Le Havre the Inland Port app.

The new app version of Le Havre: The Inland Port (for iOS) – itself a two-player adaptation of the highly complex strategy game Le Havre – is a beautiful port of a boring game. That’s probably enough to keep most of you from reading a long review, so here’s a short one instead. (And if you’re looking for a good new two-player game, try 7 Wonders Duel instead.)

The boardgame version of Le Havre The Inland Port takes the theme of the original game and creates a much simpler two-player experience, where a stream of buildings, advancing in cost and productivity/value, comes up for sale in the central market, and players must balance gaining resources from buildings that they’ve already built (you can use yours or an opponent’s, paying one coin for the latter) against buying new buildings to add victory points and go for two game-end bonuses. The buildings are the same in every game and even the order in which they appear for sale doesn’t vary much at all.

Resource production/acquisition is the strangest part of the game, a peculiar mechanic that seems to be peculiar for its own sake. You don’t just get, say, 2 wood or 1 bread, but you move your four resource tokens (wood, coal, bread, fish) on a numbered array, going up a row (plus 3), right one space (plus one), up and to the left diagonally (plus 2), and rarely up and to the right diagonally (plus 4). When you spend resources, you can spend in combinations of 1, 3, and 4, which means sometimes you have to pay an extra unit or two, for no reason other than that’s how the game was designed.

Most buildings bring you new resources, showing an arrow in one resource’s color, with the arrow telling you in which direction to move. When you buy a building, it goes in the zero column of the main board, and each “day” of the game that you don’t use it, it moves one column to the right, with the columns numbered 2, 3, 4, and 4+. The number tells you how many times you can invoke the building’s capability – for example, if the building with the brown arrow pointing to the right is on the 3 column, you can use it, moving your wood (brown) token three spaces to the right, then returning the building to column 0. The + symbol in the last column gives you one coin in addition to the building’s regular function, and if you don’t use that building before the end of the current day, it’s sold back to the bank for half the face value (which you get).

There are five special buildings that can award bonuses at game-end. There’s one “anchor” building for each resource that gives you one point per unit of that resource that you have on hand when the game is over. A fifth building, the dock, costs 7 coins to build (but no resources), and gives you ten points for each of those other four anchor buildings.

Because turn order is determined from the start, the player who goes second will get the first shot to buy the Dock when it appears on Day 12, the last Day of the game. So if s/he plans properly, s/he gets an automatic ten-point bonus – the dock plus one of the two anchor buildings that show up in day 12. (The other two appear in day 11.) That gives the game a deterministic feel, and I found after two or three plays I felt like this guy:

As for the app itself, it looks great, with bright colors, clear graphics, and a thorough tutorial. The AI has five levels of difficulty, but I beat the medium player the first time through, and took down the hard AI player (named Pascal … of course) after two or three tries. I hope the developers choose a better game to port next time out, because their work is good, but this title just wasn’t worth their efforts.

Patchwork.

My thoughts on Boston’s deal with Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada is up for Insiders.

Game designer Uwe Rosenberg is best known for Agricola, consistently one of the highest-rated board games in the world since its 2007 release, and for his similar titles Le Havre, Caverna (a bargain at $88!), and Ora et Labora (out of print), all of which are acclaimed and highly complex games that require lengthy rulebooks and a two-hour or so commitment to play. That makes his latest game, the two-player delight Patchwork, a huge surprise for its elegance and simplicity, easy enough to play with my eight-year-old and straightforward enough for its rules to cover just four small pages.

Patchwork is Tetris played with a wallet instead of a clock: Each player has a 9×9 board and must purchase scraps of fabric, paying in buttons, and place those pieces on his/her main board. The fabric tiles cover two to eight squares each and come in various shapes, each bearing two costs – one in buttons, one in spaces the player must move on the central board that functions like a timer – with some also returning buttons as income over the course of the game. The object is to cover as many of those 81 board spaces as possible before both players reach the end of the track on the central board, earning points for buttons left over and for becoming the first player to completely cover any 7×7 square on his/her own board, losing two points per uncovered square at game-end.

The pieces themselves are arranged in random order in a circle around the central board, with one neutral token sitting between two pieces in the circle at all times. On his/her turn, a player can buy any of the next three fabric pieces (going clockwise) in front of that token, paying the cost in buttons and then moving his/her piece on the central board – a spiral track that ends in the center, after reaching which the player is done taking turns – the number of spaces indicated on the piece of fabric; after that piece is removed, the token moves into the vacated spot. If the player chooses not to buy any of those pieces of fabric, s/he may move on the central track to the spot one space ahead of the other player, earning one button per space moved in that turn.

The player further back (from the finish) on the central track goes next, so a player may take consecutive turns if s/he buys fabric pieces that don’t advance his/her token ahead of the opponent’s; if one player lands on the space occupied by the other player, she puts her token on top of his and takes one more turn before her opponent goes. The central track has nine button symbols on it; when a player reaches or crosses one of those symbols, s/he earns income, one button per button symbol on the fabric pieces on that player’s own board. There are also five one-square fabric scraps located on the central track; to claim one of those, a player must land directly on one of those spaces.

Players must place any acquired fabric pieces immediately, and can’t move them for the rest of the game, so there’s a spatial-relations component to the game to go along with the resource-management decisions involved in purchasing fabric pieces. Despite the random element to the order of fabric pieces in the circle and the movement of the token, it’s easy to plan out some rough strategy based on what pieces you might be able to purchase over your next turn or two, and you always have to consider what pieces are still available as your board begins to fill up. Games took us 30-45 minutes, with winning scores usually in the teens but, in one instance, all the way up to 33 points:

A 33-point winning game in Patchwork, from @mayfairgames and Agricola designer Uwe Rosenberg

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

It’s been an instant hit in our house because it’s so quick to learn and set up and because the balance of strategy and randomness or luck is just enough to level out the field no matter who’s playing. My daughter took to it immediately, understands how to play it well, and seems to particularly enjoy the tile-placement aspect, figuring out how best to fit pieces on her board. Strong two-player games are such a rarity – the best games out there are nearly all designed for three or more players and play best with four – that it’s a huge treat to have another Jaipur-like hit in the house.

Star Realms.

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

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

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

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

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

StarRealms

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

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

Targi.

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

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

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

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

The Targi "board."

The Targi “board.”

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

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

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

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

The Battle for Hill 218.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Top 40 boardgames.

This is the fifth iteration of my own personal boardgame rankings, a list that’s now up to 40 titles, up ten 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 own every game on this list except Diplomacy, Caylus, and Tigris & Euphrates, playing the latter two in their iOS app forms. 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.

Finally, I’ve added 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.

40. Tikal: Full review. Strongly balanced game of board exploration, but the length of time between any single player’s turns, especially with three or four players, is a real drawback. Players compete to control temples and acquire treasures while building out a board representing a Central American jungle; control of those temples can change from turn to turn, and each player’s ten “actions” presents an enormous list of potential decisions to position his/her pieces for maximum points in each of the scoring rounds. That makes it interesting to play, but also leads to the long gaps between turns. Plays two to seven, but doesn’t play well with two. Complexity: Medium.

39. Maori: I haven’t reviewed this one yet, as I just got it earlier this month and have only played it (and lost, as it turns out) three times. It’s 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.

38. 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.

37. 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.

36. 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. Complexity: High.

35. 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.

34. 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.

33. 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.

32. 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’m due to replay and reevaluate this one, though. It’s also among my favorite themes, maybe because it makes me think of the Animal Kingdom Lodge at Disneyworld. Complexity: Low.

31. 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.

30. 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.

29. 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. Complexity: Low.

28. 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.

27. Agricola: The most complex game we’ve tried, with the steepest learning curve. 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.

26. Le Havre. Full review, including app. It’s a great game, one of the most complex I’ve tried, based on Agricola and on another game further up this list (Caylus), 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, and I think it’s a little more enjoyable than Agricola, 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. Complexity: High.

25. 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.

24. 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).

23. 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. Back in print at the moment, and maybe the game on this list that gets the least press relative to its quality and fun factor. Complexity: Medium.

22. 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. Complexity: Medium.

21. Vikings: Full review. Currently out of print, and unavailable through that link (which I’m including anyway because used copies may appear there in the future). 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. I’m sad to see it out of print. Complexity: Medium.

20. 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.

19. 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. Complexity: High.

18. Samurai: Review of the iOS app, 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. Complexity: Medium/low.

17. 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 around this time last year for $10 on amazon. Complexity: Low.

16. 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. 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. Complexity: Low.

15. 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 $25. Complexity: Low.

14. Battle Line: Full review. Among the best two-player games we’ve found, designed by Reiner Knizia, who is also behind Lost Cities. 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.

13. Caylus. 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. Complexity: High.

12. 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. Complexity: Medium.

11. 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.

10. The Settlers of Catan: I do feel somewhat odd about dropping this in the rankings for the second year in a row, but the truth is we don’t pull this game out as much as we did a few years ago, and I’ve still got it in the top ten largely because of its value as an introduction to Eurogames, one of the best “gateway games” on the market. 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. You can even find this along with Ticket to Ride (higher up the list) at Target, which is about as mainstream as you can get. We’ve just got lots of other games we prefer after playing this one so often over the years. Complexity: Low.

9. The Castles Of Burgundy Full review. The highest-ranked new game on the list this year, Castles of Burgundy even 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 is the best new game we tried this year. Complexity: Medium (medium-high).

8. 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. I haven’t tried the On The Brink expansion, but several people (including my sister and her husband) rave about what it brings to the base game. 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.

7. 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 (age 6) understands the base game well enough to play it without me deliberately throwing the game to keep it competitive. Complexity: Low.

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. I haven’t tried the expansion, Style is The Goal, yet. 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. Complexity: Low.

2. 7 Wonders: Full review. 7 Wonders has swept the major boardgame awards (yes, there are such things) this year 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.

Last year, I promised but never provided a ranking of games just for two players, so rather than make another pledge I won’t keep, I’ll rank them here, in reverse order. I’m only considering two-player value, so I’ve only included games I’ve tried in two-player format.

1. Jaipur
2. Carcassonne
3. Stone Age
4. Ticket to Ride
5. Dominion/Intrigue
6. Small World
7. Battle Line
8. Samurai
9. Castles of Burgundy
10. Lost Cities
11. Pandemic
12. 7 Wonders
13. Through the Desert
14. San Juan
15. Jambo
16. Thurn und Taxis
17. Orient Express
18. Tigris and Euphrates
19. Tobago
20. Asara

Glen More.

Glen More is the first board game from German designer Matthias Cramer, who was subsequently nominated for the Kennerspiel des Jahres award in 2011 for his next game, Lancaster (losing out to one of our all-time favorites, 7 Wonders). I haven’t played that latter game, but Glen More is one of the most interesting new games I’ve come across, second only to 7 Wonders in that department, with particular points for introducing a new selection mechanic for a tile-based game.

In Glen More, players are Scottish clan leaders and begin building their territories with a single village tile and a single clan member (experienced boardgamers will recognize it as a meeple). On his turn, a player takes one or more tiles off a track that goes around the outer edge of the central game board and places it (or them) adjacent to any tile he has already placed. When he places a tile, that tile is “activated” as are any adjacent tiles, meaning the player may receive up to nine actions and/or resources for placing a single tile. Standard tiles may provide resources (wood, stone, cattle, sheep, and wheat), allow for the conversion of resources into victory points, allow for the production of whiskey from wheat, or add new clan members. The game also includes several special tiles that grant bonuses at the time they’re placed or at the end of the game.

The selection mechanic is the biggest difference between Glen More and any other game where players are building territories or edifices independent of other players (such as in Alhambra). Glen More’s track includes twelve spaces, of which eleven are occupied at any time by either a single tile or a single player token. On his turn, the player whose token is at the head of the chain may jump back as far as he likes on to any tile and claim it; therefore, if he is still ahead of all other players in the chain, the player can go multiple times. (Once all players have passed over a particular tile, it is discarded from the game.) Therefore, it is likely that players will receive uneven numbers of turns, something balanced out slightly by a game-ending penalty for players who have more than the minimum number of tiles. The mechanic forces players to weigh the opportunity cost of jumping far back in the chain to claim a specific tile – not only does this leave other tiles to competing players, but it may be a while before the player who moved so far gets to select again.

The other two main strategies in the game involve balancing resource production with conversion into points or whiskey and placing tiles in the most advantageous manner. You need some resources to buy certain tiles, and there are good tile pairings (such as a pasture and/or a cattle tile plus a butcher tile to convert them into … well, delicious victory points) to target. But you can get caught overproducing without enough options to convert or spend those resources, or have the opposite problem where you can’t take certain tiles because you lack the resources. (There is a market to buy and sell goods, but it’s limited, and once three resources of any kind have been purchased by players, the market has no more until a player decides to sell one back.) Whiskey production, while fun on a more general level, also leads to victory points for players who produce more than the player with the fewest barrels has, and can be used to buy certain valuable tiles like taverns, which produce 7-8 victory points whenever they’re activated.

The placement issue is the trickiest one in the game. There are multiple restrictions, but the key one is that a tile can only be placed horizontally or vertically adjacent to another tile with a meeple on it, meaning players must keep their meeples placed to allow for continuous expansion. Village tiles grant “movement points” to allow the player to move his meeples around, or to promote one to chieftain and remove it from the board for future points, but these opportunities are limited. A player also needs to consider the potential for future activations of the tile when placing it – you don’t want to place a tavern at the edge of your territory where you might not activate it again during the game, to pick an obvious example.

Glen More includes three scoring rounds and a final round of additional scoring, much as Vikings did. The intermediate scoring rounds grant points for whiskey barrels, chieftains, and special tiles; the player with the fewest in each category gets zero points, and other players receive 1-8 points depending on how many more tiles they have than the player with the fewest has. A delta of one receives just one point, but a delta of five or more receives eight points. At game-end, players score for their special tiles (some of which carry significant bonuses) plus one point per coin, and then lose three points for every tile they have in their territories above that of the player who has the fewest.

The game is designed for 2-5 players, but with two or three players there is a dummy player represented on the track by a die that has values of 1, 2, or 3. When that die is at the head of the chain, it’s rolled and jumps back over the number of tiles shown on the die. The tile selected is discarded, as well as any others that ended up ahead of all players plus the die in the chain. The dummy-player variant for two players is pretty common – Alhambra and Zooloretto both use it – but in Glen More it works much more smoothly; losing tiles is a bummer, but you’ll adjust your strategy and won’t lose anything too significant along the way. Without the die, tile selection would be way too predictable, and with four players there’s enough variation that that element of randomness wasn’t necessary.

By far the best part of Glen More is the number of ways to win. If there’s a single dominant strategy, I haven’t seen it, and from reading the forums on boardgamegeek I don’t see evidence anyone else has. You can mix it up based on the tiles that come to you, or just pursue a specific strategy (whiskey!) because it’s fun without costing yourself the game. The rules could be a little clearer on activation and player movement, but we figured those out on the fly once it became clear we’d misread them on the first pass. The fact that it plays as well with two as it does with four puts it in very select company among German-style games, most of which don’t scale down to two or only do so with clumsy rules variations. And for whatever reason Glen More isn’t as expensive as most games in the genre – it’s available for as little as $25.50 right now on amazon, including shipping. If you don’t mind a bit of a long ramp-up on learning the rules, I highly recommend it. It’s one of the best games we’ve played on the more complex end of the spectrum, and doesn’t take as long to play (under an hour) as most complex games take.

Tikal boardgame & app.

Winner of the 1999 Spiel des Jahres (Boardgame of the Year) award, Tikal has two to four players exploring a Mayan jungle, uncovering temples and discovering treasures for points, but with the added twist that you can steal control of temples or forcibly trade treasures with your opponents to maximize your point scores.

On a turn, a player draws the top hex tile from the stack and places it wherever s/he wants on the board as long as it is accessible from a hex that’s already placed. The tiles include temple tiles, treasure tiles, and empty tiles. A temple tile is worth points to the player who has the most worker tokens on it at each scoring round, and temple tiles can increase in value as players “uncover” higher levels, ultimately worth one point per temple level each time it’s scored. The treasures on temple tiles are “discovered” by workers and come in six types, with points per treasure increasing as you add more examples of each type – one point if you only have one treasure of that type, three points if you have a pair, and six if you collect all three. The empty tiles are useful primarily for a player’s ability to place one of two new base camps on one (or on a treasure tile from which all treasures have been collected), allowing the player to place new workers closer to unclaimed temples and treasures.

Once a player has placed a tile, he has ten action points to use on his turn. Actions include placing a new worker or his one leader token for one point; moving a worker to another tile for one point per “step” between tiles; uncovering a temple level for two points; collecting a treasure for three points; trading treasures with an opponent (in which s/he has no choice) for three points; placing a base camp for five points; or guarding a temple, thus protecting it for the player for the remainder of the game, for five points. Uncovering temple levels, gathering treasures, guarding temples, and scoring points for temples all require the use of workers, so placing and deploying them constitutes the critical decision in the game.

In those scoring rounds, players score for treasures as described above and for controlling temples. When multiple players have workers on a temple tile, the points go to the player who has the most workers on that tile, counting any leader tokens as three workers. But each player takes a turn in the scoring round before counting up his points, so before you score, you get to move workers around to control as many temples (or dig up as many treasures) as possible. And since the three scoring rounds before the final one are somewhat randomly timed, each player has to keep one eye on his positioning for the next scoring round – both how well he’s defended temples he’s controlled and how quickly he can move workers and/or his leader around to grab control of another temple. Guarding temples does help, but a player can only guard two temples per game, and when guarding a temple the player loses control of all workers on that tile for the rest of the game.

One other constraint covers new temple levels: Uncovering a level requires placing a small square game piece with the next level number on top of the highest current level. If all game pieces with the next level number have been used, that temple can’t get any higher.

Because there are multiple scoring rounds and the types of tiles revealed vary as the game goes on, Tikal almost plays like a game with two halves, similar but far from identical. In the first half, players are primarily uncovering temple levels and guarding their highest ones, but as the game moves on to the second half, the inability to uncover new levels means players use more action points on stealing control of temples and/or swapping treasures. Of course, the first half can set up the second half, such as controlling temples that are remote from the rest of the action, thus guaranteeing the player a few points without having to spend action points or workers to shore up his defense.

The main flaw in the boardgame is the length of time between a player’s turns. With each player given 10 action points and an ever-widening number of options on the board, a single turn can take several minutes as the player maps out a plan to use up all 10 points in the most efficient and effective way possible while also setting himself up for the next turn. The compensation for this is that the tension created by the knowledge that the other players are likely to screw you out of some points, so while nothing good is going to happen while it’s not your turn, you will want to watch to see just how badly you get screwed. I’ve also seen the suggestion on boardgamegeek that players use a timer to limit just how long each turn takes, which isn’t the worst idea for a four-player game.

Tikal players two to four players, but the board size doesn’t change, so with two players there’s somewhat less interaction or need to steal from other players. With four players, you’re fighting for smaller pieces of the same pie, and there’s more movement and intrigue involved.

One final positive on the game is the box, which is well-designed for easy cleanup given how many different tokens and tiles there are in the game.

Several other commenters at BGG compare Tikal to El Grande, saying the latter game uses a similar mechanic with a better implementation. I’ve never played El Grande, but I’m sure many of you have and am curious whether that should be an upcoming purchase and whether it plays reasonably well with just 2-3 players.

The Tikal app for iOS received some pretty tough reviews when it was first released because it was a buggy mess, very crash prone, hard to decipher on screen, with really weak AI players; I bought it early and had all of those problems, but heard about a forthcoming update and decided to sit on a review until that update arrived. The update has made the app much more stable, cleaned up the UI significantly so it’s easier to follow what’s going on, and I think the AI players are a little better – but not a lot, making it more of a training app if you’re not going multiplayer through GameCenter (which I haven’t tried). At $4.99, it’s definitely worth the trial run if you have an iPad and want to try Tikal before you purchase the physical game. One comment I’d offer is that the game graphics are different from the boardgame, including trucks instead of workers, and the screen is a little dense on an iPod or iPhone. On the plus side, however, the AI moves pretty quickly, so you can run through a solo game without dragging, and the animations make it clear what the AI players are doing.

Small World app.

I have updated this post to reflect the 2013 upgrade to 2.0.

Days of Wonder’s game Small World is one of our favorite casual strategy games, one that presents players with a small number of complex decisions, relies much more on strategy and skill than on chance, that replays well, and that looks great. They’ve now released Small World 2 for iPad (not for the iPod or iPhone, though); it looks great and has the best live two-player experience we’ve found so far, although I’d still say Carcassonne is the best overall boardgame app.

The concept in Small World is one of constrained resources. The map is small and its territories will be rapidly filled up by the two players. The players each select a race & skill combination from the table (one is free, others cost from one to five coins) with which to conquer territories, but those races don’t come with many tokens, and since you must have at least two to take over an empty territory and have to use one token to hold a territory you’ve taken, you run out quickly and must put your civilization into “decline” so you can select a new one. You earn a point for every territory you hold at the end of your turn, plus various bonuses. And the decision on when to decline your current race skill/combination will also be based on when your opponent declines or is about to do so, on what options are available on the board, and on how many points you’re still getting from the last civilization you declined, which will most likely disappear when you decline a second one. (For more on the boardgame itself, you might want to read my review of it from last July. The issue I raised about the Diplomatic skill has been solved in the iPad version by eliminating that skill altogether.)

The game’s best feature, by far, is the mimicking of the tabletop by allowing for two players to face each other on opposite sides of the iPad; the player control bars appear on the top and bottom (viewed lengthwise) and the board doesn’t rotate. Pass-and-play isn’t really a hassle, but this is much easier, and given how much the iPad cost I feel a little better about just letting the thing sit on the table while we play. The game also allows you to choose a start player or have it determined randomly, and even lets you choose background music from your iTunes library.

Play is mostly intuitive, with simple drag-and-drop moves and clearly marked buttons for things like redeploying tokens or declining (click on your main race card and it gives you Info and Decline options). Instructions and key details on races and skills are easily available in-game. It offers no undo option if you should drag-and-misdrop, however, and the game doesn’t allow you to save certain skills (like the Sorceror’s ability) till the end of your turn, automatically moving you to redeployment if you’ve used all of your tokens. The graphics in Small World are outstanding, crystal-clear replicas of the physical game pieces, with even smaller tokens easy to discern.

The AI player is adequate, but no great shakes. It avoids stupid errors and usually chooses its race/skill combination well, but would probably be better served with a more aggressive attacking mode and faster recognition of impending doom (I’ve found that the right race/skill combo can wipe the AI off the map, depending on who the AI chose in the first place.) Like that of most AI players in other games, its short-term thinking is better than its long-term thinking. But if you’re just learning the game or enjoy a quick game even though you’re about 80-90% likely to win, it does the job.

In 2013, Days of Wonder upgraded this app significantly to add maps for three to five players, online multiplayer, and several in-app upgrades (new skills and races). They also raised the price to $9.99, but it’s well worth the cost given how much you’re now getting for your money.

Battle Line game and app.

Battle Line is another two-player card game from the prolific Reiner Knizia, the man behind Lost Cities, Samurai, and Ingenious, one that brings a little more randomness to the table than Lost Cities offers but with plenty of opportunities for strategy – the type of randomness that forces you to rethink your approach to the game, rather than the kind that makes you throw up your hands in frustration. There’s also a very good Battle Line app available for iOS, with good graphics and a solid AI but as yet no online play option.

The main deck in Battle Line includes 60 cards, 10 cards numbered 1 through 10 in each of six different colors. Players begin with seven cards in their hands and on each turn play one card and draw one replacement. In between the two players sits a line of nine flags, and at each flag players place cards to try to create a winning formation, one that ranks higher than the opponent’s formation at the same flag. A completed formation contains three cards. The first player to either win five of the nine flags or to win three adjacent flags wins the game.

A formation’s value is determined by the numbers and colors of the cards it contains. The game has its own lingo, but you’ll notice a correlation to poker hands as well. The top formation is the game’s royal flush – three consecutive cards in one color, with a tie going to the formation with the highest sum on his cards, leaving 10-9-8 as the best possible formation in the game. (If a player completes a 10-9-8 formation at a flag, he wins the flag even if his opponent has yet to finish his own.) Next highest is three of a (numerical) kind, followed by a flush, a straight containing more than one color, and last just any assortment of three cards. When both players have identical formation types at a flag, the above tiebreaker applies. It’s also possible to claim a flag before the other player has completed his formation if it is no longer possible for the second player to create a formation to top the one that’s already on the board.

The twist in the game is the existence of a second deck of ten Tactics cards, each unique, which may be drawn instead of cards from the main deck. These cards run from the lifeline (Hero and Champion, two wild cards that can stand in for any card you want, although each player is limited to playing one of these per game) to the attack card (Traitor, stealing a card your opponent has played and using it yourself; or Deserter, trashing a card your opponent has played). The number of Tactics cards you can play is restricted by how many your opponent has played – the delta must not exceed one, so once you’ve played your first Tactics card you can’t play a second until your opponent has played one.

Battle Line strategy breaks down into two major areas. One is deciding how to fill out formations – if you have the green 9 and the green 8, do you play those together and hope you get the 7 or 10, or do you break up the 9 and 8 to try to build the easier three-of-a-kind formations? But the more interesting part is deciding when to fill out formations. Holding back the second or third cards in a strong formation might entice your opponent to waste a valuable card there – but playing that second card might open the door for him to waste your cards by dropping a stronger formation there. And do you challenge his formations early or try to play at empty flags and create large obstacles in the center of the board? It’s one of those “simple rules but different every time” games, like Lost Cities, that work very well for a quick two-player match.

The game’s card constraints are more confining than those in Lost Cities, which makes it a little more random because of how much you’re at the mercy of the deck. In Lost Cities, you’re just waiting for a larger card in any color you’re using, preferably not too much larger. In Battle Line, you have more formations in play but are often looking for a specific card or one of two in a specific color, and can’t discard a card without using it as you can in Lost Cities. If you want a change from Lost Cities, however, Battle Line is the most comparable two-player game I’ve found.

The Battle Line app (a.k.a. “Reiner Knizia’s Battleline”), from Gourmet Gaming, features two AI opponents, allows you to play two-player against someone sitting next to you, and offers a basic game that involves six cards in your hand and no Tactics cards if you want a tutorial. The strong AI player uses Tactics cards well, doesn’t do anything stupid, and will seize on player mistakes nearly every time. Flags are claimed automatically regardless of the winner, and the graphics involved are very clear. The app had problems with crashing and with incorrect values on two Tactics cards, but both glitches appear to be gone since an update about three weeks ago. It’s been my go-to app of late when I don’t want to get sucked into a long game of Carcassonne since you can knock out a game quickly and there’s enough random variation to keep it fresh.