Here they are! My 5 favorite games!
- The Manhattan Project (-2)
I do like euros, at least some of them, but being more of a typical dorky Ameritrash lover, I like more bright color, cool components, and maybe a great theme, and less “point salad”. So I hadn’t really found a game that seemed to hit on that until I got Manhattan Project. As a huge fan of Big Bang Theory (one of my favorite shows), where there are tons of references to Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, I do like this theme—and the designer has made a fairly adept design choice, whereby the goal of the game is to build bombs, but not to actually bomb anybody. It’s the cold war, really. Anyhow, you start with four meager laborers, and buy buildings and recruit scientists and engineers to help acquire money, fissionable materials (yellow cake), and refine those into plutonium and uranium in order to build bombs. You can build fighters and bombers as well to attack the other players, and you can infiltrate their buildings by using espionage, but this requires some editorial comment. So I don’t typically like attacking other people. And it is noteworthy that in three games of Manhattan Project (so far) not one building has been damaged by anybody. I think we Pegheads just like each other. But I’m telling you, if somebody wins a 5 player game without anybody attacking each other, the other 4 players most definitely should have done something about it. We’re just too nice. But, one of the interesting things about this game is, because points come in such big chunks, it’s not always easy to see who is leading. Somebody could be two turns away from winning, but sitting with like four points. You absolutely can stop the runaway leader in this game—and easily. Provided you don’t let the leader build up a huge defense of fighters. Anyway, this is a great game, and it definitely has an exponential build to it. By game end you can be using 12 workers per turn (or every other turn) or more if you have the buildings to generate contract workers. This game does have a bit of a whimsical feel as well, as all the bombs have silly names—so it’s not to be taken too seriously. This is a solid game even without players attacking each other, but I’m telling you we’re missing a major component of the game—I’m going keep bringing this out, and I will get people to attack each other. Great game for a reasonable price, and one I’m sure I’ll be playing for a very long time.
- Ticket to Ride (+1)
So last year, I ranked some of the versions of Ticket to Ride individually, but this year they are all combined into one single entry here at the #4 spot on my all-time list. The reasons for combining it simply are because I really don’t care much for regular Ticket to Ride: USA, but I do very much like many of the expansion maps, including Switzerland, Nordic Countries, Pennsylvania, and the UK. All of those are really great so it doesn’t make sense to tie up 4 slots in the top 75 for variations on the same game.
What’s so great about Ticket to Ride? By now everybody knows it. It’s been out 10 years already and has been a huge seller. As always, this and Catan are probably the biggest gateway games of the last 20 years of gaming. I can teach you to play in 5 minutes, and there’s enough strategy in it to keep strong gamers interested. There’s no denying this is a good game, and how important it is for gamers to know this game and have it available to help grow the hobby.
There is such a great variety of expansion maps, and most of them really only have a couple different rules from the base game. You like set collection? Get Pennsylvania out. Like technology development? Get the UK map. Like tons of options? Get Switzerland out. Like a tight challenging map? Nordic Countries. Wanna play teams? Get Asia. And there are a few I don’t have like India and Africa. Let’s hope they keep coming out with great expansion maps to keep this game fresh. If they do, I think this game stays in my top 10 for a very long time. Shockingly it even moved up one spot this year based on the quality of the most recent Penn/UK map expansion. Not too shabby.
- Suburbia. (-1)
So Brian got this game out for the two of us to play not too long after we met. About halfway through, I said, “Boy I really like this game”. Then we borrowed it so Cindy and I could try it, and halfway through she said “how much is this game?” which translates to “we should buy this.” And as soon as it was back in print, we did buy it. This is SimCity the board game. The concept is simple. Buy a tile that represents some element of a typical city, find a place to play it—hopefully in an area that makes sense for how you would expect a thriving city to be laid out, and then check your reputation and income. Some tiles will help your city earn money (to buy better tiles), some will make it more appealing so more citizens move in (reputation) and that’s what helps you score points. Throw in some secret goals, some public goals, and you’ve got a really well-balanced game. Everybody knows I championed this game a lot in the last year, so much so that we had enough copies to run our own little tournament, and it was a great time. In my opinion, it is best with three players, and it’s still good with two. With four it starts to slow down a little for my taste, while you wait for your turn to come around. A lot of the podcast folks call this a “tier two” game, which means, once you’ve got somebody hooked on gaming after introducing something like Ticket to Ride, Catan, or Dominion, then this is the next game to have them try. I think I agree with that assessment. A big part of why this game still ranks this high, given specific circumstances that I will not divulge for a few more minutes, is the expansion does a nice job of adding some more variety, and new mid-game goals, so there’s still fresh things to see in this game. And there’s another expansion on the way, “Suburbia 5-Star”, but I’m really unsure about whether Suburbia needs more upgrading. And I really think this game is destined to drop over the next year, and that’s because….
- Castles of Mad King Ludwig. (-1)
Castles of Mad King Ludwig (hereafter referred as CoMKL) is even better than Suburbia. #1, it takes less time to set up than Suburbia. #2, it is less fiddly to put away. #3, the score tracker is better. #4 the strategic choices you need to make are much deeper and subtle. #5, I like the theme a little better.
So obviously these are similar games, by the same designer Ted Alspach (don’t ask about Subdivision, because that game is a completely different animal). In Suburbia you build a city, and in CoMKL you build a (very chaotic) castle. The major difference between the two is how the marketplace is set up—where you buy your tiles. In Suburbia the costs drop the longer a tile has been available. The most you can do in the way of player interaction is to either take a tile somebody else wants before they do, or just make a lake out of it. In CoMKL there is a completely different marketplace arrangement. Each round one player is the master builder. He takes all the available room tiles, and decides which one will be in which marketplace slot. Then the other players buy whatever tiles they want, but the payment goes to the Master Builder. Then the Master Builder buys his own tile, and his payment goes to the bank. Next round the player to the left becomes the Master Builder, and he or she sets up the market, and play continues. This may not seem like a very big difference, but let me explain to you just how huge it is!
So I’m the master builder. I know which room tile I want. It will only be there if nobody else buys it before I do. So I’ve got to set the price high enough that nobody takes it for dirt cheap, but not so expensive that I overpay for it myself. I think I know which room tile you want. I want as much money as I can get from you when you buy it. So where do I price it? High enough to be happy with the payment I get, but not so much that you decide to buy something cheaper—that makes me lose out on money. Worse yet, if I make your choices so unpalatable, you may choose not to buy anything (and take $5000 from the bank instead) and now I didn’t get any payment from you at all! That happened to me once and I was dead broke after—it was horrible! Or maybe there’s a tile I just don’t want you to have—I’ll set that on up to the highest cost. That works for this round, but every tile that doesn’t get purchased gets a $1000 bonus coin placed on it, and when someone finally buys it, they get any bonus coins as well. So eventually that price will become more and more attractive. I can’t keep it from you forever. Layers and layers of risk and reward choices to be made. Sometimes it’s just too much to work out, and you end up saying—to heck with it! I’m just going to guess and hope I don’t get screwed.
On top of that, the rooms are varied in size and shape, and color, and interactions are very thematic. Do not put that Ten Pin Alley next to any of the sleeping rooms, or you’ll get major point penalties. Try to arrange your rooms and hallways so that all of the entrances of a room are connected and you’ll get a bonus. No two rooms are the same, and most of them have tiny thematic artwork on them (like the Train Room, with a tiny model train snaking around the tile). The symbology is clear. There are downstairs rooms too, like dungeons and alcoves, and moss caves.
Every castle you build will turn out unique and interesting—and you’ll want to take pictures. It’s really great. CoMKL plays 2-4 players, and is surprisingly good with 2 players. The sweet spot (like Suburbia) is three players. The only drawback I can find in this game isn’t even the game’s fault. There can be a lot to think about when you’re the Master Builder, and sometimes it can be difficult to figure out which room will fit geometrically to the floor plan you’ve built so far. It can be a little bit AP prone (analysis paralysis), but that’s and issue with the player, not the game.
- Pandemic Legacy (new entry)
What follows is SPOILER FREE.
That’s right, there’s a new #1 this year. Before I start:
- If you don’t like Pandemic, you won’t like this game.
- If you think Pandemic is difficult to play with too many hard rules, you won’t like this game.
- If you don’t like cooperative games like Pandemic, you won’t like this game.
- If stressful games are too much for you, then this game probably isn’t for you.
Now if none of those apply to you, and you’re still reading, then hopefully I have your attention. This is a fantastic game.
For those who don’t know what Pandemic Legacy is, let me explain. This game starts out like regular Pandemic, but as you play it, a story unfolds. Things will permanently change. Rules will change. The map of the world may permanently change. Other things might change that I dare not tell you until you experience it for yourself. The idea is that you will play the game somewhere around 15 to 20 times, with the same group, much like you would for a role-playing campaign, and the story unfolds throughout each game you play. You’ll open new boxes of components when certain conditions are met. When the legacy story is over, so is your Pandemic Legacy experience. You play the legacy through once and you are done. The game you play at game 18 is very different from the game you may have started with (and it does increase in complexity as it progresses).
That’s pretty much all I can tell you. So why is it so great?
I will steal the thunder from our loyal Peghead Eric who said, “I’ve never had an emotional attachment with a board game. I’ve had some in tabletop rpg…but to draw sadness and anger (over what happens during the game) is an incredible achievement to be done in a board game.”
You will find after a game or two, suddenly you CARE about what happens in your game. Every decision you make has consequences not just for whether or not you win the game you are currently playing, but it could possibly impact every game you play for the rest of the legacy. When you win, or pull off a good move, you’ll be so excited that you’re high fiving. And when something bad happens (and something bad will probably happen), you’ll be devastated.
And not only that, once you’ve played it, you’ll spend so much time talking about it. I played it through with my lovely wife Cindy, and we’d talk about what strategy we might want to employ on our next game. We’d want to know what happened to other groups that played it. How did they do in March of their game? How many did they win, and how many did they lose. How did you feel when “such and such” happened? You’ll want to share your experience.
- I cannot possibly recommend playing this game highly enough.
- Get comfortable with regular Pandemic first. Play it at least once or twice, to where you feel like you have a good chance to win, and you are comfortable with some of the subtle strategies needed to win consistently. A bad game early in your legacy will have a lasting impact, and there is no going back and starting over. If you have never played Pandemic, you can buy Pandemic Legacy and play it through a couple of times without starting the legacy story. The rulebook explains how to do this. Or borrow my copy of Pandemic and try it out.
- Find a good group. It plays just fine with 2, 3, or 4 people, but you need to be able to meet regularly to play, and you need to be able to work together well. At least one good strategic player will help you a lot, as mistakes cannot be undone. At least on player with good attention to rules will help keep you on track and avoid mistakes.
I’m telling you, if you can meet these recommendations, then you need to get this game and play it. It is one of the neatest gaming experiences I’ve ever had. The only drag is that once it’s over, it’s over. I’m sure this is the only year this game will be #1 on my list, because I can’t play it anymore. Well, I suppose I could find another group and play it again, but I know all the surprises that will happen, and all the wonder and excitement of what might happen next is what made this game such a hit for me.
Get this game. Play it. Tell me how it went. I hope and trust you will like it. For me it was unforgettable.
Pandemic Legacy. My #1 game of all time.
Was there a game missing? Is there something (other than Achemists) that you can’t believe I didn’t like better? Or a game that I like that you think is garbage? Keep the discussion going, and I’ll try not to take it too personally.
And as I always tell you, Have Fun, Play Games, and Make Friends.