for me. There’s a solid iOS app as well, improved after some major upgrades. Complexity: High.

26. Vikings: Full review. Back in print after a two-year absence from the market! A very clever tile placement game in which players place island and ship tiles in their areas and then place vikings of six different colors on those tiles to maximize their points. Some vikings score points directly, but can’t score unless a black “warrior” viking is placed above them. Grey “boatsman” vikings are necessary to move vikings you’ve stored on to unused tiles. And if you don’t have enough blue “fisherman” vikings, you lose points at the end of the game for failing to feed everyone. Tile selection comes from a rondel that moves as tiles come off the board, with each space on the rondel assigning a monetary value to the tiles; tiles become cheaper as the number remaining decreases. You’re going to end up short somewhere, so deciding early where you’ll punt is key. Complexity: Medium.

25. Morels. Full review for Paste. A 2012 release, Morels is an easy-to-learn two-player card game with plenty of decision-making and a small amount of interaction with your opponent as you try to complete and “cook” sets of various mushroom types to earn points. The artwork is impressive and the game is very balanced, reminiscent of Lost Cities but with an extra tick of difficulty because of the use of an open, rolling display of cards from which players can choose. Complexity: Low.

24. Bora Bora. One of two 2013 releases on my list, Bora Bora is one of the best-looking games we own and plays like a more complex version of the Castles of Burgundy. Two to four players compete to occupy territories on a central board of five islands, then using resources they acquire there to build on their individual player cards … but that’s just one of many ways to gain points in this game, where you can also hire natives to perform tasks or earn shells or status points, and you can trade in shells for jewelry worth points at game-end, and you can get bonuses for collecting certain combinations of cards, natives, or resources. It’s almost too much – you have so many options the game can slow down if players start overthinking it – but if you like Castles of Burgundy this is a good follow-up purchase. Complexity: Medium.

23. Thurn and Taxis: Full review. I admit to a particularly soft spot for this game, as I love games with very simple rules that require quick thinking with a moderate amount of foresight. (I don’t care for chess, which I know is considered the intellectual’s game, because I look three or four moves ahead and see nothing but chaos.) Thurn und Taxis players try to construct routes across a map of Germany, using them to place mail stations and to try to occupy entire regions, earning points for doing so, and for constructing longer and longer routes. Just don’t do what I did and play it against an operations consultant, lest you get your clock cleaned. Back in print this year and quite reasonable at about $27. Complexity: Low.

22. Concordia. Full review coming soon on Paste; I’ve filed but don’t have a publication date yet. It’s a map game, set in Ancient Rome, built around trade and economics rather than conflict or claiming territories. Much better with four players than with two, where there isn’t enough interaction on the map to force players to make harder decisions. Runner-up for the Kennerspiel des Jahres (Connoisseur’s game of the year) this year to Istanbul, which I will also review for Paste in the next few weeks. Complexity: Medium.

21. Through the Desert. Full app review. Another Knizia game, this one on a large board of hexes where players place camels in chains, attempting to cordon off entire areas they can claim or to connect to specific hexes worth extra points, all while potentially blocking their opponents from building longer or more valuable chains in the same colors. Very simple to learn and to set up, and like most Knizia games, it’s balanced and the mechanics work beautifully. Out of print at the moment, although I picked up a new copy back in 2011 for $10 on amazon. I’d grab the app while we wait for the physical version to come back around. Complexity: Low.

20. Orient Express: An outstanding game that’s long out of print; I’m lucky enough to still have the copy my father bought for me in the 1980s, but fans have crafted their own remakes, like this one from a Boardgamegeek user. It takes those logic puzzles where you try to figure out which of five people held which job and lived on which street and had what for breakfast and turns them into a murder mystery board game with a fixed time limit. When the Orient Express reaches its destination, the game ends, so you need to move fast and follow the clues. The publishers still sell the expansions, adding up to 30 more cases for you to solve, through this site. Complexity: Low.

19. Agricola: I gained a new appreciation for this game thanks to the incredible iOS app version developed by Playdek, which made the game’s complexity less daunting and its internal sophistication more evident. It’s very well made aside from the square animal pegs, which we replaced (at the suggestion of one of you) with actual animal-shaped pieces I bought via amazon. You’re a farmer trying to raise enough food to feed your family, but also trying to grow your family so you have more help on the farm. The core game play isn’t that complex, but huge decks of cards offering bonuses, shortcuts, or special skills make the game much more involved, and require some knowledge of the game to play it effectively. My wife felt this game felt way too much like work; I enjoyed it more than that, but it is undeniably complex and you can easily spend the whole game freaking out about finding enough food, which about a billion or so people on the planet refer to as “life.” Complexity: High.

18. Ingenious Full app review. A new addition to the list, although I only own the app rather than the physical game. It’s another Reiner Knizia title, a two-person abstract strategy game that involves tile placement but where the final scoring compares each player’s lowest score across the six tile colors, rather than his/her highest. That alters gameplay substantially, often making the ideal play seem counterintuitive, and also requires each player to keep a more careful eye on what the other guy is doing. My daughter loves this game as well. Complexity: Low.

17. Battle Line: Full review. Among the best two-player games we’ve found, designed by Reiner Knizia, who is also behind half the other games on this list. Each player tries to build formations on his/her side of the nine flags that stand in a line between him and his opponent; formations include three cards, and the various formation types resemble poker hands, with a straight flush of 10-9-8 in one color as the best formation available. Control three adjacent flags, or any five of the nine, and you win. But ten tactics cards allow you to bend the rules, by stealing a card your opponent has played, raising the bar for a specific flag from three cards to four, or playing one of two wild cards that can stand in for any card you can’t draw. There’s a fair amount of randomness involved, but playing nine formations at once with a seven-card hand allows you to diversify your risk. The iOS app is among the best as well. Complexity: Low.

16. Samurai: Full iOS app review, which is identical to the board game. I bought the physical game after a few months of playing the app, and aside from a slightly dated design and look to the pieces and the board, it’s a great game – simple to learn, complex to play, works very well with two players, plays very differently with three or four as the board expands. Players compete to place their tiles on a map of Japan, divided into hexes, with the goal of controlling the hexes that contain buddha, farmer, or soldier tokens. Each player has hex tiles in his color, in various strengths, that exert control over the tokens they show; samurai tokens that affect all three token types; boats that sit off the shore and affect all token types; and special tokens that allow the reuse of an already-placed tile or allow the player to switch two tokens on the board. Trying to figure out where your opponent might screw you depending on what move you make is half the fun. Very high replayability too. Appears to be out of print at the moment. Complexity: Medium/low.

15. Caylus. Full app review. Another game I’ve only played in its app version, Caylus is the best of the breed of highly-complex games that also includes Agricola and Le Havre, with slightly simpler rules and fewer pieces, yet the same lack of randomness and relatively deep strategy. I’ve also found the game is more resilient to early miscues than other complex strategy games, as long as you don’t screw up too badly. In Caylus, players compete for resources used to construct new buildings along one public road and used to construct parts of the main castle where players can earn points and special privileges like extra points or resources. If another player uses a building you constructed, you get a point or a resource, and in most cases only one player can build a specific building type, while each castle level has a finite number of blocks to be built. There are also high point value statues and monuments that I think are essential to winning the game, but you have to balance the need to build those against adding to the castle and earning valuable privileges. Even playing the app a dozen or more times I’ve never felt it becoming monotonous, and the app’s graphics are probably the best I’ve seen alongside those of Agricola’s. Complexity: High.

14. Small World: Full review. I think the D&D-style theme does this game a disservice – that’s all just artwork and titles, but the game itself requires some tough real-time decisions. Each player uses his chosen race to take over as many game spaces as possible, but the board is small and your supply of units runs short quickly, forcing you to consider putting your race into “decline” and choosing a new one. But when you choose a new one is affected by what you stand to lose by doing so, how well-defended your current civilization’s position is, and when your opponents are likely to go into decline. The iPad app just got a huge upgrade this past summer too. Complexity: Medium.

13. Takenoko.Full review. If I tell you this is the cutest game we own, would you consider that a negative? The theme and components are fantastic – there’s a panda and a gardener and these little bamboo pieces, and the panda eats the bamboo and you have to lay new tiles and make sure they have irrigation and try not to go “squeeeeee!” at how adorable it all is. There’s a very good game here too: Players draw and score “objective” cards from collecting certain combinations of bamboo, laying specific patterns of hex tiles, or building stacks of bamboo on adjacent tiles. The rules are easy enough for my daughter to learn, but gameplay is more intricate because you’re planning a few moves out and have to deal with your opponents’ moves – although there’s no incentive to screw your opponents. Just be careful – that panda is hungry. Complexity: Medium-low.

12. Tigris and Euphrates: Review of the iOS app. The magnum opus from Herr Knizia, a two- to four-player board game where players fight for territory on a grid that includes the two rivers of the game’s title, but where the winning player is the one whose worst score (of four) is the best. Players gain points for placing tiles in each of four colors, for having their “leaders” adjacent to monuments in those colors, and for winning conflicts with other players. Each player gets points in those four colors, but the idea is to play a balanced strategy because of that highest low score rule. The rules are a little long, but the game play is very straightforward, and the number of decisions is large but manageable. I’ve never played the physical game; the current version (sold through that amazon link) includes some minor expansions I haven’t tried. Complexity: Medium.

11. The Settlers of Catan: We don’t pull this game out as much as we did a few years ago, and I’ve still got it ranked this high largely because of its value as an introduction to Eurogames, one of the best “gateway games” on the market. Without this game, we don’t have the explosion in boardgames we’ve had in the last fifteen years. We don’t have Ticket to Ride showing up in Target, a whole wall of German-style games in Barnes & Noble, or the Cones of Dunshire on network television. Only four games on this list predate Settlers, from an era where Monopoly was considered the ne plus ultra of boardgames and you couldn’t complain about how long and awful it was because you had no basis for comparison. The history of boardgames comprises two eras: Before Catan, and After Catan. We are fortunate to be in 19 A.C.

As for the game itself, in Catan three or four players compete on a variable board of hexes to acquire different resource types, build roads and cities, and reach twelve victory points before any other player. Resources are parceled out in part according to rolls of the dice, and you can lose resources if the Robber shows up on a roll of seven and you’re not prepared for it. The Seafarers expansion balances out the core game’s low value on the wool resource, but also makes the game take about 50% longer to play. It was, and is, a great starting point if you’ve never played anything on this list, and is also one of the few games here that has some traction outside of the boardgamer culture, although that’s improving as well. There’s a brand-new expansion called Explorers and Pirates that introduces new scenarios and “missions” that add new ways to gain victory points. I haven’t picked that up, as we’ve just got lots of other games we prefer after playing this one so often over the years. Complexity: Low.

10. Pandemic: Full review. We haven’t tried many cooperative games, but this one sets a very high bar. Two to four players work together to stop global outbreaks of four diseases that spread in ways that are only partly predictable, and the balance between searching for the cures to those diseases and the need to stop individual outbreaks before they spill over and end the game creates tremendous tension that usually lasts until the very end of the event deck at the heart of the game. The On The Brink expansion adds new roles and cards while upping the complexity further. The Pandemic iOS app is among the best out there and includes the expansion as an in-app purchase. If you’re looking for a cooperative game you can play with kids, try Forbidden Island, from the same developer but much easier to learn and to win. Complexity: Medium.

9. Splendor. Full review. A Spiel des Jahres nominee, Splendor has fast become a favorite in our house for its simple rules and balanced gameplay. My daughter, now eight, loves the game and is able to play at a level pretty close to the adults. It’s a simple game where players collect tokens to purchase cards from a 4×3 grid, and where purchased cards decrease the price of other cards. Players have to think long-term without ignoring short-term opportunities, and must compare the value of going for certain in-game bonuses against just plowing ahead with purchases to get the most valuable cards. Complexity: Low.

8. Dominion: Full review. The definitive deck-building game, with no actual board. Dominion’s base set – there are four major expansions out there, including the potential standalone Dominion: Intrigue game – includes money cards, action cards, and victory points cards. Each player begins with seven money cards and three victory cards and, shuffling and drawing five cards from his own deck each turn, must add cards to his deck to allow him to have the most victory points when the last six-point victory card is purchased. I don’t think we have a multi-player game with a smaller learning curve, and the fact that the original set alone comes with 25 action cards but each game you play only includes 10 means it offers unparalleled replayability even before you add an expansion set. We own Dominion Seaside (which is outstanding) and Dominion: Alchemy (which I find a little weird), plus a standalone expansion further up this list. I can also vouch for this as appropriate for a young player – my daughter (who started playing this at age six) understands the base game well enough to play it without me deliberately throwing the game to keep it competitive. Complexity: Low.

7. The Castles Of Burgundy Full review. Castles of Burgundy is the rare game that works well across its range of player numbers, as it scales well from two to four players by altering the resources available on the board to suit the number of people pursuing them. Players compete to fill out their own boards of hexes with different terrain/building types (it’s like zoning) by competiting for tiles on a central board, some of which are hexes while others are goods to be stored and later shipped for bonuses. Dice determine which resources you can acquire, but you can also alter dice rolls by paying coins or using special buildings to change or ignore them. Setup is a little long, mostly because sorting cardboard tiles is annoying, but gameplay is only moderately complex – a little more than Stone Age, not close to Caylus or Agricola – and players get so many turns that it stays loose even though there’s a lot to do over the course of one game. This was our favorite new addition in 2012 and we haven’t tried anything new since then that beats it, especially not for $27. Complexity: Medium (medium-high).

6. Jaipur: Full review. Jaipur is now our go-to two-player game, just as easy to learn but with two shades of additional complexity and a bit less randomness. In Jaipur, the two players compete to acquire collections of goods by building sets of matching cards in their hands, balancing the greater point bonuses from acquiring three to five goods at once against the benefit of taking one or two tokens to prevent the other player from getting the big bonuses. The game moves quickly due to a small number of decisions, like Lost Cities, so you can play two or three full games in an hour. It’s also incredibly portable. Complexity: Low.

5. Dominion: Intrigue. Intrigue can be combined with the base game of Dominion, but unlike other Dominion expansions (of which there are now approximately 82, with a new one released every other week, or so it seems) Intrigue is a complete game right out of the box because it includes the money and point cards. And it’s better than the original game when both are viewed without any expansions because it’s more interactive – Intrigue lives up to its name in the sense that you should spend much of your time either plotting against your neighbors or trying to defend yourself, which makes the “Big Money” strategy in the base game much less effective. The changes make the game longer, but more even, and more fun. Complexity: Medium.

4. Stone Age: Full review. Really a tremendous game, with lots of real-time decision-making but simple mechanics and goals that first-time players always seem to pick up quickly. It’s also very hard to hide your strategy, so newbies can learn through mimicry – thus forcing veteran players to change it up on the fly. Each player is trying to build a small stone-age civilization by expanding his population and gathering resources to construct buildings worth varying amounts of points, but must always ensure that he feeds all his people on each turn. The iOS app is strong – they did a nice job reimagining the board for smaller screens, too. Complexity: Medium.

3. Ticket to Ride. Full review. Actually a series of games, all working on the same theme: You receive certain routes across the map on the game board – U.S. or Europe, mostly – and have to collect enough train cards in the correct colors to complete those routes. But other players may have overlapping routes and the tracks can only accommodate so many trains. Like Dominion, it’s very simple to pick up, so while it’s not my favorite game to play, it’s my favorite game to bring or bring out when we’re with people who want to try a new game but either haven’t tried anything in the genre or aren’t up for a late night. I do recommend the 1910 expansion to anyone who gets the base Ticket to Ride game, as it has larger, easier-to-shuffle cards and offers more routes for greater replayability. We also own the Swiss and Nordic boards, which only play two to three players and involve more blocking than the U.S. and Europe games do, so I don’t recommend them. The iPad app, developed in-house, is among the best available. Complexity: Low.

2. 7 Wonders: Full review. 7 Wonders swept the major boardgame awards (yes, there are such things) in 2011 for good reason – it’s the best new game to come on the scene in a few years, combining complex decisions, fast gameplay, and an unusual mechanic around card selections where each player chooses a card from his hand and then passes the remainder to the next player. Players compete to build out their cities, each of which houses a unique wonder of the ancient world, and must balance their moves among resource production, buildings that add points, military forces, and trading. We saw no dominant strategy, several that worked well, and nothing that was so complex that we couldn’t quickly pick it up after screwing up our first game. The only negative here is the poorly written rules, but after one play it becomes far more intuitive. Plays best with three or more players, but the two-player variant works well. Complexity: Medium.

1. Carcassonne. Full review. The best-of-breed iOS app has only increased my appreciation for Carcassonne, a game I still play regularly by myself, with my wife and daughter, and with friends here or online. It brings ease of learning, tremendous replayability (I know I use that word a lot here, but it does matter), portability (you can put all the tiles and meeples in a small bag and stuff it in a suitcase), and plenty of different strategies and room for differing styles of play. You build the board as you go: Each player draws a tile at random and must place it adjacent to at least one tile already laid in a way that lines up any roads or cities on the new tile with the edges of the existing ones. You get points for starting cities, completing cities, extending roads, or by claiming farmlands adjacent to completing cities. It’s great with two players, and it’s great with four players. You can play independently, or you can play a little offense and try to stymie an opponent. The theme makes sense. The tiles are well-done in a vaguely amateurish way – appealing for their lack of polish. And there’s a host of expansions if you want to add a twist or two. We own the Traders and Builders expansion, which I like mostly for the Builder, an extra token that allows you to take an extra turn when you add on to whatever the Builder is working on, meaning you never have to waste a turn when you draw a plain road tile if you sit your Builder on a road. We also have Inns and Cathedrals, which we’ve only used once; it adds some double-or-nothing tiles to roads and cities, a giant meeple that counts as two when fighting for control of a city/road/farm, as well as the added meeples needed to play with a sixth opponent. Complexity: Low/medium-low for the base game, medium with expansions.

Games I need to play more: Istanbul and Five Tribes, both of which I’ll be reviewing for Paste shortly; Village; Tzol’kin; Innovation (one play didn’t thrill me); Room 25; Kings of Tokyo; Hanabi.

Games I own/have played and decided for various reasons not to rank: Friday (a good one-player game); Android: Netrunner (too freaking complicated); Suburbia (good app with poor AIs, haven’t seen the physical game); Love Letter (need to play with more people); Tikal (dropped off the list); Relic Runners (not good enough).

And, as with last year, my rankings of these games by how they play with just two players:

1. Jaipur
2. Carcassonne
3. Stone Age
4. Ticket to Ride
5. Splendor
6. Dominion/Intrigue
7. Small World
8. Battle Line
9. Samurai
10. Castles of Burgundy
11. Morels
12. Ingenious
13. Lost Cities
14. Pandemic
15. 7 Wonders
16. Through the Desert
17. Machi Koro
18. Targi
19. Jambo
20. San Juan
21. Thurn und Taxis
22. Orient Express
23. Tigris and Euphrates
24. Elder Sign
25. Tobago
26. Battle for Hill 218
27. Valley of the Kings
28. Asara
29. Star Realms
30. Maori


Andreas Steiger’s two-person game Targi, published in 2012 as part of Kosmos’ two-player series, combines several simple, familiar mechanics for a new, easy-to-learn game that still requires moderately difficult strategic decisions, with more interaction than most two-player games offer because of the nature of the board. Games took us 30-45 minutes, and I had no problem teaching the game to my eight-year-old daughter, especially since most of the scoring is clear and immediately visible on the game’s cards. The game was nominated for the Kennerspiel des Jahres (Connoisseur’s Game of the Year) in 2012, but lost to Village, which I own but haven’t opened yet.

Each player represents a tribe of Tuareg nomads competing to acquire goods (salt, pepper, and dates) as well as gold to allow them to acquire “tribe cards” that award both victory points and special abilities. Players purchase tribe cards and arrange them in their own camp, a 3×4 array where each row of four can earn bonuses based on the symbols on the cards placed there – four of a kind or four unique symbols in a row. The game has two end conditions, so its there’s a cap on how long a game can go, and also creates a little tension if neither player has filled his/her array before the final turn arrives.targibox

Targi’s board is created by placing cards on the table in a 5×5 grid, with the sixteen cards around the border fixed in every game. These “noble cards” include twelve cards that award free goods or special abilities that may be used only on that turn, as well as four “raid” cards that require all players to surrender goods, gold, or victory points to the robber. The central nine cards (3×3) change every game, and vary over the course of the game; they begin with five goods cards, from which a player may get salt, pepper, dates, a combination of two of those, gold, or a victory point; and four tribe cards, described above, awarding one to three victory points, bearing one of five card symbols, and possibly granting some special abilities. When a player purchases a tribe card from the central square, a goods card replaces it, and vice versa.

Each player has three Targi tokens and two marker tokens, and players alternate placement of the Targi, with the first player changing on each turn. A player places his/her Targi on the noble cards around the outside of the board, creating two points of intersection on cards in the central 3×3 grid, on which the player places her two marker tokens for a total of five affected cards for each player. One noble card is out of play on each turn because the robber occupies it, and a player may not share a noble card or place his own Targi on a noble card directly across from one of his opponent’s Targi. On his turn, a player may resolve his five tokens in any order he wishes. If a player has the opportunity to purchase a tribe card but lacks the necessary goods and/or gold, she may hold one tribe card in her hand for purchase on a later turn. After each player has taken a turn, the robber moves forward one space on the noble card track and all cards in the central grid that were used or purchased are replaced with a card of the opposite type.

The Targi "board."

The Targi “board.”

There are several ways to score points in Targi, starting with the most straightforward method – scoring one to three points for each tribe card purchased. There are a few opportunities to take a victory point directly from the supply, such as a goods card that awards one point rather than awarding salt or pepper. The key to maximizing your score, however, is to get the right cards into your 3×4 camp array in the right order. Each row can earn a four point bonus if all four cards in the row have the same symbol (there are five symbols in total), or can earn a two point bonus if all four cards have different symbols. Many tribe cards award other bonuses, such as granting an extra point for every two cards of a specific symbol in the camp – for example, one extra point for every two “oasis” cards the player holds – or doubling the two point bonus for a row of cards with unique symbols. Other tribe cards award goods rather than points, reduce the costs to buy tribe cards with specific symbols, or offer protection from or bonuses during raids, while tribe cards that bring three victory points carry no bonuses at all.

The main constraint in the game is gold. Of the 45 tribe cards in the deck, 26 require a gold token as all or part of the purchase price. Each player begins the game with a single gold token, but acquiring more is harder than acquiring more goods is. Three of the 19 goods cards reward the player with a gold token, but the exterior noble cards track has no direct way to get a gold token, as opposed to two noble cards each for salt, pepper, and dates. Players may use the Trader card to swap three goods of a single type for a gold token, a function available once per turn to whichever player places a Targi token on that noble card, and unavailable when the robber occupies it during the game’s fourth turn. There’s also one tribe card that grants a one-time bonus of a gold token, and that’s it. Therefore acquiring gold is key for players, as is using it wisely and avoiding a commitment to a strategy that requires more gold than the player can get.

The game’s main interaction comes in the competition to place tokens around the noble track. It can be easy to guess what your opponent wants or needs, and because the game includes just three goods it’s also likely you’ll be going for the same thing(s) and can line up your move with one that blocks your opponent or at least reduces her options. There’s one end-run around this, the “fata morgana” noble card, which allows the player whose targi is on it to move a token from one central card to any unoccupied one, but at the cost of using two tokens (one Targi, one marker) to accomplish one goal.

Winning scores tend to be in the upper 30s and low 40s, and we’ve had games end due to both conditions – one player buying his 12th tribe card or the robber making it all the way around the noble track to the fourth and final raid card. Even our first game, where we only botched one rule (a record of sorts for us), took maybe an hour. Because the options for moves are few and there’s a constant back-and-forth, the game feels quick and players rarely have long to wait before they’re asked to do something. I’d still slot it behind Jaipur for pure two-player games, but Targi is among the best of its breed, a two-player game that doesn’t feel like it was dumbed down in any way.

The Battle for Hill 218.

I have a new column up discussing the game’s top young shortstops, and recorded a new Behind the Dish podcast, speaking with ESPN’s umpiring analyst Jim McKean about last week’s great moments in MLB jurisprudence. My projection of the first round of this year’s Rule 4 draft will be posted on Thursday morning.

Based on a two-player card game that is currently out of print, the app version of The Battle For Hill 218 ($2.99) plays incredibly simply, making it perfect for an adaptation to iOS, with a strong AI because the number of potential moves at any given time isn’t that large. It also plays very quickly against an AI opponent, with an entire game taking maybe five minutes, and the skill of the Hard AI player was strong enough that I found myself playing again and again because I was going to beat that sucker come hell or high water. (It took about 30 tries if you count my earliest screw-ups.)

The game revolves around a battle for the titular hill, which sits at the center of the playing area, between each player’s home base. Players have decks of cards representing unit types that are distinguished by the strength and direction of their attacks and by the directions in which they can support or be supported by other units, and on each turn a player places two cards. The goal is to take your opponent’s home base (by eliminating the unit there and then placing one of your units on it) before he takes yours; in the event that the players exhaust their decks and hands before either base falls, the player with the most active units still on the table is the winner.

The limited number of unit types available makes strategy fairly simple – you must set up a position on one turn that would allow you to knock out your opponent’s home unit and replace it on your next turn. That means that you need to set up a position that your opponent can’t overcome with his two card plays on the intervening turn, which, as I’ve played it, means that control of the two positions adjacent to the central hill are the critical ones, and most of the game will involve back-and-forth battles over one or occasionally both of those spaces. Controlling that space at the start of a turn means almost certain victory, as a player can use one of his two Airstrikes (eliminating any single opponent’s unit, with no card placement) and then place a Special Forces card (which, unlike other units, can be supported by another unit to which it is connected diagonally) on his opponent’s home base.

The hill is at the center, with the two home bases above and below it.

The randomness of the order of the cards mitigates the fact that the game revolves around the same basic battle each time. You start the game with five cards drawn at random from your deck, discarding two, and then on each turn you play two and then draw two. (One exception: The start player plays just one card on his first turn.) If a player’s home base is empty, s/he must play a card there first, but otherwise there’s a lot of flexibility with a typical hand of five cards and six different unit types. You have to think through each move based on all of the possible combinations your opponent might hold, and, in the case of the hard AI, assuming the opponent makes the perfect move in response. Learning to anticipate combos like the air-strike/special forces move – which beat me more times than I’d care to mention – and planning moves to prevent it, even a move or two in advance (to the extent that such a thing is possible) is a big part of the fun of the game. I don’t care for chess, because it involves so much long-term planning that it begins to feel like work to me, but nearly all good two-player games involve some of that element, and Battle for Hill 218 strikes a solid balance.

The tutorial in the app is insufficient, so you’ll need to either play the game a few times and figure out how the cards work via context, or go back into the Help/Manual menu to read about what the Supply, Attack, and Support symbols mean. The app is currently only available for the iPad, although the developers mentioned in an interview today on boardgamegeek that an upgrade making the app and offering async gameplay is in the works. At $2.99 it’s absolutely worth the cost even if you only intend to use it for local play.