If you look in the board / card game aisle of your local department store, you’ll quickly notice that most of the games there are over thirty years old. Lets see now, we’ve got Sorry (1934), Monopoly (1903), Cluedo (1946). Some of the card games are bit fresher: Mille Bornes is from 1954, and Uno first appeared in 1971.
With that in mind, one might wonder what’s been happening in the world of board games in the last fifteen years or so (i.e. since computer and videogames became popular). The surprising answer is that Germany has been going through a board gaming boom due, a drunken traveller told me the other night, to winter being ‘cold and dark’. As it is now getting a bit colder and darker around our way, the time seems ripe to discuss some German games of interest.
First up is Carcassonne, winner of the 2001 Spiel des Jahres (German game of the year). This was the first German game I got my hands on, and it blew me away with how different it was from the Parker Brothers style games mentioned above. The first thing that struck me about it was the quality of the playing pieces: the pawns (known to fans as meeples) are wooden rather than plastic, and the tiles are made of thick line-backed card printed in full colour. And the rules not only cover how to play, but also contain colour photographs demonstrating how ambiguous moves should be resolved.
The basic idea of the game is that each player places tiles (containing sections of roads, cities, and farms) in order to form a SimCity type map of the Carcassonne region. As tiles are played, meeples may be placed on them in order to claim the roads, cities, and farms (and the associated points) for a particular player. If you’re looking for a light and friendly first game to ease yourself into more sophisticated modern board games, this would be a good start. Unhalfbricking sells it for A$35. It plays well with 2 to 4 players, so it’s pretty flexible.
If you want something a bit more challenging, China is one of my favourite German games. It’s another good example of the kind of production quality you can expect from the genre: full colour board and cards, one hundred cut and painted wooden pieces, clear and concise full colour rulebook. It’s basically a game of area majority, where you play cards to place your pieces into an area of the board so that you outnumber the other players there. If that sounds interesting, you can read my full review on boardgamegeek.com. This is a game to consider if you like games of skill and confrontation (chess, Risk etc) but are looking for something with no dice for three to five players. It’s a cruel game, but it plays quickly, so the tears of your loved ones will be brief. Unhalfbricking has it for A$50.
Reiner Knizia is the most prolific board game designer, and is considered by many to be the best. The most recent addition to my stack of Knizia games is Samurai, a tile-laying game set in feudal Japan. Samurai is beautiful to behold, with black plexiglass buddhas and a deco-style map that adds more islands to the archipelago as you increase the number of players. Unlike Carcassonne, it’s an influence game, where the tiles you place represent your political and military force being brought to bear on the peasantry, nobility, and religious leaders that are on the map. It’s a very simple game to learn, but it has some of the classic character of Go, as the struggle for territory moves back and forth across the board. Highly recommended.
On to card games now, and one game in particular that everyone seems to enjoy is Bohnanza, the game of trading, planting, and harvesting beans. People are usually lukewarm to the theme, but once you put some cards in their hand they start trading soy beans for green beans as if their very lives depended on it!
Bohnanza has some really clever mechanics that make it a cut above most other card games I have come across. Everyone can trade beans with the active player and also harvest beans at any time, so there’s no looking at your watch and waiting for your turn — you’re playing all the time. Additionally you must play your cards in the order in which they were dealt to you, which encourages everyone to get involved so that they can trade away their unwanted cards. Another great mechanism is the way the game handles income from bean sales: you flip over the sold cards and there’s money printed on the reverse.
You can get it for A$35 from Unhalfbricking. The game supports up to seven players, but the two player game is a variant. A 3 to 7 player game should take somewhere between 45 minutes and 1 hour 15 minutes.
A popular card game for couples is Lost Cities (also by Knizia). It’s basically a game of card counting and compromise, with a rather thin India Jones theme tacked onto it. The components are of excellent quality: big tarot sized cards, and a folding board with areas for the game’s five discard piles. There’s not much more to it than playing cards in numerical order or discarding them, but there are so many choices to be made that the game is strangely addictive. This is a good game to try with relatives that might be confused by a more complex German game with a zillion wooden cubes in it. A$40 from Unhalfbricking.
If the above games sound a bit too light and fluffy for you, a more complex German card game to consider is San Juan. In this game the cards pull triple duty as buildings, money, and trade goods. For example, I might discard two cards to pay for (play) a sugar mill card, which will later produce sugar (a face down card atop the sugar mill) which can then be sold (in a fluctuating market represented by cardboard price tokens) to bring in fresh cards as income. On each turn, the active player chooses a role for all of the players to play out: the prospector draws a random card, the councillor seeks a specific card, the builder builds a structure (e.g. sugar mill), the producer generates trade goods (e.g. sugar), and the trader sells goods. The role selection mechanism is fiendish, and players will try to choose the builder when their opponents are broke, or the trader when their opponents have no goods to sell. If that’s not enough for you, San Juan is actually a simplified version of Puerto Rico, an even more complex board game. Unhalfbricking has San Juan for A$40.