On the second Saturday of every month, I attend a local board game meetup hosted by a couple of people who are even crazier about the hobby than I am. In fact, Jennifer and Bruce Schlickbernd were among the first people in America to play the first wave of what are variously called German-style board game, Eurogames, or designer games (I just like to call them modern board games). While my game collection takes up a few shelves, theirs dominates an entire wall, to my burning jealousy. As a dedicated gamer who can’t afford to buy 3/4 of the games he’s into, meetups like these are a great opportunity for me to test-drive the newest releases, break out of my normal range of experiences, and participate in the more social element of the hobby–outside of these monthly meetups, I tend to focus on single-player games, digital implementations, and the occasional 2-player game with my wife. However, this type of meetup’s also great for people new to the hobby–the more experienced players are usually happy to sit down to a so-called “gateway game,” and chances are they can find the perfect one for you just by asking a few questions. It sure beats the hours of research, wasted purchases, and dashed expectations that characterized my first steps into tabletop gaming.
A few such gamers attended the packed house at this weekend’s meetup (at its peak, I believe we had 11 gamers present). One was more of a video gamer and posed a challenging riddle to the other players, since he refused to play “anything with points.” Another, a childhood friend of the hostess, wasn’t used to playing anything more complicated than Parcheesi.
I arrived to find a game already in process: the few early birds (including the points-hater) were playing 11 Nimmt!, an UNO-style card game by Wolfgang Kramer. (11 Nimmt! belongs to the same family as Kramer’s 6 Nimmt!, released in America as Category 5 but also known by various other names.) I read a few pages from María Luisa Bombal’s House of Mist while they wrapped up the game (Helga had just been sent to live with her aunt after a misunderstanding involving her cousin’s braids), and then, as the other guests had not yet arrived, they dealt me into a new game.
Unlike most games I play, 11 Nimmt! has no narrative element, none of what gamers call “theme”–it’s a straight-up card game in the tradition of Rummy or the aforementioned UNO. Each player receives a hand of cards, all of a single suit, with values ranging from 1 to 100. The goal, as with many of these games, is to “go out” by playing the last card in your hand. At the start of the game, as in UNO, a single card is flipped face-up next to the deck, and the first player may play a card from their hand onto this pile–but only if its value is within 10 higher than the currently visible card. Then, the next player may play a card up to 10 higher than that, and so on, until one player can’t play anything, at which point they take up all the cards in the pile. Here’s where things get tricky: if the player was forced to take at least 3 cards, they also receive a bull card that lets them play an extra card from hand on their turn. Also, a new card is flipped over to replace the taken pile…but an additional pile is also started, so that now, players have two choices of where to play their card rather than just one. As the game progresses, more and more piles enter play, and those bull cards stack up, too, until people are playing 3 or 4 cards per turn and, most likely, whoever you thought was losing suddenly races to the win.
When the others arrived, it became clear that we would have to split into several smaller groups–while good 11-player games exist, 3- and 4-player games give you many more options. Searching for a Eurogame that didn’t involve points and might prove accessible to a newcomer, we settled on Power Grid, a modern classic by Friedemann Friese (one of the weirdest figures in game design, Friese only designs games involving the letter F–Power Grid‘s original German title being Funkenschlag–and showcasing the color green, to match his lawn-like hair). Friese’s Friday, a solitaire game inspired by Robinson Crusoe, is one of my favorite small, light games, so I was curious about this considerably larger, heavier relative.
Unlike 11 Nimmt!, I won’t even try to squeeze Power Grid‘s rules into a single paragraph, but it hinges on a few unique gameplay mechanisms. Players control a power distribution company, buying power plants, contracts to power cities, the connections between those cities, and the resources needed to run their plants. As the game progresses, more efficient power plants constantly appear for auction, while the resource prices fluctuate based on supply and demand (generally, coal starts cheap and ends expensive, while nuclear power begins prohibitively expensive but ends up as the cheapest power source–if you have the plant built). The first unique thing about the game is that, while players earn money for powering cities throughout the game, none of that really matters. Only one thing decides the winner, and that’s how many cities you can power on the final turn (determined by one player connecting a certain threshold of cities). Going hand-in-hand with this concept, being “ahead” in terms of cities connected actually cripples the player, since the “first” player occupies the worst position during auctions, resource purchasing and city building. This turns Power Grid into an enormous game of chicken as players jockey for the coveted last-place position, then try to rush out ahead in the final round, which could occur at any time depending on how much money the players have stocked up.
After the sheer mathematical intensity of Power Grid, we needed something lighter. Red7, designed by Carl Chudyk and Chris Cieslik, served this purpose well. Chudyk, who also designed Glory to Rome, Innovation and the recent Impulse, is one of my favorite card game designers, capable of squeezing an impressive volume of depth and unpredictability out of understated, easy-to-learn mechanics. Red7 might be his masterpiece in this regard, as it has only one rule: if you’re not winning the game at the end of your turn, you’re out. Players each receive a hand of seven cards of value 1-7, plus one card played face-up to their “tableau” (a common game term indicating all of a player’s played cards). At first, “winning” simply means having the highest-value card in your tableau, with the card’s color (of which there are also seven) breaking ties according to a handy color chart. On your turn, you may play one card to your tableau, but that won’t always get you ahead–in that case, you’ll have to also discard a card to the “canvas,” or discard pile. The top card of the canvas determines the rule for winning the game, designated by the discarded card’s color. For example, if another player has the red 7 in their tableau and you have an orange 3, you have no chance of winning the red “highest card” rule, which means you’d be knocked out of the round. However, if you played a blue 1 to your tableau, you can also discard an indigo card to change the rule to “most cards under 4,” keeping you in for one more round. The depth of strategy comes from deciding which cards to play or discard in order to leave yourself the most options for next time, since you can never redraw during a game.
As I mentioned after our third game, Red7 would make a fantastic stocking stuffer. It’s easy to learn but allows for a high degree of player interaction, making it the ideal game to play with families or large groups of friends. A single game takes about 5-10 minutes, after rules explanation. It’s the ideal stocking stuffer size and price, too. And if you get bored with the regular game, you can incorporate advanced rules like scoring or special card abilities, which really shake things up and expand the game’s depth exponentially.
We closed the evening with a game of Five Tribes. Designed by Bruno Cathala, Five Tribes released to much fanfare at Gen Con in Indianapolis back in August. I’ve played the game at three successive meetups since then, and it’s fast becoming a favorite (I’m not bad at the game, either, winning my first two games and coming second in the most recent). Five Tribes features an Arabian Nights-inspired Arabian mythology theme, which enhances its colorful appearance, but its central mechanisms are fairly abstract. The game begins with a 5×6 grid of tiles, each of which houses three variously colored meeples (the little wooden pieces common in Eurogames). On your turn, you must pick up one group of meeples and move them across the tiles, depositing one meeple on each tile you cross until you’ve dropped your last one. Then, you pick up all meeples matching that color (including the one you just put there) on your destination tile, and they immediately grant you an ability, from assassination to market goods to point-scoring opportunities. After that, you must perform the action pictured on the tile you landed on. If your move stripped the last meeple from the tile, you claim it with one of your camel tokens, scoring you points at the end of the game. In fact, Five Tribes is one of those games where everything you do scores you points. However, since each player’s move changes the state of the board, you have to take care that you don’t accidentally set the next player up for an even better move. Because every turn opens up new possibilities, this game actively discourages long-term strategizing and encourages you to live in the moment, which is exactly why I like it so much.
After we said goodnight, I read a few more pages from House of Mist–the mystery of Helga’s birth revealed!–and reflected on another day well spent.