Otys is a new-ish midweight strategy board game from Asmodee’s Libellud imprint, released here right around the holidays, and the first title from designer Claude Lucchini. It’s a sort of futuristic deep sea-diving themed game, where players try to gather resources to complete contracts, and must manipulate two sets of tiles to be able to make moves. There might be a better game in here somewhere, but I found it rather overdesigned, and the mechanics aren’t well-connected to the theme.

In Otys, two to four players each work with a player board that has six tokens, numbered one through five plus a neutral “X” token, and eight diver tiles, each of which has a different ability. The board has slots for the numbered tokens, and then a column where you randomly stack the diver tiles in a way that has five of them adjacent to the five numbered slots. On a turn, you will pick one of the numbered tiles, slide it to the right, use one of the five “sponsor” tiles from the central board to get something (a credit, a battery, the right to use your diver’s skill twice, etc.), and then use the ability of the adjacent diver. Four of the divers get you specific resources. The others let you add abilities like gaining a new contract card only you can complete or trading credits for resources.

The contracts come in two forms. The game has four resources – white, green, blue, and black, which I think mean actual things like plants and water, but it really doesn’t matter to the mechanics – and some contracts simply require you gather two to four specific resources to fulfill them, gaining points and sometimes a credit or battery token. The other contracts tell you to acquire specific combinations of any resources – so, two of one type, two of another, and one of a third – where you get to pick the colors, and then have similar rewards.

The Otys board; diver tiles are in the center column.

The big catch in Otys, and the only mechanic here that I thought was novel, is that each token/diver row on your player board has a storage space for resources, and to fill a contract, you must have all the right resources in one specific storage space. The spaces can hold three to six resources, but in practical terms, you’re going to use maybe two of them heavily, because gaining resources in all of your storage areas will leave you unable to ever fill contracts. You can also add tokens via one diver (the ‘explorer’) that let you pay two credits, take one resource or victory point or battery now, and then place that token on its other face next to a storage area, providing you with a permanent bonus whenever you fill a contract from that area. The divers are also double-sided, with each bringing an ‘upgraded’ side that lets you invoke its power for one fewer credit or that gives you something else in addition to the single resource.

The numbered ‘key’ tokens must be placed in the ‘hacker’ track below your board after they’re used; you can only bring them back up when the track is filled, which at the start of the game would mean using all of your tokens at least once before using them again. You get one X token to place in any row where you’ve already used the key, and there’s a way – very poorly described in the English rules – to acquire more X tokens from the central supply. This mechanic felt trite, reminiscent of games from Puerto Rico and San Juan to last year’s Entropy, where you have to use all or most of your roles and then ‘reset’ your hand, and the combination of this mechanic and the diver one – when you use a diver, s/he has to ‘resurface’ by going to the top of the queue, with everyone above him/her moving down a spot – just made the game overly complex.

The game ends when anyone gets to 18 points, after which you finish the round so everyone can try to complete one more contract. In practice, that means 3-4 contracts plus the random point or two you’ll add along the way, and it does play in about an hour. The theme has almost nothing to do with the game, and there are way too many restrictions and twists here for me to enjoy the experience. I wish more effort had gone into streamlining the rules, even if it came at the cost of some of the artwork or component design.

Through the Ages.

Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization is currently the #2-rated game on Boardgamegeek – a ranking that tends to skew towards longer, more complex games – even higher than the original version, which is ranked #18, so it was perfect fodder for an app version, especially since the game requires a fair amount of accounting work to keep track of all of the resources and options. The app dropped last week for $9.99 for iOS devices and Android, and it is really stunning – great graphics, smooth gameplay, no glitches, and decent AI players – although I have to admit I’m not sure I love the game underneath it.

Through the Ages is essentially Sid Meier’s Civilization in card form, with a few tweaks. Players are competing to build tableaux of cards that represent growing civilizations from the stone age to the present day, playing cards that generate food, stone, knowledge, and happiness; making new workers by growing the population; adding new technologies; developing new military units and growing armies; raiding or declaring war on opponents; constructing Wonders, because every game of this theme has to have that; upgrading their government types; and probably six other things I’ve already forgotten.

On each turn, players get a fixed number of civil actions and military actions that allow them to take cards, grow the population, research technologies, or build buildings. The number of each is tied to the government type, with more advanced governments giving players more actions per turn. Everything in the game is dictated by the cards available on the rolling display; the first few cards cost one civil action to take, then the next group costs two, and the last three, with some penalties for certain card types. You’re really building a giant engine that will produce enough of the different resource types to allow you to rack up points in the end-game without creating unrest or running short of what you need to keep up with your opponents’ armies or feed your workers or lose resources to ‘corruption.’ There are substantial bonuses for finishing Wonders and in the Politics cards that will appear later in the game or at the end.

Through the Ages is incredibly layered, and requires more oversight, active management, and long-term planning than most games I’ve ever played. It has reached the point in some games where I thought, “Maybe I should write down what I’m doing so I remember what to do on my next turn,” which I think is a clear sign that a game has become work. I also had to monitor the AI players’ moves in the game log just to figure out why I was getting so thoroughly trounced (by the medium level, no less), and eventually pieced together a sort of rough strategy that involved getting Knights, Iron, Irrigation, and a couple of key military and science cards; it doesn’t work every time but I did finally beat the S.O.B. by doing that and ensuring I was never at a military strength disadvantage for the entire game.

The biggest bottleneck in the game is the need for an ‘idle worker’ to build or create anything new, whether it’s a building (farms, mines, labs, temples, and later versions of the same) or a military unit. You need a certain amount of food to grow your population, an amount that increases as the game goes on, and then those people need to eat, so you have to keep producing food to grow your population and build more things, or to destroy some of your weakest buildings to put those workers on more productive jobs. (Of course, they don’t actually earn any more for being more productive, as all benefits flow to you, which is one way in which Through the Ages reflects our modern economy.) There are yellow resource cards in the carousel that give you immediate, one-time bonuses of food, stone, or science, but taking one burns an action that you might need for something else.

And those actions are a second major bottleneck. Every player starts the game under Despotism, and can take a unique government card to upgrade to more modern systems that grant more actions – some give more civil actions but fewer military ones, some more military ones but not many more civil ones – and then burn either a whole turn or several rounds’ worth of science points for a “revolution” that changes your government type. You have to do this once to win, I think; I don’t know if doing it twice would pay off. But late in the game you’ll need more than the four civil actions per turn you get from Despotism.

Whereas in Civilization and other 4X (video) games, you can pretty much build whatever you want if you have the resources, Through the Ages dramatically limits your options because it’s card-based. There’s a ton of luck involved in the card draws, because the rolling market turns over quickly, with the leftmost three cards moving after every player if not selected; it’s easy to miss a card you need, especially those with just one or two copies in the deck. (All leader and wonder cards are unique, and you can’t take a wonder card if you have one currently in production.) The political cards aren’t quite a function of luck, but if you end up behind in military strength, your opponents can hammer you every turn, deepening your deficit by robbing you of population, resources, points, or buildings. Players play these cards into a LIFO queue, so playing one into it pushes the oldest one out, and many of those cards really stick it to whoever has the weakest army, more so as the game progresses.

Through the Ages never eliminates anyone, but deficits can grow exponentially, and it can be clear halfway through the game that you’re just not coming back. It also has one of my least favorite game features – players can have actions available without any way of using them. No one likes the frustration of having the right to make a move but not having the ability; some of this is a function of insufficient planning, but you can also just get stuck even if you did the right things earlier.

The app version is extremely well-done, with a tutorial that should be a model for other developers looking to port (or just create) complex boardgames to tablets. (There’s even a clever joke within it.) And the app has built-in reminders to cover numerous situations where you might forget a free action, fail to use all your actions, lose resources to corruption, or lose all production on your next turn due to an Uprising (in essence, if you don’t have enough happiness points to cover your population). There are so many cards with special functions that it’s easy to forget what you can do, and the attempt to render some depth to your civilization means wonders are in the way back, at least one of which, the Ocean Liner, gives you a new benefit each turn, fall out of sight and out of mind.

There's a lot going on here.

I found the light AI to be more of a training module, but the medium AI throttled me repeatedly before my first win. That doesn’t mean the medium AI is good, just better than I am as someone new to the game. It was instructive to watch the AI’s actions, and the game log, available by tapping a button on the upper left, is clear and useful. The game also has an easy undo function that lets you go back as far as your last irreversible move – such as something that involved revealing cards or a battle against an opponent. There’s a lot on the screen, but everything is brightly colored and clear, and once you get the hang of some of the images they’re using – like having a light on in a building to show that it’s occupied by a worker – they’re straightforward.

Through the Ages is above the level of game difficulty I prefer; it’s long and involved, requiring too much thought and planning to make it truly fun for me. I understand why players would love the game’s intellectual challenge and the reward of building something successful, but I prefer games that move a little faster and let me act more spontaneously. If playing a game with a beer in hand would make you demonstrably worse at it, it might not qualify as fun in my book. But if you like Through the Ages, or just generally like intricate games with long cycles, this app is just what you want.

A Feast for Odin.

Well, boardgamers, I think that with A Feast for Odin we have finally achieved Peak Uwe.

Uwe Rosenberg is one of the most acclaimed designers in this golden era of cardboard, the man behind Caverna (ranked #10 on BGG’s global rankings, which skew towards longer and more complex games), Agricola (#14), Le Havre (#30), Patchwork (#45), Fields of Arle (#53), and Ora et Labora (#77). A Feast for Odin, itself ranked #38 on that list, is his latest title of long, intricate engine-building games that take the general feel of Agricola and make it fussier and more involved. Agricola grew on me with repeated plays, thanks in part to the incredible app version of the game, but at heart the rules of that game are pretty simple; you have a lot of choices to make and several factors to manage, but what you’re asked to do isn’t that difficult. Le Havre and Caverna increased the complexity in different ways, but A Feast for Odin is over the top, turning a boardgame into real work, both in managing the accounting and in figuring out what you want to do.

As the name implies, we’re talking vikings now, and apparently vikings were big-time farmers. A Feast for Odin has, I believe, 36 different resource types, four of which are used like currencies with the remainder used as crops or food or for scoring. Each player starts with a player board that is covered with tiny squares, some of which are blank, some are worth -1 (yes, negative) point if uncovered at game-end, some of which can award you a bonus resource, and some of which, those on the x=y diagonal, represent potential income for you in each round. You take green and blue resources and place them on your board to cover as many squares as you can; there are eight different shapes, so you’re playing a little light Tetris (or Patchwork) and trying to cover the board as efficiently as you can. If you cover everything below and to the left of a specific income square, then that’s your new income, from 0 coins to +18 coins, with the potential for even more if you expand to other islands … but we’re going to just set that aside for the moment. There are also a handful of higher-value, unusually-shaped special items that cover lots of squares but which you can only get via a couple of actions you’ll reach later in the game, if at all.

A Feast for Odin. This is way over the top.

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You also have to feed the multitudes at the end of each round, and while it’s not as difficult as in Agricola or Le Havre, you still have to pay attention to it. There’s a “banquet” track on your board, and you have to have orange and red food tokens to fill the track, but can’t have two tokens of the same color touching each other – there are a lot of placement rules like that, one of the game’s worst features – and can use silver coins instead of food if you don’t have enough.

AFfO takes place over seven rounds, and in every round, each player uses his/her viking meeples to claim action spaces on the shared action board – which has, no shit, 61 different options for players on each turn. The action board has four columns, and each column as you move to the right requires more meeples to use it, so it’s one meeple in the first column and four in the fourth one. You can use actions to upgrade resources, to ‘harvest’, to buy and sell, to collect wood/stone/ore/silver from the mountains, to buy boats, to go raiding, to go pillaging, to hunt game, to go whaling, to plunder (whom, they don’t say), to add occupation cards that give you more benefits, to add islands, to build sheds or additional houses, and so on.

Needless to say, I wasn’t a fan of AFfO – it’s the fussier Le Havre, if that’s even possible, with more rules and more things to track, and a whole lot of “why can’t I do X?” or “how can I get this resource I need?” I’m sure it’s balanced, because Uwe is certainly a smart and careful designer and his games always ‘work’ in that sense. But I also don’t know who the target audience is for this game, which retails for $90+, weighs 7 pounds, and will probably take 90-120 minutes for 3-4 experienced players. (It plays with two and there’s a solo mode, but I haven’t tried either.) If you love Uwe’s games, and the whole idea of games that require obsession to detail with long-term planning and short-term demands, sure, this is probably right up your alley. I think it’s beyond the pale.

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 amazon.com; 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.

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Top 80 boardgames.

This is now the eighth iteration of my own personal boardgame rankings, a list that’s now up to 80 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 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 amazon.com; 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 most of these games in my aStore on amazon as well, unless they’re totally out of print.

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.

80. XCOM: The Board Game. Full review. A moderately successful adaptation of a wildly successful cooperative videogame, where players work to protect the planet against a massive alien invasion, facing multiple types of mounting threats as the game advances. Comes with a free app that helps run the game session. I just found the game a bit too complicated no matter how many players we had. Complexity: Medium-high.
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My latest game review for Paste covers the must-own reissue of Tigris and Euphrates, Reiner Knizia’s best game, now back in print in a beautiful new edition. You can get it buy it from amazon for about $45 (or about £39).

The 2013 boardgame Bruges is one of the more successful titles in the new subgenre that I think was at least launched by the success of Agricola – games where you can deploy cards from a very large deck in certain combinations to maximize your abilities to do more things and/or score more points. Each individual card gives you some special ability – one-time, once per round, or throughout the game – and most cards then give you an incentive to acquire certain other cards or types of cards. In Bruges, you don’t have to know the deck that well to play it effectively, and you don’t have the gating factor of Agricola or Le Havre where you must feed your family every round or lose points, so it’s lightweight relative to many games in the genre. It’s also long enough for you to build something and have a real strategy that plays out before the final round, unlike Elysium, which combines card-stacking with set collection in a game that is over before you can get anything going. So it’s good, but not groundbreaking – a solid implementation of a popular mechanic, yet nothing particularly novel.

In Bruges, players are local merchants or nobles who are trying to do a couple of not entirely connected things to score points. Each player has two five-segment canals to try to build over the course of the game, scoring three points for a canal that has three completed segments and earning a statue worth two to seven points for a canal that is fully completed. Players also can buy their way up the reputation track, which is worth one to twelve points at game-end depending on the player’s progress. And, most central to the game, players build houses in front of them, each of which can then hold a “recruited” artisan – a card whose powers are then available to the player. Each house is worth a point at game-end; each artisan is worth 1-4 points at game-end. There are also bonuses of four points available to any player who ends a round leading the other players in canal segments completed, number of artisans recruited, or reputation points. Once you earn one of those bonuses, it’s yours for the rest of the game even if some other player passes you. It’s a little weird.

Bruges has three types of payment for all of this stuff. Cards come in five colors, and to build a canal segment, you must discard a card in that space’s color and pay from one to five guilders (coins). To build a house, you lay a card face-down and discard one of the little worker meeples in that card’s color. (You start the game with five meeples, one per color, and can acquire more as the game goes on.) To recruit an artisan, you pay the cost in guilders on that card – multiples of three from zero to twelve. You can also discard a card on your turn to acquire two workers of that color, to gain one to six guilders (depending on the result of the rolls of the five colored dice for that round), or to discard a Threat token – more on that in a moment. Your hand will have five cards in it to start each round, during which you’ll play four of them. When the supply of cards, which is tailored to the number of players, runs out, that’s the final round.

The Threat tokens take the place of the “feeding your family” aspect of Agricola. Those five colored dice are rolled each round. Any die showing five or six delivers a Threat token in that color to every player; get three Threat tokens and you suffer some sort of penalty, such as losing a house or canal token, losing points, or losing a recruited artisan. These penalties are nuisances but in the grand scheme of things not a huge detriment, but discarding a card to remove a Threat token in that color also gets you one victory point, which is the only justification I’ve found for using a card to do this.

Bruges plays two to four and works well with any number, although I think you can get a little further with your strategies if you have more players. You can also vary the number of cards in the start decks to let the game play out longer, which I recommend because the deeper you go into the game the more fun it is to see your plans play out. But the game doesn’t offer that many chances for interaction, other than a few cards in the Underworld category that let you steal from an opponent or stick everyone else with a Threat token. You’re primarily building on your own, making Bruges closer to a solitaire game you play with friends. It’s a good-looking game and fairly simple to learn; I just see more complexity in the scoring than it needs, with no real connection between the different scoring paths.

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 amazon.com; 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

Seasons boardgame.

I have a new Insider column on ESPN.com naming Kris Bryant the minor league prospect of the year, with a dozen other guys earning mentions.

The boardgame Seasons is a hybrid of two of the most popular subgenres in gaming right now – deckbuilding and complex strategy games – but adds a high degree of interactivity to the game that makes it feel less complicated to play. As in most games in those two subgenres, there’s a significant benefit to knowing the cards in the deck, so first-timers are at a huge disadvantage and the learning curve is fairly steep. However, the cards themselves are seldom complicated, with each individual card’s actions playing out quite simply; it’s the interactions between cards that define the game’s strategy and thus how complex you want the game to become.

In Seasons, each player starts the game with nine cards, which s/he divides into three triplets that become that player’s hand for each of the three rounds of the game. Each round comprises specific turns where a token moves somewhat randomly around a board of 12 spaces covering four seasons, with each change season shifting the values of the four “energy tokens” (the game’s primary currency) to reflect each element’s scarcity in that season. To begin each round, players roll a number of special dice equal to one more than the number of players, then each player chooses a die that grants benefits like energy tokens, crystals (victory points), or the ability to play more cards (summoning power) or exchange energy tokens for crystals (transmuting). After dice selection, players can take several actions, most importantly playing cards, which involves spending energy tokens and occasionally crystals to place the cards on the table in front of him/her, some with immediate benefits, others with recurring effects, and still more with one-time gains later in the game.

A typical turn in Seasons starts with dice selection, after which each player receives the benefits shown on the die s/he chose and then may take any number of actions:

* Spending energy tokens and/or crystals to “summon” (place on the table) a power card from his hand.

* Activating certain effects of cards on the table in front of him. Some of those effects can be used once per turn; others require “sacrificing” (trashing) the card.

* Taking a penalty of five or more points (to be assessed at game-end) to use a bonus action, such as increasing the player’s summoning power – that is, how many cards s/he may have on the table in front of him/her at one time. The maximum is 15.

* Transmuting energy tokens into crystals (points). The value of each energy type varies by season; in each season, one of the four types is worth three crystals per token when transmuted, one is worth two points, and two types are worth one. These change so that each energy type has one season where its value is at the maximum of three points.

The effects of the cards are easy to follow, thanks to the text on the cards and the relatively small number of symbols you need to know to understand the game. Some examples of cards are the Hourglass of Time, which gives you a bonus energy token every time the season changes; the Dice of Malice, which costs nothing to play and lets you reroll your die once each round while giving you a two-point bonus; and Kairn the Destroyer, which allows you to pay (trash, in essence) one energy token each turn to make each of your opponents lose four crystals. There are also one-time use cards like the Amulet of Fire, which increases your summoning power by two, and there are cards that must be sacrificed to be used, like the Potion of Power, which lets you draw and immediately place a new power card while increasing your summoning power by one.

The strategic element comes into play at the beginning of the game, when you get to select which nine cards go into your starting deck, a process during which you need to pay attention to certain card combinations that bring exponential benefits. For example, if you have the Wondrous Chest card, which gives you a bonus every time the season changes if you have four or more energy tokens in your hand, you’ll want to look for cards that help you rack up more energy tokens (e.g., Hourglass of Time), or a card like Bespelled Grimoire, which allows you to keep ten tokens rather than seven in your hand – so it’s easier to spend tokens on cards without depleting your supply. Executing these strategies involves knowing the cards reasonably well, including cards that you might draw as the game progresses; understanding or being able to work out how they interact over the course of the game; and keeping track of everything you have and are supposed to do (e.g., activating Kairn every turn) while the game goes on. And if you happen to choose incorrectly at the start of the game, either picking the wrong cards or organizing them suboptimally into your three three-card decks, you may be sunk before the ship has even launched.

Perhaps that’s what prevents me from giving Seasons my highest recommendation – it’s a very good game, with an incredibly thoughtful design that maintains its balance despite all of the possible permutations of cards and die rolls, but it’s nearly impossible to explain its mechanics in a succinct fashion. Our first play through the game was a rarity in that we got the rules right, but saw none of the game’s “point” of how to rack up bigger point totals, in part because there was no guidance anywhere on how to sort your initial nine cards (we used the suggested starter sets) into three piles. A typical winning score in a two-player game can run into the 200s, and in a three-player game in the 150-200 range, but in our first game neither of us cracked 100 because we didn’t grasp any of the strategic aspects – and until I tried a few games online Boardgame Arena I didn’t get a feel for how the game was supposed to be played.

Once you have the gist, however, Seasons is addictive, and posseses a great blend of individual achievement (trying to reach higher scores, or just to know you played a better game) and competitive play through cards that allow you to play off your opponents or even screw with them. You just have to wear it for a bout or two while you figure it out and learn the deck and the back-and-forth flow of energy tokens and crystals that powers the game.

Suburbia iPad app.

Unrelated to Suburbia – the death yesterday of School of Seven Bells founder Ben Curtis at age 35 (of lymphoma) spurred me to look back at my rankings of the top songs of 2012 and create a fresh Spotify playlist with a few extra tracks. Their haunting song “The Night” is on the list.

The boardgame Suburbia ranks in the top 100 on Boardgamegeek, with a combination of city-building mechanics and economic planning where what you do early in the game impacts how many points you can rack up late in the game. It’s reminiscent of more complex games like Agricola and Caylus in that respect, but with simpler gameplay and less direct interaction because players have more ways to change their plans on the fly. I’ve been playing the Suburbia iPad app for the last two weeks, and I enjoy the game itself but have found the app’s AI options way too weak to make the app replayable.

In Suburbia, between two and four players compete to build the most populated suburb around a central city by placing building tiles that are available for purchase in a common market. Each hex tile has specific costs and benefits. The benefits can include increases in income, population, or reputation; one-time cash infusions; or long-term effects that depend on what other tiles are adjacent to the hex, or in the same suburb, or in all suburbs combined. The costs include money but can also include a loss of income, population, or reputation, which may depend on what else is around. Place an industrial tile next to a residential one and you’ll lose reputation points because of pollution. Place tiles around a lake (free to add) and you’ll get extra cash.

The tile interactions are one of two keys to racking up large populations. You can’t do everything in your suburb, so it pays to concentrate early on one or two specific areas or tile types and try to build your income or population more quickly through synergies between tiles. You can add a farm or two, and then if you add restaurant tiles later they will be even more valuable. There are also tiles that include penalties for laying other tile types – if you add a high-end restaurant, adding a fast food restaurant afterwards will cost you an income point. The game’s tutorial suggests concentrating on income early and population later, as there are income and reputation hits built into the system when your population crosses certain thresholds.

The other scoring key lies in the various goals set out each game, 10 to 20 point bonuses for reaching specific milestones such as having the fewest office buildings or earning the highest income per turn. Four of these goals are visible and available to all players. Each player also receives one goal specific to him/her, not visible to other players, but that still requires beating all other players in that category to win it. Some goals even work against the main objective of maximizing your population, such as having the fewest residential tiles of any suburb. Without these goals, the game would be kind of boring because it would be so simple and too reliant on the central tile market, which uses the common mechanic of making two tiles available for free and all others in the queue more expensive, shifting them to the right as tiles are removed.

The app itself looks slick, with bright, clear graphics that allow you to read the costs and effects of each card easily. I only had one issue with stability, which occurred when I tried to use the game’s save feature – I couldn’t resume the game and had to kill the app process entirely to start a fresh one, which I guess is a pretty significant bug but wasn’t my main issue with the app. The AI players are terrible: you have your choice of five, and can use up to three of them (but can’t reuse any), and they’re all a little dim. They don’t plan well, which I imagine is a difficult issue for coding AI players, but they also miss obvious short-term moves or take actions that clearly reduce their chances to gain points. If I go first, I can beat the AI players just about every time. Going fourth of four reduces my chances a little, but I’m also a novice player and should get more of a challenge than this. I’m hoping that the expansion, Suburbia Inc., becomes available as an in-app purchase, and that the developers use that as an opportunity to introduce some harder computer players.

I’m due for an update to my top iOS boardgame apps rankings, but will review the Dominant Species app later in the week before I do the final list.

Bora Bora.

I published a lot of content for ESPN Insiders the last 48 hours, including:

That’s all on moves that have already occurred, but I’ll continue posting this week as more stuff breaks.

One of our favorite new games of the past few years is 2011’s The Castles of Burgundy, which is one of the few games we’ve come across that brought an entirely new approach to the somewhat stale game styles like worker placement. The rules are lengthy but gameplay isn’t complex, and the game works a lot of decision-making into under an hour of playing time. It’s been a modest hit, rating very highly at Board Game Geek (12th overall) as well as with me, so it’s unsurprising that we’re now seeing other games with similar mechanics come along, such as the brand-new Ravensburger relase Bora Bora, a beautifully rendered game that borrows much from Castles of Burgundy but adds a new setting and a few minor twists.

In Bora Bora, two to four players set about building huts on the five islands on the game board so they can collect resources from the land and hire natives to perform various tasks, all with the goal of acquiring victory points to be tallied after the game’s six rounds. There are numerous ways to rack up these points, such as converting natural resources to buildings on your player board, placing priests in the central board’s temple, completing a task tile at the end of a round, buying jewelry with shells, or gaining status points in each round. Most point acquisitions come through a series of moves; for example, hiring a female native gets you shells, with which you can buy a piece of jewelry that is worth from 1 to 9 victory points at the end of the game, or that can be used to fulfill certain task tiles. Gaining natural resources helps you place a two-space building on the twelve-space building area on your player card, a move that is worth 10 points in the game’s first two rounds but just 4 points in the final two rounds.

The central board during the final round of play.

A round in Bora Bora comprises three phases: Rolling dice to place them on action tiles; using your natives for actions; and a scoring/roundup phase where the main board is refreshed with new native and task tiles. Your moves are dictated by dice rolls, as in Castles of Burgundy, although Bora Bora offers fewer ways to manipulate the dice. In Bora Bora, each player has his/her own set of three dice and can place those dice on any of five (for a two-player game) to seven (four-player) master tiles that allow actions like hiring a native, expanding to a different region on the map, or placing a priest in the temple. The wild card of those actions is the “helper” option, where the number on the die you place there converts into points you can use to gain shells or status points from workers, resources without having to expand your territory, or god cards and offerings to let you do more with your dice. Two players can use the same tile in a round, but a player may only place a die on a tile if the die’s roll is lower than all dice currently on the tile, creating a trade-off between using a high die roll on a tile to get more powers or resources and using a lower die to block your opponent(s) from using the same one.

The one way to tweak the dice in your favor is through pleading with the gods using god cards and offering tiles. There are five god card types, two of which allow you to change the way you use the dice: You can play a die normally but treat its face value as six for your move; you can place a die on a master tile even if it’s not lower than all dice currently on it. Other god cards allow you to score points for expanding into a new territory on the map, to employ additional natives during the action phase of a turn, or to help you complete a task tile on your card for which you just fall short of the requirements.

The task tiles turn out to be more significant as the game goes on because they offer additional bonuses of four to six points for things you may already have done, such as expanding to all five islands or having certain combinations of natives or resources already on your card. The end of the game offers even more bonuses for achieving the maximum number of something, like completing nine tasks, buying six jewelry tiles, or filling all twelve spaces on the building area on your card (called the “ceremony spaces” in a confusing bit of nomenclature).

Bora Bora suffers a little from its similarity to Castles of Burgundy, but also from pushing too far in the same general direction as its predecessor – players have so many options that gameplay can drag while you try to sort through them all. It’s easy to become paralyzed by all of the options before you because of how long-lasting some fo the effects can be; Castles of Burgundy doesn’t have that same depth, and it means Bora Bora has more in common with games like Agricola or Le Havre, where a decision in an early round can filter down through the rest of the game. It’s an ideal game to pick up if you love Castles of Burgundy but want something different or more complex, or if you are partial to games with great-looking components, since Bora Bora has bright colors and strong artwork. The extent of possible options for players and constant references to the rule book to explain the pictograms on certain tiles stretched the game out for us to the point where we’re going to reach for Castles of Burgundy first, but this represents a solid change of pace.

I wanted to slip in one more game review before posting my updated rankings later this week, so look for that post either later on Thursday or at worst on Friday, as long as the baseball world doesn’t go bananas again. You can see last year’s top 40 rankings while you wait.