Saturday, January 16, 2016

Ten Games to Start Your Game Collection (And Twenty More)

Randolph Pub Ludique's games library. That's a lot of games. 
One of the most common topics I see in board gaming communities like DFW Nerd Night, The Boardgame Group, and /r/boardgames is about folks who are new to the hobby and want to expand their board game collection, but aren't sure what to buy. We're in a "golden age" of tabletop gaming, and with 1,500 new games being released each year, there are plenty to choose from and plenty of ways to evaluate them.

I've crowdsourced this list by polling the members of DFW Nerd Night, and used that list, plus some of my own discretion, to put together "Ten Games to Start Your Game Collection". It's important to note that these aren't the ONLY ten games I think our new friend should purchase, just the first ten that should give her plenty to play for the foreseeable future.

Criteria I'm considering, in no particular order:
  • Is this game fun in most situations, or just in certain ones? 
  • Will this game introduce our friend to mechanics or themes that other, deeper games explore in more interesting ways?  
  • Is this game good once, a couple times, or for a long time? 
  • How many players can play? 
  • How easy is this game to learn?
  • How easy is this game to teach? Our friend will surely teach these games to her friends, so they should be accessible. 
  • How long is this game? 
  • How much does this game cost?
  • How much space does this game take up in a collection and on the table? 
  • How likely is our friend to find other folks interested in playing this game with her? 
  • Is this game currently available? 
I'm also going to suggest two games that could replace each game on the list, because there are a LOT more than 10 gateway games out there!

10) Star Wars: X-Wing
MSRP: $40
Number of Players: 2-4
Duration: 30-45 Minutes Description: Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game is a tactical ship-to-ship combat game in which players take control of powerful Rebel X-wings and nimble Imperial TIE fighters, facing them against each other in fast-paced space combat. Featuring stunningly detailed and painted miniatures, the X-Wing Miniatures Game recreates exciting Star Wars space combat throughout its several included scenarios. Select your crew, plan your maneuvers, and complete your mission! 

My take: X-Wing was one of the first games I played with my "new" play group three years ago, and holds a special place in my heart. The game comes with three rules difficulty levels, so you can take it out of the box and begin playing immediately, then learn new rules as you're ready for deeper play. There are so many expansion ships and pilots that you could only own this game and have plenty to play for years. If you're a not a huge Star Wars fan, you'll appreciate how beautiful and detailed the models are, and how carefully the game has been designed to allow for balanced, interesting play.

Also Try: If you're interested in skirmish-style combat and want a World War II theme, try Memoir '44. If you're interested in Star Wars and want a story-driven skirmish game, try Star Wars: Imperial Assault.

9) Pandemic

MSRP: $40
Number of Players: 2-4
Duration: 60 Minutes Description: In Pandemic, several virulent diseases have broken out simultaneously all over the world! The players are disease-fighting specialists whose mission is to treat disease hotspots while researching cures for each of four plagues before they get out of hand. 

My take: Pandemic is the standard-bearer for cooperative games, and though many fans have enjoyed the one-play-only Pandemic Legacy, the original game still allows for consistent, dependable fun no matter how many you times you play. Pandemic's list of expansions will allow you to try new versions of the game as you become more experienced, and if you're the kind of person who enjoys solving puzzles with your friends, this game will provide more than enough to keep you happy and healthy for a long time to come.

Also Try: If you're interested in a fantasy-themed cooperative game, try Castle Panic. If you're interested in superheroes and enjoy card games, try Legendary: A Marvel Deckbuilding Game.

8) Castles of Mad King Ludwig

MSRP: $60
Number of Players: 2-4
Duration: 90 Minutes Description: In the tile-laying game Castles of Mad King Ludwig, players are tasked with building an amazing, extravagant castle for King Ludwig II of room at a time. You see, the King loves castles, having built Neuschwanstein (the castle that inspired the Disney theme park castles) and others, but now he's commissioned you to build the biggest, best castle ever — subject, of course, to his ever-changing whims. Each player acts as a building contractor who is adding rooms to the castle he's building while also selling his services to other players.

My take: That world-famous silhouette of Disney's castle in the middle of Magic Kingdom is inspired by Mad King Ludwig's designs. If that's not enough to get you interested, then the "I cut, you choose" bidding mechanic should do the trick. It's one of the most clever and interesting mechanics I've found in a game, and makes every decision interesting. Also, when you're done you've got your very own castle, complete with weird rooms, gardens that look directly into bowling alleys, and maybe even your very own creepy basement. Truly, there's something for everyone in Castles of Mad King Ludwig. 

Also Try: If you're interested in high fantasy and want intrigue and guile, try Lords of Waterdeep. If you're interested in building things and want a two-player, less competitive experience, try Patchwork.

7) Race for the Galaxy

MSRP: $40
Number of Players: 2-4
Duration: 30-45 Minutes Description: In the card game Race for the Galaxy, players build galactic civilizations by playing game cards in front of them that represent worlds or technical and social developments. Some worlds allow players to produce goods, which can be consumed later to gain either card draws or victory points when the appropriate technologies are available to them. These are mainly provided by the developments and worlds that are not able to produce, but the fancier production worlds also give these bonuses.

My take: Race for the Galaxy is both simple and complicated, both in exactly the right way. There's nothing simpler than drawing cards and discarding cards, and you can do anything you want to do in the game, provided you've got the cards in your hand. Behind this simple premise lies a world of elegant desperation, where I've spent plenty of time agonizing over a single card drawn, or a decision that left one too few cards in my hand. Like many of the games on this list, Race has plenty of expansions, but you won't need them to learn to love Tom Lehman's masterpiece. Play any way you want, try anything you want, and Race for the Galaxy over and over again. I can't get enough of this game.

Also Try: If you're interested in more control over your cards and a fantasy theme, try Dominion. If you love two-player games and want something lighter, try Star Realms.

6) 7 Wonders

MSRP: $50
Number of Players: 2-7
Duration: 30-45 Minutes Description: You are the leader of one of the 7 great cities of the Ancient World. Gather resources, develop commercial routes, and affirm your military supremacy. Build your city and erect an architectural wonder which will transcend future times.

7 Wonders lasts three ages. In each age, players receive seven cards from a particular deck, choose one of those cards, then pass the remainder to an adjacent player. Players reveal their cards simultaneously, paying resources if needed or collecting resources or interacting with other players in various ways. (Players have individual boards with special powers on which to organize their cards, and the boards are double-sided). Each player then chooses another card from the deck they were passed, and the process repeats until players have six cards in play from that age. After three ages, the game ends.
My take: I've played drafting games for most of my life, but it wasn't until I found tabletop gaming that I understood drafting as its own mechanic and came to love it. 7 Wonders does drafting as well as any other game out there, and scratches my itch for Civilization-style games as well. Beautiful and balanced, 7 Wonders provides the same great experience for three players that it does for seven. I've played the base game at least a hundred times and I still enjoy it every single time I play.

My review here

Also Try: If you're interested in a lighter drafting game with cute art, try Sushi Go!. If you're interested in a semi-cooperative drafting game with tableau-building, try Between Two Cities.

5) King of Tokyo

MSRP: $40
Number of Players: 2-6
Duration: 30 Minutes Description: In King of Tokyo, you play mutant monsters, gigantic robots, and strange aliens—all of whom are destroying Tokyo and whacking each other in order to become the one and only King of Tokyo.

At the start of each turn, you roll six dice, which show the following six symbols: 1, 2, or 3 Victory Points, Energy, Heal, and Attack. Over three successive throws, choose whether to keep or discard each die in order to win victory points, gain energy, restore health, or attack other players into understanding that Tokyo is YOUR territory.

The fiercest player will occupy Tokyo, and earn extra victory points, but that player can't heal and must face all the other monsters alone! Top this off with special cards purchased with energy that have a permanent or temporary effect, such as the growing of a second head which grants you an additional die, body armor, nova death ray, and more.... and it's one of the most explosive games of the year! In order to win the game, one must either destroy Tokyo by accumulating 20 victory points, or be the only surviving monster once the fighting has ended.
My take: Richard Garfield is better known as the designer of Magic: The Gathering, but this Yahtzee-esque dice combat game is just as loved by its fans. Take one part Kaiju in a giant city, one part ridiculous abilities, add a dash of dice-rolling, and you've got a recipe for quick fun for the whole family. King of New York allows for similar play and even expands on the possibilities that KoT introduces, but to me, Godzilla and his brethren belong in the land of the rising sun.

Matthew's review here

Also Try: If you're interested in light dice-rolling games and want to try a cooperative, timed game, try Escape: The Curse of the Temple. If you're interested in chucking dice and fighting monsters and other players in a longer, campaign-style game, try Arcadia Quest.

4) Catan

MSRP: $50
Number of Players: 3-4
Duration: 60-90 Minutes Description: In Catan (formerly The Settlers of Catan), players try to be the dominant force on the island of Catan by building settlements, cities, and roads. On each turn dice are rolled to determine what resources the island produces. Players collect these resources (cards)—wood, grain, brick, sheep, or stone—to build up their civilizations to get to 10 victory points and win the game.

My take: Catan was the first "hobby" game that I played, and was a fantastic introduction into my new obsession. There's a lot to like here - negotiation, trading, area control, and a race to claim the best spaces on the board. While Catan's expansions are fantastic and improve on the game, the core experience is more than enough to keep you exploring its depth for years to come. This is one of the most famous games in the world, and for good reason - it's easy to learn, hard to master,  and provides a the same great experience every time you open the box.

Also Try: If you're interested in more "Euro"-style play and you like economic games, try Power Grid. If you're interested in bluffing and deal-making and you want a lighter game, try Sheriff of Nottingham.

3) Cosmic Encounter

MSRP: $60
Number of Players: 3-5
Duration: 60-120 Minutes Description: Build a galactic empire... In the depths of space, the alien races of the Cosmos vie with each other for control of the universe. Alliances form and shift from moment to moment, while cataclysmic battles send starships screaming into the warp. Players choose from dozens of alien races, each with its own unique power to further its efforts to build an empire that spans the galaxy.

In Cosmic Encounter, each player is the leader of an alien race. On a player's turn, he or she becomes the offense. The offense encounters another player on a planet by moving a group of his or her ships through the hyperspace gate to that planet. The offense draws from the destiny deck which contains colors, wilds and specials. He or she then takes the hyperspace gate and points at one planet in the system indicated by the drawn destiny card. The offense vs. the defenses ships are in the encounter and both sides are able to invite allies, play an encounter card as well as special cards to try and tip the encounter in their favor.
The object of the game is to establish colonies in other players' planetary systems. Players take turns trying to establish colonies. The winner(s) are the first player(s) to have five colonies on any planets outside his or her home system. A player does not need to have colonies in all of the systems, just colonies on five planets outside his or her home system. These colonies may all be in one system or scattered over multiple systems. The players must use force, cunning, and diplomacy to ensure their victory.
My take: I've heard more people say Cosmic Encounter is their favorite game than for any other game I know. Few other games provide the same mix of careful bluffing and deal-making, thrilling battles of wits, and fantastic whimsy that Cosmic delivers in every single play. Whether you're looking for a light, hilarious experience, or a deep strategic fight, Cosmic Encounter can give you exactly what you want.

My review here

Also Try: If you're interested in tenuous alliances and you like zombies, try Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game. If you're interested in crazy stories and you love haunted houses, try Betrayal at House on the Hill.

2) Codenames 

MSRP: $20
Number of Players: 2-8
Duration: 15 Minutes Description: Two rival spymasters know the secret identities of 25 agents. Their teammates know the agents only by their CODENAMES.

In Codenames, two teams compete to see who can make contact with all of their agents first. Spymasters give one-word clues that can point to multiple words on the board. Their teammates try to guess words of the right color while avoiding those that belong to the opposing team. And everyone wants to avoid the assassin. Codenames: Win or lose, it's fun to figure out the clues.
My take: Codenames pits two spymasters and their teams against each other in a battle of wits, vocabulary, pop-culture references, and "who knows who the best" in a way that's exciting and accessible. Unlike many party games, it provides a nice bit of tactical depth - which clues you give in which order, how to guess based on what wasn't said, etc) that makes the game as fun on the 20th (or 50th) play as it was on the first.

If you're interested in more of a trivia-style experience, try Wits & Wagers. If you're interested in creative associations and working with teammates to solve puzzles, try Mysterium.

1) Ticket to Ride

MSRP: $50
Number of Players: 2-5
Duration: 45-60 Minutes Description: With elegantly simple gameplay, Ticket to Ride can be learned in under 15 minutes, while providing players with intense strategic and tactical decisions every turn. Players collect cards of various types of train cars they then use to claim railway routes in North America. The longer the routes, the more points they earn. Additional points come to those who fulfill Destination Tickets – goal cards that connect distant cities; and to the player who builds the longest continuous route.

My take: I've played more games of Ticket to Ride than any other game I own, and it always delivers on the experience I expect. Always. Every time. Ticket to Ride is fast-paced, easy to learn, and stressful in exactly the right ways, and that makes it a winner whenever it hits my table. There are plenty of variants on the game in the other editions - Europe, Asia, Nordic Countries, etc. - but the original game is more than enough to keep me happy for as long as I play games.

My review here

Also Try: If you're interested in expanding empires and you LOVE trains, try Railways of the World. If you're interested in card and tile games and you love beautiful art, try Lanterns: The Harvest Festival.

There you have it: Ten games for about $450 to start your collection. Sure, that's big chunk of change, but if you picked up these ten games today you'd have enough to keep you entertained for years to come. You've got battles for dominance in space, area-control in new or familiar places, fantasy castles to build, plagues to cure, and historic monuments to build or destroy. What more could ask for in a game collection?

What games would you suggest to a new member of our hobby? Let me know in the comments!

JR Honeycutt is a full-time husband and game-player, and co-host of The Nerd Nighters. You can find him on Twitter at @JayAhre or at a Friendly Local Game Store in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas. 

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