Take Time to Play Games With Your Family This Season

In spite of the harsh winter and hectic stressful nature of the season, or maybe because of all that, be sure to take some time out to enjoy actually being together with your family. The snow and cold will tend to bring you together indoors. Have hot chocolate and cookies ready and try a few board games.

I’ve been introducing “Euro-style” games to many new people in the past 2 months. It’s wonderful to see people, children and adults, sitting down together around a board game and learning there’s so much more to games than Monopoly, Sorry, Life and Trouble. Those are all fine games, but watch what happens when you introduce people to playing a game like “Ticket To Ride”. It always goes the same. Everyone is delighted and I always get asked where you can buy these games.

I’d like to take an opportunity to share my opinions about good choices for these newer style board games for first-time players and maybe even folks who haven’t experienced great board games in a while. While it’s natural to look at these games as excellent Holiday gifts (and they are) I also suggest you buy one or two for yourself and bring them with you when you get together with your family. Gather folks around the tables. They will remember how much they enjoyed the experience and the friendly banter and table-talk that happens when friends and family gather around a board game to play. It’s an excellent alternative to continuous television. Many of these games play in less than an hour. Some take 2 hours. A few take 3 hours. If your initial reaction is that this is a long time, consider how inexpensive an investment in time and money an excellent board game is for 2 hours of entertainment. And you can play again and again. It’s cheaper than a current run movie, takes less time and besides, you can talk.

Let’s get introduced to a few games first and then I’ll provide tips on where you can find these games. Here’s a nice list.

Ticket To Ride

or

Ticket To Ride Europe

2 to 5 players

45 minutes

Lightweight rules

Ages 8+

Publisher: Days of Wonder

 

This game is great. It won the German Game of The Year award in 2004. That’s a highly regarded award for family games. Whenever I introduce this game to friends and family someone always asks where they can buy it after having played it. It plays very fast. The rules are simple to learn, it usually takes 5 minutes to learn, and it’s very engaging. The game scales well too. It works well with only 2 players and plays quite well with up to 5 players. Ticket To Ride Europe is a later version of the game. The original Ticket To Ride uses a map of the United States and portions of Canada. The Europe edition uses a map of Western Europe. The Europe version has some rules changes and introduces new game elements (train stations and the ability to use ferry’s and tunnels).

Ticket To Ride plays well with children 8 years and older as well as adults. I’ve even seen great games played with adults and children competing.

The game theme is about making train connections between cities in the U.S. The artwork and pieces showcase a time back when Phileas Fogg attempted to travel “Around the World in 80 Days”. Players use colorful plastic train cars to show their city connections. There are no dice in this game. Instead, each player accumulates cards having different colored railroad train cars depicted on them. The colors of the cards are used to build routes on the game board. You have to constantly make the choices between adding to the collection of cards in your hand, connections on the board, or commitments to connect certain far apart cities via “Ticket” cards. In many cases there are a limited set of connections available between cities and each player makes decisions on when the best time to claim connections and score or build up more cards for future connections.

I find the original Ticket To Ride to be the better choice as a “gateway” game – a game for people new to Euro Games. So between the two I always recommend “Ticket To Ride”. But here’s the thing. If you buy only one game recommended in this list get “Ticket To Ride”.

Carcassonne

2 to 5 players

60 minutes

Lightweight Rules

Ages 10+

Publisher: Rio Grande Games (as of 2012, Z-Man Games)

Carcassonne is a unique experience for many people. The board is constructed with each player turn by placing terrain tiles. The pieces are well made and attractive. In addition to the game board tiles, each player also has a small collection of little wooden people which are placed on the tiles as the game progressed. The little wooden people are called “Meeple”. When a tile is placed to extend the board the player can optionally add a “Meeple” to that tile. If the “Meeple” is placed on the road it is considered a “thief” and will score when the road completes. When it is placed in a city the piece is considered a “knight” and scores only when the city is completed. You can also place Meeple in a Cloister as a “monk”. And finally a Meeple can be placed on the land around the cities as a “farmer”. How you place your tiles and Meeple contribute to your scoring.

This game is also easy to understand. Scoring is sometimes a little slow to learn, but the tile and Meeple placement is easily and quickly understood by new players. Recommended minimum age for this game is 10. I’ve seen this one played by adults and adults mixed in with children.

I often use this game as an introduction game as well. There are many expansion kits you can purchase for Carcassonne. Our family is so hooked on this game we have purchased every expansion pack that is available.

Carcassonne is a relatively quick and approachable game. We often play this game when there’s not a lot of agreement on game choices or available time.

Power Grid

2 to 6 players

2 hours

Heavyweight rules

Ages 12+

Publisher: Rio Grande Games

 

I think this game is flawless. It’s a little busy, with all the components and phases in each turn. But the game play is fantastic. The board is beautiful, having the United States on one side and Germany on the other side of the board. There are many interesting painted wooden pieces. Cards are used to represent the interesting power plants that a player may choose to purchase and operate. Gameplay is largely economic business.

Each player chooses to purchase a limited number of power plants, each using a specific resource for fuel (coal, oil, garbage, uranium, or wind/solar). The player also purchases the appropriate fuel from a clever resource market game design element. That gets interesting because costs vary as game play goes on and because of competing players trying to use the same resources. The players also build cities into their power grid and there are costs associated with which cities you choose to add and when the get added. Again, there are no dice. The randomness comes from the variations in the power plant market and whatever each other player is doing. It’s very well balanced. The player in last place has advantages that help keep all players engaged until the game ends. The winner of the game is often not known until the last or second-to-last turn. You win the game by have the most power cities in your grid.

Puerto Rico

3 to 5 players

90 minutes

Heavyweight rules

Ages 12+

Publisher: Rio Grande Games

This game has a really high reputation amongst serious strategy board game players. It has some very clever game ideas at work. Essentially, you are a plantation owner and you make economic choices about which crops you should grow and what kind of harvesting facilities and shipping you should perform. Of course the competitors are doing the same thing and in this game you really need to keep an eye on what the other players are doing too. There are a lot of interesting strategies you can try while playing this game.

It works best with 3 or more players but you can actually play a 2-player variant of this game. My wife and I play this game several times in a row.

Primordial Soup

3 to 4 players

90 minutes

Medium-weight rules

Ages 12+

Publisher: Z-Man Games

I love the colorful wooden pieces in this game. The humor in the artwork is fun. Each player runs their own little tribe of colorful amoeba. They struggle to survive, reproduce and evolve. There are cards in the game which represent the genes that a player’s amoeba have adapted. The cards are delightful in their humor and make for interesting game play.

Starfarers of Catan

3 to 4 players

2 hours

Medium-weight rules

Ages 12+

Publisher: Mayfair Games

The coolest thing about this game is the pieces. Each player gets a fairly large plastic rocketship. On that ship you attach rings to show how much cargo capacity your fleet has, engine boosters to increase speed, and blasters for better protection against space pirates. The general theme is that you are spaced faring players exploring and building colonies by taking advantage of the resources that individual planetary systems can provide. You encounter alien races and can establish trade relations with them. You also encounter space pirates which try to take away your cargo or damage your fleet.

It’s obviously a Science Fiction themed game. Our whole family enjoys playing this one. My only complaint about the game is that the large mother ships have fragile plastic rings where the booster engines get attached. It’s way too easy to snap these off. Fortunately the vendor has come up with a work-around. All you need do is contact them via e-mail and they will send you free of charge replacement booster rings that work great.
Update: I’ve been told that Mayfair games has started including the replacement booster rings with the game now.

Lost Cities

2 players

30 minutes

Lightweight rules

Ages 10+

Publisher: Rio Grande Games

This is a very quick and addicting 2-player game. It’s really a card game with special cards. I recommend this one as a game for parents as well as kids. Lost Cities is legendary as being an excellent game that wives excel at. Melissa wins this game whenever we play almost all the time.

The basic idea behind the game is that each player is working from the same deck of cards which represent a number of expeditions to discover lost cities. The expeditions are represented by graphics and color. Any one expedition must be run in numerical sequential order. And once you begin an expedition you must make a minimum amount of progress or that expedition will score negatively for you. Of course your opponent may be trying to complete the same expedition. And since you are both working from the same deck of expedition cards, you can see how this gets interesting.

Alhambra

2 to 6 players

45 minutes

Medium-weight Rules

Ages 8+

Publisher: Rio Grande Games

Alhambra won the “Game of the Year” award in Germany in 2003. It’s a bit like Carcassonne in that each player is laying tiles. But you are also purchasing the tiles from a market. There are cards of multiple kinds of currency and each player needs to use the correct combinations of currency types and amounts to purchase tiles.

The tiles are added to your own little layout of a garden. In many cases there are also outside walls on your tile pieces and these walls contribute to your scoring. However the walls also interfere with your ability to add tiles to your garden because you must maintain a path by which you can walk through your ever expanding garden without getting walled off.

Scoring is interesting. The player with the most of a certain colored garden tile gets the most points. Second place and third place can score too but in lower amounts. So each player buys the garden tiles that will connect in their garden as well as provides the larger collection of any type in the game to increase scoring.

Nautilus

2 to 4 players

2 hours

Medium-weight rules

Ages 12+

Publisher: Mayfair Games

This is another Science Fiction themed game. Each player is building an underwater research station. You use scientists and submarines to research and explore the ocean bed, looking for Atlantis and sunken treasures.

The colors and theme are fantastic for this game. Game time can be a little long but we’ve played it a number of times and really enjoy this game.

Arkham Horror

1 to 8 players

3 hours

Heavyweight rules

Ages 12+

Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games

This is a highly themed game. It takes place in the town of Arkham, Massachusets during the 1920’s. In the game monsters and mysterious creatures appear in and around the town and cause havoc. Each player plays the part of a detective, scientist, teacher or one of many other characters as they explore around the town and either avoid the monsters or take them on in battle.

A really unique feature of this game is that the players collaborate. You do not compete against each other. Each player is working together to destroy the monsters and keep Arkham from a high level of terror panic.

This game has taken 3 hours to play every time we have done it. The theme and artwork is excellent. You really do get a sense of doom and foreboding while playing this game. It’s a collaborative game where the players are working against the game and not each other. In fact, the players have to work together as a team to win.

Robo Rally

2 to 8 players

2 hours

Medium-weight rules

Ages 10+

Publisher: Avalon Hill

Robo Rally reminds me a lot of that TV show where the robots are put into a combat arena to survive. It’s also an ideal game for programmers, I think. Each player is given a small robot which is placed in the game board and several programming cards. Then in each turn the player decides which program steps, from the small random collection of programming steps he was dealt, his program will execute that turn. The robots have lasers for shooting at each other and can push each other off the board or into a pit. The board also has conveyor belts and lasers and rotating board squares to further complicate the player’s plans. Each player is trying to survive and race the other robots to specific flag squares on the board.

Not everyone likes this game. It generates an environment where the player must make critical decisions under time pressure. To succeed you need to be able to think of yourself standing on the board, oriented as your robot, to make the correct decisions about which way it should rotate, turn and move as the game plays. Nicholas and I love to play this game. Melissa does not.

Killer Bunnies

2 to 8 players

90 minutes

Medium-weight Rules

Ages 12+

Publisher: Playroom Entertainment

This game is card game. It’s fun and the theme is cute. And the truth is there’s an element of luck in who wins. But I’ve seen this game be fun no matter who ends up winning.

Each player has one or more bunnies they are trying to keep alive. The object of the game is for one of your bunnies to get the Magic Carrot at the games end. To do this you need to keep your bunny alive while destroying the bunnies of your opponents. The death of the bunnies is full of humor and outrageous weapons (Kitchen Whisk, Stray Lawn Dart, Nuclear Weapon). You also have cards that protect your bunny and sustain it’s life. The artwork on the cards keep the game full of fun and humor.

Our family got into a serious Bunny habit for a while there and played this game every night for several weeks. It really is that much fun.

Heroscape

2 to 4 players

60 minutes

Lightweight rules

Ages 8+

Publisher: Hasbro

This is a wargame played with pre-painted miniatures. The board is 3-dimensional plastic hexes and the painted figures look really cool. The figures represent each player’s army and consists of heros from all time. There’s an awesome looking dragon, Men In Black characters, Viking Warriors, Samurai Warriors, a real mix.

It’s pretty much a “boys game” and it’s quite fun to play. It’s also quite a deal cost-wise since the pre-painted miniatures would cost a small fortune with any other game. The large scale production of a company like Hasbro makes the cost reasonable.

The game comes with 2 sets of rules. A basic game can be learned in minutes but it’s not where the real strategy comes in. The more advanced rules set are easy to learn once you play the basic game a few times. There are numerous on-line scenarios and board layouts you can construct and a large array of expansion packs contains army men, robots from the future, and really cool looking Hell Hounds and a number of interesting dragons. You can also buy expansion packs that add stone bridges, roads, lava tiles and trees.

One piece of advice. Buy a large plastic tub to contain all the pieces after the game is removed from the box. It’s very difficult to get everything back in the original box, especially since you have to attach the wings to the dragon and they do not come off once attached.

Nexus Ops

2 to 4 players

60 minutes

Medium-weight rules

Ages 12+

Publisher: Avalon Hill

This is a Science Fiction themed war game. Each player controls an alien race of really cool looking day-glow colored plastic figures. The board is configured each time you play depending on how many players are in the game. There are cards to specify secret missions and cards that grant special abilities to your alien figures.

Formula De Mini

2 to 8 players

60 minutes

Lightweight Rules

Ages 10+

Publisher: Descartes Editeur

This is a smaller version of a French game called Formula De. There are multiple race tracks available and colored dice that represent the speed of the car as it races around the track. You up-shift to a higher gear when you want to move your car around the game board quickly and down-shift for the turns. If you mess up going too fast into a turn you can crash and fall behind the others.

Blokus

1 to 4 players

60 minutes

Lightweight rules

Ages 5+

Publisher: Euro World

This is an abstract strategy game with colorful plastic tetris-like pieces that each player places in the game board. You try to place your pieces to block in your opponents. It plays quick and Nicholas and I play this on some evenings for a quick game. There’s also a 2-player version of this game called Travel Blokus which is a smaller more portable size. We keep a copy of Travel Blokus in the car and sometimes play it while out at lunch.

Deflexion

2 players

20 minutes

Lightweight rules

Ages 8+

Publisher: self published

This is a unique game. It plays like chess and is only for 2 players. Each player moves their pieces around the game board and then activate real pen lasers to fire at their targets. Most of the pieces have mirrors on them so the laser bounces around the board before it reaches the final target.

There’s a neat story about how this game was created. 2 students at Tulane University developed the game with their mechanical engineering professor. They self-funded an initial 500 copies of the game with a grant from the National Collegiate Inventors & Inventors Alliance. They live in New Orleans and Katrina wiped out two of their homes. Fortunately the warehouse holding their new games was in Texas. Since introduction this game has been a success story for them.

Monsters Menace America

2 to 4 players

90 minutes

Medium-weight Rules

Ages 10+

Publisher: Avalon Hill

This is a fun little game that’s played with campy Science Fiction themed plastic monsters. Each player controls one monster that stomps across a map of the USA, destroying cities and monuments. The military is controlled by each player and will attack the other player monster.

It’s pretty campy. There’s a mechanism in the game that if your monster gets too weak it gets sent to Hollywood as a chained-up attraction. The parts are cool and the game-play is easy. I’m not certain this game would become a long time favorite but it makes for a fun and entertaining change of pace.

 


 

Final comments about these games and where they can be purchased.

Even though these games are classified as “Euro Games” or “German-style strategy games” they are not all imports. Ticket To Ride is manufactured by an American game company called “Days of Wonder”. In fact, Days of Wonder makes quite a few excellent games and I’ve never seen one that was not of high quality and design. Hasbro makes Heroscape. Avalon Hill is actually a division of Hasbro. And Deflexion is designed by some American college students and a professor at Tulane University.

With the exception of “Heroscape”, you probably will not find any of these games at your local department store or toy store. Target and Toys R Us carry Heroscape, and a number of the expansion packs too. Sometimes you can find the Avalon Hill (Robo Rally, Nexus Ops, Monsters Menace America) titles at Toys R Us. I once saw Carcassonne at a Toys R Us too, and I’ve read that some Toys R Us stores carry Ticket To Ride.

With a few exceptions, your choices are either purchase these games on-line or from local game hobby shops. I recommend you visit your local games hobby shop and look around. They always have a helpful staff and quite often the customers there are eager to help make choices and recommendations. Your local hobby games shop sells these games at retail cost, so you would pay a little more. But you get to walk out of the store with the paid game in your hands and you are supporting the local gaming hobby.

The easiest way to find these game hobby shops is go to your Yellow Pages or Yellow Book and search for either board games or comic book shops. Here in Omaha, quite a few comic book shops also sell Euro Games.

On-line you have many choices. My personal favorite on-line games store is Thought Hammer. Here is a list of a few I have used for purchasing games:

Thought Hammer

Time Well Spent

Fair Play Games

I’ve probably forgotten a vendor I’ve also used in the past. The on-line retailers that I’ve linked here are ones that I have used personally. They usually offer about 35% off list prices and have free shipping when your order gets large enough. I have found that customer service at these on-line stores to be very good.

Also, the game vendors that I have dealt with so far (Rio Grande Games, Fantasy Flight Games, Days of Wonder, Mayfair Games) have excellent customer support. Sometimes you break a game piece or lose one. Sometimes something was accidently missed in the original box. You can often contact them via telephone or e-mail and get replacements pieces, in many cases for free.

One other thing. These games often have lots of components. Have some re-sealable bags handy for dividing up the parts before storing them back in the box. It makes beginning the next game so much faster.